Marham planes to fight Taliban
Tornado warplanes from RAF Marham are set to be pitched into the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.As the British government signalled moves to step up its commitment in Afghanistan with increases in troop numbers, details also emerged that Tornado GR4 aircraft would be deployed in support of soldiers on the ground in Helmand province and elsewhere across the country.
Tornado warplanes from RAF Marham are set to be pitched into the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As the British government signalled moves to step up its commitment in Afghanistan with increases in troop numbers, details also emerged that Tornado GR4 aircraft would be deployed in support of soldiers on the ground in Helmand province and elsewhere across the country.
The decision will see the Marham Tornados, which have operated in the skies over Iraq almost continually since the first Gulf War of 1991, shift to a new theatre of operations.
The Ministry of Defence last night said no final decisions had been made on which bases would supply the replacement squadrons, but defence experts said Marham - where the majority of the country's Tornado GR4 force is stationed - was certain to be at the forefront.
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Defence secretary Des Browne told the Commons that hundreds more troops would be sent to the country from next spring in a bid to combat the changing threat posed to British forces by the Taliban.
As well as raising the number of service personnel from 7,800 to 8,030 he also announced the existing force of Harrier aircraft would be replaced by Tornado fighter bombers.
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At present Tornado crews from the four Marham squadrons share the commitment over Iraq with three GR4 ground attack and reconnaissance squadron from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Military analysts have indicated that the two bases will similarly share the commitment when deployed to Afghanistan next year.
Marham is home to the majority of the country's Tornado GR4 force and under current deployments, crews from the base are due to return to action in Iraq in October, taking over from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
Each of Marham's four squadrons will then complete consecutive two-month tours - which could mean the base is actively involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan when the changes take effect next year.
Defence analyst Paul Beaver said it could leave resources stretched at Norfolk's last frontline air base.
“The Tornado force is going to have its work cut out for a while,” he said. “Lossiemouth and Marham will share the burden. I imagine they will put eight aircraft in there and rotate the crews around every two months.
“Having said that, the Tornado force is quite large and will be able to cope with the role.
“The Harrier has been working well, but the Tornado has new equipment on board and has got some very accurate weapons and reconnaissance equipment, which is very important when we are talking about security-building.
“The Tornado will give greater low-level capability and specialised tactical strike and reconnaissance. It can stay in the air longer than the Harrier, carry a greater warload, and operate in hot weather. All in all it is a good choice.”
In anncouncing the increased commitment of troops and aircraft to Afghanistan, Mr Browne said: “It does not mean our mission is expanding. It means we are taking the steps necessary to take our mission forward as effectively as we can, with a force whose profile and capabilities are optimised to the conditions they face.”
Mr Browne would not give a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan but said they would remain there “until the Afghan security forces are capable of holding and sustaining security”.
Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson, who is a defence expert, said: “I think what this means is that the government is substantially upping the commitment to Afghanistan and recognising we are in for a long haul.
“In my opinion the government miscalculated with their original modest deployment in Afghanistan.
“The original game plan was that we would be effectively downsizing our forces in southern Iraq to such a scale where we would have a token presence there. This would then enable us to switch more forces to Afghanistan.
“The assumption must be that at some stage Marham will be involved - what we don't know is the extent of that involvement.
“They will cope. The RAF will have looked at this very seriously and it is unlikely they would make such a commitment if they could not deliver.”
Mr Beaver said the Harrier fleet could have been withdrawn from Afghanistan because it was needed on the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers - HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Of Wales - which are due to enter service in 2014 and 2016.