BBC NEWS with the RAF

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With the RAF in Iraq and Afghanistan

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Six countries in seven days - overseas with the RAF
By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Flying into Basra on a small jet, it seems incongruous to don flak jackets and helmet - and distinctly uncomfortable - as we emerge into the searing 53C summer heat.

It feels exactly like walking into a furnace, but the body armour is mandatory, for me and BBC cameraman Keith Morris, as well as the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy and his colleagues.

He is here to visit the men and women of the RAF on operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

As we drive to the headquarters, a large crater blown into the road just a few days before we arrive is a reminder that, although Basra is much more peaceful than it was, rocket attacks on the air station are not yet a thing of the past.

On the runway, we watch a fire-fighting demonstration by the Iraqi fire brigade, trained by RAF specialists, as part of the British preparations for the eventual withdrawal from Basra, which many hope will finally happen next year.

But while the mission in Iraq is clearly winding down, the next stop on our flying visit - Afghanistan - is not.

Before we arrive there, we stop at a mainly American air base in the Middle East, at a location we were asked not to name.

Air support

It is the home of the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre, or CAOC, which controls air operations over both Iraq and Afghanistan.

A huge split-screen at the front of a large, heavily air-conditioned room shows maps for both countries, with small symbols overlaid for each plane or tanker in the airspace above, moving in a rapid pattern on the screen.

Each also has real-time video feeds coming in from Afghanistan or Iraq, in smaller boxes on screen, showing pictures of amazing clarity filmed from two miles up in the skies.

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Flt Lt Matt Peak on keeping an RAF Tornado in the air

Desks with small national flags mark each of the sections working here, though the bulk of personnel are American.

The UK and Australian staff sit a few rows back, although ahead of the Canadian and Singaporean contingents, in a physical representation of the politics of coalition life.

Working there is a little like conducting an orchestra, one man tells me. An orchestra first playing and then improvising an ever-changing score, as the needs on the ground change and spy-planes or fighter jets are sent on new missions, or a tanker plane moved to refuel a jet in the skies - a "symphony for 1,000 parts", as he puts it.

On the screen for Afghanistan are tiny symbols labelled TICs, short for troops in contact. There are two on the screen in the half hour that we watch. It takes a moment to realise that each represents real men on the ground in a firefight with the Taleban, some urgently calling in air support.

It is a sobering thought amid the chill of this big quiet room, but it is here that rapid decisions must be made on what to send, and how to proceed - before it is too late.

Tight budget

At the airfield in Kandahar, where the Harrier force is based, we meet a young RAF pilot, Ben, who only recently arrived and almost immediately flew his first mission. He and his colleagues are well aware of the difficult balancing act they must perform in providing air support.

Each bomb that misses its target, or hits civilians - like the recent Nato air strike in Afghanistan, which killed dozens of children - makes it harder for coalition forces to convince the Afghan people that they are there to help. There is also the danger, in a rapidly-changing situation, of so-called friendly fire.

"We are meticulous about where we put our weapons," he assures us. "There is a lot of discussion, to make sure that we know exactly where they are going." But, he says, no amount of training can prepare you for the sensation of flying your first real mission.

We could always do with more resources, because we could do things more quickly and we could be more robust
Sir Glenn Torpy
Air Chief Marshal

In a nearby hangar we are shown one of Britain's newest air weapons - the Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Britain, so far, has three.

The RAF would like Reapers, but the defence budget is tight. The MoD is still trying to sell on the extra Eurofighter Typhoons it promised to buy several years ago, as the government seeks to deal with the unforeseen costs of the continuing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the RAF is already as lean as it can be in terms of staff, insists Sir Glenn Torpy, as he meets and talks to the men and women serving on both those operations.

"I'm certainly concerned about resources," he admits. "We have down-sized the air force to 41,000 people, and that has made us as lean, I believe, as we should be. Our capability is a combination of people, equipment and the ability to train and getting the balance right is really important."

The complexity of the logistics behind supplying these missions, moving men and machinery, and coordinating the joint air operations at the CAOC is staggering, as the UK Air Component Commander, Air Commodore Mike Harwood, explains.

"We have well over 500 aeroplanes operating across the entire region of south-west Asia and the Middle East.

"On the ground, we have hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, as well as Iraqi forces and Afghan forces. There are so many moving parts that everything changes constantly," he says, as we stand almost deafened by the noise of the busy airfield.

Every week, they move 35,000 military personnel within theatre - as well as everything from food and water to essential equipment, including ammunition.

Deeply committed

The other complaint often heard from Afghanistan, though, is a lack of helicopters, which now come under the control of the Joint Helicopter Force.

Chinooks in particular are vital for moving troops and their equipment to the spartan forward operating bases of Helmand province. Yet the UK has only eight of its own Chinooks in theatre.

