In scenes similar to Hollywood blockbusters like The Hunt For Red October or Crimson Tide, it appears the cat and mouse game between Russian submarines and NATO Maritime Patrol Aircraft is in full swing with a civilian airport in south west of Scotland playing a significant part – for now at least.
Prestwick Airport on the west coast of Scotland is no stranger to hosting a variety of visiting military aircraft, but when four US Navy P-8A Poseidons arrived over several days, it certainly got our attention.
The first aircraft – P-8A 165947 – arrived under the call sign RIDER01 shortly after 8pm on Wednesday 11th November which in itself was not uncommon. US aircraft transiting through Prestwick Airport is almost a daily occurrence with aircraft of all shapes and sizes stopping in for a quick refueling or a night stop to facilitate crew rest and flight hours.
It wouldn’t be until the following day when things would really start to get interesting. Shortly after 5pm on Thursday 12th November, P-8A 169544 arrived under the call sign RIDER22 with a third aircraft, P-8A 169548, arriving just before 10pm.
Later that evening things would become a bit clearer when P-8A 169547 departed Prestwick Airport using the call sign PP120 – an operational sortie call sign which pointed towards the aircraft being on a Temporary Duty (TDY) at the Scottish airport.
The fourth, and suspected last aircraft of this deployment, P-8A 169546 arrived on Friday evening under the non-mission call sign of RIDER17.
So what’s actually happening?
Truth be told it’s very much day-to-day business as usual maritime patrol operations for the US and NATO allies with the current COVID-19 pandemic likely playing a hand in the temporary operational deployment to Prestwick Airport, rumored to be for around three to four weeks.
The focus will likely be on the stretch of the North Atlantic which spans between the Greenland, Iceland and the UK – commonly known as the GIUK gap. This area was of huge significance during the Cold War with Soviet submarines from the Northern Fleet having to pass through this ‘choke point’ to gain entry into the Atlantic.
With a quiet spell in the late 90s and into the 00s with the end of the Cold War and the end of the Russian military machine and attentions firmly focused on other theatres, the interest in the Atlantic and the GIUK gap had all but disappeared.
The interest levels were so low the US completely withdrew from Iceland in 2006 including the P-3 Maritime Patrol Aircraft operating out of Naval Air Station Keflavik. Fast forward four years to 2010 and the Royal Air Force retired the entire Nimrod fleet removing the UK’s airborne maritime patrol capability and the GIUK gap left to its own devices.
After years of lying dormant, the GIUK gap has once again been highlighted as being strategically significant as the Russian military machine has slowly been rebuilding and flexing its muscles in recent times. Much like the old days of the Cold War, the Russian Northern Fleet including submarines and surface vessels need to pass through this gap to enter the Atlantic from key bases such as Severomorsk and Polyarnyy.
And with Russian submarine activity having reportedly increased by almost 50 per cent according to some sources, Western military officials say this increased presence is aimed at contesting American and NATO undersea dominance. Without a doubt recent years highlight a renewed interest in submarine warfare by President Putin with continued expansion and development on diesel and nuclear-powered attack submarines.
It is therefore not surprising US and NATO maritime patrol and anti-submarine activities are on the increase with a key focus on the entry route into the Atlantic from northern Russia.
The US Navy are once again routinely operating Maritime Patrol Aircraft out of Keflavik in Iceland as well as the UK and Norway, while the UK has invested in the maritime patrol capability ordering nine P-8A Poseidons of their own, with four of them now operating out of RAF Lossiemouth – the future MPA hub of the UK.
Prestwick Airport itself is no stranger to the sub-hunting world regularly hosting Maritime Patrol Aircraft during the bi-annual Exercise Joint Warrior, and also has a long military connection throughout the Cold War with Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Prestwick / HMS Gannet previously being home to anti-submarine warfare squadrons operating the now-retired Sea King helicopter.
With the end of the Royal Navy helicopter Search and Rescue operations at HMS Gannet back in early 2016, many thought the base would be sold off or fall into a state of disrepair. In reality what appears to have happened is the base continues to be maintained and is regularly used by visiting military units operating from Prestwick Airport including acting as a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for the Merlin force.
With Prestwick Airport being strategically located near to HMNB Clyde / Faslane as well easy access to the north channel and the Atlantic, it looks like the airport’s connection with military operations over the sea is likely to continue for some years to come.
In the year that has had considerable impact on the military radio and aviation enthusiast with just about every airshow cancelled and significant restrictions on operational deployments, this somewhat unexpected deployment will without a doubt be of interest to aviation and radio enthusiasts far and wide and provide a small insight into the world of maritime patrol sorties.