Friday, April 29, 2016

The Shipbuilding Strategy: beware of the "Pointless" class

The Shipbuilding Strategy document is expected in October this year. It is hard to say what we should expect: there are many very serious, very important questions waiting for answers, but all previous experience of MOD documents sadly suggest that the question marks are likely to continue floating even when the paper is published. Possibly, we'll have even more questions popping up. 

The largest question mark floats above the whole General Purpose Frigate (GPFF), also known by most as “Type 31”, even though this designation does not appear to be officially accepted. The many questions connected with this project begin with a massive: “what is it good for?” and continue through "how it fits in the wider Royal Navy situation and budget".

Type 26 and GPFF

The new favorite line of HMG is that “nothing has changed since the SDSR”, which is probably true (we don’t really know, since we were never given clear timeframes and details to start with), but conveniently ignores how everything has changed compared to what had been the earlier plan. We have gone from a plan for 13 Type 26, 8 kitted for ASW and 5 “without sonar tail” to just 8 in the ASW configuration; from a 2016 start of build to at least a 2017 date (and we are not sure that will be it, either, maybe it’ll slip further), from a 12 months drumbeat to 18 months or two years.

Assuming that the first Type 26 still enters service in 2023 (we don’t actually know if and how this has changed), delivering one every two years means that the last of 8 ships will be delivered possibly in 2037, one year later than earlier planned for delivery of the 13th and last ship in the original schedule.

We are told that the numbers will still add up, though, thanks to the “cheaper, simpler, exportable” General Purpose Frigate (GPFF, despite reports of the contrary, the “Type 31” designation does not seem to be official) which will be designed over the next X years for build “somewhere” in the timeframe Y. We have literally no idea yet what the GPFF will be like, and how, where and when it’ll be built. We are told that the Shipbuilding Strategy is “looking” at building the GPFF and the Type 26 “concurrently”. One would hope so, because otherwise 5 of the Type 23s will have to be stretched and dragged over several more years than currently planned (and already their originally intended service life has been stretched a lot as it is).

There is a potential political bomb in there, as buiding two classes concurrently looks likely to mean building the GPFF away from the Clyde. The MOD and BAE, in fact, are expected to invest some money to upgrade both the Govan and Scotstoun sites, but the uplift will still mean that the Type 26 is built across both sites, with the project for consolidation into a single "frigate factory" yard having been rejected.  
It is quite hard to imagine GPFF blocks being built between the Type 26 blocks, at the same time, unless the commonality between the two is so high that the same procedures and manpower can be employed. But this would mean reverting to building Type 26s for both roles.

The problem of building GPFF away from the Clyde (SNP bitching aside, and this unfortunately is a big issue in its own right) is that other british shipyards options are far from evident. Thanks to the closure of the BAE shipbuilding plant in Portsmouth, it might take a significant amount of money to restore/uplift infrastructure and manpower elsewhere, further eroding the supposed margin for cheapness of the new class.

Let’s spend a few words about the GPFF and the “General Purpose” frigate as a whole: who has been following this blog for a while has already read a sizeable two-parts article with my considerations on GP and alternatives to “frigates” for the role.
I hate the guts of the GP frigate idea, simply, because its effective usefulness is dubious at best. The current “GP frigates” are just mutilated Type 23s which did not receive the 2087 towed sonar array when the earlier sonar was replaced on the rest of the class. Tail-less, their ASW capability is immensely reduced. They are just less capable ships, with the saving grace of having been built originally as ASW frigates, keeping, in theory, the door open for a future retrofit of the towed array. I say in theory because it is extremely unlikely to expect the emergency regeneration of ASW capabilities on these ships: even assuming the sonars themselves can be sourced “quickly”, the specialized personnel cannot.
The Type 26 GP would have perpetuated this absurd situation. 

The run-down of ASW capability in the 90s was part of the “peace dividend” following the fall of the Soviet Union, which was seen as including a “holiday” in the submarine threat to UK interests. I find that assumption was always very, very, very debatable, since submarines are incredibly dangerous and even a small and weak flotilla of SSK in the hands of an enemy becomes an enormous risk factor around which operations have to be planned, and large forces have to be assigned to counter it. The ARA San Luis and ARA Santa Fe, during the Falklands war, were a major menace and it is very fortunate that Santa Fe was caught on the surface and thus easily dispatched. San Luis was never nailed, and the Royal Navy can be grateful for her unreliable torpedoes, because she launched a few attacks on british ships that could have been fatal.
The submarine threat is now growing quickly once more, and much of the threat is once more represented by Russia, which couples a resurgent, modernizing fleet to a muscular foreign policy which is causing tension at levels unseen for years.
In this scenario, it hardly make sense to have frigates that aren’t frigates. If they aren’t useful for ASW and they have just a basic local area air defence fit (CAMM / Sea Ceptor), what are they good for? What is their realistic wartime role and position? How do they solve the shortage of escort vessels in the Royal Navy?
Simply: they do nothing to solve that shortage.

