UK joins trilateral partnership centred around P-8 Poseidon

Boeing P-8I Poseidon

The United Kingdom has joined the United States and Norway in outlining the principles of close cooperation between the three nations in operating the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). The statement of intent was signed on Thursday at a meeting between each country’s respective defence secretaries in Brussels – Sir Michael Fallon of the UK, James Mattis of the United States and Ine Eriksen Søreide of Norway.

The US Department of Defense issued a statement after the signing saying;

Today, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed a statement of intent to lay out guiding principles for a trilateral partnership with P-8A aircraft to address the changing security environment in the North Atlantic.

The agreement among the three NATO countries aims to establish a common framework in operating the advanced aircraft over the strategically significant regions of the North Atlantic and the North Sea. This will concentrate on areas such as maintaining a high of level of readiness and interoperability between them and to share operational experience of the aircraft to better understand how best to utilise the type in future operations.

The P-8 Poseidon is a derivative of the proven Boeing 737 commercial airliner and is developed from the 737-800 series. It is designed for a multitude of long-range maritime missions including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare and reconnaissance missions.

The RAF currently has nine airframes on order to fill the gap left by the retirement of the Nimrod MR.2 and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 which left the RAF without its own independent fixed wing maritime patrol asset. In order to maintain crew skills, RAF personnel have been serving with their NATO allies aboard their own maritime patrol aircraft and these crewmembers will likely form a cadre of new instructors when the Poseidon arrives.

Manufacture of the aircraft will be carried out across three production lots over a ten-year period with deliveries commencing in 2019 at an estimated cost of £3bn. The British aircraft will initially operate with US weapons and systems until British alternatives become available.

Both Norway and the US are acquiring the aircraft to replace their fleets of ageing P-3 Orions that have served admirably since the 1960s. Norway has five aircraft on order and these are expected to become operational at the same time as the RAF aircraft.


Boeing gearing up to start construction of RAF Poseidons

Boeing P-8I Poseidon

Representatives of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command based at Patuxent River Naval Air Station announced last week that a $68.4 million order has been placed with Boeing for the initial parts needed to start construction of the first four P-8A Poseidon aircraft destined for the RAF. The RAF has nine Poseidons on order which will restore the service’s independent maritime patrol and anti-submarine capability which it has lacked since the retirement of the Nimrod MR.2 and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 in 2010.

The P-8 is a militarised version of the Boeing 737 airliner and is optimised for the maritime patrol role featuring a stronger structure and the ability to carry weapons. At the heart of the mission system is the APS-137D(V)5 radar which provides Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capabilities for imaging stationary vessels as well as conducting coastal and overland surveillance. It also has high-resolution Imaging Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) for imaging surfaced submarines and fast surface vessels operating in coastal waters where surface clutter is high.

The withdrawal of the Nimrod has forced the RAF to rely on the Royal Navy’s vessels and their helicopters for the maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine roles. However this was proven to be woefully inefficient and left the UK’s coastlines extremely vulnerable causing the MoD to embarrassingly have to ask for help from NATO allies on a number of occasions.



RAF Nimrod Replacement – The Poseidon’s Competitors

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

Many feel the P-8 has already won

Many feel the P-8 has already won

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.

Kawasaki P-1

Kawasaki P-1This 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

P3Politically 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  

Lockheed SC-130J Sea Herc RAFFrom 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

C295 MPAIn 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”   

RQ-4 Ocean HawkWe 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.

Are the Japanese serious about selling the RAF Kawasaki P-1s?

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.

Kawasaki P-1

Kawasaki P-1

The over-budget and long-delayed Nimrod MRA.4 program killed the Nimrod altogether

The over-budget and long-delayed Nimrod MRA.4 program killed the Nimrod altogether

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.

The Sentry was designed to track aircraft but is now tracking ships

The Sentry was designed to track aircraft but is now tracking ships

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.

Many feel the P-8 has already won

Many feel the P-8 has already won

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.

Kawasaki P-1 test firing a Maverick missile

Kawasaki P-1 test firing a Maverick missile

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.