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903 Expeditionary Air Wing – Operational Excellence By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

In this first of what will probably be three individual commentary pieces planned over the next three months and that follow up on a recent visit I made to the UK Sovereign Base in Cyprus that includes RAF Akrotiri, I start with the ‘operational excellence’ that perfectly well describes my view of what 903 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) of the Royal Air Force achieves.

903 EAW is the highly specialist wing of the Royal Air Force based at RAF Akrotiri and that is responsible for providing UK kinetic and other operational support to the Global Coalition mission tasked with conducting operations against Daesh/ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

One of four specialist Royal Air Force Expeditionary Air Wings (EAW’s), 903 EAW comes under the responsibility of 83 Expeditionary Air Group (EAG) and which in turn comes under the responsibility of the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) and which has responsibility for control and direction of all Royal Air Force assets in the Joint Operating Area (JOA).

83 EAG has under its command a diverse and powerful range of capabilities covering the whole spectrum of air power related roles, Attack, Air Mobility, Control of the Air and Intelligence.

Based at the Royal Air Force operational headquarters in the Middle East, 83 EAG is directly responsible for UK air operations for Op. KIPION and Op. SHADER Joint Operating Areas (JOAs) covering an area of some eight million square miles. The mission statement “to support operations in the Joint Operating Area in order to contribute to the achievement of the stated ISAF Coalition operational end states and UK strategic objectives”.

903 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) comprises seven individual Force Elements. Over the past three years 903 EAW has achieved a quite remarkable level of success from what is in reality a very small force. It is based at RAF Akrotiri, a large base located within the Western Sovereign Base area on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

I will provide separate commentary in respect of the RAF Akrotiri base detail early next year but suffice to say here that having been operational for the past sixty years this strategically important Royal Air Force base remains as busy and vibrant as ever.

Along with other base requirements, RAF Akrotiri continues to be home to a vast range of operational diversity and military air assets that are involved in Op. SHADER. I would describe the base as being a very perfect working demonstration of all that makes what the Royal Air Force does on a day to day basis nationally and internationally the potent force that it is. The RAF Akrotiri Station Commander is Group Captain Michael Blackburn and he in turn reports to the Commander British Forces Cyprus, Major General James Illingworth who is also Administrator of the Sovereign base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

The smooth operation of RAF Akrotiri comes despite the need to operate with minimal numbers of deployed personnel whilst at the same time accommodating the 903 EAW deployment for Op. SHADER. The successful operation of this diverse and very interesting base is a credit to the excellence of the current Station Commander and of Officer Commanding British Forces Cyprus together with their respective teams.

Operating a large number of air power capability that includes Tornado GR4, Typhoon FGR4, Voyager, A400M Atlas and Sentinel Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) aircraft, 903 EAW has overall responsibility for some 500 military personnel involved either directly or in support of the Op SHADER deployment. 903 EAW is also responsible for the 1 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing (1ISR) detachment and also of the 1 Air Control Centre 1ACC detachment whose home base is RAF Scampton.

Using the vast range of state-of-the-art aircraft and equipment available and punching well above its weight, the UK through 903 EAW delivers a considerable amount of air support including Kinetic Attack, Air Mobility, Control of the Air and Intelligence.

83 EAG, based at RAF Al Udeid, is embedded as part of the Global Coalition’s command and control structure and as already mentioned, its primary role is to support vital UK national and Defence objectives across the Middle East.

The role of 903 EAW, commanded by an RAF Group Captain and responsible to the Air Officer Commanding 83 EAG, covers the whole spectrum of required operational support for the RAF Akrotiri based Op. SHADER involvement in air power related missions and operational support against ISIL over Syria and Northern Iraq.

Although having a long history of operational activity, 903 Expeditionary Air Wing had been re-transitioned for its present role based at RAF Akrotiri three years ago on 14th December 2014. The immediate history behind this had been that the rapid advance of Daesh/ISIL through Syria and Northern Iraq in the summer of that year had not surprisingly provoked strong condemnation from various Western and Middle Eastern states. In August 2014, within just forty-eight hours of being requested to deploy, Royal Air Force personnel and aircraft capability including Tornado GR4, C-130J and Voyager air-to-air tanker refueling aircraft deployed to RAF Akrotiri to begin a mission that was initially based around providing intelligence and vital humanitarian air drops to civilians besieged in the region of Mount Sinjar and Amerli in Northern Iraq.

However, due to a subsequent UK decision that followed a Parliamentary vote in the House of Commons in September 2014 and which had voted to permit UK airstrikes against Daesh enabled 140 EAW to launch Tornado GR4 and Voyager aircraft with immediate effect directly in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces. As mentioned, 903 EAW was then stood up as the Wing Support entity. In the three years that followed the UK parliamentary vote Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4s (the latter have been deployed since December 2015) together with other aircraft and comms capability in support have undoubtedly made a very significant kinetic and intelligence contribution to the Global Coalition’s fight against Daesh/ISIL. Importantly they continue to so do.

Suffice to say that the combined efforts of 903 EAW (including the plethora of deployed Force Elements (Tornado GR4, Typhoon FGR4, C-130J, Voyager, Sentinel and more recently, A400M Atlas) has been pivotal in the ongoing attempt to defeat of Daesh/ISIL.

