MILITARY TORNADO GR4
In the first part of a twopart story, AIR International covers the mighty Tornado GR4 strike aircraft after more than 35 years’ service with the Royal Air Force
Tri-national company Panavia was constituted on March 26, 1969, to manage the design and development of the Tornado aircraft for the air forces of Great Britain, Germany and Italy. That jet came to be known as Tornado. Britain had a major part in the programme and of the ten Tornado prototypes, four were built at Warton Lancashire for the UK’s part of the test programme. The first of what would become the Tornado GR series of aircraft was prototype P02, XX946. The second Tornado to fly, after the German prototype D-9591, it took to the skies for the first time on October 30, 1974, at the hands of pilot Paul Millet and back-seater Pietro Trevisan. The jet was used by the manufacturer, wearing a distinctive red and white colour scheme, until it was retired in 1986. It is now part of the RAF Museum collection. The first British-built Tornado to be fitted with controls in both front and back seats, P03, XX947, first flew on August 5, 1975, with David Eagles and Tim Ferguson at the controls. At the end of its flying life it was relegated to training duties at RAF Cosford with maintenance serial number 8797M.
Next off the Warton production line was P06 XX948, which again had David Eagles at the controls when it took off for the first time on December 19, 1975. It spent most of its career on weapons trials and was the first Tornado to be fitted with the Mauser 27mm cannon.
Upon retirement it too was sent to RAF Cosford as a ground instructional airframe as 8879M and is now on display at a museum in Germany. Last of the four British prototypes and the second dual-control machine, P08, XX950 made its first flight on July 17, 1976, with Paul Millet and Roy Woolett on board. It was lost on June 12, 1979, when it crashed in the Irish Sea during weapons trials. Pilot Russ Pengelly and navigator Squadron Leader John Gray, the Boscombe Down project navigator for Tornado and the second RAF navigator to fly in the aircraft, were both killed.
Pre-production Tornado PS12 XZ630 made its first flight on March 14, 1977 and was delivered to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire on February 3, 1978. It never entered service with the Royal Air Force and was used as a trials aircraft.
After retirement it was allotted maintenance number 8976M for ground instructional duties. Last of the pre-production aircraft, PS15 XZ631 made its maiden flight on November 24, 1978, in the hands of Jerry Lee and Jim Evans. During a test career extending to 2004, it was involved in a multitude of tasks and was used as the prototype of the GR4 mid-life update programme that resulted in 142 Tornado GR1s upgraded to GR4 standard between 1997 and 2003. It is preserved at the Yorkshire Air Museum near York.
The first production Tornado Interdictor/ Strike (IDS) aircraft was accepted by the Royal Air Force, when it was known as a Tornado GR1, on June 5, 1979, and the aircraft achieved initial operating clearance early the following year. To replace the capability lost when the Buccaneer was retired from operations, 26 GR1s were modified to what became known as GR1B standard. These jets were capable of delivering the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile.
Another interim standard, the GR1A was a reconnaissance version fitted with the Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System (TIRRS), which was mounted in the space created by removing the Mauser 27mm cannon. The Royal Air Force ordered 30 GR1As, 16 custom-built jets, ZD996, ZE116, ZG705 to ZG714, ZG725 to ZG727 and ZG729.
The other 14 were rebuilds of existing GR1s. Some 25 GR1As were designated GR4A after receiving the GR4 mid-life update, but the designation was dropped as the GR4s sensor suite improved, the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado, dubbed RAPTOR, produced by UTC Aerospace was introduced and TIRRS became redundant.
Following its operational debut in Operation Desert Shield in August 1990, the Royal Air Force Tornado GR Force (TGRF) has spent most of the last 28 and a half years on operational front-line duty defending the interests of the United Kingdom and its international coalition partners. On April 1, 2018, the Royal Air Force celebrated its centenary, which means the TGRF was on active operational duty for about 29% of the Royal Air Force’s entire existence. This amazing statistic is more remarkable when one considers the hostile environments the aircraft and its personnel have operated in. The Panavia Tornado may not be in the public’s top five list of the greatest ever United Kingdom military aircraft, but during the modern era, it has few peers.
As the Royal Air Force concluded its final deployed Tornado GR4 operations from Royal Air Force Akrotiri, Cyprus and both aircraft and personnel returned to their spiritual home at Royal Air Force Marham, Norfolk, we can now reflect on one of the world’s truly great combat jets.
In service from 1982 to 2019, the Tornado GR Force successfully evolved and kept pace with developments on the battlefield. Conceived in the late 1960s, the Tornado IDS configured to GR4 standard at the type’s retirement was a very different machine to the original Tornado GR1 variant which entered service with the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore, Rutland on July 1, 1980.
