Defence Committee - Future Maritime SurveillanceWritten evidence from Air Vice-Marshal A L Roberts CB CBE AFC RAF (retd.)


1. This submission is made in response to the Committee’s invitation, published on 9 February 2012, for written evidence on the current and future provision of maritime surveillance capabilities. My primary concern is with the recent removal of the long range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) from the UK’s maritime front line.

2. My background and experience in maritime surveillance is summarised at Appendix A.

3. The wisdom or otherwise of the decision to cancel the Nimrod MR4A lies outside the scope of this submission. However, it resulted in not just the cancellation of a specific aircraft project but in the removal of an entire capability—long range maritime air patrol—from the UK’s front line. In my view, this has resulted in a significant gap in the UK’s maritime surveillance capability and in an unacceptable risk for the UK’s defence interests.

4. This submission is made in full recognition of the financial challenge facing MoD—one which suggests that the likely Defence Budget will fall well short of the requirements of even the reduced front line of the three Services reflected in SDSR 2010.

Potential Threats in the Global Context

5. The Committee will be well-aware of the global context within which our maritime surveillance capability is likely to have to be effective. I offer here only the following thoughts:

(a)The evident determination of the Russian government (particularly under President Putin) to restore that country’s military capability is likely to be reflected in a resurgent Russian Navy, which is known to be continuing with the development of the most advanced under-water technologies, presenting an increased threat to the UK and, in particular, to it’s strategic deterrent.

(b)Arguably no less significant in the context of long range MPA is the evident determination of the Chinese to develop a full “blue water” naval capability.

(c)In excess of 40 nations seem determined to maintain significant submarine forces, including some (eg India) with nuclear boats. A number are investing in new conventional submarines of considerable capability; Iran, for example, has the very capable KILO-class submarine. These represent potential threats not only to naval forces but also to oil tankers and other commercial shipping.

(d)The UK will continue to rely on commercial shipping, much of which needs to pass through straits and other dangerous areas where, even in peacetime, it may be vulnerable to piracy and other threats.

(e)Unexpected threats to UK interests, requiring a very rapid response and deployment of maritime surveillance assets (and possibly enforcement in the form of active military counter-measures), are bound to continue arise, as they have in the past. For example, the threat to the Falklands (and, potentially, to the exploitation of its oil reserves) could again require rapid reinforcement of the islands, requiring surveillance in advance and, during force transit, defence in depth against both surface and sub-surface threats.

Likely Gaps and Deficiencies Remaining in 2020

6. It is self-evident that, with the reduction in the size of the surface and submarine fleets and the removal of MPA from the front line, the UK’s surveillance (and, indeed, general maritime defence) capability will have been seriously eroded by SDSR 2010. In certain situations, this could be exacerbated by any diversion of SSNs to conventional cruise missile land-strike operations.

7. Clearly, the UK will still have a range of maritime surveillance resources available in 2020, operating in the audio, visual and electronic spectra. These will range from satellites through airborne and surface platforms (both afloat and ashore) to sensors on the ocean floor. However, a comprehensive picture on which potential threats can be properly assessed requires both the precise position and the identity of those threats to be accurately and quickly assessed if appropriate counter-measures are to be taken.

8. Arguably, the most difficult threat with which to deal is the submarine. While satellite and seabed sensors will be able to contribute to the intelligence picture, the detailed data available from surface and/or airborne sensors is likely to continue to be required if submarine threats are to be evaded and, if necessary, neutralised. The SDSR 2010 savings measures will have seriously reduced the UK’s anti-submarine surveillance capability, not only in UK waters and the North Atlantic but also in the more distant areas of vital national and allied interest worldwide.

9. While helicopter surveillance, in lieu of that by MPA, in support of the deterrent is entirely practicable in the approaches to Faslane, the range of the helicopter, if it is to remain on station for long, is limited. Adequate cover for the deterrent therefore becomes more difficult further out along transit routes and may be impracticable in SSBN patrol areas. The amount of noise generated in the water by a helicopter, which can be counter-detected by any opposing submarine, is also a significant operational limitation.

10. The availability at short notice of towed-array frigates, and other ships with helicopter decks, will in future be very limited, making the absence of MPA of even greater concern.

11. An important task for MPA is to assist UK/NATO SSNs to get into the trail of potentially hostile submarines. With reduced acoustic advantage over the latest “enemy” submarines, achieving (and, when necessary, regaining) the trail covertly is often impossible to achieve without MPA help and, with the reduced number of UK SSNs likely to be available, lack of such MPA support must also be a matter for concern in this area of operations.

