ORIGINALLY POSTED BY MYSELF ON THE UK DEFENCE JOURNAL VOLUME 1 EDITION 1
Until the retirement of the Nimrod from RAF operations the RAF was responsible for on scene coordination and top cover. This was due to the fact that the large crews on the Nimrod were well equipped to make sure all assets were used to the best of their capabilities. With the Nimrod being cancelled the RAF has been left without a platform for topcover and this has led to an issue when it comes to major rescue operations.
There is a major debate whether or not the RAF should have this capability at all when HM Coastguard and the Royal Navy provide surface assets. We will leave the main debate about MPA and who should run them for a later post but we will look at what the Coastguard can do in these times. Top cover doesn’t require much in the way of a specialist aircraft due to the fact that it’s main job is to act as an airborne command centre on the radio. Therefore full blown maritime patrol capability is not totally necessary. The French use Falcon 50 business jets due to the fact that they have a good endurance and transit speed to area. Looking at this a used business jet like the Hawker 125 could be used for the top-cover role and even if they require a small amount of equipment to be installed it will cost a lot less than a specialised MPA. If the Coastguard were to operate say 5 for top cover operations they would be able to strategically place 4 round the country and have the fifth for training and an airworthy spare.
There is also an argument that the top cover element should be privatised due to the fact that the rest of the airborne search and rescue has been. If you could convince Bristow to take on the top cover role you would have the benefit of everything being contained within one organisation. In this second part in our report we look at who should have the military MPA, the Royal Navy or the RAF.
There are arguments from both sides and to start with we need to look at what arguments there are for it being a Royal Navy asset. The most obvious argument is the fact that it is an overwater asset and due to the fact that the Navy is the main unit at sea they should have it to support their operations directly. This would mean that the commanders can’t withdraw MPA from naval operations without consulting the Naval commanders whereas before the RAF had operational control over the aircraft and therefore could withdraw them from Naval operations.
Secondly there is the fact that if you were to base them with other ASW, ASuW and SAR assets you would get a more effective system as they are more likely to know the units that they are working with. If you were to base the at RNAS Culdrose alongside the main naval ASW helicopters (the Merlin) you would get crews that know each other and therefore would be able to effectively work together to say sink a sub.
The only argument really in favour of the RAF keeping the aircraft is the fact that they have done so for years and therefore it would make sense when it comes to continuity. I don’t see however why a force that gave up the MPA to keep other assets in service (the number of fast jets they have could have been significantly worse off) should be allowed to have a new MPA if one is chosen.
In the third part of this report we look at what aircraft are actually available for the MOD.
One of the most up to date MPA available is the Boeing P-8. Built on the commercial 737 airframe it has the major advantage of parts being available on the civilian market. This means that no complex supply chains need to be set up in order for it to be purchased. This coupled with the fact that the UK’s biggest ally operates the aircraft means that in the long term it may have a very good life time cost (although all airframes below bar P-1 and Atlantique 3 are based on commercial airframes). A major stumbling block may be however that the USN doesn’t really have a top cover role and therefore the equipment to carry out these roles will not be installed as standard. There is also the fact that the Stingray torpedo operated by the RN and RAF isn’t integrated and there will be costs, but then this is the same for all the airframes below which are armed.
Although an outside bet the P-1 is a brand new, very capable airframe which would afford the UK an MPA which is new build without a commercial base. Although there is the advantage that the airframe will be more focused on it’s military tasking it will not benefit from a commercial user base for easy part sourcing. Unlike the P-8 it will be fitted for top cover due to the fact that the JMSDF has a SAR role in peace time. You do gain four engine reliability which was one of the major selling points of the Nimrod. There will be a cost however incurred due to the fact that software will need to be modified to run in English and as someone who works with software I can say that this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Another outside bet would be the ATL3. It would be a refurbishment of the existing ATL2 with an airframe refresh and new sensor suite. The main issue here would be that airforces are slowly retiring the airframe and it would be just the UK and the French which would operate it. It could however be a good idea to work with the French on the replacement which I have looked at the likely airframe below.
Refurbished P-3 Orion
Although an old airframe several airforces are buying second airframes and updating them. This gives the advantage of having a proven airframe with a modern avionics fit. Airbus upgraded Brazilian Orions and the German Navy has recently bought some ex-Dutch examples. There are however issues with the age of airframes.
An interesting proposal is a C-130J derivative with MPA modifications. These include the ability to carry weapons (similar in ways with the Harvest HAWK system), Sonarbouys (modified from a launcher carried on the Harvest HAWK) and radar. The main issue with this proposal is the fact that the RAF will be retiring C-130 and it is questionable whether it would be worth having supply chains for only a few MPA which over time will be getting more expensive to operate.
A very cheap to operate aircraft, the CN-295 could be used to fill a gap until a larger, more capable airframe was purchased. It would also be able to operate alongside a new lighter airlifter (C-295) which is needed to fill the gap between helo’s and A400M.
An aircraft that was propsed by EADS a few years ago was an A320 MPA which bidded against the P-8I in India. With the new NEO fuel saving capabilities being bought onto civilian aircraft it would be possible to have an MPA which a very long loiter time. If developed with the French as a replacement to ALT2 it may not actually cost all that much.
An idea put forward by Raytheon was to turn the Sentinel R.1 into a MPA due to the fact that it was to be retired when the army leave Afghanistan. This however looks unlikely but it would be possible to buy more airframes with a different sensor suite, would it not?
BAe 146 MPA (Barracuda MRA.1)
The above image surfaced on the KeyPublishing forum last year and would be an interesting proposal. The RAF isn’t afraid to buy and modify BAe146/Avro RJ aircraft due to the fact there are many low hour airframes available second hand. A cheap and British idea but please I pray to god, alongside all the other MPA choices, BAE don’t touch it.
There are lots of smaller MPAs on the market that I don’t have time to cover. For example there is the ATR72 MPA, Dash 8 MPA, Saab 2000 MPA to name a few. Overall there are many choices for the MOD to consider as the new MPA for the British Military, be it Royal Navy or RAF.