LONDON — U.K. military officials are preparing plans to bridge capability gaps that have emerged out of last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) even as they brace for further cuts to plug remaining funding shortfalls.
On the agenda for a Jan. 25 meeting are issues such as how to transition carrier strike capability in the absence of a fully operational aircraft carrier, and whether the planned Scavenger medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft program can take on missions associated with the canceled Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft and R1 Sentinel. The latter is due to be withdrawn from service once Afghanistan operations wind down.
Plans for the Scavenger system — which is slated to be developed in conjunction with France under a cooperation agreement signed last year — are still in the formative stage. Although early plans called for a 2015 in-service date, 2018 is seen as more realistic.
Although the exact mission for Scavenger has not been finalized, Air Cmdr. Malcolm Brecht, director of the Air Staff, says with the decision to retire the Sentinel, “We will look to mitigate its loss as part of the Scavenger [remotely piloted aircraft] program.” Scavenger also could serve as a gapfiller in the maritime patrol realm, although the military is already exploring the extent to which some of the roles the Nimrod was to perform can be reallocated, with C-130s used for search and rescue, E-3Ds for sea surveillance, and helicopters and ships for anti-submarine warfare.
Another issue the Defense Ministry is trying to sort out as it completes its 2011 program review is finalizing how to maintain its skills at operating aircraft carriers now that there will be a capability gap until the Queen Elizabeth-class arrives around the end of the decade. “Transitioning to future carrier strike is challenging, but manageable,” said David Hook, head of navy resources and plans, to a Royal United Services Institute conference on the SDSR.
Top Royal Navy and Royal Air Force officials are now working on a plan to maintain skills. A series of agreements is now being finalized to ensure that both piloting and deck-handling skills are maintained. Included is securing a commitment from the U.S. and France to embed U.K. staff on their carriers.
But overshadowing these efforts to do more is a budget reality that remains bleak even after the SDSR trimmed spending by formulating plans to cut programs, force structure and infrastructure.