Saturday, October 22, 2016

Strike Brigades? Only if the price is right.

Let’s call things with their name, first of all. The “Strike Brigade” is a mechanized infantry brigade with a budget and planning-induced identity crisis. It is a manifestation of the famous “medium weight” force concept that has been doing the rounds for many years. The MIV, Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, is FRES Utility Vehicle given yet another acronym.

With the names corrected and put into context, we can move on to the real questions about this whole enterprise. Is the Medium Brigade a valid concept? Where does it fit in the force structure? Is the British Strike brigade worth the cuts the army is expected to take elsewhere in order to fund MIV?

The “Medium Weight”force

There is medium and medium. The US Medium Brigade is the Stryker brigade, originally born to employ 19-tons 8x8 vehicles designed within very demanding constraints in terms of volume and weight because the whole brigade had to be compatible with C-130 air transport. There was a price to pay for such an approach, and it was paid in protection and payload. The flat-bottomed Stryker proved to be too vulnerable to IEDs and mines, and it also suffered from limitations to its mobility on the difficult terrain of southern Afghanistan. To be fair, the terrain was atrocious for pretty much any vehicle and some restraints were not necessarily the Stryker’s fault, but the first deployment, in summer 2009, proved very controversial and very expensive. The vehicles were kept in use in Afghanistan under that, but when a second Stryker brigade was ordered into theatre, it was instructed to leave its vehicles behind and use MRAPs and M-ATVs instead.
Meanwhile, a programme was launched for developing a Double V Hull modification that increases underbelly protection. The dream of airlifting entire brigades of armoured vehicles using the Air Force’s C-130s was over, the reality of war had dawned.
In the meanwhile, though, a lot of money had been expended pursuing a concept of operations that was scarcely realistic, and the selection of such a light platform had introduced issues that could have easily been avoided. Among these, the failure of the Mobile Gun System variant, a Stryker with an automated 105mm gun on top, meant to provide intimate fire support to the Stryker infantry battalions. The production of this variant was eventually discontinued, leaving the Stryker brigades considerably weaker in terms of firepower.

More recently, the US Army has launched an emergency programme for partially fixing the firepower problem. With the IFV variant equipped just with a RWS with a .50 HMG, the Stryker brigade is too lightly armed to face a symmetric or hybrid fight against comparable vehicles, which in Russia and China tend to always come with a big gun on top. A new programme has been started to fit a large Remote Weapon Station with a 30mm gun on top of the IFV variant. C-130 compatibility is completely out of the window now, but at long last the heavier, much modified Stryker will have a wider usefulness. The original one had behaved well in Iraq, doing well on roads, in urban scenarios and in benign desert conditions, but it had performed badly in Afghanistan and would have been at a terrible disadvantage in any hybrid / symmetric warfare scenario.

Stryker, before and after coming to grip with the idea that the enemy will fire back. 

The US Stryker brigade is made up by 3 infantry battalions mounted on Stryker IFVs, supported by a Fires regiment with 155mm M777 towed howitzers and by a Recce Cavalry squadron also mounted in Strykers.
It is a wholly wheeled brigade structure, and with DVH and 30mm gun it is a potent formation, useful in a wide range of scenarios.
There is still a problem left to fix, however, which is the insufficient number of fault-prone Mobile Gun System vehicles. The US Army today is considering a new Mobile Protected Firepower requirement which calls for an armoured, light and highly deployable vehicle able to provide fire support to the infantry, destroying enemy tanks, bunkers and strongholds.
The requirements have not yet been fixed into stone, and the US Army is basically letting industry put its ideas forward: BAE is offering a modernized M8 Buford, which was originally developed years ago as a very light tank, capable of being air-dropped, to serve as a replacement for Sheridan. The programme eventually was killed off, leaving the American paratroopers without air-droppable armour and firepower, a gap that remains very much a concern for the airborne divisions.

Light and mean, the modernized M8 is a good candidate for MPF. Its ability to be airdropped is bound to awaken interest in the Airborne divisions 

The russians have never lost sight of the importance of firepower. All their units, including paratroopers, are heavily mechanized and supported by a lot of direct and indirect fires. The Sprut is an air-droppable light tank with a 125mm smoothbore punch. Airdroppable APCs, IFVs, mortar and SAM carriers also are part of the russian para's arsenal. 

