I was writing a long piece on the run up to the cancellation but I decided to delete it, Nimrod is gone and is not coming back. Of all the decisions in the SDSR the cancellation of Nimrod is the most insane but maybe insane decisions are needed. It is hard to reconcile the loss of such a versatile piece of equipment with the continuation of ceremonial, bands and display teams but maybe some sacred cows really are too sacred. Perhaps there are reasons for cancellation that are not in the public domain, was a sacrificial lamb, setting down a marker to industry or some unspecified technical issues that would have soaked up yet more cash?
Whatever, we need to move on.
So the question becomes ‘what next’
Taking a platform centric view, it was such a versatile aircraft with a range of capabilities that included anti submarine, ISTAR, electronic intelligence, anti surface, search and rescue, communications brokerage, land attack, maritime security patrol and many more. Its inherent versatility makes answering the ‘what next’ question quite difficult.
Below are 4 rather simplistic views of what it did.
Anti Submarine; the primary role was that of anti submarine warfare and many believe that this is an anachronism in the likely future hybrid wars amongst the people, but anyone who even vaguely takes note of current military affairs cannot have failed to notice the roaring trade in submarines across the global defence market. Modern submarines are very difficult to find and destroy and there is increasing use of improvised and mini submarines that should give naval planners reason for concern. Submarines can be a devastating weapon and what Nimrod delivered was anti submarine capability at range, unlike the about to be upgrade Merlin and existing Type 23 frigates. The capability of the Nimrod/Merlin/Type 23 (including the personnel of course) triad was without peer and one of those legs has now been taken away but we have to ask if the loss is terminal. One of the primary missions of Nimrod was to ensure the safe passage to its patrol areas of the Trident submarines and it is planned that this role will be carried out by Merlin and Type 23 which is not ideal because the anti submarine bubble around a naval task group will be limited by the range and endurance of the Merlin helicopter.
Anti Surface; the final weapons fit was not clear but it would have been capable of carrying more or less any of the RAF’s air to surface weapons between its wing hard points and cavernous weapon bay. In many respects it would have made an ideal semi strategic bomber, equipped with multiple Storm Shadow in the stand-off role and even with a large number of Paveway IV’s or Brimstones its range and endurance would have given the RAF a capability very few other nations possessed.
Maritime Patrol and Search and Rescue; providing long range search and rescue and coordinating the protection of offshore infrastructure would have been a major part of usage but in light of the move to a PFI or outsourced model for helicopter search and rescue, the complex relationship with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the need to concentrate on core defence tasks we might question whether it is the MoD that should be providing this capability. The UK has treaty obligations for search and rescue but this does not have to be delivered as a military capability. Maritime patrol is also a task that could be argued has more to do with border control and law enforcement than a military task.
ISTAR and Others; equipped with an impressive ESM suite, various electro optical sensors and a comprehensive communications fit the MRA4 would be a versatile ISTAR and communications coordination platform, but with the rapid advances in long range high endurance unmanned systems and the Scavenger project likely to include some maritime element many of its capabilities are or will be duplicated elsewhere.
It was the synergy between these 4 broad capability areas that made the Nimrod such a versatile and useful aircraft but it may be that we can resource the requirement in other ways.
The first and depressingly inevitable option is that we never come back from taking a capability holiday, lean on allies like France and Ireland for SAR cover and employ the Merlin and Type 23 in the ASW role, accepting the reduction capability and an increase in risk.
As Future Force 2020 takes some sort of shape over the next decade the main question is should the maritime patrol and anti submarine role be covered by a single aircraft, some combination of manned and unmanned systems or gapped completely.
A second important question is does the SAR/Patrol role need to be covered with a military capability.
We might also look at joint capabilities with NATO allies and in light of our recent bilateral agreements with France on greater military cooperation, however undesirable politically for many, may also be on the cards.
For the overland and expeditionary ISTAR role the Scavenger project may yet result in a suitable system. Using Nimrod to provide full motion video coverage during the early stages of operations in Afghanistan was a short term expedient and has now been replaced by a range of other systems. Accepting that the overland ISTAR and communications relay capability area has been assumed by others the remainder is maritime patrol, search and rescue and anti submarine.
At this point we come to a fork in the road, on one side is the future where the MoD retains responsibility for UK search and rescue and the other is where that requirement it goes off to the magical land of PFI. Given the current state of uncertainty about the helicopter search and rescue and rescue PFI the outlook is unclear. If it does go outside the control of the services then there are many off the shelf options that any winning bidder might use.
Making the assumption that SAR/Patrol remains a military task.
Current cover is provided by C130’s and maybe even an E3 Sentry but despite the undoubted qualities of these two aircraft and the MoD maintaining they are suitable, no one is being fooled and the limited life left in the C130 fleet as A400 comes into service means that whatever happens it is not a long term solution.
