The UK’s maritime patrol capability should be the result of an open competition, rather than a behind-the-curtains purchase of a preferred airframe
The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2010 was the moment when the UK government decided that a full-spectrum defence capability was no longer to be maintained: the moment when battling the budget deficit became the strategic imperative of the time. Arguably, the most visible symbol of that profound shift in posture was the cancelling of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft project – the Nimrod MRA4 – which was close to entering service. This decision was criticised by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and independent analysts on the basis that it would inevitably led to a distinct capability gap, though the government privately briefed members of the broader defence community that an MPA capability would be revisited in SDSR 2015. That moment is now arriving, posing tough questions for both the government and the armed forces.
July 2015 was an important milestone in the discussion over a future MPA capability. The Chief of the Air Staff’s (CAS) Air Power Conference was held in London, followed swiftly by the air tattoo at RAF Fairford. Both events brought together the senior military, their political sponsors, leading defence industrialists, commentators and journalists. A common theme offered by many was the admiration of the RAF for the Boeing P-8 aircraft; RAF aircrews had been training on USAF variants and reported that they were delighted. The subtext was clear: if the government was going to reinvest in a MPA capability, why not buy the P-8 off the shelf? In parallel, a campaign was starting to become visible for a British commitment to the Kawasaki P-1 patrol aircraft. Proponents made the case that a purchase or development of the P-1 would make for a game-changing collaborative defence programme between the UK and Japan with, perhaps, other NATO European powers tempted into a new commercial alliance. The potential for future defence exports were offered as a potential prize of such an approach, breaking today’s market dominance of the P-8 in long-range MPA capability. Consequently, at various moments over the summer, campaigners – in uniform and business suits – have been briefing and laying out their stalls, as if this was the way to conduct an exercise in capability acquisition in the modern era when, patently, it is not.
Those that champion the P-8 or the P-1, rather than the notion of the capability itself, are hoping for an announcement of an aircraft purchase this autumn, perhaps as the headline event for broader SDSR statements. One or two noises coming from RAF senior officers suggest that the P-8 is in pole position. However, a more nuanced response to a capability gap that was forced upon the military by SDSR 2010 would, instead, be to continue the ongoing work to fully understand the capability requirement for MPA over the next twenty-five years and to seek solutions – some conventional, some innovative – to meet that statement of requirement. Any announcement made, therefore, should be for the reinstatement of a necessary capability and a commercial competition, not the announcement of the imminent arrival of a purchased aircraft.
Joint Forces Command, supported by DSTL, has been undertaking an Air ISR Optimisation Study since 2012. This analysis attempts to understand the broader requirements for surveillance by air platforms out to 2030, including those for Persistent Wide Area Surveillance in the maritime domain. It is due to report before the end of 2015, providing evidence for a balanced set of requirements that might expand the remit of an MPA into a multi-mission set of tasks rather than just the simplistic like-for-like replacement that an off-the-shelf purchase might indicate. What is not clear is what sort of acquisition decision the study will inform.
Both authors have made this point in private to members of the government and military. The response tends to be that a quick purchase offers an immediate utility whereas the delay associated with a competition would merely extend the life of the capability gap. It is easy to understand the appeal of this logic. However, the UK has been busily reforming its Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) organisation to embed flexible and commercial procurement competencies, with the introduction of strategic partners from the private sector. The reason for undertaking this significant change programme was to offer the sort of utility – and speedy response – that an MPA competition would necessitate. If DE&S cannot handle MPA, can we have any confidence that it will be able to deliver the level of efficiencies and innovation made in the government’s original case for reforming the defence acquisition function? So, a smart statement of requirement and announcement of a fast-track competition for MPA could be a road-test of the new DE&S, offering the citizen the assurance that all potential solutions for an important strategic capability have been considered.
There are other benefits to such an approach. Sovereignty, in all its guises, is an important consideration when defence capabilities are considered. Reasonably, we need to understand constraints on our sovereignty when buying from overseas powers, and a smart requirement and acquisition programme allows the space for these debates. Moreover, collaborative programmes, particularly with the UK’s European partners, are to be a major theme of this year’s SDSR. The MPA provides an opportunity for this policy to be operationalised, and it is hard to object to open competition. We could also point to the skills agenda as UK companies have maintained skills and competencies associated with MPA design and manufacture, especially in and around Chadderton and Greater Manchester. These industrial competencies are at the heart of a long-term solution for capabilities such as MPA, unless the UK’s policy is to be a client state of (other) defence exporters.
Lastly, a competition offers the assurance that the government has secured the best price for the industrial components of a capability – such as equipment – whereas a non-competitive process typically affords only the comfort that a purchasing authority has bought to budget. It is not unreasonable that taxpayers should want the best return for their defence pound, and buying a preferred asset – even if it is very good – does not always meet this imperative.
So the redeployment of a MPA capability becomes a test of how this government and the military –following reforms undertaken during the previous coalition government – will generate the UK’s defence posture. Are we to be an importer of equipment rather than a country that in collaboration with our partners seeks to design, develop and deliver innovative capabilities? Do we test notions of affordability through competition or do we prefer championing a single-source solution? Significantly, do we invest our tax pounds in seeking solutions against a considered, predetermined requirement, or do we fall into camps, championing one piece of equipment against another? Because the latter scenario quickly defaults to a public relations campaign, the deployment of smart business development skills and the dark arts of customer-relationship management: all components of modern life, but we should be able to develop world-leading defence capabilities without these practices being to the fore. The decisions around MPA this autumn will tell us whether this thought is reasonable or naive.
Professor John Louth
Senior Research Fellow and Director for Defence, Industries and Society, RUSI
Senior Research Fellow in Sea Power and Maritime Studies, RUSI
Professor John Louth
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences