BONN — The German Air Force is pushing ahead with an upgrade of its Panavia Tornadoes even though a plan to nearly halve the fleet is being significantly speeded up.
The company leading the upgrade effort, EADS’s defense and security subsidiary, Cassidian, said its first production aircraft with the new capability standard ASSTA 3.0 (Avionics System Software Tornado Ada) performed its maiden flight from its Manching site last month.
If the testing runs as scheduled, delivery of the first upgraded Tornado to the German Air Force is planned for mid-2012, said Germany’s biggest defense contractor. The Air Force expects the outfitting of all planes to be finished by mid-2015.
The testing milestone comes in the wake of the country’s military restructuring effort, which includes a cut in the number of Tornado fighter jets from 185 to 85 planes. That process has been sped up and is supposed to be finished by the end of this year.
The remaining aircraft get the technical upgrade, which could keep them multirole combat-ready beyond 2025.
ASSTA 3.0 includes the integration of NATO’s Multifunctional Information Distribution System, (MIDS) Link 16 communication standard, as well as outfitting them with a new radio and a digital video and data recorder.
Besides their improved communication with NATO installations and aircraft, the upgraded Tornadoes will also be able to deliver Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions (LJDAM), which can be guided to its target by satellite navigation or laser designator. Currently, German Tornadoes are only able to deliver the laser-guided GBU-24 Paveway II, and in the future the laser- or GPS-guided GBU-54 LJDAM.
According to the German Air Force, the development and procurement of the ASSTA 3.0 upgrade will cost about 760 million euros ($997 million).
The two sides have already signed a development contract for a possible ASSTA 3.1 follow-up upgrade. It includes replacing the Tornado’s monochrome displays with color ones.
Also, a MIDS Basic Package with full mission control/situation display and the video images from the laser designator pod and the RecceLite pod will be integrated.
According to the German Air Force, there are 339 million euros included in the budget for this measure, and the remaining 85 jets could be upgraded to the ASSTA 3.1 standard by 2018.
Besides this digitally aided close-air support capability, the German Air Force reckons the upgrade will provide greater flexibility for its shrinking Tornado fleet.
Since its introduction in 1980, the country has operated two versions of the jet: the fighter bomber IDS (Interdiction Strike), which is also used for reconnaissance missions, and the electronic warfare ECR (Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance).
According to the Air Force, the upgrade will allow either version to fulfill any mission.
However, some basic components, which were not needed in specific versions in the past, such as the onboard cannon in the Tornado ECR, won’t be part of this modernization process.
“Overall, the whole Tornado fleet will become significantly more flexible for possible mission needs,” the German Air Force stated on its website.
“With ASSTA 3, Cassidian makes an important contribution to the capability extension of the German Tornado fleet,” said Erik Jensen, head of Cassidian’s business line Air Services. “With it, the Air Force is able to operate the warplane beyond the year 2025.”
According to Cassidian, it has also used lessons from the development of the newer Eurofighter Typhoon to help develop the Tornado upgrade.