In January, the last of nine Poseidon MRA1 airframes was delivered to the RAF at Lossiemouth in Scotland and on 7 March the first UK-based Operational Conversion course commenced. MS&T Europe Editor Dim Jones journeyed north to see how the renaissance of Long-Range Maritime Patrol in the RAF is progressing.
Following the early retirement of the Nimrod MR2 in 2010, and the cancellation of the MRA4 programme in 2010, an increase in Russian submarine activity exposed the frailty of the allied cooperation which had been relied upon to ‘plug the capability gap’, and it became clear to the UK Government that the loss of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capability was not sustainable.
Boeing had shown early interest in offering the P-8A aircraft, and the Multi-Mission Aircraft Programme, covering all aspects of ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance), identified a requirement for 12 MPA aircraft if the RAF’s Sentinel remained in service, and 15 or 16 if it did not. In the event, Sentinel was retired, and affordability constraints in SDSR 2015 (national Strategic Defence and Security Review) reduced P-8A numbers. But, on 23 November 2015, the UK placed an order for 9 aircraft, to be known as Poseidon MRA1. The aircraft and support were procured by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) from the US under Foreign Military Sales (FMS), and the programme is administered by US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).
Two Poseidon squadrons are accommodated in a purpose-built facility at Lossiemouth, the Atlantic Building, a joint £100 million investment by the MOD and Boeing. 120 Squadron (known as CXX) is the first operational unit, and 201 Squadron is currently providing the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). Boeing Defence UK is the prime contractor under a £233.5m Aircraft and Training Support Provider contract, and is responsible, inter alia, for acceptance and major scheduled maintenance, while RAF personnel take care of line operations and rectification.
Poseidon MRA1 is based on the Boeing 737-800ERX airframe with -900 wings; the CFM56-7B engines provide excellent performance throughout the height envelope of surface to 42,000 ft, and enable four hours on task at a range of 1200 nautical miles. Each engine is equipped with an 180kVA generator, vice the normal 90kVA, in order to power the aircraft systems of which there is much external evidence: the APY-10 radar; MX-20 HD Electro-Optical equipment; defensive aids, including Early Warning Self-Protection, AAQ-24 Large Aircraft Infra-Red Counter Measures (LAIRCM), AAR-54 Missile Warning System and ALE-47 Counter-Measure Dispensers; and ESM, including IFF Interrogator, Automatic Identification System (AIS), Precision Direction-of-Arrival (DOA) and Geo-Location, Wide Frequency Coverage and High Probability of Interception (POI).
The plethora of external antennae bears witness to the formidable comms capability of the aircraft, and its military role is emphasised by the internal weapons bay; the baggage is carried in containers in the cabin!
Internally, the two-pilot flight deck would, with the exception of some additional displays and control panels, be pretty familiar to an airline operator; aft of the flight deck, it is a different matter. There are six operator workstations on the port side of the fuselage, each with two multi-purpose displays, and further aft are the racks and launchers for both active and passive sonobuoys.
Up to five Mk54 active/passive homing torpedoes are carried in the weapons bay, and there are external pylons for Harpoon ASMs. Poseidon is AAR-capable but with receptacle only, so would require the support of a friendly boom-equipped tanker.
About 71% of the Earth’s surface is water. In 2019, global export trade was valued at $19.48 trillion, and 90% of it travels by sea and passes through one of nine choke points, such as the Suez or Panama canals; some maritime patrol capability is, therefore, vital to a seagoing nation such as the UK, both commercially and militarily.
The UK’s MPA priorities differ slightly from those of its US allies, in that the USN is focused on shielding their carrier groups, whereas the UK’s priority is protection of the SSBN force from a large and increasingly capable Russian submarine fleet. Nevertheless, the primary roles of Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) remain the same, the former embracing search, identification, shadowing, marking, attack and damage assessment, and the latter search, detection, classification, localisation, tracking and attack. ASuW uses above-water sensors, such as radar and EO/IR, and ASW employs active and passive acoustics, radar, ESM, EO/IR using autonomous data or third-party furnished, and torpedo if attack is required.
