RAF stands ready for Iraq Islamic State airstrikes

Two RAF Tornado GR4 jets. Credit: David Jones/PA Wire

If the Commons votes for airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq later today, the RAF in Cyprus will be ready.

Six Tornado GR4 ground attack fighter-bombers are already here and have been carrying out dozens of reconnaissance missions since August.

The pilots are already well versed in the geography of northern Iraq and the potential IS targets, although so far it has been their American counterparts who have been engaging the enemy from the air.

If the crews here are given the green light, their jets could be loaded with Paveway and Stormshadow missiles in less than an hour; something that may already have happened.

When the call comes from Whitehall, they could be airborne within a few minutes, although they may choose to strike later in the night or over the weekend once their precise tasking is agreed.

Staff at RAF Akrotiri will be mindful though that if this mission goes ahead, it will be the first time British warplanes have conducted airstrikes from Cyprus, linking this small Mediterranean island to a middle east conflict which may drag on for years.

It will undoubtedly mean the already tight security at the base is redoubled.

The images show the impact of the US air attacks on the Gbiebe oil refinery. Credit: US Defence Department

Some staff here may remember the reprisal attacks after the US bombing of Libya in 1986, when the base was hit by terrorists, using mortars and rocket propelled grenades, after it emerged Akrotiri was being used as a stand-by emergency base for American jets flying out of Britain.

RAF isn’t divulging the routing of the Tornados to Iraq, but it’s likely the planes will fly over either Turkey or Jordan to reach their targets, which they could hit in as little as two hours.

The fact that the Americans have been striking IS from the air since August will mean that all the obvious static targets may already have been taken out.

Instead the Tornados may be involved in “dynamic targeting”, involving multiple mid-flight refuelling from RAF Voyager tankers to extend their flight time over Iraq, circling, watching and picking off IS vehicles and troops as they see them.

In the second Gulf War Tornado crews would regularly fly for eight hours with three or four air to air refueling stops, pushing both the aircraft and crew to their limits.

It’s likely the GR4s will be supported by RAF Rivet Joint Surveillance aircraft flying from the Gulf state of Qatar, providing extra “ears in the sky” monitoring ISIS communications.

This mission comes at a time when Britain has no functioning fixed wing aircraft carrier.

RAF Akrotiri is the next best thing: an unsinkable launch pad for bombing sorties out of the eastern Mediterranean, which may continue for years.