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Tornado GR4 Strike/Attack Aircraft - Program

The solution in what was to become MLU '93 and Production Embodiment would take place through a return-to-works upgrade package for 142 aircraft at Warton. Despite the medium level lessons learned in the Gulf the RAF decided that covert low level penetration remained the core requirement. The main deletion from the original MLU in hardware terms was the Terrain Remember Reference Navigation System and it's associated equipment. In its place was a Global Positioning System introduced to ensure the required capability was met.

The main additions to the program were a TIALD (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) system and a MEGTF (MLU Enhanced Ground Test Facility). While development activities were ongoing the Tornado GRI had a number of software enhancements which were outside the scope of the original MLU development contract. These software additions had now to be somehow taken into account and incorporated. The most important aspect of MLU '93 is that in addition to the basic enhancements to the aircraft, the flexible design laid the foundation to incorporate developments to the aircraft's capability. This was particularly relevant to the introduction of new smart weapons scheduled for early in the 21st century.

At the time of the initial negotiations for the development contract on MLU the MoD were in the process of moving away from cost plus contracting. The MoD and industry were learning about fixed price to be fixed to provide a fixed price. Therefore certain actions were placed so that the Tornado GRI aircraft was updated from as common a standard as possible. each aircraft had been built to a slightly different standard and the RAF had also made some changes of their own to meet specific operational requirements. A baseline standard was agreed together with a 'Minimum Modifications List'.

The introduction of Package '0' occurred in early 1996 when the customer formally redirected the program. It took a year to finally agree all the changes to the contract amendment. Package '0' encompassed the required changes from the customer observations to the software generated controls and displays, and accommodated the delay in the availability of a working standard TIALD pod. Furthermore the customer was keen to incorporate as many other software changes that were a direct result of enhancements in the Tornado GRI aircraft since the scope of MLU '93 had been defined. All the hardware development would now be completed by October 1997 as originally planned, with the exception of TIALD.

The mid-life update program, as well as enhancing survivability and operational effectiveness, to give the aircraft the capability to carry advanced weapons such as the anti-armor weapon 'Brimstone' and the stand-off attack missile 'Storm Shadow'. The updated aircraft was designated Tornado GR4. The last of the updates was scheduled for early 2003. The MLU allowed the RAF's Tornados to serve well into the new century until they were eventually replaced by the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). The airframe's life was extended as a result of more advanced technology and this would avoid the necessity of expensive refits or the acquisition of new aircraft.

Both offensive and defensive capabilities were enhanced on the GR4, including a new Forward-Looking Infra Red (FLIR) system and Night Vision Goggles (NVG), laser designation facilities to allow the precision bombing that characterized the 1991 Gulf conflict, plus a Defensive Aids sub-system to protect the aircraft from Surface to Air Missiles and radar-directed anti-aircraft guns. New avionics improve navigation and flight performance, including the installation of a Global Positioning System. In addition to the existing range of weaponry, such as laser-guided bombs and anti-radar missiles, the GR4 would be able to operate new and development equipment such as the Storm Shadow stand-off attack missile.

The GR4s would all be capable of using the Sea Eagle anti-shipping missile, whereas only the relatively small numbers of Tornado GR1Bs were fitted for maritime strike. The actual payload, speed, altitude and other performance characteristics of the GR4 would remain much the same as for the GR1. What would change, however, was the overall capability of the aircraft. The ability - literally - to see in the dark when using FLIR and NVG would permit GR4s to fly at terrain-following height, in close formation, without navigation lights or radar emissions. In effect the GR4 is a more stealthy aircraft, enhancing its chances of covert deep penetration and surviving the mission. It is now an all-weather strike aircraft, an important factor in Europe.

The program to upgrade 142 Tornado interdictor strike aircraft from GR1 to GR4 standard proceeded to schedule. The aircraft system enhancements developed ensure that the aircraft can seek out and attack its targets more effectively, taking advantage of the new 'smart' weapons that would progressively become available, and make it less vulnerable to counter-attack.

By 1998 the project was proceeding to time and cost in line with the latest project approval, save for a price change due to inflation and exchange rate variations. Of the 142 aircraft due to be upgraded in the current program, 8 had been upgraded by BAe and delivered to the RAF and a further 16 were currently in work at BAe. The first aircraft with an early operating capability was delivered to the RAF on 31 October 1997 and the aircraft first entered squadron service at RAF Bruggen on 11 May 1998. Full functionality would be provided by a final software upgrade in September 1998, and the program was to be complete in February 2003. This minor extension of the program from the end 2002 date enabled some separately approved non-MLU modifications to be fitted concurrently to the MLU program as this would provide the more cost effective method of installation.

The overall cost of the Tornado MLU was estimated to be 850 million. The first delivery was achieved on time on 31 October 1997 and the aircraft formally entered service on 30 September 1998 with the first Tornado GR4 squadrons started forming that same year. As of February 1999, 26 GR4s had been delivered to the RAF, from a total number of 142 planned updates. Thirty-two of this number would be training variants, capable of the range of missions that the standard GR4s carry out, but fitted with dual flight controls. Some 26 GR4s would be designated GR4A, being dedicated reconnaissance aircraft equipped with sophisticated equipment built into the airframe. Since only the RAF currently intends operating GR4, the actual MLU work was undertaken within the UK. The RAF at St Athan in Wales carried out preliminary work and then the main conversion was undertaken at BAe Warton in Lancashire.

Tornado GR4 aircraft gained a superior Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) capability to that of GR1s by July 2000. While there had been problems with the integration of TIALD with the new systems of the GR4, a modification program designed by BAE Systems, GEC and DERA to rectify the problem was implemented in three stages:

  • Stage 1 giving limited medium level TIALD capability - by end of March 2000.
  • Stage 2 offering full medium level TIALD capability (better than that of the GR1) - by 1 July 2000
  • Stage 3 providing full low and medium level operational clearance - by mid February 2001, but it was hoped to bring this forward to the end of 2000.

There were some 45 GR4 and GR4As in RAF service and by the end of Stage 2 of the modification program in mid 2000, there were about 60 aircraft with this figure rising to 80 by the end of the year. Tornado GR4s were also deployed on operational detachments for the first time later in 2000. The lack of full TIALD integration on the GR4 had no effect on the RAF's operational capability. In Kosovo, even if TIALD integration had been complete, the GR4 would not have been used because their were insufficient aircraft and trained crews to meet the task.

By mid-2000 some fifty Tornado GR1s had been successfully upgraded to GR4 standard, twenty-one were in upgrade servicing and a further seventy-one aircraft were awaiting upgrade. The Tornado MLU program was due to be completed in February 2003. Incremental acquisition was a key component of the Tornado MLU program. For instance, the first 24 aircraft delivered to the RAF were equipped to an initial standard, but had also been fitted to receive further planned upgrades. From aircraft 25 Identification Friend or Foe Mark 12 system and electronically protected radios were being fitted and from aircraft number 61 the full clearance for the Paveway III Laser Guided Bomb, a new Laser Initial Navigation System, Global Positioning System and a Ground Proximity Warning system were added.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2013 18:45:36 ZULU