The Royal Air Force's E-3D Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft is a key part of the UK contribution to NATO's Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, the mission to protect Libyan civilians from Colonel Gaddafi's former regime.
The E-3D provides essential command and control for the various aircraft involved in the operation, sometimes hundreds at a time, and the vital link between those aircraft and NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre in Italy.
Squadron Leader Pat Parker is the E-3D detachment commander. He said:
The E-3D is absolutely central to the execution of the air operations plan. The mission sets that the guys get stuck into when they get airborne range across all sorts of things from control of air-to-air refuelling to dynamic tasking and targeting, check in, and force accountability for all the assets in the joint operations area.
The UK operates the Sentry aircraft as part of the overall NATO AEW force. We’re operating under NATO command and control and we are collocated with the NATO E-3A aircraft. We have part of the task in each 24 hours and so does the E-3A.
The forward operating base here is one of several operated by the NATO AEW component, of which the E-3D is a part. These bases have been running for a large number of years, so being able to come here with the infrastructure that it offers in terms of logistics support, to be able to operate both types of aircraft from here, is a real bonus.
In a typical nine-hour mission the 18-strong crew will be responsible for delivering the whole planned air operation, and for providing surveillance to identify any violations of the no-fly zone.
Tactical Director Craige Curry describes the work:
There are various jobs, all essential to make the mission a success. We need the technicians to give us the radios, the displays and the radar. The controllers control all of the tactical air assets to achieve the effects within Libyan airspace, but also extend their range by controlling tanker assets, making sure we efficiently manage the tanker plot to get the fast jets onto the tanker as quickly as possible to maximise their time over the target area.
At any time we could be controlling between 50 and 120 aircraft within the operating area. It’s a very rewarding but challenging environment to operate in as a combat-ready operator. You are proving yourself within the environment you are trained to operate within.
We have a period of very intense concentration where the guys are working constantly throughout the on-station period with very little opportunity for respite.
But missions are far from typical. No two are alike, and even the length can be unpredictable. Sometimes the E-3D has had to extend its mission, arranging its own air-to-air refuelling.
The Sentry began operating before most nations’ aircraft even arrived. Britain deployed the E-3D to support the evacuation of UK citizens from Libya at the end of February. Then the aircraft was providing air and surface surveillance, gathering evidence of Colonel Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians that could be used to make the case for intervention by the United Nations.
Once United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, the Sentry was busy gathering information about the disposition of the Gaddafi regime forces, and when air operations began it moved to its current role.
Squadron Leader Parker added:
The thing to bear in mind in all of that is the compression of all those phases from the evacuation through to surveillance, through to the opening nights of the campaign, and the sustained high tempo of operations we’ve got now.
Given that the AEW platform is central to the plan, the agility required of the crews to be able to switch quickly from one phase to the other cannot be underestimated. They’ve done that well. They’ve done that very well, in fact. It’s a huge achievement for the whole detachment, from the engineers keeping the aircraft airborne to the crews flying the tasks day in and day out.