RAF Tornados firing 900K Euro missiles in 8-hour round-trip mission from the UK: is the war in Libya a marketing campaign?

Looks like the UK’s Royal Air Force is particularly proud of announcing a Long-Range Libya mission involving six Tornados carrying state-of-the-art (and costly) Storm Shadow missiles.

According to the article published today on the Service’s website, on Aug. 10 night, six GR4s armed with stand-off missiles, conducted a round-trip mission over Libya “to target elements of Colonel Qadhafi’s military command and control facilities and air defence infrastructure.” This means that the aircraft flew long range sorties from RAF Marham and RAF Lossiemouth carrying 2 Storm Shadows each, for a total of 12 missiles.

There are many things that seem a bit weird.

First of all, that this kind of weapon is still needed in Libya after more than 100 days of air campaign, after the enemy’s air defenses both manned and unmanned (missiles) have been completely wiped out (or are unable to pose a threat to the allied planes).  The Storm Shadow provide the unique capability for precision strike against high value hardened targets without exposing aircraft and crews to high threat levels. Since each missile has a unit price of about 900.000 Euro (£790,000 = 1.3 Milion USD), I wonder if it the residual risk was worth the expense of 1 or more stand-off missiles.

Second, with 4 more Tornado GR4s deployed to Gioia del Colle, bringing the total to 16 was there the need to conduct a long range mission from the UK? Perhaps the RAF contingent in Italy was not supplied with the Storm Shadow, stored in the UK, but the cost of performing such long range missions (considered the hourly cost of a RAF Tonka: 38K Euro = 33K GBP = 54K USD) could be partly abated deploying some of them in southeastern Italy.

Now the question is: what did the RAF need to strike with such an expensive weapon?

And also: how many Storm Shadows did the RAF Tonkas fire?

NATO’s Aug. 10 Operational Media Update on Operation Unified Protector doesn’t list so many High Value targets worth some Storm Shadows. Most probably, the Tornados conduced air strikes in the Sebha area, where “1 Militairy Facility, 1 Bunker, 1 Command and Control Node, 1 Radar Site” were hit.

The Military facility could be the local airbase that was hit also in the past (raising another question: why is there still something to be hit over there?), and the bunker, that could be a target of a stand-off missile.

We don’t know how many aircraft were actually involved in the strike, since two were probably used as spares, and how many fired their missiles, but, with details disclosed so far, the entire operation resembles a sort of live exercise aimed to advertise the RAF’s adaptability and capability to strike at long range. An expensive marketing operation spurred by the desire of visibility rather than a war mission needed to achieve a military objective, like many others we have witnessed in Libya so far.

Photo credit: RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2011
PS: for some reason, Italian newspapers have given different Storm Shadow’s unit price in the last weeks: 300K Euro.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. I stumble on your article only today… But I was wondering the same thing today on ACIG’s forum after I read mention of the Syrte raid last night : what justifies using such expensive ordnance in nearly uncontested airspace ? Is there a problem with using twenty times cheaper JDAM ? Sure, the Storm Shadow has the fancy BROACH warhead, but it is only 450 kg and for the 1.2 tons of a Storm Shadow you can have a Mk84 or a BLU-109 instead – they are even lighter and respectively with much more explosives or much harder casing. And then there are the fuel costs of a long distance raid – and the tanker support, though it is pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of the ordnance. Anyway, why expend a cruise missile when you are not on a penetration mission ? I don’t understand.

    • That’s the reason why I wrote the article: hard to understand. The only reason is that you need to show you have a global reach, your costly weapons can be useful even in CSO scenarios and you don’t need aircraft carriers…..

  2. Dave, thanks for the article. I have similar concerns asking why there are so many untouched military targets. Recent satellite images obtained from Digital Globe show that the huge 30 sq km military storage facility NE of Waddan has only had a fraction of the bunkers hit. This is a scene that is repeated at Al Jufra AFB, Sirte AFB, and other sites that I’ve investigated. Why weren’t these stores hit? I expected with all the cruise missiles fired, like the 100+ Tomahawks at the beginning of the Operation, that bunkers like these would be on the list of targets.

    • Hi Ben,
      I think that the reason for so many untouched military targets it’s in their amount: I mean, there are some 4.000 ammo depot around Libya. To hit them all NATO and partners would expend too many costly PGMs. Hence, I think they went after the most important and dangerous one based on Intel news.

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