Nimrod Was Actually a Fine Hunter: Britain’s MRA4 Program
British naval theorist Sir Julian Corbett saw the navy’s proper role as “directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.” Airpower plays a prominent role in both of those missions. In 1996, Britain began a program to rebuild their existing Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol planes to the MRA4 standard with new wings, new engines, and new internal technologies and mission systems.
Unfortunately, that program has faced a series of budget cuts, stalls, and conditions that have reduced the program from 21 aircraft, to 12, to 9 – and then to 0. In 2010, Britain decided to give up fixed-wing maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft entirely, then scrapped all of its Nimrod MR2s. Its MR1 electronic eavesdropping planes followed, in June 2011. Leaving the burning question: now what?
Hunters of Subs & Signals: Britain’s Nimrods
In the face of the Soviet threat to the West’s vital sea lanes, and thus its reinforcements in the event of war, long-range maritime patrol aircraft were a high priority for the western alliance. In the post Cold War world, control and surveillance of the sea has remained every bit as important. Like cyberspace, the sea is neutral terrain. One whose natural state is ungoverned, but its use plays an important role in servicing and securing the governed spaces that adjoin it. The Nimrod fleet’s job is to survey those spaces, and if necessary to deny them to enemies.
Like Lockheed’s P-3 Orion, Britain’s Nimrod aircraft are also based on a previous airliner design. Unlike the USA, Britain chose a jet-age Comet airframe. They ended up with an aircraft that boasted an unrefueled endurance of over 10 hours and longer range than the P-3, but less-favorable “low and slow” flight characteristics. The British claim, however, that “propeller-engined aircraft make a discrete resonance that can be detected by submerged submarines, whereas the jet noise of the Nimrod is virtually undetectable.”
Both aircraft types would go on to see long and successful service, and both would also be produced in ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) / SIGNIT (Signals Intelligence) versions: the EP-3, and the Nimrod R1. Both would also face difficult replacement programs, with the USA canceling the P-7 and eventually settling on the 737-based P-8A.
Instead of buying a new aircraft type, Britain saw its challenge as renewing its Nimrod fleet. The Nimrod bomb bay can carry both torpedoes (including the new Stingray) and AGM-84 Harpoon missiles; Nimrods were also fitted to carry AIM-9L Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles on underwing pylons during the 1982 Falklands War. The aircraft adds a selection of air deliverable multi-seat dinghies, survival packs and other stores for search-and-rescue duties, and can carry around 150 sonobuoys of several different types in internal mounts for anti-submarine work.
Nimrod’s Initial Upgrades
In the early 1980s, the aircraft was upgraded to MR2 standard. That’s no easy task, since the way the Nimrods were built means that each jet is slightly different. The flight deck and general systems remained the same, apart from the later addition of an air-to-air refueling probe as a result of lessons learned during the Falklands War in 1982. On the other hand, the MR2 version gave the Nimrod’s main underwater and search systems a significant upgrade. Until 2010, the aircraft operated from RAF Kinloss, equipping 120 and 201 Squadrons along with the Operational Conversion Unit, No 42 (Reserve) Squadron.
The Nimrod MR2′s capabilities would eventually prove to have applications beyond the world’s sea lanes. When British land forces found themselves locked in combat on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nimrod’s excellent surveillance and communications relay capabilities found themselves in demand over land as well.
For the ELINT/SIGINT Nimrod R1 version, the original maritime equipment was removed from the airframe. They were replaced with a highly sophisticated and sensitive suite of systems used for reconnaissance and the gathering of electronic intelligence. As the British MoD put it: “The ability of the Nimrod to loiter for long periods, following a high-speed dash to the required area of operation, make the aircraft ideally suited to this task.”
The Additional Readings section adds technical details for each of Britain’s serving Nimrod variants.
