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 Post subject: The SDSR, the Spy-plane, and its future.
Unread postPosted: 02 Jan 2015, 19:45 
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Surely they saw it coming?
The SDSR, the Spy-plane, and its future.

By John Ash

Image Copyright: Gary Parsons.

The Sentinel R1 is one of the RAF’s newest aircraft, and the fleet of 5 aircraft are operated by 5 (Army Co-Operation) Squadron – the largest flying squadron in the RAF and it incorporates both RAF and Army personnel. Based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, the Sentinel is a widely used and valued asset, but chances are few have probably heard of it.

Until the 19/20th May 2014 at least, when an incident occurred which was described by The Times’ Deborah Haynes as an “embarrassing setback”, where, despite the will of the crew to push on, a technical problem forced a Sentinel R1 to land in Senegal. It is not known how soon the aircraft will be operational again, but it can be perceived that the repair turnaround is likely to be swift.

The ‘spy plane’ was dispatched to join the growing international effort to assist Nigeria in locating the dozens of schoolgirls kidnapped by the group Boko Haram, and was just part of an effort which, according to the BBC, includes the US, who are sharing intelligence (albeit reluctantly) and flying both manned and unmanned on reconnaissance missions over Nigeria. Israel is one of just many nations in a group including the UK, US and France which has sent experts in hostage situations and intelligence to assist in the crisis. Additionally, Canada, joining nations such as US, Israel and France has dispatched a Special Forces team to Nigeria. The UK has also sent help and it is not the first time the British have assisted the Nigerians, in 2012 a Special Forces team was involved in a botched attempt to rescue British and Italian hostages, resulting in a rather public incident. But the British have not shied away, with Prime Minister David Cameron informing parliament on 14th May 2014 that Britain had offered the use of (and later deployed) a surveillance aircraft, and that a military team of advisers and family liaison officers had been in Nigeria since the 9th May.

"I can announce we have offered Nigeria further assistance in terms of surveillance aircraft, a military team to embed with the Nigerian army in their HQ, and a team to work with US experts to analyse information on the girls' location."
- David Cameron

But half of that help is now in need of assistance itself, and as the Telegraph’s Ben Farmer points out, the problems with the Sentinel have caused an awkward repeat of last year’s embarrassing situation when a RAF C-17 transport aircraft sent to help the French in Mali encountered problems and was also grounded. The paper blames the heavy defence cuts on the RAF, arguing that the demand of the Afghanistan conflict and the shortage of skilled technicians are increasing the risk of accidents.

Is this a true statement? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact that this incident will be the first time many will have heard of the Sentinel, and that is a sad thing indeed, especially when the press are passing off this new, very busy, extremely useful, and cost effective aircraft as broken. Accidents happen, things go wrong, and the fact that this plane is now shrouded in negative press skews public opinion and the opinion of the MPs. But why is this problematic?

Sentinel, which entered service in 2008, is, as of 2010, facing the axe – a decision made only two years after its introduction. No Facebook groups will be set up to campaign for the saving of the Sentinel, like they did for HMS Ark Royal, no MPs will stand up in the Commons like they did for Nimrod, because Sentinel is unknown in comparison.

Sentinel, described by an Intelligence Corps commander as a cutting-edge, new capability, flexible technology, is heralded as the most advanced long-range airborne surveillance system of its kind in the world, and is capable of finding IEDs from an altitude of nearly 40,000 feet. The 5 aircraft (and their ground stations) were ordered in 1999 and cost £954m. Sentinel is compatible with US and NATO systems and has a 9 hour loiter time, it uses its pair of sophisticated radars to develop images comparable in clarity to satellite images and can map enemy activity and identify key transport routes over an area of thousands of square miles and relay, in seconds, that information to ground forces – allowing them to react to situations as they happen. The Sentinel has one major flaw however, they were always designed to work alongside Nimrod aircraft, without replacing any of its core functions, but Nimrod is a type which also succumbed, quite literally, to the axe, and is no longer in service* - leaving Britain with a capability gap which is arguably its more serious than a lack of aircraft carriers. However, Sentinel has proven itself outstanding over the last 6 years despite the intention of the British government outlined in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review to "withdraw the Sentinel airborne ground surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan." Time is running out, major British involvement in Afghanistan ends in 2014, and according the FlightGlobal, if current plans continue, the Sentinel will go in 2015.

