It's been a busy year for anyone who counts Russia as its neighbor.
Ever since Vladimir Putin began his Great Ukrainian Adventure last year, the cycle of reaction, counter-reaction, and counter-counter-reaction has raised tensions in the North Atlantic. In the skies above Europe, Russian combat aircraft repeatedly probe NATO air defenses. In the waters below, unidentified submarines -- presumed to be Russian -- keep popping up off the shores of Sweden, Finland, and beyond.
This is proving a troubling trend in England, which retired its last sub-hunting Nimrod aircraft five years ago, and has yet to name a replacement. With near-zero sub-hunting capability today, the same Britannia that once "ruled the waves" is now blind to what's going on beneath them.
Anybody want to build a sub-hunter?
One thing Britain is not blind to is the danger. And so earlier this year, the UK Ministry of Defence began casting about for a plane to replace its defunct Nimrods. Initially -- and currently -- the obvious choice was to buy P-8A Poseidon aircraft from Boeing (NYSE:BA). America uses the Poseidon. India and Australia, too. Japan is preparing to buy the birds to keep watch on its Chinese and North Korean neighbors.
Odds are, the Poseidon would make for a fine choice for Britain, as well. But at the same time, cautionary voices are urging the UK to take at least a passing glance at alternative options. Here are a few of those... along with their likely costs:
Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules
Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT) C-130J Hercules is hands-down the most popular military aircraft in the world that is not a fighter jet. Lockheed has proposed modifying some of Britain's existing fleet of C-130s, or building it a handful of new aircraft tailor-made for anti-submarine warfare.
Precisely how much that would cost depends on which option the UK prefers. C-130s modified for use in a gunship role (AC-130s) cost only about $77 million apiece, according to data from the military aeropsace experts at BGA-Aeroweb. That's less than half the cost of a Boeing P-8A Poseidon, and could make the C-130 a strong contender for this contract. And Lockheed Martin used to build the U.S. Navy's preceding sub-hunter, the P-3C Orion, which Boeing's Poseidon is replacing -- so we know that Lockheed knows how to build sub-hunters.
Airbus C-295 Persuader
Another rival likely to try to undercut Boeing on price is local European airplane builder Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY). Airbus has struggled to earn profits in military aerospace lately, and will almost certainly bid for Britain's sub-hunting contract if allowed to.
It's also admirably placed to undercut both Boeing and Lockheed Martin on price. In a sale to the Filipino military last year, Airbus let three C-295 Persuader maritime patrol aircraft go for the bargain-basement price of less than $40 million apiece. So if Lockheed's airplane costs half what Boeing's costs... then Airbus costs about half of Lockheed's price!
Drones from Northrop
Various sources suggest that rivals such as L-3 Communications, Saab, and even Japan's Kawasaki might seek to bid in the British sub-hunting deal. But for my money, one company that's got a better chance than any of those is defense heavyweight Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC). If Northrop Grumman decides to bid, however, it's likely to take a novel approach: Rather than offer to sell Britain a manned sub-hunting aircraft, Northrop Grumman will probably play to its strengths in the drone industry, and offer an unmanned aircraft such as its new MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drone.
For a true bargain hunter, it's hard to beat the Triton. While it's still in development, and its price uncertain, a single Triton could cost less than $20 million -- so once again, half the cost of the next cheapest plane, Airbus' C-295.
Time to crunch the numbers
That pretty much rounds up the usual suspects who might bid on this contract. As for how much each might make on a deal to rebuild Britain's sub-hunting capability, well... five years ago, as it was waving goodbye to its final MR2 Nimrod, Britain said it needed about 21 new planes to replace them.
BGA-Aeroweb puts the 2015 "flyaway cost" of a fully functional Boeing P-8A Poseidon at $171.6 million.Twenty-one times $171.6 million equals $3.6 billion, and so that's probably the ceiling value on this contract. (But not necessarily. Last year, Australia inked a contract to buy just eight Poseidons for $3.6 billion. At that valuation, a deal for 21 of Boeing's big birds could cost the UK as much as $9.45 billion.)
Working toward the lower end of the scale, though, and starting with BGA's $171.6 million estimate for a Poseidon, you can roughly estimate that a deal for 21 of Lockheed's C-130s would cost half of a Poseidon deal -- $1.8 billion. C-295s would cost half that -- $900 million. And taking Northrop's drone option could halve the cost yet again -- just $450 million.
Any way you slice it, this is a big amount of money we're looking at. The only question now is: Just how big it will get? As soon as we know more, you'll know more.