Saturday, July 21, 2018

British Army going wheeled?

British Army going wheeled?

The MOD has released to the public a voluntary ex ante transparency notice in which it reveals that it has asked the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) to enter a contract for the delivery of between 400 and 600 Boxer 8x8 for the Mechanised Infantry Vehicle programme.

The notice says that 4 variants are requested, in addition to driver training vehicles, reference vehicles and related support.
The four variants are not detailed, and subsequent reports are not in complete agreement. APC and Command variants are a given, and there seems to be a consensus on the third variant being the Ambulance, but the fourth variant is given as either a Mortar Carrier or an “Equipment Support Vehicle”, which presumably would combine Recovery and Repair functions in a single vehicle. It must be noted that both Mortar and Recovery/Repair variants of the Boxer aren’t yet in production and have not been ordered by anyone, although the development of both is a distinct possibility and one of the latest Boxer customers, Slovenia, has expressed a mortar requirement.
Naturally, the development of new mission modules is a possibility and could indeed represent a chance for the british industry to develop something that could be exported to other users.

What is most interesting in the notice is the number of vehicles that are anticipated: a first batch of at least 400 vehicles is significantly larger than the expected 300 – 350 that were commonly mentioned in recent times. 400 vehicles would comfortably cover the “Strike” requirement of 4 battalions, with substantial room for additional vehicles which would cover, probably, the replacement of FV432 variants in other formations; beginning, judging from the variants, with the FV432 ambulance which is found in tank regiments, armoured infantry battalions and armoured medical regiments. The Warrior CSP requirement is understood to be for 380 vehicles, of which 245 IFVs and the others in Joint Fires direction (FV524 variant) and the 522 and 523 REME variants. The number of battalions is the same, 4, so it is immediately evident that even the lowest quantity mentioned in the notice includes vehicles for roles outside the STRIKE infantry; or, less likely, an ambition for additional mechanized battalions.

The notice specifies that additional variants and requirements could follow, and it specifically mentions the adoption of a “medium gun”, basically implying an IFV variant.
Moreover, the notice specifies that the MOD is asking for the option of ordering up to 900 more vehicles, for a total of 1500.
1500 does not appear to be a casual number: the Army has been planning for 380 upgraded Warriors; declares on its website 409 FV432 still in use; and fields / stores a fleet of 305 Mastiff Troop Carrier Vehicles plus 127 specialistic variants (Enhanced Communications Variant, Interim ECM, Interim EOD [possibly 23], ambulance, Protected Eyes / Praetorian) plus 118 Ridgback Troop Carrier Vehicles and 51 specialistic variants (Command, Ambulance), supported by 125 Wolfhound (Utility and at least 44 between Military Working Dog and EOD).
The total is 1515. Coincidence? Probably no.

It seems more and more likely that the troubled Warrior CSP will, in the end, be cancelled. This MIV notice seems to prepare for a WCSP cancellation scenario by making provision for the numbers and the addition of a medium gun.
Moreover, it clearly includes numbers sufficient to cover the replacement of all remaining FV432 variants as well, which means that the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, officially “descoped” in 2016 as part of cost-growth management measures within the programme “Armoured Infantry 2026”, might just be dead for good, in favor of a huge MIV purchase.

The Warrior CSP has repeatedly missed its target dates and remains without a manufacture contract. Work is advanced on the turret and the 245 CTA40 guns are under contract, but it is not impossible to imagine a scenario which migrates the turrets onto Boxer hulls.
Lockheed Martin, perhaps genuinely aiming at future MIV requirements or perhaps shielding itself from the possibility of a WCSP cancellation, has already showcased its Export version of the turret on a Boxer.

The replacement of WCSP with more MIV would put the British Army on the same path chosen by France with the VBCI, which entirely replaced their own tracked IFVs. Moreover, the replacement of FV432 with MIV variants would represent a rather dramatic shift in favor of wheels, completely changing the scenario that currently exists within the British Army.   
Such a change of heart would do wonders for commonality and obsolescence removal from what is an aging fleet of fleets, but it would also sideline Ajax even further, leading to further questions about where the tracked heir to FRES should sit.
Ever since the SDSR 2015 was published, Ajax has looked more and more lost, ultimately resulting in its “re-branding” into a “medium armour” capability which has, it is fair to say, convinced very few people.
I’ve been and I continue to be a huge critic of the idea of leaving the armoured infantry brigades devoid of their own recce cavalry, especially if the reason to do so is to use the Ajax’s 40mm gun in support of toothless APCs in Strike Brigades. That, in my opinion, is the way to ruin both brigade types at once, destroying the capability of both.

Boxer showcased with the LM Export turret with CTA 40mm and double AT missile pod. 

Boxer with the LANCE turret with 30mm and Missiles, as selected by Australia. The module is being lifted out of the craddle. Or lowered in, depending on how you want to see it! 

A reassessment of how the various fleets will work together and how the various requirements can be covered has been a clear necessity for years, and has been a recurring theme in my posts on armour plans. A “full-MIV” scenario is not a bad outcome, and this notice seems to prepare the ground for such an approach, but it is absolutely regrettable that in the meanwhile hundreds of millions will have been expended for near zero return. If WCSP is cancelled, the Army will have once more wasted years and hundreds of millions for nothing.
Moreover, it is extraordinary that Ajax took less than a year from contract award to become a “problem”; a platform desperately looking for a role and place which is not in conflict with everything else.
Another rational alternative would be to renegotiate the Ajax contract if possible and add an IFV variant, which is being offered by General Dynamics for export, including to Australia. If Warrior CSP was cancelled in favor of an Ajax IFV variant, the british army could then concentrate all tracks in the armoured brigades and all wheels in the Strike brigades, which would enable the two formations to truly exploit their own strengths without the compromises imposed by a sub-optimal mix.
I can’t help but say it again: that the army has gotten this far without being able to formulate a comprehensive plan is an extraordinary failure, born not so much out of lack of money (Ajax is anything but cheap) but out of lack of long term vision.
I’d “gladly” sacrifice WCSP if it meant finally making a choice and getting on with it. This is the kind of thing that the Modernising Defence Programme should be about, but any residual bit of confidence in the process has been disintegrated by the insultingly pointless “statement” released this past week.

