Does the UK need to bolster its maritime patrol and surveillance capabilities?

Andrew Elwell

BAE's Nimrod MRA4 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald

As more scrutiny is placed on military and civil maritime reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities – with the search for MH370 particularly highlighting the difficulty in delivering effective wide area maritime surveillance – nations are evaluating their current operations and asking how they can deliver enhanced maritime domain awareness.

A recent discussion paper by the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Air Power Group considered the use and benefit of maritime patrol aircraft in the wider context of the UK’s maritime air power domain. The paper, ‘Current and Future Maritime Air Power for the United Kingdom,’ builds on the themes of a seminar the RAeS held on this topic in October 2013. It appraises the UK’s maritime air power capabilities following the decision taken during the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010 to abandon the Nimrod MRA4 Maritime Patrol Aircraft and explores the need to replace this capability ahead of the next SDSR in 2015.

One section of the paper, which I recommend you reading in its entirety, looks to address a number of questions specifically in this domain: Does the UK require a long-range surveillance aircraft? Is a smaller, multi-purpose aircraft a better option? What platforms are required to protect the nuclear deterrent submarine?

The coalition government has pushed through some of the most radical Armed Forces budget cuts in recent memory. It has since become clear that the ‘Strategic’ decisions taken in the SDSR were not strategic in a military sense, but rather a financial one.

"Neither the RAF nor the Royal Navy were willing to champion the need for a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) over their other priorities, such as Typhoon or the Carrier programme," says the RAeS paper.

The MOD needed to balance its books and SDSR 2010 was unleashed to help achieve that goal. Although other priorities were identified, the UK still required maritime patrol aircraft of some description, be it Nimrod or not.

The paper points out that the House of Commons Defence Committee called for the UK to maintain a global maritime surveillance capability in its 2012 report on Future Maritime Surveillance. "Serious concerns" were raised about the UK’s ability to undertake military (and non-military) tasks as a result.

The advancement of unmanned aircraft technology in the intervening period has the potential to make maritime surveillance significantly cheaper than it was just four years ago. Moreover, new threats and pronounced capability gaps – made stark by the disappearance of MH370 in March – indicate that the UK should reconsider its need for MPA in the future.

"The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 demonstrates the intense public pressure, both locally and internationally, that can be brought to bear on Governments in a 24/7 media era, where answers are expected instantly – and capabilities are, rightly, expected to be available to deliver such answers."

The RAeS paper says the MOD has already recognised that it must retain a ‘seedcorn’ capability, evidenced by placing 34 personnel with the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. This would appear the minimum the military should be investing in for its maritime surveillance capability.

Under NATO’s ‘Smart Defence’ initiative there is potential for allied nations to pool and share resources in this domain, although the UK’s lack of MPA and necessity to protect its nuclear armed submarines seem to preclude any realistic progress down this path.

With the next SDSR due to take place in less than 12 months, the MOD under new defence secretary Michael Fallon must carefully review its investment in future maritime capabilities. While relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated over the last 18 months, the downing of civilian flight MH17 last week pushed Russia’s Vladimir Putin out further into the cold. Now is not the time for Britain to neglect its maritime domain.