About the Tornado GR4


The Panavia Tornado GR.Mk 4 is the UK’s primary ground attack platform and also fulfils an important reconnaissance role.  The aircraft conducts attack missions against planned targets, armed reconnaissance against targets of opportunity and close air support (CAS) for ground forces, typically under the control of a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC).

For attacks against pre-planned targets the Tornado GR4 usually employs GPS/laser-guided bombs from the Paveway family, or the Storm Shadow cruise missile, the latter fired from considerable stand-off ranges.  In the armed reconnaissance and CAS roles, Tornado normally carries a mix of Paveway IV and Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone, combined with a Litening III targeting pod, and in addition to the internal 27mm gun.  This gives the crew an unparalleled array of options to engage targets with the most appropriate weapon, achieving the desired result with minimum, if any, collateral damage.


With its mix of weapons, the Tornado GR4 is capable of engaging all targets on the modern battlefield.  Paveway III and Storm Shadow afford the ability to strike bunkers and other hardened facilities, while Brimstone is effective against armoured vehicles, both static and on the move.  Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone enables precision strike against targets with collateral-damage challenges; these can be moving at high speed and still successfully engaged.

Paveway IV offers huge tactical flexibility, with cockpit-programmable impact angle, impact direction and fuse delay offering precisely tailored strike on planned and unplanned targets.  The 27mm gun offers the ability to strike targets including light vehicles and personnel; it proved invaluable in Afghanistan for halting insurgent ambushes when crews strafed into tree lines.

During Operation Ellamy in 2011, Tornados flew from the UK to strike targets in Libya using Storm Shadow missiles, a round trip of more than 3,000nm, accomplished with essential support from Vickers VC10 and Lockheed TriStar tankers.  Some missions saw the Tornados launch their missiles and then turn for Gioia de Colle, Italy, where they joined other Tornados, and Typhoons, in a sustained campaign against Libyan government forces.

Through its unique weapons effects and the RAF’s air-to-air refuelling capability, Tornado provides the UK Government with a rapid and flexible crisis response tool.

Weapons include two Paveway IVs, a single Brimstone and ASRAAM.
Image by: Cpl Mike Jones


Britain’s relationship with variable geometry (VG) wing design dates back to the 1950s when Sir Barnes Wallis, better known for developing the Upkeep ‘bouncing bomb’ used by 617 Sqn ‘The Dambusters’ in 1943, worked through several VG concepts.  Barnes and others recognised that with a VG aircraft’s wings swept forwards, or spread, it could use shorter runways and display greater manoeuvrability, before sweeping them back for maximum high-speed performance.  From the 1940s into the early 1970s, VG wings were an excellent solution to difficult aerodynamic and operational challenges, although at a penalty of additional airframe weight compared to fixed wings.  The advent of more advanced aerodynamics, and especially of powerful, lightweight computing systems, enabled designers to extract similar performance without the weight and complications of VG.

Although no aircraft were built as a result of Wallis’s work, it inspired the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) P.45 VG fighter-bomber study and subsequent Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) attack/interceptor concepts, from which France soon withdrew, but the UK continued as UKVG.

Looking for an industrial partner, BAC approached West Germany’s MBB, which was on the verge of termination of the Advanced Vertical Strike (AVS) vertical take-off and landing aircraft on which it had worked with US companies.  It was already also contemplating a single-seat, single-engined lightweight fighter-bomber as the Neue Kampffluegzeug (NKF).  There was some commonality in intended role between UKVG and NKF, and the difficult process of international collaboration began.

The Luftwaffe’s primary requirement for NKF was to replace its Fiat G.91 and Lockheed F-104 Starfighter fleets and since Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands had similar F-104 issues, they joined with West Germany in January 1968 to propose an NKF-informed Multi-Role Aircraft for 1975 (MRA 75).  The UKVG had, meanwhile, been replaced by two concepts, one for a light combat aircraft and the other for a heavier, twin-engined design.

In concept the latter was close to MRA 75 and on July 25, 1968, Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, West Germany and the UK launched feasibility studies around the requirement.  Belgium and Canada soon fell by the wayside since they were primarily looking for an interceptor, but in December, BAC, Italy’s Fiat and MBB formed a joint industrial company to formally develop a new aircraft.

BAC and MBB had quite different VG designs in progress, the former focussing on a twin-engined aircraft powered by two new technology RB.199 turbofans, while the MBB concept relied on a single General Electric TF30 engine.  Compromise was eventually agreed and the layout for a new Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) described in a March 14, 1969 meeting.  The joint industrial company formed the previous December became Panavia on March 26 and BAC, MBB, Fiat and VFV-Fokker in the Netherlands began work.

Although a degree of compromise had been reached, Panavia was established to produce a single-seat Panavia 100, primarily for interception duties, and a two-seat Panavia 200, which satisfied the UK requirement for a long-range attack aircraft. Neither specification really suited the Dutch, who needed a multi-role interceptor/attack aircraft, rather than a pure interceptor or heavy, long-range striker and the Netherlands soon withdrew from the programme.  In November 1969, Fiat merged with Aerfer to form Aeritalia and it was therefore this new concern, along with BAC and MBB that continued MRCA development, the single-seat requirement fading away during 1970.

A new company was formed to develop the RB.199 turbofan, Fiat, MTU and Rolls-Royce creating Turbo-Union.  The resulting engine was extremely compact, enabling a relatively small airframe design, and incorporated afterburning for an unprecedented thrust increase of near 50%. 

