Ground Surveillance represents a hole in NATO's capability that is, at least from a decade, constantly highlighted in the reports of the top officers, but never really addressed. Until the Sentinel R1 came online, the only capability of this kind was provided, unsurprisingly, by a "small" (relatively, of course) fleet of J-STARS airplanes of the USAF, which are considered by the US armed forces one of the most precious bits of kit they have. Its popularity has been on the rise constantly ever since it made the famous radar-photo of the "Mother of All Retreats" in the Gulf War.
ASTOR is the british equivalent of the J-STARS. Smaller airframe, but sensor suite just as capable, providing a formidable stand-off ground target surveillance, which is being heavily used in Afghanistan (from even before the airplane formally entered service) and in Libya.
It is a young system, which has cost good money, and that could provide sterling service for many, many years in the future.
NATO is trying hard to fill its gap in ground target surveillance, via the AGS programme. However, this is not a replacement of ASTOR: the UK has not formally joined the AGS, instead choosing to provide the ASTOR, as it provides its own Sentry fleet, in addition to the NATO one.
AGS, besides, is a small system: it started with great ambitions, by foreseeing big and very capable "J-STARS" on Airbus 321 airframes, working in cooperation with modified Global Hawk drones. But funding, of course, was cut more than once, and the manned part of the system, the Airbus 321, was the first victim, followed by numbers of the drones as well.
The Global Hawks to be based in Sigonella air base, Sicily, for the NATO AGS, are a welcome addition to ASTOR and to the global capability of NATO in this fundamental field (the sky knows how much the AGS would have been useful in the Libya operations!) but the British Armed Forces should not throw away the valuable system they are procured and paid for.
The announcement that Sentinel was to be "retired as soon as it is not needed in Afghanistan anymore" or "anyway by 2015" came as a total surprise within the SDSR, and it caused many frowns and a lot of speculation, mainly about the performances of the system: surely, to plan to get rid of it, it had to be crap.
Speculation apparently was wrong, as often happens. Sentinel is not wrong or bad at all, but of course, the RAF wants to retain Tornado GR4 as long as possible, and so other things had to be cut to keep Tornado cuts small.
Everything is being sacrificed to keep Tornado. First the Harriers, the Sentinel, even the integration of Brimstone and Storm Shadow on Typhoon, which is not being advanced at all. This had to be the year of Typhoon in Afghanistan, and 11 Squadron trained in the land attack role specifically with a 2011 deployment in mind, with the Tranche 1 urgent improvement programme, with integration of Litening III targeting pod and Paveway bombs funded to prepare the plane's ground attack capability, earlier than what planned by other partner nations, with the deployment in Afghanistan in mind. Now, not only the 2011 deployment idea is dead, but there is no talk at all anymore about using Typhoon in Afghanistan, and it is only a case that we have the Libya crisis giving Typhoon a role. It is very hard not to feel suspects growing about how the whole Tornado story is managed, but this is another story.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stepgen Dalton has recently released an interview to DefenseNews, and there are a couple items of interest, in what otherwise is, honestly, one of those "I talk, but say nothing" interviews. Here we can see the interesting bits:
Critics say the RAF is moving in the wrong direction on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. You scrapped your MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft and the Sentinel radar plane is to be retired in 2015. Your view?
To start with, we didn't decide not to maintain the MRA4 on a whim. We looked at what we thought was the intelligence picture, we looked at what we thought was the requirement in the next few years, and we looked at what our allies had and what capabilities we therefore could perhaps ask our allies to help us out with.
If we now move into the requirement over land, and I will just point out that our defense review said when we no longer needed the Sentinel, we would then look to dispose of it.
I think what has been proven in both Afghanistan and Libya, when the whole fleet has been airborne at one time, was that the Sentinel R1 capability has proven its worth time and time again.
In terms of the Nimrod R1, we are very clear, and have committed to three of the RC-135 program - we are calling it Air Seeker - that will give us the ability to contribute to and have a unique capability in an overall ISTAR picture. With everything else, we will have a pretty good picture to be able to put together.
Will you consider improving ISTAR capabilities by putting pallets on C-130 transports or pods on A330 tankers?
As an Air Force chief, I am always looking for those good ideas and innovative ways to maximize that capability. Before we do something like that in the future, I will look at what the merits are, what the costs are, and what the support costs are, because it's all about the sustainability and the cost of that, rather than necessarily the price tag of buying it off the shelf.
I have to look at whether it's a remotely piloted system, an aircraft system or some other combination of capabilities that will give us the overall capabilities we need. And when we know that, we will then have a look at what we can do, maybe working with our allies, to produce that capability.
The talk of using air tankers as "auxiliary" ISTAR platforms is not new: there was a suggestion in this sense already a few months ago, with rumors of a RAF interest in a podded solution for the Voyager, perhaps inspired by the US Marines plan for the "everything-doing" KC130J Harvest Hawk without any doubt one of the most interesting developments of the recent years. The idea is promising, particularly if it comes at no expense for the air-refuelling role, and as an ADDITION to more specialist kit. It is a mirage to replace, without loss, the capability of Sentinel with a camera-pod under an A330's wing.
