Syria Tornado’s last call


In the final part of a two-part story, AIR International covers the mighty Tornado GR4 strike aircraft after more than 35 years’ service with the Royal Air Force

A Tornado GR4 laden with two Storm Shadow missiles departs RAF Marham.
Cpl Nik Howe/RAF Marham

Operational life for all of the RAF’s Tornado GR Force squadrons during the first decade of the new millennium was busy with ongoing commitments to UK Operations Telic and Herrick. When the Libyan civil war started in the autumn of 2010, just a few months passed before a coalition of nations decided to take military action against Libyan government forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The UK’s contribution to the coalition was conducted under Operation Ellamy: the RAF’s Tornado GR Force was involved from day one, at a time when two GR4 squadrons had been stood down, and concurrently with operations at Kandahar in Afghanistan for Operation Herrick.

Ellamy: stormy, stealthy, shadowy

Standing outside the base at RAF Marham in Norfolk on a clear moonlit night in March 2011, the editor watched four Tornado GR4s take off in sequence. The noise generated by the Rolls-Royce RB199 engines broke the silence of the evening and the afterburners created a dramatic sight in the night sky. There was nothing extraordinary about watching Tornados fly from RAF Marham; the resident GR4 squadrons regularly undertake night operations. However, the fact it was a Sunday evening was extraordinary. Fifteen hundred miles away, action taken by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, against his own people, had placed RAF Marham on the front line of combat operations in the UK’s Operation Ellamy; the UK’s contribution to the US-led Operation Odyssey Dawn.

One by one, the four jets disappeared into the blackness bound for an area off the Libyan coast on a long-range and historic mission. For the RAF aircrews involved, their objective was to dislocate the Libyan command and control network and remove air defence systems prior to enforcing a no-fly zone over the country.

This is an account of the RAF missions flown against Libya by the Tornado GR4 and the employment of the stealthy Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-off cruise missile (CASOM). The missions were some of the first strikes flown against the Libyan air defence network in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn.


During a night time meeting of the UN Security Council on March 17, 2011 the 6,498th in its history, approval was given to the creation of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya, authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. Demanding an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the attacks against civilians, which it said might constitute “crimes against humanity”, the Security Council imposed a ban on all flights in the country’s airspace and tightened sanctions on the Gaddafiregime and its supporters. Resolution 1973 (2011) was approved by a vote of ten in favour to none against, with five abstentions (Brazil, China, Germany, India, Russian Federation). With this the Council authorized Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi. However, the permitted measures excluded a foreign occupation force of any form in any part of Libyan territory.

At RAF Marham preparations for combat missions had commenced before the UN resolution was passed. The station was at 24/7 manning, and in a very short period of time, missions were planned and Tornados were loaded with Storm Shadow missiles – ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Storm Shadow work-up

On March 19, 2011, Wg Cdr Andy Turk, the then OC IX(B) Squadron ‘Bats’ led the first Storm Shadow raid against Libya – the CASOM had last been used in combat eight years ago. Since its combat debut during Operation Telic in 2003, when Tornado GR4s launched dozens of Storm Shadow missiles against Iraq, the RAF sustained an ongoing upgrade programme for the weapon. But this strategic weapon is not often carried on Tornado GR4s during regular training sorties due to its complexity and size. Instead aircrew received instruction on the missile with the Storm Shadow Training Flight (SSTF) based at Marham. Each year SSTF staged several courses to keep GR4 aircrew trained in its use.

SSTF was run by Sqn Ldr Dickie James and the flight played a pivotal role in planning the raids against Libya. He said: “At the start of the work-up all of the crews were sent to fly a Storm Shadow sortie in the simulator. A lot of training was also given by the squadron QWIs [Qualified Weapon Instructors] to ensure all aircrew were fit to launch the missile.”

As the Tornado GR Force (TGRF) approached the first raid, mission planning was taking place around the clock. A team comprising three Squadron Leaders was running all of the Storm Shadow planning on a two-shift 12 on, 12 off basis. Sqn Ldr James, who flew Tornados in both Gulf wars, told the author: “At that stage there was no air tasking order or an air space co-ordination order either, an unusual status before the first attack.”