Between 1997 and 2003, Tornado received extensive modifications, which enabled it to perform the low and medium level operations the aircraft became renowned for. These included a forward looking infrared sensor, a wide-angle head-up display, night vision goggles, new avionics and a global positioning system receiver. Importantly, this upgrade programme enabled new precision-guided weapons to be integrated which included MBDA’s Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-off missiles, the Brimstone air-to-ground missile and Raytheon’s Paveway III laser-guided bomb. One quite incredible system also added to the Tornado’s mission systems suite was the large RAPTOR pod used to capture highresolution imagery from stand-off ranges while flying at high speed by day or night. RAPTOR made its combat debut during Operation Telic in March 2003 when a salvo of missiles were launched against targets in Iraq.
Additional upgrades took place from 2007 in two phases under the awkwardly named Capability Upgrade Strategy Pilot contract. Phase One enabled the integration of Raytheon’s Paveway IV precision-guided munition with Phase Two adding a tactical datalink.
By now, Tornado could conduct pretty much all air-to-ground tasks the RAF required of it, and its aircrew were constantly engaged in operations as a consequence. Tornado was equally at home at low-level providing CAS (close air support) under the control of a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, operating at medium heights providing reconnaissance using RAPTOR, or engaging targets at medium stand-off ranges with Brimstone or less frequently and at much longer stand-off ranges, with Storm Shadow missiles.
These weapons enabled Tornado to conduct precision strikes against stationary or moving targets with Brimstone and against strategic, hardened targets with Storm Shadow. Tornado’s precision strike capability was enhanced further with the introduction of the dual-mode seeker Brimstone from 2008 and Paveway IV from 2009 (the weapon had previously been introduced with the Harrier Force).
Discussing the aircraft’s kinetic and reconnaissance capabilities prior the final operational mission, RAF Marham’s Station Commander Group Captain Ian Townsend, himself a former Harrier GR7 and Typhoon pilot and the last person to train on the Tornado GR4, said: “The high-end capabilities of the Tornado GR4 are being used day and night. As we speak [January 25, 2019], we have aircraft airborne over Syria supporting Operation Shader. Tornado continues to contribute to the Joint Task Force on a daily basis. It’s very rare for one of the Tornado sorties to miss a heartbeat on operations in terms of getting airborne and completing the mission. When tasked to do something there is 100% success rate whether using Paveway IV, dual mode Brimstone or multiseeker Brimstone 2. Despite our lower aircraft numbers, the serviceability of Tornado is superb. During parts of 2018, every single front-line Tornado was serviceable, which is testament to all those military and civilian personnel who have worked on the aircraft during the past 30 years. Component by component, Tornado is more serviceable now than it has ever been.”
The combat pedigree of the Tornado is unparalleled in Royal Air Force service, not just during the noughties, but back another decade too. With the power generated by two Rolls- Royce RB199 Mk103 turbofan engines each rated at 16,400lb (71.2kN) of wet thrust the aircraft had the flexibility to engage strategic hardened targets, those dubbed targets of opportunity, moving targets and those simply requiring to be blown up in an orderly manner.
Whatever the combatant commander’s required, Tornado was the UK’s go-to platform with which to destroy an enemy.
The Tornado GR1 made its debut combat deployment in August 1990 under Operation Granby, the UK’s contribution to the US-led Operation Desert Shield and subsequent Operation Desert Storm, for which the Royal Air Force based approximately 60 aircraft at bases in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Six aircraft were lost during the conflict. Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft equipped with the Pave Seeker laser designator were also based in the Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to spike targets for Tornados to drop precision-guided munitions. GEC Marconi’s Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator targeting system was introduced into service in 1990 to further enhance the platform’s capabilities.
Following the UK Tornado GR1 mid-life upgrade which started in 1993, the newly configured Tornado GR4 made its operational debut patrolling the skies above Iraq during Operation Southern Watch. In 1998, Tornado GR1s and GR4s operating from Kuwait participated in the US-led Operation Desert Fox, a series of coalition air strikes against Iraqi military infrastructure.
One year later, Tornado GR1s, operating initially from RAF Brüggen, Germany, participated in the Kosovo War as part of the US-led Operation Allied Force. Over the subsequent few years, Tornado GR1s were either upgraded to GR4 standard or phased out as the mid-life upgrade was completed. Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein was once again the cause of the RAF Tornado GR Force to be called to arms under Operation Telic, the UK’s contribution to the US-led Operation Iraqi Freedom and the invasion of Iraq.
Complex and highly demanding in nature, Operation Telic enveloped the Tornado GR Force for six years.
Soon after the Operation Telic commitment finished in May 2009, Tornado GR4s were deployed to Afghanistan on Operation Herrick, replacing the Harrier GR7s and Harrier GR9s in the process. During the next five years, the Tornado GR Force completed over 5,000 sorties against the Taliban, using the Paveway IV precision-guided munition to good effect; the first time Tornado had released the munition in anger. Its time in Afghanistan included an uncertain period for the Tornado GR Force, which prior to the UK government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review was in line for retirement.
