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U.K. May Take Part of ASTOR to Afghanistan

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  • U.K. May Take Part of ASTOR to Afghanistan

    SOURCE: Defense News
    DATE: JAN 21, 2008
    BY: Andrew Chuter

    U.K. May Take Part of ASTOR to Afghanistan

    LONDON — Britain may deploy part of the Royal Air Force’s new ASTOR airborne standoff radar equipment to the front line in southern Afghanistan this year, even though the in-service date of the system has been delayed again until late 2008.

    Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials may dispatch some of the ASTOR’s ground elements to help the armed forces exploit the growing intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance data available from other airborne platforms.

    The program, the only one of its kind in Europe, involves the delivery of five modified Bombardier Global Express aircraft equipped with dual-mode synthetic aperture and moving-target indicator radar, six tactical ground stations to support division- and brigade-level operations, and two stations for deployed headquarters.

    One of the key aircraft the ASTOR ground stations could cooperate with in Afghanistan is the U.S. Air Force Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).

    “The deployment of the [ASTOR] tactical ground station to work with JSTARS is one of the options under assessment for enhancing our capability in theater,” the MoD confirmed in a statement earlier this month. “Some testing has already confirmed the potential for operational interoperability between ASTOR and JSTARS, and further tests are planned using the tactical ground station currently supporting the test program [at an L-3-owned facility] in Greenville, Texas.”

    One industry source said the new ground stations also would likely be used to receive data from other platforms, including the Predator UAVs operated by British and U.S. forces.

    Such a deployment would also provide valuable experience for the crews operating the tactical ground stations ahead of ASTOR’s own airborne platform entering service.

    The final part of the ground station capability allowing deployment is currently being added by General Dynamics UK. The company secured a contract late last year to provide connectivity between the ground stations and the Bowman battlefield communications system with which it is equipping the British Army. The MoD said Bowman installation is expected to be complete by the end of March.

    Meanwhile, the focus here is getting the airborne platform itself, known as the Sentinel R1, into service and deployed. The MoD said there were no plans to conduct test or evaluation flights of the aircraft itself in Afghanistan or Iraq.

    The nearly 1 billion pound ($1.96 billion) ASTOR program is being delivered by Raytheon’s U.K. arm under a contract signed in December 1999.

    In Service by Year’s End

    The program to give the British a new battlefield intelligence capability should have been in service in late 2005, but a series of technical challenges in the program’s early stages, mainly relating to airborne systems integration, caused delays.

    A number of possible in-service dates have come and gone. Late last year, the MoD shifted the date again, this time to the end of 2008. That appears related to crew training and system verification issues rather than any lingering technical problems on the aircraft.

    “As regards slippage to the ASTOR in-service date, the position is that there have been technical challenges to overcome relating to system integration as well as training development issues to finalize,” the MoD said. “The remaining system development and training activities continue to be part of a joint, integrated and agreed MoD-Raytheon program that continues to make good progress.”
    But Raytheon officials said, “Any implication that Raytheon encountered significant technical challenges would be misleading and misrepresentative, and the MoD agrees with this standpoint.”

    MoD officials said the system is currently undergoing Capability Assurance Mission testing, training flights designed to reduce the risk in the operational testing phase, with further tests planned later this year for UHF satellite communications.
    Raytheon handed over the second of the five aircraft to 5 (Army Co-Operation) Squadron based at RAF Waddington last November. The final three Sentinels are scheduled to follow by mid-2008.

    In-service is defined as the availability of two aircraft and two ground stations, with a corresponding support capability and provision of sufficient trained crews.

    In a statement Jan. 10, Raytheon said that with the delivery of the second aircraft, “all the equipment necessary for ISD [in-service date] has now been delivered.”

    It said the first two aircraft delivered had an initial software package for the radars.

    “We are working with the customer now in Texas to agree the final software release,” but there have been program changes, Raytheon said.

    “System integration activity has been extended to enable radar and mission software to be optimized and final performance verified,” the company said. “Following the final software optimization, the remaining training activity required to deliver trained manpower required for ISD will be completed, enabling the MoD to declare ASTOR in service.”

    The U.S. company said growing confidence in ASTOR’s technical maturity was reflected in the efforts now being put into deployment planning: “We are confident that the final verification testing now under way will clearly demonstrate that the ASTOR system meets the requirement; currently, there is an increasing emphasis on planning for deployment based on growing customer confidence that the system will provide the operational capability expected.” Rings a bell somehow...