Another Decade for the RAF’s War Horse?

Interesting news and hint dropping about the RAF’s ageing but hugely effective Tornado aircraft.

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If you read between the lines there are all sorts of things to speculate about (mostly related to the F35) but I tend to think that despite being one of the (if not the) most successful and enduring aircraft the RAF’ has ever had, the end is in sight.

As ever, it would all come down to cells in a spreadsheet.



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martin mcnamara
martin mcnamara
September 25, 2014 8:57 am

But how many frames foolishly disposed of adv …many of those could have provided at least training frames…freeing up GR

Mike Crawshaw
Mike Crawshaw
September 25, 2014 9:05 am

Two points. Whatever you do, don’t retire the old one till you’re good and sure the new one works. Second. Down the years the British Armed Forces have been far too good at throwing away perfectly useful kit of all kinds rather than mothballing it, seduced by the paper (NOT the cash) cost of storage. How much did we get for the Harriers?

Mike Patterson
Mike Patterson
September 25, 2014 9:28 am

Thats not a bad idea… There are a fair number of airframes still being stored. The website demobbed lists all the decommissioned ADV airframes and most are being stored at RAF Leeming for RTP. While most will now be stripped down, if you could return X number back to service for crew training that would save valuable airframe hours for the GR fleet.

September 25, 2014 9:45 am

I suspect that the Tornado OSD will keep being stretched and slipped as long as the RAF can get away with it, particularly as it looks like we won’t be able to withdraw from the ongoing problem in the ME for a good while yet.

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 25, 2014 11:21 am

Found a magazine from a few years back that said that RR had been told to maintain RAF GR4 engines until 2025. Then it became 2018-19 for budgetary reasons rather than old age. Any likely replacement will not be around until then. It could be an F-35E or LRS-B. Interesting opinion on defensenews, that the USN needs a long range strike capability from its carrier decks. Could be an F-35C with Advent/AETD engine or a UCAV. Either would be a good RAF Tornado replacement.

September 25, 2014 11:53 am

Prudence would dictate that you only retire a system/capability when it’s replacement is online and fully ramped-up.

If Tornado does goes in 2019 it’s going to be a very tight margin of error with Storm-Shadow and Brimstone barely integrated onto Typhoon, the Trance 1 air-frames pretty much gone by that time anyway and perhaps 20 or 30 something out of 48 Lightning’s delivered (and that’s hopefully).

As i said on the open thread yesterday it would make a lot of sense to at the very least have some on-paper contingencies in place in case anything does go wrong.

I really want to believe that this culture of ‘make do until you can’t and then put up with a capability gap’ and then ‘buy as little hardware as possible, spend as little as you can and hope for the best’ is falling out of favour.

Peter Elliott
September 25, 2014 12:20 pm

I’d be very cautious about ramping up Lightening II too quickly. You risk buying immature airframes with immature software from an immature production process: result being lots of cost down the line to bring everything up to a common standard. The announced buy of 48 is fine to get an IOC, which we need to do to re-establish the basics of carrier aviation (getting planes on and off the ship in dodgy weather), and give us a bit of basic fleet air defence. But we shouldn’t rush to buy any more than that until the production is fully settled down and spitting out mature product at a stable price. Say 2025? Some of the flashier UK weapons should be integrated by then as well.

So for me the contingency is clearly to extend Tornado past 2019 and if necessary top up with an additonal order of Tranche3 Typhoons with all bells and whistles. The line will be hot, the development done and the costs known.

$64,000 question of course is how many manned Fast Jet squadrons will be in the budget after 2020? What about Predator, Triton, Taranis and the rest? Or will the threat have got so big and bad that we are calling for more of everything? That’s the unknowable bit.

September 25, 2014 1:28 pm

This article seems to be causing unnecessary confusion. The RAF will not be keeping Tornado after 2019, that’s its UK OSD. The German’s have a much later OSD and that’s up to them, same with the Saudis.

Peter Elliott
September 25, 2014 2:24 pm

Thats its UK OSD at the moment. I think what people are asking is what would we do if we get to 2018, Lightening is not operationally ready, and the threat scenario / tasking demands more active squadrons than our Typhoons on their own can provide? Would we extend Tornado? Or do something else?

OSDs aren’t set in stone. Seaking had a firm announced OSD of 2016 with a big saving written into the plan for eliminating the type from service. Now because of threat and tasking a small number will likely carry on until Crowsnest is ready.

The Americans actually brought a couple of SR71 back after the class was out of service because an operational tasking demanded it. Their F117A are warm stored not in the boneyard just in case they are needed again.