MRA4 Program: The Next Nimrods
The British MoD maintained that approximately 1,000 jobs were associated with the Nimrod MRA4 modification program. Delivery of the first production aircraft to RAF Kinloss was ready to go, and the first Nimrod MRA4 was expected to enter service around 2012, when the roof fell in. In November 2010, Britain’s Strategic Defence Review canceled the program outright, and every serving MR2 and in-conversion MRA4 plane was subsequently destroyed.
The Nimrod MRA4 program had BAE Systems as its prime contractor, with Boeing responsible for the tactical command system, and Dorset-based FR Aviation as the key provider of maintenance services for the program. Begun in 1996, it was revised several times as the number of aircraft steadily dropped. In 2006, the program was revised to just 9 aircraft. Nor was that the only change. As the July 2006 British MoD release notes:
“The revised contracting arrangements offer greater transparency, and an essential part in turning the project around was the development of an effective partnering relationship between MOD, BAE Systems and its supply chain. These are key elements of the recently published Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS).”
That was the hope, which did not manifest in practice.
“Both parties have drawn a line in the sand and the contract is now going ahead albeit as one source reports that each plane will have to be virtually hand built with a commonality problem for some parts.”
Apparently, many of the Nimrods were originally built with a low level of standardization. That fact, combined with the effects of many years of service in salt water conditions, made the upgrade process very difficult, no matter what methods were used.
MRA4: The Upgrade Process
It certainly wasn’t easy. Naval-Technology.com:
“The remanufacture of the MR2 Aircraft involves an extensive reconstruction. The aircraft is stripped and the outer wings cut off and the centre box, including both inner wings, are removed from the fuselage which is stripped back to the bare alloy. The new wings are being built at BAE Systems in Chadderton and transported to BAE Systems in Woodford. The aircraft also has new undercarriage and hydraulics systems.”
Not to mention additional wing pylons for AIM-9 Sidewinder air-air missiles or more AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles; improved electro-optical sensors and surface-search radar; a “glass cockpit” of digital displays and screens. Boeing’s Nimrod MRA4 Tactical Command System will integrate its operations and provide over 20 times the data management & display capability possessed by the current MR2 fleet. Boeing’s work had an expected value of $600 million over the life of the contract, and included a new stores management system from Smiths Industries. Smiths Industries would also provide a new Navigation and Flight Management System, and new systems to manage and diagnose its various mechanical components. Other important suppliers include Thales (pulse Doppler radar), Elta, and Litton.
The new MRA4s would be powered by 4 Rolls Royce BR710 turbofans, which currently power a number of business jets – including the long-range Bombardier Global Express, on which Britain’s new ASTOR program’s Sentinel R1 reconnaissance and signals intelligence aircraft is based.
In addition to improving the aircraft’s combat capabilities and maintainability, these improvements were expected to extend the Nimrods’ patrol endurance to 15 hours, and their unrefueled range to 6,000 miles. The new aircraft were now explicitly tasked with both land and sea surveillance responsibilities, as opposed to the MR2s which were naval aircraft pressed into overland service.
Training was also upgraded. The Nimrod MRA4 Aircraft Synthetic Training Aids (ASTA) is a fully integrated suite comprising 2 dynamic simulators, 2 flight training devices, 2 rear crew trainers and a part task trainer. Thales has been responsible for the design, manufacture and installation of this suite of products for the RAF under a prime contract from BAE Systems, and the devices had been progressively installed and commissioned at RAF Kinloss in Scotland since 2004, in preparation for aircrew training.
By 2007, the 3 operational Nimrod MRA4 development aircraft had already conducted more than 125 trial flights, including live link-ups with Royal Navy destroyers at sea, and a July 18/06 appearance at Farnborough International Airshow. Those flights continued throughout 2007 and beyond, until Britain scrapped its Nimrod fleet and cut up the aircraft.
In the end, the base aircraft themselves were a stumbling block that were too big for a tightening defense budget.
Contracts and Key Events
2011 – 2012
Nimrods cut up, then missed; UK MoD still has no replacement plans, but options may be flying for the RAF already.
