Early in 2007, the incoming commanding officer of the UK Royal Air Force's newest unit to receive the Eurofighter Typhoon was issued with a daunting challenge: to prepare his aircraft, pilots and squadron personnel to sustain deployed operations as a multirole type from 1 July this year.
For 11 Sqn boss Wg Cdr Gav Parker, this meant an ultimate objective of being able to deploy to Afghanistan's Kandahar airfield, and potentially within less than 18 months of receiving his first Typhoon in March 2007.
With the deadline for the Typhoon FGR4's multirole employment imminent, Flight International visited 11 Sqn at Nellis AFB in Nevada on 3-4 June as it was completing its toughest test to date: a detachment of around seven weeks to the USA. Conducted alongside the US Air Force, the manoeuvres provided an operationally realistic test of the RAF's ability to use the Eurofighter for missions such as providing close-air support for ground forces.
For years branded a "Cold War relic" by programme critics in the UK because of its initial focus on air superiority duties, could the Typhoon succeed in proving its doubters wrong, and soon protect British and coalition forces against the threat of the Taliban?
"We knew we had a world beater air-to-air, but we weren't sure about the air-to-surface environment," says Typhoon force commander Gp Capt Stu Atha.
Seven of 11 Sqn's aircraft left the unit's home base at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire on 21 April for Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona - the home of the USAF's Fairchild A-10 community. After a week of work-up activities, the RAF unit participated in a two-week exercise, during which 67 live 455kg (1,000lb) bombs were dropped, including more than 40 Raytheon Paveway II laser-guided bombs, plus laser/GPS-guided Enhanced Paveway IIs and freefall weapons.
© Geoffrey Lee/Planefocus
Representing the first squadron-level opportunity to demonstrate the UK's so-called austere weapons capability for the Tranche 1 Typhoon, the work came just weeks after BAE Systems had in early March completed the integration of the aircraft's Rafael Litening III laser designator pod. Bombs were typically released from a medium altitude of around 10,000ft (3,000m), with pilots using a mix of co-operative and self-designated targeting.
With interoperability a key objective of the detachment, Typhoons in some cases operated alongside USAF A-10C pilots acting as airborne forward air controllers (FAC).
"The [Litening III] pod has been one of the success stories of this detachment," says Parker, whose squadron received the systems only on arriving in the USA. Capable of displaying high-quality images in TV and infrared modes, the design also features a datalink card that enables pilots to relay live images to Rover III terminal-equipped FACs. An IR marker also means a target can be verified by the ground controller before weapons release.
Weapons accuracy at Davis-Monthan was high, with 100% of released stores landing within their circular error of probability distance, and 65% scoring direct hits on their targets. Several pilots from the RAF's 3 Sqn - its first frontline unit to have received the Typhoon, initially for use only for air defence purposes - took part in the exercise, where around 700 rounds were also fired from the type's Mauser 27mm cannon. More work needs to be done with the reactivated weapon, but Atha says: "As a first step, we're there."
The Typhoons achieved a 99.3% "strike rate" against their planned sortie programme, with just two missions having been cancelled: one due to high winds, and the other because of a technical fault. "That's unprecedented, in my knowledge," says Parker, who adds that the Typhoon's strong performance was also "a real head-turner" for the RAF's Panavia Tornado GR4 community, which also participated in exercise Torpedo Focus.
The 11 Sqn aircraft then moved on to Nellis near Las Vegas to take part in the USAF/US Army Green Flag West manoeuvres, which concluded on 6 June. They were joined by a further three Typhoons and personnel from the RAF's 17 Sqn operational evaluation unit, with 20 pilots and around 150 engineers and support personnel forming the UK presence.
© Craig Hoyle/Flight International
Goals for the two-week exercise were to hone tactics, techniques and procedures, and to prove the Typhoon's ability to operate in the CAS role: a skill which 11 Sqn pilots had been practising in the UK since the middle of 2007 with British Army units.
Each of the 10 Green Flag exercises supported from Nellis per year involves around 5,000 troops from the US Army's Fort Irwin training site in California, plus the USAF and some coalition partners. The manoeuvres simulate the Iraqi theatre of operations, with villages, airfield complexes and surface-to-air missile sites built and bulldozed into the desert.
Up to 5,000 US-based Iraqi civilians are also brought in to live in the villages for a fortnight, providing a realistic backdrop for soldiers to practice the mission of winning "hearts and minds" before deploying for real.
"It's a very important exercise, because these [army] guys are going into combat," says Lt Col Ron Hanselman, commander Green Flag West. "We train to the current fight."
Live ordnance is not used near villages, but over 450,000kg of weapons, including cluster bombs, are dropped on the Leach Lake range to the north of the training area every year.
