We would like to thank the following for their help in assisting us in the making of this article;
Francesca Maggi (British FCO, Defence Attaché, Rome)
Michele Seri, Simone Antonetti, Morgan Brighel (HQ Italian AF, Rome)
Massimo Cionfrini (PIO, 6º Stormo)
Michele Iacobuono (PIO, 50º Stormo)
A Tornado ECR pokes its nose out of one of the Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) at Piacenza-San Damiano
#50-53 shows off the large retractable in-flight refuelling probe on the Panavia Tornado
Development & History of the Panavia PA-200 Tornado; The British, German and Italian governments formed a consortium in 1969 (which originally included the Netherlands, who later pulled out) to set up a company called Panavia Aircraft Gmbh; with the intention of developing and manufacturing the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA). The project's aim was to produce an aircraft capable of undertaking missions in the tactical strike, reconnaissance, air defence, and maritime attack roles; thus allowing the MRCA to replace several different aircraft types then in use by the partner nations. After much haggling over design, development and numbers to be built, first deliveries of what became known as the Tornado commenced to the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI) in September 1981, with the first front-line unit becoming operational the following year. The AMI eventually took delivery of 100 Inter-Dictor Strike (IDS) versions (including 12 trainers with dual controls) of this two-seat, variable geometry, all-weather fighter-bomber & reconnaissance aircraft, of which sixteen were later converted to the Electronic Combat Reconnaissance (ECR) version.
Known as the A-200 in AMI service, the Tornado is powered by two Turbo-Union RB.199-103 afterburning turbo-fans, each giving 16,000lbs (7,260kg) of thrust. The aircraft is capable of Mach 1.2 performance at low-level, has a surface ceiling of 50,000 feet and is capable of carrying an impressive weapons load of around 20,000lbs (9,000kg). The Tornado has two built-in 27mm Mauser cannons (although there are none on the ECR version) and can also carry the AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile for self-defence. Utilising a Sargent-Fletcher (a subsidiary of Cobham) buddy-buddy refuelling pod on the aircraft centreline, the AMI Tornados are also capable of providing air to air refuelling for other types within the inventory, such as the AMX and EF2000, as well as of course, other Tornado aircraft.
50º Stormo has been in residence at Piacenza-San Damiano since 1st April 1967, although 155º Gruppo had in fact been operating the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak there since 1963. Having transferred from the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak to the Lockheed F-104S Starfighter after moving to Istrana in 1973, 155º Gruppo took up residence at Ghedi under the auspices of 6º Stormo, flying the Tornado IDS. The squadron later transferred back to San Damiano on 23rd July 1990, once again as part of 50º Stormo. With SEAD operations commencing in 1992 utilising the IDS version of the Tornado, equipped with the AGM-88 HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missile), the first dedicated Tornado ECR was delivered to 155º Gruppo in February 1998. Having now started to receive the MLU (mid-life update) version of the Tornado ECR, 155º Gruppo presently operates a mix of both the IDS and ECR versions, with a mix of MLU and non-MLU aircraft within that.
It is proposed that 50º Stormo will shut down operations and the Tornado ECRs will move from Piacenza to Ghedi so as to consolidate all AMI Tornado operations at one base, with the move commencing some time in 2015. Once complete, the four Tornado squadrons will then be reduced to three (it is as yet undecided which one will be disbanded) and Piacenza air base will be put under a care & maintenance basis.
Between November 2008 and December 2009, 6º Stormo supported the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan. A total of six aircraft took part in the deployment (with two aircraft deployed at any given time) at Mazar-e-Sharif air base, with 25 flight crews and some 200 engineers supporting the operation alongside a detachment of German Air Force Tornados.
August 2014 and once again Jetwash Aviation Photos finds itself back in Italy, this time working with the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI) and their Panavia Tornado aircraft. The AMI Tornado fleet presently operates from two air bases; Brescia/Ghedi (6º Stormo) and Piacenza/San Damiano (50º Stormo). With Ghedi operating three gruppi (squadrons), including the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and Piacenza operating one gruppo (squadron) of aircraft, we spent some time at both bases to ensure maximum coverage of the mighty 'Tonka', which has now been in Italian Air Force service for over 30 years, during which it has undergone many upgrades and developments.
