The RAF Unleashed: The UK and the Coalition Step up the Fight Against ISIS


2015-12-06 By Robbin Laird

The Russian intervention in Syria started the process of a strategic reset in Syria and the fight against ISIS.

Next up was the power projection attack of ISIS into Paris.

Next were the French strikes coordinated with Russia into Syria against ISIS. Next was the Turkish shootdown of a Russian aircraft, which the President of Turkey took full responsibility for having authorized.

Then the Russiansprovided a very public presentation on how Turkey is supporting ISIS, notably through the oil trade.

Then the British government voted to strike ISIS in Syria, and the RAF was unleashed to use the words of a senior British government official.

The RAF launched from Cyprus and struck against ISIS oil facilities in Syria.

And in so doing, in the words of the British Defense Minister, struck against the pocketbook of a force, which simply does not recognize boundaries.

Notably the British strike followed upon a rather complete Russian chronicling the movement of oil from Syria to Turkey.

It is clear that the British would not have conducted the strike without clarity with regard to deconfliction with Russian aircraft operating in Syria as well.

And the way might well have been paved by Hollande who as a result of his latest meeting with Putin indicated that not only deconfliction but also coordinated targeting was being established with the Russians.

This was despite differences with regard to the future of Syria, and European views on the future of Assad.

The French and the British are acting on the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Michael Fallon taliks to members of the RAF in Akrotiri Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters
Michael Fallon taliks to members of the RAF in Akrotiri Photo: Darren Staples/Reuters

The strike by the RAF from Cyprus with Tornados was conduced after an authorizing vote in the Parliament shortly before the strikes were set in motion.

The British government clearly saw the strike as an important action in the war against ISIS, including in terms of the ongoing information war with ISIS.

The British press had photos and reports from Cyprus of the strikes and photos surrounding the RAF base in Lossiemouth, Scotland launching of Tornados and Typhoons to deploy to Cyprus for the fight against Isis.

Frankly, I have never seen such wide coverage of a strike in the British press prior to this from the usually secretive British government.

The British government decided to engage in the next phase in ISIS with a clear public statement, including clearly identifying the threat from ISIS as both internal and external.

And would undoubtedly be linked to UK internal security efforts as well as the tightening of EU approaches as well.

The package sent by the RAF was indicative of their way ahead.

“Overnight, RAF Tornado GR4s, supported by a Voyager air refuelling tanker and a Reaper, and operating in conjunction with other coalition aircraft, employed Paveway IV guided bombs to conduct strikes against six targets within the extensive oilfield at Omar, 35 miles inside Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.”

These initial strikes have been followed up with the first strikes against ISIS using the Typhoons as well.

According to a piece by Tim Ross of The Telegraph:

RAF fighter jets have targeted an oilfield held by Isil in the second combat mission from the British base in Cyprus. 

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said Typhoon jets were used on Friday night, alongside unmanned Reaper drones and Tornados, as the terrorists were made to feel “the full force of the RAF”. 

Selling oil to the black market as well as the Assad regime has been a key source of finance for the terrorists. 

The latest RAF operations were intended to damage the supply of funds to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), also known as Daesh. 

Mr Fallon arrived at the Akrotiri base in Cyprus to thank the crews for their “impressive” service and assure them they have the backing of “the people of Britain”. 

Mr Fallon denied the suggestion that the military were not targeting Isil leaders, after a second raid on infrastructure rather than personnel. 

“Last night we saw the RAF Typhoons, which have only just arrived here from Scotland, striking successfully for the first time within 24 hours or so of their arrival, which is a pretty impressive achievement,” he said. “Last night saw the full force of the RAF.” 

The Typhoons will play a key role in the strike package.

As Andrew Gilligan has highlighted in a piece in The Telegraph:

British Tornados over Syria are to fly in pairs with the RAF’s Typhoon jets amid growing concern over the possibility of accidental clashes with Russia.

The arrangement allows the 35-year-old Tornado to benefit from Typhoon’s superior radar and air defence capability as Russian warplanes conduct heavy bombing operations in Syrian airspace. 

“It gives a massive lift in situational awareness and sheer defensive and offensive performance,” said Jon Lake, an aviation expert.

