P-8 THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR THE UK?
While some see acquisition of the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft as a win for the RAF, others argue that it’s too costly and the nine on order too few. Justin Bronk and Jon Lake argue the respective cases.
A P-8A assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 4 ‘Skinny Dragons’ flies near Mount Baker, Washington during a training exercise in May. VP-4 is stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, and became the first Poseidon squadron on the US west coast following its transition from the P-3C. US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Juan S Sua
THE DECISION TO take an almost decade-long gap in the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) capability remains one of the most controversial aspects of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
The retirement of the Nimrod MR2 and the cancellation of its deeply troubled Nimrod MRA4 replacement left a nation that’s dependent on assured access to sea lines of communications (SLOCs) for trade – and with a purely submarinebased nuclear deterrent – without a fixedwing maritime patrol and aerial antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capability for the first time since World War One.
In 2016 it was announced that the Royal Air Force will receive nine Boeing P-8A Poseidon MPAs, with deliveries beginning in 2019, as part of a $3.2bn Foreign Military Sales (FMS) deal with the United States.
Unlike many previous purchases of US-made weapons systems, the P-8 sale is for an ‘off the shelf’ US Navystandard aircraft, mission system and even weapons suite with no significant modifications for British service.
The question must be, therefore, does the purchase of an expensive, stock standard American solution represent good value for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the RAF compared to other MPA options? The most obvious potential alternatives were a turboprop MPA solution from Saab, Airbus or Lockheed Martin, or to partner with Kawasaki to develop an anglicised version of its new P-1 MPA.
The Russian Navy’s submarine force is still under strength and suffers from readiness and reliability problems compared to its heyday under the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But it operates some of the quietest and most lethal attack submarines in the world, from the latest-generation diesel-electric Project 636.3 Kilo class submarines to the famous Akula and latest Yasen-class nuclear attack boats.
These formidable subs regularly operate in and around British waters, attempting to track the Royal Navy’s Vanguardclass nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which provide the UK’s nuclear deterrent, as well as gathering intelligence and tracking the movements of major surface warships.
When the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers enter active service, Russian submarines will represent one of the most serious threats to their survivability in the event of a conflict.
On a more basic level, Britain is heavily dependent on trade by sea for almost every sector of its economy and is, therefore, vulnerable to any threat against SLOCs as part of a future geopolitical clash with a submarine-operating power. Against this threat backdrop the Royal Navy is chronically short of major surface ships and the personnel to operate them, and continual delays to the Type 26 frigate programme have left its dozen Type 23 frigates as its only significant ASW (anti-submarine warfare) surface capability until at least the mid-2020s.
Astute-class and older Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered attack submarines are excellent ASW platforms if they can be guided to the rough vicinity of an unknown submarine, but are too few in number and heavily in demand for other duties to fulfil the UK’s ASW needs on a long-term basis.
In short, then, a modern MPA to conduct ASW – along with secondary maritime surveillance and search and rescue (SAR) assistance roles – is a strategic, nondiscretionary requirement for the UK.
Furthermore, with the rise in tension with Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Britain has had to request help from the US and France to track repeated suspected incursions by Russian submarines in British waters, lending added political urgency to the need to close the RAF’s capability gap.
The UK’s geographical position calls for an MPA that can offer high transit speeds to cover the relatively large distances of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap – through which Russian submarines must pass to enter the Atlantic – while also having sufficient endurance to remain on station for many hours conducting ASW sweeps before it needs to hand over to another MPA or a surface/subsurface combatant.
These two factors heavily favour a relatively large, turbofan-powered (rather than turboprop) solution to provide both the requisite transit speed and sufficient internal fuel capacity for prolonged time on station.
Turbofans are also less likely than turboprops to alert submarines to an MPA’s presence, due to acoustical differences.
Among the options after the termination of the MRA4 programme, therefore, the P-8 and the P-1 were the only aircraft deemed suitable for consideration by the RAF since they were the only medium/large turbofan offerings.
