About time we had another MPA thread I think. Can't let such an important issue go quiet for too long can we..................................
UK MARITIME PATROL AIRCRAFT - AN URGENT REQUIREMENT
A paper by Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Roberts
Over the years, MPA have played a substantial but often unrecognised part in a wide variety of conflicts, operations and emergencies across the world. Because of the very highly classified nature of some of their activities (for example, those in support of the UK's Strategic Deterrent) few, even within the Services, have been aware of the full extent of the contribution MPA have made to the defence of the UK. Sadly, there is reason to believe that ministers may not have been fully briefed on the more sensitive aspects of MPA operations before the peremptory SDSR 2010 decision was made to eliminate the Nimrod MRA4.
The SDSR decision to cancel the wide area surveillance and attack Nimrod MRA4 resulted in not just the cancellation of a specific aircraft project but in the removal of an entire military capability. This has resulted in not only a huge reduction in the UK’s overall maritime surface surveillance and attack capabilities but, arguably of even greater significance, an important element of its ability to conduct anti-submarine operations. This has resulted in an unacceptable risk for the protection of the UK's vital interests. As the size of the general purpose surface and submarine fleets reduce to only 19 frigates/destroyers and 7 Astute submarines, the need for MPA as a component of our maritime capability has become more urgent.
Since the decision to cancel the MRA4, there has been no reduction in the risks involved; indeed, they have increased. International crises (eg, the Arab Spring, Syria, Mali, etc, and other events in North Africa) are rarely predicted and the need, at short notice, to be able to deploy strategic assets capable of surveying wide areas of land and sea at very short notice is self-evident.
Whilst the overall number of submarines world-wide has decreased as older boats have been taken out of service, the number of countries operating submarines has increased. In excess of 40 nations now have submarines, including some (eg, India) with nuclear boats. A number have invested in conventional submarines of considerable capability; Iran, for example, has the very capable KILO-class submarine and is now producing a new class to its own design. These submarine fleets represent potential threats not only to naval forces but also to the commercial sea lines of communication on which the UK is so dependent.
Under President Putin, the Russian Navy is known[i]
to be continuing with the development of the most advanced under-water technologies, presenting an increased potential threat to the UK and, in particular, to its strategic deterrent. The Russian Navy is now procuring new, more stealthy, submarines and has resumed deployments to areas of the Atlantic of critical importance to western nations, as was illustrated by press reports in both 2010 and 2012[ii]
No less significant is the evident intention of the Chinese, under President Xi Jinping, to develop a full 'blue water' naval capability in support of its stated aim of dominating the South China Sea - an area in which we have treaty obligations - and, no doubt, to be able to operate further afield in due course. Within the last 10 years, the Chinese have bought 12 KILO submarines from Russia and, with its existing fleet of diesel submarines, also plan to produce 2 nuclear boats per year of their own design.
Over 90% of the UK’s exports and imports continue to rely on commercial shipping, much of which needs to pass through straits and other areas of potential danger where, even in peacetime, such shipping will be vulnerable to piracy and other threats.
Unexpected threats to UK interests, requiring a very rapid response for surveillance (and, where appropriate) enforcement are bound to continue to arise. For example, the threat to the Falklands could again require rapid reinforcement of the islands, requiring surveillance in advance of, and during, naval force deployment, and to provide defence in depth against both surface and sub-surface threats. Closer to home, in addition to the protection of the deterrent, there continues to be a need to react swiftly to any threats which may arise within the UK’s 2.5 million square mile EEZ, and to provide adequate cover within the UK’s wide area of responsibility for search and rescue (out to longitude 30º west) under the Chicago and other international conventions.
UK MPA are required for:
Attributes of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft
- Protection of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent.
- Protection of UK naval forces engaged in either power projection or expeditionary operations, and of sealift supporting forces already deployed ashore.
- Protection against threats to commercial and other shipping, including counter-piracy.
- Protection of our EEZ, including oil rigs and shore facilities, against potential threats, including assistance in maritime counter-terrorism operations.
- Protection of our 14 overseas territories, including the Falklands with its potential oil resources off-shore.
- Operations in such areas as the Caribbean in support of counter-drug operations.