Secondary roles include marine counter-terrorism, long-range search-and-rescue, and Joint Personnel Recovery. Poseidon’s sensors could also be used in an overland scenario, as part of a mixed ISTAR force.
Following the decision to retire MR2 and scrap MRA4, personnel from ‘Kipper Fleet’ (the sobriquet by which the maritime patrol fraternity were known in the RAF) dispersed in many directions, some redeployed to other aircraft types, and many leaving the RAF, some to work in the oil industry.
Notwithstanding these decisions, however, manpower planners anticipated a renewed requirement in the medium to long term and made appropriate provisions. These included maintaining the existing exchange programmes with friendly nations, including with the USN’s Test and Evaluation Centre at NAS Patuxent River, and instigating the ‘Seedcorn Programme’, whereby ex-Nimrod aircrew were embedded with ‘5-Eyes’ MPA forces in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, thus providing a cadre from which the UK force could be regenerated.
Supplementing ‘Seedcorn’ personnel, previously qualified aircrew have returned to the force, experienced aircrew from other roles (fast jet, heavy air mobility and rotary wing) have retrained, some who left the RAF have re-enlisted, and ab initio personnel have been recruited.
In January 2019, the first Poseidon Conversion Course – all experienced RAF aircrew – assembled at NAS Jacksonville to undertake a bespoke syllabus. Four more courses followed, providing instructors for the OCU. Course No 6 will be the first at Lossiemouth, and the first with ab initio students.
A Poseidon crew of eight (possibly to be increased to nine in the future) comprises:
- Two pilots, of which one is the Aircraft Commander, responsible at all times for the safe operation of the aircraft;
- Two TACCOs (Tactical Coordinators) who are both Weapons Systems Officers (WSO), and the senior of whom is the Mission Commander, responsible for the tactical employment of the aircraft;
- and four Weapons Systems Operators (WSOp), two of who are ‘dry’ – radar, EO/IR and ESM – and the other two ‘wet’ – acoustics.
Ab initio pilots will undergo officer training at the RAF College, Cranwell, followed by Elementary Flying Training on the Grob 120TP Prefect, and advanced training on the Embraer Phenom. WSOs will also complete officer training, and will then join their WSOp colleagues for advanced and specialist training. Ab initio WSOps will complete Basic Recruit Training and Direct Entrant Senior NCO training, both at RAF Halton; they will then undertake Military Aviation Groundschool at Cranwell, following which they will be role-streamed and complete specialist EW training for the MPA role, including synthetic training and flying in the Avenger aircraft at RNAS Culdrose. Role-qualified and other experienced aircrew destined for Poseidon will join this training pipeline at an appropriate point. All will then proceed to Lossiemouth for the six-month OCU.
Maintenance personnel will similarly have been recruited or redeployed. Ab initio engineers will have undertaken recruit at RAF Halton, followed by 15 months of specialist trade training at the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering at RAF Cosford. Those previously experienced will have completed appropriate refresher or conversion training prior to arrival at Lossiemouth.
P-8A Poseidon with two Typhoon over RAF Lossiemouth. Image credit: RAF.
Boeing Defence UK, as the Training Service Provider, designs the courses and provides support for them. Boeing are very much a part of the OCU team, and understand where the RAF would like to go with its training; indeed, many of their personnel are ex-RAF.
The courses conducted at Jacksonville used the USN courseware, but the RAF have spent two years adapting it to their needs, and UK courses will use the developed courseware. Maintenance training is tailored to specific trades within the two broad categories of Avionics and Mechanical, and has been adapted from the USN courses, using their aids and equipment. Classroom teaching is instructor-led, principally using PowerPoint, and is supplemented by synthetic training on the Virtual Maintenance Trainer, comprising three large touch-screen displays which can replicate a vast array of normal and emergency procedures and rectification techniques. The training environment is somewhat traditionally didactic, eschewing the multimedia demand-driven and headset/haptic-oriented settings to which we are becoming accustomed, but the very experienced teaching staff seem happy with it.