Abroad, the french are purchasing a cheaper "intermediate" frigate design to complement their own expensive new FREMM frigates, but they are showing greater wisdom with their FTI (Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire), which will have ASW capability.  
The US Navy, after its own ASW capability holiday, is now retrofitting towed arrays to all DDG-51 and all Ticonderoga cruisers, while fitting a powerful ASW sensors kit to some of the LCS and requiring a towed array as a permanent fit on the "Fast Frigate" LCS derivative. 
The UK, for unclear reasons, seems to be "copying", so to speak, the italian navy, which is building several ships in "GP" configuration, without towed sonar (including 6 out of 10 FREMM frigates and several of the incoming PPA "patrol frigates"). There are several good things that the italian navy is doing with its warship projects, but the UK, amazingly, seems determined to copy the one dumb thing.  

The latest reports suggest that GPFF designs being proposed are a modified Khareef, stretched by some 12 meters in length to gain a Merlin-capable flight deck and some space amidship; and the BMT Venator 110. Very modest ships, destined to be lightly armed, lightly crewed, with little to no mission spaces and with no ASW equipment. 
Supposedly, the idea is that Type 45s and Type 26s will be devoted to providing the escorts to the Task Group, while the GP ships will “cover a variety of other tasks”.
One has to wonder what those tasks are. Op Kipion? Not really, in the Persian Gulf, to keep an eye on Iran which would present a very sizeable air, missile and sub-surface threat, you’ll want, guess what, a Type 45 and an ASW frigate.
South Atlantic…? Yes and no. Yes mostly just because the Argies are unlikely to want to pick up a fight anyway.
NATO Standing naval groups…? Yes, they could be sent to SNMG-1 or 2, but would it make much sense to try and deter Russia with a 127mm and a small battery of CAMM missiles…? No. It would be a statement of political will, but not one of meaningful capability.
Caribbean? You don’t need CAMM and 127mm to chase drug smugglers, while you need space for carrying Disaster Relief supplies and personnel, so that for half the role the GPFF would be overkill and for the other half it would be too small and inadequate. Little better than a River, the currently deployed ship type.
Counter-piracy? Yes, but even here the effective usefulness depends on how many boats she’ll carry, how many embarked Marines, what helicopter / UAS options she’ll offer for surveillance and intervention.
Fleet Ready Escort? Yes and no. If she is suddenly needed to react to a crisis where submarines are part of the threat, she’s out unless escorted herself by ASW vessels. If it has to keep watch on peacetime passages of Russian task groups in the Channel, her equipment fit won’t make that much difference. River OPVs have done that before, and while it doesn't "look" right, it doesn't make too terribly much difference in practical terms. 

Venator 110 

And frankly, there is every chance that the GPFF will have no anti-ship missiles other than Sea Venom for the embarked Wildcat, so she won’t be of much help against large surface warships either. Remember that the Harpoon replacement is still an open question, and that whatever is chosen is highly likely to be vertical-launched, due to the Type 26 having 24 Strike Length VLS and no space for traditional over-deck launchers. A stretched Khareef or a Venator won’t have MK41 VLS, so the problem is pretty obvious. Problem that extends to Type 45 too: currently four ships are being retrofitted with over-deck Harpoon ramps, but the future of the SSM capability for the class is absolutely unclear. While missiles like NSM/JSM and LRASM are heading down a path which will see both tube and VL launch variants offered, recent history suggests that the RN will not put much money into solving the issue.
The Type 45, though, has room for 16 additional cells, MK41 Strike Lenght sized, which, while primarily considered these days as an "easy" path to anti-ballistic capability (via adoption of the US SM-3 missile), could also help solve the SSM problem if there ever were the will and the money to do so. 
The GPFF could end up being exceptionally lightly armed, and I don’t think anyone would be actually surprised. 

Khareef class corvette. The close relationship with the River Batch 2 is evident.  

The question is always the same: what is the GPFF actually good for?

Building a 3000 – 4000 tons lighter escort ship, and do so by re-activating a second shipbuilding site in the UK, is not at all a bad idea. If it can be done, it is actually an excellent thing. But an escort and a “GP frigate” can end up being very much different things. The Royal Navy is certainly short of hulls, but moreover it is short of escorts, and building “frigates” that haven’t a clear usefulness in a war scenario isn’t a good solution. The escort problem is only solved by escorts, the hulls problem can be solved in cheaper, alternative ways.

It should also be noted that, unlike what is apparently being suggested now, it would make more sense to use the smaller frigates to beef up the protection of the Task Group (where the presence of other ships and intimate helicopter and aviation support from the carrier better compensate the single ship’s weaknesses) rather than send them abroad on single-ship deployments.
Personally, I think that it makes a lot more sense to cover Op Kipion with a Type 26 rather than with a GPFF, even fitted with towed array for ASW: the Type 26 will have more Sea Ceptor rounds available; better aviation, small boats / Unmanned Vehicle capabilities and capacity; and, possibly, Tomahawk and/or land-attack capable anti-ship missiles in its Strike length cells.
If It has to be a single ship, doesn’t it make more sense to use the large, well armed one that is less dependent on intimate support and that can, via Tomahawk, give an immediate firepower option in the area without having to relay entirely on the SSN(T) positioned east of Suez or having to wait for the task group to arrive?
It will also be a far better fit in NATO Standing Maritime Groups, for obvious reasons.    

The “Pointless” class?

