Future Maritime Surveillance - Defence Committee Contents

3  The capability gap

Current capabilities

22. UK Armed Forces' current maritime surveillance capabilities are provided by a wide variety of platforms and assets, including:

·  the Submarine Fleet;

·  the Surface Fleet and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA);

·  the Fleet Air Arm rotary assets;

·  Fixed Wing aircraft; and

·  ISTAR assets.[31]

23. These capabilities range from those which are systems permanently fitted or allocated to platforms to provide intimate, immediate and assured support, to specific equipments that are fitted as required dependent on the specific task being undertaken. They can be operated individually or in collaboration with other units from all three Services or with other nations.[32]

24. The MoD told us that "planning for contingency [operations] will always include an element of maritime surveillance and UK Joint and Allied assets can be included in such effort, probably as part of a Task Force. A recent example of such collaboration was the activation of the Response Force Task Group to provide options during the Arab Spring uprisings".[33] Maritime surveillance would not necessarily be the primary role of each of these platforms and assets. For example, in respect of the surface fleet, there is a distinction between Destroyers and Frigates (Type 45 and Type 23) and Capital Ships, whose primary roles are warfighting and maritime security, to which maritime surveillance is integral, and other ships, such as RFAs and Mine Countermeasure Vessels, which would provide maritime surveillance but as part of their secondary roles.[34]

Capability gaps

25. Capability gaps in maritime surveillance are widely acknowledged and this was reflected in the evidence we received, most of which suggested the gap was serious. These concerns were not only about the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft capability although this was the most prominent and regular concern expressed. Dr Willett told us the capability gap was wider than that caused by the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4: "the critical capability gaps [...] are persistent wide area surveillance and numbers of assets. The persistent wide area surveillance gap exists because of the withdrawal of Nimrod: other assets are being used to plug this gap, yet none provide the same coverage".[35] He also highlighted that the 2010 SDSR decision to withdraw the four Broadsword-class Type 22 Frigates had implications for maritime surveillance given their role in anti-submarine warfare, and the sensor equipment they possessed.[36]   

26. The MoD accepted that there were capability gaps in maritime surveillance, resulting most notably from the withdrawal of the Type 22 Frigate and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4.[37] The MoD also acknowledged that the need for a "so-called "persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)" capability had been identified by a number of recent operational lessons identified exercises". While this requirement may not in practice translate into a single system or platform, the MoD judged that a "significant improvement in maritime surveillance capability (both wide area and targeted) might be provided through the use of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) deployable from the Maritime Force".[38]  


27. The Type 22 Frigate was originally designed as a specialist anti-submarine platform. It evolved into a powerful surface combatant with substantial anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft weapons systems. In addition to their armaments the vessels also possessed command and control and communications facilities and useful sensor equipment. The MoD explained that the Type 22 Frigates provided the Royal Navy's only combination of systems enabling wide ranging monitoring of the frequencies and wavelengths of the Electromagnetic Spectrum from the sea. The MoD added that "this capability supported Indicators and Warnings, Force Protection and Situational Awareness". [39] Dr Willett told us "with the four Broadsword-class Type 22 Frigates being withdrawn [...] the UK would lose the full spectrum Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) installed on these ships as well as four towed-array sonar platforms".[40] When we asked Nick Harvey MP, Minister for the Armed Forces, about a replacement for the Type 22 Frigates, he confirmed that there would be no funding before 2015.[41]


28. Most of the concern expressed to us related to the capability gaps caused by the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft capability.[42] We have already expressed our worries about the deletion of the MRA4 programme in our Report on the SDSR and the NSS.[43] These were acknowledged by the Government in its response:

    We regret that we had to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 programme. It was a capability that we would, in an ideal world, have preferred to acquire.