A variety of internal arrangements are offered. The Australian CRV comes with four dismounts, but an IFV variant with manned turret and a full team of 8 dismounts is also a possibility. Warrior CSP would have six dismounts; if replaced by more MIV it might allow an uplift in the number of dismounts without armoured infantry battalions

The Germans giving a visual demonstration of the payload of a Boxer APC

The notice notes that a 1500 vehicles programme could mean an expenditure of 11.5 billion over two decades. Is this unaffordable? For sure it would be challenging. However, in April 2014, the MOD decided to split the massive “Mounted Close Combat Capability Change” programme into four:

-          Armoured Cavalry 2025
-          Armoured Infantry 2026
-          Armour; Main Battle Tank 2025
-          Mechanized Infantry 2029

The date at the end indicates the desired completion time. The budget for the Mounted Close Combat super-programme was 17.251,83 million pounds, with a project end date set for 31 december 2033.
Data released this year, and current to September 2017, reveals that the Armoured Cavalry programme has a budget of 6258,19 million, for procuring, putting in service and supporting for the first few years the Ajax fleet.
The Armoured Infantry programme was composed by Warrior CSP, but was also meant to include the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle programme. The budget was consistently given as higher than 2 billion, even when ABSV was descoped and pushed to the right with the ambition of becoming its own Categoary A programme. In the latest report, pretty much all data, including the budget value, is not disclosed for reasons of “commercial interest”, as the MOD is locked into discussions with Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for WCSP.
The budget for the Challenger 2 LEP is also not disclosed although in previous years it danced between 700 and 900 million.
Mechanized Infantry 2029 seems to now be just “MIV”, and naturally, all numbers for it are hidden as well.
A part of those 17 billions has been of course expended, but the new “super-MIV” programme would extend past 2033 (significant costs are related to support in the long term, not to procurement). In theory, there were always going to be significant sums available for armour programmes, but keeping track of it is simply impossible due to the insufficient and often contradictory information released by the MOD.
Boxer modules already ordered by other countries. 
A Boxer module

Boxer module on its container-like frame for transport 

Industrially, Rheinmetall / ARTEC have put together an impressive proposal, with 100% assembly in the UK and a commitment to manufacture 60% of the vehicle value in the country. Before the MOD choice was announced, one of the two partners in the ARTEC consortium, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), had already funded new tools at William Cook’s Sheffield and Leeds factories to prepare to manufacture the high strength steel castings, bullet and blast proof, for the Boxer.
A production line will be stood up in the UK, where “most” of the design work for eventual new, British-specific mission modules would take place, along with construction and integration of modules and final assembly of the vehicle.
ARTEC has taken onboard BAE Systems, Pearson Engineering, Raytheon U.K. and Thales U.K as partners for the Boxer programme, and a sizeable production run would bring a lot of work to the sector, for many years.

So far, Germany has ordered 272 BOXER starting in 2009, with a follow-on order recently for another 131. The Netherlands purchased 200 and the last delivery has just taken place. Lithuania ordered 88; Australia selected Boxer for its army reconnaissance vehicle requirement for 211 vehicles and 223 modules and Slovenia has selected the Boxer for its battlegroups and plans a first batch of 48 IFV.
The UK’s order will at least equal Germany’s and could, depending on follow-on decisions, become by far the largest. Indeed, if the options were to be exercised, the UK’s order would swell the Boxer fleet until it is the second largest 8x8 programme in NATO after the US Stryker.
This, obviously, would have a technical and economical impact on UK’s capability in the armoured vehicle sector.

Boxer's win in Australia after a long selection process was an important factor in the British Army's own decision. It could be another key area of cooperation after Type 26

Capability-wise, the Boxer is a proven solution and was all along the candidate with the best growth margins. Reportedly, the UK will go from the start with the “full-fat” variant sized for 38.5 tons gross weight, giving ample margin to add new capability, including turrets and weapons.
The Boxer notoriously uses a common hull which is “missionized” thanks to modules installed in the back cradle. This modularity is unlikely to ever be a major factor during operations (“swap module and role mid-way through an operation”) but greatly eases the addition and evolution of capabilities during the service life. The modules can be detached from the hull and mounted in container-sized cradles for transport or to be operated inside bases, once hooked up to power and services. This potentially eases training and can reduce somewhat the requirement for hulls: the Australian Army, notably, somewhat downsized its planned purchase (from 225 to 211 vehicles) and procured more mission modules than hulls.

Generic Vehicle Architecture-compliant modules for the UK can be developed and installed over the common hull.
If Warrior CSP ends up cancelled, one particularly important variant to be acquired would be the Joint Fires variant, and Australia's work in this area could bring beneficial lessons.  

A different British Army?

