Warnesy’s World

A personal viewpoint from Alan Warnes, Aerospace & Defence Journalist  



Barely a year ago, the US was on the verge of bombing Syria in a bid to destroy its deadly stockpile of chemical weapons.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Shia, was attacking his own people, the majority of which were Sunni and it rightly had to stop.  He denied it.  He claimed along with rest of his government they were fighting terrorists.  Here in the west we called Assad’s enemy the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  But we never knew who they were.  We just knew they must be the goodies’ because Assad was nasty and came from the same mould as Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and Colonel Gaddafi.  The FSA subsequently took hold of part of Syria and they wanted more.

Fast forward a year and you have the barbarous acts of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now simply known as Islamic State (IS) fighters being acted out across TV.  These Sunni Jihadis control large swathes of Syria and Iraq, their own caliphate they claim as the Islamic State, killing anyone who is not the same faith.

So the question is…are these the same people that only a few months ago we were calling the FSA, who were just waiting for US bombs to rain down on the Syrian Government, so they could take over the country?    It has all gone pretty quiet on that front.  Maybe President Assad was fighting terrorists after all.  Maybe he was at war initially with an army of right-thinking moderate freedom fighters trying to rid themselves of a vicious government.  But it is likely the various Jihadi groups are trying to take over the opposition forces and want Syria as the Islamic State.

In mid August, the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel stated that he would be looking to coalition partners to help out in this latest War on Terror chapter, to supply niche capabilities and skills.


Enter RAF surveillance

So now the RAF finds itself working over Syria, Iraq again, as well as Afghanistan and Nigeria – where a Sentinel R1 had been trying to track the kidnapped Nigerian school girls until last week.  The RAF is supporting the tactical efforts of tracking these people down and has seen the venerable RAF Tornados called into action.  Their impressive high-tech RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Air Pods for Tornado) pods, developed by Goodrich (now UTC), will certainly do the job well.  With their magnificent high definition lenses they can zoom in pretty close to whatever they want to look at.  They will be accompanied over the Middle East skies by the RAF’s RC-135 Rivet Joint.  While the aircraft only entered service with the RAF earlier this year, most of the personnel on board will have been training on similar systems on board the USAF’s River Joints over the past three or so years.  While the Tornados map the territories, identify the camps the IS fighters have now taken over and possible targets for strikes, the Rivet Joint will listen in to mobile phones and the internet.  All this information is then being data-linked to a ground control station where Imagery Analysts will pore over the photography and interpret what they are looking at.  The Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at RAF Northwood will be kept informed on the imagery too and keep the Government up to date on their findings.  You will be interested to know that the Rivet Joint airframe rolled off the Boeing production line back in the early 1960s and the Tornados left BAE Warton in the mid-1980s.  But this is not all about the age of the platform but the systems on board and both have cutting edge intelligence gathering systems spying on the Jihadis below.  When it comes to this role the RAF is up there with the US, that is why they have been called in even if the Rivet Joint has not yet reached initial operating capability (IOC).

Once again it shows that it is not all about fast sexy fighters anymore, but high tech airborne surveillance to track bad people down.  Much of this has been learnt in Afghanistan this past ten years and fortunately the UK Government has funded its procurement.  That is more than be said for most of the European countries…but don’t get me started on that!


Alan Warnes

August 27, 2014

Twitter: @warnesyworld