Royal Air Force Operations and Evolving Concepts of Operations: Shaping a Triple Transition


2015-10-28 By Robbin Laird

During my visit to Europe in October 2015, I had the chance to visit with senior RAF officers and to discuss RAF operations as well as the double transition with Typhoon modernization as well as the introduction of the F-35.

For the RAF, it is really a triple transition as the new Queen Elizabeth carriers will be the complimentary platform to the F-35B.

And as Group Captain Ian Townsend, a key officer involved in working the F-35 introduction into service for the RAF, who is also an experienced

Typhoon pilot put it with regard to the Queen Elizabeth and F-35 transition:

As an airman, I like anything that enhances my ability to deliver air power, and the ship certainly does that.

The ship has been tailor-made from first principles to deliver F-35 operational output.

The ship is part of the F35 air system.

think this is the key change to where we were in Joint Force Harrier where the ship was really just a delivery vehicle.

The ship was just a runway.

The Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are much more than that.

They are right at the heart of the air system’s capability fundamentally enabling and supporting what the air vehicle is doing three, or four, or five hundred miles away from the ship.

And that wasn’t quite the same in Joint Force Harrier with the Invincible Class CVS carriers.

So it’s very different for us.

Everyone involved in embarked F-35 operations needs to understand what the air vehicle is going off to do because everybody on the ship is much closer to that end delivery of effect.

This is a very different concept of operations from 15 years ago.

In a follow up interview with Group Captain Paul Godfrey, the predecessor of Townsend and about to become the air boss of RAF Lossiemouth and of three Typhoon squadrons and one Tornado squadron along with 11th Squadron Commander Matt Peterson at RAF Conigbsy, there was a chance to discuss RAF operations as well as evolving concepts of operations as the Eurofighter evolves and the F-35 introduced into the RAF.

According to the RAF website:

RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is the Royal Air Force’s Southern Typhoon Main Operating Base (MOB), home to two front line, combat ready squadrons – 3(Fighter) Squadron and XI Squadron, the Typhoon OCU, 29 (Reserve) Squadron, and 41 (Reserve) Test & Evaluation Squadron, which comprises both Typhoon and Tornado elements.

Coningsby is also one of two Quick Reaction Alert locations to deal with all threats to British air space whether they are potential terrorists or resurgent Russians.

And indeed, this activity has ramped up significantly in the past few years, consuming resources and focusing the attention of the RAF on this core task.

XI Squadron will be involved in an exercise at Langley Air Force Base later this year with Rafales and F-22s, which is a further step in the direction of working the evolving concept of operations for fifth generation enabled air combat operations.

And Group Captain Godfrey is the first F-35 transition officer commanding an RAF Typhoon base and clearly will be looking at ways to shape the transitional dynamics.

Question: The RAF has had to focus more on British airspace protection with both the terrorist threat and the upsurge in Russian airspace activity impacting on the UK.

What role has the Quick Reaction Alert force played in this process?

Answer: At RAF Coningsby, we are more focused on the terrorist threat whereas at RAF Lossiemouth we focus more on the Russian activities.

But the demand on resources is significant. Everything at each base, from equipment, to logistics to training is focused on maintaining the alert posture and ensuring we are ready 24/7.

The aircraft and pilots on QRA are only the tip of the pyramid of activity to ensure success in such an important mission.

Group Captain Paul Godfrey addressing the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium, April 17, 2015. Credit: SLD
Group Captain Paul Godfrey addressing the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium, April 17, 2015. Credit: SLD

Question: With regard to the Russians, what have they been doing in terms of flying into areas surrounding the UK?

Answer: Russian aircraft haven’t entered UK airspace, but have been escorted by RAF aircraft in international airspace within the UK’s area of interest.

We’ve seen a wide range of Long Range Aviation aircraft, including Tu-95 Bears, Tu-22 Backfires and Tu-165 Blackjacks, with the different variants of Bear being most common.

In the past couple of years, Russian activity has increased and we have therefore adapted our operating procedures to ensure that we can deal with the various Russian aircraft and their activities once inside the UK’s area of interest.

