Germany’s Tornado jets could be categorized as relics of a bygone era. In the early 1970s, a multinational consortium made up of British, West German, and Italian firms worked together to design and build a twin-engine aircraft with variable sweep wings that would be able to penetrate enemy air defenses and deliver conventional and nuclear payload.
The tri-national consortium envisioned this aircraft, the Tornado, as a strike aircraft, capable of flying low and fast underneath enemy radar, but also one that could also carry out other missions like high-speed interception. A number of Tornado variants were manufactured, specialized for various roles, including anti-shipping, reconnaissance, electronic combat, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
And though the Tornado was indeed an advanced design when it entered service with the German Luftwaffe in 1981, it has grown long in the tooth during the forty years that have since elapsed. But, despite the Tornado’s old age, they’ll be in service with Germany for nearly a decade longer.
Keep On Keeping On
The German Ministry of Defense (Ministerium der Verteidigung) has decided to go forward with a Tornado life-extension program that would see their current service life increased to 8,000 flight hours, up from the platform’s original 6,000, according to a recent Luftwaffe announcement. All eighty-five of the Luftwaffe’s Tornados will undergo the life extension refit, a process that would see each and every airframe almost completely dismantled.
Virtually all of each Tornado’s parts would be examined for wear and tear or damage, even parts that were never meant to be replaced, but to serve for the entire life of the airframe. “The replacement of important structural parts, such as the ring pant, was a first,” the Luftwaffe explained.
“Originally, it was never planned that this connecting element between the front and middle sections of the fuselage would ever need to be replaced. That’s why the civil-military team couldn’t simply order replacement parts,” the Luftwaffe release stated. “Each of the 400 or so structural parts needed was re-manufactured and re-fitted for the first time,” a Luftwaffe Combat Aircraft Maintenance member elaborated. “You can’t get something like this off the shelf.”
A German Tornado mechanic acknowledged the Tornado’s age, but defended the platform, stating that “of course, these aircraft were built about 40 years ago, but they are not old machines,” and insisted that all the aircraft’s systems including radar, communications, and weapons are not outdated. “A crew from 1982, for example, could still fly the aircraft but no longer operate any of the systems.”
So despite German Tornado’s nearly half-century of service, they will continue to fly on. Will they be combat-effective however? That remains to be seen.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.