Will bringing the UK Royal Air Force's intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets under a unified command pay off?

Now approaching the first anniversary of its formation, the Royal Air Force's No 3 Group already finds itself at the heart of UK ambitions to field network-enabled capability (NEC) across its armed forces. Created in October 2003, the group is responsible for pulling together the RAF's intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and battle management assets as part of an integrated force.

Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq proved catalysts for this reorganisation, which will accelerate as the group also prepares to bring Raytheon's Sentinel R1 airborne stand-off radar (ASTOR) aircraft into service next year. BAE Systems' Nimrod MRA4 will follow later this decade.

Air Vice Marshal Andy White says the UK's growing emphasis on effects-based warfare was a major driver behind the RAF's increased emphasis on ISTAR and battle management. "In the past the focus was on destroying things. These days we are a little smarter in achieving effect and not necessarily killing anybody or destroying anything," he says.

"My group's mission is to seek maximum integration of our platforms and personnel to generate shared situational awareness, and flexible command-and-control structures in support of the delivery of operational effect," White says. "My staff focus on delivering, not just supporting, different aircraft platforms. The next step is cultural, to ensure units are configured to best meet changes and how we deliver capabilities. Also, we will be looking at how we deliver logistic support to bring about a change in shape and size of frontline bases."

The key tool for modern command and battlespace management are inter-connected recognised operating pictures, believes White. These are generated and maintained by datalink, such as the Link 16 Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS). The UK is in the process of developing the capability to create air, land, maritime, logistic and special forces environment pictures, which will feed into an over-arching joint operating picture. "On the air and maritime side we have always had to have recognised environment pictures," says White. "But there is still some way to go with the land picture. The spiral development route is the best cause for hope. We've had some remarkable successes with simple solutions connecting strategic assets. The way we are going is incremental - not a big bang."

While headquartered at RAF High Wycombe, the centre of gravity of 3 Group is now at RAF Waddington and the decision to locate the bulk of the group's ground-based air control units, including deployable elements, at nearby RAF Scampton is aimed at increasing its cohesion and operational effectiveness. "Waddington is our ISTAR hub," says White. "The group would not work so well if it was all split up, and the Air Warfare Centre [at Waddington] works hand in glove with certain elements of my group."

Waddington station commander Grp Capt Jeremy Fradgley says: "The main effort of the 2,350 people here is expeditionary operations and that is here to stay. We are fully committed to supporting the UK's contribution to the global war on terrorism and we are likely to be doing so for some time."

Greater co-ordination

The station has been home to the RAF's fleet of seven Boeing E-3D airborne warning and control system (AWACS)aircraft for over a decade and they have been at the forefront of the UK's NEC revolution. As part of an urgent operational requirement emerging from the Afghanistan conflict, an extra workstation and controller have been added to the aircraft to enhance the ability of the RAF to bring attack aircraft to bear in land operations.

Flt Lt Nick Short, an E-3D tactical director with 8 Sqn, says: "We now have a fighter controller who does the air-to-air, a second controller who does air-to-air refuelling and other jobs, and the third controller who does strike [against ground targets]."

Much of the work involved in co-ordinating air-to-ground operations is still done manually over voice radios, but work is under way to automate this - a process that will accelerate as more fast-jet strike aircraft start to receive information from troops on the ground via Link 16 datalinks. "During Operation Telic [in Iraq] we looked to put ground tracks [showing enemy forces] on the air picture," says Short. "This would involve a guy on the ground putting in a track and sending it to the Combined Air Operations Centre [CAOC], which would authorise the information as a valid target. This is very complex and even though we looked into it we didn't have the time to actually make it happen."

The AWACS force is stepping up co-ordination with the British Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade and other Joint Helicopter Command units to help enhance air-ground integration. It is also looking to increase co-operation with the RAF's Sepecat Jaguar ground-attack aircraft and the Army Air Corps' Boeing/Westland Apache AH1 attack helicopters to allow these to communicate with E-3Ds via their improved data modems (IDM).

Sustaining a continuous presence in the Middle East put a great strain on the RAF's two Sentry squadrons. "We need to allow a better rotation pattern, so the same old people are not being deployed again and again," says Fradgley. "It used to be two crews a year going through training, where the course is six months long. We have now increased to three courses a year, and are for the first time running concurrent air and ground phases. This is an intensive effort."