Question: There is a level of activity we have not seen since the Cold War; but the pilots who flew those missions are not doing them now.

Do you think the Russian pilots today actually understand the rules of the old game or are they pushing the envelope?

Answer: That is a good question.

We do have some residual Cold War experience in the Typhoon force from a UK perspective and, although LRA activity dropped off in the early 2000s, they have been visiting sporadically over the years, so we have always kept up the knowledge and procedures; I don’t know what it’s like in Russian LRA force, but they have been through a modernization programme and are clearly getting more proficient at what they do.

However, you are still not entirely sure what is going on in the minds of their pilots, when you intercept them.

Question: At the London Olympics and the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow, you prepared to counter terrorist air threats as well.

How did you approach this mission?

Answer: It is interesting that in your piece on innovation by design you focused on the Air Marshal Dowding approach to the defense of British airspace during the Battle of Britain.

We essentially used this model, with a multi-layered defense including observers on the ground, airborne snipers, fast jets, and various other means commanded by a centralized command and control system.

It was the Battle of Britain model with a 21st century slant.

Question: Godders, you have been involved with preparing the F-35 transition and now will return to Typhoons, with your posting to RAF Lossiemouth. You are the first Typhoon station commander with in-depth F-35-knowledge and are well placed to work the transition with Typhoon.

What is your sense of the way ahead?

Group Captain Paul Godfrey: The penny dropped for me three years ago when I flew Typhoon with USAF F-22s on Exercise Western Zephyr at Langley AFB.

This was the first time I’d seen and operated within a 4th/5th gen fighter mix and I saw exactly how powerful it could be.

The F-22s in the formation demonstrably made the Typhoons more lethal and, more importantly, more survivable.

I then brought this experience into the UK F-35 entry into service program, meaning that we could concentrate on strengths that a fifth gen platform brings to everything else that you’ve got, whether that is the fighter, tanker aircraft, AWACs, or UAVs.

The F-35 has had a troubled history in terms of the press, but for us, it is a revolutionary capability that perfectly suits the current and planned UK capabilities.

It has also been very interesting working closely with the USMC who have also seen the F-35 for what it can do and have disregarded the negative press and just got on with it.

At the same time, the modernization of Typhoon is underway and we have seen real progress in terms of electronic warfare, sensors and integration, and improvements in the human machine interface which is going to the cockpit more effective to operate the aircraft in the expanded battlespace with 5th gen assets.

F-35s, whether a two, four or eight ship formation working with Typhoons is going to make a significant a difference in expanding our capabilities in the future contested, congested and degraded airspace.

We also need to follow the Australian example, of breaking down the barriers among the forces and transforming the joint force. It is up to use to ensure that the rest of the RAF, Army and Royal Navy understand what our new force package can bring to them; whether it is the expanded situational awareness we can provide to the solider on the ground, to the sea-based commander, or the ability to insert force where we previously could not go, it will transform their capabilities as well.

However, that is absolutely dependent on our thinking and how we decide we can use these airplanes.

The Plan Jericho approach suggests opening the aperture of operational thinking; we clearly need to do this as well and Ian Townsend is now carrying that baton in the UK F-35 programme, although I can continue to influence as I come back to the Typhoon.

Sqn Ldr Matt Peterson (right) and Wg Cdr Roddy Dennis.practice flyby in April 2011 for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Credit; RAF
Sqn Ldr Matt Peterson (right) and Wg Cdr Roddy Dennis practice flyby in April 2011 for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Credit; RAF

Question: How important is the shift from Tornado to Typhoon in terms of Typhoon subsuming the missions of the former?

Wing Commander Matt Peterson: The key is to understand the shift from an air to air focused platform to a true swing-role capability.

We must expand our horizons and think about them as a system rather than individual parts.

The combination of Typhoon and 5th generation capabilities is undeniably an example of the sum being greater than the parts.

Fifth generation systems are unique, and Typhoon is a different type of aircraft, but working through how to leverage both is a key to the evolution of our approach.

