If we look beyond the maritime patrol aircraft and into the future, it strikes me there are two roads to take, or maybe a third.
Option 1; concentrate on the multi-mission ISTAR space and look at either the P-8 or P-1 in terms of a future replacement for Sentinel, Sentry and Air Seeker.
Both provide a gateway to the future.
Sentinel is planned to go out of service before 2020 and Air Seeker and Sentry will eventually need replacing. Opting for a P-8 provides a ready-made pathway for the simple reason that this is the way the US is likely to go. A 737 based platform for SIGINT, Airborne Early Warning and Battlespace Management and Ground Surveillance seems eminently sensible.
Although the P-1 has a less obvious path in this regards, the aircraft would equally provide an ideal base to do so.
Cutting away all the arguments for and against either, to me, this seems the most compelling argument in favour.
Option 2; look across the air transport fleet to explore synergies there.
There seems little doubt that there is a gap between the A400M Atlas and Chinook with regards to payload and tactical air transport. There has been a great deal of discussion about the need for ‘something’ that fits in between the two. Suggestions include some future heavy lift rotary aircraft or an aircraft like the C27 or C-295 for example. Retaining existing C-130J’s, buying new, or looking at alternatives have been suggested and again, it is beyond the potential narrow requirement where synergies can be found.
If we purchase such a medium sized ramp equipped transport aircraft it could be used for many roles; air transport, Special Forces (including gunship), surveillance, VIP, parachute training, and of course, maritime patrol. There is potential to replace a number of in-service aircraft by going down this route. Likewise with an Alenia C-27J purchase. Both are mature aircraft with all manner of role fits and options available off the shelf.
By concentrating on the air transport area we would have to accept some compromise on the maritime patrol aspect. No one is suggesting that a C-295 or C-27J is comparable to a P-8 or P-1, and neither are people suggesting that a conversion to SC-130J or even A400M modular MPA fit comparable either.
But both are options that might be good enough if some compromise is accepted.
The degree of compromise is the crucial question to ask, if it is such that it renders the capability useless for the UK then it is no compromise at all, it is folly.
Option 3 is to look at teaming.
The capability that sets the P-8 and P-1 apart from the pack is their ability to hunt and destroy submarines, the ASW mission. Surface surveillance and other ISTAR type roles are likely to be the bread and butter activity with the ASW activity being used less. But it is this ASW capability that drives us towards the P-8 and P-1 type solution despite, it arguably, potentially being the least used.
Is there an option to use a modified business jet type aircraft for the bread and butter type work in order to keep purchase and in life costs down, and then team that with a smaller number of unmanned or transport aircraft to deliver the ordnance and expendables?
We know that transport aircraft are used for air despatch and we know that solutions exist and are in service for delivering munitions like cruise missiles (Taurus) and decoys (MALD/MALD-J) using ramp launch systems. Modified C-130 door launch systems for sonobuoys also exist.
None of this is science fiction.
Business jet derived platforms are relatively cheap to operate and tend to have excellent endurance. Payloads are lower and the lack of internal stores carriage could be a serious issue to resolve but we won’t know the scale of the issue until we know.
Now this is verging into fantasy fleets territory to some degree and there is certainly no guarantee that it would be a) effective or b) cheaper, but it must remain an option on the table, even if only to eliminate it.
Whether we like it or not, industrial issues are important.
The MoD’s budget comes from the UK economy, if the UK economy doesn’t generate wealth the MoD won’t have a budget. The defence aerospace industry contributes more to the UK economy than any other defence sector, land or maritime.
It is therefore of critical importance that sovereign skills and capacity retention is a decision-making factor.
What does the P-8 or P-1 option give, indeed, what would any of the other options provide?
It is an unknown factor at this stage but the issue cannot be wished away.
So What to Do?
The obvious answer is just buy the sodding P-8 and accept the advantages and disadvantages for what they are, maritime patrol is an important gap in our capabilities, one that is not getting any smaller and importantly, underpins the credibility of Trident.
If it were just maritime patrol I would be inclined to agree, but is far more complicated than that, there are implications beyond ASW.
Having just finished re-writing the sixty odd thousand word FRES article it might ssem to be a counter-intuitive thing to say, but I think we need to stand back, think very hard about the subject and not rush.
I don’t think it would be money wasted to invest in a handful of technology demonstrator contracts with Alenia, Airbus and Lockheed Martin; ramp/door launched torpedoes and expendables, palletised mission systems, podded sensors and external carriage of torpedoes spring immediately to mind. Answer the question of whether a transport aircraft like the C-130J could be viable without dismissing it based on limited information. Perhaps fund a business jet derivative representative trial contract to understand the pros and cons and look in depth at the bandwidth and airspace integration issues/costs of potential unmanned solutions.
This will certainly add overall cost and increase the time to a solution, which is never a good thing, but this is a large and complex strategic issue that is much more than a maritime patrol aircraft. It is a decision that needs to be based on a thorough understanding of the technology and costs for all potential solutions, not just the obvious ones.
The answer may still be Option 1, the obvious one.
But all that I am suggesting is…
Measure twice, cut once.