Gary Parsons looks at Typhoon as it becomes combat capable. Pictures by the author and Crown Copyright
Typhoon is now on readiness to respond to any aircraft acting suspiciously or intruding illegally into UK airspace, as it has been declared operational in the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role at RAF Coningsby and now protects the airspace over Southern Britain. It is the maturing of the development phase into a fully combat capable aircraft and, according to Chief of the Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy, represents "The first big milestone for Typhoon."
Typhoon F2s took on operational QRA on 29 June 2007, when 3(F) Squadron assumed responsibility from 25(F) Squadron, currently operating the Tornado F3, an element of which was detached to Coningsby on a permanent basis. 3(F) Squadron received its first Typhoon in March 2006, and is the lead squadron for developing RAF Typhoon air defence operations. QRA procedures entail aircraft being held at continuous ground readiness, so that they can take off within minutes - without pre-warning - to protect the skies over the UK.
At the press launch at a grey and windy Coningsby on 11 July, Chief of the Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy added: "Since 9/11 we've doubled the number of aircraft on alert - the RAF has an established and well practised air defence capability and I am delighted that Typhoon is now taking on these operational duties. The Typhoon is one of the most advanced aircraft in the world and gives, for the first time in many years, the RAF a world-beating multi-role capability that is an essential part of the UK's front-line."
With 3(F) Squadron now operational, the fourth Squadron, XI, is in the process of building up to full strength. This is the lead unit for Typhoon's ground attack function, and is expected to be fully operational in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles during the course of 2008. Forty-four Typhoons have been delivered to RAF Coningsby so far, all of which will eventually be multi-role capable.
Wing Commander Lawrence 'Lol' Bennett, OC 3(F) Squadron, explained more about operating the QRA role - "We operate as a Wing, so it's not just a 3(F) Squadron operation. In the next nine months we will occasionally hand back the QRA role to the Tornado F3 to enable us to work up to a deployable air defence capability and later a deployable air to ground capability next year. There's not much more I can say, but we are tasked by a Combined Operations Centre and we have direct comms with them twenty-four hours a day. I have sixteen pilots - two of them will be on a twenty-four hour shift for QRA. The groundcrew do seven days at a time. It can be quite demanding. We have two aircraft on high readiness, with two more at reduced readiness - we do rotate the aircraft; it's not the same two on duty permanently."
Typhoon carries two long-range fuel tanks, four AMRAAMs and four ASRAAMs while on alert. Much has been written about the gun, and Chief of the Air Staff Sir Glenn Torpy explained the current situation: "All the aircraft has the gun fitted, we just didn't order all the maintenance equipment. It is a simple operation to reinstate the gun's capability - it uses the same ammunition as the Tornado, the maintenance equipment can be obtained - we are currently looking at the need for the gun. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a forward-firing weapon is a very useful capability for close air support - we would start normally with a show of force, which usually has the desired effect, but then we would think of using a gun, but if that doesn't work we'd step up to bombs. However, a gun wouldn't be needed for air defence."
One of the 3(F) Squadron pilots, Flight Lieutenant Guy Lockwood, said: "The Typhoon is a fantastic aircraft to fly, very simple in fact, which is just as well beacuse the information presented to the pilot can be very demanding! I'm proud to be part of QRA - something the RAF has been engaged in since the Second World War."
Leading the support of the aircraft is Sqn Ldr Stuart Edmondson, Senior Engineering Officer - "It's a new platform - we're learning about the aeroplane all the while. We download the aircraft after every flight and it enables us to diagnose any problems."
Typhoon will take on Southern QRA permanently from 1 April 2008 when 25(F) Squadron disbands at Leeming, leaving just 43 and 111 Squadrons operating the Tornado F3 and manning Northern QRA. It takes just four minutes from alert to Typhoon getting airborne - its first 'shout' was 2 July when a Typhoon was scrambled, although the RAF would neither confirm nor deny the fact. With Russian Bears once again becoming regular visitors to UK airspace, they'll soon have a new shape shadowing them on their secretive forays.
With thanks to the Coningsby Media Communications team