Combined together, we will see significant force multiplication. We must expand our horizon, and think about them as a system as a whole, which might have one or two different platforms in operation and then using those capabilities of each for a greater effect.

We also need to shape a different mindset as we work the new combat approach.

The F-35 is the newer platform and revolutionary in many respects.

The Eurofighter is a high-end 4th gen capability undergoing significant modernization, but when they fly together they fly as a team, and it is important for pilots to understand this in order to get the combat choreography right.

Question: The Italian Air Force along with the RAF is working through the Typhoon and F-35 double transition.

What is the impact of that dynamic?

Group Captain Paul Godfrey: In effect, the emergence of the F-35 global fleet provides a significant means to expand our reach, with the emergence in some ways of what you might call and Euro-Med capability. We are working new relationships in the region and   forging even closer working relationships to sharpen new ways to plan and execute coalition missions. The Italians are a very important partner in these efforts.

Wing Commander Matt Peterson: It is clearly important to exercise with a variety of potential coalition partners.

The invaluable lessons learned during exercises, like the forthcoming one in Langley, are a huge force multiplier and enable coalition capabilities to integrate and assimilate before they are employed on operations in the fluid contemporary strategic environment.

Group Captain Paul Godfrey: There will be significant European capabilities, which will emerge in this environment.

For example, the French Air Force is first rate and their Rafales are excellent combat platforms.

They need to learn to operate with a fifth generation-enabled force and become part of this overall effort as well, hence the excersise in the USA this year.

The Norwegians and Dutch will eventually have an all-fifth generation fighter force which will be blended into the overall European defense effort as well.

When you combine this with the USAF plans to station its first overseas F-35As at Lakenheath you can see that we will all need to work closely together to increase the combat capability of our forces.

All of this will lead to significant combat capability innovations fueled by revolutionary combined tactics, procedures.


Wing Commander Matt Peterson

Matt Peterson joined the RAF in 1999 after reading Geography at Durham University. During flying training, Peterson was selected to conduct Advanced Fast Jet Training as part of the NATO Flying Training in Canada (NFTC) programme. On successful completion of training, Peterson conducted his first operational tour on No. 54(F) Squadron, RAF Coltishall, as a member of the Jaguar Force. During this tour he deployed operationally, in the reconnaissance role to Incirlik, Turkey, in support of Operation RESOLUTE SUPPORT. On completion of the Jaguar Qualified Weapons Instructor (QWI) Course in 2005, Peterson was posted to No. 6 Squadron and subsequently became the final Jaguar QWI until the aircraft was retired from RAF service in 2007.

After a short holding tour on No. 17(Test and Evaluation Squadron), Peterson converted to the Typhoon and assumed the role of Air-to-Surface (A-S) QWI on No. 3(F) Squadron at RAF Coningsby. This period saw the Typhoon develop into a multi-role platform and Peterson became one of the initial cadre of Typhoon multi-role instructors that enabled the Typhoon Force to declare its initial A-S capability in 2008.

On promotion to Squadron Leader in 2009, Peterson was posted to HQ 1 Gp as SO2 Typhoon Operations. In this capacity, Peterson managed the test and assurance activity for the Typhoon’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) commitment; facilitated the handover of the Falkland Island Standing Commitment (FISC) from Tornado F3 to Typhoon; and supported the generation and management of additional Typhoon capabilities.

On completion of his staff tour, Peterson returned to Typhoon flying duties in 2011 as Executive Officer on the newly reformed No. 6 Squadron at RAF Leuchars. During his tour Peterson deployed operationally, in the A-S and reconnaissance role, to Gioia del Colle, Italy, in support of Operation ELLAMY. In addition, at the end of his tour, Peterson deployed to Mount Pleasant Airfield on the Falkland Islands to conduct an out of area tour as OC 1435 Flt.

