Just a couple of weeks ago members and former members of 8 Squadron based at RAF Waddington enjoyed an evening of great comradeship and fun as they got together for the purpose of remembering, celebrating and saying a final goodbye to the UK’s RAF Boeing Sentry E3D AWACS capability.
While the Boeing built airframes were well maintained throughout their lifetime, there can be little doubt that the actual capability they carried for the very specialist work they were required to undertake had lacked required through-life investment by the MOD. That fact will not I suspect have surprised many and particularly those who really do understand the importance of the UK maintaining strong AWACS capability and sufficient capacity.
UK Sentry E3D AWACS capability will in due course be replaced in the form of3 (formally five planned aircraft but numbers cut to 3 in the Integrated Review) Boeing E-7 ‘Wedgetail’ aircraft similar to those now being very successfully operated by the Royal Australian Air Force.
Premature withdrawal of Sentry E3D capability in August means that the UK will be taking a two to three years gap before the first of three aircraft (the first of which is now in Birmingham being fitted out with the highly specialist AWACS equipment) will have gone through a rigorous process required to reach its IOC. In the meantime, the UK will rely on NATO AWACS capability.
I had the great pleasure to fly on two long Sentry E3D missions and I learnt a lot from both. But I continue to be very concerned that the UK is not playing sufficient candour and importance to ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability.
In February this year we said a similar goodbye to the brilliant Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) capability after just 14 years of operation and, with no planned replacement.
However, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, is at least proposing a new special mission aircraft called the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance system, or ISTAR. It was Raytheon UK that had supplied and supported Sentinel R1 capability and that allowed the aircraft flying at high altitude to use its multi-mode radar to identify, track and image targets over great distances and deliver critical intelligence and target tracking information in near real time to forces on the ground.
While I recognise that E-7 will provide an excellent replacement for Sentry E3-D AWACS capability, cutting numbers from 5 to 3 aircraft will I fear be recognised over time as being another huge mistake.
Obviously, I recognise the huge and important ISTAR related work undertaken by 14 Squadron Shadow R1 capability just as I also do of 51 Squadron and its three RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft that had effectively been acquired to replace the Nimrod R1 capability.
I also recognise that new generation fast jet aircraft are able to perform some ISTAR related tasks hitherto done by larger aircraft and that the UK’s enlarging fleet of Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (7 a/c now delivered to RAF Lossiemouth from a total of nine ordered) and that are, following a long and dangerous gap taken since Nimrod MR2 and R1 capability was stood down in 2011 and the proposed MRA4 upgrade scrapped.
I live in hope that that the UK government will in due course take greater cognisance of how depleted UK ISTAR capability has become and takes heed from this warning. I recall some years ago a former CAS saying to me that he didn’t like having old aircraft in his inventory and while I understand the point that he made to an extent, suddenly finding that we no longer have any specific AWACS or Astor capability is no easier solution to take.
Why do I write on this subject now? Not just because of my recognition that maintaining ISTAR and AWACS capability remains absolutely crucial but also in recalling that next month marks the 45th anniversary (19th December 1986) of Boeing AWACS Sentry E3-D early warning radar systems being chosen by the UK as the replacement for its then ageing fleet of RAF Lossiemouth based Avro Shackleton AEW2 aircraft and that were for a variety of reasons forced to soldier on doing the vital AWACS role until finally being retired in 1991.
That date in 1986 also marked the end of the GEC Nimrod Mk 2 AWACS capability development, one that all I can say now looking back was not exactly one that could be described as being one of the late Lord Weinstock’s best!
JCB – Always One Step Ahead
As global politicians gather in Glasgow in an attempt to seek commitments to significantly reduce carbon-based emissions of CO2 by 2050 trust Rocester , Uttoxeter based JCB, one of Britain’s largest independent companies and a global leader in its field of manufacturing equipment including back-Hoe Loaders for the construction, agricultural, waste handling and defence industries to steal another march in the fight against climate change.
What JCB has announced this morning is a deal in which it will buy 10% of the green hydrogen fuels made by the Australian company Fortescue Future Industries (FFI) and which would make the latter company the largest supplier of clean fuel to the UK. JCB and a company called Ryze Hydrogen would then distribute it.
The announcement of this important deal will, as chairman of JCB Lord Anthony Bamford said this morning, help to make green hydrogen use a viable solution. Against the background of what JCB believes will be better distribution and supply of hydrogen fuels, Lord Bamford is right in calling on the UK Government to invest in hydrogen fuelled forms of transport such as buses, trains and aircraft.
The Bamford solution makes possible at last the potential of better supply and distribution of hydrogen fuels and I am perfectly sure that, given particularly that Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has previously said that production and use of hydrogen fuels would need to increase rapidly if government ambitions are to be realised, that we will now see a step up in pace in the use of hydrogen based fuels in industrial and transport use in the very near future.
By way of background on a subject that thirty years ago, when I still covered automotive within my larger capital goods, engineering, aerospace and defence sectors as an equity analyst, I followed closely, the following may be useful.
It has long been known that using hydrogen as a fuel could be one of many different solutions in the fight to reduce emissions. The potential use of hydrogen powered fuel cells in vehicles is nothing new and ironically, the concept of a fuel cell was first demonstrated in the early 19th century by Humphry Davy although the actual term fuel cell was not actually used until 1889. Fuel cell research continued through the 20th century but it was not until 1959 that Francis Bacon, a Cambridge engineering professor who had been working on the process since 1932 demonstrated the first practical 5kw fuel cell system.
So why has it taken so long to get to a point where Hydrogen fuels which produce no harmful emissions could become a practical alternative to using carbon-based fuels. The primary problem from fuel cell and hydrogen powered vehicles is the danger of electrical shock and the flammability of the of the fuel itself. For the record, fuel cells power vehicles by electro-chemically combining hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen (O2) from surrounding air into water (H20) and electrical energy.
Due to hydrogen storage issues and constraints of weight, volume, efficiency, safety and cost we are probably still a long way yet from the potential of using fuel cells in the everyday passenger car but, as JCB and others are demonstrating, its use as a replacement for larger industrial and agricultural vehicles and buses has already been turned into reality.
In fact, single decker hydrogen powered buses have been operating on a couple of central London Transport bus routes and in other large towns and cities such as Aberdeen very successfully for several years and soon, London will have the first of 20 new double-deck buses built by Wrightbus in Northern Ireland, a company that is also privately owned by Jo Bamford, son of Lord Bamford whose company JCB made this important announcement today
CHW (London – 1st November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785