While the current Mobile Protected Firepower is aimed first of all at the Infantry Brigades, BAE clearly believes that the “new” Buford could kill two birds with one stone by gaining the interest of the airborne commanders as well.
And the birds could become 3 if the US Army decided to replace the troubled Stryker Mobile Gun System with the new MPF.
Interestingly, General Dynamics’s own entry for the MPF contest is the Griffin, a vehicle in the 28 to 32 tons range, not air-droppable, armed with a light derivative of the M1 Abrams gun turret and with the british Ascod SV / Ajax chassis as hull.  

The very first appearance of the GD Griffin, a light tank based on the Ascod SV / Ajax hull armed with the american low-recoil force 120mm gun originally developed as part of the abortive Future Combat System programme, Armerica's own FRES nightmare. Photo courtesy of Army Recognition

The Italian medium brigade is in many ways the most impressive in the western world. It is meant to be equipped with 3 infantry battalions mounted on the Freccia IFV, which comes with a turret and a 25mm gun. In the 30 tons region, offering good protection and firepower, the Freccia is an excellent platform. The Italian army also wants to give the medium infantry battalions a lot of firepower, with medium-range vehicle mounted anti-tank missiles at the Company level and long-range missiles at Battalion level. Similarly, the battalion has vehicle-mounted 120mm mortars, while the companies are due to get 81mm mortars of their own. That’s a lot of firepower. Unfortunately for Italy, procurement of the Freccia is progressing relatively slowly, and while one brigade is mostly outfitted, the second one will only be ready years into the future, while a third brigade set, once planned, will almost certainly never be funded.

The Centauro 2 brings a 120/45 smoothbore gun to the fight. 

The strength of the Italian brigade is its Cavalry element, which includes a squadron of 105mm- armed Centauro 8x8 tank destroyers, with a new generation Centauro 2 in development, armed with a 120/45 smoothbore gun and much improved V-hull and protection. The other two squadrons of the Cavalry regiment are meant to be equipped with the Freccia Scout variant, in two sub-variants: Far and Close.
The “Far” sub-variant comes with the Horus mini-uav in launch tubes on the flanks of the turret. A mast-mounted Lyra radar and long range EO/IR sensor complete the variant’s equipment.
The “Close” variant is equipped with Spike anti-tank missiles in place of Horus UAVs, and is meant to carry an Unmanned Ground Vehicle in the back.
If all vehicles will be funded, procured and put into service, the resulting capability will be very complete and will set a new standard.

The Freccia Scout "Far". The Horus UAV is fitted, while the Lyra radar is shown dismounted. 

The Horus launcher is virtually identical to the Spike ATGW launch box that equips the Freccia Close, leaving the enemy wondering. 

A reconnaissance UGV is carried by the Freccia Close 

Currently, the Italian Army is struggling with the provision of artillery to the medium brigades. Industry has proposed an ambitious self-propelled 155mm howitzer on 8x8 chassis, but for now there is not a real plan because of lack of money. 
If this gap will be properly filled, the Italian medium brigade will be a truly potent force.

The French medium brigade, under the latest “Au Contact!” force structure plan, will be a large brigade with two cavalry and 3 infantry formations. Its primary platforms, however, will not be 8x8 but 6x6 vehicles: the new Jaguar cavalry scout and the Griffon APC.    
The French have of course the VBCI, a large 8x8 IFV, but unlike Italy, Germany and the UK, they have procured it first of all to replace their tracked IFVs, rather than as a complementary capability.

EBRC Jaguar


One lesson of Mali (and Afghanistan too) was that insurgents make a large use of high caliber russian weaponry, from 14.5mm machine guns to the ZSU-23 23mm guns. Having big guns to reply is important, and when tanks begin to be part of the scenario, the medium force needs the means to respond if it has to have real ability to move quickly, fight and win. 

Ironically, the French operations in Mali which are the main inspiration behind the British Army’s renewed craving of 8x8s were carried out in large part with 6x6 and 4x4 vehicles: the AMX-10RC with its 105mm gun; the Sagaie with its 90mm, and then the 4x4 VAB APC. The VBCI, of course, was also deployed and did well, but it was just a small component of the combined task groups fielded in the country.