There are another two reasons why GPFF could become the “Pointless” class: they could be born old and obsolete; and much of their limited usefulness could end up being almost duplicated by another ship class the Shipbuilding Strategy will have to tell us about: the MCM and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) mothership.
They could be born old and obsolete because technology is evolving incredibly quickly and we are on the edge of a major revolution in naval warfare, brought about by several technologies which are maturing steadily and are likely to become an ever greater factor over the coming decade. These are, in no particular order:

-          Hypersonic missiles
-          Ballistic (including anti-ship) missiles
-          Rail gun
-          Laser
-          Unmanned vehicles

It is already concerning enough that the Type 26 herself is potentially going to struggle to adapt over the course of her life. It will introduce the 127mm gun with 40 years of delay, right while the rail gun enters the frame. It will use CAMM missiles right while hypersonic and ballistic anti-ship weapons become part of the picture. It will use Artisan, a single-face, rotating radar in the age of unblinking, fixed-multi plate radar coverage.
It will have a CODLOG propulsion arrangement that could make it complex to squeeze more power out of her to retrofit the new systems.
But at least she’ll have the mission bay and 24 MK41 cells, enabling carriage of new missiles and new systems. The GPFF might not have any of these saving graces due to the size apparently being considered and the need to save money.

Finally, MHC. This programme, earlier known as MHPC, with the P standing for “Patrol”, is meant to introduce a replacement capability for the current Hunt and Sandown MCM vessels and for the hydrographic vessels Echo and Enterprise.
The P has been provisionally dropped as a consequence of the order for 3 new River Batch 2 OPVs, followed by another 2 to be ordered. This has removed the “short-term” (the first MHC mothership isn’t expected before 2028!) patrol requirement represented by the need for a River Batch 1 replacement.  
The MOD is so far “keeping the options open”, not refusing the possibility that new build, “traditional” minesweepers could end up being required. But the direction of travel is completely different, with the money spent so far going all on creating a family of unmanned systems (Surface, Sub-Surface and potentially Air) destined, initially, for embarkation on suitably modified Hunt ships. A UK-only combined influence sweep package is in the development / prototyping phase, and a wider MCM family of systems prototype is due to be formally ordered, jointly with France, later this year.

If the unmanned systems keep the promises, the mothership will be built out of steel and will be pretty large (the only known, very generic indication is for a ship in the 3000 tons range). It will have long legs and good deployability plus, almost certainly, aviation spaces (at least an helicopter pad, probably also a hangar), all things that the current minesweepers do not have.
This makes the new ships useful across a wider range of roles. They will be a lot fewer than the MCM hulls they replace, but they will be more useable, not to mention that the unmanned systems could also be launched from vessels “of opportunity” or from the shore, giving new options for training and deployment.
France has given a few indications about their own plan, which would involve 8 system of drones and 5 motherships, two of which normally used to cover home waters needs, 2 expeditionary and 1 for training.

The Shipbuilding Strategy will have to tell us some more about the MHC direction of travel, especially if the 2028 ISD for the first new mothership is confirmed: that date would imply that the construction of the MHC vessels would overlap with that of Type 26 and GPFF.
Where does everything fit, in shipyard terms and in budget terms? Because it is unthinkable that MHC does not happen at some point: sooner rather than later, it will start eating into the GPFF and Type 26 plate. 

A particularly important question for the Royal Navy is: how many motherships should be built to replace the 15 (but soon enough 12) MCM ships and 2 hydrographic vessels? And again, even more key to the whole strategy: what usefulness can be squeezed out of the MHC mothership in addition to carrying MCM and hydrographic drones? How does adding capability to MHC impact the role / need for GPFF?
This question is of absolutely key importance.

In simple terms: GPFF, if it is built, should be about increasing the number of credible escorts. If it can’t, perhaps it is better to just built 2 more Type 26 ASW and cancel GPFF altogether and focus entirely on MHC to make it as useful and useable as possible.
Hulls and Standing Tasks should be an MHC and OPV concern and opportunity.
If GPFF ends up being good only gor “glorified constabulary tasks” with CAMM and a big gun, it will offer little additional value over OPV / MHC ships while still eating a considerable amount of money.

With 5 to 6 OPVs (depending on the fate of HMS Clyde) in the future fleet, the Royal Navy will have a healthy “second tier” flotilla. Assuming all 6 OPV remain, one should be forward based in the Caribbean and one possibly in Gibraltar. The Rivers, even the Batch 2, have the big defect of not having a hangar (a rather dumb trade-off on capability if there ever was one), but can do well enough against drug-smuggling and for presence / defence engagement in north and western Africa. The OPV forward based in Gibraltar could also take part in non-combat operations in the Mediterranean (where the current instability and migration crisis will probably last for a long time)and even move as far away as Somalia or Nigeria to take part in counter-piracy missions in the two areas. In these missions, it will do almost as well as the proposed “stretched Khareef” GPFF, at very little additional cost (they are being built anyway, let’s give them a meaning).

And then there will be MHC. What will MHC deliver? Back when it was MHPC, it was described as “an OPV mothership”, with a 30mm gun and River-like constabulary capabilities.
If the GPFF gets built, this is what most likely will be built, as there won’t be money for anything more, nor an easy case to be made in front of the treasury for fitting more.
That would give an oversized constabulary flotilla, since there are only so many things that an OPV can do.

