Could C17 be a Model for MPA Purchase?

News is starting to leak out that the MOD is keen to get its hands on a 9th C17 before Boeing’s production run ends in 2015. This is not the first time that the MOD has managed to cobble together the funds to purchase a new C17 out of the blue.

With the scrapping of Nimrod the C17 is one of the most expensive single aircraft in the RAF’s inventory and with a total cost of the entire fleet likely to be near £2 billion one of the RAF’s largest total programs in the past decade.

Even more surprisingly, if the RAF manages to get a 9th the programme will have delivered 90% of the number of aircraft initially outlined (something I can’t think has happened with any other military programme since the end of the cold war).

Key to this success is the way the aircraft have been purchased. Originally four were leased before being bought. Others were added as the requirements for the Afghan air bridge stepped up and the last was ordered simply because it was needed and the MOD had some spare cash that it needed to spend in a hurry.

This seems to have prevented two things. Firstly the usual billion pound assessment with a four letter abbreviation beginning with Future and it also seems to have prevented the usual impulse of the MOD to buy of the shelf, and then spend billions adding in Gucci extras. Also not having a large initial order has prevented the aircraft purchases being caught up in the MOD’s £38 billion black hole death spiral, with the usual penalties being paid to manufacturers for ever smaller numbers of aircraft being ordered.

Model for MPA?

P8A Poseidon
P-8A Poseidon

It seems highly likely that SDSR 2015 will outline the need for an MPA solution. Even though spreadsheet Phil likely has the funds to start looking at this today the political ramifications of yet another SDSR 2010 u turn are probably too much to bear. The other issue I think is that the MOD has its heart set on the P8 which is not yet in full production and they probably won’t be able to get their hands on any until after 2015 anyway. (It should be noted that the vast majority of the aircrews on seed corn seem to be training up for the P8 as well).

I don’t want to debate the merits of the P8 vs. the SC 130 and other platforms that are out there. What I would like to suggest is, assuming the MOD does want P8; would the C17 purchase model be the best way to introduce it?

Even the current cash strapped MOD could probably find enough coppers down the back of that couch in Whitehall to lease four P8’s. While four would not be ideal it would be way better than the current number and would allow us to prevent the loss of skills in MPA/ASW that are estimated to be irreversible by 2019. It would also mean that the time spent working up on the USN’s P8’s by the seed corn initiative would not be wasted.

One of the beauties of Phil’s spreadsheet approach is that with a bit of luck it should continue to produce underspends in the equipment budget. This should allow the MOD to gradually increase the fleet size when funds become available and it will remove MPA from competition with other large defence projects such as Successor and F35.

It will also allow the decision on manned vs. unmanned MPA to be pushed off into the future when it can be better aligned with other programs such as the RAF’s SAVENGER.  So if the unmanned option does not work well we may end up with a fleet of 12 P8’s. If it does work we may end up with 5 or 6 and some form of UAV.

I am sure Boeing would jump at the chance to land a large international customer and I am sure the USN with the problems it’s facing from sequestration could be persuaded to part with a handful of early production slots.

There would be some issues especially modifying Stingray for glide kit launch from the P8 however this could be dealt with separately and it would not be the end of the world if the P8 entered UK service with no air launched torpedo capability for the first few years.

Air to Air Refuelling capability could be an issue but again it could be put off to the future with the first four leased aircraft being kept with the USAF boom receptacle then converted later at some date if needed. Having the ability to use the drogue AAR system will likely be useful for Boeing in the export market in the future especially if it wants to sell to Europe so we may be able to put in a joint funded development in the future if we take up more planes. (I’m guessing Boeing already has plans for this anyway)

The initial lease may even help our spineless politicians avoid the appearance of a u turn. They can simply use the lease as a cheap ‘interim solution’ until a proper decision can be made in the future before just deciding to go with what we have in the P8. Under these terms the capability could be generated even faster with no need to wait for the SDSR 2015 decision.

Training and maintenance should not be much of an issue either. We can use a similar system to that used on Air seeker/Rivet Joint simply tapping on to US Navy systems.

Also as with C17 purchases currency fluctuations can be a positive as opposed to a negative as with fixed production contracts like the F35. The MOD can purchase the aircraft at times when sterling is higher against the USD and not buy when it’s lower.

Using the C17 purchase model seems like a very sensible way to acquire any large niche capability from the USA. It would seem especially optimal to use such a set up to purchase P8 if the MOD decided it was the right aircraft for the job.

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