Aircrew Training is divided into academic, synthetic and live. There are desktop trainers which replicate the displays to be found in the aircraft and are used to develop individual skills, but the main thrust of the synthetic training is the Operational Flight Trainer (OFT) – essentially a Level-D FFS, although not accredited as such – and the Weapons and Tactics Trainer (WTT), a static representation of the rear fuselage.
The OFTs are built and supported by subcontractor CAE, with instructors from Boeing. The WTTs are built by Boeing, and supported by CAE console operators and controllers. The OFT and the WTT can be linked or operated separately, and there are plans to connect them to the RN’s Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS). The OFT Instructor Operating Station is in the simulator itself, and there is a fourth seat for a flying instructor, so that both front seats can be occupied by students.
In the air also, when above 1000 ft, the instructor can supervise from the jump-seat, leaving both front positions to be occupied by students. Only the left-hand seat is equipped with a HUD, so each pilot needs to be qualified in either seat.
The WTT allows the rear-crew instructors to operate either in the device itself or from the instructor consoles outside. In the air, they will instruct from behind the workstations, thereby allowing all seats to be occupied by students and, more importantly, allowing them to operate as a crew. There is a balance to be struck between observing, assessing and, if necessary, assisting individual performance, and judging the proficiency of the crew as a whole.
Students train on the OCU as constituted crews, and individuals will leave as Limited Combat Ready (LCR), which defines them as ‘capable of delivering effect, but with supervision’. They will then join constituted crews on their front-line squadrons, following which progression to fully CR should take about 6 months.
There are no embedded systems in the aircraft which would allow ‘synthetic’ training during live flying, for instance while en-route to a task area. Whereas any situation can be artificially represented in the WTT – and, indeed, real-world adversary signatures can be replicated to increase realism – live flying requires live supporting assets, and these need to be co-ordinated with the providers, principally the RN, and this is enabled through liaison with the tasking agencies at Northwood. Mission tasking is provided to crews through the Tactical Operations Centre (TOC), which also provides planning, briefing and debriefing facilities.
The UK bought Poseidon at ‘Increment 3 Block 1’ standard. The US Navy will upgrade to Increment 3 Block 2 later in the decade, and the intent is for the UK to follow shortly afterward to remain aligned with the US Programme of Record and safeguard capability.
There will eventually be two front-line Poseidon Squadrons at Lossiemouth, CXX and 201, plus a separate OCU; these will generate front-line crews, plus additional crews from force executives, squadron training teams, OCU staff, Stan/Eval and the OT&E unit. Interim Capability will be achieved this year, and Full Operating Capability in 2024.
Deployed aircraft will be supported by a mobile TOC and, when I visited, two aircraft and crews were deployed to Sigonella in Sicily in support of Exercise Dynamic Manta; this was the first time RAF P-8s had operated from an overseas location, and the first time they did so on operations.
In the meantime, however, the scene will change with the arrival of the Wedgetail AEW1 (E-7A), also 737-based and due to appear next year. The OCU will then be a joint P-8/E-7 unit, and the engineering squadron will also be joint. The single operational E-7 squadron will be accommodated in the Atlantic Building, and elements of the engineering operation will move to a facility closer to the flight line.
Under a government-to-government agreement, the Poseidon OCU will, from 2024, be training P-8A aircrews from Norway, who are also buying the aircraft. There remains an operational need for more RAF airframes, but MPA will be competing with other worthy causes for scarce resources – the RAF asked for five Wedgetails and got three – and the Boeing order book must close at some point.
Poseidon is clearly a very capable platform and, despite delays caused principally by the late delivery of OFT and PTT, and although the OCU will effectively be developing the course at the same time as conducting it, the force is clearly well set and keen to engage in the task of regenerating an operationally effective RAF MPA capability. By any measure, and hindsight notwithstanding, the 2010 decision to dispense with this capability was an egregious misjudgement; it is thanks to some commendable foresight, particularly in terms of the role played by Seedcorn in retaining and supporting key personnel, that the ability to regenerate it was not lost more permanently.