As the UK’s primary ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) hub, RAF Waddington is the home base of 8 Squadron Sentry E3-D AEW (Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems) capability together with the 5(AC) Squadron Sentinel R1 (ASTOR – Airborne Stand-Off Radar) wide area surveillance capability, 14 Squadron Shadow R1 – ISR capability and 51 Squadron – RC-135W ‘Rivet Joint’ (SIGINT) signals intelligence capability.
The base is also home of 13 Squadron MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) capability (this including 39 Squadron based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, USA) together with the Air Battlespace Training Centre, a major unit of UK defence capability designed to exploit the full synthetic based air and land battlespace simulation systems training capability and finally, also home to two Reserve Squadrons 54 (R) and 56 (R) together with 2503 (County of Lincoln) RAuxAF Regiment Squadron. What follows is an update following my most recent visit to the base in July.
ISTAR represents the nations ‘eyes and ears’ in the sky and its importance and of what the Royal Air Force provides across the whole of defence must never be underestimated. With so many different aspects and elements of ISTAR/ISR and what some often refer to as C4ISR to understand, it is hardly surprising that RAF Waddington is a base that I visit more frequently than most.
In terms of professionalism and demonstration of individual skill-sets, the mix of technology and capability to be found across the base is nothing short of inspiring. The individual squadrons are rightly very proud of what they have all achieved and of what they are still doing whenever they are deployed. Over the past five years, I have at some point engaged with each of the five main squadrons operating from the base in order to understand and better appreciate what each do with the different aspects of technology and capability that they possess.
Operating five individual different aircraft fleets together with the overall capability that each provides does not come cheap and within a period when achieving better cost of operation is absolutely crucial it is hardly surprising that pressure for increased cost effectiveness and change is very apparent. I well understand the strengths and indeed, the weaknesses of the current ISTAR structure just as I also recognise that if the ISTAR Force is to continue to be able to provide the RAF and the nation with the range of capability, capacity and required efficiency that it requires both now and ten years ahead then it will need to be more adaptable to change. The current planned structure recognises this need well.
ISTAR capability enhancement had rightly been a primary feature of SDSR 2015. Even so, progress on some capability enhancement projects outlined for future investment in SDSR 2015 such as Sentry E3-D life extension capability upgrade due to be executed through the five year period covered by the SDSR 2020 review have yet to have funding confirmed. SDSR 2015 did not set out to recognise weaknesses in the current ISTAR system beyond actual equipment capability, these including shortages in engineering manpower, training issues and capacity and how, due to lack of investment over the years, structural issues relating to infrastructure modernisation and of how things are currently done and need to change.
RAF Waddington is a large and very important base located in Lincolnshire. The five main squadrons based there not only serve as the main elements ISTAR elements of the Royal Air Force but provide the UK, NATO and our allies with considerable support. Through various campaigns involving UK and NATO forces in recent years the RAF ISTAR role has gained in importance. While it is increasingly true that other aircraft capability such as the F-35 Lighting 11 capability that will come into RAF service shortly and that of the existing Typhoon and to a lesser degree, remaining Tornado GR4 capability also provide important elements of ISR related capability, they cannot provide all the individual elements that the dedicated ISTAR Force capability provides:
A good example of this is the work of 5 (AC Army Cooperation) Squadron which, supported by Raytheon UK, provides military Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability through operation of four Sentinel (modified Bombardier Global Express aircraft) Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) System. With currently four aircraft available (decisions relating to possible retention of a fifth aircraft have, as far as I am aware, still to be confirmed) 5 Squadron capability in its current form entered service relatively recently in 2008. This valuable capability continues to provide the UK and its NATO allies with brilliant and extremely reliable support. Sentinel capability extension through to 2021 was only formally confirmed by the MOD during July this year and that decision has rightly been universally welcomed. Even so, it should be recognised that over the past three years personnel capacity has been substantially cut.
