DefenceSynergia Commentary on United Kingdom Anti-Submarine Warfare

Introduction

DefenceSynergia (DS) has long championed the requirement for the United Kingdom (UK) Armed Forces to have sufficient Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) assets to defend UK interests worldwide, and never more so than now with a growing recognition that our historic sea lanes are no longer secure enough to enable, fully, our important requirement for freedom of maritime trade. We have also maintained that ASW is a ‘Joint’ Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Air Force (RAF) responsibility and have rising concern that recent media attention on Russian upgrades to their already quiet Kilo Class Diesel Electric (SSK) technology may be focused too narrowly and solely upon the RN to provide a solution against this continuing threat.

Credibility Gap – Inadequate UK ASW Capability

Although the UK no longer operates SSKs, preferring nuclear powered boats (SSNs), there are many former RN submariners who can attest that a modern diesel/electric powered boat can be significantly quieter and more versatile in confined waters than an SSN. Recent reports from media and unnamed military sources raise the concern that, while the Russians have increased Research and Development funding into SSK technology, UK has not only reduced its sea-borne ASW capability – there now being just 19 Frigates and Destroyers to cover worldwide security commitments and, soon, Aircraft Carrier screening – but has taken so long to replace the cancelled Nimrod MRA4 with Poseidon P-8 (still not operational) that an already yawning gap has widened further.

DS has long argued that UK Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMPA) capability and SSNs are singly, and preferably in combination, more effective in detecting submerged targets than Towed Array systems on surface ships. However, military/maritime planning has been obliged, it seems, to trade capacity and capability to achieve sub optimum outcomes.

The very constraining effect of reduced surface vessel numbers with towed array and Helicopter borne ASW capability has been greatly magnified by the elimination of the total RAF LRMPA Nimrod fleet into a worrying “Sea Blindness” in the most fundamental “Joint Service” sense. DS has no doubt that the day that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) announced the demise of UK LRMPA capability, both retiring the Nimrod MR2 fleet and cancelling the MRA4, without immediately announcing replacement with P-8 Poseidon, caused much merriment and no small surprise at the Kremlin.

Too Many Promises, Too Little Security

Governments of all colours have been long on defence promises and short on delivery for many years, rarely more so than with the woefully inadequate attention to upholding UK airborne surveillance capabilities. Specific focus here is with ASW but neglect of Airborne Early Warning is also relevant; these ISTAR capabilities work hand-in-glove in maritime operations.

Continuing this theme of ‘jam tomorrow’ is the promise in Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 to fill the ASW gap left by cancellation of Nimrod MRA4 with nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft. This DS assesses as short of delivery and will not do to secure our sea lanes of supply in an uncertain world.

The government statement at the time of the MRA cancellation – that the gap would be filled by other RAF aircraft – was risible to anyone with the barest knowledge of ASW. All that resulted was UK having to call on NATO allies to conduct searches in our national waters for suspected submarines: as clear an indication of failure by government to put defence as the first priority of government since World War 2.

Where Next

It is reported that the first Poseidon P-8 in RAF colours flew last month with, presumably, the other 8 to follow, if media reports are to be believed, over the next 10 years! However, DS argues nine LRMPA is far short of the true requirement and a procurement programme that lasts another 10 years is patently unacceptable. Defence analysts will undoubtedly argue about the correct number but DS believes that, if HMG’s aim in SDSR 2015 of a world-wide role for HM Armed Forces is to be realised and defended, then the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) and the First Sea Lord must, together, press for a fleet that is, at least, similar in scale to that of the MR2 Nimrod and introduced at a far faster pace than is currently being reported.

It may be instructive to note that during planning for the MR2 replacement, when ‘Nimrod 2000’ was proposed – that became the MRA4 – airframe surveys revealed a significant number of the in-service MR2s were viable baseline structures for conversion. The original MR2 force comprised no fewer than 35 aircraft in five squadrons. Defence estimates in the late 1990s for a reduced UK ASW capacity, for a reduced international role, called for 21 aircraft to be formed into a new Nimrod MRA4 force. DS believes it would not seem unreasonable therefore to seek a 30 aircraft establishment of P-8s for RAF ASW and other LRMPA duties at home and overseas.

Layered Joint Capabilities

DS considers ASW to be a ‘Joint’ RN/RAF layered activity (an integrated system), therefore, the number of SSNs, Helicopters and planned Frigates (FF) to meet future escort duty tasking in an ASW role is a major area for concern. Under current MOD plans it is understood that eight Type 26 FF will be equipped with Towed Array systems leaving five Type 31e FF with no ASW system to speak of. In this last respect DS argues that the First Sea Lord must press for additional Type 31es for the FF escort fleet and that more funding must be found for upgrading all the surface fleet with additional self defence weapons and ASW Towed Array systems; helicopters should be widely equipped with anti-submarine sensors and weapon systems.

Conclusion

This shortfall in ASW capability is a glaring example of very poorly thought through and quite unjustified savings measures in the UK Armed Forces over successive governments. Manning shortages, late delivery of systems, too few platforms and an inability to foresee the seriousness of very obvious threats have all led to the need for seven retired First Sea Lords to go into print recently. It is time for all of those with responsibility for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to honour their word and deliver on defence.