Electronic Weapons: The Radar Is Ready But The Operator Is Not


February 18, 2009: Britain's Royal Air Force has a serious problem with its new Sentinel radar aircraft. There are not enough aircrew available to put the aircraft into service. After a decade of development, Britain sent its Sentinel R1 ASTOR (Airborne Stand-Off Radar) to Afghanistan in late 2008 for some field testing. This was a success, and the troops want one or more ASTORs available in Afghanistan full time.

But the failure to train sufficient crew and imagery analysts means the RAF will not be able to deploy a Sentinel full-time until 2010. Two crews are required for each Sentinel. Thus a total of 50 personnel are required to operate the five aircraft. Currently, only ten have been trained. The Royal Air Force is under a lot of pressure to fix this, fast.

ASTOR is similar to the three decade old U.S. E-8 JSTARS. But instead of mounting the radar and computers in a four engine jet, the British used a 44 ton Global Express twin engine business jet. The highly automated Sentinel has two pilots, and three people in the back running the surveillance equipment. Sentinel operates at 45-50,000 feet and can track vehicles, or even people, on the ground up to 160 kilometers away. Vehicles can be tracked at twice that range. Sorties average 12-14 hours. The U.S. has been using its E-8 ground radar aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan with great success. Britain has built five Sentinel R1 aircraft, and all will be in service by the end of the year. Each ASTOR cost about $280 million.

Sentinel uses a U.S. made Raytheon ASARS-2 radar. This is a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) system that can focus on a smaller area and provide photo quality images. Sentinel also has a large array of electronic warfare equipment and counter-missile systems. But in Afghanistan it will mainly be using its radar, and its satellite and ground communications links to send photo quality images to the troops below, who can then run down known or suspected hostiles.

On the ground, there are special 6x6 wheeled armored vehicles equipped with communications gear that can receive and process the images from ASTOR, and keep the ground commander on board in touch with his units.



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