The Dambusters at war
The morning sun hasn’t yet risen as four aircrew from 617 Squadron sit down to a breakfast of powdered eggs and streaky bacon, after a gruelling six-hour mission over enemy territory. The scene could be RAF Scampton in 1940s wartime Britain or Kandahar airfield in 2011. Once again, the Dambusters are doing what they do best; taking the fight to the enemy, this time in the hot and dusty environment of Afghanistan.
During the 68th anniversary year of Op CHASTISE (the famous Dams raid), 617 Squadron is once again at war, this time working alongside other ISAF nations on Op HERRICK. Based at Kandahar airfield, in southern Afghanistan, 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.
Today the Dambusters are operating over Afghanistan day and night, in all weathers, and they will continue to do so until relieved in Jul. Throughout the day, several pairs of aircraft provide armed over-watch 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.
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 dams 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’s 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.
The job of the Tornado here 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, which is a 19ft long 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.
Like the original Dambusters the current squadron performed a demanding workup 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 Dams raids pilots had to fly their aircraft accurately at just 60ft 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 but the effect on the enemy remains as powerful and as potent as ever.