14 Squadron (until 2011 a Tornado GR4 Squadron) is today responsible for operation of the Beechcraft Shadow R1 aircraft capability. Ahead of 51 Squadron stand-up, 14 Squadron was the newest of the RAF’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) based unit and its role and available capability remains hugely important within the full context of UK defence capability.
SDSR 2015 confirmed that the number of aircraft available to 14 Squadron would be increased and it is pleasing that the plan for Shadow ISR expansion is, as far as I am aware, progressing well.
Since I last wrote on the subject of 51 Squadron RC-135W Rivet Joint (SIGINCT) aircraft capability, one whose development since the decision to order the capability was taken in 2010 I have closely followed, the squadron has been deployed on a number of international operations in support of allied forces.
Wherever the capability has been deployed it has proved to be of enormous value to our own forces and to our NATO allies. The last of the three RC-135W aircraft ordered by the MOD (the aircraft itself is a Boeing derivative) from the USA following the decision first announced in SDSR 2010. Rebuilt from former US Air Force tanker aircraft to exactly the same very high standard capability as the US Air Force fleet of SIGINT aircraft by L3 Communications at Greenville, Texas, the last aircraft was delivered to 51 Squadron at RAF Waddington in July.
Though not without some ongoing issues including manning and training, even allowing for initial transient problems with the capability itself and the somewhat longer process of entry into service, the decision to acquire Rivet Joint as a replacement for the three retired Nimrod R1 aircraft has more than proved its worth. A truly brilliant RAF Squadron and one that has a very high level of sophisticated technology and capability.
It is my personal view and experience that not only is strong ISTAR/ISR capability essential to UK defence and to the wider role that we play within NATO and globally but sadly, that over recent years the importance of ISTAR capability has tended to lack sufficient advocacy, not only within the UK military arena itself and within government and MOD, but also externally.
I am hardly alone in believing that too little attention has been paid to the vital role that ISTAR/ISR plays in the past and we may hope that even if modified in some form by the upcoming so-called ‘final chapter’ to SDSR 2015, something which is widely anticipated to occur in late November/early December this year, that the Government will broadly stick to what it had promised in respect of ISTAR modernisation during the SDSR 2015 review two years ago. Clearly, along with greater efficiency of operation more investment is also required in ISTAR in order to maintain UK strengths in this vital high level technology capability. Undoubtedly, cuts appertaining to SDSR 2010 have to an extent weakened some aspects of ISTAR capability and the pressures on manpower, retention and training have never been greater but so too is the resolve of the ISTAR Force to provide cost efficient capability and in the years ahead, transform the way that ISTAR is done.
Our allies continue to look to us to maintain strong levels of ISTAR capability and it may well be that in the years ahead they must take a greater share of the overall delivery burden. We will see but in a fast changing environment and a world in which the threats against us are not getting any less, the need for continuing investment in ISR can hardly be argued. Transformation and achieving greater efficiencies must of course go hand in hand with new investment and in doing so we must look at what we may need ten and twenty years from now as opposed to what we may think we need today. The resolve to maintain strong ISTAR/ISR capability in the UK is not about to weaken and in the months and years ahead I would hope to see more voices raising its vital importance and the need to invest in the capability.
My reason in reflecting some concerns here relates not only to much delayed decisions relating to possible retention of the fifth 5 (AC) Squadron Sentinel aircraft and the need in my view to retain the capability well beyond the extended and now proposed 2021 OSD (out of service date) but particularly on the long history of failed ongoing investment in Sentry E3-D capability.
Operated by 8 Squadron and, apart from this paragraph, my choosing not to over emphasise the fact that all six RAF Sentry E3-D aircraft required to be grounded from November 2016 until relatively recently when the first ‘repaired’ aircraft was returned to service in July (this grounding due to wiring and safety concerns relating mainly to Acoustic Blankets and Cabin Conditioning System Ducts – these same issues having been long ago addressed on US, French and NATO Sentry capability users on recommendations from Boeing) my current understanding is that two of the UK’s six ‘operational’ Sentry E3-D aircraft have now been returned to active service status following completion of required refurbishment of the blankets and ducts.