Two Tornado GR4s, each loaded with two Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-off missiles, depart RAF Marham during Operation Ellamy in March 2011.
Cpl Nik Howe/RAF Marham

But the mission planning under way at Marham could only take place once target co-ordinates, and other data such as approved lines of attack and dive angles had been provided. This information is generated by a Ministry of Defence targeting board and given to the Central Mission Planning Facility (CMPF) based in Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood, Middlesex. After receiving the information from the CMPF, from there on the SSTF undertook the entire mission planning at Marham.

Normally crews planned and briefed themselves and then flew the sortie. In this case, very unusually, the crews were given the brief by SSTF officers to minimize the crew duty hours for the aircrew flying the mission. Lasting over an hour the briefing covered every aspect of the mission; code words, details of the take-off, the transit flight, air-refuelling, the drop-off from the tanker, electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, details of the Storm Shadow missiles, the release, climb out and the journey home. This was followed by an internal squadron briefing between the crews flying the mission.

While the briefings were taking place, outside the aircraft dispersals were busy with engineers and spare crews, many from RAF Lossiemouth, already warming up the aircraft ready for their colleagues to fly.

Amid the enormous amount of work being carried out on the aircraft, the missile navigation systems and the all-important GPS feed were also being checked. Storm Shadow is a smart weapon that requires all systems to be aligned so they can communicate with each other. Electrical power from the aircraft was fed to the missiles to ensure that the weapon and the aircraft were communicating through the data bus. “That was one of the most important checks conducted”, said Sqn Ldr James.

Bats strike first

“The engineers were remarkable in getting eight aircraft ready and weapons loaded in such a short space of time”, said Wg Cdr Andy Turk. “Each missile had been individually loaded with the correct card requiring a lot of clever work by the crews to make sure the variables – different aircraft and different combinations of missiles – were correctly constituted. That went well”, he added.

Crews performing the aircraft warm-up had to complete a very meticulous check to ensure that the codes all matched – the system highlights when they do not – and make sure that the planned op had been entered into the system correctly. Remember that the crews about to fly the sortie were not involved in the mission planning.

Planning and preparation complete, aircraft and crew were ready to go on the night of Friday, March 18. But following the ceasefire call made by the Libyan leader, an operational pause was put in place. As things turned out, the crews were stood down on the Friday evening only to return the following afternoon.

On the evening of March 19 four GR4s departed Marham in two pairs. In accordance with the crucial air-refuelling plan coordinated at Marham by an air-refuelling controller from RAF Brize Norton, two VC10s refuelled the first pair and a Tristar accompanied the second pair. “The Tristar supported the four aircraft all the way back to the UK”, said Wg Cdr Turk.

The second pair was slightly delayed in getting airborne. So in order to launch the missiles in a compressed timeframe as per the original plan, the first two had to slip, by flying slightly slower, while the second pair flew a little bit faster. Consequently, all four aircraft were in the right position when they were over southern Italy, although the time on target was delayed.

During transit the systems are powered down to keep the missile from overheating. Storm Shadow has its own internal motor that must power up for launch, an event that is imperceptible to the crew. The system notifies the weapon systems officer when each missile is on line and when the motor is running.

A Storm Shadow missile can be launched by position or time. Using the time-based mode allows the missile to be launched to meet the required time on target. An indication is given to the crew at the appropriate time allowing the pilot to either launch the missile or use an abort option if needed. All of the missiles launched on the March 19 Libya mission were fired using the time-based mode.

Each of the two Storm Shadow missiles carried by a Tornado GR4 separates from the aircraft in a set time sequence and is programmed to turn and de-conflict from the launch aircraft. Each missile flies a preplanned route to the target along an assigned airspace corridor.

“The tactical phase was pretty uneventful. There was quite a lot of cloud which we punched through at about 4,000ft (1,220m). Everyone confirmed their systems were on line and all the missiles came off as advertised. It really is quite a straightforward first-nightof- war type sortie, if there is such a thing”, said the squadron boss.

Post-strike reconnaissance showed that the missiles hit the desired target, which is testament to the work undertaken by the SSTF at Marham.