The Army could be the service bringing the most changes to the MDP table. Jane’s is reporting that Gurkha numbers will swell further, probably because there is never a shortage of willing Gurkhas to recruit. The biggest novelty is that next year Gurkhas will stand up their own Specialised Infantry Battalion. Not clear yet if it’ll be the “optional 5th” which was always given as a possibility or if they will replace 2 LANCS as the 4th such unit.
2nd PWRR converted to Specialised Infantry role this year, following 4 RIFLES and 1 SCOTS.

The rebuilding of the Gurkha numbers after the cuts ordered in 2011 had already been announced and i had written about it already two years ago. 
What has since been detailed is that 2 additional Gurkha squadrons will be raised to strengthen 10 Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment, while 2 extra signal squadrons are standing up: one within 3rd UK Division Signal Regiment (249 Sqn) and one within 16 Signal Regiment (247 Sqn). Gurkha engineers growth is also expected, perhaps with a new squadron to be formed within 36 RE.

It is also now official that the Wide Wet Gap Crossing capability is to grow, with the stored M3 being reactivated, and it has been announced that the capability will stay put in Germany, along with vehicle storage and a presence at the Sennelager training facility. Details are still scarce: in particular, the M3 permanence in Germany means a change of plans for 75 Royal Engineers.

The Royal Signals are about to disband the short-lived 2 Signal Group, which was created within 11 Signal Brigade to control the reserve signal regiments under Army 2020. Reserve signal regiments are being resubordinated as their roles expand (notably with FALCON training and equipment). 32 and 39 Signal Regiments, of the reserve, have resubordinated to 1 Signal Brigade in support of ARRC and High Readiness formations. Further changes might follow as the Royal Signals looks at the creation of hybrid regiments of regulars and reservists.
10 Signal Regiment, given its specialized roles (from reserve ECM to installation specialists), is resubordinating directly under 11 Signal Brigade, while 37 and 71 joint the regular regiments within 7 Signal Group, 11 Signal Brigade.
The Army’s Information Manoeuvre Strategy which was half-announced by Fallon has not surfaced yet, but could bring great changes. According to what Fallon said at the times, it would bring together the Corps of Signals with the Military Intelligence Corps, and also bring the creation of a second EW regiment. Nothing has been heard or seen since, but hopefully one day we’ll know more.

The Royal Engineers are about to reform 35 RE into an EOD & Search regiment, joining 33 RE in the role, at the cost of one armoured close support engineering formation. 33 and 35 RE will contain the Regular EOD squadrons, while Reserve EOD will be once more centralized in its own regiment, 101 RE. This reverses, once more, an Army 2020 decision which had turned 33 and 101 into Hybrid regiments. One can’t help but notice the completely different directions followed by Signals and Engineers…
In the meanwhile, 12 HQ & Support Sqn has stood up anew in 23 (Parachute) RE, after the regiment took in some extra manpower as part of Army 2020 Refine. 12 had disbanded in 2013 as part of Army 2020 changes. 
Next year it is expected that 28 Royal Engineers will stand up as CBRN formation, presumably pulling in FALCON Sqn, Royal Tank Regiment (Fuchs and wide area surveillance) and the Light capabilities of 27 Squadron, RAF Regiment, which has already absorbed 26 Sqn and is now standing up a Parachute capability for support to high readiness formations.
The formation of a (joint?) CBRN regiment is, of course, another U-turn over 2010 decisions. Did you notice the trend yet…?

26 Royal Artillery is now 3rd Division's Fires specialist, with GMLRS and Exactor, which means there is one less AS90 regiment and that a number of batteries have resubordinated (such as 176 (Abu Klea) Bty moving from 19 to 26 RA, or H Bty (Ramsay's Troop) moving from 1 RHA to 26 RA, rallying under the flag of 19 (Gibraltar) Bty), while others have gone into suspended animation, namely 17 (Corunna) Bty and 38 (Seringapatam) Bty
This reverts the de-centralization of GMLRS which had taken place under Army 2020. I'll be honest and say that this was one of the very few things of Army 2020 which i actually appreciated, because having a wider spread of GMRLS and Exactor meant putting the capability where it needs to be. 
26 RA will still end up parcellized all the time, sending out batteries to be battlegrouped to support this or that brigade, and while there are probably advantages to having all GMLRS training and management in the same place, the mixed artillery regiment is, i believe, the right way to go. Notoriously, i'm a champion of the approach "structure and train as close as possible as to how you fight", and i've already said more than once that i'm also all in favor of permanent combined arms battalions with tanks and armoured infantry working shoulder to shoulder. 
I'm also a huge supporter of Exactor and would very much like to see it employed more widely, perhaps not by the Royal Artillery but directly by infantry and cavalry. For now at least, the Army is not "listening". But it eventually turned back on many of the decisions of Army 2020 that i thought made no sense, so perhaps one day... 

Meanwhile, 42 Air Defence Support Bty has been disbanded and 12 and 16 Royal Artillery regiments will rebuild their own dedicate support elements to be able to deploy independently. They had been joined at the hip by Army 2020 cuts and related force structure changes, but, once again, a U-turn has followed. 

These are mostly good news, but we might find unpleasant truths later on. The long-delayed report on the future of the Army Air Corps bases is still not coming out, and the promised 4 squadrons of Wildcat helicopters are still only 2, even though deliveries have ended. This is worrying.

