UK Air Power

In a two-part special, AIR International looks at the United Kingdom’s military aviation; its aircraft and its plans for their use and development


In 2016, Tornado GR4 ZG771 was painted with a commemorative colour scheme to mark the 100th anniversary of RAF Marham, Norfolk. Under current plans, the final Tornado GR4s will be retired at RAF Marham in 2019. Ian Harding

The last time the UK’s government had a close look at its military was in 2015 when the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was published. That document identified three national security objectives that must be achieved to obtain a secure and prosperous country: protecting the British people, promoting prosperity and projecting the nation’s global influence. It went on to identify the following key threats to the government’s objectives: terrorism, extremism and instability; cyber; and the weakening of the rules-based international order.

The responsibility of achieving these goals and protecting the nation and safeguarding its citizens and interests at home and abroad devolves upon the security services and the four armed services, the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force. Between them they operate an increasingly modern fleet of fixed- and rotary-winged and manned and un-manned aircraft. Historically there have been turfwars between the armed services, each afraid of losing influence and control over various weapons systems that might lead to suggestions that the service branch itself is redundant. For a century admirals and generals have questioned the need for an independent air force for example.

Fighters and bombers

The Royal Air Force really earned the love and respect of the British people when it single-handedly defeated the Luftwaffe in the skies of southern England in the summer of 1940. After that epic battle the words ‘Spitfire’ and ‘Hurricane’ resonate in a particular way around the world. To a lesser extent ‘Sea Harrier’ acquired similar kudos four decades later over the Falkland Islands. Today there are no fighters, no government can afford them. Modern warplanes are too expensive and each one must be a jack-of-all-trades. The key imperative is to sell as many as possible to overseas buyers and if you can get someone else to help build the wonder-plane all the better. The UK has three fixed-wing combat aircraft in service at very different stages of their development; the Eurofighter Typhoon, Panavia Tornado and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning (Lightning II, the F-35’s American name, is not used by the UK because the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the English Electric Lightning have also served in UK service).

The RAF’s 3(F) Squadron became the UK’s first operational Typhoon FGR1 unit on March 31, 2006 and was declared operational on the type the following year. Britain ordered three batches or tranches of Typhoons, comprising Tranche 1 (53), Tranche 2 (67) and Tranche 3A (40), up to a total of 160 jets. There will be no Tranche 3Bs for cost reasons. Typhoon was designed from the outset to evolve throughout its service life to eventually replace the capabilities lost with the retirement of the Jaguar GR3, Tornado F3 and Tornado GR4. As already mentioned, the jets were ordered in three tranches, but those tranches don’t necessarily mean that the aircraft from different tranches are more capable than those in others. Tranches are simply a means to identify which batch the machine was originally part of. Subsequent upgrades are identified by block numbers that do not form part of the Royal Air Force’s designation system, so not all FGR4s are equipped to the same level.

Some of the first Typhoons to be delivered were a batch of 16 Typhoon T1 trainers that arrived at RAF Coningsby from March 30, 2005 - and they’re already being scrapped. Having been upgraded to T3 standard the jets began to be withdrawn from use in 2017. The first to undergo the process, ZJ815 had been delivered to Coningsby from the factory at Warton, Lancashire on November 29, 2007. After its last flight and being stored at Coningsby for over a year it was the first to be moved to a hangar on the base designated to house the reduce to produce (RTP) programme in April 2017. Its hulk was dumped outside the hangar in September 2018 and was joined by others over the following months before they all vanished. At the time of writing 11 from the first batch of trainer variants were awaiting or had completed the RTP process and another was in use as a dedicated training airframe.

But it’s not all bad news, if RTP is bad news. The RAF really has no further need of the early Typhoon trainers and using them to make other aircraft in the fleet airworthy can be seen as a prudent use of resources. It would cost the UK taxpayer an awful lot to upgrade them, though not as much as the cost to buy and operate the aircraft throughout their short service lives.

Typhoon has been dropping bombs since the Libyan campaign when a jet flying from Gioia del Colle Air Base, Italy, dropped two Raytheon Enhanced Paveway II 1,000lb (454kg) precision-guided bombs against two main battle tanks being operated by forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafion April 12, 2011 as part of Operation Ellamy. Typhoons have been very active on Operation Shader, the ongoing military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The then UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon MP, announced the deployment of six of the type to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus on December 3, 2015 and within two days the detachment was in action.

In years gone by all RAF Typhoons had squadron markings applied like this aircraft from XI Squadron based at RAF Coningsby. Today the majority of the RAF Typhoon fleet is void of any squadron insignia. This is reportedly due to the type’s combat involvement in Operation Shader and the need for greater discretion faced with the ISIS threat. However, the adoption of the aircraft’s serial number as a numerical tail code is perhaps more geared toward helping maintenance crews identify each jet. On one occasion a costly maintenance procedure was performed on the wrong jet.

