After a spell of good weather, thunderstorms had returned, and the Mediterranean air at our base in Cyprus was unusually humid as I walked back to Ops after a trip over Syria.
Two of my flight commanders approached me with an urgent request that had come in from Air Operations while I was airborne.
‘They want an IED [improvised explosive device] factory destroyed. As soon as possible.
‘It’s huge. Several large buildings. They want it completely destroyed in a single attack to make sure none of the bomb-makers’ stuff can be salvaged in the event of partial damage.
‘They think it will need 16 weapons to destroy it. The strike has to be simultaneous with U.S. aircraft hitting other nearby targets at the same time. It will be a coordinated push, so the timeline is fixed. Do we think we can take it on?’
The need to annihilate the IED factory was absolutely clear and justified.
The bomb-makers assembled suicide vests in all sizes, and land mines which they buried on roads and randomly in the desert.
Before precision-guided weapons, this would have been an impossibility. ‘Dumb’ weapons in previous conflicts had only worked by saturation, often causing extensive collateral damage
They concealed booby traps in houses and in plastic toys that contained sufficient explosives to blow off the hands of the children who found them. Nowhere was safe from them.
But hitting 16 different targets from a single formation in a single pass was a tall order. It had not been conducted by the RAF for some considerable time, and never by the Typhoon Force.
Before precision-guided weapons, this would have been an impossibility. ‘Dumb’ weapons in previous conflicts had only worked by saturation, often causing extensive collateral damage. During World War II, more than 90 per cent of bombs had missed their targets.
When Churchill wanted to strike the Nazi experimental-weapons factory at Peenemunde — a secret facility developing the V2 rockets that would later terrorise London — the RAF used 596 heavy bombers for a so-called ‘precision’ attack.
Even by the first Gulf War, smart weaponry remained in its infancy, and unguided rockets and bombs were still being used at the start of the Afghanistan campaign in 2004.
But now expectations had reached the point that we would be tasked to strike within a few feet of accuracy. And without delay. It was Thursday afternoon, and the raid was scheduled for Saturday. We had just 36 hours to prepare.
In a professional sense, I felt excited by the mission — load four Paveway 4 bombs onto each of four aircraft, fly a four-ship group over the target and release all 16 at different aiming points at the same time.
We had trained for multiple targets like this, but 16 was such an unlikely event that we had rarely practised anything like it, except to prove the concept was possible. Nonetheless, though it had never actually been done before, I was confident it was within the Typhoon’s capability.
Though it had never actually been done before, I was confident it was within the Typhoon’s capability to hit multiple targets like this
My top team agreed it was workable and that the boys were up to it. They had been flying in pairs on two-man missions for weeks but would have to step up to working as fours. It would need serious, detailed planning.
Launching four jets would put immense pressure on the squadron’s maintenance engineers and mechanics. As it was, they were worked to a standstill. Fast jets are not like cars, clocking up the miles then booking a service when the warning light flashes.
The aircraft needed checking over daily. Engineering for every sortie had to be managed, programmed, planned for. The Typhoon was always hungry for maintenance and servicing.
Every aircraft component was tracked and subject to a strict maintenance schedule and a logistics chain reliant on an air bridge from the UK. It was demanding work, especially since we had deployed from the UK with the absolute minimum number of engineers.
It was Sod’s Law that the mission was planned for Saturday. The jets flew six days out of seven. Saturday maintenance day enabled in-depth servicing and time for more serious corrections and refinements. But for this mission we would have to ask the engineers to bin maintenance day, work around the clock and double their usual output.
Even so, we had just four serviceable jets for the job, which was bloody tight for a critical mission. Ordinarily, to guarantee a successful launch, you would plan for 50 per cent redundancy, so six aircraft for four separate tasks. Five at a pinch.
They had tracked units of Isis fighters as they moved through urban areas, cleared roads of IEDs, and seamlessly integrated with unmanned aerial vehicles and foreign fast jets.
Given the constraints, timeline and lack of backup, I was sure most squadrons would have baulked at the request. But so far we had delivered on every single task. Day, night, good weather and bad, across multiple countries and in the most challenging of conditions.
