This news article is now out of date. The Boeing P-8 Poseidon acquisition has been given the go-ahead in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. CLICK HERE TO VIEW
A more recent article was published covering a number of other alternatives to the P-8 Poseidon for the RAF. You can view it by clicking here.
In what is arguably the most controversial defence decision of the 21st century, on October 19th 2010 the coalition government under David Cameron announced that not only was the much maligned Nimrod MRA.4 project to be cancelled but the then current fleet of Nimrod MR.2 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) and the SIGINT/ELINT variant, the R.1, was to be scrapped also without an immediate replacement. This left the RAF without a fixed wing maritime patrol capability and while the Nimrod R.1 has been replaced by the acquisition of RC-135s from the US no actual decision has been made on acquiring a replacement for the MR.2.
In 2010 the major naval powers that were a traditional threaten to the UK were relatively quiet however since then the situation has changed rather dramatically. The crisis in the Ukraine coupled with an apparently rejuvenated Russian military has lead to a rise in east-west tensions not seen since the days of the Cold War. Perhaps more worryingly, at least for the UK, is the fact that these tensions are manifesting not just in the Baltic and Ukraine regions but at home as well with Russian aircraft challenging UK airspace at an alarming rate. Then in December 2014 reports appeared in the British press that a submarine was spotted in Scottish waters and that the RAF was forced to ask its NATO allies to assist in locating it. Elsewhere in the world, Argentina’s nationalist president Cristina Kirchner continues to hassle the UK over the Falkland Islands which is a predominantly maritime tactical scenario.
At present the British strategic view regarding maritime defence is that the Royal Navy’s fleet of surface warships, helicopters and submarines take primary responsibility for tracking submarines while the RAF’s Sentry AEW.1 tracks surface targets, prosecuting them with whatever assets are available. It has also been reported the RAF’s Hercules transport fleet have also been adopting a maritime patrol role, something that was outlined in the literature justifying the scrapping of Nimrod but has more or less failed to materialise in practice. As events in December of last year showed this is a significantly ineffective strategy and surely the acquisition of a new dedicated maritime patrol aircraft with all the relevant systems to track and prosecute surface and submerged targets is desperately needed.
From the moment the Nimrod force was axed there has been an overwhelming feeling that the eventual replacement will be the Boeing P-8A Poseidon. This is thanks largely to the current climate of increasing cooperation between American and British defence manufacturers personified in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter a large percentage of which is either funded by or supplied by British companies. There were also more obvious benefits to acquiring the P-8A Poseidon such as the RAF having greater commonality with its US allies. If the RAF adopted a “Poseidon MRA.1” then it could take advantage of US supply chains when conducting joint operations. It would all depend on what specification the RAF would want for their Poseidon.
Under these circumstances then its no surprise that many contenders for supplying aircraft to replace the Nimrod feel they have already lost to Boeing including Airbus who are offering their C-295 MPA conversion to an RAF requirement. Even high ranking RAF officers revealed to journalists of The Scotsman in April 2014 that they believed a Poseidon acquisition was inevitable because it was the “the most capable option”.
Then on January 7th 2015 The Telegraph newspaper revealed that a wholly unexpected contender was entering the fray – the Japanese Kawasaki P-1. The P-1 (the designation is no direct relation to the US designation system governing the P-3 Orion or P-8 Poseidon) is a four engined turbofan powered maritime patrol aircraft developed for the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (Japanese Navy) as a replacement for their P-3C Orion fleet. Perhaps ironically the Nimrod was offered to the Japanese in 2000 as an alternative but they decided to develop their own aircraft and now the favour is being returned.
Japan might seem like a rather bizarre defence partner to 21st century Britain but historically the two countries have enjoyed a rather profitable relationship up until the 1930s. Both nations share a common heritage being industrious island nations and regional maritime superpowers and it was in no small part that the Royal Navy was responsible for modernising the Imperial Japanese Navy throughout the first quarter of the 20th century before relations turned sour over Japan’s invasion of China. In the post-World War II years the Japanese drew closer ties to the US regarding defence as a result of the US occupation of Japan and Communist rise to power in China. The Japanese emerged from World War II embracing capitalism while at the same time putting in place a self-imposed ban on military exports in an effort to emphasize its new almost isolationist military policy. Now however that ban looks set to be lifted as current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown interest in exporting Japanese military hardware.
It was initially reported in Reuters that during the Farnborough Air Show in July 2014 officials from the Japanese government and Kawasaki Heavy Industries raised the idea although further details were not released until The Telegraph’s article earlier this year. The deal would reputedly cost around £600 million ($899 million US) and given the current unit price for a Kawasaki P-1 this would translate in to 5 aircraft indicating that this deal would be an initial acquisition with possibly more in the future. No further details have been published although it is believed that any new RAF MPA including the P-1 or Poseidon would be powered by British manufactured engines.
The Japanese must surely be confident then that their aircraft stands a good chance of rivalling the P-8A Poseidon as a possible future MPA for the RAF right? Well…It’s too early to say. Psychologically the RAF and defence analysts the world over can only see the P-8A Poseidon eventually joining the RAF’s ranks and plug the embarrassing gap left by the Nimrod. This would not be a bad thing for the RAF as the Poseidon is recognised as being one of the finest MPAs in the world but it would be a very expensive purchase. Indeed, cost is the biggest obstacle to Boeing’s ambition with a unit cost two-thirds higher than with the Kawasaki P-1 and while this hasn’t thwarted previous acquisitions such as the C-17 Globemaster it does bring in to question over whether the RAF will go for a greater number of cheaper aircraft or a reduced number of more capable Poseidons.
In the end even Kawasaki must know the odds are against them and this has left some to wonder whether the Japanese are even serious about Britain buying the P-1. If that was the case then what would they have to gain by making the offer knowing their aircraft will lose? Well the immediate answer is recognition for their product. If the P-1 was shortlisted to the final two contenders (the other being the P-8A Poseidon) for an RAF acquisition then it would be a marketing coup for Japan looking to sell their cheaper aircraft to nations that could never afford the Poseidon. They could claim quite correctly that for a significantly reduced cost you can have an aircraft that can rival the P-8.
With the British general election coming in May of this year no decision will be made until the next government (in whatever shape that may be) is firmly entrenched at No.10 Downing Street. Until then the RAF is having to make do with relying on the Royal Navy and its allies to hunt submarines trying to trespass in its territorial waters. Not since 1938 has the RAF’s maritime patrol capability looked so feeble as it does now and as history showed the RAF and Britain itself paid dearly for that in the coming war against the U-Boats.