The Tornado is gone: was it the right aircraft for the RAF?

The Tornado ended its long career with the RAF last year. It had been used in wars, virtually without respite, since its combat debut attacking Iraq in 1991. No RAF aircraft fought for so long, and the type is guaranteed to be remembered for a long time, but was it the right aircraft? 

The Findus Crispy Pancake munching British public of the 1980s knew their massive air force had a word-beating strike aircraft in the Tornado IDS and a top of the line interceptor in the Tornado ADV. Books and magazines celebrated the amazing potency of the aircraft with almost erotic excitement. Here was an advanced combat aircraft that could penetrate the Warsaw Pact nations’ air defences at treetop height (day or night) in appalling weather, and wreak havoc on their airfields and industrial areas. It was all very exciting, but was it true?

When I interviewed a former RAF Tornado pilot last week, I asked her how she felt the Tornado GR4 compared to the US F-15E Strike Eagle. “It’s a tricky question as emotionally I loved flying the GR4, however it would have been fantastic to fly the F15. Would it have been a better investment for the UK, rather than buying the Tornado? Probably!” She also noted “Let’s be honest, it’s not as capable, apart from having a better range, I think that’s the only category on aircraft Top Trumps that the Tornado would win!”

When the Tornado was conceptualised in the late 1960s, the priority was high-speed low-level flight and long range. It was intended to fly low enough to avoid effective radar detection and perform deep interdiction missions, pre-emptively destroying strategic targets. It drew on the earlier AFVG and was heavily influenced by the similar, but larger, US F-111. The design was optimised for low-level high speed flight, but as Tornado Gulf Veteran Alistair Byford pointed out: “However, this all comes at the expense of altitude performance, and a war-loaded Tornado struggles to reach half the cruising height of a typical airliner. Clearly this has hindered its subsequent adaptability, and although the Tornado has provided absolutely sterling service and been repeatedly updated to keep it current as a weapons platform, this has been in spite of (rather than because of) its fundamental design and aerodynamic qualities.” The same was true of the sensors “At night the crew were blind to other aircraft resulting in tactics having a heavy reliance on timing that gave little flexibility to evade and safely avoid air and ground contract.”

The Tornado was a brilliantly engineered answer to the wrong question.

Variable geometry came at too large a cost

Variable geometry or ‘swing wings’ were included to meet the requirement for short field performance, long range and high speed flight. The small heavily-loaded wing area gave the Tornado a very smooth ride at low-level which both reduced crew exhaustion and made for a steady weapons platform. But it requires a heavy, voluminous and labour intensive mechanism. The F/A-18 Hornet, a contemporary of the Tornado, is beefed up to allow carrier operations and has an empty weight of 10,433 kg; Tornado had an empty weight of 13,890 kg. Though conceptually very different aircraft, in reality they ended up performing many similar mission (CAS and precision bombing in general). It is interesting to note that the both types suffered from limitations that arrived from the opposite design compromises. The Tornado lacked power and performance; the Hornet lacked range and payload. Regardless, there is a reason that no VG aircraft projects have been initiated since the early 1970s: the advantages are not worth the increase in weight and complexity.

High attrition in Desert Storm

In Desert Storm against a lesser enemy than the Tornado was created to defeat it suffered badly. Of the 55 Allied aircraft lost in Desert Storm, 8 were Tornados. Only 48 RAF Tornados were sent. This is pretty bad – consider this: the US alone deployed 1,656 armed aircraft to the campaign. The USAF alone flew 65,000 sorties, the RAF Tornado force 2,500.  

Soon after the war reports blamed the JP223* a cluster bomb/land-mine dispenser that ejects dozens of bomblets that required a predictable low-level attack profile, for the high rate of losses. This was only the case for one of the losses (the egress profile not the attack itself causing the loss). This misunderstanding was used to brush aside other observers noting the alarming loss rate of Tornados in the war. Considering the aircraft was intended to be used against the far bigger and more potent Warsaw Pact, the likely losses would have been extreme.