- The gathering of acoustic and electronic/photographic intelligence.
- Search and rescue in aid of shipping and aircraft in distress.
The Government, rightly, puts particular emphasis on the need for agility, flexibility and capability in its armed forces. MPA have the huge political and military advantage of being able to deploy very rapidly across the globe in reaction to unexpected threats, with a high speed of search on arrival and the ability to discriminate at a distance between types of vessel (both surface and sub-surface).
By virtue of their considerable weapon and sensor carrying capabilities, the larger MPA are inherently flexible and adaptable. As was demonstrated when British MPA (Nimrods) were needed for surveillance in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, these aircraft can be modified quickly to be effective in both the maritime and overland environments, a considerable advantage when operating near littoral states. With the appropriate equipment fitted, future MPA will be able to provide comprehensive wide-area surveillance for land operations. For example, the Block 2 Poseidon P-8 aircraft, about to enter service with the US Navy, will be so equipped from the start and have already been designated as 'Multi Mission Aircraft' (MMA), rather than as pure MPA.
For anti-submarine (ASW) operations, speed of reaction to fleeting detections and in reaching the last known position of a submarine can be of critical importance. Frequently, it is only the MPA that can take full advantage of such intelligence in sufficient time, not only when operating independently but also when assisting naval forces, and especially when assisting an SSN into, or to regain, the trail of an opposing submarine. For surface surveillance using its maritime radar, the area an MPA can search in one hour is over 100 times that of a surfaced SSN, twenty times that of a surface vessel and seven times that of a helicopter[iii]
. Thus, the MPA is a very important 'force multiplier' when naval forces are limited.
Gaps and Deficiencies Likely to Remain in 2020 in the Absence of UK MPA
The withdrawal of MPA impacts severely on three critical RN capabilities: ensuring the security of the nuclear deterrent; contributing to the security of the future Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers; and maximising the effectiveness of the few remaining frigates and destroyers.
To protect the deterrent, the need is to detect and track potentially hostile submarines collecting intelligence or posing a threat so that our SSBNs can take appropriate evasive action in good time. With reduced acoustic advantage, and with few UK SSNs now available, it will become increasingly difficult to locate the newer generation of 'enemy' submarines. Whilst it has been possible to use helicopter surveillance in support of the deterrent close to its base at Faslane, the range/endurance of the helicopter is relatively limited. Adequate cover therefore becomes more difficult further out and may be impracticable in SSBN patrol areas. The amount of noise generated in the water by a helicopter can be counter-detected by any opposing submarine, which can sometimes be a significant limitation in such operations when covert tracking by MPA can be an advantage. Shortly before its withdrawal from service, the Nimrod force demonstrated that, when no RN assets were available, it was by itself able to track one of the latest Russian submarines successfully over a considerable period of time. The lack of such support by British MPA now must therefore be a matter of very considerable concern for the safety and credibility of the UK deterrent.
The protection of high-value iconic targets such as the UK’s aircraft carriers will require defence in considerable depth. Even in distant waters, one of the most difficult threats with which to deal is the submarine, with its ability to fire not only torpedoes but also stand-off missiles. The UK will still have a range of surveillance resources available in 2020, operating in the audio, visual and electronic spectra, from satellites, airborne and surface platforms (both afloat and ashore) and, in some areas, sensors on the ocean floor. However, a comprehensive picture from which potential threats can properly be assessed requires both the precise position and the identity of those threats to be accurately and quickly determined if appropriate counter-measures are to be taken in time. Use of MPA will sometimes be the only means of achieving this.
The UK's anti surface unit warfare capability has also been seriously reduced. In this area, the absence of the MPA-mounted maritime radar, with its unique ability to discriminate between different types of surface contact and to identify potential targets at ranges beyond 200nm, even in crowded environments and high sea states, is no longer available - again, to the detriment not only of our overall maritime surveillance capability but also of the safety of naval forces and friendly shipping generally.
