ANALYSIS: First RAF Poseidon arrives in the UK

The Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) first Boeing P-8A Poseidon MRA1 – serial ZP801 (c/n 64175/7532), named Pride of Moray – has landed on UK soil for the first time.

ZP801 departed Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Florida, on February 4 and arrived at Kinloss Barracks on the Moray Firth in northern Scotland at roughly 1330 hours (GMT) that same day.

Kinloss is a former RAF station, previously home to UK maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) operations. In 2012, it was handed over to the British Army’s Royal Engineers. Its runway is maintained as a relief landing ground for aircraft operating from nearby RAF Lossiemouth, which is currently undergoing runway resurfacing work and will be the permanent home of the UK’s Poseidon force – consisting of No 120 Squadron and No 201 Squadron – later this year.

Poseidon [MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates] #1
Poseidon MRA1 - serial ZP801 - taxis to its allocated parking spot at Kinloss Barracks on February 4. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates

ACM Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, said: “The Poseidon MRA1 is a game-changing Maritime Patrol Aircraft. I am delighted and proud to see the ‘Pride of Moray’ and her crews returning to maritime patrol flying from Scotland, working alongside the Royal Navy to secure our seas and protect our nation. Russian submarines have nowhere to hide.”

A press release stated that the Poseidon's purchase is a direct response to increasing threats "such as Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic returning to Cold War levels, while China is also investing heavily in new Arctic facilities, infrastructure and ice-capable ships".

Defence Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: "Our Poseidon fleet will soon join an integrated UK force of fighter jets, ships, submarines, helicopters and highly-trained Royal Marines, read to operate in Arctic conditions. The UK will not stand by if peace in the Arctic region is threatened".

"RAF Lossiemouth's strategic northerly location makes it one of the most important air stations in the UK; already home to half of the UK's Typhoon Force, and now sitting at the heart of our anti-submarine operations", she added.

Poseidon MRA1 [​MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates] #2  ​
A pair of RAF Typhoons from No II(AC) Squadron - based at RAF Lossiemouth - peel off after escorting the ZP801 over Kinloss. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates

The Poseidon is designed to perform extended surveillance missions at low and high altitudes. It will be able to provide high-resolution area mapping to find surface vessels and submarines using of integrated sensors. The UK's P-8 fleet will also be a core defence in the UK's continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and will be used to work with allies across NATO such as the US and Norway.

 

The UK’s Road to Poseidon

The arrival of ZP801 marked the return of the UK’s maritime patrol aircraft capability which was lost following the retirement of the Nimrod MR2 in March 2010 and the controversial cancellation of its replacement, the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4, that same year under the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

Nimrod MR2 [MoD Crown Copyright/WO Rick Brewell]
An RAF Hawker Siddeley Nimrod MR2 patrols the skies over the North Pole as two Royal Navy submarines break through the ice. MoD Crown Copyright/WO Rick Brewell

Following the SDSR in 2015, the UK ordered nine Boeing P-8A Poseidons – in a contract worth £3bn – to fill the maritime patrol capability gap caused by the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4. 

The decision to procure the P-8A Poseidon as the RAF’s next maritime patrol aircraft has been debated since its announcement. The debate was featured in the August 2018 issue of AirForces Monthly, in which RUSI’s Justin Bronk and leading British aerospace writer, Jon Lake, argued whether Poseidon was the best option for the UK.

It was argued that the Poseidon – based on Boeing’s 737-800ERX – would provide an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution in line with US Navy-operated aircraft, mission systems and weapons suites without the need for major modification work. It was also an operationally proven platform – serving with multiple air arms up to the UK’s acquisition of the type.

Poseidon MRA1 [MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates] #3
ZP801 touches down on UK soil for the first time at Kinloss Barracks. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates

In highlighting the UK’s geographical and political position, Justin Bronk wrote that “with the rise in tension with Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Britain has had to request help from the US and France to track repeated suspected incursions by Russian submarines in British waters, lending added political urgency to the need to close the RAF’s capability gap”. He added that the UK needed a large turbofan-powered solution instead of a turboprop so the UK’s next-generation MPA would be able to cover large distances between the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap at high speeds and have the “endurance to remain on station for many hours conducting [anti-submarine warfare (ASW)] sweeps” – so it needed an internal fuel capacity large enough to accommodate this mission.

There are various turboprop-driven MPA platforms available on the market, such as the Airbus C295 MPA, L3Technologies Q400 Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) and the Leonardo/ATR P-72A maritime surveillance aircraft. There were also proposals from Lockheed Martin to modify the RAF’s ten short-fuselage C-130Js into the SC-130J Sea Hercules; and Northrop Grumman with its MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – the last was deemed to be too immature and not a complete solution.

The UK government opted to follow the turbofan-powered approach, which limited its choice two just two platforms – the Boeing P-8A Poseidon and the Japanese-produced Kawasaki P-1, which was designed as an MPA platform from the outset to fulfil the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) requirements. However, the UK selected the Poseidon with no open competition and no formal bids being invited, despite five platforms being reportedly evaluated alongside the P-8.

US Navy Poseidon/Kawasaki P1 [US Navy/MCS2C Douglas G Wojciechowski]
A US Navy P-8A Poseidon from Patrol Squadron 5 (VP-5) 'Mad Foxes' sits next to a JMSDF Kawasaki P-1 at the Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan in 2014. US Navy/PO2C Douglas Wojciechowski

The case against the UK’s Poseidon acquisition – as detailed by Jon Lake – highlights the P-8’s high cost in comparison to its counterparts, such as the P-1. He stated that “the Poseidon’s capabilities justify the high price tag, according to its supporters, who claim it represents the most cost-effective means of delivering those capabilities. It’s certainly an obvious choice for any air force aiming to achieve ever closer integration and ‘harmonisation’ with US operations.”

He added: “There seems to have been only a cursory examination of alternatives, and many in industry responsible for offering aircraft in response to the UK requirement felt their offerings were never seriously or properly looked at.” This was echoed when the UK government announced it had selected Boeing’s E-7A Wedgetail as a replacement for the RAF’s troubled E-3D Sentry AEW1 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) fleet in early 2019.

Poseidon MRA1 [MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates]
Members of No 120 Squadron disembark ZP801 after the transatlantic flight. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates

Despite the P-8 being in operational service, it is still relatively unproven in terms of combat mission use. The argument against the platform extends to the fact the P-8 will only be able to employ US weapons and systems, limiting the UK’s ability to anglicise the aircraft with its own equipment. However, the RAF states that “British weapons may be integrated in the future”. In RAF service, the P-8A will lack magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) equipment – in common with the US Navy – but not in line with India’s platforms. Unlike India’s P-8I aircraft, the UK’s Poseidon’s will not have a 360° radar capability and an aft-mounted, aft-looking Telephonics AN/APS-143C(V)3 Multi-Mode Radar augmenting the nose-mounted Raytheon AN/APY-10.

The biggest driver of the argument though is cost, both in terms of acquisition and operating/lifecycle – something which is branded by Jon Lake as the P-8’s biggest disadvantage. A cheaper alternative, such as the P-1 or Saab’s Swordfish proposal, could have involved more UK-focused development and anglicisation – which could have provided a more unique, mission-specific solution – and cheaper acquisition costs could have provided the option for a larger force, with the ability to operate more frequently at similar costs to the RAF and the capability to cover more areas when on operational tasking.

Poseidon MRA1 [MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates]
A team photo to welcome back maritime patrol capabilities to the RAF. MoD Crown Copyright/Sgt Ashley Keates