Warnesy’s World

Tornado gets the nod – every time!

JUST AS it looked like the RAF Tornado might be heading into an early retirement, they are needed now more than ever all over the world!  With the RAF Typhoon not yet ready for reconnaissance missions or to deliver stand-off weapons, it’s the trusty Tornado the RAF is now looking to for all the current out of area ops.

On August 11, three Tornados went to RAF Akrotiri to provide the US with some combat-Intelligence Surveillance Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) support agains Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq.  A couple of weeks later, several were sent to N’Djamena in Chad, to search for the 200 missing Nigerian school girls snatched by the Boko Haram.  Meanwhile eight more examples are out in Afghanistan providing similar capabilities to allied forces until March 2015.

The reason the RAF Tornados can provide a solution simple to the issues in the middle east, Africa and Afghanistan is simple.  It has the cutting edge RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Pod for Tornado) pod, regarded as the world leader in the specialised field of all weather, day and night tactical reconnaissance.  Equally as important, the RAF has some of the best imagery analysts in the world having honed their skills during operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. 

So how does it work?

Imagery sucked up by the Tornado’s stand-off EO/IR, long range oblique photography pod can be transmitted via a data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or displayed in the cockpit during flight.  In Afghanistan the imagery wasn’t data-linked because the recovery time to Kandahar was fairly short, so imagery was extracted on the ground. 

The system can create images of hundreds of separate areas of interest or targets.  Not only that but it is capable of operating autonomously against pre-planned targets in one sortie, or re-tasked manually in the air for targets of opportunity or select a different route to check on. 

During a conflict, the stand-off range of the sensor allows the Tornado to remain outside heavily defended areas and so minimise the threat from surface to air missiles. 

But it’s not just RAPTOR

Tornado can also be equipped with the Litening III pod.  While more renowned for the self-designation of targets for laser guided bombs, it also provides a tactical reconnaissance capability. The ability to laser spot detect and track as well as deliver long range data and video downlinks makes it one of the reasons why so many air forces around the world are equipping their platforms with Litening III.  It can provide this capability to ground forces, with the EO/IR full motion video down-linking real time to Tactical Air Controllers on their Rover terminals.  Ground Commanders can view these images to keep their situational awareness bang up to date.  For example, most friendly ground forces in Afghanistan have the capability to receive the imagery, thus kept aware of the bad guys locations so as not to walk into an ambush. Alternatively the TACs could confirm to the Tornado crews where to drop their weapons. 

The imagery can also be used by the crew on board the jet to monitor suspicious people, like the Islamic State fighters or Taliban, and search for potential locations of arms caches or improvised explosive devices.

With all that in mind, you can see why the Litening III and RAPTOR are such an import pieces of equipment. And why the US is always keen to get the Tornado and RAF personnel involved in its battles.   The Pakistan Air Force too has worked with the RAF on bettering its Combat-ISTAR capabilities. After acquiring the DB 110 system, which is the same as RAPTOR but in a different sized casing, the PAF wanted to provide better support to their Army colleagues on the ground.  There have been several large operations against the terrorists in the South Waziristan and North Waziristan and the PAF wanted to learn from the best.  Knowing the RAF were the experts on the system, they went to RAF Marham in 2010 to learn how to use the system. Today they are being used extensively against terrorists in Operation Zarb-e-Azb to identify weapons caches and hide-outs, which can then be attacked.

No recce capability on Typhoon yet

As you can see, it is not the Tornado that is so important but the sensors.  Unfortunately there is no other RAF platform to deliver this capability.  The Typhoon is busy working up to a full air to ground capability, which it isn’t expected to reach until April 2015 – just as the Tornados leave Afghanistan.  The UK MOD thought that once the job in Afghanistan was over, RAPTOR or Combat-ISTAR wouldn’t be such a high priority.  Suddenly it is and the IS isn’t likely to go away any time soon.  With no Combat ISTAR solution role for Typhoon and the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with its super-duper sensors not in service until around 2020, the future is looking brighter for Tornado.

There were signs the Tornado could be axed by 2017 under the forthcoming 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review.  But I can’t see that now, even though one of the three current Tornado units, II (AC) Sqn is transitioning to Typhoon on April 1, 2015.    Until a Combat-ISTAR solution is found, or the world becomes a safer placer, there appears no option but to keep the Tornado in service past 2017.  The MOD bean counters won’t be happy about that!  Alan Warnes