Having had the ability at first hand to witness the vastness of the operational support required for Op. SHADER and that comes under the responsibility of 903 EAW and that apart from Royal Air Force personnel includes elements from the Army and Royal Navy as well, I can only say that I have been hugely impressed by the dedication and commitment of the 500 military personnel involved in support of the Coalition mission. The can-do, will-do approach and the inclusive attitude of personnel involvement and manner of intra communication across all sections of 903 EAW is extremely impressive.

The UK has and continues to deliver levels of ‘effect’ that far outweigh the actual deployed footprint. This is professionalism at its best and I suspect that most of us that have followed UK military deployment in support of our NATO allies over the years would say that this is entirely typical. There are of course those who would say that this is not an ideal way of conducting operational activity and that there are risks attached.

Even so, the Op. Shader mission has and continues to be very successfully achieved by a team of dedicated 903 AW personnel who have worked tirelessly for the past 3 years to ensure each and every facet of the mission requirement is achieved. The work is brutally hard on the families of the personnel involved just as it is on those who carry the responsibility to make it occur.

Recognition of the behind the scenes support required is extremely important – these are after all the real enablers that make possible all mission activity and success including all forms of operational support, military aircraft maintenance, weapons loading and logistics support, all of which units work hand in hand – 24 x 7 x 365 days a year with the squadron pilots, navigators and others that enable operational mission success. It is the dedication and professionalism that makes it work.

The last six years has not only seen a period of intense operational and kinetic activity for the Royal Air Force but it has also been a period of geo-political challenge. That challenge continues to this day and in terms of operational involvement, although significant efforts have been made between the US and Russia, deconfliction remains an issue particularly over Syria. Other challenges include increased numbers of UAV’s from Iran flying over Iraq territory and also increasing difficulties arising over permissions required for allied forces to fly in Iraq airspace.

Aircraft serviceability also presents an array of problems and with the Tornado GR4 having been constantly deployed in Middle East based operation since 1990, not surprisingly for aircraft that are now in well excess of thirty years old, levels of maintenance activity are very high.

Nevertheless, Tornado GR4 remains the capability of choice and eight aircraft of the type continue to be deployed at RAF Akrotiri for the Op Shader mission. With its RAPTOR reconnaissance pod being one of the most advanced sensors available and with the ISR role provided by the Litening 111 pods together with datalink options Tornado GR4 is usually equipped with the two x Storm Shadow missiles, Paveway bombs together with two variants of the Brimstone missile – including the most advanced DMS variant.

Tornado GR4 capability can also provide precision strike in poor weather and has a greatly increased stand-off range from the target area. Brimstone provides Tornado GR4 with an effective anti-armour weapon coupled with an enhanced stand-off range and the DMS variant enables unrivalled flexibility coupled with precision which is second to none. Together with ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missiles) Tornado GR4 capability includes the latest Global Positioning Guidance technology Paveway 1V precision bomb for which the aircraft can carry up to five of these along with the ability to deploy legacy Paveway 11 and Paveway 3 weapons.

As has so often been the case with specific fast jet aircraft, Royal Air force Tornado GR4 platform capability will never be better than in its last day in service. With the airframes reaching the end of their lives in terms of availability there is unlikely to be any change from the planned Tornado GR4 out of service date (OSD) of 31st March 2019.

Currently six Typhoon FGR4 aircraft are based at RAF Akrotiri for the Op. Shader mission and the increasing maturity of the aircraft in theatre is very pleasing to see. Adaptable for the close air support role and carrying the Litening 111 pod together with up to 4 x Paveway 1V precision bombs plus other capability, current and planned weapons integration for Typhoon when complete will see the aircraft carrying Meteor air-to-air missile along with Paveway 1V, Storm Shadow missile and Small Diameter Bomb. In due course it is intended to upgrade Typhoon radar capability to that of Active Electronically Scanned Array. As already mentioned, Typhoon FGR4 capability is maturing fast and its Op. SHADER mission activity has been formidable. Equally important is that being a far more modern capability compared to Tornado GR4, from a maintenance perspective Typhoon FGR4 has proved itself to be an extremely reliable and efficient aircraft capability.

There is little to add in respect of support aircraft capability apart from stressing the absolute brilliance of Sentinel ASTOR capability, Voyager air-to-air refueling capability which has proved itself to perfect in service across the whole of Op. SHADER and the C-130J which, notwithstanding that the A400M Atlas is and will increasingly be deployed, the C-130J continues to be the workhorse of the Royal Air Force.

It is always the quality of the personnel deployed and the dedication of what they do that is behind any mission success. 903 EAW is no exception to that rule and to say that I was hugely impressed with all those that I met with as I learned more about the structure of operation would be an understatement. People matter and they deserve recognition.

