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Operation Shader - the fight against Islamic State

Seen during exercise Crown Condor at RAF Fairford, this GR.4 carries a typical load; BOZ107 chaff dispensers on the outer wing pylons, under-wing 1500 ltr drop tanks, bomb dispensers on the central fuselage pylons and an ASRAAM just visible on the inside of the drop-tank pylon

As the drawdown of the Tornado reached its climax, RAF Marham painted three GR.4s in special colour schemes during January 2019, one of which wore a grey/green camouflague similar to the original GR.1s

#The END

#ZA459 typifies the standard grey camouflage adopted by the GR.4 fleet

Of note is the lack of squadron markings and the sequential tailcode eventually adopted throughout the fleet

© RAF Photographer‏ @RafPhotog

From the early days of grey/green camouflage, the later years of the GR.4 fleet saw it adopt an overall grey scheme Individual squadron markings still remained at the outset, those here being from IX (B) Squadron

As drawdown of the fleet continued, this Tornado received the markings of 31 Squadron

It was nicknamed 'Gold Star' - for obvious reasons

Operation Shader  is the name given to U.K. military operations undertaken as part of the U.S-led international coalition against so-called Islamic State (IS). Following a formal request for assistance by the Iraqi government, the operation began in Iraq on 26th September 2014, with the operation extended to Syria in October 2014, the RAF at that stage only mandated to conduct surveillance flights. An operation which began as a humanitarian aid mission later grew into a complex mission to try and defeat IS. On 2nd December 2015, the U.K. Government approved RAF airstrikes against IS in Syria. Since then, the RAF has operated at its highest intensity in over 25 years in a single theatre of operation. By June 2016 the RAF had flown more than 2,200 sorties, including approximately 900 airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,000 IS fighters; the level of operations proving greater than the U.K. involvement in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) called for a reduction in frontline GR.4 squadrons to just two, but the need to maintain a constant deployment for Operation Shader saw a third squadron later re-form when 12(B) Sqn returned to service in January 2015.

#ZG752 was painted in a scheme similar to the original grey/green camo applied to the GR.1 fleet

The aircraft will become a gate guard at nearby RAF Honington, once home of the Tactical Weapons Conversion Unit (TWCU)

The first Tornado GR.1 deployed to Bahrain under Operation Granby from Germany on 27th August 1990, having already been hastily repainted in their Desert Pink camouflage. A second squadron deployed on 19th and 26th September, transferring to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia on 8th October. A third squadron joined the force in early January 1991 at Dhahran, with a further six GR.1As joining them between 14-16th January, bringing the total Tornado Force to approximately 60 aircraft. It is of note that the Tabuk-based aircraft utilised the TIALD pods fitted to the GR.1A, whilst the Bahrain and Dhahran-based aircraft had to rely on Buccaneer S.2Bs fitted with Pave-Spike laser designator pods to provide guidance for the Tornados laser-guided bombs.

16th January - Day One saw Tornado crews perform some of the most dangerous missions of the war; initially losing aircraft and crews at the rate of one a day! The Tornado attacked strategic targets throughout southern Iraq and Kuwait utilising the JP233 runway-denial weapon,

#ZA473 is seen at RAF Fairford on 9th October 2008 during exercise Crown Condor operating in 12(B) Sqn markings

ZA473 entered service with the RAF in November 1983 and was upgraded to GR.4 standard in 2003

Note the TIALD pod mounted on the aircraft's under-fuselage pylon below the port engine intake

to Shader. Involved from the very start of the operation, they have gathered intelligence and launched hundreds of airstrikes against IS. Brimstone, Enhanced Paveway II, Paveway IV, GBU-12 and Hellfire missiles have been the mainstay weapons of the RAF’s contribution to Shader, but Tornados have on occasion launched Storm Shadows against bunker facilities used by IS for weapons storage. Early in the campaign, a typical day’s operations saw two pairs of Tornados launched, but as combat intensified, especially with the allied forces’ ground assault on Mosul, it became the norm for multiple pairs of RAF jets to operate in conjunction with RAF Reaper UAVs.

#The FINale

The eleven Tornados began to depart RAF Marham around 14.00 as scheduled. Once all eleven were airborne, the Hawk T.1 photo-ship departed and the formation headed north towards The Wash, enabling the photographer on board the Hawk to capture the formation in flight. Nine of the aircraft then headed west towards RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire, for a flypast over the RAF College, where a Graduation Ceremony was taking place.


