UK Defence (254) – RAF Waddington Prepares For Exciting Future

One of the single most important bases in the Royal Air Force inventory and the centre of excellence of UK ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) activity plus also one that in terms of capability enhancement will be a major eventual beneficiary from SDSR 2015 in relation to the planned ‘Future Force 2025’ RAF Waddington is upping its game as it prepares itself for an even busier future.

There can be little doubt that the Royal Air Force as a whole was a significant beneficiary of what emerged in SDSR 2015 and quite rightly so. But the potential for meaningful benefit to occur from the plans to upgrade and expand UK ISTAR capability brings its own set of problems too. The bottom line is that before we get to where we want to be there are some very large hurdles to jump.

I may not make myself popular by saying this but Waddington is to me probably the single most important base that the Royal Air Force has. That is because this is the centre of excellence of UK ISTAR capability. I say this as well because I happen to believe the notion that that it is no use attempting to fight an enemy unless you know where it is and you can see it electronically. A simplistic notion this may appear to be but this emphasises why having strong ISTAR capability is absolutely essential.

Opened exactly one hundred years ago and with the motto ‘For Faith and Freedom’ RAF Waddington is the home of no less than six badged ground based and flying squadrons. As the UK’s primary ISTAR hub when fully operational it is the home base of 8 Squadron Sentry E3-D AEW (Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems) and 5(AC) Squadron Sentinel R1 (ASTOR – Airborne Stand-Off Radar) wide area surveillance capability. RAF Waddington is also home to 14 Squadron Shadow R1 ISR capability and to 51 Squadron RC-135W Rivet Joint (SIGINT) signals intelligence capability together with 13 Squadron MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) capability (this including 39 Squadron who are based at Creech Air Force Base Nevada) together with the Air Battlespace Training Centre which exploits to the full synthetic based air and land battlespace simulation systems training. I should add that the base is also home to two Reserve Squadrons 54 (R) and 56 (R) together with 2503 (County of Lincoln) RAuxAF Regiment Squadron.

In respect of base operations, the last 20 months have been particularly difficult at RAF Waddington due to the runway having been completely out of action. Closed since late 2014 for major rebuilding and resurfacing, a job that was supposed to have been finished by the end of 2015, it now seems unlikely that Waddington’s runway will be fully operational until the very end of this year or maybe just into 2017. I am loathed to be critical in matters such as this or of how these thing are done, but I would be negligent if I was to fail to suggest that the DIO (Defence Infrastructure Organisation) and the contractors, Carillion all appear to have major questions to be answered.

To call the runway rebuild issue anything other than a shambles, no matter that hitherto unforeseen issues occurred, would be an understatement. Moreover, the human cost and misery caused to so many Royal Air Force personnel who live on the base but that have been required to travel to and from RAF Coningsby on a daily basis as this base on the other side of Lincoln has been required to host the bulk of the Waddington based air capability movement and engineering and operational support since late in 2014, is incalculable.

For the air crews and the necessary support required to ensure full mission capability and training that includes engineers, technicians and many others required to support the four primary front line squadrons impacted (5, 8, 14 and 51) by the loss of the runway and that been required to face up to the twice daily drudgery of being transported between Waddington through the traffic snarled centre of Lincoln and out onto the other side up to RAF Coningsby and back in order to do their job not to mention the extended impact that this has had on their families is as regrettable as it should have been unnecessary.

For all that, as my recent visit to RAF Waddington proved, there is on this base an air of optimism that cannot be ignored. ISTAR capability enhancement is as I have already alluded to been one of the primary features of SDSR 2015. And whilst it is true that most of the projects outlined are still waiting for funding one may hope that the investment strategy that will include Sentry capability upgrade and enhancement, Sentinel extension until at least 2021 plus increased numbers of Shadow capability gathers momentum. While it has been true that ISTAR capability has often tendency to lack sufficient advocacy within the UK military arena, in government and externally, we may hope that what has been promised by the government in terms of future ISTAR delivery means that they have listened to the few voices out there. Add this to plans already announced back in SDSR 2010 including delivery in September 2017 of the third and final Boeing built RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft from L-3 Communications plus the plan to eventually replace the existing 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles/RPAS capability with in excess of 20 Protector aircraft we should be in no doubt that a clear, albeit currently still unfunded, strategy for ISTAR enhancement exists.

