RAF warplanes have carried out their first sortie over Iraq since Parliament gave the green light for air strikes on Islamic State militants without finding any targets to attack.
Two RAF Tornado GR4 fighter bombers returned to their base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus at the end of a seven-hour mission with their weapons payload intact.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Although on this occasion no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft, the intelligence gathered by the Tornados’ highly sophisticated surveillance equipment will be invaluable to the Iraqi authorities and their coalition partners in developing the best possible understanding of Isil’s disposition and help acquire potential targets for future operations, either by aircraft or Iraqi ground forces.”
Ministers had cautioned not to expect a campaign of “shock and awe” and that after weeks of US air strikes in the area it could take time to identify new targets.
“We know that the very presence of coalition air power over Iraq has a significant impact on Isil’s efforts to attack the Iraqi people,” the MoD spokesman said.
“With no effective defence against air strikes, and knowing the precision with which coalition aircraft can hit them, the terrorists are forced to be much more cautious, keeping their forces dispersed and movement inhibited.
“They also know that should they concentrate to deliver an attack against Iraqi or Kurdish troops, aircraft are likely to arrive overhead very soon afterwards.”
The two Tornados which carried out the mission were supported by a Voyager air-to-air fuelling tanker.
The RAF has had six of the fighter bombers stationed at Akrotiri since mid August, but until Friday’s Commons vote they were restricted to reconnaissance flights.
While the failure to identify any suitable target may have seemed like an anti-climax after the drama at Westminster, David Cameron insisted the involvement of RAF combat aircraft showed Britain was there to “play our part” in the international coalition being assembled against IS
“We are one part of a large international coalition,” the Prime Minister said during a visit to Didcot, Oxfordshire, ahead of the Conservative Party conference.
“But the crucial part of that coalition is that it is led by the Iraqi government, the legitimate government of Iraq, and its security forces. We are there to play our part and help deal with this appalling terrorist organisation.”
Two British former senior military commanders have questioned the policy of isolated air attacks.
Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a former head of the UK military who stepped down as chief of the defence staff last year, told the Sunday Times that IS would not be defeated by air attacks alone and that a conventional campaign involving ground troops would be needed to crush them.
And Richard Williams, a former commanding officer of the SAS who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in the Independent on Sunday the deployment of RAF bombers was a “military sugar rush” that “risks looking fearful and half-cocked”.
Lord Richards said: “Ultimately you need a land army to achieve the objectives we’ve set ourselves - all air will do is destroy elements of Isis, it won’t achieve our strategic goal.
“The only way to defeat Isis is to take back land they are occupying which means a conventional military operation. The only way to do it effectively is to use western armies but I understand the political resistance.”
Lieutenant Colonel Williams said the sending in of RAF bombers had “taken on a military and political significance out of all proportion to their real military value”.
He wrote: “They provide us and our leaders, desperate to do something, with a military sugar rush, to be followed inevitably in six months’ time with the ‘war-downer’ reality that things are not going as we wish them to, and that the long-term costs of our involvement are escalating, in ways that will need to be explained, or hidden, during a general election.”
He also emphasised the need for a political solution in Iraq for the air raids to mean anything, saying: “Bombing that is not geared to an Iraqi political purpose will only create propaganda opportunities for IS, as it seeks to legitimise its hold over western Iraq.
“Six months of bombing raids will certainly hurt it militarily, forcing its over-extended and lightly-armed forces to give up some ground, but will be certain to strengthen it politically if fighting is all that the Iraqis see.
“As with all wars fought among a people in a country that is not our own, as in Helmand and Basra, we must get the politics right first, and the fighting has the chance of working. Get it wrong and we fail.”