6º Stormo has a dual 'Chain of Command', with both a national and NATO dependence. Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) is at the top-level of this through Ramstein's 'Air Component Command' (CC Air); and in accordance with the Italy-USA agreement based on the 1963 'Memorandum of Understanding' between the two nations, Ghedi's squadrons are part of the NATO Integrated Defence concept and co-operates with the United States Air Force's 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS) which is also based at Ghedi. The 704th MUNSS, which is subordinate to the 52nd Fighter wing at Spangdahlem, Germany, is responsible for storage, maintenance and control of U.S war-reserve weapons committed to 6º Stormo and directly supports NATO and its strike mission.
#MM7084 overshoots Runway 30 at Piacenza on 4th August 2014
A Turbo-Union RB.199 gets re-assembled in the engine department of Ghedi's maintenance facility
The easiest way to identify the ECR Tornado from an IDS version is the lack of the twin Mauser cannons
The Tornado ECR above is seen at 50º Stormo's current base at Piacenza-San Damiano
This typically scruffy looking Tonka gets towed to the maintenance hangar at Piacenza
The aircraft is a 6º Stormo jet that was on temporary detachment to Piacenza due to runway repairs at Ghedi
50º Stormo based at San Damiano near Piacenza, has one squadron assigned, this being 155º Gruppo ETS (Electronic-warfare Tactical Suppression). Known as the 'Pantere Nere' (Black Panthers) and equipped with both the ECR and IDS versions of the Tornado, the primary mission of 155º Gruppo is to support NATO and allied forces in the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), more commonly known as electronic warfare, operating at low-level, in all weathers, day or night. The two-man crew of the specialised Tornado ECR consists of a pilot and an electronic warfare officer (EWO), whose responsibility it is to monitor the tactical situation, manage the self-defence systems and fire the weapons.
#MM7025 above wears markings for the ISAF detachment in Afghanistan that took place between 2008-09
Sat inside the 102º Gruppo hangar is #MM7087, a Tornado IDS-MLU
#MM55008 above, is one of three dual-control trainers that are known to have been upgraded to MLU standard
Basking in glorious August sunshine, this Tornado looks ready to fly
However looks can be deceiving, as it is one of a small number in open storage on the airfield at Ghedi
Two simulators are available at Ghedi so as to maintain both pilot proficiency and to assist in the training of pilots going through conversion to the Tornado as part of the OCU course. The more modern of the two, built by Selex-Galileo (part of Finmeccanica) and delivered in 2008, is a full-mission capable system that can be programmed to simulate any scenario, from basic flight and emergency training to full-scale mission simulation. The older and more basic of the two simulators at Ghedi does not have the full-mission capability and is used for more basic procedures within the training syllabus. Although the Tornado fleet is expected to remain in service until 2025 to 2030, the reduction in the fleet has already impacted on the Weapon Systems Operator (WSO) training programme and there are none currently going through the training syllabus with 102º Gruppo. With all of the other frontline aircraft within the AMI fleet having only a single-man crew (AMX, Typhoon and the future F-35), the Tornado is the only aircraft currently in the inventory with the requirement for a WSO or Electronic Warfare Operator (EWO); and so the conversion training programme has ceased for the foreseeable future.
The control panel of the Selex-Galileo full-mission flight simulator at Ghedi Air Base
The gnome is of non-standard fit!