Another question arises, at this point: what if the GPFF and MHC were merged?
Before Type 26, the Royal Navy was considering a 3-tier fleet made up by C1 (10 high-end ASW escorts, 8 C2 (more or less what the current GPFF is supposed to be) and then a number (8?) of C3 patrol / MHPC vessels.
Type 26 ended up merging C1 and C2, in what turned out to be (predictably, for how I see it), a bad decision and one that the budget would not support.
The alternative to a return to C1 (Type 26), C2 (GPFF) and C3 (MHC) at much reduced numbers could be a two-tier approach in which C1 is ideally returned to 10 ships, supported by a C”23” which puts the “fighty” bits of a “cheap” GP frigate together with a sizeable work area in the stern for the needed MCM / Hydrographic (and one day, possibly and probably, ASW) unmanned systems. The DAMEN CrossOver would then become the obvious example to follow in designing such a vessel.
The LCS is the obvious example in terms of concept / philosophy, as it has merged the role of small combat ship with ASW and MCM. Just not in the happiest of ways, due in no small part to absurd speed requirements. Don’t copy the ship, but do copy the base idea.

The Royal Navy should not suddenly go from a “we want no 2nd Tier warships, no matter how much we struggle to put together a task group while wasting destroyers to chase pirates” to a “multi-layered constabulary flotilla with uncertain/no wartime usefulness at the cost of real escorts”.
The relationship between GPFF and MHC should be very carefully considered, because the wrong choices in this area will completely screw up the shipbuilding strategy as a whole. And the Royal Navy too as a consequence.

Make GPFF a light but capable escort by including ASW capability, or don't bother with it, because there are probably better ways to spend that finite, precious money and obtain greater overall capability.

MARS FSS: Fleet Solid Support Ship

The SDSR finally gave the go ahead to the much delayed programme for building three replacement ships for the current Fort class (Fort Austin, Fort Rosalie, Fort Victoria) “around the middle of the 2020s”, but we don’t yet really know what design will be chosen and, moreover, we have no clue about where these massive (we are probably talking of 40.000 tons ships at full load) vessels will be built. Is there a place in the UK that can handle this project? Will they be built abroad?
The assumption, years ago, was that the complex and sensible nature of these replenishment vessels destined to carry ammunition, stores and spare parts would require building them in the UK. Now, it is hard to guess what the thinking might be. If built in blocks around the UK, these ships could probably give quite a bit of work to several shipyards. But what would be the cost implications?

Will this be the FSS, or will the budget dictate a drop in ambitions compared to this proposed design? 

In terms of timeframes, it seems likely that there will be a slide to the right, as current OSDs for the Forts (2023, 2024, 2025) would require the replacements to enter service before, not after, 2025. It seems this will change.

Argus and Diligence?

RFA Argus has a 2024 OSD, and Diligence’s own OSD has been pushed to the right again and again. We’ll see if the Strategy document will make any mention of them and provide any indication for a replacement. These two vessels provide invaluable capability, and losing them without replacement would be a major blow.

Long term shipyard sustainability

If the GPFF (or my proposed “C23”, for that matter) resurrects a british yards down south, how can it then be sustained in the longer term? Answering to this question might prove pretty complex, to say the least.
The Clyde shipyards have an answer at easier reach: by 2037, when work on the Type 26 should be over, the Type 45s will have more than exhausted their intended 25 years service life. HMS Daring will have already been in commission for 28 rather than 25 years.
Of course, we all expect to see the Type 45 service life stretched, as always happens, but it seems reasonable to assume that its replacement will keep the Clyde going almost without interruption, if things are done well.

But the first Type 26 won’t reach the end of an assumed 25 years service life before 2048, and the first GPFF / C23 will hit hers later still, meaning that two “escort yards” continue to look unsustainable in the long term. Export cannot be counted upon as the savior: even assuming GPFF turned out being an export success (something I sincerely think will not happen, in a market which already offers tons of well established options from GOWIND to MEKO designs), the chances that export ships would be built in the UK are pretty low. The design might gain the interest of some customers, but the building is very likely to take place in the customer’s country. 

On the large ship front, sometimes in the 2030s the LPDs could do with replacement via LHDs, and building two large LHDs would be a blessing for, potentially, more than one shipbuilder. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

British Army "reviewing" whether to lose some more firepower

The British Army’s infantry has one particularly demanding aspiration in mind:

Project Payne
The aim is achieving a reduction in carried load to as low as 25 kg in marching order (interim target is 40 Kg, apparently) and 20 kg in assault order.

Compare those values with an average for “patrol order” in Afghanistan, and you realize how difficult it is to go down in weight without simply cancelling key bits of equipment from the list. VIRTUS, of course, is working to make the body armour and load carriage equipment both lighter and more comfortable, but it is only one part of the story.
One key part of the story that never seems to get much mention is:

Project Atlas
A Combat Load Carrier was rapidly identified as a necessity if the infantry is to achieve the desired load reduction while ensuring the platoon still has the kit it needs. Pack animals and vehicles both considered, according to the papers. The solution would be assigned at Coy and/or Platoon level.  

