Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Mark Stone, Sky News reporter
The Royal Air Force today ends the longest overseas deployment in its history.
Following the withdrawal of the British military from Iraq, the RAF's 19-year presence in the Middle East has come to pass.
"This is a significant milestone for the Royal Air Force," Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy told Sky News.
"Within days of the initial Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, RAF aircraft deployed to the Middle East to deter further Iraqi aggression.
"And they then played a major role in defeating Iraq's force during the first Gulf War."
"For many in the service, Iraq has dominated the majority of their careers, with some personnel completing more than 20 deployments to the region."
After the end of the conflict the RAF remained in the Middle East. For the next 12 years they patrolled Iraq's northern and southern no-fly zones.
In 2003 they played a vital role in the second invasion of Iraq and have provided support to ground forces in the region ever since.
"There isn't a part of the RAF that has not been involved in one shape or form in these operations, be it in the air or the ground," Sir Glenn said.
"Indeed, for many in the service, Iraq has dominated the majority of their careers, with some personnel completing more than 20 deployments to the region."
Today, the last contingent of that long deployment will return to UK soil.
Six Tornado GR4 fast jets and a VC10 transport aircraft carrying personnel will arrive back at RAF Marham in Norfolk, where their families will be readied to greet them.
The role of the RAF in still-active conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan is often far less visual than that of their Army colleagues. But without them, ground forces would be unable to operate.
As well as providing aerial support in the form of fighter jets and helicopters, the RAF is the logistical backbone of the British Armed Forces.
It is their helicopters who taxi the troops around, deliver supplies and medivac the injured. With its fleet of passenger aircraft it deploys and repatriates thousands of troops to and from combat zones every six months.
Troops from the RAF Regiment have also provided ground support in Iraq alongside the Army. In 2007, three RAF Regiment Gunners were killed in a mortar attack on Basra Air Station.
In all, 34 RAF personnel have been killed in the 19-year deployment; 22 of them since the start of the 2003 Gulf War. That loss will be recognised at today's ceremony at RAF Marham.
The returning planes will perform a fly-past and among those returning will be airmen who have received prestigious gallantry honours.
As well as conducting aerial and ground combat operations in Iraq, the RAF has helped to develop Basra International Airport. Civilian flights now operate from there to countries including Jordan, Oman and Kuwait.
The mission has not been without controversy though. Southern Iraq is still unstable.
For the last 18 months, British Forces have been largely confined to their bases.
The British may have pulled out now but they have been replaced by American troops who are due to remain in Iraq until 2011.