A Ghedi-based detachment of 102º Gruppo/6º Stormo Tornado IDS' sit on the ramp at Piacenza on 4th August 2014
The low-viz 6º Stormo badge can be seen on the fin of all the aircraft
A 'clean' Tornado IDS comes to a stop on Piacenza's single runway, the small town of Centovera in the background
Buddy-buddy refuelling pods for use on the AMI Tornado fleet
The left image shows the rear drum mechanism that holds the retractable refuelling hose
A 50º Stormo Tornado IDS taxies out at Piacenza for a 2-ship afternoon mission
The Future;The Italian Air Force plans to replace the current Tornado fleet with 75 Lockheed-Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) from 2015 onwards. The Italian JSF order has however been the subject of prolonged uncertainty, as successive governments have sought to bring stretched public finances under control. With the Italian order already having been reduced from 131 aircraft (for both the Air Force and Navy) down to 90, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party Government has recently suggested that the order be 'frozen'; and potentially have the numbers reduced even further. With almost two-thirds of Italians deeming the F-35 purchase unnecessary in a recent poll it, appears that the F-35 order is now in serious jeopardy. It is in fact quite possible that the order may be reduced to as little as 45 aircraft in total. Italy has already made payments towards the first 11 aircraft, comprising ten F-35A and one F-35B, but with spiralling costs and potential further delays in delivery schedules it is far from clear what the eventual outcome will be.
If the current proposals proceed, then Amendola will take delivery of the first aircraft and form the first F-35 wing. Infrastructure work has already commenced there (with the AMX fleet consolidating at Istrana) and the wing is expected to 'stand up' some time in 2020 if all goes according to plan. Ghedi is then expecting to form the second F-35 wing and work has already started here with a new tower under construction (expected to open late this year). It is then proposed that Ghedi will operate a mix of both F-35s and Tornados until withdrawal of the latter by 2025, at which time it is perceived that two F-35 squadrons will operate from the base.
Rafael Litening Pod (left) and Rafael Recce-Lite Pod (right) as used on the AMI Tornado fleet
The overhaul facility at Ghedi is quite impressive, with large numbers of engines in various stages of maintenance
Another close-up of the refuelling probe in its retracted position,
as the crew of '50-52' give us friendly wave as they taxy out for a mission
The Tornado ECR is specialised in the SEAD role (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) and was designed to carry the Raytheon AGM-88 HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) air-to-surface missile. Equipped to counter enemy air defences prior to the main strike package attacking the target, the Tornado ECR carries complex electronic counter measure (ECM) systems that enable it to identify the location of enemy SAMs (surface to air missiles) and effectively 'rides' the radar signals down to the source and destroys the enemy missile battery. Sixteen IDS versions were converted to the ECR role for the AMI, with 15 expected to undergo the Mid-Life Update (MLU) programme described below
Formed in January 1936 at Campoformido, known at the time as the 6th Air Brigade (it was re-designated 6º Stormo in September 1967), the unit moved to Brescia-Ghedi in 1953 after a period of inactivation following the Second World War. Between 1956 and 1964 the unit flew the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, commencing transition to the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter in 1963. The Starfighter continued in service with 6º Stormo until the wing received their first Tornado IDS on 28th August 1982. Having been part of 6º Stormo since September 1952, the first unit chosen to receive the initial Tornados was 154º Gruppo. Between 1988 and 1990, 155º Gruppo was assigned to 6º Stormo, later moving to Piacenza-San Damiano as part of 50º Gruppo. During 1993, 102º Gruppo transferred to 6º Stormo, having previously operated as part of 5º Stormo at Rimini, with the final squadron (156º Gruppo), moving in from Gioia del Colle with their Tornados in July 2008.
6º Stormo 'Red Devils' based at Brescia-Ghedi operates three Gruppi of the Tornado IDS aircraft in the AMI inventory. Three squadrons are in residence at Ghedi (102º Gruppo, 154º Gruppo and 156º Gruppo) and will have a total of 43 aircraft on strength once all the aircraft have gone through the MLU programme. Although it may look like a 'fighter', the Tornado IDS is really a bomber; and is primarily tasked with conducting reconnaissance and attack missions. Following dis-establishment of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore, England in 1999, 102º Gruppo 'Ducks' was tasked as the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for all future AMI Tornado crews; and as such operates all of the remaining twin-seat Tornado aircraft within the inventory, however the unit also retains its front-line fighter-bomber/recce role similar to that performed by both 154º Gruppo and 156º Gruppo.