There could be big changes coming if Warrior CSP is given up and an “all-MIV approach” is approved.
My own advice to the British Army is to consider a wide-ranging rethink of Cavalry, reconnaissance and ISTAR. The confusion over Ajax’s role and deployment within the brigades and the fact that the future of battlegroup ISTAR is up in the air with no endorsed path to a Desert Hawk III replacement is alarming, and shows that FIND doesn’t have enough of a voice, or of a direction.
The Royal Artillery and the Cavalry are reportedly sparring over who should be responsible for the post DH III FIND, and depending on who you listen to, the spar seems to be about staying OUT of the role. I had a discussion with a cavalryman who said that “playing around with toy aircraft” is not a Cavalry role. I think and hope he doesn’t speak for the whole Corps, but it certainly left me with the worst of impressions. FIND is a key function which deserves a lot more effort. Brigades without a dedicate reconnaissance unit are a terrible idea which shouldn’t even have been put forwards. And it is ridiculous to think that the British Army can seriously think about high intensity warfare while fielding a grand total of 5 counter-artillery radars, and short ranged too.
If it takes a specific “ISR Corps” to bring a more rational approach in the sector, so be it. Each brigade will need its own ISR formation which can conduct reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance and surveillance of the area of operations. Most nations have been organizing their cavalry according to these requirements or forming specific battlefield surveillance brigades in the case of the US Army. Mast-mounted sensors, radars and unmanned vehicles, both air and ground, have become part of the cavalry mission pretty much anywhere, with the UK as the only notable exception.
Ajax, and with it the whole recce cavalry concept, seem to have bogged down somewhere midway between the Squadron of American Brigade Combat Teams and the 8x8-based cavalry squadrons planned by the Italian army.

The US Army cavalry squadron in armoured BCTs is now composed of a tank company with 14 Abrams MBTs and the “6x36” model, in which each Troop has two platoons of 6 Bradley IFVs, each carrying 3 crew and 3 dismounts. One every two vehicles in the Troop is fitted with a LRAS long-range sensor, and the Squadron has its UAV platoon with RQ-7 Shadow drones, plus HUMINT/IMINT intelligence element.
Wheeled BTCs on Stryker replace the MBTs with the Mobile Gun System and TOW variants of Stryker. Notoriously, the US Army is moving towards the introduction of 30mm guns on the other Strykers.
In practice, the American recce cavalry has moved towards greater firepower and a greater number of dismounts. The Americans also hold on for dear life to mounted 120mm mortars.

The Italian army intends to restructure its cavalry on homogeneous regiments each containing a squadron of 8x8 Centauro II tank-destroyers, with 120/45 mm cannons; 2 squadrons of Freccia 8x8 in two variants, FAR and CLOSE; and another squadron of supporting elements.
The Freccia FAR closes equipped with HORUS tube-launched UAVs and a combined radar-EO sensor which can be dismounted or deployed on a telescopic mast; while the CLOSE carries dismounts plus an unmanned ground vehicle UGV, while replacing the HORUS tubes with SPIKE anti-tank missiles.

An early Freccia Recon FAR shown with the LYRA radar selected for it, in dismounted mode. It will also employ the HORIZON optical sight. 

The UGV seen on the CLOSE's ramp 

This image shows the UGV, the Lyra radar and HORIZON sight near a Freccia Recon CLOSE
HORUS drone seen coming out of its launch box on the Freccia Recon FAR 

The Ajax is similar to the Bradley used by the American squadrons, but does not carry dismounts. Each Sabre Sqn will continue to have a support platoon with dismounts riding in Ares APCs, replacing the current Spartan, but it will be a small component.
We were told that there would be around 20 vehicles in a “Ground Based Surveillance” sub-variant of Ajax but it is not clear if it is still the case and what additional sensors, if any, this sub-variant will be able to bring to bear. Mast-mounted long range sensors are still nowhere to be seen, leaving Ajax essentially only with its main sight, which because of very questionable design decisions needs to be removed if a Protector remote weapon station is deemed necessary. Taken all together, these weaknesses expose just why I feel that the focus of the Ajax programme was sadly not really on ISR at all.

With the rush to Strike in 2015, Ajax is now attempting to re-invent itself as a “medium tank”, with at least half of the regiments literally leaving recce behind in favor of a combat role more akin to a real MBT.
This continues to be a rash and irrational decision, that the MDP should reverse.
Despite claims to the contrary, it looks like the Ajax family has been purchased as a one-for-one replacement of the Scimitar / Spartan combination, just much larger and heavier. Ajax as the dismount-less “tank”, with more protection and firepower but less deployability and stealth, supported by a handful of APCs carrying small teams of max four dismounts. There should be an “Overwatch” sub-variant of the Ares to give the formation some anti-tank punch, but it is not clear if it will offer any more capability than just carrying a Javelin dismounted team. In this sector, in many ways, the Army took a backward leap when it retired Striker and its Swingfire missiles back in 2005.

As it stands, the Ajax family does not have the firepower, nor the full range of sensors to be a truly capable ISR system. As for its attempt to be a Medium Tank, that is just insane.
The Army needs to approach the MDP as a chance to urgently reassess how Ajax will be used and distributed. A decision on WCSP is needed, and ABSV must absolutely be taken into account as well. If all the parts aren't considered within a much needed long term plan, the Army will end up in trouble again very soon.
And i will add that the Army also needs to organize the cavalry into a force that delivers the kind of ISR and punch that a modern brigade needs. And / or procure a "true" Medium Armour variant of Ajax, which would at least possess a more credible firepower. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Of ships and shipyards; Type 31 and Fleet Solid Support

Babcock has now unveiled its offer for the Type 31e programme, and in so doing has revealed the full extent and effect of its alliance with the danish group Odense Maritime Technology (OMT). The Arrowhead 140 is effectively a Iver Huitfeldt frigate hull with modified top decks, pushed by an impressive alliance called Team 31 and comprising two Babcock yards, Ferguson Marine and Harland & Wolff. 