    It is true that there is currently no single asset or collection of assets that fully mitigate the resulting capability gap. This is an unwelcome consequence of the Nation's financial position and the Department's obligations to contribute to deficit reduction, but we continue to maximise the use of other assets such as Type 23 Frigates, Merlin Helicopters, Sentry and C-130 to contribute to Anti-Submarine Warfare, Search and Rescue and Maritime Counter-Terrorism where possible. In the longer term, if the Government were to conclude that it needed to close the gaps completely because future threats were to mature in a way that we can no longer manage this risk in the way we are today, some additional funding or reprioritisation would be required.[44]

29. The National Audit Office's (NAO) Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2011 considered the capability gaps left by the Nimrod MRA4 decision. The NAO Report said that according to the MoD, the Nimrod contributed to eight out of the 15 security priority risks set out in the National Security Strategy. It added that the Nimrod was uniquely able to rapidly search large maritime areas, a capability relevant to long range search and rescue, maritime counter-terrorism, gathering strategic intelligence and protecting the nuclear deterrent. The NAO Report further said that the MoD had carried out studies in the lead up to the SDSR to assess the capability gap from cancelling the Nimrod MRA4 and the MoD "assessed that cancelling Nimrod would have consequences for the military tasks that the aircraft was expected to undertake, some of them severe".[45] The Report also outlined the capability gaps resulting from the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 and some possible mitigation strategies for covering these. The NAO Report said:

    Some limited analysis was carried out on how specific military tasks could be covered by a combination of Sentry surveillance aircraft, Hercules transport aircraft and the Merlin maritime helicopters. However, the Department noted that there would be 'significant shortfalls without significant investment, and the co-ordination of such assets at the right place and the right time might prove to be very risky'. [Figure 1 below] summarises the military tasks, the capability gap and an explanation of the possible mitigation strategies currently being assessed by the Department.[46]

The Report also asserted that there were risks in diverting other assets to cover the gaps:

    Using other existing assets would provide a reduced capability compared with Nimrod, and diverting resources from existing tasks would have wider implications for defence. The Sentry surveillance aircraft is already at minimum crew and aircraft numbers to cover NATO commitments. Using helicopters, such as the Merlin or Lynx, would affect national commitments or training of crews for other tasks. Other alternatives are fully committed to current operations.[47]
Figure 1

Source: National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2011, HC 1520-I

30. The MoD acknowledged in its evidence that due to cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 the UK had "reduced our ability to conduct Strategic Intelligence gathering tasks, long range Anti-Submarine warfare [ASW], provide support to Search and Rescue, Maritime Security and power projection tasks".[48] It was their intention "to mitigate the impact of Nimrod cancellation by the use of other military assets on a case by case basis. In relation to ASW operations, these assets include Type 23 Frigates and Merlin Mk1 helicopters. Additionally, Hercules C-130 and Sentry could offer a limited element of the maritime patrol capability that MRA4 would have provided. There is currently no single asset or collection of assets that offsets the resulting capability gap".[49]

31. The MoD has stated that it regrets cancelling the Nimrod MRA4 programme and that in an ideal world it would have preferred to acquire a maritime patrol aircraft. We repeat the serious concerns raised in our Report on the National Security Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) regarding the capability gaps that the Nimrod MRA4 decision has created in the UK's ability to undertake the military tasks envisaged in the SDSR and remain unconvinced that UK Armed Forces can manage this capability gap within existing resources. The MoD told us that its intention was to mitigate the impact of the Nimrod cancellation by the use of other military assets on a case by case basis, but acknowledged that there was currently no single asset or collection of assets that offset the resulting capability gap. We agree with the National Audit Office's (NAO) assessment that using other existing assets would provide a reduced capability and diverting resources from other tasks would have wider implications for defence. Indeed in the MoD's own assessment in the NAO Report there would be significant shortfalls without significant investment, and the coordination of such assets at the right place and the right time might prove very risky.


32. The NAO's assessment of a capability gap in respect of long-range search and rescue (see Figure 1 above) was reinforced by the evidence we received. This is a major area of cross-departmental cooperation. Rod Johnson, the Chief Coastguard, outlined to us the extent of the UK's search and rescue region and his assessment of "home waters":

    [It] extends out to 30° west. It is approximately 1 million square miles of the eastern Atlantic. It is a very interesting question that you asked about our home waters. I think that it is probably easier to consider that concept in terms of time. At an average steaming speed of 15 knots per surface ship, where is home waters? Our area of operation extends out to 30° west to just short of the Arctic circle in the north, and down to an area just north of Cape Finisterre and then down the North Sea, English Channel meridian line.[50]

However although this was the UK's area of responsibility, he added:

    We do not have situational awareness out to 30° west. In other words, we do not know what is there all the time, right now—only the compliant targets [ships which readily identify themselves]. But it is an area that we look at and, of course, from a search and rescue point of view any British interests anywhere can be involved or can involve us. Some examples of that would be the searches that we do routinely in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden area. If we get the distress alert through our satellite-based technology, we will deal with it [...].[51]

