This news article is now out of date.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
Few aircraft retirements have left such a gaping hole in Britain’s national defence than the retirement of the Nimrod MR.2 and the cancellation of its upgraded replacement the Nimrod MRA.4. This revered Cold War era sub-hunter fell victim to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2010 which saw the aircraft brutally axed in an effort to save £2bn of the defence budget even though £3bn had already been invested in the MRA.4. Defence experts in the UK were horrified when the plan was announced as they each asked; “How will Britain defend its shorelines against submarines?”
The RAF and the MoD under the leadership of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government responded by saying that other national assets will assume the Nimrod’s maritime patrol, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), maritime rescue coordination and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) roles. The Royal Navy’s force of frigates with their Merlin helicopters were intended to assume the ASW role which ignored the fact that SDSR 2010 had also cut the Royal Navy’s surface force. Hercules C.4/5 transport aircraft operating from RAF Brize Norton would assume the rescue coordination role although when Air Forces Monthly tried to write an article on this new role for the aircraft in 2011 they were rebuffed and there seems to be no evidence that the Hercules has ever performed this role. The maritime patrol role was to be taken over by the Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) which although does have surface tracking abilities it is hardly suited to hunting submarine periscopes/snorkels and is incapable of deploying sonar buoys. Finally the aircraft’s ISTAR role was to be assumed by RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft acquired from the US to replace the dedicated Nimrod R.1 ISTAR aircraft and the Sentinel R.1 which again the SDSR 2010 earmarked for retirement once the conflict in Afghanistan was resolved despite it being a relatively new aircraft.
So, in the last five years how have all these assets come together to make up for the loss of just 12 aircraft? The answer is very poorly indeed. Now it has to be mentioned that the Nimrod MR.2 was an increasingly old aircraft that was proving problematic to maintain in service but it was flying and it was patrolling the North Sea. Put simply the national maritime defence posture of the United Kingdom has been extremely vulnerable since Nimrod was retired. There is simply nothing else that can hunt ships and submarines as well as coordinate an effective response to a threat as well as a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft can. Just how vulnerable the UK is was dramatically highlighted in December 2014 when the RAF had to ask its French and American allies for help in finding an intruding submarine (most likely Russian) off Scottish waters. This incident must have finally struck a nerve with both the British people and the government because just three months later the MoD announced that it was looking in to finally replacing Nimrod and there was one company above all others that looked set to get the lucrative £2bn deal; Boeing.
The evidence seems to be right in front of us that Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon will be the platform that gives back the dedicated fixed wing maritime patrol role the RAF desperately needs. Local media reports in Scotland frequently mention that RAF personnel at RAF Kinloss firmly believe the Boeing aircraft will appear in RAF markings soon enough. Former defence secretary Phillip Hammond has already toured Boeing’s production line and been given a briefing for the aircraft and finally, RAF personnel have been serving with the US Navy’s own P-8 Poseidon force as part of Seedcom which is designed to keep British aircrews familiar with the ASV/ASW role. It seems to many that the only thing left is to wait for the announcement of the purchase to be made.
But are there any other platforms that could thwart Boeing’s plans?
Despite the seemingly done-deal regarding the P-8 Poseidon there are factors in place against the aircraft joining the RAF. The biggest one is expense. Apart from building an entirely new aircraft in Britain acquiring the P-8 is by far and away the most expensive option with an individual unit price being in the region of £171 million. That is before the RAF start tailoring the aircraft to its own needs which is likely to raise the cost of the aircraft further. Another concern is that despite the RAF’s desire to have high commonality with their American allies just how much freedom to modify, upgrade or utilise American systems independently of joint operations with the US will the RAF aircraft have? Acquiring the P-8 Poseidon may actually limit the RAF’s ability to operate outside of the American sphere of influence if Washington opposes British military action or operations and therefore restricts highly controlled American equipment. In the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program the British government has already had to wrestle with this fact regarding BAE Systems’ ability to support the aircraft when the US demanded total control over the aircraft’s vital computer codes. It was only when Britain threatened to withdraw its vast financial investment in the aircraft that the Americans finally agreed to share those codes with BAE Systems. Would the US do the same again if a similar situation happened with the P-8 Poseidon?
