The NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency (NETMA) announced this week that it has awarded a contract to the trinational Panavia consortium to further upgrade the Tornado for the Italian air force. The latest in a series of upgrades will allow Italian Tornados to carry the small-diameter bomb (SDB) and the advanced anti-radiation guided missile (AARGM).
Known as MET Contract Annex 27, the new contract will run for 36 months and will cover integration of the weapons into a common software load and flight test. Industrial activity has already begun; the team hopes to have both weapons in service by December 2015. As well as Panavia’s Alenia Aermacchi (Italy) and Cassidian (Germany) partners, the work will also involve Boeing for the SDB and ATK for the AARGM.
The SDB will allow the Tornado to carry larger numbers of smaller precision-guided weapons. The AARGM is a new-generation anti-radiation missile that has been developed with joint funding from the U.S. Navy and Italy. Designated AGM-88E, it will replace the current AGM-88 Harm. Italy is expected to acquire 250 missiles for use with its Tornado ECR aircraft, and Germany is likely to follow suit.
Currently, the majority of the Italian fleet is going through a mid-life upgrade program, in three standards. An initial 18 aircraft were raised to a RET 6 standard and redelivered between 2004 and mid-2006. This provided an enhanced main computer and ASSTA 2 software. In December 2010 Alenia redelivered the first of a 15-aircraft batch known as RET 7. This standard introduced full night-vision-goggle-compatibility, MIDS datalink and the ability to use the Rafael RecceLite reconnaissance pod in some modes.
Now the Alenia facility in Turin is modifying 25 RET 8 aircraft, comprising 15 ECR electronic combat versions and 10 IDS strike/attack platforms. These have full integration of the RecceLite pod in addition to other improvements, such as new cockpit displays. The MET Contract Annex 27 SDB/AARGM modification will be applied only to the aircraft in RET 7 and RET 8 standards.
After RET 8 is complete the Italian air force will operate 58 updated Tornados, which it anticipates flying until at least 2025. The service originally acquired 99 aircraft and currently operates 62 IDS machines and 16 ECRs.