It would be wrong to think of the Tranche 1s as being incapable of air-to-surface warfare, the jets have been integrated with the Litening III targeting pod since 2008, but they will no longer be used in that role.


As the number of Typhoons in service grew, a decision was made not to upgrade the entire fleet. There have been several plans for the Tranche 1 aircraft, but SDSR 2015 included an announcement that the 53 aircraft would not, as had been the plan, be withdrawn from service in 2018 but instead would be used to form two ‘new’ air defence squadrons of 12 aircraft each. The variant’s out of service date (OSD) has been extended from 2018 to that of the rest of the Typhoon fleet, 2040 which in itself is ten years beyond the type’s original OSD of 2030. The 53 Tranche 1 Typhoons includes the 16 twin-seat aircraft already discussed; most of those are being scrapped.

Speaking in March 2016, the Royal Air Force’s Deputy Commander of Operations, Air Marshal Greg Bagwell explained: “The issue was how to operate the Tranche 1 alongside the Tranche 2 and 3 as there is very little spares commonality between them, so it was decided that the plan [would be] for two new squadrons of Tranche 1 Typhoons.” Bagwell went on to say “The Tranche 1s will be used purely for air defence, as an upgrade will be prohibitively expensive. The two squadrons of Tranche 1 Typhoons will own the air defence role, and we are also looking at using them for Red Air along with the Hawk.”

At the time Bagwell did not say when, where or how the two additional Tranche 1 Typhoon units, since named as IX(B) Squadron and 12(B) Squadron to be based at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray and RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire respectively, would be formed. Two years on, there’s still intent but no tangible sign of a new squadron, a status reportedly due to a lack of pilots and personnel.

Typhoon is responsible for UK Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) with jets on permanent standby at Coningsby and Lossiemouth. RAF Typhoons were scrambled, usually to intercept prowling Russians, 42 times between March 2017 and March 2018.

Built by Short Brothers in Belfast, Northern Ireland between 1986 and 1993, the Tucano T1 is now in its twilight years of service with the Royal Air Force. When its replacement, the Texan T1 is fully operational the surviving Tucano T1s based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire will be retired. Ian Harding

Project Centurion

With the drawdown of Tornado escalating as its OSD in 2019 draws ever nearer, work is increasing on transferring weapons from the older jet to Typhoon Tranche 2 aircraft as well as integrating newer systems. That process, known as Project Centurion, is being accomplished in three phases referred to as enhancements. Phase One Enhancement (P1E) was itself divided into two sub-phases, P1Ea and P1Eb. Certified as complete in 2015, P1E worked towards transforming Tranche 2 jets from an air-defence platform with a limited air-to-ground capability to a swingrole aircraft. It included the integration of Raytheon’s Paveway IV precision-guided bombs (laser and GPS) and improved the human machine interface (HMI), reducing the pilot’s workload and the risk of human error while enhancing the functionality of systems like Link 16 datalink and the Litening III targeting pod, enabling the aircraft to engage multiple targets at the same time. Phase One Enhancement Further Work (P1Eb FW), as its name suggests, added further capabilities and refined earlier ones.

The next step, Phase Two Enhancement (P2E) involves initial integration of MBDA’s Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) and the MBDA Storm Shadow conventionally-armed stand-off missile, and continues the work on improving existing capabilities. The final enhancement programme, P3E, will see the final integration of Meteor and Storm Shadow and MBDA’s Brimstone II air-launched precision attack missile used for close air support. In March 2018, the United Kingdom awarded MBDA a £400 million contract for the capability sustainment programme (CSP) of the advanced Brimstone missile, to extend its service life beyond 2030. Under the CSP effort, MBDA will manufacture new Brimstone missiles for the UK armed forces to replenish the country’s inventory. The new-build Brimstone missiles will incorporate the improved functionalities off ered by the spiral upgrades of Brimstone that have taken place over recent years to meet UK operational requirements. These include the highly capable dual mode seeker with semi-active laser and millimetric wave radar guidance modes, enhanced autopilot, and the new insensitive munition compliant rocket motor and warhead.

The RAF Tornado GR4 Force remains deployed on combat operations in support of Operation Shader. This year is the 28th consecutive year that the Tornado GR Force has been continuously deployed on ops. Ian Harding

Beyond Centurion

When P3E is complete the Royal Air Force’s Typhoons will be fearsome opponents capable of deploying an array of the most modern weapons available anywhere in the world, but development of the type does not end there. Plans are in place by the government to buy Block 6 ASRAAM shortrange air-to-air missiles and a Europe-wide programme of Typhoon operators includes plans to upgrade the aircraft’s radar to the CAPTOR-E; an active electronically scanned array (AESA) system which has been flown on a BAE Systems test jet. The first customer to receive jets fitted with the CAPTOR-E radar will be Kuwait, but in the 2015 SDSR the upgrading of RAF Typhoons with an AESA radar was mentioned as an aspect of Joint Force 2025.

