Page last updated at 04:24 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 05:24 UK

The last test for the Typhoon

By Gordon Corera
BBC News security correspondent, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada

The RAF Typhoon takes to the skies

With a deafening roar, a Typhoon powers through the haze on the runway and into the desert sky.

After a long wait, these planes are now ready to form the backbone of the RAF's war-fighting capability for decades to come.

The Typhoon, along with half a dozen others, was cruising over villages populated by Afghans thousands of feet below, watching over a brigade of soldiers from the US Army.

The RAF Typhoons, as well as US fighter jets and layers of other reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, took off in a near constant stream to provide air cover for the troops.

But this is not yet Afghanistan - it's the Nevada desert and an exercise called Green Flag West. The strange sights of the Las Vegas skyline lie in the distance with mock pyramids and Eiffel Towers providing the backdrop for the runway at Nellis Air Force base.

This exercise was the final chance for the Typhoon to go through its paces before it was declared ready for combat.

And the verdict from all quarters - including the US Air Force pilots who flew alongside it - was that the Typhoon was more than ready.

You can turn on a sixpence
Wing Commander Gav Parker

Such is the effort to make the exercise seem realistic that Hollywood set designers have been brought in to make the villages look real from the ground as well as the air and local Afghans living in the US (and sometimes Iraqis depending on the exercise) are asked to live in the mock-up villages for days on end.

Different scenarios are run through, to test both the US Army on the ground as well as the air cover provided by the US Air Force and the RAF.

A key part of the mission is to train both army Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and the pilots they talk to in how to work together successfully.

In a part of the exercise replayed to us, you could hear a FAC hesitantly trying to direct the planes to spot someone moving out of a building.

In a battle-field context, ensuring that the information is accurate is vital in making sure either aerial surveillance capability or the deployment of weapons is employed accurately and does not endanger civilians.

A Typhoon [Pic: Planefocus Ltd]
Pilots have hailed the new Typhoon as a success

"The aim is to train for the current flight," explains Lt Col Ron Hanselman who runs the exercise about 10 times a year for those soon to head off to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The arrival of the Typhoon - or the Eurofighter to give the aircraft its generic name - has not been without controversy.

It was originally conceived in the Cold War designed for aerial combat with Soviet aircraft.

Its delivery has been beset by cost over-runs and delays and questions over how well it could adapt to the new 21st century era of warfare with a priority of supporting troops on the ground rather than engaging in dogfights in the air.

The RAF has driven forward towards developing air-to-ground sensor and weapons capability and getting the Typhoon ready for operations with 1 July 2008 as a deadline.

Seven Typhoons in all were brought over from the UK for the exercise which provided a chance to fly on training ranges far bigger than are available in the UK and also interact with US counter-parts with extensive debriefing after every mission.

There's no doubt about the affection the pilots and engineering support staff have for the Typhoon.

"You can turn on a sixpence," said Wing Commander Gav Parker who is charge of 11 Sqn as he showed me round one of the Typhoons.

'New generation'

The latest technology in the Typhoons means that data can be downloaded from the plane's sensors to a laptop style devices held by those on the ground.

This can help guide a pilot onto a target by allowing them to see exactly what is coming through the Typhoon's sensor pod.

A Typhoon [Pic: Planefocus Ltd]
The Typhoon is a state of the art fighter aircraft

"It's a new generation of aircraft," Group Captain Stuart Atha, in charge of the RAF's Typhoons explained.

"It is fast, it can carry lots of weapons. It has new sensors. It has got data links. It has got radar. So the pilot knows a lot more of what's going on around him."

During their time in the US, the Typhoons managed to fly 99.3% of the sorties that were planned and a total of 67 weapons were dropped onto a range with a 100% falling into the expected area.

The exercise was used to prove that the Typhoon is not just useful for air-to-air combat but has also been successfully adapted for air-to-ground and the modern battlefield.

Until now, the Typhoon's deployments have been limited. Ironically, it has been busiest performing a throw-back to the Cold War by intercepting Russian aircraft heading towards UK airspace.

But with Green Flag now complete and judged a success, the Typhoon has been declared ready for deployable combat operations.

Officials stress that this does not mean that the Typhoon will be rushed into missions over Afghanistan or Iraq immediately - but that day is now closer.

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