Germany ends 14-year Tornado/Heron recon mission in Afghanistan

The Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force’s) Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 51 (TaktLwG51, Tactical Air Force Wing 51) ‘Immelmann’ has marked the end of an era, following the cessation of the unit’s 14-year-long reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan.

The end of this 14-year-long mission was announced in a news release from the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) on June 6. Since 2007, aircraft and personnel from TaktLwG51 have conducted reconnaissance operations over Afghanistan in support of NATO International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support (RS) missions.

German AF TaktLwG51 Tornado ECR over Afghanistan [Bundeswehr/Falk Bärwald]
A German Panavia Tornado ECR (or 'Recce Tornado') from TaktLwG51 conducts a reconnaissance sortie in Afghanistan. Note the platform is carrying an EADS Telelens reconnaissance pod under its belly. Bundeswehr/Falk Bärwald

The German unit began this commitment using its resident Panavia Tornado ECR electronic combat/reconnaissance aircraft, before it was replaced in the mission by the wing’s Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron I unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in 2010. In the three years that the Tornado ECR – which is colloquially known as the ‘Recce Tornado’ – supported the mission, the veteran platform generated more than 50,000 aerial photographs from almost 4,600 reconnaissance sorties across Afghanistan. These images were subsequently analysed by on-site specialists from the Bundeswehr and NATO.

From 2010 onwards, TaktLwG51’s mission over Afghanistan was carried out by the Heron I medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) reconnaissance UAV. The platform provided continual support under NATO’s ISAF and RS mandates until it completed its last operational sortie in support of the mission on April 27, 2021. During its time in-country, the German Heron Is flew more than 50,000 flight hours in support of NATO’s objectives and provided over 40,000 hours of video material for analysts on the ground.

German AF TaktLwG51 Heron I in Afghanistan [Bundeswehr/Torsten Kraatz]
An IAI Heron I MALE UAV assigned to the Luftwaffe's TaktLwG51 'Immelman' pictured prior to departing Mazar-i-Sharif Air Base (Camp Marmal) in northern Afghanistan for a reconnaissance mission. Since 2015, the platform has flown more than 4,400 sorties in support of the German mission to the Asian nation. Bundeswehr/Torsten Kraatz

Following the return of the latest detachment to Schleswig Air Base in Jagel – which is located in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein – the current commander of TaktLwG51, Oberst (Col) Kristof Conrath, praised the commitment of all the personnel involved with the mission. “Your efforts and hardships in the numerous days of deployment far from home and separated from your families and friends have paid off, because the skills you brought in [made] the mission a bit safer for the soldiers in Afghanistan,” he said.

AirForces Intelligence data states that the Luftwaffe currently maintains a 20-strong fleet of Tornado ECRs – all of which are operated by TaktLwG51 at Schleswig. The platform entered operational service with the air arm in 1990 – a decade later than its sister platform, the Tornado IDS, which is configured for ground attack/strike missions.

Image analysts support German mission to Afghanistan [Bundeswehr/ISAF press office]
German aerial photo evaluators and specialists have analysed more than 50,000 images captured by TaktLwG51 reconnaissance assets during the 14 years that they were supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Bundeswehr/ISAF press office

As per current plans, Germany intends to replace its ageing ECR/IDS fleet with 55 new-build Tranche 4 Eurofighter EF-2000s, along with a mixed fleet of 30 Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and F/A-18F Super Hornet multi-role fighters. Additionally, the nation has ordered an additional 38 Tranche 4 to replace its earlier Tranche 1 standard examples under Project Quadriga. Meanwhile, Germany has yet to officially sign a contract to procure the 85 aircraft (55 EF-2000s; 30 EA-18Gs and F/A-18Fs) that would ultimately replace the Luftwaffe’s Tornado fleet.

IAI’s Heron I MALE UAV entered service with the Luftwaffe in March 2010, with 12 examples being delivered to the air force in total. AirForces Intelligence data states that – as of June 14, 2021 – six Heron Is remain operational with the German air arm. From the 12 aircraft delivered, four have been lost to attrition and two have been withdrawn from service. On June 14, 2018, Germany placed an order for five IAI Heron TP UAVs – the first of which are set to begin operations with the Luftwaffe before the end of this year.