NOTE: the following article starts by mentioning the MOD's White Board. This is an element of the 10-years budget plan for defence, and it is important to read the following article not as a purely technical review or, worse, as a fantasy fleet exercise. This article is meant to be a realistic analys of the best way to close the Maritime Patrol Aircraft gap as part of the future investments in the 10-year budget.
It is important, as a consequence, that you have an idea of what the White Board is, and how the MOD is planning for the future financial years. If you haven't read about it, or do not remember the details, check the budget explanation.
One item i would expect to feature on the White Board at the MOD, possibly the most important piece appearing in the list, is a new, capable Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Even accepting the claim that Nimrod MRA4 was never going to be other than a budget-draining, flawed aircraft (and, to be sincere, I cannot believe it), the loss of maritime patrol capability is unjustifiable and very dangerous. The MOD was forced to admit that the Nimrod left holes all over the place, as it was a fundamental part of the military plans for eight out of the 15 security priority risks set out in the National Security Strategy and its loss “reduced our ability to conduct Strategic Intelligence gathering tasks, long range Anti-Submarine warfare [ASW], provide support to Search and Rescue, Maritime Security and power projection tasks.”
|The NAO wrote a rather honest assessment of the Nimrod gap, but was actually too kind still.|
The gap was felt during operations in the Mediterranean sea during Operation Ellamy, and US help was exploited, with the Americans providing airborne overwatch to the fleet. The lack of aircrafts to employ to track and guard the Russian navy carrier battlegroup “visiting” the UK’s shores was also rather embarrassing, and, while we won’t hear much about it, rumors have been circling about Russian submarines sneaking a bit too close to Faslane, now that there are no MPAs.
The MOD’s claim that the gap is being covered using other platforms and capabilities is just rubbish, and has been exposed as such by the NAO with the following observation:
Using other existing assets would provide a reduced capability compared with Nimrod, and diverting resources from existing tasks would have wider implications for defence. The Sentry surveillance aircraft is already at minimum crew and aircraft numbers to cover NATO commitments. Using helicopters, such as the Merlin or Lynx, would affect national commitments or training of crews for other tasks. Other alternatives are fully committed to current operations.
Not that it wasn’t evident already and we needed to hear that. The NAO statement is actually “generous” still, as the “reduced capability” actually does mean that while something can be done to drop a raft into the sea to aid Search and Rescue, and ships on the surface can more or less be tracked, there is no long range airborne capability to survey what’s going on beneath the surface of the sea.
8 Type 23 frigates (those fitted with the 2087 towed sonar) and the Merlin helicopters are all what’s left which is really up to the task of submarine-hunting and both platforms are already overcommitted as it is.
The security of the UK’s waters, shores, ports and nuclear deterrent submarines is at risk, and the ability of the Navy to set sail into dangerous waters where submarines could be in ambush has been dramatically reduced. It is very, very urgent and necessary to close these bleeding gaps, especially since even relying on allies in this area very much won’t do: NATO as a whole is short on Maritime Patrol Capability and is looking to pool what’s available to try and improve the overall situation.
A series of studies are ongoing within the MOD on how to fill the gap, and there have been insistent rumors of deep interest for the P8A Poseidon, the new US maritime patrol aircraft. At one point in 2011, a purchase was given as imminent, with the UK expected to order 5 airplanes under the guidance of Royal Navy Commodore Simon Kings.
In the facts, it was premature, as there won’t be a chance to order a new MPA before the 2015 SDSR, but it is an indication of what the thinking inside the MOD is.
An initiative to retain aircrew skills - dubbed Project "Seedcorn" – was started to place 33 UK personnel with maritime patrol aircraft squadrons in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA in 2012, and represents an in-year financial commitment worth £3.2 million.
The Seedcorn effort will continue through 2019 under current plans, but both the committee and industry have questioned its sustainability: even ensuring that british crews have their share of action oversea with allies’ own MPAs, Seedcorn will only preserve a minimum core of knowledge, and not for long. If by 2019 the UK hasn’t filled the MPA gap, giving the crew an actual purpose, a career and airplanes to fly, quick, progressive loss of hard-gained experience will be unavoidable.
