RAF Marham’s II (Army Cooperation) Squadron’s Tornados flew missions from Kandahar in support of ISAF forces across the whole of Afghanistan, including direct support to UK troops in Helmand.
As well, at the same time, Gunners from II Squadron RAF Regiment, based at RAF Honington, spent six months patrolling and protecting the area around Kandahar Airfield (KAF) from the threat posed by enemy forces.
This is the first time that the two squadrons have operated concurrently in this way.
One of the biggest challenges that the Gunners faced was changing the mindset of Afghans living in villages which have been targeted by insurgents, closing down vital community projects and local schools.
Squadron Leader Matt Carter, Officer Commanding II Squadron RAF Regiment, said:
We mounted a squadron-level operation. There was a complete change in attitude to us, we were no longer seen as a threat, but as helpers. Before, we would have had stones thrown at us as we entered the villages, but this has now mainly stopped.
The biggest setback was the loss of Senior Aircraftman Luke Southgate, who was killed early in the tour when the 20-year-old machine gunner’s WMIK Land Rover was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol.
Kandahar Base Commander, Air Commodore Gordon Moulds, said:
II Squadron can look back with a great deal of pride on all they have accomplished.
Against a backdrop of a 200 per cent increase in the number of rocket attacks against KAF, the deliberate IED targeting of their personnel and the most intense period of insurgent activity around KAF since 2001, II Squadron has undoubtedly disrupted insurgent efforts and made KAF a safer and more secure place for its 26,000 personnel.
The final, poignant occasion of the tour was the naming of a road at Kandahar in honour of Senior Aircraftman Southgate.
As well, operating in one of the most demanding military flying environments in the world, the two squadrons were of mutual benefit to each other, as Wing Commander John Turner, Officer Commanding II (Army Cooperation) Squadron, explained. He said:
When we fly a sortie and come back and have spare fuel and capacity, we will fly counter-IED patrols along the routes used by the regiment, reporting anything we see back to them. We have to look after their interest, as they are looking after ours, by protecting Kandahar Airfield.
Operating in the extremes of terrain and weather, the squadron provided close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to UK and ISAF forces operating throughout the whole of Afghanistan.
Additionally, given the speed of response and persistence of the Tornado GR4, both airborne elements and ground-based close air support (GCAS) alert aircraft were regularly retasked in support of urgent ground incidents where troops were ‘in contact’ with insurgents.
On one occasion the GCAS aircraft were ‘scrambled’ to be airborne during a prolonged insurgent ground attack on KAF in order to defend a UK supply convoy caught in the centre of Sangin by an IED.
A crucial role of the Tornado in theatre has been the provision of armed overwatch. Wing Commander Turner said:
We recently did armed overwatch for the evacuation of casualties following an IED strike, while the helicopters went in and put force protection troops down to secure the area.
One helicopter was attacked by an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade, which fortunately missed, but the dynamics of the situation were constantly changing.
The junior aircrew have been thrown into dynamic situations and they’ve delivered in spades. We don’t want to drop a bomb immediately, but make sure what we do is proportionate to the situation while trying to save UK lives.
For Squadron Warrant Officer Ian Nelson his latest - and last - tour has been memorable. Awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his role on operations, he said:
We’ve surpassed all expectations. The heat and altitude of KAF has not been easy.