The MLU version of the Tornado is identifiable externally by the white horizontal blade antenna a third-way down the vertical fin
Aeronautica Militare Italiana
'Tonking with the Italians'
The 50º Stormo Tornado above illustrates the clam-shell doors that close, providing reverse thrust to enhance the aircraft's braking capabilty
This Tornado IDS gets some line-maintenance completed at Piacenza-San Damiano
The Tornado Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) programme; as the AMI plans to retain the Tornado fleet until at least 2025, it was decided that a Mid-Life Upgrade (MLU) programme would need to be implemented. Panavia plan to upgrade a total of 58 Tornados for the AMI, 43 IDS and 15 ECR versions. The first 18 IDS-M aircraft were approved for upgrade in 2003, with the first taking to the air in 2006. A further 15 were approved in 2010, followed by the final batch of 25 in December 2010 (which included the 15 ECR versions). Delivery of the final batch is scheduled to be completed by 2015. The first 18 IDS aircraft were upgraded to RET-6 standard, which included navigation, communications and flight safety-related equipment improvements, night vision goggle (NVG) compatible lighting modifications and new weaponry. Upgrades to the latest RET-8 standard added improved display systems, digital video and data recording, a multi-mode receiver, digital maps, 'Link 16' inserts and complete integration with the Rafael Recce-Lite reconnaissance pod, together with immediate readiness for future weapons like the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AGM-88E) and the Small Diameter Bomb (SDM), which is offered with basic Inertial Navigation-Global Positioning System (IN-GPS) for the GBU-39, or with the laser-guided IN-GPS and the GBU-54 for enhanced precision and the capability to engage mobile targets.
The upgraded Tornado ECR-M version for the Italian Air Force includes several sub-systems and functionality additions; and modifications to the on-board systems, avionics equipment and mission software. The Tornado ECR-MLU features an integrated IN-GPS supported by a Multi-Mode Receiver (MMR) for approaches and a new Instrument Landing System (ILS). The new communication and identification system embodies the latest standards of secure communication capacities as well as a data transmission/reception capacity via Data-Link (MIDS), which integrates Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) functionalities. The pilot and navigator cockpits also feature new multi-function display suites that reduce the crew's workload; the navigator cockpit features new colour Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens (replacing the mono-chromatic displays); and the internal and external lighting systems are now NVG compatible. The ECR's new software allows for the integration of new sensors and avionics systems and also the integration of new versions of high speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM); and the dropping of Global Positioning System (GPS) precision-guided weapons such as Joint-Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
The Tornado as an aerial refueller; Yes, you read it correctly! With fitment of a Sargent-Fletcher/Cobham buddy-buddy refuelling pod to the aircraft's centreline pylon, the AMI Tornado fleet has the ability to provide an aerial refuelling capability. The pods can be used at any height between sea-level and 20,000ft and can carry 17,630lbs (8,000kg) of transferable fuel, which can be delivered between 200 & 320 KIAS (Knots, Indicated Air Speed). The AMX, Typhoon, Tornado and MB.339 fleets are all cleared to be refuelled from the system.
This rear-end shot clearly illustrates the Tornados large air brakes and the mechanism between the two engines that operate the clamshell doors so as to provide reverse thrust on the RB.199 power-plants
Although Ghedi has a large number of HAS' on the airfield, it also has a small number of portable shelters that can be dismantled and moved
This Tornado IDS sits in one of these shelters, which provide both protection from the sun and for crews conducting maintenance on the airframe
A 155º Gruppo aircraft taxies through the shelter area at Piacenza as it heads towards the runway for an afternoon mission
The shelters at Piacenza are standard NATO construction, with sufficient numbers to accomodate all of the 155º Gruppo Tornados
This ECR-MLU 'Tonka' sits safely inside one on 4th August 2014