After almost a decade in Afghanistan, the British armed forces have honed their operational activities and equipment for the fight against the Taliban: a task which is acknowledged as the Ministry of Defence's number one priority.
In the air domain, the UK's commitment to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is delivered by close air support aircraft, helicopters, transports and an increasingly sophisticated range of surveillance assets that are proving vital in supporting the day-to-day activities of troops on the ground.
The development "has involved switching the focus of our combat air elements from a pure kinetic focus to the delivery of an adaptable, multi-role 'Combat-ISTAR' capability," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. Supported by "a constellation of capability, from space to signals intelligence", the service is now delivering effects that range from the use of non-lethal "shows of force" to deter enemy activity to "swift, discriminatory and assured precise attacks on critical targets".
"Our own strategic analysis completed in the last few months has indicated that we needed a conceptual change in direction, switching the emphasis from pure precision attack to focus more acutely on exploiting the information space," Dalton said during a mid-February speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Sitting comfortably with the campaign objectives set by ISAF commander US Army Gen Stanley McChrystal, the UK model relies on types as diverse as the Panavia Tornado GR4, General Atomics Reaper remotely piloted aircraft and specially modified Beechcraft King Air 350ERs.
The RAF offered Flight International a rare opportunity to discuss detailed workings of the combat ISTAR concept with the senior officer most recently tasked with delivering the UK's air contribution to the Afghanistan campaign.
Air Cdre Stu Atha returned to the UK in mid-February after completing a nine-month stint as both its regional air component commander and the air officer commanding its 83 Expeditionary Air Group in Afghanistan. His work was centred at the US Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid air base, Qatar.
With his responsibilities also having covered UK air activities in Iraq and from the Gulf of Oman down through the Horn of Africa, Atha's insight is at odds with commentators who charge that air power, and the RAF in particular, have failed to adequately respond to the needs of such a counter-insurgency operation.
"My focus and my main effort was Afghanistan," he says. "My job was to make sure that all UK air activity was conducted in accordance with our intent and aligned with our objectives."
In total, his remit covered just over 1,000 personnel. Around half of these are in Afghanistan, but virtually all work in support of the mission in that country. "Although it's focused in Afghanistan, a lot of the operational effect is actually delivered elsewhere."
Atha uses as an example the RAF's 39 Sqn, which controls Reaper air vehicles launched from Kandahar airfield from the US Air Force's Creech AFB in Nevada.
"It's a new way of operating," he says. "How do you support, command and exploit an airframe that is physically at Kandahar, operates in support of troops in Helmand, has its various sensors exploited in the UK and is operated in America? Also, it's commanded in the Gulf and tasked in Kabul.
"When I ask questions about have we been here or done this before, I ring up a guy in Las Vegas to get that advice. It's a paradox that your theatre experts are 8,000 miles distant."
The introduction of the Reaper has delivered a new capability for UK forces in Afghanistan, Atha says. "You combine the range of reconnaissance and surveillance systems on board with its persistence, and then put on your insurance policy, which is the attack capability. When you put the UK judgement, innovation, imagination and invention in how we exploit these capabilities you get a potent weapon system.
"There are times when lethal firepower is precisely what's required, and the judgement with which it is wielded is a UK strength. They will only drop when they judge it to be appropriate. In a counter-insurgency rules of engagement are not enough - you have got to understand intent."
Other efforts in the counter-IED mission have included in-country trials with systems including BAE Systems' Herti unmanned air vehicle. "Herti has potential, combined with change detection software," Atha says.
The UK is now using a wide range of ISR aircraft in Afghanistan, with these also including Royal Navy Westland Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control helicopters and Sentinel R1 aircraft which form part of its airborne standoff radar (ASTOR) system, assigned to the RAF's 5(AC) Sqn.
Operational use of the Sentinel aircraft, a Bombardier Global Express business jet modified for ground surveillance tasks, has been accelerated to support ISAF. The type has performed work such as gathering "pattern of life" data in advance of operations such as the ongoing Moshtarak offensive in Helmand province.
"ASTOR will remain in theatre for the foreseeable future," says Atha. "It is another capability the UK contributes that is not just about making up the numbers - it is world class." Other examples include the British Aerospace Nimrod R1, which despite its ageing airframe delivers cutting-edge SIGINT services.
"Strategic, wide-area search capabilities, like ASTOR or Nimrod R1, are being used routinely to cue combat-ISTAR platforms like the Reaper on to targets of interest," says Dalton. "Reaper is only the 200-mile physical capability at the end of an 18,000-mile space and cyber link stretching back to the continental USA and forwards to analysis units in the UK."
A "well respected and much wanted capability", the R1 is due for replacement soon, with military sources suggesting earlier this year that a deal to acquire aircraft prepared to the USAF's Boeing 707-based RC-135 Rivet Joint configuration was close to contract signature. However, no announcement has yet been made, and the requirement could well be swept into the UK's next Strategic Defence Review, expected to commence later this year.
The RAF is facing a gap in maritime patrol aircraft cover in the UK caused by the earlier than expected retirement on 31 March of its last Nimrod MR2s. Flown in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns from 2001, these used L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensor turrets to provide overland surveillance, and also delivered communications rebroadcast duties.
