Who killed the Cat?
Tim Senior and Gary Parsons say farewell to the 'Big Cat' as the last RAF Jaguars are retired prematurely. Pictures by Gary Parsons unless stated otherwise
The Ministry of Defence's announcement on 25 April 2007 that the retirement date of the RAF’s last squadron of operational Jaguars had been moved forward from October to 30 April had been rumoured for several months. Even so, when the news of the decision to bring the retirement forward was actually released, it was still something of a shock and meant that 6 Squadron would effectively be disbanded, forcing a break in its record of ninety-three years of continuous service. The decision also meant that formal plans to celebrate the aircraft's retirement at the end of October were scrapped, together with what should have been a glorious summer of airshow appearances to allow the public to say goodbye to what has been a versatile, cost-effective and reliable ground-attack aircraft for the last three decades.
At 6 Squadron's disbandment parade on 31 May, the current Officer Commanding, Wing Commander John Sullivan, said "It's with great regret that I have to concede the Jaguar has come to the end of its service life. It's still a very capable platform and has some unique capabilities that are not yet fielded by any other aircraft out there - so it is with frustration the end has come. I'm proud that Jaguar is going out at the pinnacle of its capability and not beyond its time."
Jaguar has contributed less since 2003 - we were due to be involved in
the Second Gulf conflict but Turkey's decision not to get involved removed
our only basing option. Since then we have not contributed directly to
the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan - however, I would point out that
with most of the RAF's offensive assets committed, the Jaguar has taken
up the vast majority of the training of the Forward Air Controllers that
go out to those theatres and for many the only pilots those controllers
will have spoken to will have been Jaguar pilots, so I'm proud to say
that we have made a real and direct contribution to deployments right
up until our last day of service."
Although it has not been deployed operationally for the last few years, the Jaguar was continually upgraded right up until its last year of service, and has capabilities that are missing from the rest of the RAF's front-line offensive aircraft. "We have a number of discrete capabilities, which when brought together provide an enhanced overall capability", continued Wing Commander Sullivan. "For example, we have a helmet-mounted sight (HMS), which instantly enables us to generate co-ordinates for a point of interest on the ground; we don't have to bring the aircraft to bear to generate accurate co-ordinates. These can then be used to bring a laser-guided bomb to the target or to take a recce picture; or indeed to pass to the rest of the formation so that they achieve an attack without that one aircraft having to extent away from the target to position for an attack. We do that quickly through a microburst datalink. We can also receive co-ordinates from a ground-based controller, which contracts the cycle of bringing a pilot to bear onto a target. We can then use the helmet in the reverse sense, not to generate co-ordinates but to follow the steering cues in the HMS to guide the pilot's eyes to the target. Providing he confirms they are talking about the same target from what he sees, he can then be much quicker engaging with the target. One of the Jaguar's strengths is the cannon - unlike the Harrier or Typhoon at the moment, precisely for this air-to-ground support role."
So why, if it is one of the RAF's most cost-effective and capable assets, has it been consigned to the scrapheap with undue haste and lack of fanfare? With the Harrier Force committed to operations in Afghanistan, the deployment of 6 Squadron to that theatre later this year would have given the Harrier squadrons at Cottesmore some much-needed respite and a chance to regroup and recharge the mental batteries. Forward Air Controllers could have enjoyed a different type to train with for a few weeks, and the pilots of 11 Squadron could also have enjoyed some mud-moving experience in the twin-seaters that wouldn't have been required on deployment.
But it appears a sacrificial lamb was required by the MoD, under pressure from a Treasury positioning itself for the departure of one Prime Minister and a new Chancellor of the Exchequer - operational requirements swept aside, the official line is that resources are required for Typhoon, despite the capability gap until it is air-ground combat ready. "Early disbandment means we can posture ourselves to meet the operational task that's before us", said Wing Commander Sullivan, if rather unconvincingly. When pressed further, he admitted "I'm choked up - it's a very emotional day. It's the first time that 6 Squadron has had to surrender its standard and a record of unbroken service - we are the longest continuously serving squadron in the world. I'm disappointed and reluctant to give up that mantle, but the directive was clear to me and as a loyal military man I had to execute my orders." Sullivan's enthusiasm for the Jaguar is well-known, and it was clear to see that he felt it still had more to give, despite being a day beyond its thirty-fourth anniversary of entry into service.
One of a series of successful Anglo-French collaborations to come out of the 1960s, when the British aviation industry was recovering from the effects of wholesale cancellations and consolidation that had affected the industry earlier in the decade, the Jaguar was the first aircraft type in Europe created from collaboration between neighbouring countries. Despite the withdrawal from service in both the countries that developed it (France having retired its last Jaguars in 2004) the type is still in limited production in India and undergoing a mid-life update. Both Ecuador and Oman still fly the type operationally, but the status of the aircraft that Nigeria purchased is unknown - they were retired early in the 1990s, and although there were plans to reactivate them, this has presumably long been abandoned.
