Eurofighter – Baptism of fire

n the closing weeks of 2010 the Royal Air Force was still in a state of shock following the UK government’s announcement of a range of savage defence cuts which had seen the early withdrawal of the Harrier fleet, the ending of the Nimrod 4 programme, and a reduction in Tornado numbers.

24th Jul 2012

Air combat

 Eurofighter – Baptism of fire

Byline: Richard Gardner / London

In the closing weeks of 2010 the Royal Air Force was still in a state of shock following the UK government’s announcement of a range of savage defence cuts which had seen the early withdrawal of the Harrier fleet, the ending of the Nimrod 4 programme, and a reduction in Tornado numbers. With ongoing fast-jet, ISR, tanking, transport and helicopter commitments to the NATO air operations in Afghanistan - as well as providing a permanent air defence for the Falkland Islands and Quick Reaction Alert 24/7 fighter cover over the UK - the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring in Libya provided a graphic reminder of the underlying uncertainty in all things relating to foreign affairs and defence policy.

When you least expect a new emergency it will probably happen, and happen it did in March 2011, when Libyan forces loyal to President Gaddafi threatened to massacre civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere during a crack-down on armed regional dissident groups opposed to his dictatorial rule. The situation worsened to the point where the United Nations Security Council passed Resolutions 1970 and 1973 calling for force to be sanctioned in upholding a no-fly zone over the country, and to provide protection for threatened areas on the ground, but falling short of permitting foreign ground forces to occupy or take part in ground operations. Clearly no NATO nation wished to be sucked into a potential civil war that might end up being another Afghanistan, and the desire was for a quick response that would prevent massive loss of life on the ground. Libya is over 50 times the size of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, so the mission facing NATO was conducted in full recognition of what would be facing the air forces concerned.

Initially operations were restricted to the evacuation of foreign nationals from Libya, but as the operations progressed Resolution 1970 was followed by Resolution 1973 which allowed more forceful action. The US-led Operation Odyssey Dawn made way for NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. Coming at a time when NATO air forces were already over-stretched and under severe budget pressure, there was a great motivation on the part of both political and military leaders to get the job done as quickly as possible, and without any conventional ground forces becoming committed, and possibly getting involved over a protracted period.

Attempting to deal with such a situation relying on air power alone was a big call, and nothing on this scale had been attempted before, but once Resolution 1973 was in place there would have to be decisive military action, with no scope for delays in implementation. While agreeing to the action, and also making available considerable communications, command and control and other support activities, the United States backed off providing any strike or fighter aircraft over Libya after the first few days, and it fell subsequently to the air forces of Britain, France and Italy to provide the main combat air assets, supported by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Norway the Netherlands, Qatar and the UAE.

This reduction in US fighting force was significant, for all but 700 of the initial 1,900 NATO sorties were flown by US aircraft. It subsequently took several weeks for the lack of US firepower to be fully compensated by increased combat sorties by other NATO air arms. For the Eurofighter Typhoon, this was to be a new baptism of fire, for the coming weeks and months would see the type’s operational debut in an active air campaign, acting in a true multi-role capacity as an air dominance fighter and a platform for precision attack. The aircraft would be tasked with sweeping Libyan military aircraft from the skies to prevent them bombing civilians and challenging NATO aircraft. The Typhoon would be extremely well-equipped to do this by attacking ground targets, such as airfields, radar and missile sites and also removing in the air any opposing fighters which might attempt to intercept them. The Typhoon’s performance as an agile, well-armed combat aircraft would far outclass in the air any Libyan fighter that might survive the ground attacks.

Italian Forward Operating Bases

The Italian Air Force was situated a relatively short flying distance from Libya, and with bases at Gioia dei Colle and Trapani in southern Italy, its Typhoons, operated by the 36th Stormo, were well placed to provide standing air patrols in the no-fly-zone enforcement areas. Armed with 4 AMRAAM medium-range missiles, and 4 IRIS-T short-range missiles, the Italian Typhoons could take on board additional fuel from NATO air tankers to extend their endurance.

