For many years the RAF operated a number of Tornado GR1A aircraft equipped with the internally mounted TIRRS (Tornado Infra-Red Reconnaissance System) replacing the 27 mm cannon. The reconnaissance system comprised three main components, the sensor package, the recorders and the additional controls added to the cockpit. The sensor package was built around a Vinten 4000 Infra red line scanner. This was mounted beneath the cockpit floor within a small fairing. The scanner had a viewable arc of about 180o thus enabling it see 'horizon to horizon'. Two further scanners completed the system and these were located on either side of the forward fuselage. These two side looking Infra red scanners were used to enhance the detail recorded by the main scanner and they only operated within a small number of degrees of the horizon. The sensors were stabilised to take into account any movement of the aircraft. The images received by the Infra red scanners were processed and recorded onto a VHS sized cassette with other modifications to the package to ensure a high fidelity image. A major advantage of this system was that it did not use traditional wet film technology thereby reducing the amount of time it took to get at the data. The system also allowed some editing to take place within the cockpit during the return mission leg.
The GR.1/4A was optimised to operate at low level, therefore a requirement also existed for the ability to collect photographic data from medium to high level. To achieve this a podded Vinten produced camera system system was also available using traditional wet film and comprised of two cameras, one with a 450mm lens and a panoramic camera with a 76mm lens. However, by the mid 1990’s the TIRRS was becoming increasingly expensive to operate and the wet film Vinten pod needed replacing with a modern digital system. After reviewing a number of off-the-shelf recce pods, the MOD decided to have a pod purpose built for the Tornado by the BF Goodrich Corporation in the USA.
When it was introduced into RAF service in 2002, the DB-110 RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod TORnado) was the world’s first tactical day and night reconnaissance system. Similar in size to the Torndao’s underwing fuel tank, the RAPTOR is an Electro-Optical and Infra-Red system with the ability to display images in the cockpit and transmit these images via a Data-Link to a ground station, as well as recording them in the aircraft for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system is capable of imaging pre-planned targets, or ‘targets of opportunity’, and can image over 200 separate points in one sortie. In the past many reconnaissance pods have been designed to operate with the aircraft either overflying or passing very close to the target. However, like most modern recce pods, RAPTOR was designed from the outset to be used from a stand-off range from the target. This then allows the sensor to image the points of interest whilst the aircraft remains outside the area of highest threat.
A total of 8 RAPTOR pods have been purchased by the RAF and although the pod can actually be carried by any of the updated Tornado GR4 aircraft, they will generally be operated in the strategic reconnaissance role by 2 (AC) Sqn at RAF Marham, who are also the lead squadron for RAPTOR. RAF Tornado’s will also use the digital Joint Reconnaissance Pod (JRP) for tactical reconnaissance sorties. The system actually made its operational debut (despite not being fully cleared for service) during Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003 where it performed extremely well. The introduction into service of RAPTOR allowed the RAF to withdraw the TIRRS from the Tornado and consolidate it’s reconnaissance exploitation assets into a single Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW) based at RAF Marham. The increasing importance of reconnaissance, as opposed to offensive operations, has long been recognised by the RAF and this new state-of-the-art reconnaissance pod has finally given the RAF Tornado fleet the reconnaissance capability it should have had many years ago.