It has been reported that the british pilots posted to the UK (likely to be the majority) have been involved in bringing into service the P8A Poseidon in the US Navy.
Confirmations arrived from the US: the Chief Naval Operations (CNO) has designated the Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group as lead for Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force collaboration with U.K. on Maritime Patrol issues including support of P‐8 introduction. In detail, the UK and US have agreed on non-reciprocal exchange program for sending two experienced Nimrod crews to the US for a period of at least three years. In total we are talking of, approximately, 20 aircrew (4 pilots, 6 Naval Flight Officers NFOs, 5 Aviation Warfare system operators (AWs) and 5 Electronic Warfare operators EWs). The experienced personnel, welcomed by the US Navy, will contribute to the US Navy’s work in writing tactics and doctrine for ASW operations, and they are assigned, unsurprisingly, to the squadron VX-1, currently busy in bringing the P8A Poseidon into service.
It is possible that the early figure of 33 personnel changed, as the numbers do not add up: in addition to the 20 men assigned to VX-1, the UK government said in a Written Answer in November 2011 that agreements were already in place for sending 7 men to Canada to fly on the Aurora (local variant of the P3 Orion), 6 in New Zealand, of which 5 on P3 Orions, four men in Australia on the Orions and a further 3 men in the US, 2 of which on the Orions. SEEDCORN might have expanded to around 40 men, as a consequence.
The P8A Poseidon is on track to hit Initial Operating Capability (IOC) this year, and will then replace progressively the P3 Orion, with the Full Operating Capability (FOC) planned for 2019.
Six test aircrafts have been flying for years now, in the squadrons VX-1 “Pioneers” and VX-20 “Force” and the first (low rate) production aircraft has been delivered on March 4, 2012 to the squadron VP-30 "Pro's nest" in March 2012, based on NAS Jacksonville, followed by a further four by November 2012.
In the year that has just finished, the P8A also had the first deployment outside the US, when BuNo 167956, the sixth and last test aircraft, employed by VX-1, flew to the UK and operated out of RAF Lossiemouth for the Exercise Joint Warrior 12-1. It flew 6 missions for a total of over 36 hours. More hours were collected in a deployment in Australia and in trials over the Pacific Ocean.
In addition to six test aircrafts (T-1 to T-6), all flying, and to two static fatigue test airframes (S-1 and S-2, only the second being full scale) the US Navy has already signed three successive contracts for Low Rate Initial Production: a first 1.6 USD Billion order for 6 aircrafts in January 2011, another for 7 aircrafts in November 2011 and the last, in September last year, for 11 aircrafts at the cost of 1.9 billion.
And already in January 2009 the Poseidon won its first export order, with a 2.1 billion dollar contract for 8 P8 aircrafts in “I” configuration, named Neptune. India has options for more aircrafts, and it intends to exercise them in good time, bringing the total fleet up to 24 airplanes. The first P8I was delivered on December 20, 2012.
Australia has also joined in and plans to replace its P3s with P8s in good time.
Now the US Navy is planning out how to continue the procurement of the P8 (a total of 117 Poseidon are to be procured, 108 of which are Production airframes) and it wants to move to a Multi-Year Procurement approach:
The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) intends to issue a sole source follow-on production contract to the Boeing Company for the production years FY15 through FY19 (Lots 3 through 7) P-8A Poseidon Aircraft. It is anticipated that this contract will be a five-year, fixed price type multiyear contract or multiple single year(s) if congressional multi-year contracting authority is not obtained. This procurement is for the manufacture of 72 aircraft (or other quantities as may be authorized and appropriated by Congress and/or for Foreign Military Sales) and related production support, to include special tooling and test equipment, systems engineering, production management, parts obsolescence, engineering change proposals and technical, administrative, and financial data. The Government plans to issue an Advance Acquisition Contract in FY14 for long-lead material and associated efforts supporting this procurement.
This indicates that two single annual orders are to be expected, one this year and one placed in 2014. The US Navy Reserve plans to procure 12 Poseidon to replace the P3C in its two Maritime Patrol squadrons.
