Monday, June 6, 2011

5 P8 Poseidons for the UK?

The Nimrod-replacement study was initiated very soon after the Nimrod MRA4 destruction, and not just in the fantasy of the press: in the hearings of last month of defence chiefs with the Parliamentary Defence Committee, there were direct confirmations, by both current and past chiefs of the services, that the MOD is indeed trying to squeeze-in a replacement capability.
According to the rumors and press releases, the ASW wing would be a collaborative effort RAF-FAA, but, for the first time in decades, with the Fleet Air Arm having the dominant position, so much so that the planes will be, reportedly, FAA-marked.
Overall, it makes perfect sense: it is the RN and FAA that go chasing submarines all the time, and it is easier to restart fixed-wing ASW training within the FAA (with experience coming in through RAF Nimrod pilots acting as trainers, probably) than in the RAF, where it would be kind of out of place in the service structure. Last February, reports by Defence Management put the funding for Nimrod replacement at an as-high figure as around 1 billion pounds.
The Nimrod has provided decades of sterling service, and has been one of the most precious NATO assets, in countless cases being the first to spot and picture new URSS ships and planes in its endless patrol missions. It has also delivered on-land intelligence, EEZ surveillance, SAR support, and the Nimrod MRA4 would have been the best hunter in the world, with its almost all-encompassing sensor suite and long range.

Recent reports seem to suggest that Ellamy and other experiences post-Nimrod retirement are keeping the pressure high for a timely replacement to be rolled in: for example, the Royal Navy ships off Libya, such as HMS Liverpool, are currently relaying on the support of P3 Orions from the US forces in Sicily to have early warning about potential Gaddafi attacks, the same has been happening at home in the UK, with the fleet units participating in training exercises having no air support other than allied-supplied one. And in these years of gap coverage, (from when the MR2 were grounded early to today) russian submarine activity has been on the rise (just like their playful "aggressions" with heavy bombers forcing scrambles from Leuchars) and in at least a couple of occasions (those who got out on the press at least) SSNs of the russian navy were detected up north as they came out of Murmansk, then lost in the North Sea, and found in Scottish waters, too dangerously close to home and to the Trident base in Faslane.
This is what the general public knows, and we have to assume that the armed forces are aware of other worrisome problems caused by the gap in capability.

And now it appears that the "study" has made steps forwards: according to reports by the Herald Scotland, the MOD is seriously considering buying five american-built P8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes. (something that i have suggested quite a long time ago, curiously, and that everyone who's read my Royal Navy Future page knows)
The hope (realistic, i believe) is that the P8 Poseidon could offer some sizeable interoperability advantages, and be "cheap" by building on the logistics of the 117-strong US fleet of the plane type. Upgrades and maintenance of the new plane could be done cheaply and timely by inserting the UK planes in the scheduled maintenance plan for the US ones, exactly as will be done with the 3 UK Rivet Joint to be put in service in 2014 as Nimrod R1 replacement under the "Airseeker" programme.

The 3 Rivet Joint will be based on RAF Waddington, and up to 4 RAF crews will be trained for them at the Rivet Joint’s American home in Offut AFB, NE, deploying alongside their USAF colleagues on combined operations worldwide already from summer 2011, maintaining and expanding expertise before the planes come.

It is the maintenance aspect that is the most innovative and interesting, though, as the 3 UK planes will top the 17 US ones, creating a single fleet of 20 planes to be maintained cooperatively under a Memorandum of Understanding lasting 20 years: every 4 years, the planes will also return to prime contractor L3 Communications in Greenville, TX for a complete strip down, refurbishment, and system upgrade. What’s even more ground-breaking is Britain’s joint participation in platform improvement, under a continuous capability improvement program that is contracted until 2025, with options to extend work beyond this period. It has been suggested that some of the Nimrod R1 equipment, which was so good to beat american kit, will now be rolled in onto the joint Rivet Joint fleet, as part of this platform improvement.

This is the approach that could and should be followed for the P8 Poseidon, as it has potential to deliver massive savings, and machines always up to top specs.
The 5 Poseidons are almost certainly going to be based in Waddington, (one of the SDSR hypothesis was to close Kinloss but move the Nimrod MRA4 to Waddington, after all). 5 is not a great number, but it is far better than 0, and sufficient to ensure a more than decent round-the-clock coverage.