Whilst SDSR 2015 confirmed much of what Air Command had been requesting as a bare minimum we should not ignore that with little additional funding for planned capability enhancement available before 2018/19 we are in a process of limbo and uncertainty in defence. That SDSR 2015 demanded £11.5 billion of cost savings from right across the defence piece as an absolute necessity in order to fund future planned capability enhancement is also a concern particularly if we ask the question what happens if not all the proposed savings are achievable? What all this means is that the work of translation of SDSR 2015 strategy into reality is being made all the more difficult.

Even so, this has not stopped the Royal Air Force starting the process of translation and forward planning on the basis of what SDSR 2015 promises. Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than with the ISTAR Force Integration Programme and that has been give the rather apt programme name of Athena. 

Athena, the ISTAR Force Integration Programme, looks to be a cohesive and well-constructed plan by the ISTAR Force Commander and one that if approved will be the enabler for delivery of future UK ISTAR operational capability.

Probably what sets Athena apart from the more usual strategic planning effort that we so often see is that from the outset this is about using integrated effort and resource meaning involving ALL of those for whom ISTAR is a capability requirement and ALL that will play a part in its eventual delivery to the end user.

The way I see it Athena is this is a very good example of what the Royal Air Force ‘Thinking to Win’ strategy is all about. New ideas, new ways of working together as a ‘Whole Force’ and that involve everyone not just a few. Named after the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, Athena is hopefully setting out to achieve improved and sustainable ISTAR operational capability using a single coordinated team across all ISTAR elements and hopefully, one underlying entity that defence as a whole can recognise. If this all comes together it will include serving military personnel, reservists, civil servants, industry partners and contractors working as an integrated team to deliver every aspect of operational capability and support services, facilities and amenities . What I particularly like about the Athena approach is the willingness to look at doing things in a different way and that, if the work is done properly, should be able to maximise opportunities to collaborate and partner whilst also finding better ways of working and making use of both hard and soft resources. The objectives may be summed up a ‘delivery’ and that the Air ISTAR Force is able to make a major contribution to implementation demands required by Air Command. In respect of what few aspects of Project Athena I have described above and in its underlying attempt to recreate pride and purpose and to share ideas, two important aspects of RAF ‘Thinking to Win’ strategy the work done so far has been very impressive.

Back in the ‘here and now’ while from a military perspective the view for the future has become far more positive for this to continue requires that not only oversight on the £11.5bn cost take out but also hope that whatever emerges from the EU membership debate and referendum that no matter what the Government delivers on all of the various promises made in SDSR 2015.

Until then and until new capability planned eventually comes on stream those on the ground and with responsibility have no choice but to continue managing decline whilst they at the same time plan for the future.

At RAF Waddington and other bases around the UK ageing infrastructure remains a serious problem. So too is there a need across the whole of defence to move away from a ‘what we are able to do with the current infrastructure, manpower and equipment capability to a philosophy of what should we be doing? Right now defence needs to be requirement led rather than resource led. Apart from this an, as already mentioned, knowledge that no part of the SDSR 2015 plan has been actually funded yet, I suppose that the other holistic concern that I cannot avoid mentioning is the huge and growing concern about manpower shortage. While this is not a new problem for the Royal Air Force in terms of maintaining ISTAR operational capability it is one that each and every squadron on the base that I met with highlights as the major concern for the future.

As this piece is partly intended as an update I will now touch on some current and future capability issues in respect of individual Waddington based squadron activity. Suffice to say that across virtually all squadrons here retention and training issues are almost always the first to be raised in terms of priority. With much needed confirmation in SDSR 2015 of various ISTAR capability enhancements the need to plan future manpower needs along with accommodation and other requirements is now a priority. Doing this in the face of continuing cuts and ever increasing pressure on resources is certainly not easy and I suspect that along with other RAF bases facing similar issues that Waddington is not alone. Retention – finding ways to incentivise those that the Royal Air Force needs to retain whilst at the same time finding new, more efficient and faster ways of training using synthetics across all trades – are issues that no one can ignore. It is a competitive world and the MOD needs to do more to ensure it retains the expertise it needs. Nowhere to me is this more pronounced that in the shortage of engineers and technicians.   


