Senior officers from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) have admitted that, despite the UK's closing its Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) gap with the acquisition of nine new Boeing P-8A Poseidons, there are unlikely to be sufficient aircraft to properly address emerging threats and create the required “mass” to have an impact on global maritime operations.
Answering questions from AIN at a recent UK Air Power conference hosted by the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, the two senior officers—who spoke under the Chatham House Rule—said that in ideal circumstances they would like more P-8 Poseidons. “Yes, I'd like more P-8s; you'd be surprised if I said I'd like less,” said the RN officer.
The RAF officer concurred, “Of course, we would love more P-8s,” although he outlined to AIN that mass is more than just aircraft numbers and involves a host of other capabilities, including greater connectivity between platforms and acquiring fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35.
Nevertheless, the RAF officer warned that having only nine aircraft is a concern, especially as they could “realistically only be in one place at a time” even though Russian and Chinese maritime activity is increasing. “The P-8 was procured to provide additional maritime security in the North Atlantic. This in itself is becoming increasingly challenging,” he said, highlighting Russia’s unprecedented underwater activity and China’s growing presence in North Atlantic waters and beyond.
“There is no doubt that the resurgence of Russian submarine activity is something that is a challenge to us on a daily basis,” the RN officer also stressed. “The P-8 is a beast of an aircraft, and it is going to deliver the most wonderful capabilities, but with fewer than 10 on the stocks we really do need to ask ourselves whether we will have the presence and persistence that we would like.”
So-called “burden sharing” may be one way to address this lack of mass, with the UK working closely with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Norwegian Air Force as they build up their respective P-8A fleets. Another way to mitigate a lack of maritime patrol aircraft is using unmanned aircraft. “There is no question that from a combat air perspective using an unmanned platform in a 'loyal wingman' or 'maritime playmate' role could be a means of generating additional mass,” explained the RN official.
“Developing an unmanned maritime capability to complement the extant big-wing and rotary-wing platforms in the maritime domain is credible mitigation for our current shortfalls,” he added. “[Remotely piloted aircraft systems] such as Predator configured for anti-submarine warfare operations, for example, could potentially revolutionize the way in which we conduct maritime operations, not only in the North Atlantic but farther afield.”
Another option is for the RN to complement the P-8A with the MQ-4C Triton—as is being implemented in the U.S. and Australia. “The Triton is a capability we are familiar with,” said the RN officer, “We do like it [and] it’s definitely a capability that would fit many of the bills. But, of course, at the moment we have a lot of other things we have to focus on in parallel. We have only just started on the journey of taking delivery of the P-8.”