UK fighter numbers to reach all-time low with loss of Tornados and early Typhoons in 2019

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UK fighter numbers to reach all-time low with loss of Tornados and early Typhoons in 2019
Gareth Jennings, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
21 July 2015


While the Tranche 1 Typhoons are slated to be retired in 2019, along with the Tornado GR.4, they should be retained in service to act as a force multiplier in the air-to-air role for which they are already supremely suited so as to ease the burden off the rest of the depleted fast-jet force. Source: IHS/Patrick Allen


The UK's frontline fast-jet force is set to fall to its lowest numerical strength just ahead of the turn of the decade, with the almost simultaneous retirement of both the Panavia Tornado GR.4 and early model Eurofighter Typhoon fleets, the government disclosed on 21 July.

Answering questions in the House of Commons, Philip Dunne, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support, and Technology said that the retirement of the Tornados is to coincide with that of the Tranche 1 Typhoons in 2019.

Currently, the Royal Air Force (RAF) fields 53 Tranche 1 Typhoons and 87 Tornados which, when coupled with the Tranche 2 and 3A Typhoons now flying, brings its frontline combat inventory up to 192 aircraft. Although the loss of 140 aircraft by 2019 represents a 77% reduction in the current force strength on paper, it should be noted that this will be offset somewhat by the continued delivery of the Tranche 3 Typhoons, as well as the arrival of the first Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.

Even so, while all 40 Tranche 3A Typhoons should be with the RAF by 2019, the United Kingdom is expected to have received only about 15 to 20 F-35Bs by this time (to be operated by both the RAF and Royal Navy). When the loss of the Tornados and Tranche 1 Typhoons is taken into account, the United Kingdom will be left with about 127 frontline combat jets at best when this happens (the lowest number that the RAF will have fielded since its creation in 1918).

Notwithstanding the fact that at that early point in its service the F-35 will likely not be fully combat capable (the Block 3F [full combat capability] software is slated to be rolled out in late 2017, but the United Kingdom is not due to declare full operating capability [land and maritime] for the type until 2023). To date, only the first 14 operational F-35Bs have been authorised (of which four have been ordered), and while overall numbers have not yet been disclosed there is a possibility that the original planned order for 138 aircraft may be truncated to just 48 for the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.

If this were to occur, the UK frontline fast-jet fleet would number just 107 Tranche 2 and 3A Typhoons and 48 F-35Bs, for a grand total of 155 combat aircraft. While this could be increased with the 48 additional Typhoons earmarked for a Tranche 3B buy, this now seems all but certain not to happen.

While there is some validation to the argument that, because the Tranche 2 and 3A Typhoons and the F-35Bs are more capable aircraft than those that came before them, fewer will be needed, it is also true that no aircraft, no matter how capable, can be in more than one place at any time. This has been shown by the government's recent decision to slow down the pace of the Tornado retirement, even reconstituting an already disbanded unit, to ensure that simultaneous operational commitments in three theatres (Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Africa at that time) could be met.

The United Kingdom currently faces a number of threats to its security that require the application of combat aircraft, either in a kinetic warfighting role, as over Iraq and no doubt soon over Syria, or in a deterrent role, such as with the Baltic Air Policing missions currently being flown to ward off Russian aggression against NATO allies. With at least one of these threats only recently having been described by the UK prime minister, David Cameron, as "generational", and the other not likely to be resolved anytime soon, the further loss of UK airpower at such a precarious time as this seems somewhat perverse.

One solution to this quandary might be not to retire the Tranche 1 Typhoons at all, after all a 16-year service life - given the investment that has been made - does not appear to provide value for money or to make much sense. Although there will certainly be a cost implication of retaining the Tranche 1 Typhoons in service, this would be relatively small given that all of the initial investment has already been made, and that the training, operating, and sustainment infrastructures are already in place and are set to serve the wider Typhoon force through to the 2030 out-of-service date now earmarked for the Tranche 2 and 3A aircraft.

While it is true that the early-model Typhoons are not compatible with many of the hardware and software upgrades that would be needed to afford them a full multirole capability, they remain highly potent air-to-air fighter platforms and should be able to more than match any adversaries that they might meet in this arena for a number of years yet.

There is no physical reason why these 53 Tranche 1 Typhoons could not be retained in service out to 2030. While they will never match the outright capabilities of their more modern stablemates, a rolling programme of upgrades to their systems, such as the already very capable Captor mechanically-scanned radar, should at the very least afford the United Kingdom with a highly potent force multiplier to relieve some of the pressure from the newer Typhoons and Lightning IIs.
UK fighter numbers to reach all-time low with loss of Tornados and early Typhoons in 2019 - IHS Jane's 360
 

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