In the absence of fully-equipped MPA, our capability to survey the whole of the UK's EEZ and coastal areas rapidly at short notice has been markedly reduced.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Nimrods covertly shadowed fishing vessels gun-running for the IRA - operations which would now be much more difficult to undertake. In the Caribbean, the Nimrod, with its specialised long-range radar, was often the only system capable of detecting, classifying and tracking from long range small drug-running speedboats; this capability has now been severely reduced by the withdrawal of MPA from the front line.The absence of MPA has also resulted in a significant reduction in our ability to contribute to surveillance of the dangerous waters off Somalia and West Africa where piracy is rife or, more recently, to give rapid support to operations off Libya. For search and rescue operations, the coordination and tactical control of ships and helicopters assisting in rescue operations following both the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig and the earlier Fastnet yacht race disasters graphically illustrate the comprehensive search and rescue capabilities of MPA. Such operations will be far more difficult without MPA.
Thus, our capacity to police and secure our maritime borders and overseas interests, and to participate with allies in counter-piracy, drug protection and counter-terrorism operations, has been greatly reduced. The recent cross-Government Department initiative to integrate surveillance capability under the auspices of the Maritime Security Oversight Group is a welcome development in terms of surveillance of the UK’s EEZ. However, the limited numbers of aircraft available can provide only a fraction the overall surveillance requirement and the absence of MPA, with their specialised equipment, represents a marked reduction of our overall capabilities in this context.
The assertion that, given the combination of Submarines, Frigates, Merlin helicopters, AWACS aircraft, the C-130 Hercules and Unmanned Air Vehicles, the lack of a UK MPA represents a 'tolerable risk' for UK defence is wholly unconvincing[iv]
. The capability gap in our maritime front line resulting from the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4, especially with a reduced surface and submarine fleet, has undoubtedly decreased the UK's maritime surveillance and attack capability to below an acceptable level. It is significant that, shortly after the results of SDSR 2010 were announced, the then First Sea Lord was reported in the Press to have said that the Nimrod MRA4 decision was the aspect of the savings measures with which he was most uneasy.
Collaboration with Allies
In order to economise in the use of assets for maritime surveillance, it has long been the practice to collaborate with NATO allies. However, over recent years, platform availability has become more limited and recent experience in conducting such operations has cast considerable doubt on the extent to which the UK can now rely on the ability of allies to provide adequate MPA support when required. Even the United States has had to warn its European allies that, following its decision to concentrate more on the Pacific at the expense of the Atlantic, US maritime surveillance support in the Atlantic will in future be more limited than hitherto. This reduced support is likely to apply equally to the UK as to other allies and emphasises the importance of the UK acquiring its own fleet of MPA.
Decline in Experienced Maritime Aircrew
MPA effectiveness is especially dependent on operator expertise and experience, particularly in anti-submarine warfare. Until the cessation of Nimrod operations in March 2010, such experience was a key factor in UK MPA crews excelling by comparison with their allied counterparts. Once such expertise is lost, it takes many years to regain. Although a few experienced RAF MPA aircrew have been retained to serve with allied maritime air forces under the ‘Seedcorn Initiative’, they will shortly reach the end of their tours of duty and the scepticism with which the House of Commons Defence Committee greeted[v]
the MOD’s assertion that this programme could be sustained until 2019 is undoubtedly justified. On this account alone, the need to reintroduce MPA into the UK front line before this essential seed-corn of expertise is lost is therefore very urgent. A decision in principle is required before 2015.
The cost of even a small fleet of new MPA would be high. For example, the cost to India of buying its first batch of 8 P-8 aircraft from the USA is reported as being $2.1 Bn. However, though large, this sum compares favourably with the unit cost of just a single nuclear submarine (SSN) at $2Bn, or even a single frigate at £350m. As the HCDC was told during a visit to the Northwood Headquarters to look at the problems of maritime surveillance, "one Nimrod is the equivalent of 12 ships in terms of our capacity ... to look forward [and] gather information
. Given the particular attributes of MPA as set out above, provided an aircraft with sufficient range and endurance to be able to fulfil all the required tasks is acquired, even quite a small fleet could be very cost-effective.
For an island nation such as Great Britain, with its world-wide interests and dependence on the sea, no longer to have an MPA capability is quite extraordinary, and has resulted in undue risk to our maritime interests. The need to reintroduce this capability into the UK’s front line is extremely urgent. Action to acquire at least a few MPA should be set in hand without delay.