One of the RAF’s five Sentinel R1 aircraft is understood to have been withdrawn from service; the future of the other four aircraft seems set to come to an end in 2021 when the type will be withdrawn from service.

Not every system used on Tornado will, as things stand at the moment, migrate to Typhoon. Perhaps the most important of these missing capabilities is the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado or RAPTOR pod, which will not fit on the Typhoon’s centreline hard point, as used by the Tornado. UTC Aerospace Systems (UTAS) has proposed an upgraded version of the DB-110-equipped RAPTOR pod, designed to fit in the same space as Typhoon’s centreline fuel tank but there has not, as far as we know, been any off cial interest. The question of replacing RAPTOR was one of many the authors asked the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act; the government declined to answer any of them, citing cost as a reason for not providing answers.

Tornado adieu

Back in the 1980s Panavia’s Tornado was the biggest industrial programme in Europe – ever. It was built on three production lines in Germany, Britain and Italy. Nearly 1,000 have been produced (992 to be precise) and Britain built 120 for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its contribution as a tool of British foreign policy over the last three and a half decades has been immense. Perhaps the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier put it best in his address to the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) in London on March 27, 2018 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force: “As I speak it [Tornado] remains deployed overseas on live operations, just as it has been continuously for the last 28 years, in Syria, Iraq, many times, Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo. Just as it will do right up to its final days in RAF service next year, after 36 years of front-line duties – an impressive return on investment by any measure. Providing a powerful and constant demonstration of combat airpower flexibility, adaptability and utility, across the spectrum of conflict.”

The Royal Air Force fleet of Tornados is in its last year of operations and numbers 26 airworthy airframes. As of early July 2018, these are divided between two squadrons with 18 airworthy jets assigned to IX(B) and 31 Squadrons, both assigned to the Tornado main operating base at RAF Marham, Norfolk. Each squadron provides crews and aircraft for Operation Shader that sees eight Tornados deployed to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, for missions against ISIS in Syria. Until March 2018, 12(B) Squadron also flew Tornados from Marham, but it was disbanded and will reform, as mentioned earlier, on an as yet unannounced date as a Typhoon unit.

Army Air Corps Islander AL1 ZG845 is one of three set to be transferred to the Royal Air Force in 2018. Ian Harding

Tornado has received several stays of execution with its OSD being deferred repeatedly, usually because the integration of weapons onto its replacement platform, Typhoon, was not going according to plan. Now though, its days seem to be numbered. That does not mean that the UK is allowing its capabilities to degrade. Later in his speech to the RAeS, Hillier gave the recent integration of Leonardo’s BriteCloud Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) Expendable Active Decoy (EAD) onto Tornado as an example of that policy. The device has the capability to defeat the majority of RF-guided surface-toair and air-to-air threat systems.

Based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall, 750 Naval Air Squadron operates four Avenger T1s for training navigators and observers destined for service in the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Air Force. Ian Harding

Unmanned fixed-wing

The Royal Air Force’s entire fleet of ten MQ-9B Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) is assigned to two squadrons, numbers XIII and 39. The machine’s crews are based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, but the aircraft are based overseas at classified locations. Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait is known to be one of the system’s deployed locations where they are engaged in operations against ISIS. In the 2015 SDSR the government announced its determination to more than double the UK’s RPAS fleet, saying it would procure: “More than 20 new Protector armed remotely piloted aircraft, more than doubling the number of the Reaper aircraft which they replace.”

Protector RG1 is the name and designation selected by the UK MoD for the new system, a much re-designed MQ-9, and the aircraft is much more capable than the smaller, older MQ-9B Reaper. For a start it can fly for 40 hours at a stretch as opposed to the legacy Reaper’s 20 hours and as high as 50,000ft (15,240m). It is fitted with nine hardpoints for 500lb Paveway IV precision-guided munitions and MBDA Brimstone precision attack missiles as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.

As a consequence of the new requirement, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on November 16, 2016, and shed more light on the new capability: “The United Kingdom requested a possible sale of up to 26 certifiable Predator B remotely piloted aircraft (16 with the option for an additional ten); 12 advanced ground control stations (GCSs) (eight with the option for an additional four); four new launch and recovery element GCSs; four upgrades to existing Block 15 launch and recovery element GCSs (two with the option for an additional two); 25 multispectral targeting systems (12 plus two spares, with an option for an additional ten plus one spare); 25 APY-8 Lynx IIe Block 20A synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicators (SAR/GMTI) (12 plus two spares, with an option for an additional ten plus one spare); 86 embedded global positioning system/inertial guidance units (EGIs).” The number of 86 is reached by three systems per aircraft plus five spares in the first instance with an option for an additional 30 systems and three spares. This sale also includes sundry support equipment, spares and contractor logistics support for two or three years. The whole package was estimated to cost $1 billion.

