The UK will acquire nine Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) after a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that restored a capability that was eliminated in a similar review five years ago. That previous decision was controversial, and so is this one, because the P-8 has been chosen without a competition. The new SDSR was otherwise unremarkable, with a slight increase in defense spending confirmed, after an 8 percent cut in real terms from 2010-15.
Boeing declined to answer questions from AIN about whether it had submitted a firm, costed proposal for the P-8. The UK Ministry of Defence also did not want to answer the same question. There has been speculation that Boeing or the U.S. government has offered a leasing deal for P-8s, similar to that which enabled a cash-strapped UK to acquire Boeing C-17 airlifters from 2001. After the scrapping of the Royal Air Force’s new fleet of Nimrod MRA.4s in 2010, the service sent 20 aircrew to fly on U.S. Navy P-8s at the invitation of the Pentagon.
Potential competitors for the UK MPA order would have included the ASW version of the Airbus C295; the Lockheed Martin SC-130J Sea Hercules; and a conversion of the Bombardier Q400 airliner offered by L-3 Com Mission Integration. A London-based official from one of those companies expressed surprise that the MoD “had not called for an open and transparent competition.” Officials from the other two also expressed disappointment.
The current unit cost of a P-8A for the U.S. Navy is $150 million. If the UK intends to procure, rather than lease, its new MPA, the total acquisition cost including support will likely exceed $1.5 billion. In either case, there will be a cost to integrate British sonobuoys and other equipment. British defense procurement minister Philip Dunne told Parliament that “some billion dollars’ worth of the program is supplied by British companies,” without further explanation. The new SDSR also stated that the British P-8s would have “overland surveillance capability,” but neither Boeing nor the MoD would elaborate. At a briefing during the Farnborough airshow last year, Boeing and U.S. Navy officials said that “additional sensor capabilities” would be added to the P-8, but not until the Increment 3 buy in Fiscal Year 2021.
Ironically, the core mission system on the P-8 is derived from the same Boeing design that was being integrated on the Nimrod MRA.4s. Those mission systems were subsequently stored and might be exhumed and updated for the new P-8 program.
The SDSR halted, but failed to reverse, the steady decline in the UK’s combat aircraft fleet in the past decade. The RAF’s four Tornado GR.4 squadrons will be replaced by two F-35B squadrons, and by adding strike capability to some of the five existing Eurofighter Typhoon squadrons, while two squadrons of Typhoon Tranche 1 aircraft that are capable of performing only air-to-air missions will be kept in service rather than retired, as previously planned. No new Typhoons will be acquired, but another 16 F-35s will be ordered, enough to equip the two squadrons that will serve onboard Britain’s two new aircraft carriers, as well as from land bases. More F-35s will be ordered “in the early 2020s,” the SDSR stated.
The review confirmed the Protector program to acquire more than 20 new medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs to replace the 10 GA-ASI Reapers currently in service with the RAF. AIN believes that the Certifiable Reaper currently being developed by GA-ASI, perhaps with the extended range, is the leading candidate for this requirement. The review made little mention of unmanned combat aircraft: the UK is currently engaged on a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) study with France. Introducing the SDSR to Parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “It’s too early to say whether the next-generation combat aircraft will be unmanned. I have my doubts.”
The review reversed plans to retire the RAF’s C-130J Hercules fleet. Fourteen of them will be retained, partly due to problems in introducing paratroop dropping capability to the A400Ms. Also retained into the next decade will be the RAF’s fleet of five Raytheon Sentinel (ASTOR) reconnaissance twinjets, which have now been twice extended in service.