33. The Chief Coastguard said that in the absence of the Nimrod MRA4 operations in respect of civil maritime search and rescue, counter-pollution and traffic monitoring would have to be "simply restructured around not having it".[52] The Scottish National Party, however, expressed concerns about the UK's adherence to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue:

    Included in those obligations is to provide a list of assets available to undertake certain missions and also where the various co-ordination centres are located. However PQs that since the retirement of Nimrod [MR2] show that only shorter range helicopters and light aircraft are listed as being available now. They do not list the C130 Hercules—which means that the UK has no long range military fixed wing SAR aircraft listed under section of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, raising serious questions about the UK's ability to effectively meet this obligation. Indeed from 2005 until the retirement of the MR2 in early 2010 the aircraft provided help to neighbouring countries 23 times. It appears that since its retirement the UK has not provided fixed wing RAF top cover to any neighbouring states.[53]

34. The Chief Coastguard did not share these concerns. Although he accepted that the UK inventory once included Nimrod MR2 as a maritime patrol aircraft, which, in the context of search and rescue, was capable of providing a systematic search over a wide area and locating a potentially non-compliant target, there were other means at his disposal to provide that capability if it was required. The existing long-standing arrangements regarding the obtaining of assets from other Atlantic region states would continue.[54] Air Vice-Marshal Green added:

    when the Chief Coastguard gave evidence, he wrapped this sort of issue up very well. When something happens, it is effectively within his authority—the coastguard's authority—to start to react to that incident, and he will use whatever assets are available at the time and are nearest to the point of the concern in order to alleviate the situation or the risk. In that example, those assets were available. There is no reason to suspect that if a Nimrod had been available, it would have been able to react any faster to [a particular incident] than those that were actually closer to the incident in question.[55]

35. There does not appear to have been any discussion of the impact of the Nimrod MRA4 decision on search and rescue provision with European neighbours. Nor has there been any attempt to negotiate with France or with Luxembourg (a small landlocked country which has three MPAs) to provide support for the UK search and rescue capability. Tom McKane, Director General for Security Policy, MoD, said "there is no specific new agreement under the UK-France defence treaty that addresses search and rescue [...]" and he was unaware of any discussions with Luxembourg.[56] When we tried to establish why no such negotiations or discussions had taken place, Air Vice-Marshal Green told us "long-range search and rescue is a responsibility that we have all signed up to through previous conventions. Consequently, it is the standard protocol that if you are in that region, you will react to that particular incident. There does not need to be a bilateral arrangement with a particularly nation to satisfy a search and rescue need; the arrangements are already in place within a broader arrangement".[57]

36. In addition to the Nimrod MRA4 decision another major change to the provision of search and rescue was announced to the House of Commons on 28 November 2011.[58] The then Secretary of State for Transport announced that a new civilian-led UK-wide search and rescue capability would be established and that military involvement in search and rescue would cease once that capability was fully operational. We note that no option appears to have been considered for either a sponsored or a volunteer reserve element within the crews for the new commercial arrangement, despite the fact, that at least initially, it is widely expected that most of the pilots will be ex-Armed Forces.

37. We note the impact of the Nimrod MRA4 decision on the UK search and rescue capability. While we accept that the UK remains committed to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue and that no bilateral arrangements are required, we are surprised that the Government has not discussed the impact of the Nimrod MRA4 decision with European neighbours. It would seem prudent to do so to ensure that cooperation is maximised.

38. We will monitor the planned changes in the provision of UK search and rescue to a new civilian-led capability and expect Ministers to play a central role in its delivery, settling disputes and ensuring coordination between departments. The Government should guard against the loss of the valuable experience that exists within the Armed Forces and we request that the Government detail the measures it has taken to prevent this. We believe that this should include considering options for retaining expertise through some form of reserve service for the pilots employed. Another concern is the impact on the provision of search and rescue for the Falkland Islands. We may wish to return to this in future years.


