Future Maritime Patrol – Part 1 (Challenges and Missions)


We have regularly discussed future maritime patrol on Think Defence but it is an especially interesting subject because it spans so many capability areas and has so many implications in other areas.

Before we Talk Turkey!

Before we can get to the discussion about requirements and equipment there are a number of issues that need to be considered.

The Shadow of Nimrod

It should be clear that while Nimrod might not appear in any formal requirements documents and frankly, the MoD and BAE would prefer everyone just forgot it, Nimrod will cast a long shadow on any future purchase of even a remotely similar aircraft.

First, after spending the better part of £4b on Nimrod MRA4 spending many millions or billions, so soon after, on an aircraft not made in the UK is going to result in a rough ride in the House of Commons and mainstream media. We should not underestimate the importance of this, after all, the Treasury and Mr UK Taxpayer has already handsomely funded a Maritime Patrol Aircraft but the money was, let us be kind here, squandered.

Second, the legacy of XV230 (the Nimrod MR2 that crashed in Afghanistan) was the Haddon Cave inquiry and resultant changes in airworthiness management. The issues in achieving full release to service on the Airseeker aircraft shows the difficulties in using older aircraft. This does not make it impossible but simply adds to the time and cost of doing so should the ‘answer’ be something like a refurbished P3. There is no point bemoaning the MAA processes, they are what they are and if, as some suggest, that they are too restrictive and risk averse the RAF and MoD only has itself to blame.

Third, related to the second, is a general reluctance to enter into development or modification programmes after the trauma of MRA4 that any proposal with the words ‘convert’ or ‘UK specific’ is likely to see it confined to the round filing cabinet. Low risk, off the shelf, is probably at the top of the shopping list.

Buying the most cost effective low risk solution also provides a handy counterpoint for the inevitable backlash in the House of Commons.

The Gap Keeps Getting Larger

I know it might be a facile argument but an uncomfortable truth is that the UK has been without a maritime patrol aircraft for  some years now after Nimrod MR2 was withdrawn in early 2010. By the time of SDSR 2015 it will be 5 years and by the time any new system is bought into full service it will be getting close to a decade.

The argument goes, if we have been without such a vital capability for so long, how come the world has not stopped turning. Wiser souls will simply laugh at that but it is often not the wisest that make the decisions and whatever argument one deploys it is difficult to counter.

Scottish Independence

I think it is impossible to frame any sort of requirement for future maritime patrol without having the issue of Scottish independence resolved one way or the other. If independence happens and the expected wishes of the Scottish people is to remove the UK’s nuclear submarine force and associated facilities the requirement for maritime patrol will change.

Areas and routes to be monitored will be different and this would need to be factored into any programme.

The General Lack of Cash

In our previous discussions on SDSR 2015 I think we came to the conclusion that whichever party comes into power in 2015 a genuine increase in defence spending is highly unlikely. With the economy still not in rude health, a low perceived direct threat to the UK, defence inflation higher than general inflation and numerous other calls on public finances SDSR 2015 is likely to concentrate on maintaining the road to Future Force 2020 as defined by SDSR2010 (and subsequent revisions) than anything else.

Consequently, the likelihood of embarking on a major procurement project is unlikely.

The very long shadow cast by Nimrod, a lack of headroom in the equipment plan (do not be lulled into a false sense of security by unallocated underspend), a general lack of funding and the simple fact that we seem to be getting on just fine without points to an almost impossible task of getting MPA back on the MoD’s purchasing agenda.

Why bother discussing it then?

A good question, the answer, it remains a requirement and you never know what might transpire in the next few years so apart from the general interest value the subject is still important enough to consider.

Implications on Other Capabilities Areas

This is where the debate gets interesting

Because almost any of the choices available potentially has an impact in other capability areas these secondary implications might form a central part of the decision.

It is in these secondary options where the potential for combined cost savings and/or capability improvements could be found and simply cannot be ignored.

Focusing on the Maritime Patrol/Surveillance requirements to the exclusion of these secondary areas might be desirable from a single requirement perspective but I do not think it sensible or realistic to do so.

