The RAF has been putting six Tornado GR.4 aircraft and their crews from No.31 Squadron through the gruelling two-week-long exercise, Frisian Flag 2017, which was held at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands. Beginning on March 27th and culminating on April 7th, the large scale exercise saw aircraft from several NATO members get airborne twice a day for a series of mock battles which saw the RAF aircraft act as the Red Force – the bad guys.
The primary purpose of Frisian Flag 2017, as well as honing combat skills, was to provide the participating units experience in combined NATO operations within a modern threat environment. The RAF Tornado GR.4s were joined by USAF F-15 Eagles, French Mirage 2000s, German Typhoons and an assortment of F-16 variants from several NATO countries. Missions undertaken included air defence and escort missions for the fighter aircraft while strike aircraft such as the Tornados were assigned to attack high priority ground targets and conduct defence suppression operations.
Wing Commander Matt Bressani of No.31 Squadron said;
Working with NATO countries helps us to better understand our own strengths and weaknesses by testing each other’s defences. With the Tornado GR4 going out of service in a few years’ time, this is an ideal opportunity to train our crews for their future beyond this air frame.
The last Tornado GR.4 is expected to be withdrawn from frontline service in 2019 with much of its strike tasking being undertaken by upgraded Typhoons. The Ministry of Defence has also said that the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II will be stepped up in order to create an additional frontline RAF squadron by 2023.
As the RAF’s plans to finally phase out its Panavia Tornado GR.4 force in favour of the Eurofighter Typhoon progress ahead, details have emerged that one asset the Tornado has that will not be transferred over is the Tornado’s RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado) pod. RAPTOR is a stand-off electro-optical and Infrared long-range oblique-photograpic reconnaissance pod which is capable of producing high-resolution images and then transmitting them via a real-time data-link to image analysts at a ground station. The pod entered service in 2001 and has seen valuable use over Iraq during Operation Telic and continues to be used in operations against Daesh-ISIS.
However, the RAPTOR pod has proven too heavy and too large to fit on the optimum centerline station of the Typhoon; the undercarriage doors are in the way. This has meant that the pod will now have to be retired with the Tornado force but the capabilities it offers may not be lost with the Typhoon. UTA Aerospace Systems (UTAS) has proposed adapting the Typhoon’s centerline fuel tank to carry an improved version of the RAPTOR’s camera and datalink equipment. Christened Fast Jet Pod 2 (FJP2), it could alternatively house the tactical synthetic aperture radar (TacSAR) that UTAS announced was being jointly developed with Leonardo (then Selex Galileo) at the 2014 Farnborough airshow.
The question remains however; how important is manned aerial reconnaissance to the British military in the 21st century? The British armed forces have recently made great strides towards increasing their unmanned tactical reconnaissance and strike assets with the Royal Navy having just completed possibly the most comprehensive unmanned systems exercise in the world namely Unmanned Warrior 2016.
Unmanned systems have all the capability advantages of a pod such as RAPTOR carried by a manned aircraft but has the added advantage of eliminating the risk to aircrew. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones have proven themselves in the fight against global terrorism but in a modern conflict where there would be hostile air activity they are exceptionally vulnerable to interception. On December 23rd 2002, an Iraqi MiG-25 shot down a US RQ-1 Predator drone which reportedly opened fire on the MiG with a Stinger missile but failed to hit it. Proponents of manned reconnaissance platforms claim that an aircraft such as Typhoon has a greater chance of defending itself in the face of a dense threat environment and can also carry weapons to immediately attack targets of opportunity should they detect them with their reconnaissance equipment.
UTAS has already produced a downsized version of RAPTOR centered around the pod’s DB-110 system for use on aircraft in the F-16 class and this is also an option for the RAF’s Typhoon.
Four RAF Tornado GR.4s have carried out the first British air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The aircraft were launched from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus less than hours after MPs voted to approve action. MPs voted by 397 votes to 223 for the RAF’s campaign to be extended from Iraq in to Syria.
The strikes were targeted against the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria which is under IS control. The aim of the mission was to damage Islamic State’s financial infrastructure. The weapon used in the attack has been revealed as being 500lb Paveway laser guided bombs.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon described the mission as “successful” and “a very real blow on the oil and revenue on which Daesh depends”.
According to the Daily Express newspaper a third of the Royal Air Force’s fast-jet force has been rendered unserviceable pending repairs as a result of near continuous combat operations in Afghanistan, Lybia and Iraq. According to the newspaper MoD figures reveal that 36 of the RAF’s 91 Eurofighter Typhoons and 39 of the 96 Panavia Tornado GR.4s have been taken off frontline duties for major repair work. With the Harrier force retired prematurely and operations against Islamic State in Iraq set to rise the worry is the situation could worsen.
The revelations came after Labour MP Madeline Moon raised the question in parliament. They responded with a rather vague statement saying;
Aircraft availability rates change considerably over very short periods of time.
Loosely translated what the RAF are trying to say is that the fact of the matter is intensive operations will take a toll on aircraft serviceability rates. These are complex machines being made to work in quite austere and punishing conditions and it is inevitable that some of them will develop some kind of malfunction that needs repair. This is not a situation unique to the RAF but to all military flying forces. The concern is that unlike the US Air Force or indeed the Royal Saudi Air Force the RAF simply doesn’t have the reserve forces to make up for the shortfall after savage cuts by the coalition government in 2010. The loss of the Harrier fleet is now being felt by the RAF who are carrying out a dangerous job with the usual professionalism and commitment that the British public and their government seem to take for granted these days which has led to this situation in the first place.
With the rest of the UK focusing on the general election the RAF continues its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On Sunday May 3rd, two Tornado GR4s provided direct support to Iraqi troops near Bayji and conducted a successful attack with a Paveway precision guided bomb on a concealed ISIL position. Shortly afterwards, a Reaper flying overwatch for an Iraqi unit in Anbar province was able to identify two engineering vehicles which ISIL were using to construct defensive positions – both vehicles were destroyed with Hellfire missiles.
Tornado GR4s also assisted Iraqi troops on the evening of Monday the 4th of May; whilst trying to evacuate wounded comrades, the soldiers came under heavy fire from terrorists positioned in two buildings. Despite the proximity of the friendly forces, careful planning and the accuracy of the Paveway system allowed the GR4s to destroy both terrorist positions and remove the threat to the troops on the ground.
GR4s then provided support to the Kurdish peshmerga on Tuesday May 6th near Mosul, and conducted air strikes with Paveways on ISIL sniper and heavy machine-gun positions.