With the other two Tornados having returned to Marham, the remaining nine aircraft arrived back at Marham at around 15.30, performing a number of flypasts over the base, including a 'Diamond Nine' formation (left). With the Hawk photo-ship remaining in close contact, the nine aircraft then split into two groups before continuing to thrill the hundreds who had gathered around the base perimeter to see the 'Mighty Fin' in action for the last time.


As the light faded and with the 'show' over, the aircraft landed one-by-one on Runway 01 - bringing another era to an end.

A Tornado GR.4 departs Marham's Runway 19 just after 2pm on 28th February

#ZG750 was nicknamed 'Pinky' by aviation enthusiasts due to her iconic desert camouflage scheme. During the 1991 Gulf War, around 60 Tornado GR.1s were repainted in a ‘desert pink’ camouflage and deployed to Muharraq, Bahrain, and Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. Six Tornados were lost during highly dangerous low-level combat missions against Iraqi airfields and other military targets, with the loss of five aircrew. In service with 15 (R) Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, ZG750 had the scheme applied to mark the Tornado GR’s 25 years of operations in 2016 and was retired on 28th July 2017, when it made its final flight from RAF Marham to RAF Leeming, where it was stripped of all useable parts before being scrapped

#ZA447 was one of the busiest Tornados during the war, completing 40 combat missions. RAF Tornados that took part in the 1991 Gulf War were painted in a distinctive desert pink camouflage, with #ZA447/EA of 15 Sqn carrying ‘MiG Eater’ nose art, a feature of many RAF aircraft.  It was thought to have destroyed an Iraqi MiG-29 whilst completing an airfield denial mission over Iraq, although it was later discovered that it was actually a Mirage F.1.

Having been a mainstay of Tornado operations for many years, RAF Lossiemouth’s 15 (Reserve) Squadron, the Tornado Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), disbanded on 31st March 2017, thus ending the Tornado GR.4 era at ‘Lossie’. As the drawdown continued, 12(B) Squadron flew its last mission at the end of December 2017 and disbanded early in 2018. With the withdrawal of the Tornado Force imminent, 9 and 31 Squadrons continued to soldier on at RAF Marham right up until the end of March 2019.

March 2019 saw one of the world’s most successful, combat-proven fast jets retire from Royal Air Force (RAF) service, when the Panavia Tornado GR.4 was finally withdrawn from service. The Panavia Tornado aircraft first entered RAF ranks as the Tornado GR.1 in 1982 and has been the backbone of the RAF's strike force ever since. It would have been rude not to have covered the career of this hardened war veteran, an aircraft that has seen continual combat since 1991. Right up until the very end, the Tornado GR.4 continued to fly missions from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, in support of Britain's war on Islamic State under the remit of Operation Shader. We take a look at Tornado's outstanding service to the Royal Air Force.

Whenever the British government required a precision strike or ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) capability over the last 40 years, the Tornado GR was the weapon of choice. Currently, it is the only RAF aircraft capable of utilising MBDA’s Storm Shadow stand-off cruise missile and the Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone low collateral, close air support weapon. Whilst still at the forefront of the U.K’s strike missions in Operation Shader, with Tornado’s out of service date (OSD) set for the end of March 2019, Project Centurion will see Tornado’s capabilities transferred to the British Aerospace (BAe) Typhoon fleet, and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning.

The Tornado GR's first major operation was that undertaken during the first Gulf War in 1991. The conflict began when Iraq laid claim to parts of Kuwait in July 1990, stating that Kuwait had ‘stolen’ $2.4Bn worth of crude oil from wells in the disputed area. Following Iraqi forces massing close to the Kuwaiti border, things finally came to a head on 2nd August when Iraqi Republican Guard forces crossed the border at 02.00am and advanced towards the capital, Kuwait City. Later that same day, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 660, which condemned the invasion and demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces. On 6th August, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia invited foreign governments to send troops to the kingdom to protect it from invasion by Iraq. United States forces deployed F-15C Eagles to Dhahran, flying non-stop from Langley AFB, Virginia. Following the U.N Security Council’s Resolution 662 on 9th August, which declared the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq null and void, the British government announced that it would send Tornado F.3s to the Gulf region, arriving the next day.

The Tonka's RB.199 engines in full-flow

© RAF Photographer‏ @RafPhotog

The 1991 Gulf War saw new systems and capabilities added to the GR.1; the brief conflict also saw Tornado employed in the low-level airfield denial role for which it had been designed, before switching to medium-altitude, laser-guided bombing due to some early losses. A handful of aircraft introduced the prototype TIALD pod into service before the fighting ended, marking the start of a precision attack capability that has become the Tornado’s hallmark. Since the first Gulf War, there has been little relief from combat operations, with Tornado active in policing and combat missions over the Balkans and Iraq, then back to Iraq forOperation Desert Fox in 1998 and Operation Telic, the U.K’s contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2003.

