FAIRFORD, UK — Britain's upcoming strategic defense and security review (SDSR) could boost surveillance assets after the prime minister, the defense secretary and the chief of the Defence Staff last week all said they support spending in the sector.
During a July 13 visit to the Royal Air Force's main surveillance and reconnaissance base at Waddington, eastern England, Prime Minister David Cameron sent a strong signal to service chiefs and others ahead of the SDSR that he wanted to see more investment in intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities to combat threats like the Islamic State group.
Saying he had tasked the defense and security chiefs to look specifically at how Britain could better counter the group and Islamist extremism, Cameron said, "This could include more drones, spy planes and special forces."
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Nick Houghton was unequivocal about the need to add ISTAR capability, telling a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) conference in London on July 15 that he couldn't "stress enough the need for a greater qualitative and quantitative investment in intelligence, surveillance understanding."
Some of the answers as to how Britain meets its ISTAR ambitions are contained in an air ISTAR optimization study completed last year, which is feeding into the SDSR process.
The Conservative government is expected to publish the SDSR in late October. One of the decisions will be how it intends to replace the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft program it scrapped in 2010.
Britain's inability to mount a credible maritime patrol capability created a controversy that has rumbled on ever since — most recently when the British had to call in allied help to search for an alleged Russian submarine spotted in the vicinity of the UK's nuclear submarine base at Faslane, Scotland.
Some of the aircraft that might provide that improved capability were trying to catch the eye at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), which took place at the RAF base at Fairford in western England July 17-19.
Boeing's P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, a mock-up of Northrop Grumman's Triton unmanned surveillance vehicle and, most notably, Kawasaki's four-jet P-1 maritime patrol aircraft were all on view at the event.
Air Chief Marshal Andy Pulford, Britain's chief of the Air Staff, told the RUSI air power conference July 16 that while some of the ISTAR fleet here was top-notch, other assets weren't and would require an SDSR decision on the way forward.
"The ISTAR fleet is state-of-the-art in many areas, but in other areas there will be decisions which SDSR will have to make as to how we take that mix of ISTAR aircraft forward," he said.
A multimission/maritime patrol aircraft is one of the decisions left hanging from 2010 for the SDSR to decide, Pulford said.
The state-of-the-art aircraft referred to by Pulford includes the Rivet Joint signals intelligence machine being procured for the RAF in a $1 billion deal with the US government.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced at the RUSI conference that the second of three aircraft ordered to replace Nimrod R1s is due to be delivered by L-3 Communications in August, nearly nine months ahead of the contract date.
Fallon said the RAF has been providing sophisticated ISR capabilities that few other nations possess. Tornado strike aircraft equipped with the Raptor reconnaissance pod, Airseeker, the Sentinel battlefield surveillance aircraft and E-3 Sentry airborne early warning aircraft have all been active in the skies over Iraq and Syria. All of the RAF's 10 Reaper remotely piloted air vehicle are also stationed in the region providing ISR and strike capabilities.
The British defense secretary said Britain's Reaper effort in the region matches that of the US military.
Fallon said Britain delivers 30 percent of the entire ISR operation mounted by the anti-Islamic State coalition in the Middle East while 70 percent of the tactical reconnaissance is provided by the Tornado.
Despite those figures, strategy consultant Howard Wheeldon, who focuses mainly on aviation issues, said previous failures to invest sufficiently in ISTAR are weakening British capabilities in the sector.
"ISTAR was perhaps the most important of all capability requirements stressed by the former chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Stephen Dalton, and yet just as it did with the fast jet component, the coalition government failed to listen," he said.
"While we are in the process of acquiring the second Airseeker aircraft announced in SDSR 2010, the coalition government, through its failure to invest in core ISTAR/ISR component capability, and also by gapping MPA/MMA, seriously weakened our ability to meet our obligations," Wheeldon said.
One of the decisions in the upcoming SDSR may be what to do about replacing the tactical reconnaissance capabilities of the Tornado when it goes out of service, probably in 2019.
Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne told reporters at RIAT the out-of-service dates of several of the current ISTAR platforms are being looked at. Sentinel, Sentry and Airseeker aircraft are all likely to come under scrutiny.
Industry executives of RIAT said one of the options being looked at is a rationalization of platforms by dovetailing out-of-service dates to coincide with the introduction of a new multimission aircraft offering maritime patrol, airborne early warning, special forces support and other capabilities.
The MoD recently stood up a multimission aircraft program team even though no formal decision to proceed with acquiring the capability is due until the SDSR report.
Some executives still think Boeing's P-8 will secure the deal. Others say the British can't afford it and it doesn't meet the requirement anyway. Still others say it is unclear what the requirement is.
Boeing came close to securing a lease deal with the British 12 months ago. The acquisition fell through at the time Fallon took over as defense secretary from Philip Hammond, who was promoted to foreign secretary.
One executive said that while maritime patrol remains a priority, Cameron's statement at Waddington showed the government also has its eye on being able to fight the land battle with the aircraft. The executive said the ISTAR plan would have to be funded within the MoD's current 10-year equipment budget.
The plan will only work if the military also invests heavily in dissemination and other ground systems required to support the ISTAR effort.
The government decided to ax Sentinel at the time of the 2010 SDSR, saying it would go out of service at the end of the Afghanistan deployment, but it has proved so useful in deployments like Iraq, Nigeria and Mali that the ax has been postponed until 2018. The aircraft, which is a modified Bombardier business jet, is relatively young, but industry executives said the Sentinel will require a potentially costly midlife refresh if it is to operate much beyond 2018.
Defense budget reductions in 2010 also took their toll on Sentry capabilities and an update is needed to keep the aircraft viable.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.