The Iver Huitfeldt class, in service in the Royal Danish Navy, is an impressive family of ships which have cost surprisingly little for the huge capability they pack. The unitary cost per frigate was 325 million in FY 2010 US dollars, which is extremely competitive for a high end, 6600 tons warship equipped with good sensors and a big silos of 32 Strike Length MK41 cells flanked by MK56 launchers for 24 ESSM. Up to 16 Harpoon are also carried. Of course, that is in no small measure possible because OMT includes the commercial shipping colossus Maersk, but Denmark is confident that it can offer good deals for customers abroad as well, and OMT and Babcock apparently believe that they can build the Arrowhead 140 in british yards, staying within the infamous 250 million all-in price.

The Iver Huitfeldt design makes limited but important use of the StanFlex concept in which modular “wells” are provided in the design for the easy slotting in of capability modules, for example the guns. The ships have been delivered with re-used Oto Melara 76mm guns in StanFlex modules, with the option of installing a 127mm later on. The total budget for three ships was 940 million USD plus 209 million USD in reused equipment. Spread on three hulls, it gives a total pricetag of 383 USD million per ship.

Shock Testing with explosive charges was carried out in late 2010 

The ship is fit to receive a variable depth sonar but was delivered fitted only with an hull mounted one. The propulsion arrangement is CODAD with 4 MTU8000 diesels delivering 32800 KW of power to two shafts. The ship’s max speed is given as 28 knots, although it has demonstrated 29.3 knots, reaching them in under 120 seconds during trials. Range at 18 knots is a flattering 9300 nautical miles.

Babcock’s Team 31 proposal would keep the hull unchanged and focus on relatively minor modifications to the top decks. Obviously, sensors and weapons fit would also change. This would cut down design costs to the very minimum, and still give the UK a proven hull which was put even through explosive shock testing. The Iver Huitfeldt achieved their cost-effectiveness by making large reuse of design features from the Absalon class, and the Arrowhead 140 seeks to pull through even more content from the Huitfeldt themselves.

Compared to the Danish ships, the Arrowhead 140 is expected to be lighter, at 5700 tons, with a reduced draft and, one assumes, benefits to range and speed while maintaining very significant margins for working weight back in with design variations for export and/or capability insertions through life.
The design trades out the MK56 launchers in favor of two extra boat bays / mission spaces. The Arrowhead 140 is being marketed with the Thales TACTICOS open architecture combat system and with Thales NS100 AESA radar enclosed within a conical mast topped by IFF array, although some images of the “Royal Navy variant” seem to carry an Artisan 3D on a different mast.
24 CAMM missiles in a “mushroom farm” silos are seen in place of 32 MK41 cells amidships, although the design maintains the capability to fit the strike length cells. The gun seems to be an Oto Melara 76mm.
The Danish ships, which operate as the principal AAW platform of the navy and which may one day soon serve in the anti-ballistic role as well, operate with a crew of around 117. At one point they hoped to make do with as few as 99, but that proved a step too far. Still, it is a very impressive achievement and the Type 31e, given its simpler mission and weapons fit, should be perfectly able to make do with fewer, while retaining plenty of space for the at least 40 EMF spaces the RN hopes to have on the vessel.

The impressive firepower of the Iver Huitfeldt class: 32 Strike lenght MK41 cells flanked by MK56 launchers for a total of 24 ESSM missiles. 

The proposal seems solid. There probably isn’t another hull which is proven, cheap and capable as that of the OMT design. BAE System’s Leander is based on the Khareef class corvette, stretched longer, and does not compare all that well. It is also arguably riskier, because while the Arrowhead 140 would literally take the hull and propulsion “as is”, the Leander would require changes, albeit relatively minor.

Babcock’s offer is now truly interesting, and there is even a possibility that the Arrowhead 140 might make a surprise foray into the FFG(X) competition for the US Navy. Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII)’s sudden silence about its proposal for what could become an immensely important shipbuilding contract has got some people thinking. Craig Hooper has recently raised the prospect of a Danish incursion into the competition, and he correctly notes that the Iver Huitfeldt design is not without its fans in the US. The Royal Danish Navy has been promoting its ships for years and organized a successful tour in the US as far back as 2014. He might or might not be on the right path with his analysis, but it is certainly a fascinating prospect and one which is not without merits.

Leander or Arrowhead 140?

At the moment, the Team Arrowhead and the Team Leander seem to be the leading contenders. Moreover, if the Arrowhead 140 truly can fit the Type 31 budget, the Cammell Laird/BAE Systems ‘Team Leander’ design is now in an uncomfortable spot. Babcock’s proposal now looks more convincing: much larger and more adaptable, both through life and for export; considerably greater speed (28+ knots against 25) and endurance (9000+ nautical miles at 18 knots compared to 8100 at 12); much greater space for weapons (easily configurable for 32 MK41 Strike Length versus 12 small SAM cells up front and a single 8-cell Strike Length amidship for Leander). Both ships claim the possibility of fitting guns up to 127mm, but Arrowhead’s claim is more immediately belieavable. The tightness of the Type 31e budget might mean that this is not relevant for the Royal Navy as funding a 127mm gun might be out of the question, but adaptability for the future, as well as for potential (albeit unlikely) export orders is still key.

