This Farnborough, for the first time, Eurofighter is able to offer customers a Typhoon fighter bomber that is in full operational service, though the long-expected combat deployment to Afghanistan has not yet occurred.
The RAF’s Typhoon force was declared operational in the air-to-ground role on July 1, 2008, achieving the Multi-Role Operational Employment Date (OED) that had been set years ago, when the decision was taken to bring forward Typhoon’s air-to-ground capability under the so-called ‘Austere Air to Ground’ programme (also known as CP193).
Often wrongly seen as a narrow-specification Cold War bomber-destroyer, Eurofighter’s Typhoon was always intended to be a swing-role machine, carrying out air-to-air and air-to-ground operations with equal facility – and indeed ‘swinging’ from one role to the other during the same mission, at the flick of a switch. For the RAF, in particular, the Eurofighter was always viewed as a Jaguar fighter-bomber replacement, as well as a replacement for Tornado and Phantom air defence fighters.
Priority was given to getting the aircraft into operational service in the fighter role first, and air-to-ground capability was originally to have been embodied with the delivery of Block 10 aircraft, well into Tranche 2 production. The RAF’s Typhoons were declared operational in the air defence role on 21 June last year, when the aircraft started taking on the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) commitment, maintaining aircraft at 24/7 readiness to counter threats to the UK’s air space.
With the drawdown of the RAF’s Jaguar fleet, a shortfall in air-to-ground capability was identified, and the decision was taken to bring forward some of Typhoon’s air-to-ground capabilities. In July 2006, NETMA and Eurofighter GmbH therefore signed a £73 million contract to bring an early precision air-to-ground capability to the RAF’s Tranche 1, Block 5 Typhoons, with an ‘austere’ integration of the Litening 3 Laser Designator Pod (LDP) and the Raytheon Enhanced Paveway II dual mode laser/GPS-guided bomb. All RAF Tranche 1 aircraft are being upgraded to the Block 5 configuration over a five-and-a-half year period under the R1 and R2 upgrade programme.
This air to ground capability was described as ‘Austere’ because it represented only “80% of the final planned LGB capability”, with less flexibility and higher pilot workload. By comparison with the full LDP integration planned for Tranche 2 aircraft, the austere air-to-ground capability will allow manual attacks against planned single targets only, in the forward hemisphere, visible in the HUD. The full LDP integration will be more highly automated and will allow multi-target attacks in a single pass, and will allow an aircraft to engage air-to-air targets even while prosecuting an air-to-ground attack.
The combat-proven Enhanced Paveway II bomb was chosen as the primary weapon for the Austere programme because it represents arguably the most useful and cost-effective platform for post Cold War operations. The bomb can find its target by homing in on laser radiation reflected off the target when that target is ‘illuminated’ using a laser designator, or by using global positioning system co-ordinates if cloud, dust or debris prevent the use of the laser seeker.
The Typhoon could already drop Paveway LGBs on targets illuminated by third party designators, but the austere programme provided Typhoon with the ability to designate targets itself, or for other aircraft using the Litening 3 LDP. Ultra Electronics received a £73m contract to deliver 20 Litening 3 pods, together with a 20-year support package.
The Litening pod provides Typhoon with a real reconnaissance capability, and has been modified with a Rover III air-to-surface datalink. This will provide a real-time reconnaissance capability, and will enhance close air support effectiveness. The datalink allows pictures and data from the Litening pod to be transmitted directly to ground forces via a laptop-style receiver, allowing the Typhoon pilot and the soldier on the ground to see the same picture.
After carriage and flutter trials using a German test aircraft (IPA3), separation drops by Alenia’s DA3 prototype and EADS Casa’s IPA4, the test effort switched to BAE Systems’ airfield at Warton, north-west England, where DA2 conducted carefree and low-speed handling tests, including asymmetric loads, and where IPA1 successfully released the first UK Paveway II bomb on 29 June 2006.
On 12 November 2007 the UK Instrumented Service Production Aircraft (ISPA) Typhoon BT005 completed the first fully laser guided weapon release using the Litening III laser designator pod (LDP) scoring a direct hit on a target at the Aberporth range. The aircraft was flown by Flt Lt Dave Bowlzer from the RAF’s No.17 Squadron and by BAE Systems test pilot Paul Stone.
While No.17 Squadron developed air-to-ground tactics, No.11 Squadron, then regarded as the ‘lead’ Typhoon squadron for air-to-ground operations, began working up. The Squadron deployed to the US, and participated in intensive trials culminating in exercise Green Flag at Nellis AFB in Nevada, which seeks to simulate the sort of asymmetric operations being undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seven Typhoons dropped a total of 67 bombs, comprising 43 Paveway II LGBs, eight enhanced Paveway IIs and 16 ‘dumb’ (unguided) 1,000lb bombs over a two-week period, achieving a 99.3% strike during pre-exercise training at Davis Monthan Air Force Base.
When the timetable for declaration of the Typhoon’s air-to-ground capability was revealed, it was widely expected that No.11 Squadron would deploy to Kandahar in Afghanistan soon afterwards, to take over from the Harrier force. It has now been decided that the Tornado GR.Mk 4 force will take over the Afghan deployment, and the Typhoon will not deploy.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War it was decided that the UK needed five air defence (AD) squadrons. Today there is a greater threat to the UK air defence region, yet the number of AD capable squadrons has dwindled to four (two of them equipped with the Typhoon), and the Tornado F.Mk 3 is on the verge of retirement.
When the Tornado is withdrawn, there will be no more than three Typhoon units in service, and these will have to shoulder the UK QRA commitment single-handed, while also ensuring the air defence of the Falkland Islands. Against this ‘pressure on resources’ it would not be possible for the Typhoon force to support an enduring deployment to Afganistan, though some observers expect the type to make a small-scale brief deployment to Afghanistan to demonstrate the capability.
Though only the RAF is exploiting the Austere air to ground capability, all Typhoons have the new software giving the aircraft an even more competitive edge in export competitions, and the programme has already de-risked many elements of the fuller air-to-ground weapons capabilities planned for Block 10 aircraft.