Four years after its first Eurofighter Typhoons entered limited service, the UK Royal Air Force is aiming to silence the type's detractors, with the strike aircraft soon to begin air policing duties and its first combat commitment potentially little over one year away.
Stung by repeated allegations that it is acquiring an expensive "Cold War relic", the RAF has showcased the capabilities of its newest fighter, which will form the backbone of its strike fleet and that of three other European partner air forces for the next three decades.
It is almost 20 years since Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK signed a development contract for the Eurofighter, which is now in squadron service in all four nations. The multinational project has at times been a painful process, with the outline deal to produce 620 aircraft the subject of industrial and contractual wrangling, delays and cost over-runs. But senior officials involved in the industry programme and from the project's leading customer - the RAF - have closed ranks to herald the transformation that they are convinced the aircraft is on the brink of delivering.
© Geoff Lee / Crown Copyright
3 Sqn has conducted live firings of ASRAAM in preparation for mid-year
"The whole programme is gaining momentum and is at a more advanced stage of its life than any other aircraft we've introduced into service," says UK chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy.
The RAF formed its fourth Typhoon squadron at Coningsby in Lincolnshire late last month, with the unit - 11 Sqn - following its 17 Sqn operational evaluation unit (OEU), 29 Sqn operational conversion unit (OCU) and 3 Sqn, which began operations at the base in March last year. "Our first year of activity was to establish Coningsby as a Typhoon base," says station commander and RAF Typhoon Force Commander Gp Capt Stu Atha. "Now our focus is on what our operational capabilities will be."
The Typhoon's first frontline duty will be to defend the airspace of the southern UK from mid-2007, when 3 Sqn will begin a phased replacement of Coningsby-based Panavia Tornado F3 fighters. Tasked since its formation with being the development lead for air defence operations, the unit will initially deliver quick reaction alert (QRA) cover on an alternating basis with the F3 force, with each on duty for around a month at a time. Pilots from across the Typhoon force will share this responsibility, with 12 having completed an advanced counter-air training module by early February.
Typhoon F2 fighters assigned to the QRA role will be armed with Raytheon AIM-120C5 AMRAAM and MBDA ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, and several 3 Sqn pilots conducted live firings of the latter weapon earlier this year in preparation for the aircraft's operational employment (Flight International, 13-19 March). "Typhoon will deliver the same sort of capability at this stage as the F3 is delivering at the end of its life," says Torpy.
Wg Cdr Lol Bennett, officer commanding 3 Sqn, says: "There has been an explosion in hours and experience within the last year, and we have practised and evolved the tactics for operating the aircraft." The unit has reached its full operating strength of 16 pilots, 11 single-seat Block 2/2B Typhoons and around 160 ground personnel, and by February had logged more than 1,500 flight hours.
Coningsby's initial QRA milestone will be followed from 1 January by the Typhoon force's ability to conduct air defence duties while assigned overseas. In an early test of this deployed capability, eight 3 Sqn aircraft were last week deployed to Spain's Moron airbase near Seville in the RAF's largest foreign detachment of the type to date.
Operations of the RAF's Sepecat Jaguar ground-attack and reconnaissance aircraft will meanwhile end later this year, with Coningsby-based 6 Sqn to become the UK's fifth Typhoon unit, and the first to receive Tranche 2 production aircraft. Scheduled for delivery from mid-2008, the first RAF example is currently in final assembly at BAE Systems' Warton site in Lancashire. The new squadron will later move to RAF Leuchars in Scotland, where it is initially expected to provide QRA cover for the northern UK, again replacing Tornado F3s.
However, it is in the next operational milestone that the RAF will face one of its toughest challenges in fielding its new aircraft, although this will also provide an opportunity to silence critics of the Typhoon's warfighting capabilities.
With Typhoon's planned deployed multi-role operational employment date of 1 July 2008, and Kandahar airfield eyed as a potential destination, 11 Sqn has been tasked with preparing its pilots for air-to-air and air-to-surface missions. "We will be prepared and ready to deploy to Afghanistan next year," says officer commanding 11 Sqn Wg Cdr Gav Parker. "I expect that when we are prepared, we will go."
Describing the mid-2008 target as "a peg in the ground", Torpy cautions: "We will then have to think seriously about whether we would want to deploy it into any of the theatres that may require that sort of capability." The UK's current Joint Force Harrier commitment is currently scheduled to remain in Afghanistan into 2009, and the Typhoon will have to at least match its offensive capability to accelerate this schedule.
"There is still risk in the programme," says Atha. "The challenges of operations in places like Afghanistan require much more than just thrust and manoeuvre." Air Vice Marshal David Walker, air officer commanding 1 Group, which oversees operations of the RAF's strike aircraft fleets, agrees: "Operating at 55,000ft in Afghanistan is not overly relevant. If we find ourselves halfway up the Helmand valley and the cloud is down we can't just turn round to the army and say: sorry, we aren't coming."
Highlighting the diversity of the Typhoon force, current squadrons have drawn experienced pilots from the BAE Harrier GR7/9, Jaguar GR3 and Tornado F3 and GR4 communities.
Navigators into pilots
The force has also recently introduced its first four ab initio students drawn from the BAE Hawk T1/1A system at RAF Valley in north Wales and the NATO Flying Training in Canada system at Cold Lake, Alberta. A handful of former F3 navigators have also successfully been converted into Typhoon pilots. "Multi-role aircraft require multi-role pilots," says Atha. "Part of it is an attitude: a mental agility to react and respond."