With these concerns in mind a handful of companies around the world have sensed an opportunity to seduce the RAF in to looking more closely at their aircraft. Here are a handful of alternatives to the P-8 Poseidon that the government must surely be considering in the impending SDSR 2015.
This site has discussed this surprising deal offered to the RAF by Japan in detail in a previous article so this topic will not delve too deeply in to it here. The Japanese deal centred around an initial acquisition of five aircraft for the RAF in the £600m price range with options on more later. Since then the Japanese company has repeatedly tried to entice the RAF in to taking a more serious look at their aircraft especially in light of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s amendment to his country’s constitution to allow the export of military hardware. A purchase by the RAF would certainly raise the aircraft’s esteem and would be a political coup for the Japanese.
Clearly then the Japanese have a lot to gain from the deal but how would the RAF benefit? Compared to the P-8 Poseidon the P-1 is cheaper and has the added advantage of four engine reliability as opposed to the two engines on the P-8. The P-1 is also already tailored to working alongside the US military since the Japanese forces, like the British forces, work closely with their American allies. On the downside the P-1 has fewer operators reducing the overall ability to cover many missions in a single flight or coordinate a large multi-national operation effectively. It also has a much smaller combat radius than the P-8 meaning it would rely more heavily on the RAF’s tanker force for long endurance missions.
Refurbished ex-US Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion
Politically in the UK and financially in the US this is the option nobody wants. There are large numbers of ex-US Navy P-3 Orions in storage in the US and elsewhere that could be acquired and heavily refurbished or rebuilt to an RAF specification. The P-3 was one of the contenders against the original Nimrod MR.1 back in the 1970s and tests proved that performance of the aircraft was superior to the P-3 although it wasn’t until the MR.2 that the mission systems were a match thus producing an overall superior aircraft.
There are advantages to this proposal for the RAF namely that they would be acquiring a proven airframe and design that continues in service with many countries. It performs exceptionally well and has just as wide an array of weapon options available to it as the P-8. It is also still well supported by the manufacturer and sub-contractors giving a wide array of mission system options that the integrated systems of the P-8 simply can’t. However, again the aircraft has fewer operators than the P-8 thus limiting mission effectiveness and has less operational range. Another problem is that no fixed price can be settled on these aircraft since the level of work required would differ from airframe to airframe. The refurbishment may also only be able to bring the aircraft online for a much shorter period of time meaning the RAF will be seeking a replacement much sooner than they would with a new build airframe. Finally, it is both politically contentious and militarily embarrassing for Britain to be flying what the US Navy have effectively thrown away.
Lockheed Martin SC-130J Sea Herc MPRA
From its very inception in the 1950s the superlative C-130 Hercules tactical transport aircraft has tried to pursue a career in the maritime patrol role and the SC-130J is the very latest attempt. Effectively a C-130J Hercules II the aircraft features a slide-in mission system pallet that can be put inside the cavernous cargo bay of the Hercules linked to a dedicated surface search radar in the nose as well as additional optical systems and underwing/fuselage hardpoints for weapons.
Lockheed Martin could build a very strong case to the RAF for their product. Firstly, if absolutely necessary, Lockheed Martin could convert existing [C-130J] Hercules C.4s already in service as opposed to buying new build aircraft. Also, since the base aircraft is already in service then the RAF already has the support infrastructure in place to operate it thus reducing costs. Since the mission system is palleted then should additional logistical needs arise the aircraft can return to a transport role quite easily by removing the mission equipment. The palleted system also means that it is much easier to upgrade or replace mission systems increasing its usefulness and flexibility. The strong Hercules has also proven that it can more than handle itself low over the ocean having served in rescue and reconnaissance roles with the US Coast Guard over some of the toughest seas in the world.
Against this acquisition however is the fact that the mission system itself is unproven although it is based on proven technology. Also just how interoperable would the aircraft be with the P-8 remains unclear as is the final cost of the aircraft and how soon it can enter service since at the moment it remains a paper-plane.