On promotion to Wing Commander in 2013, Peterson was posted to the PJHQ as SO1 J3 Air in the Middle East Operations Team (MEOT). This posting saw Peterson involved in the management of a plethora of operations including LUMINOUS, KIPION, CHOBDAHAR, ATALANTA, SHADER and the redeployment from HERRICK. Peterson’s tour in the PJHQ was curtailed by selection for Advanced Command and Staff College 18 (ACSC 18) at JSCSC Shrivenham, which he completed in 2015.

Group Captain Godfrey

Group Captain Godfrey is to be Officer Commanding Royal Air Force Lossiemouth in November 2015 in succession to Group Captain M W J Chappell.

Group Captain Paul Godfrey joined the RAF in 1991 progressing through flying training on the Jet Provost and Hawk. Posted to the Harrier in 1994, he flew in various operations in the Balkans with IV(AC) Sqn, based at RAF Laarbruch in Germany between 1995 and 1998.

Returning to IV(AC) Sqn as a Qualified Weapons Instructor, he moved with them back to the UK where he began an instructional tour on 20(R) Sqn, the Harrier OCU. In 2000, he was selected for an exchange tour as the first non-USAF pilot to fly the F-16CJ, serving on the 55th Fighter Sqn at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. Here he contributed to the post-9/11 homeland defence task and twice deployed on operations to the Middle East.

On return from the USA Godders undertook a ground tour as a Typhoon Requirements Manager and, in 2005, was posted as a Flight Commander to 3(F) Sqn, the first Operational Typhoon Sqn. After completion of Staff College in 2009 he was posted to MOD as the Typhoon desk Officer and then served the Officer Commanding Operations at RAF Coningsby. He then moved to the F-35 program where he worked Group Capt Paul Godfrey, on preparing the entry into service of the Lightning II in the UK

Editor’s Note:  When visiting 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby, there was an opportunity not only to see Typhoon, but the “mascot” of the Squadron, namely, the 1950s and 1960s Lightning.

Seen in the hangar were several Typhoons, but what was unusual were their markings.

There was one Typhoon with markings for the Battle of Britain 75th celebration.

There was one with D-Day markings.

And a third had the markings honoring the 100th anniversary of 29th squadron.

The final photos show some the weapons flown currently by Typhoon including Storm Shadow, Brimstone, AMRAAM, and ASSRAM as seen in the photos.

These photos were shot at RAF Coningsby on September 25, 2015.

Credit Photos: Second Line of Defense

29 (R) Squadron based at Royal Air Force Coningsby, Lincolnshire, revealed a striking new paint scheme to mark the 100th anniversary of its formation.

The Typhoon aircraft, featuring Ruby Red and Champagne Gold colours is derived from the squadron badge. The badge shows an eagle in flight preying on a buzzard with the motto “Impiger et acer” (Energetic and keen). The tail plane surfaces depict different aircraft that have been flown by the squadron during its 100 years of service.

Officer Commanding 29(R) Squadron, Wing Commander James Heald DFC said, “I think the aircraft looks fantastic, a fitting tribute to all those who have served on 29 Sqn and a great celebration of our Centenary.”

100 years ago, 29 (R) Squadron was first raised as a unit of the Royal Flying Corps at Gosport, Hampshire and is one of the world’s oldest fighter squadrons. The second British squadron to receive the Eurofighter Typhoon, it is theOperational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the RAF’s world class multi role aircraft.

29 (R) Squadron began the Second World War with its Blenheims, which at the period operated as day fighters – especially on convoy protection patrols.

From June 1940 it became a night fighter squadron, receiving some of the first Beaufighters in November, though it was February 1941 before the squadron was fully equipped with the new fighter.

Various marks of the de Havilland Mosquito were flown by the squadron from May 1943 culminating in the Mosquito NF30. From the middle of 1944 most of the squadron’s missions took it over the continent.

As this year also commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Wg Cdr Heald said, “As a Battle of Britain Sqn ourselves, we are privileged to have on our line an aircraft commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle. The team responsible for the design and output of this magnificent new scheme should be exceptionally proud of themselves.”

The Typhoon aircraft, featuring Ruby Red and Champagne Gold colours is derived from the squadron badge.

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Watch the RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert in Action

By Ben Farmer, Defence Correspondent, video by Chris Stone and Charlotte Krol

The RAF’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) crews have been in the headlines repeatedly over the past year, intercepting Russian long-range ‘Bear’ bombers north of the UK.

Since the 9/11 attacks on America, they have also increasingly prepared themselves for the almost unthinkable prospect of shooting down a rogue or hijacked civilian aircraft to stop an airborne terrorist attack.

Wg Cdr Chris Layden, commander of XI (Fighter) Squadron whose pilots scramble from RAF Coningsby, said: “Everyone who flies a fighter on QRA understands that it’s a pretty serious business and in the worst case scenario it’s going to be something which would probably be a national trauma.

“On the worst case end of the scale, I suppose you are looking at a 9/11 scenario and all my pilots and I have to be prepared and trained to go and use lethal force against aircraft which are a threat to the people of this country.”

QRA at RAF Lossiemouth 

September 19, 2014

The first use of the Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) North based at RAF Lossiemouth was successfully completed recently with the launch of Typhoon jets to identify unknown aircraft flying in international airspace.

A spokesman for RAF Lossiemouth confirmed the Station’s first QRA launch:

“RAF Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon fighter aircraft were launched from RAF Lossiemouth to identify unknown aircraft that were flying in international airspace. The aircraft, were identified as Russian military ‘Bears’ which did not enter UK sovereign airspace.

The primary role of the Royal Air Force is to defend the UK, 365, 24/7; the RAF will continue to remain alert and ready to intercept any unidentified military or civilian aircraft around UK airspace. Recent events have increased awareness of Russian military activity, however, the RAF have routinely intercepted, identified and escorted Russian air assets that transit international airspace within the UK’s area of interest. Russian military flights have never entered UK sovereign airspace without authorisation.”

The QRA at RAF Lossiemouth is manned by crews from 6 Squadron; the pilot of the first launch said:

“It was an honour to be part of what is a milestone in the history of RAF Lossiemouth. With the move of Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) North from Leuchars to Lossiemouth, it has been a huge ask of many personnel. The fact that we had a flawless scramble and intercept of two Russian Bears was a testament to the hard work and commitment of all personnel involved.

“A very proud moment, not just for the pilots who did the intercept but the engineering crews who did a fantastic job, as well as many other station personnel involved in this constant commitment.”

Royal Air Force Lossiemouth began a new era in its history on the 1st of September when it assumed the provision of the Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) North (QRA) task for the United Kingdom.

The strategically important position of RAF Lossiemouth on the northern Scottish coastline makes it an ideal location to maintain aircraft and crews on high alert, in order to scramble and intercept unidentified aircraft approaching UK airspace. This is the basis of QRA and is a duty that has been maintained by the UK on a 24/7 basis for decades.

RAF Lossiemouth’s Station Commander, Group Captain Mark Chappell, said of the first launch:

“This first successful launch for QRA(I)N has been what all of the hard work by RAF Leuchars and RAF Lossiemouth personnel over recent months has been for.

The relocation of two Typhoon squadrons was a significant challenge, one that was met by our whole team. The many months of preparation and infrastructure improvements have made us absolutely ready for this to this launch, and shows we are in the best position to provide the service to the United Kingdom that the Royal Air Force was primarily created for – that is, the protection of our airspace.”

RAF Typhoons Return from Baltic Air Policing Mission

UK Ministry of Defence

August 26, 2015

The RAF Typhoon detachment deployed to Amari air base in Estonia atNATO’s request on 1 May this year, operating alongside Norwegian aircraft to secure NATO’s airspace over the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania which do not have their own air defence fighters.

On 25 August, at the concluding event in a series of commemorative occasions at Amari 121 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) handed over to the German 31st Tactical Air Wing.

Addressing the EAW and invited guests, British Ambassador to Estonia Mr Chris Holtby said:

The presence in Estonia for the last four months of the four Royal Air Force Typhoons and all the personnel of 121 Expeditionary Air Wing has provided firm evidence of the commitment of the UK and our NATO Allies to the security and defence of Estonia.