The unit cost of the P8 in 2012 was $169.2 million. The airframe costs $111.43 million, the two CFM56-7B engines cost $20 million ($10 million each), and the avionics costs $31.57 million.
In 2011 the plan was to have one Fleet Replacement Squadron (with 12 aircraft) and twelve fleet squadrons (each with 7 airplanes), with the service life expected to be 25 years, but in November 2012 it emerged that basing and squadrons structure are still being decided.
As of 2012, the P8A Poseidon still suffers a number of issues and limitations, but most are expected to be removed and fixed already by the late-2013 IOC date. By 2015, when the UK could start seriously considering a purchase as part of the new SDSR, the P8A Poseidon should be a mature platform, which will be seeing its capability expanded with the first of several planned Increments.
The P-8 is, notoriously, a Boeing 737 passenger jet modified for Navy use: it has been given a weapon bay and it has been reinforced to cope with flying at extremely low altitudes over the sea.
The main sensor for the P8 Poseidon in the APY-10 radar, which is a vastly upgraded APS-137D(V)5 maritime surveillance radar and signals intelligence (SIGINT) system from Raytheon. The radar has been redesignated as AN/APY-10 in June 2006 due to the extent of the improvements and changes on earlier variants of the APS-137D system.
The radar is installed in the P-8’s enlarged nose fairing. It provides synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for imaging stationary ships and small vessels, coastal and overland surveillance, and high-resolution imaging synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) for imaging surfaced submarines and fast surface vessels operating in coastal waters. It has a color weather mode and a specialized Radar Periscope Detection and Discrimination (ARPDD) mode, for the detection of periscopes even at great distance.
The Indian variant, P8I, includes an additional Air-Air mode for the APY-10, which enables the tracking of airborne contacts as well. Another improvement present on P8Is is the presence of an aft-mounted, aft-looking APS-143C(V)3 Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) from Telephonics that, together with the APY-10, ensure 360 degree coverage. In addition, an interleaved weather and surface search capability has been added to provide the cockpit with up-to-date weather avoidance information while performing surveillance missions.
Northrop Grumman supplies the P-8's electronic warfare self-protection (EWSP) suite, which includes the Terma AN/ALQ-213(V) electronic warfare management system (EWMS), directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) set, radar warning system, and BAE Systems countermeasures dispenser. The Northrop Grumman ESM system for the P-8A has been officially designated the AN/ALQ-240(V)1.
L-3 Communications Wescam in Burlington, Ontario provides the MX-20HD digital electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) multi-spectral sensor turret. The MX-20HD is gyro-stabilized and can have as many as seven sensors, including infrared, CCDTV, image intensifier, laser rangefinder, and laser illuminator.
The P-8I for India (“Neptune”) also an advanced integrated Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) system from CAE Inc..
The US Navy plans to arm the P-8A with the MK 54 torpedo as main ASW weapon. A wide variety of anti-surface weapons, including SLAM-ER cruise missiles will also be employed. The weaponry, for a total of some 22.000 lbs (10 tons) is carried in an internal five-station weapons bay, on four wing pylons and on two centerline pylons, all supported by digital stores management allowing for carriage of joint missiles, torpedoes and mines.
Up to 120 sonobuoys are carried, and they are deployed by two reloadable rotary pneumatic launchers. The aircraft is fitted with the processing equipment and power to concurrently process data from 64 passive and 32 multi-static sonobuoys.
The P-8 has a nine-person crew: pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, five mission crew at five mission consoles, a relief pilot and a in-flight technician. The consoles have dual 24 inch ultra-high definition screens, and there is space for growth, with room for a total of seven consoles, so that two can be fitted in future either for new uses and roles or just for workload sharing.
The P8 Poseidon has a 6 hours mission endurance at a range of 1100 km from the base, and 4 hours at a 2000 km range. Surprisingly, the P8 is built with a fuel receptacle that can be used to refuel in flight from boom-equipped tankers such as the USAF’s ones, but it does not have a probe to refuel from drogue-tankers, used by most NATO allies in addition to the US Navy itself (chartered, civilian-owned tankers from Omega services) and to the US Marines (KC130J tankers).