The high number had much to do with the emphasis on low-level flight, the volume of missions and the type of weapons used. Stand-off weapons are now the preferred anti airfield weapon. When the safer US approach of attacks from medium levels was adopted, Tornados were at a disadvantage as they lacked the power to perform effectively at this altitude. Again, the Tornado design was over-specialised. In fairness, the F-15 and F-16 were both extremely specialised in their early life but superb engine/airframe performance allowed them to better adapt to new roles.

In Kosovo in 1999 the aircraft was much improved but poor weapons integration meant the new precision bombs it was carrying were dangerously inaccurate.

*The use of the JP223 is now illegal under both cluster bomb and landmine conventions. The Convention on Cluster Munitions came into effect in 2010. Countries that opposed the convention and have not joined include China, Russia, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan and Brazil.

Self defence

“I would have preferred to see a better air-to-air capability, either through the radar and/or data-linking to the AWACs picture: that and possibly a radar missile would have given the Tornado a better self-defence capability” Noted Tornado veteran Michael Napier in this interview. Today mudmovers such as the F-15E, Su-34 and the Eurocanards consider these de riguer features for survival.

Tornado ADV 

Yes, the Tornado F.Mk 3 was effective at the end of its career. But all of the good systems that were integrated onto the F.Mk 3 would have been more effective on an aircraft of higher performance. Again, this is case of Tornado succeeding in spite, not because, of its design. The ADV’s limitations are well documented but centre around poor agility, poor medium and high altitude performance and a painfully slow radar development process.

In exercises towards the end of the 20th century, SkyFlash-armed Tornado F3s did very badly against German F-4Fs equipped with AMRAAMs. Could a F-4F or more radical British Phantom upgrade have proved a more cost- and combat effective alternative to the F3 in the in the 1985-1998 timeframe? Almost definitely.

Though the F3 was well equipped at the time of its retirement it was lacking a helmet cueing system, something which would have helped it where it was most vulnerable, in within visual range engagements with inevitably more agile opponents.

Anti Shipping

A good maritime radar can pick up the nice big steel and aluminium radar reflector that is a ship at long range. The Buccaneer’s Blue Parrot radar had a maximum range of 240 nautical miles, although 180 was more normally used. The Tornado…had a maximum range of forty nautical miles*. So when operating without a Nimrod the Tornado was limited to firing Sea Eagle well inside the missile’s normal launch range” – Wing Commander Gordon Robertson (retd) in ‘Tornado Boys‘. The Sea Eagle was a big missile and fitting four meant the loss of the main fuel tank pylon, so to ensure an effective radius of action only two were carried, half the load of the aircraft it replaced, the Buccaneer. Considering a Royal Navy study estimated it would take 24 missiles to reliably knock-out a large warship this was a considerable disadvantage.

The engines were more ‘fragile’ than the Bucc’s, the light grey camo scheme made the aircraft stand out like a “sore thumb” over the sea, and worse still, a fleet-wide upgrade from 1998 had introduced a wiring problem to the GR.1B which meant the Sea Eagles didn’t work (in a Exercise Nepture Warrior one crew were allocated two missiles to fire: both failed). The Tornado also had navigation and weapon aiming system issues over the sea.

(*Sea Eagle’s maximum range was around 60NM)

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Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Defences

The Tornado was used in the defence suppression role in the 1999 Kosovo campaign. As Wing Commander Gordon Niven (retd) noted in ‘Tornado Boys’, the ALARM missile and Tornado combination was not very effective for the role, “Neither the missiles nor the Tornado was configured in any way remotely close to the capability of the USAF F-16 SEAD units.” The ALARM was used by RAF Tornados from 1990 until 2013, a short service life for a guided anti-radar weapon; the US equivalent, the AGM-88 HARM series, has been in service since 1985 with no planned retirement date. Today an RAF ALARM from the Kosovo campaign is displayed in the Belgrade air museum, it failed to self destruct or destroy a target and instead gently delivered itself by parachute into curious (and Russian-friendly) Yugoslav hands.

Low-level culture

Low level flying can still be an effective counter to radar but it is also dangerous. Training for this mission has resulted in more aircraft and crew losses than anything else, including actual warfare, over the last fifty years. The culture is embedded in the RAF, a force that often prides itself on being among the best at this skill. There has at times been a cultural prejudice that favours low-level tactics over the development of weapons that can be launched from higher altitudes.

