Goodbye Tornado. Hello upgraded Typhoon and the F-35. Two aircraft —one fundamental job — providing a nation’s air power. Given this state of flux there’s a question about the role of Typhoon in the coming decades in the context of UK Air Power. From his vantage point at Typhoon Force HQ in RAF Coningsby, Air Commodore Ian Duguid is very clear about this.
“The simple answer is that it is going to be really important for a couple of reasons. First, while we all recognise the capability of the F-35 as a low observable, modern fighter with a highly capable sensor, the bottom line is that the backbone of the RAF’s combat air power is going to be provided by Typhoon.
That’s going to be the case for at least the next two and a half decades because the UK Government’s Strategic Defence Spending Review of 2015 saw an extension of Typhoon’s life out to 2040, and that’s really good news.
“Typhoon will be hugely important and it will remain relevant for two main reasons: firstly, because of its capability, and secondly, because of the relative size of the forces we will have. The RAF aspires to have eight Typhoon squadrons by the early 2020s, by contrast the F-35 Lightning Force will comprise two front line squadrons. You can see straight away, from that ratio, Typhoon will be hugely relevant.
“But it’s not just a question of numbers, the important bit is capability. Typhoon will bring an awful lot to the party and Typhoon and F-35 will complement one another.”
This idea that the two in tandem will offer the UK force a capability that is greater than the sum of the individual parts is fundamental to the UK’s air power strategy. The man who heads up the RAF’s Typhoon Force says interoperability is already a key focus.
“We are doing a lot of work with F-35 over the coming months, even though we haven’t formally introduced it in the UK yet. For example, there will be a squadron of Typhoons deploying to the United States on an exercise where it will be working with F-35. In addition, we are already working in the simulators to currently fly three different Tranche of aircraft — and there will always be continuous upgrades.
For example, in the early 2020s we may potentially look at upgrades to the displays within the cockpit and start to examine the next generation of head up display or whether we go to a helmet-mounted system. These are things we are already discussing and putting onto a ‘possible capability’ road map. But as for a traditionally defined midlife upgrade I would argue that the delivery of Project Centurion and E-Scan radar is effectively like that anyway, except it isn’t coming midlife.”
Typhoon’s future capability is not simply cast around being a replacement for Tornado but as a fundamental part in a team of assets.
Not surprisingly, a lot of thought and planning has gone into the question of how Typhoon will operate alongside other manned and unmanned aircraft in the years ahead.
For me it’s not a case of ‘how will they’ but ‘how do they’.
“For me it’s not a case of ‘how will they’ but ‘how do they’ because that is exactly what we are doing right now. We are already setting some really good conditions for developing future tactics and operating procedures. Right now our pilots are flying operations over Iraq and Syria, working hand in glove with unmanned Reapers, through their ability to generate situational awareness for the Typhoons.
“Equally the Typhoon Force has exercised regularly with the US Air Force F-22s, a 5th gen platform which has similar characteristics to the F-35 (though it’s more an air superiority, air dominance capability). Typhoon has worked really well with it. We’ve been able to develop really good systems and functions working with F-22 that we are going to take into the F-35 work.
“We are also doing co-operative work in the simulators. Right now we are carrying out highly demanding and testing operational missions in the simulator, so we are able to fully expand the envelope and capitalise on the sensor suite and capabilities of F-35 and Typhoon to develop our interoperability procedures.
“There are bound to be some challenges out there and we are determined to overcome them because we have to make this force mix fully interoperable and we are working hard to do just that. Those challenges are not insurmountable, some will be hard, but we can overcome them.
There are bound to be some challenges out there and we are determined to overcome them.
“The idea of working together means you have to be able to communicate across the airways – be that over the radio, data link or visual — and we will use all three to create the interoperability we desire. But the important thing to note is that the F-35 procured by the UK has been designed as a global joint strike fighter with interoperability in mind.
“I have worked on the F-35 programme and I know what it is going to bring. In addition, Typhoon has gone through upgrades
that added to what was already an awesome capability. Adding the two together is going to mean there are some really exciting times ahead as we develop tactics and prove them on operations.
“Clearly we now have the baseline for the next two decades from a combat air power perspective —Typhoon and F-35, along with all of the situational awareness and intelligence provided by unmanned and remotely piloted air vehicles. That combination is relatively well set. It’s a baseline that will definitely see the Royal Air Force continue to be considered as one of the most capable air forces in the world.”
So what will the future of UK combat air power actually look like — how will the different assets all work together? What kind of scenarios are being looked at in the simulators and how will these be fine-tuned when the F-35 enters operational service in the UK? Well, what the RAF already knows is that they’ll have many more options.
Obviously I can’t say too much about the details of the tactics and techniques that are being worked through in the current interoperability trials, but in broad terms it (the combination) gives us real options.
“We have a Typhoon that flies at supersonic speeds high in the atmosphere, add to that E-Scan radar with a Meteor missile and a considerable amount of munitions and a sensor suite that would work with F-35. The F-35 would be able to share a lot of its information. In some scenarios it might go out in front of a package of Typhoons to sense the air and ground environment and pass that information on.
“Equally there may be times and missions that mean the combination is the other way round — with Typhoon out there in front, high and fast, with F-35 coming in behind.
“The new force mix will certainly provide greater choice for the air commander about how they want to exploit these capabilities and how they want to deal with particular situations, whether that’s a question of how we hit particular targets or how we create certain conditions.
“Of course, a lot of what we have been talking about relates to high end warfare options but there will be times and places where the different aircraft are working separately, like the Typhoon squadron in the Baltic Air Policing role it does now, or in Iraq and Syria.”
As well as its role in an integrated force mix, Typhoon will still own one key task. “Ultimately Typhoon will continue to provide Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) for at least the next 24 years and QRA is the backbone of UK air defence.
QRA gets overlooked at times and to some degree that’s a good thing.
“QRA gets overlooked at times and to some degree that’s a good thing. People can rest easy at night knowing we are out there protecting the UK’s air space and assuring the security people crave and are entitled to.
“But the flipside is that it is also important to remind everyone from time to time that QRA is what we do and we do it very well. The very notion that 24/7, for 365 days a year, we have aircraft and crews that are ready to scramble to assure the integrity of the UK’s air space is important.”
And there’s no doubt in the Force Commander’s mind that no matter what, there’s nothing more suited to this particular job than Typhoon.
“When you consider going from a static start scramble in the middle of the night to almost Mach 2 over the North Sea in order to intercept a potential threat to UK air space then no other aircraft in the world could do it as well, or as quickly, as Typhoon. That might sound like an advert but I genuinely think that’s the case.”
So while the arrival of F-35 might be grabbing headlines, it’s clear what will be at the heart of the RAF.
“Typhoon has never been more relevant than it is now and it’s going to be that way over the next two decades. It is doing the jobs it is being tasked to do and doing them exceptionally well. It’s world class. Look at Operation SHADER and QRA, Typhoon is doing two fundamentally different jobs. We are working really well and delivering what is being asked of us… but it doesn’t stop there.
“It’s looking really good further down the line. And that’s exciting.”