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Whither the F3? looks at the Royal Air Force’s fighter force, now a mere shadow of its former self.


Developed from the Panavia Tornado GR1, the Air Defence Variant (ADV) Tornado began life as the radarless F2, introduced into service in 1985 with 229 OCU at RAF Coningsby. The F3, equipped with the Foxhunter radar, quickly replaced the F2 from a year later and would serve with eight front-line units (seven squadrons and 1435 Flight), replacing both the Phantom and Lightning in the air defence role. In all, 152 F3s were delivered, with 13 being lost through attrition. Key - Gary Parsons

A couple of years ago, UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans showed the Royal Air Force’s 43(F) Squadron disbanding in mid-2010 with the last unit, 111(F) Squadron, bringing the career of the Panavia Tornado F3 to an end in March 2011. But, in June 2009 it was announced that the fleet will be reduced from 36 to just 12 aircraft from the September, the remaining aircrews and aircraft solely tasked with manning Northern Quick Reaction Alert (I) (known as ‘Northern Q’) as a single squadron. It was a surprise to many – North East Fife MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: “These reports are surprising and have not been preceded with any advance warning to myself. It may well be that an opportunity is being taken to try and reduce the pressure on the already overstretched MoD budget.”

An MoD spokesman is reported as saying that “The decision was taken in order to rebalance our assets to ensure we continue to meet all our current commitments across all forces. There will be no change to the air defence of the United Kingdom – the Tornado F3 will continue to fly from RAF Leuchars and will maintain the northern quick reaction alert commitment at that station until its planned out-of-service date in 2011.” This decision adds extra pressure to the fledgling Typhoon force at Coningsby, which has been manning ‘Southern Q’ for the last 18 months and has recently taken on the tasking in the South Atlantic of defending the Falkland Islands. Although ‘Northern Q’ will still be supported by F3, other responsibilities will have to be shouldered by Typhoon, presumably including the RAF’s current fighter commitment to the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF), requiring 16 aircraft to be available at any one time and previously covered by the Leuchars squadrons.

Typhoon FGR4 of 1435 Flight in the Falkland Islands. Crown copyright/MoD
Nos. 3(F) and XI Squadrons at RAF Coningsby are manning six jets on permanent QRA in the UK and the Falkland Islands until the Leuchars Typhoon units reach a stage of maturity, not expected until 2012. Through the JRRF, the 2003 Defence White Paper expects the MoD to be able to mount an ‘enduring’ Medium Scale peace support Operation (e.g. Afghanistan) simultaneously with an ‘enduring’ Small Scale peace support Operation, and a one-off Small Scale intervention operation, at the same time maintaining its commitments such as QRA for UK airspace. The first of the units destined for Leuchars, 6 Squadron, is expected to form at Coningsby in mid-2010 with the objective of taking on QRA responsibilities at Leuchars by April 2011. It is expected that 43 and 111 Squadrons will later reform, bringing the total of front-line Typhoon squadrons to five.

The decision to accelerate retirement of the Tornado F3 is almost certainly, as Menzies Campbell suggests, one of a fiscal nature. Speculation has been rife for a long while that two squadrons of Tornado GR4s would be axed, but with the type replacing the Harrier in Afghanistan the previous Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, may have decided to sacrifice the F3 instead in early 2009. Although Typhoon was down to be deployed to Afghanistan in the ‘near future’, it is not considered mature enough for sustained deployment, hence the need to protect the GR4 fleet. Torpy’s more recent statements about abandoning the Harrier force may also have been somewhat of a bluff, with the accelerated drawdown of the F3 being seen by many as a much less painful option in the short-term. QRA is especially resource consuming – just to maintain two jets on constant alert requires a fleet of 12, as the recent statement highlights. Crew rotation, rest periods and maintaining currency are the primary concerns, rather than the number of aircraft available, although with a type at the end of its useful life, supply chains will still have to be maintained.

Exit 'stage right' for the F3? Key - Gary Parsons
The Defence White Paper of 2003 concluded: “Given the reduced air threat to deployed forces, the ability to deploy 16 air defence fighter aircraft within (an) expeditionary task group will be necessary. Taking into consideration Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) tasks, a front line force of 55 crews will be required.” With an average of 16 pilots per squadron, it is not difficult to see that in 2010 the numbers do not quite add up – the South Atlantic tasking is particularly challenging, as crews cannot be readily replaced in times of sickness. With Russian military aircraft increasingly venturing into NATO’s Air Policing Area, for which the United Kingdom has responsibility, the Tornados are guaranteed to be busy for the next year – if Putin decides to test Britain’s alert status with an increase in expeditionary flights, the RAF could find itself overstretched at home, rather than just overseas.

