The UK is to send two additional Royal Air Force Tornado jets to Afghanistan, the Defence Secretary has announced on a visit to British forces serving there. Dr Liam Fox, on his second visit to Afghanistan since being appointed Secretary of State, confirmed that the two Tornado GR4 aircraft have been sent from RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, and will be arriving at Kandahar Airfield tomorrow (Thursday 12 August).
The deployment follows a request by the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General David Petraeus, for an increase in air support to provide greater protection to ground forces. The aircraft will join the eight RAF Tornado GR4s already provided to support the multinational pool and will boost flying hours by 25 per cent, or an extra 130 flying hours per month.
An increase in the number of ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) personnel on the ground in southern Afghanistan has generated the requirement for additional air cover. The demand for capability provided by the fast jets is also expected to increase in the run-up to the Afghan elections in September.
Following discussions, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and the Defence Secretary, have agreed that the extra Tornados will deploy for three months.
The Tornado GR4 deployed to Afghanistan in June 2009, taking over from the Harrier force, and is currently operated by No.13 Squadron, based at Kandahar.
Since their deployment to theatre, Tornado GR4s have played a key role in support of ground operations in Afghanistan, particularly the fight against improvised explosive devices. A highly capable and versatile aircraft, the GR4 provides show of force and, when required, precison air-delivered weapons.
GR4 also delivers detailed imagery of insurgent activity from its state of the art RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado) system. The RAPTOR pod is the envy of coalition forces, such is its ability to clearly spot insurgents laying IEDs from sufficient height to be undetected from the ground.
These are the very same Tornado aircraft that various media reports have claimed are being considered for early retirement as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review which reports in the autumn. The government should reflect on that fact that the aircraft which are deemed so vital to operations in Afghanistan might be worth the resources to maintain in service for several more years until aircraft such as the Lightning II is ready to come into full scale service with the RAF and RN.