The Eurofighter Typhoon has served the Royal Air Force (RAF) for nearly two decades. Developments around the UK’s Tempest concept and recent defense analysis have laid out the blueprint for the RAF’s future and once again put the spotlight on the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The Eurofighter Typhoon forms the backbone of the RAF’s capabilities, performing air superiority missions such as rapid response alerts in the Falkland Islands and air policing missions with NATO allies in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Since the retirement of Tornado GR4, better known as Tonka, Typhoon is also the main attack platform and performs some reconnaissance missions.
The fourth generation of multipurpose combat aircraft arrived in the UK in 2003, since they have become a source of pride for the RAF and are in the process of constantly modernizing. Tranche 3 is the latest production version with improved electronics, radar and defense systems. Typhoon is also set to receive first resources for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, a project intended to replace the capacity currently provided by Typhoons.
But upgrades are expensive, and a British Defense Command document said some older aircraft would be retired 15 years earlier than planned. The RAF’s level of experience in air superiority missions has also declined simply because there have been fewer aircraft to fly and train since the GR4s were retired.
“If you look at the way cross-service operations are planned, the way investment is done across multiple platforms, the way doctrine is formed, there is an unspoken, and in some cases, explicit assumption that Air Force superiority is a prerequisite,” says Justin Pronk, At the same time, he says, because the RAF’s air superiority has never been seriously questioned, it was only recently dropped from the priority list.
Defense Command and the Integrated Review Document published this year laid out plans for the RAF’s internal and external capabilities. The Defense Command document stresses the importance of the UK’s competition and even dominance of the airspace and describes hegemony as the “future battlefield”.
Pronk is confident the Hurricane will continue to form the backbone of the RAF until at least 2040, despite being more expensive to start with than the F-35A and similarly costly to the F-35B.
“The F-35, and especially the F-35B, is much more expensive to operate than a Typhoon. The Eurofighter does not have a subtle coating to maintain, and also because its supply chain is largely managed by the UK and the UK has more ownership and influence,” he explains.
Since 2016, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) has worked closely with BAE Systems and Leonardo-Finmeccanica to reduce fleet operating costs at RAF Bases Coningsby and Lossiemouth. Typhoon Total Availability Enterprise’s 10-year partnership has reduced costs by 30% so far. But there are other aspects to consider.
“Essentially, the two planes perform two very different sets of missions for the RAF,” says Pronk. “The F-35 is designed to penetrate well-protected airspace and deliver precision attacks on key targets. If you want to fly into heavily protected airspace and perform attacks, The F-35 is by far the most capable platform available today.
“If what you need is a quick reaction alert and air police, you probably want something with longer range, better performance at altitudes that is insensitive from a safety standpoint, and cheaper to run. Typhoon is better suited for this role.”
These factors, and the fact that the Hurricane can carry larger weapons payloads, make the aircraft an arguably more effective option for carrying out semi-permissive attacks in the airspace over Iraq and Syria, where RAF aircraft are currently deployed.
The answer to why the Department of Defense decided to decommission the Tranche 1 earlier is simple. They are the oldest aircraft in the Typhoon fleet and it would not be economically wise to keep them until 2040. Some of the oldest ones, such as the two-seater Typhoon T1, have already been refurbished.
“The first chip is much older and less reliable. They are less able to run many modern updates. This leads the RAF to have two different fleets within the fleet. That’s because older chips need a different pattern of updates, software and sensors because they haven’t been internally modified to receive some subsequent updates.”
This makes the Tranche 1 very expensive to operate, let alone keep up to date. The downside is that reducing the number of aircraft can be very disadvantageous in the event of an urgent deployment. But if the money saved from shortening the life of older aircraft is invested in developing and acquiring better capabilities for the remaining Typhoons, the change could be constructive.
The storm and the future of Typhoon
Older, less capable Typhoon models such as the FGR4 remain useful for certain tasks such as strength training with the IX Squad. But as a greater proportion of training moves to synthetic environments, fewer aircraft are needed to maintain the required trained pilot strength and the usefulness of older models is questioned.
Team Tempest is working on FCAS, the UK’s proposed sixth generation combat aircraft concept. The project will not necessarily provide an alternative combat aircraft, but the technology produced is intended to support the same sets of missions and capabilities that Typhoon currently provides.
A BAE Systems spokesperson said: “The Tempest and future Typhoon capability teams are working together to identify the technologies we can develop and deploy in Typhoon that will be at the heart of Tempest.”
One of Tempest’s promised capabilities is its multiple operating modes that will combine manned, unmanned, and optional manned platforms. The spokesperson said that while there is a clear role for the Typhoon operating as part of a future group of forces alongside manned and unmanned aircraft, there is no requirement to convert the Typhoon itself into an optional drone or drone.
The project is scheduled to begin providing resources in 2035 and reach full operational capacity in 2040. Whether the hurricane can survive that time, Bronk says, depends in part on how the aircraft is used in live operations in the meantime.
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