TWO British fighter jets flew their first mission over Iraq yesterday, ready to hit Islamic State targets when they left Akrotiri RAF base around 10.30am local time.
The two Tornados, which had been accompanied by a Voyager refueling aircraft, returned to Cyprus just over seven hours later
“Although on this occasion no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft, the intelligence gathered by the Tornados’ highly sophisticated surveillance equipment will be invaluable to the Iraqi authorities and their coalition partners in developing the best possible understanding of ISIL’s disposition and help acquire potential targets for future operations, either by aircraft or Iraqi ground forces,” a British ministry of defence spokesman said.
Ministers had cautioned not to expect a campaign of “shock and awe” and that after weeks of US air strikes in the area it could take time to identify new targets.
“We know that the very presence of coalition air power over Iraq has a significant impact on ISIL’s efforts to attack the Iraqi people,” the MoD spokesman said.
“With no effective defence against air strikes, and knowing the precision with which coalition aircraft can hit them, the terrorists are forced to be much more cautious, keeping their forces dispersed and movement inhibited.
“They also know that should they concentrate to deliver an attack against Iraqi or Kurdish troops, aircraft are likely to arrive overhead very soon afterwards.”
The mission was the first since the British parliament authorised strikes against Islamic State militants there, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said earlier yesterday.
The two Tornado jets left the British Royal Air Force’s Akrotiri base at 10.25am local time, followed minutes later by a Voyager refuelling aircraft, a Reuters witness said.
“We can confirm that … Royal Air Force Tornados continue to fly over Iraq and are now ready to be used in an attack role as and when appropriate targets are identified,” said an MoD spokesman.
“For operational security reasons we will not be providing a running commentary on movements; we will provide an update on activity when it is appropriate to do so,” he said.
Yesterday’s sortie was the first time British aircraft have flown over Iraq in an armed role since Islamic State militants swept across large areas of the north of the country in June and declared a caliphate including land already seized in neighbouring Syria.
The British aircraft joined a US-led military coalition supported by some Gulf and European nations against the militant group.
Six Tornado jets, normally based at RAF Marham in England, have been based at Akrotiri since August. They have been engaged in intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance over Iraq for the past six weeks.
The Times reported that as a cluster of journalists and TV cameras watched from a distance, and rain spattered the tarmac, the two-person aircrews – a pilot and a weapons systems operator – strode confidently across the tarmac to their two Tornado jets.
The flight to Iraq was due to take two hours to cover the 600-mile journey from Cyprus.
According to the Times, the Tornado, with cruise speed just under the speed of sound, carries up to five Paveway smart bombs or two Stormshadow cruise missiles. It can also carry Brimstone missiles, which have the ability to hit moving targets such as enemy fighters in cars or on motorbikes.
It said the six Tornado jets at Akrotiri were regarded as sufficient for the operation at this stage, despite being just a fraction of the 16 Tornado aircraft and 10 Typhoon jets that were committed to the Libya air campaign in 2011.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that British aircraft were there to “play our part” in the international coalition being amassed against IS – also referred to as Isis or Isil (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant).
“We are one part of a large international coalition,” the Prime Minister said during a visit to Didcot, Oxfordshire, ahead of the Conservative Party conference.
“But the crucial part of that coalition is that it is led by the Iraqi government, the legitimate government of Iraq, and its security forces. We are there to play our part and help deal with this appalling terrorist organisation.”
Times correspondent Michael Theodoulou said for other British forces and their families at RAF Akrotiri and Britain’s other sovereign military base at Dhekelia it was a day like any other yesterday. “Akrotiri has been humming with increased aerial activity for weeks. But all are keenly aware that the Tornado pilots are involved in a perilous mission,” he wrote. He said that along with regular news and sports updates, the two British Forces radio stations informed listeners of fun family activities on the bases, such as a rugby match and a clay pigeon shooting event.
Another eyewitness told the Sunday Mail that tourists on a beach around 1.5km away from Akrotiri were oblivious to the fact that bomb-laden aircraft were taking off there. “It was business as usual,” she said.