04 Aug 15. I am both pleased and yet hardly surprised that the Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Michael Fallon, should have announced that the RAF Marham based 12 (B) Squadron Tornado GR4 capability will now not be stood down until March 2017. This is clearly a very sensible and much needed confirmation and it comes in the wake of comments made by Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, suggesting that ‘jet operations in the Middle East and Baltic had stretched the Royal Air Force’s seven squadrons of combat jets to the limit and that the Force itself was now at the very limits of fast jet availability and capacity’ we can I hope take from this as yet another sign that the message in regard of combat air mass, which I talked of in detail two weeks ago, is starting to get through.
There is another equally important point about this announcement too. While Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado GR4 capability is still very much up to the job in hand and remains very well regarded by our US and other NATO allies the final out-of-service date (OSD) is now only a little more than three years away.
When eventually stood down in 2018/19 the vital role that Tornado GR4 capability continues to play today will eventually be taken over by Typhoon. The capability enhancement route map that will allow for this to complete in the 2018/19 time frame is thankfully now all in place. Being equipped to engage in a much wider range of threats than ever contemplated before including weapons and mission systems upgrades, availability and maintenance improvements that are designed to reduce operational costs, suffice to say that BAE Systems Military Air & Information based at Warton are very well advanced making the large scale required enhancements to Typhoon capability.
Reduced to just six squadrons under the current Future Force 2020 plans that emerged from SDSR 2010 five years ago the need to extend 12 Squadron Tornado GR4 aircraft is yet further evidence if it was needed that Royal Air Force fast jet capability is now dangerously over stretched. What today’s announcement by Secretary of State hopefully suggests is not only the belated recognition by the Government that getting on with planned investment in Typhoon is absolutely crucial but also that the Royal Air Force needs double the number of fast jet squadrons that it is planned to have.
Back to the superb Panavia Tornado GR4 and which for the time being we need to continue serving as the primary multi-role fast jet capability until Typhoon is ready to take over in 2018/19. This is the second life extension that 12 Squadron has been given in just under a year and it will take the squadron through to the conclusion of planned Panavia GR4 Tornado 19 months from now.
The original intention planned within SDSR 2010 was that by March 2015 the number of Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 squadrons would be down to just two and that these alone would need to continue as the backbone of Royal Air Force multi-role capability until Typhoon was ready to take over in 2018/19. That decision was soon found wanting as of course was also the ridiculous plan to cut the number of front line fast jet squadrons to just six.
Nevertheless, while todays’ announcement from Secretary of State Defence is excellent news I am disappointed in terms of how this has been portrayed in some parts of the media particularly in regard of 12 Squadron life extension for another year and also that the UK will continue to operate 8 RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft from Cyprus and that continue to play a vital role in the bombing of ISIL targets in Iraq and also the all-important reconnaissance role.
Innuendo from BBC Security Correspondent, Frank Gardner on the ‘Today programme’ this morning during which he made it sound almost as if the eight Tornado GR4 aircraft that we are currently deployed over Iraq were the only Tornado aircraft that we had left me scratching my head. In addition I personally disliked the lack of detail provided to listeners on the Today programme that inferred that 12 (B) Squadron was the ‘only’ Tornado squadron in existence. Properly reported there should surely have been mention that in addition to 12(B) there are still two other fully operational Tornado GR4 squadrons based at RAF Marham – 1X (B) and 31 Squadron plus of course 15 (Reserve) Squadron which remains the Tornado OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) and is based at RAF Lossiemouth.
Far from innuendo that seemed to imply just eight GR4 aircraft are extant and that just one Squadron remaining, it really is important in my view to stress that each and every one of the Tornado GR4 aircraft within three main front line fast jet squadrons that remain are absolutely crucial to missions such as Op. Shader just as they are to the overall UK defence requirement and to playing our role within NATO. My current understanding on this matter is that approximately 73 Tornado GR4 aircraft remain on Royal Air Force books, sixteen of which are currently on overseas deployment and that all three Tornado operating squadrons remain committed to servicing Op. Shader.
Neither did I particularly like the stressing by Sarah Montague, the Today programme presenter, this morning that these superb aircraft are ‘ageing’ and the implication that they are already too old for the task. Yes of course the Panavia Tornado is to be regarded as an aircraft running into its final period of a long and illustrious career in Royal Air Force operational service. Tornado GR4 remains a brilliant capability but with an out-of-service date of 2019 it is excellent to see that we have now really got behind Typhoon capability enhancement.
For the record the first UK pre-production Tornado GR1 aircraft (XZ630) flew for the first time in 1977. This aircraft has in fact been on display at RAF Halton since 2004. True, as an airframe as opposed to capability Tornado is now to be considered an aircraft running close toward its OSD and reminding that these aircraft were designed and built through the 1970’s and 1980’s is certainly in order. But we should remember that Tornado was originally designed to have an out of service date of 2025 before, on the basis of prohibitive costs of retaining the capability in service for that long, this was rightly subsequently reduced to 2020 and later to 2019.
Royal Air Force Tornado capability has been substantially upgraded over the years and what we knew in its original multi-role form as the GR1 is the GR4 today. While it is true that the F-3 ADV version of the Tornado and until 2011 been used to defend UK skies in the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role based at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby has gone – replaced by the until this role was taken over by Typhoon have all gone suffice to say that whilst Tornado GR4 capability can hardly be considered young and is no doubt more costly to operate and maintain than Typhoon capability designed to replace it, for now at least the GR4 remains supreme in what it does.
In terms of the ground attack role, at least until weapon upgrade work on Typhoon that includes fitting of Storm Shadow, Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile, Paveway 1V bomb, Dual Mode Brimstone 2 air-to-surface weapon integration and the existing aircraft radar is upgraded with ESCAN Multi-mode air-to-air and air-to-surface radar is complete, Tornado GR4 remains in terms of overall capability and particularly for the dual air-to-air and air-to-ground role the king of all it surveys. With all-weather capability and that a large range of weapon and other capability in the form of Dual Mode Brimstone, Storm Shadow, ASRAAM, enhanced Paveway 1V bomb, RAPTOR Reconnaissance sensor Pod plus various other smaller weapons Tornado GR4 still has plenty top offer albeit that very soon in Royal Air Force service it will be knocked off the top spot by Typhoon.