“Anything taking off from RAF Akrotiri [in Cyprus] is going into a Russian missile engagement zone straight away, and Typhoon’s ability to protect itself and others is absolutely formidable.” 

The footage was recorded from the cockpit of an RAF plane, as two Typhoon and two Tornado jets were dispatched to attack targets in Syria from the RAF Akrotiri base in Cyprus.

This strike represents the second such attack since the government approved military action in the country. Source: UK Ministry of Defence.

The recent UK Strategic and Defense Review certainly highlighted the importance of better funding for the RAF as it modernized.

The strategic holiday seems over in Britain, and the RAF is a clear beneficiary. In addition to a full buy of F-35s, the Typhoon has a sensible, funded roadmap to 2040.

In part the RAF is being better funded because of the obvious relevance of airpower to global threats; in part it is because the RAF has sensible template for modernization.

The RAF is undergoing two fighter aircraft transitions at the same time.

On the one hand, the Tornado is being retired and the Typhoon is subsuming its missions.

On the other hand, the F-35B is coming to the fleet and will be working with Typhoon for the period ahead.

These are three very different aircraft built in different periods of aviation history.

The venerable Tornado has seen a significant evolution over its time; from its initial use as an ultra low-level nuclear and unguided weapons bomber to an ISR-enabled precision strike and close support aircraft.

The Typhoon entered the RAF more than a decade ago as a classic air superiority fighter, but is now being asked to expand its effects and to subsume the Tornado missions.

The F-35B is entering the fleet as the Typhoon is making this transition.

This will mean that the RAF will be managing a double transition – Typhoon becoming multi-role and the F-35B operating off of land or ships to provide the fifth generation capability to the evolving RAF strike force.

Credit: The Telegraph
Credit: The Telegraph

The current crisis response will have more effective capabilities as the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force modernize. Or put in other terms, today’s strike validates the RAF modernization strategy.

My visit earlier this year to the Queen Elizabeth being built in Scotland and interviews with the Royal Navy and RAF anticipated the current event and are incorporated in their thinking about the possible evolution of concepts of operations.

The F-35B launched from the carriers is part of the picture; the very significant C2 capabilities aboard the ship are another. With the carrier afloat, the RAF is looking to build synergy among the various land based and carrier based aircraft to generate combat effects.

As an RN officer put it: “The strike force could be commanded from the ship, from the ground or from the air. We are building flexible C2 in order to get maximum combat value from aircraft launched from the carrier.”

The F-35B as a flying combat system, capable of integrated air operations with every other F-35 flying in the combat area is a significant foundation for shaping what the Queen Elizabeth will do in combat.

The reach of the F-35Bs coming off of the Queen Elizabeth will be expanded by the range of the operational fleet of other F-35s and the data grid generated over the expanded battle space.

And leveraging what Typhoons will be able to do as they undergo their current weapons modernization program will only enhance the strike effects of an integrated air-sea combat air force.

Projected forward in time, one can envisage how this might operate. The Queen Elizabeth is in the Eastern Mediterranean and with its integration with the other F-35Bs aboard USN-USM or Italian ships; the data coverage would be significant.

The Typhoons operating in Cyprus would have a forward controller and defense shield as well as with the F-35Bs target acquisition elements. The Typhoons could operate with “greater survivability and lethality,” as one RAF officer put it.

Fortune favors the prepared.

Much like in the preparation for the Battle of Britain, the RAF is planning for tomorrow’s contingencies.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was the architect of the approach which would defeat the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

He is most remembered for his unwelcome task of telling Prime Minister Churchill that no more fighters go to France to get destroyed in a losing cause; rather, they needed to be husbanded for the coming conflict, which would later be known as the Battle of Britain.

What Dowding understood, and the politicians did not, was that the con-ops shaped by design was crucial to mission success; and the fighters were the tip of the sword, not just silver bullets to be chewed up in fighter versus fighter battles.

Those fighters would be needed to kill bombers, primarily, and fighters, and they would operate from British soil and operate within a very clear strategic context, one which brought together elements of new technologies, and new was of operating which had not yet been tested in battle.

Perhaps by chance, perhaps by fate, the new CO of RAF Lossiemouth, from which the Tornados and Typhoons launched today to join their mates on Cyprus, is a Typhoon and Spitfire pilot, who also has been a key officer in the F-35 transition.

