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I took the Typhoon to war: Interview with RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton


i took the typhoon to war interview with raf wing commander mike sutton Airplane GEEK I took the Typhoon to war: Interview with RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton
Fourship ingress to attack an IED factory

The Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 is the workhorse of the Royal Air Force’s air combat fleet, excelling in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Starting life in 2003 as a dedicated interceptor, the fighter has matured into a well-equipped multi-role combat aircraft. We spoke to Wing Commander Mike Sutton about the Typhoon and his experiences of taking the aircraft to war.

What is the best and the worst thing about the Typhoon? 

The Typhoon has very few vices. I was a tactics instructor on the Jaguar previously, and even though everyone loved flying it, if you weren’t careful it had a very nasty bite. Of the two hundred Jags the RAF procured, sixty-nine were lost in accidents. The Typhoon is a generational leap. The thrust alone is insane. At 500 knots at low level it will accelerate while sustaining 9g. It’s a genuine multi-role platform. I’ve done the most challenging air-to-air sorties during RED FLAG, operational close air support, live quick reaction alert scrambles and air combat against modern fighters. It excels across the board. The four-nation programme is a blessing and a curse. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the jet is the time it takes to get agreement from all the nations for development. But when everyone is on the same page, the combined expertise, industrial resource and multi-nation investment make it a powerful combination.

What was your role in developing new tactics and operating procedures for multi-role aircraft? What have you learnt about this? 

I was lucky enough to be a weapons instructor on the first multi-role Typhoon Squadron as it formed. It was a hugely exciting time. There were experienced pilots from the Tornado F3, GR4, Harrier, Jags, Mirage 2000, F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 on the brand-new Force who all had extensive tactical experience. I needed an open mind as much as diplomacy and a thick skin, as a small team of us took the best ideas from everyone around and tried to forge a new way of operating. Out with the old and in with the new. Starting afresh also enabled us to throw away outdated ways of working and attitudes that had become entrenched over the years. We looked at it holistically – from how to brief and debrief, use of the simulators, best ways to teach and record tactical lessons, as well as how to fight the aircraft. It was an evolving process and as the months and years progressed we refined the tactics. New pilots had fresh ideas. You never stand still on a fighter squadron. As soon as you stop progressing, and you get complacent, you are in for a shock.

Royal Air Force Typhoon

Is Typhoon’s mechanically scanning radar an issue when compared with more modern radars? 

The CAPTOR has done a decent job, but the new AESA <due in service in the mid-20s> will be far better. Taking Beyond Visual Range missile shots is about far more than being able to see targets at long range on the radar. It’s about combat identification using all of the aircraft sensors – and fusing that data – as well as electronic warfare, datalinks, integration with other fighters, jamming, secure radios and missile performance. So it’s a system where all the components need to be operating seamlessly. The AESA will also bring enhanced capabilities with electronic attack and SAR, coordinate generation and surface target combat ID.

Is the voice control still used – and if so – is it useful? 

I didn’t use the pilot voice control that much. I can generally only do one thing at a time and found it easier to just use the HOTAS. But other pilots used it quite a lot for controlling the radar modes, and like everything on the Typhoon the integration improves with software upgrades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used extensively in the years ahead.

Is a non-stealthy aircraft still survivable in your opinion?

A country can’t just build a modern fighter and then relax for thirty years under the umbrella of its protection. It’s a constant process of threat evolution, countermeasure development, and counter-counter measure. The very idea of stealth itself is probably a misnomer too. Low observable jets are undoubtedly harder to target, but still vulnerable to passive detection, low-band radars and heat-seeking sensors. They are also much more costly to build and maintain, and often may make design compromises as they are honed for a particular role, and are limited to internal stores when exploiting their stealth. To use a car analogy, low observable is a little like a Formula One car. Very fast around a racetrack, but a rally car is better off-road. 

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If you look at the USAF, USN carriers, Israeli and Australian Air Forces and the RAF, they all have a blend of low-observable and conventional platforms. The USAF is about to procure the F15EX. With a mix of conventional and low-observable you can generate mass and saturation, to enhance the low-observable platforms ability to get through to their targets. 

How does the Typhoon perform in BFM/DACT exercises against the F-22? Is one superior in WVR combat in your opinion – and why?

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The F-22 is the best air dominance fighter in the world (but it doesn’t have much of a strike capability). At slow speed in a turning fight, its thrust vectoring provides exceptional manoeuvrability, which means it can outperform any other fighter on the planet, including the Typhoon. During the initial merge, if both aircraft were fast, then they would turn fairly equally. If the fight was fleeting, the Typhoon would benefit from the Helmet Mounted Sight, which surprisingly the F-22 does not have in its inventory. But perhaps the key point here is that the RAF will never have to fight in anger against a USAF F-22. Their time together is much better spent integrating and developing joint tactics where you learn to exploit the combined firepower of both platforms to lethal effect. We practised this routinely during exercises. 

