In just a few weeks’ time, the government’s strategic defence and security review is expected to put the requirement for maritime patrol aircraft to protect the UK’s nuclear deterrent back on the list of spending priorities. With Russian submarines last year suspected of patrolling close to Faslane — the Scottish base for Britain’s Vanguard submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles — the time has come to close the gap.Economics, foodtroughism, or military requirements; which would win the day?
But the world’s defence industry is increasingly concerned that even before the government works out what the aircraft should do, the competition over who should build it has already been won.
Boeing, with its P-8 Poseidon aircraft operated by the US Navy and based on a 737 airliner, “would be considered the favourite”, said one Ministry of Defence source.
Royal Air Force crews are currently serving on US Poseidons, a decision taken after Nimrod was cancelled to maintain British expertise in maritime patrol. That, and the fact the P8 could be delivered quickly, has given Boeing a strong edge.
The global defence industry is resisting a Boeing shoo-in, however. Some of the world’s biggest defence companies last week called on Britain to pledge an open, transparent competition for a contract that could be worth £2bn.
“We need an objective capability assessment as to what the UK truly needs,” said Nicholas “Flash” Gordon, director international programmes for L-3, which is offering a variant of Bombardier’s Q400 regional turboprop aircraft against the P-8. “Is it protection of the deterrent, long range search and rescue, counter terrorism or all of these?”
Keith Muir, business development manager of Lockheed Martin, said: “We would very much like to see that it is a fair competition.”
Lockheed argues its proposal would be significantly cheaper, as it is based on converting the Hercules C-130 transporter already operated by the RAF.
Airbus, Finmeccanica, Saab and even Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries are all hoping for a chance to compete with widely differing proposals. Northrop Grumman is lobbying hard for its unmanned version, in use by the US Navy.
But there may be even more pressing political imperatives. Boeing’s rivals point out that the P-8, with barely 5 per cent of its content by value sourced in the UK, hardly fits with the government’s prosperity agenda.Well, in come the Russians to supply some clarity.
Mr Fallon was clear last week: “The government’s priority is to boost our export successes in what is an increasingly competitive [defence] marketplace.”
Lockheed claims its converted Hercules C-130 would have as much as 80 per cent UK content by value. It would also enhance the UK’s defence sovereignty by using mission systems developed in Britain for the Merlin anti-submarine helicopter, argued Mr Muir.
“Ours allows the customer more freedom through life for upgrading, without referring back to the US,” he said. “We will be able to turn that round into UK exports.”
L-3 says that up to 40 per cent of the value of its maritime patrol offer would be UK sourced, if servicing were included, and Airbus puts its British content at 50 per cent.
People familiar with Boeing’s proposal acknowledge that this is a concern for the P-8. The group is believed to be considering the addition of certain UK sourced sonar sensors to increase the proportion of British content. It could also promise to maintain and service in the UK Poseidons sold to other European countries, providing work to British technicians.
That recognition, more than any cries of foul play from defence rivals, suggests that the political mood could be shifting.
“Will jobs, growth and UK exports be one of the major drivers of the programme?”
A feather of disturbed water was all it took to reveal the presence of a Russian submarine off the west coast of Scotland.The UK made the right call.
Betrayed by its high-powered periscope, the vessel then disappeared, triggering a fruitless search that sent all manner of unwelcome messages to the Westminster Government.
Firstly, it is a reminder that the UK's armed forces lack a suitable maritime patrol aircraft after scrapping the Nimrod equivalent in 2011 and, secondly, the uncompromising message that Russia has the capacity to mount aggressive Cold War-style reconnaissance missions unhindered against Nato countries will have been noted in London.
The first issue was resolved by Nato allies sending their aircraft to Scotland to join the hunt. They included two US navy P-3 Orions, a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora and a Dassault Atlantique 2 of the French navy - but the problem of Russian aggression will be less easily resolved. Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 he has made it his business to keep Nato on its toes by using his armed forces to further Russian interests across the world.
The Prime Minister will announce a £178 billion investment in defence equipment and support over the next decade when he unveils the government’s 5 year National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security review in the House of Commons later today.They need capability now as they are reminded that they are the “UK” in the GI-UK gap.
The £12 billion uplift in funding will be focused on investments that will help to ensure the UK can respond to diverse threats in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. These will include:
Nine new Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft for maritime surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-surface ship warfare will increase further the protection of our nuclear deterrent and our new aircraft carriers. These roles require an aircraft that can carry torpedoes, as well as being fitted with a broad range of sensors, including radar and sonobuoys, which are operated from the rear of the cabin by a team of specialists. These aircraft will also provide maritime search and rescue and surveillance capabilities over land.
They have the crews to start things moving, now they just need the aircraft.
P-8A 431 might be a U.S. Navy airplane, but on the April 7 flight, the crew was from elsewhere.Just to be petty; if the UK is going to buy some P-8, can we contract build a dozen Type-26 frigates? OK, we'll build 8 if you want to be cheap.
Two Royal Air Force officers sat at the controls, and their British crew of six warfare operators — four airmen and two officers — worked the stations in the back, dropping sonobuoys and listening for the churning of a submarine.
The April 7 flight wasn’t their first attempt to take part in the competition. A flight the day before ended abruptly when smoke was smelled in the cockpit.
“It was quite frustrating to have to just turn around and land,” said Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Mark Faulds, one of the pilots.
Their luck turned 180 degrees the next day, when they spotted the periscope and tracked the submerged sub for a couple of hours, launching four simulated attacks.
“We really felt like we nailed it,” said Faulds, whose crew serves as instructors at Patrol Squadron 30. “We don’t get to operate as a crew much these days, so it’s nice to get out there and actually do the mission we’re here teaching others to do — nice to know we’ve still got it.”
Though stationed at the Jacksonville-based VP-30 and spending most of their time teaching new U.S. P-8 crews how to fly and fight, the reason Faulds and his compatriots are stationed here is to help the Royal Air Force maintain its maritime patrol tactics.
The RAF has maritime patrol crews but no maritime patrol aircraft to fly. Their last patrol platform — the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod — left service in 2010.
Since then, they’ve farmed out many of their crews overseas, to the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“We’re being called ‘seed corn,’ ” said Sgt. Steve Dixon, one of the crew’s enlisted warfare operators and a 24-year RAF veteran. “It’s wonderful that our leadership sees the value in retaining our skills, because it’s the kind of thing that’s very perishable.”
None of the crew could say what kind of aircraft the RAF might buy — or when.
American patrol pilots and operators train up and progress in their careers as individuals. But in the RAF, these crews train and stay together for much longer periods of time — a model that may have borne out in the results.
“It’s really a fantastic honor for us to even compete in the competition, let alone win,” said Faulds, whose rank is equivalent to a U.S. Navy O-4, after his crew received top honors. “It’s not like we ran away with it — from what I understand, the scoring was very close.”
For his part, Faulds credited their success to the state-of-the-art systems on the P-8. He and his team will be in the U.S. until 2016. They plan to be back next year to defend their title.
Oh and Boeing ... you need to up your game. No pics of a P-8 in RAF colors? I have to deal with a model builder for my pic? Harumph.