Jon Lake reviews the career of the RAF’s Tornado GR.4 and look at its future evolution.
RAF STRIKE Command’s No.1 Group Tornado GR.4 force was the backbone of the UK’s contribution to Operation Telic, with 31 aircraft deploying to the Middle East, forming two Wings. These played a major role in the air war, providing capabilities the US Air Force lacked, and the aircraft won many new admirers. After years during which press coverage of the GR.4 upgrade had concentrated on the very high cost, delays and slippages, the GR.4 story was suddenly all about impressive capability and operational effectiveness, and this has continued to be the case since the end of the war. If anything, the ‘good news story’ has got even better, as the upgraded Tornados have continued to gain new capabilities.
As the Tornado GR.4 force built up (following service entry on April 28 1998) and as the older GR.1s were withdrawn, the new variant inevitably took over responsibility for Operation Resinate (South), providing the UK’s contribution to policing the no-fly zones in southern Iraq under UN resolution 688. The first Tornado GR.4 deployment under Operation Resinate was made by 12 Squadron in June 2001, delayed slightly by interface problems between the GR.4 and the TIALD (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) targeting pod. Under Operation Resinate, each Tornado squadron undertook a two-month tour of duty at Ali Al Salem AB in Kuwait, RAF Marham’s four squadrons sharing the commitment with Lossiemouth’s three front line units on an eight-to-six month ratio. The size of the detachment has fluctuated according to the situation in the Middle East, and had increased to 12 aircraft immediately before the Allied invasion of Iraq.
The Tornado unit at Ali Al Salem, home of the US Air Force’s 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, had 18 aircraft assigned, manned by IX(B) and 31 Squadrons, with elements from If (AC), XIII and 617 squadrons, and commanded by Group Captain Paddy Teakle. A similar wing based at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, home of the US Air Forces’ 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, had 12 aircraft assigned, manned by 12 Squadron, with elements from ll(AC) and 617 squadrons, commanded by Group Captain Mark Roberts. Only 14 Squadron and XV (Reserve) Squadron (the Tornado Operational Conversion Unit) were not involved.
In comparison with the Kosovo war (when the Tornado was limited to little more than delivering Laser-Guided Bombs, when weather conditions permitted, and when Tornado GR.4s flew only a couple of sorties), in Operation Telic the aircraft showed an impressive degree of versatility.
The initial Tornado GR.4 conversion provided ‘enabling’ systems for new capabilities, including MIL-STD-1553B and MIL-STD-1760 architecture to allow the easy integration of new weapons and systems, a fully Night Vision Googles (NVG)-compatible cockpit and a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infra Red) to improve night attack capability, a new pilot’s Multi Function Display, and a raster-capable (one that projects live video imagery) wide-angle Head Up Display (HUD) to allow the display of HUD imagery, a Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS), a Laser Inertial Navigation System (LINS), and a Global Positioning System for improved navigational accuracy.
New or improved capabilities were added to the Tornado GR.4 via a series of ‘packages’, the early upgraded aircraft being retrofitted to bring them to the latest standard. Package One added compatibility with the Paveway III LGB and TIALD 400 laser designator pod, and a new six-channel Video Recording System for better recording and debriefing of sorties. Package Two added Storm Shadow, ALARM (Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missile) on the stub pylons, RAPTOR (on the GR.4A) and Brimstone. By the time the Tornado GR.4 went to war in early 2003, aircraft were to a partial Package Two standard, without Storm Shadow and Brimstone. Storm Shadow had not been due to enter service until late 2003, although No.617 Squadron had been involved in trials and limited training flying with inert Storm Shadow rounds. The missile was rushed into service early under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR), providing a hard penetration capability the US Air Force lacked.
As a result, 617 Squadron was able to fly ‘an historic first mission’ on the 60th anniversary of its formation. A pair of aircraft, flown by Sqn Ldr ‘Noddy’ Knowles with navigator Fit Lt Andy Turk, and by Sdn Ldr Andy Myers with navigator Gp Capt Simon Dobb, hit their intended targets with pinpoint accuracy and at the exact planned Time on Target. The Tornado force went on to fire 27 Storm Shadows (all that were available!) with great success. The accuracy and selective destructiveness of the weapon posed its own problems, its ability to punch through the same hole, making battle damage assessment more difficult. While other weapons would destroy an entire city block, Storm Shadow would leave a hardened building externally intact but internally devastated. Full integration of Storm Shadow has proved more difficult and time-consuming than anticipated, but the weapon is expected to be in full operational service by the end of 2005.
The RAF would have liked to have had Brimstone anti-armour air-to-ground missiles available, and looked at the feasibility of accelerating the programme. However, it soon became clear that it would be impossible to progress Brimstone sufficiently fast to be able to use it in theatre. Had it been available, the RAF would have dropped fewer cluster bombs.
In the event, Brimstone entered service with 31 Squadron in March 2005 — after a squadron aircraft loaded with the weapons had made a flypast of the Defence Logistics Organisation Pavilions at RAF Wyton, Cambridgeshire on January 13!
