The UK's coalition government has released the details of its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), with its action largely bringing to an end months of speculation over the future composition of the nation's armed forces.

Among the highest-profile casualties of the budget-driven process are the BAE Systems Harrier GR9 (below) and Nimrod MRA4, Lockheed Martin's short take-off and vertical landing F-35B, and the Raytheon Systems Sentinel R1 airborne ground surveillance fleet.

 Harrier GR9s - Royal Navy
© LA (Phot) Des Wade/Royal Navy

Announcing the conclusions of the review process on 19 October, Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK's remaining Harriers will be retired next year, with the action intended to safeguard the Royal Air Force's larger fleet of Panavia Tornado GR4s. "The Harrier is a remarkably flexible aircraft, but the military advice is that we should sustain the Tornado fleet as that aircraft is more capable and better able to sustain operations in Afghanistan," he says. An as-yet undetermined number of GR4s will also leave service early to reduce costs.

Cameron singled out the RAF's long-delayed Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft (below) programme for individual criticism, noting that its cost has doubled despite planned airframe numbers having been cut from 21 to nine. He scrapped the acquisition, despite more than £3 billion ($4.7 billion) having already being spent.

 Nimrod MRA4 - BAE Systems
© BAE Systems

The decision will leave the UK with no dedicated maritime patrol or long-range search and rescue capability, and extend a gap created by the retirement of the RAF's last Nimrod MR2s early this year. It also renders BAE's Woodford manufacturing site and the MRA4's planned home at RAF Kinloss surplus to requirements.

With no replacement planned, the Nimrod's role will have to be performed using assets such as the RAF's Lockheed Martin C-130 transports and Royal Navy AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM1 helicopters, but this represents a significant weakening of capability for a maritime nation.

More surprising was a scathing attack on Labour's previous selection of the STOVL F-35B to meet the UK's projected 138-aircraft Joint Combat Aircraft requirement. The government will switch its commitment to the F-35C carrier variant (below), which Cameron says is "more capable, less expensive, has a longer range and carries more weapons". Buying the future US Navy type will reduce life-cycle costs by around 25%, the Ministry of Defence says.

 F-35C - Lockheed Martin
© Lockheed Martin

The UK must now find a way of reaching an agreement with Washington over scrapping orders for three F-35Bs to have been used during initial operational test and evaluation. Rolls-Royce will also suffer directly from the decision, with the US Marine Corps and potentially Italy now the only remaining buyers for the STOVL version, which features its lift fan technology. And it makes a continuation of its alternate F136 engine programme for the Joint Strike Fighter with General Electric ever more important.

In addition to a reduced number of F-35Cs, the SDSR says the RAF's future combat aircraft fleet will also consist of "a modernised Typhoon fleet fully capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions". It is unclear, however, whether this pledge could lead to the UK reviewing its previous decision to walk away from the Eurofighter programme's planned Tranche 3B production phase.

And in a clear hint of the RAF's future equipment intentions, the SDSR adds: "The fast-jet fleet will be complemented by a growing fleet of unmanned air vehicles in both combat and reconnaissance roles." Several of the service's senior leaders are firm advocates of unmanned systems.

Abandoning the UK's STOVL heritage will require one of the RN's two Queen Elizabeth-class future aircraft carriers (CVF) to be equipped with catapult launch and arrestor recovery equipment, which Cameron says will boost interoperability with France and the USA. The carrier and JSF should both be available for use around 2020, the MoD says.

A second CVF vessel will also be completed, but initially held at extended readiness and possibly later sold. Cameron says the previous administration "signed contracts so we were left in a situation where even cancelling the second carrier would cost more than to build it." Continuation of the full programme is a boost for Aircraft Carrier Alliance industry partners BAE, Thales UK and Babcock.

 CVF pair - BAE Systems
© BAE Systems
The UK has jumped ship on plans to field two operational carriers and the STOVL variant Joint Strike Fighter. One vessel will now enter use with the F-35C

The move to acquiring the F-35C will mark a return to an operating mode last used by the Fleet Air Arm during the 1970s. However, the navy will face a period of almost a decade with no fixed-wing carrier strike capability, with the retirement of the Harrier and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal next year. A decision on whether to retain either sister ship HMS Illustrious or HMS Ocean as a dedicated helicopter carrier will be made following a short study, the MoD says.

Another victim of the government's planned cuts - which Cameron says will save £4.7 billion by 2015 from a defence budget "Black Hole" worth £38 billion - will further affect the RAF's future intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance operations.

Sentinel R1 - RAF 
© Sgt Laura Bibby/Crown Copyright

"We will withdraw the Sentinel once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan," the SDSR says. UK troops could leave the country by late 2014, it predicts. Operated by 5 Sqn, the RAF's fleet of five Bombardier Global Express-based Sentinel R1s (one pictured above) only began regular operations over Afghanistan last year. Its ground surveillance capability is expected to be filled using RN Westland Sea King 7s or UAVs if required in the future. But plans to replace the RAF's last Nimrod R1 electronic intelligence aircraft with US-sourced Rivet Joint system aircraft remain in place, representing good news for US contractor L-3.

Others to lose out under the planned cuts include Lockheed and support provider Marshall Aerospace, with the RAF's C-130Js now to leave service in 2022, 10 years sooner than originally planned.

The UK will, however, retain its commitment to buying 22 Airbus Military A400Ms, and to operating all 14 A330-based Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft under its private finance initiative deal with EADS UK-led AirTanker Services. It plans to withdraw the RAF's remaining Lockheed TriStars and Vickers VC10s by 2013, Cameron says. The service's fleet of Boeing C-17 strategic transports will be complete following the delivery of its seventh example late this year.

 A400M Brize 1 - Airbus Military
© Airbus Military
A400Ms and C-17s will provide the backbone of the RAF's future air transport fleet, with the C-130J (centre) to be retired in 2022

The previous Labour government's late commitment to buy more Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters has also been reviewed, with the MoD now to acquire just 12 more of the aircraft and increase the RAF's inventory of the type to 60 aircraft. A Eurocopter UK-led programme to upgrade the service's Puma HC1 transport helicopters is safe though, as is an order to supply the British Army and RN with AgustaWestland's AW159 Lynx Wildcat.

In terms of its personnel strength, the RAF will lose 5,000 posts and total 33,000 by 2015, while a further 1,500 will go by 2020. This compares with plans to reduce the army and navy by 8,000 and 6,000 respectively over the coming decade. Some 25,000 civilian posts will also be removed by 2015.

Responding to the SDSR's publication in an interim management statement on 21 October, BAE said "although the detail behind the changes identified will take some time to refine, the removal of a number of uncertainties with regard to our UK business is welcome".

Chief executive Ian King says: "The SDSR has given us the basis on which to adapt our plans."

BAE says "some modest impact on UK performance for 2010 is anticipated, with a reduction in the group's financial planning assumptions. The company will now work with the MoD to address the detailed programme implications of the changes."

Ian Godden, chairman of the ADS trade organisation, says: "The key test of the success of the review will be the extent to which it ensures that the UK has the industrial capabilities to address long-term future security needs and that our armed forces are equipped for the tasks that the nation asks of them."

More than 300,000 people are employed in the UK's aerospace and defence industry.

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Source: Flight International