MILITARY TORNADO ECR
Riccardo Niccoli reports on Italy’s Tornado fleet based at Ghedi Air Base, Lombardy
Following the transfer of 155° Gruppo (Squadron) from Piacenza Air Base, and the formal closure of 50° Stormo on September 14, 2016, the Aeronautica Militare Tornado fleet is consolidated at Ghedi Air Base, home of 6° Stormo ‘Diavoli Rossi’ (Red Devils) comprising three squadrons; 102°, 154° and 155° Gruppo, and commanded by Colonel Luca Maineri.
Rationalisation has provided advantages; optimal standardisation of flying procedures, harmonisation of the crews, and technical and logistical management of the fleet.
With 50-plus aircraft assigned, primarily in RET-7 and RET-8 configuration, and a few RET-6 examples trundling on until their service lives expire, the jets are either original IDS (Interdiction and Strike) or ECR (Electronic Combat Reconnaissance) models; the latter developed during the 1990s for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defence role. The final aircraft modified to RET-8 standard (an ECR) was delivered from Leonardo on July 5, 2018, the date marking conclusion of the Italian Tornado Mid-Life Update programme.
Nevertheless, further improvements continue, for example, during 2019 work to replace the emitter locator system on ECR models with the new digital version commenced.
Tornado IDS and ECR models feature substantially different avionics and armament, each requiring different maintenance schedules.
Maintaining the fleet
Lieutenant Colonel Alessandro L, a Tornado navigator, is the current Gruppo Efficienza Aeromobili (GEA or maintenance squadron) commander said his unit is focussed on aircraft serviceability, routine and extraordinary inspections and maintenance. He said: “We undertake second level maintenance, in practice C1 inspections (every 150 hours), C2 (every 300 hours), D (every 600 hours) and E (every 1,200 hours). Based at Cameri, 1° RMV controls overall management of the fleet and undertakes third level maintenance comprising F inspections at 2,400 flying hours, and also D and E inspections when required.”
Managing the Tornado fleet is focussed on the number of flying hours requested and financed by the Air Force (around 5,000 hours in 2018). On this basis 1° RMV and GEA 6° Stormo phase utilisation of the aircraft as a function of the flying hours available for each machine and the requirements of the squadrons, which besides home-based training activities, have almost every month to support a deployment in Italy or abroad for exercises or dedicated training operations.
Consequently, an infinite series of engineering jobs are added to the overall annual maintenance programme which reflect the state of the fleet. In addition, a variety of factors can intervene, such as faults or technical problems identified during inspections, which results in an inevitable reshuffling of the cards.
Some problems with the Tornado fleet are inevitable given its 37 years of service despite the care and attention of the maintenance personnel and the update programmes. The fleet’s status is checked each week, which gives rise to the corrections required to the general inspection programme. The level of serviceability of the Tornado fleet is, however, more than satisfactory. All three squadrons have no difficulties in completing their respective flight programmes, which is in thanks to consolidation of the fleet at one single base along with all maintenance personnel; many of the engineers and technicians previously based at Piacenza were transferred to Ghedi.
Fleet retirement commenced in 2012 with the withdrawal at Cameri and Ghedi of the oldest and most used aircraft, none of which were due to be subjected to the MLU programme. For a more detailed discussion of the Tornado MLU, readers are directed to the article published in the October 2015 issue of AIR International.
One section of the GEA is the Sezione Armieri (armament section), which manages weapons and other payloads for the aircraft. Besides the introduction of new avionics systems, thanks to the MLU the Tornado now has a new series of weapons and systems which render the 1970s era aircraft effective in the most current of scenarios.
Beside traditional unguided free-fall Mk82, Mk83 and Mk84 bombs and retarded Mk82s (dubbed Snake eyes), Italian Tornados use precision-guided weapons; the 500lb Lizard, 1,000lb GBU-16 Paveway II, 2,000lb GBU-24 and the laser/GPS-guided EGBU-24 Paveway III, the Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-off missile, and the 1,000lb GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition, which had its baptism of fire during the Libyan conflict in 2011.
More recently other role-specific weapons have been integrated; the new Block I AGM-88E AARGM (Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile) Block I missile produced by American company Orbital ATK under a joint programme financed by the US Navy and the Aeronautica Militare.
The AARGM retains the engine and warhead, as well and the layout, dimension, weight, and centre of gravity of the previous AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile, but has a new guidance unit equipped with GPS/INS, and two new millimetre band radar sensors (one active and one passive) increase application and precision, given the AARGM is capable of passing more information to the mother ship and memorising the position of a threat, even if that threat has shut down its own radar system.
