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Tornado GR1 Strike/Attack Aircraft

After 1962, when the Royal Navy was given the future control of the strategic nuclear deterrent and, especially after 1969, when full responsibility for the nuclear deterrent was assumed by the Polaris submarine force, strategic bombing was re-cast as low-level strike. For this, the GR1 Tornado was designed, specifically against theater level targets such as communication links, bridges and enemy airfields, rather than battlefield close air support. Like maritime support, battlefield close air support also had traditionally received little attention from the RAF. The focus on fast jet operations, especially those involving low level strike has resulted in maritime reconnaissance, strategic transport, battlefield helicopters and, even, specialist close-air support aircraft, such as the Harrier, are of lesser importance to the RAF corporate culture.

The Tornado GR1 strike/attack aircraft is capable of carrying a wide range of conventional stores, including the JP233 anti-airfield weapon, the ALARM anti-radar missile, and laser-guided bombs, as well as the WE-177 nuclear variable-yield free-fall bomb, first introduced into service in 1966. The last WE-177 was withdrawn from service in 1998. The reconnaissance version, designated the GR1A, retains the full operational capability of the GR1. The GR1B, equipped with Sea Eagle air-to-surface missiles, undertakes the anti-surface shipping role. For self-defense, the Tornado carries Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and is fitted with twin internal 27mm cannons.

The GR1 originated from a UK Staff Requirement in 1969, calling for a medium-range, low-level, counter-air strike aircraft, with the further capabilities of interdiction and reconnaissance. The Tornado first saw action during the Gulf conflict of 1991, when several were lost as a result of daring ultra-low-level missions to close Iraqi airfields. The proliferation of anti-aircraft defenses in Iraq, Bosnia and elsewhere that the UK might be called on to operate has meant that the standard GR1 is in danger of not being able to fulfil the covert deep penetration operations that it was designed for. Furthermore the advance of air-delivered weapons has meant that strike aircraft need to become ever more sophisticated, especially given the fears of 'collateral damage' or accidentally hitting civilian targets.

During the 1991 Gulf War, military planners made the elimination of Iraq's air defenses a top priority. At the start of Operation Desert Storm (called Operation Granby by the British), Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado GR1 aircraft attacked Iraqi air bases at low-level with Hunting JP233 anti-runway weapons and suppressed enemy air defenses. Afterward, GR1 aircrews flew medium-level missions using 1,000-pound bombs. At the end of the conflict, they used Paveway II laser-guided bombs against other strategic targets. Flying more than 1,500 operational sorties, mostly at night, RAF GR1 aircrews played an important role in forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait, and the RAF lost six GR1s in combat.

The British Tornado had a visible and consistent role in the strategic air campaign, being one of the few non-U.S. coalition aircraft assigned missions in the final, command-approved, version of the Master Attack Plan. A primary planned mission for the Tornado was attacking runways with the JP233 munition at very low altitude. Of the six [some sources report seven] British Tornados that were lost, four were shot down during the first week of the campaign at very low altitude while conducting strikes against airfields. In an analysis, DIA concluded that the basic cause was delivering ordnance at very low altitude in the face of very heavy defenses, rather than being the function of a defect in the aircraft. The combination of four British Tornado losses in the first week of the air campaign and the command decision to go to medium-altitude operations brought an end to these planned missions.

It is significant that, having sustained the loss of two combat aircraft in the first hours of the war, the United States Navy abandoned low flying within 24 hours. Low flying as a tactic can offer a pilot an important element of surprise. The delivery of the JP233 runway denial weapon undoubtedly played a significant part in achieving the air superiority which was necessary and ultimately saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives. But a legitimate question can be asked about the extent to which the RAF could continue to rely on low flying, especially in the context of a protracted war.

In the remaining 5 weeks of the air campaign, the primary Tornado mission was air interdiction at medium altitude against a variety of target types. Many of the new targets were point targets, like hardened aircraft shelters and bridges believed to necessitate LGBs. Because the Tornado had no laser self-designation capability, buddy lasing tactics with the British Buccaneer aircraft were attempted. A British Ministry of Defense report suggested that the buddy lasing experience demonstrated the need for laser self-designation capability in the Tornado. After the change to medium-altitude deliveries, only two [some sources report three] more British Tornados were lost in the remaining 5 weeks of the air campaign.

The allied air losses were astonishingly light. The RAF lost six aircraft in combat all Tornados out of a total of 4,000 combat sorties. Although this caused a political uproar in Britain, most experts consider this a normal consequence of operating such high performance aircraft at very low altitudes in hostile territory. their strikes against strategic targets conducted at night.

The British Tornado was about evenly split on its percentage of day and night strikes. Although the interdiction variant of the Panavia Tornado, which the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Italy had in theater, did deliver LGBs in a few instances, these aircraft could not or did not autonomously operate with LGBs. From the British perspective, JSTARS and TR-1 provided good imagery, but the coalition had insufficient imagery from deeper tactical reconnaissance. The United Kingdom's deployment of the Tornado GR1a, before trials on its sensors had been completed, helped fill the gap.

By the mid 1980's studies were underway involving Germany, Italy and the UK on how to improve the aircraft's capability in view of technology advances since the aircraft had been designed and developed in the early seventies. After some delay, eventually the UK decided to go ahead alone with a requirement 'To enhance the capability of the Tornado/ GRI aircraft to find and successfully attack its targets in all weather and reduce its vulnerabillty to attack'. This was Staff Requirement (Air) 417.

The GR1 Mid-Life Update (MLU) was intended to enhance the capabilities of many of the GR1 fleet, allowing a wider range of missions in all weathers and permitting the use of the advanced, so-called 'smart' munitions now available. The new version would be known as the Tornado GR4.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2013 18:45:37 ZULU