Air troops join biggest UK force since Gulf War

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The Independent Online

Britain is sending a combat force of 127 aircraft – one third of the RAF – to the Middle East in its latest and most potent signal that war with Iraq is just weeks away.

Britain is sending a combat force of 127 aircraft – one third of the RAF – to the Middle East in its latest and most potent signal that war with Iraq is just weeks away.

The deployment will raise the strength of the British task force being sent to the region to 43,000, 2,000 fewer than the level in the first Gulf War.

The air contingent will consist of 100 fixed-wing jets, 27 helicopters and about 8,000 RAF personnel. The numbers are likely to increase as British and American commanders work out their final battle plans.

Announcing the dispatch of the force, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, gave the strongest hint yet that MPs would not be given a vote on taking part in military action. He was jeered by Labour backbenchers when he warned MPs against "insistence" on a vote before any action began. Retaining the element of surprise in any military operation was "vitally important". To warn Saddam Hussein of Britain's plans would not be sensible, he said.

The Ministry of Defence announced that Air Marshal Brian Burridge would be in overall command of the task force, with Rear Admiral David Snelson, Major General Robin Brims and Air Vice-Marshal Glenn Torpy in charge of the sea, land and air contingents.

The cutting edge of the RAF force will be provided by 75 Tornado F-3, Tornado GR-4 and Harrier GR-7 fighters and fighter-bombers, using "smart" weapons including "enhanced" 1,000lb laser-guided Paveway bombs. They will be supported by Jaguar and Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, Hercules transporters and VC10s.

Negotiations are believed to be under way with Turkey to base some of the planes at Incirlik. The Turkish government faces intense opposition at home to letting the country be used as a launch-pad for an attack on Iraq and, according to a senior diplomatic source, "it would not be advisable to reveal Britain wants to station a large number of warplanes there".

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