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Serco’s Oldest and Best – RAF Fylingdales By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


RAFIn the first of two separate pieces over the next couple of weeks looking at specific Serco Defence contracts I will today cover a most interesting and enjoyable a visit that I made last month to RAF Fylingdales. In the subsequent piece I will cover yet another very interesting Serco Defence managed operation that I also had the pleasure of spending time at last month, the Emergency Planning College (EPC) which Serco operate on behalf of the Cabinet Office.

First, let me say a few words on Serco Group itself. There can be no denial that the last few years have proved troublesome for a company that is still one of the largest service support and outsourcing companies in the UK. They are no doubt years that both the company and its shareholders would care to forget and ones that required lessons to be learned. Much though has changed in recent times and not least amongst these are the host of senior management changes and additions to the various teams that will allow the company to move forward on a position of renewed strength.

Is Serco now able to put its recent more troubled past behind it? Has a company that was after all founded on the best of service based traditions finally turned the corner? Has Serco really learned the lessons that had caused confidence to dip? Does the company now have a sufficiently strengthened management team that is both ready and able to drive the company forward to a new era of success? My view on all these questions is that it is now more than fit for purpose again and that under the leadership of CEO Rupert Soames who was brought in during May 2014 to bring about serious change is that, with an excellent team of senior people now around him, that Serco is heading into a far more exciting era than the unfortunate one that it has just left behind.

Serco is one of the largest outsourcing companies in the UK and with more than 100,000 employees engaged at various locations delivering a vast range of mission critical and other services to government and private clients in no fewer than 30 countries worldwide Serco is  very important to the success of other. The company provides a vast range of vital support services that in the main surround areas such as transport, IT, science, defence and security, nuclear, local government, health, education, welfare and others that also includes private sector based work.

RAF Fylingdales

Specific to my professional defence and security based work the visit that I made in December to RAF Fylingdales alongside two senior members of the new Serco defence management team, Jamie Black who is Strategic Development Director, Defence and Colin Reynell, Deputy MD Defence and Whole Enterprise Transformation, was not only the first time that I had visited this important site to observe capability and operation in detail but one that also proved to be one of the most interesting and informative that I have been able to do for a very considerable time.

Located deep inside the North Yorkshire Moors just a few miles from the lovely town of Pickering and on a location that to the visiting eye might better be described as being in the middle of nowhere RAF Fylingdales is responsible for providing primary warning of ballistic missile events not only to the UK Government, through the UK Missile Warning Centre at RAF Air Command, High Wycombe in Bucks, but also to US based authorities through the Missile and Space Domain which is situated in the Cheyenne Mountains, Colorado. Furthermore, RAF Fylingdales has a complementary mission to support the developing US based Missile Defense System and also to contribute to the Allied Space Surveillance Network. Finally, the base provides support to UK armed forces worldwide through the Satellite Warning Service.

Space surveillance at RAF Fylingdales allows the gathering if information on the function of various satellites. Many satellites currently in orbit are of a military nature and capable of gathering intelligence. These can listen to communications or radar transmissions, possibly take photographs and send what intelligence they gather back to Earth immediately. Many of the satellites in orbit are telecommunication based satellites and the importance of these needs no qualification from me. On top of this there are significant amounts of space debris the cause of some of which I will not go into here. Eventually all satellites come back to earth at some point but just as air traffic needs to be controlled so it is that observing the movement of everything in space and attempting to ensure that orbits are safe is hugely important. All this requires constant observation for which RAF Fylingdales plays a vital part.

Other linked factors of what RAF Fylingdales is able to provide might, for instance, be when members of our Armed Services might be involved in an operation of say a sensitive nature during which time RAF Fylingdales capability could be used to provide a warning service to various interested agencies of when they are clear of satellite over-flights or perhaps or of when they will be within satellite surveillance range. End users of RAF Fylingdales capability may include members of UK and NATO Armed Forces, HM Government together with various research establishments, Universities and Defence Industry organisations.

Serco have been responsible for providing support to RAF Fylingdales for the past 53 years making this by far the longest of the very many service support and management contracts operated by the company. With Fylingdales being a 24 hour-a-day x 365-day-a-year operation Serco, then RCA Great Britain, a subsidiary of Radio Corporation Radio Corporation of America (RAC) Serco has in effect been responsible for providing maintenance and other support RAF Fylingdales since it was built. Just in terms of the related history, it should be noted that RCA Services was to be renamed Serco Ltd following a management buy-out in 1987. The company then listed on the London Stock Exchange the following year.

Although far from being the largest of Serco Defence extensive range of management contracts I think the fact that it is the oldest within the portfolio does make this one rather special. When talking to the Serco management that are responsible for supporting the Fylingdales facility and working alongside Royal Air Force colleagues who had nothing but praise to offer in terms of how the partnership between them works it would be remiss of me if I was to ignore the huge sense of pride that exudes from the Serco team at RAF Fylingdales.

Serco’s responsibilities at RAF Fylingdales are to maintain the radar and other operational equipment, run the Motor Pool and supply section as well as provide catering services through a sub-contractor. All radar equipment on the site is US designed and manufactured and was originally installed by Raytheon. Originally built in 1957 substantial and ongoing upgrade work has taken place over the years and the importance of Fylingdales within the international and national mission requirement has never been greater.

With a mission to provide an uninterrupted ballistic missile early warning space surveillance service to the UK and US Governments RAF Fylingdales provides vital capability. Valued at £15 million, in April 2014 Serco was re-awarded the formal contract to provide operation and maintenance support what is officially termed as the ‘Solid State Phased Array Radar’ part of the UK/US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at RAF Fylingdales. There is a further option covering another six years beyond 2020.

As hinted earlier, I was hugely impressed with the dedication and professionalism of the Serco staff engaged in the RAF Fylingdales contract. Whilst much upgrading of equipment has been done over the years suffice to say that while most of it still works well some of the equipment used to support the vital Fylingdales radar work is obsolete. Clearly this makes managing a 24×7 operation harder. The support provided to RAF Fylingdales by Serco was hugely interesting to observe and a credit to the organisation as a while.

Whilst writing on the subject of RAF Fylingdales it would be very remiss if I failed to mention the excellent work and dedication of the two Royal Air Force Squadrons who work in this fascinating and somewhat isolated base. The Station badge, ‘Vigilamus’ which when translated means ‘we are watching’ is clearly appropriate and without the excellent work that they do at Fylingdales threats to the UK would be of much greater significance.

Finally may I express my sincere thanks to Wing Commander Dave Keighley, Station Commander of RAF Fylingdales for not only taking time in a tight schedule to receive me during my December visit but also for allowing me to see the excellent work being done on this very important base by his team. Once again, it is the dedication, skills and knowledge of all the various people involved at RAF Fylingdales, both military and civil, that stands out and that left such a very good impression on me.

CHW (London – 15th January 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785

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