A short but important response to an important matter that surfaced over the weekend and to which I would respond by suggesting that any notion that HMG has chosen to walk away from the idea of acquiring Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) or Multi Mission Aircraft (MMA) capability in order to rectify serious errors of judgement made in SDSR 2010 following the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme should be very quickly dispelled.
The Sunday Times ran a story this past weekend suggesting that the MOD had dropped what it called a £2bn plan to acquire “a fleet of US-made submarine-hunting jets for the RAF”. The article suggested that “the proposed purchase of up to nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft that had been expected to be the centrepiece of the government’s forthcoming defence review, but [that] sources had [told the newspaper] that the project has now been shelved after ministers decided the aircraft are fiendishly expensive”.
That the Government failed to put an alternative plan in place and decided to gap MPA/MMA capability is a matter that military historians may judge to be the most serious error of judgement made in SDSR 2010. It is perfectly true as the Sunday Times article alludes that the acquisition of MPA/MMA aircraft capability is, at the political end of the spectrum at any rate, a very contentious issue. It is not my place to either suggest, to recommend nor to favour which of the various MPA/MMA capabilities available to the MOD should be acquired assuming that the upcoming SDSR 2015 defence and security review suggests a formal competition as opposed to single source procurement announcement to acquire MPA/MMA capability is made. Like many others within the defence arena though, all that I wish to see is that the aircraft capability eventually chosen and acquired is considered by our military to be the best capability for the various different missions that will be required of it. The prerequisites for that are in my view an aircraft that, due to the urgency of requirement, can be deliverable very quickly in order to address the serious risk that we are taking in having no current MPA/MMA capability and that must be already proven in service and affordable. In addition MPA/MMA capability chosen must also be adaptable and flexible to future mission requirement, readily interoperable with our major allies, affordable not just in purchase but also through-life. The capability acquired must also be properly supported must be absolutely free of future cost risk.
I do not believe that SDSR 2015 will be absent of an announced intention to acquire MPA/MMA capability during the primary five year period that the upcoming review will covers. The requirement and the urgency of it will in my view be very clearly stated and quite rightly so. How we get there may not be and while I take the view that the ultimate choice should be made on the basis of already in-service proven capability as the least risk option I accept that others may have different ideas.
To have MPA/MMA capability and to have it as soon as possible is on my view absolutely essential for the protection not only of our two new aircraft carriers when they come into service over the next three and five years but also our existing and planned future nuclear deterrent capability. MPA/MMA is also crucial in terms of filling the hugely important gap of enabling us to find and observe some of those that we believe or already know are our would-be enemies.
As we have seen on several occasions during this past year, because neither the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy has a persistent wide area surveillance aircraft ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capability, because it has no armed ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capability, insufficient numbers of ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) airborne collection platform capability and no suitable aircraft capability for search and rescue the UK has been forced to request assistance from both the US and French to provide support. Sometimes such support has not been available. Russian submarines are known to have been tracking our undersea submarine capability and yet we have no suitable aircraft capability to find them.
It is absolutely inconceivable in my view that the Government would not plan to incorporate a requirement for filling the huge and now extremely dangerous gap in MPA/MMMA capability within the SDSR 2015 process. Former Secretary of State Philip Hammond who is now Foreign Secretary made it abundantly clear to me that believed SDSR 2010 contained many errors of judgement and that these would be remedied in SDSR 2015. He was specifically referring not to the decision to scrap MRA4 but that they had failed to allow for putting something else in its place.
And whilst it is also true that there are a number of options and alternatives for mission capability acquisition choice there is in my view, following the costly failure of Nimrod and the huge cost involved of scrapping the programme, absolutely no margin for error this time in terms of capability risk. That means that whatever aircraft capability is eventually chosen must already be proven, in-service, is affordable and not just in terms of purchase but including through-life costs and one that also has options available that allow for additional capability to be added at a later date.
Deliverability and proven capability come top of the list but sadly, my view is that in this case sovereign capability should not be an issue.
If SDSR 2015 confirms a need for a competition I would anticipate that Airbus Defence & Space would field the C-295 MPA derivative of its military transport aircraft. A multi-mission aircraft that comes in many operating variants I would estimate that close to 200 C-295 aircraft have so far been delivered or ordered by over 20 military government customers. The Chilean Navy operates three C-295 MPA’s. Lockheed Martin would most likely field a proposal to rebuild and re-equip existing Royal Air Force owned C-130J military aircraft with UK produced electronics and sensor capability. The C130J aircraft that would be used are due, under proposals laid out in SDSR 2010, to be decommissioned in 2018. However, ahead of SDSR 2015 there can be no certainty that the planned withdrawal of these aircraft will now occur. Meanwhile Saab would field the 2000 Swordfish MPA which I have little knowledge about and Boeing would field the already well-proven P-8 Poseidon aircraft capability which is based on the hugely successful 737 airframe and of which 28 aircraft of a intended procurement of 117 aircraft are already in service with the US Navy.
L-3 would most likely put forward the currently under development Q400 capability and which is based on Bombardier aircraft platform. Japan would no doubt field the Kawasaki built P-1 maritime patrol aircraft for which the company is intending to supply to the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force at a rate of one or two per year – the intention being to replace a fleet of 80 P-3C Orion aircraft. Deliverability, lack of proven in-service capability and ability to support go against any Japanese offering in my view. Northrop Grumman would most likely also put forward unmanned aircraft capability as a part solution.
Whilst it is, as I have previously said, not for me to suggest what maritime patrol aircraft/multi-mission aircraft capability that the MOD should acquire in order to fill this dangerous capability gap left by SDSR 2010 I consider that Japanese built Kawasaki P-1 should not be a considered as an option. My reasons are primarily related this being unproven capability, that there is a risk over deliverability and that there is a potentially serious cost and risk issue related to through life support.
With no available UK built aircraft available the issue of sovereign capability will reside partly in the amount of UK built equipment capability installed and also on the amount that each of the competing companies in any MPA/MMA competition do already or would intend to spend in the UK. Given the urgency of requirement and the need to ensure that no further risk are taken I do have some serious misgivings if the sovereign capability issue is allowed to become a too serious issue. Clearly, as the maritime patrol aircraft capability to be acquired is developed into true multi-mission capability as required by the MOD there will be ample opportunity for UK sensor and electronics companies to support the development programme.
(Commentary will return on November 5th)
CHW (London 2 November 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel 07710 779785