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.
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.|
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.