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No 8 Squadron Comes Home

The E-3D Sentry AEW Mk 1

Eight Squadron at last returned to England when it received the E-3D Sentry AEW Mk 1 aircraft at RAF Waddington on 1st July 1991.  The Squadron Standard was handed over to the new Squadron by the crews of the Shackletons, who had been soldiering on from Lossiemouth for the past 20 years.  The Squadron had been in the Middle East for 50 years and away from England since that dining in night over 70 years ago.  A letter to Wg Cdr Rod Thompson, the new OC 8 Squadron from the current Lord Trenchard confirmed that there was “nothing to forgive”.  Now armed with the most advanced AEW platform of its time, 8 Squadron could prove its worth at home in full view of the RAF.  The Squadron slowly built up in strength and soon faced fresh challenges as part of the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF).

The NAEW&CF

In 1972, the UK made the decision to pull out of the NATO AEW project because of disagreements over the budget.  It was decided that the RAF would provide its own AEW force, which would be allocated to NATO for tasking.  The immediate result was the Nimrod AEW fiasco which has been described earlier.  When 8 Squadron reformed at RAF Waddington with the E-3D Sentry AEW Mk 1 in July 1991, it became assigned to the NATO AEW Force.  RAF Waddington is the UK E-3D Component of the Force.  The structure of the NAEW Force is depicted above.

Early Photograph of the E-3D Sentry AEW Mk 1
Starboard side of the aircraft displaying 8 Sqn colours.  Taken before the paint scheme was spoiled! (Sqn Archive)
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Originally, No 8 Squadron was planned to have 9 crews – basic training was carried out on Sentry Training Squadron, which was attached to Operations Wing.  However, 9 crews (each crew with 17 members) proved unwieldy and so the Training Squadron was designated as No 23 Squadron in April 1997.  Three of 8 Squadron’s crews were also assigned to 23 Squadron to give them an operations flight as well as the Sentry Training Flight (STF).  This left 6 crews assigned to 8 Squadron, which was much more manageable.  In 2005 the STF left 23 Squadron and became part of the newly re-formed 54(R) Squadron, set up as an Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the Sentry, Nimrod R1 and the Sentinel (ASTOR) aircraft.  In 2009, following its amalgamation with No. 8 Squadron, No. 23 Squadron disbanded.  The enlarged 8 Squadron moved into the 23 Squadron premises across the road. The old Vulcan simulator building is now home to elements of No. 54(R) Squadron and Force Protection Wing.

Early Operations

Three E-3D crews had been trained at the NATO E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen, starting in June 1987, and these personnel became the cadre for the RAF's AEW fleet.  Two of the crews formed the skeleton of No 8 Squadron with the remaining crew providing instructors for Sentry Training Squadron, which commenced training in May 1991.  Eight Squadron was housed in the old Vulcan simulator building and started the build up of crews as quickly as STS could turn them out.  E-3D aircraft began arriving from Seattle at the end of 1990, and the UK crews, fresh from Geilenkirchen, began to work up in preparation for the hand-over of the Standard from the Shackleton crews at Lossiemouth.

The first operations for the new 8 Squadron included the monitoring of Libya to monitor the effect of UN sanctions following the bombing of Pan Am flight 101 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1990.  The E-3Ds flew from Waddington to the south of Sicily and stayed on station for 4½ hours before flying back, unrefuelled, to the UK.  Mount Etna, the volcano on Sicily, was erupting at the time, and the streams of molten lava flowing from the volcano were a spectacular sight from 30,000 ft.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Russian aircraft still penetrated UK airspace to the north, and although a formal standby was not held the Squadron was occasionally diverted from training missions to meet these intruders.  The first intercept was of two Bear “Ds” on 10th June 1990.  However, the Squadron’s first major challenge resulted from a series of conflicts in the Balkans, which were due to the Soviet collapse.

Operations over the Balkans

The Beginnings

When the Soviet Union disintegrated at the end of the 1980s a power vacuum was left and many former Soviet dominated republics were gripped by power struggles which occasionally led to civil war.  One of these countries was the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, a nation traditionally divided into many ethnic groupings.  Yugoslavia quickly disintegrated into smaller republics and both Slovenia and Croatia soon declared their independence.  Following suit was the small State of Bosnia Herzegovina.  The Muslims wanted an independent state; the Serbs wished to remain as a satellite of Greater Serbia.  Civil war broke out as a direct result, and ethnic cleansing, the driving out of religious groups occurred throughout the country.  The United Nations declared a ban on arms imports to these countries and sent monitors to attempt to keep the peace.