The French Medium Brigade appears to me to be headed towards a Stryker-like firepower deficit. The Griffon comes with just a RWS, and the EBRC will be armed with a 40mm CTA gun and MMP anti-tank missiles. The 105 and 90 mm guns that so well did in Mali, being highly mobile and able to hit hard and at long range, will not be there once the AMX and the Sagaie have been replaced by the EBRC.
For a while, France has worked on a low-recoil 120 mm gun that was to be used as part of the effort to replace the AMX and Sagaie, but the plan seems to have been shelved, and this might one day prove to be a big issue.

Artillery-wise, the French brigades will be supported by the CAESAR autocannon, a 155mm howitzer mounted on the back of a truck. The CAESAR is not a proper self-propelled system (the gun crew has to dismount; the gun has a very limited traverse and can basically only fire forward over the truck’s cab), but it is a more than reasonable solution in most scenarios.

The British strike brigade is still, in many ways, a floating question mark. It will probably be January 2017 before the Army announces anything substantial about its new force structure decisions and its new doctrine, that general Carter named “Integrated Action”.
The chief of staff has however anticipated that they are looking at brigades including two infantry battalions mounted on MIV and two battalions equipped with Ajax, with the Ajax acting as the “medium armour” element.
This anticipation is very worrying and raises a number of points right away:

-          The Ajax fleet is now expected to form 4 rather than 3 regiments, without an increase to the number of vehicles purchased. This suggests that the two Armoured Brigades could lose their cavalry reconnaissance regiment.
-          Ajax is built as a Scout, with just a 40mm gun, because as soon as 2010 its role was reaffirmed as reconnaissance for armoured and mechanized formations. General Carter was Chief of Staff already.
-          A Medium Armour variant of the FRES SV / Ajax was originally part of the plan. It had to have a 120 mm gun. Remember the Griffin that GD is offering the US Army? Bingo. Of course, Medium Armour was cancelled from the british plan. Now the Scout variant looks set to be forced into Medium Armour role, without truly having the firepower for doing it.
-          Just two MIV-mounted infantry battalions per brigade, when the binary structure for combat formation has again and again proven to be a failure, being abandoned once more by the US Army in recent times after years of Brigade Combat Teams with just two battalions each.
-          4 battalions of MIV means just 1 more than was planned under Army 2020, when one Mechanized Infantry battalion mounted on Mastiff was included inside each of the armoured infantry brigades.
-          Is the British Army seriously going to deprive itself of one armoured brigade in order to gain just one “extra” mechanized battalion and slightly better vehicles for them? Seems like a spectacularly negative trade.
-          Reportedly, the MIV will be an APC with a RWS with a .50 HMG. Like the Stryker originally was. Like the French Griffon. Like the polish Rosomak APC variant. But we should not forget that the US Army is now correcting that decision, as is Poland which is retrofitting unmanned turrets with 30mm gun and Spike AT missiles to its Rosomak APC.

The british Strike Brigade, according to the little that has been revealed so far, sounds like a cut more than an upgrade. My fear is that the army is about to mutilate itself in order to, basically, make some 8x8 manufacturer happy by filling its pockets with cash.

In order to release some manpower for fixing some of the greatest problems with the Strike Brigades formation, the army is also going to turn five infantry battalions into “Defence Engagement” formations numbering as few as 350 men each. We might learn which battalions are chosen as early as next month.
But the real bad news haven’t yet emerged. Thinking about the lines Carter has given, it is clear to me that the conversion of one of the three armoured brigades into a Strike brigade is pretty much certainly going to entail further reductions to the number of AS90 artillery pieces, which are tracked, bulky and too heavy to fit into these wonderful “highly mobile” and “self deployable” Strike thingies.
One Challenger 2 regiment is also very much at risk. It could end up converted into the fourth Ajax-mounted formation, with the number of tanks in the british army dropping below 200 and with just two regular regiments of tanks left in total. There is a (unlikely, if you ask me) possibility that the cavalry regiments re-organization could instead re-role current Light formations, but it is hard not to fear a further Challenger 2 reduction. With no extra manpower on the way, either Jackals or Challenger 2s (or both) will have to take the hit in order to shift resources elsewhere.
As we said, it is hard to imagine how Ajax can be expected to provide 4 regiments for the Strike Brigades and still deliver recce to the two armoured brigades as well, so this could be yet another blow to the heavier portion of the army. If I were the optimist type, I’d dare suggesting that the Army might want to form two “hybrid” reconnaissance regiments using a few Ajax and the Challenger 2s from the regiment of the brigade that converts, but the MOD’s often completely absurd decisions have destroyed my optimism years ago.
The number of armoured infantry battalions also remain uncertain. Technically, there are six, but with just 245 Warrior IFVs expected to be upgraded that number could drop to four, or anyway generate two “virtual” battalions effectively devoid of vehicles.