So OSDs are ‘subject to the requirments of the service’ as Jack Aubrey would say. And as such a legitimate subject for discussion.

What the answer is of course could be very varied. We could bring more Predator, more TLAM, GMLRS, or just sweat another front line squadron or two out the Typhoon attrition reserve, taking the hit on service life down the road.

September 25, 2014 4:56 pm

There are no really new implications here for the UK or Saudi Arabia. For Germany it implies that they won’t be buying the F-35 and may go straight to unmanned vehicles as a Torndo replacement sometime in the late 2020’s.

The big surprise for me is Italy. If they are still planning to buy 90 F-35s that implies their Tornados will be gone by in the early 2020’s. They would only need to keep going for 10 to 15 years if the F-35 order is indeed going to be slashed and the AMI will just have to soldier on with the Tornado.

September 25, 2014 5:12 pm

I would think it wise for tornado to stay about another 5 years beyond its current osd to allow a chance for f35 to at least get some form of operational capablity. It’s slightly perplexing that the much leaked potiential order for f35 in March this year has still not happened, so far we’ve ordered just 4 aircraft and are a mere 3 years from declaring IOC. Can UK fastjet capability really be allowed to fall to 5 typhoon sqns and a sqn of very very basic f35s given the present strategic picture.

September 25, 2014 5:39 pm


The F3 ADV were not foolishly disposed of, they were sensibly put through parts reclamation with all transferable spares taken off to help sustain the GR4 fleet. What was left in effect is junk to be scrapped out, it was an excellent exercise in prudent management of our defence assets.

@Mike Patterson

That would cost money, time and effort for little return. The training stream for the Tornado WSO has already been shut down so I doubt there is a desperate need to husband GR4 hours especially as they are sitting on a huge pile of spares. They already have a number of stored instructional airframes at various locations so adding to that number when there are better things to spend money is a bit silly so close to the types OSD.

September 25, 2014 6:39 pm


‘Can UK fastjet capability really be allowed to fall to 5 typhoon sqns and a sqn of very very basic f35s given the present strategic picture’

I seriously hope not. I think the current strategic picture provides a rational behind the SDSR next year supporting a set-up of 8-10 fast-jet squadrons. Whether it will happen or we will see yet more burying our heads in the sand and telling the services to make do with they have got remains to be seen.

As Peter Elliot said OSD’s are not set in stone. I agree their is a case to be made for keeping a smaller amount of Tornado’s in service past 2019 and up until 2022-2025 as originally planned.

It’s not the only option though and the idea of trickle buying a top-up order of Typhoon’s whilst the production line is hot, the development costs are sunk and the price-tag is relatively low seems attractive to me.

Whatever the solution may be the idea of scrapping all our Tornado’s and Tranche 1 Typhoon’s at a point when barely a handful of Lightning ll should (hopefully) have achieved IOC doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Cutting it pretty fine with little room for error, i’d hope that SDSR 2015 does at least clarify things and provide some on-paper contingencies if anything does goes wrong.

The Other Chris
September 25, 2014 7:06 pm

Main Gate 4 (the purchase of 14 F-35B) is almost a year overdue now.

Main Gate 5 (full purchase) is still slated for 2017. That’s when the full UK program cost is also supposed to be announced.

Whether F-35 is on target or not, I’d also like to see Tornado extended for more overlap.

September 25, 2014 8:09 pm

As I have been saying
… tornado will join the big-wing spitfire and canberra as an evergreen. Limited numbers apply in all of these cases.

Tim UK
Tim UK
September 25, 2014 9:18 pm

We fact we have less than 60 frontline fast jets flyable at a moments notice is a national disgrace.

There should be a public inquiry into the policies of successive governments , criminal waste by the MOD and stupidity of the RAF chiefs in destroying the RAF.

September 26, 2014 2:44 am

If we had the money to retain more FJ’s past 2019 then I would rather see us keep two squadrons of Typhoon Tranche 1. Tornado won’t just happily stay in service for an extra 6 years. It will no doubt require another upgrade. The reason Tornado is so capable is that the RAF top brass keep throwing money at it. While other aircraft like Harrier and Typhoon are starved for funds.

September 26, 2014 3:57 am

Martin, you are right.

However, how could the RAF claim to possess one of the pillars for their very existence w/o Tornado (deep, or semi-deep, strike)? Even battle field interdiction would be pretty non-existent, still for several years.

September 26, 2014 8:44 am


Harrier was not starved of funds, it underwent several major upgrades just prior to its retirement- in fact it was the cost of those upgrades when lumping depreciation in with the operating cost that was used to give the absurd impression that Harrier was more expensive to operate than Tornado back in 2010.

