The Panavia Tornado entered Royal Air Force (RAF) service on the 5th of June 1979. Since then, the RAF conducted attack missions against planned targets, armed reconnaissance against targets of opportunity and close air support (CAS) for ground forces with the versatile multi-role aircraft. The "Tonka", as the British affectionately nicknamed the Tornado, has been the primary ground attack platform in service with the RAF for 40 years. The last Tornado, the GR.4 version, will be withdrawn from use before the Summer of 2019. Yet another iconic aircraft became part of the RAF history, but was already gradually being replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon since 2003 and nowadays the F-35B Lightning II.

From MRCA to Tornado

The Royal Netherlands Air Force Chief of Staff, lieutenant-general Wolff, launched a plan in 1967 to jointly replace the F-104G which several European NATO-partners had in service, for one European fighter. During the following years United Kingdom (UK), the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Canada embraced the plan for one Multi-Role Combat Fighter Aircraft (MRCA). On February 1st, 1969 the feasibility study MRCA was completed. The study focused mainly on the need for strike capability and therefore it was expected that the MRCA best would be a dual-seated, twin-engine fighter. The Netherlands Minister of Defense however wanted a light weight, single seated, single engine and cheap to maintain fighter. Due to irreconcilable differences about the need of the capabilities of the new fighter and the expected costs, the Netherlands withdrew from the MRCA-consortium in July 1969. Canada and Belgium had already withdrawn, and West Germany joined. The partners aimed to produce an aircraft capable of undertaking missions in the tactical strike, reconnaissance, air defense and maritime roles. Various concepts, including alternative fixed-wing and single-engine designs, were studied while defining the aircraft.
The MRCA authorized 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 Air Force Base (Germany) on the 14th of August 1974, it was optimized for air-to-ground work. Nine prototypes and six pre-production aircraft were built after production had been authorized on the 10th of March 1976.
By the time the first of the pre-production aircraft built by Panavia (a tri-national consortium consisting of British Aerospace, MBB of West Germany, and Aeritalia of Italy) flew on February 5, 1977, the MRCA had become Tornado. Featuring minor equipment variations compared to the West German and Italian Interdiction Strike (IDS) aircraft, the initial RAF Tornado IDS variant was the GR. 1. The GR.1 first arrived with the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore on July 1st, 1980. The TTTE trained aircrew from all three Panavia nations. The RAF's first frontline Tornado squadron, no. IX (Bomber) Squadron, exchanged its Avro Vulcans and was fully operational on the Tonka in 1984.

Role and design

The Tornado is a multirole, twin-engine aircraft designed primarily for low-level strike missions and in addition for long range bombing and reconnaissance missions. In order for the Tornado to perform well as a low-level supersonic strike aircraft, it was considered necessary to possess good high-speed and low-speed flight characteristics. To achieve high-speed performance, a delta wing is typically adopted. But delta wing designs are inefficient at low speeds and low-level flights minimal drag is needed. To be able to operate at both high and low speeds and altitude with great effectiveness, the Tornado has a variable-sweep wing. The variable wing geometry was a desire from the MRCA project's start because the aircraft needed minimal drag during low-level flights. To increase efficiency, the aircraft therefore was equipped with a retractable probe for air-to-air refueling. In addition to strike versions, the air force operated an extended version which was most recently referred to as F.3. This type was used for air defense purposes and served for 25 years before it was retired in 2011 in favor of the Eurofighter Typhoon.