The AARGM development test phase started in 2003. After testing by Naval Air Systems Command was complete, the AGM-88E missile entered US Navy service in 2012. The Aeronautica Militare subsequently acquired its own AGM-88Es and conducted an operational evaluation on the dedicated electronic warfare range at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California as part of Blazing Shield 2018. This was staged between February and April 2018, involved four Tornado ECRs, four F-2000A Typhoons and a C-27J, and 220 military personnel from four different units.
National certification by ARMAEREO is being finalised such that initial operational capability for the AARGM should be achieved before the end of the year.
In March 2016, the GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb glide weapon weighing 250lb (110kg) with a precise GPS/INS guidance system entered service with the Aeronautica Militare Tornado fleet. The weapon has a CEP (Circular Error of Probability) of 5–8m (16-26ft), which can be further reduced by the SDB Accuracy Support Infrastructure update.
Four SDBs are normally carried on a single BRU-61/A rack, two of which can be carried on the Tornado’s under fuselage hard points giving a total payload of eight GBU-39/As. The SDB is the Aeronautica Militaire’s weapon of choice for strike scenarios that require higher precision and minimum damage to the target area. The American BRU-61/A rack can also be used to simulate the release of SDBs on training missions without the need to load inert weapons.
Other modern stores used by the Tornado include two targeting pods produced by Israeli company Rafael; the Litening III and the RecceLite II.
Litening III is one of the best such systems in use throughout the world, which in Italy is also used by the AMX and Typhoon fleets.
RecceLite II, introduced in 2017, acquires digital imagery (in the electro-optical and infrared spectrums) with real-time transmission of that imagery to one or more ground stations.
Finally, since February 2015, Aeronautica Militare Tornados use the new BOZ-102EC (Enhanced Capability) self-defence system, an evolution of the traditional BOZ-102 pod, which still remains in service to provided chaff capability.
The new EC model is dedicated to flare dispensation from three containers capable of launching the cartridges forward or to the side, and the aft section houses the missile warning system sensors. Atop the pod is a GPS antenna used to record the position of the aircraft whenever it dispenses flares.
However, having new systems and equipment is of little use if they are not correctly verified and integrated on the aircraft in an operationally representative environment undertaken during operational test and evaluation; an ever more necessary process due to the increasing complexity of such systems.
Blazing Shield 2018
Discussing the operational test and evaluation campaign, AIR International spoke with Major Alberto P (a pilot) and Major Salvatore O (a navigator) from 155° Gruppo, who were both involved in Blazing Shield 2018.
Major Alberto said: “In practice, the scope of the AARGM campaign was to gain a better understanding about the missile’s functionality and its integration with the Tornado ECR, which uses a different interface to the one used [for AARGM by the US Navy on the F/A-18 Super Hornet] during the development test phase, and fitted with different avionics. We were tasked to verify all the functions and performance of the missile, and to also evaluate its tactical use against all variety of threats present on the China Lake ranges.”
The AGM-88E is characterised by new sensors which are capable of capturing the emissions from hostile radars, and can transmit the acquired information to the aircraft, enabling the crew to operate with more precise and complete situational awareness.
Thanks to the integration of an INS/GPS guidance system, the AARGM can localise radar systems which have been shut down after their detection, thereby permitting the aircraft to launch a missile against a target that is shut down, an engagement not possible by the earlier AGM-88 HARM.
The China Lake complex includes two ranges equipped with a wide array of surface-to-air missile systems and offers the ability to fly lower than 250ft (75m) thanks to its desert location. Both aspects allow new operational tactics to be tested and validated against the latest generation of surface-to-air missiles. In general, Blazing Shield missions were flown at low and medium altitudes from where the Tornado operates at its best.
The OT&E programme was undertaken in collaboration with the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Italy’s Flight Test Wing) and the Reparto Supporto Tecnico Operativo Guerra Elettronica (Italy’s Electronic Warfare Technical and Operational Support Unit) to verify all requirements, and develop a flight test programme that covered all the necessary test points.
Eight crews from 155° Gruppo took part in the evaluation which also included trials aimed at improving the Tornado ECR’s self-defence system given the specific role of attacking radars, in particular chaff dispensation. Two live AGM-88E missile launches were completed.
Suppression or destruction
Apart from the United States, only Australia, Germany and Italy have a platform dedicated to the suppression of enemy air defences role; the air forces of France, Israel and the Royal Air Force opt to conduct the destruction of enemy air defences role; the direct destruction of hostile surface-toair missile systems achieved by striking the sites using standard precision-guided munitions.
