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Royal Air Force - Modernization

Under the July 1998 Strategic Defense Review twelve Tornado GR1s will be removed from the front line, a measure also necessary to enable the GR1/4 force to reach its out of service date, together with nine Harriers, thirteen Tornado F3 and two Jaguars. These reductions will result in the disbandment of one F3 and one GR1 squadron. It is anticipated that the Tornado GR1/4 will lose its anti-shipping role, but this does not imply any further reduction in airframe numbers.

Eurofighter remained the cornerstone of the RAF's future equipment program, and the UK Government had plans to purchase 232 of the aircraft. Studies continued into a Future Offensive Air System to replace the Tornado GR4 in about twenty years' time. It was planned that the RAF will share with the RN the operation of a single aircraft (the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft) to replace the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR7, for which the Joint Strike Fighter was a strong contender.

The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review determined that the Royal Air Force by the 2020s will be based around a fleet of two of the most capable fighter jets anywhere in the world: a modernised Typhoon fleet fully capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions; and the Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced multi-role combat jet. The fast jet fleet will be complemented by a growing fleet of Unmanned Air Vehicles in both combat and reconnaissance roles. The fast jets will be backed up the most modern air-to-air refuelling aircraft, extending their reach and endurance. The strategic air transport fleet will be enhanced with the introduction of the highly capable A400M transport aircraft. Together with the existing fleet of C17 aircraft, they will allow the RAF to fly forces wherever they are needed in the world. The new Rivet Joint aircraft will gather vital intelligence.

The current fleet of Harrier and Tornado air defence and ground attack aircraft have performed well over the past 30 years, and provided essential support to forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But these aircraft risked becoming outdated as threats continue to become more varied and sophisticated, and maintenance of such veteran fleets will become an increasing challenge. Rationalising the fast jet forces to two advanced and efficient fleets makes operational and economic sense.

In the transitional period, the RAF would retain a reduced Tornado fleet, but remove Harrier from service in 2011 as the fast jet force moves to two operational types – Joint Strike Fighter and Typhoon. Retaining the Tornado fleet allows a fast jet contribution to be sustained in Afghanistan and support to concurrent operations which would not have been possible if Harrier was retained instead. As of 2015 the RAF's Tornado fleet was due to retire in 2019, the date having been brought forward from the original deadline of 2025.

Capabilities will include a fast jet fleet of Typhoon and Joint Strike Fighter aircraft with around one third at high readiness. These are two of the world’s most capable combat aircraft, able to operate in the future high-threat airspace while providing air defence, precision ground attack and combat ISTAR capabilities. The Storm Shadow cruise missile carried by current and future fast jets is a state of the art capability to strike ground targets at medium to long range.

The table provides details of the maximum offensive payload for each of the aircraft types listed. The actual payload configuration will, of course, reflect the particular needs of an operation which, in turn, would determine the range of an aircraft operating without air to air refuelling. The range figures quoted therefore represent a typical radius of operation.

Aircraft type Maximum offensive
payload (Kg)
Combat radius of
operation (nm)
Tornado F3 1,500 600
Tornado GR1/1A/4 4,500 550
Harrier GR7 3,000 500
Jaguar GR1A/3 2,900 400
Eurofighter 16,500 1750
1 Representative figures quoted by Eurofighter GmbH,
the prime contractor responsible for development and production of the aircraft.

A modern strategic and tactical airlift fleet will be based on seven C-17, 22 A400M transport aircraft and up to 14 specially converted Airbus A330 future strategic transport and Tanker aircraft able rapidly to deploy, support and recover British forces and their equipment anywhere in the world and to provide airborne refuelling to maximise the range and endurance of our aircraft. It will replace the ageing TriStar and VC10 fleets; the first aircraft was due to be delivered towards the end of 2011. A total of 12 new Chinook helicopters to increase battlefield mobility from land and sea, operating alongside Merlin medium lift helicopters to move personnel and equipment quickly over long distances. This rationalised fleet will be easier and more cost-effective to support and will deliver significant operational advantages.

Strategic surveillance and intelligence platforms will be capable of providing wide-area coverage as part of our broader combat ISTAR capability. These include the E3D Sentry AWACS to provide airborne command, control and surveillance; Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft to provide global independent strategic intelligence gathering; and a range of unmanned air systems to complement our strategic ISTAR assets and reduce the risk to our forces of operating over hostile territory.

Other changes include withdrawing the three variants of the TriStar transport/tanker aircraft from service from 2013 as we transition to the more capable A330; reducing the role of the VC-10 transport/tanker aircraft to undertake air-to-air refuelling only, with the target of withdrawing it by 2013 as A330 enters service; withdrawing the C-130J Hercules tactical transport aircraft from service by 2022, a decade earlier than planned, as the transition to the larger and more capable A400M aircraft takes place; and withdrawing the Sentinel airborne ground surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan.

On 27 November 2014, the first of the UK's A400M Atlas next-generation military transport aircraft was officially unveiled by the MOD at its new home at RAF Brize Norton; thus making the UK the third country to operate the aircraft, after France and Turkey. The £2.8 billion program is set to see a total of 22 aircraft delivered to the RAF.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) is the Government’s foremost document on defence strategy published on Monday 23 November 2015. Prior to the SDSR the out of service date for the Tornado GR4 was 2025. This was brought forward by the Coalition Government to 2021. The retirement date for Tornado was brought forward to 2019, when the first new Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter was expected to enter service. Operational demands placed on combat aircraft over the last five years has raised questions about future planned reductions. In October 2014 the MOD delayed the disbandment of one Tornado squadron from 2015 to 2017.

Possible options include retaining Tornado beyond 2019 or delaying the retirement of Typhoon tranche 1 aircraft (there are three tranches), which are also due to leave service in 2019. Typhoon is being enhanced under the Typhoon Future Capability Programme to provide an air-to-surface capability, as it was originally brought into service as an air-defence aircraft. There are currently five front-line Typhoon squadrons and three front-line Tornado squadrons, plus an operational conversion unit squadron for each aircraft type.

Britain will retire its Panavia Tornado GR4 fleet in April 2019 and add its capabilities onto the Eurofighter Typhoon through Project Centurion, delivering MBDA Brimstone and Storm Shadow missile integration before the Tornado leaves service. Britain also plans to add the e-scan radar to the Typhoon in the early 2020s and says it will retire the Typhoon in 2040.

In 2022 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) acquired two Dassault Falcon 900LX business jets as replacements for its retiring British Aerospace BAe 146 VIP transports. The BAe 146 is a quiet, rugged, self-sufficient aircraft equipped with comprehensive back-up systems. The new planes will be more sustainable thanks to their smaller engines, leading to a reduction in fuel burn and emissions. They will also be able to fly further, providing the UK greater opportunity to engage with key allies and partners.

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Page last modified: 08-03-2022 19:38:09 ZULU