On February 4, the first of the Royal Air Force’s £3 billion ($3.9 billion) fleet of nine new Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft landed at Kinloss Barracks in Scotland, piloted by Squadron Leader Mark Faulds. The aircraft (ZP801, named “Pride of Moray”) will operate from the British Army base at Kinloss (a former RAF base and traditional home of the long-retired Nimrod force) until October, when it will transfer to its long-term home at RAF Lossiemouth. That airbase is currently undergoing runway resurfacing work as part of a £470 million investment, including a new air traffic control tower, new accommodation, and upgraded drainage. This will be in addition to a new £132 million facility for the P-8A, construction of which has been underway for two years.
The second of the UK’s Poseidons, ZP802, named “City of Elgin”, was delivered to the RAF at NAS Jacksonville, Florida, the following day, flying in from Boeing’s facilities in Seattle, Washington. RAF aircrew have been converting to the P-8A and flying training missions from Jacksonville with the U.S. Navy.
Operations are due to begin early in the fourth quarter of 2020, and the ninth and final aircraft is due to be delivered in April 2021. Full operational capability is due in 2024. The P-8As will equip No. 120 and No. 201 Squadrons. The P-8As will initially be flown by No. CXX (120) Squadron, with No. 201 Squadron forming subsequently.
The Poseidons will operate in the maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare roles and will protect the country’s submarine-based continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, ensuring that they are not tracked by enemy submarines when they set out on deployment. With only nine aircraft, there will not be much additional capacity, but they are expected to play a key role in ensuring the safety of the UK’s new aircraft carriers. The aircraft will frequently operate in conjunction with U.S. Navy and Norwegian P-8As, countering growing Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic. This has increased to Cold War levels in recent years, while China is also investing in new Arctic infrastructure and ice-capable ships.
Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, chief of the air staff, said: “The Poseidon is a game-changing maritime patrol aircraft. Russian submarines have nowhere to hide.”
Although the P-8A has been in front-line U.S. Navy service since 2012, several of the technologies required for the aircraft to carry out its mission at medium altitude, as intended, are still in development or test and are not operationally available. They include the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare Weapon Capability (HAAWC) wing kit for the Mk 54 torpedo and the Multi-static Active Coherent (MAC) sonobuoy system.
It was originally intended that the P-8 would also have a wider ISR role, performing overland surveillance duties, but this will no longer be the case, due to the small number of aircraft procured.
The UK originally announced its intention to order nine P-8As on November 23, 2015, as part of that year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, following the early withdrawal of the Nimrod MR.Mk 2 on March 31, 2010, about one year earlier than planned. The cancellation of its planned replacement, the Nimrod MRA.Mk 4, on October 19, 2010, left a capability gap that will finally be closed when the Poseidon becomes operational.