By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
The British government trumpeted defence deals with the United States worth over US$6 billion on the first day of the 2016 Farnborough International Air Show on 11 July, meanwhile Europe had to make do with a promissory note of jam tomorrow. In the wake of the UK's 'Brexit' vote, it was hardly ideal messaging, no matter how hard the out-going British Prime Minister David Cameron tried as he announced the agreements at the show.
The two key deals with the US were for nine P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and 50 US AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. The P-8 deal, including support and infrastructure investment, was valued at US$3.4billion, while the AH-64E deal was costed at US$2.4 billion.
Britain has done without its fixed-wing ASW capability for more than long enough, while finding a path ahead for the Army's attack helicopter fleet was becoming an increasingly pressing concern. This is in no small part due to the looming obsolescence of the present WAH-64 Apaches, ordered in 1995.
US aerospace giant Boeing is the beneficiary of both orders. The P-8 has been favoured by the Royal Air Force ever since the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme as part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, because of unresolved technical issues. RAF crew have been embedded with the US Navy to help sustain British ASW competencies, and in the process gain experience of the P-8. There was no genuinely comparable competitor to the P-8 in terms of capability. Several companies, including Airbus with a maritime patrol variant of the C295, Lockheed Martin with a C-130J conversion and L3 with a Bombardier Q400 MPA had made approaches to the UK, while Japan had sounded out interest in the Kawasaki P-1 aircraft.
Only the P-1 was similar to the P-8 in terms of basic aircraft performance, but it is at an earlier stage of introduction into service, and carried with it much higher risk than the P-8. Given the Nimrod MRA4 debacle, the British government was inevitably going to be wary of taking on undue risk in its choice of successor.
The attack helicopter programme has also been secured by Boeing. While at first sight this would seem an obvious choice – the company after all builds the Apache – the back story to British military rotary aviation is convoluted, to say the least, and in the past has claimed at least one senior ministerial resignation. In 1986, then-secretary of state for defence Michael Heseltine resigned from the government of Margaret Thatcher over what became known as the Westland affair.
Westland, now in its latest incarnation as part of the Italian-headquartered Leonardo Helicopters, had been trying to garner as much work as possible on the Apache re-life programme. It was Westland that was the prime contractor for the original Apache deal signed in 1995, under which the UK purchased 67 attack helicopters, all but ten of which were assembled in the UK. The WAH-64 was also fitted with Rolls-Royce rather than US General Electric turboshaft engines.
This time around the UK is opting for an 'off-the-shelf' purchase of the AH-64E through the US government's Foreign Military Sales mechanism, including US engines. While the AH-64Es will come off the US production line in Mesa, Arizona, they will not entirely be off the shelf. The ambition is to re-use critical subsystems from the WAH-64 re-hosted on the AH-64E airframe, including the radar and electro-optical sighting sensors.
Conscious of the impression that the transatlantic-only deals might provide – irrespective of the justifiable nature of the choices – the UK government also announced the renewal of a Strategic Partnering Arrangement with Leonardo Helicopters UK. First signed in 2006, this has now been extended for a further ten years. However, as the ministry noted in its release, 'the new SPA is not a contract and does not have financial value.'
Along with the Leonardo SPA, the government also announced a 'partnering initiative' with Boeing, which according to Cameron will 'create thousands of jobs, secure investment in R&D and create opportunities for the supply chain'. The devil, however, remains in the delivery.