A very much recommended read on the MPA problem is the Defence Research Paper written by Wing Commander S. Austin, Royal Air Force. I heartily suggest that everyone reads it.
I will quote a few extremely relevant passages of the document, and its conclusion , as they represent a perfect, brief but powerful summary of what is also my own opinion on the matter:
Discussions with PJHQ staff have identified that the UK faces a number of capability gaps against the ‘full spectrum defence capability’ which is deemed necessary to carry out the seven military tasks identified in the SDSR. These include the maritime patrol and carrier-strike capabilities already discussed, a gap in the UK’s signals/electronic intelligence (SIGINT/ELINT) capability due to the retirement of the Nimrod R1, a lack of Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) capability, and the inability to conduct Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR). Of these, the requirement for maritime security is the only one which is required all-day, every-day, regardless of whether the UK is engaged in hostilities or not. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that SEAD and JPR capabilities will only be required during intervention operations which are likely to be discretionary and/or conducted as part of an alliance, whilst the replacement capabilities for SIGINT/ELINT and carrier-strike are fully-funded and will enter service in 2014 and 2020 respectively. It is therefore concluded that the lack of a wide-area maritime patrol capability is the most significant gap, and that the regeneration of this capability should be the highest priority for UK defence. Whilst there is still enormous financial pressure on the Government, the MOD has reportedly balanced the budget, not only securing those capabilities already identified for Future Force 2020, but also including an ‘additional £8bn of funding over the next ten years which is unallocated...to respond to emerging equipment requirements.’
It is therefore recommended that serious consideration is given to filling the gap left by the MRA4 which, ironically, was scrapped to save just £2bn over ten years. Unfortunately, it is likely that the recent decision by the Government to revert to the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and not fit the new carriers with ‘cats and traps’ will be detrimental to any decision on future maritime surveillance in two ways. First, whilst the SDSR did not state that the UK no longer needed an MPA capability, just that the MRA4 would not be brought in to service, any decision to subsequently procure an MPA will be portrayed as another Government U-turn; having recently made a U-turn over the JSF, this is now even more unlikely, at least before the next SDSR. Second, the lack of ‘cats and traps’ severely restricts future options for carrier-based maritime surveillance and/or patrol, be that manned or unmanned.
New technologies are becoming available which will assist in the maintenance of maritime situational awareness. For example, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a transponderbased tracking and identification system fitted to ships which works by electronically exchanging data directly with other nearby vessels and shore-based stations or, more recently, indirectly via satellite. The AIS transponder transmits the vessel’s position, course and speed, as well as other data such as the ship’s, name, flag state and destination. Primarily aimed at collision avoidance, the system can also be used to assist with maritime security. NATO is currently developing algorithms which will monitor the AIS feed and automatically identify abnormal activity. However, there are limitations with AIS and it would be foolish to become over-reliant on such technology alone. First, it is not mandatory for AIS to be fitted to vessels less than 300 gross tonnage which leaves a sizeable void in the maritime picture. Second, other than navigational information, the data transmitted simply reflects that put into the system by the crew and provides little insight into the actual cargo being carried or the crew’s intent. A clear example of the vulnerability of the system occurred in July 2009 when the Russian cargo vessel Arctic Sea ‘disappeared’ after transiting thought the English Channel. The official Russian investigation claims the vessel was previously hijacked off the coast of Sweden and forced to sail to Africa; the counter-view is that this story itself is a cover for illegal weapons-smuggling by Russia. Either way, the vessel passed through the English Channel without suspicion before switching off its AIS, and then remained undetected for three weeks until intercepted by a Russian frigate off the Cape Verde Islands.[...]
Therefore, for the foreseeable future, no combination of satellite or Remotely Piloted Vehicle/Hybrid Air Vehicles technology can provide a cost-effective or even practicable alternative to the capability provided by a manned MPA; even the US, with the most advanced satellite and RPV technology in the world, is still spending over $25bn on a fleet of 117 new P-8 Poseidon MPA.
