The end of Tornado GR.4 role in Op. Shader, Tornado GR.4 retirement & its effect on the air war on terror

By Babak Taghvaee, Athens, Greece

Between 0730 and 1400Z on 31 January 2019, the last combat mission of a RAF Tornado GR.4 was carried-out during Anti-Daesh Operation Shader. Supported by a Voyager KC.2 tanker airplane, the ZA601 (ASCOT9951) armed with four Paveway IVs and ZA542 (ASCOT9952) armed with two Paveway IVs and two Brimstones flew over North of Iraq and then headed to East of Syrian where the Syrian Democratic Forces were in close combat against ISIL in the last two villages still under control of the terrorist group in Syria. The next day, Tornado crews who had been regularly flying missions against ISIL almost three times a week rested and were prepared to redeploy to RAF Marham in UK and bring this final operational deployment to its end.

Everything was started on 13th August 2014, when the Tornado GR.4s flew their first mission over Iraq in support of anti-ISIL operation of Iraqi security forces. From that time 37 different Tornado GR.4s were deployed to RAF Akrotiri to take part in the anti-ISIL Operation Shader. Not only served as one of the key reconnaissance assets of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve rather they carried-out 783 air strikes against a variety of ISIL targets from fortified barracks and training camps till an ordinary shipping container or motorcycle in use by the Jihadists. During these air strikes, total 1,129 Paveway IVs, 38 Enhanced Paveway IIs, 4 Enhanced Paveway IIIs, 8 Storm Shadows and 378 Brimstones were used in 658 missions.

The Tornado GR.4s played key role in the coalition air strikes against ISIL in Mosul and Raqqa during efforts of Iraqi security forces and SDF respectively for liberation of these two major cities of ISIL in 2016 and 2017. The declassified reports of RAF shows that from the beginning of Operation Shader until mid-2018, RAF Tornado GR.4s conducted total 266 air strikes against ISIL in Mosul and the areas around that during which they employed total 112 Brimstones, 322 Paveway IVs, 15 Enhanced Paveway IIs and four Enhanced Paveway IIIs.

Started on 10 January 2016, RAF Tornado GR.4s began providing close air support and conducting air strikes in support of the SDF operations against ISIL in Raqqa and area around that. Until 21 March 2016, they carried-out total nine air strikes in the area. They employed total 14 Brimstone missiles and 16 Paveway IV LGBs. Brimstones scored hits on a vehicle, a supply truck and eleven cranes while the Paveway IVs were used against a truck, five buildings, a weapon cache, a large barrack or camp, a tunnel complex and a command and control post.

On 6 November 2016, SDF and its Kurdish allies including YPJ launched the Operation Wrath of Euphrates to fully liberate the city of Raqqa, Tabqa and 236 villages and strategic facilities and hills around them. USAF and US Navy as well as French Air Force carried-out hundreds of air strikes in support of the SDF during this operation especially during its final stage known as “Great Battle” between 6 and 17 June 2017. As a result of this operation, Raqqa was fully liberated on 17 October 2017, three days before the operation ends.

Before SDF enters the city on 6 June 2017, RAF Tornado GR.4s carried-out total three air strikes against ISIL during which they fired a Brimstone at an Armoured Vehicle and also dropped a Paveway IV destroying an ISIL’s HQ located in a building. Also a pair of Enhanced Paveway IIs were used to destroy two buildings which was in use by ISIL as an HQ.

During the Great Battle between 6 and 17 June 2017, RAF Tornado GR.4s carried-out total four air strikes during which fired two Brimstones at a building and a heavy machine gun. They also airdropped four Paveway IVs at a building, two fighting positions and a strongpoint in that period.

Until complete liberation of the city of Raqqa on 17 October 2017, RAF continued providing close air support for the SDF in the area and the Tornado GR.4s conducted 30 more air strikes during which they fired five Brimstones and 35 Paveway IVs. The Brimstones were fired at four fighting positions and an ISIL group while the Paveway IVs were used against a group of ISIL terrorists, 14 fighting groups, two buildings, a fortified building, four mortar teams, 12 sniper teams, a RPG team, a heavy machine gun, an observation post and two strong points.

In 2018, during the final year of Tornado GR.4s at Op. Shader, they used 108 Paveway IVs and 6 Brimstones were employed during 69 air strikes in 59 missions which mostly had been carried-out in support of the SDF during their efforts for liberation of Abu-Kamal and Hajin and the areas around them.

RAF Tornado GR.4s carried-out total 25 airstrikes in support of the SDF near Abu-Kamal between 17 September 2017 and 12 November 2018. They used three Brimstones against a vehicle and two VBIEDs as well as 31 Paveway IVs against nine buildings, five fighting positions, a fighting group, three observation posts, two mortar teams, a weapon store, a machine gun position, a tunnel complex, a VBIED workshop, a compound and a command post.

Hajin was fully liberated by SDF on 14 December 2018 but before that RAF Tornado GR.4s conducted total 20 air strikes against ISIL in the area using two Brimstones against a vehicle and a mortar team as well as 33 Paveway IVs against two vehicles or trucks, five buildings, six fighting positions, three fighting groups, a mortar team, a bulldozer, an observation post, a command post, five strongpoints, a sniper team, a key route, two AA Guns, a tunnel system, an operating base and three unknown targets.

After the complete recapture of the Hajin, the anti-ISIL operation of SDF was continued in the areas around the Hajin and RAF Tornados carried-out nine more air strikes against ISIL during which they used 13 Paveway IVs against eight buildings, three fighting positions and a VBIED between 15 and 27 December 2018. Further air strikes were carried-out in January including one on 26 January during which a pair of Tornado GR.4s used two Paveway IVs and two Brimstones against various ISIL targets which were also bombed by USAF B-1Bs flying from Al-Udeid AB. These air strikes resulted death of 42 ISIL terrorists.

The decline in request of air support by SDF due to the recent major victories against the ISIL led to decline in number of combat sorties and armed patrols conducted by all members of the CJTF-OIR. This also was coincided with the retirement of the Tornado GR.4s from RAF service. Therefore RAF carried-out its final Tornado GR.4 combat mission during the operation on 31st January 2019. Few days after that the eight Tornado GR.4s on deployment at RAF Akrotiri returned their home base, RAF Marham to spend last days of their lives with nine other Tornado GR.4s currently in service of IX_(B) and No.31 Squadrons.