All this, for mounting 2800 men into lightly armed wheeled APCs…?

General Carter says that he thinks of the “Strike Brigade” as a “new concept” based on greater “mobility and reach”. He is enamored of the French columns racing back and forth through Mali routing insurgents, but the Strike Brigades he is proposing are a mix and match of tracks (Ajax, Terrier) and wheels (MIV) and lack the tools the French had in Mali, firepower first of all. It is also highly questionable whether the Mali experience is applicable anywhere else. In the “2 Ajax, 2 MIV” structure that has been mentioned so far, these brigades are also quite pointless in any hybrid / symmetric scenario. Purchasing 300 MIVs will cost billions of pounds, partly funded through cuts to what the Army already has, and I really can’t see a single good reason for going down this path.
“Reach” has to include firepower, and this goes from the weapons installed on the MIV itself up to artillery, passing from the battalions’ mortars.
The Royal Artillery is aware of the need for firepower and has reportedly launched (more precisely, resurrected) a number of requirements meant to finally modernize the army’s Fires. But it is not clear how many (if any) of these programmes have any real funding line available.

How to make it even worse: selecting Boxer

The Times has written an article during last week saying that the British Army intends to purchase the german Boxer as MIV solution. Best way to make the whole thing even more painful. The Boxer is the end result of the Multirole Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) multi-national programme that the UK abandoned in the early 2000s, with the loss of 48 million pounds already expended, and selecting it now would look considerably stupid, especially since the world is full of viable alternatives, several of which also happen to be cheaper.
Boxer is very heavy and quite complex. The modules in the back can be swapped out, but this adds complexity and weight that are not really compensated by any real gain. It is an expensive beast, and while a turreted IFV variant has been proposed by industry, the first vehicle in such a configuration has yet to be built and tested, needlessly complicating the path to a true wheeled IFV purchase if the army ever decides to fix the firepower problem.
And finally, the UK is about to enter two years of complex negotiations with the EU to determine the terms of Brexit. The EU is already behaving with hostility and chancellor Merkel herself made sure to, basically, declare economic war on the UK, causing a sharp drop in the value of the pound. Does the army really wish to spend the next bunch of years pouring billions into the pockets of a country that can be expected to build obstacles on the UK’s way at each and every chance it gets?

British Army and the Boxer: a love-hate relationship...?

It would be immensely stupid. I’m still hoping that The Times got that one wrong.

Should the UK even procure a MIV at all?

Medium Brigades have their uses, and an army structure on two heavy and two medium brigades is not a mistake in itself. All depends on the cost. How much is the rest of the army going to suffer to make the MIV purchase possible? For all I can see so far, way too much.
I’d very much avoid those self-inflicted cuts, and spend the little money available on fixing what is already available. The Strike Brigades could still be formed, but equipped with the likes of Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound, at least for the near future. An 8x8 is clearly better, under many points of view, than Mastiff, but if the MIV turns out being just a lightly armed wheeled APC, it is too little of an upgrade to justify such cuts.

In my opinion, the British Army should certainly reorganize to correct some deficiencies of Army 2020 and to better reflect its own doctrine. For one, it should move back to a structure based on two deployable divisions, because it makes no sense to bang, in doctrine, on the need for a 2 star HQ handling the strategic situation in theatre if your force structure only has one such deployable element.