Navy Recognition obtained these BAE images at DIMDEX 2018 

The Team Leander now claim that the flight deck of their ships will be rated for 16 tons helicopters, which would accommodate Merlin operations, while for the hangar they are reporting “up to Sea Hawk plus UAV”, but conspicuously not mentioning Merlin. The Arrowhead 140 would be fully Merlin compatible from day one, and this for me is a major factor, even though the Royal Navy will struggle to have many Merlin for frigates since their main focus will be the aircraft carrier group. With the merger of 829 NAS into 814 NAS there are now only 3 flights permanently focused on Small Ship Deployments (Tungsten, Kingfisher and Mohawk Flights) and their priority will be the Type 26, but this is still not a reason to be unable to operate with the most important machine in the Fleet Air Arm’s arsenal.

A spacious hangar should always figure high up on the list of requirements: even with Wildcat being the most likely visitor, space is always precious, especially since the expectation is that UAVs will become a common feature in the next decade. The last thing the Royal Navy needs is a ship with handicapped aviation facilities causing headaches already a few years after entry in service.

The Arrowhead 140’s problems, in turn, are its use of a new main radar and of a new Combat Management System at a time when the Royal Navy has heavily invested in commonality and fleet-wide fits. Artisan 3D, Common CMS and Sharpeye navigation and air direction radars are now fleet-wide standards and departing from them would imply unnecessary costs and complexities.

The CGI of the "british variant", the Arrowhead in Type 31 guise, clearly uses a different mast from the one seen in the video. The radar on top looks a bit small to be Artisan, but it probably represents it nonetheless. MK41 cells are replaced by (surprisingly few) Sea Ceptor "mushrooms". 

The Arrowhead 140 team includes Ferguson Marine on the Clyde, Harland & Wolff in Belfast and the Babcock Appledore facilities in Devon and in Roysth. Judging from the brochure, each shipyard would build a “superblock” that would then be shipped out to Rosyth for final assembly.

Note that the various partners seem to have already decided which superblock they will build. Rosyth is proposed as final assembly facility. 

This spreads the financial and technical benefits of the programme across the wider shipbuilding industry, but would cut out Cammell Laird at a time in which it is arguably the most successful shipbuilder out there, picking up new orders for ferries; while building the impressive new Polar Research Vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Pick a design and enlarge the consortium?

I’m not in a position to make choices, obviously, but I come back to my original points about theShipbuilding Strategy to at least make my recommendations.
A Financial Times report recently said that Babcock is very active on the Fleet Solid Support requirement as well, and is talking to BAE and others to craft a joint, british bid for this 1-billion pound programme which will involve building two or three ships in the 40k tons range. In other words, a lot of precious work.
Building the FSS in blocks around the country and assembly in Rosyth’s big dock, on the lines of what has been done for the carriers, remains an attractive option.

The best possible outcome, in my mind, would be to have the Fleet Solid Support work staying in the UK, with assembly in Rosyth.
For the Type 31 the best possible outcome would be selection of the Arrowhead 140 design, followed by enlargement of the consortium to include the other team. The main reasons are that the Type 31 should be fitted with the BAE-developed Common CMS on shared infrastructure as the rest of the fleet, in the interest of commonality. It should also be fitted with the Artisan radar, again in the interest of fleet standardization, especially considering that there will be up to 8 spare systems available as an effect of 5 coming off the Type 23 GPs as they are withdrawn plus the 3 new sets purchased to avoid shortage of components during the delicate transition.
For those who might have missed this development, the Royal Navy has actually purchased 3 new sets of main equipment pieces for the first three Type 26 ships, in order to avoid having to pull Type 23s out of service early to strip pieces off them, refurbish them and deliver them to the shipyards.
Since then, however, it has become clear that the Type 26 assembly will be a very slow affair: parliamentary under-secretary for defence Guto Bebb is on record saying that the first ship in the class, HMS Glasgow, is due to be accepted by the Royal Navy in summer 2025 and then, after trials and preparations, enter service in 2027. In theory, this is acceptable because the first Type 23 in ASW configuration, with 2087 towed sonar, would leave service in 2028 under the last known plans. 

Type 23 OUT OF SERVICE DATE  (February 2016 assumption)

HMS Argyll 2023
HMS Lancaster 2024
HMS Iron Duke 2025  
HMS Monmouth 2026
HMS Montrose 2027
HMS Westminster 2028             [ASW]
HMS Northumberland 2029      [ASW]
HMS Richmond 2030                [ASW]
HMS Somerset 2031                  [ASW]
HMS Sutherland 2032               [ASW]
HMS Kent 2033                         [ASW]
HMS Portland 2034                   [ASW]
HMS St Albans 2035                 [ASW]

Despite the Royal Navy's careful approach with the ordering of three extra sets of equipment to avoid having to remove equipment from the Type 23s early on, it is also painfully evident that Type 23s might effectively go out of service early anyway. It must be remembered that at least one ship from the class in the last few years has been tied up in mothball, serving as harbor training vessel because of the enduring shortage in manpower. Even more ominously, the Fishery Protection Squadron is currently down to a single ship as OPVs leave service early to allow the crews to transition to the new ships, and even this has had to be aided by using some of the MCM crews, given "on loan" to the Squadron (Project JICARA). I'm sure the Navy hopes to solve the worst of the manpower crisis at some point, and the last few reports show that it is the only service with an inflow matching or exceeding outflow, but technical roles are difficult to form, and the percentage of fully trained manpower is the lowest in the three services, shy of 90%. At the moment it is hard to be optimistic, and even harder to imagine that the frigates transition can be any easier than the OPVs. If anything, it'll be much more complex.

Note: the OPV transition and project JICARA

The Royal Navy has up to 16 MCM crews, 8 in Scotland (MCM 1 Sqn, Faslane) and 8 in Portsmouth (MCM 2 Sqn). They rotate on and off the Sandown and Hunt class ships respectively.


