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Marham crews in Iraq: Eyes in the sky

PUBLISHED: 10:13 16 October 2008 | UPDATED: 11:06 08 July 2010

Imagery analyst Cpl Paul Farthing plays a key role in the intelligence gathering operation.

Imagery analyst Cpl Paul Farthing plays a key role in the intelligence gathering operation.

Intelligence gathering forms a key part of the war in Iraq as it is used to direct troops on the ground. In his latest report from the Middle East, defence correspondent BEN KENDALL meets the Norfolk experts responsible for monitoring suspicious activity within the war zone.

Intelligence gathering forms a key part of the war in Iraq as it is used to direct troops on the ground. In his latest report from the Middle East, defence correspondent BEN KENDALL meets the Norfolk experts responsible for monitoring suspicious activity within the war zone.

To the untrained eye the pictures beamed to RAF Marham's Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing show little of interest: acre after acre of desert, densely packed and seemingly identical houses and miles of road.

But for the team, currently on detachment in the Gulf, the devil is in the detail. By studying aerial shots, carefully gathered on a daily basis by British aircraft including Norfolk-based Tornados, they are able to spot signs which could save troops' lives or help crack insurgent cells.

In simple terms, it is a high stakes game of spot the difference: a mistake could prove fatal but a success could provide a key step forward in Operation Telic.

They compare the latest shots against their archive for any developments and spend hours combing through pictures of main supply routes, urban centres and known hotbeds.

The precise capabilities of the equipment is classified information so as not to play into enemy hands. But it is safe to say that, if insurgents knew just how closely they can be watched, they would be very worried.

Aerial views, along with ground surveillance and monitoring of systems such as mobile phone networks, mean it is becoming increasingly difficult for insurgents to operate undetected. But no matter how far technology advances, those who seek to remain hidden are also developing new techniques so the wing must constantly adapt its methods.

When I visit, senior aircraftsman Nick Stone is analysing the area around a mosque in a key Iraqi city. It shows recent signs of development with foundations being dug for what could be anything from a toilet block to a bomb-making factory.

In itself the picture proves nothing, but it enables to wing to flag up an area of interest which can then be investigated further by ground forces. Aircrew can also revisit the site in the days and weeks which follow to see how the building work progresses.

Cpl Paul Farthing brings up another image of a fuel storage facility. By using infrared technology to assess the heat retention of the tanks, he is able to check that they are empty.

Special image layering technology, which uses goggles similar to 3D specs, also shows that vehicles in the area are static, indicating the level of activity. If large numbers of vehicles or people are spotted moving suddenly from a particular area, it could set alarm bells ringing.

The infrared system is also used for identifying bomb-making factories - in a similar way to how police in the UK locate cannabis factories from the air - and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

IEDs remain one of the main threats to ground troops, so by mapping their potential locations, the tireless work of the wing can directly save lives. Signs include debris by the sides of roads which show that bombs may have been hidden.

Cpl Farthing said: “The telltale signs are constantly evolving, so our techniques have to evolve too. What we do is one part of the intelligence picture which combines with the work done by aircrews, moving-image analysis and ground intelligence.

“But it can be very useful in highlighting potential threats and concerns early on, which can then be acted upon.”

Another key task for the wing is known as 'detailed target analysis'.

This involves drawing up an in-depth description of sites which may be hit in ground operations.

For example the wing would identify the best point of access, potential escape routes and any threats and weapons in the vicinity of a target. This means that when troops arrive to eliminate an enemy they possess all the information possible to take them out clinically.

As well as their base here on an airbase in the Gulf, the exact location of which cannot be disclosed, Marham's intelligence wing, the only one of its kind at Britain's disposal, is also deployed in Basra and Kandahar. They maintain a constant presence in theatre, with individual servicemen spending two months at a time on the frontline.

In order to maintain a 24/7 presence, the wing works two shifts each day: one from 5am to 5pm and vice versa. This can mean they barely see daylight as they remain closeted in a dark room studiously focused on the latest intelligence.

There is a calm and relaxed atmosphere which seems a million miles from the drama of the frontline.

But without the wing's work there would remain huge pockets of Iraq where troops could not safely go and where insurgents could thrive, free from the watchful eye of the RAF.

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