The P8A also employs a new hydrocarbon sensor to detect fuel vapors from diesel-electric submarines.
|Awesome cutaway from Flight International|
The Poseidon is the only maritime patrol platform in the world that promises comparable capabilities to those that would have been delivered by the Nimrod MRA4. The Nimrod would have been an absolute world leader, beating the P8 in every aspect, from the number of sonobuoys (150 against 120) to the number of weapon bay stations (9 vs 5) to, more importantly, sensors fit and, crucially, mission range and endurance.
Unfortunately, the Nimrod MRA4 is now gone, and the P8 is by far the best option among those available on the market. More importantly still, it has the potential to steadily grow more and more capable, expanding its reach in a number of roles as we’ll see. Crucially, while the Nimrod would have been a tiny fleet of 9 flying eccentricities, unseen elsewhere in the world, the P8 is supported by a huge fleet of civilian 737 and is also going to be in service in well over a hundred units with the US Navy alone, with perhaps as many as 24 in India, with more active in Australia and with more nations possibly to join in.
Keeping a british fleet of P8 airplanes flying and keeping their technology up to date would be immensely easier than going alone on the Nimrod path.
The P-8A was designed from the outset to incorporate additional “spiral development” of new weapons and equipment, and in the current plan the first such evolutional step is known as Increment 2. It should become operational around 2016, introducing important acoustic and communications upgrades. In addition, Increment 2 is also expected to introduce a new delivery method for ASW stores which is intended to eliminate the need for the MPA to fly low over the waters.
Torpedoes still have to be released from low altitude, from 500 to 100 feet or less above the waves. Launches from higher altitudes would damage or destroy the current torpedoes, as they aren’t meant to survive the hard impacts with the sea’s surface that would be inevitable.
There are obviously downsides to this: for the maritime patrol airplane, flying low over the water is expensive in terms of fuel and stress on the airframe. In addition, flying low and steady to drop a torpedo makes the airplane vulnerable to enemy reaction: in recent time interest in submarine-launched anti-air missiles is on the rise, and in the near future such systems might well become a concern.
The most advanced offering in terms of Sub-Air missile is Germany’s IDAS, but there are other examples: France’s DCNS proposes a modern day mast-mounted Mistral missile launcher, which very much reminds of the much older (1972) british experimentation with the HMS Aeneas diesel-electric submarine. The Aeneas, already back then, was fitted with an extendable mast which included a cluster of 4 to 6 Shorts Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles and the optics to aim them against enemy helos and aircrafts from periscope depth.
|HMS Aeneas, the very special "SSG72", fitted by Vickers with the SLAM missile system. Demonstrating successfully in 1972 what DCNS is proposing today!|
The selection of the 737-based P-8A Poseidon means that the US Navy needs to act on these problems, especially since the P-8A can perform low swoops if necessary, but its airframe is optimized for cruising at altitude. A wish to extend the useful life of the hard-worked P3 Orion aircrafts also contributes to the urgency for action.
The US Navy is, as a consequence, pursuing a way to launch torpedoes from high altitude, possibly also reducing the need for the aircraft to maneuver and turn to a suitable release point by having the torpedo itself navigating to the splash point. With the airplane no longer required to carry out complex maneuvers and turns at low altitude, the useful life of the airframe obviously is protected, and the airplane can serve for a longer time, undergoing less stress. Here comes into play the HAAWC (High-Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapons Concept), a program to take the US standard light torpedo, the MK54, and give it wings.
Lockheed Martin puts forward the LongShot wing adapter kit: it enables the torpedo to glide on a range well in excess of 10 nautical miles and is also said to enable "off axis" launches so the aircraft doesn't have to maneuver to reach a precise splash point over a contact, but can immediately attack even if badly positioned.
LongShot is described as a low-cost, self-contained wing kit, which is available for use on a variety of weapons, from bombs to cluster bomb dispensers and even sea mines. It includes a flight control computer, a GPS-based navigation system, and its own power source. Depending on the weapons it is attached to, and other factors, range can reach the 50 nautical miles.