April 23/12: Ok, maybe plans. Air Vice Marshal Mark Green tells Parliament’s defense committee that a decision on reconstituting the maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) capability will likely become part of the 2015 SDSR, after an internal Defense Ministry study found that new aircraft would be needed over the medium term.
To help sustain its knowledge base, the U.K. has established a “Seedcorn” program that includes exchanges with other militaries who operate such aircraft. Even so, it’s likely to be 2019 at least before anything useful is fielded as a substitute. In the mean time, talk continues regarding UAVs for existing ships, and the additional of maritime patrol capabilities to the Sentinnel R1 aircraft fleet’s radars. Aviation Week.
April 18/12: No plans. The UK’s Daily Mail reports that the UK MoD is considering the RC-135 Rivet Joint or P-8 Poseidon as Nimrod replacements.
The RC-135 is indeed replacing some Nimrods, but Project Airseeker will replace the Nimrod R1 electronic eavesdropping planes, not maritime patrol aircraft. With respect to the P-8 rumors, the UK Ministry of Defence says that:
“This is not true. The paper has inaccurately reported the comments made by Air Vice-Marshal Mark Green… answering a hypothetical… about which aircraft the MOD would look to buy if it was felt a replacement was required. We assessed the implications of removing Nimrod from service and are confident the threat can be managed without the need for a replacement maritime patrol aircraft. We constantly monitor the threat but there is no evidence to suggest our assessment will change in the short term.”
April 17/12: Shadows & Sentinels. Flight International reports that replacement options for the Nimrod fleet may already be on hand in Britain, via its ASTOR Sentinel R1 ground surveillance jets, and its twin-turboprop fleet of King Air CER “Shadow” surveillance aircraft.
“Raytheon believes the [5 Sentinel R1s]… could deliver the UK’s contribution to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance system… Paul Francis, Raytheon UK’s head of airborne solutions, says the Sentinel’s dual-mode radar could also possibly be given software-based changes to enable it to provide a maritime patrol capability to search for, track and identify surface vessels. Raytheon is under contract to provide logistics support for the Sentinel fleet until September 2016, and recently completed a build-standardisation programme on the fleet… Meanwhile, a fifth Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350CER-based Shadow R1 was delivered to the RAF’s 14 Sqn at Waddington last December.”
The ASTOR jets were also slated for phase-out in the 2010 SDSR, but not until after Afghanistan. Meanwhile, they found themselves in heavy demand over Libya, which could cause a re-think. Britain has a 3rd obvious option in its MQ-9 Reaper long-endurance drones. Maritime surveillance versions have been touted for some time, and once Britain’s Reapers return from Afghanistan, it would not take much to equip them for maritime missions closer to home.
Dec 14/11: Britain is really missing its Nimrod patrol planes. They had to dispatch a Type 42 destroyer from Portsmouth on the English Channel, to watch a Russian battlegroup 25 miles off of Scotland that included the Admiral Kuznetzov aircraft carrier.
May 16/11: Missed over Libya. During the war against Libya’s Qadaffi regime, US Navy P-3s are required, in order to keep watch over British ships operating off of Libya’s coast. The Sun.
Jan 27-28/11: Scrap. Six senior military figures submit an open letter to the Daily Telegraph regarding the MRA4 Nimrod cancellation: former Chief of the Defence Staff and Marshal of the RAF Lord Craig, Admiral Sir John Woodward, Major-General Patrick Cordingley, Major General Julian Thompson, Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason and Air Commodore Andrew Lamberthave. They argue that the Nimrods cannot be fully replaced by other assets, and that retiring them without replacement will leave a huge hole in Britain’s defense. They end with:
“In a week when reports suggest that the Government is seeking to impose even more severe cuts on the defence budget, it is not perverse to suggest that the gap left by broken Nimrods should be readdressed.”
