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Tornado F3 UK Air Defense Variant (ADV)

Feasibility studies for an air defense variant of the Multi-Rôle Combat Aircraft [MRCA] were started in 1969. Work on project definition began in 1973, its primary purpose being to provide a sound assessment of costs. By 1975 the UK Ministry of Defence was continuing with the project definition studies for an air defense variant of this aircraft as a replacement for the Phantom for the air defense of the United Kingdom and of naval forces at sea. In this latter rôle, the aircraft would be able to operate at very substantial ranges.

The air defense variant of the MRCA was planned to be used as an interceptor capable of operating effectively over a range of heights. In this role, the effectiveness of the aircraft depends on its overall performance, taking account of its weapons, avionics and associated ground and airborne warning systems as well as the characteristics of the aircraft itself.

The Tornado Air Defense Variant (ADV) was selected for development from the original Tornado GR1 attack aircraft in the late 1970s as the RAF's dedicated fighter following an MoD review of other NATO candidate aircraft. A total of 190 were ordered by the UK and a further 24 by Saudi Arabia. The main visible difference from the GR1 or GR4 attack aircraft is the longer fuselage, which permits greater internal fuel stowage. It entered service at an interim F2 standard with the RAF in 1985. A year later, initial deliveries of the definitive Tornado F3 were made.

The Tornado F3 air defense fighter has an 80% commonality with the Tornado GR1 strike/attack aircraft. The Tornado F3 is optimized for long-range interception, for which it carries four Skyflash radar-guided missiles and four AIM 9-L Sidewinder infra-red homing air-to-air missiles, plus an internally-mounted 27mm Mauser cannon. Tornado F3s are being equipped with the new Joint Tactical Information Distribution System. Operating in conjunction with E-3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft and other allied fighters, the system gave an unprecedented picture of the air battle, including information obtained by other sensors in other fighters or AEW aircraft. The crew can thus select its own target and move to within 'kill' distance without using the fighter's own search radar with its position-revealing signature until the very last moment.

The interceptor version of the basic Tornado is a compromise, but an efficient fighting machine nonetheless. The ADV is slightly longer than its IDS sister (Tornado GR-1), to accommodate the Skyflash missiles and the Foxhunter radar. Commonality with the IDS is approximately 80-90%. Differences include wing-root gloves with an acute sweep, and there are no Krüger flaps on the F-3. The aircraft has a complex avionics suite allowing advanced target identification and vision-augmentation prior to engagement with the Sky Flash missiles. There is also a radar warning system, which differs from the IDS version.

Fitted with the long range Foxhunter radar and more powerful engines, the aircraft successively replaced Lightning and Phantom fighter squadrons in the air defense role. Seven squadrons were formed, two of which were subsequently disbanded in view of the reduced threat of air attack to the UK. The variant was also in service with the Royal Saudi Air Force and until the end of 2004 the Italian Air Force leased Tornado F3 aircraft from the RAF.

The pilot in the front seat flies and fights the aircraft, while the rear seat weapons systems officer controls the radar and defensive countermeasures systems. An important feature of the F3 is its ability to patrol at long distance from its base, supported by air-to-air refueling. The aircraft is capable of operation in all weathers and at night, using night-vision goggles.

In its usual air defense role, the F3 can receive real-time information on approaching targets through a datalink from patrolling Airborne Early Warning Sentry aircraft and attack nominated targets using AMRAAM missiles. In the anti-radar role, F3s can pass information on the location of an opponent's radar site back to the Sentry or ground-stations for onward relay to other aircraft or ground forces. Under the AMRAAM Optimisation Programme, these aircraft were modified to engage several targets simultaneously with greater accuracy and a higher probability of success.

Not a great dogfighter by any means, the F-3 is a very capable platform for performing CAP duties, which it did successfully during the 1991 Gulf war. Once it was pinned to the ground, the Iraqi air force ceased to pose a serious threat, and the Iraqi planes that eventually took off flew to Iran. We must remind ourselves that that was precisely because of the RAF's activity in the initial period, and no doubt was also due to the quick learning processes of the Iraqi air force. It learned that, when facing the RAF and the United States and allied forces when they were in that mood, discretion was often the best part of valor.

By the end of the Cold War, it had become apparent that the main threat which the F3 was originally designed to combat—the heavy bomber—is in the process of being supplanted. In those circumstances, a more agile and maneuverable aircraft is required. In the months before the 2003 Gulf War, a small number of Tornado F3s underwent a modification program to allow them to operate in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) role. The modifications permitted the carriage of a pair of ALARM missiles in place of the Skyflash or AMRAAM missiles, but the modified aircraft were not in the event deployed during the conflict.

It has decided to keep the F-3 alive until the arrival of the Eurofighter in the next century, and not to lease American F-16s' to fill the void. As of 2006 the 110 Tornado F3 (the air defense variant) were expected to be out of service by 2009. The F3 was replaced with the Typhoon entirely as at 31 Mar 2011. It was never tested in real combat.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2013 18:45:39 ZULU