Royal Air Force Deploys Bomber, Radar Plane Against Flood
But Sentinel and Tornado warplanes are about to get cut
On Nov. 4 last year, a powerful storm surge the east coast of England. A network of flood defenses begun in the 1950s mitigated the effects—but worse was to come. The surge heralded a sustained and dangerous period of unstable weather, with multiple low-pressure systems sweeping across the British Isles, resulting in devastating flooding.
The government response has included two Royal Air Force jet types—the high-tech Sentinel radar plane and the veteran Tornado bomber with an added surveillance camera. Both have proved immensely useful. And both are slated for retirement as cost-saving measures amid ever-deepening budget cuts that have gutted the British military in recent years.
Heavy rain and gale-force winds laced the U.K. from Christmas through the New Year and into January and February, flooding large areas of west and southwest England. Some communities could still be flooded as late as summer.
The Somerset Levels, a coastal plain in the west of England that man has drained since Roman times, has suffered near-constant flooding since before Christmas. The swollen Thames has also flooded many riverbank communities, from Oxford to Staines in West London. Landslides have severed transport links across the U.K.
British emergency services have deployed alongside the armed forces. Troops and relief workers have distributed sandbags and built water barriers. The Royal Engineers are conducting an urgent review of the U.K.’s existing flood defenses.
And the Royal Air Force is reconnoitering the flood zone with one apiece Sentinel and Tornado, two types fresh off wartime service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.
Humanitarian spy planes
The Sentinel R1 entered service with 5 (Army Cooperation) Squadron based at RAF Waddington in 2008. A Bombardier business jet fitted with a Raytheon-made ground-mapping radar, Sentinel was designed in the 1990s based on concepts developed during the Cold War.
The idea was to meticulously find and track enemy ground vehicles—potentially hundreds at a time—helping to direct bombing runs by attack jets such as the Tornado. Sentinel flew combat missions over Afghanistan starting in 2009 and later deployed to Libya in 2011 and Mali last year.
The Sentinel can fly for up to nine hours, scanning 500 square miles every 10 minutes. In flights over flooded England, a single Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham accompanies the radar plane.
The Tornado—a swing-wing, twin-engine Cold War fighter-bomber and the Royal Air Force’s main attack jet—carries a Raptor reconnaissance pod containing cameras that automatically snap consecutive photos of a wide area that can be pieced together to form one large image.
Both Sentinel and the Raptor-equipped Tornado can relay their imagery to ground stations while in flight.
Mapping the deluge
Taken together, Sentinel and Tornado can quickly produce detailed maps of large areas—in this case, helping civilian authorities decide where to focus their flood-relief efforts.
The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and county councils are also using the imagery to compare the 2014 floods with previous deluges, with the aim of gauging what effect old flood defenses have had—and how they should be improved.
But for all their usefulness, Sentinel and Tornado are on the chopping block. The Ministry of Defense said in 2010 that it would retire all five Sentinels once the Afghanistan war was over—despite the radar planes being practically brand new. The planes’ high operation cost was the ministry’s main grip.
The roughly 100 Tornados face a more gradual retirement as more new Typhoon fighters join front-line squadrons and the controversial, American-made F-35 follows fast behind. The Tornado should leave service in 2019, although the tough warplane arguably has more life left in it.
The Sentinel, for one, could get a reprieve. In light of recent successes in Libya, Mali—and now over the flood zone—Minister in Charge of Procurement Phillip Dunne however said there is an ongoing inquiry into keeping the radar plane beyond 2015.