The wider point for me is the failure by the MOD to invest in the key ‘internal’ Sentry E3-D ISR related equipment capability over the years it has been in service. Aircraft MRO has of course been done to the book. Meanwhile, despite the upgrade plan announcement contained within SDSR 2015, there has as yet been no formal confirmation relating to any proposed Sentry capability enhancement and upgrade and which, according to SDSR 2015, was due to start after 2020.
There can be little doubt that the various issues surrounding Sentry E3-D capability over the past few years has reminded the MOD that there is potentially a very high price to pay if large aircraft refurbishment is delayed. In this case, the need to ground all three then operational Sentry E3-D aircraft (the other three were either in deep maintenance or not operational due to other technical and maintenance related, planned or timing issues) has provided yet another timely reminder of the dangers of pushing back refurbishment or procurement decisions – unexpected gaps in capability availability and unplanned additional costs.
All this in my personal view hastens the need to move Project Athena – the ISTAR Force Integration Programme which I will discuss later in this piece – forward at a fast pace.
Sentry E3-D capability lack of resilience and poor serviceability and availability cannot be blamed on any of the permanent RAF or industry partners involved. It is simply the lack of investment over very many years and remembering that, aircraft maintenance apart, there has been far too little emphasis placed on internal capability investment since 1992 when the Sentry E3-D capability entered RAF service replacing the ageing Avro Shackleton.
The impact of poor availability and serviceability has meant that crew numbers have dwindled and that training has also suffered. Currency and competency are clearly a concern and given that the lack of reliability impacts on NATO, serious efforts is required to address the various issues that lie at the heart of this vital capability.
In regard of current UK Sentry E3-D capability serviceability all that I can say is that it is clear that the here and now – as opposed to considering the longer term future of the capability – is what matters most.
Having spent time with 8 Squadron (Motto – ‘Uspiam et Passim’ – ‘Everywhere Unbounded’) over the past five years and being fully understanding of the various capability concerns and issues, I am left in little doubt that, due to poor reliability and serviceability of the existing capability, unless wider investment related decisions in regard of Sentry upgrade or replacement are taken soon, that the reputation and credibility of UK AWACS capability and support in the eyes of NATO and our allies will be seriously and possibly permanently damaged.
With 8 Squadron having around 300 personnel, issues relating to poor morale that have caused some to leave prematurely are also an issue that requires to be addressed. I would add the view that there is perhaps nowhere better than Sentry E3-D capability to demonstrate the need to push through the process of culture and other large scale changes proposed within the Project Athena plan.
Rumours that the MOD may instead decide to purchase the Boeing 737 AEW&C Wedgetail and which has been in service with the Australian Air Force for several years have been circulating for some time. I am unable to comment further on this but I suggest that if such a decision was to be taken and Sentry E3-D upgrade abandoned it would mean that the UK might well need to gap airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capability and rely on NATO and maybe French Air Force E-3F capability until 2023.
By that time (2021) the proposed fleet of nine Boeing P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (operated from RAF Lossiemouth by numbers 120 and 201 Squadrons) should all be in service but any decision relating to standing down of Sentry E3-D capability would in my view require a further extension of Sentinel R1 Astor capability.
Moving on it is pleasing to report that 13 Squadron together with US based 39 Squadron continue to provide ‘Reaper’ (General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) Remotely Piloted air system vehicle) support in Op. Shader. The number of Reaper strikes is very impressive. The SDSR 2015 plan to replace the existing fleet of 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper RPAS capability with ‘in excess’ of 20 new Protector aircraft is in progress and my understanding is that General Atomics aims to have secured UK military certification by 2021. Reaper has been a great success story for the Royal Air Force and the planned investment in the next generation of capability is testament to that.
The ISTAR challenge may be best described as being one of balancing current operational commitments whilst at the same time introducing new platform capabilities. Importantly, it is about developing a more integrated enterprise model for 2025.
