Farnborough 2016: Outgoing UK-PM David Cameron shows no hint of embarrassment in announcing Boeing P-3A order after Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft fiasco

by | Jul 11, 2016 | History | 0 comments

It is not just NASA that burns money on a failed project, before having to hand over a load more on an equivalent. Before he formally handed in his resignation to the Queen, one of David Cameron’s last reported announcements as UK Prime Minister was at the Farnborough International Air Show. Before the rain clouds opened and flooded out the air show later that day, on Monday 11 July, David Cameron, both praised the British aerospace industry as he announced a GBP£3 billion (US$3.9 million) order for nine US-built Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol jets. There was however no hint of embarrassment by Cameron at the end game of what is regarded by aerospace and defence observers as one of his premiership’s hugely expensive policy and procurement failures.

For it was Cameron’s original Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government which scrapped the British Nimrod maritime patrol jets in 2010 after a GBP£4 billion engine replacement/airframe modification programme for the aircraft. The UK Ministry of Defence, subsequently fully in the hands of a Cameron-led Conservative administration, then realised that, in order to counter new Russian and Chinese warships and submarines, some maritime patrol aircraft such as the Nimrod or P-8A would be needed after all.

The embarrassment reached a crescendo during the search for the missing Malaysian MH370 jet airliner in the Indian ocean in 2014. After the UK-based satellite operator Inmarsat came up with some valuable clues as to its crash location, the UK realised that it just did not have the right aircraft to join in the international search.

In truth, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon was always the best and most cost effective solution for the UK’s maritime patrol needs and it should have been chosen for the RAF ten years ago. Instead, rather idiotically, an expensive nationalistic project was undertaken involving an airframe rebuild and a new engine for the elderly Nimrod MR2 aircraft to convert it to a new MRA4 standard. While they might not have been the right choice in the first place, of course, once built they should not have been scrapped.

While most of the work is now US-bound, the new US-build P-8A contract was not all bad news for Britain. The deal with Boeing does include a new support base for the aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth which should result in a boost for jobs there. Boeing was also celebrating a new US$2 billion contract for 50 Apache attack helicopters for the British Army.

In case this embarrassment was too much to think about, there was, at least, a flying display of the Harrier V/STOL “jump jet” replacement, the Lockheed Martin F-35B lightning II, for the Farnborough crowd to look at. However, it too is an emblem another defence policy failure by David Cameron when his government prematurely retired the joint RAF/RN Harrier jet bomber force (the Sea Harrier fighter had already been scrapped).

The problem for Cameron however was that programme delays to the stealthy mainly US-built fighter replacement of the Harrier, exacerbated the effect of his administration’s foolish decision to sell off what remained of the British-built Harrier jet in 2010 to the US military at a knock down price. The Americans, at least, know a good deal, and know a good aircraft, when they see one.

This has left the UK without a carrier-borne strike fighter for about 10 years, and means that the Royal Navy’s two brand new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently have no jets to fly off them.

The decision to prematurely retire the Harrier caused subsequent consternation in the British military a few years later during the Libya conflict when it had to depend on French carrier-borne jets for a longer range strike and interception capability.

The F-35B was not, in fact, the first choice of the Royal Navy. The Senior Service originally wanted the catapult launched tail hook -C version of the F-35. However the increased carrier construction costs associated with electromagnetic catapults resulted in decision to go for the V/STOL -B version of the F-35. While this caused controversy at the time, now that China and other nations have “anti-aircraft carrier” ballistic missiles in their arsenals, it is increasingly looking as if Cameron made the right choice. For supercarriers are now looking a little too much like big easy-to-hit targets, and the Royal Navy may prefer not to have “all its F-35B eggs in one basket”. That is, the F-35B’s short take off/vertical landing attributes mean that it could be operated from non-traditional “satellite” landing strip ships/temporary aircraft carriers when required.

However, there are still some downsides to the new jet. While it is a truly supersonic and “stealthy” (nearly radar invisible) modern design, many doubt whether the new F-35B, which has no internal gun (usually a regretful omission in fighters), is strong (g-stressed) enough or agile enough to make the hard manoeuvres usually necessary for survival in a close range dog fight.  Having said that, its super-agile helmet-cued ASRAAM missiles may make up for this deficiency somewhat.

Other critics are more concerned that the F-35B does not have a large enough payload/range capability to be a genuine step forward over its subsonic Harrier predecessor.

Nevertheless, while it lacks these capabilities, and misses out on the old Harrier’s VIFF (Vectoring in Forward Flight) ability to perform “impossible” flight manoeuvres, the new F-35B can, at least, still gently pirouette in a hover just like the Harrier used to do at Farnborough air shows past…

And, as it did so, the Farnborough crowds seemed to love the new F-35B just as much.

Comment by David Todd: Both the Nimrod MRA4 debacle and the cancellation of the Harrier were stupid myopic blunders of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration led by David Cameron. However, the underlying reason for both these decisions really lay in the weakness of the government’s finances which were, in turn, caused by the previous Labour administration in combination with the banking-induced global financial crisis. Nevertheless, it was the subsequent willingness of George Osborne-run Treasury to make remedial austerity cuts which made these decisions final.

Despite these blots on their aerospace records, David Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne, both leave the government with some credit for not only stabilising the UK economy in general, but also for realising (with the then science minister David Willetts) that the space sector was an essential hi-tech industry which should be backed by the government. This was exemplified by their willingness to put some limited government funding into Reaction Engines Limited’s air-breathing rocket research (note that the writer is a small investor in Reaction Engines) – a technology that could one day revolutionise the world (see later Farnborough announcements).

Update 13 July 2016

Post script comment on the change of Prime Minister by David Todd:

While we remain concerned about her pro-state surveillance stance, we wish the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May good luck – especially in her attempts at promoting social fairness, battling for the less privileged, and solving the housing crisis. We also hope that she and her administration will continue to promote the space industry – well, so long as it does not infringe liberty and privacy.

As for David Cameron, while his old-Etonian patrician style and cronyism sometimes rankled (jesters noted that even Larry the Downing Street cat looked set to get a knighthood in Cameron’s leaving honours), as did some of his administrations’ more unfair and ill-thought-out policies (e.g. the above defence debacles, the “spare room tax” benefit cut, the increase in student tuition fees, and the introduction of popular, but unstable-in-the-longer-term, pension freedoms), he remains a fundamentally a good and well-meaning man who just happened to be undone by his own EU referendum policy.

However, while many MPs on all sides subsequently regretted applauding the now-discredited Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair so profusely on his last day as PM in 2007, it was still badly done on the part of Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) MPs in refusing to applaud David Cameron at the end of his last Prime Minister’s questions. For, in spite of all his errors, this now former Prime Minister does, at least, deserve a measure of our thanks.

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