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U.K. Defense Review: Rumors And Predictions

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The upcoming Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) will shape the British armed forces for the next five years. This blog will look at some of the talking points which may feature in the SDSR. It should not be taken as fact however, but more of an analysis of rumors, statements and information which has come to light in the last few months.

The upcoming Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) is a major talking point here in the U.K. and will shape the British armed forces for the next five years. The review, expected to be published during the week beginning Nov. 23, should make somewhat happier reading compared to the last one. SDSR 2010 removed Britain’s maritime patrol aircraft capability and retired the Harrier force. It also made thousands of personnel redundant and was seen largely as a cost cutting exercise.

Today, politicians claim they have bought the U.K. defense ministry’s equipment budget into balance, and the new aggressive stance of Russia has helped to prompt ministers to secure the defense budget at NATO’s target of 2% of gross domestic product.

But, while they have been talking up the balanced budget, the same cannot be said for the military’s future plans. For the last 6-12 months, any journalists’ question about future capabilities is invariably answered with a response such as: “I can’t/I don’t wish to speculate on the outcome of the upcoming SDSR.”

In that environment of secrecy, this blog will look at some of the talking points which may feature in the SDSR. It should not be taken as fact however, but more of an analysis of rumors, statements and information which has come to light in the last few months.

It’s up to you, the reader, to give us kudos if our suppositions come true or indeed throw your thoughts into the mix.

 

The Return of the Maritime Patrol/Multi-Mission Aircraft

The retirement of the Nimrod in 2009 and the cancellation of its replacement, the Nimrod MRA4 just weeks away from its entry to service was perhaps one of the most controversial elements of the 2010 SDSR, leaving many to question the wisdom of politicians given Britain’s status as an island nation and its use of a submarine-based nuclear deterrent. All signs point to such a capability returning, but it is unclear whether this will result in the immediate purchase of a new platform, a requirement leading to a competition, or a statement of need.

Photo: Tony Osborne - Aviation Week

A recent London Sunday Times report said that a £2 billion plan (Link to Sunday Times Story) to purchase up to nine Boeing P-8 Poseidons had been shelved, however MoD officials are unwilling to confirm this before the SDSR’s publication and U.S. Navy officials were unwilling to take questions on the subject at the Dubai Airshow. It is possible that the U.K. is holding out for a better price for the P-8, or it is done and dusted with the idea of buying the Poseidon and is now willing to compete the program. Certainly, there are no shortage of alternatives to choose from, Airbus Defence and Space’s C295MPA, AleniaAermacchi’s C-27J, L-3’s Bombardier Q400-based MPA, Lockheed’s SC-130J Sea Hercules and the two jets, the Boeing P-8 and the Kawasaki P-1.

More Combat Aircraft

Senior officers have been concerned about the U.K.’s lack of combat aircraft for several years. Operations over Iraq against the self-proclaimed Islamic State has prompted the U.K. defense ministry to halt the shrinkage of the Panavia Tornado GR4 force, and retain a third frontline squadron of the type until 2017 because of the high tempo of operations. The Tornado is due to exit service in 2019, with the Typhoon taking on its ground attack duties. The SDSR 2015 looks likely to add perhaps one or two additional squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoons, using the Tranche 1 aircraft that U.K. had planned to start retiring in 2017.

Other squadrons would be equipped with the more advanced Tranche 2 and 3 jets for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Such a move fits with statements from senior officers who say that the Typhoon will make up 75% of the fast jet fleet in the 2020s.

Photo: Tony Osborne - Aviation Week

The Tranche 1s would be retained for U.K. air defense, training and as red-air aggressors for other units. First evidence of this was the recent transfer of Tranche 1 jets to the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic in September 2015, six years after the first four aircraft were sent down there. Rumor suggests that 30 of around 50 Tranche 1 aircraft will be retained. The biggest challenge for the Royal Air Force will be manning the squadrons however.

F-35 Orders

The secrecy around Britain’s F-35 plans has been a tough nut to crack. Britain now has 10 F-35Bs on order, having ordered an additional six on November 3 through the LRIP 9 contract. When Britain signed up to the Joint Strike Fighter program, it said it would buy 138 jets.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

But today, the U.K. defense ministry is currently planning for 48 aircraft for now. However some rumors suggest even this number could fall further and would support the carrier strike capability only. Others argue that over this long-term program and well into the 2020s with F-35 production well into full-rate, Britain could increase its buy further, and perhaps even consider the F-35A model. Whether the SDSR 2015 will provide more clarity on the F-35 plans is unclear, after all, by the time of the next report in 2020, the aircraft will have only just achieved its U.K. initial operating capability from land, based on current timetables.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

Last year at the Farnborough Airshow, Prime Minister David Cameron threw a lifeline to three of Britain’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. Both the Beechcraft Shadow R1 and the MQ-9 Reaper, both purchased as urgent operational requirements for the war in Afghanistan, along with the Raytheon Sentinel radar-surveillance jet had their operational lives extended until 2018. The three types had been due to exit service at the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in December 2014.

Aviation Week is confident that the Shadow will be retained in the SDSR and Britain will hang on to its Reapers until they are replaced with 20 examples of the certifiable model Reaper purchased under the Protector program - renamed from Scavenger – and revealed by David Cameron on the eve of the Conservative Party conference in early October. The future of the Sentinel is far less certain however and much depends on the choice of a maritime patrol/multi-mission aircraft. The aircraft has been widely deployed in recent years, most notably to Central Africa to support French operations in Mali. But without additional significant investment in the platform, Sentinel may well find itself surplus to requirements.

Photo: Tony Osborne - Aviation Week

Also unclear is the future of the U.K.’s E-3D Sentry airborne early warning fleet, which has suffered from a chronic lack of investment over the last decade. Without upgrades, the aircraft is now significantly behind in terms of capability compared to the E-3s operated by France, NATO and the U.S. and it may cost too much to bring them back to spec. One suggestion is that if the U.K. invests in the P-8, it could also look the 737 AEW&C solution, because of the commonalities between the airframes, but this would not be a cheap option, like with the Sentinel, much depends on the selection of a multi-mission aircraft.

Helicopters

Britain has heavily invested in its helicopters during and since the Afghan conflict, so it is difficult to see what changes the SDSR could bring about. Conceivably, the SDSR could impact the numbers of modernized Apache attack helicopter planned. Current planning is for 50 AH-64E-model aircraft down from 65. It could potentially revise plans for the U.K.’s fleet of 60 CH-47 Chinooks, some critics have suggested that the U.K. now has too many Chinooks.

Photo: Tony Osborne - Aviation Week

Defense officials could also retrospectively upgrade some of the eight EH101 Merlin anti-submarine helicopters that were not upgraded to Mk.2 standard. Such a move could give the navy more breathing room for training in the event of a large scale embark onto the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers in the future.

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