An Unfashionable Answer to the Nimrod Question

The fever pitch surrounding the UK’s yet to be announced maritime patrol, or perhaps more accurately, multi-mission, aircraft, is getting unbearable. The not very secret but terribly hush-hush trip aboard the Kawasaki P-1 by RAF officers, the rush of Russian submarine stories in the media and multi forum discussions about the relative advantages of business jets over unmanned types or even whether four engines are better than two or MAD is yesterday’s news, or not, continues unabated.

There is no doubt the P-8 is the real deal, it is capable, has a clear development path and is supportable.

Many think the UK and other users can effectively freeload off the back of the US Navy. After all, they will pay for all the future developments and clearances and then make sure Boeing let us have them at ‘mates rates’

mmm

I also think there is a great deal of wishful thinking about leveraging the 737 user base to drive down support costs, people assuming this will translate into supporting a military product, with the MAA and an integrated support contract in tow?

We will be purchasing a military product in small quantities with all that this entails, make no mistake.

There are also issues to resolve, lightweight torpedo for example, do we opt for the US Mk54 or integrate Stingray, or do we follow the Indian path and make sure the MAD boom is fitted, or stick with the medium to high altitude vision as defined by the US Navy.

That said, if we want to get a capable aircraft into service soon to fill Nimrods big shoes, an aircraft that above all else will be supportable and supported, one that has benefitted from UK experience and provides a return on our SEEDCORN investment, and we are thinking with our heads;

JUST BUY THE P8

I may well have said this once or twice but what makes this such an interesting subject is its implications beyond MPA/MMA. If we buy a P8 we are effectively giving Boeing a de-facto monopoly on NATO maritime patrol aircraft because P3’s and Atlantiques, however well they are upgraded, have a relatively short life. It also means that when the time comes to replace 707 based SIGINT and AEW&C aircraft, the only show in town will be from Boeing.

In a previous short post I also commented on the palpable desire from many quarters to consign Sentinel to the scrapheap as soon as possible to pave the way for a P8 purchase that could be turned into a Sentinel replacement by hanging a pod underneath it.

Another de-facto victory to Boeing (and a mistake I think)

I have no axe to grind against Boeing whatsoever but are we really sure we want to slide into giving a single US company a monopoly on a large and expanding sector of UK, European and NATO defence capability.

What about the P1?

The P1 might have some element of thinking with our hearts because clearly, it has been designed from scratch for the ASW role, right down to the big cockpit and observation windows.

The Japanese have some very advanced technology, an equally serious attitude to ASW, a commitment to producing many P1’s and a desire for more defence industrial engagement.

I think many people would quite like to see the P1 win any future UK competition but it is not quite as advanced programmatically as the P8, is an unknown in cost terms and represents a greater risk overall than the P8.

Using a business jet platform, perhaps in conjunction with unmanned systems is postulated by many to the ‘way of the future’ and the new F sized sonobuoys that follow the general trend of electronics miniaturisation mean using unmanned aircraft to place them becomes a realistic possibility, subject to confirmation of course.

Even the proposed Sea Hercules has some merit; it might not be a product anyone can touch yet but the technology components all exist, ease of integration of other complex systems onto the Hercules has been well proven. Pending structural assessment, the donor airframes exist and so does much of the support infrastructure. There is a lot to be said for developing a modular fit for Hercules or even Atlas in the medium term.

The smart money is clearly on the P8 with the P1 as a credible contender, although we should be very clear with Japan and not string them along because that would be damaging for the longer term and potentially fruitful defence relationship.

The general point here is a simple one, there are loads of options and all of them are good. It is unusual to have so many mature or maturing offerings to choose from.

But hang on a second.

When did we give up our ambition, when has our risk appetite sunk to such a monumentally low level that the default solution is buy from the USA?

Is the UK and Europe destined to be merely a customer of US products and a subcontractor to US defence organisations?

