With four maritime surveillance aircraft (MSA) in the static park at this week’s Farnborough Air Show, and much talk about British requirements in the chalets, it might seem that the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is about to take action to rectify its most glaring “capability gap.”
But British defence procurement minister Philip Dunne told journalists at the show on Wednesday that no decision to reconstitute the capability will be taken until after next year’s strategic defense review.
Britain, a nation with a proud history of seafaring, has been without an MSA since the Nimrods were scrapped in the last defense review four years ago. Having tackled the so-called “black hole” in the MoD’s finances, the UK government this week announced new money to keep three threatened ISR systems (the Reaper, Sentinel and Shadow) in service. (The Reaper was not actually mentioned, but AIN has since learned that RAF operations are now funded through 2019.) But the politically sensitive lack of an MSA was not mentioned.
Preventing “Skills Fade”
Against this background, Boeing and the U.S. Navy brought the P-8A Poseidon to Farnborough, complete with a part-British crew. After the Nimrods were scrapped, the Royal Air Force secured aircrew slots on Australian P-3s, French Atlantics and U.S. P-3s and P-8s to prevent a “skills fade” of MSA experience. There are no fewer than 20 RAF aircrew flying on P-8s now in Project Seed Corn, 10 with operational squadrons at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, and 10 with test squadron VX-1 at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, whose aircraft is here.
In a briefing at Farnborough on Tuesday, U.S. Navy Captain Scott Dillon gave an upbeat account of the P-8’s current capabilities and its upgrade path. He said the program is on cost and schedule, quoting a unit cost of $150 million for the latest production Lot 5.
There has been speculation that, to help out the impecunious Brits, Boeing may be prepared to offer a lease deal for P-8s, as it did previously for C-17s. In the same briefing, Fred Smith, a Boeing business development manager, did not rule this out. “We’ve set the mark with this aircraft. Others compare to us,” he added.
Calls for “Proper Competition”
Meanwhile, rival contenders say they can offer the UK significant MSA performance at one-third or less acquisition and operating cost. “We want a proper competition,” one told AIN.
However, if a competition is eventually launched, the responders may have to respond to an unusually diverse set of requirements. The MoD has not yet completed a protracted future Air ISTAR Optimisation Study (AIOS) that is considering everything from armed UAVs through MSAs to AEW aircraft. Boeing, Airbus Military and Saab all say that their AEW aircraft have MSA attributes.
In the meantime, Boeing seems to have the inside track, with the British crews reporting back to MoD on their P-8 experience. Moreover, as one rival provider ruefully remarked, “the RAF would hate to turn up to ASW conferences and competitions with what is perceived as a lesser-capability airplane than the Australians or the Indians.” Both countries are already P-8 customers.