'Tornado Bows Out'

Designed to operate at low-level against Warsaw Pact opposition, the Tornado found itself flying at 20,000ft over the desert, with little or no fighter interceptors to concern itself with. After some early losses, the destruction of the Iraqi Air Force and its airfields saw the Tornado GR.1 fly no more low-level missions, instead flying at medium-level using 1,000lb ‘dumb’ bombs to attack airfields, barracks, petrochemical plants and radar/communications sites. The arrival of Pave-Spike equipped Buccaneers and TIALD equipped Tornados saw precision weapons come to the fore once again.

Despite the Tornado GR.1A having only recently entered service and struggling with its imagery quality, six aircraft and nine crews from 2 and 13 Squadrons were dispatched to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 14-16th January, with the first mission flown on 18th January by #ZA397. The GR.1A spent much of Desert Storm ‘Scud Hunting’. Soviet designed ballistic missiles, known as Scuds, were attacking Saudi Arabia and Israel from mobile launchers, which were hard to track down due to their mobility. The Tornado GR.1As would operate at low-level (down to 200ft), utilising their TFR (Terrain Following Radar), with missions lasting on average 2½-3 hours.

The only break from the rather drab scheme worn by the GR.4 fleet were the commemorative tails that often appeared

Here #ZA462 is seen departing RAF Fairford sporting a 'XV Sqn 100th Anniversary' scheme

The versatility of the Tornado also saw 26 aircraft given a dedicated anti-shipping role as the GR.1B, which saw service with 12 (Bomber) Squadron from 1993 and 617 Squadron from 1994.  Modified to fire the Sea Eagle anti-shipping missile, the capability fell into abeyance when the GR.4 programme began. Following the Gulf War, as soon as the GR.4 was released from combat over Iraq, it deployed for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, where it replaced the BAe Harrier in 2009.  Less than two years later, the Tornado was called upon once more, deploying jets for Operation Ellamy over Libya. Utilising the Paveway IV, Brimstone, Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado (RAPTOR) and Litening III targeting pod on intelligence-gathering missions, some aircraft operated direct from the U.K. supported by VC-10 and TriStar tanker aircraft, requiring a round-trip of some 3,000 nautical miles.

Aircrew of the last three Tornados to return to Marham from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, included 27-year-old Flight Lieutenant Nathan Shawyer, who was the last ever pilot to be trained for Tornado operations by the RAF, and 55-year-old Flight Lieutenant Chris Stradling, who accrued more than 6,000 hours of flying time in the Tornado. Flt. Lt. Stradling said it was "A Real emotional day. I'd wanted to join the Air Force since I was a kid and I've had posters of the Tornado on my bedroom wall since probably before it even took to the air, so it's always been an ambition of mine to join the Air Force and I always wanted to fly Tornado. That was my dream all the way through my training and all of the flight training I did, Tornado was always my first choice”.

The career of the RAF's most important combat-proven aircraft over the last 40 years comes to a close

Undeterred by the poor weather conditions, #ZA542 blasts through the clag

ALARM anti-radiation missiles and 1,000lb dumb bombs. At 22.30 GMT (01.30 local time), Wing Commander Jerry Witts of 31 Squadron led a flight of four aircraft from Dhahran, with Wing Commander John Broadbent leading eight similarly armed aircraft from Bahrain headed southeast to attack Tallil air base. Attacking the base at 180 feet, the 12 aircraft, each fitted with two JP233 dispensers, destroyed the airfields runways and taxiways. All of the aircraft returned to base intact. The second wave of attacks that night was not so lucky. One of the four Tornados from Muharraq that attacked Shaibah had one of its AIM-7 Sidewinders hit by flak. Having seriously damaged the aircraft #ZD791, the crew of Flight Lieutenant Adrian ‘John’ Nicholl and Flt. Lt. John Peters had to eject. Despite attempts to rescue them, they were captured by Iraqi forces. Later that same night #ZA392 crashed, killing Wing Commander Nigel Elsdon and Flt. Lt. Max Collier of 27 Squadron. In the first 24 hours of operations, 60 sorties were flown by Tornado crews, with the JP233 and ALARM successfully making their combat debuts. A total of six Tornado GR.1s were subject to combat losses during the war, with the loss of five crew.

