The Royal Air Force had released stunning images of a unique aircraft formation to celebrate forty years of service by the Tornado GR4 fast jet. When the Tornado is withdrawn from service on 31st March 2019 it will bring to an end four decades of service during which the aircraft has formed the backbone of UK airpower. Three training variants of the Tornado have received special markings including a camouflage scheme which the Tornado sported in its early career. The Tornado first entered RAF service in 1979, principally in the Cold War nuclear strike and interdiction role. Its combat debut in the 1991 Gulf War heralded a period of near continuous operations which continue to this date. Some 28 years after those first missions to help liberate Kuwait the RAF’s two remaining Tornado squadrons, IX(B) and 31 Squadrons, remain on operations in the Middle East fully committed to the fight against Daesh as part of the Global Coalition effort.
The Panavia Tornado GR.Mk 4 (Tornado GR4) is the UK’s primary ground attack platform and also fulfils an important reconnaissance role. The aircraft conducts attack missions against planned targets, armed reconnaissance against targets of opportunity and close air support (CAS) for ground forces, typically under the control of a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). For attacks against pre-planned targets the Tornado GR4 usually employs GPS/laser-guided bombs from the Paveway family, or the Storm Shadow cruise missile, the latter fired from considerable stand-off ranges. In the armed reconnaissance and CAS roles, Tornado normally carries a mix of Paveway IV and Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone, combined with a Litening III targeting pod, and in addition to the internal 27mm gun. This gives the crew an unparalleled array of options to engage targets with the most appropriate weapon, achieving the desired result with minimum, if any, collateral damage.
With its mix of weapons, the Tornado GR4 is capable of engaging all targets on the modern battlefield. Paveway III and Storm Shadow afford the ability to strike bunkers and other hardened facilities, while Brimstone is effective against armoured vehicles, both static and on the move. Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone enables precision strike against targets with collateral-damage challenges; these can be moving at high speed and still successfully engaged. Paveway IV offers huge tactical flexibility, with cockpit-programmable impact angle, impact direction and fuse delay offering precisely tailored strike on planned and unplanned targets. The 27mm gun offers the ability to strike targets including light vehicles and personnel; it proved invaluable in Afghanistan for halting insurgent ambushes when crews strafed into tree lines. During Operation Ellamy in 2011, Tornados flew from the UK to strike targets in Libya using Storm Shadow missiles, a round trip of more than 3,000nm, accomplished with essential support from Vickers VC10 and Lockheed TriStar tankers. Some missions saw the Tornados launch their missiles and then turn for Gioia de Colle, Italy, where they joined other Tornados, and Typhoons, in a sustained campaign against Libyan government forces. Through its unique weapons effects and the RAF’s air-to-air refuelling capability, Tornado provides the UK Government with a rapid and flexible crisis response tool.
The Tornado also held a dedicated anti-shipping capability, embodied in the GR.Mk 1B in service with 12 (Bomber) Squadron from 1993 and 617 Sqn from 1994. The aircraft was modified to fire the Sea Eagle missile, but the capability fell into abeyance when the GR.Mk 4 programme began. Since Operation Ellamy, the Tornado Force has drawn down towards the type’s planned out of service date (OSD), now set for 2019. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review called for a reduction in frontline GR4 squadrons to two, but the need to maintain a constant deployment for Operation Shader saw a squadron re-formed and 12(B) Sqn was thus only very briefly disbanded, returning as a third unit. The GR.Mk 4 has been subject to a constant series of minor upgrades, gradually enhancing its capability so that today’s Tornado is very far removed from the jet conceived to meet a multinational requirement during the 1960s. With Tornado’s OSD set, Project Centurion is transferring its capabilities, particularly Brimstone and Storm Shadow, to Typhoon. Two new Typhoon squadrons and the incoming Lightning will take over and build upon the tactics and effects that will have been delivered by Tornado in almost four decades of service.