39. The Royal Navy has a number of standing maritime tasks. These include the Response Force Task Group (the core of the UK's maritime contingent capability held at high readiness to respond to unexpected global events), the Fleet Ready Escort, maintained at high readiness around the UK for short-notice global deployment), a nuclear ballistic submarine (to provide the UK's continuous at sea nuclear deterrent), geographical deployments, Task Forces, Mine Countermeasures Forces and the Fishery Protection Squadron. In our report on the operation in Libya, we noted that important tasks, such as the Fleet Ready Escort and counter-drugs operations, were not able to be carried out due to meeting the Libya commitment, and concluded that:

    Given the continued high levels of standing maritime commitments it is likely that this type of risk taking will occur more frequently as the outcomes of the SDSR are implemented. This will be a significant challenge for the Royal Navy and the MoD who should outline their plans to meet this challenge in response to our Report.[59]

40. In its response to our Report, the MoD said that although it recognised that UK Armed Forces were only able to undertake so many tasks at the same time, it did not expect "that after 2015 our Armed Forces will be operating routinely at the level of intensity they have sustained in recent years". It assured us that if UK Armed Forces were required to undertake specific operations rigorous planning procedures were in place to generate the capabilities required and identify risks and that careful examination would take place on the prioritisation of other tasks depending on the strategic context and priorities at the time.[60]

41. Concerns regarding the UK's ability to meet its standing maritime tasks were also expressed to us during this inquiry. Dr Willett thought that the Libya operation provided examples of the challenges that would be faced in the future in meeting these tasks as, although the operation had been in the UK's national interest, the Royal Navy had been required to withdraw assets from other tasks, such the South Atlantic patrols and counter-piracy activities. He suggested that gaps were appearing in the UK's maritime surveillance capability:

    You have a web of a number of capabilities—a number of systems—doing different things that come together, but as you are stretching that capability ever tighter, you are drawing out holes that are gaps. You can fill some of those with new systems, and some with alliance contributions, but the question is: from a policy level, do we understand the importance of maritime surveillance for maritime security as a whole, and are we prepared to underwrite the capabilities required to ensure that we have sufficient coverage for what we want to do?[61]

42. When we asked Nick Harvey MP, Minister for the Armed Forces, whether he was prepared to underwrite the capabilities required to ensure that there was sufficient coverage for what the UK wanted to do, he did not do so. He assured us, however, that the MoD took the entire maritime situation very seriously and recognised "the importance of maritime surveillance for maritime security as a whole". He asserted that the national financial situation had caused difficulties for the SDSR and that with limited resources there would be an element of risk and that in respect of maritime surveillance the decision taken was "what we thought to be the least bad option [..] and that it was a tolerable level of risk to carry".[62] However the Minister acknowledged:

    in the wider sense [...] the Navy is going through a very difficult patch while older platforms are working their way out and until newer ones work their way in. I think that we recognised from the outset that the Navy would go through a lean period before the up-curve came back through. That is what we have seen, but so far, despite the tests presented, for example by Libya last year, it has managed, and we believe that the risk we are carrying is acceptable, if regrettable.[63]

43. Despite the end of the Libya operation concerns were still being raised about the effects on the standing maritime tasks of events such as the London Olympic Games. On 9 May 2012, The Telegraph reported that the "Royal Navy no longer had enough warships to dedicate one to fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia all year round".[64] It added that the "difficulties had been compounded by the need to commit ships and personnel to the Olympic security effort". We put these concerns to the Minister, who did not accept that the Royal Navy had in any way abandoned any of its tasks. He told us:

    Although I acknowledge and do not shy away from the fact that the Navy's assets are being heavily used at the moment and that we are taking a degree of risk, I do not think that I accept the proposition that you were putting to me that they have actually had to abandon any of their tasks altogether. They have just had to find other ways of completing them.[65]

44. Despite this denial, when we asked the Minister whether counter-piracy operations had been affected by the 2012 London Olympics he confirmed that:

    during the course of this year the UK is not contributing any vessels to the various international counter-piracy missions. We continue, of course, to exercise command of the EU operation from Northwood, but I do not see why we would, in principle, at all times contribute vessels to those missions. We certainly expect to do so again as time progresses, in rotation with the other partner nations involved.[66]

45. Following our evidence session with the Minister, we requested further information from the MoD regarding the pressures on maritime surveillance assets due to other demands on the Royal Navy such as the Olympics. The MoD told us that maritime surveillance assets were currently undertaking standing commitments:

·  Sea King helicopters in Afghanistan (Operation HERRICK);

