8 Squadron NATO Tasking/Ukraine Crisis

On 10th March 2014, as the crisis in Ukraine was seeing some major developments, the UK government committed the E-3D Sentry aircraft of 8 Squadron to flying missions over Poland in support of our NATO allies.

The mission: to provide a presence over Eastern Europe alongside E-3A aircraft (the NATO version of Sentry) from Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, and E-3F aircraft of the French Air Force from Avord Air Base in central France. Between them, they provide a daily presence over Poland and Romania, and will do for the foreseeable future.

On the face of it, as a contribution to NATO, this is nothing particularly new for the UK’s E-3D  Sentry aircraft; the missions it flies across Western Europe on a regular basis are on behalf of NATO. However, since those early missions in March, the E-3D has flown frequently from RAF addington to sit high above Eastern Poland. It has exercised an extended presence in the area (with air-to-air refuelling support from units throughout Europe) and then returned home to Waddington.

The mission begins the day prior to flying when the crew assembles to plan the sortie. Following an intelligence update covering the current activity in the Ukraine area (including the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), the various elements of the crew go their separate  ways. The captain and co-pilot investigate refuelling options, liaising with crews of No. 334 Squadron, Royal Netherlands Air Force, based at their air transport hub at Eindhoven Air Base. Meanwhile, members of the surveillance team look into recent activity in the area in anticipation of what they might see once established in the operating area. Weapons controllers from the crew contact fast jet pilots based throughout the area to see if they require tactical control during their training sorties.

An early start on the day of the mission begins with a weather update and a final run through what will be going on that day. After getting airborne, there’s a steady transit out across The Netherlands and Germany,before   arriving in Poland itself; the E-3D then gets established towards the Ukraine border for the day’s tasking. Once ‘on-station’, the aircraft flies in a specific pattern, in order to give the sensors the best opportunity to operate effectively.

The aircraft is packed full of plenty of food and coffee to keep the crew going, but without taking on additional fuel itself, the Sentry’s endurance would be limited. That is where tanker aircraft (aircraft that can refuel another aircraft whilst flying) help out, by providing it with enough fuel to fly for a significant period. With support from tanker aircraft from both the 100th Air Refuelling Wing of the United States Air Force (USAF) based at Mildenhall in Norfolk, and No. 334 Squadron of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, the Sentry is able to go on doing its job for longer. After agreeing to rendezvous in an area of Polish airspace, a weapons controller in the back of the aircraft makes use of the Sentry’s own radar to guide the pilot to within visual range of the tanker. At that point it is down to the pilot to fly to within around 10 metres (30 feet) of the tanker; once close-in behind, a pipe is extended between the two and the fuel transfer can begin. Flight Lieutenant David Gray, 8 Squadron Weapons Controller, said:

“Seeing two such large aircraft so close together at such a high height and flying at speeds of 300 mph sends a shiver through me – it is a truly incredible sight.”

As an Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft equipped with radars and other sensors, the Sentry is primarily aiming to provide support to our NATO partners in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States. To some extent it fulfils this task by simply being there, but using the on-board sensors allows the crew to monitor the pattern of life in the area. With Belarus and Kaliningrad sat to the North of Ukraine, the surveillance crew utilise the primary and secondary radar picture to establish who’s who, and what they’re doing in the air. More importantly, they’re looking out for those who aren’t so obvious. With ongoing Russian Air Force deployments to Belarus and Kaliningrad, there is a wide array of Russian aircraft in the area conducting daily training exercises. Tying in what is seen with the daily intelligence about Flanker (Russian fast jet aircraft) and  Mainstay (Russia’s own AEW&C aircraft) deployments, it is possible to gain an understanding of what is going on in the region. Add to this the Sentry’s ability to extend Polish radar coverage further East and down to lower levels, and it’s easy to see why NATO are keen to have an E-3 presence in the area on a day-to-day basis.

Whilst this task is ongoing, the weapons team on-board are available to control QRA (quick reaction alert) air policing aircraft from across the region should a scramble be required. In the interim, they work closely with fast jets in the area; these are not just Polish Air Force aircraft, but also those from France, Lithuania, Romania, and the USAF detachments based in Poland. On a recent mission, 8 Squadron’s USAF exchange officer,  Captain Josh York, provided control to French Mirage aircraft flying from their base in Malborg, Poland, on a mission in military training areas in Lithuania. This was all from the back of a UK Sentry aircraft that left RAF Waddington only a few hours earlier! Given Poland’s history it also presents a rare opportunity to control Mig- 29 aircraft in training exercises both alongside, and up against, western-built aircraft. Add into the mix some US F-16s of the 555th Fighter Squadron, on detachment from their base at Aviano Air Base in Northern Italy, and it can quickly become a melting pot of different nationalities and aircraft types.

So, what next? Flt Lt Rob Parr, 8 Squadron Long Term Plans Section, said:

“With the situation in Ukraine changing daily, these missions are likely to be a regular part of RAF Waddington’s routine for some time to come. It’s important that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our comrades in NATO, and I for one am very proud that we do!”

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