Very well publicised as it has been, the arrival later today of the first of what will eventually be a fleet of nine Royal Air Force Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-role maritime patrol aircraft to its temporary home at Kinloss Barracks in Scotland will be greeted by a great many attending this important event with great cheer.
Over nine years since an ill-advised decision was taken by the then Coalition Government to gap UK maritime patrol aircraft capability, the arrival of the first P-8A Poseidon aircraft at the former RAF Kinloss airbase comes not a moment too soon.
On completion of the £132 million state of the art new strategic facilities at RAF Lossiemouth and that comprise tactical operations centre, operational conversion unit, squadron accommodation, training and simulation facilities along with a three-bay hangar for aircraft maintenance and also, completion of runway resurfacing, all planned RAF P-8A Poseidon aircraft will be permanently based at nearby RAF Lossiemouth.
With an array of sensors that allow crews to deliver important undersea intelligence information to Royal Navy ships including the two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers together with identifying and tracking surface and sub-surface vessels that include Russian submarines that have been seen in increasing numbers since the UK abandoned maritime patrol aircraft capability makes this is a very significant day for UK defence.
Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft are already well proven in service in the US Navy and which, when all planned aircraft have been delivered, will have a total 122 aircraft. As sophisticated submarine-hunters designed to scout a vast range of complex undersea threats, the capability that P-8A capability has is unsurpassed.
The UK Government is investing a total £3 billion to acquire the nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft from Boeing. Meanwhile, Norway which is another very important NATO ally, has also committed to acquire five similar P-8A aircraft. UK and Norwegian defence priorities are fully aligned in respect of the North Atlantic and both nations, through what is being termed as an integrated partnership designed to meet common challenges within the realm of maritime security, will share basing facilities.
Through a joint training programme with the US Navy known as ‘Project Seedcorn’ formed in 2012 and that was initially designed to allow RAF crews to maintain vital maritime patrol aircraft skills in advance of the possibility that we might eventually acquire Poseidon aircraft capability means that as soon as the new facilities at RAF Lossiemouth are completed the UK can once again begin to play out the important maritime patrol aircraft role.
The ability to have been able to retain core maritime patrol aircraft skills and that have allowed approximately 33 Royal Air Force MPA personnel to work with the US Navy based at the US Navy’s Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Florida and which I myself visited in 2016 has been hugely important. Training has included pilots and aircrews but also ground crews and support personnel.
Born originally from a Royal Air Force study entitled ‘Air ISTAR Optimization Study’ (AIOS) published in 2014 and that looked at the UK’s intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance fleet that then included the quite excellent RAF Raytheon Sentinel R1 capability, planned Rivet Joint Air Seeker capability needed to the already retired Nimrod R1’s, Sentry E3-D AWACS plus superb Shadow R1 intelligence gathering capability, the urgent need for restoration of wide-area maritime surface and sub-surface surveillance was brought to the fore and led to what was then termed as a requirement for Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) capability that could be configured for the land or sea and other wide surveillance mission requirements. The analysis was followed by a second stage AIOS study which looked at priorities, potential requirements, and options in order to mitigate “capability gaps and shortfalls” and this in turn led to a decision taken within SDSR 2015 to restore UK Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability.
Apart from the now retired fleet of short duration Royal Navy Sea King Mk 7 ASaC anti-submarine helicopters, full Maritime Air Surveillance capability and long-range fixed wing anti-submarine warfare capability had until 2010 been provided by the Royal Air Force using Nimrod MRA2 aircraft. This capability had been due to be replaced by the revamped MRA4 aircraft (new wings, engines and internal electronic warfare reconnaissance capability) but the decision to scrap the development in SDSR2010 led to the UK taking what would in essence be a nine-year gap in MPA capability.
MPA capability can be regarded as being facilitated within a long duration aircraft that is able to search electronically and physically and in terms of full capability, meet wide-area maritime surface and sub-surface search capability requirements. Apart from providing wide-area search capability the aircraft would also be used in anti-piracy, counter drugs/smuggling, counter terrorism and of course, anti-submarine warfare. Undoubtedly the loss of MPA since 2010 has had a serious impact on the Royal Navy’s ability to know where enemy submarines might be. I would add here that, as the search for the missing crew of the Cheeki Rafiki yacht subsequently proved, that a maritime nation like Britain no longer possessed fixed-wing aircraft capability able to provide long-range search and rescue support, was an embarrassment.
Maritime Surveillance airplane capability and fixed wing anti-submarine warfare capability was previously provided by the Royal Air Force using Nimrod MRA2 aircraft and that were due to be replaced by the revamped MRA4 aircraft (new wings, engines and internal electronic warfare reconnaissance capability) before these were scrapped in SDSR2010. MPA is basically an aircraft with long duration that can search electronically and physically and in terms of capability, also meet wide area maritime surface and sub-surface search capability requirements. Apart from wide area search and rescue, MPA aircraft capability would also be used in anti-piracy, counter drugs/smuggling, counter terrorism and anti-submarine warfare.
The loss of such capability undoubtedly had a serious impact on the Royal Navy’s ability to know where enemy submarines might be. It may also be said to have also been very damaging that, as a maritime nation, Britain has no fixed wing aircraft capability for search and rescue missions.
CHW (London – 4th February 2020)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785