By March 2011, Tornado GR4s were again in action, this time helping enforce a no-fly zone over Libya alongside RAF Typhoons during Operation Ellamy. In March, Tornado GR4s conducted long-range, round-robin strike missions deep into Libya flying directly from and to RAF Marham refuelling several times in the air. In terms of duration, the series of missions were the longest conducted by the RAF since the famous Vulcan Black Buck raids on the Falklands during the 1982 war.
TGRF’s final combat tour commenced in August 2014 following a UK government’s decision to deploy GR4s to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus for Operation Shader. Initially the aircraft were used for their surveillance capability with the RAPTOR pod, notably to help protect Yazidi people sheltering from Islamic State in the Mount Shinjar region of northwest Iraq. Just a few months later, the deployed force at RAF Akrotiri (which from late 2015 included Typhoon FGR4s) was approved to conduct strikes against Islamic State fighters operating inside Iraq and Syria. Extensive details on the Tornado GR4’s combat operations over Syria and Iraq will appear in AIR International’s May 2019 issue.
The scale of combat effort undertaken by the Tornado GR Force during its service life is reflected in the operational service hours accumulated. During an operational sortie over Afghanistan on June 27, 2011, a Tornado GR4 flown by a 617 Squadron crew took the RAF fleet through the one million flight hour mark.
Given the TGRF’s declining fleet size, and an estimated annual 22,500 flight hours, AIR International estimates the fleet had chalkedup in excess of 1.15 million flight hours when the final aircraft retired from service in March.
Air Marshal Stuart Atha, Deputy Commander Operations Royal Air Force, reaffirmed the remarkable operational contribution made by the Tornado GR Force as the final jets returned to RAF Marham on February 6, 2019.
He noted that an aircraft designed in the Cold War had been used in a succession of hot wars and for the last four and a half years, had been operational in the most challenging of combat environments. Astonishingly, apart from a brief eighteen-day period in 2009, since August 1990 the Tornado GR Force was continuously deployed on operations in Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria).
Gp Capt Townsend also paid tribute to those who had played a part in sustaining the enduring capability of the Tornado GR Force. He said: “Having conducted nine major operations since 1990, today [February 6] sees the return of the Tornado GR Force from its last operational commitment, Operation Shader. Having flown almost 30,000 flying hours and 3,300 missions over Iraq and Syria over the previous four-and-a-half years, the force is returning to the UK ahead of the Tornado’s retirement at the end of March 2019. Having served on operations continuously for almost 28 years, the Tornado GR Force has made an exceptional contribution.”
Original Tornado vs modern Tornado
So how did the modern Tornado compare to the original jet? Discussing this interesting aspect of the jet, Gp Capt Townsend reflected on how combat air power has transformed during his 28-year Royal Air Force career.
He said: “Back then the Air Force was much bigger, and used single aircraft types to conduct each role. Today’s Air Force has two types of strike fighter, Typhoon and F-35, integrated and operating together. Speaking at RAF Marham on January 10, the Secretary of State for Defence announced that Project Centurion, a major capability improvement programme for the Typhoon, had been released to service. But the advancement of capability provided by Centurion is not just about kinetics. What Typhoon and F-35 introduce is an advanced and different avionics capability; not just their radar capabilities, but also electronic warfare and electronic attack. Much more sophisticated than the blunt instruments of the Cold War.
“The Tornado was designed to operate at low-level for airfield attack fitted with the JP 233 [airfield denial system, one that delivered multiple sub-munitions]. Tornado GR4s in service at the end of Operation Shader are uncomparable to those in service when the Air Force first started to conduct combat ops back in the early 1990s.”
Flight Lieutenant Nathan Shawyer of 31 Squadron was the last ab-initio pilot to transition to the Tornado GR4 in February 2017. After returning to RAF Marham in one of the final three Tornado GR4s deployed to Cyprus, he confirmed why the aircraft was so popular with aircrew: “Tornado is a fantastic aircraft to fly. It’s a mechanical beast, its feels old school, which is absolutely suited to the low-level environment. This is where it thrives – the jet is rock solid at 250 feet and 450 knots – allowing a stable platform for legacy dumb bomb releases. The engines also react brilliantly in the lower, thicker air providing ample thrust to accelerate through winding valleys. The fact Tornado is crewed by two aircrew cannot be overstated. This allows a massive degree of flexibility, particularly during operational missions where things can get very busy very quickly. For example, the navigator [or weapons systems operator] can concentrate on receiving a complex talk on [guidance] to the target from troops on the ground using the Litening III pod – whilst the pilot can concurrently talk to the airborne command and control element, discussing options for extensions of task, air refuelling changes, all while flying in the overhead. Two heads are definitely better than one in the targeting environment. When the final engagement clearance comes, it’s reassuring to be able to talk through the attack, having a second pair of eyes and ears to check each other’s work prior to releasing the weapon.
