Something old, something new, something borrowed...

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With a July decision date, the RAF's Nimrod competition is reaching boiling point.

Douglas Barrie/LONDON Graham Warwick/ATLANTA

MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, Hawker Siddeley emerged victorious from the ruck of the Royal Air Force's last maritime-patrol-aircraft (MPA) competition. The surprise winner of Operational Requirement 381 (OR381) was its HS.801, now better known as the Nimrod.

The surprise in the February 1965 announcement was that OR381 was a redraft of a previous MPA requirement, which appeared to observers to have been written around the Breguet 1150 Atlantic. The French offering was considered the clear favourite. The details of that decision are now buried in the murk and mythology of many a procurement saga.

The lesson will not have been lost on Lockheed Martin. The US company is now battling for the RAF's Staff Requirement (Air) 420 for a Replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft (RMPA), with the Orion 2000, along with British Aerospace, offering the Nimrod 2000, and Lockheed Tactical System UK (formerly Loral), with its Valkyrie upgrade of the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion.

When SR(A)909 for an acoustic processor, and SR(A)910 for a central tactical system to upgrade the Nimrod, were ditched in 1990, the clear leader to meet the RAF's replacement requirement was Lockheed's P-7, being developed for the US Navy. The axe was shortly to fall on the P-7, in part because of problems with the Boeing-developed mission-systems suite, dubbed the Update IV.

The UK Ministry of Defence, having decided against a Nimrod avionics upgrade, then set about establishing the cardinal-points specification (CPS) for SR(A)420. There are those who suggest that the latter was drafted with more than an eye on the Orion.

A request for information was released in 1993, with three aircraft quickly emerging as favourites: the Nimrod, the P-3 Orion and the twin-turboprop Dassault Atlantic.

Dassault withdrew its Atlantic 3 bid earlier in 1996, following "gentle hints" from the UK MoD that its business interests might be better served by curtailing its bid expenses for the RMPA. The RAF is firmly wed to a four-engined aircraft in the maritime-patrol role.

Since 1986, BAe has been mulling over its options for meeting a full Nimrod-replacement project and has carried out a series of studies, some at the behest of the MoD. Graham Chisnall, BAe's Nimrod 2000 project manager, says that several options were explored, covering "new designs, civil conversions and the extant platform". Civil conversions included an MPA derivative of the Airbus A310.

CIVIL CONVERSION TOO EXPENSIVE

A 25-aircraft requirement failed to merit a new-design programme, while a civil conversion was deemed to be "expensive" and "not adaptable". BAe therefore settled on the existing Nimrod platform as the basis for its bid.

The company's conclusion was that the "...most competitive bid we could offer for the RMPA competition was the Nimrod", albeit remanufactured to meet the CPS.

If settling on an airframe was a relatively straightforward process, finding a "partner" for the mission-systems area proved considerably more difficult. Alongside Boeing, BAe also held discussions with Control Data, GEC-Marconi and Paramax.

BAe was at one point struggling to pull both Boeing and GEC-Marconi into its team. Locking up the UK's other major defence manufacturer within its own bid would have strengthened BAe's hand considerably.

In the event, the three companies were unable to resolve workshare issues and GEC went its own way. In its negotiations with Lockheed Martin, GEC had looked at acting as the prime contractor, but finally opted to act as mission-system avionics integrator, rather than as prime, despite the MoD's enthusiasm for alternatives to platform primes. GEC's recent history as a platform prime contractor had been less than glorious; sources indicate that senior management took this into account when determining its strategy on the RMPA project.

The interest of Loral (now Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems UK) was also fanned by the MoD's keenness to have "systems houses" act as primes in competing for SR(A)420. Loral's reputation has also been enhanced by its management of the EH Industries EH101 Merlin anti-submarine-warfare-helicopter programme for the Royal Navy.

Like BAe, the company settled upon reworking an existing airframe. Its bid is based on upgrading ex-USN P-3A/Bs now in storage. It is also based on being the least expensive option for the MoD. Bill Vincent, the Valkyrie programme manager believes that his company has "the lowest acquisition cost".

