UK military action against brutal IS jihadists in Iraq is forcing defence chiefs to rethink their plans for RAF Lossiemouth.
The key role being played by Tornado jets in the operations means the future of the aircraft’s training squadron in Moray has been secured.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is understood to have been considering moving the XV (Reserve) Squadron from Lossiemouth to RAF Marham in Norfolk.
But any intention to transfer the unit has now been put on hold – meaning the region’s 21-year association with the aircraft will be extended.
It has also emerged that plans to upgrade the RAF’s Typhoon jets – which replaced the bulk of the Tornados at Lossiemouth this year – may be accelerated so they can help bomb IS targets in the future.
One expert told the Press and Journal it was only a matter of time before the Typhoons were involved in operations against the terror group.
The MoD insisted last night that there had never been any “formal plans” to move the Tornado training squadron to Marham.
However, defence author Tim Ripley said the switch had regularly been discussed in RAF circles, because the three other Tornado squadrons are all based there.
He said there had been a change of heart because the operations against IS had forced the MoD to shelve plans to disband one of the three units at Marham, meaning there is now not enough space at the base.
It is also understood that the squadron – which has 280 permanent personnel, and up to 40 students – will not be reduced in size because more pilots need to be trained to fly the Tornado GR4s for bombing raids against IS.
Mr Ripley said: “There’s a knock-on effect from the operations against ISIS.
“The Tornado training squadron was going to go to Marham some time in the next two years, but they are now going to keep it at Lossiemouth.
“When it was going to Marham it was going to be smaller because there was less requirement for pilots to be trained. But now they’ve decided to keep three Tornado squadrons there’s the issue of space, and they’ve got to train more pilots.”
MoD sources confirmed last night that XV (Reserve) Squadron would not be moving to Marham, but denied there had been “formal plans” for a transfer.
The RAF said in March that the squadron’s future was “yet to be decided”, but it would stay in Moray until “at least” 2015.
Asked if he expected the Typhoon jets to be involved in fighting IS, Mr Ripley said: “The answer to that is yes, it just depends on when.
“But the prime minister has used the phrase ‘years’ when speaking about the conflict.
“There is a state of flux in all of this as they work out what to do.”
The UK’s Tornado GR4s are the only fighters fitted with the highly accurate Brimstone weapon, which can hit moving vehicles.
The MoD is understood to have planned to fit them to the Typhoons by 2019 – the year that Tornados were due to be taken out of service – so they could take over such ground attack duties.
However, senior figures at the department are believed to be investigating ways to speed-up the process so they can be involved in the IS operations if necessary.
An MoD spokesman insisted no decisions had yet been taken.
Moray MP and SNP defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, said: “The RAF fast-jet fleet is in a period of significant transition.
“Arguably, the Tornado capability should not have been reduced, given their requirement for recent operations.
“All of this should act as a warning given the savage cuts that are pending by the coalition government.”
As part of the upgrade, Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth successfully released two live Paveway IV bombs – which have also been used by Tornado GR4s against IS – at the Cape Wrath range in the Highlands on November 25.
The jets have also recently taken on the role of responding to threats to UK air space, and have twice been scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft in recent weeks.
After last month’s Paveway test, Wing Commander Mike Sutton, of Lossiemouth’s 1(Fighter) Squadron, said the aircraft could perform more than one role.
He said: “The swing role capability of the Typhoon ensures that we are well equipped to respond to the challenges of contingent operations across the globe, while also maintaining the security of UK skies through the delivery of Quick Reaction Alert, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a year.”
An MoD spokeswoman said: “Whilst we constantly review our options, there are no plans to deploy Typhoons to Iraq as the GR4 provides the optimum capability for the operation.
“Although work is under way to evaluate the integration of Brimstone missiles with the Typhoon aircraft, no firm decisions have been made.”