“I’d say the love for Tornado is built out of a reliable success story. It delivered time and time again over years of service. The airframe is ageing, however successive avionic and weapon upgrades allowed the Tornado to remain on the cutting edge of technology for air-to-surface attack. The aircraft evolved admirably, from a Cold War nuclear-strike bomber to a modern close air support platform, delivering precision-guided munitions from great range. This was never more evident than in the last year’s strikes against President Assad’s chemical weapons facilities [in Syria], where four GR4s joined coalition forces releasing eight Storm Shadow missiles under the cover of darkness [April 14, 2018].”
The first five jets to return to RAF Marham from Operation Shader landed just after 14:00hrs local time on Monday February 4, 2019. In order of landing they were ZA597/063 using callsign ‘Ascot 9523’, ZA463/028 ‘Ascot 9521’, ZG791/137 ‘Ascot 9522A’ ZD848/109 ‘Ascot 9524’, and ZA542/035 ‘Ascot 9522B’.
By 10:15hrs Zulu on Tuesday February 5, 2019 Royal Air Force Voyager KC3 ZZ336 using callsign ‘Ascot 9103’ was passing over Crete with three Tornados in tow. The tanker turned around and went back to RAF Akrotiri when the formation was just short of the French coast.
Enthusiasts on the fence at Marham were speculating that two Tornados would return to the UK and one would stay at Akrotiri to serve as a reminder of the Tornado’s long association with the base over the previous decades. In the event, all three aircraft, ZA601/066 ‘Ascot 9526’, ZD744/092 ‘Ascot 9527’ and ZA587/055 ‘Ascot 9528’ made the journey from sunny Cyprus to a cold, cloudy Marham.
As if to emphasise that aviation is an inherently dangerous pursuit, Tornado GR4 ZA601, which was being flown by Wing Commander Heeps (OC IX Squadron) and Wing Commander Bressani (OC 31 Squadron), had been slated to be the first to land. However, reported problems with the left-hand hydraulic system about the time it entered UK airspace, meant crew elected to allow the rest of the formation to land first. After a few minutes, at 14:09hrs local time the pilot broadcast a PAN message (one down from MAYDAY in order of urgency) and commenced dumping fuel north of RAF Marham. After a tense few minutes the jet recovered safely. The other two landed in turn and their crews taxied in to face their next ordeal – the press!
Wg Cdr Heeps provided his thoughts on landing at Marham: “It is mixed emotions in a way as this aeroplane is first and foremost a combat aircraft. Tornado has done that for the last time which is sad as we have all dedicated our careers to it. There is also huge pride in what the aeroplane has done, the people who have flown and maintained it. It is a privilege to be here and part of that. There have been plenty of missions that stand out in my mind. Some flying over Libya and operating hundreds of miles inside the desert a long way from safety. Launching from Marham to do an operational mission having spent the morning shopping at home was an interesting one. The last operational mission we flew on January 31 was probably the most memorable, bringing that era of 28 operational years to an end.”
Flight Lieutenant Nathan Shawyer of 31 Squadron, flew ZA587/055 home and told us: “it was an immense thing to be part of, a really awesome mission and to see all the crowds gathered both at Akrotiri this morning when we left and here at Marham. That shows much this aircraft means to so many people which makes me feel immensely proud to be part of its history. It is incredible to think this aircraft has been on operational missions for longer than I have been alive, and in the Air Force for a lot longer than that. To be part of that is just great.”
Many people have flown many thousands of hours in Tornados but probably none has flown more than one of the crew members of one of the Tornados that returned to Marham on February 6.
Weapon system operator, Flight Lieutenant Chris ‘Stradders’ Stradling logged his 6,000th flight hour in a Tornado on the trip back from Cyprus. The veteran instructor had reached another milestone in 2016 when the combined total of Tornado flight hours of himself and his pilot, Squadron Leader David Gallie, both instructors with XV (R) Squadron exceeded the astonishing total of 10,000!
At the time of the milestone flight Gallie had amassed 4,800 hours on the Tornado and 7,500 total career flying hours, while Stradling had a total of 5,300 Tornado flying hours and over 5,600 hours in total. Stradders had gained his badge for 5,000 flight hours in Tornado when serving as an instructor with XV (R) Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth in 2014.
Stradders will be remembered by many as one of the crews who performed Tornado role demonstrations over beaches, air shows and other events across Europe earlier in the decade.
Upon landing at Marham he was presented with his 6,000 flight hour badge – an accolade unlikely to be bestowed on anyone else in any Air Force. For an idea of what a stupendous achievement this is, 6,000 hours equates to 150 40-hour working weeks. So, if we give our intrepid airman two weeks holiday a year, that amounts to three 50-week work years spent strapped into an uncomfortable manned missile. Bravo sir, Bravo!