The next day, minister Liam Fox replies:
“The decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 programme was one of the most difficult we had to take… The single MRA4 aircraft that had been delivered to the RAF was so riddled with flaws it could not pass its flight tests, it was simply unsafe to fly… It would have taken more money and more time to rectify all the problems, if it was possible at all, and the onward cost of sustaining even the reduced fleet over the next ten years was a prohibitive £2bn. So we took the decision not to throw good money after bad… Because the airframes are based on a 1940s design, there is no realistic demand for them, and storing them would not be cost effective. We are having to pay to dispose of the aircraft but this is dwarfed by the projected cost of continuing to blindly pursue it.”
The argument is moot; the aircraft are already being cut up for scrap. Defence Management.
Jan 17/11: Britain’s BBC reports that termination costs for the Nimrod project will reach about GBP 200 million (about $320 million), including shutdown and disposal expenses, and contract compensation to BAE Systems. The BBC adds that:
“Axing the project means large job losses, as about 1,000 people were working on the project at Woodford, near Stockport, and another 200 at Brough, East Yorkshire. A further 500 in Warton, Lancashire, were due to support the planes in service.”
MRA4s “ready to train,” then grounded; Program Cancellation.
Nov 20/10: About half of Britain’s MRA4 Nimrods were ready or nearly ready when the program was canceled, and incidents since the fleet’s retirement are causing some consternation around the North Sea. The Scotsman:
“In a written answer to Moray SNP MP Angus Robertson, defence minister Peter Luff said that one of the MR4A maritime reconnaissance aircraft was ready, three were more than 90 per cent complete and the other five were at least 40 per cent complete. The cancellation of the project, which has already cost the UK [GBP] 3 billion, sealed the fate of RAF Kinloss, which now can only survive as a potential army base for troops being withdrawn from Germany… concerns have been raised privately by the Norwegian government that areas are now not being properly monitored. In recent weeks there were suggestions that the UK was unable to track two Russian submarines which came into international waters. An American spy plane – the P3 Orion – was launched from Kinloss to try to fill the gap but the trace on the submarines were lost. There have also been questions about how the new Trident submarines can operate secretly without the help of Nimrods.”
Nov 19/10: British PM David Cameron confirms that with the retirement of the Nimrod fleet, RAF base Kinloss will close. This is a bit of a double-hammer to the Scottish Moray region: nearby RAF Lossiemouth also looks set to close, as it loses its Tornado fleet to RAF Marham.
That has touched off a campaign to avoid the double closure, but Kinloss doesn’t seem poised to benefit. One reported option may be to move the air defense Eurofighters at Leuchars north to Lossiemouth instead. BBC | The Scotsman | STV.
Nov 17/10: General Sir David Richards discusses the loss of Britain’s maritime patrol fleet with the House of Commons Defence Committee:
“It hasn’t been a happy acquisition story. Given that its primary role is to do with the deterrent, of which it is one of five layers that do that sort of thing-I am choosing my words clumsily but deliberately-the view was that it was a risk that was acceptable, and we have all signed up to that. I cannot go into the detail of those layers of activity, but people who know much more about it than me were of a view that, in this respect, it was a risk but it was not a gamble… I think I am right in saying, but I will have to confirm it, that the decision has been taken to take those aircraft out of service and not even to mothball them. The professional military now need to work actively with allies to see how we mitigate that risk… The French are very keen to find a way to help us through this, and other nations are doing the same. I think this is going to be a growing part of our lives.”
Oct 18/10: Britain’s new government releases its 2010 Strategic Defense and Strategy Review [PDF]. The result is the end of the Nimrod MRA4 program entire:
“…not bring into service the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft programme. We will depend on other maritime assets to contribute to the tasks previously planned for them;”
Oct 17/10: Nimrods grounded. The Daily Telegraph reports that the new Nimrod MRA4s have:
“…stopped flying for the last four weeks after MoD inspectors detected a problem. A RAF spokesman said a “potential safety issue” had been found while the MoD was assessing the aircraft… One Nimrod had already been handed over to the RAF but the other eight remain with the manufacturers, BAE Systems, until the problem is rectified. BAE refused to answer The Daily Telegraph’s questions about the nature of the “safety issues”. Instead, the company said the Nimrod was “undergoing planned maintenance”, although it admitted that the MoD was “undertaking an operating risk survey”.
