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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

25 Mar 14. For a maritime nation that is dependent on international trade and surrounded by oceans and sea I and many others take the view that failing to hold any form of designed 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 in seeking to delay a decision to acquire Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability until publication of SDSR 2015 that the UK Government is failing in its duty of care to field strong defence. Next Monday, the 31st March, will mark exactly four years since the last Nimrod MRA2 aircraft was withdrawn leaving Britain without any form of adequate Maritime Patrol Aircraft protection and cover. We may be strong in terms of our ISTAR capability at the moment but when it comes to patrolling the oceans and seas and our vital offshore assets Britain has little if any form of suitable air power capability that has sufficient endurance.

Following cancellation of Nimrod MRA4, an aircraft that would had the programme continued taken over the maritime patrol aircraft role, the expectation has been that a new solution to the lack of current maritime patrol aircraft capability would be established within SDSR 2015. Since then there has been an ongoing MOD review process while separately the Royal Air Force has conducted a wider review under the title ‘Air ISTAR Optimisation Study’ (AOIS) and that was designed to study 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 by now it could have been established and agreed that what Britain would in future require would be a multi-mission aircraft (MMA) that could be adaptable and flexible in terms of mission capability and that could be configured for both land and sea missions.

With its Boeing Sentry E-3D, Sentinel, the first of three planned Rivet Joint aircraft plus an increasing level of unmanned aerial vehicle capability Britain enjoys a relatively strong level of ISTAR capability. So it should as arguably this is the most important of all air power related roles. As has been said before, if you can’t see the enemy there is no use attempting to fight it. That is what ISTAR capability is all about. However, attempting to push mission capability by combining all the various facets of ISTAR with the separate need for strong Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability as 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 in Britain need to patrol and given wider NATO commitments, EEZ responsibilities plus the increased level of warfare and battlefield commitment resulting from increased geo-political tension the idea of moving toward multi mission capability is a step too far.

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 strong maritime patrol aircraft capability. The tragic loss of MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean and the massive international search for the lost plane highlight the need of responsible nations to maintain effective maritime patrol aircraft capability. With no suitable maritime patrol aircraft capability that could match the ageing and yet hugely successful long mission capability of the P3 Orion capability that has been retained by countries such as Australia and New Zealand we should be hugely embarrassed that if asked to assist in the search for a missing aircraft while we have brilliant satellite

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