Importantly, the LongShot does not require a MIL-STD-1760 interface, or even an electrical interface with the aircraft. This means that the system is particularly platform-agnostic and easily compatible and integrable on a wide range of aircraft, even older ones that would not normally be capable to drop GPS-guided bombs. This is important because it means LongShot does not require expensive, complex and time-consuming re-wiring of the aircraft and/or modifies to the interfaces of the onboard systems. LongShot can get the targeting information from a laptop computer or through an in-aircraft knee pad device that plugs into the aircraft intercom and establishes two-way communication with LongShot via the aircraft’s UHF radio. Integration of the system, in other words, promises to be extremely simple and quick.
Similarly, the LongShot wing kit is very simple to attach to the torpedo: the connection consists of two metal bands, that a device internal to LongShot forces open when the wing kit GPS confirms that the splash point has been reached. This means that the torpedo is maneuvered into the right altitude and position by the gliding wings, and is then released normally, as it was the airplane doing a traditional launch. The torpedo thus requires little to no change at all.
An HAAWC Mk54 torpedo was successfully demonstrated and launched at the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) in the Bahamas. The torpedo was launched from the weapon bay of a P3 Orion flying at 8000 feet of altitude, and it navigated its way to the release point, dropping the ordnance in the water as planned.
|LongShot kit on MK54 torpedo|
Raytheon also has its own proposal, the Fish Hawk, which is very similar in concept. The addition of a data-link to any of these two systems would allow constant upgrade of the splash point, ensuring the torpedo enters the water as close as possible to the target. Retargeting would also become possible.
|Fish Hawk kit from Raytheon|
A Wingkit for sonobuoys could follow, and there has been talk of giving the P8A the capability to deploy a number of air launched UAVs: Boeing has been contracted to develop such a UAV, and came up with a Scan Eagle derivative the MagEagle Compressed Carriage, which in theory can be readied for several launch modes, including from capsules fired out of submarine VLS tubes. The MagEagle could also be armed with guided submunitions, and following launch from the aircraft could be recovered by a surface ship fitted with the ScanEagle recovery wire. A MAD-fitted variant (MAD Eagle Compressed Carriage, MECC) deployed from P8A Poseidons is meant to replace the capability of the missing aircraft-mounted MAD. The use of a drone allows the Poseidon to stay at altitude, as part of the “High Altitude ASW” concept of operations, which is expected to be implemented with Increment 2, going live in the fleet in early 2016. This suggests that both the MECC and the HAAWC should be validated and put in service by then.
As a baseline, P8A will enter service with Level 2 interface with UAVs, which means the Poseidon is fully able to receive imagery and data directly from UAVs. With time, this will grow to Level 4 control, which means full control of the UAV and its payload, save for the take-off and landing phases.
|Adding a Data Link to the wing kit of the torpedoes would make possible another big increase in capability, allowing corrections and retargeting up to the splash point|
The P8A will make great use of sonobuoys to detect enemy submarines. A major improvement to sonobuoys is, as a consequence, planned: this is the Multi-Static Active Coherent, which is to be the main wide-area acoustic search system for the Poseidon. MAC works exploiting two different types of sonobuoy (source and receiver) and the onboard processing system.
MAC is an upgrade to the Navy’s current Improved Extended Echo Ranging (IEER) system, which employs non-coherent sources to produce loud sounds that reflect off submarine targets; these echoes are then detected by receiver buoys.
MAC employs the same receiver buoys, but uses new coherent source buoys that enables multiple pings, optimized waveforms, and various ping durations, none of which the legacy IEER system provided.
MAC will begin operational testing on P3 Orions early this year, and integration activities for putting MAC on the P8 have begun in late 2012.
An even more relevant capability insertion is the Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS), a powerful surface surveillance and target tracking radar. The AAS is a black program, classified: while some contracts and news have been disclosed, there is little publicly available data, and no visible budget nor technical reports. The new sensor, however, is said to be extremely capable, and there are proposals to use it, on P8 airframes, to produce a replacement for the E-8C Joint Stars of the USAF.