Although America has provisionally approved the sale of 26 aircraft the UK has stressed that it requires 20, double the number of MQ-9s in service now and that will be retired from 2025 when the new system is in place. Air Chief Marshal Hillier has stressed the importance he places on obtaining capabilities as and when they are required rather than at some unspecified time in the future after a lengthy acquisition and development process. In his speech to the RAES in March 2018 he said: “No longer can we afford the luxury of extended reaction times to deal with changing strategic environments – they’ve already changed.” The MoD’s announcement of its acquisition of Certifiable Predator Bs (CPBs or MQ-9s) reflected that change in ethos: “The MoD has conducted a thorough assessment phase that has concluded that the CPB is the only system capable of achieving UK military type certification and delivering the Protector requirement within the required timescales. The only means of acquiring the CPB is through a contract with the US Department of Defense.” The £415 million deal was to start on September 30, 2016 with completion by October 31, 2023.

Tired and a little under specification for the modern battlespace, the RAF’s remaining six Sentry AEW1s are currently expected to soldier on until 2035. Former defence procurement minister, Guto Bebb said in March that no decision has been made with regard to the future delivery of the UK’s airborne warning and control capabilities, although a range of options are being explored.
A nice little mover, the brand-new Phenom T1 is operated by Affinity Flying Training Services to provide multi-engine flying training from RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire as part of the UK Military Flying Training System. Ken Withers
Affinity Flying Training Services began using its 23 newlyacquired Grob Prefect T1s for elementary flying training at RAF Barkston Heath and RAF Cranwell on April 1, 2018, also as part of the UK Military Flying Training System. Ken Withers

The designation ‘Certifiable Predator B’ reflects the fact that the new RPAS features a completely redesigned aircraft compliant with European flight regulations to allow operation within the continent’s boundaries in controlled airspace. The aircraft meets NATO STANAG 4671 airworthiness requirements with lightning protection, composite materials, and sense-and-avoid technology; changes from its predecessor include a 79ft (24m) wing with winglets and enough fuel for a 40-hour endurance at 50,000ft (15,240m). Features such as auto take-off and landing, all-weather capability, airframe de-icing, lightning protection and collision avoidance system are standard.

The Protector Combined Test Team (CTT), comprising pilots, sensor operators and engineers from the Royal Air Force, industry partners and the US Air Force is coordinating the testing and evaluation of the Protector system in the United States; two locations involved to date are General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc’s Gray Butte Flight Operations Center near Palmdale, California, and the US Army’s Laguna Army Airfield near Yuma, Arizona. An important aspect of the work of the CTT will be to ensure that Protector complies with national and international airspace and safety regulations. It will be the first aircraft of its kind to be certified in this way, allowing it to operate safely and effective ly in a wide variety of environments and locations, including support of humanitarian relief operations.

Shadow R1 ZZ416 is one of five mission system aircraft operated by 14 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. The exact systems aboard Shadow is classified but is known to include an L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensor and intelligence-gathering sensor systems almost certainly housed in the forward under fuselage canoe. Jerry Gunner

When it announced its acquisition of the new medium-altitude long-endurance RPAS in 2015 the government said the system would be in service from this year. However, the new National Security Capability Review (NSCR) says that will not now happen until mid-2024.

Royal Air Force Protector RG1s will be operated by 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’, one of the last two Tornado GR4 units in service.


The Thales Watchkeeper WK450 is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) based on Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450. Optimised for all-weather intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations, it is fitted with a dual-mode synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indication (SAR-GMTI) system that allows it to see through all weather conditions. The system has been plagued by problems throughout its lengthy development process and is still not fully operational; the latest suggestion is that it will finally enter service later in 2018. The system failed to reach its full operating capability 1 milestone in November 2017 as planned and consequently was not granted its release to service clearance or type certificate. The civil servant in charge of the programme, Permanent Secretary Stephen Lovegrove, wrote to the chair of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP explaining the situation but added: “Despite this, the capability could be deployed operationally without formal type certification should the operational imperative warrant the necessary operational emergency clearance.” The Army has ordered 54 with 30 to be available at any one time and the remainder in store awaiting activation. At least two aircraft were detached to Afghanistan in 2014 to provide force protection to British troops deployed there. During that deployment a Watchkeeper used its systems to mark a target before an attack was prosecuted by a Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper. The sole unit using the aircraft is 47 Regiment Royal Artillery based at Larkhill Barracks, Wiltshire.

