Marham crews in Iraq - a vital mission

Whether it is providing air support for ground troops, carrying out crucial surveillance missions or dispersing threatening insurgent crowds, RAF Marham's 31 Squadron continues to play a key role in the war in Iraq.

Whether it is providing air support for ground troops, carrying out crucial surveillance missions or dispersing threatening insurgent crowds, RAF Marham's 31 Squadron continues to play a key role in the war in Iraq. Defence correspondent BEN KENDALL reports in the second in a series from the Middle East.

It is 1300 hours and Villain - a Norfolk-based Tornado - is prepared for take-off. Its crew, pilot Ben Shepherd and navigator Richard Parsons, have spent the morning going through their latest tasking in meticulous detail.

Today they will spend an hour flying to Basra from their Operation Telic base in the Gulf, the exact location of which is restricted, before their mission begins.

Once there they will spend five hours policing the skies during a potentially volatile British consular visit to two local political parties. Before setting off they check every detail, from latest intelligence reports to meteorological conditions delivered with a flourish by former television and radio weatherman turned squadron leader Rob Ashwell.

The roar of the engine is deafening, even when standing hundreds of yards away wearing ear defenders. They reach speeds of up to 700mph and in total they could cover close to 2,000 miles, refuelling regularly, during the day. They fly at about 28,000ft, or as low as their mission requires while remaining out of range of ground threats.

In the event of an emergency they have drawn up careful contingency plans to divert to another airbase. If the worst happens and they crash land, they carry packs to aid their survival on the ground.

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It is just one of many tasks 31 Squadron - nicknamed the Goldstars - will complete during the day and it is not until they are able to assess the situation that they will know precisely how events will unfold.

One of their key roles will be scanning the roads ahead of the consular convoy for potential threats. Evidence of digging by the side of the road or unusual heat sources are all giveaway signs in the search for deadly roadside bombs.

Hi-tech surveillance pods attached to the Tornados allow precise images to be beamed into the cockpit, to troops on the ground and all over the world so that they can be analysed and acted upon. You may not be able to see the whites of the insurgents' eyes, but you could probably check the colour of their socks.

Should there be unrest on the streets of Basra one of the first options at the crew's disposal is a show of force. Without firing a single shot the ferocious Tornados can roar low across the city reminding any potential troublemakers of the consequences of their actions.

Anyone who has witnessed Marham squadrons on exercise over Norfolk will know how loud the Tornados can be - and back home the crew do not go out of their way to intimidate.

The final option is of course fire power. Tornados carry bombs which can wreak havoc. They also have a side-mounted gun and flare cannons.

Ft Lt Shepherd said: “The most common threats we face are small arms fire and unguided rockets which realistically, unless the insurgents are incredibly fortunate, will not touch us.

“They still have infrared missiles which do pose a more credible threat but we are not dealing with large-scale surface to air missiles as was the case in the past.”

The thoughtful and in-depth preparation before take-off could

not be further away from the machismo portrayed in films like Top Gun. The crew is confident and assured, but could never be described as gung-ho.

Wing Cmdr Ian Gale said: “We have had a presence in the region for 18 years. The nature of the conflict in Iraq has moved on.

“It is our job to assist the effort to rebuild the country. If we complete our two-month tour without dropping a single bomb, it will be considered a success. We remain flexible and ready to escalate. But our main job now is helping to maintain peace in the country.”

The sun will have set by the time Villain returns to base. Once they have landed and debriefed, the crew will have little time for anything other than eating, sleeping and washing before taking to the skies once more.

Meanwhile the ground crew, who make up the majority of the squadron, will work tirelessly to service and equip the aircraft for the next day.

This is a gruelling task for men and women who work 12-hour shifts for up to 14-days in a row in heat well in excess of 35 degrees.

Some more complete services must also be completed periodically and can take a fortnight to complete in the UK. But out on the frontline that is not an option.

By working 24/7 with as many as 30 crew crawling all over the aircraft at any one time, the squadron is able to turn this around in an impressive five days.

This work often goes ignored in favour of the more glamorous work of the aircrew, but is equally important in winning the war.