During the early 1960s both the French Air Force and RAF were looking for a new trainer to perform several roles - the French were in need of an aircraft that filled a gap between the Fouga Magister and the Mirage III that would enter service in about 1970, while the RAF wanted a high-performance type under Air Staff Target 362 to replace both its Folland Gnats and its Hawker Hunters in the training role later in the mid-1970s. While the possibility of developing the aircraft into a strike aircraft was also looked at, the French project gained the name ECAT (Ecole de Combat d’Appui Tactique). While the Ecole (School) part would subsequently be dropped, the initials from this were eventually integrated into the name of the eventual company that would lead the marketing and manufacture of the type - SEPECAT. The two countries started to look at working together by 1964 and the two still intended to use the type for the roles originally planned, although the French soon changed this into an aircraft to would partner the strategic Mirage IVA force.
There were a number of designs tendered by several French and British companies, however the programme that led to the Jaguar was eventually put in the hands of Breguet, who would lead the French side of the programme, together with the British Aircraft Corporation at Warton, leading the British side. At the same time the engine would also be developed by Rolls-Royce in the UK and Turboméca of France, and the name for the new engine would follow the Rolls-Royce tradition of naming its engines after rivers - sportingly, they chose the name of a French river this time, namely the Adour. As the programme developed the British aviation industry went into meltdown as a result of the project cancellations by the Labour government during the middle part of that decade, the result being due to an emerging gap in frontline combat types the MoD changing its initial planned purchase of 150 Jaguar Bs (Bi-Place) for both the RAF and Royal Navy to a mix of 200 Jaguar S (Strike) and twin-seat Bs. This changed again in 1970 to a total of 165 Jaguar S and just 35 Jaguar Bs. Although both Britain and France both ordered 200 production aircraft, the UK added three additional trainers, which were purchased for test and trials use at a later date. The first prototypes flew in both France and the UK towards the end of the 1960s, and after flight trials had got underway they were followed by the first production RAF Jaguar S, XX108, making its first flight from Warton on 11 October 1972, with the aircraft becoming the GR1 in RAF service. The first production Jaguar B for the RAF was XX136, which flew for the first time at Warton on 22 March 1973, with the aircraft gaining the designation T2.
The first Jaguar to enter RAF service was actually the fourth production airframe, XX111, which arrived at RAF Lossiemouth on 30 May 1973. The second aircraft followed during September in the form of the first T2, XX137, with more following towards the end of the year. The first courses to train aircrew at the Jaguar Conversion Team began at the end of February 1974, when the first units selected to convert to the Jaguar were the Coningsby-based Phantom squadrons comprising 6 and 54 Squadrons in the strike role. The honour of being the first unit to actually commence crew training at Lossiemouth fell to 54 Squadron in March 1974, followed closely by 6 Squadron in October, the two units soon moving to the their new home at Coltishall, a base that would become associated with the type for almost all its service career. 54 Squadron moved down to the Norfolk base in August and 6 followed suit in November, while the JCT gained the number-plate of a former Coltishall based unit, namely 226 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) towards the end of the year.
At this early stage in the aircraft's career it underwent its first change when the single-seat aircraft gained the chisel-nosed Laser Ranger and Marked Target Seeker. The next squadrons to be selected for conversion were the RAF Germany Strike and Reconnaissance units - first to convert was the Bruggen Phantom wing, with 14 Squadron becoming the first in April 1975 followed in quick succession by 17 Squadron in June and 31 Squadron in January of 1976. The next unit to convert was the reconnaissance-dedicated II(AC) Squadron at Laarbruch, while the last units were 20 Squadron, operating Harriers at Wildenrath, which reformed as a Jaguar unit in March 1977 at Bruggen, followed a month later by the final unit, also a reconnaissance unit, this being 41 Squadron based at Coningsby with Phantoms, which joined 6 and 54 at Coltishall upon completion of its training.
Once they settled into their new home, the Coltishall units were assigned to out-of-area operations as part of No 38 Group, supporting offensive operations abroad. Meanwhile, the Bruggen-based units, being at the frontline during the Cold War, were given a tactical nuclear strike and conventional ground attack role. All RAF Jaguar maintenance was initially performed at RAF Leconfield by teams from No 60 Maintenance Unit, moving to RAF Abingdon when Leconfield was transferred to the Army towards the end of 1976. The first major rundown of the Jaguar fleet commenced in 1984/85 when the Bruggen wing converted to the Tornado GR1, although II(AC) Squadron had to wait a little longer until the first batch of Tornado GR1A conversions were ready in December 1988.