This new surface search and track radar is in itself the successor to another “black” radar system, the Raytheon APS-149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS), which flies on a number of P3 Orion airplanes and only became known to the public in 2006, when Boeing was authorized to reveal the results of a simulation that saw a LSRS-fitted airplane (almost certainly an Orion) provide targeting data for a F/A-18, which was able to fire a SLAM-ER missile and hit a moving simulated missile launcher vehicle. The LSRS is a wide-aperture, Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) sensor designed for targetting-grade tracking of moving targets on land and at sea and to provide radar images of those targets to intelligence analysts. The P3 fitted with LSRS have been flying in support of land operations in the war against terrorism, reportedly due to its “groundbreaking” capability to track targets smaller than cars, all the way down to insurgents moving on foot. The LSRS is assessed to be “far superior” to the older APY-7 employed on the aging J-Stars of the USAF, and the AAS is an additional step forwards. An history of the LSRS is available here.
|A P3 Orion seen with the LSRS "canoe" mounted under the fuselage. The AAS will be externally very similar, and will be installed in the same way on P8A.|
On July 31, 2009 Raytheon was awarded a multi-year contract to begin development of the Advanced Airborne Sensor. In August, a second contract followed: worth $25 million, this was a contract modification awarded to Boeing to update avionics interface documentation for the P-8A Poseidon to clear the way for installation of the AAS.
In February 2012 Boeing received a $277 million contract the T-1 Poseidon test aircraft for aerodynamic and structural tests of the AAS radar pod. The intention of the US Navy is to purchase a number of AAS and “A kits”, which are the structural parts attached to the airplane’s fuselage to support the radar and fit them to a selected few P8s. It is suggested that 16 P3 Orion airplanes carry LSRS, so the number of P8 with AAS could be similar.
The capabilities of the P-8/AAS combination are such that Boeing is pushing for replacement of the existing, aging E-8 JSTARS fleet with a “P-8 AGS” fleet, which would be more effective, more easily sustainable and would cost possibly less than upgrading the E-8s with new engines, radars, and electronics.
AAS is useful on water as well as on land: it is meant to provide a targeting picture and guide missiles to their targets in a network, even in high-clutter, complex environment, for example in the littoral. Such a long-range, highly accurate radar guidance would make viable the proposed resurrection of the Tomahawk anti-ship, which could use in-flight updates from a P8 with AAS to strike enemy ships at extremely long range.
The AAS includes new features such as NetTrack, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to track high-value targets—for example, key insurgent personnel and their vehicles—in high-clutter environments, by using high-range resolution radar measurements.
And the AAS is what would make the P8A a formidable joint asset for the UK, not just a submarine hunter.
The US Navy’s maritime patrol capability is going to improve massively in the coming years thanks to the large P8A fleet and, crucially, to its unmanned companion, the MQ-4C Triton, also known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS), which should hit IOC in 2015. The MQ-4C Triton is a special variant of the Global Hawk High Altitude Long Endurance unmanned aerial vehicle.
The Tritons will be assigned to two Squadrons (West and East), distributed each on a Main Operating Base and on a number of Forward Operating Bases, with the MOB being the main maintenance center and having the Mission Control System.
The West Coast Squadron has its MOB at NAS Whidbey, with the drones deployed on the two Forward Operating Bases Beale AFB and Andersen AFB (Guam island).
The East Squadron has its MOB at Jacksonville, a FOB on the East Coast yet to be determined, another at NAS Sigonella in Sicily and another with the US 5th Fleet (C5F), under CENTCOM, in the Indian Ocean.
The Triton at entry in service will be capable of Surface and Air-to-ground 2D AESA radar surveillance on 360° and will also have a 360° field of view for its EO/IR turret, plus a capable AN/ZLQ-1 ESM fit. A Signal Intelligence capability is planned for insertion in 2019, and in 2021 the BAMS will also be given Robust Communications Relay and Networking capability to expand the communication lines available to surface ships and ground forces.