Now here’s a new RAF aircraft that we’ve not seen much of yet; the Texan T1. Four aircraft have been delivered to RAF Valley, Anglesey where they are currently being used for the training of maintenance personnel. Flight operations are due to commence in the early part of 2019 when RAF instructors will commence the evaluation of the Texan T1 flying training course. All ten Texan T1s are due to be delivered to RAF Valley before then.

Non-kinetic warfare

In the November 2015 SDSR, in the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron laid out plans to further enhance Great Britain’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capacity. The Royal Air Force has acquired a reputation for excellence overall but nowhere is this truer than in the ISR and ISTAR communities. The oldest platform in the UK’s inventory, but the most recent to join, is the fleet of three RC-135W Rivet Joints that fly with 51 Squadron from RAF Waddington, the Air Force’s ISR hub. Part of the Air Seeker system, the three ageing Boeings have replaced a similar number of Nimrod R1s that retired in July 2011. Although advertised chiefly as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) system, it is no secret that the aircraft has an electronic attack capability and is capable of, and has been used for, jamming enemy signals. The purchase of Rivet Joint was another demonstration of the UK’s determination to purchase off -the-shelf systems whenever possible, both to save money (the three Rivet Joints are said to have cost the exchequer £634 million) by eliminating the need for the costly development of new systems and to assure the acquisition of systems that actually work. The UK has seemingly learned the lesson of the horrendously expensive and apparently poorly thought out Nimrod MRA4 programme. Having said that, one of the three former KC-135R tankers converted to Rivet Joint configuration for the Royal Air Force was grounded for many months at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk in late 2015 to 2016 for maintenance issues.

Typhoon T3 ZJ800/BC of 29 Squadron seen landing at RAF Coningsby on January 19, 2018; its final flight before being scrapped.

However, on December 15, 2017, some six months after the final aircraft was delivered to Waddington on June 7, 2017, the MoD announced that Rivet Joint had achieved full operational capability (FOC). Rivet Joint’s systems fit is, of course, highly classified, but we know, thanks to the MoD: “Onboard electro-optical sensors fitted in the aircraft trace geo-located signals within the electromagnetic spectrum and transfer the captured data to operators through secure satellite communication datalink.” Added to that is the attack capability and senior Royal Air Force off cers refer to the jet as an ISTAR rather than an ISR asset, suggesting a more proactive role than ‘merely’ hoovering up signals intelligence. Much has been made of the UK’s Rivet Joints’ inability to refuel from Britain’s tanker fleet, but the three jets should be seen as part of a worldwide fleet of 20 aircraft, Britain’s three and the 17 assigned to Air Combat Command’s 55th Wing based at Of utt Air Force Base, Nebraska. There is unlikely ever to be a situation where there are no American tankers available to fill up the Royal Air Force’s RC-135s. Similarly, the age of the fleet has raised eyebrows. This too is a red herring. The airframes, the ‘youngest’ KC-135s in the US fleet having been ordered in 1964, were stripped back to the bare bones and probably the only original component is the manufacturer’s construction plate. Testament to the improvement in capability is that crewmembers the authors have spoken to attest that the ‘new’ jet is ten times more capable than its predecessor. The aircraft is expected to soldier on to at least 2035.

The RAF’s first RC-135 Rivet Joint seen arriving on its delivery to RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire on October 23, 2013. Operated by 51 Squadron, all three aircraft are now in operation at Waddington. Mark Ayton


According to the 2015 SDSR, the OSD of Britain’s fleet of six (out of eight originally delivered) E-3D Sentry AEW1 Air Battle Management and Surveillance (ABM&S) aircraft is now 2035. They are old and outdated and the wisdom of upgrading them is moot. With these aircraft the age of the airframes is not an issue although they were delivered nearly 30 years ago. The problem is the systems onboard. As a matter of principle, the Royal Air Force does not change the designations of special mission aircraft like Sentry as they are upgraded. The Nimrods were R1s throughout their career so there is no clue as to their upgrade standard from their designation. However, the Sentry’s achilles heel is its radar, the APY-1/2 mechanically scanned radar array, mounted in the distinctive radome on top of the fuselage, is not as capable as modern active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars fitted to types in use with air forces around the world. It is particularly poor when required to detect slow moving, super-fast or stealthy targets. Speaking as recently as March 2018, former defence procurement minister, Guto Bebb MP said: “No decision has been made with regard to the future delivery of the UK’s airborne warning and control capabilities, although a range of options are [sic] being explored. I am withholding details of the level of funding allocated for the future delivery of the RAF’s airborne warning and control system as releasing them would prejudice commercial interests.” This is worrying. The Sentry’s OSD is still more than 16 years away so if it is to be capable of providing a meaningful capability in a world where likely opponents will be using fifth-generation fighters with high-speed air-to-air missiles it will need a much more powerful and sensitive radar.

