U.K. Examines Continuing Role for Sentinel Planes

The U.K. is examining whether to extend use of its Sentinel reconnaissance planes after successful deployments in combat zones, even though the aircraft was due for withdrawal after troops pull out of Afghanistan.

The Royal Air Force has operated the Raytheon Co.-built Sentinel R1 in conflicts from Afghanistan to Libya and Mali, where the modified Bombardier business jet was used to support French operations against insurgents this year.

The usefulness of the five-jet fleet has caused military planners to look for ways to keep in service the aircraft, which are equipped with radar that can track individuals on the ground and help find improvised explosive devices.

“We are very pleased with its capability, so we are looking again at whether we can find a continuing role for Sentinel,” Philip Dunne, the minister in charge of defense procurement, said in an interview in London late yesterday. He said a report into battlefield intelligence gathering would be concluded next year, and a decision on whether to retain the planes would be made by the time of the government’s strategic defense and security review due after the May 2015 election.

“I don’t think it would be a new airframe,” Dunne said. “It would be a continuation of the airframe, but the kit that goes inside it gets upgraded pretty regularly.”

Dunne said budget constraints might prevent an upgrade of the Apache helicopters used by British troops in Afghanistan, being undertaken by AugustaWestland in Yeovil, southwest England. One alternative would be to acquire from Apache designer Boeing Co. the Block III model that sports an improved engine and other enhancements and is in production for the U.S. Army.

‘Under Pressure’

“We have got a limited budget which is under pressure, and value for money will be the driving priority,” Dunne said.

Dunne said it was too early to draw conclusions about whether declining orders for naval vessels will mean the closing of one of three shipyards run by BAE Systems Plc at Portsmouth on the south coast and at Scotstoun and Govan in Glasgow, Scotland. After completion of two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers due to start coming into service in 2018, activity will dip before the building of Type 26 frigates commences. Several thousand jobs are at stake, according to the Unite union.

“As the carrier/carriers get floated out over the next few years, clearly that is not a sustainable level of activity so we expect to have the new frigate program coming in behind,” Dunne said. “There are discussions with BAE about how they are going to handle that gradual reduction in activity, but until we have got those proposals finalized I can’t really enlighten you as to what they might conclude.”

Asked if the contract for the Type 26 could be advanced to guarantee jobs, he replied, “I am not going to be drawn on when the frigate contract will be placed. We have said in the middle of the decade.”

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