To help in the ASW mission, BAMS is to fitted with the same hydrocarbon sensor installed on the P8A.
The most impressive feature, however, is that the US Navy plans to build up a 65-strong fleet capable to sustain, 24 hours on 24, 7 days on 7, all year long, a constant surveillance orbit with a minimum range of 2000 nautical miles, from each of the 5 BAMS bases.
|The impressive BAMS coverage. Curious to see that the "Atlantic Gap", which so much of a worry was during the Battle of the Atlantic, is still there, even with modern technology.|
At Full Operating Capability, in 2020, it is planned that a force of 866 men will support the BAMS arm. Training for the use of BAMS is expected to be 100% delivered by simulation: BAMS aircraft will generally not be used to meet or maintain training and readiness except in early development before simulators are
delivered. The total cost per unit is $186.463 million, so it’s great capability, with a cost.
The UK can of course not afford such an investment, but the Royal Navy is said to be involved with the compilation of the list of requirements for the future SCAVENGER Medium Altitude Long Endurance unmanned air vehicle the RAF is pursuing: aircraft carrier compatibility is not going to be available, but we can at least hope that the machine coming out of SCAVENGER will have some decent capability in surveillance over the sea.
Towards a P-8K?
We should not forget that the Nimrod MRA4 itself was going to be a supremely useful joint asset, with great capability on land as well as over the waters. Its radar and sensor turret and extremely long endurance made it useful, as the MR2 proved abundantly serving over Afghanistan.
MPA aircrafts do work in support of land operations very frequently: Australian P3 Orions, among others, have been working over Afghanistan for a decade, and in these days the French are using Atlantique planes over Mali.
The Nimrod MRA4 would also added, however, more extensive and specialized capabilities, including a formidable battery of radios and communications equipment and sophisticate ELINT gear, namely the Israeli Elta EL/L-8300UK Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite, a powerful ELINT system, which would have enabled the Nimrod MRA4 to detect all sort of electronic radiations and turn them into valuable intelligence data. One operator was assigned to the ESM, and the MRA4 would always carry a “swing-role” operator on another console which could help for communications.
|The Nimrod MRA4 would have been a true world beater|
A british P-8 would have to be a joint asset, useful in a wide range of scenarios. So true this is, that the work being done to assess the MPA requirement is done under budget control of the Joint Forces Command. In the words of government, the future procurement of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft will necessarily pass through a wider study known as Air ISTAR Optimisation Strategy (AIOS):
[...] the Department currently has no defined requirement for an MPA capability. The study into Wide Area Maritime Underwater Search (WAMUS) concluded that in the near term the most appropriate solution to a potential underwater surveillance requirement was a manned aircraft, but the Department’s longer term objective is to merge as many surveillance requirements as possible into single equipment builds (e.g. radars that can operate in multiple modes and in all environments) and to further refine platform types, capabilities and numbers to achieve maximum effect at minimum cost. As such, those requirements previously covered by the Nimrod MR2/MRA4 capability are now integrated in the Air ISTAR portfolio and work is underway in the form of the AIOS to understand how these requirements can be best covered from the current and planned Air ISTAR Fleet.
The initial findings of the study will be reported to the Military Capability Board (MCB) in April 2013. Those options that appear to merit further investigation will then be developed to inform a MCB Genesis Option Decision Point prior to CSR15/SDSR15. As set out above, we will keep the Committee informed of our work in this area. In the meantime, we have investigated what military off-the-shelf capabilities exist. For comparison, generation of the AIRSEEKER airborne signals intelligence capability, replacing Nimrod R1 through an extension to the US RIVET JOINT aircraft production line, will have taken just under five years from the identification of the requirement to reaching Initial Operating Capability. Should the situation warrant it, adoption of off-the-shelf platforms, coupled with the Seedcorn personnel, could establish a capability in significantly less time.
What are the challenges, and the gains, of a possible british purchase of P8 (possible designation P-8K)?
