‘Cuts could cost RAF its fleet of Tornados’ was the title of the Guardian story published on Sunday 20th February. It said the RAF could lose their entire fleet of Tornado GR4s (this being the bomber variant, the F3 fighter variant is going this year).
Many of you will be saying this is an old story about the cuts made in the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) where the GR4 survived with cuts to its number and the Harrier was withdrawn but sadly it’s not.
It seems the cuts made by the MoD didn’t go as far as the Treasury had liked and were compounded by the proposed sale of Typhoons to Oman (reportedly worth £600m) is no longer likely to go through.
I’d heard rumours about the Omani sale and that the Treasury had already factored the sale into the Defence budget before this article appeared. If this is indeed true then it’s astonishingly poor accounting from the people who are meant to balance the country’s books. Whilst the country maybe going through a tough time you don’t bank the defence of the country on a sale you think might go through!
To turn around to the MoD and to ask them to cut further because of this is unforgivable. The entire process of the strategic defence and security review (SDSR) was to build the framework the armed forces would be built around. Hard decisions were made. Cuts were made. Decisions were made that the armed forces wouldn’t have certain capabilities for a number of years. Once this is complete you can’t return to it and cut out more without undermining the whole plan.
Putting aside that point for the moment, let’s look at if we could actually get rid of the Tornado GR4. At the moment we have 8 Tornado GR4s deployed to Afghanistan providing close air support for the troops on the ground and also an intelligence gathering platform via its RAPTOR pod (they are the only aircraft that can carry it). Other coalition aircraft could provide these functions but nothing within the RAF’s ever shrinking fleet could.
With the Harrier gone, the Tornado F3 due to go this year and the Hawk trainer unsuitable for frontline operations the future of air to ground operations lies with the swing-role Typhoon. The trouble with this is it’s not ready to take it on yet.
The range of air to ground weapons cleared for use on the Typhoon is small at the moment and only a small number of the fleet are running the correct version of software needed to integrate with them. Work is continuing on this but it takes time.
Unsurprisingly the Typhoon’s development and the pilot training to date have been focused on air defence. With the Tornado F3 being taken out of service the Typhoon had to step up to fill that role; providing a quick reaction alert (QRA). This role requires three front line squadrons to do and with the stand up of 6 Sqn last year that is what we have. How they are meant to cover this role and the role the Tornado GR4 currently provides I don’t know.
An accelerated withdrawal of the GR4 would be possible if tied in with the ongoing delivery of the Typhoon, expansion of aircraft capable of air to ground and training of the pilots but this would take years (my guess would be double the 3 years mentioned in the article). Any saving from reducing numbers of GR4 within this time will be minimal as the majority of the costs of running a fleet is the support contracts and you will need those right up to the point you get rid of the last one.
My message to the Treasury is look elsewhere for the saving!