Have we learned nothing from the F35, a project designed specifically to create a US monopoly and eliminate Europe from any kind of ability to design and build complex combat aircraft, or the USAF tanker competition, or Brimstone, or efforts to stop Paveway IV being sold abroad.

I don’t blame the US defence industry for seeking market dominance and I don’t blame the US government for wanting to buy domestic products, but do we have to help them on their way?

No, we don’t.

We should also observe that the P8, and the P1 to the same extent, carry out their tasks in a pretty similar way to the Nimrod MR2 and P3 Orion that they replace. Of course they have moved the state of the art forward but they are both medium sized aircraft that carry sonobuoys and weapons. Both were started many years ago, critically, before the revolution in airborne, surface and sub-surface unmanned technology, autonomy, artificial intelligence and large scale data analytics.

But whoa I hear you say.

Have we equally learned nothing from Typhoon and A400M, European projects are a nightmare and we need an MPA right now, not in a decade plus time.

All good points, allow me to address them.

No doubt, Typhoon and Atlas have not been a showcase for how to manage multinational complex projects, both have taken longer to develop and cost more than anticipated but no more than any other development project of similar magnitude. Doing complex things is hard, takes time and costs serious money, especially when those complex things are at the cutting edge.

We should also be able to look at where those projects went wrong and avoid repetition.

We need a maritime patrol aircraft now for our struggle with that nice Mr Putin and with the increasing importance of ISR in our generational struggle with militant Islam (in all its various guises), a multi mission aircraft.

The counter to that is, well, we have done without a maritime patrol aircraft since 2011. Yes, we have operated at risk, yes we have had to rely on allies and yes, the risk environment has changed somewhat since 2011, but the world has not stopped turning.

Pretty much all of our European allies have opted to update their Orion’s or Atlantique’s so for the short to medium term, one could make a reasonable argument that the European MPA capability will be maintained in both quality and quantity.

So a question arises, could the UK continue to rely on our allies for the short to medium term for maritime patrol requirements by trading some of our capabilities, simply contributing to costs and formalising the ad hoc arrangements we have relied upon since 2011?

I am not sure if there would be enough to go around but if they have been covering our requirements since 2011 then logically, there is. Whether this level of capacity can be maintained for the next x number of years is an unknown.

Given that the sharing and pooling of resources is widely recognised to be an essential element of future collective defence, why not.

Seriously, why not?

For the multi mission requirement, what is the great big urgent gap that needs filling?

We have a range of excellent ISR capabilities, world beating in many cases, all of them have plenty of life left in them, and all of them have development options for the medium term.

The MPA requirement is therefore a great deal more urgent than the MMA requirement.

By pooling our allies MPA and sharing our ISR assets, a breathing space into which a replacement for European P3/Atlantique/Nimrod can be developed.

This does not need to be an A319/320 MPA either, I asked whether the ASW role needs to be delivered by a P8/P1 looky likey.

The answer is maybe, maybe not.

Textron have shown clearly that with a careful approach, a realistic set of performance objectives and selective use of bespoke and off the shelf components, aircraft can be developed in relatively short order. This isn’t a pitch for the Scorpion by the way, just a point about how fast aircraft can be developed.

The European aerospace industry has an enormous well of system components from which to draw. Mission systems, flight control software, undercarriage, sensors, weapons and crew toilets are all available off the shelf.

As mentioned above, unmanned and autonomous air, surface and sub-surface could form part of the solution. Business jet sized aircraft could also feature. An aircraft would also be designed to provide a range of ISR capabilities, a common aircraft for SIGINT, AEW&C, SAR/GMTI and even a weapons carrier. Not in the same aircraft at the same time, but a common base platform designed from the ground up using a range of common components already available and in production.

So to summarise, let’s not rush in, work with our allies on practical pooling and sharing and develop a European replacement for Atlantique, Orion and Nimrod that takes advantage of the revolution in unmanned systems, autonomy and sensors.

Failing that, if we all OK with just buying off Uncle Sam, let’s just get on with buying the P8 because the constant hype is getting boring now!

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