At Kandahar airbase, we also meet the men responsible for guarding it, the RAF Regiment. They are getting ready for a night-time patrol in the surrounding villages, ensuring that it is safe for the aircraft and their passengers to land.

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RAF Harrier pilot Ben on flying over Afghanistan

They tell me that on their last patrol, they discovered one of the biggest improvised explosive devices on the road that they had so far seen. What was their reaction? "We were relieved - finding it meant it wasn't going to blow us up," says Cpl Chris Kernan, with grim humour.

The men tell us their equipment now is better than it was, though a few admit to some hesitation about using the more vulnerable Snatch Land Rovers while on patrol, preferring the solidity of the WMIK, a more solid vehicle with fearsome weaponry, which also has heavier armour underneath to protect its passengers from roadside blasts, which they admit are an increasing threat.

Throughout the trip it is clear that the men and women we talk to are deeply committed to their work and feel a real sense of mission, working long hours in the heat and dust.

Conditions are not nearly as stark as for those on the front lines in the Green Zone of Helmand province, and the food in the canteens is good. But on operations abroad, there is little to do but work and lots of it.

Ageing aircraft

That mood seems to contradict a recent RAF survey that showed 75% of RAF airmen and 60% of RAF officers responding said that morale in the service as a whole was low or very low. But the pace of recent changes, says Air Chief Marshal Torpy, may be partly to blame for that.

"I think what you see is on operations is that people are really buoyed up with what they are doing, because they are doing what they were trained to do," he says.

"But when you are back at home, we have gone through significant change, for example the reduction in man power, and that unsettles people.

"We are doing a huge amount to make sure when people come home we make their life at home as easy as possible, given the operational pressure that we are under."

So does he think the RAF needs more manpower and more money, as it battles for funds for future equipment to replace many of Britain's ageing aircraft?

"We could always do with more resources, because we could do things more quickly and we could be more robust," he admits, before adding a diplomatic coda.

"The government decides how much money defence gets and it is our job to spend it as effectively as possible, and try to maintain the balance in our core structure to fight today's wars - and to prepare for tomorrow's wars as well."
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/08/30 02:30:21 GMT

undermanned??? I thought they had the most leeway with manning of the three services!

They would probably find it easier if they multitasked rather than doing just one job which both the Army and the Navu would class as secondry roles to their main jobs but still have to do them!!
WannabeWorker said:
undermanned??? I thought they had the most leeway with manning of the three services!

They would probably find it easier if they multitasked rather than doing just one job which both the Army and the Navu would class as secondry roles to their main jobs but still have to do them!!
We do & are cross trained.As an armourer, could work anywhere in the trade from the bomb dump to small arms armoury,Tornado sqn to EOD.
We (the aircraft trades) are also trained to do flight line serviceing (the blokes you see around the airport with the light bats)
At Bruggen,my main job before I moved to a Tornado Sqn fulltime was in the Armoury but I also did load team on the squadrons in wartime or excersise.
Apart from that every few months we did guard duty for a week which included armed roving patrols or (as was my case) Duty Armourer where you live,sleep,sh*t ect at work in case the was a security alert & the whole guard was mobilised,first to us for the gats.
Was it you at Raf Bruggen 1984 spike lol,
1984 - Nuclear Incident

On the 4 September 2007, the British military admitted that there had been an accident with a nuclear weapon at RAF Brüggen on 2 May 1984. The nuclear weapon fell from a transport truck, as the missile wasn't securely attached to the truck. The weapon was 8 times stronger than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The casing was x-rayed after the incident, and found to have been undamaged, a testament to the inherent strength of nuclear weapons casings. The six people/military staff who were responsible for the accident, received a reprimand for their actions in the incident.

Nothing worse than being at RAF BRUGGEN when they dragged the nukes out for some fresh air.
Specially as Fat Man was only about a kiloton and a WE177 Bomb (not missile) is at least a Megaton, depending on what you do with it.
tommyhutch said:
The RAF should learn from the Fleet Air Arm how to do their job with 60% of the staff, mind you, fat chance of the RAF taking tips off the Navy over how to operate aircraft.
Maybe if the Fleet Air Arm actually did a bit more to their aircraft they wouldn't need Serco/BAeS/Mawsons/DARA to do all their real servicing and you might actually have some air assets. As i actually work amongst these paragons of technical ability i can actually agree to some extent of the phrase Jack Tar of all trades master of none :lol:


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Specially as Fat Man was only about a kiloton and a WE177 Bomb (not missile) is at least a Megaton, depending on what you

Fatman was 17 kilotonnes.

Not even the most powerful WE177 had a yield of anything like a Megaton.
Look it up, there is plenty of information on line now.


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