The Raytheon Sentinel R1 (ASTOR) capability is a perfect example of where the MOD can be accused of giving on one hand whilst seemingly taking away on the other. For instance, while it was absolutely right that Sentinel R1 OSD (Out-Of-Service Date) was extended out in SDSR 2015 to 2021 the number of aircraft will shortly fall from five to four. This is a direct response to what had been called for in SDSR 2010 and that, despite having extended the OSD to 2018, has seen the number of crews available to be all but halved.

The reality of the loss of one Sentinel R1 aircraft in the operational fleet has other implications too as I suspect the is genuine reason to be concerned that, based on the current rate of anticipate mission requirements,  5(AC) Squadron will not be able to field or sustain sufficient capability to meet demands placed on it. Given the vital well proven capability that ASTOR provides it is worth noting in this context that with just five crews as opposed to the ten that it had ahead of the SDSR 2010 announcement 5 (AC) Squadron has never been busier. Indeed, it has out on deployment somewhere for all but seven weeks since 2009.

Regarded as one of the most important assets in the UK ISTAR inventory, the 5(AC) Squadron operated Sentinel R1 (ASTOR – Airborne Stand-Off Radar) wide area surveillance capability complete with its synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator has, since it came into service in 2008 proved its worth on deployment over and over again. The On-Board intelligence and analytical capability has been pivotal in providing intelligence to ground force commanders and others in allowing them to plan. That is exactly what it is there for and why it is so highly regarded not just by our own armed forces those of our NATO allies but also to the French military during its deployment in Mali, West Africa. 

To suggest anything other than that Sentinel ASTOR capability has proved itself to be a very aspect of ISTAR would be to completely miss the point of what this brilliant technology and air support provides. But in my view extending Sentinel OSD to 2021 is only a half-way house in terms of ensuring that the UK can maintain this crucial ISTAR related support until, we assume, that it will be incorporated within a replacement platform. To ensure that we retain this important wide-area reconnaissance capability we must in my view not only push forward the Sentinel OSD out to 2025 but also increase the number of crews available and retain the fifth aircraft. We must also seriously consider the need to further invest in Sentinel capability enhancement through a mid-life process.  

Even with the likelihood that the first of the nine proposed Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability arriving in 2020 and the other platforms following over the next two or three years it seems to me very unlikely that until at least 2025 P-8 will be able to field the additional wide area surveillance capability required by the Royal Air Force. We cannot afford another capability gap and on that basis it makes sense to consider enhancing the existing capability and taking the OSD out to where it had been originally intended to 2025.

Sentry E3-D AWACS

8 Squadron which is responsible for the operation of the UK’s Sentry E-3D AWACS capability is one that I personally know well and have enjoyed mission experience in the past. What Sentry E3-D AWACS capability provides is the ISTAR. In service since 1991 it remains a crucial air power related technology in the arsenal of NATO and its allies. This is strategic platform capability and what the Royal Air Force provides remains a central part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force. The UK currently operates 6 Sentry E3-D aircraft (normally from RAF Waddington although currently flying out of RAF Coningsby due to Waddington runway issues) and along with other mission requirements the UK capability is currently deployed in support of Operation Shader at RAF Akrotiri in support UK Panavia Tornado GR4 and Typhoon led missions over Iraq and Syria and to other C-130J, CH-47 Chinook, AH64 Apache and Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft and those of our NATO allies in support.

The current NATO fleet comprises 16 Sentry E-3A aircraft with the type in service in France, the USA and also, Saudi Arabia. Whilst NATO itself has reduced the number of Sentry aircraft it maintains all the other users except Britain have upgraded their Sentry technology. 

Sentry does what it says on the tin and I will not attempt to involve myself in describing the technical detail of the mission capability. It works but it is old and requires upgrading. SDSR 2015 confirmed that Sentry capability would at last be upgraded and that the OSD would now be extended to 2035. The decision was not surprisingly welcomed but because no funding will be available before 2020 it will be another four years before upgrading and capability enhancement work begins. SDSR 2015 confirmed an intention that Britain would now upgrade its Sentry E3-D capability and extend the through life to 2035.

