RAF ISTAR watch: a Shadowy arrival, and saving Sentinel

Punchily described as being the UK Royal Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) hub, the service’s Waddington base in Lincolnshire is a bit of a paradox.

Located on a hilltop not far from the cathedral city of Lincoln, it’s currently home to three types: the Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft, the Sentinel R1 and the Shadow R1: respectively adapted by Raytheon from the Bombardier Global Express and Beechcraft King Air 350CER platforms.

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Of course, it’s not that simple in reality. The base’s annual air show attracted approaching 150,000 public visitors over the course of last weekend, but none of them saw the secretive Shadows flown by 14 Sqn (Crown Copyright file image above shows one in Afghanistan). Their mission, it appears, is a bit too secret, despite the fact that a sixth example is due to land at the site later this month.

Also not welcoming public gaze was the mission control element for the RAF’s General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Reaper remotely piloted air systems, which are flown over Afghanistan and are definitely not “drones”.

One system that the service is definitely talking up, however, is the Sentinel, which recently completed a four-month stint in Senegal, supporting France’s Serval campaign in Mali. Providing synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indication imagery the likes of which are only otherwise available from the US Air Force’s Lockheed U-2s and Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS platforms, the five-strong fleet was in late 2010 put at notice of early retirement. You can read why its operational performance suggests that this might not have been a sound idea here.

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By the time the next Waddington show rolls around, 51 Sqn will have received the first aircraft to replace its retired Nimrod R1s via the Airseeker programme. Eventually, three RC-135W Rivet Joints will be delivering electronic intelligence product in support of operations, but we shouldn’t hold out too much hope of getting tours of inside the jet.

Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered what happened to the RAF’s seventh E-3D, it’s looking a bit sorry for itself these days. If you look really carefully at the below image you might just spot that one or two parts have been liberated from the former ZH105 for use as spares, while Northrop is running long-term tests on its airframe to inform through-life maintenance activities on the survivors.

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