BAe Nimrod MR1/2

Nimrod assembly line at WoodfordThe BAe Nimrod MR2 was designed from the outset as a long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft to replace the Shackleton, which was itself a development of the Lancaster bomber. The Nimrod is essentially a Comet 4C with an unpressurised weapons bay added on underneath, creating a ‘double bubble’ effect that gives the aircraft its distinctive appearance. However, the original Comet was designed back in the late 1940’s and first flew on 27 Jul 49, so the basic Nimrod design that evolved from the Comet 4C owes more to the 1950’s than to any other period and, although this has had many advantages, it has also had some significant disadvantages. The Nimrod MR1 first flew on 23 May 67 and the aircraft eventually entered service with 236 OCU at RAF St Mawgan on 2 Oct 69 – the first of 46 aircraft eventually delivered to the RAF. From the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, 35 Nimrod’s were fitted with upgraded detection systems, including the EMI Searchwater radar, and were re-designated Nimrod MR2s.

Nimrod MR2 on patrolOver the 35+ years the Nimrod has been in service it has proved to be an outstanding Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and is still the only jet powered dedicated MPA to have entered squadron service, although the US Navy have now opted for the Boeing 737MMA to eventually replace their long-serving Lockheed P-3 Orion MPAs. The Nimrod has been seen throughout the world, taking part in numerous joint exercises where their combination of transit speed, endurance and on-board sensors have made them a formidable sub-hunter. During the Falklands War in 1982, a number of Nimrods operated from Ascension Island and, after being hastily fitted with AAR probes and Sidewinder missiles for self defence, these aircraft flew long-range sorties of up to 19hrs, both in support of the Task Force and sometimes parallel to the coastline of Argentina as close at 96kms. During the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980’s, under the cover of Exercise Magic Roundabout, Nimrods operated from Seeb in Oman to provide reconnaissance support for the Royal Navy. This experience came in handy during the later Gulf crisis when Nimrods flew 310 sorties enforcing UN sanctions and then 86 combat sorties during Gulf War I.

Lockheed P-3 'Iron Clad'The end of the Cold War in the early 1990’s had a significant impact on Nimrod operations. As the Warsaw Pact slowly collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated into a variety of independent states, the Russian Navy gradually suffered a similar decline. Economic austerity bit harder and harder and with each passing year more and more ships and submarines were tied up at their moorings and left to slowly rust away, leaving the Nimrod with few if any threats to either detect or track in the North Atlantic. However, since the early 1980’s, the US Navy had decided that their Lockheed Orion P-3 MPA offered an ideal combination of range, communications equipment and manpower to provide excellent reconnaissance platforms. Two squadrons,VPU-1 station at NAS Brunswick, Maine and VPU-2 stationed at NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, were designated ‘patrol special projects units’ and were each issued with three ‘Storm Jib’ P-3s, identical in external appearance in almost every respect to other P-3s, but very carrying very different equipment. The aircraft were originally known by the code name ‘Reef Point’ and were fitted with state-of-the-art optical, electronic, infrared and chemical reconnaissance equipment, together with digital communications links. The reconnaissance flexibility these aircraft offered has proved invaluable and over the years they have been sighted conducting reconnaissance operations at every major conflict or political hotspot. The success of the Reef Point/Storm Jib squadrons has resulted in around 25% of the P-3 MPA fleet being fitted with some form of surveillance and intelligence gathering equipment, extending their mission beyond antisubmarine warfare.

Nimrod R1The RAF had never been slow to recognise the reconnaissance potential of the Nimrod and since 1971 has operated three Nimrod R1 SIGINT aircraft with 51 Sqn, now based at RAF Waddington. However, although the Nimrod MR2s carried some electronic surveillance equipment and an extensive communications fit, they lacked any electro-optical or infrared cameras and during the Cold War this equipment was considered unnecessary for their MPA role – lack of sufficient finance probably also contributed to this decision.

Nimrod MR2 with Wescam pod on pylonHowever, the end of the Cold War and a much reduced submarine threat, forced the RAF to consider whether the best use was being made of the Nimrod fleet, particularly as there was an increased requirement for long-endurance reconnaissance aircraft capable of carrying a variety of sensors. Five Nimrod MR2s were fitted with an L-3 Communications Wescam MX-15 electro-optical system, mounted in a pod on an existing underwing pylon. The Wescam MX-15 is a sophisticated day/night optical system, with a high magnification 4-step zoom lens and an integrated laser illuminator/rangefinder. In 2002, in the build up to Gulf War II, four of these Nimrods were detached to Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in Saudi Arabia. During their time at PSAB these aircraft were used to support UK Forces operating in Iraq, the Nimrods orbited overhead to act as a communications relay and used their electro-optical equipment to identify potential targets and keep an eye out for enemy troops. However, the Nimrods could not transmit images in real time over a datalink to ground stations, so intelligence reports had to be passed over voice radio nets. The Nimrods were later used to assist AC-130 Spectre Gunships and RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft by pinpointing targets with their sensors and then relaying the targeting data to the attacking aircraft.

Nimrod MRA4Given the success of the Reef Point/Storm Jib P-3 Orions, the suitability of the Nimrod as an optical reconnaissance platform was never in much doubt, but until fairly recently had to remain a ‘desirable’ rather than ‘essential’ capability. Recognising the changing threat and the increasing need for reconnaissance, rather than maritime patrol capability, the new Nimrod MRA4 will be equipped from the outset with the Northrop Grumman Nighthunter Electro-Optical Search and Detection System (EOSDS), installed under the nose in a retractable ball turret, as well as the Israeli Elta EL/L-8300UK Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite, giving the aircraft a significant ELINT capability. Given the current political situation and until the arrival of the Nimrod MRA4, it would appear highly likely that the specially equipped Nimrods MR2s will be kept busy for the foreseeable future and are much more likely to be deployed on actual reconnaissance operations, than the standard MR2s are likely to be engaged in actual anti-submarine operations.