UK Defence – Maritime Patrol Aircraft Essential Capability

As speculation in the press over SDSR 2015 hots-up DS is pleased to follow-up recent posts on the issue – ‘Filling the LRMPA Gap’ – with a thoughtful and informative piece by defence industrial analyst, Howard Wheeldon FRAeS. Howard, and DS believe that HMG created a serious gap in our defences with SDSR 2010 and that the Maritime Sensor Defence and Attack role must be reinstated in the UK Air Defence Order of Battle (ORBAT) in SDSR 2015. The particular system to be purchased and employed is for MOD to evaluate, but the capability gap must be filled in short order and procurement of a successor system to the Nimrod given top priority.

Howard Wheeldon Analyses MOD’s Maritime Patrol Aircraft Options

This is a short but important response to an important matter that surfaced over the weekend regarding the Ministry of Defence (MOD) options for future Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMPA).  I would respond by suggesting that Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) has not chosen to walk away from the concept of acquiring Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) or Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) capability.

The Sunday Times ran a story this past weekend suggesting that the MOD had dropped what it called a £2bn plan to acquire “a fleet of US-made submarine-hunting jets for the RAF”. The article suggested that “the proposed purchase of up to nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft, that had been expected to be the centrepiece of the government’s forthcoming defence review…has now been shelved after ministers decided the aircraft to be fiendishly expensive”.

That the Government failed to put an alternative plan in place and decided to gap MPA/MMA capability is a matter that military historians may judge to be the most serious error of judgement made in SDSR 2010. It is perfectly true as the Sunday Times article alludes that the acquisition of MPA/MMA aircraft capability is, at the political end of the spectrum, a very contentious issue. It is not my place to suggest, recommend, or favour which of the various MPA/MMA capabilities available to the MOD should be acquired. That is assuming that the upcoming SDSR 2015 defence and security review suggests a formal competition as opposed to single source procurement…to acquire MPA/MMA capability…

Like many others within the defence arena though, all that I wish to see is that the aircraft capability eventually chosen and acquired is considered by our military to be the best capability for the various missions that will be required of it. The prerequisites for that are, in my view, an aircraft that, due to the urgency of requirement, can be delivered very quickly in order to address the serious risk that we are taking in having no current MPA/MMA capability and that it must already be proven in service and affordable. In addition the MPA/MMA capability chosen must also be adaptable and flexible to future mission requirements, readily interoperable with our major allies, affordable, not just in purchase but also through-life cost. Finally, that the capability acquired must also be properly supported and free of future cost risk.

I do not believe that SDSR 2015 will fail to announced an intention to acquire MPA/MMA capability during the primary five year period that the upcoming review will cover. The requirement and the urgency of it will, in my view, be very clearly stated and quite rightly so. However, I take the view that the ultimate choice of system should be made on the basis of in-service proven capability as the least risky option, albeit, I accept that others may have different ideas.

To have MPA/MMA capability and to have it as soon as possible is in my view absolutely essential for the protection of our two new aircraft carriers when they come into service over the next three and five years and, crucially, protection of our existing and planned future nuclear deterrent capability.

Since the demise of the MR2 and cancellation of the MRA4 the UK has been forced to request assistance from allies such as the US and French because neither the Royal Air Force (RAF) or Royal Navy (RN) has a persistent wide area surveillance aircraft in the inventory and sometimes this support has been unavailable. As a consequence of past decisions UK lacks ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capability; armed ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability; has insufficient numbers of ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) airborne collection platforms; and no suitable aircraft capability for search and rescue.

Therefore, it is absolutely inconceivable, in my view, that the Government would not plan to incorporate a requirement for filling the huge and now extremely dangerous gap in MPA/MMA capability within the SDSR 2015 process. Former Secretary of State, Philip Hammond, now Foreign Secretary, made it abundantly clear to me that he believed SDSR 2010 contained many errors of judgement and that these would be remedied in SDSR 2015. He was not specifically referring to the decision to scrap MRA4 but the failure to fill the capability gap created.

And whilst it is also true that there are a number of options and alternatives for mission capability acquisition there is, in my view, following the costly failure of Nimrod and the huge cost involved of scrapping the programme, absolutely no margin for error this time in terms of capability risk. That means that whatever capability is eventually chosen it must already be proven, in-service, affordable – purchase price and through-life costs – and adaptable for future modification/upgrade. Deliverability and proven capability are paramount but sadly, my view, in this particular case, is that sovereign capability should not be an issue.

If SDSR 2015 should confirm a need for a competition I would anticipate that Airbus Defence & Space would field the C-295 MPA derivative of its military transport aircraft. A multi-mission aircraft that comes in many operating variants. I would estimate that close to 200 C-295 aircraft have so far been delivered or ordered by over 20 military government customers – the Chilean Navy operates three C-295 MPA’s. Lockheed Martin would most likely field a proposal to rebuild and re-equip existing Royal Air Force owned C-130J military aircraft with UK produced electronics and sensor capability albeit that the C130J aircraft that could be used have an out of service date of 2018. However, ahead of SDSR 2015 there can be no certainty that the planned withdrawal of these aircraft will now occur. Meanwhile Saab would field the 2000 Swordfish MPA which I have little knowledge about. Boeing would field the already well-proven P-8 Poseidon aircraft capability which is based on the hugely successful 737 airframe of which 28 aircraft out of an intended procurement of 117 aircraft are already in service with the US Navy (USN).

L-3 would most likely put forward the Q400 which is under development and based on the Bombardier aircraft platform. Japan would no doubt field the Kawasaki built P-1 maritime patrol aircraft which the company is intending to supply to the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force at a rate of one or two per year. The intention is to replace a fleet of 80 P- 3C Orion aircraft. However, deliverability issues, lack of proven in-service capability and uncertain ability to support the aircraft go against any Japanese offering in my view. Northrop Grumman would most likely put offer unmanned capability as a part solution.

With no UK manufactured aircraft available to compete the issue of sovereign capability will primarily rest on MOD’s take-up of UK manufactured and preferred equipment set against that supplied as part of any competing company’s MPA/MMA competition bid. Given the urgency of the requirement and the need to ensure that no further risks are taken I do have some serious misgivings over the sovereign capability issue should this cause further delay. Clearly, as the maritime patrol aircraft capability to be acquired is developed into true multi-mission capability as required by the MOD there will be ample opportunity for UK sensor and electronics companies to support the development programme.

CHW (London 2 November 2015)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS