Senior military officials from the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and French Air Force (FAF) have described the growing importance of manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms in the contemporary operating environment both at home and abroad.
Describing the FAF’s transition from HARFANG UAVs to MQ-9 REAPERs, particularly in relation to ongoing operations in the Sahel Region of Africa, Lt Col Jerome Mary, Deputy Command of the French Air Force’s 1/33 Belfort Squadron, explained to the Airborne ISR Conference in London on 26 October, how the first REAPER system continues to enjoy much higher operational tempo than its predessor in support of Operations "Serval" and "Berkhane" in Mali and other areas of the region.
First delivered to Niamey, Niger in December 2013 ahead of an initial operating capability achieved in January 2014, Mary informed delegates how the current order of battle comprised three air frames and two ground control stations. “There has been a real increase in activity compared to Afghanistan and the need for ISR and flight hours is increasing every day,” he explained while highlighting how the air frames had achieved more than 11,000 flights hours to date, compared to a total of 5,000 by the end of 2015.
HARFANG was returned to France in July, he added. “The type of operations is mainly focused on counter-terrorism, different to the types of mission previously conducted in Afghanistan [Close Air Support] and Libya [ISR],” he continued while illustrating current popularity in CAS, Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR), Ground Assisted Air Interdiction and Personnel Recovery operations. Other mission sets include support of parachute insertion operations; battle damage assessment; communications relay; mission coordination; and time-sensitive targeting with air frames generally conducting up to 16 flight hours a day in 2016.
The FAF is due to receive its second suite of REAPER systems in December 2016, which Mary explained, would be split between Cognac Air Force Base in France for training and homeland security operations; and Niamey where they will reinforce existing capability to conduct multiple tasks for other missions. Third and fourth system suites are due to be delivered to the air force in 2019. Referring to the air force’s more expeditionary concept of operating with REAPER in comparison to HARFANG, Mary described how the force’s footprint now included fewer air vehicles and crew as well as a less complex CIS therefore allowing for more versatility in mission types. “By our calculations, this expeditionary model is the most efficient way to work, allowing us to perform many more hours when deployed than when at home. We do not have any day off when deployed so its cheaper for the air force,” Mary proclaimed.
Looking to the future, Mary explained FAF requirement to achieve 30 crews by 2020 with weaponisation of the REAPER still yet to be confirmed.
Additionally, the FAF is considering to integrate SIGINT payloads on board the vehicle as well as plans to conduct training and operational flights in French domestic airspace. “There are plans to fly over France with Reaper Block 1,” Mary explained. “In the same way as Harfang systems, they can fly everywhere in France and six months ago, we crossed to Corsica so we are confident Reaper should replace Harfang in that type of operation and exercise in France.”
Describing how the RAF was planning to transform its next-generation of ISR to deliver, “battle-winning knowledge and effects," Wing Commander, John Williamson, Officer Commanding 1 ISR Wing, 1 Group ISTAR, RAF, described the force’s thoughts on the understanding and development of ISTAR capabilities into more of a ‘holistic’ force over the next 20 years. Referring to more than a decade of constant operations in Afghanistan, which ended at the end of 2014, Williamson explained to the conference: “A year ago, it was not quite such a rosy picture. We were funded to the end of Afghanistan [December 2014] with no real dividends moving into Iraq and Syria with a largely tired force and we had a series of challenges to address in 2015.”
Describing how the November 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) had provided the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and RAF with a clear direction ahead, Williamson explained how capabilities had been significantly upgraded over the past 12 months with the projected addition of P-8A POSEIDON maritime patrol aircraft; PROTECTOR unmanned aerial vehicles; and the F-35 LIGHTNING II; as well as improvements in capabilities concerning RC-135W RIVET JOINT; E-3D SENTrY fleets; and Eurofighter TYPHOON fleets. “The SDSR gave us a mandate to move forward with investment and direction for our ISTAR force making it a key output for the RAF and defence as a whole. The Step Change we have made is understanding the centre of this [process] is not just the platform but part of a wider system and network. We must ensure we are thinking through that network from start to finish,” Williamson explained to delegates at the Airborne ISR conference in London on 26 October.
The 1st ISR Wing was established in April 2015 to provide a unified command for the service’s collection capabilities to provide, “focus and coherency across all platforms and capabilities.”
The command includes the 1st ISR Squadron, providing 24/7 coverage across two lines of MQ-9 REAPERs; the 2nd ISR Squadron, featuring SENTINEL R1’s GMTI/SAR technology and fixed wing collection by TORNADO and TYPHOON jets; and 54 Signals Unit, providing ground exploitation in support of RIVET JOINT platforms. However, Williamson explained how the Wing Assessments Team over the past 2 years had tied together the various force elements providing context, dynamic assessments and the wider situational picture for aircraft crews and subsequently, ground commanders. “The key is to understand [SIGINT, EO/IR, FMV, GMTI and SAR] how to pull these together and to direct other force components to make those products available to provide a broader context. What’s different now is our ability to pull on strategic and national intelligence organisations to inform us which had previously been difficult to gain access to,” he continued.
Referring to the emergence of a Single Intelligence Environment, Williamson described aspirations to utilise the next-generation PROTECTOR UAVs for homeland security missions, including enhanced utility of open source intelligence (OSINT) and social media. “We need to do it but are not sure how yet to interface into that. The answer in the UK is that it doesn’t have to all be done within 1 ISR Wing because we can pull on all other agencies and collaborate across ISR UK Defence,” he concluded.