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Whither the F3? looks at the Royal Air Force’s fighter force, now a mere shadow of its former self.

A couple of years ago, UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) plans showed the Royal Air Force’s 43(F) Squadron disbanding in mid-2010 with the last unit, 111(F) Squadron, bringing the career of the Panavia Tornado F3 to an end in March 2011. But, in June 2009 it was announced that the fleet will be reduced from 36 to just 12 aircraft from the September, the remaining aircrews and aircraft solely tasked with manning Northern Quick Reaction Alert (I) (known as ‘Northern Q’) as a single squadron. It was a surprise to many – North East Fife MP Sir Menzies Campbell said: “These reports are surprising and have not been preceded with any advance warning to myself. It may well be that an opportunity is being taken to try and reduce the pressure on the already overstretched MoD budget.”

An MoD spokesman is reported as saying that “The decision was taken in order to rebalance our assets to ensure we continue to meet all our current commitments across all forces. There will be no change to the air defence of the United Kingdom – the Tornado F3 will continue to fly from RAF Leuchars and will maintain the northern quick reaction alert commitment at that station until its planned out-of-service date in 2011.” This decision adds extra pressure to the fledgling Typhoon force at Coningsby, which has been manning ‘Southern Q’ for the last 18 months and has recently taken on the tasking in the South Atlantic of defending the Falkland Islands. Although ‘Northern Q’ will still be supported by F3, other responsibilities will have to be shouldered by Typhoon, presumably including the RAF’s current fighter commitment to the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF), requiring 16 aircraft to be available at any one time and previously covered by the Leuchars squadrons.

[img src=906 align=left]Nos. 3(F) and XI Squadrons at RAF Coningsby are manning six jets on permanent QRA in the UK and the Falkland Islands until the Leuchars Typhoon units reach a stage of maturity, not expected until 2012. Through the JRRF, the 2003 Defence White Paper expects the MoD to be able to mount an ‘enduring’ Medium Scale peace support Operation (e.g. Afghanistan) simultaneously with an ‘enduring’ Small Scale peace support Operation, and a one-off Small Scale intervention operation, at the same time maintaining its commitments such as QRA for UK airspace. The first of the units destined for Leuchars, 6 Squadron, is expected to form at Coningsby in mid-2010 with the objective of taking on QRA responsibilities at Leuchars by April 2011. It is expected that 43 and 111 Squadrons will later reform, bringing the total of front-line Typhoon squadrons to five.

The decision to accelerate retirement of the Tornado F3 is almost certainly, as Menzies Campbell suggests, one of a fiscal nature. Speculation has been rife for a long while that two squadrons of Tornado GR4s would be axed, but with the type replacing the Harrier in Afghanistan the previous Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, may have decided to sacrifice the F3 instead in early 2009. Although Typhoon was down to be deployed to Afghanistan in the ‘near future’, it is not considered mature enough for sustained deployment, hence the need to protect the GR4 fleet. Torpy’s more recent statements about abandoning the Harrier force may also have been somewhat of a bluff, with the accelerated drawdown of the F3 being seen by many as a much less painful option in the short-term. QRA is especially resource consuming – just to maintain two jets on constant alert requires a fleet of 12, as the recent statement highlights. Crew rotation, rest periods and maintaining currency are the primary concerns, rather than the number of aircraft available, although with a type at the end of its useful life, supply chains will still have to be maintained.

[img src=907 align=right]The Defence White Paper of 2003 concluded: “Given the reduced air threat to deployed forces, the ability to deploy 16 air defence fighter aircraft within (an) expeditionary task group will be necessary. Taking into consideration Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) tasks, a front line force of 55 crews will be required.” With an average of 16 pilots per squadron, it is not difficult to see that in 2010 the numbers do not quite add up – the South Atlantic tasking is particularly challenging, as crews cannot be readily replaced in times of sickness. With Russian military aircraft increasingly venturing into NATO’s Air Policing Area, for which the United Kingdom has responsibility, the Tornados are guaranteed to be busy for the next year – if Putin decides to test Britain’s alert status with an increase in expeditionary flights, the RAF could find itself overstretched at home, rather than just overseas.

But with the MoD budget under severe duress, and the publication of the Haddon-Cave report into the crash of Nimrod XV230 raising severe questions about the RAF’s airworthiness standards, money may be required sooner, rather than later. Retirement before the Leuchars Typhoon squadrons are ready is possible, but would place an enormous strain on the Coningsby units.

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