The RAF has had 225 Tonka's in several strike versions in service, varying from GR.1 to GR.4. Considering the GR.4 was the last version the RAF had in service (first delivery on the 31st of October 1997 and the last one in 2003), this article will concentrate on a description of the GR.4 specifications only. The supplemented overview contains also a summarized overview of the other versions. The GR. 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. The latest version of the RAF GR.4 was powered by two Turbo-Union RB.199-34R Mk 103 turbofans each rated at 16,000 pounds (71.50 kilo Newton) with afterburning, allowing a maximum take-off weight around 27,950 kilograms and a maximum speed of Mach 1.3.
Depending on the mission tasked, the GR.4 was able to carry the Paveway II, III and IV series GPS/laser-guided bombs, Brimstone air-to-ground missiles, Storm Shadow cruise missiles, ASRAAM for self-defense and one internal 27mm Mauser cannon. Besides that, the aircraft carried 1,500-litre and/or 2,250-litre drop tanks, a Litening III targeting pod, RAPTOR, Sky Shadow and BOZ countermeasures pods, resulting up to a maximum disposable load of around 19,840 pounds (9,000 kilograms).
With its mix of weapons, the GR.4 was capable of engaging all targets on the modern battlefield. For attacks against pre-planned targets the GR.4 usually employed GPS/laser-guided bombs from the Paveway family or the Storm Shadow cruise missile. In the armed reconnaissance and CAS roles, the Tonka carried a mix of Paveway IV and Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone, combined with a Litening III targeting pod.
RAF Tornadoes have carried a variety of camouflage schemes since their initial entry into service. The GR.1 was delivered in a gun metal grey/olive drab green camouflage, but this was changed to dark grey during the late 1990s. In operations over Iraq some GR.1s received a sandy scheme. GR.4s participating in the 2003 Iraq War had a light grey scheme.

Overview specifications GR.4:

Crew 2
Wingspan (open) 13,9 meters
Wingspan (swept) 8,6 meters
Height 5,9 meters
Length 16,7 meters
Max. weapon load 18.000lb/8.180 kilograms
Max. take-off weight 27.950 kilograms
Max. speed 2,2 Mach
Max. ferry range Approximately 3.900 kilometers
Engines 2 Turbo-Union RB .199-34R Mk.103 Turbofan
Armament 1 27mm Mauser cannon, AIM-9L Sidewinder AAM, ALAARM, ASRAAM, JP223, BL755 CBU, Paveway (II, III, IV), Brimstone, Storm Shadow

Overview: Types of Tornado in RAF service

Type Remarks
GR.1 Standard strike version of the original Tornado IDS.
GR.1 (T) Standard GR.1 trainer with identical controls and instruments in both cockpits.
GR.1A Standard GR.1 for reconnaissance, equipped with Vinten 4000 infra-red line scanning video system.
GR.1B GR.1 tasked with anti-ship strike task, also suitable to equip with in-flight refueling pods.
F.2 Interim air defense version.
F.3 Air defense version. Improved F.2, powered by two Turbo-Union RB.199-34R Mk 104 engines, capable of firing AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles and suited for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses missions.
GR.4 (A/B) Mid-life update for 142 GR.1s (including A/B). GR.4 has a Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR), a wide-angle Head-Up Display (HUD), improved cockpit displays, Night-Vision Goggle (NVG) compatibility, new avionics and weapons systems, updated computer software, and Global Positioning System (GPS). The upgrade also re-armed the Tornado with the Storm Shadow stand-off missile, Brimstone advanced anti-armor weapon and the Paveway EPW LGB. New sensors included new reconnaissance pods and an improved  TIALD targeting pod.


Throughout the entire RAF service, the Tornado has been engaged in many combat operations. The GR.1 made its combat debut during the Gulf War in 1991. Operation Granby, as the British contribution to the Gulf War was named, saw nearly 60 RAF GR.1s deploy to air bases at Muharraq in Bahrain and Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi-Arabia. During the brief conflict the aircraft was employed in low-level airfield denial role. Some Tornado's introduced the prototype Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) pod into service before the fighting ended. This marked the start of Tornado GR's distinctive precision attack capability. Over 1,500 sorties were flown, during which six aircraft were lost. Also 18 Tornado Air Defense Version (ADV) were deployed, to provide air cover. Since 1991 there has been little relief from combat operations, with Tornado GR.1 and F.3 active in policing and combat missions over the Balkans, to enforce an United Nations (UN) no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Iraq (Gulf War I).
Operation Desert Fox in 1998 meant a four-day bombing campaign, GR.1s participating, between the 16th and the 19th of December on Iraqi targets by the USA and the UK. The main reasons for the bombings were Iraq's failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and its interference with UN Special Commission inspectors.
The next combat operation in which the Tornado excelled was Operation Telic, the UK contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. GR.1s fought alongside the dramatically upgraded GR. 4-versions. The latter brought true precision capability to the jet and compatibility with the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which debuted in service during the second Gulf War. One aircraft was lost after being hit by an US Patriot missile fired in error. As soon as the GR.4 was released from combat over Iraq, the aircraft replaced the McDonnell Douglas/BAe Harrier in Afghanistan from 2009. Less than two years later, the UK simultaneously deployed jets to Afghanistan (Kandahar International Airport) and to Italy. Eurofighter Typhoon's operated from Italy while Tornado GR.4s flew from RAF Marham to take part in Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011 (enforcement of an UN no-fly zone aimed at ending the attacks on Libyan civilians by the forces of Muammer al-Qadhafi). The 3,000-mile (4,800 kilometers) round trips the Tornadoes made, were the first RAF strike missions launched from the UK since the Second World War. The UK's name for its contribution to Unified Protector was Operation Ellamy.


