DefenceSynergia Briefing – The Retirement of Tornado GR4 and A Restrictive Ministry Of Defence Two Fast Jet Fleet Policy

DefenceSynergia (DS) must, once again, draw attention to the incoherent and risky air power policy of the Royal Air Force (RAF) inherent in the planned retirement of the Tornado GR4 fleet by mid 2019 especially when linked to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) ill advised ‘Two Fast Jet Fleet’ policy. Until recently the RAF had 36 Tornado GR4 aircraft active in service across three squadrons, although one of the three Tornado Force squadrons, 12 Sqn, was disbanded on 14 Feb 2018 the rest are slated to be retired during 2019.

The remaining fast jet Capability is provided by the Typhoon in-service fleet of 92 aircraft across seven squadrons, including Typhoon aircraft permanently assigned to Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) tasks at RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Coningsby and Falkland Islands to keep our skies safe and unviolated. This Typhoon fleet is sustained with 40+ spares in storage.

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-armed-forces-equipment-and-formations-2017

The much vaunted but significantly problem beset F-35B Lightning II has yet to appear in the UK, and only 16 are slated to be en-route to the UK to form the first unit (617 Squadron) sometime later this year. https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/new-officer-commanding-617-squadron-takes-first-flight-f-35b/

However, the F-35B is unlikely to be at Initial limited combat readiness for both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) until 2020 or beyond assuming that they have the appropriate software fit. Although a total of 138 F-35B are stated by MOD to be procured in line with Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) calculations, only 48 F-35B have been confirmed as being on order, primarily for use on the QE class carriers. How many will actually enter service is unknown – hopefully the current Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) review will provide this detail before Parliament recesses for the summer.

The outgoing Tornado GR4 has an impressive spectrum of role capabilities and a wide array of weapon and sensor provision options that are not yet replicated by the Typhoon fleet, and will not be offered by the F-35B for years, if at all. It has been reported that MOD has discontinued ‘Storm Shadow’ as part of the UK F-35B weapons fit preferring instead to await future joint development of ‘SPEAR CAP 3’ stand-off missile with an in-service date beyond 2030. In addition, there is the risk of having limited or no combat air power capability should the Typhoon suffer a problem that grounds or severely limits the use of the fleet. This seems like the RAF having too many eggs in one ‘Typhoon basket’ until F-35B is fully combat ready. It is not so long ago that the Typhoon fleet was grounded with ejection seat problems; being released for limited, urgent operational use only.

DS finds it very difficult to envisage scenarios where MOD would risk putting its all too few but very expensive and battle damage vulnerable Typhoons and F-35Bs in harm’s way in the low and slow attack profiles needed to deliver effective and accurate Close Air Support (CAS) of troops on the ground. This is unlike the suitability of the Harrier or Jaguar and, more recently after these aircraft were withdrawn from service, Tornado where it is especially the case in a conflict against a Peer opponent. An enemy with extensive anti-aircraft defensive systems has not been encountered for over a decade or more, and where UK aircraft have operated, it has been in a relatively benign low anti-air operations air supremacy environment in the Middle East.

Therefore, it seems that phasing out Tornado GR4 before the first F-35Bs have arrived, let alone become combat ready, generates another potentially dangerous UK military Capability gap just at a time when military threats and tensions, that might require this aircraft and its systems, are ramping up with Russia’s military expansionist posturing on NATO’s borders.

DS asks, would it not be sensible to slow the phase out of the Tornado Force, perhaps a squadron at a time over the next 3-4 years, until F-35B has demonstrated its actual capability and Typhoon has more weapon systems authorised for use? DS believes this should be possible using proactive fleet management of the currently active Tornado aircraft, the recently disbanded aircraft and those in storage, to keep the Capability effective on a reducing fleet basis: this assumes trained support staff, support budgets and industry support being made available.

To fill the vital Capability gap of CAS and other battlefield support roles to UK troops on the ground, DS understands from the MOD website that a partial solution may already partially exist with the Hawk – whether it is viable or cost effective remains to be seen – however in the context of the MDP it should be worth following up.

From the RAF website (https://www.raf.mod.uk/aircraft/hawk-t1/) :

“The Hawk T1 is used primarily in the aggressor role by 100 Squadron, who provide opposition forces for front-line training in addition to Close Air Support (CAS) simulation to Land units for currency training. The Hawk T1 is equipped to an operational standard and is capable of undertaking a war role. It has two underwing pylons cleared to carry AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missiles or a telemetry pod for recording missions to enable post-flight debriefing. In the CAS training role it can carry up to eight 3Kg practice bombs.”

