04 August 2010

Twilight of the Mighty Hunter

I had posted back in December about one of the obscure roles performed by the BAe Nimrod during the 1982 Falklands War. More often with ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, maritime patrol aircraft like the Nimrod and the Lockheed P-3 Orion are finding themselves performing missions they were not initially designed to perform. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the onboard high fidelity EO systems of the Orion proved valuable to US Special Forces teams fighting the Taliban. With long endurance, extensive sensor and communication suites and larger crews able to handle multiple tasks, maritime patrol aircraft became ideal in the role of overland ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).

In 2003 the RAF issued an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) to equip several Nimrods with a late-generation EO sensor system, the Wescam MX-15. Four aircraft had the sensor turret mounted in a fairing installed under the starboard wing just inboard of the pinion tank and deployed to Saudi Arabia to assist joint UK-US-Australian special forces teams in scouring the western deserts of Iraq for Scud missile launchers. After the fall of the Iraqi regime, the Nimrods returned to their home base of RAF Kinloss, but were soon recalled to Iraq in the summer of that year to assist in the fight against the insurgency under Operation Paradoxical. Since the RAF didn't yet have any UAVs in the same class as the MQ-1 Predator, the Nimrods with the MX-15 EO system provided high-fidelity overhead real-time ISR for the coalition forces involved. At the time, an early version of the ROVER (Remote Optical Video Enhanced Receiver) called Longhorn was in use that allowed, with much effort and technical issues, troops on the ground to see what the Nimrod overhead was seeing. The current ROVER system is much more user friendly.

In the spring of 2004 British forces in Basra found themselves battling the militia fighters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and once again the MX-15 equipped Nimrods provided overhead ISR for the troops on the ground. At the culmination of the effort against the Sadr Militia, an overhead Nimrod provided targeting information to an orbiting AC-130 Spectre gunship. As Sadr Militia units dispersed throughout the back streets of the city of Al Amarah, the Nimrod crew used the MX-15 system to identify the militia and then hand off the coordinates to the Spectre for destruction.

In the latter half of that year following the stabilization of the Shiite south, the Nimrods shifted their attention to Baghdad in an effort to combat the increase in Sunni insurgent bombings there. A Nimrod would forward deploy from Oman to Basra International Airport with a British army liason officer aboard. Flying almost nightly from Basra, the small Nimrod force was flying over 200 hours a month.

In the overland mission, the Nimrod's three acoustic sensor operators rotated shifts operating the MX-15 turret. The ESM and Searchwater radar operators were in charge of deconfliction over the crowded airspace over Baghdad. Army liason officers worked with the mission commander at the master display to coordinate and disseminate the information from the EO operators on the nine-hour missions. The MX-15 had three cameras- one narrow band, one wide band and one in infrared that were selectable by the operators. The best image is then displayed on a larger monitor over a moving map display that allowed ground units to easily relay to the operators where to look.

In July 2006 the MX-15-equipped Nimrod force switched its attention to Afghanistan in the intensifying effort against the Taliban. With a grueling schedule divided between Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nimrod force finally gave way with the loss of XV230 in September in 2006 with all of its 15 crew being lost. The cause was traced to persistent problems with the Nimrod's air-refueling plumbing system adjacent to hot air ducting. With 11 aircraft remaining in the overall fleet, the UK Ministry of Defense put those aircraft through a modification project that was completed in 2009, but the Nimrods never returned to Afghanistan, their role being taken up by a trio of new RAF aircraft, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, Beechcraft Shadow R.1 ISR (based on the Beech King Air) and the new Bombardier Sentinel R.1 SAR surveillance aircraft (based on the Global Express business jet). In March 2010 the Nimrod MR.2 aircraft were official retired, ending some 30 years' service which began in the icy waters of the North Atlantic hunting Soviet subs and ended over the harsh terrain of Afghanistan hunting insurgents. It's replacement, the Nimrod MRA.4, won't be due to enter service until 2012 at the earliest.

Source: Air Forces Monthly, July 2010. "Secrets of the Nimrod at War", by Tim Ripley, p38-42.

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