London, UK (BBN)-The UK is to extend air strikes by RAF Tornados against the Islamic State group by an extra year, to March 2017, the defence secretary has said.
Michael Fallon, who is on a visit to Iraq, said the British jets had helped Iraqi forces on the ground to push IS militants out of key towns, reports BBC.
“We want to ensure we maintain this crucial operational tempo,” he said.
But he ruled out the possibility of Western ground troops joining the fight and said Iraq had not requested this.
The squadron of Tornado GR4 fighter bombers – Number 12 Squadron – was due to be disbanded in March and replaced with a squadron of Typhoon air defence fighters.
But, following the launch of air strikes against IS last September, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the Tornadoes would carry on until March 2016 so they could continue in their specialist ground-attack role.
Fallon said this second reprieve for the eight bombers based in Cyprus would ensure the RAF retained “the essential precision firepower, intelligence and surveillance” capabilities needed for operations against IS – also known as Isil.
Speaking in Baghdad, where he has met Iraqi officials, he said Iraq needed British help with air support, training and equipment, but not with ground troops.
“RAF Tornados have carried out hundreds of strikes, helping Iraqi forces push back Isil from the Kurdish region and out of key towns such as Tikrit and Bayji,” he said.
“We want to ensure we maintain this crucial operational tempo and so we will extend the lifetime of Number 12 Squadron for a further year to March 2017.”
The GR4s operating out of Cyprus are equipped with precision-guided Paveway bombs and Brimstone missiles.
They can also be fitted with Raptor reconnaissance pods for carrying out surveillance and intelligence gathering missions.
Together with the RAF’s unmanned Reaper drones, also operating in the region, they have flown more than 1,100 combat missions over Iraq and carried out more than 250 air strikes.
Air strikes against IS are currently restricted to Iraq and parliamentary approval would be needed for them to be extended to Syria.