The Sentinel is retired. What's next?

The end of an era yields a new intelligence aircraft called ISTAR

It’s “mission complete” for the Sentinel R1.

The long-range, wide-area battlefield surveillance aircraft flew its final sortie and touched down at the Royal Air Force Waddington last month, marking 14 years of operational service. Waddington’s fire engines saluted the plane with double arches of water as it made its final landing on the runway.

At the end of this month, the Royal Air Force will officially retire its fleet of Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) wide-area ground-surveillance planes, which entered service with the RAF in 2007. The sunset of ASTOR is coming to pass, but in its wake – Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business, is proposing a new special mission aircraft called the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance system, or ISTAR.

“Our Sentinel capability has provided an exemplary, critical service to UK and coalition forces across a number of key operational theatres,” said Paul Francis, Raytheon UK’s head of Space & Airborne Systems at Broughton as he recalled Sentinel’s first operational mission flight in November 2008 being a game-changing moment for ISR capability.

The reconnaissance plane – built by the former Raytheon Company – has amassed more than 32,300 flying hours on allied international operations including Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and NATO-led humanitarian missions.

Soaring at a high altitude, the plane’s multi-mode radar identifies, tracks and images targets over great distances, and delivers critical intelligence and target tracking information in near real time to forces.

But it’s not just the end of an era. The Sentinel’s retirement is paving the way for the genesis of an updated, more capable aircraft called ISTAR.

An aircraft of the future

Similar to the Sentinel, ISTAR will collect, analyze and deliver near real-time intelligence and a highly accurate common operating picture to inform the decision-making process. And the ISTAR system would fly longer, at higher altitudes with more integrated sensors and excess electrical power, enabling the customer to add and reconfigure capabilities as needed over time.

More flexibility of capabilities translates into a larger volume of higher-fidelity intelligence that can be used to create a more precise battlespace picture to help inform decision-making through all phases of peace or conflict.

“Our work with Sentinel demonstrates ISR excellence in support of allied operations for over a decade,” said Barbara Borgonovi, vice president of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems for RI&S, a Raytheon Technologies business. “We’re taking that program and operational experience to ensure the next-generation ISR aircraft operates faster, longer and higher than ever before.”

Additionally, the ISTAR fleet can help enforce maritime embargoes, monitor natural disasters, direct humanitarian aid, ensure border security and bolster conventional and missile defenses.

The ISTAR proposal

The next-generation aircraft would use multiple intelligence, or “multi-INT,” technology, to harvest critical intelligence from various sensors across the spectrum to produce a more precise picture of the evolving battlespace.

“The key to future airborne ISR capabilities is the integrating of multiple sensors,” said Richard Sandifer, Korea ISTAR capture executive at RI&S.

The ISTAR business jet would be outfitted with a host of capabilities, including:

  • An advanced active electronically scanned array radar system, which combines ground moving target indicator capabilities with synthetic aperture modes.
  • Multi-spectral long range imagery, which provides visible and infrared intelligence and targeting information.
  • Robust systems for signals intelligence.

“These capabilities create a comprehensive picture of the battlefield,” said Sandifer. “There is a significant ground element to the program that is integrated with the operators in the aircraft and can stream data to various ground stations. This can be rerouted to other platforms collaborating in the battlespace.”

Next-generation ISR capabilities

One important lesson learned from ASTOR is that sometimes you need more than a radar. That’s why multi-spectral imagery and signals intelligence is so crucial; it can act as the eyes and ears in places where even radars can’t see.

“Some of the most effective radars can’t see through some terrain such as mountains, so that’s where the signal intelligence comes in,” said Jason Colosky, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Systems business development executive. “We merge the radar, imagery and signals intelligence to give operators a stream of intelligence so they can see from either the radar or SIGINT or a combination, and track the target. The blending of the two capabilities captures the whole picture.”

This essential capability also takes in sensor data from other collection sources and merges that data to refine and predict threat elements.

The ISTAR system would offer a fully integrated battle management command and control, or BMC2, processing capability, enabling service members at every operational level to strategically plan and cohesively execute missions in lockstep with allies. The integrated BMC2 advanced processing allows near real-time response to emerging time-sensitive threats.

It will offer visibility into the entire battlespace, delivering optimal intelligence to help forces make decisions faster and smarter with less personnel.

“We’ve designed this solution as a force multiplier,” Sandifer said. “The ISTAR system allows for interoperability and can be applied across a nation’s military and operate with U.S. and allied forces.”