While reports of Saudi Arabia's imminent order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons dominated the headlines, eight of the nation's Panavia Tornado fighters were taking part in a low-profile exercise with the UK Royal Air Force. Originally named "Saudi Sword" but later rebranded "Saudi Green Flag", the bilateral manoeuvres marked the first time Riyadh had sent its Tornados outside the Gulf region, and were also evidence of a burgeoning relationship between the allies, which have both operated the swing-wing aircraft for more than two decades but formally trained together on the type for the first time only last year.
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Movement towards the delayed Typhoon contract signature has grabbed the headlines following controversy over the UK's previous Al Yamamah arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which have included the delivery of equipment such as Tornado interdictor strike and air defence variant fighters and BAE Systems Hawk trainers. Less well known is that the government-to-government framework continues to generate fresh activity on the Royal Saudi Air Force's legacy fleet, with until now closely-guarded modernisation work having already been done to its Tornado IDS aircraft.
For the first time, the air force has disclosed details of its ongoing Tornado Sustainment Programme (TSP), and revealed that the aircraft which visited the UK have already completed the first phase of the major upgrade effort. Poised to enter its second phase of modernisation work in Saudi Arabia, the ongoing effort will ultimately equip the IDS fleet with a range of new precision-guided weapons and enhanced targeting equipment, in many cases common with those systems already fielded by the UK Royal Air Force's Tornado GR4s, up to six of which took place in the event.
"All the aircraft on the exercise are TSP stage one-modified, and stage two will come soon," said Lt Col Abdulaziz Al Qdairi, officer commanding the RSAF's 75 Sqn and the service's Green Flag detachment commander, during an exclusive interview with Flight International at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. Performed in Saudi Arabia by local companies working in partnership with BAE, initial enhancements to the aircraft have focused on cockpit modernisation, such as the addition of GPS navigation, changes to some displays and switches and the introduction of a new radio architecture, said Al Qdairi.
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While such work has assisted the air force in deploying its aircraft over a long distance and operating under a coalition scenario with the RAF, a key aspect of the Green Flag deployment was to give its crews the opportunity to train alongside aircraft from the UK service's 617 Sqn, which recently returned from an intensive period of combat operations over Iraq. Riyadh hoped to draw early lessons from the unit's experience in using advanced targeting and reconnaissance pods, plus precision-guided weapons, while it finalises its equipment list for the next element of the TSP project.
Saudi development aircraft based at BAE's Warton flight test site in Lancashire were photographed earlier this year carrying a wide array of sensors and weapons, including MBDA's more than 250km (135nm)-range Storm Shadow cruise missile.
Riyadh has also long been cited as a potential buyer of the RAF's next-generation precision-guided bomb - Raytheon Systems' Paveway IV - and MBDA's Brimstone air-launched anti-armour weapon, the latter of which played an important part in the latest exercise.
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"TSP is upgrading the aircraft so that it will be capable of carrying any advanced weapons available not only Brimstone and Storm Shadow," said Al Qdairi, adding that other potential acquisitions could include Paveway/Enhanced Paveway-series bombs and an air-to-air missile such as MBDA's Asraam. "We hope we will have such as these to make sure our air force has the latest weapons and technology." The goal is to reach the stage that the RAF is currently using with its GR4s," he continued.
While flying activities during Green Flag ran between 28 August and 6 September, the first advance elements of the more than 200-strong Saudi detachment arrived at Lossiemouth on 13 August, with initial support equipment and its first fighters following within a further five days. In addition to testing the RSAF's ability to deploy its Tornados from Dhahran, the exercise also provided an ideal opportunity for the RSAF to test the capabilities of its air transport fleet, with numerous sorties flown using its Boeing KE-3A tanker/transports and Lockheed Martin C-130s.
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"The deployment was a lot of hard work, but easier than we expected," said Al Qdairi. The deployment route included inflight refuelling by KC-130s before departing Saudi airspace, followed by stops at Suda Bay in Greece, Trapani in Italy and RAF Marham in the UK. The air force sent a total of 18 Tornado crews to participate in the exercise, with the majority of these also gaining a first chance to fly alongside RAF Typhoons.
The RAF says more than 65 sorties were flown by the end of the exercise, with up to two waves of aircraft having been launched each day. Missions typically lasted around 90min, with no inflight refuelling conducted during the bilateral manoeuvres. Saudi personnel also used Thales-managed simulators at Lossiemouth as part of their training.
Operations began with familiarisation flights during which two RSAF aircraft accompanied an RAF Tornado while their crews were introduced to UK airspace and air traffic control procedures, and also cleared to perform initial low-level work down to 500ft (152m). Activities were progressively expanded to introduce bombing runs at the Tain weapons range using 3kg (6.6lb) practice bombs, and to operate against simulated surface-to-air missile threats at the UK's Spadeadam electronic warfare range.
Examples of composite air operations during this period included the joint Tornado force conducting training attacks with RAF aircraft simulating the use of MBDA Alarm anti-radiation missiles - in use by both air forces - while Saudi aircraft conducted air strikes. In a key demonstration of possible future weapons tactics, the sorties also involved several UK Tornados carrying two Brimstone weapon systems, with each comprising a rail launcher with three missiles.
The last three flying days also introduced an air-to-air threat, with four Typhoons flown by 3 Sqn pilots from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire initially providing a "hostile" presence. Exercise activity peaked on 5 September with a VIP demonstration involving a "blue" force of six Saudi IDS, four GR4s and four Typhoons supported by a Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft and opposed by a "red" package of four RAF Tornado F3s.
"Our objectives were to get interoperability between the RSAF and the RAF, to enhance new weapons planning and fly with coalition forces like the Typhoon, not just to fly hours," said Al Qdairi. "The exercise has enabled us to benefit from the UK's experience in smart weapons tactics. It was successful from all aspects, and we gained a lot."
Saudi Arabia's Tornado force more typically conducts joint exercises with the nation's Gulf Cooperation Council allies and Egypt from its home bases, according to Al Qdairi. "There is always a continuation of tactics development to improve aircrew knowledge and get the maximum benefit from the aircraft," he said.
Encouraged by the success of Green Flag and its previous "Lone Frame" detachment of 617 Sqn Tornado GR4s to Dhahran in early 2006, the UK is now looking to formalise the bilateral relationship by pursuing annual exercises which will alternate between the countries. "We are learning to work as a coalition package," stressed an RAF officer involved in the latest exercise, "not trying to impose our ways". The RSAF also shares the enthusiasm to extend the previous collaboration, according to Al Qdairi. "We have an excellent relationship with our host squadron, which gives us interest to work more," he said.