Wednesday, July 31st 2002 - 21:00 UTC

RAF Falklands expertise in US Mid-East role

Famous as the RAF unit providing a transport life-line from the United Kingdom to the Falkland Islands via Ascension Island for nearly 20 years, Number 216 Squadron based at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, is now engaged on military operations in the Middle East providing unique support to the United States Navy.

Though it is the most powerful military nation in the world, the United States has to rely on Royal Air Force expertise and experience gained in defence and supply of the Falkland Islands to service United States Navy planes flying long-range missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The United States does not have the capability to refuel its own carrier-based navy planes on long-range missions. So the RAF provides and flies the long-range tankers to carry out this vital task.

This was exclusively revealed in interviews with Mercopress at Brize Norton, where RAF officers said: "Our major commitment other than the Falkland Islands is in air-to-air refuelling in the Middle East in support of British Tornadoes and US Navy F14s. We have at present a bigger commitment in the Middle East where we have more crews living permanently for air-to-air refuelling".

They explained that the American Air Force uses a rigid boom coming out of the tanker aircraft and steered onto the refuelled aircraft. But this is incompatible with their carrier-based navy aircraft, which need a floating hose system as used by the RAF. Normally, the US carrier short-range combat area can be supported by what they call "buddy-buddy" aircraft, an F14 refuelling an F14.

But flying two-thousand miles from a carrier in the Gulf for operations over Afghanistan requires long-range refuelling from large tankers with the floating hose system which the Americans do not have, but the RAF does because of its Falklands commitment.

On Falklands standby alert

For this it acquired big long-range strategic tanker aircraft -- six TriStars and one VC Ten. They are operated by Squadron ? Number 216, which maintains tanker aircraft on permanent quick ready alert in the Falklands to refuel the Tornado fighters if ever they have to go into combat to defend the islands.

It is a famous squadron which originated from a Royal Naval Air Squadron in the First World War. Its sinister motto, "Dona Ferens", meaning "Bearing Gifts", refers to its deadly initial role as a bomber unit.

By the Second World War it was exclusively a transport squadron supplying allied troops in the Middle East and Africa and dropping airborne troops in the Aegean. In 1955, it became the first squadron in the world to operate a jet-propelled military transport ? the de Havilland Comet. It was disbanded in 1980, but re-formed in 1983 after the Falklands Conflict.

Harold Briley, London

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