The RAF Tornado F3 is a fighter/interceptor version of the Panavia Tornado in service with the Royal Air Force. It is a long ranged twin engine aircraft, originally designed to intercept Soviet bombers as they came in from the east to strike the United Kingdom.
It currently equips four squadrons of the RAF, Nos. 11, 25, 43 and 111 Squadrons. In the past, it also equipped another three squadrons, Nos. 5, 23 and 29 Squadrons. The type's Operational Conversion Unit is No. 56(Reserve) Squadron. Each of the current squadrons has an established strength of 16 aircraft. There are also four aircraft permanently based in the Falkland Islands, in 1435 Flight. The OCU has an established strength of 20 aircraft. The F3 is based at RAF Leeming, RAF Leuchars, and RAF Mount Pleasant.
The Tornado F3 is an upgraded version of the original fighter version of the aircraft, the F2. The Tornado F2 originally first flew on March 5 1984. There were initial problems with the craft's radar which lead to concrete being used to fill the space where the radome would have gone. These aircraft were jokingly referred to as having a Blue Circle radar. Blue Circle is a British concrete manufacturing firm. 18 Tornado F2's were built, and they were used mostly in a training role until the radar problems were fixed, and then they were put into storage.
The Tornado F3 entered service in July 1986. 152 F3's were ordered, primarily to replace the Lightning F6 and Phantom FGR2. It made its combat debut in the 1991 Gulf War. 18 aircraft deployed to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. No air-to-air victories were scored, as the type was considered inferior to the F-15's of the United States Air Force, and thus flew patrols further back from Iraqi airspace where encounters with enemy aircraft were less likely. After 1991, combat operations continued as the no-fly zoness over Iraq were patrolled. The Tornados operated over the south of the country, flying from Saudi Arabia under Operation Resinate South. On average, six aircraft were involved. These operations continued right up until 2003, when Iraq was invaded again. Operation Telic saw 14 F3's deployed to Saudi Arabia. Again, no air-to-air victories were scored, although the Iraqi air force flew no sorties at all during the campaign in 2003.
The F3's primary weapons when it entered service were the AIM-9 Sidewinder and Skyflash, a Britsh upgrade of the American AIM-7 Sparrow missile. Its radar is the Foxhunter, which is still somewhat troublesome to this day. This manifested itself when efforts were made to integrate the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile with the aircraft as a replacement for Skyflash. The radar had to be considerably modified to interface properly with the missile. In addition to AMRAAM, the F3's have recently integrated the new ASRAAM missile as a replacement for their Sidewinders. Further upgrades, until early 2003 very secret, were the installation of an Emitter Location System, which is used to locate where radars are in order to allow suppression of enemy air defence missions to be flown. In connection with this, the process of integrating the ALARM anti-radiation missile is on going. These upgrades are underway to take the F3 away from being a single role aircraft. Single role aircraft are not cost effective in the post-Cold War world, and so thoes that are around must adapt or be taken out of service.
Having been in service for 19 years, the replacement for the F3 is on the horizon. Production of the Typhoon, its successor has started. The Operational Evaluation Unit for the Typhoon has formed, and the Operational Conversion Unit will form in 2004. 2005 sees the first squadron of Typhoons entering operational service, and by 2010, the Tornado F3 will be gone from RAF service.