One of the biggest shocks of last week’s UK Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) was the cancellation of the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 project. But what are the options now for RAF maritime patrol and ASW capability? [caption id="attachment_3307" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The Nimrod MRA4 - the second Nimrod project after AEW to end in the axe."][/caption] Reportedly the decision came as a surprise even to senior officials – prompting rumours that the aircraft had been sacrificed to show commitment to a significant large-scale cut, rather than yet more ‘salami-slicing’. Although with only nine aircraft to have been delivered, down from the original 21 ordered, it is unclear how much more the project could have been realistically reduced in size any further. Whatever the history of this £3.5bn project, it was to have provided the UK with a highly capable maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) as well as a Combat-ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance target acquisition and reconnaissance) platform and support to the nuclear deterrent. There is also the counter-terrorism mission – both overland and at sea. Indeed – it could be argued that for a rogue state or terror group more likely (and deniable) way of delivering a nuclear weapon or other WMD would be via container ship than long-range missile. The Nimrod also provides long-range SAR cover, co-ordinating rescues far out at sea. At the moment with the Nimrod MR2 retired earlier this year at the end of March, the SAR mission is being undertaken by helicopters, coast guard aircraft, a RAF C-130 (no surface search radar and Mark 1 eyeball) designated on to be standby for long-range SAR and friendly allies. Lacking a dedicated long-range MPA asset – this is an unprecedented situation for the UK to be in – especially as an island nation reliant on the sea. So does this mean the capability will be gone for good? Or is this just a capability holiday, gap or hibernation? If we assume that this mission is important, and that future Governments may want to reconstitute it when economic conditions improve – what then might be the options for a reborn RAF MPA fleet in a post-SDSR, post-Nimrod world?

1) Boeing P-8 Poseidon

[caption id="attachment_3306" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Boeing P-8A MPA (Boeing) "][/caption] One high-end option might be the Boeing P-8 Poseidon – now ordered by the US Navy and also as the P-8I by India. Though the P-8 would undoubtedly be expensive – it would offer savings by being based on a commercial, in-service airframe, the ubiquitous 737-800. The RAF would also be able to tap into the US Navy’s support, training and maintenance infrastructure – lowering operating costs. With over 108 aircraft to be procured by the US Navy, (along with 12 P-8Is for India) there would be substantial economies of scale. Finally, another advantage it would offer is that the Boeing mission system is almost identical to the MRA4 – giving some continuity to any MRA4 aircrew who might have already trained up and still be in the RAF by the time a P-8 was introduced into service.

2) Airbus Military A320MPA?

[caption id="attachment_3308" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The A319MPA concept (Airbus Military)"][/caption] A European solution might be an Airbus Military A319/A320-based MPA – which Airbus/EADS has already proposed to India. However, while Airbus Military has converted A310s and A330s into tanker-transports the A319/A320MPA would represent the first time an A320 family had been converted to a military type. Starting from scratch again would thus mean increased risk and a longer development timeframe. However, an A320MPA could offer an attractive joint procurement for other European countries with MPAs, such as France, which is still operating the aging Bréguet Atlantique in this role.

3) Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion

[caption id="attachment_3309" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="German Navy P-3C CUP Orion (EADS)"][/caption] A cheaper solution then, might be a refurbished and rewinged Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion. Lockheed is already involved in a rewinging programme for these aircraft, and in 2018 there will still be some 400+ aircraft in service with air arms and navies around the world. It is not without precedent too - the German Navy recently retired its Atlantique MPAs in favour of refurbished, updated ex-Dutch P-3C CUPs. An Orion solution then would give the RAF a four-engined dedicated MPA used by a number of allies.

4) Airbus Military C235/C-295MPA

[caption id="attachment_3310" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Chilean Navy C295 MPA (EADS)"][/caption] If the SDSR really does represent a turning point in the UK’s fortunes, from a global player to an offshore island concerned mainly with its own immediate territory – another highly affordable choice might be the Airbus Military C235/C295 twin-engined turboprops. These aircraft in the MPA role are operated by a number of nations, including Mexico, Chile, Portugal and in US Coast Guard service as the HC-144A Ocean Sentry.

5) Wildcards - Global Hawk/XP-1

[caption id="attachment_3311" align="alignnone" width="211" caption="MQ-4C Global Hawk BAMS (Northrop Grumman)"][/caption] Finally in terms of completeness there are also a couple of wildcards that are worth including. The first is a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk or other UAV (eg EADS Talarion) for the above water surveillance mission. The US Navy has already selected the MQ-4C Global Hawk for its BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) requirement, and with its outstanding persistence and sensors it would be able to cover long range patrols. However, lacking MAD, sonobuoys and a rear mission crew any UAV solution would have to rely on another platform to perform the ASW mission. With the RAF still keeping its Scavenger UAV ISTAR requirement – could a MPA/BAMS type capability be shoehorned into this? [caption id="attachment_3312" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Kawasaki XP-1 (JMSDF)"][/caption] A second wildcard might be another MPA now being developed by another Island nation – the Kawasaki XP-1 in Japan. A four-engined aircraft equipped with turbofans, the XP-1 (formerly P-X) patrol aircraft will replace the 80 P-3 Orions in Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) service. However, Japan is currently restricted from exporting defence technology - which makes this concept a long-shot indeed. Tokyo, though, has recently been reported to be making moves to relax these rules to allow export of weapons so the idea is perhaps not entirely improbable. Far-fetched, but could a Japanese decision to acquire Eurofighters as its next-gen fighter, also result in the UK buying P-Xs in return?

Summary

Of course – it may be that option 6 – ‘do nothing’ is the preferred option and that the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft capability – so vital with Coastal Command and the Battle of the Atlantic is allowed to die. Co-operation with NATO and EU allies would mean that role specialisation of MPA would be left to someone else – an odd choice for an island nation. Indeed, it has already been reported that France has offered to support the UK with its Bréguet Atlantique fleet ahead of a new Anglo-French defence entente – driven not by a strategic rapprochement but by hard fiscal realities for both nations. However in these new austerity times it may be that the MPA mission, once given up, is never reconstituted – and the longer the capability 'holiday', the more likely this is – for as any future Treasury might argue: “well - you seem to have coped alright without it.” To read 'Five priorities for the post-SDSR environment' see November's issue of Aerospace International magazine - the publication for aerospace professionals - out on 1st November. For a full in-depth analysis of the SDSR and its operational, technological and industrial implications, from Professor Keith Hayward, Head of Research, RAeS, and Air Cdre (Ret’d) Dr Peter Gray, Senior Research Fellow in Air Power Studies, University of Birmingham, look out for the December edition of Aerospace International. from the Royal Aeronautical Society

Tim Robinson
29 October 2010