India has already bought 8 P8 Poseidon for USD 2.1 billions and wants to exercise an option for four more for around another billion. The UK order of five planes could thus be somewhere in the order of 800 million pounds, at today's exchange rate of 0.61 USD for UK Pound.

It would sure close one of the most worrisome gaps left in the defences of the UK by the strategic defence review.
The only question is... was any real saving delivered by cancelling Nimrod MRA4 at the stage it had reached? Acquiring and operating 5 Poseidons will really be cheap and efficient enough not to make of this decision another dumb waste of money (and of that little expertise left in the UK for military fixed wing planes of the ambitious dimensions and performances of the MRA4)?

I have both doubts and hopes. For sure, i believe this is a gap that MUST be closed soon.

The P8 Poseidon and the Nimrod MRA4

The P-8 is a militarized version of the Boeing 737-800 with 737-900-based wings, which are better suited to the very particular job of patroling the sea. Along many modifications (from the wings to the absence of windows, to the anti-ice system on the wings etc) the aircraft also includes six additional body fuel tanks, three in the forward cargo compartment and three in the rear, for extended range. These are manufactured by Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge,UK.
A P8 Poseidon of the US Navy, showing the markings and other details. We might in future see five of these in FAA markings.
The weapons store includes two hard points under each wing (for Sidewinders, Harpoon, SLAM-ER and maybe in future for Storm Shadow, as proposed/expected for Nimrod MRA4), two centerline pylons under the fuselage and five stations in a heated weapons bay for Mk54 torpedoes and mines (Nimrod had 9 stations in the weapons bay). The UK variant will of course use the Stingray and not the Mk54. The aircraft also has at its aft end three pressurised, three rotary and one free-fall launcher for sonobuoys, expendable devices that are dropped into the ocean to radio acoustic information back to operator workstations. The P8 carries 120 of them, against 80 for the P3 and 150(!) for the Nimrod MRA4.

Mission systems include computing and display systems with dual 61cm (24in) screens at five operator stations - two acoustic stations, one non-acoustic station, one tactical co-ordination and one navigation and communications station. The P-8A stations will be completely interchangeable with respect to data. "With the P-8A, an operator can sit at any of the five stations and operate any system," says Sutorius. The P8 will have a nine-person crew (exactly like Nimrod): dual-pilot cockpit, five mission crew plus relief pilot and in-flight technician.
It is fitted with workstations with universal multi-function displays, ready accommodation for additional workstations and some rest space.
The Nimrod MRA4 had seven stations, since the MRA4 had also been fitted with a powerful  Israeli-built ELTA EL/L-8300UK Electronic Support Measure, which was part of the Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capability that made the MRA4 so multimission and so special. The bi-role plane called for two tactican co-ordinators on board, an ESM station and a "spare" crewmember able to take on communications role, giving 7 consoles and 8 men. Perhaps the ELTA console can be moved on into the P8, using some of the "expansion space" available, and getting some of the capability (and investment) otherwise lost.

A cutaway good to get an idea of the internal look of the plane. There seems to be indeed space for at least two more consoles. Equipment salvaged from Nimrod MRA4 could make it into the british P8.

Sensors fit includes the AN-APY 10 radar (Nimrod MRA4 used the Searchwater 2000MR) and Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS), which is a radar follow-on to the US Navy's Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) operational on the P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Being developed by Raytheon, it is probably the best point of the plane as it is designed to provide targeting-grade tracking of moving targets on land and at sea, and is rumored to have performance standards that match or exceed the USA’s current E-8C JSTARS battlefield surveillance aircraft. Its long profile is probably why Boeing moved the P-8’s weapons bay to the back of the plane in 2003. If the E-8C JSTARS claim is any true, the P8 Poseidon will allow a painless retirement for the ASTOR Sentinel R1, since the new sensor will be even more powerful. The plane is also fitted, like Nimrod, with a magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) sensor from CAE, for the detection of submerged submarines.
Information streams on the P8 include Link 11 and Link 16 tactical datalinks, Inmarsat and the US defence department's SIPRnet as well as data from "organic" sensors including an L-3 Wescam’s MX-20HD long-range electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) surveillance turret on the belly forward of the wing. It is possible that UK planes will be fitted with the EO/IR turrets salvaged from the Nimrod MRA4 airframes, the Northrop Grumman Nighthunter turret, which had to be fitted in a retractable ball-turret under the nose. There might also be a number of L3 Wescam MX-15, since 12 were fitted to the MR2 when they were in service to enhance their SAR/RECCE capability. These turrets are likely to have already found other uses, though, included on Lynx AH9 helicopters used in Stan.
The UK patrol planes will undoubtedly get good part of the ex-Nimrod UK radios fit, which was a really impressive flying communications center, with 5 V/UHF radios with secure communications modes, 2 HF radios and SHF Satcom. Data Links are of course the same throughout NATO, so they are not a problem.