The current, interim solution is the Yamaha Grizzly 450 Quad Bike with trailer; grouped at Coy level.  

Tomorrow’s solution is…?
Apparently, in the minds of some in the top brass, it is leaving the Section without LMG and the Platoon without mortar, rather than procuring a load carrier / mobility platform.
The official version is that a light tactical mobility platform to replace the Quad Bike could come in 2020, and pack animals might return as well.

But in the meanwhile Jane’s reports that the British Army is considering whether to remove the 60mm platoon mortar from service, and even the Minimi LMG could be removed from the arsenal.
The justification? The 40mm underslung grenade launcher makes the mortar redundant and the LMG really is no good, better to depend on Battlegroup assets and/or GPMGs passed down by Company, if luck assists.
I mean, the enemy will be suppressed in some way, whatever it is, and the sharpshooter will pick them apart with precision, the new magic word of the day. Honest.  

Nobody in the world thinks any of the two is a good idea? Hey, this is the British Army, we don’t care.

The sorry story of the British Army’s firepower goes back many years. Possibly decades. But I will only summarize the most recent episodes of the saga. To fully grasp the "funny" side of the story, you must consider that the Sharpshooter, the current key piece on the chessboard, did not really exist in the british army until a few years ago and has been on the point of vanishing again as soon as combat operations in Afghanistan winded down and his weapon, the L129A1, procured as UOR, became an immediate candidate for disposal.

But the L129A1 was popular enough not to be thrown away, and the uncertainty about its worth, role and future became just one part of a more complex story, going from "it isn't that good" to the "it makes the LMG redundant" within less than 3 years of magic. Enter the: 

Platoon Combat Experiment (PCE)

PCE was a 3-year study (it should be complete now) meant to examine the full combat effectiveness of the dismounted Infantry Platoon. The focus of the study was Platoon lethality and Dismounted Situational Awareness (DSA). Experiments were run yearly through a 6-week programme broken down into 3 weeks on Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) using Tactical Engagement Simulation (TES, the laser-based training system) and 3 weeks in Sennybridge Training Area (SENTA) conducting live firing. The results of the experiments were meant to inform the ORBAT and equipment requirements of Army 2020’s infantry platoons. As of May 2014, the three phases of PCE were described as:

Year 1 (2013) baseline experiment to gather the data on current configuration of weapons, equipment, DSA and lethal capability.

Year 2 (2014) Intervention year. Having examined the data from year 1, areas found to require change were targeted to determine the way forwards. Two main targets were selected:

-          Load reduction, with the aim to drop from a “Patrol Order” (Op Herrick) of 42 kg average to an Assault Order of 27 kg or less.
-          Rule of 4; evaluating the merits of a return to a Platoon on 4 Sections. Manpower being fixed, this is only achievable by reducing the Section from 8 to 6 men.

Year 3 (2015) Final intervention and confirmation year. Having studied the data from years 1 & 2 the final year was meant to be used to conduct further interventions, in different areas or adjustments in those from year 2. The selected ORBAT and equipment configuration coming out of year 2 would be used. Finally, the results would be studied and compared to determine the way ahead.

As of May 2014:

-          L129A1 and L86A2 LSW: uncertainty on the way ahead, despite decision to take L129 into Core after earlier suggestions of scrapping it. PCE Year 1 results showed, surprisingly, that the LSW, adjusted and put in the hands of a private having received adequate progression training and Small Arms Corps guidance, was the best performing weapon in Live Fire events over the 4-500 meters range.
The results on ranges between 500 and 800 meters again saw the LSW performing as well as the L129A1, with the 5.56 bullet having greater speed at the same range. However, the L129A1 and the ACOG 6x sight were found to be not adequately ballistically matched. A new sight graticule for the ACOG was funded, and the trials were to be repeated. The L129A1 was also rejected as Sniper No 2 weapon, with the intention of launching a new procurement effort after firming up the requirements.

In May 2015, courtesy of the 1st Princess of Wales regiment which provided the information, I learned that:

-          1 PWRR had just been scaled to receive the L129A1 in Sniper No 2 role; but there were some logistic issues still to be tackled and LSW was being used in the interim within the sniper pair. The LSW was described as “performing very well in sharpshooter role” but most pairs continued to call for the 7.62 of the L129A1. A change of heart on the Sniper No 2 decision? No money to procure a dedicate sniper support weapon as hoped in 2014? Who knows.

-          For Section-level sharpshooter role a definitive answer could not be provided, but I was told that Armoured Infantry battalions probably would not be given the L129A1 on the assumption that long range fire support would come from the Warrior’s coaxial 7.62 MG. Not quite the same as a sharpshooter and there is a point to be made that infantry and IFV aren’t glued and the IFV might not be able to follow everywhere, all the time. But there are not enough L129, that much is known, and AI Coys are those which would suffer the less if deprived of the sharpshooter. At least they do have the Warrior.

-          As of now, L129 is in use both in Sharpshooter and Sniper No 2 role. But LSW is also being re-issued in numbers after having pretty much vanished for a few years.

