Originally designed to counter the Soviet Submarine threat that existed at the height of the Cold War, the fleets of NATO Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) were originally seen as ‘blue water’ maritime specialists. However, the traditional ‘sub-hunting’ role for the MPA has radically changed since the end of the Cold War with an increased focus on littoral warfare and operations other than war.
These platforms are now conducting increasingly complex and versatile missions, and although the main role for a MPA is predominantly maritime, the MPA can find itself operating overland as a significant asset in an air campaign. The crews of MPA have found themselves conducting missions as varied as search and rescue, maritime interdiction, launching stand-off land-attack missiles and long-ranged armed intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) sorties across the globe.
The evolving role of the MPA means that the platforms must demonstrate increased flexibility and have a broader range of capabilities than they were initially designed for. This fundamental requirement for more adaptable platforms has created significant problems for the operators of aircraft that were introduced into service over thirty years ago. Therefore, the MPA community is currently experiencing a significant period of development and acquisition, as there is a significant requirement to replace and upgrade the current MPA fleets.
However, there appears to be more than one solution to the universal problem and several nations have taken distinctly different approaches with regard to their ageing MPA fleets. As always there a number of different elements that affect the programme adopted by a country, but in a period of increased operational tempo and restructuring of armed forces towards network centric warfare there simply is less capital available for research and development of new MPA platforms. It appears that only nations with significant budgets have the resources to develop new technologies and platforms, whilst others are looking at more affordable solutions and some nations have no replacement strategy in place.
Currently the US is operating 150 Lockheed Martin P-3C at a cost of $ 36 million each. The P-3C is an Anti Submarine Warfare, Anti Surface Warfare and Maritime Patrol aircraft. The US Navy fleet has been reduced from 246 in 1990 to the current number and eventually the whole fleet will be replaced by the Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA). The US Navy has allocated $ 3.89 billion for system development and demonstration phase of the MMA based on the 737-800ERX. The total programme is estimated to cost $20 billion, with 108 platforms proposed, and the first aircraft is due in service in 2013. The USN is considering using a systems approach for their MPA replacement programme that would involve a UAV component known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS). As yet there is no commercial strategy for BAMS but it is believed there will be competition between General Atomic Predator B and a UAV variant of the Gulfstream G500 series long-range business jet.
The UK have decided to conduct extensive upgrades to their existing BAE Systems MR2 Nimrod fleet. The MR2, which is due to be replaced in 2009, will now under go extensive refurbishment to become the BAE Systems MRA4 (British Replacement Patrol Aircraft) BRPA, at a cost of between $4.1 billion and $5.3 billion. This maritime reconnaissance attack (MRA) platform will be an upgraded MR2 with 80% of the airframe been replaced to create essentially a new aircraft. At present there are three design and development airframes and BAE Systems are waiting for the British Government to announce the actual number required, but it is thought to be ‘around 12’.
This delay in the announcement could create a capability gap if it has not been finalised by the end of 2004. Unlike other nations the UK are not considering a UAV component to operate in the maritime environment because they believe that UAVs in their current form do not have the weapon carriage and mission system capability, and are focusing their attention towards large scale upgrades of an existing platform.
The UK has also identified a future requirement for a Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control (MASC) to be operated from the Royal Navy future carrier the CVF. The UK MOD has not announced how many MASC will be required but the indicated number is between 6 and 12 platforms at an estimated cost of $1-1.5 billion. The MASC will provide sensor coverage against air and surface threats, together with command and control for other air operations. Potentially the MASC capability will be filled by either a fixed wing aircraft such as the E-2 Hawkeye series, a helicopter such as the EH-101, the V-22 ‘tilt rotor’ or a UAV. At present the fixed wing option appears the more favourable, because a fixed wing aircraft would allow for a larger radar horizon to intercept sea-skimming missiles. However, the capability is still in the concept stage and no solution has been announced.
Germany are currently operating their 16 Dornier and Siebel Br 1150 Atlantics. First introduced in 1966, these platforms will continue with their current roles until 2012 with 12 platforms configured for Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Maritime Patrol (MP) whilst the remaining 4 are used for Electronic and Signals Intelligence (ELINT / SIGINT).
As a replacement for the ASW / MP Br 1150s Germany have purchased 8 P-3C Orions from the Royal Netherlands Navy for $355 million, and will take delivery of these platforms between November 2005 and March 2006. The ELINT / SIGINT Br 1150s will most likely be replaced by either High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) or Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV programme.
The Canadian Air Force uses the CP-140 Aurora for maritime reconnaissance (MR) and the CP-140 Aurora A for environmental control operations. Both types of aircraft were first introduced into service in 1982 and the fleet was purchased for $ 670 million. The Canadian government wants to keep the maritime reconnaissance variant in service until 2025 and conducted a series of upgrades in 2004 including the upgrade of the avionics, communications and air frame under the Aurora Incremental Modernised Programme (AIMP). All 18 maritime reconnaissance variants will be upgraded by 2011 with the first 2 used as prototypes and test articles, and then retired in 2011. The 3 CP-140 Aurora A aircraft will not receive any upgrades and will be retired soon.
Italy is operating 13 Br1150 Atlantics (Maritime Patrol Aircraft [MPA 2000]) and an additional 5 in store. These aircraft are due to be replaced in 2012, but Italy has not announced how it intends to proceed. Initially they were working in conjunction with Germany to achieve a combined MPA replacement programme for their Atlantic fleets. However, the coalition has been discontinued because of budget problems. The replacement solution could involve a limited life extension of the existing fleet or a longer term solution of some 14 aircraft with a UAV component. It is likely that the Italian solution could be similar to the German replacement programme.
The Netherlands are operating 10 P-3C Orion platforms that conduct Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) and Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW). However, a cut in the country’s defence budget of $ 411 million is forcing the Netherlands to scrap their MPA fleet. Therefore the Orion fleet is due to be withdrawn from Dutch service in 2005 and sold. Germany has purchased 8 platforms and Portugal has purchased the remaining five Orions, but there is no planned replacement for the Dutch armed forces. This decision is seen by observers as short-sighted, because the Dutch Orions have experienced a high level of activity since the end of the Cold War, and the decision will create a capability gap in a nation that has a long tradition of maritime operations.
The age of the platforms and the increased adaptability to multi role missions have combined to create an active market for the maritime patrol aircraft industry. However, the solutions that are been adopted by some NATO nations cannot be described as long-term in their concept.
The Netherlands decision to just ‘live with’ a capability gap is a decision they could learn to regret, and Italy will have to focus their efforts if they want to make a timely decision and avoid the possibility of having no platforms available to perform this vital role. The Germans appear to have a more rounded approach to the solution with their aircraft and UAV combination, but eventually they will be faced with major decisions about the aircraft they operate, as the Orion continues to age.
The US MMA and UK MRA4 are investing in products that potentially will influence the domestic markets in these countries. If these platforms are successfully developed and fielded there is little doubt they could have an increased influence in the larger global markets, where the age of maritime aircraft is an issue. Finally, UAVs will undoubtedly play an increasing role in the future of MPA development. As UAV technology continues to become more sophisticated and their payloads increase they will have the ability to conduct MPA missions on an equal par as the aircraft.