The need for Maritime Patrol Aircraft is a top priority

25 Mar 2014. For a maritime nation dependent on international trade, failing to retain a maritime patrol aircraft capability is a national disgrace. This is not the first time that I have raised this particular issue and I doubt that it will be the last, but I am increasingly concerned that the UK Government is failing in its duty of care by seeking to delay a decision to acquire Maritime Patrol Aircraft until publication of SDSR 2015.

Next Monday, the 31st March, will mark exactly four years since the last Nimrod MRA2 aircraft was withdrawn leaving Britain without any form of adequate Maritime Patrol Aircraft protection. We may be strong in terms of our ISTAR capability at the moment but when it comes to patrolling the oceans, seas and vital offshore assets Britain has little if any form of suitable air power that has sufficient endurance.

Following cancellation of Nimrod MRA4 a new solution was scheduled to be established within SDSR 2015. Since then there has been an ongoing MOD review process while the RAF has separately conducted a wider review under the title ‘Air ISTAR Optimisation Study’ (AOIS) studying whether intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance could be combined to meet the needs of wide-area maritime surface and sub-surface surveillance. The hope was that Britain’s future requirements regarding a multi-mission aircraft (MMA) configured for both land and sea missions would be agreed upon by now – I am still waiting for results!

With its Boeing Sentry E-3D, Sentinel aircraft (the first of three planned Rivet Joint aircraft) and an increasing level of unmanned aerial vehicles, Britain enjoys a relatively strong ISTAR capability. However, attempting to push mission capability by combining all the various facets of ISTAR with the separate need for strong Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability – a factor I believe was behind the reasoning of the AOIS study – is a step too far. While Maritime and ISTAR capability must always be compatible and inter-operable my own view is that given the vast amount of ocean that we need to patrol given our wider NATO commitments and security needs the idea of moving toward multi-mission capability is absurd.

In failing to provide a consistent level of maritime patrol aircraft capability we are failing not only ourselves but also failing in the commitment we have made to our NATO allies. We are kidding ourselves if we fail to understand the need for a strong maritime patrol aircraft capability. The tragic loss of MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean and the massive international search for the lost plane highlighted the need of responsible nations to maintain an effective maritime patrol aircraft capability. With no suitable aircraft capable of matching the ageing, and yet hugely successful, long mission capability of the P3 Orion (retained by countries such as Australia and New Zealand) we should feel hugely embarrassed that we would be unable to muster suitable aircraft to support a similar search if the circumstances required.

Cancellation in SDSR 2010 of the Nimrod MRA4 together with withdrawal of remaining Nimrod MRA2 aircraft four years ago brought to an abrupt end Britain’s ability to patrol the seas by air with any level of sustainability and long distance endurance. Whilst it is perfectly true that we have strong rotary capability in the form of Royal Navy Sea King (SKASaC) capability, these fine Helicopters lack endurance.

In my research of the various air power related capability gaps that have either emerged since SDSR 2010 there are three  areas in particular where the nation has been exposed to considerable risk by the MOD. The first is my fear that SDSR 2015 will lead to a premature running down of remaining Tornado GR4 multi-role fast jet capability and that this will occur before planned aircraft replacements in the form of Tranche 3 Typhoons and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters can be deployed as a truly multi-role asset. The second is the dangerous capability gap that already exists in maritime air surveillance capability. The third was the decision to abandon RAF and RN involvement in Search and Rescue (SARS).

These are remarkable defects given that the number of RN capital ships has halved in recent years (by the time ‘Future Force 2020’ has been fully implemented there will be just 19 capital ships remaining to police our territorial waters, protect trade routes, fulfill our international obligations and defending our dependent territories). For a nation that is still one of the top ten leading economies and one that places such strong emphasis on its membership of the UN Security Council, it is appalling that our maritime history has been reduced to such an extent. Considering New Zealand and Australia have retained sufficient Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability, some of which has been in use to provide huge support in the search for MH370 in the south Indian Ocean, is to me a damming indictment on UK defence strategy and its current detachment capability delivery. How right the Defence Select Committee was to conclude recently that it failed to find any real defence strategy within SDSR 2010. Even France, a country that has just as many budget issues as we do, is now engaged in modernising the Atlantique 2 aircraft fleet.

Assuming that a new aircraft would need to be acquired for the UK to fill this gap, it seems to me that the Boeing P-8 Poseidon would be ideally suited to fulfill the UK’s requirments. Other aircraft possibilities might be the Airbus Military C295, the ATR72 and suggestions have also been put forward in regard to converting existing Royal Air Force C-130J’s into maritime patrol aircraft. All the above solutions have merit and it is not for me to put any single one of them forward as being the best or most fit for purpose.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee has more than adequately identified and assessed the potential for risk should the Government fail to comprehend the urgency of need to have maritime patrol aircraft capability. Yes, there are other technologies that must also be considered in any future spending debate, but in terms of endurance there is no practical alternative to acquisition of a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785


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