March 10/10: The UK MoD formally accepts the Nimrod MRA4 as “ready to train.” This declaration follows the type acceptance of the MRA4 which allows the delivery of production aircraft and the start of aircrew training, and the handover of the first production aircraft (PA04) after aircraft acceptance tests.
PA04 has now moved from Woodford to BAE Systems’ Warton site, where RAF aircrew will be trained under a “train the trainer” Transition Program. Transfer to the aircraft’s future main operating base at RAF Kinloss is expected in late summer 2010, once an initial release to service and a support contract are in place. BAE release.
March 8/10: First flight of the second MRA4 production aircraft, PA05, which will undertake acceptance flights. BAE says that the remaining 7 production aircraft are all in build and will be delivered on schedule.
Budget shift delays MRA4; In-service support deal; Nimrod MR2 failures chronicled.
Dec 15/09: The Ministry of Defence announces GBP 900 million in budget shifts to fund operations in Afghanistan. As part of those shifts, the Nimrod MR2 will be taken out of service in March 2010, 12 months earlier than planned, and the introduction of the Nimrod MRA4 will be delayed until 2012. UK MoD.
Oct 28/09: The Haddon-Cave independent review is published, and offers a strong indictment of the airworthiness and system failures that led a Nimrod MR2 to exlode over Afghanistan. Read “Coroner Delivers Scathing Indictment of UK Nimrod Fleet, Procedures” for the full report.
Feb 6/09: BAE Systems announces 2 UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) contracts worth GBP 119 million. At present, key commodity items are managed by individual Integrated Project Teams within the UK MoD, even for projects that are under through-life support contracts. The CAPS (Commodity Availability Procurement Strategy) program will transfer those responsibilities to BAE, and the UK MoD expects it to result in savings of about GBP 20 million.
This first availability service contract, worth GBP 103.5 million, will see BAE Systems assume responsibility for the provision of spares and repairs, and technical, software and test equipment support for a range of Electronic Counter-Measures (ECM) equipment in Harrier and Tornado fighters.
A second GBP 15.5 million contract will provide wheel, tire and brake service across the Harrier, Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol, Hawk trainer, and VC10 tanker/transport fleets.
Work will be carried out at Sealand in North Wales, Edinburgh in Scotland, Luton north of London, RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, and RAF Marham in Norfolk. BAE Systems and the UK MOD will continue to develop CAPS, in order to cover other commodity items that will support in-service aircraft. Ultimately, the UK MoD believes that CAPS could cover up to 73,000 stock items. UK MoD | BAE Systems.
Jan 14/09: Flight International reports that BAE Systems will receive a sole source contract to develop and implement an in-service support system for the MRA4s.
The contract will be placed on Jan 31/09, with an initial amount of GBP 20 million ($29.1 million), and a total value of up to GBP 100 million over 5 years.
Nimrod Ageing Aircraft Audit; MRA4 Cost growth.
Aug 1-Sept 1/08: QinetiQ undertakes the Nimrod Ageing Aircraft Audit. The first report [PDF, 2.5 MB] details the Audit, while the second report [PDF, 3.9 MB] summarizes the efforts undertaken by engineering maintenance specialists to investigate the 19 example observations reported in the Audit. UK MoD.
May 23/08: The parents of some of the 14 men killed in the Sept 3/06 explosion of RAF Nimrod #XV230 over Afghanistan have undertaken their own investigations, and pushed for an inquest. That inquest has now been conducted, and its findings are in. They detail a history of serious fuel line problems and corrosion since 2005, which was not addressed and possibly not even communicated to ground maintenance personnel. The coroner recommended grounding the fleet, and has declared that the Nimrods were never airworthy. The UK MoD says they will continue to fly the planes. See “Coroner Deivers Scathing Indictment of UK Nimrod Fleet, Procedures” for more.
