Search for Yacht Crew Exposes British Defense Gaps

Without maritime patrol aircraft, Britain is hardly able to commit assets to the search for a missing yacht.

A Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft flies in the vicinity of RAF Waddington, Nottinghamshire, England, July 12, 2011
A Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft flies in the vicinity of RAF Waddington, Nottinghamshire, England, July 12, 2011 (Jerry Gunner)

The disappearance of four British sailors in the North Atlantic following the loss of their yacht, the Cheeki Rafiki, demonstrates that the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) undertaken by Britain’s coalition government led by David Cameron is not fit for its purpose.

The SDSR opted to “not bring into service the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft” as well as cutting the Royal Navy surface fleet to just nineteen frigates and destroyers. These decisions have placed both British security and the lives of British sailors at risk — and the loss of the Cheeki Rafiki is unlikely to be the last time that this is proved.

The Nimrod MRA4 had a troubled development, plagued by delays and cost overruns that are all too familiar to British defense contracts awarded to BAE Systems. A contract for 21 aircraft was originally placed in 1996 following an international competition but the project ran into a series of problems which resulted in contract renegotiations in 1999, 2002 and 2003 and a further contract amendment in 2006.

The 2010 National Audit Office Major Projects Report found the MRA4 to be £789 million over budget and projected to be nine years late, having been forecast to enter service in April 2003. This was pushed back to December 2010 but when it became apparent that this would not be possible, October 2012 was seen as a more realistic date.

Furthermore, the initial order for 21 aircraft was reduced first to eighteen aircraft, then twelve and finally to a mere nine, tripling the unit cost in the process.

In delaying the MRA4, the National Audit Office reported that the Ministry of Defense had retasked other aircraft, both rotary- and fixed-wing, to perform Nimrod missions but that this had resulted in a reduction both anti-submarine and search and rescue capabilities. The aircraft was finally culled in 2011, and described by Liam Fox, then the defense minister, as something that “is not to happen again.”

In an open letter to The Telegraph, signed by six former defense chiefs, the decision to scrap the aircraft was described as opening a massive gap in British security. They repeated the concerns raised by the National Audit Office about the reduction in capability but identified further roles that the British military now had no ability to fulfill. These included long range maritime reconnaissance — something of importance to an island nation with potentially vulnerable sea lanes — and overseas territories and supporting the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines as they enter and exit British waters which was now left to frigates, helicopters or Hercules transport aircraft, depending on availability.

In May 2014, four years after the coalition came to power and more than three and a half years since the SDSR was published, there has still been no decision taken to replace the aforementioned gap in British security. We are now led to believe that a decision will be taken in the next defense review, sometime in 2015. Assuming this is the case, a further competition will take place and an aircraft will be selected. It is likely that rather than purchasing an off the shelf aircraft, an Anglicized variant of something will be purchased. This will inevitably push back the delivery of whichever aircraft is selected, meaning the maritime patrol capability gap could have lasted for over a decade by the time a replacement for the MRA4 finally enters service.

But this doesn’t only have national-security implications. The loss of the Cheeki Rafiki in May highlighted bigger gaps in British capabilities.

Three American and Canadian aircraft and several merchant vessels abandoned their search, having braved challenging conditions for two days. After a break of almost three days, a further search is underway. It took six days before British assets were committed to the search. A solitary aircraft will now participate but no Royal Navy warship has been dispatched to the area to search with its helicopter.

It is apparent that the government’s insistence that the search and rescue mission previously undertaken by the Nimrod would be covered by the C-130 has proved to be false: no Royal Air Force C-130 was committed to the search during the period when the Americans and Canadians ceased their efforts. The former defense chiefs who wrote to The Telegraph believed that frigates and helicopters could fill in the gaps but it is unlikely that they were expecting the surface fleet of the Royal Navy to be savagely cut.

The mantra of “more capability on fewer hulls” is often recited whenever criticism of the current fleet numbers is made. But the search for the crew of the Cheeki Rafiki provides a perfect example of there not being enough ships to go around. The search area is within four days’ sail for a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer departing Devonport yet no ship has been dispatched. A helicopter on the scene, working in tandem with British, American and Canadian maritime patrol aircraft, would greatly enhance the search for the crew while a ship on station could provide medical assistance to a crew exposed to the elements for several days.

Predictions for the 2015 general election are still shifting. For some time, Labour was in the lead but Cameron’s Conservatives now seem likely to come out on top. Whoever wins a year from now, the decisions they take when conducting their defense review must look at more than the obvious security implications. It must also factor in the ever increasing gaps in the capabilities of the British armed forces to deal with a mission as low risk and affordable as search and rescue.

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