The potential is simply too great ignore.

A few examples spring immediately to mind;

If the P8 is the DS answer, would it be possible to withdraw Sentinel and thus make savings by virtue of deleting an entire fleet. Maybe the surplus R1’s could be reconverted back to passenger carrying, replacing the HS125 and BAE146 fleets, perhaps they might be converted to the aeromedical role.

If the second mooted choice of the C295 is selected, again, what are the secondary impacts. Could non MPA C295’s be purchased at the same time and used to replace the C130J’s as the RAF transitions to the A400M. Could a C235/295 be used instead of Shadow, HS125, and BAE146.

Not all of these need to happen overnight and could be included in the overall justification in the context of a long term platform strategy.


The conventional approach is to define a requirement, fulfil requirement and move on to the next project.

However, as we all know the big fat grey thing with big ears in the room is money.

With this in mind the purist approach is never used in reality, available funding always dictates, or at least influences, requirements. There is no point defining a requirement that is so high as to be unachievable so inevitably trade offs and compromise must be a central feature of any requirement.

Requirements start with the wider context, into which they are placed.

The Wider Context

The UK remains an expeditionary focussed nation, globally engaged and with a diverse range of interests. Maritime security and protection of deployed naval forces is an obvious requirement.

The UK is a nuclear power making use of ballistic missile submarines, the SSBN force. Protection of the deterrent is a key requirement and although this is being provided currently by naval vessels and helicopters the overstretch on these assets and opportunity costs of not being able to use them elsewhere should be obvious.

The UK has a range of allies that mostly have their own maritime patrol aircraft capability and thus can more or less be relied upon to provide some aspects of the requirement. Our nearest ally, France, has a fleet of Breguet Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft but no C17’s. France has recently taken advantage of the UK’s C17 fleet and there is absolutely no reason why in a coalition operation, France, and others who may or may not be involved, could contribute their aircraft.

This brings me on to defence planning assumptions and the acceptance that for the majority of operations, the UK will not be operating alone.

Many people argue that the UK is increasingly dependant on ‘others’ for an increasing number of military capabilities but in this case, our allies are generally pretty flush with maritime patrol aircraft. They will not of course contribute to UK only tasks such as SSBN protection but those arguing for a more contributory and load sharing approach to defence matters might point to this area as one which could be shared.

The seven military tasks as defined by the 2010 SDSR are as follows;

  • Defending the UK and its Overseas Territories
  • Providing strategic intelligence
  • Providing nuclear deterrence
  • Supporting civil emergency organisations in times of crisisDefending the UK’s interest by projecting power strategically and through expeditionary interventionProviding a defence contribution to UK influence
  • Providing security for stabilisation

It could be reasonably argued that a maritime patrol aircraft would make a significant contribution to all of them.

A range of threats exist that are countered by maritime patrol aircraft

We might consider the threat posed by a resurgent Russia seeking to compromise the deterrent, direct conflict with Iran or states such as Syria and even the much discussed future conflict with China. Personally, I find citing China or operating in support of the USA in the Pacific to be rather weak arguments for, almost anything actually, but the truism of ‘you never know what might happen in the future’ remains true.

To summarise, the wider context, into which a maritime patrol aircraft might sit, present some compelling arguments but some that can be relatively easily dismissed.

When placed in a wider context, the case is a strong one but it is not irresistibly strong; hence, the obvious situation we find ourselves in.

The Requirement Span Dilemma

With this subject there is a particular dilemma and it is unavoidable.

If it is accepted that the primary role of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft is deep water long range Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) this drives us to conclude that only an aircraft like the P8, P3, or P1 will suffice.  Unfortunately, it is the most expensive option and the reality is the likelihood of using deep water long range ASW capabilities is relatively low.

The principal cost driver therefore, is for a capability that is the least likely to be needed.

Span of Requirements
Span of Requirements

This is the same argument that is common to many major equipment projects; why do we need Typhoons when flying up against ancient Mig 23’s, why spend money on Challengers when we only ever seem to face Chieftain era enemies and why   invest in; well, you get the picture.

