Royal Air Force personnel, deployed to 904 Expeditionary Air Wing’s (EAW) Tornado Detachment (TorDet), provide Ground Alert Close-Air Support (GCAS) to coalition troops across Afghanistan.
GCAS is a permanent, 24-hour duty shared between the Belgian Air Force F-16 detachment and the Tornado GR4s of the RAF, both based at Kandahar Airfield. Each nation covers a 12-hour shift per day, providing round-the-clock coverage.
The purpose of GCAS is to provide two aircraft and two crews at a high state of readiness for tasking anywhere within the Afghan Area of Operations. This will primarily be to support a Troops-in-Contact (TiC) situation whenever ground forces require air support expeditiously.
Prior to taking over the duty at the start of each shift, the oncoming GCAS air and ground crews will conduct full pre-flight checks of the aircraft, weapon systems and mission equipment to ensure it is fully prepared, saving valuable time in the event of a launch.
The aircraft is armed with a mix of Paveway IV bombs, DMS Brimstone missiles and the 27mm Mauser gun, as well as the Litening III targeting pod and numerous defensive aids systems. This provides the crews with great flexibility to deal with the wide range of situations they may be faced with if launched. Once the aircraft are ready, the crews will declare themselves ‘On State’, prior to adopting an alert posture in the GCAS ready-room, awaiting the ‘scramble’ call.
When the call to launch comes, the air and ground crews will run to the pre-prepared aircraft, where they will start the engines, weapon and navigation systems, before receiving specific details of their mission tasking. After completing final pre-flight checks, the aircraft will taxi out from the shelters, being given ‘scramble’ priority over other aircraft by Air Traffic Control to allow an expeditious take-off, all within a matter of minutes of receiving the call to launch.
Once airborne, the formation will work as a team to co-ordinate all the aspects of the sortie, which would normally be pre-arranged for a planned mission, such as air-to-air refuelling timings and requirements, operating airspace and communication plans, prior to arriving on task in support of the ground forces.
When asked about GCAS, RAF Navigator Flight Lieutenant Dave ‘Kingy’ King, stated: “GCAS is the modern day equivalent of the alert posture held by the RAF’s fighter crews in WWII. The location, aircraft, weapons and targets may have changed dramatically, yet the basic principle remains unchanged; air and ground crews at a heightened state of readiness waiting for the call to ‘Scramble’.
When it comes, it all happens very quickly, the adrenaline really kicking in because you know you are launching to provide vital air support to the troops on the ground. As you run to the aircraft, you probably have no idea where you are going, what nationality troops you will be supporting or what situation you may be faced with until you receive the Scramble message over the radio. At that point, the many hours of training back in the UK prior to deploying prove their worth as the whole start-up procedure is completed slickly and expeditiously, yet still safely, thanks to the professionalism of the air and ground crews who are well drilled and highly motivated.
It gives a great sense of achievement and satisfaction to everyone involved to get the jets ready to launch in such a short space of time, knowing that every minute saved could make all the difference in a potential life-or-death situation out on the ground. It really is the ultimate demonstration of Squadron teamwork.”
Kingy concluded by saying: “This is now my third tour out here on the GR4 in 3 years and I have seen a marked reduction in the amount of GCAS scrambles during that time. This is an indication of the progress made in recent months and the success our ground forces are having as the handover to the ANSF continues. However, it certainly doesn’t mean that the crews are any less ready to react when the need to launch occurs and everyone is fully prepared to provide vital Close Air Support anywhere in Afghanistan, whenever and wherever needed.”
Commenting on the demands of the tour, 31 Squadron's Executive Officer said: “Whilst TorDet executes pre-planned missions day and night, GCAS inevitably gets used for the more demanding situations of troops in contact, which can be a real change in tempo for the crews who could be sat at readiness less than an hour before arriving on scene.
Now we are frequently supporting ground situations, with the ANSF or ANA as ground commanders, which can present unique challenges with communication and understanding. Throughout our tour of duty, the engineers and aircrew have provided outstanding combat air support, throughout Afghanistan, as part of the RAF and Tornado’s on-going support to ISAF in the transition process.”
Editor: Flt Lt Peakman
Photographs: Cpl Robinson
904 EAW, TorDet GCAS
RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2013