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Project Airseeker (Helix)

Project Airseeker (formerly known as Helix) seeks to sustain the UKs airborne electronic surveillance capability provided by the Nimrod R1 aircraft and associated ground elements, against an evolving and increasingly complex target set up to 2025. It will provide a rapidly deployable capability to support operations where it will be able to collect, analyse, fuse and disseminate a coherent and readily interpretable electronic surveillance picture in support of national, joint and coalition operations. This information will support targeting and combat identification.

Three Boeing KC-135 tankers were converted to Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft in the most complex combined Foreign Military Sales case and co-operative support arrangement that the UK had undertaken with the United States Air Force (USAF) since World War II. All three were based at RAF Waddington, replacing the Nimrod R1 aircraft due out of service in 2011. The Nimrods entered service in the 1960s and provide the UKs only signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform that collects and examines routine radio signals to provide support to front-line commanders. Along with the aircraft comes a supporting ground system which is currently providing a similar SIGINT capability to US Forces.

The 3 aircraft, converted by L-3IS in Greenville, Texas, from a Boeing KC-135 tanker, have been bought directly from the US government at a cost of around 650 million. The Airseeker capability, comprising all 3 UK Rivet Joint RC-135W aircraft and ground exploitation systems, operated by their highly skilled aircrews, ground crews and analysts, is due to be fully operational by mid-2017. Airseeker joined the RAFs ISTAR Force, which includes Sentry, Shadow, Sentinel and Reaper as well as the reconnaissance capabilities of British fighter aircraft.

Project Helix

The original concept of the Project was for the procurement of a modern mission system to fit into existing Nimrod R1 aircraft, but in the run up to Initial Gate approval, other platform options were introduced and were subject to detailed assessment during development of the Main Gate Business Case. The assessment also considered ground analysis facilities, training facilities and a support solution to the planned Out of Service Date of 2025.

The Project received Initial Gate approval in August 2003. Eight contractors were invited to participate in a capability-based assessment and three were chosen to go forward to a competitive-based three-stage Assessment Phase in April 2004. The first stage required the contractors to show their understanding of the requirement, and resulted in a down-select to two contractors in April 2005.

In the second stage the remaining two contractors were required to define the system to meet the capability, proving their design through operational effectiveness modelling. This resulted in a down-select to a preferred contractor in April 2007.

When the down-selected contractor commenced the final stage of the Assessment Phase, a risk reduction exercise, it became evident that the cost of supporting the Nimrod R1, as the planned host platform, was likely to be significantly greater than anticipated. Due to this cost escalation a change in strategy was made in 2008 to focus the remainder of the Assessment Phase on an investigation of an alternative to the Nimrod R1 as the host platform.

Following a submission to the Defence Board by Nimrod IPTL and the Director of Equipment Capability (ISTAR), the Investment Approvals Board directed in 2008 that an additional option focused on the US Rivet Joint system should be considered. This was included in the Main Gate business case.

Work was undertaken to obtain a robust performance, time and cost envelope and a Main Gate Business Case was submitted to the Investment Approvals Board in December 2009 recommending procurement of the United States Air Force Rivet Joint System under a Foreign Military Sales arrangement. After Defence Board consideration of the Projects cost and program assumptions within the context of the Departments 2010 financial planning round, the Main Gate Business Case was updated through a Review. The Investment Approvals Board approved the updated Business Case in March 2010.

Project Airseeker

Since 2011, members of the RAFs 51 Squadron have been operating United States Air Force Rivet Joint aircraft and ground stations to familiarise themselves with the aircraft and its capability.

UK Rivet Joint RC-135W signals intelligence aircraft is one of 3 that MOD is buying from the US which, as part of the Airseeker program, will provide the UK with a world class real-time signals intelligence and surveillance capability for forces in the air and on the ground. The aircraft not only gathers data and vital intelligence using advanced sensor technology, but it is also able to carry out onboard analysis and distribute the information to be exploited by assets on the ground via its high-tech communications suite.

The MODs Chief of Materiel (Air), Air Marshal Simon Bollom, who oversaw the procurement of the aircraft, said: The first flight of the UKs Rivet Joint RC-135W aircraft, as part of the Airseeker programme with an RAF crew, is a proud moment for all in the Defence Equipment and Support team who have worked, and continue to work, so hard to deliver this outstanding capability to the front line. We have procured an aircraft with a proven track record which has been successfully operated by the United States Air Force, with RAF crews under co-manning arrangements, for a number of years.

We have worked very closely with our colleagues in the US on this project and todays first flight signifies the commencement of a new and potent air ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capability in the RAF inventory.

Under a Memorandum of Understanding the UK system will be supported, maintained and upgraded as part of a larger UK/US fleet of 20 aircraft. A rigorous maintenance programme will see the aircraft return to the prime contractor, L3 Communications of Greenville, for a complete strip down and refurbishment together with a system upgrade every four years. While the three UK aircraft and ground systems will be owned and operated under UK sovereignty, the combined fleet of 20 aircraft and associated systems will be managed by a joint UK/US team based at L3 in Greenville.

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