It was one of the most controversial elements of the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of late 2010 – and the decision to go without a dedicated maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) fleet looks certain to be among the headlines again, when the Ministry of Defence completes its next such activity in 2015.
With the last of the Royal Air Force’s British Aerospace Nimrod MR2s having already been retired in March of 2010, the cancellation of the replacement Nimrod MRA4 indefinitely extended a so-called “capability gap” to what had long been considered an indispensable national skillset.
The planned nine MRA4 airframes were swiftly scrapped, despite the first example having been within months of its long-delayed delivery to the RAF. “As part of the contractual arrangements with the company [Metal and Waste Recycling], the MoD received receipts from the sale of the dismantled airframes to the value of just over £1 million [$1.7 million],” minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne revealed in response to a parliamentary question last month. More than £4 billion had been spent on the MRA4 over the life of the programme, with original plans having called for a 21-strong fleet.
There is little doubt that the MoD and RAF view the re-establishment of a maritime patrol capability as a high priority. For around one month from early April, a massive international airborne search was performed off the west coast of Australia during the hunt for lost Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and a smaller-scale effort in May looked for the four-man crew of a British-registered yacht missing in the Atlantic Ocean. Both incidents underscored the importance of having such assets available, while a resurgence of Russian naval activity in international waters around the UK also suggests the current capability gap needs closing sooner rather than later.
Recently revealed details about the MoD’s stopgap Project Seedcorn – which seeks to maintain a cadre of personnel with the skills needed to help re-establish a national MPA capability – appear to point to a likely preferred solution.
Twenty UK military personnel are currently assigned to US Navy units operating the Boeing 737-based P-8 from Jacksonville, Florida, and from the service’s test site at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. The type has also visited the UK to participate in Joint Warrior exercises staged from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, most recently earlier this year.
The other 12 British servicemen involved in the Seedcorn activity are serving with air force squadrons flying the Lockheed P-3 Orion in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
These partnerships enabled some of the UK specialists to be involved in the failed search for the missing Malaysian Boeing 777-200ER, aboard both MPA types.
So far ordered by the US and Indian navies, which expect to field a respective 117 and at least eight examples, the P-8 is also likely to be a future system for the Royal Australian Air Force. Further international buyers are also being sought, with high-profile visits having been made to the Dubai and Singapore air shows within the last nine months, and a debut Farnborough appearance at this year’s event.
But while the UK might appear to be leaning towards the P-8, the question of its likely available budget for an MPA reinstatement will be a major factor, as it considers the viability of any such acquisition. According to USN estimates for a fiscal year 2015 order of eight production examples, the Poseidon has a unit cost of roughly $270 million, including weapon systems.
In addition to its current high ticket price, critics point to the commercial narrowbody’s lack of suitability for low-level operation over the ocean, where the P-3 it is progressively replacing for the USN spends much of its life.
Numerous potential alternatives exist to a UK purchase of the P-8, with one of the most established proposals being to adapt some of the RAF’s current Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transports for a maritime patrol application. As another result of the last SDSR, the MoD plans to withdraw the service’s 24 remaining examples by 2022 – a full decade sooner than originally planned. Using a phased retirement model, this process will begin with the removal form use of the service’s five short-fuselage Hercules in 2016.
Lockheed and Marshall Aerospace have for several years been proposing an upgrade solution which would retain some of the RAF’s C-130Js for modification using a palletised mission system and the added sensors and weapons required to perform the maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare roles.
The companies list benefits of their offering as including the removal of any aircraft acquisition costs and their experience in supporting the type in RAF service since the late 1990s – and the legacy C-130K between the mid-1960s and late last year. The proposed J-model configuration also would benefit from the ongoing Seedcorn activity, as it would repackage the mission system from the P-3 into the airlifter.
Any retention of the RAF’s C-130Js would require them to receive replacement centre wing boxes, due to the heavy workload placed on the fleet during operations in Afghanistan. Systems such as a maritime search radar and air-launched weapons have already been integrated with the type, respectively for the US Coast Guard, and US Air Force and Marine Corps. A magnetic anomaly detection boom would be installed below the tail for submarine-hunting applications, while elements of Lockheed’s SC-130J “Sea Herc” could also be introduced.
Depending on the requirements which could be outlined by the UK, its MoD could receive a multitude of offers, to meet a range of budget levels. Airbus Defence & Space has been promoting the multirole capabilities of its C295 – for example by helping the Portuguese air force to bring one of its examples to last year’s Royal International Air Tattoo.
Saab has previously suggested the creation of a “Swordfish” platform using its Saab 2000 regional turboprop, while a team including L-3 Communications is touting a maritime multimission solution based on the Bombardier Q400, to be equipped with systems from UK suppliers including MBDA, Selex ES and Ultra Electronics.
The UK is also exploring the possible utility of using unmanned aircraft as part of a wider maritime patrol and search and rescue system. As part of the Seedcorn initiative, four of its personnel will receive training on the USN’s developmental Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton – a high-altitude, long-endurance platform capable of providing a persistent, broad area surveillance capability. Such an asset could be used while operating in concert with a manned type like the P-8 or modified C-130J, although significant barriers exist due to the high cost of an investment, and the airspace integration issues which currently stand in the way of its use.
Should the outcome of the next SDSR decide against any MPA investment, the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in September could have some bearing on the matter. In a White Paper published late last year, the ruling Scottish National Party outlined its vision to establish an independent air force in the event of a “yes” vote. This would be equipped with assets including a minimum of 12 Eurofighter Typhoons and around six C-130J transports, plus utility helicopters, the document says. Edinburgh would also seek to acquire about four dedicated maritime patrol aircraft.
All this activity shows that although the RAF’s last operational Nimrods went away more than four years ago, the UK’s need for an MPA and long-range search and rescue fleet did not do the same.