The E-3 operates behind the forward edge of battle (FEBA) behind a shield of allied fighters to provide an air picture of the battle space. If approached by a threat its only defence is to turn tail and rely on its head start to make a quick getaway – and when it does that it’s not providing an air picture. The enemy doesn’t even need to shoot it down to take it out of the game. The presence of opposing forces with long-range missiles or stealth capabilities pushes the Sentry further away from its optimum patrol beat. A new system such as Boeing’s E-7 Wedgetail or Saab’s GlobalEye might make a lot of sense. The initial outlay would of course be considerable, but it might not be significantly more than transforming Sentry to a 21st Century system that would need to be retired soon after it achieved FOC. Britain’s Sentries are already inferior to those of France and the US in terms of computing power and communications capabilities and experts estimate it would take at least £2 billion to bring the UK’s six jets up to commonality with them. The Republic of Korea paid $1.6 billion for four E-7s in 2002 and the UK expects to pay £3 billion over the first ten years on its P-8A Poseidon fleet of nine jets. Saab confirms its GlobalEye system could in theory be fitted to Britain’s E-3s, but the airframes are not the expensive part of such a system and it would probably be better to buy everything new. Waiting for the US successor to Sentry, in whatever form it takes, is not an option. It could be decades before it is fielded. Australia, Turkey and Korea have borne the brunt of developing Wedgetail so the years of work integrating the system will not fall on Britain, which could be confident of buying a fleet of aircraft ready to integrate with F-35 and other American systems. Perhaps the most pressing ISTAR problem facing the UK is replacing this vital asset.

Paul Ridgway


Britain’s ISTAR hub, RAF Waddington, is home to three other fixed-wing types used for information gathering, two if one discounts the Reapers already discussed, which can carry a reconnaissance payload. Similar in concept and design to America’s MC-12W and also acquired as an urgent operational requirement, the first four Shadow R1s were delivered to the Lincolnshire base in 2009 and they have been in action in the Middle East ever since. The first four machines in full ISTAR configuration were converted from previously privately-owned Super King Air 350Cs modified by Raytheon at its special missions aircraft facility at Hawarden Airport, Flintshire, Wales. They were assigned to V(AC) Squadron, which also operates the Royal Air Force’s Sentinel R1 ISTAR platforms but when 14 Squadron was stood down on Tornado as a result of the 2010 SDSR, the machines were assigned to that squadron and still are. So great was the demand for the capabilities provided by the platform another aircraft was ordered and when finished it was delivered to Waddington just before Christmas 2011. A sixth machine has been operating from the Lincolnshire base since 2013 in an all-white colour scheme and with a civil registration despite having been entered on the military register some time ago. This aircraft has not, as these words are being written, been upgraded with special mission kit and has been used solely for aircrew training but the Royal Air Force website says: “The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review called for the trainer to receive a roll-on/roll-off mission suite that might enable its use in operational and training roles, plus the addition of two new airframes.” That information is not available in the version of SDSR available to the public. In the 2015 SDSR graphic of the ISTAR element of Joint Force 2025 the government showed eight Shadow aircraft as well as three Rivet Joints and six E-3D Sentries. The announcement of the two extra aircraft was not made until some months afterwards, but it emerged that two more Super King Airs were indeed to be obtained and modified to Shadow R2 standard. The exact technology aboard Shadow is classified but is known to include an L-3 Wescam MX- 15 electro-optical/infrared imaging system, integrated intelligence-gathering sensor systems, line-of-sight and satcom datalinks, and a 360° self-protection suite. The cabin contains three operator workstations and can accommodate another two mission personnel. There are two pilots.

Raytheon has declared that it: “will make the first incremental upgrade to the Shadow R1, and then explore new delivery solutions for the next variant, the R2”. The plan calls for the R1s to be upgraded to R2 standard and for a rolling upgrade to the type to keep it at the leading edge of such technology. Speaking in 2017 Air Commodore Ian Gale, the man in charge of Britain’s ISTAR community, said he expected the Shadow R2 to feature open-architecture mission configuration with increased levels of software automation. He said it would be: “A connected aeroplane with the best sensors available at the time”. The UK’s ground forces and allies are fans of the capabilities provided by Shadow, which is why it has been given a stay of execution until 2030 (it was first slated for retirement in 2014 at the end of UK involvement in Afghanistan). The same parties are as much or more enamoured of the last type based at Waddington, but that, at the moment, does not seem to have saved it from the chop.

Clean configuration but for two under wing drop tanks, a Typhoon FGR4 snakes through the Mach loop in north Wales during a training mission from RAF Coningsby. Paul Ridgway
Hawk T2 ZK019 in the markings of IV Squadron seen passing through the Mach loop in north Wales during a training mission from RAF Valley, Anglesey. The Hawk T2 is used for advanced fast jet training. Paul Ridgway


Royal Air Force Sentinel R1s have been in use in the Middle East pretty much continuously since the first one arrived at Waddington in January 2007; the other four followed over the next two years. Sir Stephen Hillier said in March 2018 that the type: “has spent 1,007 days continuously deployed on operations in the Middle East, providing up to 40% of coalition wide area surveillance”.