During the test phase, only one Tornado was lost. The crew of the P-08 test aircraft was disorientated due to foggy conditions and crashed into the Irish Sea near the city of Blackpool. During the 40 years of RAF service that followed, 78 out of the total fleet of 395 aircraft were lost. This means exactly 20% and an average of two per year.
In most cases, a technical defect of some kind was the basis of a crash. Mid-air collisions resulted into 18 aircraft lost and another three after the crew lost control over their Tonka trying to avoid a mid-air collision. Seven were lost after suffering a bird strike and four GR.1s were shot down during Gulf War I. Of the 142 GR.4s the RAF had in service between 1999 and 2019, 12 were lost. This comes down to 8,5% and an average of – rounded – one aircraft in two years, but none were lost during the last four years of operational service.

Overview of RAF Tornado losses:

Date Serial Type Cause
12-06-1979 XX950 P-08 Crew was desorientated
27-09-1983 ZA586 GR.1 Technical defect
28-10-1983 ZA558 GR.1 Crew lost control
06-02-1984 ZA451 GR.1 Technical defect after being struck by lightning
12-07-1984 ZA408 GR.1 Mid-air collision with RAF Jaguar GR.1 XZ393
18-07-1984 ZA494 GR.1 Technical defect
08-11-1984 ZA603 GR.1 Crew lost control after avoiding mid-air collision
12-12-1985 ZA610 GR.1 Crew was disorientated
02-12-1986 ZA555 GR.1T Technical defect
10-12-1986 ZA605 GR.1 Mid-air collision with Tornado GR.1 ZA611
10-12-1986 ZA611 GR.1 Mid-air collision with Tornado GR.1 ZA605
30-03-1987 ZD894 GR.1 Technical defect
03-06-1987 ZA366 GR.1T Technical defect
17-06-1987 ZA493 GR.1 Mid-air collision with RAF Jaguar GR.1 XZ116
12-07-1987 ZD738 GR.1 Technical defect
30-03-1988 ZA448 GR.1 Crew lost control after avoiding simulated SAM contact
10-05-1988 ZD808 GR.1 Crew lost control after avoiding mid-air collision
09-08-1988 ZA329 GR.1T Mid-air collision with Tornado GR.1 ZA593
09-08-1988 ZA593 GR.1 Mid-air collision with Tornado GR.1 ZA329
13-01-1989 ZD891 GR.1 Mid-air collision with German Air Force Alpha Jet 40+87
20-07-1989 ZA468 GR.1 Technical defect
21-07-1989 ZE833 F.3 Crew was desorientated
14-09-1989 ZD710 GR.1 Bird strike resulting in engine failure
09-01-1990 ZA394 GR.1A Mid-air collsion with RAF Jaguar GR.1A XZ108
30-04-1990 ZA454 GR.1 Technical defect
14-08-1990 ZA464 GR.1 Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.1 ZA545
14-08-1990 ZA545 GR.1 Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.1 ZA464
16-08-1990 ZA561 GR.1 Crew maneuvering error
18-10-1990 ZA466 GR.1 External factor
13-01-1991 ZD718 GR.1 Crew maneuvering error
16-01-1991 ZD791 GR.1 Shot down during Gulf War I
17-01-1991 ZA392 GR.1 Shot down during Gulf War I
19-01-1991 ZA396 GR.1 Shot down during Gulf War I
20-01-1991 ZD893 GR.1 Technical defect during Gulf War I
22-01-1991 ZA467 GR.1 Crew was disorientated, possible NVG-problems, during Gulf War I
24-01-1991 ZA403 GR.1 Technical defect during Gulf War I
14-02-1991 ZD717 GR.1 Shot down durig Gulf War I
10-05-1991 ZA376 GR.1 Crew lost control after avoiding mid-air collision
12-09-1991 ZA540 GR.1T Technical defect
21-10-1993 ZA858 F.3 Technical defect
07-06-1994 ZE809 F.3 Technical defect
