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UK asks to buy next-gen spy planes from US

Plan to use replica De Havilland Comets shelved?

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The UK has applied for permission to purchase three large, heavily-equipped spy planes from America. The move will fuel speculation that replacements for the RAF's existing, aged Nimrod R1 surveillance/intercept birds will not be British-sourced.

Most people who follow defence matters will be aware that the RAF currently operates Nimrod MR2s, built to be submarine-hunting patrol craft but nowadays often employed above Afghanistan. Much is made of the old planes' utility in "electronic warfare" against the Taliban, but in fact to a large degree the MR2s are using their long endurance to act as airborne communications relays, passing on radio messages which would otherwise be trapped inside precipitous mountain valleys.

This is not work which could possibly justify the UK taxpayers continuing to run a fleet of vintage airliners (the Nimrods are the only De Havilland Comets still flying) requiring specially-made parts and crammed with highly specialised sub-hunting equipment. Thus, despite the fact that the rickety old Nimrod has already killed one crew in Afghanistan, many people argue that the hugely overbudget, massively late Nimrod MRA4 should be cancelled.

Much less well-known are the current Nimrod R1s, which genuinely are serious electronic-warfare planes. Like the MR2s, they are heavily modified de Havilland Comets, and like the MR2s they are worn out.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been running a thing called "Project HELIX", which was to be to the R1 Nimrods what the MRA4 programme is to the MR2 subhunters. That is, the airframes would be 80 per cent or more replaced - effectively, new De Havilland Comets would be custom built from scratch - re-engined and thoroughly re-equipped.

The fact that US input would be needed on the spy electronics was acknowledged by making L-3 Communications the systems integrator, but it was clear that huge amounts of money would go to Blighty's BAE Systems to make a few more Comet airframes' worth of bits.

However, the current terrible funding crunch at the MoD has meant that ideas like this, which would once have been nodded through without trouble, are now subject to some scrutiny. Your correspondent has been hearing unsubstantiated rumours for some time now that elements in the MoD would rather buy some relatively affordable "Rivet Joint" surveillance planes largely off the shelf from America, rather than keep on using expensive period replicas.

This has turned out to be true, in that the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has now reported (pdf) to Congress that the UK would like permission to buy 3 Rivet Joints - again through the good offices of L-3 Communications - for as much as $1bn if all options were exercised.

The Project Helix new-Comets plan is actually supposed to cost a bit less than that - it is officially estimated at £400m. However, the similar MRA4 subhunter-Comets renewal plan has seen its price per plane triple since it got going, to a cool £290m each. If Project Helix carried on along the same lines, the US Rivet Joints proposal would wind up saving the UK taxpayer a lot of money, maybe £700m or more overall.

It would seem that this view is being taken by at least some people at the MoD. However, the Rivet Joint plan is described only as "possible", and it wouldn't be entirely simple - the US Air Force uses a different air-to-air refuelling system to the RAF, for instance. Spy planes, needing to stay up for long periods, need to be able to refuel in the air.

Then there are other alternatives on offer - perhaps a variant on the RAF's new business-jet based groundscan radar bird, the Sentinel. People have lately been talking up the Sentinel's potential as an electronic-intelligence plane.

It could even be that the UK simply doesn't get around to replacing its Nimrod R1s any time soon - which would be ironic, as there is no sign so far that it will fail to replace the hugely less relevant and useful subhunters. ®

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