Maritime Patrol is not going to answer any of these questions but the issue must be considered.

Setting our sights high narrows the field, accepting compromises in capability provides much greater choice and lower cost.

Recognising that we need ASW less and maritime security type capabilities more would almost certainly result in a lower spend.


Just what do we need this aircraft to do, missions should inform requirements?

Anti Submarine

I think what many people fail to realise about anti-submarine warfare is that it is a team sport, many players and many layers. Submarines, frigates, helicopters and even fixed sensors all play their part so the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft does not all of a sudden render the UK’s anti submarine warfare capability void but it does reduce its effectiveness.

All the players can score a goal on their own but together are much more effective.Working with other parts of a well trained team they up the effectiveness and provide a greater deterrent to submarines operating in a given area. We should not, therefore, get over excited about the prowess of a maritime patrol aircraft in isolation but understand something quite simple, given the effectiveness of submarines, you want a full team.

The importance of the anti-submarine requirements comes down to acceptance of risk.

Without them, you place your surface and sub surface force at greater risk, with them, you reduce that risk.

The ASW task could be boiled down to a couple of areas; deep ocean ASW in support of transiting shipping groups and the SSBN fleet and shallower water or inshore ASW characterised, for example, by operating in support of operations in the Middle East and the Gulf of Arabia.

I think it is obvious although the former has a much lower likelihood than the latter it is equally obvious that the impact of the former is potentially much greater.

Of all the requirements, the split between the two broad ASW areas, has the greatest potential for influencing costs and, so the requirements definition comes down to a impact v likelihood discussion.

The current threat levels to the SSBN force could be argued to be relatively low and this might have been instrumental in the risk-based decision to cancel MRA4.

We cannot be certain the threat will remain at the current nuisance levels. In an expeditionary context the rapid advance and proliferation of both quiet air breathing submarines and a number of associated technologies mean that submarines will likely comprise a much larger threat in the future. If we are to retain freedom of movement the threat of enemy submarines must be taken seriously.

We might also consider the proliferation of non state submarine manufacturers e.g. narco subs. I do not think anyone is proposing dropping Stingray torpedoes on narco subs though!

The basic military requirement is to detect, classify, deter and if necessary, destroy enemy submarines

Search and Rescue

The UK has a very clear international obligation in this regard and is coordinated by the Department of Transport, these obligations are derived from voluntary adherence to the;

The three key functions of UK Search and Rescue are;

  1. Maritime SAR in offshore, inshore and shoreline areas
  2. Aeronautical SAR over land and sea
  3. Inland SAR

Of these, item 2 is the most relevant for a maritime patrol aircraft.

The UK SAR framework and resultant organisation is complicated with many agencies, devolved governmental bodies, private sector and voluntary organisations playing their parts. Into this mix is the MoD whose stated SAR responsibility is

The MoD has responsibility for providing SAR facilities for military operations, exercises and training within the UK and, by agreement, exercises responsibility for the co-ordination of civil aeronautical SAR on behalf of the DfT. Where the coverage provided by military SAR assets meets the civil SAR coverage requirements, they will be made available for civil maritime and land-based SAR operations. The high readiness SAR assets are SAR helicopters, maritime surveillance fixed wing aircraft and mountain rescue teams. The MoD also establishes and maintains an Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC) for the operation and co-ordination of civil and military aeronautical SAR assets.

As we know, the familiar grey and yellow Sea King helicopters of the RAF and Royal Navy will be replaced soon by the SAR-H PFI. After a rocky start and a controversial restart the programme is back on track.

The DFT and MoD awarded a Gap – SAR contract to Bristow Search and Rescue who will operate this until the contract main start in 2015, read more about Gap SAR here.

The contract is for the provision of rotary SAR only.

Looking at the image below, which shows the UK’s SAR area, it is clear that helicopters simply cannot cover the vast distances involved. Long range search and rescue including on scene coordination and air dropping of rescue equipment was carried out by the Nimrod MR2, with one aircraft held at 2 hours notice to move.