But with the MoD budget under severe duress, and the publication of the Haddon-Cave report into the crash of Nimrod XV230 raising severe questions about the RAF’s airworthiness standards, money may be required sooner, rather than later. Retirement before the Leuchars Typhoon squadrons are ready is possible, but would place an enormous strain on the Coningsby units.

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Ian Smith Watson said on the 16-Jan-2010 at 03:54

I fully agree with Gary's comments above. National finances in a parlous state aside, there has been far to much tunnel vision on the Army's role in Afghanistan. Important as this undoubtedly is, Afghanistan style operations are not necessarily how military operations in the long term future will be typified. The likelihood of a resurgent Russian hegemony together with difficult to predict future military threats from China, Iran etc, remain a cause for greater concern than there appears to be at present.

Rodney Hill said on the 17-Jan-2010 at 15:41

Merge properly the RAF and the Royal Navyair/helicopter operations---RAF & Marine Corps?

Ian Smith Watson said on the 17-Jan-2010 at 18:51

Agreed on the Helicopter front but not the Fast Jet operation. This is the R.A.F's primary roled air to air and air to ground combat operations.

Michael Leek said on the 20-Jan-2010 at 13:15

As mentioned in the thread; Talking point – UK defence: what would you do?, the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review will be, yet again, an example of short-term thinking on the part of the politicians and, increassingly, on the part of the three defence chiefs of staff. The early retirement of the Jaguar, the F3 and, so far, one squadron of Harriers, is a classic example of defence thinking over the past four decades.

I'm not niave. I recognise the need for cost savings in the UK's three armed services, but I do dispair that the 'hidden' areas of the MoD are not being closely examined. I read recently that there are more Group Captains in the RAF now than there were during the Second World War (yet conversely engineering managemt at Kinloss was devolved from a Group Captain to a Squadron Leader, thereby reducing the level of authority to address senior NCO concerns about Nimrod maintenance). Furthermore, recent reaserch has suggested, or confimed, that for EVERY serviceman and woman there are THREE civilians employed by the MoD and its subsidaries.

The Typhoon, as Gary states above, is still not mature enough for a dedicated ground attack role (or, to use current jargon, a 'multi-role' application - probably being used to convince the public that the Typhoon was designed as flexible a platform as the Tornado MRCA was, and is). The fact that the boss of one squadron of Typhoons was reprimanded for publically stating, on his return from training in the USA, that the aircraft was ready for deployment to Afghanistan is evidence that the lack of maturity is a very real one. Regardless of the hype, I believe much of this is to do with the fact that the Typhoon was never ever considered for a ground attack role. (It is interesting to note that when pressed on the subject, fast jet aircrew are very relucant to give an opinion on the subject.)

I'm not convinced that Typhoon is 100% proven in its designed air superioty role, let alone a ground attack one, so axing the F3 as early as they have seems ludicrous.

And, again as Gary states above, why are the politicians and chiefs of defence staff ignoring what is happening in Russia? It's no secret that Putin, et al, are increasing defence spending to up-date all three of Russia's armed services, particularly its navy and air force. I find it incredible - and extremely frustrating - that supposedly intelligent, foreword thinking individuals are arriving at such short term, narrow-minded decisions, with little evidence of them having taken cognisance of recent history.

Gary's concluding sentence, Retirement (of the F3) before the Leuchars Typhoon squadrons are ready is possible, but would place an enormous strain on the Coningsby units, poses the question; could/can Coningsby cope?

Michael Leek said on the 26-Jan-2010 at 01:55

Some further observations and food-for-thought in respect of the RAFs fast jet fleet vis-a-vis current and future defence requirements;

1. The Tornado is the resuilt of a government decision to cancel a UK-designed, RAF requirement for a high-low multi-role aircaft (the TSR2). The cancellation of the TSR2 was political and had NOTHING to do with defence, be it then, now or the perceived future. It also ended - forever - the UK's ability to design and build an indigenous military aircraft that met an RAF requirement that, if still in service today, would stilll probably out-perform most comtemporay aircraft in a like-for-like role. It shames the UK when 'lesser' countries such as France and Sweden, are still able t,o produce their own indigenous military aircraft - and who suceed in an increasingly competitive overseas market.
2. The Typhoon was designed as a high altitude air superioty fighter in a Cold War environment. It was NEVER intended by its original designers - or clients - to fulfill a ground attack role. It is therefore a political cost saving development.
3. The JSF reflects the UK's inability to design, build and fund a realistic ground attack platform that meets a need not fulfilled since the ill-conceived retirement of the Jaguar and its predecessors (not the least the short-termism, yet albeit successful, conversion of the Buccaneer to land-based operations). An example of political expendiency over long term defence needs.
3. The Tornado F3 was a unique UK 'solution' to an air defence requirement that could not be met by anything else because the politicians had destroyed the UK's militrary aircraft industry and were, furthermore, reluctant to invest in a more suitable and appropriate, fit-for-use platform.

