To commemorate the release of his new book about the aircraft, former RAF navigator Dave Gledhill tells the story of the Tornado ADV.
The Tornado F2 had a troubled introduction to service. The aircraft’s lack of agility when pitted against its peers such as the F-15 Eagle, Mirage 2000 and Su-27 “Flanker” meant that the first operational crews were disappointed in its abilities. Many thought that the decision to choose Tornado ADV was a political rather than an operational decision and that the operational requirement was naive in its simplicity.
Despite being a single nation requirement, the procurement process became mired in the bureaucracy of the multinational Tornado MRCA Procurement Agency. Of the 165 airframes ordered, only part of the fleet was ever put into service. For most of the working life about 100 airframes formed the backbone, comprising seven operational squadrons and a smaller Flight in the Falkland Islands fed by a larger Operational Conversion Unit. An Operational Evaluation Unit conducted operational testing and defined the tactics and procedures to be used by the front line. Never deployed to RAF Germany, the Tornado F3 was based at RAF Coningsby, RAF Leeming and RAF Leuchars in the UK in addition to RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.
The Tornado F2 and, subsequently, the F3, was designed as an interceptor to counter the threat from the Soviet Long Range Air Force in an electronic jamming environment. The crews were expected to fight against long range bombers at medium level over the North Sea. The fall of “The Wall” in 1989 meant that the threat against which it was designed diminished. A more unpredictable role developed as the F3 was increasingly tasked to conduct out-of-area operations often matched against fighter opponents. It was the need to adapt to the new scenarios at a time when the defence budget was being stretched that created many of the compromises that plagued the aircraft.
On arrival at RAF Coningsby in November 1984 it was soon recognised that the Tornado F2 in the form in which it was delivered into service was unacceptable. Despite the new electronic cockpit, the head up display and the new integrated tactical displays, the step forward in capability was not as radical as had been promised. Although the weapon system was innovative, it was under developed and the operational testing had been neglected. The Foxhunter radar had been tested in a laboratory and the flight trials had been rudimentary and conducted in a benign flight regime. When the Foxhunter radar was eventually delivered some months after the airframes arrived at Coningsby, the problems surfaced. The concrete ballast which was fitted in lieu of the radar system earned the F2 the nickname “Blue Circle” standard making reference to a well known concrete supplier. Once exposed to the rigours of real operational flying the deficiencies in the radar design became evident. Early flight trials identified these deficiencies and led to a redefinition of the specification which would, eventually, meet the operational requirement. Early updates failed to improve performance and only with the delivery of the Stage 1 standard radar in 1990 did the fortunes begin to improve. The delivery of the Stage 2 standard which met the specification came as late as 1994, some ten years after the aircraft entered the inventory.
There were, however, some bright spots as the air-to-air weapons delivery and performance were good and early missile firings showed promise. The hotline gunsight proved remarkably accurate; far more so than its predecessors and scores on the banner were excellent. The F3 also proved to be a step forward in flight safety and it had been in service for over eight years before the first aircraft was lost in an accident. Over its 25 year service life only 13 airframes were lost compared with a loss rate of up to one per month on a Lightning squadron.
A modern fighter does not need agility if it can be operated in the beyond visual range environment. If a target can be identified using onboard or off board sensors, the pilot can stand-off and employ air-to-air weapons without coming within range of an opponent’s weapons. Inevitably, however, combat aircraft interact, often unintentionally, so the need to beat an opponent in air combat has not gone away even in the era of the 5th generation fighter such as F-22 Raptor and Su-33 Flanker Delta. It was in this arena that the Tornado F3 suffered its “mid-life crisis”. The track-while-scan radar, once operating to specification, gave the ability to track multiple targets yet, in order to engage, the navigator was still required to lock up to a single target and launch a semi-active Skyflash which then had to be supported into the terminal phase of the engagement. With the radar locked to the target, other track-while-scan tracks were memorised and the tactical picture became stale, degrading the air picture at a crucial stage of the interception. Additionally, the F3 lacked an effective electronic identification capability to allow the crew to declare a target hostile. This meant that they depended on approval from the battle managers on the ground in order to engage. As a consequence, the Tornado’s lack of agility was compounded by restrictive rules of engagement which often dragged the crew into a turning fight for which the airframe was ill-equipped.
A replacement radar was considered on a number of occasions. The operational requirements staff considered the Blue Vixen radar fitted to the Sea Harrier and the AN/APG 65 fitted to the F-18 Hornet. By the time such proposals were becoming viable, the Foxhunter radar in its Stage 2 form was showing much more promise and plans were shelved. Replacement engines in the form of the EJ200 engine which powers Eurofighter Typhoon were also considered.
This would have improved the thrust-to-weight ratio, and consequently the manoeuvrability, considerably. Latterly, a helmet mounted sight would have revolutionised the within visual range capability making best use of the highly agile ASRAAM missile. These modifications were rejected on cost grounds by a cash-strapped MOD. With the quality of the opposition improving, the F3’s reputation suffered further.
During its service life the F3 was inevitably compared to the Sea Harrier, or “SHAR”, yet many of the comparisons were unfair and inaccurate. When it was introduced into service the Sea Harrier FRS1 was equipped with a pulse only radar and stern hemisphere AIM-9 missiles. The upgrade to FA2 standard in 1993 introduced the highly capable Blue Vixen pulse Doppler radar and integrated the AMRAAM missiles communicating via a digital data bus. When efforts were made in the mid to late 1990s to specify equivalent upgrades to the F3, which was after all the principal fighter guarding UK airspace, the cost and technical challenges were used as a rod to beat the Tornado. Often the major detractors were the pro Sea Harrier lobby as it came under scrutiny as an MOD savings measure.