The Other Chris
September 26, 2014 9:23 am

Sir Humphrey wrote a definitive series on the reasons for the UK Harrier fleet divestment:

We need to learn these lessons when discussing retaining small Tornado fleets, purchasing only 48 F-35B’s for the RN, retiring Tranche 1 Typhoon without replacement, etc.

There’s a minimum number required determined at it’s most simple by type, (sub-) fleet, current operation and support infrastructure. That number may be lower than the Harrier levels discussed by Sir H.

Peter Elliott
September 26, 2014 9:30 am

Yep – that’s why the best option is likely to be a top-up of Tranche 3 Typhoons. All the support infrasturcture is in place and it actually increases the overhead efficiency.

September 26, 2014 12:50 pm

@ Peter Elliot

The only issue with a “top up” of tranche 3’s is their £100 million price tag. All the infrastructure for F35 will be in place also and if we are going to dip into our pocket to buy new aircraft I think a larger fleet of F35 makes much more sense than a further buy of Typhoon.

Peter Elliott
September 26, 2014 1:02 pm


It would if the F35 were a mature stable product with all UK weapons integrated. I fear that at the time our ‘gap’ is likely to arise it won’t be. And its unlikely to cost us less than £100m per unit either.

I do see a larger fleet of F35 in the future – 48 will be too few in the medium to long term. But not yet.

September 26, 2014 1:31 pm

We have fastjets committed to uk air defence region, Falklands, Nigeria, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan 6 tasks and there’s only 7 sqns yet theyre never seems the same out cry as other areas who are asked to do multiple tasks.

Typhoon costs no where near 100m a plane. But why buy more run the 140 odd typhoon force on till 2025 and the 2 tornado units till 2022 until f35 gets it’s act together and stop being fixated on carrier strike. Allow 8/9 operation sqns alternatively up the manpower allocated to the existing sqns get the reapers cleared for international airspace pronto. But what ever they decide ensure at least one of the fast jet fleets are of sufficient size to maintain a Sqn deployment perminantly without creating overstetch this should be the typhoon force.

The Other Chris
September 26, 2014 1:40 pm

Hear, hear.

Peter Elliott
September 26, 2014 2:01 pm


Could the existing 2 Tornado squadrons be converted in future to Typhoon without ordering extra airframes (ie by dipping into the tranche 2/3 training and sustainment pool)? My arithmatic says 7*12 = 72 out of 102. But i’ve no idea if that would be viable.

If we did order more what do you reckon will be the marginal cost per plane would be?

September 26, 2014 2:43 pm


No way you could stand up 7 operational units from just the tranche 2/3 aircraft currently on order. You have also the ocu and oeu to consider. The 7 sqn tornado force was sustained from about 150 aircraft, you prob need about 130 aircraft min to sustain a 7 sqn operation fleet. The big thing will be having enough engineers and pilots fully trained up, you can increase fleet hours flown each year as they did with the chinooks in afghan but you need the people to support it and that doesn’t happen quickly on jets. The question is how is the future seen multiple small deployment to different areas of the world at the same time or large focused deployments to only one or two places.

Typhoon would be in the region of about 70m pounds.

Peter Elliott
September 26, 2014 3:01 pm

So in round numbers about £2bn for an additional 30 birds to maintain a 7 Squadron force.

Assumptions for the period 2019-2025:

(a) 7 Squadrons are still deemed necessary
(b) It is deemed too expensive / difficult to extend Tornado as a ’boutique’ force
(c) F35B is not operationally ready for the majority of UK missions (integration of weapons and pods)
(d) F35B IOC will be all about re-establishing Carrier Air capability

September 26, 2014 4:21 pm

70 million a pop for new Tranche 3 Typhoon’s doesn’t sound too bad for me and i’d definitely see it as the preferable option to extending the Tornado OSD if a case were made for preserving a larger force than currently planned.

The RAF has gone from having the superfluous luxury of 17 fast-jet squadrons to 7 in a little over a decade. Their comes a point (as with most systems) where the burden of overstretch just becomes too severe, when it goes from being a day to day uncomfortable but manageable situation to a chronic problem that really starts to blight the overall effectiveness of the fast-jet fleet and in turn the RAF and UK national defence policy as a whole.

7 squadrons with the distinct possibility of dropping short-term to a mere 6 is clearly not enough for the size and range of operations we are currently expecting the RAF to undertake, and i’d personally say a good case can be made for saying that several of these new geo-strategic and political realities aren’t problems which are going to be solved overnight.

