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In this the second part of my look at 2 Group RAF, I will be looking at the Communications Fleet and Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance, (ISTAR).

Between them Communications and ISTAR fleets cover a wide variety of vital roles many of which are shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. These range from moving commanders around a theatre of operations allowing them to be speak to their subordinate unit commanders face to face which reduces the likelihood of confusion caused by other forms of communication. To prowling the skies capturing enemy communications for the Intelligence Specialists to interpret thus giving the British Armed Forces a major advantage over most of our potential enemies be they Rogue States, Terrorists, Pirates or Drug Smugglers.

Based at RAF Northolt on the northern outskirts of London, the Communications Fleet consists of two elements, 32(TR) Squadron and RAF Northolt Station Flight. The name Communications Fleet is a slightly confusing for outsiders in that it doesn’t operate aircraft solely tasked with sending signals as the name would imply. The fleet provides a bridge between the capabilities of the Air Transport Fleet and the ISTAR Fleet by operating aircraft in the light transport and intelligence gathering roles. RAF Northolt itself is unique in that it is the sole surviving Battle of Britain RAF Flying Station still in use today as an RAF Airfield. RAF Northolt was instrumental in the success of the London Olympics in 2012 when it directly conducted live operations for the first time since the Second World War by becoming the temporary home of 4 RAF Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets and several Royal Navy Sea King ASaC.7 Airborne Early Warning helicopters.

32 The Royal Squadron, (32(TR) Sqn), is the largest of the flying squadrons stationed at RAF Northolt and consists of a mixed fleet of 6 BAE HS 125 CC3 and 2 BAE 146 CC2 small transport jets, alongside 1 (possibly able to expand to 2) Augusta Westland AW109 helicopters all of which are used in the VIP transport and Command Support Air Transport, (CSAT), roles. As the name suggests one of the squadrons main roles is transportation of the British Royal Family and following the merger of 32 Sqn with the Queen’s Flight in 1995, the squadrons aircraft have been seen flying the flag for the UK around the world resplendent in their high visibility white colour scheme with red and black stripes running the length of the fuselage. In addition to providing aircraft for the Royal family the squadron’s aircraft are also used for transporting Government Ministers and Senior Officers of all 3 services both throughout the UK and Europe, and in operational theatres. The squadron maintains several aircraft in the Middle East/Afghanistan in support of Operation Herrick allowing unit commanders to be transported safely and quickly between locations.

32(TR) Sqn has recently seen its numbers swell with the entry in to service of 2 BAE 146C Mk3 aircraft. These aircraft were bought second hand from TNT Airlines in Belgium following an Urgent Operational Requirement, (UOR). The UOR was implemented due to a shortage of tactical transport aircraft to support RAF operations in Afghanistan. Unlike their VIP counter parts the Mk3’s are painted in tactical low visibility grey, and are configured not for luxury but for the transportation of troops and freight. These aircraft have a capacity to carry up to 96 troops, although it will more usually be 54 due to the weight of their equipment and being operated in “Hot and High” conditions in Afghanistan, 10.6 tonnes of freight or a combination of both, the BAE 146C Mk3 is a very capable aircraft with a fantastic ability to move troops and freight from unprepared and short landing strips and it is considered highly likely that more may be purchased. In common with the Squadrons other aircraft the BAE 146C Mk3 is equipped with the latest anti-missile countermeasures giving them 360 degree protection from airborne and ground launched systems.

RAF Northolt Station Flight was formed in August 1991 and is a small unit with only 2 aircraft (Registration numbers ZF563 and ZH537), 8 pilots, 1 navigator and 11 engineers. The flight operates the Britten-Norman Islander BN2T CC Mk2 in the photographic mapping and light communications roles, however, the aircraft can also be configured for transportation with the capability of carrying up to 9 passengers or freight and crew training. The Islander has a service ceiling of 25,000ft but due to being unpressurised normally doesn’t exceed 10,000ft. Due to the RAF only operating 2 of these aircraft most of the pilots come from the Army Air Corps which also operates the Islander/Defender aircraft. The secretive nature of the flight has led to much speculation as to its real role, however, during my 2 ½ years stationed at RAF Northolt I was never able to find any information about it that contradicts the official role given by the RAF.

The RAF ISTAR fleet is based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. One of the best explanations I‘ve seen of what ISTAR is came courtesy of the RAF Facebook page which described it as;

“ISTAR improves a military commander’s awareness of what is happening on the ground or in the air, allowing him to formulate sound plans in an operational environment. It is a powerful tool, indispensable when conducting modern day operations.”

