On December 2nd at 22:30 GMT, following a day long debate in Parliament, politicians in the United Kingdom voted by a majority of 174 in favor of the government’s plan to carry out bombing operations on Daesh targets in Syria.

This sees the RAF joining the US, France and Russia in sustained bombing campaigns over Syria. It is not a decision taken lightly by the British government; undoubtedly commits the our military to a lengthy fight against this terrorist organization.

Logistically, it is a fairly straight-forward move as the RAF is already involved in strategic strikes against Daesh targets in Iraq. Most importantly, it sends a clear message to our allies and marks a major shift in our foreign policy: we are committed to the fight.

So what has Britain been doing until now?

An RAF GR4 Tornado departs Nellis AFB during a Red Flag training mission
An RAF GR4 Tornado departs Nellis AFB during a Red Flag training mission, loaded with live GBU-12 PAVEWAY II Laser-Guided Bombs. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

Since October 1st of this year, the RAF has been conducting air operations over Northern Iraq in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga. This has involved the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft and ground attack aircraft, flying out of an RAF base in Cyprus. Strikes have been carried out near such places as Tal Afar, Ramadi, Sinjar and Haditha.

What assets does the RAF bring to the fight? First, we have the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. With an approximate range of 1,000 nautical miles and 14-hour endurance, the Reaper uses daylight or infrared visuals to perform vital reconnaissance and precision targeting to deliver its payload of 2 GBU-12 500lb laser guided bombs and 4 AGM-114 Hellfire air to ground missiles.

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Next up is the Panavia Tornado GR4. This elder statesman has been in service with the RAF for 30 years, but continues to distinguish itself in combat. With a crew of two (pilot and navigator/weapons systems officer), this supersonic aircraft is capable of maintaining high subsonic cruise speeds while hugging the ground, using its terrain-following radar.

Fitted with the Northrop-Grumman Litening III Advanced Targeting Pod, the Tornado provides formidable reconnaissance and ground attack capabilities. It is typically armed with laser-guided Paveway IV bombs and the Brimstone air-to-ground guided missile, backed up with a single 27mm Mauser Cannon. This aircraft will form the main bulk of the strike force and will be worked hard over the course of these operations.

An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon taxis at Nellis during Red Flag Period 15-1. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)
An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon taxis at Nellis during Red Flag Period 15-1. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

Joining the Tornado will be the RAF’s newest fighter, the Eurofighter Typhoon. With the pilot able to carry out most functions using hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) and voice-recognition technology, this aircraft poses a formidable threat in the ground attack arena.

It’s two 20,000-lb thrust turbojet engines propel the aircraft to maximum speed of Mach 1.8 and a service ceiling of 55,000 feet, while advanced avionics and flight control systems allow it to perform unbelievable feats of maneuverability. However, it is equally at home at lower airspeeds and altitudes, delivering its deadly cargo of precision-guided munitions.

Supporting these formidable strike aircraft are a variety of essential assets, such as the Raytheon Sentinel R1 long range battlefield surveillance aircraft. Based on the Bombardier Global Challenger this intelligence platform is packed with avionics capable of identifying and tracking targets over vast distances.

An RAF Sentinel R1 recovers to Nellis AFB, Nevada During a Red Flag period.
An RAF Sentinel R1 recovers to Nellis AFB, Nevada During a Red Flag period. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

Keeping these thirsty aircraft fed is a fleet of Airbus Voyager Tanker aircraft. Converted from the well proven A330 airliner, this aircraft carries two pilots, 8 cabin crew and a mission systems operator and carries 111 tonnes of fuel at a maximum range of 4500 nautical miles.

Shortly after the vote in parliament, four Tornado GR4s, armed with 500lb Paveway bombs, left Cyprus bound for Syria. They returned 3 hours later with empty weapons racks, having struck the Daesh-controlled Omar oil fields in Eastern Syria–a vital source of income for the terrorist organization.

This will form the basis of the ongoing strategy to pull the chair from beneath Daesh and the UK’s Prime Minister has warned that this process will take some time. Will it lead to troops on the ground? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – the thoughts and prayers of this nation will be with the men and women charged with this mission.

(Featured photo by Jonathan Derden)