The Royal Air Force Needs More Patrol Planes

David Axe

A Royal Air Force Poseidon patrol plane flew for the first time with a trial crew from No. 54 Squadron, the unit that’s testing the RAF’s planned fleet of nine Poseidons.

But those nine planes aren’t enough to patrol U.K. waters, critics contend.

The first No. 54 Squadron flight took place at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida in late December 2019. RAF Poseidon crews are training in Jacksonville ahead of the scheduled delivery of the first frontline Poseidon to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland in February 2020.

No. 120 Squadron will fly the Poseidons from Lossiemouth. “Poseidon” is the name the RAF gives to the Boeing P-8 patrol plane. The U.S. Navy has ordered more than 100 P-8s. Australia, New Zealand, India, Norway and South Korea also have bought the twin-engine patroller, a variant of the 737 airliner.

In RAF service, the Poseidons finally will close a capability gap that opened in 2010, when the U.K. air arm withdrew all 21 of its Nimrod patrol plane. To surveil U.K. waters and to protect Royal Navy submarines entering and leaving port, the RAF and Royal Navy deployed helicopters and invited allied countries to send patrol planes.

The nine Poseidons aren’t sufficient, however, according to retired air vice-marshal Andrew Roberts. “However, capable though the P-8 may be, the number of aircraft planned is undoubtedly inadequate to fulfil even the highest priority tasks likely to be assigned to the force in tension and hostilities,” Roberts told a parliamentary committee in 2018.

It would take 15 Poseidons roughly to match the sustained patrol capabilities of the 21-strong Nimrod force. Complicating the Poseidon’s operational concept, the American-made patrol plane features a boom receptacle for mid-air refueling. RAF tankers use an incompatible hose-and-drogue system.

To refuel the Poseidons, the RAF will have to borrow the services of American or allied tanker planes. More likely, the Poseidons routinely will operate without aerial refueling, shortening their flight endurance.

Roberts made several recommendations.

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