Fundamental to the regeneration of this capability will be appropriate sponsorship and ownership of the requirement, which has traditionally sat across a number of ‘desks’ within MOD. This is exacerbated by current military doctrine, which barely recognises that the air domain needs to be utilised for effective maritime patrol. For example, British Maritime Doctrine (JDP 0-10) barely mentions the use of the air domain for the conduct of wide-area maritime operations. Similarly, whilst AP3000123 defines the fundamental roles of air power, the description of ‘intelligence and situational awareness’ is focused entirely on the land environment, whilst the description of ‘attack’
includes just a single sentence on each of the ASW and ASuW roles. Within AP3002124, the emphasis remains clear; twenty pages are devoted to counter-land operations, whist counter-sea attracts just a single paragraph. Sadly, this reflects the neglect and lack of investment that has befallen the role of maritime aviation for many years, and was almost certainly a contributing factor to the decision to scrap the MRA4. Unfortunately, a review of the written evidence provided to the HCDC by ex-senior officers reveals that whilst there is unanimous agreement that the withdrawal of MPA capability has resulted in significant gaps which should not be accepted, single-Service bias is clearly evident in some of the proposed solutions.
Therefore, if the UK is going to consider the case for the regeneration of a wide-area maritime patrol capability in the 2015 SDSR timeframe, the first challenge is to ensure that the capability does not, once again, fall between the cracks of single-Service in-fighting. Which Service ‘owns’ or ‘operates’ the future capability is far less important than ensuring that the UK actually has the capability at all. The UK should therefore start with the cross-Government development of a UK Maritime Security Strategy which, as this paper has outlined, will confirm the specific importance of the maritime environment to the UK national interest and the threats which the maritime environment presents. This will direct the cross-Government requirement for maritime situational awareness which, when combined with the military capabilities required to conduct ASW and ASuW, will determine which aircraft provides the most cost-effective solution and how this should be integrated into the force mix.
[My note: the lack of any apparent interest for counter-sea missions is evident not just in lacking doctrine but, obviously and consequently, in the equipment and capabilities. Example of this situation is the lack of any anti-ship missile beyond the ancient Harpoons of the Type 23s and the also obsolescent, small Sea Skua missile, helicopter launched. British submarines lost their sub-launched Harpoon variant already in 2003, and the last remains of air-launched heavy anti-ship capability vanished along with the Nimrod]
Given the UK’s vulnerability to maritime threats, which will only increase as the capability gap endures, and the limited window of opportunity to exploit the retention of maritime skills afforded through the ‘seedcorn’ initiative, it is the conclusion of this research paper that the regeneration of a sovereign MPA capability should be the highest priority for UK defence and national security.
Given the current financial constraints, and the Governments recent U-turn on the carrier strike capability, such a decision is not realistic before the next SDSR in 2015. However, much can be achieved in the meantime; for example, a holistic agreement of the capability required for UK maritime security, both within the MOD and across Government, will ensure that this vital capability does not, once again, fall between the gaps of single-Service in-fighting. Fundamental to this will be the clear articulation of the requirement for maritime patrol within joint doctrine, and appropriate ‘ownership’ of the requirement, potentially utilising the newly created Joint Forces Command.
The current position resulting from the decision to scrap the MRA4 was succinctly captured in written evidence provided to the HCDC following the SDSR:
‘...the SDSR has accepted inappropriate capability gaps which we believe cannot
stand. We are confident that they will be changed before the next defence review in
2015: they will be changed either by courageous decision and frank admission of error or they will be changed more cruelly by events, with all the risk which that implies.’
It can only be hoped that the inappropriate capability gap with respect to wide-area maritime patrol is changed by courageous decision, before events conspire to prove beyond doubt that the gap accepted as a ‘tolerable risk’ was indeed a ‘gamble which did not pay off’.
Please, when you have some time on your hands, follow the link and read the document to be given a very clear explanation of why the MPA gap needs to be closed, with the maximum urgency.
As should be entirely clear by now, i firmly believe that a capable Maritime Patrol Aircraftis the first priority of SDSR 2015.
