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A Tornado* in Kandahar

January 12, 2012

Wing Commander Jim Frampton, commanding officer of the RAF's 12 Squadron, talks to Afghan schoolchildren at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan: January 1, 2012. Photo: Sergeant Steve Blake RLC (Phot)/Crown Copyright  

The MoD have today released photographs taken on New Year's Day, when around 500 children, along with teachers and other adults, visited Kandahar Air Field to get a look at the coalition aircraft based there, and meet the people who operate them. I was at KAF for a few days in August and had the chance to interview key members of the RAF teams working on the Tornado, Hercules and Reaper aircraft. The first piece published from my visit was about the Tornado detachment - it ran in the January edition of Combat Aircraft magazine. The people I spoke to in August are now back in the UK, but the job they're doing will remain pretty much the same. The version CA printed had to be edited down to fit the available space, so here's the full-length piece.

My interview with Wing Commander Jim Mulholland begins with him asking the questions. The Commanding Officer of 31 Squadron, Mulholland is about a month into the Goldstars' tenure as the RAF's Afghanistan Tornado Detachment, based at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). Sitting down with his second-in-command, Squadron Leader Gareth "Gaz" Littlechild, in a briefing room in the headquarters building of 904th Expeditionary Air Wing at the sprawling multinational base, Mulholland is keen to gauge a new arrival's first impressions of the UK's Afghan operation.

"One of the reasons I ask is that the sheer scale of this, to me, is one of the most impressive things," Mulholland says. "But because there's enough other stuff going on in the UK to keep people interested and occupied, it doesn't normally get into the press."

While he's speaking of the entire British military effort in the country, the observation holds every bit as true for Tornado Force's work at KAF. Though the footprint is kept as light as possible, the Kandahar deployment is very much in the business not just of delivering the task required of them, but then going the extra distance asked to support troops on the ground.

"There's 136 people that report out, from the squadron's point of view," says Mulholland. "That's the figure that's mandated from PJHQ, which ties into the political limit of 9,500 [British military personnel] in country. The bulk of that - around 100 - is engineers, and then we've got the aircrew and the operations and admin staff that we require to make all the other parts work. And there's an Intelligence Officer and a Ground Liaison Officer to help us with the interaction with ground forces."

"Actually," Littlechild adds, "136 is quite a small team for a squadron that provides 24-7 air cover across the entire country, seven days a week."

"The pace at which the team operate out here is significant," Mulholland says, "and we're now doing that over an extended period - we're the first squadron to do a four-month deployment rather than three. Our motto for the Tornado Detachment is 'Deliver Ops, Sustain and Improve': because, while the task is why you're here, you've got to be able to sustain that, otherwise you'll get to a stage where you can't deliver; and in order to sustain you've got to constantly review and improve the processes. So we're constantly looking to try to get the best effect out of the more limited assets we have, in terms of aircraft and people."

Few people are better placed to understand the capabilities Tornado Force has at its disposal than Mulholland, whose three stints with the Goldstars have slotted in around tours in MoD Main Building. There, his responsibilities included overseeing the service development of the Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone missile - the only weapon any nation has fielded in Afghanistan which can be used dependably and accurately against small, moving ground targets - and the long-range Storm Shadow missile, which proved so effective when launched from GR4s during long-distance sorties from Marham in the early stages of the Libya campaign. While the decision to scrap Harrier remains controversial, and Mulholland recognises the "emotional" impact it had on the RAF and throughout the armed services, he believes that Tornado provides the best suite of capabilities for the present operations.

"We all know there is only one pot of money for government to spend," says Mulholland, "and quite rightly we realise that we sit a number of places below education and health. So the decision over what aircraft we needed to get rid of was partially fiscally driven, but it was also driven on capability terms. Yes, in an ideal world, you'd still have the Harrier that you could sit on an aircraft carrier and float around the globe, showing your strategic presence - but given the financial constraints we've got for the job we're doing, we've got the right platform here. And we've made the right decision over the Joint Strike Fighter and the variant we're going to buy in order to project the intent of the government at some point in the future."

"I think losing the Harrier has shown how good the Royal Air Force and the other two services are at mitigating those issues," Littlechild adds. "We've proven that Tornado, out of Marham then subsequently out of Italy, can do a perfectly good job over Libya. It's doing an exceptional job. We've got less to do it with, but the platform that's been chosen can mitigate the loss of another platform, by doing things another way."

In Afghanistan, Tornado's job is as much about intelligence-gathering as fighting; the aircraft's Litening III targeting pod and RAPTOR (Reconnaisance Airborne Pod for TORnado) high-resolution imaging capability are used extensively, while weapons release is a comparatively rare event (indeed, 31 Sqn's predecessors at KAF, 617 Sqn, released no weapons at all during their three-month deployment - testament to the increasingly potent deterrent effect the platform has on the insurgency, and clear evidence that the carefully calibrated escalation tactics have in reducing the possibility of unnecessary damage to property or loss of life: "going kinetic" is very much the last resort). Planned sorties are flown daily, and every aircraft carries Litening; RAPTOR, a much larger pod, is not carried on all missions, but several times per week, one of the jets in a two-ship formation will fly it.

