No end in sight as RAF marks 100 days over Libya

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It is now 100 days since the bombing raids over Libya began.

It is a war that is projected to cost the UK £260m over six months.

And with the mission authorised to continue for another 90 days, no-one can yet work out the long-term impact on the UK's stretched armed forces, yet alone how and when it will all end.

The second most senior officer in the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, has already warned of the strain on personnel and resources - echoing the concerns of the first Sea Lord, Sir Mark Stanhope, who has spoken out for the Royal Navy.

The government's defence cuts have made their job harder.

At Trapani, in Sicily, you get a real sense of the challenge.

This is where the RAF is carrying out support missions for the ambitious Nato operation.

Under a hot sun, and in stifling heat, ground crews work hard to maintain planes that are now almost half a century old.

'Make do and mend'

The venerable VC10 is still an RAF stalwart, but they stopped making spare parts for it a long time ago.

Facts about the VC10

  • Developed and built by Vickers-Armstrong in the 1960s as a passenger jet
  • First flight June 1962
  • Holds record as fastest sub-sonic passenger jet to cross Atlantic
  • Converted as RAF air-to-air refueller in late 1970s. Also used as troop and cargo transporter
  • Fleet of 13 currently involved in operations over Libya, Afghanistan, the Falklands and UK
  • Crew of four - pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer
  • Burns 7.5 tonnes of fuel an hour
  • Speed while carrying out refuelling around 300mph
  • Average time it takes to refuel a fast jet is six minutes
  • Each RAF VC10 has flown 38,000 flying hours
  • Due to be phased out of service 2015
  • Being replaced by Airbus 330

There still appears to be the old wartime spirit of "make do and mend".

The RAF's fleet of 13 VC10s are currently in service over Afghanistan, the UK and the Falklands.

Now three of them are having to meet the demands of the new frontline over Libya - two of them flying out of Trapani, the other from Cyprus.

A jack-of-all trades, the plane can carry cargo and passengers.

For Libya, its role is as a petrol pump in the sky, supplying the fuel for British and other Nato warplanes as they mount bombing missions against Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

It is just one of a number of tankers now refuelling up to 100 fast jets every day.

Without them this mission would be impossible to accomplish.

The pilot and flight captain - known simply as Gates - explains the complexity of the situation.

It becomes apparent as he choreographs planes queuing up to refuel and as he listens to the directions of British, French, Italian, Canadian and American aircrews over the airwaves.

'High tempo'

He says it is a "very high tempo, dynamic and reactive situation".

Put simply, without aircraft like the VC10, Nato jets would not be able to stay in the air long enough to mount search-and-destroy operations.

Gates says: "We are giving the fuel they need to prosecute the attack, without it, all they'd be is a visitor rather than an attacker."

Start Quote

It's a task to keep any number of deployed operations running and we're obviously stretched in doing that”

End Quote Wing Commander Bob Sutton

For the members of 101 Squadron, while their aircraft may be getting on, there is still no sign of mission fatigue - at least not yet.

The Navigator and detachment commander, Cat, says: "I love the job I'm doing and I love the aircraft."

She says it is rewarding to do a mission they been trained to do.

By the time she has finished punching the numbers into her pink calculator to work out how much fuel they can give away while making sure they have enough to return back to base, this VC10 will have refuelled six different jets.

Back on the base, Wing Commander Rob Sutton is more ready to admit the strains on service.

'We are stretched'

He avoids getting caught in any political controversy but notes: "It's a task to keep any number of deployed operations running and we're obviously stretched in doing that."

But he insists that his team in Trapani has the ability to sustain the current mission.

So far Nato warplanes have carried out almost 5,000 strike missions and dropped around 5,000 bombs.

The overall commander of Nato, Canada's Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, believes the alliance has already destroyed Col Gaddafi's ability to conduct offensive operations.

But even he will not make a guess as to how long this mission will take and when it will all be over.

And in the meantime the first cracks in the alliance have already started to appear.

Italy's foreign minister has called for a temporary halt to the bombing campaign to avoid civilian casualties.

Nato members have warned of the strain on their military resources. The clock is not just ticking for Col Gaddafi.

Correction July 27 2011: An earlier version of this story suggested the cost of the conflict was £250m over a three-month period. We regret the mistake.

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