The P-8A is sized to be able to fly 2,220km (1,200nm) outbound, perform on-station for 4h and make the return trip to base. Once on station, the aircraft may have to take measures that would be considered extraordinary by airline standards, requiring changes to certain flight-control and alerting systems.
On the right forward instrument panel is an ASW tactics switch that allows the maximum commanded bank angle to increase to 45° from the usual 28°. It was also necessary to remove the normal alerts that would be issued on the civilian 737 when flying below 1,000ft (305m) with landing gear and flaps stowed! 

Hidden most of the time is an aerial refuelling port at the top of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit. Although not required for the mission profile and different from the US Navy AAR system (the USAF used the port-boom air refuelling, the US Navy uses the NATO system with hose and drogue) the navy decided to take advantage of the refuelling modifications that had been developed for the 737-based Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft programme for the Australian defence forces and kept the port.
For the UK it might be very, very interesting to fit the refueling probes removed from the Nimrod MRA4, if possible, also in consideration of the much shorter legs of the Poseidon compared to Nimrod's, which had a range of over 6000 miles and a 15 hours endurance.

A precious feature of the Poseidon is the training: the US Navy plans to prepare its crews using simulators purchased from Boeing as part of a plan to achieve a three-to-one ratio of simulator-to-live flying for training and mission simulations, meaning that the plane will fly an hour of training mission each 3 hours of simulator training, reversing the norm and significantly reducing costs. The US Navy is to have 11 full-motion cockpit simulators in Jacksonville, Florida, and nine weapons system trainers, each with five operator workstations, to simulate the on-board mission systems.


  1. Over at ARRSE there is a poster called MagicMushroom who is RAF transport pilot. Very knowledgeable guy, but very biased. He doesn't rate P8 at all because of the airframe. Me I trust the USN's judgement. Surely the USN as bigger airforce than the RAF knows its onions.

  2. Well... the only real defect of the airframe is that it was definitely not designed to work at low altitude over the sea.
    But isn't the Nimrod a converted Comet? The Comet wasn't designed to fly low on the sea either.

    I personally love the smartness of the 4 engines on Nimrod, of which all four are used to cruise and when the plane is heavy, then as fuel is consumed and the plane grows lighter one engine is turned off, then another.
    With only two engines on P8, there is no middle measure!

    But the US Navy is firmly convinced of her choice and is investing heavily on the plane. India has already bought it, Italy dreams it...
    It shouldn't be crappy, if everyone is so happy and excited about it.

    It will never be Nimrod MRA4, which really was super... but i don't think there's a better choice than P8 anywhere in the world for now.

  3. Gab, I guess the question as always is this.

    Given that we are likely to see more Challys, Tornados cut to make up a funding gap. Where is the money coming from?

  4. Actually, we are more likely to see another RFA tanker and HMS Illustrious axed in July, and there even was, according to rumors, someone idiot enough to propose retiring five Type 23s, leaving the fleet with 8 frigates.
    Provided that the frigate cut is, i believe, one of those proposals made but not even considered (thankfully) and that the new cuts are likely, but far from certain (and we all pray they do not come), i cannot answer to your question in a precise way for obvious reasons. I'd have to be the head of the Treasury to know it.

    The money is evidently coming from somewhere else: the money IS there, for the programmes that get it. Once priorities are outlined, money comes. If the Nimrod replacement has been gaining enough urgency, it will eventually come.
    It is a fact that first reports of the 1-billion replacement programme came out now months ago, and the existence of the study/programme was never played down, but always confirmed.

    I can only report what i know, and this report of the 5 Poseidon does fit in the 1 billion figure and in the other rumors very nicely.
    I do not give it as certain.
    But it is not one of those drama-stories without basis that at times come out either. We'll see, i guess.

  5. 'and it is easier to restart fixed-wing ASW training within the FAA (with experience coming in through RAF Nimrod pilots acting as trainers, probably) than in the RAF, where it would be kind of out of place in the service structure.'

    This to my mind is a bit of a odd conculsion to come to. Since you say the navy have been out of LRMP for decades, and the RAF for a just a few months, they navy haven't the experience nor any in training nor in operating LRMP. Nor the command structure to absorb it. They would be learning every single thing from scratch.

    To say you want the navy to run it from scratch is fair enough, but to say it would be easier is an odd thing to say.

  6. The Navy does ASW for a living. There's whole courses about sonobuoys and submarine chasing, and the real oddity was for the RAF to get into the business at all, duplicating the whole thing.
    The trained Nimrod crews that remain around can fill in the Navy on the differences between operating from a Merlin compared to a fixed wing plane, and then the RAF involvement with the matter should be limited to providing the base and support for the plane.
    Pilots will have to be formed from scratch anyway, and i would not want to have two schools of ASW warfare in the same armed forces, as it makes totally no sense. Moreover, at the moment, after the retiring of the Dominie, the RAF is completely bare of any training aircraft suitable for observer and rear-crew work, while the Navy king air 350er, replacement of the Jetstreams, are coming into service.

    This is a most evident case of "thank you RAF, but perhaps it is better if we do things ourselves". I actually even doubt the Nimrod crew can provide that much help at all, since whatever the outcome we'll be talking about whole new plane and systems.

  7. And by the way, the RAF is out of the ASW work from quite some time too, in reality, as the MR2 was grounded early, and the MRA4 never made it into service.

  8. If you think that the skills that the nimrod crews learnt over the years are easily transferable and it's just a small matter because the RN does ASW by other it's easy. You grossly underestimate the skills and knowledge that have been built up over the years and hugely oversimplify the matter.

    I know you don't like the RAF and think the RN does lots of things better, but with this one you're way way out of tilt with the reality.

    Yes I know that I pointed that out in the post, but it's what? a year vs decades. It's not even in the same ballpark.

  9. Might not be SO easy, but it is easier than other things done or proposed, like transferring naval aviation under RAF control. That's a century of world-leading expertise to transfer. What's left of Nimrod expertise is probably far less than you believe, besides. And probably far less relevant due to the complete change of airplane as well, which will bring massive modifications in almost every single procedure and doctrine itself.

    And anyway, it is not my idea. The plan is reportedly to have the new marittime patrol aircrafts FAA operated. I merely express my belief that it does make, for once, total sense.

  10. It might be easier but still that's not a good reason to do it beacause someone else thinks of not well thought through idea.

    Well having known people stay on Nimrods there whole career for skill reasons, it might be a lot larger than you imagine.

    The systems preposed on P-8 are the very similar to MRA4 they were built by the same company, and although very few had operational experience on it many we well drilled on the simulator and used there long experience on MRA2. There experience would be vital.

    I know, but I can't come to the same conculsion. I suppose it makes no odds either way since it would be unlikely the funds would be found for it.

  11. Ask Boeing why they want to conduct ASW from medium altitudes and see if you get a convincing answer!

    Yes the Nimrod was based upon the Comet, but the Airframe was re-designed, not modified, to perform at sea level to deliver the primary role, ASW. The boeing airframe has Mods, but it still can't operate where it needs to. All they have done is moved the risk from the Airframe to other systems. So whilst the price tag is as quoted there is still significant risk that this system will not do the job. As an example look at this.....

  12. Gabriele,

    Any further news on those P8's?
    If there is one thing that concerns me most, it's the lack of patrol aircraft.
    I think this capability gap, is the most urgent to be filled.
    The P8 seems the only affordable option.
    I my opinion, the RN should fly these planes. The RAF will just cut them in the future, to save there fast jets. The navy know's we need them!
    I don't think 5 is enough, but it's better than nothing. I think 8 would be the minumum, if the money could be found!


  13. The idea is indeed to have them FAA marked and flown, even if probably out of RAF Waddington base and with RAF support. They are pretty big for the Navy to handle alone, especially at first.

    But i've not any updated news: i hope to see an MPA budget allocation in the September Equipment Procurement document.
    For now, i can only note that the Report of the Defence Committee on the SDSR that came out in these days is very firm on calling for the MOD to establish proper gap-filling measure and inform Parliament as soon as possible about their plan for "regeneration of the capability".