08-07-1994 ZH558 F.3T Crew maneuvering error
19-07-1994 ZA368 GR.1T Technical defect
01-08-1994 ZA397 GR.1A Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.1 ZD844
01-08-1994 ZD844 GR.1 Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.1 ZA397
01-09-1994 ZG708 GR.1A Crew lost control after avoiding bird strike
19-09-1994 ZG725 GR.1A Technical defect
10-03-1995 ZE789 F.3 Technical defect
30-10-1995 ZE733 F.3 Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado F.3 ZE210
30-10-1995 ZE210 F.3 Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado F.3 ZE722
10-01-1996 ZE166 F.3T Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado F.3 ZE862
10-01-1996 ZE862 F.3T Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado F.3 ZE166
11-01-1996 ZD846 GR.1 Crew lost control
23-02-1996 ZD789 GR.1 Technical defect
26-02-1996 ZD845 GR.1 Technical defect
28-09-1996 ZE759 F.3T Technical defect
15-05-1997 ZG753 F.3 Technical defect
15-06-1998 ZE732 F.3 Not known
21-01-1999 ZA330 GR.1 Mid-air collision with private Cessna 152 II
14-10-1999 ZD809 GR.1 Technical defect
17-11-1999 ZE830 F.3T Technical defect
17-05-2002 ZA599 GR.4T Technical defect
23-03-2003 ZG710 GR.4 Shot down during Gulf War II by friendly fire
09-10-2003 ZA608 GR.4 Bird strike resulting in engine failure
22-07-2004 ZA491 GR.4 Crew lost control
14-10-2005 ZE962 F.3 Technical defect
24-11-2006 ZG711 GR.4A Bird strike resulting in engine failure
23-08-2008 ZG751 F.3 Technical defect
02-07-2009 ZE982 F.3 Crew was desorientated
20-07-2009 ZA596 GR.4 Technical defect
23-09-2009 ZA446 GR.4 Technical defect
05-01-2011 ZE341 F3 Bird strike
06-01-2011 ZE164 F.3 Bird strike
27-01-2011 ZG792 GR.4 Technical defect
03-07-2012 ZD743 GR.4T Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.4T ZD812
03-07-2012 ZD812 GR.4T Mid-air collision with RAF Tornado GR.4T ZD743
14-01-2014 ZA398 GR.4 Bird strike
20-01-2014 ZA595 GR.4 Bird strike

The end

The RAF GR.4 has been subject to a constant series of upgrades, gradually enhancing its capability so that the modern Tornado is very far removed from the jet conceived to meet a multinational requirement during the 1960s. After well over 1,000,000 flying hours, the RAF is the first to retire its Tornado-fleet. The best of the Tonka's capabilities (particularly Brimstone and Storm Shadow) are transferred to the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Typhoons and the Lightning II take over and build upon the tactics and effects that have been delivered by the Tornado and its ground and air crews during four decades. Currently based at RAF Marham, the no. IX (B) Squadron and the Tornado part ways. From 2020, the mentioned unit will be operating the Protector RG.1 unmanned aircraft.
Germany and Italy still operate the Tornado. As well as Saudi-Arabia does, being the only non-European nation to fly with the iconic jet. But, all good things come to an end. The remaining Tornado-operating nations are phasing out their Tonka's too, which should be completed by 2025. So, in due time one of the world's most successful, combat-proven, fast jets will not be seen in active military service anymore.

This article was also published in Lotnictwo Aviation International 4-2019.