Vincent is also aware that life-cycle support costs, rather than upfront expenditure, are the largest single contributor to an overall LCC.

His confidence also lends credence to the view that the P3-refurbishment bid is being used by the MoD Procurement Executive as a "stalking horse" to hold down the bid prices of the other, more expensive, contenders. To be more than just a method of cost-capping, however, the Valkyrie also had to be a credible, cost-effective, solution, capable of meeting the requirements.

The credibility of the bids from Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems UK and BAe are dependent on the bidders convincing the MoD that a remanufactured airframe does not constitute an unacceptable risk. The RPMA tender states: "The Authority intends to achieve value for money in a competitive environment by selecting the total solution that offers the optimum balance between the overall effectiveness, the LCC and minimised risk to the Authority."

Although the MoD had set out with the halcyon aim of procuring a non-developmental aircraft to fulfil SR(A)420, the bids received have inevitably had to include a development phase. Factored in to its analysis of aircraft LCCs, as opposed to prime bid costs, is an additional risk cost. As well as the risk associated with any given development, the MoD is also having to examine potential risks associated with refurbished airframes. It does not want any "nasty airframe surprises" waiting for it in the first decade of the next century.

Chisnall is adamant that a reworked Nimrod airframe can easily meet the 25-year lifetime stipulated in the CPS. "We have carried out an aggressive internal programme to assure the viability of the airframe..and have demonstrated clearly that the retained airframe items are low risk," he says.

Two service Nimrods have been torn down to check the state of the airframes, along with the data gained from the work on airframe XV147, the form-and-fit demonstrator at BAe Warton. The results have convinced BAe that the Nimrod is good for another 35-40 years of service life with the intended airframe-modification package. "We were not talking about a marginal structure," says Chisnall.

"BEST-UNDERSTOOD RAF AIRFRAME"

BAe Chadderton has been the support authority for the Nimrod throughout the aircraft's life, and the company regards it as "probably the best-understood airframe in the RAF inventory". The effect of all this was to provide the necessary confidence for it to categorise the risk associated with the airframe as "low".

As BAe will have spent around £25 million on its bid for SR(A)420 by the time of a decision, its estimation of the state of the Nimrod airframe, on which its money is riding, cannot be dismissed lightly. It remains to be seen, however, whether the MoD will be comfortable extending for a further 25 years the life of an aircraft ordered in 1965.

Similar fears need to be allayed if the MoD is to plump for the Valkyrie. Unlike the Nimrod, however, the PC-3 airframe is a relatively unknown quantity to the UK MoD, and so the likely risk element factored in its assessment of the Lockheed Tactical System UK bid will be higher.

The bid has also been clouded recently by a public quarrel with the former Loral's new owner, Lockheed Martin, over the availability of airframe data. It claims that all the necessary data were in the public domain, but Lockheed Martin argues that much of it remains proprietary to the airframe manufacturer.

The company has given the MoD assurances that both the new-build Lockheed 2000 and the ex-USN P-3s bids will "...remain on the table". Irrespective of this, Lockheed Martin is certain to want to examine the detail of its newly acquired business to ensure that it is not now bidding a hostage to fortune.

As well as structural upgrades to the Nimrod airframe, the inner-wing section, wing box, elements of the vertical stabiliser and the cabin/cockpit of the Nimrod 2000 are new. BAe is also in the final throes of selecting a powerplant to replace the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans.

BAe had been expected to offer the BMW R-R BR715, but it has also been in prolonged negotiations with General Electric over a growth variant of the CF34. The engine change was driven by the need to meet time-on-station requirements and LCC criteria. If BAe had stuck with the Spey, says Chisnall, it would not have needed to replace the inner wing and carry-through structure. "This could have done another 25 years," he claims, but that boast is unlikely to be put to the test. The MoD is unlikely to opt for a Spey-powered aircraft, given maintenance and performance penalties incurred by a further 25 years of service.

