Frequently referred to as the ‘Tonka’ or the ‘Mighty Fin’, the Panavia Tornado was the product of a British-German-Italian consortium to produce a next-generation combat aircraft for the strike-attack role for the 1980s and beyond. The design settled on a compact two-seat (pilot and Navigator/WSO), twin-engined (RB.199) aircraft with wings that could be swept from 25 degrees (take-off, landing and manoeuvring) to 67 degrees (high-speed), and with a mid-position of 45 degrees for good overall low-level performance, although the wings could actually be positioned at any point between 25 and 67 degrees.
Designed for low-level, all-weather operations, the Tornado Nav/Attack system was based on a Ground Mapping Radar (GMR) and Inertial Navigation System (INS) feeding its Main Computer, thus providing good system accuracy. This was later enhanced, initially with GPS (Global Positioning System) inputs. The all-weather aspect relied on the TFR (Terrain Following Radar) that allowed hands-off operation at pre-set ground avoidance heights, an effective if at times scary system!
Initial weapons fit included the internal 27mm Mauser cannon (x2), AiM-9 Sidewinder for air-to-air self defence, and a variety of air to ground weapons. Entering service in the early 1980s, the GR.1 also appeared in other roles, as the GR.1A (reconnaissance), GR.1B (anti-shipping) and other specialist fits. The RAF also produced an air defence variant, the F/2/F.3.
Designed for Cold War operations, the Tornado actually ‘went to war’ in 1991 as part of the Coalition air ops in the Gulf War to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. A major enhancement in the 1990s saw the GR.1 become the GR.4, which continued the enhancement of the aircraft’s capability with new sensors and new, smarter, weapons. It still looked the same, but its capabilities continued to increase, as indeed they did over the subsequent 20 years!
The RAF Tornado force became the backbone of air ops in a number of conflicts as part of the War on Terror, particularly with ops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The Tornado force was gradually reduced in size as the Typhoon took over some its roles, and RAF Marham became the final ‘home’ of the jet in its latter years, and it was at Marham that the RAF Tornado GR force eventually disbanded in March 2019, bringing to an end almost 40 years of RAF service.
The RAF Marham Aviation Heritage Centre preserves and displays the history of Marham, its units and aircraft, and Marham was a Tornado base throughout the Tornado GR period, the only airfield with that record of ops.