Airbus C-295 MPA
In 2014 the head of Airbus Military U.K Richard Thompson said that he wanted to “bust the myth” being generated over the apparent certainty of a P-8 Poseidon acquisition. He argued that the Airbus C-295 MPA would meet more of the RAF’s needs at almost half the cost compared to the P-8. Based on the proven C-295 military transport the MPA proposal is similar to the SC-130J Sea Herc in its conception but has the advantage of already being in service with a foreign power namely Chile. Thompson went further however by claiming that the C-295 MPA’s radar is more sophisticated than the P-8 and added that the Airbus aircraft could be tailored more specifically to RAF requirements.
Given the UK investment in Airbus there are strong political and economic positives to choosing the C-295. While its range is not as great as the P-8, Thompson pointed out that the vast majority of the RAF’s Nimrod missions took place within 500 miles of the coast and that the aircraft was already configured for the RAF’s tanker force using the hose-and-drogue system (the P-8 still only has the US boom system). Just as there are political positives there are negatives namely how the US would react to Britain turning away from their P-8 after all the wooing Washington and Boeing have done with the RAF and MoD. Also, once again the question of interoperability comes up.
Northrop Grumman RQ-4 “Euro-Ocean Hawk”
We truly live in an amazing time with regards to aerospace technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are nothing new but in the last 15 years we have seen them go from being a supporting reconnaissance asset to becoming a vital component of offensive operations in many cases effectively taking the lead away from manned aircraft. Indeed the US Navy have even gone so far as to say that the replacement for the F-35C Lightning II will be built in both manned and unmanned versions. With regards to the UK’s fixed wing maritime patrol mission only one UAV is currently available that could fulfil the role and that is a variant of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. Exact details of the proposal to the RAF are somewhat hazy but it is likely to be a form of hybrid of two previous proposals – the Euro Hawk (an export variant designed for Europe) and the Ocean Hawk (a long range reconnaissance variant designed for the US Navy). The aircraft itself would be a purely reconnaissance type and would organize other assets to carry out actual attacks on enemy ships and submarines which means that if a UAV design is selected then it would mean that the Royal Navy would still be largely responsible for prosecuting any threats.
If range was the weakness of all the other proposals compared to the P-8 then the RQ-4 absolutely excels it. The RQ-4 could loiter over the North Sea for a staggering 32 hours providing long range high quality radar and other sensor sweeps and then transmitting the data back to the MoD. None of the other proposals could possibly meet that level of range or endurance. The engine is built by Rolls-Royce which has benefits to UK industry and since it needs no crew only operators on the ground then the RAF doesn’t have to spend so much money on training and then paying for bodies in the aircraft. Speaking of bodies in the aircraft there are none so if an RQ-4 was to crash or be shot down no lives are risked. Instead of dedicated operators transmitting the information to those who need it the RQ-4 could simply allow datalink access to any asset that requires it so the captain of a Royal Navy frigate could simply access the RQ-4’s sensor information to see what threats are in his area without exposing himself by using his own detectable scanning devices.
It sounds good but there are some fundamental problems with opting for the UAV. Firstly, as previously mentioned the UAV cannot engage enemy submarines or ships itself requiring other assets to carry out the attack. Even more concerning however is at present the RQ-4 cannot carry sonar buoys (although it can be fitted with a magnetic anomaly detector) to detect submerged submarines which would either require the MoD setting up fixed sonar buoys in British territorial waters or alternatively using a helicopter or transport aircraft to carry and drop them out of the back. There is one final fatal flaw with all UAVs that the public and many in the MoD often overlook given the effectiveness they have shown against fighting terrorists. All UAVs are controlled and communicate information wirelessly and against a technologically sophisticated enemy there is a risk that the signal can become jammed which means that the RQ-4 is left to effectively loiter impotently as opposed to a manned aircraft where the crew can continue a search and attack mission as well as organize electronic countermeasures to re-establish communication.
At present a final decision is expected around October when the SDSR 2015 is expected to be published.