Telic: Tornado over Iraq Somewhere over Baghdad – 1014hrs local time
“Bravo Charlie 23, this is Bluetooth” – “Bluetooth, Bravo Charlie 23 go ahead” the pilot of a GR4 over Sadr City, Baghdad, replies – “Bravo Charlie 23 you’ve been re-tasked to support a TIC [troops in contact] in 78AS Keypad 3; contact Echo Foxtrot 14 on Purple 9 for tasking, good hunting”
That’s the first a Tornado GR4 crew would normally know that things were about to get interesting during a typical CAS mission over Iraq. Even for those with previous operational experience, the hairs went up on the back of their necks, and they knew that in the next few minutes they could be asked to deliver in one of the most demanding and rapidly-changing scenarios that they were likely to encounter during their flying career.
In the time it has taken you to read to this point, the pilot had already manoeuvred his GR4 inbound the tasked area, and with the afterburners in, “We’ll be overhead in less than a minute” the navigator relayed to the Joint Terminal Air Controller [JTAC] that the crew had been tasked to support.
From the squadron commander’s perspective, this was the culmination of many months of training for one of his crews. The work up had effectively begun just a couple of months after the squadron’s last Operation Telic deployment, during an exercise staged in the United States called Torpedo Focus held at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. During Torpedo Focus, the squadron dropped Enhanced Paveway II GPS-guided munitions, laser-guided bombs and fired live ammunition from the 27mm Mauser cannon, all under the control of US JTACs and UK Forward Air Controllers (FACs) operating on the ground. Later in its work-up, the squadron flew on several other CAS exercises, including urban CAS over the RAF base at Akrotiri, Cyprus a reasonable simulation of the type of environment they would later encountered over Iraq.
Just six weeks earlier, the crew of Bravo Charlie 23 had participated in Exercise Red Flag and flown highly realistic CAS missions over Gotham City in the Nevada desert. And so, the squadron crews were trained and ready for what they were about to be exposed to.
But no one could predict exactly what the day’s mission would bring in a fast changing urban environment. An intelligent approach is required, testing the crews’ knowledge of rules of engagement, the law of armed conflict and their ability to interpret the priorities of the ground commander.
Commitment to close air support
During Operation Telic and Operation Herrick, the Royal Air Force was heavily committed to CAS operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In spite of the frustration of occasional misinformed press coverage, the Harrier Force in Afghanistan developed an enviable reputation with the troops it supported on the ground.
In Iraq, the Tornado GR Force was asked to increase its contribution to Operation Telic by 25%. Equipped with the latest Litening III RD targeting pod, the Tornado GR4 continued to be revered as the platform of choice by many of the JTACs and TACPs on the ground.
The significant efforts made by UK armed forces in improving air-land Integration based on lessons from the Kosovo campaign and the second Gulf War, further enabled by the introduction of technologies such as those of the Litening RD, transformed RAF fast jet frontline fleets into key assets in coalition operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the proportion of CAS training conducted significantly increased over the years, in particular for the Tornado GR Force.
However, as high profile cases such as 12(B) Squadron’s prevention of the capture of an Iraqi Police General by insurgents proved, the extra training was worth it. More to the point, comments from troops on the ground such as, “Hey, those gunners in the Humvees sure do appreciate you extending your sortie to cover them back to their base,” or “the ground commander at the scene of the incident says thanks; you saved lives today”, gave reassurance that all the training was worthwhile.
Northeast Baghdad – 1020hrs local time
The crew of Bravo Charlie 23 had been on scene for several minutes. The weapon system operator (WSO) had passed his fighter to FAC check to declare his weapon load-out to the JTAC who had passed back the coordinates of the TIC. Now loaded into the aircraft’s main computer, the WSO slaved the Litening III to the target area and linked his video to the JTAC on the ground, the JTAC then talked him onto the exact area of interest, highlighting where the friendlies were and built up the crews’ situational awareness of the incident.
The scene on the ground was tense. Insurgents were holed up in a building on the edge of a village and the Iraqi Army patrol that had been carrying out a sweep of the area was taking incoming fire from small arms. Initially the JTAC called the GR4 in for a show of force; a low pass at high speed – a task that RAF crews are still the best trained in the world to conduct. Of note, as tactics have changed, the RAF is one of the few air forces that continues to train crews in operational low flying, as low as 100ft above the ground. Anyone who has experienced a jet at that height will know; the impact is impressive. If a situation can be suppressed with the threat of air power, then that is a good thing for everybody. Unfortunately, on this occasion the show of force did not have the desired effect and the insurgents escalated the threat by firing an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at an escorting US Stryker Wheeled Armoured Vehicle. The RPG missed, but there was an imminent threat to coalition forces that had to be neutralised. The JTAC marked the friendlies position and the GR4 crew had a good visual on them. The GR4 crew was called in to strafe the building, the 27mm Mauser cannon proved the ideal low collateral weapon to employ given the proximity of other buildings.
