The Reaper, Shadow and Sentinel are all due to leave U.K. air force service at the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, but senior service officials indicate the three intelligence, surveillance target acquisition and reconnaissance (Istar) platforms will continue to serve the U.K. military in the future.
“We’ve got to take those urgent operational requirement [UOR] capabilities like Shadow and Reaper, and bring those into our core program,” says Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, during a Sept. 11 briefing at the Defense Systems and Equipment International 2013 conference.
And according to Air Marshal Stuart Atha, the officer commanding No. 1 Group, the, “will have a Reaper capability beyond 2015, as we look at future capabilities, perhaps, that may well replace it.” Cost will be a challenge for the Sentinel, despite its strong capabilities, Atha notes.
Each aircraft has proved vital to the service’s Combat Istar doctrine. The armed Reaper UAV and the highly classified Shadow have become invaluable in Afghanistan, while Sentinel was the pivot around which combat and narrower-focus Istar platforms were cued during operations over Libya.
The synthetic aperture and ground moving-target indicator (SAR/GMTI) dual-mode system, supplied byand fielded on a fleet of five heavily modified business jets, was not an urgent requirement. But in the 2010 Strategic Defense And Security Review (SDSR), the then-new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government opted to cancel the system once it is no longer needed in Afghanistan. Without Sentinel, the RAF’s other Istar assets “would just be a range of soda straws, with, admittedly, high-resolution capability,” Atha says. “It’s that ability to survey deep into territory: we saw it in Libya. Our maritime sensors were able to look in at the coastal areas, but this is a country three times the size of Iraq, and it was only Sentinel that could look deep into territory and gain understanding of what was going on there.”
The official defense ministry position will not be announced until the next security review in 2015, which falls after a general election in Britain.
While no decision has been made, the RAF is confident the Reaper and Shadow intelligence aircraft will be brought in to the core program, and the decision to scrap Sentinel will be reversed. Five new Reaper aircraft, on order since 2011, are now off theproduction line and are undergoing acceptance flights. There have been no reductions of trainees for the air force’s two Reaper squadrons, and the service continues to recruit prospective new operators for remotely piloted systems.
Reaper has been suggested as one of a number of possible entrants in the forthcoming competition for the Scavenger requirement. Currently, the Reaper’s funding, infrastructure and staffing will in theory come to an end when the British military ceases combat operations in Afghanistan. An extension to its urgent requirements authority could be negotiated if Reaper remains in theater for ongoing support to the Afghan national security forces.
A similar extension could continue the life of Sentinel.
Under recent changes to the way the different branches of the armed services manage their budgets, the air force could reverse the planned cancellations, but it would have to pay for the ongoing commitment by diverting funds from other programs. The army has started the trend, bringing UOR platforms such as the Mastiff mine-protected troop transport, the Foxhound armored patrol vehicle, and the Desert Hawk 3 hand-launched UAV into its core equipment program. Operations for the three army platforms, however, would require far less funding than the squadrons that operate Reaper, Shadow and Sentinel.