The MOD has yet to define the full nature of the intended Sentry upgrade and whether this will be similar to the Block 40/45 process that is currently being adopted by the US Air Force (USAF) and that has also been used as a model for the French Air Force’s upgrade effort. I assume that the aircraft itself will be fitted with a new modern flight deck but it is the internal capability which is crucial to mission success that requires the most significant investment. The present equipment is old and lacks capacity and I suspect that the MOD is almost bound to go the same route as the US. Specifically, the process involves increasing the aircraft’s processing power to enhance the performance of the advanced battle management tools (Automatic Air Tasking Orders and Airspace Co-ordination Order updates etc) 4G power enhancement, Mode 5 NATO communication requirement interoperability, upgrading the Multi-Source Integration (MSI) integration process together with the upgrading of the aircraft’s various other electronic support systems

With just 6 aircraft of which 2 are always undergoing in-depth maintenance means that forward availability is restricted to four aircraft. Two aircraft are usually either in the UK or deployed. SDSR 2015 demands that the number of combat ready crews for Sentry is eventually twelve. There is a long way to go as currently there are only five although the plan is to have seven by the end of 2016.

Clearly although the airframe capability is in this case not an issue maintenance and technical support certainly is. There are critical shortages of engineering and technical expertise and while in depth maintenance is contracted out it seems to me that this might better be done away from Waddington leaving the RAF engineers, technicians and external contractors who support the AWACS capability better placed to do their work  hangars rather than outside.

There can be no doubt that Sentry E-3D capability enhancement is now urgently required and that until this occurs keeping the aircraft capability fit for purpose and able to deploy will get harder. Again, the ability to retain sufficient engineers and technicians to support the capability is clearly an issue just as it is also in respect of pilots and those operate the specialist capability. These are all very important and costly issues for the Royal Air Force and in the run up to the proposed £2bn Sentry Capability Sustainment Programme which is planned to start in 2020 these are all important issues that need to be addressed within the ISTAR Force Integration Programme.

Training is another important issue in respect of Sentry E3-D capability and this too will require significant investment in synthetic based equipment. The inter-connect with Sentry E3-D capability and Air Battlespace Training is crucially important and the MOD must ensure that this continues to be fully recognised in the future investment plans.  

Shadow R1 

SDSR 2015 also confirmed that the Raytheon Shadow R1 Beechcraft King Air 350CER-based signals intelligence aircraft capability are to remain in service until at least 2030 and that the six-strong fleet (five operational aircraft plus one trainer) will increase to eight by 2025 with the acquisition of two further aircraft.

As a capability that is resourced to task this is excellent news for what is clearly a very important and of necessity, a highly classified capability. Shadow R1 capability had originated from an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) based on requirements that emerged in Op Herrick.  Operated by 14 Squadron and regarded today as a crucial element of Royal Air Force ISTAR capability the number of crews, currently believed to be 12 will, with additional capacity coming on stream post 2020 need to be increased. Other issues to consider are capability development   

MQ-9 Reaper         

Again, highly classified for obvious reasons and another example of what is now considered as a vital capability having started life as UOR based on Op. Herrick, Reaper capability is operated by a combination of 13 Squadron based at RAF Waddington and 39 Sqn, based at Creech Air Force Base Nevada, USA. The Royal Air Force operates ten Predator MQ-9 Reaper ‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance’ (MALE) remotely piloted air systems that are built by General Atomics.

With Royal Air Force crews embedded with USAF since 2007/8 the Royal Air Force has amassed considerable experience in Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS). Apart from the Reaper MALE itself the full capability comprises of Ground Stations, communications equipment, satellite links and a suite of highly important and robust sensors. Reaper is operated by a crew of two highly qualified personnel one of whom is the pilot and the other being termed as the sensor operator, the latter being responsible for using the targeted imagery sensor equipment plus other mission operating systems. The ‘crew’ is in turn aided by a non-aircrew Mission Coordinator. However, Reaper is launched only by in-theatre crews located at the same airbase as the actual aircraft has been deployed to before it is then handed over to the mission crew who, depending on the time of day or night, are located at either Creech AFB or RAF Waddington and who operate and guide the aircraft via secure satellite communication.

As a rule of thumb I would suggest that two thirds of the actual flying is conducted by 13 Squadron teams and one third by those at 39 Squadron although I emphasise that these are not specific figures. At the end of each mission control is once again passed back to crew in theatre for landing.

