The British Royal Air Force's fleet of Sentinel surveillance aircraft will continue to receive support from Raytheon UK in a £135 million (US $165 million) deal announced by new Defence Procurement Minister Harriett Baldwin on Thursday.
The new contract, known as the Integrated Sentinel Support Solution, will see the company provide design, maintenance, upgrade and other services for surveillance aircraft up to its current retirement date of 2021.
Company executives said they expected to start an update of the aircraft's radar next year in a program already funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Raytheon has been supporting the Sentinel since 2007 when the first of what is now a fleet of five aircraft entered service.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) had been planning to ax one of the five Sentinels this month for budgetary reasons but gave the aircraft a reprieve until the financial year ends in March 2017 as it reviews it's information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) resources.
The temporary stay of execution followed an impassioned plea by the commander of the RAF's ISTAR force not to reduce the fleet size.
Air Commodore Dean Andrew told reporters at the Farnborough air show in July that the Sentinel was the "prime minister's go-to aircraft" and it would be "unimaginable" to cut the fleet.
Speaking to reporters following the support contract announcement at Raytheon's Broughton, north Wales, facility where much of the support work is carried out, Baldwin declined to say whether the fifth aircraft would remain in the fleet beyond the end of March or if the aircraft's in-service period would be extended beyond 2021.
"We are always in the process of evaluating our choices and opportunities across our whole portfolio of ISTAR and C4I assets", she said, using an acronym for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence.
Baldwin was speaking in front of the second of at least four aircraft set to go through a heavy maintenance and update program at the Raytheon hangar.
The second aircraft is set to be handed back to the RAF in January after its 10-year checkup. Company officials said the deep dive into the aircraft had not thrown up any major surprises.
A key asset in several British military campaigns — including Afghanistan, Libya, and now the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria — the aircraft was condemned to the scrap heap before when the MoD decided it would axe the fleet by 2018. That was eventually dropped and the new 2021 date set. One possible indicator there may be life after 2021 came when Raytheon offcials told reporters a plan was already in place to update the aircraft's SAR/GMTI radar starting next year.
The current radar is facing obsolescence challenges and capability improvement requirements, officials said.
The update could be complete by 2019.