March 14/08: Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that “UK Royal Air Force (RAF) commanders are moving to rebuild the maritime warfare skills of their Hawker Siddeley Nimrod MR.2 maritime patrol aircraft force. Such skills have faded after seven years of the fleet concentrating on over-land surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan. The high point of these efforts – which have been dubbed Project Hunter – will be the deployment of two Nimrods to Hawaii in July this year to participate in the bi-annual ‘Rimpac’ (Rim of the Pacific) exercise run by the US Navy.”
March 11/08: The UK’s Parliamentary Defence Committee releases its Defence Equipment 2008 Report [PDF], which singles out the Nimrod program for special scrutiny. Excerpts:
“The Nimrod MRA4 programme has experienced further cost growth of some [GBP] 100 million in 2007-08, bringing the total forecast cost growth on this programme to [GBP] 787 million or 28% of the Approved Cost. The programme has also experienced further slippage in 2007-08 which now totals 92 months, some 7.5 years. The new Minister for Defence Equipment and Support needs to look closely at this programme to assess whether it is ever likely to deliver the capability that our Armed Forces require within the timescale needed. If it does not, the MoD should withdraw from this programme.
Since the DE&S Chief Operating Officer, Mr Gould, told us that the problems being experienced on the Nimrod MRA4 programme were not considered unusual, that they had been experienced on the MRA2 programme and that “it was predictable”, we are deeply concerned that they nevertheless seem to have come as such a surprise to the MoD… We accept his contention that, because of the long gap between the MRA2 conversion programme and the MRA4 programme, some 20 years, the experience from the earlier programme had been lost, but we are disappointed that this had not been recognised at a much earlier stage of the programme… This is a programme that has been beset by one problem after another and neither the MoD nor the contractor appears to be able to get a grip on it.”
See “Britain Releases Defence Equipment 2008 Report” for more.
2006 – 2007
Revised MRA4 contract for 9 planes; MRA4 torpedo drop; MRA4 training; MX-15 surveillance turret retrofit for Nimrods; Nimrod MR2 catastrophe; Lightning tests.
Sept 12/07: Thales UK and BAE Systems announce a training-related milestone. As part of the ASTA agreement Thales UK and BAE Systems acknowledged:
- The handover of the Aircraft Synthetic Training Aids (ASTA) from Thales UK to BAE Systems
- Authorisation from BAE Systems to Thales UK to proceed with an upgrade to the ASTA to meet the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) 2009 start date for aircrew training. This upgrade will support the requirement to bring the ASTA up to the agreed initial production aircraft standard as they are delivered to the MoD.
Aug 14/07: Lightning is a hazard for all aircraft, especially those carrying as many sensitive electronics as the Nimrod, and which has 90 systems on the aircraft that are flight safety-critical. BAE Systems offers a window into their testing to demonstrate the Nimrod MRA4′s resistance, involving more than 4 km/ 2.5 miles of specialized aluminum framework and over 400 high voltage pulses. Tough job for aircraft PA03.
It’s an aspect of aircraft certification that is common but rarely described; DID thought our readers would find the BAE Systems release and its description of their procedures interesting.
July 30/07: BAE Systems announces that a Nimrod MRA4 has successfully released the Sting Ray torpedo for the first time from its radically redesigned stores release system. The safe separation trial to demonstrate the ability to deploy this store from the MRA4 bomb bay took place at Aberporth range off the coast of West Wales, during the 75th flight of development aircraft PA02.
The release of sonobouys has already proved successful, with future testing programmed for further checks of the torpedoes and the release of light series stores and search and rescue equipment. BAE Systems release.
