First indicated in the SDSR 2015 review process that the current number of six Shadow R1 aircraft flown by 14 Squadron would be increased, it was good to see last week that the MOD has now confirmed a £110 million contract award to Raytheon UK that will see the current fleet of six Shadow R1 aircraft increased to eight together with integration of the latest UK Sovereign Defensive Aids Systems in order to ensure that this vital ISTAR capability continues to provide vital intelligence gathering for years to come.
RAF Shadow R1 uses electronic capabilities and satellite communications in order to perform a range of superior intelligence-gathering role for the UK Armed Forces. Why it has taken the best part of seven years to progress an SDSR2015 intention remain a mystery but its importance in the wake of the UK Governments decision to prematurely scrap Sentinel R1 and Sentry E3- D ISTAR capability is not lost.
Supporting 150 highly-skilled specialist aerospace jobs at Broughton in North Wales, a location that also served as the maintenance and overhaul base for the Sentinel R1, together with various roles at Raytheon’s sites at RAF Waddington and Harlow, the contract awarded by the MOD will likely sustain around 350 further jobs across the UK supply chain.
Based at RAF Waddington and flown by 14 Squadron, given the loss of so much RAF ISTAR capability this year Shadow R1 will form an even more important role in RAF Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability ahead of the planned acquisition of three E7 Wedgetail aircraft that are in my view unlikely to meet an IOC before 2024.
The role of Shadow R1 is to gather intelligence via the high-definition electro-optical and electronic sensors that it has on board. Once the data is gathered, satellite communication links enable the information collected to be assessed while Shadow R1 is airborne during any specific mission requirement. In order to protect the aircraft from possible attack, the intention is that all Shadow R1 capability including the two additional aircraft to be acquired will be fitted with an improved state-of-the-art Defensive Aids System (DAS).
It is anticipated that the first upgraded Shadow R1 aircraft will be delivered to the Royal Air Force in June 2023, with delivery of the eighth Shadow R Mk2 aircraft sometime before the end of 2025.
The MOD commissioned an initial four Shadow Mk 1 aircraft (based on the King Air 350CER) under an Urgent Operational Capability (UOC) requirement in order to support intelligence gathering in Afghanistan. These aircraft were delivered to what is now 14 Squadron in 2009. In SDSR 2015 Shadow R1 capability moved from being UOC based to that of being a core MOD equipment requirement with the fleet being enhanced to six aircraft with an intention to raise this to eight under Shadow Mk 2 upgrade programme. Shadow R1 features an under fuselage electro-optical sensor turret together with a variety of integrated sensors and extensive communications capability managed from internal consoles within the cabin.
RAF Waddington is also home to three RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’ aircraft operated by 51 Squadron.
Regular readers of ‘commentary’ will be aware that I was extremely surprised and indeed, dubious of the MOD’s decision – clearly supported by the RAF Hierarchy – to withdraw RAF Sentinel R1 capability after a mere 12 years in service. Whilst, following a dangerous bap nine years having been taken in UK Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability ahead of commissioning of the first pf nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft two years ago, it is worth noting that RAF Poseidon aircraft do not as yet contain overland surveillance capability and as yet, I know of no plans for this to be fitted to P-8 capability. Thus, the loss of the brilliant Raytheon Sentinel R1 aircraft with its airborne battlefield and ground surveillance capability is a great loss for the UK military as a whole.
Add to that the dangerous gap that will now be following wholesale withdrawal of the underinvested UK Sentry E3-D AWACS capability ahead of the first of just three E-7 Wedgetail aircraft hopefully reaching IOC in 2024/5 albeit that NATO E3 AWACS aircraft will play a role in supporting the UK in the meantime remains a cause of much concern.
That said, slower than one might have hoped, it is pleasing that numbers of the excellent Shadow R1 platform capability are at long last being increased to eight aircraft from the current number of six and that they are all being upgraded.
CHW (London – 10th November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785