In terms of kinetic effect, what has so far been achieved by 903 EAW in Op SHADER has seen a small number of people achieve a disproportionate amount of impact and effect. As the second largest contributor to the Global Coalition military campaign UK aircraft had by the end of September flown over 8,000 sorties providing a mix of precision air strikes, surveillance and reconnaissance, air-to-air refueling and transport. Official published figures show that during the first three years of air strikes to end September 2017 Royal Air Force Tornado GR4, Typhoon FGR4 and Remotely Piloted ‘Reaper’ unmanned capability have struck 1,340 Daesh/ISIL targets in Iraq and some 262 in Syria.

It was very noticeable during my visit to 903 EAW and through the various serials that I undertook during the time I spent with them at RAF Akrotiri that those charged with responsibility for operation stressed the importance of people time and time again.

And yet, by the same token, I was also left with the strong impression that while those charged with operation on the base fully recognised the value of all personnel involved no matter what trade they were engaged or what they had achieved in support of the Op Shader mission, it seems that many of those on the ground in support feel less valued by higher authorities in the MOD.

In terms of what has been achieved in Op. SHADER so far it is quite remarkable that this has been done on a relative shoestring. The success of what has been achieved is clearly down to all the people involved and it is regrettable that motivation should have been impacted by the delay in MOD and Government recognition that the Op. SHADER medal will not be officially recognised and presented before May 2018. Worse is that while, if my understanding is correct, the Op. SHADER medal will be presented to aircrew it is not intended to provide this to those that have made a vital contribution outside of the battlespace area including vast numbers of those deployed and engaged in support on the RAF Akrotiri base and also, Reaper pilots based at RAF Waddington and elsewhere.

While there is talk of this disgraceful situation being looked at within the MOD itself I very much regret that I have felt obliged to mention the subject here and of how the lack of medal recognition has created an intense level of frustration and demotivation that I would very much have preferred not to witness.

I do not wish to dwell unnecessarily on the above but in what those engaged on the ground and in the air in Op. SHADER needs to be recognised without delay. While it may well be true that the risks involved in Op. SHADER are less the rigour required is no different to any other theatre based deployment. It is almost as if those who make decisions that are related to recognition in Government and the Ministry of Defence consider that deploying to Cyprus to work on Op. SHADER at RAF Akrotiri is tantamount to sending them to a holiday camp.

Having spent time on the Sovereign Base looking at all work done and particularly by those involved in Op. SHADER at RAF Akrotiri that includes all activities under the responsibility of 903 EAW together with other Royal Air Force personnel deployed at RAF Akrotiri I conclude that the work involved supporting Op SHADER is quite the opposite of that. In my view those with the important responsibility for recognition need to understand that the amount of day and night activity required of personnel working in the base is formidable. This, after all, is an operational base that works 24 hours a day times 7.

We should all be very are proud of what has been achieved by our military personnel and they both deserve and need to feel proud of what they have individually and collectively achieved and to be rewarded in the traditional manner. That some have been left feeling despondent at the lack of a specific medal is extremely disappointing and I hope that this situation is quickly corrected.

While the future for Op. SHADER remains to be decided activity remains at a very high level of consistency. The UK has once again seized the challenge and risen to the opportunity of supporting its allies in the fight against Daesh/ISIL. Op. SHADER has highlighted the importance of the Sovereign Base and of British Forces Cyprus involvement but I will come back to that topic at a later date. Nevertheless, we need to build on the narrative of what Op Shader has achieved and that this is being done for the UK and for our future security. We all need to engage in that particular narrative and remember that what 903 EAW has and continues to achieve requires sustainment and that means ongoing investment.

During a complete and very successful complete runway refurbishment programme at RAF Akrotiri last year and that was achieved during the brief period during the night when aircraft activity was minimal, 903 EAW was able to continue its work throughout. This was quite frankly an amazing achievement and is a credit to how the Cyrus based contractor, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and all those deployed at the RAF Akrotiri worked together to achieve success on budget and on time.

Despite the air power related success that has seen ISIL being pushed back in both Iraq and Syria, Op. SHADER activity continues unchanged in pace. Actual weapons delivery has however been less in recent weeks and this presents its own set of problems in respect of how many times each weapon can be deployed on an aircraft.

903 EAW has not been without its challenges and this includes an ever evolving changed situation on the ground. None of this is surprising. Neither is the fact that the UK has once again been the Coalition partner of choice in the Op. SHADER campaign and the ability of the Royal Air Force to provide manned and unmanned ISR and the flexibility and willingness of UK forces to provide support in what remains an ever evolving role has, as so many times in the past, required to be recognised.

The support side of 903 EAW has clearly been formidable and very impressive to observe. The ability of aircraft maintainers to keep ageing Tornado GR4 aircraft capability ready for sorties merits an important mention. So too does the huge amount of Logistics support provided and which I can only describe as being formidable. Having spent more time recently looking at logistics operations support in the Royal Air Force all that I can say is that in relation to Op. SHADER this crucially important part of support based activity stands out as being not only remarkable but deserving of more recognition.

There are of course many other aspects of the work done by 903 EAW that I have not touched on here. For me personally, although I have previously deployed to Iraq and Kosovo theatres this has been a first for me in being able to see at first hand and better understand the Op. SHADER process together with engaging with such a brilliant group of military personnel, people who are clearly very well led by those charged with responsibility and who clearly understand the value of people and motivation.

CHW (London – 4th December 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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