Nevertheless, this type of attack has its limits because to strike a surface-to-air missile position with a JDAM or other GPS-guided weapon presupposes knowledge of the exact position of the target, a factor which is not always possible over a battlefield which can be unfamiliar or dynamic.
Although feasible, after a threat has been identified, the use of a laser-guided bomb exposes the attacking aircraft to enemy air defences, given that it has to fly to within visual line of sight of the target.
By comparison, use of a dedicated suppression of enemy air defence platform equipped with sophisticated systems for interception and localisation of threats, can at the same time dialogue with the missile dedicated to the attack, permitting it to successfully operate in stand-off mode, thereby ensuring less exposure to the threats.
A suppression type attack is less devastating than a destruction type attack, but enables a successful mission with increased safety for the crews. There are two forms of suppression type missions; autonomous operations or escort.
Autonomous ops involve missions that are isolated from strike packages and uniquely stimulate enemy air defences to reveal themselves. This resembles a oneon- one duel between the surface-to-air missile position and the aircraft conducting the attack.
Escort missions are more common, and generally involve the striker aircraft preceding the strike package by some minutes, in order to localise the targets (already identified thanks to intelligence and electronic reconnaissance activities), and set themselves up to cover the attack formation as it flows through the area. In this case the engagement of the target is not always necessary, as suppression can be achieved by the mere presence of SEAD aircraft, which forces the enemy radars to shut down, and therefore neutralise the surface-to-air missile batteries.
First in, last out is the appropriate motto for an escort mission because the cover provided for the strike package can only be maintained by remaining in the threat zone until the last of the strikers have competed their mission and exited the area. Suppression type missions are normally conducted by a minimum of two aircraft, but in some cases just one if, for example, the task is to protect a specific asset, or to provide electronic protection and/or electronic attack.
With the introduction of the Tornado RET-8, 155° Gruppo now conducts the destruction of enemy air defence role using precisionguided munitions such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition.
The second squadron, 154° Gruppo has always been tasked with the strike role, predominantly interdiction and precision attack, and more recently reconnaissance.
Explaining the reconnaissance role, Major Nicola R, a navigator assigned to 6° Stormo’s operations office said: “Today the reconnaissance mission is performed with the RecceLite pod, for which some 154° Gruppo crews are always fully qualified, thanks to careful management of the currency situation.
It is important for crews to remain in the reconnaissance mission cycle, which includes the issue of a requirement by the requesting organisation or agency, the identification of the target [thanks to various systems, including satellites], and then the conduct of the mission itself, with the acquisition of the data and imagery in the electro-optical and infrared spectrums in order to provide the decision makers all possible information. RecceLite II has been in service since 2017, which permits colour imagery, and therefore has a greater capacity for dissemination.”
The third squadron, 102° Gruppo has been part of 6° Stormo since 1993 and since 1999, following closure of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment based at RAF Cottesmore, has been tasked with providing the operational conversion activity for pilots and navigators posted to the Tornado fleet. The bulk of its activity is dedicated to training young aircrew arriving directly from the flying training schools, running courses for instructor pilots and navigators, and refresher training for personnel returning to the unit following desk assignment with other units.
The basic course commences with around two months of ground school involving instruction of theory of the aircraft and its role, followed by a nine-month flying phase.
Two Tornado simulators are used for the flying phase, which were linked together into a network in order to simulate the conduct of missions as a pair for the first time on 2018. The simulators are also used to maintain currency of combat ready qualified pilots, and in 2018 alone, provided 2,300 flying hours.
At the end of the course pilots are qualified as limited combat ready status, and only achieve combat ready status with the frontline squadron after another four months of training in the more demanding and specialised activities such as reconnaissance and the employment of precision-guided munitions, and specifically for ECR aircraft, the suppression of enemy air defence mission and employment of the AGM-88E AARGM missile.
New navigators are no longer being trained by 102° Gruppo, the last course that included navigator posts were enrolled in 2006, even the training of new pilots has reduced to four per year, given the Tornado’s remaining years of service with the Aeronautica Militare.
AIR International had the opportunity to meet the 6° Stormo commander, Colonel Luca Maineri to discuss the future of Ghedi Air Base. He said: “In the past it was declared that Ghedi would be the second base to receive the F-35 and work is still underway on this plan, but at the moment it is premature to speak about dates, which will be determined as a function of the rate of acquisition of the new aircraft. At the present the base is the subject of extensive modernisation work, although these are not yet involved with the F-35 programme. Many facilities on the base are more than fifty years old, and need replacement. We have a new dedicated aviation depot and a new base entrance. We are also re-asphalting the parallel taxiway, which will also be lengthened and widened to turn it into a proper second runway.” AI