Mali Mission Matures Sentinel Capability

By Tony Osborne
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
July 15, 2013
Credit: Crown Copyright

Royal Air Force commanders are facing what they call a cliff in terms of intelligence-gathering capability when operations in Afghanistan come to an end.

Of the five intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft types which will be in service by the end of the year, including the RC-135W Rivet Joint, three—Sentinel, MQ-9 Reaper and Shadow R1—are officially slated to be retired after 2015, leaving just the Boeing E-3D Sentry and Rivet Joint in operation. Commanders are keen to keep all three of the capabilities they are due to lose, each system more than proving its worth in the skies over Afghanistan, while the Raytheon Sentinel airborne stand-off radar (Astor) system is viewed as a useful capability in the eyes of the U.K.'s European partners, too.

Despite being heavily tasked in support of operations in Afghanistan, the RAF was able to send a single Sentinel to support the French Serval mission in Mali. By the time the aircraft had returned from its forward operating base in Dakar, Senegal, on May 25 at the end of what was called Operation Newcombe, aircraft and crews had racked up 697 flight hours during 66 sorties. The missions covered every corner of the vast Saharan nation, using the array of radar modes to deliver intelligence data to senior commanders on the ground and to cue-in other airborne ISR assets.

Within days of the Sentinel arriving in-theater in January, the aircraft was conducting sweeps of the country using its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to produce swathes of map data on the areas around Mali's key urban areas including Timbuktu, Gao, Tessalit, Kidal and the Niger River delta region.

“In the early part of the operation, the focus was on using SAR to look at the airfields to see whether they could support C-130 [Hercules] or C-160 [Transalls] transports,” said Maj. Seymour Bailey, an army officer assigned to 5 Sqdn.”Some of these areas had not been mapped since 2010, and crews wanted to know who was in control of those airfields before they went in there.”

The detailed SAR imagery allowed image analysts to check out potential insurgent bases in the desert sands and, by combining SAR and ground-moving-target-indicator (GMTI) data, the analysts were able to examine “patterns of life” from these locations and identify any potential targets by cueing on aircraft equipped with full-motion video capability, such as French Air Force Harfang UAVs, Navy Dassault Atlantique IIs retrofitted for overland operations and one Cessna aircraft bought in on contract to support the operation. SAR and GMTI data were also being collected by a U.S. Air Force E-8 Joint Stars aircraft that was also aiding in the operation.

In the early part of the campaign, Sentinel crews found themselves slightly behind the curve; the aircraft would become airborne and proceed on a task, but would have to be retasked inflight because of the speed of the French advance across the country. Eventually, it was determined that coverage of some areas was no longer needed. “Initially, the French could not get their head around how long it takes to plan a mission,” said one officer, “but this was quickly resolved.”

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