The F-117 Nighthawk introduced another radar survival approach into operational service four years after the Tornado: stealth. Today all high-end warplanes in development are baking a high degree of reduced radar conspicuity into their design. The Tornado with its huge metal tail and boxy fuselage was extremely unstealthy.

Export success?

Nope. Saudi Arabia bought the IDS. But they will buy anything British, and the deal was shady as hell. In all 2006 all this dodgy-ness was all brushed under the carpet: “The Director of the Serious Fraud Office has decided to discontinue the investigation into the affairs of BAE Systems plc as far as they relate to the Al Yamamah defence contract. This decision has been taken following representations that have been made both to the Attorney General and the Director concerning the need to safeguard national and international security. It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest.”

Alright smart arse, so what should have happened?


A radical Buccaneer upgrade to cover the role until the arrival of the F-15E. At its peak the RAF had six squadrons, a greater number (more airframes were available) of Super Buccaneers could have done this job.


F-4s to cover the role until the either the earlier arrival of F-15Cs or a later arrival of dual-role F-15Es.

Political & Industrial

Did the Tornado protect the British aerospace producers from US industrial hegemony? No. The UK is currently procuring the F-35. A deal which has hindered Britain’s ability to create indigenous designs. Did it help to keep Europe together? No.

The roots of at least some of Tornado’s problems lie in a lack of compromise from the British side and the interference of political considerations. As the former West German Chief of Air Staff Heinz Birkenbeil noted in Dr Alfred Price’s ‘Panavia Tornado‘, “Before we went into the programme the German requirement was for a daylight attack plane. All the other European nations and Canada needed a replacement for the F-104, each nation put in its requirements and the requirements were a long way apart. In the second round the British required a deep interdiction aircraft with at least twice as much range as the Germans wanted, and all at low level for strike and conventional attack –– we had wanted an aeroplane for strike and close air support, with an air superiority capability over the battlefield. But we had not been after an aeroplane for deep interdiction… I told our Chief of Air Staff [General Steinhoff] that my department did not think the projected aircraft would fit the german requirement. And then a funny thing happened. The programme was of great political importance to Europe and the politicians stepped in…The result of this in Germany was the Chief of Air Staff simply changed our Air Force’s requirement until it eventually fitted the requirement of the MRCA!”


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  1. GeoffG

    Seeing a Tornado years ago wallowing around the sky at Fairford really gave the game away. Compared with the crisp performance of the F-16 at the same airshow it was underpowered, heavy & sluggish.

    • Duker

      Thats because the F-16 was designed as a lightweight fighter with a very powerful engine for its size. It ended up as a strike fighter wheres it bacon was saved by precision strike weapons. The Tornado was designed as a Bomber from the beginning, the ADF version was really a longer range patrolling fighter for shooting down Backfires over the North Sea, not cover for bombers or tangling with other fighters.
      We can see the advantages of the lighter F16 even now when its maneuvering ability outshines the heavy strike fighter -F-35. ( whos empty weight is even heavier than the Tornado ,as well as a small wing).
      Simply put the USAF could afford to develop and buy multiple aircraft types along with later newer engines to suit the mission, the RAF couldnt. The US bomber with swing wings was the B1, not that the outboard swing wing hinge is voluminous at all. The central wing box , hinge and outer swing wing fit the same volume as normal centre and outer wing box. Yes it is heavier and only suitable for larger planes but the shoulder mounting means the sweep occours on top of the fuselage containing engine and fuel.
      The story mentions the F104 , now there was a plane the Europeans got which wasnt suitable for their requirements at all, relying on the Gemans to know what they want is a futile exercise, even today . After all a shorter range Tornado carries more weapon payload than fuel and they did need the longer range for naval Bundesmarine bomber wings.