The reality was that the significant difference between the two fleets was size and ergo cost. To incorporate a fleet-wide modification onto the F3 with its greater numbers was simply more expensive. In order to reduce costs compromises were inevitably made leading to criticism. In any event, the decision to adopt a single type for air defence could never have favoured the Sea Harrier as there were simply not enough airframes available to meet the requirement.
Many modifications were made, however, and transformed the aircraft. A radar homing and warning receiver, chaff and flare countermeasures dispensers and the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, or JTIDS, were introduced, albeit slowly. The JTIDS capability allowed tactical information to be displayed to the crew on the tactical “Plan” display. Not only could the crew see tracks outside the coverage of their own radar but positions of all the tracks in the airspace were displayed including friendly fighters, tankers and airborne early warning aircraft in addition to hostile tracks.
A new standard of weapon system known as Stage 1+ was introduced rapidly under Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) procedures to equip the F3 for operations in the first Gulf War in 1990. An interim chaff and flare fit and radar signature reduction measures were added to radar system improvements, cockpit ergonomic enhancements and improvements to the infra-red counter-countermeasures. During the Balkans campaign a towed radar decoy active jamming system was specified under UOR procedures and rapidly introduced into service. This improved self protection against Serbian surface-to-air missiles ranged against the crews over Bosnia. A night vision capable cockpit was fitted which allowed crews to fly at night to the same parameters as during the day using night vision goggles.
Inevitable lack of funding thwarted what might have been a radical increase in capability. The Stage 1+ modifications were only approved for a small fleet of 40 airframes. The towed radar decoy was fitted to an even smaller fleet of 18 aircraft and even JTIDS, which was envisaged as a fleet wide modification, was cut back to two squadrons. Only when the scale of the capability improvement was recognised were more JTIDS terminals procured to retrofit the remaining operational squadrons. This gave operational fleet managers an impossible management task. It meant that UK crews were flying lower standard airframes whilst the operational standard airframes were deployed forward on operations making it hard to train in preparation for operational deployments.
New air-to-air weapons were envisaged as early as 1995 and it was to be these which would restore the F3’s credibility. With the arrival of the AMRAAM the F3 could match any opponent in the beyond visual range fight. The new active missile gave a longer range and the ability to “fire and forget” giving greater tactical freedom. More importantly, the crew could now engage multiple targets simultaneously. The highly capable short range ASRAAM infra red guided missile could be launched at the limit of visual range and expanded the envelope if the F3 was drawn into a turning fight. By 1998 the Tornado F3 had a new lease of life.
The final standard of Tornado F3 which retired in 2011 was a radical improvement over the Tornado F2 which entered service. To understand the real changes and why the final standard of F3 was so different to the Tornado F2 is to understand the software. For the first time software transformed the operational capability despite relatively minor changes to the airframe and the cockpit. With the Stage 3 radar, as the final version was known, Foxhunter had come of age. The fundamental way the radar tracked a target had changed and a new main computer and radar data processor drove the system. The problem of attacking specific targets within a hostile formation was transformed by incorporating a raid assessment mode allowing precise analysis. The Missile Management System system was further improved to allow the carriage of the latest generation of missiles. Automatic track-while-scan was finally introduced allowing the navigator to concentrate more on the tactical battle rather than struggle with manipulating the erstwhile uncooperative radar. Improved identification systems such as Mode 4 IFF, a complex and more secure system, were complimented by fitting a Mode 4 interrogator. Additional systems which analysed the nature of a target response and could identify the aircraft type by its electronic characteristics finally gave an effective means to declare a target hostile from within the aircraft rather than relying on external inputs. The introduction of JTIDS revolutionised the way an engagement could be prosecuted and allowed new tactics to be adopted. The Operation Granby modifications were formalised and the combat sustainability programmes introduced the full AMRAAM and ASRAAM capabilities. A modern digital data bus carried information between the sub-systems. The Successor Identification Friend or Foe (SIFF) was the final enhancement. With its new capabilities the Tornado F3 could match the best.
Despite all the progress and the fact that the Tornado F3 had matured into a capable weapons system, its poor reputation sealed its fate and many commentators still discussed the aircraft up to and after its demise as if no development had taken place.
To set the record straight, I wrote a book entitled “Tornado F3 In Focus – A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Last Interceptor” which charts my own experience of the complex development from “basket case” to a mature and effective operational aircraft. Published by Fonthill Media the book includes many colour and monochrome images taken during my years in the cockpit, similar to the ones included in this article. After describing the cockpit and what it was like to fly in a Tornado F3, I moved on to talk about the arrival of the aircraft in service and some of the early deployments. I looked briefly at the training system and how we trained new crews to fly the aircraft and described what it was like to display the aircraft to the public. A key element, however, is the story of modifying the weapon system through successive programmes leading to the final operational standard. You can “Look Inside” on the Amazon website.
Although many books have already described the Tornado F3, I hope that my involvement in its development will provide a unique insight into this complex and misunderstood aircraft programme and dispel some of the myths. The detractors will never be silenced but, perhaps with hindsight, the debate can become more informed.
GAR would like to thank Dave Gledhill.