Northeast Baghdad – 1025hrs local time
“Echo Foxtrot 14, Bravo Charlie 23 is 30 seconds” called the GR4 pilot “Bravo Charlie 23, you’re cleared hot” replied Echo Foxtrot 14, the JTAC, and shortly thereafter, 35 rounds of carefully aimed 27mm high explosive ammunition hit the target building.
“Good Hits”, calls the JTAC. Following the strike, no further fire was reported. The Iraqi Army patrol entered the building and several insurgents, some wounded, were detained; the GR4 remained on station as the ground parties exited from the village. Forty-five minutes later, the Tornado GR4 was tanking from a US Air Force KC-135R, prior to going back on patrol over Baqubah, working with another JTAC.
The day’s mission lasted eight hours for the GR4 crew, a long time to sit in one place, but a job that was always considered to be well worth the uncomfortable, cramped conditions. Such a scenario was commonplace for GR4 crews flying over Iraq on Operation Telic back in 2007.
Herrick: Tornado in Afghanistan
Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s operating from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan provided formidable air support to coalition forces since they arrived there in June 2009; each Tornado GR4 squadron spent three months in theatre. Between April and July 2010 that duty fell to II (Army Co-operation) Squadron based at RAF Marham, Norfolk.
The squadron’s primary role was to support coalition forces on the ground by providing CAS and to conduct reconnaissance. CAS involved flying pre-planned missions, often remaining overhead coalition forces to deter enemy forces from attacking, a tactic called armed over-watch. In the reconnaissance role a Tornado GR4 fitted with a RAPTOR pod, provided detailed stereo imagery of the ground. The high quality of images captured by RAPTOR allowed troops to walk the ground and see what it looked like before they did it for real. RAPTOR imagery also helped identify possible improvised explosive devices.
Another element of CAS was ground close air support or GCAS, which involved aircraft being held at a high state of readiness for responding to a call, to quickly get airborne and to the required location where troops were being engaged by the enemy, colloquially known as a TIC.
Ground crew were allowed to prepare the aircraft prior to the aircrew arriving; a procedure used to save time and allow the aircrew to get airborne quickly.
During the last four months of 2009, GCAS was launched 14 times, equating to 28 aircraft and sorties. While II(AC) Squadron was deployed to Kandahar between April and July 2010 the average weekly total of GCAS launches increased to four launches per week; a situation caused by a greater number of coalition troops operating in Afghanistan and thus a greater likelihood of enemy contacts.
Following a call, the crews were required to be airborne within 30 minutes, but often did so much quicker; the quickest achieved by II(AC) during its 2010 tour was within three minutes, though the aircraft were being prepared at the time and ready to go.
On reaching the area of conflict, contact was made with the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, a troop trained to guide aircraft into the area and have a good understanding of the capabilities that the Tornado GR4 could deliver for them. The JTAC described the situation on the ground and with input from the aircrew decided how best to respond. A kinetic response was only used in life and death situations.
The GCAS alert during II(AC) Squadron’s 2010 deployment at Kandahar was shared with Belgian Air Force F-16s, each providing 12 hours of cover. Two primary aircraft and crews were allocated, plus a spare aircraft. The 12-hour duty period was split into two shifts of five and seven hours respectively.
Typical munitions payload for a GCAS mission was two 500lb Paveway IV precision-guided munitions, a dual mode Brimstone missile, 27mm high explosive rounds, a Litening III targeting pod, two 1,500-litre external drop tanks and two outboard flare dispensers; one Boz and one Advanced Infra-Red Countermeasure pod.
GCAS requests were made by the Air Support and Operations Centre located at the NATO International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul via a system called the Microsoft Internet Chat Room (mICR). The computer-based communication system detailed the location, callsign and type of engagement. Once the squadron’s watchkeeper read the alert message, and received the follow-up phone call, he or she sounded the horn to notify the aircrews, while the groundcrew were summoned by the GCAS bell.
The RAF’s preferred method of dealing with a situation was to perform show-offorce, a very low and fast pass overhead the enemy, which often provided enough to deter the enemy. If the show-of-force proved ineffective, the aircrew would respond in an escalatory manner first using the 27mm cannon, which causes the least damage, then if necessary escalate to a Brimstone missile, and finally a Paveway IV.
During such an engagement, the Litening III targeting pod provided a high resolution picture in the cockpit of what was happening on the ground. The picture could also be transmitted to a receiver held by the JTAC and used to help the aircrew positively identify the enemy before any action was taken.
Turus: Tornado in West Africa
When three Tornado GR4s departed RAF Marham early one morning in late August 2014, the crews from II(AC) Squadron were making history. The sortie was the longest RAPTOR mission ever flown from the UK. It was also notable because the targets were located in the West African nation of Nigeria.