      • Barry Larking

        Thank heavens for that! I thought it was only me! I first encountered the Tornado in a remote Scottish glen in a heavy mist. I could hear them but rarely saw one as they swept past at low level. I was also buzzed at a substantial part of Mach One coming into the Tyne by a Tornado practising on us and a Norwegian School brass band on the upper deck! In Northumberland they let rip over the moors snapping from one flight angle to the next with inertia-less precision going in over R.A.F. Spadeadam at grouse height. The British played the game in the Cold War and N.A.T.O. remarkably well. We had assigned tasks and we did what was asked of us. The F3 I saw less often, but looked the best Tornado. It had great loiter ability and was designed to knock down bigger prey, particularly Soviet anti-shipping missile carriers far out in the U.K.-Iceland gap. Suddenly, comes the F 35 and all that ‘knife fight in telephone box’ talk goes quiet. But Tornado flew the flag. Its targets in Gulf War One were the most heavily defended of all. Listening to tapes of aircrew flying on to the target (‘There’s the perimeter fence. Go through, go through steady …’) was awe inspiring. We lost some good men. The enemy lost an air force. The U.K. put N.A.T.O. first; the Europeans shafted N.A.T.O.’s war fighting plans choosing to buy the F 104 as a bomber (repeat as a bomber) and bit Lockheed’s sweetners out of their extended corporate hands, remember? They bought an aircraft unsafe at any speed other than on the taxi pad. The German press called it ‘the Widow Maker” over a hundred G.A.F. pilots lost. So Blighty sucked back some of the oil weapon money from the Saudis post 1974 – that’s very wicked according to this article. No, the Tornado wasn’t the F 15 or F 16 – great air craft as they are. But it worked and we sold a lot. Next!

  2. Glen Towler📷 (@NZAircraftFan)

    I have admit yes the Tornado was a bit crap unless it was flying low level and like you say flying low level was fine until they attacked Iraq airfields and had to fly straight over the target. You didn’t mention sky shadow isn’t that great stand off weapon?

    • Barry Larking

      The Gulf War One experience lead to Sky Shadow. I don’t think the precise details of the success of this weapon in Gulf War Two were made public. I understand it was ‘good-ish’ as they say. The one part of the article that confirms what I had been able to glean from many sources is that the JP223 attacks cost one lost aircraft and crew destroyed flying off the target. The airfields were described as the same size as Heathrow and bristled with anti air systems, the most heavily defended of all targets attacked. Twenty F 16’s from some National Air Guard squadron attacked one thoroughly disabled air field with forty iron bombs and hit the main runway. Once. To be fair the idea was to keep the Iraqis grounded. But …

    • Duker

      Iraq with its mostly flat desert where the large spread out airbases were was quite a bit different to the hilly and forested areas of East Germany, Poland and its more compact smaller airfields that Nato expected to attack.
      Low level attack in Iraq had no ground or forest masking to assist entry and exit and as the pilot story says in the link, the RAF did fairly predictable things in its repeated visits to disable the multiple runways/taxiways.

  3. Chaffers

    Good write up.

    I have a soft spot for the F3, as whilst nothing said above is wrong it did fit our doctrine very well. Any war was most likely to be lost via lack of aircover at sea, and it fulfilled that role and bomber killer very well, so comparisons to the short legged F16 don’t work.

    The IDS though? Over complicated, very expensive and inadequate for the role. Features such as reverse thrust were probably never used in anger but added weight and expense. You’d never see one without wing tanks which tells you all you need to know about the lack of internal fuel.

    The Gulf war data is probably a bit unkind, though the number of aircraft and aircrew lost in crashes seemed rather high. Lots of expensive upgrades required during it’s service life.

    It isn’t even clear to me that it was superior to the Saab Viggen which preceded it by 7 years. All in all, a bit of a turkey.

    • Garvie

      Thrust reverse worked perfectly, pretty much every time, and made landing distances short. 2500hrs of Tornado operational flying gives me the experience to comment; I hope!