Sunset over Aviano
An E-3D parked on dispersal at Aviano AFB, Italy (Sqn Archive)
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Eight Becomes Involved

Eight Squadron first became involved in the Balkans in early 1992 as an aid to Naval Forces who were enforcing the arms blockade in the Adriatic.  This was Operation Maritime Monitor.  These early sorties were flown from the Nato AEW Forward Operating Base (FOB) at Trapani near Palermo in Sicily, but as more AWACS from both 8 Squadron and the NATO E-3A component at Geilenkirchen became involved, the lack of space became a problem.  In order to solve this problem, the RAF detachment moved to the USAF base at Aviano in Northern Italy.

Hungary

In October 1992, the UN declared Operation Sky Monitor.  This banned all military flights over Bosnia, and on the 31st October 1992 a second 24 hours AWACS orbit was established over Hungary.  Defence of the E-3s was in the hands of the Hungarian Air Force, with SAMs and Mig 21 fighters!  It is interesting to note that NATO bought AWACS to look into the East –8 Sqn was now in the East looking to the West!

Operation Deny Flight

On 12 April 1993, the UN passed a resolution, which banned all flights, not approved by the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), from Bosnian airspace.  Combat Air Patrols (CAP) were flown over Bosnia and tanker and reconnaissance aircraft started to fill Aviano and surrounding airfields.  In June, NATO agreed to provide protective air power in case of attacks on UNPROFOR troops, and ground attack aircraft were added to the inventory.

AWACS Role

The work of AEW was shared between the E-3A component and 8 Squadron's Sentries.  The two 24 hour orbits led to eight AWACS sorties a day and the workload was high.  The AWACS was fitted with satellite communications, which gave a direct command link to the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy.  The air picture was produced in the two AWACS and sent to Vicenza via data link.  The weapons team in the AWACS controlled the CAP, the Close Air Support (CAS) and often the air-air refueling.  They also monitored the many UN supply aircraft and helicopters which operated in the area.  Whenever an unauthorised flight was detected by the AWACS, a fighter from one of the CAPs was vectored onto the target and a warning was passed over the “guard” radio.  These warnings were usually ignored and authority to engage these targets was very rarely given; it was usually too late when it was.

The Operation Intensifies

The fighting in Bosnia intensified, despite the best efforts of UNPROFOR to keep the 2 sides apart.  In February 1994, weapons exclusion zones were established around large civilian centres such as Goradze and Sarajevo.  On 28 February, six Serbian Galeb/Jastreb aircraft violated the air exclusion zone and bombed a Muslim arms factory.  These were engaged by a F-16 CAP under the control of a NATO E-3A and four were shot down.  In March, UNPROFOR began to come under attack, and CAS was used for the first time in support of French troops at Bihac in the north west of Bosnia.

The War Continues

Escalation

In April 1994, two air attacks on forbidden heavy weapons sites at Goradze resulted in retaliation by the Serbs.  On 15th April, a French Super Etendard was hit by ground fire over Goradze and, next day, a RN Sea Harrier was shot down by a SAM.  The pilot ejected safely and was rescued.  More ground attacks followed culminating in a NATO air raid on Udbina airbase in November after aircraft from there had bombed targets in Bihac.  Sporadic attacks by NATO aircraft continued into 1995, and on 2 Jun a USAF F-16, piloted by Capt Scott O’Grady, was shot down by a Serbian SA6.  Capt O’Grady was rescued in a large Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission 6 days later; a Sentry from 8 Sqn co-ordinated the rescue.

The UN Loses Face

By July, the UN had declared civilian safe havens under UNPROFOR supervision.  The largest of these was around the town of Sebrenica.  Dutch troops watched helplessly as Serb troops ignored the UN and launched a series of attacks against these safe havens.  Requests for air power went unheeded at the UN and the majority of the men of Sebrenica vanished.  Eight Sqn flew many sorties during this period and the frustration of the crews, who had many combat aircraft under control but were not given authority to use them, was very evident.  NATO lost patience with the UN and declared its own operation, Deliberate Force, to solve the problem.  NATO had decided to use air power to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Operation Deliberate Force

NATO launched their air attacks in mid August.  AWACS from both 8 Sqn and Geilenkirchen co-ordinated all air activity over Bosnia.  Serbian command and control facilities were targeted, and air defence sites were also destroyed.  Croatia used the opportunity to seize back territory gained from it by the Serbs at the start of the war, and they quickly gained the advantage.  Serbian forces were driven back on many fronts and all sides agreed to peace talks.  Hostilities formally ceased in mid September.