Fortune favors the prepared.

This piece was first published in Breaking Defense.

Editor’s Note: The RAF stepped-up engagement is being augmented by other coalition developments as well,

The French Charles de Gaulle carrier is currently in the Eastern Mediterranean and preparing for its initial strikes.

President Hollande visited the French carrier earlier this week and highlighted its role.

President Hollande on board the Charles de Gaulle. AFP Photo/Philippe de Poulpiquet
President Hollande on board the Charles de Gaulle. AFP Photo/Philippe de Poulpiquet

Hollande told French troops on board the carrier their mission was to “undermine” ISIS, support forces on the ground fighting the group, “bring an end to the suffering of civilians”, restore the territorial integrity of Iraq, and “create the conditions for a political transition in Syria.”

The aircraft carrier, which hosts dozens of military jets and bombers, was deployed to the region following the Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed last month.

The USS Truman carrier strike force has been deployed to the region as the Navy has surged the carrier after a five month work up to the region and is working with the other key strike elements to step up the war against Isis.

The Truman is working closely with the French carrier group in preparation for upcoming action in the region.

The surge to deploy Truman is a significant achievement.

As noted by Lance M. Bacon in a Navy Times article:

Just to get underway is a victory of sorts for Truman’s crew. The Navy in October 2014 bumped up her deployment date by nearly half a year as Truman took the place of the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike had a record-setting, 23-month period at the naval yard after back-to-back deployments from June 2012 to December 2012, and from February 2013 to July 2013, causing more maintenance than expected.

Truman entered a shortened overhaul at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in November. It was supposed to last 15 weeks and require 78,000 man-days, but nearly doubled to more than 28 weeks and 135,000 man-days. The expedited deployment also required the crew to get all qualifications in less than half the normal work-up time; the crew did one year’s worth of training in five months and did so without one waiver.

The pride of that achievement was evident on the face of Command Master Chief Tony Perryman.

“Where we have been and where we are now is a true testament to the hard work and dedication of our sailors,” he said. “This is the best place to be on planet Earth.”

Finally, the German parliament voted on December 4th to authorize German participation in the anti-ISIS action.

The mission will include sending six Tornado reconnaissance jets, a frigate to help protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, refueling aircraft and up to 1,200 military personnel.

German chancellor Angela Merkel (C) casts her vote during a session of the German parliament (Bundestag) in Berlin, Germany, 04 December 2015. Germany's parliament has authorized the deployment of reconnaissance jets and other military hardware to join the fight in Syria against the Islamic State terrorist group. About 1200 German soldiers could join the fight against IS terrorism operating from reconnaissance airplanes and a frigate. EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER
German chancellor Angela Merkel (C) casts her vote during a session of the German parliament (Bundestag) in Berlin, Germany, 04 December 2015. Germany’s parliament has authorized the deployment of reconnaissance jets and other military hardware to join the fight in Syria against the Islamic State terrorist group. About 1200 German soldiers could join the fight against IS terrorism operating from reconnaissance airplanes and a frigate. EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER

We have examined earlier the transition of Typhoon subsuming Tornado missions even while its current capabilities compliment the older aircraft. 

According to Group Captain Godfrey, the new CO at RAF Lossiemouth, a key impact of missile modernization on Typhoon will be to expand the effects of Typhoon operations.

“There is a clear need to expand the effects of Typhoon operations and here the enhancement of its weapons package will be an important improvement.”

The fast-approaching retirement of the Tornado is driving the weapons modernization program for the Typhoon. To enable Typhoon to assume Tornado’s roles, it is being reconfigured to provide an enhanced ground attack capability over and above the platform’s Enhanced Paveway II-only integration that was used by the RAF during the Libyan campaign.

First, Paveway 4 is being integrated followed by MBDA’s Storm Shadow and Dual-Mode Brimstone missiles, which have been deemed as the crucial elements of the Tornado to Typhoon transition. Thereafter the Typhoon’s capability will be supplemented with the turbo-jet powered long-range development of Brimstone, SPEAR 3, which will also be used on the F-35. This will close out the second phase of the RAF’s transition strategy.

Interestingly, the integration of the Storm Shadow on Typhoon is being driven in part by Saudi Arabia which wants its Typhoons to have a cruise missile carrying capability, and when married with its new air tanking capability can enhance the strike range of its Typhoon force.

