An industry consortium is proposing a maritime surveillance aircraft based on a modified Bombardier Q400. (Bombardier)
LONDON — A consortium involving L-3 Communications, Selex and Ultra Electronics has thrown its hat into the ring as a bidder for a possible British government requirement to re-establish a maritime patrol aircraft capability.
The industrial trio took the wraps off a multimission maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft based on a modified Bombardier Q400 commercial turboprop in a briefing for reporters here today.
Britain’s fixed-wing maritime patrol capability was axed when the Nimrod MRA4 program was canceled by the Conservative-led coalition in 2010, although the previous Labour administration had already withdrawn an earlier version of the aircraft ahead of the introduction into service of the new and much-delayed Nimrod.
The consortium joins fixed-wing contenders like Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and unmanned air vehicle supplier Northrop Grumman positioning for an expected decision by the British government’s 2015 strategic defense and security review (SDSR) on whether to fill a yawning capability gap left by a budget-driven decision in the last review to do away with fixed-wing maritime patrol capability.
L-3 Mission Integration announced in February it was collaborating with Bombardier Aerospace and Cascade Aerospace of Canada and Britain’s Marshall Aerospace to develop an extended-range version of the Q400 for maritime patrol and surveillance duties.
Cascade was working on the auxiliary fuel tanks and Marshall Aerospace the internal fuel system integration.
Now, L-3 has revealed British sensor and mission systems suppliers Selex ES and Ultra Electronics have signed up to collaborate in the development of an aircraft that initially, at least, has the possible Royal Air Force requirement as its main target.
The aircraft features auxiliary fuel tanks running down the side of the fuselage and a large under-fuselage canoe capable of housing weapons and sensors.
Executives at the briefing said they have also been looking at the options for inflight refueling to extend the range of the machine even further than the 10 hours or so offered by the Q400 with auxiliary fuel tanks.
Selex’s sensor fit offering include its Seaspray 7500 radar and the Eagle active electronically scanned array wide-area radar.
Officials said an Eagle with a 4-meter-long array would provide nearly the air-surveillance capabilities offered by the RAF’s E-3D Sentry airborne early warning fleet.
Ultra is proposing an in-development airborne acoustic system which, along with a new generation of sonar buoys, would be capable of countering the increasing threat posed by a proliferation of small quiet submarines operating in the littoral.
Weapon options include lightweight torpedoes and anti-surface ship missiles like the Harpoon. Weapons could be carried in the fuselage canoe or wing hard points.
Flash Gordon, L-3 communications director of international programs here, said the consortium had already acquired an ex-airline Q400 for modification into a test bed and demonstration platform.
The airframe is due to be moved to aircraft modifier Cascade later in the year for installation of auxiliary fuel tanks fitted down the sides of the fuselage and payload systems ahead of type certification and fitting out of further systems next year.
Gordon said they could have an aircraft with an initial operating capability ready by early 2019.
The L-3 executive said multirole flexibility and low whole life costs of a platform like the 400Q were the key to adoption by customers who could no longer afford single mission aircraft.
Gordon said British MoD officials had already been briefed on the aircraft’s capabilities.
The aircraft would provide 80 percent of the capabilities of Boeing’s P-8 maritime patrol aircraft but at a third of the acquisition and operating cost, he said.
Pressure on budgets here, though, continue to raise questions about if and when a maritime patrol capability might be reinstated.
Further government spending cuts are expected after the May 2015 election even though the Conservative government says it remains committed to a 1 percent real growth in the equipment budget for several years starting in 2016.
Brian Burridge, Finmeccanica UK’s vice president of strategic marketing, told reporters at the briefing that plugging the gap in British maritime patrol capabilities has emerged as the highest priority in the next SDSR.
“The general rhetoric is that filling this capability gap is currently the highest priority for SDSR 2015 ... but the issue remains affordability,” said the retired RAF air chief marshal.
Recent events in the Atlantic and Indian oceans have added to the growing recognition that the UK has a capability gap, he said.
“The Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and the yacht [sunk in the Atlantic earlier this month] have conjured the notion of what if that happened here? What if we had to mount that sort of search operation, what degree of national embarrassment would that bring with it?” said Burridge.
Earlier this month, Britain had to send an RAF C-130 Hercules into the Atlantic equipped only with binoculars to look for the yacht — an accident in which the crew of four lost their lives.
Officials from the three companies said they reckoned a fleet of between 10 and 12 aircraft would be a starting point to plug the gap left by the SDSR decision in 2010. ■