The UK Royal Air Force's fast jet inventory has undergone a dramatic transformation over the decade since its Operation "Telic" involvement during the second Gulf War with Iraq in 2003, rationalising to just two types: the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Panavia Tornado GR4.
Gone are the Sepecat Jaguar, BAE Systems Harrier and Tornado F3 fleets, and with them the mass of a sizeable frontline squadron strength. From 2014, the RAF is likely to be composed of just seven frontline fast jet units.
Consequently, the service is looking to wring as much capability and usefulness as possible out of its fighters. Versatility, lean engineering procedures, minimal operating costs and maximum output are all essentials.
The RAF and Royal Navy are already heavily engaged with moulding a future transition from the Tornado GR4 to the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter at the end of this decade. However, a bow in the overall force structure is almost inevitable if the ageing GR4s are to exit use in 2019 as planned, with few expecting a meaningful F-35 capability for the UK by that time.
Much of the slack will have to be absorbed by an already heavily tasked Typhoon force. The RAF is working towards a five-squadron operational strength with the type, with two units already at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire and three to be in place at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland by 2015, following a move from RAF Leuchars.
By this time, all Tranche 2 production airframes will have been delivered and the RAF will be well into receiving its Tranche 3 aircraft. The overall plan is likely to result in the earlier Tranche 1 airframes, which are now seen as "legacy" platforms, being retired from that time onwards. However, with two-seat training aircraft having been frontloaded into the UK's Tranche 1 allocation, synthetic pilot training will have to match the drawdown of these airframes.
At the end of the decade, the RAF is likely to be operating 107 Typhoons in the Tranche 2/3 standards.
Along with building the mass of the Typhoon force, capability is crucial to maintaining effectiveness with far fewer Force Elements At Readiness. For the Typhoon, this requires a meaningful multi-role capability, as a narrowly focused single-role asset will struggle for justification in the UK's future air force.
Exercise "Red Flag 13-3", held at the US Air Force's Nellis AFB in Nevada between 25 February and 15 March, was designed as a huge test for the RAF's Typhoon force making its debut at the air combat exercise. The transatlantic deployment kickstarted a busy year for the UK's fighters, with other detachments to Malaysia for a "Bersama Shield" exercise, Oman for "Magic Carpet" and the United Arab Emirates for an advanced tactical leadership course.
The Red Flag event represented arguably the biggest operational flying test to date for the RAF's Typhoons, probably even surpassing the type's combat debut during the UK's Operation Ellamy contribution to the NATO-led campaign over Libya in 2011, because of the complexity of the multinational exercise. Tornados from the service's Lossiemouth-based 12 Sqn were also involved.
The Typhoons arrived at Nellis at the start of February, having already spent two weeks at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia working with the Lockheed F-22A Raptors of the 27th Fighter Squadron on Exercise "Western Zephyr". For the RAF personnel involved, the focus was on working alongside the USAF and US Navy to prove inter-operability, develop and validate tactics, and hone capabilities.
"Western Zephyr, followed by Red Flag, provides an excellent opportunity to integrate Typhoon with the F-22," says 11 Sqn and RAF Coningsby station commander Grp Capt Johnny Stringer, who led the UK detachment. "We need to pick up on those standards that have already been developed by the USAF to see and test that we can play [the] Typhoon into those as well, and that it is a seamless mix.
"Red Flag is important because it allows us to test the aircraft in a really challenging environment in every way. It provides a very good health check for the force, because we are deploying a frontline squadron and four qualified weapons instructor [QWI] students," he says, describing the process as "a valuable vector check" for both experienced and junior pilots.
"Red Flag is about making life incredibly difficult for you. If you're still able to function here rather than in a benign set of conditions where most things are going for you, then I think that is probably more of an acid test of where an aircraft is," Stringer says. "How we develop, educate and train our future QWIs is fundamental to tactical success."
Sqn Ldr Pieter Severein, 11 Sqn's senior engineering officer, notes: "We did two weeks operating with the F-22 at Langley; that was a great opportunity to bring the engineers out to start working as a team. There were a lot of lessons we were able to identify working alongside the Americans that we have been able to then bring here [to Nellis] to work within the American structure."
Along with the UK's partner Eurofighter nations Germany, Italy and Spain, the RAF is steadily rolling out enhancements to its aircraft. The nine Tranche 1 Block 5 Typhoons that were deployed to Red Flag were upgraded to the latest standard with "Drop 2" software, the latest R2Q-standard radar capability and use of the Typhoon's new helmet equipment assembly. The Drop 2 upgrade process changed some of the air-to-surface weaponeering with increased hands-on-throttle-and-stick functionality for the aircraft's Rafael Litening targeting pod.
