The Royal Air Force will run its Panavia Tornado GR4 fleet until 2018, indicating that procurement of its replacement, the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), is slipping.

The RAF had been working toward procurement of the FOAS and replacement of the Tornado GR4 by 2013-15, but industry and service sources say that 2018 is now the planned retirement date for the aircraft. Some industry officials believe that the GR4 could be in service until 2020.

British Aerospace is upgrading 142 Tornado GR1s to GR4 standard, with the first two being handed over to the RAF at the end of this month. All of them will be delivered by 2002.

The GR4 upgrade includes fitting a chin-mounted forward looking infra-red sensor as well as the inclusion of a pilot's multi-function display and wide-angle head-up display. A 1553 databus is also being introduced on the aircraft, to provide for the integration of additional air-launched weapons as part of further planned upgrades to the Tornado. The work will provide the GR4 with a covert day/night low-level penetration capability.

The Ministry of Defence has under way, or is about to award, a raft of definition studies looking at the FOAS. These cover a manned-aircraft concept-definition study being run by British Aerospace, an unmanned air vehicle study, a conventional air-launched cruise-missile concept definition, and a technology-demonstrator definition study.

Classified MoD technology- demonstrator projects into such areas as low-observable (LO) design, run by the UK Defence Evaluation Research Agency with the RAF's operational requirements directorate, will also be fed into the overall FOAS feasibility study. With the concept definition studies, the MoD will also run a cost-operational-effectiveness appraisal on the FOAS.

The MoD's Equipment Approval Committee is expected to decide in June 1998 on risk-reduction technology-demonstrator programmes (TDPs). This will be followed by establishing a full staff requirement, project-definition study and further TDPs by around October 1999.

The RAF's preference for the FOAS remains for a crewed aircraft, although the requirement may eventually be met by a mix of crewed and uninhabited combat air vehicles. A dedicated strike variant of the Eurofighter EF2000, with further LO enhancements and bigger wing is one option, as is a strike variant of the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22.

Delays to an FOAS procurement potentially strengthen the possibility of a collaborative European programme. Germany will eventually require a replacement for its Panavia Tornados, as will France for its Dassault Mirage 2000 strike aircraft.

The RAF's FOAS timescale has been in advance of France and Germany's likely requirements. The latest dates, however, bring the three nations more into line.

Source: Flight International