As the UK nears the release of its next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in October, the pressure on the government to answer a number of questions surrounding capability gaps and needed upgrades continues to mount.
A Conservative party win in May's general election led to the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne committing, during the budget in July, to the UK meeting the NATO-advised spending benchmark of 2% of GDP on defence. Osborne also promised real-term increases per year of 0.5% to some £38.9 billion ($61 billion) by 2020/2021, and with this commitment maintained the UK’s position as one of the top spenders within NATO.
How the UK will spend these funds is largely speculative, although certain capability gaps will inevitably be addressed in the SDSR, as well as a few new areas that until recently were not considered a priority.
Ahead of a visit on 13 July to the Royal Air Force's Waddington base in Lincolnshire – the home of the service’s surveillance aircraft fleet, including the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle – Prime Minister David Cameron said that the pledged spending needs to be spent on key areas, including UAVs, special forces and counter-terrorism assets.
“Now we know how much we will spend; what matters next is how we spend it,” Cameron said. “I have tasked the defence and security chiefs to look specifically at how we [can] do more to counter the threat posed by ISIL [Islamic State] and Islamist extremism. This could include more spy planes, drones and special forces. In the past five years, I have seen just how vital these assets are in keeping us safe.”
The government is further involving itself in the coalition air campaign against Islamic State insurgents in Iraq, which defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons on 3 July should be extended to neighbouring Syria.
“Air-to-air refuelling and other sophisticated airborne assets play a vital role in enabling other nations to conduct strikes that they would otherwise be unable to do on their own,” the government says. “In order to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of the fight against extremism, it is important to continue investing in this area.”
As a result of this commitment, the RAF's Panavia Tornado GR4-equipped 12 Sqn that is operating against IS has had its planned retirement delayed further until March 2017, Fallon announced on 4 August.
Eight Tornados are flying in support of the mission, which has helped Iraqi forces push back IS from the Kurdish region and from cities such as Tikrit and Baiji, Fallon says.
The squadron was originally due to be disbanded in 2014, ahead of the completion of the UK's combat involvement in Afghanistan. This decision was reversed in January 2015, when the demand on the Tornados in Iraq became apparent, and the retirement date was first extended until March 2016.
The life of the aircraft past this date remains to be seen, but until the required upgrades are made to the Eurofighter Typhoon to enable it to carry out the same ground-attack role, the Tornado GR4 is the go-to RAF aircraft for this role.
Upgrades to the RAF's Typhoons include new weapons integration and the development of the Captor-E active electronically scanned radar, although a contract for production of the latter has yet to be signed.
The E-Scan radar was installed on the UK’s instrumented production aircraft IPA5 for flight testing and showcased during the Farnborough air show in July 2014. A German Tranche 3 aircraft has also been modified into IPA8 for the new radar system integration.
“Ground-based testing of the wider aircraft systems impacted by the implementation of the E-Scan radar system continues, and flight development testing using the two IPAs will commence after this is completed,” Selex ES – which leads the radar development – says.
“The new radar will be available to satisfy the operational requirements and timings of all the air forces that are operating the Eurofighter Typhoon, as well as future export customers currently evaluating the aircraft,” BAE tells Flight International.
Separately, the UK’s fleet of Boeing/AgustaWestland Apache AH1s will need to be replaced or upgraded in the near future, as US support for its baseline design is discontinued as the type is phased out.
While an acquisition of a brand-new aircraft is expected by some – and could still be an option – the US State Department on 27 August authorised the possible remanufacture of 50 of the British Army's AH-64D-derived Apaches to the latest E-model standard, under a deal worth a potential $3 billion.
Further clarity on the army's rotorcraft plans are expected to emerge in the SDSR.
If advanced, the modernisation activity would be led by Boeing and would include 110 General Electric T700-701D engines – which would replace the Apache AH1’s current Turbomeca RTM322s – refurbished Lockheed Martin modernised target acquisition and designation sights, and AAR-11 modernised pilot night vision sensors. The work would also refurbish the type’s Longbow fire control radar, and provide 60 common missile warning systems, plus navigation systems and replacement helmets.
