Luftwaffe planning enhancement of Tornado ECR fleet
Sources close to the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) have revealed to MONCh that the force will upgrae its fleet of Panavia Tornado-ECR SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) aircraft of which it operates 28. The aircraft will be configured to deploy the Orbital ATK AGM-88E AARGM (Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile) which is also outfitting the Aeronautica Militaire (Italian Air Force) and the US Navy. The sources were speaking to MONCh during the ILA Air Show being held between 25 and 29 April in Berlin. The enhancement of the Tornado-ECR will require a hardware and software upgrade to the aircraft’s Raytheon ELS (Emitter Location System) which is responsible for detecting hostile ground-based air surveillance and fire control/ground controlled interception radars and thus providing targeting information to the AGM-88E weapon. This will allow the ELS, which is at present configured to work with the AGM-88B/C version of the HARM (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) to deploy the AGM-88E. Airbus will perform the integration of the AGM-88E and an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the AGM-88E is expected in the early 2020s. The sources continued that the Luftwaffe has not yet pledged itself to a full operational capability for the weapon as this will depend on available budget. To this end, the IOC could see a limited number of the Tornado-ECR aircraft in the Luftwaffe fleet receiving the AGM-88E capability. It is noteworthy that the Tornado-ECR can also use its organic radar warning receiver for emitter detection, although this is primarily employed when the aircraft is performing self-defence as opposed to its conduct of SEAD in support of the wider Offensive Counter Air (OCA) battle.
The addition of the AGM-88E onboard the Tornado-ECR represents an important shot in the arm for European OCA capabilities with the Italian and German air forces the only two European air forces maintaining a dedicated SEAD capability. Moreover, the enhancement of these two air force’s SEAD capabilities comes at a time when NATO is experiencing renewed tensions with Russia, placing the SEAD mission which originally focused on supporting any OCA effort in support of wider NATO offensive air-land operations in the European theatre. The Cold War rationale for the SEAD capability of the Luftwaffe and the Aeronautica Militaire was to use the SEAD capability to help sanitise the airspace above the battlefield from air-to-ground threats to help protect other tactical aircraft performing close air support and battlefield interdiction. Of course, the addition of the AGM-88E capability will also enable the Luftwaffe to retain sharp SEAD attributes as regards radar threats during out-of-area operations. Previously, the Luftwaffe’s Tornado-ECR aircraft provided SEAD assistance during NATO’s Operation Allied Force in 1999 which was aimed at stopping Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Italian Air Force also supported this initiative with its Tornado ECRs.
The advent of the AGM-88E will represent a step change for Luftwaffe SEAD capabilities. In terms of specification, the AGM-88E is an improvement on the Raytheon AGM-88C HARM which adds an enhanced Radio Frequency (RF) homing seeker and a millimetre wave radar. The new seeker improves the field-of-view of the AGM-88C seeker, sharpening its detection capabilities vis-à-vis ground-based air surveillance radars. The radar sensor provides high resolution imagery during the end game providing an analytical tool for post-sortie analysis of the attack’s accuracy. In addition to the AGM-88E, technically the Tornado-ECR could deploy Raytheon’s AGM-88F HARM, although there are no plans to this effect at the moment, which also adds a number of enhancements to the AGM-88C enshrined in the HARM Control Section Modification (HCSM) which adds a Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS) to the missile to outflank the ‘switch off’ where radar operators deactivate their equipment in an effort to break the missile’s RF lock on the radar’s emissions. The GPS/INS also allows the missile to be programmed with the radar’s geographical location to render the switch off tactic void and provides the AGM-88F with pre-programmed zones of exclusion where it is not permitted to fly, reducing the possibility of the missile hitting an unauthorised aim point. It is noteworthy that the AGM-88E variant is also equipped with a GPS/INS for similar reasons. The Luftwaffe envisages the Tornado-ECR remaining in service for, potentially, another decade, with the SEAD role eventually being absorbed by the air force’s Eurofighter Typhoon series combat aircraft.