Raytheon UK is eyeing possible applications for the Royal Air Force's Sentinel and Shadow surveillance aircraft, with both types expected to be retired once they are no longer required to support coalition activities in Afghanistan.
Representing combined fleets of 10 aircraft, the manned types provide a key part of the RAF's intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability.
The Sentinel R1 force comprises five Bombardier Global Express business jets modified to carry a Raytheon synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication sensor and onboard stations for two image analysts. The aircraft forms part of the UK's Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR) system, along with supporting ground elements.
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Assigned to the RAF's 5 Sqn at Waddington, Lincolnshire, Sentinels have been operating over Afghanistan since November 2008, and were also deployed to the Mediterranean region from March 2011 to support the multinational effort to protect Libyan civilians.
The aircraft amassed more than 2,000 operational hours in support of the Libya campaign, with some individual sorties lasting more than 12h, says Sqn Ldr Chris Melville, 5 Sqn chief of staff.
Image analysts provided rapid "first-look" intelligence product while airborne, with additional work performed post-flight using new portable integrated mission-planner stations. Key tasks included collecting so-called pattern-of-life data, performing post-strike damage assessment of targets including airfield infrastructure, determining the forward edge of the battle area and hunting for "Scud" missile launchers, Melville says.
"The Libya operation proved the versatility and utility of the aircraft," says Melville. "We were massively in demand from coalition partners."
The RAF says its Sentinel R1s achieved a "duty carried-out" rate of more than 95% while being flown simultaneously over Libya and Afghanistan, and at twice the contracted rate.
With the ASTOR capability having been deemed surplus to requirements post-Afghanistan during the UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review of late 2010, two possible new roles have been suggested. Raytheon believes the system could deliver the UK's contribution to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance system, which will also include an expected five radar-equipped Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned air vehicles.
Paul Francis, Raytheon UK's head of airborne solutions, says the Sentinel's dual-mode radar could also possibly be given software-based changes to enable it to provide a maritime patrol capability to search for, track and identify surface vessels.
Raytheon is under contract to provide logistics support for the Sentinel fleet until September 2016, and recently completed a build-standardisation programme on the fleet, performed at its Broughton site in north Wales. The RAF re-accepted the last of these in January, and deployed the aircraft - ZJ690 - in support of its Operation "Herrick" mission in Afghanistan less than two weeks later.
The UK's Defence Equipment and Support organisation says the undisclosed enhancements will provide "a much more robust ISTAR capability to support operations".
Meanwhile, a fifth Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350CER-based Shadow R1 was delivered to the RAF's 14 Sqn at Waddington last December. The unit's earlier examples have now all passed through a "return to works" programme at Broughton, with the process having added some undisclosed new capabilities.
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The RAF's Shadow R1 fleet was acquired to support operations in Afghanistan
Acquired under urgent operational requirement deals to support the Afghanistan campaign, the Shadow R1 carries an L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensor payload, satellite communications equipment and up to three onboard operators. If retained long-term, the type could possibly also provide a maritime patrol capability by being equipped with Raytheon's SeaVue radar, Francis says.