    It is promising, but we'll have to wait and see. And well, 5 would be better than 0, even if 8 would of course be better still. 5 are a bit stretched to do all that work!

  14. We shouldn’t be at all surprised with the failure of the Nimrod to enter service as the MR4A. It was running quite a few years late and post Haddon-Cave who wanted to be responsible for bringing into service something that should have been scrapped years ago. Should ignore criticism about the Boeing P8A, after all the Nimrod was based on a not a very long range aircraft and things have changed significantly as far as Aircraft reliability is concerned: remember the debate in the 1980s about twin engine aircraft flying across the pond, and diversions. What is quite interesting is an article in Janes Defence Weekly (7 Nov 11) about the possibility of former RAF Nimrod crews being involved in operating the P8A. I think it already happens with the Nimrod R1 crews being involved in USAF Rivet Joint operations.

  15. Yes, with Rivet Joint it definitely is already happening. Co-manning of the 17 US Rivet Joint is already in place, so that UK crews retain their skills and learn to work with the new plane before it is deliver.

    About P8I, instead, far less is known. I had heard of Jane's reporting the crews deployment in the US.
    If it is true, it is obviously welcome as it saves skills that took years to develop... and perhaps is a first step towards acquiring P8 for the UK.

  16. Hi Gabrielle,
    I don't know if you have seen this but it may be of interest,especialy the last two lines of the statement.

    Seedcorn Initiative

    Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence (1) how many personnel are taking part in the Seedcorn initiative; what the location is of each; and with what equipment they are training; [81671]

    (2) what capabilities are being maintained through the Seedcorn initiative; [81672]

    (3) what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of the Seedcorn initiative in each of the next five years. [81673]

    Mr Gerald Howarth: The Seedcorn initiative will sustain the Ministry of Defence (MOD)'s capability to operate high level fixed-wing Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and maintain the associated skills of its personnel. Qualified RAF aircrew will be on exchange with a variety of Allied MPA forces, where they will maintain their anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, long-range search and rescue, and Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) skills.

    The estimated cost of the initiative on average is £2.4 million per year for the next five years; this includes salary and allowances.

    Retaining skills and MPA knowledge is vital if the United Kingdom is to be in a position to regenerate our own MPA capability at some point in the future.

    The number and location of personnel and equipment to be used is as follows:
    Aircraft Number of personnel


    Royal Canadian Air Force Greenwood

    CP-140 Aurora


    New Zealand

    Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Whenuapai

    P-3K Orion/P-3K2 Orion


    Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Ohakea

    Beech King Air B200



    Royal Australian Air Force Base Edinburgh

    AP-3C Orion


    United States

    Naval Air Station Norfolk

    Non-flying appointment related to maritime operational staff duties.


    Naval Air Station Patuxent River

    P3C Orion


    Additionally, discussions are ongoing with the US Navy on an exchange initiative for fully qualified RAF aircrew to support the US P-8A Poseidon programme.

  17. Thank you michael!

    I had heard about this, and i must have mentioned the news in a recent post or two, but i had not accessed the detailed summary you put up here.

    And yes, it is definitely relevant and promising.
    Hopefully, investment for a replacement MPA will be a high-priority consideration as part of SDSR15, if not of some Planning Round spending earlier than that.

    The problem, of course, is finding the money: we are talking of quite big (even if not huge) amounts of money that have to be found and committed.
    And the budget is severely strained as it is.

  18. Gabriele,
    Yes agreed that money is the problem (as always) but I am quite hopefull. The MOD a few weeks ago comitted £1bn to the upgrade of warrior with all the new systems etc,the first one not to be delivered until 2018 so it would appear they are taking a long term look which although not ideal is sensible in the circumstances.
    If the same is done with the MPA we could get a slot in the production line (if it's Poseidon) the later aircraft should have all the teething problems sorted and we should be able to plan the finances better.
    I can't see MOD going to this all this effort with 'Seedcorn' unless something is in the pipline.

  19. I agree with your general sentiment, Michael.
    The MOD is aware of the bleeding hole that retiring Nimrod MRA4 left, and the service chiefs have been pretty clear that there are many things that currently simply cannot be done.
    I think MPA is recognized as an urgent necessity.

    But even so, well. I don't feel like making forecasts: we'll have to see what comes out of it.


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