Over the last ten years it has sadly become something of a rarity to talk about specific successes in UK defence strategy and policy but amongst the few I could list are those of Eurofighter Typhoon, Carrier Strike both in respect of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers built by the Carrier Alliance Partners together with the F-35 B STOVL aircraft that provide combat jet capability that makes revived ‘Carrier Strike’ capability what it is alongside the huge infrastructure investment at RAF Marham. To these I would add the much greater emphasis placed within government defence strategy on the building of Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, Astute class submarines together with the Dreadnought class submarines that will eventually replace the existing fleet of Vanguard class SSBN’s.
There are two other specific and extremely successful programmes that I would also mention – the first being the three Boeing/L-3 Communications RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft – or Airseeker if you prefer – operated by 51 Squadron at RAF Waddington and that since the first aircraft was delivered in 2014 in order to replace three specialist RAF Nimrod R1 aircraft withdrawn in 2011 and that had for many years performed the important signal intelligence (SIGINT) role, have been deployed in all but continued operation ever since.
The second for me would be that of acquiring and bringing into service flawlessly of the RAF Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability. First announced in 2015 following a dangerous gap having been taken and allowed in UK air surveillance and anti-submarine warfare capability and the last of nine aircraft ordered back then (ZP809) having yesterday been delivered to RAF Lossiemouth.
Operated by 201 and 120 Squadron, the RAF fleet of Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft is already providing invaluable maritime patrol capability working alongside the Royal Navy and other allies that include the US and Norway securing the seas. In addition to acquiring the nine aircraft new facilities have been built at RAF Lossiemouth in order to house and maintain the UK fleet and to support Allied aircraft – all part of a £100 million MOD/Boeing investment at this hugely important base and one that will eventually also be home base to three Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft capability (AEW&C) and which I have previously written on.
Not surprisingly, yesterday was a particularly exciting days at RAF Lossiemouth for all those involved in the P-8A MPA programme as the last of nine aircraft ordered landed at the base and no more so than for my old chum Mark Faulds who in RAF service and following cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 upgrade programme by the MOD, had led the RAF ‘Seedcorn’ team that spent five years in the US working alongside US Navy P-8 Poseidon MPA personnel in order to facilitate and sustain the ability of RAF personnel to operate fixed wing MPA capability.
Following the still questionable decision to cancel Nimrod MRA4 development without announcing a replacement capability, the MOD did at least recognise the need to maintain important levels of associated MPS skills and expertise required and that has subsequently allowed a fast regeneration of UK MPA capability. It was Mark Faulds who had the honour of delivering the first RAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft (ZP801) to the UK back in February 2020 and who I am pleased to say having left the Royal Air Force now works with Boeing Defence UK supporting the RAF P-8A Poseidon MPA fleet at RAF Lossiemouth.
Particular thanks must also be expressed to Air Commodore Simon Strasdin OBE who led the RAF Lossiemouth MPA infrastructure development requirement through its most important phase and who will in May this year succeed Air Commodore Nick Hay OBE as ISTAR Force Commander.
The US Navy ‘Seedcorn’ operation has been an absolutely crucial process to the success of rebuilding RAF Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability and operation. If I recall correctly from my own visit to the US Navy’s VP-30 ‘Pro’s Nest’ unit and facilities at NAS Jacksonville in Florida, five years ago, around eleven RAF personnel which included two pilots, four tactical coordinators, three electronic warfare operators and two acoustic operators were based there from 2010.
RAF P-8A Poseidon capability includes a comprehensive package of mission systems including APY-10 radar that has modes for high-resolution mapping, acoustic sensor system including passive and multi-static sonobuoys, electro-optical/IR turret and electronic support measures (ESM) and the RAF says that the equipment on board delivers comprehensive search and tracking capability and that weapons systems include torpedoes for engaging sub-surface targets.
It would of course be wrong that I ignore the persistent argument from many within the defence community that having nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft is insufficient for the vastly increased task – particularly in light of the increased presence of Russian submarines in areas close to the UK – provides a sufficient level of aircraft capacity.
To that end I would not disagree with the underlying sentiment expressed by many in regard of limited capacity available and sadly, the same situation exists following the cut from five planned aircraft to just three Boeing E-7A Wedgetail AWACS aircraft and that, alongside yet another dangerous and unnecessary gap being taken in AWACS capability by the UK Government following sudden withdrawal of ‘Sentry E3-D’ capability due to years of under investment by the MOD, has a similar ring to it.
Neither, as I have written before, can the purchase of much needed P-8A Poseidon capability that was acquired primarily to replace Nimrod Maritime Aircraft capability justify in my view the premature withdrawal of the three RAF Raytheon Sentinel R1 Astor aircraft last year and that, with their dual-mode synthetic aperture radar (SAR)/ground moving target indicator (GMTI) fitted and linked to mobile tactical ground stations allowed UK and Allied forces to conduct long-range, battlefield-intelligence, target imaging, tracking and surveillance in many conflict areas including Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali and Nigeria so successfully over little more than thirteen years of operation.
Nevertheless, we are where we are and this particular commentary piece from me today is about defence programme success. RAF P-8A Poseidon capability not only fills a huge, dangerous and very unnecessary gap taken by the UK in what I term as ‘the mistake’ that in terms of so-called strategy that emerged from SDSR 2010 but twelve years on, is now a crucially important part of UK defence capability. The bottom line is that this, along with others successful programmes mentioned above, is already a huge success in service and one that will provide the UK with required maritime patrol aircraft capability for many years forward.
So, in summary, well done to RAF Team Lossiemouth, Boeing Defence UK and importantly, the US Navy for massive assistance and support provided to the RAF, to the UK as a whole and our Allies for the brilliant ‘Seedcorn’ programme that it has and continues to operate.
CHW (London – 12th January 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785