The net result of the above is a fast jet force that, no doubt, the CAS, and others, will defend and try to protect in the forthcoming Strategic Defence Review because the RAF - and the UK - will have no suitable and appropriate alternatives, Short term thinking has denied the UK the opportunity to have what the UK - and the RAF - really need.

And none of the above will improve if, at the general election, the Conservatives are elected. History tells us that the Conservatives are probably the 'best' at implementing extreme defence cuts! And with Labour no better, what will the future defence needs of the UK in a global senario be like in five or ten years time...?

The above may be a rhetorical question at present, but it doesn't bode well for the future...

Michael Leek said on the 26-Jan-2010 at 18:13

Forgot to mention the final straw: the F35. A platform that loses one of its key strengths - its stealth capability - when required to carry a more realistic and useful payload, because the internal stowage is inadequate. And then there's the inadequate fuel capacity and the fact that for the duration of its service life - upwards of 30+ years - the RAF will be tied to the US because the RAF won't have access to all software codes. Whoever agreed to buy with this condition attached should have his head examined.

Paul Harvey said on the 14-Feb-2010 at 11:47

The issue, as I see it, is the RAF's lack of multi role combat aircraft. The RAF is finding it very difficult to rationalise its fleet as it operates a large number of single role types.

Had the RAF gone for a multi-role Tornado 2000 type instead of the separate GR and F models, radar equipped Jaguars and radar equipped AV-8B+ type Harriers they would be in a position to cut numbers of aircraft and squadrons without the same dramatic reduction in capability you are seeing now.

On top of this how many export contracts did the UK miss out on because of the lack of multi-role capability in its products? A multi-role EE Lightning would have blitzed the Mirage III in export markets as would a Blue Fox equipped Jaguar have left the F-5E for dead.

How much better off would you guys be had the RAF ordered the multi-role platforms they and the rest of the world needed and was prepared to pay for?

mark said on the 21-Apr-2010 at 16:42

Paul, when these aircraft types entered service (1970's for Jag, late 80's for Harrier 2)the cold war defence budget was large enough for a mix of aircraft types for the RAF. I'm not sure of the benefits of a Blue Fox Jag, the radar was of little use in ground attack modes and only had limited a2a capability and the jag airframe (by design) is of little use in air defence. Likewise the Lightning, which could carry a2g weapons on 2 wing pylons, was limited by short range and no A2G radar. A multi/swing role Tornado would have only been viable in more recent years with GPS bombs/targeting pods etc matched to the F3 airframe. Indeed the RAF did upgrade a small number of F3s to enable them to carry ALARM just before Op Telic1, they were not used. I think it's a shame this mod couldn't have been taken a step further adding paveway etc and creating a true multi role aircraft. However, this would have raised the question on the need for the RAF's newest swing-role fighter, Typhoon.
Michael, i'm not sure where you are getting your info from but it is wrong. The Mod employs approx 85,000 civilians and 185,000 servicemen. I have no doubt that some of these civilan posts could be removed and few would notice, but are you aware of the work carried out by civilian Mod workers? For example 7500 are armed/unarmed Police and guards protecting the Mod estate. Thousands more work in the supply chain,signals,Met office,drivers,fire-sevice, training etc etc. Indeed there are many Mod civilian scientists/engineers who would have been working hard in recent years on UOR equipment for Iraq/Afghanistan. Just one example being the upgrades to Sea King helicopters to enable operations in hot and high conditions.

Michael Leek said on the 21-Apr-2010 at 17:53

Mark: the figures of three-to-one in respect of civies to service personnel was cited from BBC Radio 4, a report in the Daily Telegraph and somewhere on the web. The civies were not necessarily direct MoD employees. The point is not so much the numbers themselves (which I acknowledge may not be 100 accurate), but the imbalance. And this imbalance wouldn't be such an issue if there wasn't, year-on-year for the past two decades at least, such gross incomptence in the MoD.