The order to deploy was received a couple of days before. The only prior knowledge of a possible tasking came earlier in the year when the squadron sent a small team to its eventual location, the Armée de l’Air’s BA172 N’Djamena in Chad. The site-recce checked the safety issues of operating fast jets in a region the RAF had not previously deployed to.
The Tornados flew for just under eight hours in a single-leg trail to West Africa supported by Voyager tankers. More significantly the Tornado aircrews conducted the first operational sortie at the end of the trail before recovering to BA172 N’Djamena for the first time. The objective of the deployment was to find a group of Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Islamist extremists Boko Haram.
Two of the aircraft carried a RAPTOR pod for gathering high-quality stills, the other was fitted with a Litening III to capture real-time imagery and video if required.
On landing, all of the imagery captured was quickly turned around by a team from the Tactical Intelligence Imagery Wing (TIW), also based at Marham, and sent to UK commanders.
The deployment was built around a ‘shaved-down’ Expeditionary Air Wing, limited in numbers because of accommodation and space for the aircraft at the airfield.
The team comprised of hand-picked personnel, each with multiple skills to ensure the operation’s required output – intelligence products – was achievable. There was a heavy reliance on host nation support and the Armée de l’Air which maintains a significant presence at the base. The first sortie was launched two days after arrival.
The RAF was shy in saying how many pods were deployed but stressed the number gave the EAW sufficient redundancy. It also confirmed no missions were cancelled due to the lack of a RAPTOR pod.
Pods had to be changed on a couple of occasions because of humidity and the temperature rise encountered at the base. Crews planned each mission in the early morning to give the best conditions for taking pictures and the best chance of success with the pods when faced with the cooling requirements in the hot and humid environment.
Unlike Afghanistan, West Africa is a green and humid place, particularly in the monsoon season, which meant aircrew had to capture imagery at the right time of day to avoid cloud and rain where possible.
Atrocious weather on the day of the first planned sortie caused it to be cancelled. The region had thunderstorms extending up to 50,000ft (15,240m), icing conditions, massive down drafts and very quick changes in conditions. The following day brought bright blue skies and a mission that went ahead.
Crews had to be ready to re-plan while airborne; a challenging prospect with RAPTOR that involved plenty of communication and crew resource management between the two cockpits, ensuring the best imagery was captured through cloud gaps. This might have involved holding the altitude, changing the stand-off range and the type of image taken to ensure the tasking requirement was met.
West Africa is a big region and the Tornado crews were searching for targets in an area covering hundreds of thousands of square miles. Part of the tasking involved specific points of interest given through the tasking chain. The other part involved collecting imagery of larger swathes of land to increase knowledge of the region.
A typical sortie lasted between 90 and 120 minutes during which the amount of data gathered by the RAPTOR pod, in terms of volume, was the equivalent to a mission in Afghanistan lasting two or three times longer.
One Tornado pilot described the sorties as very busy in terms of data collect which was maximised by having RAPTOR alongside Litening, or two aircraft each equipped with a RAPTOR pod when required. The stores configurations of the two aircraft enabled both video and still images to be recorded.
Operating in a part of the world that lacked full-radar cover meant that a lot of the flying was to VFR (visual flight rules), and knowing where to fly and which other airfields to speak with all to increase the level of situational awareness of the crew. Part of the planning process was to assess the flight safety and operate as reasonably as practical in the threat and risk environment of the region.
Operation Turus was effectively a search mission, therefore all imagery captured during the sorties had to be sifted through for positive leads. The TIW team was faced with a huge amount of imagery to process and analyse. To handle the workload, the number of image analysts deployed was increased during the initial phase. This allowed the team to operate around the clock and maximise the number of intelligence-based reports produced. Each report contained just the key parts from all of the imagery acquired, and sent to the command for further analysis. RAPTOR pods used on Operation Turus were configured with the latest iteration of software and supported by the then current version of ground support stations.
During the two-month deployment the detachment flew 55 sorties and dropped just one.
What now after RAPTOR?
AIR International asked Gp Capt Townsend how the Air Force was plugging the gap in reconnaissance capability left by the loss of the Tornado-specific RAPTOR pod. He said: “Tactical reconnaissance is something the Air Force has done for many years and has been seen as a lead in the role so the loss of RAPTOR takes something unique out of the inventory. RAPTOR has been seen as a very useful capability, particularly by our American allies. The future for tactical reconnaissance, certainly on Typhoon, lies within further advancements in targeting pod capability. There are significant advances with the Litening pod, but that said, it is not a comparison of apples with apples [RAPTOR with Litening III].”
So what next for reconnaissance? Gp Capt Townsend explained that the shiny new F-35B Lightning will conduct the role in a slightly different way to legacy types like the Tornado GR4. He said: “The F-35’s sensor fusion capability provides a much more thorough, and different, intelligence picture compared to pure high-resolution imagery as gathered by the RAPTOR pod.