Notoriously, there are a number of Off the Shelf MPA solutions from which we could choose, but in my opinion, most do not properly respond to the needs of the UK, as long as the foreign policy of the country remains as global and as muscular as it is. The armed forces clearly need to be built to operate far away from home, so whatever MPA solution is chosen it must offer the greatest possible mission range and endurance.
Ultimately, i believe the most interesting possible solutions are two: the P8A Poseidon and the Sea Hercules.
I've already written extensively about the P8, with the most up to date information being condensed in this paper.
In this occasion i'll only summarize the reasons i see to pursue a Poseidon solution:
- The Poseidon has a large planned production run. 117 for the US alone, plus more for India and Australia. It will have the formidable backing of the USN, and this gives the UK the possibility to negotiate an agreement resembling the one signed for the Rivet Joint fleet: the UK's 3 Rivet Joints are supported as if they were part of the US fleet (of 17). This means a virtual single fleet of 20 aircrafts, which all get stripped down, refurbished and upgraded at regular intervals of four years. The UK sits at the table and is part of the decision making process on how to upgrade the system, on what capabilities to integrate and what improvements should be pursued.
A similar deal is particularly advantageous for the UK, as it ensures significant efficiencies and, moreover, a constant growth of the platform's capability, which keeps the pace of the US equivalent.
For the P8 it would be a bit more complex as the UK would, of course, want to integrate its own weaponry (Stingray torpedo first of all) but this should not be a show stopper.
- The Poseidon is a modern platform looking to the future. High altitude ASW operations, stand-off engagement of targets with gliding torpedoes and advanced technology for the detection of dangerous, silent diesel-electric subs is already on the way, to keep the platform relevant for many decades to come, even as new threats emerge such as submarine-launched anti-air missiles, which seem to be likely to become a real nightmare for low-flying ASW platforms in a not distant future.
- The Poseidon is not just a Maritime Patrol Aircraft. The US is developing for it a new powerful surface surveillance radar, the Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS). This huge podded radar, superior to even that used on the J-STARS, would make the P8 a more than suitable replacement not just for Nimrod, but for the Sentinel R1 as well, which could then be replaced without loss of capability, helping to finance the MPA purchase.
|Concept art of a P8A Poseidon fitted with the long pod of the AAS radar system.|
The main problem of the Poseidon solution is the high cost. Secondarily, the Poseidon would require
an integration campaign to add british systems (the Stingray at the very least). It would also be more than desirable to add a refueling probe (the P8A as of now only has a USAF-style fuel receptacle) to make it capable to refuel from RAF and NATO tankers.
The Sea Hercules made the news for the first time in 2011, when UK's Marshall first proposed to develop an MPA variant of the C130J, installing equipment taken from the Nimrod. In more recent times, Lochkeed Martin has started to market a more ambitious and detailed solution, which, it has been reported, has been offered to potential customers, including the UK.
|The original Sea Hercules proposal by Marshall|
The SC-130J Sea Hercules is an interesting proposal, albeit one that exists only on paper, at the moment.
The airplane would be fitted with radar, chin-mounted EO/IR turret, digital MAD boom, ESM, palletized rotary sonobuoy launchers, consoles for five mission operators and a mission system shaped on the proven SOA already flying today on the P-3 Orion. Under the wings, the Sea Hercules would have two large external fuel tanks and two pylons for the carriage of up to four Harpoon-class anti-ship missiles.
For the carriage of anti-submarine torpedoes, LM proposes the development of "sponsons" to be fitted to the fuselage, each containing, in an environmentally controlled bay, 3 torpedoes. The mission range and endurance is good, and exceeds that of the legacy P-3 Orion. Lochkeed Martin details that the Sea Hercules (with an unspecified mission payload of weapons and sonobuoys, though) would have an endurance of 4 hours at a range of 1325 nautical miles (against 4 hours at 1200 nautical miles for the P-3), or 8.3 hours at 940 nm, or 11.1 hours at 462 nm.
|The current Sea Hercules improves radar integration, adds two under-wing pylons for anti-ship missiles and conformal sponsons containing environmentally controlled weapon bays for torpedoes. @Lochkeed Martin|
The attractive things about the Sea Hercules are:
- The cost, both of acquisition and through life. There is no doubt that a Sea Hercules would cost a lot less than a P8 for hour of flight. Initial acquisition costs should also be much lower. Besides, it is an airplane the RAF already knows very well, with logistics already well established and with refueling probe already installed and working.