Even so, as of August 2015, more trials were planned with the L129A1 fitted with the adjusted ACOG sight. After testing it with standard ammo, the plan was to employ high performance ammunition to determine if the new combination would give the desired 800 meters effective reach. The 16’’ barrel is probably a limiting factor: a longer one would solve the effective reach issue, but would affect bulk and weight (and cost...).  

On top, the L86A2 LSW in normal configuration, then an LSW in "A3" configuration, proposed to improve its performance, with the same bipod as the L129A1 (bottom)
L129A1 in Sniper No 2 configuration, with suppressor and 12x sight. The ACOG 6x is used in Sharpshooter role instead.

Small Arms Suppressors: initially considered as part of efforts to reduce the number of troops sustaining noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), they were found to potentially have other merits on the battlefield and a full experimentation was ordered. The army procured bespoke suppressors for every platoon weapon, including the LMG Minimi and the GPMG. As of 2015, there was no definitive conclusion, with both pros and cons having surfaced, and more time required to make any choice.

BURMA Coy, 1st LANCS, was given the suppressors for a fact-finding ride. They performed well on SA80 and L129A1, greatly reducing the noise and even the recoil, while they performed horribly on the belt-fed weapons, somehow causing the recoil to get much stronger and, not so surprisingly, becoming white hot during sustained fire, both with LMG and GPMG.

UGL Fire Control System: the FCS for the underslung grenade launcher is not popular with the troops, who feel it is too heavy and cumbersome. SASC’s answer is that it should not be kept attached to the rifle all the time, as removing and attaching it is a 15 seconds (on average during the trials) operation.
“Some work” was put into developing the UGL into a stand-alone weapon rather than a rifle attachment, apparently with the blessing of the Special Forces community. In February 2014 the MOD put out a tender notice asking for a lightweight, battery-powered Mounted Ballistic Sight to replace the ladder sight of the UGL both underslung and stand-alone.
Not sure if a procurement actually followed, but it sounds a lot like the Vectronix-Wilcox RAAM FCS, procured in 2011, is a designated victim of the efforts to shed weight and will likely not live long. The MOD 2014 notice calls for something weighting less than 450 g, rather than the around 790 of the FCS. 

As of 2016, the UGL itself might be dropped in favor of a standalone version, ideally a multi-shot grenade launcher if it can be procured. We'll see.

L128A1 Combat Shotgun: ingloriously removed from service, without much of a word.  

PCE Experiment. The reportage from the field: BURMA Company, 1st LANCS, was tasked with the Year 2 trials. The 4 sections of 6 men were armed with “a mix of platoon weapons including the LMG Long Barrel and the L129A1 Sharpshooter”. The inclusion of the Minimi is important in light of the latest news, and the fact that it had the long barrel is also very interesting as currently all LMGs in british army service are short barreled, which impacts their effective reach. The possibility of procuring and retrofitting the longer barrel has been on the cards for a while. A “Reconfigured LMG” was a future requirement within the Infantry Lethality project as far back as 2011. 
Nowhere had I ever read before about the possibility of dropping the LMG from the army’s equipment being even considered. It popped entirely out of the blue, for me.

In the 1st LANCS regimental journal for the year 2014, Lieutenant Graeme Cleave, BURMA Coy, writes about the Platoon experiment. The very first technical observation he makes is that they found the best tool in the platoon’s arsenal is the 60mm platoon mortar.
The same that could now be dropped from the equipment table.  

“We learnt very quickly that effective use of the mortar not only defeats the enemy at long range it also gives you freedom of movement on the battlefield”.

The Kingsman yearbook 2014 – Page 27

In combination with the Sharpshooter, the platoon mortar allowed the Sections to clear out enemy positions from over 600 meters away.
I find this in no way surprising. It also tallies with the post Op Herrick reports which specify that the great majority of enemies killed were taken down by sharpshooter / sniper fire or by HE, with everything else mostly only providing suppressive fire to fix the enemy in place.
It should be noted that in Afghanistan the Minimi was snubbed at times… but not in favor of a no-belt fed approach. Rather, the infantry patrols preferred to shoulder more weight but carry the firepower and reach of the GPMG Light Role.
How do we get from here to the possibility of losing both the mortar and the belt-feds, I have no idea.
There is a massive hole in the train of thought, that transits through abortive attempts to make the GPMG lighter to arrive to this proposal of only having belt-feds in the Support Coy, with the GPMG SF.

There is one single major force in the world which has removed belt-feds from the Section / Squad. That is the USMC, which has replaced its own Minimi, the M249 SAW, with the M-27 IAR, an automatic rifle with integrated bipod, which can deliver semi-automatic “sharpshooter” precision or full auto suppressive fire. 

However, it should be remembered that the USMC squad is 13 men strong and the Platoon includes a Weapons squad with M240s belt-fed 7,62 mm guns. The british platoon has no weapons squad and no organic GPMGs and is a smaller force in general.
The US Army platoon is 39 strong, with 3 sections of 9 and a weapons section. The French use a platoon of 40 men, which also includes support weaponry.