The P-8 is a heavily modified derivative of Boeing’s 737-800ERX medium-haul airliner with modern commercial CFM56-7B highbypass turbofan engines. As such, it offers decent range for an MPA, a high subsonic cruising speed and greatest fuel efficiency at relatively high altitudes – and can offer around four hours on station at low level for the ASW mission at 1,200nm from its base.
In a UK context, operating from RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, the P-8 would theoretically have four hours on station at low level over the main Russian submarine base at Murmansk or off the coast of Greenland.
However, since most of any transit flight will be conducted at high altitudes where greater fuel efficiency is possible, the short transit distances flown in RAF service over the North Sea, Irish Sea or GIUK gap are not likely to translate into greatly increased time on station at low level without air-to-air refuelling.
The larger, four-engine Nimrod MR2 had been optimised for low-level endurance and could offer at least two hours longer on station than the P-8.
Kawasaki’s P-1 is likewise optimised for increased endurance at low level, despite a nominal range similar to a P-8. The Japanese airframe was designed from the start as a dedicated MPA and, therefore, makes use of four small, quiet turbofan engines for redundancy. It also has lower wing loading and greater agility than the P-8 and carries a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD).
Its Japan Self-Defense Forces-specific avionics and mission system software would, however, have required significant adaptation and development for RAF service and interoperability with the Royal Navy. It’s also likely that the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) would have taken significantly longer to certify its innovative fly-by-light system than the more conventional P-8 for UK service.
The P-8 was designed around the widearea maritime surface surveillance role at least as much as the more traditional ASW mission set.
But the large number of friendly nations operating in close proximity in the GIUK gap, Irish Sea and North Sea, along with the presence of military and civilian assets with surveillance capabilities near UK waters, means that the wide-area maritime surveillance role (using on-board radar and other sensors) is of marginally less strategic importance for the RAF than for MPA operators in, for example, the Pacific.
The US Navy, the primary user and customer for the aircraft, has to keep watch over vast areas of ocean in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. So the P-8 was designed from the outset to work as part of a system with the MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to provide huge wide-area maritime surveillance and search capabilities.
With its unrivalled nuclear attack submarine fleet, and with towed arrays and MH-60 rotary-wing ASW capabilities on most of its hundreds of major surface combatants, the US Navy has far more options than the UK for mitigating the risk from hostile submarines.
This explains why the P-8 is somewhat of a design compromise from a pure ASW point of view, being designed around a typically medium/high-altitude flight profile in terms of wing and engine characteristics – and without a traditional MAD.
The idea behind that omission is that advances in signal processing and analysis aboard the P-8 compared to previous generations of MPAs will enable the crew to find and track submerged threats using sonobuoys alone.
The RAF has meanwhile maintained a ‘Seedcorn’ contingent of former Nimrod crews, posted to P-8 units in the US Navy to avoid losing the precious institutional understanding of how to conduct fixed-wing ASW.
A measure of how successful the RAF/P-8 combination has already proved is the fact that a UK-only crew won the prestigious annual Anti-Submarine Warfare Fleet Challenge in 2014, and are considered some of the US Navy’s most proficient ASW operators.
This was another factor working in favour of the P-8 being selected over the P-1: the RAF already had a small core of trained and current crews with extensive experience on the P-8 from which to rebuild a full-scale UK fleet.
At the time of its cancellation, the RAF had begun acceptance testing of the first production Nimrod MRA4 aircraft and a first training course for instructors was under way. The type would have off ered superior sensors and longer range than the P-8.
The advantages for the UK of using an unmodified US Navy-priority mission system are hard to overstate, especially given that the RAF will rely on the P-8’s capabilities for a critical national defence requirement – fixed-wing ASW.
The British military has a tendency to procure ambitious and highly capable platforms, and then neglect to invest in capability sustainment and upgrades throughout their service lives.
But with the P-8, the fact that the mission system, as well as the airframe, is entirely US-standard means the UK can benefit from a steady stream of software and capability upgrades funded by, and for, the US Navy throughout the platform’s lifecycle.