Beginning from 1 April 2017, MCM2 Crew 6 moves from the minesweeper HMS Middleton onto HMS Tyne, allowing the crew of the latter OPV to transition to the new HMS Forth.
They were later relieved by the crew of the Hunt class minesweeper HMS Atherstone after this ship was suddenly decommissioned as part of emergency budget cuts in December 2017 while she was already in the shed for her refit and life extension.

HMS Forth commissioned on 13 April 2018, but remains alongside for defects rectification and final preparations. She is not yet ready for patrols, and anyway seems to be earmarked for replacing HMS Clyde down in the Falklands. HMS Clyde's out of service date is currently unclear.
HMS Tyne has decommissioned days ago, on 24 May 2018.

MCM2 Crew 7 moved from the MCM vessel HMS Ledbury onto HMS Mersey and will stay on the OPV until she decommissions (expected to happen this November). Mersey is currently the facto the only Fishery Protection Vessel actually patrolling UK waters.
Thanks to the MCM crew stepping in, personnel from Mersey can move on to the new HMS Trent.

The Royal Navy should this month accept the new HMS Medway, which is crewed by personnel from HMS Severn, the first River Batch 1 to be decommissioned, on 27 october 2017.
HMS Medway will then make ready to begin operational patrols early in 2019.

It seems likely that, with the number of MCM ships dropping, some of the crews will permanently become part of the OPV squadron to take in the additional River Batch 2s. The possible re-activation of the River Batch 1s parked in reserve waiting for a government decision is another factor.

- Ends

With the Type 31e supposedly entering service one per year from 2023, replacing the Type 23 GPs one by one, it seems like the spare Artisan radars, Sea Ceptor launchers, etcetera will be more useful on this class rather than on the 26s. For the 26s there should be time to employ equipment taken off from the 5 GP Type 23s as they decommission, at this point. 

It is not entirely clear yet, but the Royal Navy appears to also have ordered 3 new 2087 towed sonars, that added to the 8 installed on Type 23s ASW give a total of 11.
Once the equipment from all Type 23s is removed and refurbished, the UK will have reusable equipment for 16 ships, including 11 Type 2087 sonar arrays.
One has to hope that, whichever design is chosen for Type 31e, this treasure is not squandered. Fitting the “extra” 2087s (if there truly are three full such sets: Thales has received a contract but has not specified exactly what is included) to three of the Type 31e would be immensely beneficial, even though Type 31e will never match the expensive acoustic stealth of the super-specialized Type 26. It would be a low cost expansion to ASW capabilities that would come as a logic consequence of the recognized increased threat coming from submarines lurking in the North Atlantic as Russia probes british waters. It would also make the Type 31 far more belieavable as Fleet Ready Escort, a role she is supposed to cover but that, without a proper sonar fit, would still require a Type 26 to be kept at readiness as on-call Towed Array Patrol Ship to respond to submarine incursions in home waters. Having at least 3 Type 31 with wider ASW usefulness would then truly begin to take some tasks off the Type 26s' shoulders, allowing the latter to focus on high end training, NATO groups and carrier task group.  
So, of course, it probably won’t happen.This is the british government and MOD we are talking about, after all. Rhetoric is never matched by facts. 

The availability of radars, decoys, missiles, light guns, even sonars and other sensors and components should be seen as a blessing and incorporated into Type 31e whenever and wherever possible.
Purchasing new radars while having spare Artisans is something I certainly wouldn’t recommend.

Finally, I’d ideally want to see the Type 31 assembled south of the Scottish border. Cammell Laird is my ideal candidate for that. Aiding the revitalization of Birkenhead would be an insurance policy against the SNP and a strong political message.

One of the (undoubtedly numerous) difficulties with such an approach is the fact that the Type 31e and FSS timelines do not align. The contract award procedures for the FSS are expected in 2020, while Type 31e should clear that stage already next year. Without FSS work for Rosyth and for the other shipyards it will hardly be possible to negotiate such a change in plans.
This is the kind of conundrum that I hoped the Shipbuilding Strategy would finally end, but the document did not go far enough and did not commit the government to any specific path forwards for shipbuilding capability. It is still down to the individual programmes to determine the future of british yards, and without real multi-programme coordination there will continue to be gaps.
Together, FSS and Type 31e could truly be transformational for the british shipbuilding sector, but only if they are considered as part of a truly joined-up strategy.

Speaking of Fleet Solid Support…

The MOD has published the call for bids for the programme, and the three ships requirement has translated into two firm and one option, a development that, given previous history, does not inspire confidence.

Among the cuts and reductions caused by Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010 was the removal of the requirement for concurrent, geographically displaced Carrier Strike and Littoral Manoeuvre task groups. With Carrier Enabled Power Projection and the final acceptance of a future without HMS Ocean came the necessary unification of all the remaining resources in the single Response Force Task Group.

Among the other implications, the once separated Fleet Solid Support Ship and Combat Support Ship Auxiliary requirements were finally merged into a single FSS class of 3 hulls.
The Naval Design Partnership Team was then asked to produce a series of designs to assess the technical feasibility and cost implications of this requirement merge. The main result was the famous image of a modern, large joint supply ship including provisions for the carrying of a couple of LCVPs as well as a well deck in the stern. Both additions obviously came from the Combat Support Ship Auxiliary requirement, earlier still known as the Joint Sea Based Logistics requirement, which was to provide afloat supply and support to forces ashore.

The design initially put forwards by the NDP. Fascinating, but probably never to become reality. Note the two Heavy Rigs on the port side, for QE class replenishment. 