When the MR2 was withdrawn this cover was delegated to Hercules and E3 Sentry aircraft on as needed basis and mutual aid agreements with the French, who provide similar coverage in their area using converted Dassault Falcon business jets.

The diagram below shows the extent of the UK Search and Rescue Region (SRR), covering 1.25 million square nautical miles of sea and over 10.5 thousand nautical miles of coastline

UK Search and Rescue Region
UK Search and Rescue Region

Many have commented on the general inadequate nature of this current provision, characterising the Governments approach as akin to the image below

fingers crossed

So far that luck has held, there have been no instances that would require a fixed wing aircraft beyond the range of helicopters. This simple fact is used often to make the case that there is no case and it would be fairly foolish to hang on to SAR as justification for a new maritime patrol aircraft.

The underlying lack of demand and improving safety of shipping combined with general direction of travel as demonstrated by the SAR-H PFI should be obvious that fixed wing SAR as provided by Nimrod MR2 is not at the tope of the shopping list.

It could be relatively easily provided by extending the PFI to include a couple of modified business jet, types of which there are many available off the shelf.

Alternatively, simply extending cooperation with the French or Irish governments and maintaining basic cover with combinations of whatever long range aircraft  were available.

I can see the attraction of outsourced civilianised long range SAR.

Eequally, it all comes from public expenditure and because it is used much less frequently than the rotary SAR provided by Bristow’s there exists a possibility to share resources between a military MPA and declaring this as a search and rescue capability.

So, SAR is an argument for MPA, but lets face it, not a strong one.

Offshore Maritime Security

The UK offshore environment is a very complex subject, informed by a number of national and international laws and conventions.

Broadly speaking it is divided into 4 areas, internal waters, territorial sea, EEZ and continental shelf.

UK Territorial Waters
UK Territorial Waters

Other states have many rights within this area such as innocent passage and in some regards the UK has relatively little legislative jurisdiction, fishing for example. A number of international conventions also complicate matters, the OSPAR Convention on waste dumping another example.

Devolution of power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales also contribute to the patchwork of legislation that governs the UK EEZ.

British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies that are not part of the EU, such as the South Atlantic, also have EEZ’s. Combined, the UK has an enormous EEZ, the fifth largest in the world, over 6.8 million square kilometres


Beyond the obvious fisheries protection and pollution monitoring role there is also a more security focussed need for protection of offshore infrastructure such as oil and gas rigs.

Offshore and near-shore infrastructure is becoming increasingly important in the UK’s energy mix.

Wave and wind infrastructure is now increasingly likely to be placed at greater distances from shore and as gas and oil exploration pushes into deeper water the need for airborne security platforms will only increase.

Demand for energy, competition for natural resources and a greater demand on energy imports (particularly LNG) point to an increased requirement for effective surveillance and security.

The offshore hydrocarbon industry is moving increasingly towards underwater compression infrastructure so the traditional oil and gas platform may become a thing of the past. Shell are currently trialling a sub-sea compressor in their Ormen Lange gas field off Norway. This facility requires power from the shore, another sub-sea cable requirement that joins the many sub-sea cables that need surveillance and protection. Perhaps future production facilities around the Falkland Islands will not look like what we expect at all.

Smuggling interdiction, general policing support and other counter terrorism roles complete this broad section and in some circumstances, these might take place some distance from the UK, anti-piracy for example.

By having a deployable capability it could also make a valuable contribution to coalition maritime security operations such as counter narcotics in the Caribbean or counter piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

The UK has recently established a single National Maritime Information Centre at Northwood as a single point of contact and information fusion, analysis and dissemination. The 2010 SDSR recognised that no single body could or should be responsible for maritime security so the establishment of NMIC was a good move, at least it would provide some measure of coordination. There is still duplication though, with overlapping surface and aircraft provision across the numerous interested parties. As resources continue to be pressed, low profile but vital functions such as MSOG and NMIC are likely to be starved of funding undoing much of their good work and ensuring they fail to achieve their potential.

Of the two lower-intensity tasks that any maritime patrol aircraft would fulfil I think a much stronger argument exists for high endurance maritime security than search and rescue.

