With the RAF's recent acquisition of a small number of F-35B Lightning II aircraft, it feels like some of the older planes that are still in service in a number of squadrons across the UK will be somewhat forgotten about by aircraft enthusiasts out there. Who could forget the long-serving Tornado GR4, however? A two-seater swept-wing fighter jet that's designed for use in all manner of weather conditions, the GR4 has seen service in the RAF for over 30 years and this longevity is no coincidence: make no mistake about it, this is a jet worth talking about.
The Tornado GR4 is a multi-role combat aircraft that has served with the RAF for over three decades, acting as the UK's primary strike aircraft for what is an impressive amount of time. Though this fighter jet has its origins in the cold war- it was originally conceived of and designed for the penetration of Soviet air defences - this aircraft isn't quite ready to fade into the annals of history quite yet. In fact, it has a number of features that even today make it one of the most versatile and influential military aircraft of recent history.
The Panavia GR4's multi-role capability was taken advantage of during the cold war as it was used to fly at low level in and around Soviet air space. As a result of its cold-war origins, the Tornado is in fact nuclear-capable, and this truly makes it a product of its time. Its age doesn't show in its performance however: it is still to this day one of the few fighter jets that is able to operate at low-level, regardless of the time of day or the prevailing weather conditions. Its ability to operate at low and cruising altitudes with equal effectiveness is due to its variable-geometry swept-wing design, with the wings being mobile enough to change to the appropriate angle to make it ideal for whichever altitude is required.
More recent use of the Tornado (albeit armed with conventional, not nuclear weapons) has been primarily in the Middle East (echoing its past use in the Gulf War in the early 90s.
16,000 pounds of thrust is - each - is provided by the Rolls Royce RB199 Mk103 turbofan engines, making the aircraft quite a powerful beast even in this day and age. These engines allow the GR4 to reach a maximum speed of around 1,4502mph (Mach 2.2), with a maximum altitude that tops out at around 50, 000 feet. The aircraft is capable of both low-level flight at supersonic speeds as well as being able to cruse at subsonic speed.
The performance of the aircraft in low-visibility environments or extremely bad weather is facilitated by the Terrain-Following Radar, permitting low-level navigation when the pilot's view is obstructed. The forward-looking Infrared sensor also helps with navigation and for night-time flying the GR4 is NVG (night-vision goggle) compatible. For navigation, the GR4 uses a GPINS (Global Positioning Inertial Navigation System) in conjunction with its ground-mapping radar, which serves to provide feedback and updates to the navigation system.
When attacking ground targets, the pilot can use the GR4's Laser Ranger and Marked-Target Seeker, abbreviated as LRMTS - this can locate ground targets as well as provide vital range information about them.
Air-to-surface armament is taken care of by the GR4's ability to carry up to 5 Paveway IV (developed by Raytheon UK) smart weapons, or a maximum of 2 Stormshadow cruise missiles. These are the weapons that the GR4 is typically endowed with, but it is of course capable of custom configurations that include other weapons as well as targeting and reconnaissance pods.
Among the hardware that can be attached to the GR4, the RAPTOR, short for Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado, is perhaps the most impressive and definitely the most useful. This hardware allows the pilot to transmit photographic images in real-time to commanders on the ground or even for use by the pilot himself during flight. The incredible range of the RAPTOR also lets the aircraft avoid detection by enemy radar - the pilot can remain outside of detection range whilst still being able to detect enemy targets from this distance.
The weapons that currently occupy the GR4s in the RAF include Storm Shadow missiles as well as 2 types of the Brimstone missile.
As mentioned before, the GR4 is an hugely impressive aircraft, having been in service since the early 1990s. Its use in the cold war right through to the present day demonstrates its capabilities. Its presence in the Middle East (including Afghanistan in recent years) also demonstrates the versatility of the plane, which is able to function in a variety of weather conditions and at various altitudes (thanks to its variable swept-wing design). For these reasons, the plane still flies in the 9, 31, and 2 squadrons of RAF Marham as well as the 15 Squadron of RAF Lossiemouth .