12. The UK’s surface surveillance (and, indeed, surface attack) capability has also been seriously reduced. In this area, the absence of the MPA-mounted UK maritime radar, with its unique ability to discriminate between different types of surface contact and to identify potential targets from ranges out to 200nm, even in a crowded environment and in high sea states (British industry is a world leader in this area), will no longer be available. Quite apart from its effect on our general surface surveillance capability, it has undermined the protection of naval forces , which would be in even greater danger from surface and subsurface-launched missiles in a threat environment without comprehensive defence in depth. It should also be noted that the UK no longer has the capability to survey the whole of the UK’s coastal areas rapidly at short notice.

13. Thus, our ability to police and secure our maritime borders and overseas interests, and to participate with allies in piracy, drug protection and counter-terrorism operations, has been greatly reduced. I have been told of a recent cross-Government initiative to integrate surveillance capability under the auspices of the Maritime Security Oversight Group. This is a welcome step forward in this area; however, the limited numbers of aircraft available will deliver only a very small portion of the overall surveillance requirement and the role of military fixed-wing surveillance platforms will remain key to our long-range capabilities.

14. Thus, I submit that the capability gaps in our maritime front line have reduced the UK’s surveillance capabilities to below an acceptable level. Quite apart from their own utility, the capability of even a small fleet of modern long range MPA (see paragraphs 34 and 35 below) could, to some extent, also compensate for the planned reduction in the size of the surface and submarine fleets.

15. It is significant that, shortly after the results of SDSR 2010 were announced, the First Sea Lord was reported in the press to have said publically that the Nimrod MR4A decision was the one aspect of the savings with which he was most uneasy.

Future Capabilities Needed by the UK and Lessons Learned from the Past

16. Tasks for which surveillance by MPA is required:

(a)Protection of the UK’s strategic deterrent.

(b)Protection of naval forces—in particular, the new aircraft carriers.

(c)Protection against threats to commercial and other shipping, including counter-piracy.

(d)Operations in such areas as the Caribbean in support of counter-drug operations.

(e)Protection of oil rigs and shore facilities against potential threats, including assistance in counter-terrorism operations.

(f)Protection of overseas territories, including the Falklands.

(g)The gathering of ELINT, acoustic and photographic intelligence.

(h)Search and rescue in aid of shipping and aircraft in distress.

Lessons Learned from Previous Operations

17. Maritime air in the past, and potentially in the future, has had a substantial but largely unrecognised impact across a wide variety of situations and emergencies across the world. Recent experience has been skewed by the diversion of MPA to other non-maritime tasks, followed by early withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 in order to reduce the predicted overspend in FY 201011. The following paragraphs summarise a few of the lessons to be learned from selected earlier operations.

18. Because of the very highly classified nature of operations in support of the UK’s strategic deterrent few, even within the Services, have been aware of the past contribution of MPA in this important field. Indeed, I have authoritative reason to believe that ministers were not fully briefed on this aspect of MPA activities before the SDSR 2010 decision was made. The Committee, during its classified sessions, may wish to enquire into the successful operations undertaken in support of the deterrent against the latest Russian submarines shortly before the grounding of the Nimrod force (from April 2010) when, because Royal Navy resources were unavailable, RAF Kinloss was tasked to undertake this task by itself. The lesson to be learned here is that, as the size of the surface and submarine fleets reduce, the need for MPA as a component of our surveillance capability increases.

19. During the operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the reduced Nimrod force was still able to conduct maritime surveillance operations from RAF Kinloss successfully, albeit at a reduced tempo.

20. The absence of MPA has resulted in a significant reduction in our ability to contribute to surveillance of the dangerous waters off Somalia or to give such support to operations in Libya.

21. Our ability to detect small drug-running boats in the Caribbean has been significantly reduced since the withdrawal of Nimrod’s radar capability—which was often the only available sensor capable of reliably detecting and tracking these vessels at long range.

22. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Nimrod fleet was able covertly to shadow, from a considerable distance, fishing vessels gun-running for the IRA from Libya and elsewhere to Ireland, operations that would now be much more difficult to undertake.

23. The coordination and tactical control of both ships and helicopters assisting in rescue operations following both the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig and the earlier Fastnet yacht race disasters graphically illustrates the capabilities of MPA in such situations.

Particular Attributes of the Maritime Patrol Aircraft as a Maritime Surveillance Platform

24. It should be borne in mind that MPA have both a surveillance and an attack capability. By virtue of its considerable weapon and sensor carrying capabilities, the MPA is, by its nature, inherently flexible—arguably, a potentially more “multi-role” asset than any other type of aircraft in the military inventory. As was demonstrated during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, it can be modified quickly to fulfil roles other than maritime surveillance. I am led to believe that the first Nimrods deployed to the Gulf after 9/11 were tasked in both overland and over-ocean surveillance and could be found over Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea in the same week demonstrating the true ubiquity of the MPA and the ability quickly to switch roles when deployed overseas.