With previous platforms bought from the US – such as the RAF’s E-3D Sentry AWACS fleet, for which the UK has made its own extensive modifications to the mission system – obsolescence has often crept in due to the MOD’s budgetary constraints and tendency to look to modernisation plans as a source of ‘efficiency savings’ that do not harm immediate frontline readiness.
An artist’s impression of a US Air Force Joint STARS replacement based on the P-8 airframe. A variant of the Poseidon could ultimately replace the RAF’s Sentinel R1, retirement of which now looks inevitable.
Furthermore, the US Navy’s standard mission system will ensure seamless data sharing in real time with US assets, facilitating faster and more efficient cross-referencing of detected acoustic signatures – a major advantage in ASW operations which often rely on signature identification to confirm contact IDs.
In the highly classified world of underwater cat and mouse which still goes on between NATO, Russia and, to a growing extent, China and other nations, the ability to seamlessly share, cross-reference and compare acoustic signatures – and other data – on hostile submarines between the RAF and the US Navy is a major advantage offered by the P-8 over any potential alternatives.
It will also enable the RAF to plug into the US Navy’s full-spectrum ASW approach which relies on real-time data sharing between fixed-wing, rotary, surface and even subsurface assets to maintain high-quality tracks on the quietest modern submarines.
Given that the Royal Navy’s own surface and undersea vessels have to maintain interoperability with their US Navy equivalents on a near-constant basis as part of operations in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, the Gulf and elsewhere, it’s unlikely the P-8’s US Navy-spec mission system will give much trouble when integrating with Royal Navy systems in service.
The P-8 will also give the RAF extremely impressive wide-area surveillance capabilities in the maritime and littoral environments, and a capability to conduct anti-shipping strikes against vessels lacking modern air defences.
The AN/APS-149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) currently installed on US Navy production aircraft is a potent active electronically scanned array (AESA) which will be replaced by the even more capable Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS) – a multifunction radar currently undergoing flight testing on US Navy P-8s.
Unlike the standard US Navy Poseidon ordered by the UK, India’s P-8I features a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), as well as a 360° radar capability.
The AAS array will enable the RAF to greatly improve situational awareness of airborne and maritime assets in the vicinity of P-8s against surface and low-flying airborne threats such as anti-ship missiles.
It also offers future high-end jamming and electronic warfare capabilities which are being actively developed for the US Navy – again offering the opportunity for the UK to benefit from US-funded advanced research and development.
The US Air Force is reportedly considering a P-8 derivative to replace its Joint STARS synthetic aperture radar overland surveillance aircraft. Eventually a variant of the P-8 could also replace the UK’s highly successful but bespoke Sentinel R1 fleet, which is proving problematic to sustain despite its undoubted operational value.
In conclusion, the UK is buying a ‘gold-plated’ MPA solution in the P-8, which comes with capabilities beyond what the UK’s own ASWfocused national MPA mission would require.
This is an inevitable result of buying an unmodified US-standard MPA designed to provide unprecedented wide-area maritime surveillance capabilities in integrated operations with the MQ-4C UAV in the vast expanses of the Asia-Pacific theatre.
The UK is unlikely to need or be able to afford the MQ-4C itself but might well find a use for the UAV-partnering capabilities of the P-8 with its Protector UAV fleet in future.
However, the true value in the P-8 for the RAF is that it will allow the UK to gain the benefits of ongoing and regular softwarebased capability upgrades undertaken by the US Navy throughout its service life.
While it’s not as specialised for lowaltitude ASW operations as the Japanese P-1 or the cancelled Nimrod MRA4, the P-8 is available now, and is backed up by the might of the US Navy.
As such, it has a formidable mission system, modern sonobuoys and suite of extant and evolving anti-submarine (and antisurface) weaponry that will fulfil Britain’s ASW requirements admirably alongside Astute-class submarines and Type 23/26 frigates throughout its service life.
What’s more, the continuing success of the ‘Seedcorn’ programme means that when the UK receives its P-8s from 2019- 20 it will be able to rapidly regenerate an operationally credible core of active crews – a vital advantage in the complex and demanding world of frontline ASW operations against a first-rate submarine power.
Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow in Combat Airpower and Technology at RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute).
An artist’s impression of the Saab Swordfish armed with the company’s RBS 15F heavyweight anti-ship missiles. The Swordfish can also carry up to six lightweight torpedoes for the ASW role.
One of the most credible alternatives to the P-8A was not available when the UK decision was made.
At the Singapore Airshow in February, Saab announced it would now be off ering its Swordfish mission package on two new platforms, the Bombardier DHC-8 Q400 and the Bombardier Global 6000.
The Global 6000-based Swordfish is a compelling competitor to the P-8, carrying a similar payload, with longer endurance at similar distances from base, optimised for low-level ASW operations and with MAD off ered as standard equipment.
Because the aircraft shares considerable commonality with the GlobalEye airborne early warning platform being built for the United Arab Emirates, it promises to be available in a short timescale.
And using the Global 6000 bizjet as its basis means it will likely be off ered at about two-thirds of the upfront acquisition cost, while delivering lifecycle costs Saab claim are about 50% of the P-8’s.
Two examples of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kawasaki P-1 attended the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire in July 2015. The aircraft flew from Atsugi, Japan, via the United States – including a stop at NAS Oceana, Virginia – before making a non-stop flight across the Atlantic to the UK.
VP-16 ‘War Eagles’ P-8A 168853/LF-853 operates from RAF Lossiemouth as callsign ‘Talon 16’ during Exercise Joint Warrior 17/1 that took place earlier this year. Lossiemouth will begin to receive RAF Poseidons from around 2019.
THE CASE FOR the UK’s procurement of the P-8 is superficially compelling. It’s widely assumed to be the world’s most capable maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), maritime patrol and ASW aircraft – as well as the most expensive.
But the Poseidon’s capabilities justify the high price tag, according to its supporters, who claim it represents the most cost-effective means of delivering those capabilities. It’s certainly an obvious choice for any air force aiming to achieve ever closer integration and ‘harmonisation’ with US operations.
And some of the world’s air forces obviously agree: as well as the nine aircraft ordered by the UK and 122 destined for the US Navy, Boeing has had orders from Australia, India and Norway, while New Zealand and Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of inking deals.
There are, however, a number of other compelling alternatives to the P-8. All are significantly cheaper and some might even offer superior capability as well as greater cost-effectiveness.
Given the superiority of US technology in so many military capability areas, it would be easy to assume that if you want the best, and need a ‘high end’ solution, then you need to buy US equipment.
But that assumption may be mistaken in the maritime patrol and ASW sector. The US Navy’s P-3 Orions never enjoyed an unchallenged superiority over rival platforms – during the Cold War many ASW experts viewed the Nimrod as being a significantly more capable and effective sub-hunter than the US aircraft.
Meanwhile some non-US P-3 variants and upgrades are sometimes claimed to be ‘better than the original’, including Australia’s AP-3Cs, Canada’s CP-140 Auroras and Japan’s Orions, while the Airbus Military Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) fitted to Brazil’s upgraded Orions has won many plaudits.
Britain embarked on its Nimrod MRA4 programme because it felt the aircraft would offer capabilities superior to those of rivals (including the P-
. Without the decision to reuse major sections from the Nimrod MR2 (an aircraft whose airworthiness had been catastrophically compromised by a fatal accident over Afghanistan), the MRA4 could almost certainly have overcome what were relatively minor development difficulties.
It would have offered superior sensors and longer range as well as greater weapons and sonobuoy carrying capability compared to the P-8. “If I was doing ASW, alone and unafraid, then I would take an MRA4,” one senior officer told me, before adding: “For anything else, or for any kind of co-ordinated ASW ops, I’m taking a P-8!”
The view from the flight deck of a US Navy P-8A during a mission over Cebu in the Philippines in June. RAF crews are already flying the Poseidon under the ‘Seedcorn’ programme and are assigned to VP-30 ‘Pro’s Nest’ at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida.
US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Micah Blechner
All nine MRA4s were largely complete by the time the programme was cancelled and the RAF had begun acceptance testing of the first production aircraft, having launched its first instructor training course.
But there was still a long way to go – the type had been grounded due to significant flying control and aerodynamic issues in certain flight regimes, one very senior officer telling me that Nimrod airworthiness was “hanging by a thread”.
With the Nimrod name rendered politically toxic in the wake of the accident in Afghanistan, cancellation was probably inevitable, though the decision was heavily criticised by the Public Accounts Committee and a number of ex-defence chiefs.
When the MRA4 was cancelled, the decision was taken to accept a capability gap until the 2015 SDSR. A replacement would eventually be required, and it was always apparent that the P-8 was the favoured choice of the Air Staff and the government.
There seems to have been only a cursory examination of alternatives, and many in industry responsible for offering aircraft in response to the UK requirement felt their offerings were never seriously or properly looked at.
A senior industry source told me at the time: “The RAF had already made up its mind that the answer was the P-8, and it was clear to me that the assessment of alternatives (including our offering) was no more than a cynical exercise in being seen to conduct some kind of evaluation process.”
Another industry insider involved in bidding one of P-8’s competitors noted: “It seemed to me there was a single direction they were determined to go in.”
The lure of an ASW and maritime patrol force ‘harmonised’ with that of the US Navy was powerful for many RAF senior officers. It meant they would use a common aircraft type and form, to some extent, a single operational entity, the UK also avoiding a costly and perhaps technically difficult ‘bespoke’ solution.
But this approach could mean the RAF’s Poseidons will share the same weaknesses as the US Navy’s aircraft.
Aviation Ordnancemen move a Mk54 torpedo from a P-8A assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 1 at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. The Mk54 is generally viewed as an inferior weapon to the EuroTorp MU90 or the BAE Systems Stingray.
US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate
The RAF will adopt the same medium level Concept of Operations (CONOPS), using Boeing’s new High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC) wing kit to enable the Raytheon Mk54 torpedo to be released from high altitudes (up to 30,000ft).
The system is still largely unproven, and some long-serving ASW aircrew are dubious about the practicality of conducting anti-submarine operations from such lofty heights. The wing kit will add significant extra cost to every torpedo.
P-8 proponents believe that dropping torpedoes from high altitude is a good thing, allowing the aircraft to remain at heights where ‘sensor performance is maximised’ and enhancing communications ranges with large-area buoy fields. But while radar can ‘see’ further from height, some other sensors may be more effective when used at lower altitudes.
A number of highly experienced ASW operators expressed the view that theirs is a low-level game. “You lose the tactical advantage by being high,” said one. “At low level you’re better placed to locate and track the target and to drop the weapon – completing the cycle more rapidly and more efficiently. It gives you more flexibility to be able to react to the submarine’s manoeuvres.”
Like the US Navy’s aircraft, RAF P-8As will lack a MAD, which many ASW experts believe is still a viable and useful ‘confirmatory’ sensor. Interestingly, India specified a MAD for its P-8Is – along with a 360° radar capability and an aft-mounted, aft-looking Telephonics AN/ APS-143C(V)3 Multi-Mode Radar augmenting the nose-mounted Raytheon AN/APY-10.
The P-8A will also drop its sonobuoys from height, using an Exelis pneumatic launch system. This will limit the P-8A to using A-size buoys, fitted with a protective sonobuoy launch case (SLC), and not ‘G-size’ active buoys and ‘F-size’ passive buoys, which are one-half and one-third respectively the size of the standard NATO ‘A-size’ buoy.
Crucially, ASW sonobuoys must be placed in the ocean with great accuracy and in a predetermined pattern calculated to give the submarine quarry no opportunity to escape detection.
A Naval Aircrewman assigned to VP-16 unloads a sonobuoy from the rack on board a P-8A during a search mission to locate Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in April 2014. The Poseidon drops its sonobuoys from high altitude, rather than using the more accurate low-altitude launch.