A Tornado GR.4 seen on approach to Leeuwarden air base, Netherlands, during a Frisian Flag exercise. Mounted on the port outer-wing pylon is a Selex electronic countermeasures (ECM) Common Jamming Pod (CJP). Originally developed for Tornado as the Sky Shadow in the 1980s, it was developed into the Sky Shadow-2 and subsequently re-worked into the CJP. A Litening III targeting/navigation pod is mounted on the under-fuselage centre pylon

Operation Granby - The first Gulf War

The first Tornado GR.1 was delivered to the Tri-national Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore on 1st July 1980. #ZA352/B-04 was delivered 4th December 1980 and is seen in the the original grey/green camouflage applied to the Tornado GR aircraft

#ZA600 is seen on approach to RAF Coningsby on 6th June 2014

The aircraft received a commemorative tail-fin in 2011, celebrating 95 years since the founding of 41 Squadron as a Royal Flying Corps unit in 1916. ZA600 remained with 41 Sqn at Coningsby until withdrawn from service in 2015

#ZA401 was converted to a GR.1A before further upgrade to GR.4A standard. The A-versions were easily identifiable by the lack of the 27mm Mauser canon, together with the panels on either side of the forward fuselage associated with the Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System (TIRRS). The aircraft wears 13 Squadron markings

On 2nd December 2015, the United Kingdom House of Commons voted to extend RAF air strikes against IS targets into Syria. An immediate response saw Tornado GR.4s flying from RAF Akrotiri to join Coalition aircraft attacking targets in the Syrian oilfield at Omar, which at the time generated around 10% of IS’s oil revenue. The extended operation required additional firepower and RAF Marham despatched a further pair of Tornados on 3rd December, with RAF Lossiemouth sending three further Tornados the following day. The Tornado GR.4 was a key component of the RAF's contribution

Two Tornado GR.4s from the Marham Wing in formation over the North Sea in 2017

Wednesday 28th February 2019 saw the final time that the RAF Tornado GR.4 force would fly en-masse. Of the 15 'Fins' still on charge, RAF Marham managed to get 11 aircraft airborne for one final sortie, which saw them perform a flypast at RAF Cranwell for a Graduation Ceremony, before returning to Marham to perform a number of flypasts. With the U.K. having experienced unseasonably high temperatures and wall-to-wall sunshine, it was to be expected that on the day of the flypast the weather broke! Poor visibility and low cloud did not however deter the personnel at Marham from ensuring the flypast happened, but unfortunately it was not conducive for good photography. Nevertheless we did our best to end this report with some images from the day.

#ZA456 was one such Tornado that saw conversion to GR.1B standard. Later converted to a GR.4, it saw service with IX (B) Squadron, whose anniversary markings it is seen in at the RIAT, Fairford in 2015. The aircraft was sent to the scrapyard later the same year

The Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) was established at RAF Cottesmore on 29th January 1981. The TTTE provided training on the Panavia Tornado for the Royal Air Force, Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force. The memorandum of understanding establishing the unit was signed in 1979 by the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy, with the first RAF Tornados arriving at Cottesmore on 1st July 1980. These were followed by the first Luftwaffe aircraft on 2nd September 1980 and the first Italian Tornado on 5th April 1982. At its peak, a total of 23 German, 19 British and six Italian aircraft were on strength. Flying training began on 5th January 1981, manned by personnel from all three nations, training 300 crews a year at its peak. The unit was disbanded on 24th February 1999, with the last flight on 31st March 1999.

Royal Air Force Tornado GR.4


Resplendent in 41 Squadron markings, the squadron became the RAF's Test & Evaluation unit in 2006; its role to evaluate operational tactics for frontline squadrons

The Tornado GR fleet has seen numerous upgrades over the years; from the early days of the Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) and Paveway II Laser Guided Bomb (LGB), to the more advanced Litening III datalink pod and the Paveway IV LGB, Tornado has been able to maintain the RAF’s precision-strike capability. The GR.4 also regularly totes an ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile) for self-defence. When the aircraft entered service with the RAF, it featured minor equipment variations to the West German and Italian IDS (Interdictor-Strike) aircraft. The first Tornado GR.1 was delivered to the Tri-national Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore on 1st July 1980. The RAF’s first frontline Tornado squadron formed at RAF Honington on 1st June 1982, 9 Squadron converting from the mighty Avro Vulcan.

In addition to its many operational commitments, Tornado GR's participated in numerous NATO-led exercises

This GR.4 is captured taking on fuel from a German Air Force A.310-MRTT during Frisian Flag 2017

The final operational sortie for the Tornado was flown on 31st January 2019. The eight Tornados stationed at RAF Akrotiri in the fight against Islamic State returning to RAF Marham at the beginning of February; the first five jets making the five-hour return flight on 4th February, followed by the three others on 5th February