The challenges relate, mainly, to costs. For example, due to its much shorter range and endurance when compared to Nimrod, the Poseidon would very much need to be fitted with an air refueling probe. It shouldn’t be technically nor economically unfeasible, but of course it is an additional expense that the MOD might well try to avoid, even if it means losing a good bit of capability.
Another “challenge” would be to put the LongShot or Fish Hawk wing kit on the Stingray torpedo. Again, this should be relatively cheap and straightforward, but in the current climate, nothing is cheap enough. Not adopting the US “High Altitude ASW” modus operandi would not be a wise decision for many reasons, including the much faster aging of the airframe.
At the same time, going High Altitude could well mean having no MAD if the UK does not follow the US lead on the UAV-mounted MAD.
The UK would also have to fund the integration of Stingray, and, hopefully, of other weaponry. In a “Joint” vision, the P8, like the Nimrod MRA4, should not be seen as “just” an ASW platform, but as a long range hunter-killer, capable to operate on water as on land, detecting, tracking and hitting targets of the most various nature.
With time it would be very much beneficial to integrate weapons such as Storm Shadow, SPEAR 3 and Paveway IV. The rebuilding of a long-range anti-ship capability would also very much be welcome, as the loss of Nimrod has also meant the loss of the air-launched Harpoon. With Sea Eagle having gone even earlier, the UK is currently very low on anti-ship capability.
The UK should also make sure to acquire the AAS radar and related A-kit, even if it means investing more money. This investment would give the joint forces a truly world-beating capability, useful in any scenario. In exchange, and to partially absorb the costs of the P8, the UK should withdraw from service the Sentinel R1 fleet, using the Poseidon as a replacement for it, as well as for Nimrod. This not because the Sentinel is an underperforming system or anything I’m eager to lose (who follows me knows well how I totally opposed the dumb SDSR idea of withdrawing it without replacement) but because the Sentinel can’t be of much help beyond its current intended role, despite what politicians try to sell to the public. Possibly a radar mode for surface tracking of ships could indeed be added, but there’s too few airplanes to start with, they have no ASW capability at all and they really haven’t got much margin for any kind of growth, when you consider that even the original requirement for fitting a refueling probe was dropped for weight problems.
A fleet of Poseidon aircrafts (which, also considering the inferior range compared to Nimrod, really should number no less than 9, and ideally more) can instead cover a multitude of roles, and do well in all of them:
- With AAS, it is an excellent replacement for the SAR-GMTI Sentinel R1;
- It reintroduces much needed maritime patrol capability, including the crucial ASW capability, which is the very reason why we bother with MPAs anyway;
- It provides ISTAR and precision, long range strike
As we said earlier, there is also room for growth, which could well include fitting of the Elta EL/L-8300UK Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite planned for the MRA4. I can’t think, honestly, of a more flexible and useful joint asset.
|P8A Poseidon with AAS|
Finally, and importantly, there is justified hope that the P8 Poseidon could offer some sizeable interoperability advantages, and be "cheap" by building on the logistics of the 117-strong US fleet. 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. These 3 UK planes will top the 17 US ones, creating a single, joint fleet of 20 planes to be maintained cooperatively under a Memorandum of Understanding: every 4 years, the planes will 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: Britain will be at the table to write the requirements and inform the evolution of the type.
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.
Based in Waddington, a fleet of P8s would fill a huge gap in capability that the SDSR 2010 has created, and it would make the future plans for expeditionary forces much more coherent and believable. As always, costs are difficult to estimate, but the flyaway unit cost of a P-8A for the year 2012 was $169.2 million. The cost rises to $197.8 million including support costs.
The airframe costs $111.43 million, the two CFM56-7B engines cost $20 million ($10 million each), and the avionics costs $31.57 million. This is likely not the price the UK would pay if it ordered the airplane (it would be higher, as there would be start-up costs the US Navy has already faced, and there would be national requirements such as Stingray integration, too), but it is a basis for an estimate, and is, at least, a relatively comforting figure. The total cost per unit of the P8A for the US, including development costs, is 270.240 million dollars, as of 2011.
Considering also the favorable exchange between pound and USD, it isn’t a bad deal.