US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Keith DeVinney
Accurate placement is usually achieved via low-altitude launch, to minimise errors arising from wind drift while also reducing the risk of environmental damage to these sophisticated systems as they descend through precipitation, icing layers etc.
ASW insiders suggest that buoys need to be dropped within 100m of their planned position for optimum results, and highlevel launch doesn’t provide such precision. A US Naval Air Development Study found that “sonobuoys launched at high altitude (eg, 10,000 to 30,000ft) have large placement errors (1,500 to 7,500yds)”.
Low-altitude launch also gets buoys into the water, and providing useful information, in a fraction of the time. When dropped from high level it’s simply impossible to place them with the same degree of accuracy or speed.
A highly experienced former Nimrod acoustics operator told me: “When dropping buoys from high level there are serious limitations – not least in maintaining security of pattern, which is absolutely fundamental.
“You only need to lose contact of the target from one single-source sonobuoy and your quarry has escaped. It could be game over and time to go home, as you may not re-establish contact within your remaining endurance.”
A Royal Navy Merlin HM2 with 829 Naval Air Squadron launches a Stingray training torpedo off the Cornish coast. This lightweight ASW torpedo has been described as “the world’s leading lightweight anti-submarine torpedo”.
Theoretically, there’s nothing to stop the P-8 from descending to low level to drop its buoys and weapons, but this is not how the aircraft is intended to be used when it attains its planned full capability standard.
Because the UK has been determined to acquire the standard US Navy P-8A configuration, with no British ‘customisation’, it will be unable to use existing stores, which are already ‘in stock’. Nor will the RAF be able to acquire other new ASW weapons that have not first been integrated by the US Navy.
An MQ-4C Triton prepares to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, after completing a flight lasting approximately 11 hours from Northrop Grumman’s California facility in September 2014. The unmanned aircraft system was judged too immature for the UK’s MPA requirement.
US Navy/Kelly Schindler
So the RAF P-8s will use the US Mk54 torpedo rather than the superior EuroTorp MU90 – or the BAE Systems Stingray, described as “the world’s leading lightweight anti-submarine torpedo”.
And the P-8A will be unable to use British sonobuoys, which the MOD already has ‘in stock’. The sonobuoy is a British invention, and the nation has considerable expertise in the field, with UK-based Ultra Electronics widely considered the world leader in sonobuoy manufacture.
Instead, the MOD will have to spend vast sums on acquiring new buoys and weapons for the P-8A and will have to bear the cost of maintaining two parallel inventories of sonobuoys and torpedoes for the jet and for the Royal Navy’s ASW helicopters.
The importance of its ASW mission meant the UK did not consider cheaper, ‘lowend’ maritime ISR aircraft to replace the Nimrod, but there was still a relatively wide field of potential candidates.
A P-8A from VP-5 ‘Mad Foxes’ provides an interesting comparison with the Kawasaki P-1. The aircraft met at NAF Atsugi, Japan in November 2014 when VP-5 was forward deployed to the US Seventh Fleet area of responsibility.
US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Douglas G Wojciechowski
Five other maritime patrol and ASW aircraft were reportedly evaluated alongside the Poseidon, though no proper competition was held and no formal bids were invited.
There have been a number of attempts to offer the RAF an ASW aircraft based on the C-130J Hercules. In 2011, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group proposed an MPA variant of the type, using the RAF’s ten short-fuselage C-130Js and equipment taken from the Nimrod MRA4.
More recently, Lockheed Martin proposed its own SC-130J Sea Hercules, using existing RAF airframes fitted with a mission system derived from that Lockheed has integrated on Royal Navy Merlin HM2 helicopters.
The SC-130J featured an AESA radar beneath the fuselage, sonobuoy dispensers, electronic support measures (ESM) equipment and provision for a MAD – along with extended main landing gear sponsons, housing fuel tanks and weapons bays, and underwing weapons pylons. Lockheed claimed the SC-130J would exceed the P-3 in all respects.
The Airbus C295 MPA (in service with Chilean Navy, Portuguese Air Force and the Royal Air Force of Oman) was said to be the only off-the-shelf maritime patrol aircraft available in the near term that met the RAF’s key requirements.