COMPARISON OF SURFACE SEARCH CAPABILITIES
Relative Radar Coverage in One Hour (target height 15 ft)
Surface (50ft mast)
Surface (100ft Mast)
MPA - ALTERNATIVE PLATFORMS
Ships, submarines, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Experience strongly suggests that modern maritime warfare, especially ASW, is best undertaken using a 'layered approach' with a mix of platforms. Even with the latest technology, this is likely to continue to be the case.
Modern submarines, such as the Astute class, have sophisticated hull-mounted and towed array sensors, and are able to detect surface and sub-surface vessels over long ranges. They are particularly effective ASW platforms. They are inherently covert, although the firing of any weapon, be it torpedo or missile, can betray their position and thus leave them open to counter-attack. However, they are not able to deploy over long distances as rapidly as can MPA and there are too few of them. At some $1-2Bn each, they are very expensive.
. Like submarines, frigates have the advantage of persistence on task. Modern warships equipped with variable-depth towed arrays can also detect and identify low noise sources over considerable distances. In cooperation with other platforms, they can sometimes triangulate to locate a target. However, to localise with sufficient accuracy to be able to attack a submarine successfully, they usually need to employ either an ASW helicopter such as the Merlin or an MPA. Again, numbers are limited and they are not able to deploy over long distances as rapidly as can MPA.
Helicopters, with their powerful active sonars, can be particularly effective in inshore waters. However, even if they and their mother ships or suitable land bases are available, they suffer from the disadvantages of relatively limited range and endurance (forcing them to come off task to refuel after about 3 hours when operating at a range of 50nm from the mother ship), limited space for equipment, sensors and weapons, and counter detection from the amount of noise they generate in the water.
. The RAF’s Sentry aircraft are fitted with very powerful radars and with comprehensive tactical air control, communications and electronic facilities. However, they do not carry weapons or anti-submarine sensors and their effectiveness as a maritime surface surveillance platform is very limited by sea state and their inability to classify any contact they may detect.
The C-130 Hercules
. Although of long range and duration, the C-130 has to rely on its short-range weather radar and visual lookout, giving it a very limited search and rescue capability. The fleet is already over-tasked in its primary Air Transport role and any maritime operations would be at the expense of its primary task. It would certainly be unable to coordinate multiple search activities in response to any major incident at sea as effectively as can the MPA. Its replacement, the A-400M, of which there will be fewer, will be little better in this context.
. The potential of UAVs has been examined in some depth by the MOD. Suffice it to say here that UAVs, as an alternative to MPA, would have a number of severe operational and technical limitations. Some, such as data transfer rates and the ability rapidly and accurately to deploy weapons in response to a fast-moving tactical situation, are likely to be insurmountable, even in the longer term. As has recently been illustrated by the USAF's decision to ground its Block 30 Global Hawk in favour of extending the manned U-2 aircraft in service, the combination of UAVs and their support system can be very expensive indeed. The introduction of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle
as a maritime unmanned air system (MUAS) will be a welcome addition to the Royal Navy’s tactical surveillance and force protection capability, as will be the Triton
to supplement the USN's P-8 force for surface surveillance over the vast areas of the Pacific. However, in the short to medium term, current or envisaged UAVs would simply not be a practicable alternative to the MPA in meeting all their required operational tasks.
As Rear-Admiral Corder, Comd (Ops) CINCFLEET, said in oral evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee when discussing the withdrawal of the Nimrod[vii]
"The uniqueness of the MPA is in its accumulation of a number of attributes. It is about persistence to a degree, by comparison with a helicopter, for example, but it is also about speed and altitude, and the capability that it can carry is significant. It is about the intelligent use of that capability, because of the crew you have on board. That is the totality of what an MPA brought to the equation.
For example, see Sunday Times, 12 January 2014, page 15
[ii] Daily Telegraph
, 27 August 1010 and Daily Mail
, 15 August 2012
See Appendix A
See Appendix B
5th Report of Session 2012-13, HC 110 - Future Maritime Surveillance
, Conclusions paragraph 17
Oral evidence before the HCDC, 8 June 2011, Q509
Oral evidence before the HCDC, 17 April 2012, Q45