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Boeing Poseidon MRA1

Russian spy ship gives viewers an insight into a real-life Poseidon adventure

WHILE many viewers have enjoyed hearing the stories about the RAF personnel starring in the Channel Four documentary series, Top Guns: Inside the RAF, for some the aircraft are the biggest draw.

The Typhoon fast jets may be seen as stars of the series – certainly judging by the amount of coverage they receive – but the work carried out by the RAF’s fleet of Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft also get some much-deserved recognition they and, just as importantly, their crews warrant.

The Poseidon MRA1, as it is known by the RAF, arrived on UK soil in February 2020, Lossiemouth the home to the first of nine of the aircraft in October of that year, the Moray station having undergone a major overhaul of its runway and associated infrastructure in preparation for becoming the home of the Poseidon and the centre for anti-submarine and maritime operations.

Poseidon MRA1 aircraft (ZP802) landing at RAF Lossiemouth in October 2020

(Poseidon MRA1 aircraft (ZP802) landing at RAF Lossiemouth in October 2020 - MOD)

The Poseidon follows in a long line of maritime patrol aircraft that have provided essential defence for the UK, the role filled historically by stalwarts including the Short Sunderland, the Avro Shackleton and, or course, the Nimrod.

The decision to purchase the Poseidon came several years after the strategic defence review following the 2010 general election resulted in the Nimrods being abruptly withdrawn from service without a suitable replacement lined up. In response to the situation, Project Seedcorn was launched, allowing RAF crew to fly with allied air forces to maintain their skills until the 2015 Defence Review confirmed the intended purchase of the Poseidon fleet.

But it would be almost a decade after the Nimrods were permanently grounded that the Poseidons started arriving in the UK – an aircraft that is, in effect, a converted commercial Boeing 737-800 airliner, with a ferry range of around 4,500 miles. However, its interior is a far different beast from the aircraft many of us board en route to sunnier climes.

Its comprehensive mission system includes an APY-10 radar with modes for high-resolution mapping, an acoustic sensor system, electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) turret, along with a range of electronic support measures (ESM). The on-board high-tech devices allow the Poseidon to carry out its varied functions including anti-submarine warfare operations, surveillance, and search and rescue (SAR).

The original contract for the aircraft was granted for the US military in 2004. There was an initial requirement for the Poseidon to be equipped with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) equipment to allow the location of minute variations in the earth’s magnetic field which help identify submarine activity; this was withdrawn on the basis that the reduced weight would allow the aircraft greater endurance, with an alternative hydrocarbon sensor incorporated to detect fuel vapours emitted from diesel powered vessels.

Poseidon flying just off the coast of Scotland

(Poseidon flying just off the coast of Scotland - MOD)

The first Poseidon flew on April 25, 2009, with production approved the following year with the P-8 first deploying sonobuoys in October 2010. The sonobuoys were helpfully seen being utilised recently in the Channel Four documentary series, contained within cylinders between three and four foot long that are dropped into the ocean, their role to send acoustic information from below the surface back to radio operators on board the aircraft via a radio transmitter that is positioned aboard an inflatable on the surface of the sea.

The first production Poseidon was delivered to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida in March 2012, by which time Boeing was already eyeing the UK market for its new aircraft. The Nimrods were no longer flying but it would be three more years before the UK announced plans to order nine Poseidons, their role to protect the UK’s nuclear deterrent and aircraft carriers from enemy vessels, as well as performing SAR and overland reconnaissance missions.

The £3billion contract for the fleet was signed in July 20 2016, then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon saying: “They (Poseidons) are part of our plan for stronger and better defence, backed by a budget that will rise each year of this decade. That means more ships, more aircraft, more troops available at readiness, better equipment for special forces, more being spent on cyber – to deal with the increased threats to our country.”

Poseidon flying over RAF Lossiemouth
(Poseidon flying over RAF Lossiemouth - MOD)

The importance of the fleet has increased greatly over the last two years following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with their work coming under the spotlight of the camera crews of Top Guns: Inside the RAF. It was clear to see that on board the passenger jet-sized aircraft was an interior packed full of surveillance technology, the Poseidon being, in the words of Ben Livesey, Officer Commanding CXX Squadron: “The frontline of what is the most important thing to the UK: to protect and defend.”

The traditionally nine-strong crew include five members monitoring the integrated sensor suite allowing them to search, detect, classify and track a range of vessels; the weapon systems on board includes air-to-ground missiles and torpedoes, capable of disabling or destroying enemy craft. Communication facilities allow the crew to liaise with ground stations and partner nations, to ensure that essential information on the movement and potential risk of vessels is shared with allies.

The mission featured on Top Guns: Inside the RAF involved surveillance of the Russian spy ship, Admiral Vladimirsky, operating in sea lanes around the south west of Norway, close to essential oil and gas pipelines supplying the UK. The Vladimirsky is classified as an AGI (auxiliary gatherer intelligence) and has been seen this year off the English coast on numerous occasions, as well as being monitored by the Danish and Dutch military, amongst others. The crew of the Poseidon were seen monitoring the ship and providing the chain of command all the way up to MoD officials in Whitehall with essential details about the ship and its possible motives: information retrieved would typically include a head count on board the ship, the technology the Russian crew was using, and the number and extent of the radar systems in operation.

The ultimate aim of the surveillance operation is to find out the capability of the ship, and the dangers it represented to the UK and its NATO allies, one of a number of roles the Poseidon will continue to carry out for decades to come.

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