Therefore, the RAF should consider converting a few squadrons of the 90 Hawk T1 aircraft in its inventory. According to the 2017 DASA RAF aircraft statistics, the MOD has 31 T1/T1A/T1W Hawk aircraft in storage and 56 Hawk T1 aircraft operating in various flying training roles including 736 RNAS Sqn and 100 Sqn in Aggressor Sqn roles, and the Red Arrows. The stated built-in Hawk combat capability should be brought to operational readiness, and the aircraft used in various war roles within a Mixed Fighter Force (MFF) COMAO Air Defence strategy to supplement and release more capable Typhoon fast jets to the front line. Further enhancements to Hawk ground attack capability for release of more than practice bombs would seem a sensible priority for airworthiness considerations. Many Defence Lines Of Development (DLOD) issues relating to the actual ability to use MOD Hawk T1 in a true war role will need addressing and there will be conversion and through life support matters to attend to. However, if Hawk T1 aircraft are as stated by the RAF ‘fitted for but not with’ combat/war role capable, then this is an obvious cost effective Capability gap option to investigate.

RAF Valley IV Sqn instructors, RAF Scampton Red Arrows Display Team pilots, RAF Leeming 100 Sqn their FAA Aggressor pilot colleagues at 736 RNAS at RAS Culdrose are an obvious pool of MFF initial capability aircrew. Why not also leverage RA and FAA fast jet aircrew in staff tours needing to retain flying currency, all trained on Hawk to get them ready for fast jet Sqn tours, in new combat MFF roles and duties? This would help to keep as many RAF and FAA pilots as possible combat ready and current in combat air tactics, by cycling them through these operational Mixed Fighter Force squadrons? Being a two seater aircraft, these Hawk squadrons could also potentially provide valuable employment for the highly combat experienced remaining Weapon System Operators (WSO) that have been, and will be, released from Tornado GR4 rear cockpit duties.

Hawk aircraft variants (100 and 200 series) have been sold by BAE Systems as a CAS/Light Attack capable aircraft abroad, and having recently invested £372m in its continued support, why not generate a UK air power win-win situation of more combat squadrons for the RAF, work for the UK defence industry, plus more potential for export orders for the Hawk? https://www.gov.uk/government/news/372-million-investment-for-hawk-support-sustains-700-uk-jobs and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BAE_Systems_Hawk

It seems logical to turn potential combat capabilities into potent combat capabilities in times of extremis. Indeed, there might also be an opportunity to exploit the new Beechcraft Texan T1 trainers in their Wolverine variant as light attack or forward air observation aircraft to assist CAS.

In accordance with the Chief of the Air Staff’s recent thoughts on the topic, the evolution of the current and planned Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) also need to be fully integrated into a Hybrid Force Air Power strategy. Hawk with a rear seat WSO could also operate as a mother ship controlling a number of UASs in a mixed fighter force role, with Typhoon and F35B (even Tornado until F35B achieves operational capability) in the mix. Therefore, this is not the time to restrict UK’s manned and unmanned combat aircraft air power capability through an inflexible approach to outmoded Air Fleet plans and a dogmatic adherence to a flawed Two Fast Jet Fleet mantra.

Necessity, it is said, is the mother of innovation and invention. Thus, MOD aircraft fleet leverage efficiency, and ‘sweating the available assets’ is required to bridge many Capability gaps until the 2030s and beyond. Hawk is inexpensive compared to other fighters. It is a fast jet with capability well beyond its training role. It is available to the RAF in large numbers with which to bolster both Air Defence and Close Air Support and, not to be overlooked, every fast jet pilot in the RAF has qualified to fly thereby reducing training time and cost for aircrew combat readiness.

In accordance with the Chief of the Air Staff’s recent thoughts on the topic, the evolution of the current and planned Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) also need to be fully integrated into a Hybrid Force Air Power strategy. Hawk with a rear seat Weapons Systems Operator could operate as a mother ship controlling a number of UASs in a mixed fighter force role, with Typhoon and F35B (even Tornado until F35B achieves operational capability) in the mix. Therefore, this is not the time to restrict UK’s manned and unmanned combat aircraft air power capability through an inflexible approach to outmoded Air Fleet plans and a dogmatic adherence to a flawed Two Fast Jet Fleet mantra.

Finally, food for thought regarding a Two Fast Jet Fleet policy. Were the F-35B to become unavailable for reasons such as mandatory airworthiness limitations – as happened with Typhoon briefly in 2010 because of ejection seat problems – this would severely restrict the Queen Elizabeth class carriers to fully meet its Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) role. The RAF might in the future have Two Fast Jets but the RN will have just the one – that has not to date achieved even Limited Operational Capability and continues to run into development problems.