A large number of surplus Jaguars were initially flown into storage at RAF Shawbury before being transferred to maintenance training at No 1 School of Technical Training (SoTT) at RAF Halton and eventually to No 2 SoTT at RAF Cosford, while a small number went to RAF Cranwell. A rolling modification programme saw the fleet undergo a modest cockpit systems upgrade in 1989, the aircraft becoming the GR1A and T2A in the process. Other units that have used Jaguars include the Boscombe Down-based Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment, and its many subsequent successors; the Defence Research Agency, and now QinetiQ. The Empire Test Pilots School had three Jaguar T2s built for it, and for a while the RAF also operated a Jaguar from Boscombe Down with the Strike Attack Operational Evaluation Unit.
With the end of the Cold War the aircraft proved that it was still a capable aircraft when it was the first British strike aircraft deployed to Oman for Operation Granby, before moving up to the old RAF base at Muharraq on the Island of Bahrain. The Jaguars then became part of a coalition of countries that eventually took part in Operation 'Desert Storm', succeeding in removing invading Iraqi forces from Kuwaiti territory. Shortly after the end of operations in Kuwait, No 226 OCU was given the reserve number-plate from one of the recently disbanded RAF Germany Tornado units and became 16 (Reserve) Squadron in the process. Jaguar Maintenance was also affected about this time due to the closure of RAF Abingdon, which was transferred to the Army; the last airfield to be responsible for maintenance was RAF St Athan.
Having found itself a useful asset for out-of area deployments the aircraft was soon back in action in the skies over Iraq during Operation 'Northern Watch', and later to Italy for operations over the former Yugoslavia. A successive number of upgrades to the airframe included new reconnaissance pods, but more importantly the ability to self-designate with the TIALD targeting pod. Other changes saw 16(R) Squadron move to Coltishall in July 2000, together with other upgrades to the fleet including an uprated version of the Adour engine, together with the HMS. Sadly the ever-decreasing funding for the Armed Forces in the United Kingdom began to bite and in July 2004 it was announced that the retirement of the remaining fleet was being brought forward two years from 2009 to 2007. The first victims of this were 16(R) and 54 Squadrons, disbanding in March 2005, followed by the retirement of the SAOEU's last example. The disbandment of 41 Squadron as a Jaguar unit, and the relocation of the last unit, 6 Squadron, to Coningsby followed during April 2006. Large numbers of Jaguars were flown to St Athan for spares reclamation and a quick disposal, while a few were flown to storage at RAF Shawbury. 6 Squadron was to perform a transition role to Typhoon at Coningsby, planned for October 2007 - however, as has already been said, this was overturned by the announcement on 25 April.
One must question the decision to relocate to Coningsby - the disruption to service families and personnel cannot be understated, and the early retirement has meant that many are now being posted elsewhere as Typhoon's entry into service has not been accelerated. "My personnel have all secured good postings at short notice, which was a real challenge", said Wing Commander Sullivan. "Typically most will have been posted to Cottesmore, Marham, Waddington and, of course, to Typhoon here at Coningsby." How much more sensible it would have been to draw down the fleet at Coltishall, itself hastily disposed of in an effort to save a few bob on the Defence budget. "My first day in charge of 6 Squadron was to lead the diamond-nine formation over Coltishall for the disbandment parade of 41 Squadron", said Sullivan; "I don't know of any pilot or engineer that didn't enjoy Coltishall - as you walked through the main gate you had a sense of belonging. Perhaps it was because it was an isolated unit and everyone knew their purpose - there was a tremendous sense of identity that enthused everyone and it oozed out of the fabric of the base."
While a pair of airframes may be kept airworthy for a short period with QinetiQ at Boscombe Down for a little while longer, the last sixteen airframes are due to join others at the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering at RAF Cosford. Some airframes have already entered museums - these include the British Aerospace and BAE systems test example XX108 now at Duxford, while the Active Control Technology airframe XX765 is safely installed at the RAF Museum Cosford. The former Weapons Load Trainer at Coltishall is now safely installed at the City of Norwich Aviation Museum at Norwich Airport, after being purchased by tender from the MoD, and the hybrid gate guardian from Coltishall (and Bruggen before that) is now installed outside the Norfolk County Council offices in Norwich as a memorial to both Coltishall and the Jaguar. That just leaves the RAF Museum at Hendon, which should hopefully be allocated an airframe for display at some point.
Several other airframes have been saved - Everett Aero has a large number available for purchase at the former airfield at Bentwaters, so like the Buccaneer, Canberra, Lightning, Phantom and other types to name but a few before it that have now long since been retired, the Jaguar may have gone but it will not be forgotten. But quite why it wasn't allowed to have been celebrated as the success it was is quite a mystery - it may have been a relic of the Cold War, but so is Typhoon. It seems to have had its own Cold War in the corridors of Whitehall recently - perhaps it was its usefulness, embarrassing current RAF policy of concentrating offensive support on Harrier and Typhoon, that was its undoing. Someone, somewhere, knows who killed the Cat.