Missions are predominantly reconnaissance based although for close air support based missions and ground attack Reaper is equipped with two GBU-12 500lb Laser Guided Bombs together with up to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

Reaper has a flying life of approximately 20,000 hours although as far as I am aware there is no reason why this should not be extended. Again for obvious reasons the capability has proved itself to be something that we cannot be without. It is the only ISTAR capability that can also be used to attack and although it is vulnerable to weather and can only operate in combat airspace it is a capability that we cannot do without. Contrary to a lot of misguided opinion Reaper is not an autonomous system. Thus it does not have the capability to employ weapons unless instructed to do so by a flight crew who operate under the same strict Rules of Engagement (ROE) as do manned fast jet aircraft. The important point to realise about Reaper RPAS capability being used in an attack mode is to realise that weapons carried and used are precision guided to ensure collateral damage risk is extremely limited and that a full assessment of risk is conducted prior to authorisation by a Forward Air Controller or Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) will authorise the release of any weapon. 

The MOD has now confirmed that Protector, a derivative of the MQ-9 Reaper capability has been chosen to replace Reaper and that up to 20 Protector systems are to be acquired. Rather than acquire its own simulation training systems the UK bought training places from the US and whilst I am unaware of plans to acquire synthetic based training systems for the UK this may be a requirement that needs to be considered. Retention of trained personnel is crucial and there are issues with the ‘offer’ that in this context here in the UK may need to be redressed for the future. 

RC-135 Rivet Joint (RJ or Airseeker)  

As I wrote back in February 2015 (UK Defence – Resounding Success of RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’) Rivet JointRC-135 Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) has proved to be an exceptionally capable system and I change nothing from what I said back then.

In the capable hands of 51 Squadron and in a very compressed work up period ahead of deployment Rivet Joint has performed brilliantly be this in Northern Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever else the single aircraft capability has been sent. Not surprisingly, highly classified which prevents the availability of information being made Rivet Joint is deserving of singling out for much praise.

The first of three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft was delivered to the Royal Air Force after conversion by L-3 in 2013 and was declared fully operational late in 2014. The second aircraft was delivered in September 2015 and the third and final aircraft is expected in September 2017. With five trained crews the capability continues the process of building competency and currency although to suggest that there have not been some issues and teething problems to get through would be wrong. As a highly classified programme information is very limited. This is as it should be but suffice to say that manpower and training issues are a concern and that the number of mission crew personnel most probably needs to be increased from the present number. Other issues that I might highlight are SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency protocol) concerns together with shortages of airborne systems engineers, and linguists.

Nevertheless, while manning and manpower issues as a whole are an issue here just as much as they are right across the Force Rivet joint has as I suggest already proved itself to be a formidable capability in theatre in support of our own military and that of our NATO allies and others who we choose to support. Manning issues must be sorted and 51 Squadron will need to continue expanding during the build up to delivery of the third and final aircraft. The Squadron will also have to learn to cope with two year cycles of maintenance meaning one of the three aircraft will usually be in deep maintenance. Currently operating out of ‘borrowed’ space at RAF Mildenhall when not deployed elsewhere the sooner the Waddington’s runway is sorted and that 51 Squadron and its two aircraft can get back home the better.

A final thought on RJ is to remember that Royal Air Force RJ has already ‘bought’ leverage with USAF in the number of successful missions that, up to now, the one single aircraft capability that we have had has already achieved. That is no mean feat and one that is down to the dedication and professionalism of 51 Squadron. 

Despite still having no runway RAF Waddington remains is a very busy and very important base. The fact that the organisation of runway rebuilding has been something of a shambles will, I hope, be addressed by the MOD and that if found wanting not only will head role but those that are responsible called upon for redress. That apart this is a base in very good heart despite fighting the seeming permanency of the need to manage infrastructure decline and capability that in some cases is near to being obsolete. The fundamental and very apparent lack of infrastructure spend at Waddington is there for all to see. Manning and other related issues such as retention and the overall risk that these and other resourcing requirements are seen from a command and control perspective are matters of concern that need to be properly addressed.

For too many years ISTAR has lacked proper advocacy but in SDSR 2015 those that had been championing the vital importance of the UK investing in ISTAR along with increasing the number of fast jet squadrons appeared to have won the day. Mindful that nothing is yet funded, with rebuilding and enhancing the ISTAR component force being one of the central planks of the SDSR 2015 promise, let us hope that from now on resource will be ‘requirement led’ and that the future will be about what we need to be doing as opposed to what we have struggled to do with far too little resource.

CHW (London – 6th June 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710-779785

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