- The possibility that the existing RAF C130J airframes could be life-extended and fitted with the MPA kit, lowering even more the cost of the solution. Marshall, in the UK, could be part of the project, covering the life extension intervention and perhaps having a part in the installation of the mission systems. It might also be involved in the design of the sponson weapon bays.
- The retention of a number of C130J airframes for the MPA role could give renewed strenght to the rumored request of the Director Special Forces to retain a number of Hercules in the long term for the execution of future special operations, for which the A400 is apparently seen as unsuited because too large and too precious to risk so deliberately. While mainting a tiny number of C130s for the sole special forces wouldn't be cost effective, the preservation of a larger fleet of C130s busy in the two different roles would be much more realistic.
|The Sea Hercules internal arrangements and mission endurance. Images Lochkeed Martin, text is mine.|
There are problems regarding a Sea Hercules proposal as well, though. For example, while the C130J is currently expected to be in service worldwide out to 2045, there are risks that the type will age and progressively become less common and, as a consequence, less well supported.
In addition, while LM has great experience in putting complex, modular mission systems on C130s (the Harvest Hawk gunship kit for the USMC being a good example), they have not yet attempted anyhing quite as ambitious as the ASW full kit. The conformal weapon bays in particular would have to be developed from a clear sheet of paper, so that there are risks.
Moreover, the attractive option of using the C130J airframes that the RAF already owns could not be valid if the hard-worked aircrafts are assessed to be too worn out to make it cost-effective to life-extend and modify them.
The Sea Hercules modular's nature could allow the UK to select its own sensors and equipment, even re-using ex-Nimrod kit, but differently from what would reasonably happen with the P8, the UK might be more or less alone in the future when trying to upgrade and keep relevant a platform that, effectively, is born old under many aspects. Such long-term expense might prove too much for the UK alone.
These factors should be considered by the MOD in a honest, in-deep assessment of the possibilities. The Sea Hercules, at first glance, seem to offer excellent capability at a cost which is potentially extremely low compared to other alternatives, starting with the P8.
The retention of C130J as a MPA platform would also make it easier for the Special Forces to obtain the preservation of a few aircrafts in "Project Hermes" configuration, to serve as SOF flying taxi, while the A400 Atlas takes up the standard airlifiting job. This would help improve the insufficient tactical air transport capability as well.
Project Hermes is about moving the special forces gear (EO/IR turret, countermeasures, radios...) from the old SF C130K onto the newer C130Js. The programme is unfortunately very late compared to the original schedule, because the Block 7 software upgrade for the C130J would not arrive. Finally, a RAF Block 7 aircraft is expected to fly this summer, signalling a much needed step in the right direction, especially since the last 8 remaining C130Ks have had their Out of Service date delayed, but only out to October.
On the other hand, the P8 is more modern and more forward-looking, and comes with the potential for very advantageous collaboration with the US. While the P8 would have no part in improving the tactical airlift capability, it would still deliver additional services along the much needed maritime ISTAR: fitted with the AAS radar, the P8 would fully replace the capability provided by the Sentinel R1 and indeed exceed it by a huge margin, allowing a consolidation of manned ISTAR platforms on fewer types.
In the future, besides, challenges lay ahead over the replacement of the aging E3D Sentry and also of the Rivet Joint. The P8 airframe might very well expand into those roles too.
Both platforms have a lot of merits. Probably, however, if the Sea Hercules could realistically be delivered at a really low cost, it would be the choice of the MOD. And it would not be bad at all.