The British Army briefly worked on putting a platoon of GPMGs within Rifle Companies in Light Role regiments as part of Army 2020, also to mitigate the problem of only having 2 Rifle platoons now. The paired reserve battalion is supposed to provide the missing platoon in each Coy, but whether this is realistic is still all to be seen. In peacetime, it seems that more often than not, it is not actually doable as troops have been repeatedly borrowed from other regular battalions.
The Rifle Coy's Machine Gun Platoon was formed in some battalions, but then quickly dismantled: it seems to have lasted a year at most, before the GPMGs were sent back to the Support Coy from which they had been “stolen”.  No resource in the British Army is ever additional these days: robbing Peter to pay Paul is the rule.
An attempt to adopt the Fire Support Group as peacetime structure, forming three multi-weapon groups comprising machine guns, GMG and anti-tank missiles was also short lived, and everything seems to have reverted to Machine Gun Platoon, AT Platoon, Mortar Platoon, Sniper Platoon, Recce Platoon, Pioneer (mini-) Platoon. There is just less of everything.  
The firepower deficit that the British Army already has when compared with any other army, at all levels from platoon to battalion, would only get worse under this new mortar and belt-feds “review”.

The few positives from the PCE trial were the top marks reserved for the Laser Light Module LLM MK3, which seems to have gained everyone’s favor as one of the best bits of kit the army has procured in recent times. 
One definitely good point of the whole exercise was the lot of work done at night, including platoon attacks in IR light only. “Mastery of the night” rhetoric abounded when the FIST sights and NVGs were procured, but the Op Herrick campaign report warns that, for a whole series of reasons, the army did not actually press the pedal on night fighting, probably missing a lot of good tactical advantages over the Taliban.

On the “rule of 4” side, there were both good and bad things to note: the commander likes the flexibility that a fourth maneuver unit gives him (and who wouldn’t) but notes that a 6 man squad becomes combat ineffective very quickly as soon as the first casualties are suffered.
It should be noted that when the British Army worked with 4 sections in the past, those numbered 10 men each…

Finally, a related point. Note that, due to Warrior CSP having room for just 6 dismounts, the Armoured Infantry Coys seem destined to have 6 men Sections regardless of whatever they might think of them, since I don’t think we can expect an additional Warrior in each Platoon, or even an APC addition.
As we saw before, the AI Coy section probably won’t have a Sharpshooter (at a minimum not one with L129, maybe LSW could still be included within the 6) and the LMG might well be the other bit that goes.

Lightweight mortar: it was reported already back in 2013 that the British Army would shelve the 60mm mortars it had procured as UOR for Afghanistan. Back then, it was said that the platoon mortar, or “commando” mortar, would remain in use only with PARA and Royal Marines. That was not (entirely) correct. The handheld M640 ended up being taken into Core as replacement for the 51mm platoon mortar, and remains in Army-wide use (for now at least).
The 60mm mortars which have been shelved are the M6895 and M6-895C, which are heavier, have a longer barrel and are used with a bipod, with a much greater range (around 4 km). These were procured to give the maneuver forces in Afghanistan more mobile mortar platoons. The 81mm L16, too heavy for the kind of foot patrol work required in Afghanistan, more often than not would not go outside the FOBs.
These two mortars are the ones which have been left available only to PARAs and Royal Marines. 

But now, once more, the Army is considering removing the platoon mortar from service, with the same justification used back when the 51mm was withdrawn without direct replacement: the underslung grenade launcher made it redundant. With the difference that the 51mm ammunition production had ended and it made no sense spending big money to try and restart it. 60mm ammunition is readily available worldwide.
Never mind the fact that the handheld mortar can hit out to 1000 meters and beyond, while 40mm grenades only reach 400 meters. Never mind the larger payload of the mortar’s bomb and their greater lethality. Nor the fact that the mortar can fire IR illumination shells, cold smoke, white phosphorous smoke, colored smoke. The Multi Role Fuze permits the selection of Low or High burst detonation for area effects.
It is a lot of firepower and flexibility available at platoon level, and there is no reason to throw it away, especially without procuring any kind of replacement whatsoever.

The British Army in Afghanistan has used MITHRAL hand-fired rockets for creating smoke curtains and putting up colored smoke signals at ranges of up to 1000 meters without depending on the mortar, and maybe these will continue to be used, but even they are no replacement.  

There are alternatives to the platoon mortar? Not really, at the moment. No one else is throwing the platoon mortar away, even if it weights 6+ kg.
The US Marines and US Army have been working on weapons which might at some point provide a full alternative, but none of the two is so far mature enough to replace the mortar. The XM-25 is extremely interesting, but not yet mature and individually not lighter than the 60mm mortar. The ammunition, though, weights less.
The M-32 revolver grenade launcher is another interesting system already in use in the USMC and now to be purchased by the Australian army as well, but it still doesn’t give you the reach of the platoon mortar.
Medium Velocity 40mm grenades, expected to reach as far as 800 meters, are becoming more mature as time passes, but we are not there yet. 

Lt.Col. Iain Moodie, SO1, Dismounted Close Combat, Capability Directorate Combat, speaking at the Soldier Equipment and Technology Advancement Forum (SETAF) in London on 14th March, suggested that the Army might look at the Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless rifle as a possible replacement due to the flexibility it offers thanks to the wide range of ammunition available.
The US Army has seen a resurgence of interest in the Carl Gustav already years ago, putting many back in the field in Afghanistan to give long-range firepower options to its infantry. The US Army calls it the Multi-Role Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapon System (MAAWS) M3. It weighs approximately 22 pounds with each round of ammunition weighing less than 10 pounds, but already back in 2012 there were ongoing attempts to make it at least 5 pounds lighter. Ammunition available include the High Explosive and High Explosive Dual Purpose Rounds, HEAT, illumination, anti-structure, multi-target and smoke. 