For the Royal Air Force, the operational challenge to assemble and despatch from the UK an adequate number of Tornado and Typhoon combat aircraft was enormous. The UK adopted the title of Operation Ellamy to cover its campaign commitment. Bringing forward suitable air assets closer to Libya for a practical forward operating base was essential, but this involved a massive transport and logistics effort, involving surface transport to Italy as well as air tanker and air transport operations between the UK, Italy and Cyprus. Considerable RAF surveillance and intelligence gathering air assets were also required to act as airborne data distribution nodes and to rapidly allocate new time-sensitive targets. The largely unseen Sentinel R1s and E3 AWACS played key roles in ensuring that the Typhoons and Tornados, and other NATO combat aircraft, were kept aware of the recognised air picture over Libya, helping to de-conflict and co-ordinate aircraft movements as well as call in air strikes.

Deploying the RAF Typhoons to Italy happened very quickly, again demonstrating the necessity to have well trained personnel available at all levels as well as spare air capacity for unexpected surges in demand, such as this operation. The notification to deploy ten Typhoons was received at RAF Coningsby late in the evening of 17 March. Within 36 hours, 12 aircraft were ready to go, fully armed with crews prepared. The initial aircraft came from No 11 Squadron, with that squadron providing the engineering support and additional pilots drawn also from Nos 3, 6 and 29 Squadrons. Later, No 3 squadron pilots provided the core in-theatre Typhoon unit as the deployment settled in for what would become a six-month operation. The RAF Typhoons arrived at Gioia del Cotte on 20 March and the first five-hour mission over Libya was flown the next day, supported by air tankers. With only 100 technicians supporting the deployed 10 RAF Typhoons in Italy, the ground support footprint was very modest initially, though the aircraft were immediately operational on arrival at their new base.

In the opening days of the NATO air operations, the Libyan air force was seen as a real threat, though in the event, it proved to be unwilling to take on the NATO fighters and so it remained earth-bound - where its parked and sheltered aircraft proved to be easy targets for the precision weapons available to NATO. The extensive Libyan ground defences however were a genuine threat, and included surface-to-air missiles and radar-guided artillery, much of it highly mobile.

The Typhoon’s Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS) is very sophisticated and shown to be highly effective in trials and exercises, though in March 2011 it had not been used in actual combat. As an integral part of the aircraft’s integrated weapons and defensive systems suite, it provided unprecedented confidence that combat pilots would be able to fly anywhere in the no-fly zone with maximum situational awareness, and a range of onboard measures available to defeat any aircraft or ground-based air defence threats which might arise. As the RAF Typhoon squadrons worked up the new aircraft, the onboard defensive systems were thoroughly tested and evaluated by a dedicated Typhoon Squadron, No 17, supported by the analysis performed by the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre, and the RAF and industry incorporated urgent additional work in the hours just prior to deployment so that the Typhoons were fully able to exploit onboard capabilities. Some of the last-minute enhancements (which were all planned, but brought forward for speedy implementation) included new secure radios, improved seeker-heads on the Enhanced Paveway II precision weapons, and software tweaks to some displays.

Reduced pilot workload

The single-seat design of the Typhoon might once have suggested that the operational workload in such a fast-moving air campaign would place intolerable demands on pilot workload. Apart from flying the aircraft in potentially contested air space, he or she would have to navigate, operate advanced weapons systems, designate and confirm targets, communicate with other aircraft and within the command structure, watch out for obstacles on the ground and in the air, and manage changes in mission profile. It all sounds a big challenge, but the highly automated and integrated specification of Typhoon’s systems eliminate much of the human workload within a sophisticated Human Machine Interface (HMI) management capability.

The aircraft has “carefree” handling characteristics resulting from the advanced flight control system that is highly automated, yet fully responsive to the pilot’s immediate tactical demands. Complete fusion of the sensor systems also means that the vast accumulation of mission data is automatically prioritised so that only the most appropriate information appears in the cockpit displays. This information is thus optimised for single pilot operations, and does not need regular systems health-checks and monitoring - this is all done automatically- and the pilot can concentrate on flying the mission.

The radar system offers a wide field of view and long range target acquisition, and the complimentary Infra Red Search and Track System and Electronic Warfare System, are also fused to enhance data that is required for quick, but safe, decision-making. The multi-role capability means that even while a Typhoon might be conducting a reconnaissance mission or en route to a ground strike, its radar is still looking at potential targets and its air-to-air missiles are still available to deal with any confirmed hostile air threat. If the mission priorities change during a sortie then the pilot can react with no major issues.