It should re-organize heavy armour in six Combined Arms Regiments and proceed with a Challenger 2 Capability Sustainment Programme that addresses the current two-piece ammunition problem.

It should re-organize its reconnaissance cavalry to give it the ability to fight for information, to screen the main force and deliver enhanced ISTAR. The cavalry regiments should be expanded, and the Ajax should be supported by an heavier hitting vehicle, with a 120 mm gun. In the armoured brigades, the Cavalry regiment should include a number of Challenger 2s, while the medium weight formation should introduce a Medium Armour variant of Ajax itself, to keep within the relevant weight limits.
The new cavalry structure would expand the Army 2020 regiments mounted on Ajax from 528 men to 652, with three large sabre squadrons each with two Scout Troops (4 Ajax, 2 Ares); two Tank troops (4 Challenger 2 / Medium Armour each); a Surveillance Troop with 2 Ajax Joint Fires for the direction of artillery and air strikes plus 2 Ajax Ground Based Surveillance variants with mast-mounted radar and EO/IR sensor, one ABSV ambulance and a Support Troop with 2 ABSV mortar carriers and 2 Ares Overwatch with anti-tank missiles.
Each squadron is a self-contained maneuver unit, ready to be assigned to a battlegroup, easing the force generation cycle.
This new structure would require the return to service of a number of Challenger 2s and a change to the Ajax production run: less Scout vehicles in exchange for a new variant (Medium Armour) and a slight increase to the number of Joint Fires and Ground Based Surveillance sub-variants. Four such cavalry regiments would require:

48 Challenger 2 (in two regiments)
48 Medium Armour (in two regiments)
96 Ajax
24 Ajax Joint Fires
24 Ajax Ground Based Surveillance
24 Ares Overwatch
24 ABSV mortar carriers

Obviously, more vehicles of each type would be required for training and back-up, but currently there are 245 Ajax and sub-variants on order, and I believe that number could be maintained.  

On the artillery front, my suggestion would be to prioritize the AS90 replacement over the quest for a wheeled artillery system for the Strike Brigades. I believe the benefit of a wheeled self-propelled howitzer would not really justify its cost, considering the budget difficulties the forces grapple with. A single programme could solve both problems at once: industry offers the DONAR, an highly automated artillery system, based on the Pzh2000, installed upon an Ascod SV / Ajax hull. Lighter and easier to deploy than the AS90, it offers logistical commonality with the Ajax and is in the same region in terms of mass. This makes it suitable for use in the strike brigades even if it does not ride on wheels.

A 155/52 self propelled howitzer on an Ajax chassis. Decent solution to two problems at once. 

As AS90 replacement, it offers decent protection, tracks for maximum mobility and, crucially, a 52 calibre gun with greater reach than the AS90’s 39 cal.

A wheeled GMLRS launcher shouldn’t even be considered, in my opinion, because it would, again, be a sub-optimal use of money. Yes, the M270B1 is tracked. But tracks are already part of the brigade anyway. Mass-wise, the M270B1 is lighter than both Ajax and any likely MIV candidate, so it fits the frame without problems. Being tracked it might be a bit trickier to move over long distances (the famous “self deploy” dream), but it would still be the last of the issues needing solution.

British mechanized infantry right now: is it wise to sacrifice so much to move from these to an 8x8? I don't think so. 

In the meanwhile, the mechanized infantry should ride on Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound. They are not faultless vehicles, but they are available and paid for, and they do their job pretty well. If replacing them with a more mobile 8x8 requires mutilating the rest of the army and still obtain such a poor result as the currently envisioned Strike Brigade, it is simply suicidal to pursue such replacement.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Royal Artillery tries again

Jane's is reporting that the Royal Artillery is considering a series of new equipment programmes to update its regiments and adapt itself to better support the "strike brigades". 

There is no shortage of good requirements. A "new" one is "Strike 155", for the purchase of a wheeled or towed 155mm howitzer for the Strike Brigades. 
It can't be defined as a truly "new" requirement, of course, because it comes after LIMAWS(Gun) was cancelled years ago. 
If there was the funding, purchasing perfectly good off the shelf guns would not be particularly problematic. Sweden will put 12 Archer on the market soon; France would be all too happy to sell CAESAR, and Royal Artillery troops have already trialed it in the field in several occasions. 

