For prize boxers and elite footballers, the decision to retire while at the peak of their capability is often driven by a desire to avoid tarnishing their legacy.

Unfortunately, this rationale does not apply to military combat aircraft. Crucial determinations are more commonly made for budgetary reasons.

As shown by the Royal Air Force’s current commitment of Panavia Tornado GR4s over Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria, the swing-wing type remains the service’s go-to choice when things get tough.

Forget the fact that the first prototype was flown 40 years ago. The Tornado’s ability to deploy cutting-edge weapons like the Brimstone, Paveway IV and Storm Shadow makes it the most potent choice for programme partners Germany, Italy and the UK, plus export operator Saudi Arabia. Such additions are in the pipeline for their Eurofighter Typhoons, but the process is slow.

The UK plans to retire its last Tornados in just five years’ time, while its partners expect to retain the type until 2025, or potentially 2030. This 2019 date coincides with its first Lockheed Martin F-35s entering use, but well short of being fully combat-ready.

The upsurge in demand to counter militant groups means that the UK’s planned end date for the Tornado needs urgent review. It got away with retiring the Harrier at the peak of its game, but might not be so lucky next time, if current instability becomes the new “normal”.

Source: Flight International