The high performance of the aircraft means that it can perform a complete air defence mission while carrying a full weapons load on external pylons. The Typhoons were issued with Enhanced Paveway II laser/GPS guided bombs and equipped with Litening III targeting pods for Operation Ellamy. This combination assured very high levels of probability of hitting identified targets, though in urban environments the pilots often had to hold back on launching the guided bombs for fear of causing death or injury to civilians. In some cases weapons had to be steered away from targets when civilians or non identified vehicles entered into close proximity to the designated impact point. In the air-to-air role, the RAF Typhoons carried up to eight missiles – four AMRAAMs and four ASRAAMs. Although the RAF’s Typhoons were effectively re-roled from air defence fighters to multi-role attack fighters in just over one week, they managed to achieve a remarkable 99% reliability rate throughout the operation. The UK was the only participating NATO nation that flew on every single day of the operation on a 24/7 basis.

Speaking to Defence Review Asia in London recently, Group Captain Peter Squires, Director of Defence Studies RAF, and who played a key role during Operation Bellamy, explained how the RAF strategy developed. “It was conducted in distinct stages. First, in March, the need was to make it clear in Libya that force would be used to protect the civilian population from attack. From April through May, air power was used to gain and maintain air dominance over Libya. In June, the use of air power was instrumental in slowing the progress of pro-Gaddafi forces throughout the country. From July to August air power was used to protect those on the ground from pro-Gaddafi counter-attacks as opposition forces advanced. From September to October, the end-game arrived with the liberation of the people, who could no longer be molested by Libyan forces.” He commented that once again the air campaign demonstrated that a structured application of air power could influence the behaviour of people or the course of events on the ground, even when not accompanied by coalition ground forces.

Task completed

The British and Italian Typhoons completed their Libya task from 23 September, 2011, having deployed within 72 hours of the UN mandate being agreed and with the first missions flown only 12 hours later. The Italians reached their Typhoon milestone of 1,000hours flown in June and were responsible for protecting the high value NATO airborne air assets. The RAF flew its first ground strike mission on 12 April, against main battle tanks which were close to where pro-Gadaffi forces had been laying siege to the city of Misratah. During Operation Ellamy, the UK flew 3,000 sorties and hit 1,300 targets. Overall sortie success rate was 97%.

The 21st Century network enabled capability that arrived over Libya in the form of the Typhoon has changed thinking in terms of how the RAF deploys overseas. In the past it has had dedicated ground attack aircraft in the form of the Harrier and Jaguar, as well as the longer-range and heavier payload capability of the Tornado GR4, but with the Typhoon, operating alongside the Tornado, there is now a genuine multi-role option that offers a very flexible response.

The aircraft can access and distribute data using its advanced sensors and where there is a need for air defence and surface attack, the Typhoon can perform both functions equally effectively. Over Libya, typically on five hour sorties, RAF Typhoons regularly carried four x 1,000lb precision weapons, a targeting pod and two underwing fuel tanks, as well as four AAMs, yet it could still climb to 40,000ft to avoid bad weather. After it had delivered the ordnance onto the targets, it could resume a combat air patrol still armed with its gun and missiles. Its fuel efficiency also translates into a need for less in-flight refuelling compared to many older generation combat aircraft.

Over the coming years, the strike capability will be further enhanced with clearance to carry new weapons, such as Brimstone and Storm Shadow, and for air dominance, the long-range Meteor air-to-air missile will make the aircraft even more potent. The main Typhoon partner nations have committed to bringing forward in 2015 an advanced AESA radar, Captor E, which is in full scale development by Selex Galileo. This is claimed to offer the best radar performance in its category, using a repositioning swash plate mounting for the widest possible field of view, and is one of a number of improvements in the pipeline for the final Tranche 3 deliveries over the next few years, Other possible fits may include new conformal fuel tanks, for extended endurance, and thrust vectoring. With a future in-service life extending through the next two decades, the recent Libya experience is likely to become just its first conflict in a very uncertain world.


Defence Review Asia at a glance