With the Panavia 100 concept extinct, the MRCA authorised for prototyping in 1970 was a two-seat, multi-role aircraft with provision for a range of air-to-air missiles, but when the first prototype completed its maiden flight from Manching on August 14, 1974, it was optimised for air-to-ground work.  Nine prototypes and six pre-production aircraft were built, the last of the latter flying almost three years after production had been authorised on March 10, 1976.

Back in 1971, the RAF had, ironically, laid out its plans for a stretched interceptor variant of the MRCA, although the UK’s intention to pursue such a development dated back as far as 1969.  By the time the first of the pre-production aircraft flew on February 5, 1977, the MRCA had become Tornado, specifically Tornado Interdiction Strike (IDS), since the RAF interceptor had become the Tornado Air Defence Variant (ADV).  Featuring minor equipment variations compared to the West German and Italian IDS aircraft, the initial RAF Tornado variant was the GR.Mk 1, which first arrived with the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore on July 1, 1980.

The TTTE trained aircrew from all three Panavia nations, using relatively small numbers of dual-control aircraft that retained all the capability of their regular counterparts.  The RAF’s first frontline Tornado squadron exchanged Avro Vulcans for Tornados in 1982.  Re-forming at RAF Honington on June 1, No. IX (Bomber) Squadron has remained with the aircraft ever since.

Meanwhile, the Tornado ADV had flown for the first time on October 27, 1979, beginning a long and somewhat troubled test programme for what had become known as the Tornado F.Mk 2.  The aircraft’s radar caused most concern and the F2s delivered to 229 OCU from November 1984 carried ballast rather than the detection equipment.  They were never brought up to full ADV standard, represented by the Tornado F.Mk 3, which formally entered frontline service with 29 Sqn on April 1, 1987.

Over almost 25 years in service, the F.Mk 3 was dramatically upgraded, initially for the 1991 Gulf War, which also saw new systems and capabilities added to the GR.Mk 1.  The brief conflict saw the attack Tornado employed in the low-level airfield denial role for which it had been designed, before switching to medium-altitude laser-guided bombing, for which it had not.  A handful of aircraft introduced the prototype Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) pod into service before the fighting ended, marking the start of a precision attack capability that has become the Tornado’s hallmark. Since 1991 there has been little relief from combat operations, with Tornado GR.Mk 1 and F.Mk 3 active in policing and combat missions over the Balkans and Iraq, then back to Iraq in force for Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and Telic, the UK contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2003.  The GR1 fought alongside the dramatically upgraded Tornado GR.Mk 4 in 2003, the latter bringing true precision capability to the jet and compatibility with the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which 617 Sqn debuted in service during the conflict.

As soon as the GR4 was released from combat over Iraq, it deployed for Operation Herrick, replacing the McDonnell Douglas/BAe Harrier in Afghanistan from 2009.  Less than two years later, Tornado Force was simultaneously deploying jets to Kandahar and Italy, for Operation Ellamy over Libya in 2011.  Employing Paveway IV and Brimstone in both operations, Tornado exercised precision, low-collateral damage weapons options that remain unique to the RAF.

It also employed the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado (RAPTOR) system and Litening III targeting pod on intelligence-gathering missions. The Tornado had pioneered digital imaging technologies in its GR.Mk 1A version from December 1986.  The variant performed exceptional Scud-hunting work during Granby and remained an important tactical reconnaissance asset.  Some GR1As were modified to GR.Mk 4A standard, but with the advent of RAPTOR, the reconnaissance capability has since been absorbed into the general Tornado GR4 fleet.

The Tornado also held a dedicated anti-shipping capability, embodied in the GR.Mk 1B in service with 12 (Bomber) Squadron from 1993 and 617 Sqn from 1994.  The aircraft was modified to fire the Sea Eagle missile, but the capability fell into abeyance when the GR.Mk 4 programme began.

Since Operation Ellamy, the Tornado Force has drawn down towards the type’s planned out of service date (OSD), now set for 2019.  The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review called for a reduction in frontline GR4 squadrons to two, but the need to maintain a constant deployment for Operation Shader saw a squadron re-formed and 12(B) Sqn was thus only very briefly disbanded, returning as a third unit.

The GR.Mk 4 has been subject to a constant series of minor upgrades, gradually enhancing its capability so that today’s Tornado is very far removed from the jet conceived to meet a multinational requirement during the 1960s.  

With Tornado’s OSD set, Project Centurion is transferring its capabilities, particularly Brimstone and Storm Shadow, to Typhoon.  Two new Typhoon squadrons and the incoming Lightning will take over and build upon the tactics and effects that will have been delivered by Tornado in almost four decades of service. 

Header image by Sgt Nik Howe

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Panavia Tornado GR.Mk 4:

  • Powerplant: two Turbo-Union RB.199 Mk 103 turbofans each rated at 16,000lb st (71.50kN) with afterburning
  • Length: 56ft 6¼in (17.23m)
  • Height: 19ft 6¼in (5.95m)
  • Wingspan, spread: 45ft 7½in (13.91m)
  • Wingspan, swept: 28ft 1in (8.56m)
  • Wing area: 286.33sqft (26.60m2)
  • Maximum take-off weight around: 61,600lb (27,950kg)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.3
  • Armament: Paveway II, III and IV series GPS/laser-guided bombs, Brimstone air-to-ground missiles, Storm Shadow cruise missiles, ASRAAM for self defence, one internal 27mm Mauser cannon, plus 1,500-litre and/or 2,250-litre drop tanks, Litening III targeting pod, RAPTOR, Sky Shadow and BOZ countermeasures pods, up to a maximum disposable load of around 19,840lb (9,000kg)

Other aircraft with similar roles