That design has probably been deemed too expensive, however, and the latest images coming out of the NDP through DE&S suggest that the Fleet Solid Support vessel is losing all of the more “amphibious” features in favor of a design very much in line with the American T-AKE “Lewis and Clark” class.

A US Navy CVN aircraft carrier receiving stores through one of the aircraft lift openings. The same method is used by the QE class. 

In turn, the uncertain fate of the amphibious capability as a whole might be part of the reason why the third ship is now only an option. If the Modernising Defence Programme ends up destroying the amphibious capability, the third vessel might simply not be needed anymore.

The T-AKE class is not incapable to support an amphibious force ashore, but obviously is not optimized for the role as the earlier NDP design would have been thanks to the well deck. The USNS still keeps two T-AKE ships within the USMC Prepositioned groups, using the vessels to carry the vast range of stores needed for an amphibious operation. The new NDP design, which very closely follows the general ships arrangement, would be similarly able to crane stores into landing crafts and sustain a force ashore.
As a solid stores vessel, the T-AKE is very rationally arranged, with all accommodations grouped in the single citadel on the stern rather than split at the two ends like in the earlier NDP design which was closer to the current Fort class in general shapes.
A single, full-width cargo preparation deck runs from the bow to the flight deck on the stern, and multiple heavy RAS rigs are provided. The british design has three rigs on the port side and, apparently, a single rig on starboard. This is because the first and third rig on the port side are specifically spaced out to “meet” the aircraft lifts opening of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, which are fitted to receive the heavy stores. The two rigs remaining, one per side, would be used to support the other ships. 
The american T-AKE also carries and transfers fuel, while the british ship will not. The Royal Navy has chosen to keep the two roles well separated: Tide class for fuel, FSS for stores and ordnance. 

The latest FSS CGI, as published on the latest DE&S annual department plan. 

A USNS Lewis and Clark T-AKE supply ship. 

Until the new FSS enter service, in the second half of the 2020s, the QE class will be supported by RFA Fort Victoria, which is currently in refit to prepare for the “new” role. In order to comply with today’s regulations she is being double-hulled since she carries not only solid stores but also fuel and oils. 

The Heavy RAS receiver on HMS Queen Elizabeth, deployed for use and folded away. The Queen Elizabeth class can receive fuel from two stations on the starboard side and simultaneously take on stores from the port side. Refueling station is available also on port side.  

She will not be refitted with the new heavy RAS equipment, so she’ll only be able to transfer loads of 2 tonnes rather than the 5+ enabled by the new Rolls Royce kit already demonstrated on land at HMS Raleigh.

Drop one FSS, convert two Points?

What if FSS followed the path of the Type 26, which came out of the merge of what had originally been planned as two separate frigate classes, and eventually was cut back with the appearance of Type 31e?
Instead of building a third expensive and not truly fit-for-role FSS to support the amphibious force, I would suggest that, for a much smaller investment, the UK could re-acquire the two Point class RoRos it dismissed in 2011 and convert them in a way similar to what the US have done with the virtually identical MV Cragside, now MV Ocean Trader.

The US conversion had the Special Forces in mind and focused on adding a lot of spaces for planning, training, accommodation for up to 207 embarked forces with endurance of 45 days. Multiple davits for a variety of boats and assault craft are provided at the sides and a jet skis launch and recovery system was also required. The requirements as published included carrying 12 20 foot containerized equipment stowage module and 22 11-feet lockers for weaponry. The flight deck can accommodate any helicopter including the large Chinook, the MV-22 Osprey and the even larger CH-53. The hangar has two bays, each large enough for a MH-60 class helicopter, and spaces for aviation support and maintenance are provided. For aviation and craft fuel, the requirements specified the possibility of using containerized tanks but specified armor protection for them in that case. A single RAS station is specified, to enable the reception at least of fuel. A vast boats storage and maintenance area, conference and planning rooms, communications, dedicated space for UAV detachment and lots of different storage solutions were also required. The capability the ship can express is impressive, but in the American case also very Special Forces specific.

The MV Cragside before and during conversion. The photo during the conversion makes it easy to identify the boat bays being opened in the sides, and the new blocks of superstructure: the double hangar and the big, white, windowless extension of the citadel towards the stern. 

But the space available is such that organizing afloat workshops; transporting stores and vehicles and supporting aviation through the construction of a flight deck and hangar like on the Ocean Trader are real possibilities.
The Point class continues not to have a well deck, but on the other hand has already demonstrated the feasibility of opening the stern cargo ramp out at sea, weather permitting, to enable the roll in and out of vehicles over mexeflote rafts.

These photos by David Kozdron, published by Tyler Rogoway on show the "MV Ocean Trader" as she is today. Note the hangar, the abundance of antennas, the stealth boats on the davits and the two hangar bays, plus what looks like Insitu catapult and recovery hook-wire system for UAVs like Scan Eagle and Integrator. 

Converted container ships of this kind could provide the afloat support the amphibious forces needs. A ship could also be relatively easily transformed into a RFA Argus replacement, embarking hospital facilities.
Moreover, these ships could replace the Bay class vessels tied down in the Caribbean and in the Gulf respectively on Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) and MCM support. That would make them twice as useful to the amphibious force.

Canada's Irving Shipbuilding put out its own proposal for a Point-like containership conversion, . 

Point Ro-Ro and Mexeflote operations. 

Personally, I’d gladly trade out the third FSS for a number of converted civilian vessels like these, especially because the alternative is losing RFA Argus possibly as soon as 2024 almost certainly without replacement as well as continuing to struggle to put together an amphibious task group because the necessary ships are stuck in other long-term roles abroad.