25. In arguing the case for MPA, this flexibility can work to its disadvantage in that the maritime surveillance specialist will be wary of supporting any project that could be diverted to other roles, as happened with the Nimrod in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my view, the colour of the uniform worn by those who would fly any new MPA is far less important than the need to reintroduce MPA into the UK’s front line. Nevertheless, the Committee should be cautious about taking advice only from naval specialists and those (civilian and military) responsible for the naval elements of the defence budget; it should take into account the roles other than maritime surveillance in which MPA can be used, regarding this inherent flexibility as an advantage from the wider defence viewpoint, rather than as a disadvantage.

26. Relative to surface vessels, MPA have the huge advantage of speed of deployability in reaction to threats in new or unexpected areas, speed of search on arrival, and the ability to discriminate at a distance between targets of differing types (both surface and sub-surface). Now that the size of the surface fleet is set to reduce, the need for MPA to “hold the ring” will increase still further.

27. Speed of reaction to fleeting detections and in reaching datums when contact on a target has been lost can be of critical importance in anti-submarine operations. Frequently, it is only the MPA that can take advantage of such intelligence in sufficient time, not only when operating independently but also when assisting naval forces and especially when assisting an SSN into the trail of another submarine.

Limitations of Alternative Platforms

28. Perhaps the most graphic representation of the relative capabilities of fixed wing MPA and other platforms can be taken from an analysis of their surface search capabilities. For radar-fitted submarines, ships, helicopters and aircraft the indicative search rates are shown below:


Op Altitude

Radar Range

Radar Footprint


Search Rate




38 nm2


380 nm2/Hour



18nm (100ft Mast)

57 nm2


1,710 nm2/hour


10,000 ft


408 nm2


53,040 nm2/hour


35,000 ft


785 nm2


353,250 nm2/hour

29. It has been suggested that a combination of the Frigate, the Merlin helicopter, AWACS aircraft, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) and the C130 Hercules can act as acceptable substitutes for MPA. I have touched on the limitations of frigates and helicopters (even if they are available) in earlier paragraphs but some points need to be made about the other platforms.

30. AWACS. AWACS aircraft are fitted not only with very powerful radars but also with comprehensive tactical control, communications and electronic facilities. Undoubtedly, they can make a very real contribution to maritime surveillance. However, they do not carry anti-submarine sensors and, although their radars do have some maritime capability, their performance in this function is limited in all but relatively low sea states. These radars have little ability to discriminate between, and none to identify, the different types of maritime target.

31. The C130 Hercules. In addition to the armed forces’ military tasks, it should be borne in mind that the UK has an international obligation to provide search and rescue services over wide areas of ocean under the Chicago Convention. This is another area in which the loss of the long-range MPA with its maritime radar and other specialist facilities represents a significant reduction in capability. Qualitatively, the C-130 Hercules with its weather radar is not an adequate substitute in meeting our long-range search and rescue obligations and it would certainly not be able to coordinate multiple search activities in response to a major incident at sea in the same way as can the MPA.

32. UAVs. I understand that UAVs, as an alternative to MPA, have been examined in some depth by the MoD. Suffice it to say here that UAVs, as an alternative to MPA, would have a number of severe operational and technical limitations (some likely to be insurmountable, even in the long term). As has recently been illustrated by the USAF’s decision to ground its Block 30 Global Hawk in favour of extending the manned U-2 aircraft, the combination of UAVs and their support system can be very expensive indeed. This would be even more the case were they to take on all the MPA’s tasks, especially if this included its attack capabilities. I can say with some certainty that, although the UAV may well have its place in our future spectrum of maritime surveillance capabilities, it would not be cost-effective or even practicable as an alternative to the MPA. The Committee may wish to look into this matter in some detail.


33. MPA are intrinsically expensive in terms of both acquisition and running costs, the unit cost increasing as force size reduces. However, set against the cost of a frigate and given their particular attributes, MPA are relatively cheap and, it is argued, very cost-effective.

34. It is sometimes suggested that, given high support costs involved, acquisition of a very small MPA fleet would not be worthwhile. However, this is to ignore recent developments in aircraft performance and reliability. For example, in terms of our ability to maintain cover at a distance of, say, 1,000 nm from an operating base, the previously planned force of only nine Nimrod MR4As would have been the equivalent of a force of some 22–23 Nimrod MR2s or, to put it another way, even without air-to-air refuelling only 2.4 Nimrod MR4As would have been needed to maintain continuous cover at such a distance from base.