Perhaps the most famous aircraft in the ISTAR fleet is the Boeing E3D Sentry AEW1. The RAF operates 6 E3D’s all of which are flown by 8 Sqn, in the Airborne Warning and Control System, (AWACS), role which gives the aircraft the nickname that it is more commonly known by. Based on the Boeing 707-320B airliner the E3D has a flight crew of 4, plus 3 technicians and 11 mission specialists comprising of a tactical director (mission crew commander), a fighter allocator, 3 weapons controllers, a surveillance controller, 2 surveillance operators, a data-link manager, a communications operator and an electronic-support-measures operator. Providing the British element of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, the E3D’s roles include air and sea surveillance, airborne command and control and it can also operate as a communications platform using a variety of digital data links which enable it to pass reconnaissance and targeting data to ground based and maritime units.

With a mission endurance of 11 hours which can be extended by air to air refuelling either by hose and drogue equipped tankers or by boom equipped aircraft such as the USAF KC135 or the Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC10 (the E3D is the only RAF aircraft with this capability) the only limiting factor on the E3D is crew fatigue. The Sentry is equipped with a Northrop Grumman AN/APY-2 high-performance, multimode lookdown radar, housed in a black and white rotating radome located above the aircraft fuselage. A single E-3D flying at 30,000ft and 400kts can scan an area of over 300 nautical miles, (nmls), it can detect low flying targets or maritime surface contacts within 215nmls and can detect medium level airborne targets in excess of 280nmls. The AN/APY-2 radar provides lookdown surveillance to the horizon and an electronic vertical scan of the radar beam provides beyond the horizon operation for long range surveillance of medium and high altitude aircraft. This gives the E3D the capability to determine the location, altitude, course and speed of large numbers of airborne targets all at the same time, allowing the on-board mission specialists to allocate the correct platforms to counter these threats. A true force multiplier the E3D is rightly proud of its description as King of the skies and it provides a vital link in the UK Air Defence Network.

The second aircraft in the ISTAR fleet is the R1 Sentinel 5 of which are operated by 5 Army Co-operation, (AC), Squadron. Following the success of USAF ISTAR aircraft such as the Northrop Grumman E8 JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar system) and U2 which used Synthetic Aperture Radar, (SAR), to track ground targets during the 1990 Gulf War the UK MOD set out a requirement for the RAF to gain such a capability. This capability was provided by the Airborne Stand Off Radar (ASTOR) Sentinel system which consisted of an airborne element supported by land based support elements. The Sentinel R1 is based on converted Bombardier Global Express executive business jets and has a crew of 2 Pilots (RAF), 1 Mission Commander (RAF) and 2 Image Analysts (either RAF or Army Intelligence Corps). The Sentinel is powered by a pair of BMW/Rolls Royce 710 engines, and equipped with a mission suite consisting of a Dual Mode Radar (DMR), similar to the U2 ASARS radar, and collects SAR imagery and Ground Moving Target Indicator, (GMTI), data. The ground support element of the Sentinel system comprises of 2 Operational Level Ground Stations (capable of being transported by air) and 6 mobile Tactical Ground Stations. These ground stations are connected to the aircraft via data links and can provide commanders with near real time intelligence enabling rapid deployment of forces based on accurate knowledge of an enemy’s dispositions and locations which is a commander’s dream.

5(AC) Sqn is the largest flying squadron in the RAF with over 150 RAF and 100 Army personnel. Both RAF and Intelligence Corps personnel make up the aircraft mission crew whilst the ground element is made up of RAF and Intelligence Corps analysts supported by elements of the Royal Signals and REME/RAF technicians. Speculation exists as to the future of the Sentinel following the completion of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan. However, its contribution to operations over Libya have led to may senior commanders seeing Sentinel as providing a capability that we simply can’t do without.

