With all the rumour around at the moment about a spare billion being spirited from somewhere, I just thought we should have a little look at some of the possible alternatives for a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
Just to provoke debate, I thought we could split this into high, medium and low risk. I suppose I could have done it by capability or cost, but we will examine those factors too.
Before making my suggestions on what might be out there that we could purchase, I am going to suggest that the billion pounds sterling includes a capital purchase of aircraft, some contractor support, training (i.e. buying simulators, or simulator hours) a spares and maintenance package etc. I have no idea how much each of these aircraft might cost, but I am sure if you have seen figures anywhere, you will all chime in via the comments.
By the way – I consider “MPA” to mean a fully ASW capable armed aircraft, NOT an unarmed maritime surveillance type.
There are a number of other options described in the Think Defence post, The Future of the RAF 13 – ISTAR #07 (Maritime)
High Risk – New
Looks good on the web and no doubt the most capable solution I am examining here, but I also label it as high risk for one simple reason: it does not exist except on paper. Airbus is attempting to keep the risk low by using its FITS mission system which is already in use on other aircraft. The A319 would be very capable with extra fuel tanks for long-endurance, an 8 weapon station bomb bay plus four underwing hardpoints. However compared to some of the options, its big making it expensive to start with, and oh, did I mention, it does not actually exist yet……..
High Risk – Second Hand
The USN retired its fleet of S3B Viking carrier-borne ASW aircraft to the desert boneyards a couple of years ago (end of 2009). A 2004 Full-Scale Fatigue Test by LM determined that the airframe fatigue life could be as high as 23,000 hours (the average number of flight hours on all S3’s at the time being less than 13,000 hours). Of course, flying these aircraft from runways would eat up the life much slower than catapult launches and arrested landings. The main problem is that the USN removed the sono-bouy launchers and acoustic processing equipment during the 1990s. However, upgrades to the rest of the aircraft were constant up to its requirement. I suggest we could probably get this aircraft dirt cheap, and we could buy twice as many as we need in order to strip aircraft for spares etc. I label this as high risk because we would need to buy new (or re-integrate) original sonobouy launchers, the sonobouy receiver and acoustic processor of the Merlin HM2 could be fitted, but this would mean integration and would cost some money.
However, its most high risk because integrating a new kit can cause problems, which equal budget increases and delays. However with respect to the rumour that the FAA might be flying the MPA’s – this is a jet aircraft which might allow us to keep some FAA pilots current on jets, and it only has a small crew of 4, so the wages bill would not be too steep!
Low Risk – Second Hand
P3 Orions. Yep, that’s what I said, Orions….. Building on its experience re-vamping Brazil and Spain’s P3s, Airbus Military will rebuild some for us, again using the FITS mission system. I suggest this is low risk as they have done the rebuilds before, and so this should be a known quantity. We could pick up old airframes from the USN and off we go. However, this is a bigger aircraft, it may be turbo-prop but the running costs might be a bit higher. Personally, I don’t like the idea of refurbishing an airframe almost as old as the Nimrods!
Low Risk – New
The jewel in the Airbus Military crown? The C295 MPA is already in use with the Chilean Navy and Portuguese Air Force, and based on the earlier CN235 which is in use with many more air arms. With 11 hour endurance and 6 weapons stations this dual turboprop could be the optimum commercial solution. Procured as “Military Off the Shel” with out gold plating by MoD, the C295 could be the “good enough” solution to give us a low risk, viable solution for probably pretty low capital acquisition and running costs.
[TD, Jed, what about the ATR42/72]
Re-using Nimrod mission system components
3 out of the 4 options above are from Airbus Military and all come with the FITS mission system, which can be considered low risk as they have been fitting to planes for the last 15 years. We could introduce an element of risk by re-using some of the systems developed for the Nimrod. The Thales UK Searchwater 2000 radar (which is generally accepted as being best in class) springs to mind, so with TD’s mantra of: “commonality, commonality, and more commonality…..” in mind how about –
The A400M Option
Yep, I went and said it didn’t I!
I am not sure where I want to place this option on the spectrum of risk, but here goes:
You fit the Searchwater in the aircraft (and ESM and another antenna would not be permanent fixtures on the airframe too), but all the other mission systems, displays processing etc go into a purpose-designed pod that is rolled into the A400M’s cavernous hold. The hold being much bigger than a Nimrod’s cabin I assume we would fit crew rest area, galley etc. The rear para-trooping doors could be replaced by port and starboard sono-bouy launchers. The main issue would weapons fit. We know there are outer wing hardpoints for hose and drogue refuelling pods, a pair of Stingrays on each of these would be pretty low risk.
As the A400M rear ramp has a 6-tonne cargo capacity, would it be beyond our ability to design a reasonably low-risk solution using drogue chutes to pull a Stingray out of some sort of magazine fitted to the ramp? With the good ground clearance of a tactical airlifter, perhaps under-fuselage hardpoints could even suffice?
Of course the other problem is the A400M is not in full production yet, so it would take a while for us to get any online, but otherwise just thing of the commonality………..
Make use of the kit we already have?
I will finish with a more off the wall suggestion. We don’t need an ASW capable MPA, because we could simply upgrade ALL remaining (38 ?) Merlin HM1 to Merlin HM2 standard AND fit some of them (for shore-based use) with the in-flight refuelling probe which has been tested on Merlin’s before, AND buy some KC130J fitted with SeaSpray 7500E radars (as the USCG Herc’s). Or we could even get Marshall’s to refurb and upgrade some second hand Herc’s (or our own, like the two they did for the Dutch Air Force !). These aircraft could do the long-range surface search and SAR tasking, while being able to air-to-air refuel Merlin’s could keep them on station longer when sanitizing the approaches to the west coast of Scotland for any nasties lurking in wait for our ‘bombers’……
To finish on a really, really blasphemous note, perhaps Marshall’s or FRA could even provide the Herc’s on a “power by the hour” basis……..!