July 5/07: Jane’s Defence Weekly reports that an additional 8 Nimrod MR.2 maritime patrol aircraft will be fitted with L3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical (EO – zoom cameras, infrared, other spectra) sensor turrets by the end of the year, so that every aircraft in the current fleet can conduct overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) aims to ensure that 12 Nimrods are available to conduct EO surveillance at any one time, according to RAF sources.
Sept 3/06: The UK MoD confirms the deaths of 14 RAF personnel in the crash of an RAF Nimrod MR2 in Helmland province, Afghanistan. In addition to their surveillance capabilities, the high-altitude Nimrods can receive and rebroadcast radio calls from troops on the ground without interference from the mountainous terrain. Preliminary reports are stressing that authorities do not believe the crash was caused by hostile fire, a believable claim given the aircraft’s probable flight profile and the maximum effective range of shoulder-fired missiles. The last Nimrod lost was a 1995 crash in Lake Ontario at Toronto, Canada’s annual CNE Air Show, when a wingover maneuver went badly awry. All 7 crew were killed.
July 18/06: Nimrod MRA4 contract announced. See details above. UK MoD (broken) | Defence Data copy.
Project HELIX: Upgrading the Nimrod R1 ELINT Fleet
Britain flew 2 versions of the Nimrod: the maritime patrol & surveillance Nimrod MR2 version, and the Nimrod R1 Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft. The easiest way to tell the difference is to look at the tail; if it has a short tail beyond the rudder, it’s an R1 ELINT/SIGNIT version. These aircraft function as intelligence collectors, communications relays, and more, and are viewed as a critical component of the UK MoD’s future “Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR)” capability along with key UAV programs like Watchkeeper and smaller aircraft like the new ASTOR Sentinel R1s.
Despite their age, and the eventual replacement of the Nimrod MR2s by the MRA4, the RAF’s 3 Nimrod R1s were scheduled to remain in service until at least 2012. After the 2010 SDSR, however, they were slated for early retirement. The last 2 Nimrod R1s retired on June 29/11 at RAF Waddington. They would have retired earlier, but the 2 planes got a stay of execution because they were needed to police the Libyan no-fly zone.
Their eventual replacement is scheduled to arrive in 2014, as part of a shared “Project Airseeker” RC-135 program with the USAF.
Project HELIX: Details
Raytheon, under Project Extract worth some GBP 100 million, completed a mission system upgrade on the 3 aircraft in 2003. Project Extract replaced manual collection systems with automated collection equipment, and added other hardware and software enhancements.
Its follow-on, Project HELIX, was a multi-stage acquisition program aimed at maintaining the effectiveness of the Nimrod R1 fleet out to 2025. HELIX would have involved upgrades to the aircraft mission systems, associated ground stations and training facilities, as well as plans to install these new systems in the Nimrod MRA4 and UAVs. The program had a projected value in excess of GBP 400 million (approximately $700 million) over a 13-year period.
The first part of the assessment phase lasted for 9 months, followed by a down-select from L-3, Lockheed, and Northrop-Grumman to two contractors (L-3 and Lockheed) for a requirements and system stage in 2005. At present these two teams are in the “program definition” phase, which will lead to the selection of one team to complete the risk reduction phase later in 2006. The risk reduction phase will be followed by a demonstration and manufacturing contract to deliver the HELIX capability to the RAF.
This first increment of the implementation phase, worth approximately GBP 200 million (about $370 million), was awarded to L-3 in early 2007. Their finalist competitor was Lockheed Martin UK, and its team included Aerosystems International, Ltd.
L-3 Communications’ team includes the Nimrod’s manufacturer BAE, QinetiQ, and LogicaCMG. BAE Systems will provide aircraft modification, aircraft certification, long term support and logistics services, as well as contributing sensor technologies. QinetiQ, which provides electronic reconnaissance technologies, and LogicaCMG provides ground systems, information management and security services and technologies. L-3 also enhanced its portfolio in this area by acquiring secure radio and satellite communications firm TRL Electronics on July 17/06.