Perhaps the most important weapon available during Operation Telic was the Enhanced Paveway II and the Paveway III, some 360 of which were dropped by RAF aircraft during Telic, most of them by Tornados. Known as the Interim Precision Guided Bomb (IPGB), the Enhanced Paveway (EPW) was originally integrated under an Urgent Operational Requirement issued as a result of problems the RAF encountered during the Kosovo War when bad weather (when a target was obscured by cloud) meant that many bombs could not be dropped. Adding the option of GPS guidance gave the RAF the ability to bomb in any weather, or when a target was obscured by smoke or dust. Formal clearance for the use of Enhanced Paveway was achieved in October 2001, and the weapon was deployed on Operation Resinate South at Ali Al Salem from April 2002. The RAF also dropped 255 Paveway II and Paveway III LGBs during Telic, many of them inert, concrete training rounds fitted with operational guidance kits. This effectively produced a weapon with enormous kinetic effect but which produced no collateral damage, and was a useful makeshift alternative to smaller, purpose-designed low collateral damage weapons. The Tornados also dropped some 130-140 ‘other’ weapons, most of them CBUs (Cluster Bomb Units), and fired around 45 ALARM anti radar missiles.
Telic underlined a need for more targeting pods, with the realisation that every aircraft operating in a Close Air Support (CAS) environment or Kill-box Interdiction environment should ideally have its own targeting pod so that the crew could autonomously identify and engage targets. With increasing stand-off weapons ranges, the Tornado GR.4 will need targeting pods which can identify targets at greater stand-off ranges, and a competition is underway to provide a new Laser Designator Pod for the Tornado: AN/AAQ-28 Litening 3 and AN/ASO-228 ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infra-Red) are the leading contenders.
Some 26 of the 142 upgraded Tornados are reconnaissance aircraft, and are designated as GR.4As. Four of the RAF’s eight Raptor pods were used operationally during Operation Telic, ahead of the pod’s official acceptance into squadron service. These provided a formidable long-range reconnaissance capability, and allowed imagery to be data-linked back to a ground facility to allow real-time analysis to take place. The Raptor has proved trouble-prone, however, and while the infra-red system works well, Electro Optical (EO) performance has been patchy. The reconnaissance Tornado’s original TIRRS (Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System) is no longer supported (the equipment remains in situ but is not used), so that recce Tornados now place heavy reliance on the Joint Reconnaissance Pod (JRP), also known as the EO GP-1 pod, which was originally procured for the Jaguar as the JRRP (Jaguar Replacement Reconnaissance Pod).
Other recce Tornados flew low-level Scud-hunting missions during Telic, using TIALD to search for targets, and TIRRS (with its narrower field of view) to identify them. The novel use of TIALD at low level became the backbone of the Tornado’s ‘Time Sensitive Targeting’ tactics.
One Tornado GR.4 was lost during Telic with the loss of the aircrew, shot down in error by a US Patriot missile whilst returning from a sortie over Iraq on March 22, 2003. This highlighted the need for improved IFF equipment, though integration of a Successor Identification Friend or Foe (SIFF) is already planned.
The Road Ahead
Further upgrades to the GR.4 are already underway, including an upgrade to the main computer. BAE Systems won a contract to increase the computer’s processing power in 2001 with an initial Ada 95 computer language software release planned for September 2004. A Covert Radar Altimeter (CRA) is due to enter service in December 2005, and the aircraft is now the lead type for the testing and introduction of the Rangeless Airborne Instrumentation And Debriefing System (RAIDS). This will allow air combat data to be recorded without the need for an instrumented range, and will provide a makeshift ‘intraflight data link» capability. The aircraft will also receive an £82 million cockpit upgrade, with an Astronautics Pilot Multi-Function Display (PMFD) integrated with the TARDIS (Tornado Advanced Radar Display and Information System) — a new radar and navigator’s map processor. This was installed from July 2004 to meet an in-service date of August 2006. During the same year, Tornado GR.4s are expected to introduce the JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information and Distribution System) data link. A tactical information exchange capability programme is set to determine how the aircraft’s effectiveness can be improved by enhancing its networking capability.
The Tornado GR.4 is also expected to receive a new Modular Defensive Aids Systems (MoDAS): an assessment of this requirement was completed in July 2004. Further upgrades may include new electronic warfare countermeasures and self-protection capabilities, perhaps including a digital missile warning system, and a towed radar decoy.
It is still impossible to predict exactly when the Tornado GR.4 will be retired, since the type’s out-of-service date is slipping further and further into the future. It was once expected to give way to a Future Offensive Aircraft (FOA) from 2015 but both the programme and the subsequent Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) Integrated Project Team have been disbanded and a UAV/UCAV programme is beginning to emerge. Many believe that some of the RAF’s planned 232 Typhoons (perhaps the as-yet-unsigned-for Tranche 3 aircraft) might be re-configured to replace the Tornado GR.4 in the offensive role. The timescales would fit, and with conformal fuel tanks Typhoon would be a good match for the requirement, especially if procured in two-seat form.
The most pressing problem will be to ensure that the Tornado GR.4 can remain in service until its eventual out-of-service date. The airframe was originally designed for a service life of only 4,000 flying hours, although it has been calculated that it will need to clock up to 8,000 hours to reach its eventual out-of-service date. BAE Systems is working to provide the necessary life extensions, and has so far cleared the type up to 5,000 hours. The current fleet leader has already amassed more than 4,600 hours. At one time it was planned to retain low-houred Tornado GR.Is, converted to an interim ‘IDS-2000′ standard, equipped to ’emulate’ the GR.4’s systems for training, thereby keeping hours and fatigue off the operational Tornado GR.4 fleet. The plan was abandoned, and some of the 32 Tornado GR.4s converted from dual-controlled Tornado GR.Is will shoulder the entire training burden.