As Peter Elliot said and i completely agree with building up a larger F35B force under an accelerated timescale would make a lot of sense if it weren’t for the fact that the F35B is completely unproven and an immature design. We don’t even know yet quite how long it’s going to take to get the first 48 into service (as others have said the initial order for 14 is overdue) and can’t anticipate the various issues that will surely need to be ironed out when it enters service.

Typhoon has been a real roller-coaster ride of a development but it’s finally reaching the point where the costs are known and under control, the development work and expenses are out of the way and the overall design is really starting to mature and come into it’s own.

My preference would be to argue in the SDSR for a 9-10 squadron force (including 1 FAA unit) to be maintained.

So keep the last 2 Tornado units going until the early 2020’s when the Typhoon force can be built up-to a 130-140 air-frame fleet and have 7 squadron’s stood up.

Get the initial 48 F35B in service to equip 2-3 squadrons including 809 NAS and iron out the wrinkles, allow the software/systems to mature and get the services used to it.

Then around 2030 when the design is proven, the costs have hopefully come down and we need to consider either updating or replacing Typhoon we can consider a follow-on order for the kind of shape and sized fleet we shall want and require at the time.

September 26, 2014 5:46 pm

I think F35 + Typhoon would make a very complimentary Hi-Lo mix that could handily carry us through to gen 6 or at least 5.5. Like to see something like a 4/8 split frontline sqaudrons wise. Although I’m guessing I’ll be lucky to see 3/5.

In a peer conflict F35 and drones as door kickers with typhoon going in right behind to bring the weight. Not forgetting the obligatory cruise missile spam.

In low intensity conflict, COIN and whathaveyou. Typhoon can handle it without the extra expense and hundred other issues with deploying a 5th gen fighter and without interfering with our carrier’s harmonies etc.

September 26, 2014 6:02 pm

How about leasing – or even buying – some Gripens? Same gun as Typhoon and isn’t it already cleared for Meteor? Once we get our feet under the table with F35B we could relegate the Gripens (if bought) to training and/or secondary roles, e.g. new mount for the Red Arrows – fully combat capable.

If this is a silly idea I would just like to point out I am on medication for a heavy cold. Probably shouldn’t have opened that bottle of wine either.

September 26, 2014 6:42 pm

Challenger buying f35, extending tornado and up lifiting typhoon numbers is all do able and while I believe fast jet numbers are far too small for our committements we have a problem trying to do what you suggested, it would probably require expenditure in the region of 8billion pounds on fastjets without taking a full thru life support package on f35 add to that the billions desired to be spent of mpas not to mention other istar assets ect where probably several digits out of what’s available in terms of budget. If were heading to a return to no flys and air assets being used as the primary striking asset to support limited ground forces and limited naval force involvement what does that say about the strategic direction for sdsr 15.

September 27, 2014 3:17 am

I just can’t see us justifying a buy of 30 more Typhoons when we are scrapping 56 tranche 1 aircraft.

I know the arguments for scrapping tranche 1 and they are largely based on cost much better to keep them in service for another 5-10 years then progress across to F35 once it is more mature. The tranche 1’s are already combat proven and certainly effective enough for sovereign air patrol and the Falklands as well as training. We could use them the way we use to use the F3’s and allow the tranche 2/3 machines to be the GR4 replacement. it’s going to be the end of the 2020’s unit we are able to fit the new radar on all the Typhoons anyway.

September 27, 2014 3:27 am

@ wise ape

We are already using the Hawk T2 in many of those training roles to save airframe hours on the Typhoons.

John Hartley
John Hartley
September 27, 2014 8:13 am

Found the article. Flight International 20 April 2010. “Rolls-Royce extends Tornado support”. Said that RR had been given a £690 million deal to keep RAF Tornado GR4 flying until 2025. Also said that the Germans will keep their Tornados flying by giving them ASSTA 2 &; 3 upgrades.
The bloodbath of the SSDR brought forward GR4 retirement, but I think the problems in the Middle East, ought to push that back to 2025. Hopefully by then , a suitable replacement will have arrived ( F-35E, F-35C with Advent/AETD, LRS-B, intercontinental Taranis).

September 27, 2014 9:05 am

Fair enough no Gripens then. We still need to find the money to keep the Tornadoes/Typhoon tranche 1s in service. How about passing guarding palaces etc over to community officers – got to be cheaper than Guardsmen.

Or fines for companies that sell dangerously faulty goods – Toyota and Vauxhall, I’m looking at you.