Boeing P-8’s May Be Headed to the Royal Air Force

My country, the United Kingdom, is an island nation. It’s also the world’s fifth largest economy and a major importer of all sorts of goods – electronics from China and Japan, oil from the Gulf, lamb from New Zealand, wheat from Canada and the USA. And it’s just a couple of days’ fast underwater travel from the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarnyy. Because the UK’s survival depends on sea trade, the 2010 decision to scrap the RAF’s Nimrod anti-submarine aircraft was widely seen as one of the most stupid a British government has ever made.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. The Nimrod was a highly modified version of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, which was developed in the late 1940s. By the time the Nimrod entered service in 1969, the basic design was already old, but it turned out to be very successful. The airframes, unlike modern airliners, could handle the stress of low altitude flight, so the Nimrod was able to hunt submarines with its sonobuoys and magnetic sensors at low level, then rapidly attack with torpedoes.

By the late 20th century, the Nimrod fleet – mostly MR2 patrol planes, and a handful of R1 ELINT variants – was getting old, and the RAF began looking for a replacement. Finally they accepted an offer from BAe to strip 21 of them – later reduced to nine – down to bare fuselages and completely rebuild them into a new variant, the MRA4. The plan was to fit new wings, tails and engines, and load them up with state of the art sensors, comms and fire control equipment as well as the latest weapons. The resulting aircraft would have been excellent – the best anti-submarine plane in the world by a long way, and with more ELINT capability than the R1 – but the plan was never realistic; BAe hadn’t thought it through.

P8The new wings – which included bays for the much larger engines that were to be fitted – were designed on computers using measurements taken from the first fuselage to be stripped down, then manufactured with modern computer-controlled tooling. Unfortunately, the fuselages had been built by hand, on jigs laid out on the factory floor by a guy with a chalk line. No two of them were identical – they varied by up to five inches in length. The new wings fit the first fuselage perfectly but wouldn’t mount on any of the others. That was eventually solved, but then other differences caused more problems. In the end it became obvious that the whole project was a money pit that wasn’t ever likely to work, and it was cancelled.

The problem was that, by this time, the rest of the Nimrod fleet was being phased out. The ancient planes were no longer safe – one blew up in midair over Kandahar in 2006, because its antiquated fuel system failed. That left Britain – an island, remember – with no maritime patrol aircraft. The government suggested various idiotic ideas like using C-130s for the job, but the truth was the capability had vanished. Just as Russia started to use its expanding submarine fleet more aggressively.

It seems the government has now got tired of begging the USA and France to run anti-sub patrols in British waters, and now plan to buy Boeing P-8s from the USA to fill the gap. The P-8 has pretty much the same electronics fit as the Nimrod MRA4, but a smaller weapon load. There are also some doubts about its ability to operate at low level; the structure is reinforced, and a lot stronger than its 737 parent, but it still isn’t as rugged as the Nimrod’s massively overbuilt 1950s airframe.

On the other hand, the P-8 actually works, and the Nimrod MRA4 didn’t. Common sense says the Ministry of Defence should have just called Boeing in the first place, instead of wasting billions trying to buy British when all they had to play with were museum pieces. Even if P-8s are ordered this week – which is a strong possibility – it will be years before they’re in service. And for all that time the waters around the UK will be a Russian lake.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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