35. In inquiring into the likely costs of reintroducing MPA into the front line, the Committee will no doubt wish to take into account various options ranging, for example, from the relatively expensive P8 Poseidon (which can be AAR-equipped and is about to enter service with the US Navy) to the possibly cheaper but much shorter-range (and less capable) Airbus C295. Although, taking account of fixed support costs, the acquisition of a very few large long-range (and therefore relatively expensive) aircraft tends to involve presentational difficulties in terms of high unit cost, the Nimrod comparison above does illustrate that there can be a worthwhile trade-off between numbers and operational capability, and that acquisition of even a small number of MPA could be very cost-effective.

Collaboration with Allies

36. In order to economise in the use of assets for the surveillance of Russian/Soviet surface forces, it has long been the practice to collaborate with NATO allies (coordinated by the NATO Maritime Surveillance Coordination Centres). However, over recent years, platform availability has become more limited, a situation recently exacerbated by the loss of the UK’s MPA.

37. In the case of submarine surveillance, collaboration has tended to be limited by restrictions placed on the release of sensitive intelligence and by understandable reluctance to release details of the acoustic signatures of friendly submarines from which unfriendly targets need to be distinguished. However, cooperation and coordination with the US Navy’s MPA in exploiting especially sensitive intelligence has been particularly close, the RAF and USN often acting, in effect, as a single combined MPA Force. The recent request from the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations for the loan of RAF Nimrod aircrew to support the introduction to service of the P8 is a useful measure of the high degree of trust and understanding between the two Services and has resulted in a mutually beneficial agreement in maintaining the UK seed-corn for any future maritime air capability (see paragraph 39 below).

38. No doubt the Committee will be aware that the United States has warned its European allies that, following its decision to concentrate more on the Pacific at the expense of the Atlantic, maritime surveillance support in the Atlantic will in future be more limited than hitherto.


39. Essential elements in building up a maritime surveillance capability are operator expertise and experience, especially in the acoustics and electronic fields. Once lost, it can take years to regain. To guard against loss of MPA experience, some experienced operators have been retained for use in non-maritime posts within the RAF and the Chief of the Air Staff has arranged for RAF maritime aircrew to continue to serve with allied air forces (Canada, New Zealand and Australia and the USN as described above). However, this cannot continue indefinitely and it is important that at least some UK MPA capability be reintroduced as soon as possible if this essential seed-corn of expertise is not to be lost.

40. Nor should the importance of industrial support be forgotten. The longer MPA are omitted from the front line, the less likely is it that adequate supporting expertise in keeping abreast of the latest technologies (especially those involved in airborne anti-submarine warfare) will be retained within British industry.


41. The reintroduction of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft into the front line should be regarded as essential to the maintenance of an acceptable UK maritime surveillance capability. Indeed, for an island nation such as Great Britain, with its world-wide interests and dependence on the sea, no longer to have such a maritime air capability in its front line is, I suggest, extraordinary.

12 March 2012

Appendix A


Andrew Roberts entered the Royal Air Force through the RAF College, Cranwell, as a flight cadet in 1956.

Although, as a pilot, he has flown over 30 different types of aircraft, his operational experience has been largely in the maritime field, in which most of his flying has been on the Shackleton and Nimrod, although he also flown the Buccaneer and the Sea King/Wessex helicopters. Also relevant to this submission is the fact that over the years he has flown in, and exercised operational coordination of, maritime patrol aircraft of other NATO nations, as well as of US and NATO AWACS aircraft.

His staff and command appointments in the maritime field included:

responsibility for all MPA operations and development of NATO AWACS concepts of operation at Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT), a post which included responsibility for overseeing all Maritime Surveillance Coordination Centres throughout the NATO area [1975–77];

command of RAF Kinloss (Nimrod MR1 and 2) [1977–79]; and

Chief of Staff at HQ No 18 [maritime] Group, at the same time acting as Chief of Staff (Air) to CINCHAN/CINCEASTLANT at the Northwood headquarters [1987–79].

Appointments within the Ministry of Defence include:

Personal Air Secretary to USofS (RAF), serving both Labour and Conservative ministers [1970–71];

Director of Air Force Plans and Programmes [1984–87], responsible for the development and “Long-Term Costing” of the RAF programme and for its submission to form part of the overall Defence Programme;

Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff Concepts [1989–91], responsible for developing concepts on which the allocation of funding between the three Services and the centrally-funded equipment programmes over the following 25 years could be based; and

Leader of the RAF Manpower Strategic Studies Team [1992–94], responsible for developing new RAF manpower structures and supporting policies for the following 25 years.

He retired from the Royal Air Force in April 1994, to join the Lord Chancellor’s Panel of Independent Inspectors.

Prepared 19th September 2012