"I'm really impressed by R2Q - it's a killing radar," says pilot Flt Lt Mark Long of the predeployment sensor refinements. "You can rely that its going to host the [Raytheon AIM-120] AMRAAM until terminal guidance and that the information it's feeding the [MBDA] ASRAAM is accurate, which is exactly what we need." The weapons represent the Typhoon's respective current medium- and short-range air-to-air missile fit.
"Coming out here and working with fifth-generation fighters [the F-22], we need to realise what our place is in the fight. We have the ability to shoot far, fly fast and [cause attrition to] the leading edge. I would say Typhoon's main advantage is its performance," says Long.
The European fighter can stay on station for a long time in the combat air patrol (CAP) mission, or accept a fuel penalty by going high and fast to attain a long shot against an enemy fighter. "But that fuel penalty is more than outweighed by the effectiveness of those long-range shots," says Long. "We've had some shots taken at Mach 1.6, at 45,000ft [13,700m], and the aggressors have been surprised by the kinematics we can give the missile. We've been 'killing' quite a few people. There have definitely been raised eyebrows in the [post-mission] shot evaluation, when you're calling a very long-range shot and then calling a 'kill' on it."
The first involvement in Red Flag not only afforded the RAF's Typhoon force the ability to showcase its air-to-air prowess, but also tapped into the renewed swing-role emphasis for the service after the Libya campaign in 2011.
"We have pushed on an AI [air interdiction] footing," says Long. "So we'll have pre-planned targets which are always right in the middle of the MEZ [missile engagement zone]. We'll push and quote a load of four [Raytheon] Enhanced Paveway IIs, four AMRAAMs and two ASRAAMs on the swing-role missions. A lot of the sorties are swing-role: once we've prosecuted the target we are up on fuel and we've got four AMRAAMs on board so we're back into second phase of an air-to-air fight."
Describing it like a sortie profile, he explains: "I've penetrated the MEZ, dropped [weapons] using the Litening pod to designate the target, then swung back to CAP and held down a regeneration airfield for another 15min, then gone home."
Participating in the USAF exercise, where aircraft face threats to their defensive aids subsystems (DASS), including from simulated advanced surface-to-air missiles, "is a level that we don't regularly train to", Long notes.
The RAF's huge emphasis on developing the Typhoon's mission data - populating the aircraft's DASS and radar with vital information to enable peak performance in high threat scenarios, and the ability to refine it "in a couple of hours" - was a major contributor to the type's success on Red Flag.
"You can have real-world threats - something that will pop up that hasn't been spotted by intelligence - and you can rewrite your mission data to help protect you against that threat," says Long. "That's something the Raptors were very impressed with: the turnaround of our mission data."
"Operational test and evaluation is vital," Stringer notes, referring to the high-end training scenarios offered by participating in Red Flag. "You can come up with any number of capabilities in the abstract, but if you don't actually go out and test them in context, they are potentially hollow."
A long-running series of previous "Highrider" exercises conducted in the USA, "plus those trials that have been done back in the UK give us confidence, and also highlight where we might need to apply additional effort in certain ways with the aircraft", he adds.
For Stringer, the capabilities demonstrated by the RAF at Red Flag were clear evidence of how, despite a shrinking frontline fighter force, the service has been able to keep up with the latest advances.
"I left the Typhoon force in about October 2009, and came back about three years later. Just seeing the change in the aircraft in that time has been deeply satisfying. Red Flag gives us confidence that the capability development that is in train, and that which we know is coming down the tracks in the next few years, is putting us in the right place.
"This [exercise] has shown that the jet has the performance that we always knew it had. It's got pace, it can achieve some really quite impressive altitudes out here. Put those two together and it puts extra capability into the air-to-air missiles that you are carrying."
Noting that the UK's Typhoons already have an impressive payload and good targeting pod for air-to-ground tasks, Stringer adds: "We also know that there are potential development opportunities as well, such that in the air-to-surface role as well as the air-to-air all you can see is a continuing and enhanced success story."
Stringer and his fellow senior officers are also keenly aware of the export landscape and the future capabilities that are essential to keeping the Typhoon relevant.
"The Captor [radar] is about as good as you're going to get with a mechanically-scanned radar. The UK and other Eurofighter partner nations are very keen on the capabilities that we hope an AESA [active electronically scanned array] will give us as well, so that aspect of capability development is going to be very important to us," Stringer notes. "In terms of air-to-surface, [the Raytheon Systems] Paveway IV is coming in very soon," he adds.
"On the back of these two exercises, especially Red Flag because of the developed nature of the scenario, [we can] plough that back into our nascent thinking on how the [F-35] Lightning II is going to be employed with the Typhoon in the coming years, so that the UK absolutely maximises its return on the size of the fighter force it's going to have."