The latest aircraft to enter the RAF (albeit with some of the oldest air frames) at a cost of around £650 million, are the 3 Boeing RC135 Airseekers operated by 54 Sqn. Airseeker is the British name for the RC-135V/W RJ Rivet Joint Signals Intelligence, (SIGINT), aircraft and in purchasing these aircraft the RAF has gained a capability match with the USAF RC135 fleet meaning that not only is it easy to share data, crews, and the aircraft themselves but that the RAF can also benefit from any Upgrades designed for the USAF. Having lost its SIGINT capability with the retirement of the Nimrod R1 the RAF was forced to look elsewhere to fill this vital capability and chose the Rivet Joint system. Unfortunately there were no new/spare RC135 air frames available and so the RAF had to fund the conversion of 3 1960’s era (hence the oldest airframe comment), former USAF KC135 Stratotankers, which were themselves conversions of the ubiquitous Boeing 707. This also provides for a common spares supply with the E3D Sentry. Whilst old the air frames used had some of the lowest numbers of flying hours of the KC135 fleet and the aircraft were upgraded to modern standards which included the highly capable mission suite. The conversion was completed at the L-3 Communications facility in Greenville, Texas, with the first aircraft arriving at RAF Waddington in November 2013. The sole Airseeker (ZZ664) currently at RAF Waddington made its first post-delivery flight on 23 May 2014 and is undergoing acceptance in to service trials. The aircraft is expected to be fully operational soon (by late 2014), partly due to the RAF policy of sending crews and technicians to train with their USAF RC135 counterparts. The exact details of the Rivet Joint system are highly classified however it is a battle proven system that will enhance the RAF’s capabilities.

The final manned aircraft in the ISTAR fleet is the Beechcraft Shadow R1, 6 of which are operated by 14 Sqn (until 2011 these aircraft had been part of 5(AC) Sqn). Little is known about the Shadow and in a manner very fitting of its name its capabilities are highly classified and remain top secret. What is known is that although the Shadow was purchased in line with a UOR for service on Operation Herrick it has proven so successful that the RAF has declared it as a necessary element of the ISTAR fleet.

You may have noticed that I listed the Shadow as the final of the manned aircraft in the ISTAR fleet and this is because the final aircraft we will be looking at is an Unmanned Combat Aircraft, (UCAV), or to use its RAF designation a Remotely Piloted Air System, (RPAS). RPAS are growing in importance in all of the world’s Air Forces and the RAF is no different in that.

Operated by 39 Sqn at Creech AFB, Nevada, USA and 13 Sqn at RAF Waddington the RAF operates 10 (although it is believed that not all 10 have yet been delivered), Predator MQ9 Reaper Medium Altitude Long Endurance, (MALE), RPAS. Reaper is operated by a “Crew” of 2, consisting of a pilot and a sensor operator and they are aided by a non-aircrew Mission Coordinator. Each Reaper is launched by an in theatre crew located at the same airbase as the actual aircraft (for example Camp Bastion or Kandahar, Afghanistan) before being handed over to a mission crew located at either Creech AFB or RAF Waddington who operate the aircraft via a secure satellite communication. Control is once again passed to the in theatre crew for landing.

Each Reaper system comprises of 4x Reaper RPAS’, 2x Ground Control Stations, along with communication equipment, satellite links and spares all of which are transportable by RAF transport aircraft. Reaper is equipped with a large robust sensor suite to enable it to perform its primary role of Armed Reconnaissance and its secondary role of Close Air Support, (CAS). Targeting Imagery is provided by an infrared, (IR), sensor, a colour/monochrome daylight electro-optical TV sensor and an image intensified TV sensor. Imagery from these imaging sensors may be displayed as either a single video feed or can be combined with the IR sensor video. Reaper is further equipped with a laser rangefinder/designator which provides the capability to precisely designate targets for laser guided weapons. Reaper also has SAR and GMTI to provide an all-weather capability. The built in GPS can provide accurate geographical location data to ground commanders, other GPS capable aircraft and precision munitions. The final sensor fitted to the Reaper is a nose mounted colour camera used to assist in landing/take-off.

A British Reaper being readied.
A British Reaper being readied.

Reaper is not just a mere drone nor is it just a reconnaissance platform, and for operations in Afghanistan it is armed with 2 GBU-12 500lb Laser Guided Bombs and 4 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles (depending on mission requirement). The Reaper is not an autonomous system meaning that it does not have the capability to employ weapons unless it is instructed to do so by the human flight crew who are operating under the same strict Rules of Engagement, (ROE), as manned British aircraft. The fact that all of the Reaper’s weapons are precision guided assist with reducing the risk of collateral damage and a full assessment of all risk is conducted prior to any weapon being released. On current operations Reapers are flown in co-ordination with a Forward Air Controller, (FAC), on scene or a or Joint Terminal Attack Controller, (JTAC) at a Land Forces HQ and it is these controllers who would normally authorise an attack although the pilot may choose to attack a target of opportunity if it meets the requirements of the ROE.

The third and final part of my look at 2Gp will focus on the Search and Rescue, (SAR), force and the Force Protection trades of the RAF Police and RAF Regiment.

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