UK stealth fighter jets on board the £3 billion warship HMS Queen Elizabeth will join the fight against the remnants of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the F35B Lightning fast jets will join Operation Shader from the Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) to “pack a potent punch” against IS, also known as Daesh.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston told the PA news agency he was in no doubt “violent extremism and the toxic ideology underpinning it is still rooted” in the region – adding: “I’m absolutely clear in my mind that what we are doing every day… is making the streets of the UK safer.”
The renowned “Dambusters” squadron, or 617 Squadron, is set to operate the jets to support the counter-IS operations in Iraq and Syria.
Eight RAF and 10 US Marine Corps F35B stealth fighter jets will be operating from on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will head for Asia accompanied by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine, 14 naval helicopters and a company of Royal Marines.
Speaking about the upcoming operation, Sir Mike told PA: “We’re going to conduct operations in support of the Government of Iraq, fighting the remnants of Daesh in Iraq and Syria – and continuing to take the fight to them in their sanctuary where otherwise they would be threatening the streets of the United Kingdom and our allies.
“It’s something that air power has been doing very effectively now since 2014 and the Royal Air Force has played a considerable part in that success.”
He continued: “Daesh is no longer the ground-holding force, the occupying force, that it was in 2015 and 2016.
“For the last two years we have been identifying pockets where they have dug in to strongholds in the mountains in remote areas, and have been helping the Government of Iraq to clear out those remnants.
“But I’m in no doubt that the violent extremism and the toxic ideology underpinning it is still rooted in that region.
“So we still have an important role and I’m absolutely clear in my mind that what we are doing every day – and I have a Typhoon squadron and other aircraft deployed already, and have done for many years – is making the streets of the UK safer by taking the fight to the violent extremists in their sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria.”
The F35B jets are multi-role combat aircraft equipped with advanced sensors, mission systems and stealth technology – enabling them to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.
Asked if he saw an end date in sight in the fight against IS, Sir Mike said: “I am hugely encouraged by the progress and the skill and sophistication of the Iraqi security forces
“Their ability to take full responsibility for the security of their sovereign territory is becoming stronger day by day.
“Ultimately that will be the point where the support of allies like the United Kingdom and the United States and others is no longer necessary.
“I wouldn’t like to put a date on it, but I have great faith in the progress the Iraqi forces are making.”