Waddington is also home to the UK's only airborne combat support squadron, which flies three BAE Nimrod R1s. Since 51 Sqn moved to the Lincolnshire station in 1995 it has lost much of its mantle as a secret squadron, which members say was a Cold War anachronism. "We are now part of the package. No [Panavia] Tornado or Eurofighter Typhoon pilot would want to go into battle without what we do," says Flt Lt Dom Walden. "In the last few years we have been opening up and becoming part of the wider RAF. We are moving towards network-centric collaborative targeting. During the war phase of Operation Telic last year we got heavily involved in passing targets to the command chain in the CAOC. It is easier to exploit information if we can package it on aircraft - we have 27 crew members on a Nimrod R1."

The co-location of the squadron at Waddington has eased the integration of JTIDS datalinks into the Nimrod R1 fleet, transforming its connectivity. "When we went to war, we went with the E-3 guys. We briefed at the same time, we know the people, we talk about things and that adds to the information flow," says Walden. "When we got JTIDS, the E-3D was the forerunner and we were able to build in that experience."

The RAF has recently launched Project Helix to sustain the capability currently provided by the Nimrod R1 up to 2025. The key to the project is improving the numbers and availability of these key battle-winning assets, say 3 Group officers. The 51 Sqn has its own mission-systems design authority, manned by industrial civil servants, and Fradgley praises their ability to take commercial-off-the shelf or government-furnished equipment and fit this into the aircraft for operations against new and emerging threats.

New skills

The ASTOR-equipped 5 (AC) Sqn is new  to Waddington, with the unit to launch its first conversion course this month at a new training complex built by Raytheon Systems. When the squadron reaches full operating capability in 2008 more than 300 RAF and army personnel will be attached to it, says Sqn Ldr Gordon McNair, the squadron's senior engineering officer.

The ability of the ASTOR system to provide moving target indicator (MTI) data and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) imagery over wide areas will provide the UK with a new capability and the personnel assigned to 5 (AC) Sqn are having to acquire new skills. "We are going for a mix of RAF and army personnel to provide the airborne mission analyst crew," says McNair. "Ground MTI is effectively a different role. It is a fusion of air and land warfare skills. We fill the gap with the recognised ground picture."

While the fielding of new ISTAR equipment and capabilities is attracting increasing resources, Fradgley stresses that the human assets of 3 Group need constant investment as well. "We need to maintain our operational edge - we need high-quality training opportunities," he says. "Red Flag exercises in the USA provide the opportunity for us to train as we fight. Our skills are not learnt quickly. If suddenly called to do high-intensity operations it is too late to do the training then."

Fradgley says work was under way to look at establishing an ISTAR training wing at Waddington to reduce duplication and repetition from the Sentry, Nimrod R1 and Sentinel courses. "There is great potential to take it as a whole, but there are infrastructure implications in putting it under one roof and we don't have great pools of money. It could be a spend-to-save project."

Wider role

Although the sensors and communications equipment on 3 Group's aircraft have received upgrades and improvements, the airframes themselves date from the 1960s and 1970s. "Certain elements in all our aircraft are cutting edge, but the [Boeing] 707 and Nimrod are ageing airframes," says Fradgley. "The Nimrods of 51 Sqn are aged and despite huge engineering challenges to keep them going they routinely achieve at least 90% availability."

It is likely that later in the decade 3 Group will be enhanced by the arrival of around 12 Nimrod MRA4s to be based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland, if contractual and technical issues can be overcome by prime contractor BAE. The aircraft is now envisaged as more than just a maritime patrol platform, but part of the wider ISTAR force. "We have always been a leader in maritime patrol aircraft and we will maintain a powerful maritime capability," says White. "Additionally, we already do overland operations with the Nimrod MR2 in the surveillance role. Although there are limitations, it has a good [Wescam MX-15] electro-optical pod, carries a large number of people and is very versatile. We hope the capability of MRA4 overland will be considerable and are excited at the capability it offers.

"I don't think we are at the end of the beginning yet. We now have from the top of the Ministry of Defence down a clear idea of what we need to do, and now we have to turn our vision into tangible solutions. The biggest challenge facing us is to find the resources to deliver those networking capabilities in the face of a defence budget under considerable pressure. The last part is very serious because of the difficulties in the defence budget. It is not just saving money but making sure we are shaped correctly for the future."



Source: Flight International