Anti Surface Warfare

An area, which seems to have fallen away with the withdrawal of Harpoon and Sea Eagle is the anti surface warfare role. Given the increasing effectiveness of ship-borne anti aircraft weapons and proliferation of aircraft carriers one might assume that this is a role best left to tactical fighters like the F35B with a pair of Joint Strike Missiles from Kongsberg, I would tend to agree. It is; however, another valuable capability that would be good to regain.

ISTAR in Support of Joint Operations

The Nimrod MRA4 had a very capable ESM system and the MR2 at one point in Afghanistan was one of the few platforms able to provide full motion video to ground forces. A maritime patrol aircraft can provide a wide range of sensors and the crew to analyse and disseminate useful intelligence to other elements of any joint force. Their long endurance and ability to operate in non-segregated airspace provides a valuable persistent capability.

Radar, passive electronic detection, electro optical and sonar technologies are often combined onto a single aircraft.

Since MR2 though, the RAF and British Army have improved their general ISTAR capabilities immeasurably, both manned and unmanned, and a multi purpose maritime patrol aircraft might not make as significant contribution to joint operations as previously.

Over water; however, things are somewhat different and maritime ISTAR in support of joint operations remains a significant gap.


Establishing the need for a maritime patrol aircraft/capability is obviously a pre-requisite to going shopping but the simple fact that the UK does not currently possess such a capability should be evidence that the need is not compelling.

In 2012, the Defence Select Committee published their findings on Maritime Surveillance, the summary was as follows;

The Committee has serious concerns following the decision in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) programme.  Although the MoD’s own capability investigations have concluded that a MPA is the solution to the UK’s maritime surveillance requirements over the next 20 years, the MoD has postponed any decision on a further MPA until at least the next SDSR in 2015. The UK therefore now has no current or planned sovereign MPA capability (i.e. a capability that could be operated independently) and the MoD has acknowledged that the resultant capability gap cannot be completely covered by an existing single asset or collection of assets. The reduction in certain sovereign long range maritime surveillance capabilities also highlights the UK’s interim dependency on allies for support in protecting the increasingly important reaches of the UK as well as its wider defence and direct military capability.

The video clip below accurately described the MoD’s response to their concerns

Since then; however, the mood music has changed and those with money burning holes in their pockets are betting on a P8 or C295 purchase to be announced in the 2015 SDSR, no doubt fuelled by selective leaking from the ISTAR Optimisation Study that is ongoing.

We have to be careful about being too specific equipment centric when looking at options, instead of fixating on a like for like Nimrod replacement could a mix of equipment offer more for less?

A hi-lo mix, staggered introduction, selected use of unmanned systems or those already in service all need considering. The market has not stood still either, technology marches on and of course we have to consider sovereign independence, technology and industrial strategy.

To summarise, there are many factors, which make the acquisition of a maritime patrol aircraft challenging.

Some aspects of the mission seem to be obvious but others can be questioned and the means of meeting those mission requirements might not be as clear cut as initially thought. Every paper I have seen on this subject starts with the answer, Boeing P8 Poseidon, and works back from there, swiftly dismissing any alternative.

In the next part of this series I am going to look at a range of options, the gold standard P8, a bargain basement C235 and all points between, including a handful of wild cards.

One thing I will be doing is looking at some of the wider aspects, recognising that a narrow blinkered look at the subject might not be optimal and preclude taking options for cost reduction or capability improvements in others areas by virtue of the decision on equipment for maritime patrol and surveillance.

Every choice will be a trade off against cost, time, complexity, industrial benefits, risk and capability.

I do not think there is any single obvious answer to this question


The Rest of the Series

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 1 (Challenges and Missions)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 2 (Dedicated Long Range Aircraft – P-8A Poseidon)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 3 (Dedicated Long Range Aircraft – P3, P1, ATL, 319)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 4 (C295 and Comparable Options)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 5 (Business Jet and Unmanned Options)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 6 (Sea Atlas and Sea Hercules)

Future Maritime Patrol – Part 7 (Summary)

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