The BAE-Bofors Archer. 48 were produced, 24 each for Sweden and Norway, but the latter eventually pulled out of the programme. Sweden has announced the intention to take all 48 but put 12 up for sale. 12 are not enough for the UK's requirement of two regimental sets, but would be a beginning. 
The Royal Artillery has already trialed the french CAESAR in the field 

In the photos by Army Recognition from Eurosatory 2016, the Nexter CAESAR 8x8, a more capable development with autoloader, better protection and mobility. Another obvious candidate. 

There is Project Congreve, for introducing new capabilities and eventually looking at the replacement of GMLRS and Exactor. 
GMLRS could really do with a purchase of some Alternative Warhead rounds, to restore the area-annihillation capability that was once the pride and reason d'etrè of the system. 

The two GMLRS launchers as used by the US Army. The british variant is known as B1 rather than A1. Arguably, the british army does not really need to rush into procuring a wheeled launcher: while its strategic mobility would be better, it would not change the equation by much. The Strike Brigades will use vehicles no lighter than 30 tons and will have tracks in it (Ajax, Terrier) regardless of what happens to the artillery element. A wheeled launcher will not realize the dream of an air transportable brigade, so its procurement is arguably at the bottom of the priorities list. The actual problem is that the British Army has no more than 35 - 36 operational M270B1. Ideally, there should be 4 Precision Fires batteries in the army (one in each armoured and strike brigade). There are currently 3, with only 6 launchers each. A fourth should be formed for the second Strike Brigade, and ideally the number of launchers should grow to 8 or 9. There is also a reserve GMLRS regiment (101 RA).  

The Alternative Warhead seeks to generate area-destruction effects similar to those offered by the old submunition-laden rockets, without generating an UneXploded Ordnance (UXO) hazard on the ground. The ban on submunitions left the British Army with only the unitary warhead rocket: excellent for many things, but insufficient, alone, to cover all needs. 

GMLRS and ATACMS family tree 

Up to 2010 the Royal Artillery was also planning an ATACMS purchase. Of course, that, as well as everything else, did not progress. But now they might just be in time to buy into its successor, if there is real money for it, and not just dreams. 

Long Range Precision Fires will deliver ATACMS-like range and effect, within a thinner body allowing carriage of two missiles in each standard pod. 
Long Range Precision Fires will give the US Army a tool to fight back against the vast arsenal of Iskander missiles that would have to be faced in a clash versus Russian forces. It will complement, at lower cost, the deep strike capability of aviation. 

If they are looking for a lighter, wheeled replacement for the tracked M270B1, there is of course the US HIMARS readily available. Even this requirement would not be new: the british army years ago had attempted to get a GMLRS launcher that could be slung under a Chinook, no less, the LIMAWS (Rocket). 

LIMAWS - Rocket (LIghtweight Mobile Artillery Weapon System) was the british answer to the US HIMARS. Even lighter and easier to deploy, it could be carried under slung by a Chinook. LIMAWS R was cancelled. It employed a single, standard GMLRS 6-rocket pod, just like HIMARS. 

The M777 Portee combined a Supacat high mobility vehicle carrying the gun crew and the ammunition and an M777 howitzer. The gun could be towed or carried and deployed in the field rapidly. The gun cannot fire when mounted on the truck, but the hybrid vehicle resulting could be carried (vehicle and gun separately) under slung by Chinook. LIMAWS - Gun was cancelled.  

Another project is the purchase of a new weapon locating radar, to succeed to MAMBA, which has a 2026 OSD. The weapon locating radar requirement is also nothing new. In its earlier incarnation, the Common Weapon Locating Radar was once to enter service by 2012 to replace COBRA, and lately MAMBA too, with a single type covering both the High (COBRA) and Low (MAMBA) spectrum of the mission. The British Army evaluated the SAAB Arthur C for the requirement, a perfectly sensible candidate. But of course, that project fell apart too, with nothing purchased and COBRA removed from service with only MAMBA left. More luck this time...?

