RAF Tornado squadron to stay in service until March 2017
The RAF Tornado squadron spearheading Britain's air campaign against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq has been given a second stay of execution.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has announced that 12 (Bomber) Squadron will continue in service for a further year until March 2017.
The squadron of Tornado GR4 fighter bombers - previously designated 2 Squadron - had originally been due to be disbanded last March and replaced with a squadron of Typhoon air defence fighters.
But following the launch of airstrikes against IS last September, David Cameron announced they would carry on for an additional 12 months so they could continue in their specialist ground-attack role.
Speaking during a visit to Baghdad, Mr Fallon said the second extension would ensure the RAF retained "the essential precision firepower, intelligence and surveillance" capabilities needed for operations against IS, also known as Isil.
"RAF Tornados have carried out hundreds of strikes, helping Iraqi forces push back Isil from the Kurdish region and out of key towns such as Tikrit and Bayji," he said.
"We want to ensure we maintain this crucial operational tempo and so we will extend the lifetime of Number 12 Squadron for a further year to March 2017.
"This will allow us to sustain our effort, helping the Iraqis lead the fight on the ground."
The decision was welcomed by the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford.
"It is clear that the requirement for fast jet precision strike and intelligence gathering shows no sign of diminishing," he said.
The move comes after the head of the armed forces General Sir Nicholas Houghton warned last month that the RAF was operating at "the very limits of fast jet availability and capacity".
The GR4s, operating out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, are equipped with precision-guided Paveway bombs and Brimstone missiles.
They can also be fitted with Raptor reconnaissance pods for carrying out surveillance and intelligence gathering missions.
Together with the RAF's unmanned Reaper drones, also operating in the region, they have flown more than 1,100 combat missions over Iraq and carried out more than 250 air strikes.
During his visit to Baghdad, Mr Fallon held talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other senior Iraqi government figures.
Addressing potential strikes on Syria, Mr Fallon told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's not the number of aircraft, it's where they are and what the rest of the coalition - and there are some 16 other countries involved in strikes against Isil - would welcome is certainly the participation of Tornado in strikes against Isil headquarters in northern Syria.
"But to do that obviously we need the authority of Parliament, we have a new Parliament now, and at some point I think the new Parliament will have to reflect on the illogicality of our planes turning back, if you like, at the border while other countries fly on to deal with Isil's headquarters."
Mr Fallon welcomed Turkish airstrikes against IS and called for them to do more, including sealing the border to stop foreign fighters entering Syria and allowing greater use of Turkish airbases and airspace.