The Typhoon, born as an air superiority fighter, has been fitted with a limited air-to-ground capability but can't deploy Storm Shadow and Brimstone precision missiles. Will you accelerate fitting them on Typhoon?
The Typhoon has been operational for a number of years in the air defense role, as you say, both in the U.K. and the Falklands, and in that role, it has a formidable capability. Among the Typhoon nations, it has been fitted with the capability to operate in the air-to-ground role, and as you say, that has now been proven very successful.
We have a very clear plan where we are going to go. As the operator, I would love to accelerate the capability, but what I have been very clear about is we are progressing to a very coherent program to give us a range of capabilities. We have the Tornado [fighter-bomber] available to us, which has performed magnificently in Libya and still does so in Afghanistan. It can carry the weapons we have not yet got onto Typhoon.
The combination of those platforms with the combination of weapons they can carry have been the stars of the show in Libya. So at the moment, there isn't pressure to get that kit on the Typhoon.
Naughty me reads this as "Are you mad? If we put the weapons on Typhoon, how we justify to the Treasury the retention of 96 Tornado to keep 18 at readiness?!?".
Note that the retention of Tornado is a real good news, actually. The Tornado is a very capable platform, and the two fleets give the RAF the capacity to do more, obviously.
What irks me is the cost we are paying to retain Tornado at all costs, from the total loss of At-Sea air power for 10 or more years, to the billions of money that are to be spent on the GR4 in the next few years, to the talk of retiring Sentinel, to the loss of Nimrod, to the, perhaps more worrisome of all, risk of yet more cuts in PR12 and beyond, as foreshadowed by this bit of the interview:
We hear the RAF is 4 billion pounds [$6.3 billion] over budget. You've been through the three-month funding review and PR '12 is starting. What will you cut to make ends meet?
What's really happened is that we have looked at the program overall in detail over the last 18 months, and we are now pretty sure that we are in a position to be able to [advance] capabilities that we think we need in 2020 and beyond.
What we're looking for now is how to ensure that we have genuine capability in depth to meet our requirement, and of course in doing that, we must assess what the lessons are from the operations we have been involved in recently.
So, I don't think at the moment that we are in a position to say that we've not got the capabilities that we need. When you look at the results of the three-month exercise, you'll see actually that we have confirmed all of those capabilities.
Is the 4 billion figure accurate?
I don't think that we know, quite frankly. There is the need to make the particular cuts in the future, there's always an adjustment, there is always a fluid plan, and we need to make sure that we know [what] those costs are. But actually, in the three-month exercise, we were pretty clear that we knew what the costs were for these, and I'm not at all concerned that we are going to have to make any significant cuts.
I think any comment to the above would be a waste of time. I can only underline that, if the 4 billion figure is true, there's no way in hell that the RAF won't "make any significant cuts".
With Tornado expected to save 7 billions if retired, against 1 for the Harrier, i continue to say that we risk paying simply a too high cost to retain the big bomber jet.
I'm absolutely clear that in a world in which retiring Tornado allows me to balance my budget, and actually perhaps be able, within five years, to spend a couple billions for the urgent adjustements (which i would use to retain Sentinel, launch the 1-billion programme for 5 Poseidon as Nimrod replacement and advance the Typhoon weapons integration programme), i keep the Harrier, even if less capable, even if it means no Storm Shadow raids in Libya the month later. We keep talking of painful decisions to make: this is one. Retaining Tornado is actually the easy choice, due to the fleet being larger and more capable.
The problem is that the greater cost of keeping it is messing everything else up.
The Apex is reached when the question touches the Sentinel R1 again:
Is the Sentinel slated for retirement because of its cost or that its capability won't be needed after 2015?
Not at all. The issue is about understanding how much that capability genuinely delivers the ground picture which is going on. Now that we have more experience with its demo stated and absolutely critical capabilities, and if we can't find a way to produce that capability, then we will seek the ability to re-engage with that platform and keep it going for longer. I believe it has demonstrated fundamentally its role and its capability and its importance to any campaign, air or ground.
Congratulations. You've discovered hot water, a new invention which humanity will be forever be grateful to you for.
It is good to see a patently stupid decision being already regreted, just like the idea of fitting only one carrier with catapults, and doing away with Marittime Patrol airplanes.
Problem is, money still does not appear to be there.
Losing Harrier was bad. Losing Tornado now, and having none of the two, will be worse. Cutting back on ISTAR, on other vital force multipliers, and on future numbers of F35s, to retain Tornado now, would be disastrous in the long term.
Ever since the Parliamentary Defence Committee hearings on the SDSR, the RAF has been saying they are aware of the ever growing need for ISTAR, while making decisions that reduced, and in some fields nullified the capability. Say A, do B.
If, in the near future, the Service Chiefs are effectively given control and responsibility for their service budgets, getting to set more directly their priorities, we will finally see if the ISTAR lesson is being learned, or not. No excuses at that point.