The United Kingdom has ended manned fixed-wing combat operations over Afghanistan with the return of the final Panavia Tornado GR.4 detachment to its home base in England, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced on 11 November.
The eight Panavia Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft of 31 Squadron have returned to Royal Air Force (RAF) Marham in the United Kingdom, having flown their final combat missions out of Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan on the same day as the MoD's announcement.
The Tornados took on the role of providing manned fixed-wing combat support from the BAE Systems Harrier GR.7/9 in June 2009, with 2, 9, 12, 13, 31, and 617 squadrons all undertaking approximately four-month rotations since the handover.
Operated under the auspices of the 904 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW), the RAF's Tornado detachment has provided close air support (CAS) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) cover to UK and coalition ground forces.
For their CAS duties over Afghanistan, the RAF's Tornados are usually armed with MBDA dual-mode seeker Brimstone missiles, Raytheon Paveway IV laser/global positioning system (GPS)-guided bombs, and the Mauser BK-27 27 mm cannon. The ISR mission utilises the Litening III advanced targeting pod, as well as the Goodrich DB-110 Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado (RAPTOR) pod.
The return of 31 Squadron from Afghanistan will come as some relief to the RAF, which is currently stretched with Tornado detachments to RAF Akrotiri in support of combat operations over Iraq, and in Nigeria where they are conducting ISR in support of the government's efforts to counter Islamist militants.
Having served as the backbone of the RAF's strike force since the GR.1 variant was introduced into service in the late 1970s, the Tornado has arguably never been as busy as it is right now, undertaking multiple geographically-scattered missions with a declining number of aircraft ahead of the type's planned retirement in 2019.
The MoD had planned to reduce to two the number of frontline squadrons as part of its drawdown plans, but the unforeseen commitment to Iraq has forced defence chiefs to reconsider and to keep three squadrons of Tornados in operational service to support current commitments and future contingencies.