Emphasising the station-wide effort in preparing for the first mission, Wg Cdr Turk recalled how station personnel turned out to see the Tornados leave late that evening. And of particular note for the crews was the presence of the station warrant officer giving them the salute when they took off ….and more significantly when they arrived back at 5am.

Night two

With such a strategically important mission, spare aircraft were prepared to precisely the same standard. “It is quite a large call to generate four Tornados armed with eight Storm Shadow in a short period of time”, said Wg Cdr Edwards, the then OC XIII Squadron, who led the second Storm Shadow raid against Libya on March 20. XIII Squadron’s engineers undertook much of the work to prepare the aircraft for the missions, according to Edwards.

Speaking about the sortie Wg Cdr Edwards stressed how rendezvous with the tanker and time on target were critical factors. “Time over target requires great co-ordination, it’s [the target] over 1,500 miles away with speed, distance and timing factors to adhere to. Loaded with two Storm Shadow missiles, which are big weapons, requires considerable planning to keep the aircraft in the middle of the zone in respect of the fuel load”, he said.

“About four hours into the sortie, we were minutes from weapon release when the call came from the AWACS to abort, which was frustrating. Back at Marham during the debrief we learnt that civilians were present at the target, it was very much a feeling of ‘thank goodness we did that’”, said Wg Cdr Edwards.

Aircrew and ground crew prepare Tornado GR4 ZA461/026 and live Strom Shadow missiles at RAF Marham prior to an Operational Ellamy mission.
Cpl Kryselle Lees/RAF Marham

As had happened on the previous night with IX(B) Squadron crews, Wg Cdr Edwards and seven of his squadron colleagues safely returned to RAF Marham at the end of a sortie lasting more than six hours.

Third strike

When XIII Squadron flew the third mission seven days later the targets were ammunition bunkers at Sabha in the southern Libyan desert. The raid involved flying within enemy airspace, through surface-to-air threats, and countering any Libyan Air Force fighter aircraft remaining in operation. Libya had a coherent and functioning air defence network with a recognisable and functional command and control, good systems and trained operators ready to shoot down attacking aircraft.

“When you’re pushing over someone’s territory, you open yourself up to all of the land-based threats, including infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. The other thing in the back of your mind is what happens if you eject – you will be landing on enemy territory, not in the sea and into a dinghy from which you can be picked up by a helicopter. That was the big difference between the second and third sorties”, said the XIII Squadron boss.

Ultimately the ammunition complex with about 30 bunkers was struck and thankfully all four Tornado GR4s landed back at base after an 8-hour 40-minute sortie.

When flying missions of that duration, crew duty hours are a significant factor – the rules allow 11 hours of flying within a 14-hour shift. “You can see why the crews weren’t able to come into work to plan like they would normally do. You need planning crews to hand over to the mission crews, so that they have enough duty time left”, said Edwards.

Cracking on

The missions flown from RAF Marham on March 19 and 20 were both 3,000-mile (4,800km) round-trips and the longest range bombing raids launched from the UK since World War Two. Just two days after the first mission, IX(B) Squadron, which flew the first raid, deployed four Tornado GR4s to Gioia del Colle Air Base in southern Italy. By Wednesday March 23, the unit was flying further missions over Libya as part of the no-fly zone.

IX(B) Squadron deployed to Gioia del Colle on a short-notice op as a spearhead to establish operations and only remained there until sister unit II(AC) Squadron could be deployed for a longer duration. Within three weeks of its initial deployment to Italy, IX(B) Squadron returned to RAF Marham to continue its work-up training in preparation for Afghanistan later that year.

XIII Squadron remained at RAF Marham holding the Storm Shadow capability and flew the third mission on March 27. Fortyseven days later, on May 13, the squadron was stood down as a Tornado GR4 unit as part of the UK Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Three years later, the TGRF was once again called to duty, this time against Syria, and once again Iraq, in the fight against ISIS. The UK’s contribution to the fight was conducted under Operation Shader.

SAC Lisa Conway/Royal Air Force

Operation Shader

The Royal Air Force began what became Operation Shader in August 2014 when humanitarian efforts were mounted by Britain using Hercules transports and Chinook medium-lift helicopters to provide relief to refugees fleeing ISIS attacks around Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq.

