July 20, 2011:
Britain is increasing its Tornado fighter force operating over Libya, from 12 to 16. The four additional aircraft will be used mainly for reconnaissance, to keep a better eye on the complex Libyan battlefield. The four new Tornados will be equipped with four of the eight RAPTOR digital photo recon pods the Royal Air Force (RAF) owns. RAPTOR can spot targets at 72 kilometers in daylight and at 36 kilometers at night using infrared sensors. The digital images can be seen by the pilot, and transmitted to other aircraft, ground units or ships, in real time.
The recon Tornados will not just be looking for hostile troops. The rebel forces do not always let NATO know where they are, which leads to friendly fire incidents. But there is also the problem with Libyan government forces adapting to NATO control of the skies. The government troops have come up with ways to remain hidden, or look like rebel forces (taking advantage of NATO eagerness to avoid accidentally hitting rebel fighters by mistake.)
Four more Tornados are not needed for bombing largely because Britain has a small guided missile (Brimstone) that enables fighters to carry a dozen of them, and hit a dozen individual targets with high accuracy. Originally developed as an upgraded version of the American Hellfire, Brimstone ended up as a Hellfire in general shape only. Weighing the same as the Hellfire (48.5 kg/107 pounds), Brimstone was designed to be fired by fighter-bombers, not just (as with Hellfire) from helicopters and UAVs. Aircraft can carry more of these lightweight missiles. These are perfect for small targets, including vehicles, that need to be hit, without causing injuries to nearby civilians or friendly troops.
Three years ago, Britain added a dual-mode (radar and laser) seeker to its Brimstone missiles. Originally, Brimstone was to be just an American Hellfire with a British seeker (a miniature, millimeter wave, radar) and configured to be launched from jets. Brimstone did that, but never got a chance to show how effective it was until Afghanistan and Libya. The performance of Brimstone was particularly impressive, and that got the Americans and French interested in using it as a highly effective anti-vehicle weapon for fast-movers (jet fighter-bombers).
Hellfire was first developed three decades ago as an helicopter launched anti-tank weapon, but has proved to be very useful against enemy infantry hiding out in buildings or caves. Hellfire later proved to be an ideal weapon for use by larger UAVs. The current version has a range of eight kilometers, while Brimstone has a range of 12 kilometers.
The Brimstone radar seeker makes it easier to use the missile in "fire and forget" mode. The laser seeker is more accurate (to within a meter or two of the aim point.) When used on jet fighters, like the Tornado, there is a special launcher that holds three Brimstone missiles (instead of one larger missile). The launcher hangs from one of the Tornado hardpoints. This launcher will also be used on the new Eurofighter. The nine kilogram (20 pound) warhead is sufficient to destroy vehicles, without causing a lot of casualties to nearby civilians. British fighter pilots have become quite good at coming in low and taking out individual vehicles with Brimstone missiles. Carrying a dozen Brimstones, a fighter-bomber can easily use all of them in one sortie, all the while staying out of range of ground fire.