This series on Future Maritime Patrol was unplanned but hope you have enjoyed reading what I think are the various options should the UK wish to reconstitute the capability lost with the withdrawal of Nimrod MR2 and cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
In Part 1 we discussed the various requirements and challenges. The single biggest challenge to the MoD is getting over Nimrod MRA4, if the taxpayer is expected to cough up a billion here or a billion there for a maritime patrol aircraft it must first overcome the very real issue of the shadow of Nimrod. Whilst we might understand the sunk cost fallacy, money having already been spent having no relation to money we would like to spend, politics does not quite work that way. Mr and Mrs Taxpayer has already spent just under £4b on a replacement for MR2 and now the MoD wants to spend more!
Anyone thinking that the money already spent is not a big issue is not living on the same planet I live on.
Another long shadow cast by Nimrod is that of air safety management, any suggestion that uses old airframes with a less than contiguous chain of safety evidence is going to cause problems in the post Haddon Cave safety environment. These problems, whilst not insurmountable, will inevitably result in a great deal of risk costs being fed into the resource build, what might seem on face value to be a bargain might be very from so.
The next significant challenge is making a case and defining the requirement. By the time the decision is made in SDSR 2015 (we think) there will have already been nearly a decade long gap, once a gap has been established and coped with, the case for closing it will inevitably be difficult, especially when there so many other priorities for defence expenditure. I don’t for one minute think the UK armed forces can sit back after decade and a half of campaigning in the Middle East and East Asia for a nice rest, next stop, Africa or who knows where.
Against this backdrop is the trend to civilianisation of traditional military capabilities like Search and Rescue, trying to justify a maritime patrol aircraft off the back of the Fastnet Race or other high profile but very rare long distance SAR is unlikely to convince anyone, unfortunately. In the overland ISTAR role things have moved on significantly since the early 2000’s where Nimrod was the only platform that could loft an EO turret, ISTAR has improved immeasurably, unmanned systems and other aircraft now provide the Joint Force Commander with a wide variety of capabilities.
The need for maritime patrol is therefore simply not compelling enough to be automatically put to the top of the MoD’s shopping list, it has to justify its place like every other capability.
And yet despite this, despite the availability of numerous flavours of manned and unmanned ISTAR, maritime patrol aircraft continue to demonstrate their value. Libya, where Canadian Auroras enabled and supported naval gunfire, intelligence gathering and coordination, or Mali, where French ATL’s even got into dropping laser guided bombs show the utility of high endurance multi purpose maritime patrol aircraft.
These might still be considered secondary roles though, their true value will only be realised against a competent enemy equipped with submarines. Submarines are the true killers of the deep with even the whiff of the very idea of one operating can have a significant strategic and operational impact. It is a fair observation that the UK has, and continues to spend huge sums of money on anti submarine warfare, frigates, ASW helicopters and SSN’s weigh heavily on the defence budget and focussed on a submarine threat that is at best, unlikely. However, the problem with looking only at likelihood is that it ignores impact. An effective enemy submarine force, whether that be a resurgent Russia, an increasingly capable Iran or some other future force, could have a catastrophic impact on UK maritime operations. We could discuss the importance of maritime operations in the context of air deployability or general value but the point remains, submarines are deadly.
If the impact/likelihood evaluation points to maritime patrol aircraft (with ASW) being something of value in a layered defence arrangement the details of the requirements, range, endurance, payloads and other factors can be examined.
Although it is a complex requirement it can be readily distilled into a small number of key decision points.
If we accept the outside edge of range and endurance sits in the 3-5 hours at 200-400 nautical miles then systems like the C295 become the obvious choice. However, if we want to conduct top end anti submarine warfare at range (i.e. deep water ASW) then the likely key performance parameters are 3-5 hour endurance at 800-1000 nautical miles, this puts us into the P8, P3 and P1 bracket.
If we cannot compromise on range and endurance but can on payload, a couple of lightweight torpedoes and 50 odd sonobuoys then a business jet solution might be possible.
Unmanned systems remain an outside possibility but only in support of a conventional manned aircraft and the large transport aircraft solutions based on either the Hercules or A400M Atlas remain interesting but still a conceptual and developmental hurdle.
A key aspect of our discussions has been to look beyond the narrow definition of maritime patrol and examine how the platform choice could influence, enhance capability or save money across the wider defence sphere. The point has been made that concentrating on airframe commonality is only part of the picture is well made, system and sub system/component commonality can deliver significant through life savings. The MoD does not pay enough attention to long term commonality and this results in increasingly small boutique fleets representing a vanishing tooth saddled with a disproportionately large tail.
Commonality also provides tactical opportunities that would not normally present themselves
The solutions were discussed over 6 posts;
Option 1; P-8A the obvious solution and likely front runner if we want an MRA4 replacement and have deep pockets. There is still some residual risk in the programme but the key thing to consider here is we wouldn’t be on the hook for any fixes. It is however, far from an off the shelf purchase and an expensive option although if purchased we would be in a large user community and able to take advantage of all that this provides. It might also in the medium term allow the Sentinel fleet to be withdrawn or re-used for other roles.
Option 2; A handful of P-8A alternatives such as refurbishing P3 Orion’s, the Japanese Kawasaki P1 and a development project that might bring the long talked about Airbus A319/320 MPA to fruition. The P3 refurbishment might provide an excellent capability but we would be buying into a very old design that is going out of service in many nations armed forces. The refurbishment option would also have many time and cost risks in the airworthiness certification space and politically, probably not the best idea to bring into service an aircraft that was previously rejected. The Kawasaki P1 looks on face value to be a fine option, a dedicated design with some very advanced features, but there is no certainty that we would be able to buy them and like the P8, is not quite the finished article. An Airbus A319/320 MPA would be a new design although it must be said that the components are all known and available. From an industrial and sovereign design perspective probably the best option but the price tag would be a big question mark.
Option 3; If we accept the range/endurance and payload compromise the C295 looks like an attractive and comparatively cheap option that opens up a number of commonality avenues, the communications fleet and tactical transport underneath the A400M spring to mind. The Q400 and ATR72 are equally capable but have less flexibility and adaptability than the C295 family.
Option 4; A business jet derived such as the Bombardier Global Express would provide some commonality advantages and could evolve into a multi role ISTAR system but although the range and endurance would probably be on a par with those in options 1 and 2, it would be payload constrained. That payload constraint might be an acceptable trade off but in a serious conflict, at the low probability high impact end of the ASW scale, that might compromise by prove telling.
Option 5; Finally, reusing a large 4 engine transport aircraft like the Hercules or even the A400M Atlas would address (in spades) the range/endurance payload issue would the Hercules is going out of the service and the A400M is expensive to start with and the airframe design would produce a high fuel cost. Both options would allow maximum re-use of in service equipment and the A400M especially, could evolve into a high endurance multi role ISTAR and ground attack platform.
If we want an MRA4 replacement, the obvious answer is the Boeing P-8A, it represents probably the lowest risk solution even though it is an expensive option. If the Japanese are willing to sell, the Kawasaki P1 could be a very real competitor to the P-8A
If we can accept compromise on range and endurance, and I make no claim either way, the other options such as C295 or business jet platform look increasingly attractive.
If we were really mental and fancied blazing a multi role trail, the A400M Atlas would be an outside bet.
Gentlemen, place your bets now.
Or perhaps more importantly, what do you think should be placed second on the MoD’s wish list in order to pay for it?
The rest of the series