Today’s and tomorrow’s battle spaces will have so much happening within them; much more than can be captured with cameras and the eyes of image analysts.”
Remember the F-35 is equipped with a multimode AESA radar, an integrated electro-optical targeting system, an advanced electronic warfare system and a distributed aperture system; a suite of sensors which are all fed to what’s known as a fusion engine, one of many very advanced systems built into the heart of Lockheed Martin’s stealth fighter.
The fusion engine provides the pilot with a fused overview of the battle space, all served up on a large and very groovy cockpit display.
What now for the TIW?
Given the retirement from service of the RAPTOR pod, AIR International asked Gp Capt Townsend what the future held for the once Marham-based Tactical Imagery Wing (TIW) and its highly-skilled cadre of personnel and image analysts. He said: “The Tactical Imagery Wing is already in the process of transferring to Waddington, the RAF’s ISR hub. Its personnel will coalesce around Waddington, and its role will change subtly from photographic interpretation to interpretation of ever more intelligence data from across the electromagnetic spectrum. The Air Force continues to collect intelligence, but is doing so in subtly different ways; ones which are entirely appropriate for the battle space of the future.
“The Tactical Imagery Wing has been absorbed by 1 ISR Wing which stood-up at Waddington in 2016. One of the two flights in the TIW has remained at Marham [to provide analysis and dissemination of intelligence data acquired from RAPTOR imagery] but will move to Waddington over the next six months and the transition has already started.”
Tornado: the greatest?
When AIR International asked Gp Capt Townsend whether the Tornado GR4 can be considered the greatest aircraft since the days of Hurricanes, Spitfires and Lancasters, the station commander paused, and then responded. “That’s a very interesting question.
During presentations I often pick someone in the audience to give me their top five iconic RAF aircraft. Tornado doesn’t regularly feature in a top five. Yet in August 1990, Tornado GR1s first deployed to the Middle East and only returned to the UK for a short period in 2009. The type has effectively been on ops since 1990: more than a quarter of the RAF’s 100-year history. That’s incredible. What’s also nice is the fact that the Tornado started and finished its operational service at RAF Marham.”
As mentioned earlier, Gp Capt Townsend’s RAF flying career began with the Harrier, through Typhoon and finally the Tornado GR4, but he won’t fly the F-35B. He holds perhaps an expected view on that: “Wow am I envious, you have to be envious. The F-35 Lightning is without doubt the best combat aircraft on the planet, and we are only just scratching the service in discovering how good the aeroplane will be.
With the F-35 operating alongside Typhoon as sovereign capabilities, the future of UK combat air power is very bright.”
In preparation for Tornado’s official withdrawal from service on March 31, 2019, RAF Marham hosted a number of events to celebrate its service career. The first of these took place on January 25 when three specially-painted Tornado GR4s were presented to the public for the first time. Two carried unique tail markings, aircraft ZG775/AF representing IX(Bomber) Squadron and aircraft ZD716/DH representing 31 Squadron; the last two units to fly the type. The third jet, ZG752 was painted in a retro camouflage scheme, as worn by the Royal Air Force’s original Tornado GR1s. This aircraft displayed squadron badges commemorating each squadron that flew the Tornado IDS along its fuselage spine.
Two days earlier, all three specially marked jets participated in an air-to-air photo shoot before performing a series of flypasts on their return to RAF Marham. Before the end of March, further formal events were held to commemorate its historic service. These included a media event on February 6 to mark the return of the Tornado GR4s deployed to RAF Akrotiri following their participation in Operation Shader, the United Kingdom’s military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq. Formation flypasts were also performed throughout the United Kingdom by three Tornados over multiple sites associated with the Tornado’s history between February 19 and 21, dubbed the farewell tour. Flying events culminated with a final eleven-aircraft launch and diamond nine flypasts at Royal Air Force College Cranwell and RAF Marham on February 28.
Having participated in these formations, Flight Lieutenant Shawyer expressed his pride at having the opportunity to pilot the iconic jet during the missions: “Flying in formation with the three specially painted jets was a great moment for me, and to be able to fly one of the aircraft with my name on the side was quite an honour.”
At the time of the Shader jets’ return, 16 Tornado GR4s remained in the active fleet but that number soon dwindled with some of the returning veterans destined never to fly again. After the February 29 nine-ship, the only time a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 took to the air was on a last flight to a final resting place for preservation. The others will be dismantled at Marham and spares may find a buyer on the international, principally Germany.
Both squadrons operating the type at the end of Royal Air Force service have slightly different futures. After 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’ disbands in March, the unit will reform, probably in 2024, at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire equipped with the General Atomics MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicle dubbed in RAF service as the Protector RG1.
Lastly, IX(B) Squadron ‘Bats’ will reform with the Typhoon FGR4 at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray with a stand-up parade to mark the event scheduled for May 2. Both squadrons marked their status change with a disbandment parade at RAF Marham on March 14, 2019. AI