RAF plans to fill short-term reconnaissance gap with in-service systems when PR9s retire from service next year
The UK Royal Air Force will not replace its five Canberra PR9 strategic reconnaissance aircraft when they are removed from service in April 2006, having scrapped earlier plans to procure new aircraft on cost grounds.
The UK Ministry of Defence had launched a number of studies to look at replacements for the RAF Marham-based Canberras before launching a defence review in mid-2003, including medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned air vehicles and Bombardier's Global Express business jet. The Canberras' US-supplied rapid deployment electro-optical system and near-real-time datalinks could have been transferred to the new aircraft, or installed in BAE Systems' Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft. Another possibility was to extend operations of 39 Squadron's Canberras beyond 2006, but although this was technically possible, the MoD decided it would be too expensive.
The RAF says there will be "no direct one-for-one replacement" for the Canberra, and it will attempt to fill the reconnaissance gap using in-service systems for the short term. Eight Goodrich RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado) systems assigned to II and 13 Squadrons at RAF Marham will assume some of the PR9's real-time surveillance tasks when their datalinks are fully functional, but no decision has been made on how to replace the PR-9's unique mapping capabilities. UAVs and space platforms are possible solutions.
In RAF use since 1951, the Canberra is still in operational demand, and PR9s are due to deploy to Oman early this year to support the US-led hunt for Al Qaeda and to support NATO peacekeeping activities in Afghanistan.
Further studies into the Canberra replacement have grown into a wider intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance review aimed at medium- and long-term solutions. "We are aware we are losing a very valuable asset, but the Canberra is only one form of our reconnaissance capability," says the RAF. "There is a growing role for fast jets and other systems are coming on line, as well as space and coalition assets."
The UK has retired from service the Tornado infrared (IR) reconnaissance system used by GR4As based at RAF Marham. Funding for the asset, which used a sideways-looking IR sensor and a down-looking IR linescanner, was withdrawn from 1 September.
TIM RIPLEY / LONDON
Source: Flight International