Dispensable? RAF's contribution has never been more vital

In Afghanistan, the need for the RAF is plain, says the man who runs Kandahar airfield
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The Independent Online

Claims that the RAF is living on its history and has no part in modern warfare produces wry smiles among those serving in Kandahar, one of the most violent parts of Afghanistan. When a team of suicide bombers charged the main air base it was the RAF Regiment which repelled the attack.

Group Captain Ash Bennett, whose men from 5 Force Protection Wing guard the airfield, said: "This was quite an extreme attack, but this is not the first time we have been hit and it will not be the last.

"We have an area outside the base where we provide security, and we have taken some losses, but overall I think we are bringing stability. Yes, it is the case that the RAF has a role on the ground, although not many people may know this."

The more traditional role of the RAF is in flying Tornados as part of the dozens of Nato aircraft which patrol the skies, providing air cover for operations on the ground as well as surveillance information on IEDs (improvised explosive devices) being planted by the Taliban and taking a lethal toll of British lives.

Air Commodore Gordon Moulds, of the RAF, in charge of Kandahar airfield, which now has the busiest runways in the world, said: "If you look at the terrain of Afghanistan you can see how strategic air is essential. This base has increased in size, six, seven times.

"The next six months are critical to the success of this mission and what the air assets do will be pretty important in that."

However, air strikes have also led to civilian casualties which had led to protests from Afghan civilians as well as President Hamid Karzai.

Air Commodore Moulds said that safety precautions brought in by General Stanley McChrystal, the US officer who formerly commanded Nato forces, and his successor, General David Petraeus, were "essential ... If we kill or injure civilians it gives more support to the Taliban, and not taking enough precautions is plainly the wrong thing to do, it's as simple as that. That is the reason we are putting so much emphasis on surveillance from air."

Air Commodore Moulds and his colleagues hear reports of what the Strategic Defence and Security Review may cut. "Not sure whether I'll have a job when I get back," he laughs.

"I think good sense will prevail. My concern is wider than air, I can see the need for carriers and air and the Army, and all they have been doing is salami slicing and that's been going on for too long.

"I understand that we are in a very difficult financial situation and people have to make sacrifices and it is unlikely to come much from things like the health service.

"But defence is our insurance for providing the security which allows our country to function and provide services like health and education."

"But really, I am not worried of being shortchanged by UK plc. I think good sense will prevail. I think we are a force for good in the world, and unless we have the instruments to do that good we will slip further and further in the coat-tails of America."