Key capabilities fielded by Britain's Royal Air Force in Afghanistan and highly prized across the NATO-led coalition face uncertain futures once the Tornado GR4 aircraft is retired toward the end of the decade. As the RAF looks ahead to a fleet comprising Typhoons and F-35Bs, there are no plans in place to retain two systems that have become invaluable in-theater.

The Tornado GR4 can launch a low-collateral strike on a moving target with the dual-mode seeker Brimstone missile, and access high-resolution stand-off reconnaissance imagery with the DB-110 sensor carried in the Raptor pod system. Neither is as yet planned to be carried on the Typhoon or F-35.

Also, various studies have proved that a transfer of both systems onto the RAF's remotely piloted Reaper platform is technically feasible.

There are discrepancies between the public stances of Typhoon consortium Eurofighter GmbH and the RAF over integration of Brimstone, while Eurofighter and the missile's manufacturer, MBDA, differ over whether the RAF intends to integrate the follow-on Spear III capability onto Typhoon. Integrating DB-110 is not part of Eurofighter's current plans, and adding an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) pod to F-35 is much more complicated than it would be on the non-stealthy Typhoon.

The issue is not yet urgent: No out-of-service date has been confirmed for Tornado, although it is slated to retire in 2019, and missile-integration test programs do not tend to be unduly lengthy. But waiting for the outcome of the next Strategic Defense and Security Review, due to be conducted within weeks of the next British general election, which will take place in summer 2015, is not an attractive option.

The questions over which aircraft will field what capability arise, in part, because of the limited amount of weapons-integration work agreed under current U.K. F-35 contracts. The weapons-fit agreed for the RAF's initial operating capability will integrate the Paveway IV guided bomb internally and externally, and Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (Asraam) as an external store. Beyond this load-out, the U.K. and Lockheed Martin have agreed to two further categories of weapons to integrate on the aircraft.

The first—known as “threshold weapons”—are expected to be integrated in the medium term; preparatory work has been accepted and some has taken place. The U.K.'s F-35 threshold weapons are the Storm Shadow cruise missile and an unspecified variant of MBDA's Brimstone. (The original Brimstone, first fielded in 2005, is a single-mode seeker weapon; dual-mode Brimstone was procured under an Urgent Operational Requirement and is unfunded after combat operations in Afghanistan end. A third version, Brimstone 2, which improves on the dual-mode concept, is expected to be delivered in 2015.)

The other category is weapons for which preparatory studies have been contracted and conducted, but which likely will be integrated after the threshold weapons. Those include two missiles in development with MBDA: the radar-guided, beyond-visual-range Meteor, and Spear III. The latter is a derivative of the Brimstone capability, but in a completely different form. Turbojet-powered rather than rocket-propelled, the missile has wings and is loaded in a four-pack launcher. Brimstone launchers carry three missiles.

Meteor also will be fielded on Typhoon; Eurofighter is currently integrating Storm Shadow. That flight-test program, which began last November, is slated to continue into 2015. The aircraft already carries Enhanced Paveway II, Amraam and Asraam, with Paveway IV among the additions included in the Phase 1 Enhancements upgrade.

Eurofighter's head of future capability, Laurie Hilditch, said in November that the company expects the Typhoon will eventually carry the follow-on Spear III, but no Brimstone variants.

“There's quite a bit of discussion going on with the core customer,” he explained. “Obviously, integration of any weapon is going to require an amount of money, and [you do not want] to go ahead and integrate one weapon and then within a few years change it for another one. . . . It's not just a simple step-on from one to the other . . . Brimstone is a bit of a dead-end.”

However, MBDA's Paul Wester said in December that the RAF planned to field only Spear III on F-35s.

The Defense Ministry has stated it has made no decisions on which weapons will be used to meet future requirements.

Transitioning the low-collateral moving-target capability to Reaper remains an option, with progress advanced in fielding Dual-Mode Brimstone on the platform. Trial firings of the missile from a Reaper took place in December and January at the U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, Calif.; these were run by the defense ministry in collaboration with airframer General Atomics, MBDA and U.S. Air Force's Big Safari program office. The British Ambassador to the U.S., Peter Westmacott, attended a firing event in December and, earlier this month, wrote an editorial for Atlantic Media's Defense One website in which he urged the U.S. military to procure dual-mode Brimstone for its Reapers. He did not address when, or if, the U.K. will field the missile on its Reaper fleet. The defense ministry says no decision has yet been taken on integration of the missile on Reaper, or on whether further tests will be carried out.

On the question of the DB-110, Hilditch agrees that the redesigned pod, which the manufacturer, UTC, has sold for operation on F-16s and F-15s (AW&ST Feb. 17, p. 51) “could possibly be carried” on Typhoon, but says his company's strategy involves different capabilities. He cites the reconnaissance version of the Israeli manufacturer Rafael's Litening targeting pod—RecceLite—as one possible avenue for exploration.

“A system that can offer targeting and recce [reconnaissance] in the same pod has obviously got a great advantage,” he says. “We're looking at building an air-to-air capability with Litening, so that once you've fought your way through an air threat, you can then proceed to your target; if you match that [pod] up with an AESA [active, electronically scanned array] radar where you've got SAR [synthetic aperture radar imagery], you can then target with the pod. And as you go through the target, the pod can pick up battle damage [data] to see how the attack went. Then, on the way home, you can do further recce if necessary.”

Meanwhile, new Typhoons delivered to the RAF cannot be flown because work to supply the Release to Service (RTS) for Tranche 2 aircraft in Block 15 configuration and Tranche 3A (Block 20) aircraft has suffered delays. The issue affects “a handful of aircraft,” according to BAE Systems' chief Typhoon test pilot, Mark Bowman, who completed the test-flight program for the Tranche 3A Typhoon in two sorties late last year. He says he does not envisage Block 15 or 20 aircraft being in active RAF service until mid-year or so.