Then there is an equally long-running ambition to purchase guided, long range ammunition (Excalibur, Vulcano, SGP all good choices readily available) and a requirement for a course-correcting fuze to improve the accuracy of the normal shells and reduce CEP. Requirements that have all been around since before 2010 and that have a tentative delivery date of 2018. 

AS90 could really, really do with a 52 calibre barrel, putting it at least on par with other contemporary artillery systems. The longer barrel was part of the Braveheart upgrade which, you have surely guessed it already, fell apart years ago. 

The Braveheart long barrel would remove the current range disadvantage of AS90

The US Army suffers from the same weakness: 39 caliber barrels in a world of 52 calibers. A 24 km reach versus 30 and more. There can be no doubt about it being a significant disadvantage. 
The US Army is upgrading its Paladin self propelled guns but hasn't changed their barrels yet. It is, however, working on creating a long-barrel M777. The british army has done nothing about this disadvantage ever since Braveheart was cancelled. 

M777 ER in front, and standard M777 behind. 1000 pounds and 6 feet of difference. 

Eventually, the L118 Light Gun will need a replacement as well, of course, and the Royal Artillery is also aware that if MORPHEUS progresses and replaces the Bowman radio and data infrastructure it will have to develop a new artillery-specific fire control application to replace the current one. 

The Royal Artillery modernization programme used to be called "Indirect Fire Precision Attack Capability", but it produced little more than nothing. The procurement of the SMART 155 mm round carrying guided anti-tank submunitions was cancelled soon after the contract was signed, LIMAWS went nowhere, Braveheart was cancelled, Fire Shadow is lost in some unknown dimension of the universe and everything else is changing name and waiting for tomorrow. 

Let's see if under new names it goes any better...

Saturday, September 10, 2016

F-35 and Carrier Enabled Power Projection update

The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force exploited RIAT 2016 to deliver a couple of interesting about the F-35 and the fabled Carrier Enabled Power Projection (AKA: you are losing HMS Ocean without replacement, make do somehow).

Beginning with the F-35B, we get an update about the build-up plan. As is to be expected from the MOD, nothing really new is revealed and plans for LRIP 11 and beyond purchases are not detailed at all. Currently, the MOD has placed a long-lead items order for a single F-35B to be delivered as part of LRIP 11, the last of the famous 14 jets authorized to enable the formation of the first frontline squadron.
Following purchases are meant to be planned out as part of Main Gate 5, scheduled for the 2017 budget cycle, so we'll have to wait until next year to learn anything substantial about what follows BK-18.
The LRIP 11 production contract will be let by the Pentagon later during 2017, so the MOD has time to add a few more airframes to the currently lonely BK-18. Moreover, LRIP 12 should be the opening lot of the proposed "Block Buy", making next year's decision very important.

We have been told that 42 F-35B should be in british hands by the end of 2023, including 24 in two frontline squadrons, and to achieve that number, considering a two-year timeframe between order and delivery, the UK needs to purchase a further 24 F-35 over a maximum of five production lots (11 to 15; 2017 to 2021). That works out at around 5 aircraft per lot, which is far from ambitious yet not without challenges for the MOD's budget.

The various milestones remain unchanged: it is still planned to have the british OCU operational in 2019, for example. According to an earlier Written Answer to the House of Lords about the matter, the OCU will have 5 F-35B when it begins training british personnel in July 2019. The last courses for british personnel in US Marine Corps Air Base Beaufort will be completed in 2018.

617 Sqn will fly to RAF Marham during summer 2018. For a while, it will be understrength as aircraft move out to fill the OCU. Then it will, for a while, grow into a "super squadron" before splitting, by December 2023, into two as 809 NAS stands up.

