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After six months of operating from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus the RAF's Sentinel aircraft, which has been gathering vital reconnaissance imagery as part of NATO's Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, is relocating to Gioia del Colle air base in southern Italy.
The move signifies the UK’s continuing support to the operation and the National Transitional Council, bringing peace and stability to the troubled region.
Since operations began in March 2011 the Sentinel aircraft has been operating over the skies of Libya every day, helping to build a better picture of what’s going on on the ground. This has been especially important because of the lack of human intelligence-gathering.
Talking about the pace of operations, the Sentinel Force Element Commander, Squadron Leader Hector Hillman, said:
During the period of operations the aircrews have been flying sorties of ten plus hours; this tempo and flying rate has been challenging for both air and ground crews.
There has been a huge amount of raw data for the Ground Imagery Analysts to review and the engineers have been working around the clock to ensure the aircraft are serviceable, allowing them to carry out their missions.
The Sentinel system is operated by 5 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, the largest flying squadron in the RAF. It is a joint squadron, always commanded by an RAF Wing Commander, and its home base is RAF Waddington.
The aircraft are manned by two RAF pilots, a mission commander and two onboard imagery analysts (IAs).
The intelligence gathered is analysed by the airborne IAs who transmit key information directly to other NATO assets during the sortie, as well as developing a ‘first look’ product for immediate dissemination upon landing.
Officer Commanding 5 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, Wing Commander Al Marshall, explained how the move to Gioia del Colle will enhance the Sentinel’s mission effectiveness:
The relocation of Sentinel to Gioia del Colle air base reduces our transit distance to and from Libya, increasing the time that the aircraft is able to remain on task for each sortie.
This increased task time will permit additional data to be collected and, when combined with the ability to interact face-to-face with the colocated Tornado GR4 crews and Tactical Imagery Wing analysts, will significantly enhance the contribution that Sentinel is able to make to the Libya operation.
By having air and ground crews working closely alongside each other, there is an opportunity for improved fusion of Tornado’s reconnaissance product and the Sentinel’s enhanced reconnaissance and surveillance systems.
As a package of air power, their effect is ever-enduring and their contribution has been crucial to the success of the RAF’s mission.
Commanding Officer of 906 Expeditionary Air Wing, Group Captain Squires, welcomed the move and emphasised the benefits of this integration to Op ELLAMY, the UK’s contribution to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR.
The colocation of Sentinel and Tornado will provide an excellent opportunity to fuse the two platforms’ differing ISR [intelligence, surveillance amd reconnaissance] capabilities and provide a better understanding of a complex battlespace.
Last month the Typhoons left theatre to focus on their main effort, defence of the UK mainland, leaving the Tornado GR4 as the sole fast jet, multi-role capability.