Every day, the guys returned with incredible stories after precision strikes in the most complex scenarios. They had tracked units of Isis fighters as they moved through urban areas, cleared roads of IEDs, and seamlessly integrated with unmanned aerial vehicles and foreign fast jets.
They were showing restraint, professionalism and tactical confidence. The most extreme circumstances had gradually become the new norm. We were thinking cleanly, unemotionally, ruthlessly about the task.
Yes, we had endured the odd scrape and close call but the team had just rolled with the tackles and continued the flow. Every set-back had just made everyone stronger and closer.
Since I joined the RAF, I had never seen such a robust and healthy relationship between the engineers, pilots and operations staff. The support and willingness to deliver were truly extraordinary. It felt like we were capable of anything.
So, with the nodded agreement of Tim Lowing, the senior engineering officer, and Jonny Anderson, who was in charge of squadron weapons and tactics, the decision was made. We were on.
If I’d had any doubts, they would have been dispelled by the intelligence briefing we’d received that day. Isis had begun organ harvesting from prisoners, and had hanged two teenage girls in the centre of Mosul, Iraq, for posting on Twitter. The suffering was unimaginable, not acts of war but acts of sheer evil.
If we could get it right and destroy this house of horrors in one fell swoop, it would not only be a huge tactical success, it would strike a significant blow to Islamic State’s campaign of terror.
During the next 36 hours, the engineers worked with quiet obsession. As dawn was breaking on Saturday morning, the jets were fully fuelled and loaded, ready to go. It was some achievement.
Thorney was chosen to lead, as Dragon 1, with James Turner (‘JT’), James Harkin (‘Weasel’) and myself making up the rest of the four-ship group. In the briefing room, morale was high. It augured well for what we had in front of us.
There was a warm, dusty breeze blowing across the runway and the sun was high in the sky. It was roasting in the cockpit. Even before engine start I could feel the sweat slide down my back. All being well, it would be a short sortie, under four hours.
I sat there for ten minutes, mind emptied of thoughts, arms resting on the sills, while I waited for the exact time to start the engines. A shimmering heat haze bounced off the Tarmac.
To my left and right, the other Typhoons stood armed to the hilt, poised for action. Then the radio crackled into life and we were off, skimming down the runway in succession, the fourth jet airborne just over a minute after the first.
Isis had begun organ harvesting from prisoners, and had hanged two teenage girls in the centre of Mosul, Iraq, for posting on Twitter.
We cruised at 30,000 ft. The aircraft bobbed softly up and down as we held in a loose formation for the transit out. An hour later, we crossed the Iraqi border and met up with an airborne tanker.
One by one we slipped behind its hose, gassed up with fuel, then crossed over to the right wing, where we reformed as a four-ship again ready to head to our target. The IED factory was about 50 miles to the north.
Ten minutes later, we began running in for our attack. We had split the formation into two elements, spaced a few miles apart so that our weapons in flight would avoid overlapping, thus reducing the risk of accidents or incidents.
This also allowed the pilots a little more time to check their targeting cameras during the run-up to the attack and conduct the large number of weapon checks. We could also maintain a good lookout under each other’s aircraft for any surface-to-air fire.
About a minute out from the target, I selected ‘weapon aiming’ in the head-up display in front of me. The strike had been authorised at the highest level and so there was no requirement to make any radio calls to get permission to drop. But we still, as always, scanned the target area and its surrounds for civilians or unexpected activity.
There was not a soul in the enemy compound. The access road was also deserted. I pushed the protective switch covering the weapon release button to live, and on my head-up display, the symbols changed to show the four weapons on my jet and a countdown timer to release.
The Litening camera pods tracked the factory perfectly. My heart thumped inside my G-suit.
With seconds to go, I pressed and held the weapon release button, then waited for what seemed like an eternity for the weapons to drop.
With a thud the left outboard weapon released, a small explosive cartridge firing it from the wing. A few milliseconds later, another thud, this time from the right. Then another. Then another. All four Paveways were in the air. Forty seconds to impact.
