Still Missing In Action – UK Maritime Patrol Aircraft Capability

Ahead of a Sky News TV interview that I did yesterday lunchtime in regard to the renewed search for the four missing British yachtsmen in the mid-Atlantic; someone who I won’t name said, “I wonder how much news time has been devoted to maritime search and rescue effort during this year?” The reasoning behind the question was not only logical but is, I believe, well worthy of recording here. Although we are only five months into the year, the amount of media airtime devoted to loss of life of those that have perished in aircraft or ships lost at sea has broken all records.

Due to one specific tragic incident it has been my responsibility over the past three days to write and broadcast on the abandoned, and now resumed, search and rescue effort for the four lost sailors whose seemingly well-equipped vessel was lost somewhere in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

The decision of the US Coastguard to abandon the search and rescue effort, in which they had worked very hard, was both considered and correct. All credit to the US Coastguard for what they did and indeed, are now continuing to do, in an attempt to find the four missing men. Our thanks must also go to the many other ships searching the area and to our Canadian allies for sharing the ongoing search.

A continuation of the search for the missing yachtsmen was at the behest of the British Government. It is to the credit of the US Government and to the US Coastguard that, even after the exhaustive effort put in during the initial search, the request to resume was quickly enacted without question. Similar to the US and Canada, the UK is a signatory to the Chicago Convention of 1944 and also, with greater relevance to the aspects that concern us here, the subsequent 1979 agreement that is the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the so called SAR Convention) ’

In sum, the latter agreement states that each party shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue capability within its area. In the case of the UK my understanding is that our search and rescue area at sea extends approximately 30 degrees west, covering an area of roughly one million square miles of Atlantic Ocean. According to information from the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the UK’s requirement extends to an area just short of the Arctic Circle to the north, and then follows a line down to an area just short of Cape Finisterre continuing down through the North Sea and English Channel meridian line. By any standards the UK has a large area of sea to cover in terms of its commitment, although I suspect this is nowhere near as large as the area covered by a country such as New Zealand which I am reliably informed is the largest.

It is important to remember that a search and rescue capability requires accurate maintenance of equipment, trained manpower, and a calculated capability including sophisticated radar and other electronic equipment as well as the ability to drop additional safety equipment into the sea.

Traditional search and rescue operations have, and probably always will, require air power as the first point of call. The USA, as I said my commentary piece two days ago, has considerable air power related to search and rescue capability but sadly, since 2010 when the venerable fleet of Nimrod MRA2 aircraft was stood down and the present government decided to scrap the intended Nimrod MRA4 replacement, Britain has had no maritime air patrol capability at all.

The UK does have a military operated rotary powered search and rescue capability which utilises the Sea King helicopter but, as said above, no long distance air power capability specifically designed for the search and rescue mission. This appalling situation means that Britain is in reality unable to meet commitments it previously signed up to and that, should we be required to undertake a rescue similar to the one that we asked the US to resume this week in an equally large area of the Atlantic Ocean, we have no specific search and rescue aircraft capability available to undertake such a mission.

Having an aircraft is one thing but what matters far more is having the real capability to undertake the mission. This is referring to radar and electronic surveillance equipment, communications equipment, plus the ability to search using the human eye within the plane and also, where appropriate, the ability to drop additional safety equipment into the sea. In order to maintain the important skills required following the scrapping of Nimrod, Royal Air Force personnel had continued to work with allied air forces; although I am presently unclear as to status on this.

Yesterdays’ decision by the UK government to send a Royal Air Force C130J aircraft to the Azores to join the search in the Atlantic was an important gesture in providing further comfort to the families of those involved in this unfortunate tragedy. However, the reality is that the C130J in its present form will be of very limited use on a search and rescue mission as it was acquired to move equipment and troops. True, anything is better than nothing and there can be no doubt that the C130J has great endurance, but it is nonsense to regard the aircraft as having an adequate search and rescue capability. The C130J lacks ‘ears and eyes’; it has no electronic surveillance capability or suitable radar and does not have as much as a window in the cabin area to look out of to search. I am therefore forced to conclude that the aircraft we have sent will, apart from what the pilot and co-pilot may be able to see from the cockpit area, provide a very minimal level of assistance.

That Britain has since 2010 had no suitable maritime patrol aircraft capability is a national disgrace. It is a huge blot on the copybook of the academics and lawmakers responsible for writing SDSR 2010. In saying this I am not suggesting that the decision to scrap Nimrod MRA2 taken by the last Labour Government in the wake of Haddon-Cave was wrong, or that the decision taken by the present Government to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 programme was necessarily right or wrong either. What I am saying is that in taking the latter decision without having any intention of providing a replacement was tantamount to abandoning the duty of care. Moreover, when this is realised in conjunction with the inability the UK now has to meet international treaty obligations that, although signed a long time ago are still very current, makes this a matter of far greater importance.

The loss of the Malaysian airliner and the tragedy in South Korea brings home the message of urgency in resolving our maritime aircraft capability shortage. We in Britain just could not do what our Australian and New Zealand allies attempted to do in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. Furthermore, if the boot was on the other foot, we couldn’t handle even a fraction of what we are asking our US allies to do in their part of the Atlantic Ocean this week. Notwithstanding that the process of Urgent Operational Requirements has provided some of the best kit used by the UK military, I am usually loathed to suggest short term solutions. However, in this case it may well be that, such is the urgency of requirement, what we need to do is seek a two stage solution. This means that to meet an initial requirement we attempt to acquire some suitable search and rescue aircraft capability from our allies whilst we put together a medium and longer term plan for acquiring or leasing new search and rescue aircraft capability. Quite frankly whilst I do very much care that we create a sensible and affordable medium and long term procurement, equipment and operational strategy related to search and rescue capability; such is the urgency of requirement to have immediate capability anything is better nothing at all.


CHW (London) 22nd May 2014

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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