The UK Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the Royal Air Force’s Raytheon Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft will continue to be operated in Iraq and Syria until 2016, despite uncertainty surrounding the fleet's lifespan.
Sentinel has been operating in support of Operation Shader – the UK’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State insurgents that began in September 2014 – but rumours had surfaced the type would be withdrawn from operations in the near future.
However, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on 26 September that Sentinel would remain in its surveillance role in support of the mission until 2016, in turn confirming the UK will continue to operate Operation Shader until at least that date.
By the government’s own admission, the five-strong Sentinel fleet provides the UK’s only long-range, wide-area battlefield reconnaissance capability, with the aircraft currently flying three missions per week.
“The fight against ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is our top operational priority and Britain is playing a vital role,” Fallon says.
He adds that the UK has conducted more than 300 strikes, flown almost a third of all coalition surveillance flights and trained more than 2,000 local troops.
“In 2014, ISIL enjoyed near total freedom of movement across much of Iraq but we’ve helped stop the jihadist advance, reclaiming a quarter of ISIL-held territory,” Fallon says. “Now we must build on this progress. We will not let up until we have defeated this barbaric terrorist organisation.”
At the DSEI exhibition in London in September, Wg Cdr David Kane, in charge of the RAF's 5 Sqn, called for Sentinel to remain in service, claiming “the pull from theatre is to keep it there”.
Sentinel’s out-of-service date was extended from 2015 to 2018, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in 2014, but Raytheon believes that the aircraft could be operated up to 2025.
Any decision on a life extension is expected to be contained in the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is due to be released in November.
One Sentinel aircraft is undergoing full strip-down maintenance at the moment, which is expected to take 12 months, and another is undergoing routine maintenance. There is a planned upgrade schedule for all five, but Kane notes that the demand for the aircraft has added strain to the fleet.