On March 31, 2021, Sentinel will retire from operational service after 13 years. Since its first mission in November 2008, this surveillance aircraft operated by the Royal Air Force has amassed more than 32,300 flying hours on allied international operations including Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and NATO-led humanitarian missions. To celebrate its history, we asked some of the people who played a key role in the Sentinel story to share their memories.
While the origins for the Sentinel project were rooted in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 1995 that a specific role was defined. By the time Mary got involved in Sentinel in 2004 while she was serving in the Army, times had changed significantly.
“We were no longer looking at a Cold War-type situation”, said Mary, who has played an instrumental role in the Sentinel project, both in the armed forces and for Raytheon UK. “At first it was a bit like trying to shoehorn Sentinel into a concept that people had in their minds about what it should have been. Then over time it all clicked into place.”
The Sentinel R Mk 1 fleet of five special mission aircraft has proven to be the most in-demand strategic asset for the UK’s armed forces. The aircraft detects, tracks and monitors fixed and moving target enemy positions using its unique wide area surveillance radar and relays the information in near real time to commanders on the ground. Sentinel has been in continuous service on key coalition operations since its first mission and has been extremely flexible in adapting to humanitarian crisis roles.
Having started as a communications and systems engineer, Mary was subsequently promoted to Sergeant Royal Corps of Signals, Ground Network Manager, where she worked closely with the software team at Raytheon UK on the Sentinel programme.
“When I was serving, I teamed up with Raytheon UK all the time,” she said. “If there were any issues that needed solving, we worked together. In 2009, I left the forces and became a software configuration manager at Raytheon UK, and we maintained that collaborative approach – with the delivery team and the RAF all working in the same office as us, dealing with problems and finding solutions in real time.”
This collaborative way of working was perfectly in line with the “Whole Force” concept. Introduced by the Ministry of Defence, Whole Force is the formal partnership between military personnel and contractors working closely together to deliver military capabilities. Raytheon UK was the private sector part of this equation when it came to delivering Sentinel.
The success of Sentinel since 2008 is a testament to how well prepared the Whole Force was and how well everyone worked together to make it happen.
As with many long-term projects, most of the memories focus on the people involved and the places where they travelled. While in her serving days, Mary went to Florida with the RAF to work with the U.S. Army and as they were coming into land had to circle for a while.
“It soon became clear that the reason our landing was delayed was because a satellite rocket was being launched, which was amazing to witness,” she said.
While at Raytheon UK, Mary also had the opportunity to upgrade the workstation equipment on the aircraft.
“As a former member of the Armed Forces, actually developing and integrating the system onto the aircraft gave me an opportunity to put all the great things on there that I wanted to see to help provide the mission capabilities our nation and allies needed,” she said. “It’s moments like these, working collaboratively with the RAF that makes it all worthwhile.”
But what happens next, now that Sentinel is being taken out of service? For Mary, it’s been a labour of love that has lasted 17 years.
“While I'm saddened to see it go, technology has moved on,” she said. “We still need the kind of information that Sentinel delivered – we just need to find other sources to provide it for us. We are now invested in using its satellite communications and 5G capabilities to provide enhanced communications and geopositional intelligence for operations.”
Since the end of 2020, Mary has been on the Shadow programme where she’s working on future capabilities and spiral development. The key is to make it appropriate and relevant to today, just as was the case with Sentinel during its lifespan.