Sentinel was never intended for use in Afghanistan, in fact, it came from 1993 requirement based on Gulf War experiences, but the RAF state that although the Sentinel was originally intended for conventional operations such as tracking armoured formations, it has proven itself time and time again in counter-insurgency roles. Its 48-hour rapid deployment time is also incredibly valuable. As mentioned, a Sentinel has been dispatched to operate over Nigeria, and it is unfortunate that it has been delayed. It is still supporting British operations in Afghanistan, and in January 2013 a Sentinel was deployed for 4 months to assist French forces in Mali where it flew 66 sorties and handed over 100 intelligence reports to the French. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton said that "Sentinel enabled France to understand the behaviour of the militants, and supported the movement of its troops on the ground". According to British Forces News on 23rd November 2011, the head of the RAF described the Sentinel’s role in Libya, where Sentinels tracked forces loyal to Gaddafi, protected civilians by directing coalition air-assets, and hunted for Scud missiles, as “pivotal”. In May 2014 Wing Commander Dave Kane, officer commanding 5 (AC) Sq, stated that “the Sentinel is a highly adaptable and capable surveillance aircraft that continues to prove its worth by providing genuine operational effectiveness time and time again.” In February 2014, in a mission described by its crew as “personal”, the Sentinel showed its adaptability by operating over the UK alongside Tornado aircraft, tracking major floods over thousands of square miles in a 5 hour flight – a mission in which the crew believed saved lives and earned a reprieve for their plane.

The RAF remain optimistic, they feel that Sentinel, already at the vanguard of intelligence gathering, will be retained until a “suitable platform has been developed onto which this valuable capability can be transferred.” In June 2013, Dalton suggested that the fleet could be retained after the 2015 SDSR by providing assistance to NATO’s upcoming fleet of 5 Global Hawk UAVs, alongside RAF/NATO's E-3D Sentry airborne early warning aircraft.

Let us hope that someone from the RAF can convince the media and the MPs of the values of this wonderful asset, because this ‘blunder’ on the way to Nigeria might just lose whatever public support that this relatively unknown aircraft had.

*Author’s note: Presumably land-based functions only, as no one expected Sentinel to take over the maritime patrol role of Nimrod.

**Editors note: This article was written in May 2014 in response to news reports questioning the Sentinel's usefulness and it has not been amended despite developments. At present it is hoped that the Sentinel will be saved by the 2015 SDSR, and there are signs to suggest this.


• SDSR 2010 - ... 191634.pdf
• Sentinel R1 -
• £1bn 'spy jets' join RAF squadron -
• RAF spy plane breaks down on way to find Nigerian schoolgirls - ... girls.html
• RAF spy plane breakdown stalls UK efforts in hunt for Nigerian girls - ... 094366.ece
• UK spy plane breaks down -
• Military operation launched to locate kidnapped Nigerian girls - ... pped-girls
• RAF's Sentinel spy plane used for floods mission -
• UK deploys RAF Sentinel to help search for missing schoolgirls - ... choolgirls
• RAF's Sentinel fleet could escape retirement, says MoD -
• Royal Air Force lifts lid on Sentinel's role in Mali - ... in-388092/

Historian, Journalist, Feature Writer, and Editor.
Society Chairman/Advisor 2013-, Society President 2012-2013, Society Vice President 2010-2012, Archive/Forum Administrator 2011-

 Post subject: Re: The SDSR, the Spy-plane, and its future.
Unread postPosted: 09 Mar 2015, 22:01 
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I wondered what the title meant for a while, then it hit me. It's a bloody spy plane!

It's nice to see someone say something nice about this plane. Sure, you aren't the only one and I think that at least now public perception of the aircraft is slightly improving, but it remains a barely known asset to the UK and NATO, and sadly, you are among a minority by sticking up for it.

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