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).
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)
Click Image to Enlarge
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.
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
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)
Click Image to Enlarge
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.
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
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.
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
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 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
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.