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A GR4 of the Marham Strike Wing

A Brief History

The end product of the Panavia Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) programme of the early '70s, this fine airframe is used proudly by the British, Germans, Italians (who 'borrowed' some Brit jets) and the Saudis. Still, that's two more customers than another example of British engineering, the fine L85 rifle!

It came into service in the early 1980s and (as a bomber) had the US envious for a while due to its all-weather/all-hours performance. It replaced the (by then ageing) Avro Vulcan in the strategic strike role and eventually succeeded the Jaguar and Buccaneer in the tactical strike and maritime strike roles respectively. It is now the RAF's premier bomb dropper and missile shooter.

As a fighter it was designed to meet the air defence needs of the UK - namely, trog out over the North Sea (hence two engines, not just one) and shoot down some BEAR, BADGER, or at a push BACKFIRE bombers, using a big powerful radar and some BVR missiles. The job needed an interceptor rather than a dogfighter. It replaced the Lightning and eventually the Phantom in this role.

Because of some delays to the radar, some development aircraft flew with a concrete weight in place of the radar assembly. In a nod to some other radar names of the day (Blue Parrot, Blue Fox) this was nicknamed Blue Circle - cynics suggested that at least Blue Circle gave more consistent results. Unfortunately, the 'Blue' series radars were made by Ferranti - and the AI24 Foxhunter for the Tornado was made by GEC. At least one senior civil servant thought that the AI24 was a Ferranti-made radar as a result... (Ferranti made the antenna mounting assembly as a subcontractor to GEC. At least that bit was delivered on time and to budget, although they later discovered that GEC was blaming them for delays. Cute trick.)

Anyway, the radar was eventually made to work. After all, GEC's other triumphant contribution to airborne radar in the same time period was Nimrod AWACS. In its defence (*hack* credit where it's due *spit*), Foxhunter did have a number of technical firsts for a European radar in the 1970s; e.g. first airborne digital FFT processor in Europe. Although the final vote of confidence by GEC in their technical ability was when GEC bought Ferranti in 1990 - they immediately put their own radar group under the control of Ferranti's Radar Systems Division. A few years later, the old GEC site was shut, and engineers moved up to the Ferranti site in Edinburgh.

In a nod to the virtues of contracting out aircraft maintenance from the RAF, it was found that the firm concerned had drilled holes that were too large in a number of F2 airframes, and the airframes were written off as a result. Fortunately, there were more airframes around than were needed after that particular round of RAF cuts, so no harm done. It puts Sodexho into perspective, mind you. For less contentious details, try Tornado here.

Air Defence Variant

More correctly known within the RAF as the 'Air Display Variant' as it's no use in a war where there are no enemy jets to chase. Equipped with Foxhunter radar, 8 missiles (4 long range Skyflash radar-guided and 4 short range ASRAAM or Sidewinder) and the normal chaff, flares and gun. Also capable of carrying ALARM anti-radar missiles. Has a maximum operational altitude slightly higher than that of a hang-glider.

The Tornado F3 (the short-lived F2s not seeing squadron service other than the OCU) is undoubtedly a formidable fighter, as long as it doesn't come up against something even more formidable, such as a Royal Thai Air Force export model F-16 for instance. The Saudis bought some, well they'll take whatever BAE offers them (much like the MoD) but even they decided they had to buy F-15 Eagle to do the real work.

The Italian Air Force borrowed a few but even after some very expensive mods to replace the chaff dispenser with an ice cream dispenser, and some even more expensive visits to one of Lancashire's more highly regarded brothels (this always works with the Saudis) they couldn't find any reason to keep them on.

IDS - Interdictor/Strike

Equipped with dumb bombs, guided bombs, the Storm Shadow stand-off missile and capable of being fitted with recce pods. Can also carry the ALARM missile.

ECR - Electronic Combat & Reconnaissance

A German development roled for SEAD.