The Dual-Mode Brimstone is designed to operate against maneuvering surface targets on land or sea.

It is a low collateral, close air support and anti-Fast Inshore Attack Craft weapon that has been combat proven by the RAF off Tornado in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.  Clearly, it will greatly enhance the capability of the Typhoon.

Importantly, in unison with its expanding air-to-ground capability, Typhoon’s air-to-air capability is also being enhanced with the integration of the new Meteor BVR missile, which allows for a broader range of offensive and defensive operations.  The Meteor is a software upgradeable air-to-air missile with significant range and capability, which is being integrated on several other fourth generation aircraft – including Rafale and Gripen – as well as the fifth generation F-35s.

To gain a further sense of the transitional dynamics, I had a chance to talk with a retired RAF Tornado squadron leader who has been involved as well in the dynamics of Typhoon transition. This material was provided on background so the pilot will not be cited by name, but the key points of the discussion can be highlighted for an operator’s perspective is really central to understanding any significant airpower transition, which this one certainly is.

A key element of the transition, which was emphasized in the discussion, is not only the question of migration of missiles but of pilots.

As the Tornado force shrinks, Tornado pilots that move to the Typhoon are taking with them their mindset of how to support land forces, plus their hard-earned air-to-ground weapon experience honed over some 25 years of continuous combat operations.

“This cross-fertilization of ideas will allow the Typhoon force to do the roles that Tornado has always done. The only reason they can’t go all the way at the moment is because not all the weapons have been integrated onto the platform. Once the Typhoon weapon integration roadmap is complete, the Tornado can be taken out of service with the knowledge that the Typhoon force can accomplish everything Tornado can now and much, much more.”

He also emphasized the cross development of Tornado with Brimstone, which is a key weapon currently in used with great effect in Iraq.

As the Tornado’s precision weapon suite has increased, it has been able to play a more valuable close air support role. This change was first implemented in early Iraq operations, but changes brought about by lessons learned in Kosovo ensured that Tornado came of age.

“Brimstone started off as a fire-and-forget millimetric wave-only missile that was designed to destroy armor within a designated kill box. With the development of Dual-Mode Brimstone, which combines a semi-active laser seeker and a millimetric wave radar into a single missile, we are able to very accurately destroy mobile and fast maneuvering targets, as opposed to dropping multiple dumb bombs from altitude where the chances of hitting such a target are slim. The complex weapons that we’ve now put on Tornado have given that platform a new lease of life.”

Another key aspect of the weapons transition is that the Tornado crews are now able to employ a high load-out of mix-and-match weapons depending upon the operation and the expected target sets.

“The beauty of Tornado and its extensive weapon load-out is you can carry three Paveway 4s and three Dual-Mode Brimstones, or one Paveway 4 and six Dual-Mode Brimstones, or nine Dual-Mode Brimstones.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, our preferred weapon load-out is to carry two Paveway 4s and three Dual-Mode Brimstones.

That way, you are equipped to engage effectively whichever target set presents itself.

While we have the Paveway 4 to take out static targets that require a 500-pound effect, the weapon of choice in Afghanistan and now in Iraq is the Dual-Mode Brimstone because there are so many moving targets and targets with collateral damage concerns that demand a small warhead.

Dual-Mode Brimstone-armed Tornados are therefore in great demand, especially so given that even the Americans are having real problems hitting such targets.

It was the same in Libya, where Tornado was the only platform allowed to go “down town” Misrata and Benghazi, and actually hit targets in the urban environment because of its 98% first shot hit rate.

This means that the Tornado force is not only the backbone of the Royal Air Force, but it delivers a unique capability on coalition operations too.

What the RAF is doing in the Tornado to Typhoon transition is bringing these skillsets and capabilities to the Typhoon now, and then expanding its capabilities further with the addition of Meteor and SPEAR 3. In other words, the Typhoon will possess game-changing capabilities that will guarantee its relevance even when the fifth generation Lightning II joins the UK’s combat air force mix.”

In short, the weapons enterprise is a key part of the Tornado to Typhoon transition which, in turn, will be further enabled by radar and other platform upgrades occurring in the Typhoon modernization program.