The UK is grateful for every opportunity to work together with the highly professional armed forces of its close military ally Estonia, and I am very proud that the UK has already committed itself to take part in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing again in 2016.

A RAF Typhoon accompanying a Russian Coot electronic intelligence gathering aircraft over the Baltic. RAF Typhoon jets deployed as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have found and identified two unknown aircraft on a mission over the Baltic Sea   The aircraft were scrambled from Ämari Air base in Estonia yesterday, to intercept aircraft approaching Baltic airspace without sharing a flight plan. The first aircraft was identified as a Il-20M ‘Coot’ A surveillance aircraft, which they shadowed for a period. The Typhoons were then re-tasked to check out a second unidentified aircraft, which was identified as an An-26 ‘Curl’ transport plane flying north from Kaliningrad.   The intercepts are the Typhoon’s fourth tasking since deploying to the Baltic in May.   Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who plans to visit the Baltic Air Policing detachment later this month, said:   “The interception of Russian military aircraft by our RAF Typhoon fighters underlines our commitment to NATO and the security of the Baltic region. RAF air and ground crew are doing vital work to defend the skies above and around the Baltic States and I look forward to seeing that work first hand in the near future. “   Yesterday’s mission was enabled by close teamwork between the Estonian Air Force and the RAF Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) detachment at Ämari. ASACS detachment commander, Flight Lieutenant Paul “Griff” Griffin said:   “In this case the Typhoons were given the nod and the Estonian controllers hit the scramble button. The Estonian controllers picked up the aircraft on their radar picture and evaluated whether it had a flight plan and its heading, height and speed. Once it was clear it was an unknown they gave it an appropriate identification colour which made it stand out on our radar scopes. Once airborne it was my job to ensure a quick and efficient intercept, steering the Typhoons to
A RAF Typhoon accompanying a Russian Coot electronic intelligence gathering aircraft over the Baltic. RAF Typhoon jets deployed as part of the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have found and identified two unknown aircraft on a mission over the Baltic Sea. The aircraft were scrambled from Ämari Air base in Estonia in this case, to intercept aircraft approaching Baltic airspace without sharing a flight plan. The first aircraft was identified as a Il-20M ‘Coot’ A surveillance aircraft, which they shadowed for a period. The Typhoons were then re-tasked to check out a second unidentified aircraft, which was identified as an An-26 ‘Curl’ transport plane flying north from Kaliningrad. Credit: UK Ministry of Defence.

Since arriving in Estonia in May, the Typhoon fighters have been scrambled 17 times and have intercepted more than 40 Russian aircraft ranging from transports to long-range fighters. During one launch in July, the Typhoons intercepted 10 separate Russian aircraft, including 8 fighters.

When on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) the pilots and ground engineers have been on 24/7 stand by, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

Recognising the contribution made by the RAF, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas Tweeted, “Thank you, job well done!”

Typhoon pilot Flight Lieutenant Rory Denman said:

From hearing the alarm we launch as fast as we can. It’s been a challenging but ultimately rewarding operation. From a flying perspective, intercepting aircraft is what we do, just as we continue to do so in the UK.

Commenting on the effect the four months of operations has had on his country, Chief of Estonian Air Force, Colonel Jaak Tarien said:

Your presence here in Estonia provides a genuine sense of security and relief to the Estonian people. Thank you for your service to Estonia, the UK and the NATO mission.

Commanding Officer of 121 EAW, Wing Commander Stu Smiley said:

121 Expeditionary Air Wing has played a vital part in ensuring that the UK continues to play its part in the NATO mission of securing the Baltic airspace. Everything we do in the RAF is to protect, uphold and defend the UK, its allies and its interests and thanks to the commitment and professionalism of my team, without a doubt we have fulfilled that mission.

In the slideshow below, photos of RAF intercepts from RAF Lossiemouth in September 2014 are shown.

Credit Photos to RAF.

Earlier articles regarding the RAF and their airpower transition: