LONDON — With capability already compromised by the axing of the BAE System’s’ Nimrod MRA4 patrol aircraft, the British military faces a further decline in maritime surveillance capabilities as other key assets are withdrawn, a Parliamentary defense committee report warns.
The report on maritime surveillance, scheduled to be released Sept 19, will say that the committee is concerned about the Ministry of Defense’s capacity to manage further emerging capability gaps in the short and medium term.
In a statement, the committee’s chairman, James Arbuthnot, said the panel is “unconvinced that the MoD has the capacity to respond to any escalation in the risks that may appear beyond the UK’s shores. Furthermore, we believe the risk is likely to worsen in the medium term as further maritime surveillance capabilities are withdrawn or not yet filled.”
Responding to the report, new Armed Forces Minister Andrew Robathan said, “Maritime surveillance is being delivered by a wide range of military assets, including our surface ships, submarines, Merlin and Sea King helicopters, Sentry and Hercules aircraft, and we are also cooperating with our allies.
“Tough decisions had to be taken to get the MoD’s books back into balance, and canceling the Nimrod MRA4 program was the right decision,” he said.
The MRA4 was Britain’s only maritime surveillance and attack aircraft but was cut ahead of entering service. Along with the scrapping of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier capability, it was the most controversial decision of the 2010 strategic defense and security review held by the cash-strapped, Conservative-led coalition government.
Scrapping the aircraft, largely for financial reasons, has left the British with a serious capability gap in areas like long-range surface and underwater detection and the protection of naval vessels, including nuclear-deterrent submarines as they exit their bases.
Since the MRA4 was ditched, the government has also withdrawn four Type-22 frigates with intelligence-gathering and towed-array sonar capabilities and, at least for the moment, is sticking to the line that it will axe the Sentinel intelligence, surveillance, target-acquisition and reconnaissance aircraft once the Afghanistan campaign runs down.
Some believe the almost-new Sentinel capability could be adapted for maritime duties.
The capability could decline further, though, with the removal of the Royal Navy’s Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopter fleet.
“There is the potential for other capability gaps to occur, such as when the Sea King (SKASaC) helicopter is withdrawn in 2016 to be replaced by the Project Crow’s Nest operating from the Merlin Mk2 [helicopter],” according to the report.
The Lockheed Martin-led Crow’s Nest is in limbo for the moment while the MoD looks for funding for the program.
The committee said it was disappointed by the MoD’s assertion that there was no requirement and no funding to buy a replacement maritime patrol aircraft at present.
Responding to a parliamentary question Sept 17, new procurement minister Philip Dunne said, “A decision on any future requirement will not be made until the strategic defense and security review in 2015.”
That hasn’t stopped would-be suppliers from peppering the MoD with proposals in the last year or so for an interim or long-term replacement for the MRA4.
At the Farnborough airshow in July, potential suppliers like EADS, Saab, L-3, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were already trying to catch the MoD’s eye.
The committee said it was concerned the MoD was sending mixed messages in respect of the need for a maritime patrol aircraft.
“On the one hand it says that there is no requirement for such an aircraft and that it is not funded, but on the other it acknowledges that its absence is a risk and something may need to be done,” the report notes.
The MoD recently revealed it was urgently seeking a limited number of UAV systems capable of being deployed from warships to improve maritime surveillance capabilities.