The RAF is all “eyes and ears” in the no fly zone. RAF Waddington’s Combat-ISTAR aircraft on Operation Ellamy
When UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was declared to establish a no fly zone over Libya the RAF’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft moved quickly into action in the region. The ISTAR squadrons, which are normally based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, adroitly changed tack from Operation DEFERENCE supporting the evacuation of foreign and UK nationals to Operation ELLAMY to support the enforcement of a no fly zone in Libyan airspace.
The ISTAR “eyes” initially comprised of No 8 Squadron’s E-3D AWACS Sentry aircraft and the “ears” were provided by No 51 Squadron’s Nimrod R1 aircraft. The Sentries, which had earlier played a crucial role on Operation DEFERENCE as Command and Control platforms for the Hercules aircraft, which landed in Libyan desert airstrips weeks before to rescue stranded oil workers, were already best placed to support Operation ELLAMY.
Just before ELLAMY started, Sentry aircraft had begun an Understanding phase of operations in the area. Group Captain Chris Jones, Waddington’s Commanding Officer and Commander of 907 Expeditionary Air Wing now established at RAF Akrotiri explained, “The Understanding phase is a defined mission where you have airborne capabilities maintaining position in an area and they are able to see and hear what’s going on. By providing indications of activity you develop an understanding of the way a piece of airspace is being used or of the way ground forces might be employed.” Later the Nimrod R1s with their ability to monitor communications were also deployed in support of the RAF’s burgeoning ISTAR activity.
The Sentry’s capabilities and vital utility to an air centric operation like ELLAMY are clear; at its heart is the massive rotating Northrop Grumman radar dome that sits atop the fuselage. This and other sensors allow the crew of eighteen to provide military commanders with real-time surveillance of Libyan airspace and of the Mediterranean Sea. And with its ability to link into a multitude of networks as a communications hub its capabilities are pivotal to the command and control of RAF and Coalition combat aircraft enforcing the no fly zone.
Within 24 hours of combat operations commencing within the no fly zone Waddington’s latest ISTAR aircraft, the Sentinel, began to play its part. The aircraft from No 5 (Army Corporation) Squadron added its sophisticated array of sensors to the ISTAR mix by surveilling ground activity in Libya. More subtly perhaps, the Sentinel can also detect changes or differences in “patterns of life”, which the aircraft’s skilled sensor operators can analyse to find that “needle in a haystack”.
Highly skilled sensor operators on board the aircraft analyse data and imagery and can find a “needle in a haystack”. A Sentinel Image Analyst recalled her thoughts of one mission she had last week when she had been tasked to watch ground activity in a region of Libya, “You learn to discount what is normal. I knew what our target was when we started looking through that area. It just looked out of place; it shouldn’t have been there. And when I looked in I was sure of what it was.” The information was passed via an RAF Sentry E-3D AWACS aircraft where fighter-controllers on board gave the job of investigating “what it was” to one of the fast jets policing the skies. It was a missile system, which was promptly destroyed.
Unlike the Operation HERRICK counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan the situation in Libya is much more an air-centric operation. For 5(AC) Squadron’s boss, Wing Commander Rich Barrow, the Sentinels’ work in Libya is proving every bit as valuable as its continuing commitment to Operation HERRICK. He sees a clear need for such capability in the UK armed forces wherever they might be operating. “It’s likely that we’re going to be operating in ‘unusual’ situations. The use of ISTAR and intelligence in particular to try and understand those situations, to gain insights into what’s going on on the ground is absolutely essential. Only with that can we go in with the confidence that we are doing the right thing and ensuring the right outcomes.”
Commenting on the nature of the air missions and the personnel under his command Group Captain Jones said, “It’s been change upon change, reacting to a very dynamic situation on the ground, reacting as well to international scrutiny and making sure that you get it right; allowing us to adapt and learn very quickly. I think it is a testimony to the professionalism of all those involved in the air and on the ground in support roles that they have shown that they can do that,” adding, “on every task we’ve produced the results, on every sortie.”