M3 Carl Gustav with the US Army
It is not any lighter than the platoon mortar, but is possibly even more flexible, and if provided with suitable anti-structure ammunition it could remove the need to carry the heavy MATADOR Anti Structure Munition  rocket launcher, compensating somewhat. 

On the ground, the Matador ASM, one of the less frequently observed weapons of the British Army. Money wasted? Maybe. For sure, it isn't light.
The user can usually load and fire four rounds within one minute.
The blast radius stemming from a High Explosive round is anywhere from 50 to 75 meters. The user sets the firing distance on the MAAWS by simply rotating a labeled meter at the top of the round.
The Carl Gustav is an interesting option, but until it is on the way to the Platoon, I really would not want to see the mortar go.

According to Moodie, the 40 mm UGL could be removed from the rifle and be replaced by a standalone, multiple (if there is money) grenade launcher.
This might also be a consequence of the fact that year 1 PCE firing trials showed the L85A2 with UGL lagging behind the L85A2 without UGL in terms of effective rounds landed on target.

The L16 mortar is supposedly going to be given an upgrade to extend its reach, but it is still delusional to think it’ll be where you need it, when you need it, all the time. And anyway, for the moment, there are actually restrictions imposed on the use of the maximum charge due to excessive noise. Noise, together with weight, is the big no-no of today’s army.
The November 2013 report about the 60mm mortar going out of the window said the L16 would be given new barrels to extend its service life. The new barrels would possibly be longer as the army hopes to obtain a longer reach from the L16A2 and could incorporate the “baffle” (Blast Attenuation Device) as fitted on the US version of the L16, to help reduce the noise and hide the flash.
There is however no evidence of any progress on this front since 2013, for all I know. 

Light Protected Mobility battalion mortar post during a recent exercise. No upgrade or change to the L16 is evident.

Hearing protection: The Army has spent years wrestling with technology to provide troops with an effective wearable Hearing Protection System. A new series of plugs, fitted with a device that automatically reduce the intensity of pulse, intense sounds, has been ordered during 2015.

VIRTUS, DSA, camouflage: Lt.Col. Iain Moodie painted a rather bleak picture by saying that jungle garments and camouflage are not funded and new Arctic equipment hasn’t even begun to be considered.

DSA developments should now be included in VIRTUS Pulse 2, for delivery between 2019 – 2022. Previously, Pulse 2 was expected to only cover the introduction of new, lighter ballistic armor plates. It now apparently will deal with DSA as well, and as a consequence presumably of power generation and distribution, previously the domain of Pulse 3.

Pulse 3 now apparently focuses on renewed small arms Lethality and on Close Combat Unmanned Aerial System (replacement for Black Hornet?). It is confusing, however, as these developments would appear to be only marginally connected to body armour and load carriage.

Some 40 million pounds are expected to be committed in 2017 to a new phase of the Future Soldier System. The I of “integrated” seems to have been dropped, meaning that we probably won’t hear about FIST anymore. 

The frankly embarrassing "concept" the MOD showed last year. The fake pad, the fake visor and the fake sight, rifle add-ons and sensors on top of the helmet truly give it an aura of seriousness. The long history of previous concepts and the latest news don't inspire any optimism.

The DSA situation within the British Army is rather dramatic in comparison to what is happening in France, US and elsewhere. It is an area of the Future Soldier programmes and even of Afghan UORs where progress has been scarce (with the exception of Black Hornet, a great addition).
A combat identification solution to prevent Blue on Blue is the absolute priority, with fielding hopefully from 2019.
Other DSA advances will probably depend in no small measure on the ongoing development of Bowman and then on Project MORPHEUS, Bowman’s replacement.

Did I already say there are too many infantry battalions increasingly becoming pointless and unusable due to lack of not just supports, but now even personnel kit? Lt.Col. Iain Moodie also said that the Army does not have the budget to equip everyone at the same way. VIRTUS and DSA releases will only happen in Tiers, and the total holdings are expected to be insufficient, requiring handing down of equipment when battalions swap in theatre.
The Adaptable / Infantry Brigades in particular can be expected to lag behind in equipment scales, but even Reaction brigades not in their Readiness year could experience shortages as equipment is prioritized for the brigades at readiness (one Armoured and one Strike, if we are to believe in the SDSR, and it is becoming harder by the day to do so).

Once more, the Army appears to be keeping battalions and brigades alive on a precarious life support, by spreading jam incredibly thin, ending up with holes all over the place.

In conclusion

Is it money, is it weight? Is it noise? Is it a bit of everything? Why would the British Army consider throwing away two important pieces like the LMG and the platoon mortar, without having procured anything that actually makes them redundant in any way?
Why so many army efforts go nowhere, lost in indecisive and contradictory approaches, U-turns, half-arsings, even when the cost is relatively minor (a few millions perhaps, hardly game changing within the budget)?

I can find no good answer.