Royal Air Force lifts lid on Sentinel's role in Mali

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The UK Royal Air Force has detailed the contribution made by its Sentinel R1 ground surveillance aircraft during France's Operation Serval activity in Mali earlier this year, as prime contractor Raytheon has achieved a notable training milestone in support of its 5(AC) Sqn.

During a four-month detachment to Dakar in Senegal launched in late January, Sentinel aircraft flew 66 sorties, totalling a combined 697h, says British Army Maj Seymour Bailey, operations officer for the RAF unit based at Waddington, Lincolnshire. Services provided by its roughly 40 deployed personnel included delivering 100 detailed intelligence reports to French commanders, he says.

 

Craig Hoyle/Flightglobal

Five Sentinel R1 aircraft are operated by Waddington-based 5 Sqn

Typically prepared by ground-based image analysts using a deployed tactical ground station within 6-8h of an aircraft landing, individual reports included providing annotated synthetic aperture radar imagery of points of interest to support activities by the French armed forces against Islamist militants. This included surveying a dirt landing strip in Tessalit, to assess whether tactical transport aircraft would be able to land safely. Other points of interest included the strategic town of Gao and the Mali/Niger border, where rebel activity was supported by crossing points and resupply boats.

As during the Sentinel's previous use under combat conditions in Afghanistan and Libya, the aircraft's Raytheon dual-mode radar was also used in its ground moving target indication mode to track vehicle movements and build so-called "pattern of life" data. Operators on board the aircraft also were in real-time voice contact with French troops during some missions.

"We were the 'find' phase of the operation," says Bailey. "Persistence over the target is critical. We could look long and far, and cross-cue other assets into suspicious activity for positive identification."

Meanwhile, Raytheon's head of training for the airborne standoff radar system programme, Martin Johnston, says the company has recently trained its 1,000th student for the UK. The company provides five full-time instructors at 5 Sqn's RAF Waddington home, with RAF pilots also receiving simulator-based training with CAE in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.

Adapted from Bombardier's Global Express business jet, the Sentinel has a flight endurance of up to 11h. Flown with two pilots, with additional crew members comprising an airborne mission commander and two airborne image analysts, the system has been in operational use since late 2008, with five aircraft delivered.

Previously slated for early retirement following the completion of UK combat involvement in Afghanistan, the Sentinel's ability to respond to contingencies in Libya and Mali - where an aircraft was in theatre within 48h of an order to move - has led chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton to suggest that the fleet could be retained through the next Strategic Defence and Security Review, planned to conclude during 2015. One possible role would be in providing a manned adjunct to NATO's future Alliance Ground Surveillance fleet of five Northrop Grumman Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles, he says.