Pilots complete a conversion course on the RAF's 29 Sqn OCU, which is equipped with two-seat Typhoon T1s and single-seat F2s and delivers limited combat ready pilots cleared in skills including day and night operations, QRA and air-to-air refuelling. The training system also makes extensive use of two emulated deployable cockpit trainers supplied by BAE, with Coningsby's two ASTA full mission simulators also close to providing delayed services.
The UK last year signed a deal to accelerate the integration of air-to-surface weapons with its Typhoons, under a so-called austere capability deal also referred to as Change Proposal 193 (CP193). This will introduce the Raytheon Enhanced Paveway laser/GPS-guided bomb with its Tranche 1, Block 5 aircraft, with Ultra Electronics also having received a £73 million ($146 million) contract to deliver 20 Rafael Litening III targeting pods and a 20-year support package.
The Litening III is also being modified with an air-to-surface datalink, which the RAF says will provide a valuable non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. "Typhoon's air-to-ground detection and delivery capability is up there with the [US Air Force's Boeing] F-15E," says Walker, adding: "CP193 delivers a capability which is capable of Afghanistan." BAE will also retrofit the RAF's first 43 production aircraft to the Block 5 configuration over a five-and-a-half year period.
11 Sqn's multi-role preparations will include inert 450kg (1,000lb) bomb drops in the UK by the end of this year and live weapons testing in the USA during 2008. These efforts will build on the earlier work of the RAF's 17 Sqn OEU, which is now turning its attention increasingly to developing air-to-surface tactics for the Typhoon. Equipped with four aircraft, the unit will drop its first bombs during trials around mid-year.
Another element of the Typhoon's armament fit for deployed operations is likely to see a return for the Mauser 27mm cannon previously eliminated from use on the UK aircraft. "I definitely see a role for the cannon," says Torpy. "The way that we're operating in Afghanistan demonstrates very clearly that you need to be able to have a gradual and escalatory capability. The cannon is a good way of demonstrating intent before you have to start dropping 1,000lb weapons."
Noting that the Typhoon still has its cannon in place and that ammunition and barrels could be sourced from the Tornado, Walker says: "We're looking at it, and it sounds like we have a solution." He adds that at the time of the earlier decision "we didn't envisage that NATO would be conducting its most aggressive military operation ever in Afghanistan".
Additional weapons will meanwhile be introduced by early next decade under an initial Future Capability Programme upgrade to the partner nations' Tranche 2 Eurofighters, with the UK to provide £325 million of the c1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) in funding for the work. A later package of Tranche 2 enhancements will add weapons including the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile and Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile.
The UK has now received around 42 of the 144 Typhoons ordered for its air force across the two production phases contracted to date - at an average cost of £66.7 million - and by late last month had logged more than 8,000 flying hours in over 7,000 sorties. Average monthly flight hours per aircraft are now 19-20h, including those in maintenance or upgrade, but some have exceeded the 40h mark. "That's a very good sign as to the latent potential of the aircraft," says Torpy. "We would not achieve that out of any of our current [fighter] aeroplanes."
BAE's delivery rate for the Typhoon will include 12 new aircraft and five upgrades this year, with this expected to increase to 15 new platforms next year and 20 each in 2009 and 2010.
A multinational user group involving all four partner air forces offers an opportunity to discuss common issues such as flight safety and support mechanisms: a process which Walker believes should mirror the cooperation between European Lockheed F-16 operators. While the UK has flown around half of all hours on Europe's Typhoon fleet, Atha notes: "We are leading the way in experience, but we are not the sole repository of good ideas." The process is also backed by an industry equivalent involving partner companies Alenia Aeronautica, BAE, EADS and EADS Casa.
The RAF's 17 Sqn OEU has routinely deployed two aircraft and around 30 personnel to the USA to operate alongside US fighters including the Lockheed MartinF-22A Raptor. "The vast majority of this work is about making sure that the integration of the two platforms is working," says Walker. Asked how the fighters compare, he says: "If you want to say that stealth is a determining factor then Typhoon stands second to the F-22. But I think that as we do more work, the Typhoon will more than hold its own. It's the balance of how you use it, rather than what it is."
BAE Typhoon project test pilot Mark Bowman sees even less of a capability gap. "The F-22 is three times the cost, but you would struggle to see any advantage in the cockpit design - the cost is there to maintain stealth," he says. "Typhoon is most likely equivalent, if not better.
Upcoming commitments for the UK Typhoon force include involvement in a UK combined qualified weapons instructor course and possible participation in a Red Flag exercise in the USA. "We want to integrate with a multinational package and are always looking for a way to challenge the aircraft and the pilots," says Atha. However, it is uncertain whether the RAF will commit the Typhoon to a planned bilateral exercise with Indian air force Sukhoi Su-30 fighters at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire later this year.
The RAF's senior leaders are convinced that the Typhoon will deliver a credible and agile capability over the coming years. "The aeroplane was conceived in the Cold War against a requirement that allowed it to be brought to the frontline, but it has massive, across the spectrum capability," says Walker. "Having two Eurojet EJ200 engines opens up a new way of fighting which puts the Typhoon into a unique corner of the combat envelope. I don't think the RAF has had access to an aeroplane of such potential ever. I think we have got an absolute world-beater, and we have sovereign rights over it."
Chris Boardman, BAE's Typhoon managing director, says: "Pilots in the past have taken at least 20 years to convince that they like the product, but Typhoon pilots are much more positive than their predecessors. From day one entry into service we've never had a pilot say 'this is no good, I don't like it', even though they might say 'I want more'. That can't be clever marketing and it's not just air show stuff it's fundamentally about the aircraft."
Atha adds: "People want to come to Coningsby. You hear about the 'Typhoon grin' - it's part being here, and part aircraft performance. Now I want operational grit to go with it."