More Tornados to join Iraq mission says Cameron on visit to Cyprus airbase
David Cameron has flown to the RAF base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, from which British pilots are launching air strikes against Islamic State (Isis) targets in Iraq, announcing that he was to send a further two Tornado GR4 planes to supplement the six currently operating, The Guardian reported.
The prime minister also disclosed that, as the Guardian revealed on Thursday, the RAF 2 squadron based in Cyprus is to operate for longer than April next year, the date they were due to be replaced. The decision represents a minor triumph for the air force, which has been arguing about the importance of air power in conflicts in the Middle East.
Tornados brought into service in 1991 during the first Gulf war are due to be disbanded by 2019 in a staged process, but some squadrons due to be taken out of service earlier are now to be reprieved.
A new class of Eurofighter Typhoon is to replace the current fleet, but the new class is not yet able to load Brimstone missiles effective against small- and medium-sized targets such as Isis vehicles.
Britain is believed to be considering whether to help train the moderate Syrian opposition, a plan proposed by former chief of defence staff Lord Richards before he retired last year but previously rejected by ministers.
Strengthening Syrian forces allied to the moderate opposition, as well as Iraqi troops, is seen as a vital step towards defeating Isis, and to this end the government is planning to send British troops to train the Iraqi army. It is unclear whether they will be trained in Iraq or neighbouring countries such as Jordan, or the Gulf states.
A small number of British military personnel are already on the ground in northern Iraq supporting Kurdish peshmerga.
Cameron's decision to fly to the airbase suggests he believes the campaign is not likely to end soon. He said he had come to Cyprus to thank the pilots personally for the dangerous work they were undertaking, and went on: "Less than a week into combat operations in Iraq, I wanted to come here to thank our troops for the vital work they're doing to defeat these barbaric Isil terrorists who threaten security not just in Iraq, Syria and the region, but on the streets of Britain too."
The air strikes by US and UK aircraft are understood to have forced a change of behaviour in Isis fighters, who now have much less freedom of movement. However, intelligence gathering on Isis has shown they are extremely well-organised, with their own shura - or councils of elders - regional governors, and welfare networks.
Britain currently has seven combat capable air squadrons compared with the 15 the French air force has. The RAF had 30 combat squadrons at the time of the first Gulf war, and for years has been protesting its contribution to military conflicts in uncontested air space is invaluable.
The ageing Tornados - some older than 30 years - have flown as many as 30 surveillance operations over Iraq since mid-August, but were only given political clearance to launch air strikes against Isis forces, mainly in northern Iraq, after MPs voted a week ago for the use of force so long as it does not extend to Syria.
The RAF has so far launched strikes on four sorties against Isis assets such as pickup trucks, normally on the advice of Kurdish forces on the ground. The planes may be old, but they are equipped with modern radar and infra-red sights capable of giving highly detailed information on targets.
Government sources said the dispatch of the extra Tornados did not signify an increase in the tempo of attacks, but was a move to build the overall resilience of the strike force now that it is clear that the air campaign may be a long one. The prime minister added: "Obviously, these operations are just one element of our strategy. We are also working hard to deliver a training package for Iraqi forces with advisers in Iraq now to assess their needs."
The RAF has argued that the precision of the Brimstone missile is unique as it is capable of hitting a car moving at 70mph from seven miles away.
RAF Akrotiri is the UK's Permanent Joint Operating Base that supports ongoing operations in Afghanistan and has been in service 30 years, used as a forward mounting base for overseas operations in the Middle East and for modern radar infrared sights jet training.
Cameron has visited Akrotiri before during RAF operations to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya three years ago. As many as 20 Tornados were operating during the Libya campaign where the US took a more backward role and focussed on air surveillance.
Britain and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries that operate Brimstones, that are thought to cost £100,000 each.
RAF 2 Squadron is normally based at RAF Marham, Norfolk. It has 12 crews based there.