News story

Dambusters back in action over Afghanistan

During the 68th anniversary year of 617 Squadron's famous 'Dambusters' raid in the Ruhr Valley the squadron is once again on active operations, this time supporting ISAF troops out of Kandahar Airfield.

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The entire squadron has deployed with its Tornado GR4 aircraft to provide close air support and reconnaissance to Afghan and ISAF troops throughout the country.

Since 1991, the squadron has regularly deployed to fly combat missions over Iraq and was the first RAF squadron to fire the Storm Shadow cruise missile in anger during the conflict in 2003.

Today, the Dambusters are operating over Afghanistan day and night, in all weathers, and they will continue to do so until relieved later this month.

Throughout the day, several pairs of aircraft provide armed overwatch and close air support (CAS) in support of Afghan and ISAF ground troops. During the night, an additional pair of Tornado GR4s is held at high readiness to launch.

These rapid response aircraft, known as Ground CAS (GCAS) jets, can be scrambled to support coalition forces anywhere in the country, much like the Spitfires and Hurricanes of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, but with a ground attack role.

The night GCAS crews and engineers wait in the ready room, with the aircraft primed, ready to race out to the jets at the sounding of the scramble alarm.

However, the ‘Mae Wests’ of old have been replaced by a modern combat survival waistcoat, complete with radio, GPS, night-vision goggles, an escape map, very similar to those carried by British airmen in World War Two, and numerous other survival aids.

Despite the advances in technology there are still a surprising number of similarities between the present day aircraft and the Lancaster Mk1B ‘Specials’ flown during the Dambuster Raids.

The dimensions of a modern day Tornado GR4 are not much less than those of a Lancaster and the take-off weights are almost identical. On initial inspection, the armament carried is also similar, with bullets and bombs being the name of the game.

However, Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb has been replaced with a variety of state-of-the-art weaponry.

The GR4 carries the best moving-target air-to-ground weapon in the world, in the form of the dual-mode seeker Brimstone, a supersonic laser- and radar-guided missile that combines extraordinary precision with a low yield that limits its effect to the immediate target area.

Within the first week of being in theatre the squadron had already used this capability in support of Norwegian ground forces in the north of Afghanistan.

In addition, Paveway IVs can be carried - these 500lb (227kg) bombs provide highly accurate targeting and can be released in either GPS- or laser-guided modes.

Last, but by no means least, is the 27mm Mauser cannon.

This mix of weapons allows for a measured response to complex situations on the ground, allowing aircrew to provide a gradual increase of force appropriate to the events taking place below, at the same time minimising the risk of civilian casualties.

The job of the Tornado is not just the application of force - it can also perform the equally vital task of ground reconnaissance.

In this role the jet is equipped with RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado), which is a 19-foot-long (5.8m) electro-optical and infrared recce pod, or the RAF’s largest flying digital camera, capable of taking incredibly highly detailed images of the ground thousands of feet below.

This imagery is used to find improvised explosive devices and to assist in the planning of ground missions.

The aircraft is normally fitted with the Litening III, a much smaller tactical reconnaissance and targeting pod, allowing aircrew and ground forces to view real-time video of events taking place both during the day and at night.

The total fuel load of the Tornado GR4 is similar to that of the Lancaster, but the fuel burn of the GR4 is considerably higher. On take-off the Tornado burns around 600kg of fuel in just one minute.

Where the Lancaster could fly for six hours during the Dambuster Raids, the GR4 needs to conduct regular air-to-air refuelling in order to complete extended missions over Afghanistan.

Due to the number of countries involved in Op HERRICK there is quite a variety of tanker aircraft in theatre. Few pilots look forward to the American KC-135 Stratotanker, equipped with its awkward boom-drogue-adapter hose, ominously known as the ‘Iron Maiden’.

Much more favoured are the drogue-equipped RAF tankers, a system first trialled by the Lancaster shortly after World War Two.

Like the original Dambusters the current squadron performed a demanding work-up before heading off to war. Although much of this work concentrated on handling the complex equipment, some focus remained on traditional skills such as low flying.

During the Dambuster Raids pilots had to fly their aircraft accurately at just 60ft (18m) above the water before releasing their bouncing bombs.

On Op HERRICK low flying is used as a powerful deterrent in the form of a show of force, with the aim being to surprise and scare the enemy by flying low and fast directly over their position.

Due to the higher speed of the Tornado, a show of force is flown at the slightly higher height of 100ft (30m).

In order to fly safely down to these ultra-low levels in the hostile and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, 617 Squadron aircrew have accrued many hours at low level over the safer, but equally mountainous, Highlands of Scotland.

And it’s not just in the equipment and the standard of airborne skills that the Dambusters of 68 years ago are similar to those of today - the espirit de corps and squadron pride remain.

A current Dambuster pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ollie Moncrief, summed it up as:

617 is the most famous squadron in the RAF and we still hold our reputation as the finest precision bombing squadron very dear indeed.

Back in Kandahar the daytime temperature is in the low 40s Celsius - a far cry from the frozen lochs around RAF Lossiemouth from just a few months ago. These temperatures make crewing in the jet in the middle of the day a less than enjoyable experience.

However, with the state-of-the-art gyms and a popular boardwalk area in Kandahar, many would happily agree with what Wing Commander Guy Gibson said of RAF West Malling:

Of all the airfields in Great Britain, here, many say, including myself, we have the most pleasant.

A year later, when Guy Gibson was the boss of 617 Squadron, he was one of the most experienced and highly decorated bomber pilots in the RAF at just 25, a year younger than 617’s current junior pilot!

Published 7 July 2011