Defence ministry sources say mapping and survey tasks may be outsourced to civilian contractors when aircraft are retired

The UK Ministry of Defence is considering splitting its replacement programme for the Royal Air Force's veteran BAC Canberra PR9 photo- reconnaissance aircraft. The move would mean mapping and survey missions would be performed by a different platform to the one selected for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) tasks.

According to sources in the ministry, the mapping and survey task could also be outsourced to civilian contractors when the RAF's fleet of five PR9s and two T4 trainers leave service in April 2006.

So far no decision has been taken on moving the replacement forward, and the effort is still in the research stage, according to the ministry. "We are assessing the way to continue to provide the capability," it says. The Canberra was described as providing an "important component" of the RAF's ISTAR capability in recent operations.

The Canberra force at RAF Marham received a major upgrade in the late 1990s, when US-supplied long-range oblique photography (LOROP) electro-optical sensors, similar to those fitted to the US Air Force's Lockheed U-2, were installed, along with datalinks to allow real-time downloading of still photographic imagery. The successful use of the system in Afghanistan prompted the UK to look to replace the Canberra airframe, which is proving increasingly expensive to keep flying.

A major contender to take over the LOROP mission is a business jet in the Bombardier Global Express class, which has almost the same range and operating ceiling as the Canberra. The platform would have the stability and altitude necessary to operate effectively both the sensor package's cameras and datalinks.

The use of business jets is not considered straightforward, however, because of the need to provide the crew with an escape system when flying over hostile territory. The Afghan experience also showed that the mapping and survey role was vital to generating the maps needed for expeditionary warfare and suggested that military rather than civilian aircraft were needed because of the risks associated with flying in hostile airspace, say ministry sources.

If the search for a replacement is unsuccessful or delayed, then a life- extension programme for the Canberras, which all date from 1959 and 1960, could be possible. "There is no problem provided you are willing to pay the cost," says an RAF officer close to the programme. "We've done a study about keeping the PR9s going until 2012 and it can be done.

Source: Flight International