Typhoon edging closer to multi-role capability but combat air capacity problems remain

15 May 2014 – Covering fast jet, Unmanned Air Systems and military flying training the £18.8bn that the MOD plans to spend on combat air programmes over the next ten years will (despite the potential of cuts in SDSR 2015) ensure that the UK has one of the most modern and sophisticated air forces in Europe. Whilst SDSR 2010 contained many questionable elements, there can be little doubt that the combination of the Typhoon and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been designed to effectively provide the critical elements of high-end power projection.

However the Combat Air element of ‘Future Force 2020’ only envisages 48 F-35B STOVL aircraft by 2018/19, together with 107 Typhoon (Tranche 2 and Tranche 3) aircraft;  a force structure which seems dangerously short if it is to adequately fulfill the demands of the UK’ s national defence requirements, its NATO contribution and its defence of dependent territories whilst simultaneously providing a carrier strike capability. Whilst I acknowledge that the growth in remotely piloted air systems does provide a capability uplift, the planned level of manned fast jet aircraft capability is – in my opinion – dangerously low. (The strength of this hypothesis grows when one considers that the out of service date for Tornado GR4 is 2019 and that existing plans currently envisage retirement of all Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft by 2018 – the process begins in 2016).

Typhoon has already proved itself to be a brilliant in terms of combat air capability and by the time the aircraft is fully multi-role capable by 2019/20 Britain will be able to claim one of the most efficient combat air capabilities in the world. Already carrying AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile), Enhanced Paveway 2 and 1,000lb freefall bombs, the Typhoon is already capable of a very broad range of combat missions.

To achieve full multi-role capability the current MOD plan provides for Typhoon to eventually be fitted with an additional suite of complex weapons that will include MBDA’s brilliant Beyond Visual Range Active Radar Guided Meteor air-to-air missile (due in 2017/18), the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile (this is already fitted to Tornado GR4 and is due for integration on Typhoon in 2015), the Brimstone air-to-ground missile (this is likely to be added in 2020), Raytheon’s superb Paveway 1V precision guided bomb (integration on Typhoon is currently under way) and finally, the Small Diameter Bomb. Additional complex weapons should, on current plans, all be operational on the aircraft by 2020.

Nevertheless given that it will be some time yet before the politically delayed Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar is fitted to Typhoon, the reality is that Typhoon’s multi-role capability may not be operational until 2021.

I have previously expressed considerable concern over my fear that a premature run down of Tornado GR4 would leave a very serious gap in full multi-role combat airpower capability and that this could have very serious consequences for UK defence. High-end fighter capability is as Air Marshall ‘Timo’ Anderson said three years ago; “An essential component of any fighting force that aspires to operate in anything other than benign environments”. There can be little doubt that the recent developments in the Ukraine, have underlined the importance of Timo’s comments as they threaten to change NATO’s defence paradigm. Given that there is already little bandwidth left in the UK’s underlying force structure it is therefore crucial that Tornado GR4 capability is fully maintained at least until the F-35 and Typhoon multi-role operational capability is established. We cannot afford yet another capability gap within our defence posture.

Another concern that I have recently expressed is the planned out-of-service date for the various Typhoon aircraft tranches. In the air-to-air combat role the Tranche 1 version of the Typhoon has proven its worth and yet, with combat air capacity clearly stretched, the 53 aircraft that make up this part of the air force have a planned out of service date of 2018 – why?!

Give that the fatigue life of the Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft is way beyond 2018 it seems rather odd that an aircraft designed to play the air-to-air role (which also enjoys a limited air-to-ground capability) and has proven itself as an interceptor via the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role should be removed before an appropriate replacement is operational or even required.

The same argument is equally true for both the Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoon which currently has a quite ridiculous out-of-service date of 2030; meaning that some aircraft would be less than thirteen years old when they are retired! (As a comparable like-for-like example, it may be useful to note that Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft remaining in service with the Royal Air Force are in the region of 28-30 years old.)

Clearly, the out-of-service date for both Tranche 2 and 3 Typhoon aircraft should be 2040 at the earliest. Failing to remove this rather artificial date could have consequences in terms of decisions that relate to Typhoon upgrade and it may also damage the export programme. On this matter it may also be worth mentioning that the original out-of-service date for Tornado GR4 was 2025.

It seems to me that a force comprising just 48 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft (planned to be used mainly for carrier strike), together with a force of 67 Tranche 2 and 40 Tranche 3 Typhoon aircraft will provide nowhere near sufficient capacity for the Royal Air Force in 2020. Whilst it is true that the MOD is looking at fast jet requirement beyond 2030 through its Future Combat Air System (FCAS) component, which is presumably designed to look at the full variety of enablers that the MOD considers to be required, great care should be taken to ensure that sufficient levels of capacity for combat air capability are maintained.

The good news is that eleven years after Typhoon first entered operational service with the Royal Air Force in 2003 the first Tranche 3 aircraft are now being delivered to the Royal Air Force. Currently deployed in the UK QRA role, in the Falklands Islands as the principle air power component, Typhoon aircraft have recently also been deployed in Cyprus and Libya and will soon be deployed to support the NATO Baltic air policing mission covering Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

While it is true that changing attitudes toward defence, political disagreements among the four government partners and various other issues have slowed the progress of Typhoon over the years, what the partner governments and export customers have in their hands today is a fantastic aircraft. Typhoon should have a brilliant future in the RAF – just as long as Whitehall’s denizens do not clip it wings early!

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Email: hwheeldon@wheedostrategic.com
Tel: 07710 779785

Comments are closed.