I called out my weapon release on the radio so the rest of the formation could hear. At the same time, I could hear the releases from their jets.
In our individual cockpits, we sat through a tense waiting game, anxiously watching the targeting camera images as the seconds counted down to impact.
Twenty seconds. Sixteen weapons were flying towards their separate targets. Ten seconds. I felt the stress ratchet up. Five.
I held my breath as the weapons slammed into the target and, with a succession of flashes and blasts, the ground below erupted into flying debris. The buildings vanished into a column of dust and smoke, rising like a tornado a few thousand feet into the sky.
It was an incredible and terrifying sight. The northerly wind slowly cleared away the smoke and we could see the result of the strike. Where an IED factory had
been, nothing remained. The complex had been utterly obliterated.
Our time patrolling the skies above Iraq was coming to an end when we were directed to Fallujah to provide air cover for a column of advancing Iraqi troops.
Visibility was good. I could see the jagged peaks of the Zagros Mountains in the distance and the River Euphrates winding its way across the barren landscape.
Our time patrolling the skies above Iraq was coming to an end when we were directed to Fallujah to provide air cover for a column of advancing Iraqi troops
Two battle tanks led the way, their gun turrets inching back and forth as the commanders surveyed boarded up and broken houses. Behind, scores of troops primed for combat rode in a convoy of 30 armoured personnel carriers which snaked around the hulk of an abandoned tank that had been struck by an IED earlier in the day.
From a street below, a motorbike raced away, and we were called to follow it. Keeping up with a 60 mph motorbike in a Mach 1.8 fighter wasn’t a challenge, but as it swerved through alleyways and side streets it was difficult to maintain a good line of sight from the targeting camera.
Whenever the motorbike vanished from view, I had to move the camera to where I anticipated it would reappear, while simultaneously hauling the nose of the jet around every few seconds to ensure we stayed overhead.
After we had chased the bike for ten minutes, it pulled into a driveway and hid in a garage. We passed the location to the friendly troops. No doubt there would be a knock on that door later in the day.
After a mid-air refuelling, we were moved to another location, 25 miles closer to Baghdad. ‘Dragon, we need you to look for suspicious activity between here and the river to the north.’
I swung the jet into a turn. The area had been quiet for the past few weeks and I wasn’t expecting to see very much.
Then I spotted what looked like a people carrier and moved the camera into position to zoom in. It passed another car and a motorbike, kicking up tracks of dust as the vehicles passed each other.
The area had been abandoned for months and I couldn’t work out why there was suddenly so much activity.
The people carrier slowed and pulled up outside a house. The doors slid open and several people got out, including some women veiled in black. They didn’t look as if they were in a rush. Two of the men opened the back of the vehicle and began removing baskets and boxes. A dog ran over from the house next door. A message came from my attack controller. ‘Dragon, they’re civilians. They are moving back home. We’ve started seeing this over the last 24 hours. The area is reasonably safe now. Isis haven’t been seen here for a while.’
Ramadi and Fallujah (pictured in 2004) had suffered massive damage. No aircraft had landed at the nearby airport for years.
Those few words were hard to take in at first. We had arrived in theatre six months earlier and been thrown into the middle of extreme combat as Isis pushed south and threatened the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
The battle had raged week after week as the territory was reclaimed street by street, house by house, every small gain at the cost of blood and sacrifice.
Ramadi and Fallujah had suffered massive damage. No aircraft had landed at the nearby airport for years. It lay in ruins, scarred with bomb damage and potholes. The highway that passed through these small cities on the way to Baghdad was an assault course of boulders and burned-out cars. It looked like a scene from the end of days.
I felt a smile crack my face. After months of watching Isis advance, it was a relief to see the Iraqi army taking back control and refugees who had fled in terror from their villages arriving home to start again.
It would take time to breathe new life back into those communities. There were still huge challenges ahead. But the fighting in this region had stopped. Isis was in retreat. We’d done our job. We could go home.
Adapted from Typhoon: The Inside Story Of An RAF Fighter Squadron At War by Mike Sutton, published by Michael Joseph on November 25 at £20. © 2021 Mike Sutton.
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