Tornado GR4s based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus started flying reconnaissance missions from there on August 9, 2014 in support of the humanitarian relief efforts. Initially aircrew used the Litening III pod to help coordinate aid drops. The next stage was reconnaissance missions to gather intelligence for Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL.

The name Shader was officially promulgated on September 25, 2014 when the Iraqi government made an official call for help in dealing with ISIS.

In the first instance, Britain’s part in the multi-national coalition consisted chiefly of providing reconnaissance data. However, following the murder of a British aid worker, videotaped by ISIS and broadcast around the world, Britain’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on September 26, 2014 to bomb ISIS, which was said to constitute a threat to world peace and British security.

The six Tornado GR4s based on Cyprus commenced bombing operations almost immediately. On September 30 two Shader Tornados destroyed an ISIS artillery piece using a Paveway IV 500lb precision-guided munition and a ‘technical’ armed pickup truck with a Brimstone air-to-ground missile, both in northwest Iraq.

Two types of strike missions were flown: close air support using a remote feed on the target, and predetermined interdiction as part of strike packages comprising aircraft from many different nations in combined air operations. Given the vast amount of knowledge within the Tornado GR Force it was common for the RAF to lead COMAO missions over Iraq.

On October 3, 2014 two additional Tornados were deployed to Akrotiri bringing the total up to eight. Operation Shader’s remit extended to neighbouring Syria the same month, but purely in a non-kinetic role. The Akrotiri-based Tornados were restricted to using their RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado) and Litening III pods. A little over a year later Tornado GR4s were providing 60% of tactical reconnaissance for coalition forces fighting in Syria and Iraq.

With the number of ISIS inspired attacks in Europe increasing airstrikes against ISIS in Syria were approved by the British parliament on December 2, 2015. Four Tornados took off from RAF Akrotiri almost immediately and attacked the Omar oilfield in Syria from which ISIS had been generating a high percentage of its income. Shortly thereafter the Royal Air Force’s detachment to RAF Akrotiri was doubled with the addition of two more Tornados and, for the first time, six Typhoon FGR4s.

A year later the Ministry of Defence announced that the Royal Air Force was operating at its most elevated operational tempo for 25 years. In 1,276 strikes in the preceding 12 months, Royal Air Force aircraft, Tornado, Typhoon and Reaper drones had dropped 11 times more bombs on Syria and Iraq than they had in the busiest year of action in Afghanistan ten years before.

The Royal Air Force’s involvement in Operation Shader is governed by 83 Expeditionary Air Group based at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar. As part of its remit it is responsible for 903 Expeditionary Air Wing based at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus. As well as the Tornados, Reapers and Typhoons, elements of the Royal Air Force’s Air Mobility Force are dedicated to Shader including two Voyager multi-role transport/tankers and two Hercules C5s.

Shader: the mission

As with any military endeavour, the point of the spear is supported by a shaft comprising many hundreds of ground-based troops dedicated to making the mission a success. Nearly a thousand personnel support Operation Shader in various ways. A mission from RAF Akrotiri typically comprises two jets, and the flight can last an exhausting seven or more hours and involve two or three aerial refuelling slots. Each Tornado carried a payload of two Paveway IVs and up to three Brimstones, although there was less call for Brimstone later in the campaign. The low-collateral damage Brimstone has long been the weapon of choice where the target to be engaged is small and un-hardened, for instance pick-up trucks or where there are non-combatants too close for the safe use of the larger Paveway. After launching from Cyprus and having made their way to the theatre of operations the jets performed two vital roles, often in the same mission. Most often the Tornados used their sensors to improve operational commanders’ situational awareness. Data gleaned was passed back in real time for analysis by 1 Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Wing, based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire by personnel located nearer to the locus of operations. Less often Tornados used Paveway or Brimstone or even a show of force – a fast low-level pass designed to intimidate and deter. Jets can be tasked autonomously with reference to the chain of command but in nearly all cases selection and identification of targets was done in the first instance by ground forces. The Royal Air Force works as a part of a much larger coalition and everything is linked.