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Combat pilots are far more interested in the capabilities of potential adversaries, so the real question is how does Typhoon perform against modern fighter threats? It is too early to make a judgement about the Su-57 as it is barely out of development. Regarding Flanker, that is precisely what the new AESA, the existing Defensive Aids System and PIRATE IR sensor are for. International training exercises against Indian or Malaysian Flankers were extremely useful, and fully tested the skills of the pilots using the helmet-mounted sight and ASRAAM heat-seeking missile.

Flanker versus Typhoon?

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(MoD crown image)

The jets are both very capable. I would say that, flown well, the Typhoon has an edge, but when you have two fighters that are similar in capability the outcome of air combat is more nuanced. 

In reality, a simple top-trumps answer doesn’t cut it. It depends on so many different factors, such as radar tenacity, performance of the jet at different speeds (E-M diagrams), sensor integration with the helmet, the sensitivity of the missile seekers, the IR background, pilot training and currency, aircraft fit, environmentals, merge altitude, radar clutter, aircraft jammers, IR countermeasures, disposition pre-merge. There are probably more! That’s why the role of the Qualified Weapons Instructors is so crucial in shaping the tactical advice to their Squadrons, and it’s so important that pilots get to practise their core skills with live flying. 

A Rafale pilot I interviewed said ‘Typhoon was a joke’ – what is your response to his view? 

Typhoon versus Rafale: The final word | Hush-Kit

There’s nothing like the confidence of a French fighter pilot! The Rafale and Typhoon are from a similar era, but backed by four nations and with five export customers the Typhoon has better growth potential. As the Boss of 1 Squadron we always had a French Rafale pilot on exchange, so I had a real insight into both platforms. For the air-to-air missions, an AESA equipped Typhoon with METEOR, AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM packs a powerful punch with the Helmet Mounted Sight and IRST (called PIRATE).

The Typhoon Force has also received upgraded Paveway 4 (penetrating warhead and moving target capability), which is a great weapon for Close Air Support in combination with Brimstone, which can also be used against fast inshore attack craft. For longer-range strikes, Storm Shadow and SPEAR 3 (the small, long-range, cruise missile) offer significant stand-off, precision, low collateral damage and electronic warfare capabilities. The Litening 5 targeting pods will offer high-definition imagery and a reconnaissance capability. And of course, there is the 27-mm cannon that I have fired in anger. With that weapon load-out you can take on any mission set. So my response to the French pilot, is that given the choice I would take the Typhoon every time.

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SPEAR 3 is due to become operational in 2025.

Would you rather have ASRAAM, IRIS-T or AIM-9X under your wing – and why? 

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The ASRAAM heatseeking missile. IMAGE: MBDA

The ASRAAM is a far more capable missile. It is extremely fast off the rail and has a much longer range. It also has a huge off-boresight capability and can lock-on after launch, as well as having advanced counter-counter measures. When paired with the helmet mounted sight in a close fight it is very effective, and at longer range it offers a great crossover with AMRAAM. You can get an ASRAAM to its target before the other aircraft can even launch their IR missile back at you.

An RAF Typhoon recently had its first a2a ‘kill’ – what are your thoughts on this?  (I understand RSAF Typhoons have been doing this for a while)

Finding a small drone in a fighter and shooting it down using a heat-seeking missile is pretty impressive. It shows how the jet can roll quickly from supporting the troops one minute to engaging a tricky air-to-air target moments later. More broadly, the use of explosive drones is becoming more prevalent so from a control of the air point of view,  I think more thought needs to go into countering these en-masse from western air forces.

How good is Meteor, and why? 

I’ve personally never flown with Meteor, but talking to colleagues on the frontline they are very impressed. The layered capability with AMRAAM-D and ASRAAM offer lots of very robust all-weather targeting options and it is a great mixed load to carry. 

Tell me something I don’t know about Typhoon

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When you are landing the aircraft without engineering support there are often no staging or steps available to climb out of the cockpit. There is a puny little ladder that you can deploy which pops out from under the cockpit. So you can climb down. But there is no retract function, which is a pain in the ass when you want to get back in and take off again.

Operations 

What was the hardest aspect psychologically? 

Keeping a clear head when dealing with constant, changing pressures. In the book I’ve placed the reader in the cockpit so they are immersed in the action and experience the adrenalin. At one point was I was locked-up by a Russian SAM. A couple of weeks later in the dead of night, I almost had a mid-air collision over a city held by enemy troops. There was also the constant threat of hand-held surface to air missiles. I felt the most pressure when friendly troops called in urgent support from fast jets because their lives were in danger. We needed to act swiftly and accurately, and avoid any risk to civilians. Sometimes we would roll from one task to the next, heading to the air-to-air refuelling tanker, and striking targets until we had dropped all eight weapons. On one occasion during a particularly vicious firefight I had to conduct a strafe attack too.

i took the typhoon to war interview with raf wing commander mike sutton Airplane GEEK I took the Typhoon to war: Interview with RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton
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How well suited is Typhoon to taskings in the Middle East? What improvements would you like to see? 

