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From The Sunday Times
February 15, 2009
Life-saving Sentinel R1 spy planes grounded by lack of crews
A NEW billion-pound fleet of spy planes able to spot the roadside bombs that kill troops in Afghanistan will be out of action until at least the middle of next year because the RAF has failed to train enough crew.

Two Sentinel R1 aircraft were deployed to a Gulf base at the end of last year to fly over Afghanistan, conducting trials with their stand-off radar (Astor). The aircraft had an immediate impact — commanders were delighted by its ability to provide high-definition video footage of an area 200 miles long and 200 miles wide, day or night.

Astor can detect any movement and even record the speed of a car from more than 200 miles away in almost any weather. It flies seven miles up, far out of sight of guerrillas.

It will allow commanders to spot Taliban planting the bombs that David Miliband, the foreign secretary, said last week had led to “strategic stalemate” in Afghanistan. A total of 37 troops have been killed by explosions caused by roadside bombs and mines since the Taliban started using them in the current attacks, which started in August 2007. A further 32 soldiers have died from other causes during the same period.

The failure to train sufficient crew and imagery analysts means the RAF will not be able to deploy a Sentinel full-time until 2010. Two crews a plane, making a total of 50 personnel, are required to operate the five aircraft. Ten have been trained.

Each aircraft is operated by a five-man team of two pilots, a mission commander and two imagery analysts. The planes, converted Bombardier passenger jets, have been built by the American firm Raytheon at sites in Texas and near Chester.

The aircraft, on which the RAF spent £954m, will remain at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire until the crews are ready.

An air force spokesman said: “You’ve got to have all five aircraft and all 10 crews ready before you have full operating capability. It could be 2011 but everybody is busting a gut to bring that date forward.”