Use of the MR2 fleet was scaled back following the loss of aircraft XV230 and 14 UK personnel in a mid-air explosion over Afghanistan in 2006, and theatre use of the type ceased in March 2009 while fleet-wide safety modifications were implemented.
One RAF source describes the use of the MR2 as "a rather expensive way of carrying a video camera", and notes that its capabilities have since been usurped by new assets. These are believed to include a small fleet of King Air 350ER-based Shadow R1s; an aircraft type about which the UK has provided no official details.
"What we will put into Afghanistan is any capability that will add value to what we are doing," Atha says.
In a related effort to boost the use of collected information across ISAF, the UK is running an activity dubbed the British integrated ISR support to operations, or BIISTO project. This seeks to ensure that information collected by airborne assets can be properly exploited and disseminated among all coalition nations.
"There is much more to do to exploit the potential of these platforms," says Atha. "What we are trying to do is establish fusion centres on a 'ring main', so that information can be shared. It's about influencing the coalition, Kabul and the CAOC, and trying to develop cross-cueing capabilities to be exploited by each of the 43 nations," he says.
Dalton believes such skills will be vital in a world 'beyond Afghanistan'. "I believe that it will be air power's ability to maximise its comparative advantage and to dominate the information space that will underwrite its future utility as a useful, credible, viable and essential tool in both the influence and hard elements of national power," he says.
UK REAPER FORCE RAMPS UP
ACQUIRED under an urgent operational requirement deal and first deployed in late 2007, the UK Royal Air Force's General Atomics Reapers have now logged over 8,000 flight hours in the skies above Afghanistan.
Roughly the same size as a Fairchild A-10 ground attack aircraft and with a take-off weight of around 4,500kg (10,000lb), the MQ-9 platform is now described by the RAF and the US Air Force as a remotely piloted aircraft.
The new tag comes from a desire to highlight that the Reaper system is by no means an unmanned capability. The UK has around 100 personnel on its 39 Sqn, including 17 two-person aircrews for its five air vehicles, and it is to double both complements under a follow-on deal announced in December.
In common with the USAF, the UK controls its Reapers from Creech AFB in Nevada via a satellite link with the Afghan theatre, with a deployed team of two people responsible for launch and recovery activities in the country.
Typically flown at an altitude of around 20,000ft (6,100m), the Reaper's primary task is to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services using its electro-optical/infrared sensor and synthetic aperture radar payload, says 39 Sqn officer commanding Wg Cdr Jules Ball. Tasks include providing over-watch for ground forces, and also supporting efforts to counter the threat posed to them by improvised explosive devices.
Ball says the operational experience gained by his unit so far means "my analysts can tell the difference between a farmer digging and insurgents".
Flown out of Kandahar airfield and now delivering constant operations, the Reaper's 250kt (462km/h) cruise speed means it can "get to the majority of the [Afghanistan] operating area in suitable time," says Ball.
Around 85% of UK sorties do not result in the use of any of the aircraft's normal load of four Lockheed Martin AGM-114P Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and two GBU-12 226kg laser-guided bombs. Considerations such as avoiding civilian casualties and collateral damage always take precedence, Ball notes. "We are there to save lives and make a difference."
Ball says the UK will have no difficulty in expanding the strength of its Reaper force. All of 39 Sqn's current aircrew bring previous frontline experience from manned types, and he notes: "Eight have asked to extend further since I took command last August. The majority want to stay".
RAF: FAST JETS VITAL TO SUCCESS IN AFGHANISTAN
THE ROYAL Air Force's new operating concept includes the use of fast jet assets as a means of gathering intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data.
Sent to Afghanistan late last year as replacements for the UK's BAE Systems Harrier GR7/9s, the RAF's Panavia Tornado GR4s have provided a "seamless" transition, according to Air Cdre Stu Atha, who recently completed a tour as the UK's air component commander for the Gulf region.
"I can't tell you how impressed I've been with the aircraft and the range of capabilities that it's brought," he says, singling out the type's MBDA dual-mode Brimstone air-to-surface missile and Goodrich Raptor reconnaissance pod.
With the UK's defence budget under extreme pressure, some figures have floated the idea of replacing types such as the Harrier and Tornado in Afghanistan with a dedicated counter-insurgency asset, such as an armed Shorts Tucano turboprop.
"If we had unlimited coffers I would surely love to have a Tucano-type capability," says Atha. "But you need to focus on platforms that have broad utility and can be adapted from the needs of Afghanistan to the needs of the uncertain future."
Chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton is more dismissive of the suggestion, saying that it would cost lives on the ground and damage the UK's credibility and influence within the coalition now operating in Afghanistan.
"Light aircraft just don't stack up, in terms of speed of response, flexibility, size of weapon-load carried and essential protection and adaptability that is required," he says. "We simply wouldn't be able to guarantee meeting the current standard for air support with a less capable aircraft."
Speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last month, Dalton also cautioned that "a bespoke counter-insurgency force with niche capabilities won't provide policy-makers or political decision takers with a flexible military lever of power for the mid- to long-term."
The UK should instead continue to invest in types such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will act as a "hugely capable ISTAR hub". Such air power is not "an optional luxury", he argues, but "provides the essential foundation for any sort of military endeavour".