In the June issue of AFM, we pay tribute to one of the Royal Air Force’s greatest servants – the Tornado GR. In a free, 24-page supplement, we spoke to the pilots who have flown the Tornado, including coverage of an unmatched combat record that has taken in campaigns over Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
Our regular columnist, Air Power Association President, Air Marshal (Ret’d) Greg Bagwell CB, CBE, introduces our special coverage of the Tornado GR Force, as it prepares for final retirement on March 31, 2019.
Bagwell told AFM: “I first strapped into a Tornado GR1 at the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore, Rutland in 1984 as a 22-year-old flying officer. I didn’t really have much of a reference, as I had come straight through flying training and the most complex aircraft I had flown was a Hawk T1, whose sole navigation aid was a compass that seemed to be permanently toppled.
“The Tornado appeared to offer a bewildering array of technology, from fly-by-wire to terrain-following radar, an inertial navigation system, glass displays and – wait for it – a 64KB main computer (yes, 64KB).
“Some of the older members of the course had a different perspective borne from their previous experiences on Jaguars, Buccaneers, Lightnings and Vulcans – just about every combat aircraft type in the RAF inventory was making way for the huge expansion plans of the Tornado fleet – but each one of us knew that we were seeing something quite unlike what had gone before.”
Fast-forward 34 years, and the Tornado GR4 – recipient of numerous capability upgrades and new technology – was still the first choice for air commanders striking key Syrian targets associated with the country’s chemical weapons programme.
On April 14 this year, four Tornado GR4s slipped into Syrian airspace under the cloak of darkness to deliver a lethal blow to Syrian regime chemical weapons storage facilities at Him Sinshar, west of Homs, in response to the alleged use of such deadly toxins against civilians in Douma the week before.
Each dispatching a pair of bunker-busting Storm Shadows, the RAF Tornados were taking part in a co-ordinated mission that once again proved the value of these combat veterans.
As RAF Marham prepares to receive the brand new F-35B Lightning Force this summer, the two remaining GR4 units – Nos IX (Bomber) and 31 Squadrons – continue to operate from a small enclave on the base. Acting as a pooled resource, personnel and aircraft will continue to support Operation Shader right to the very end of the Tornado’s service life next year.
The comparison between those original Operation Granby sorties of 1991 and today’s Shader tactics is stark. One pilot told AFM: “We are solely using smart weapons now and all of our missions are flown at medium level.
“The jet is really well equipped for the close air support [CAS] role. The flash-to-bang of getting a target from a JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] on the ground to inputting the co-ordinates into the weapon and releasing is so fast – with DMS [Dual Mode Seeker] Brimstone, for example, we can do that in under a minute!
“We have Link 16 now, so we can get a message with co-ordinates from the ground or generate them with the pod. The jet at the moment is as good as it will ever be. It’s right at the top of its game.”