It features Airbus Military’s FITS, which is used on a number of high-end ASW aircraft including Brazil’s modernised P-3s.
The surprise contender was the Kawasaki P-1 – designed from the outset as a maritime patrol and ASW aircraft and optimised to meet Japan Maritime Self- Defense Forces requirements, which are very similar to the UK’s needs.
The P-1 has longer range than the P-8, a similar sonobuoy load, more weapons hardpoints and an impressive array of weapons clearances – and it carries more operators and features a tailmounted MAD. It’s also optimised for low-level ASW operations, even down to its large flight-deck windows.
Another platform acquired from the US, the E-3D Sentry AEW1 has suff ered its fair share of problems because of budgetary constraints within the MOD.
L-3 Mission Integration offered a Bombardier DHC-8-based solution known as the Q400 MMA, which featured extendedrange fuel tanks carrying an additional 10,000lb (4,536kg) of fuel, increasing its endurance to up to ten hours.
It also has a ventral canoe fairing which will house a Selex ES 7500ES search radar, a weapons bay and an electro-optical camera system.
The Q400 MMA is fitted with an L-3 mission management system (already used by some P-3s) as well as Ultra’s Airborne Acoustic System. L-3 claims the aircraft will deliver 80% of the Poseidon’s capability at about a third of the purchase price and a third of the direct operating costs.
Saab offered a weaponised ASW-capable derivative of its Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA) configuration, based on the twinturboprop Saab 2000 and known as the Swordfish. The Swedish company believed it was well placed to meet the urgency of the UK requirement, undertaking to deliver an operational ASW capability by 2018 – in time to support the new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier.
Faster than the C295, the Saab 2000 option was seen in some quarters as a mini-P-3 that, designed to operate at low altitude, offered more precise sonobuoy placement than the P-8.
Northrop Grumman meanwhile proposed its MQ-4C UAV as a partial solution to the requirement, augmenting a manned MPA, but it was judged to be too immature.
A normally reliable informant told me that very senior Joint Forces Command sources had said the P-8 was not even placed top of the assessment when it came to pure ASW capability – that honour reportedly fell to the C295, with the P-1 and Sea Hercules close behind.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the P-8 was not the best aircraft to meet the UK’s requirement, since the MOD was always clear it needed more than just an ASW platform, requiring anti-surface unit warfare, longrange search and rescue, command and control and maritime ISR capabilities as well.
Maritime ISR is particularly important because it represents the bulk of what any maritime patrol aircraft will actually do, especially in peacetime, and provides the capabilities that underpin fisheries and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) protection, counter-piracy and maritime counter-terrorism roles. The P-8A ticks all those boxes, as well as providing good interoperability with our closest partner.
The P-8 is undoubtedly a superb maritime ISR aircraft, but critics claim its high costs made it impossible for the UK to acquire sufficient aircraft to meet realistic requirements.
Like Japan, Britain is an island nation with extensive offshore fisheries and oil and gas fields, and is also a maritime nation with important oceanic trade links. But unlike Japan, it’s also largely responsible for protecting the EEZs of British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – large areas of ocean thousands of miles away from the UK, which further complicates its maritime patrol requirement.
Britain also has a ‘bluewater’ navy – which operates globally and will soon include two large aircraft carriers – and relies on a nuclear deterrent based on Trident missiles. The SSBNs are a tempting target for enemy submarines – even in peacetime, other nations would love to be able to track them and monitor their position.
Accordingly they have to be screened as they set off on patrol and ‘deloused’ as they return, further increasing the need for ASW capabilities. But while Japan has decided it needs 60 or more high-end ASW aircraft, Britain’s planned force will consist of just nine P-8s.
An alternative platform with lower acquisition and lifecycle costs might have made a larger force possible, and numbers can have a quality all of their own, since one platform cannot physically be in two places at once.
A fundamental lack of affordability may therefore be the P-8’s biggest disadvantage.
Jon Lake is a leading British aerospace journalist and historian.