A Nimrod MRA4 reconnaissance aircraft sits on the tarmac at the BAE Systems factory at Woodford, UK. The fleet was axed in 2010. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)
LONDON — Stop thinking about a maritime patrol aircraft and start thinking about a multirole capability, possibly including UAVs, to replace the Nimrod MRA4s axed in 2010, Britain’s defense secretary told an air power conference here Wednesday. .
“I don’t think the question any longer is a simple binary one of do we buy a maritime patrol aircraft or don’t we? It’s a much bigger question about how does long-range maritime surveillance capability fit into the bigger requirement for long endurance airborne ISTAR capability,” Philip Hammond said at the Royal United Services Institute conference.
Hammond said that since Nimrod was scrapped it has become clear that the way surveillance and anti-submarine warfare activities are conducted have changed.
“The dramatic increase in the use of unmanned air systems, the increasing breakdown of the distinction between maritime patrol capability and overland wide-area surveillance, I think requires us to think strategically about how we deliver this bit of the ISTAR picture. What’s the correct mix going to be over the next 40 years for manned aircraft and long endurance unmanned system?” the defense secretary asked an audience of air force chiefs, industry executives and others.
Possible contenders for a new British platform will be active at the Farnborough International Airshow, which opens July 14.
A US Navy Boeing 737-based P-8 Poseidon will make its first appearance at the show. Airbus Military is touting its multirole C295 turboprop.
L-3 Communications, with radar provider Selex ES as one of its partners, recently launched a rival system using Bombardier’s Q400 turboprop as the platform they will be promoting.
Britain ended the BAE Systems MRA4 program, and with it the Royal Air Force’s entire maritime patrol capability, as part of a strategic defense and security review (SDSR) conducted by the then-new Conservative-led coalition government.
“I’m not going to pretend to you that we removed MPA as some kind of strategic decision and that this was a capability we didn’t need. We had an aircraft under development that was clearly never going to successfully fly and we had an urgent need to address a massive hole in the budget,” Hammond said.
Along with the decision to temporarily withdraw the Royal Navy’s carrier strike capability, axing the maritime patrol aircraft was the most controversial move of the 2010 SDSR.
Last week saw the capability gap on carrier strike start to narrow as the first of two 65,000-ton carriers being built by a BAE Systems-led alliance was launched at Rosyth in Scotland.
Now the government is saying that restoring the airborne surveillance capability will be reconsidered in the next SDSR set to follow the May2015, general election.
The British have retained some of their operator skills in airborne maritime operations by seconding crews to the US, primarily to work on US Navy Boeing P-8s under an initiative known as Seedcorn.
A handful of personnel are also training on Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton, the maritime version of the Global Hawk UAV already purchased by the US and Australia. ■