Within forty-eight hours of leaving our base in the UK we were conducting around-the-clock close air support missions. The jets held up superbly, and over the five months we conducted well over three hundred strikes. All were direct hits and there were no civilian casualties. I was immensely proud of the team performance. We focus a lot on the aircraft, but it is the people on the Squadron that make it happen. Everyone has a key role to play. Often the most junior, newest members of the squadron have the best ideas. Creating an environment where the engineers, pilots, intelligence, operations and support staff could all communicate effectively and work in harmony was extremely important. At the time we had the Litening 3 targeting pod, which was good, but there were other systems available that could provide clearer imagery. The Force is about to get the Litening 5 pod, which will be a fantastic upgrade and provide much better optics.

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Typhoon and Litening, very very frightening.

What advice would you give to pilots coming to the Close Air Support mission? 

One of the most challenging aspects was not knowing what the mission would involve until you were immersed in it. Often I would sit at the end of the runway on a moonless night, with the jet being rocked from side to side by the gusty wind from nearby thunderstorms and the red strobe light flashing against the glistening runway, pondering what the night ahead had in store. Reconnaissance in Syria? Rushing to a troops-in-contact near Mosul? Looking for snipers in Ramadi? Could I remember the Escape & Evasion plan? Would the tanker be in the right place? What if I was low on fuel and the refuelling probe failed? For all fast jet operations, much like sport, the foundations for success lay in the preparations. Striving for tactical excellence and holding yourselves to account during training. Communicating as a team and encouraging a culture of ruthless self-awareness. Always looking for the marginal gains. And creating a bond and strength as a unit so you can carry yourselves through the tough situations.

How do you feel about the current state of the nations you have been to war in? 

Afghanistan is a very difficult situation, and my thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones or seen family members suffer life-changing physical or psychological injuries. In Iraq, my thoughts are a little more positive. Towards the end of the operation, after months of fighting, I saw families return to their homes. Houses that had been abandoned breathed a new life, and this was incredibly heart-warming. It’s important to remember that we live in a liberal democracy, and it’s the politicians, not the pilots, that make the decisions about when to deploy and withdraw from conflicts. In the book I’ve explained what it is like to enact those decisions. To prepare to a level of high readiness, and then to receive the call to respond during a global crisis. 

Human aspect 

Something I found very interesting in your book was the reference to pilots liking certainty: care to expand on that? 

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Unpredictability as a pilot is not a great characteristic. A bold, flamboyant approach to flying is not encouraged as it is such a demanding and dangerous occupation. Much like brain surgery I suppose, you need dedication and discipline to learn the procedures. There is room for innovation and novelty – in fact it is essential to developing tactics – but in a controlled way. Finding the balance between the two mindsets isn’t always easy. Defining the best qualities for a fighter pilot is tricky. You need an almost obsessive drive and determination in the first place, the ability to learn fast, have good situational awareness, and to remain calm in the most dynamic situations where your life could be literally on the line. But there is an almost indefinable quality in the best pilots too. A quiet confidence, that learns from criticism and doesn’t take things personally, but strives to be the best; for yourself and your fellow pilots.

How well-supported are RAF veterans dealing with mental health issues in your opinion? 

This is a question for Defence, not just the RAF. Things have improved since Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, where the support was initially woeful. Charities like Help for Heroes and Combat Stress filled a void. Prince Harry once said leaving the military is like being on a bus with all of your mates, which pulls up at a deserted stop. You step off, the doors close and it drives away. You’re on your own. It’s a neat analogy. When you leave the military, you are thrown into the NHS system with support from your GP, who may know very little about operational stress. Particularly for veterans with limited social support and structures, I think significantly more could be done to support those suffering mental health challenges.

You had some very interesting points on the emotional impact of warfare on remote operators of unmanned aircraft, care to share your thoughts on this with our readers? 

UAV pilots don’t live in conflict zones and the acute pressures of their work can therefore be overlooked. They could be conducting strikes for months or years on end, with the effect of their actions being played out on high-definition screens right before their eyes. The physical risk is much diminished, but perhaps less so the psychological impact. As the nature and methods of conducting warfare continue to evolve, we need fresh approaches to understanding where the mental pressure points may emerge.

What personality types struggle the most in war in your opinion? 

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I’m not a psychologist so will probably answer this imperfectly! I found that the trivia of military life was most irritating when it clashed with the pressures of high tempo operations. After landing from an eight-hour flight I often had to face what I considered to be fairly unimportant paperwork, such as overly complicated documents for squadron hire cars, or an overflowing inbox full of banal tasks that were fairly inconsequential yet demanded immediate attention. If the RAF could better prioritise the important from the irrelevant during operations that would be very welcome.

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What should I have asked you – and what do you get asked the most? 

When you come back from an operation people often ask ‘what was it like?’ My book is an insight into that hidden world. Not just what happened, but what goes through your mind before a strike and just after. A pilot’s concerns, fears and priorities. The conversations that happened on the ground as we were preparing to walk to an aircraft. The complexity of developing tactics and briefing hugely demanding sorties. The struggles to relate easily to domestic life at home with families and friends. And hopefully some analysis along the way!

– Mike Sutton is the author of Typhoon

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