·  Merlin Mk 1 helicopters in Oman (Operation CHOBDAHAR);

·  assets undertaking a range of the Military Tasks listed in the SDSR;

MT2, providing nuclear deterrence;

MT3, defending the UK and overseas territories; and

MT4, supporting civil emergency organisations in times of crisis.[67]

This was in addition to maintaining a requirement for contingency through the Ready Force Task group (RFTG), part of which is forward deployed to the Gulf under Operation KIPION. Operation OLYMPICS was an added responsibility which was being undertaken using assets in their regeneration (training and maintenance) periods, between either Gulf or Operation HERRICK tasks, prior to deployment on roles related to maritime surveillance, and this reduced the ability to utilise assets flexibly to mitigate capability gaps in other areas. There were also implications for the defence of the UK home base or any of its Permanent Joint Operating Bases overseas as it was necessary to "make greater use of surface platforms such as the River Class patrol vessels and frigates / destroyers for short notice tasking, often to deploy at range to locate and track any incursions". In addition to all this, the Merlin helicopter force was being upgraded from Mk1 to Mk 2 which would see a dip in the number of craft available until the middle of 2013 when only 9 would be available of a force of 28.[68]

46. We repeat the concerns expressed in our Report on Operations in Libya regarding the Royal Navy's ability to continue to deliver the required high levels of standing maritime commitments with fewer platforms. It is likely that risk taking will occur more frequently as the outcomes of the SDSR are implemented and the smaller number of available assets is stretched more thinly. We note that the Minister asserted that the Royal Navy was not abandoning any of its tasks. However he also accepted that the Navy is undergoing a "lean period", being heavily used and accepting a degree of risk. Maritime surveillance assets are an essential component of maritime security and these additional requirements such as Libya and the Olympics pose a potential risk to maritime security due to this overstretch and possible competing demands for those assets. This is illustrated by the UK not contributing any vessels this year to the international counter-piracy missions and the necessity to use assets and personnel between operations in the Gulf or Afghanistan for the London Olympics.

31   See Ev 37-40 for a description of the UK's current maritime surveillance capabilities, assets and platforms of each Service, including numbers, their primary and any other roles; the MoD's assessment of their effectiveness; and any decisions to extend their service, replace them or remove them from service up to 2020. Back

32   Ev 37 Back

33   Ev 37 Back

34   Ev 37; Wide area surveillance is an enabling capability that translates strategic intelligence into tactically exploitable outcomes. The effectiveness of wide area surveillance is a function of a range of factors, including environment, asset endurance, range and speed, and sensor capability, matched against the characteristics and behaviours of the target.  Back

35   Ev 57 Back

36   Ev 57 Back

37   Ev 40 Back

38   Ev 40 Back

39   Ev 40 Back

40   Ev 57 Back

41   Q 162 Back

42   For example see Q 8 and Q 11 [Dr Willett], Ev w2 [Rear Admiral Japp], Ev w18-19 [Air Vice-Marshal Roberts], Ev w35 [Dr Robertson] and Ev w43-44 [Airbus Military]  Back

43   Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy, HC 761, para 137 Back

44   Defence Committee, Ninth Special Report of Session 2010-12, The Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy: Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1639, p 19 Back

45   National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2011, HC (2010-12) 1520-I, paras 3.21-3.22 Back

46   Ibid., para 3.23


47   Ibid., para 3.24 Back

48   Ev 40 Back

49   Ev 40 Back

50   Q 6 Back

51   Q 6 Back

52   Q 10 Back

53   Ev w26 Back

54   Q 12 Back

55   Q 146 Back

56   Qq 147-148 Back

57   Q 149 Back

58   HC Deb, 28 November 2011, cols 52-53WS Back

59   Defence Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, Operations in Libya, HC 950, para 114  Back

60   Defence Committee, Eleventh Special Report of Session 2010-12, Operations in Libya: Government Response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1952, p 12 Back

61   Q 16 [Dr Willett] Back

62   Q 132 Back

63   Q 132 Back

64   The Telegraph, 9 May 2012, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/9253764/Navy-forced-to-drop-year-round-Somalia-piracy-patrols.html (accessed 11 September 2012) Back

65   Q 133 Back

66   Q 134 Back

67   Ev 49 Back

68   Ev 49 Back

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Prepared 19 September 2012