As far as I am aware the ISTAR Force Commander, Air Commodore Dean Andrew, now has a mandate to transform the ISTAR elements of RAF capability into what has been termed a fully integrated ‘Force’ structure taking in all elements of the capability into whatever the UK’s long-term strategic defence and security plans desire it to be.
The process to achieve and deliver this will of necessity be long and hard. To force through change in order to achieve a ‘Whole Force’ structure and that can deliver all the various elements required to support so many diverse aspects of defence with ISTAR/ISR capability required a strategy that all could work to and within. The future strategy for ISTAR delivery and for all planned transformation comes under the umbrella of ‘Project Athena’.
With the Athena name taken from the Greek goddess of reason, intelligent activity and military victory, the key to sustained improvement within the Athena process is that by working together as a ‘Whole Force’ huge benefits can be derived and shared across the whole ISTAR/ISR community. The term ‘Whole Force’ includes serving military personnel, reservists, civil servants and importantly, industry partners and contractors and the intention behind Athena is to create a well-integrated team that can deliver every aspect of ISTAR related operational performance inclusive of support services, facilities, infrastructure improvement, training and personnel amenities.
Over many years of ISTAR development the use of industry personnel and contractor support working alongside serving personnel has meant that some of the individual ISTAR platforms and squadrons have lacked investment in respect of capability enhancement and that of technical and domestic infrastructure requirement in order to properly support the growing requirement for modern information based warfare and allow for further growth or provide sufficient headroom for growth.
Athena aims is not only to provide an uplift of skilled personnel, where deemed necessary, and appropriate and to then support it and ensure that it can be sustained, but also to take in most aspects of personnel training, career streaming, manning, retention and where appropriate, transfer skills to a ‘Whole Force’ concept basis. The ultimate aim of ‘Athena’ is to be radical about change, ensure that the ISTAR force is equipped to deliver what is required for both long and short term and to be innovative in form so that ISTAR force can to deliver enhanced capability based, where appropriate and where this can be applied, on a ‘Whole Force’ concept model.
Rather than looking at ISTAR platforms alone ‘Athena’ recognises that transformation needs must focus on people and that of necessity, the ISTAR Force must always be adaptable. It is about driving change across all ISTAR elements and recognising that the future will be very different to the past. The increasing use of Remotely Piloted Vehicles/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (RPAS/UAV) in the ISTAR/C4ISR role are examples of change as of course is the future use of F-35 Lightning aircraft that will be able to collect and transmit much information and data, when they are introduced into Royal Air Force and Royal Navy service.
Change on the scale that ‘Athena’ envisages and which requires an almost complete change in mind-set will of necessity take time to achieve and fully deliver. Nevertheless, on my most recent visit to RAF Waddington in June this year, I was left in no doubt of there being any lack of enthusiasm or determination within the ISTAR Force team to drive it through to success.
As through many other aspect of Royal Air Force operation such as fast jet and rotary training for example, as existing outsourced industry contracts come up for renewal a new opportunity arises to drive through planned change. I take the view that opportunities for industry within the ‘’Whole Force’ plan that ‘Athena’ envisages are huge.
Base infrastructure at RAF Waddington is less than adequate and the intention is to secure adequate facilities in order that future ISTAR will be able to better deliver. Within the ‘Whole Force’ concept, industry can be expected to play a big part in this just as it can within future ISTAR operation, increased use of synthetic training and all aspects of MRO.
I suppose that the bottom line is one of moving ISTAR from the existing operation of five or six isolated force elements to one in which delivery is done by an integrated force able to provide 24/7 support based on a ‘Whole Force’ approach. As the ISTAR Force Commander Air Commodore Dean Andrew said “Getting ISTAR right is critical to the success of the Royal Air Force contribution to the UK” just of course as it also is to the role we play within NATO and with our allies.
As I see it, Athena is a cohesive and very well-constructed enabler plan for delivery of future UK ISTAR operational capability.
CHW (London – 4th September 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785