This Is The Royal Air Force’s First Aggressor Eurofighter Typhoon

The black jet will take on a high-end adversary role, acting as the enemy to face off against frontline Typhoon aircrews and others. 

MATTHEW STEPHENSON

A Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter jet has been repainted in a long-awaited aggressor color scheme. The jet, serial ZJ914, broke cover yesterday at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, after a period in the paint shop there.

It’s been known for a while that the RAF planned to paint at least some of No IX (Bomber) Squadron’s Typhoon FGR4s in new “shark gray” colors befitting their “fourth-gen aggressor” function. “In this role, [the Typhoon] will provide a sterner training test to RAF and NATO fast jet pilots, as they will play the role of opposing aircraft which match their speed and maneuverability while using the latest real-world dogfighting and air combat tactics against them,” the service said in a press release.

The squadron’s “Bomber” title doesn’t reflect its current mission, but is a nod to the rich heritage of the unit, which was formed in 1914 and which thereafter has served mainly in a bombing capacity, including the 1944 operation to sink the German battleship Tirpitz, at which time it flew the Avro Lancaster.

Some areas of the jet have not been repainted including the radome and various antennas associated with the Typhoon’s Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS). The scheme has been described as a dark shade of gray, but appears closer to black, and is superficially similar to the “Blackbird-style” paint job that has been used by Nellis Air Force Base’s 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) flying F-16s in Nevada. 

57TH WING COMMANDER’S FACEBOOK PAGE

A black-painted 64th Aggressor Squadron F-16C.

The RAF and the Royal Navy each have a squadron of black-painted Hawk T1s used for adversary work, but their color schemes are common across that fast jet training fleet, rather than being role-specific.

Plans to establish another two frontline units within the U.K.’s Typhoon Force date back to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of 2015, when it was declared that these would utilize the more basic Tranche 1 aircraft that offer only a limited capacity for upgrade.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

A member of the No IX (Bomber) Squadron groundcrew.

In July 2018, the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Steven Hillier, announced that No IX (Bomber) Squadron would be the first of the new Typhoon Tranche 1 units to be established.

Accordingly, No IX (B) Squadron was disbanded as a Tornado GR4 operator at RAF Marham, Norfolk, on March 31, 2019, before being immediately re-formed at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. Once at “Lossie,” the unit became the Scottish base’s fourth quick reaction alert (QRA) unit, a task that will continue alongside its new aggressor role. Prior to No IX (B)’s arrival, the base was already home to No 1 (Fighter), II (Army Co-operation), and 6 Squadrons, all flying the Typhoon in a frontline capacity.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

A No IX (B) Squadron Tornado GR4 training for deployment to Afghanistan.

The SDSR-sanctioned growth of the RAF Typhoon Force by two units (No 12 Squadron is the other and is also a former Tornado GR4 operator) providing the United Kingdom with the seven Typhoon squadrons originally planned. However, both the new units have important second-line roles that mean they can’t be fully committed to frontline duties. While No IX (B) will provide a Red Air capability at Lossiemouth, No 12 is currently a joint British-Qatari unit at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, where it’s training personnel for the Qatar Emiri Air Force’s forthcoming Typhoon fleet.

At one time, it was expected that the RAF's 24 single-seat Tranche 1 Typhoons would be retired early, with the force concentrating its resources on the truly multi-role capable Tranche 2 and 3 jets. However, the Tranche 1 aircraft is judged to be still capable of air defense and specialist aggressor work. These older jets will now be retained until around 2030.

The Tranche 1 two-seaters have been less fortunate, however, having been withdrawn and broken down as spares sources in a process known as Reduce-To-Produce (RTP). For most student pilots, the path to the cockpit of a frontline Typhoon is now achieved without the use of a two-seat version of the fighter.

Meanwhile, under Project Centurion, 67 Tranche 2 and 40 Tranche 3 Typhoons are undergoing the Phase 2 Enhancement (P2E) upgrade that adds MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) and Storm Shadow conventionally armed cruise missile, while the follow-on P3E update added the MBDA Brimstone air-to-ground missile, providing a low-collateral, high-precision strike capability that would otherwise have been lost with the retirement of the Tornado GR4.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

Tempest, Lightning, Typhoon, and Tornado represent RAF combat air, past, present, and future. The Typhoon, second from right, displays the Project Centurion weapons options.

The Typhoon Force units flying from RAF Lossiemouth are responsible for QRA coverage of the northern part of the United Kingdom and also have an increasingly important role providing defensive cover for the RAF’s new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, nine of which are being acquired, and which will eventually operate from the same base. Between them, the Typhoon and Poseidon are expected to provide a defensive shield for the United Kingdom’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent and two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

For QRA work, two Typhoons are held at high readiness around the clock, ready to scramble to meet any unidentified aircraft approaching from the north, over the North Atlantic and the North Sea. Further jets are kept at a lower state of readiness, available to respond to any potential escalation.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth intercept two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and escort them while in the UK area of interest, September 2018.

Although the RAF’s own website declares that No IX (B) Squadron is “at the heart of the UK’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Force, ready to take off within minutes of an alert being triggered,” Air Commodore Mark Chappell, the Typhoon Force commander has confirmed that the unit’s main role will be adversary support. In this way, No IX (B) Squadron might be expected to switch to QRA duties when sister squadrons are deployed overseas, for example on Operation Shader in the Middle East, or contributing to the Baltic Air Policing mission. Tranche 1 jets will likely fly all the adversary work, while the unit’s pilots will strap into fully upgraded Tranche 2/3 jets for QRA duty.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

One of No IX (B) Squadron’s Typhoon FGR4s in the standard color scheme.

Currently, Lossiemouth’s Typhoons and Poseidons have been temporarily relocated, while work continues to resurface the airfield’s runways. The maritime patrollers and Typhoon training have moved to nearby Kinloss Barracks, while the Typhoon QRA facility is at Leuchars, another Scottish air base. Work at Lossiemouth is expected to be completed between November 2020 and spring 2021.

“Customers” for the new RAF Red Air unit are likely to be found chiefly among the growing force of F-35B Lightnings at RAF Marham, Norfolk, and across the rest of the Typhoon Force at Lossiemouth and Coningsby. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk, is likely to make use of the aggressor Typhoons too, perhaps also during multinational exercises, such as the Point Blank series.

CROWN COPYRIGHT

An F-35B Lightning at RAF Waddington. Typhoon aggressors will play an important role in providing high-end air-to-air training for these jets.

The Typhoon’s Red Air role will also extend to support of land and maritime forces training, which will likely make good use of the jet’s Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS). High-end aggressor and readiness training of this kind is in particular demand in the United Kingdom after it shelved its ambitious Air Support to Defence Operational Training (ASDOT) project in early 2019. This was intended to fulfill a whole range of U.K. military training requirements, from air-to-air adversary to airspace battle management and live gunnery. 

Teams led by Babcock Aerospace, Cobham Aviation Services, Leonardo (partnered with Top Aces and Inzpire), and Thales UK were all pitching to provide contractor-owned and operated (COCO) aircraft. In the end, it became impossible to match the roughly £1.5-billion cost with the demands of the 10-year contract, and it was quietly scrapped.

The recent expansion of private firms into the aerial adversary realm has been impressive, especially in the United States. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, hopes of rapidly introducing a high-end contractor-provided Red Air have fallen flat. But with a dedicated Typhoon aggressor unit taking shape, the RAF has a Red Air platform to rival any other in terms of performance and capability. In fact, the Typhoon will probably be the most advanced aggressor anywhere — at least until the F-35 takes on the role.

Contact the author: thomas@the drive.com