Warplanes off to support US forces

MARK NICHOLLS Some of the most potent air power US forces are deploying over Iraq is being provided by Suffolk-based warplanes, it emerged last night. F-15E strike aircraft from RAF Lakenheath are operating in support of ground forces across the whole country and dropping a range of bombs and using high velocity cannon in the battle with insurgents.

MARK NICHOLLS

Some of the most potent air power US forces are deploying over Iraq is being provided by Suffolk-based warplanes, it emerged last night.

F-15E strike aircraft from RAF Lakenheath are operating in support of ground forces across the whole country and dropping a range of bombs and using high velocity cannon in the battle with insurgents.

Crews from the 494th Fighter Squadron - part of the 48th Fighter Wing - are operating out of Qatar as US ground forces fight to retain order in some of the more volatile parts of Iraq.

One of the key components of aerial support is coming from the F-15E, the two-seater version of the aircraft, which not only has air-to-ground capability but also hi-tech reconnaissance prowess as well as weapons designed for air-to-air combat.

Targets such as insurgency hideouts, or groups attacking US and other coalition forces, have been taken out by the F-15E's weaponry.

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F-15E pilot Lt Nick Smith said: “Over Iraq we are mainly being deployed in support of ground troops.

“We can be called in if they are being fired upon and can help them out.

“For us it is a pretty amazing feeling that just by flying around, when the troops on the ground hear our jet engines overhead, they feel a lot safer knowing we are up there keeping an eye on them and that we can respond at short notice to help make their lives down there a little bit better.”

Operating from the same airbase in Qatar from where the Tornados of XIII Squadron from RAF Marham also flying missions to Iraq, the F-15E has recently been upgraded to carry new weaponry.

The 494th - known as the Black Panthers - is the first squadron to carry the new Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) on combat missions.

Weapons systems officer Capt Meghan Stanley - operating from the aircraft's rear seat - said: “We can carry four 250lb SDBs, which are guided bombs and can seek out a target and minimise collateral damage.”

The weapon has only been used by US aircraft since October and has already shown success in destroying high priority fixed targets. The F-15E also carries four larger 500lb guided weapons, air-to-air missiles and fires 20mm cannon rounds at the rate of 5000 a minute, with a 1.5 second burst pumping 200 rounds into ground targets.

The use of a “sniper pod” helps guide weapons to a target with laser. Along with enlarged fuel tanks and regular air-to-air refuelling, the F-15E from RAF Lakenheath is carving out a reputation as America's most lethal aircraft in the Iraq theatre.

Capt Stanley added: “It is not uncommon for us to drop weaponry when it is needed, though that is in support of coalition forces when they need our help rather than just destroying sites as we are now in the process of rebuilding Iraq and helping the people of that country out.”

The F-15E crews fly round-the-clock sorties with the 494th flying between six and 12 missions a day, often for up to seven hours at a time with refuelling from tankers extending their airborne effectiveness.

Most of the missions are over larger populated areas where US ground forces have run into serious insurgency problems, such as ambushings or attacks with roadside bombs.