The critical, even battle-winning importance of a robust, versatile Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability continues to push the Royal Air Force into the exploitation of new technology, new airframes and evolving tactics.

Set in the context of global recession, the fundamental importance of maintaining and, indeed, growing a credible and sophisticated intelligence and information superiority capability, was a key feature of both the 2010 National Security Strategy and Security and Defence Strategic Review (SDSR).

Today’s stark realities dictate that all government departments must operate within a tight budget, but the UK’s defence spending is still significant, ranking as the fourth highest globally. This, coupled with the innovative and industrious nature of its personnel and the hard-won experience of more than 20 years of continuous deployed operations, has allowed the RAF to remain at the forefront of delivering intelligence.

The Nature of Future Conflict

As highlighted in the SDSR, the likelihood of conflict involving non-state and failed-state actors has been increased by globalisation. State-on-state conflict is likely to change in character, with the emergence of asymmetric tactics, including economic, cyber and proxy actions, instead of direct military confrontation.

This, in turn, presents significant challenges for the military in differentiating between combatants and non-combatants, increasing the requirement for accurate and timely intelligence.

In recent conflicts, hostile forces have sought to exploit this ‘confusion’ to avoid air attack. However, the constellation of sensors employed by modern air forces is uniquely placed to solve the problem and exploit the solution – the process is termed Find-Fix-Finish-Exploit-Assess

  • Target is identified through intelligence
  • Its location precisely confirmed
  • It is captured or attacked
  • Documentation and other information at the site is examined
  • Collected intelligence is analysed.

Aircraft and Effect

The RAF’s most significant impact comes through the delivery of intelligence derived from surveillance and reconnaissance. The current ISTAR fleet, controlled by ISTAR Force Headquarters, comprises dedicated, role-specific manned platforms, including the Sentinel, Sentry and Beechcraft Shadow R1, and the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper RPAS.

The multi-role Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4 fall under the command of other Force Commanders, but also have an ISTAR role. The effect of these platforms far exceeds the sum of its parts, as a direct consequence of the manner in which they are employed. Experience borne out in operations ranging from the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan to, more recently, Libya, has led to the development of the Combat ISTAR (C-ISTAR) philosophy, whereby the platforms, sensors and their ground and airborne exploitation nodes are networked. In addition to providing a fused picture, this joined up approach ensures that ISTAR assets, which are often described as high demand/low density assets, are employed efficiently. It must also be remembered that C-ISTAR reflects not just a passive capability, but also confers the opportunity to take immediate and decisive action, including the use of weapons.

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