Up to 24 aircraft participated in daily operations over a continuous 9h period of activity above parts of California's Death Valley, with these including USAF General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicles and Boeing B-1B bombers.
Two Typhoons carrying Litening III pods typically operated with four Lockheed Martin F-16s from the USAF's 14th Fighter Squadron based at Misawa AB in Japan, which will be redeployed to Iraq later this year. This co-operation also provided an opportunity for the Link 16-equipped Typhoon to work in partnership with F-16s using situational-awareness datalink technology. "We're getting into the era of digital CAS," says Parker, while Atha notes: "This is new business for the RAF."
© Geoffrey Lee/Planefocus
The congested skies also provided a test of 11 Sqn's airspace integration skills, with some urban CAS missions seeing airspace divided into small sectors - referred to by the USAF as "kill boxes", but by the UK as "key pads" - for pairs of fighters to operate within.
"The Typhoons have done extraordinarily well in keeping in their airspace," says Hanselman. "At times we have given them less room than our guys have had."
Other exercise scenarios included acting as escorts for convoys of up to 24 ground vehicles, and locating and tracking insurgent activity near an aircraft crash site, potentially performing so-called shows of force: flying fast and low to deter and disperse enemy combatants.
"The complexity of the exercise is astonishing," says Parker. "This is the best preparation for contemporary operations that money can buy. We're learning huge amounts."
Exercises also involved one team of four British Army forward air controllers, while 11 Sqn also has a ground liaison officer assigned to it from the 4th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment. "I can appreciate the difference the Typhoon is going to make," says Maj Simon Newiss. "Its ability to stay over the top is superior to what we've got [on current operations]." 11 Sqn pilot Sqn Ldr Mark Pearce adds that the aircraft also "can get to where the fight is more quickly".
Typically, Typhoons would leave Nellis in dry power carrying four Enhanced Paveway IIs, a Litening III pod and two external fuel tanks, plus two Raytheon AMRAAM and two MBDA ASRAAM air-to-air missiles. The fighters would then transit to the exercise area at 40,000-50,000ft, delivering an unrefuelled mission endurance of between 1h 50min and 2h.
© Geoffrey Lee/Planefocus
Aircraft availability at Nellis was 100%, with engineering support provided in two shifts a day. "They came here prepared," says Hanselman. "I'd expect a higher [sortie] cancellation rate, but they've done very well. They're thinking not just about the aircraft, but the tactics."
The 11 Sqn aircraft were flown to the USA along with a so-called primary equipment pack, sufficient to support operations of eight aircraft with first line spares over a four-week period. The equipment was transported using about three-quarters of one Lockheed C-130 transport load. Previous tests of the squadron's support demands were made through "austere" deployments to RAF bases including Fairford, Kinloss and Leeming in the UK.
"All the problems we've had previously have now been resolved, and we are seeing the true mettle of what this aircraft will deliver," says senior engineering officer Sqn Ldr Phil Brooker. And spares provision is soon expected to improve, as Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK are to take control of national inventories, breaking the pooled model used so far.
While the prospect of a near-term deployment to Kandahar has receded - the UK Ministry of Defence on 16 June announced that BAE Harrier GR7/9s now operating at the base will be replaced in early 2009 by "an equivalent force of Tornado GR4s" - Atha says: "We've inserted a great deal of capability on to the platform in a really short period of time. In terms of the difficult stuff, it's job done. We are ready to declare." However, minor work remains to be completed, such as gaining full clearance with the Litening III.
© Geoffrey Lee/Planefocus
Coningsby-based aircraft continue to be scrambled to potentially intercept Russian bombers nearing UK airspace, and the Typhoon must also provide air defence for the Falkland Islands as the RAF retires its Tornado F3s. And "there are [other] air policing tasks we may get involved with," says Atha. "I can do Iraq, and I can do Afghanistan," he says, but notes that for the immediate future "capacity is going to be one of the issues".
Additional exercises are planned in the United Arab Emirates later this year, and in the first quarter of 2009 at the Nellis-based Red Flag manouevres - potentially with USAF Lockheed F-22 Raptors - and in Oman.
But with an eye on the Typhoon's future combat employment, discussions are under way with Eurojet partner Rolls-Royce to increase the power available from the aircraft's EJ200 turbofans. RAF sources say this will support "hot, high and heavy" operations: a precise requirement for Afghanistan.
Describing the US deployment as "a success story", Atha says: "The guys have demonstrated the capability that I hoped they would. We've revealed some of the potential of Typhoon, but there's a heck of a lot more you can do."
- Craig Hoyle's picture gallery from Nellis AFB in AirSpace
Source: Flight International