"WHAT IS GOING ON?"

"Go out and tell me what is going on, and in greater and greater detail," is how Rich Kirtland, vice-president for Government requirements at Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems in Marietta, Georgia, sums up the MPA mission.

Kirtland says that Lockheed Martin has looked at refurbishing the P-3 three times, first for the ill-fated P-7 programme, then for the P-7 follow-on and, finally, for the UK's RMPA competition. In each case, he says, analyses showed that a new airframe would reduce the risk. The result is the Orion 2000.

Compared with an upgraded P-3C, the new-build Orion 2000 offers a 3.5h longer endurance, and a 10% higher payload. The Orion 2000 has the same "footprint" as that of the P-3C, Kirtland says, but is redesigned to increase zero-fuel weight by 2,180kg.

The ability to increase payload weight by refining the original stress calculations and machining the structure to add or remove material is one advantage which Lockheed Martin claims for the Orion 2000 over a remanufactured P-3.

"We are talking about changes in metal thickness of thousandths of an inch. When you remanufacture an old airframe you have to bolt on plates to increase strength, and that adds weight," he adds.

The new-build Orion 2000 will also have improved material properties and manufacturing processes which increase corrosion protection. "You can manufacture-in significant corrosion resistance. Every rivet will be installed wet in the Orion 2000. We did not do that before and the P-3 corrodes around the rivet joints," Kirtland says.

A new-build aircraft, Lockheed Martin argues, also favours producing a consistent product at a consistent price. With remanufacturing, the airframes are not in a consistent condition.

The Orion 2000 and the Valkyrie are both re-engined aircraft, with Allison AE2100 turboprops. The RAF's Lockheed Martin's C-130J Hercules 2 also have this engine, and both bidders argue that the commonality offers clear cost advantages.

"For a high-/low-altitude mission profile, turboprops are very efficient, and modern commercial-turboprop technology and efficiency is phenomenal," argues Kirtland.

BAe contends that the turbofan-powered Nimrod 2000 offers lower noise and vibration, as well as a less-conspicuous powerplant radar return. Not surprisingly, those offering turboprop solutions claim that, with the latest-generation engines, the noise/vibration differences are inconsequential.

BAe's campaign claims include "wrapping itself in the Union Jack", boasting that it is "the British RMPA solution". It is the UK airframe RMPA solution, but GEC, in the shape of Brian Tucker, managing director of GEC-Marconi Aerospace Systems, contends that the critical technology is not in the airframe but in the onboard avionics. Even senior BAe officials describe the airframe as "weather-proofing for the mission systems".

Boeing provides the tactical command sub-system on the Nimrod 2000, drawn from its experience on the Update IV programme for the P-7 and the Indonesian Surveiller programme. BAe will act as mission-system integrator. On the Orion 2000, GEC will provide the tactical command system (TCS), based on the architecture developed for the Nautis naval TCS, and it will act as the system integrator.

STREET FIGHTING

Absent so far has been the shrill, near-hysterical, lobbying which accompanied the C-130J/ Future Large Aircraft (FLA) clash between Lockheed Martin and BAe. The MoD had let it be known that it did not want the high-profile, lowest-common-denominator, street fighting which characterised the RAF's transport and the Army Air Corps' attack-helicopter purchases.

As the number of airframes to be procured is limited, the "strategic-to-the-company" argument deployed by BAe in support of the FLA would court incredulity. Senior company officials argue that its importance in part lies in the fact that it acts as a gap-filler between core combat-aircraft programmes, allowing essential design-engineering teams to be retained.

One area where the procurement xenophobia did threaten was in the choice of radars. All three bidders are offering the Israeli Elta 2022 as the baseline, with the Racal Thorn Searchwater II as a costed option. The latter has attempted to lever its own case by flying the politically sensitive flag of "UK-jobs at risk". Not awarding the radar bid to Racal Thorn could also be used as a prompt to further rationalisation within the UK's radar manufacturing base. Elta has formed a bid-independent team with GEC-Marconi. Israel's Elisra is also a potential provider of electronic-support measures (ESM), marking the country's increasing interest in doing business in the UK.