Performing a similar role to the US Air Force’s E-8C JSTARS, the Sentinel was originally known as ASTOR (Airborne STandOff Radar); it is based on the Bombardier Global Express ultra-long-range business jet. Four of the five British machines were modified by Raytheon and are maintained by them at Hawarden where much of the modification and subsequent work was and is being done. Raytheon touts Sentinel as complementary to Shadow and this is indeed how the systems work and Shadow will be less effective without Sentinel – or a replacement with similar or superior capabilities. In mission mode Sentinel typically flies for nine hours at around the 40,000ft mark, below satellites but above systems like Shadow, AWACS and Reaper RPAS to provide military commanders with a highresolution view of a large battlefield area. Its synthetic aperture radar/moving target indication (SAR/MTI) main radar uses active electronically scanned array technology. The airborne ASTOR crew, comprising a pilot, a co-pilot, an airborne mission commander (AMC) and two image analysts, is responsible for keeping track of moving ground vehicles in an enormous ground area of interest and building up a highly detailed synthetic aperture radar picture of huge swathes of the earth’s surface. This is done at standoff ranges away from the FEBA. A sophisticated defensive aids subsystem (DASS) comprising a towed radar decoy, missile approach warning system and chaff and flare dispensers, which can be operated in automatic, semi-automatic or manual modes is fitted. Sentinels have a secondary over-water maritime surveillance role and can track low and slow aerial targets as well. Collected data and or the intelligence gathered from it after examination by the on-board analysts is transmitted via Link 16 tactical datalink to interested commanders. Other reconnaissance aircraft, such as a Shadow or Reaper may be used to take a closer look with their electro-optical or tactical GMTI radar systems.

The Boeing E-7 Wedgetail is perhaps the most likely option being explored by the UK MoD as a replacement for the RAF’s Sentry AEW1 airborne warning and control aircraft.
Cpl Brenton Kwarterski/Royal Australian Air Force

The Sentinel system is more than the aeroplanes. The contract for the five jets included dedicated communications and command and control infrastructure, including eight transportable ground stations—two operational level ground stations (OLGS) and six mobile tactical ground stations (TGS). Ground-based operatives in these facilities, furnished by Link 16, can exploit and disseminate the Sentinel’s synthetic aperture radar imagery and GMTI tracking data.

Saab’s GlobalEye airborne warning and control aircraft is a candidate replacement for the RAF’s Sentry AEW1. Saab

However, there was no place for Sentinel in Joint Force 2025. The system has been under threat from very early in its service. The 2010 SDSR announced the government’s intention to: “withdraw the Sentinel airborne ground surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan” and the refrain has been repeated regularly ever since. As things stand the government seems set to divest itself of the outstanding facility it possesses in Sentinel in 2021 (the 2015 SDSR stated: “Sentinel will be extended in service into the next decade”), but the government continues to vacillate. The Royal Air Force and its allies desperately want to hang on to the capability and the government continues to spend money on it. In October 2016 Minister for Defence Procurement Harriet Baldwin MP announced the Integrated Sentinel Support Solution, a £131.5 million support contract for Sentinel, with Raytheon saying: “Sentinel aircraft provide vital intelligence to our armed forces, giving them the ability to make decisions that help keep Britain safe, including on current operations against Daesh”. This was spun as extra money to keep the aircraft going until the new OSD of 2021. No mention was made of the fact that one of the five jets had already been withdrawn from service. Jane’s Defence Weekly announced in June 2017 that a plea from Air Force chiefs for a stay of execution for the fleet had fallen on deaf government ears. However, a year later another contract with Raytheon is believed to have been signed to upgrade the aircraft’s increasingly obsolescent radars under a plan dubbed the Integrated Radar Programme. No announcement has been made on the Raytheon proposal as part of the Sentinel sustainment plan. Britain has committed to four of its aircraft being completely overhauled by Raytheon and has taken an option on having the fifth one done too. Three aircraft have already undergone the treatment. It seems pointless to carry out that work on an aircraft that is to be sold and Raytheon is at pains to point out that the aircraft could be extensively further modified and soldier on for years. One of the upgrades is integrating a DB- 110-equipped reconnaissance pod – a version of the RAPTOR capability Britain will lose when Tornado retires. One solution would be to transfer the entire system to NATO or another ally that can afford to operate it. Commanders would say they cannot do without it.

