The U.K. Royal Air Force has sent one of its Sentinel radar reconnaissance aircraft to Africa to help support French military operations in Mali.
(Image: Crown Copyright)
The aircraft departed on Jan. 25 along with a Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport believed to be carrying the ground station for the Raytheon-made ASTOR radar which is fitted in the underslung pod.
The Sentinel, which is a highly modified Bombardier Global Express, is the latest aircraft to join a coalition featuring an extraordinary mix of air assets. While most nations are supporting France's Operation Serval with transport aircraft, Nigeria has now joined the fight with a pair of Dassault Alpha Jet light attack aircraft and several Mi-35 Hind gunships.
France's contingent begins to swell. It has sent a trio of Tiger attack helicopters to Bamako, Mali's capital, for operations against the insurgents. The deployment marks the Tiger's second conflict and comes just weeks after the type was withdrawn from operations in Afghanistan.
Two Harfang UAVs have been deployed while five of the French Navy's Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft have been seconded for overland intelligence gathering missions. It is not clear if any of France's C-160G Gabriel Sigint aircraft are involved.
As part of the French airlift, the government has hired in extra support including the Antonov An-225 which operated a charter from Istres, Le-Tube airbase earlier this week, while the U.S. Africa Command is supporting the operation with C-17s.
The deployment to Mali once again highlights the useful capabilities of the Sentinel.
Also used to great effect in Libya, under the U.K.'s Strategic Defense and Security Review published in 2010, the Sentinel will be retired from RAF service at the end of operations in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the aircraft was not purchased as an Urgent Operational Requirement for that conflict. Deployments like Mali, however, may help to persuade politicians that the Sentinel capability, unique in Europe, is actually worth keeping.