You cite an example: 7,500 MoD police guarding MoD estate. Why then do we also need service police doing exactly the same job, particularly at RAF bases (the RN operate diffently and the army frequently do their own policing)? My experience of MoD police at the former RN base at Portland, Dorset, would suggest that we certainly don't need 7,500 of them! The incomptence shown at Portland was something else...

As for the number of serving Group Captains compared to the number in WWII, this anomaly is recognised by those in the lower levels of the RAF itself - especially below Wing Commander rank...!

Peter Bezemer said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 10:38

It's all politics and money. The Nimrod for example is an essentian plane, even in peacetime. And airsuperiority is also very important.
It worries me that many countries convert their armies to 'afghan war' armies, they may not be able to take on future wars.
Another thing is the fact that the UK cannot deploy a big number of fast jets to the falklands until they have their harrier replacement.
Remember the phrase "we have peace for our time", it may turn out not to be so..

Ian Smith Watson said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 11:36

Absolutely Peter, someone posted elsewhere that when 43 and 56 sqns stood down we didn't get invaded. That's not the point. Its what may happen several years down the road and round the corner if we continue with the present trend.

Peter Bezemer said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 11:38

So, my advise would be, at least don't scrap the planes, but store them, just like in the USA.

mike yates said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 16:31

Its o.k. storing aircraft but when the times come that they might be needed, who is going to fly them. In the last three years, the RAF has lost 150 Jaguars, 80 Harriers and about the same number of F3`s. Some pilots went on to be Gr4 drivers but where are all the rest, where are the 10 Nimrod crews and the 25 Hercules crews, and the other Nimrod MR2 crews lost from early this year, All of these have been needed until now. I make this shortfall over 350 frontline aircraft missing, without replacement since 2007. Where have the pilots gone, you cannot store them.

The very wars we are engaged in in the middle east scream out for Jaguars and Harrier CAS aircraft and now we have none. Typhoon is too sophisticated for this role, and really Tornado is all we have left, doing a stirling job by the way, but I`d like to see them complimented by Hawks to ease the workload a bit, but chopping aircraft types to only 2 is not clear thinking. It restricts the RAF capability through money saving measures.

Ian Smith Watson said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 16:41

Well said Mike!


Peter Bezemer said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 16:41

you have a good point there, you can't store pilots...

I think it's important to have a Hi-Lo mix of planes, like the UK had a mix of Tornadoes, Jags and Harriers. With only Typhoon and Lightning II in the future, deploying planes to, for eample Afghanistan, will mean you're sending planes that are also needed for the UK's own airdefense, multi-role also has a price.
And having 100 Typhoons does't mean 100 combat-ready available planes. And I heard that the UK has ordered the least spare parts of all 4 Typhoon partners...

mike yates said on the 12-Aug-2010 at 22:46

We seem to have a reasonable amount of Fast Jets although by the time F35c gets here the Tornado fleet will have been depleted and I think the Tornado`s left airworthy will fill the space left by the Harrier being cut, in the CAS role. Not ideal, but better than nothing till a medium ground attack is sought from somewhere. I`d like to see Tornado`s in a more Electronic Warfare role rather than cut earlier than the out of service date that is being considered now by the MoD.

Mike Yates said on the 15-Oct-2010 at 21:21

At the beginning of the typhoon idea Bae had already designed a supersonic cranked delta fighter,most of which has gone into the typhoon.
Bae were heavily involved with the Gripen. Two world class aircraft..The fact is , successive governments will not pay for them. We should have our own fast jet fighter,just for the R.A.F.and a ground attack built on the same airframe... Multirole is just too much of a compromise which neuters the speed and agility of the fighter and lessens the effecti of the ground attack capability.

Paul Harvey said on the 16-Oct-2010 at 11:24

The RAF could and should have had a couple of squadrons of BAE EAP in service by the late 80's early 90's. It was achievable but the UK seems to have lost the confidence to go it alone at that point in history.

Mike Yates said on the 16-Oct-2010 at 21:12

If the U.K. (Government) keep making these wrong decisions, going it alone will not be an option. Jaguar for instance would have been perfect for Afghanistan, I mean we are only shouting at the enemy, the "show of force" we keep hearing about, but the (Government) phased it out at the very time it was needed. We could send the Hawk to do the "shouting" at a much cheaper cost. Just a thought! The Tornado seems to have always been that compromise, in the wrong war at the wrong time, never nimble enough in air to air, not enough bang for your ground attack buck, so lets just keep a few of them in their original role of long range interdiction and patrol

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