Currently the MoD according to a parliamentary question answered by Anna Soubry the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans has 32 service personnel embedded within allied Long Range Maritime Patrol units in the US Navy, and the air forces of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with the largest contingent of 20 working with the US Navy’s Boeing P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, and from this summer a number of these these will begin training on the United States Navy’s remotely-piloted Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton.
The postings are part of the Seedcorn programme which has been designed to retain key maritime surveillance skills following the sexing of the RAFs B Ae Nimrod. M R mk 2 fleet and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA mk 4 in 2010, a move which has opened up a significant capability gap for a maritime nation. It has posed a question thought by many that it would be a case of when rather then if the capability would be re introduced that still has to be answered, which was reinforced by the unveiling of the Seedcorn programme, The question as to wether to acquire a replacement UK maritime patrol aircraft capability is likely to be a key part of the nation’s next Strategic Defence and Security Review, in 2015. The project is to maintain Anti Submarine Warfare and anti surface warfare duties plus Intelligence, Surveilance Target acquisition and reconnaissance task. A capability lost following the retirement of the Nimrod M R Mk 2 on the 31st March 2010.
The Nimrod was capable of prowling far to the north of Iceland and up to 4,000 km out into the Western Atlantic, and in its heyday with Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR), the range of the Nimrod was increased substantially, although following the mid air explosion shortly after an AAR over Afghanistan on 2 September 2006, killing 14 military personnel in Britain’s biggest single loss since the Falklands War AAR refuelling of the Nimrod was abandoned. The crew consisted of two pilots and one flight engineer, two navigators (one tactical navigator and a routine navigator), one Air Electronics Officer (AEO), the sonobuoy sensor team of two Weapon System Operators (WSOp ACO) and four Weapon System Operators (WSOp EW) to manage passive and active electronic warfare systems.
The Nimrod MRA Mk 4 programme was cancelled in 2010, the converted aircraft where scrapped at B Ae Systems Woodford plant in January 2011, at which point it was £789 million over-budget and over nine years late and with no direct replacement under development the British Government took a gamble and cancelled the programme which al
lowed capability gap to develop, though it was envisaged that it would be plugged in part by existing assets such as the Type 23 Frigate and the Fleet Air Arm’s Merlin helicopter.
Twelve personnel are working within the Lockheed P-3 Orion fleets of the Australian (two), Canada (six) and New Zealand (four). Air forces with the balance with the US Navy at NAS Jacksonville in Florida (11) and NAS Patuxent River in Maryland (nine).
One officer at the USN’s Patuxent River test site has qualified on the Boeing/Insitu RQ-21A Blackjack UAS, a more capable drone than the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle air vehicle now being used by the Royal Navy under an urgent operational requirement deal signed with Boeing Defence UK.
An MoD spokeswoman declined to elaborate on why the British personnel were being trained on Triton, but said it is part of a wider effort to develop capabilities. “The Seedcorn program provides a valuable opportunity to UK personnel for training, specialization and exposure within the maritime environment while working with our allies to develop our capabilities. Triton forms only one element of this program and only a small, select number of UK personnel are involved in work, which operates from Patuxent River,”
Two MQ-4C Triton which the U S Navy is acquiring to operate in conjunction with its P-8s will arrive at the Pax River test site within the next months with the US Navy expecting to achieve Initial operating capability on the type during 2017, the Australians are also set to acquire a complement of MQ-4C to complement their future P-8 aircraft.
U S Navy
The Seedcorn initiative has not seen personnel embedded with any of our NATO allies utilising the transport conversions such as the turbo prop CN 295 but within the traditional LRMP communities, this would lead to the conclusion that the MoD is looking at the acquisition of a traditional “Hunter Killer” concept championed by the operators of the P-3C Orion and now the P-8 Posieon, which is entering service with the USN and the Indian Navy, and has been ordered by the Australians as a replacement for their AP-3C Orions. Which would suggest that the MoD are looking at the Boeing P-8A Poseidon / MQ-4C Triton Combination, which is being favoured by the US and the Australians a more radical system would be to opt for a capability based on a fleet of MQ-4 type “drones”.
Other options include looking at A 320 based MPA although the issue of getting an MPA into service in the short / medium term then this option would not really be a realistic proposition, other alternatives could include the acquisition of surplus P-3C Orion’s, or a turbo prop MPA alternative such as the Airbus Military C 295MPA or business jet alternative such as the Boeing Maritime Surveillance Aircraft or an Adapted Raytheon Sentinel. France uses the Falcon 50 the USCG the Falcon 20 as the Guardian and the CN235 as the Ocean Sentry.
But the actions supported by the Seedcorn project would suggest that the 2015 SDSR will see the MoD pursuing a LRMP based on the P-8 / MQ-4 model by which time it is likely that he order would be for the more capable increment 2 version of the Poseidon. Then their comes the second big argument as to who should operate the aeroplanes the Royal Air Force or would they be better under the command and control of the Royal Navy and operated by the Fleet Air Arm like the USN LRMP aircraft.