Other systems

Not all of Britain’s ISR assets are as obvious as Waddington’s triumvirate of snoopers. For many years the Army has maintained a fleet of Britten- Norman Islanders and Defenders, but they are being transferred to the Royal Air Force later this year. The three operational Islanders and possibly the nine Defenders will be assigned to the Royal Air Force’s V(AC) Squadron, but they will definitely fly from the nation’s ISTAR hub at RAF Waddington, consolidating every asset with a similar role at the base.

Until recently three BN-2T Islander CC2s were assigned to RAF Northolt’s Station Flight and were based at the west London airfield for unspecified duties, believed to be for the intelligence services. However, they have recently been disposed of and replaced by civilian registered Piper PA-31- 310 Navajo Cs owned by a private contractor. Like the Islanders they replaced, the Navajo’s equipment fit is unknown, but they do have under-nose multi-spectral sensor turrets.


One hundred years after its foundation, the Royal Air Force is reaching for the stars. In March 2018 the Chief of the Air Staff announced that a trial was underway of a reconnaissance satellite system, Carbonite-2, that will beam high-quality imagery and 3D video footage directly into the cockpits of the nation’s warplanes from space. The MoD said: “the 100kg [220lb] spacecraft, roughly the size of an average household washing machine, carries an off -the-shelf telescope and HD video camera, both of which have been adapted for a space environment and integrated into a custom-built framework. The imaging system is designed to deliver highresolution images and colour HD video clips with a swathe width of 5km [3.1 miles]”.

Nearer the Earth’s surface, the Royal Air Force will operate a small fleet of three Airbus High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) Zephyr-8 aircraft. In the 2015 SDSR, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the acquisition of: “British-designed unmanned aircraft that will fly at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and allow us to monitor our adversaries for weeks on end, providing critical intelligence for our armed forces.” An order for two Zephyr-8s was announced the following year and one for another soon thereafter. During the day Zephyr-8 uses state-of-the-art solar cells incorporated in the structure of its wings to recharge high-power lithium-sulphur batteries and drive two propellers. At night, the energy stored in the batteries is sufficient to maintain altitude. Zephyr-8 has a wingspan of 28m (92ft) but weighs only 60kg (132lb). It will have a useable payload of around 5kg (11lb).

Military flight training system: fixed wing

For several years the UK’s government has delegated pilot training to private companies that contract to provide a total training package at a fixed price. After a competition in late 2012 the Lockheed Martin-Babcock consortium running the UK Military Flying Training System (UK MFTS) awarded Afinity Flying Training Services, another consortium comprising KBR and Elbit systems a $500 million contract to provide 38 new training aircraft. In April 2019 Affinity began using its 23 newly-acquired Grob Prefect T1s for the elementary flying training course and five Embraer Phenom T1s to deliver multi-engine flying training from RAF Cranwell and RAF Barkston Heath both in Lincolnshire. Ten Beech Texan TIs will be used for the basic fast jet training course from RAF Valley alongside the RAF’s Hawk T2s used for the advanced fast jet training course. When the Texan is fully operational the surviving Tucano T1s based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire will be retired and the base will close. The MoD is not forthcoming on a likely date for that eventuality and the four Texans delivered so far remain on the ground at RAF Valley as ground training instructional airframes.

The Royal Navy continues to operate a small fleet of Grob G115E Tutors for elementary flying training and four Beech Avenger T1s delivered in June 2011 for training navigators and observers destined for service in Merlins, Wildcats and Sea Kings.

Military flight training system: rotary wing

In a similar vein to the fixed-wing components of UK MFTS, the rotary-wing component provides helicopter training across all three of the United Kingdom’s armed services, the Royal Navy, Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force. Following a competitive procurement process, on May 16, 2016, Airbus Helicopters signed a contract valued at £500 million over 17 years to deliver 29 H135 Juno HT1s and three hoist-equipped H145 Jupiter HT1s with full associated support services. All aircraft were delivered via Airbus Helicopters’ facility at Kidlington Airport in Oxfordshire. This contract will see 286 students trained annually by 161 instructors. These aircraft replaced the 34 Squirrel HT1s and 11 Bell 412EPs formerly in service with the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at RAF Shawbury, Shropshire and Army Air Corps (AAC) Middle Wallop.

Under the contract, Airbus Helicopters will deliver 28,000 flying hours per year to meet the UK MFTS rotary wing training requirement, which commenced on April 1, 2018. Ascent will deliver 2,500 hours flight training from RAF Valley in Anglesey and 25,500 hours from RAF Shawbury in Shropshire. The three H145s will be specifically used to conduct mountain and maritime training.

With regard to the aircraft formerly operated by the DHFS, many were returned to Cobham Group for storage at their facilities at Bournemouth Airport in Dorset, some were returned to service with Cobham Helicopters at their new helicopter academy at Newquay Cornwall Airport, whilst some have been sold.

Next year, the RAF is expected to receive the first of nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, which will enter RAF service with 120 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray.
Matthew Clements