  4. Andy See

    After choking down a few choice phrases in the defence of my beloved Tonka, i think generally you’re right in your assessment. Its strength is as a low level bomb truck, and if you needed to hump a mountain of 1000lb’ers or a bucket of sunshine across Western Europe without being noticed, then arguably, the Tornado was the best in class in its generation.
    I’d imagine those same attributes made it pretty good in the ECR format too, but it was too much of a lump to be anything more than a middling SEAD platform and bloody useless at CAS, unless it could tool around at an altitude of 10k and ‘tank plink’ with LGB’s.
    The JP223 was a bad idea in hindsight, but then, in 1991, what were the options for busting up an airfield? 1000lb GP bombs, cluster bombs and Durandal’s and that’s about it, so really, JP223 was no better or worse. By the end of her life, its a totally different situation, but during Desert Storm, she was the ideal platform for the taskings she was allocated, but it was dangerous work

    As a Maritime strike platform, it was never going to be anything more than a compromise for all the reasons you mentioned previously. Swap Sea Eagle with Harpoon or Exocet, and sort the radar out to something akin to what the Bucc had, and maybe you’d have something workable,

    It’s ADV variant does make sense, insomuch as it was intended to act like the USN’s F-14 did, a big powerful brute to get out to range fast, pick up targets as far out as possible, and then start smacking them with BVR missiles. Except, Skyflash wasn’t the AIM-54 (or even the AMRAAM if we’re being honest), and the radar wasn’t in the same league as the F-14 or F-15 to be able to detect and engage at long range. It’d never be a dogfighter like the F-14, but it could have been a respectable interceptor, especially had she been paired with a lightweight fighter like the F-16 working behind it to do the close in stuff and pick up anything that made it through the first screen

    Ultimately, i think the Tornado’s biggest flaw was that when she was in her prime, she didn’t have the weapons or sensors to match her potential, the MOD tried to shoehorn her into WAAAY too many roles and ended up doing none of them all that well

    However, i still maintain that if you wanted an aircraft to haul a load of ordnance somewhere at 500kts and low enough to fly through the sentries legs, there was none finer

    • Chaffers

      F3 vs F14 would be an interesting one… And I’m instinctively siding with the F3…

      Bit of a mong race as neither was a knife fighter but would be interested to see a comparison.

    • Garvie

      Again, I feel a need to comment from experience; your comment of “bloody useless at CAS” is wildly wide of the truth. With around 150 CAS mission experience in the Tornado GR, i can confidently say that it was a completely evolved platform over the years, and in its final 12 years employed in the CAS role it was optimised superbly for what we needed to do; save lives and stop the opposition.

  5. Alan Reid

    “In Desert Storm against a lesser enemy than the Tornado was created to defeat it suffered badly. Of the 55 Allied aircraft lost in Desert Storm, 8 were Tornados”.
    I listed the losses in detail during an earlier post, but it doesn’t seem to have made the board.
    Just to summarise, I believe seven Tornados were lost on offensive operations during 1991.
    Six from the RAF, and one from the Italian Air Force.
    Of those six RAF losses: Four were at low-level, two aircraft being lost to SAMs, while another two are believed to have hit the ground while manoeuvring at night.
    According to Lindsey Peacock (Aviation News article, August 1994) – at least 53 JP233 sorties were flown in the first 72 hours of the war, with only one JP233 carrier lost, a 27 Squadron Tornado (ZA392), which flew into the desert a couple of minutes after leaving Shaibah airbase in circumstances which cannot be directly attributed to enemy action.
    Although a very demanding flight-profile, sometimes described as “suicidal” – a 2% attrition rate does not seem to merit that description.
    There were other Tornado sorties flown in support of JP233 raids, including defence suppression missions with ALARM and
    air-burst 1, 000Ib bombs. One of those loft-bombers was hit by a Roland SAM at Tallil airbase on the third night of the war.
    To sum-up: These dangerous airfield missions were flown by the best low-level operators in the world. During the early days of the war, the Iraqi Air Force certainly contested incursions into its airspace. Indeed, there is evidence that it was not a completely useless force, with one USN F-18 shot-down by a MIG-25 on the first night of the war. Due to the size of the Iraqi airbases, it was not realistic to close them down completely, but JP233 raids disrupted the operations of the Iraqi Air Force during the critical early phase of the war – allowing air-superiority to be achieved more easily than it may otherwise have been. There is also evidence an Iraqi Mirage F1 was taken out on the taxiway by a JP233 munition.
    As always, I enjoyed reading the article and follow-up comments – but perhaps more credit needs to be given to the Tornado and its crews for their contribution to success in 1991.

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