There has been significant coverage of the loss of the Yacht Cheeki Rafiki which has sunk in the North Atlantic and where four sailors remain missing. The combination of the decision to call off the search after 53 hours, coupled with the sense that the UK didn't have any specialist assets to contribute, in sharp contrast to the contribution for the search for Flight MH370 has led to a situation where there have been many questions asked.
The first thing to realise is that the sea is a very harsh environment to work in, and that even the best preparations can only buy so much time. The author has many vivid memories of having to conduct sea survival training over the years (which usually always seems to happen in particularly cold winters!). On entering the lake to swim to the life raft barely 100m away, and dressed in full survival gear, it was still incredible how quickly one felt the first tingling signs of hypothermia. In the environment the yacht was in last week, with 20ft seas and 50mph winds, the author’s natural instinct is that it would be exceptionally difficult to survive for any length of time.
There has been rumbling in some parts of social media that the US Coastguard were in some way remiss in not extending the search for more than 53 hours. To Humphrey this seems grossly unfair- it was clear that a great deal of effort was expended in what was a very small search area (relatively speaking) to try and locate any sign of life. The location is some 1000nm offshore from the US in a remote area, and the weather was atrocious. The reality is that the superbly professional and very well equipped US Coast Guard did the best job they could to find any signs of life. Speaking to friends of the author who previously served on SAR and Nimrod, their verdict was clear that the USCG did the best job it possibly could, and there was much praise for the courage and selflessness of the crews who went out into difficult conditions to try and find them.
There were those who questioned why the UK was not involved in some way initially in the search. From a practical perspective the North Atlantic has long been divided up into various international areas of responsibility for SAR, with different nations taking the lead in different areas. This incident fell well within the US area of responsibility, hence their taking the lead. It is not in itself a reflection on a lack of UK capability that there was no initial UK response – its akin to saying that China should be taking on responsibility for a search when a ship sinks off the coast of Ireland – if practical arrangements and SAR capability is in place, then this should be relied on in the first instance.
Many commentators have critically noted the lack of Nimrod – the Daily Telegraph for instance is highlighting that the UK is going to be relying on a C130 crew with binoculars to conduct the SAR contribution being made by the RAF. Its worth remembering that even if Nimrod MRA4 were in service, its unlikely that an airframe would have been made available in the first instance due to the incident falling firmly into the US area of responsibility. Additionally, when one considers how few Nimrods would have been purchased (down to 9 airframes at the end), then it is equally questionable whether one would even have been available to support this sort of operation. A fleet of 9 airframes only realistically gives you a couple of spare to use for contingencies like this without taking the fleet off current military operations.
The C130 is of course not an ideal SAR platform when compared to the Nimrod fleet, but it is worth remembering that for many years a C130 has conducted this role in the Falkland Islands. After the withdrawal of Nimrod, the C130 fleet became responsible for conducting SAR operations. Is it ideal – well, its not as optimal a choice as the Nimrod, but equally its still better than nothing. It is also worth considering that the Military almost fell by accident into the long range SAR function, using it as much to support tanker trails over to the US during the cold war for RAF exercises, and support to certain VIPs when travelling. The reality is that the Nimrod was an excellent airframe for the ASW role and SAR was a valuable, but very much secondary role for it. Much like other countries, there is a debate to be had about the value of whether the military are really needed to conduct SAR any more – after all the days when large scale aircraft moves to and from the US, particularly with less reliable airframes, are all but gone. For the SAR responsibilities that the UK has more broadly, there is already a reasonable level of capability available with the helicopter fleet, and as seen this is being privatised. One has to ask whether we are berating the MOD for not having a capability that arguably it rarely needs now (this is the first time in four years that the lack of Nimrod availability for SAR has really been noticed), and if so, is this the best place to allocate scarce resource at a time of budgetary pressures?
There has also been some comparisons to the search for MH370 and the suggestion that the RN and UK could have done more to help. Firstly there were no RN vessels nearby – the nearest one is likely to have been HMS PROTECTOR, currently en route to the US for a short maintenance period over the summer. In the case of MH370, an airliner has vanished from the skies for no clearly understood reason. There is an urgent safety requirement to try and identify what caused this to happen in case it has a wider knock on impact for other aircraft or equipment. Additionally, the incident occurred in a region with particularly complex geopolitical relationships, where there was not a well-developed capability to hunt for submerged objects. In this instance the RN was able to provide its world class hydrographic capability to support the search, and bring to bear a capability that could have been instrumental in building knowledge on the search area. The search for MH370 is about trying to trawl parts of the ocean in an area where we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the subsea terrain. Arguably, for the UK, the ability to contribute was as much about sending a strong reminder that the UK has an ongoing and active commitment to the region as it was about trying to support the search efforts.
By sad contrast, the loss of the yacht was a tragedy, but not one likely to have wider consequences for other similar vessels, or to have an impact on international relationships. The sea remains an incredibly dangerous and challenging environment and ships are lost on a regular basis. In this age of GPS and intercontinental travel we perhaps lull ourselves into a false sense that the sea is small, easily traversable and things can easily be found. The reality is that in the remote parts of the ocean, the environment is incredibly hostile and dangerous, and very hard to reach.
What does this incident mean for the UK more broadly? It has raised again the ongoing need for an MPA of some form. If you look at pronouncements on this issue, there has always been a guarded sense from Ministers and Seniors that there is a likely need for an MPA or other system to meet many of the tasks done by the Nimrod fleet. There is a strong sense that scrapping Nimrod was the right thing to do based on the likelihood of successfully delivering the programme into service, but that this doesn't remove the need for an MPA. The reality is though that the budget remains tight, and to find funding for a new aircraft savings need to be made elsewhere.
Additionally it is difficult to see such a perceived ‘U Turn’ coming before an SDR if only because it would be an own goal of epic proportions. Instead any decision is likely to be built around the SDR and compensating savings or funding identified from elsewhere to source the replacement. There seems to be a strong school of support for the P8 Poseidon, which is in many ways a ‘son of MRA4’ – having been in the back of a P8, the author was impressed with the mission system which is essentially the MRA4 mission system. There is a strong pool of RAF experience being accrued already on MRA4, so it would seem logical to look to this route. But it is unlikely to see much movement before 2015 baring a very unexpected turn of events.
In the short term the argument could be made that the UK is ultimately finite in resources and that part of the benefits of having allies is that they bring shared capabilities to support us. Much like our allies rely on the UK to provide many niche or technical requirements, the UK has taken a decision to rely on others to provide MPA capability. A hard decision to take, and even harder to sell to a cynical public. Incidents like this could reinforce the public perception that the UK is incapable of supporting things that it previously could do well. But, one could ask whether this really matters – the UK has had to take a lot of very difficult defence decisions in the last 15 years and many capabilities have been lost or scaled down. Given the relatively small need for long range SAR, was the loss of MPA a price worth paying or would it have been better to scrap more infantry battalions or escort ships?
There is no easy answer to this question, but ultimately though this event is a desperately sad tragedy for the four families involved, and Humphrey continues to hope against hope that the sailors are found alive.