"RAPTOR is still one of the most sought-after products, even by the Americans, because of the quality of the image that we can give," says Mulholland. "A lot of that imagery is used for finding places where Improvised Explosive Devices have been set, observing the pattern of life for an area, detailed analysis - entrances, exits, that kind of thing. If you then add on top of that the Litening pod, which we have for targeting but which also has a recce capability, that adds another aspect. The quality of imagery from Litening is a significant jump up in capability from what we had four or five years ago, and allows us to the fidelity to do the task that is now required."

Delivery of effect begins with non-kinetic events - a Show of Presence is a relatively high-level pass, and sometimes is enough to discourage adversaries from proceeding with an attack, while the low-level, high-speed Show of Force continues to remain a very effective method of dispersing insurgent elements before confrontations escalate. It may no longer scare adversaries, but is an emphatic warning that armed aircraft are watching. The next stage in up in lethality is a strafing run with what Mulholland describes as the aircraft's "exceptionally accurate" gun.

"Then we step up to Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone," the Wing Commander explains, "and no-one else in the world has something that is as accurate against moving targets, or for small targets that require a very precise capability. And there's Paveway IV, which is generally going to be the last thing that we're using, but which is much better than any of the other forces employ out here because of our ability to flexibly and discretely select the fusing to create exactly the desired effect and reduce the collateral damage concerns."

----

For the aircrew, the working day starts "at something horrendous like 4:30 in the morning," Littlechild grimaces. "That gives you half an hour to get up, unglue the eyes, hopefully not cut yourself shaving, then grab the wheels in here. And from then it's pretty much full-on."

On arrival at 904, the airmen don their sanitised flying suits and collect documents for the day - details of radio frequencies, refuelling slots and maps. Some sorties are planned in advance, either to support particular ground operations or to fly RAPTOR. But the Tornado Force are also frequently tasked to provide close air support to troops in contact, which can mean jets already airborne being diverted to a developing situation, or to scramble the jets that stand waiting at KAF in the GCAS (Ground Close Air Support) role - a kind of Quick Reaction Alert for the operational theatre.

"We'll then go in and have a met brief," Littlechild explains, "which includes the operations side, so, what all the other airfields in the area of operations are doing, and which ones we're going to use as diversions. We then have intelligence and ground liaison updates, where we find out about the tasks we're going to service, what areas we're working in, and who the Joint Tactical Air Controllers [JTACs] are. The tasks are given a priority number by the headquarters, so you can kind of gauge whether you're likely to be taken off a task earlier rather than later if other stuff starts happening in the area.

"Then we'll get back together as two crews - just the four people - and have a sortie brief," he continues, "where we'll go through all the domestic issues, discuss the tasks or operations we're going to support, how we're going to support them, how we're going to use our aircraft, the fuel we're going to get given in the AO and where the tankers are going to be, and what happens if we get called to a troops-in-contact on the northern border straight after getting airborne. All the contingencies and what-ifs, just between the four of you, so that you're all singing from the same songsheet. That whole process takes a couple of hours."

From there, the four airmen get their flying gear, and are given an Out Brief by the authoriser in the Operations Room. It's the authoriser's job to ensure that their flight suits are properly sanitised - only rank and flag - that they have all the necessary equipment, and that everything's been signed for. They will usually make a quick check of the 700C - the folder that is the equivalent of the GR4's "log book", detailing its service history and the resolution of any issues - and head out to the aircraft shelters where the jets are ready and waiting.

"The guys on GCAS will jump into a vehicle and drive down to the line," Mulholland explains. "But for the rest of us who are doing the normal sorties, we'll be walking out with all our kit. In the UK we'd fly with a very similar jacket, but out here it has a lot more survival equipment in it so it's heavier. I think the jacket is round about 10 kilos, the G Pants are a couple of kilos extra, and then there's the helmet. From here [the squadron building] to the furthest shelter, believe it or not, is half a kilometre - so, in 42 or 47 degree heat, with all that stuff on, you're pretty warm when you get there."

"Then you do all your external checks as a crew," Littlechild continues, "then get in, wind everything up, and then take off. Seven minutes after full-throttle on the runway you could be talking to your JTAC and be straight into it; equally, it could be a 30-minute transit to the east of Kabul, or up to the Turkmenistan border. Average mission lengths out here have been anything from two-and-a-half hours up to the five or five-and-a-half hour mark, and you may do three or four different tasks, talking to half-a-dozen people on the ground at any one time."

Even after they return to base, there's a heavy paperwork load to complete, with extensive mission reports and debriefing that has to be dealt with immediately. "And if you've done a five- or six-hour mission, that's a 12-hour day," says Littlechild. For senior officers such as Mulholland and Littlechild, there will be additional admin to take care of. There isn't be much down time - but the Squadron have been using it constructively.

"The things you do in your spare time, pretty much, are eat, sleep or do sport, and write or phone home," says Mulholland. "But most units that come out to theatre do a charity challenge of some sort, and the group of youngsters I'm fortunate enough to have on the Squadron wanted to do something bigger and greater than any unit has done before."

What they came up with was 31 Go 31,000 - an ambitious attempt to get squadron members to either run, row or ride a total of 31,000 miles during the deployment, and raise £31,000 for three charities along the way. Although this effectively called for 31 Squadron's members to do three miles on their chosen gym machine every day, the Goldstars had hit their target by early October. They are continuing to run, ride and row until their stint in Kandahar ends in November.

[The total as of today - January 12 2012 - stands at £45,001.00]

[* Obviously, there's more than one - but I'm always a bit uncertain about whether it's "Tornadoes" or "Tornados", so chose an easier way out.]





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