Project HELIX: Updates
Oct 3/08: Death spiral. The US DSCA announces Britain’s request to convert 3 KC-135R aerial tankers to RC-135W Rivet Joint ELINT/SIGINT aircraft. These aircraft are based on the same Boeing 707 family platform that also hosts Britain’s E-3D AWACS fleet.
The end of Project HELIX? Yes. “Project Airseeker” eventually does buy 3 RC-135s, in March 2010. Britain scrapped Project HELIX, and ended up in a joint program with the Americans that also covers shared technologies, training, and support. Its fleet of RC-135s are expected to enter service in 2014.
April 3/07: L-3 Communications announces today that its Integrated Systems (L-3 IS) subsidiary is the preferred bidder to carry out risk reduction studies for the HELIX Assessment Phase Stage 3, in partnership with the UK MoD. They will receive more than GBP 11.5 million (about $21.7 million) from the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) for that effort.
Upon Main Gate approval, expected in June 2009, L-3 IS will be the preferred contractor to execute the Project HELIX Demonstration and Manufacture contract, which has a projected value of up to GBP 400 million (about $756 million), over a 7-year period, with first aircraft delivery scheduled in early 2013.
L-3, the lead systems integrator and prime contractor, heads a team that includes QinetiQ, LogicaCMG and BAE Systems Integrated System Technologies. QinetiQ will provide electronic reconnaissance technologies and LogicaCMG will contribute ground systems, information management and security services and technologies. BAE Systems will provide aircraft modification, aircraft certification, long-term support and logistics services and some sensor technologies. L-3 release.
Additional Readings & Sources
- Naval Technology – Nimrod MRA4 – Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft, United Kingdom
- Spyflight (Aug 25/05) – Future UK ISTAR & ELINT – the options
- Rolls Royce – BR710 Product Fact Sheet [PDF format]
- Royal Air Force – Aircraft of the RAF: Nimrod MR2
- BBC News – Fact file: Nimrod MR2
- Royal Air Force – Aircraft of the RAF: Nimrod R1 ELINT
- Rolls Royce (Oct 13/04) – Rolls-Royce BR710 engines reach 1 million flight hours. The BR710, which was first certificated in 1996, powers Gulfstream’s GV, GV-SP, G500 and G550 business jets, and Bombardier’s Global Express and Global 5000.
- DID – Coroner Delivers Scathing Indictment of UK Nimrod Fleet, Procedures. The Nimrod MR2 fleet faces deeper difficulties than previously acknowledged, and the coroner’s report is followed in October 2009 by the Haddon-Cave independent review.
- Aviation Week (April 23/12) – U.K. Slowly Ramps Up Maritime Patrol Planning
- Royal Aeronautical Society (Oct 29/10) – Options for RAF maritime patrol – post-Nimrod
- UK Ministry of Defence (July 18/06) – RAF gets “Exceptional” new Nimrod
- BAE Systems (July 18/06) – Green Light Given For BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 Production
- DID – Death Spiral for HELIX: Britain Wants RC-135 Rivet Joint Planes. Features continuing coverage of the RC-135 “Airseeker” program, which replaced Helix.
- L-3 Communications (July 17/06) – L-3 Communications’ HELIX Team Joined by BAE Systems
- Lockheed Martin (May 3/04) – Lockheed Martin Selected For Next Stage Of UK Nimrod Upgrade “R” Program: “Project Helix” Will Upgrade Reconnaissance Capabilities. A second release named AeI as a partner.
Finally, DID would like to credit the “Professional Pilots’ Rumour Network” discussion board for pointing out that this “Nimrod MR2s” picture from the UK Ministry of Defense web site is actually a pair of R1s. At first, one is tempted to think that the MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector, helps find submarines) tailboom present on the MR2 is simply foreshortened due to the camera angle… but a very close look at the enlarged photo leads us to conclude that PPRN is right, and that UK MoD (and DID, too) got it wrong.