In the previous post on manned ISTAR I suggested a possible option would be to reuse the Sentinel airframes and convert them to provide long range high speed SAR. Using an off the shelf radar and EO system fit, removing the DAS and the ASTOR system would allow a decent capability to be generated. A Sentinel based solution would provide credible SAR and maritime patrol capability but there would be downsides, the aircraft is not really optimised for low level searching and beyond locating vessels in distress or providing radio relay capabilities the lack of storage space, an adequate payload bay and under wing pods makes the dropping of any meaningful rescue supplies remains a difficulty.
Although this might seem attractive the capabilities would be relatively limited in almost everything but its prodigious range and also in the previous post I thought converting them into strategic ‘eyes’ by fitting the same Goodrich DB-110 sensor as found on the RAPTOR pod would be a better use of the airframes.
If we want to aim high for the maritime patrol and anti submarine role then there are two obvious contenders, the Boeing P8A Poseidon and Airbus 319MPA. The P8A is just about to come into service and uses a modified 737 airframe; the Airbus product is still in the PowerPoint stage but would at least offer some UK industrial benefits and cockpit commonality with the A330 based FSTA. But the question remains, why invest in these when we have just dumped the MRA4 which is arguably a much better aircraft, and more or less bought and paid for?
If Future Force 2020 were to include a maritime patrol aircraft that did not have the word Nimrod in its title then the lowest risk would be the P8A, it maturing in the same time frame, but it would be very expensive although we would no doubt be able to piggy back on the development path. The low rate production order has only just been placed for 6 aircraft for $1.53billion, or snip at £170m each.
The French have just started an upgrade programme for their Atlantiques and the Avismar programme is looking to supplement these with a long range and fast business jet derivative to replace the existing Nord N262, the Falcon 200 fleet and Falcon 50 maritime surveillance aircraft. It should be noted that funding has yet to be secured but it cannot have escaped the notice of UK and French ministries of defence that there are obvious synergies. Dassault and Thales, who have jointly conducted a mission assessment, are proposing a Falcon 2000 business jet-based option for the mission. The primary mission would be monitoring sea lanes and combating illegal traffic, along with search-and-rescue and medical evacuation. While the system is not primarily intended to attack targets, the Falcon 2000s would be equipped with two weapons stations under each wing.
If the UK and France did pursue some sort of collaborative programme based on a small business jet it would still leave the anti submarine role unfulfilled.
The Airbus Military C295 MPA is a derivative of the well established C295 twin turboprop transport in service with many forces worldwide. The C295 is a stretched version of the C235 which also has a maritime patrol version; notable users include the US Coastguard. For the MPA version changes made from the baseline transport design includes the installation of the fully integrated tactical system mission suite (FITS) configured with four onboard operator stations, sonobuoy dispenser equipment, magnetic anomaly detector boom, defensive systems, 6 under wing hard points and a FLIR sensor turret. Endurance is stated as
One of the great strengths of the C295 MPA is its versatility, the rear cargo door and palletised mission systems allow the same aircraft to be used for a number of roles. Standard 463L pallet compatibility means that in an expeditionary deployment it can carry its own spares or other stores, as an example. The FITS mission system is mature and extremely capable, including search radar, electro-optic / infrared sensors (EO/IR), electronic support measures (ESM) / an electronic intelligence system (ELINT), COMINT, a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), an IFF interrogator, a SATCOM, a datalink and a Link-11. Endurance is reportedly 11 hours or 6 hours on station at 200nm range.
More or less in the same class as the C295 MPA is the ATR72 ASW which is a more combat oriented derivative of Alenia’s ATR72 maritime patrol aircraft, itself a stretched version of the AT42. The launch customer was Turkey and Italy has also started to purchase them in small numbers.
Endurance is comparable with the C295MPA, 7 hours at 200nm and is equipped with a rotary sonobuoy launcher, magnetic anomaly detector, defensive system, weapon hard points and a full range of sensors and mission equipment. Although they can be converted to carry cargo there is no rear cargo ramp like the C295 which makes them slightly less versatile but the reported cost of the 10 to Turkey was 260 million Euros.
Capital and operating costs of either of these would be significantly lower than the P8A or 319MPA but let’s not be kidding ourselves that they are in the same capability division.
Even if SAR/Patrol is hived off then the justification for a small force of ASW aircraft remains, if only to relieve pressure on the Type 23 and Merlin providing cover for the nuclear deterrent submarines as they enter and leave and a small modicum of long range support for an embarked task group. Going down the cheap and cheerful route allows some skills to be retained even if we accept the very real difference in capabilities between MRA4 and say an ATR72ASW.
Maybe this is a clutching at straws post but the madness of gapping maritime patrol and extended range ASW hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
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