Meanwhile, BAE is investing in the future of air combat through its unmanned combat air vehicle developments.
The company leads the Ministry of Defence’s Taranis UCAV development, which has so far undergone two test flight campaigns; one in 2013 and one in 2014.
“Taranis is designed to demonstrate our ability to create an unmanned system capable of undertaking sustained surveillance, marking targets, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries and carrying out strikes in hostile territory,” BAE says.
The company notes that the second series of tests saw the UCAV fly in full stealth mode for the first time.
“We are continuing to gather data and complete additional test points as per the requirements of the test programme,” BAE says. “We are in discussion with the MoD over the next stage of testing for the aircraft, including any further flight trials.”
BAE also is involved in a two-year feasibility study for the Anglo-French Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme.
The bilateral study builds on promises made by the two nations under the Lancaster House treaty signed in 2010, and a 2014 agreement has seen industry from France and the UK pair up to co-develop what could be the future of air power.
“Work continues on the two-year FCAS feasibility phase study, the contract for which was awarded in October 2014,” BAE says. “We are currently less than a year into the study and are working to define and mature common collaborative concepts and core systems. It is too early to comment further at this point.”
Elsewhere, aircraft manufacturers continue to hold out on the SDSR for more transparency on what capability will fill the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) gap, which was left by the cancellation of BAE's Nimrod MRA4 in the 2010 review.
Tensions emanating from Russia have highlighted the need that an island nation like the UK has for such a capability, and pressure continues to be laid on the government to provide a Nimrod replacement.
An obvious – and likely – choice is the Boeing 737-based P-8 Poseidon that is operated by the US and Indian navies, and is also on order for the Royal Australian Air Force.
While arguably the most capable candidate MPA available, there would be a high financial cost associated with such a deal, but it is believed to be high on the MoD's equipment wish list.
Although the P-8 appears to be in a preferred position, it faces competition, as other manufacturers are offering adapted airframes for the yet-to-be-formalised requirement. These include Lockheed Martin, with a modified C-130J tactical transport, Airbus Defence & Space with its C295, and a potentially surprise contender in the form of the Kawasaki P-1. The Japanese aircraft made its international debut in the UK in July, when a pair of the four-engined type attended the Royal International Air Tattoo in an attempt to showcase its capabilities to the nation's military.
One indication of the wants of the MoD could be the continuation of its Seedcorn effort: a programme that sees UK personnel integrated with international units, including the US Navy, where they support operations with the P-8 and the US Navy's in-development Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicle.
The Seedcorn initiative has been extended for a further three years, it was revealed in July, meaning that the UK will be able to maintain its MPA know-how, but also gain direct experience on the P-8 ahead of a potential acquisition of the aircraft.
RAF personnel assigned to the P-8 have the largest footprint in Seedcorn, with 20 allocated to operating the type, the service says.
Meanwhile, Northrop remains hopeful that the UK’s maritime patrol gap will lead to prospects for the company with its maritime high-altitude UAV.
Northrop has not been shy in expressing its interest in the UK as a potential customer for the Triton, and as the release of the review nears, the company tells Flight International that it is anticipating any indication of what the nation's future maritime patrol aircraft mix is expected to look like.
“SDSR is ongoing and we’re watching that very closely. We’re hoping that they’ll get an MPA out of it,” Drew Flood, the company's Triton programme executive for Europe, says.
Leveraging on the hope that the UK does acquire the P-8, if it were to follow in the footsteps of the USN and Australia, then a mixed Poseidon/Triton fleet could meet its maritime needs.
“We’re sitting and waiting,” Flood notes. He adds that it cannot be determined if a decision on a potential high-altitude, long-endurance UAV purchase could come about in this SDSR – or the one that will follow in the next iteration in five years’ time.
Source: Flight International