BAe also argues, although its competitors find the logic questionable, that a Nimrod 2000 victory would give it an entry into the worldwide MPA market.

"There is no market for the Nimrod outside the UK. What can be exported? The Boeing mission system would have to be redesigned for an Atlantic or P-3, and that adds to the cost of the air vehicle," says Kirtland.

Not surprisingly, each of the P-3 vendors makes a strong export argument, supported by their UK associates (GEC on the Orion 2000 and Marshall Aerospace on the Valkyrie).

Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems (UK) argues that, if it were to win, and with over 75 P-3s now in storage, it would be strongly placed to pick up the bulk of procurement orders from Brazil, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Taiwan. The UK industrial participants, the US company claims, would reap some 40% of the value of export orders.

A similar, if potentially more credible, line is pushed by its recently acquired parent on the Orion 2000. Perhaps the trump industrial card for the Orion 2000 team is the USN.

"DEVIL IN THE DETAIL"

The USN is interested, Kirtland says, and "...is waiting to see what the UK decision is". The US defence giant is striving to get the USN to add its support to the UK bid by producing a supporting statement on the Orion 2000. Competitors claim that, should such a statement emerge, then "...the devil would be in the detail, if indeed there is any."

Lockheed Martin has already proposed that the Navy buy some 170 Orion 2000s, beginning around 2002, to avoid the cost of extending the service lives of some 240 P-3Cs and of developing a new MPA, the MP-X, to replace the P-3, beginning in 2015.

All of the remaining bidders are promising a minimum 100% offset package, while also pushing the direct-content element of their packages. Under Lockheed Martin's Orion 2000 offer, 87% of the air vehicle and 55% of the total aircraft would be manufactured in the UK.

The aircraft would be assembled at Lockheed Martin from UK-manufactured subassemblies and flown to the UK for installation of the GEC-Marconi mission system and final completion by Hunting. "The UK content in the green aircraft is guaranteed," says Kirtland.

"If the US Navy buys the Orion 2000, the same UK subcontractors will be involved," he says. While the US Navy, for example, would be likely to plug its own sensor suite into the embedded GEC-Marconi mission system, "...the UK sensor suite would be available to Orion 2000 customers without risk, and with demonstrated performance. There is more UK job content in the Orion 2000 than any other [RMPA] proposal," Kirtland asserts.

The Lockheed Martin Tactical Systems (UK) bid promises that 70% of the contract value will be bedded directly in UK firms participating on the programme. BAe says that its bid is built around some 76-80% of the work being direct, although this figure includes a substantial element of "RMPA work into the UK, via the overseas subcontractors".

"LIES, DAMNED LIES"

As with all figures, the "lies, damned lies and statistics" warning should also come into play. What should be clear, however, is that the UK industrial-participation requirement is being taken seriously by all the contenders, and that the UK aerospace industry will benefit, to a considerable degree, whichever is the winner. What the MoD may use as a discriminator in this area is each team's export potential and the likely UK involvement. Lockheed Martin and GEC are confident that the Orion 2000 export story is more sustainable than those of either of the other two competitors. BAe certainly would struggle to convince many that there is an export market for remanufactured, or even new-build, Nimrods. It is also not in Lockheed Martin's medium- to long-term export interests to see the erstwhile Loral bid win in the UK. It would far rather see new-build aircraft roll off the line at Marietta, Georgia. Lockheed Martin moved the production line to Marietta, re-opening it for South Korean aircraft.

Be it new-build aircraft or remanufactured, there is probably only a limited amount of "daylight" between at least Lockheed and BAe in mission performance. Where there may be more by way of potential discriminators for the decision makers is in risk-assessment and export.

All three contenders would claim that the above criteria would see them emerge as the winner. Lockheed Martin would, however, be more concerned about whether a high-level "British Aerospace-jobs-equals-votes" taint enters the decision.o