Lost at Sea? Don’t Bother Calling the Royal Air Force for Help
Britain has no search planes to find you
If you are ever on a sinking ship or your airliner ditches in the ocean, don’t expect the British to rescue you.
Because Britain can’t, as became painfully evident this week during a search for four missing British yachtsmen lost on the North Atlantic.
Among other missions, finding survivors on the vast ocean is precisely what maritime patrol aircraft, such as the American P-8 and France’s Atlantic, are for. Most developed countries possess such aircraft.
The Royal Air Force, however, has had no specialized maritime patrol aircraft since retiring the Nimrod MR2 in 2010.
Because the yachtsmen are British, naturally the British government felt obliged to help. But the only aircraft the RAF could muster was a C-130 transport aircraft, whose most sophisticated search gear is a flight crew using binoculars to scan the ocean.
If that makes sense to you, imagine using an F-35 fighter to haul cargo instead of a C-130.
Embarrassed British officials admitted that U.S. Coast Guard patrol planes, equipped with sensors and crews for maritime work, would have to bear the brunt of the search. British commanders have also stated that should a British airliner disappear over the ocean—like Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 did—the RAF would have no real capability to find it.
The RAF was supposed to have maritime patrol aircraft. The plan was to replace the Nimrod MR2 with the updated Nimrod MRA4. But the government scrapped the MRA4 in 2010, citing delays and cost overruns.
To be fair, some British observers point out that even advanced patrol aircraft like the P-8 haven’t been able to find MH370. So perhaps a C-130 transport equipped with Mark I eyeballs might not be so bad for oceanic surveillance, especially given the budget cuts that are crippling Britain’s military.
But aircraft like the P-8 are more than just wings and eyeballs. They carry air-to-sea radar, plus anti-submarine sensors and weapons for use during wartime. Seventy years ago, the RAF’s Coastal Command, which folded in 1969, could muster hundreds of aircraft to hunt German U-boats.
Not that Vladimir Putin is likely to dispatch flotillas of Russian subs to blockade the British Isles. But it is peculiar that an island nation like Britain, with a proud maritime tradition and global commitments, has to rely on other nations to patrol the seas.