Thankfully, integration of key british weapons is confirmed as a Block 4 event. Between 2020 and 2026, the british F-35B will receive the new build (Block 6) ASRAAM; the Paveway IV with bunker-buster warhead; SPEAR 3 and Meteor.
SPEAR 3 is, according to Jane's, a Block 4.2 candidate. This contradicts an earlier slide, released in february 2015 by LM, showing SPEAR 3 towards the final 4.4 software release. Development of SPEAR 3 is progressing well and MBDA believes it can offer a complete weapon, ready for integration, within the next two years or so.
Meteor in the slide was a 4.3 candidate and there are reasons to believe that it will be the last to be integrated, being the most complex.
The decision to retain the Typhoon Tranche 1 into service into the 2020s is probably connected to this timeframe, in the sense that it provides further reason to extend the AMRAAM into RAF service beyond 2020.
While there is no official confirmation that i know of, logic and facts suggest that the two Typhoon Tranche 1 squadrons will live on in british service just as long as AMRAAM does (otherwise they'll have very little to employ...), and AMRAAM is needed as long as Meteor isn't integrated on F-35. Moreover, the second pair of F-35B squadrons planned are the obvious replacement of the two Tranche 1 squadrons.
Typhoon T1 is merely a useful placeholder, that will be exploited to the best of the little it can offer, bridging the gap between Tornado and F-35, avoiding a ruinous fall in the number of squadrons which would have probably never been reversed.

In practice, we can assume that the RAF is thinking roughly on this line:

Now: 5 Typhoon + 3 Tornado GR4 squadrons
2019+: Tornado GR4 bows out, personnel sent in Typhoon stream to build up to 7 Typhoon Sqns and 1 F-35B
2023 and beyond: Typhoon Tranche 1 bows out, but two more squadrons of F-35B are built up. 7 + 2 become 5 + 4. Meteor finally completely replaces AMRAAM.

On the infrastructure front, RAF Marham will see a lot of work in the coming years.

Runway 01 will become a STOL strip, and 3 vertical landing pads have been funded. The main runway will be resurfaced by June 2024.
Hangar 3 has been demolished to make room for the Maintenance and Finish Hangar. Hangar No 1 will be demolished later this year to be replaced by another engineering facility.
The South HAS area will be refurbished to become 617 Sqn's home, and the offices for the OCU will be built nearby, close to the Integrated Training Centre which will host the simulators.
Work on the Lightning Force HQ and National Operating Centre has also started. The building is being built as a secure facility, because this is where the british ALIS main node will be located. Office space for 125 is planned.

On the ship side, things are moving too. Not always in the most encouraging of ways: for whatever reason, the Navy seems to be expecting a long capability gap between the loss of HMS Ocean and the maturity of plans for using Queen Elizabeth class as an assault ship.

CEPP IOC is given as September 2023, and this might have to do with the stated intention of modifying parts of HMS Prince of Wales to give her better Embarked Force spaces and amphibious bits, which have never been detailed so far.

In full "amphibious" configuration, the target for a Queen Elizabeth class carrier is given as two companies, which should mean something in the region of 500 men, plus a good 300 more in support of the embarked group of helicopters.

It is to be assumed and hoped that HMS Queen Elizabeth will get the "amphibious mods" applied during her first refit, considering that the ships will often operate alone, not as a couple, requiring, more than a pure carrier strike or pure amphibious loadouts, an hybrid "assault" configuration.

The USMC is now officially expected to be part of the air wing on the first operational deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, expected in 2021, as announced by secretary of state for defence Fallon. Their F-35Bs and MV-22 will complement the british elements of the air wing.
This is really not a surprise, and there had been very clear hints dropped in multiple occasions, all the way up to the USMC including the QE class between the platforms considered in its annual Aviation Strategy document.
Their MV-22 could end up being especially valuable if they came with the tanker kit for air refuelling. They will also provide a long-range, quick CSAR platform. Jane's is reporting that the Royal Marines are pushing for greater effort in this area, and that a Personnel Recovery cell has already been created within 3 Commando Brigade.
The MOD has been attempting to set up a proper Joint Personnel Recovery capability for a long time, and last year it had begun looking around for vehicles compatible with internal carriage on Chinook and with usefulness in scenarions including evacuation of downed personnel and recovery and/or destruction of classified equipment fallen in enemy territory.
It will be interesting to see if, how and when this project progresses. It would most likely be closely connected with the SDSR-sanctioned wish of the Special Forces director for longer-range air mobility.
The options on the table, essentially, are two: a V-22 Osprey purchase; or the procurement of air refueling probes for a number of Chinook helicopters, plus a couple of tanker kits for two of the retained C-130J.
In the case of the Chinook, the HC3 (soon to be HC5) machines are excellent candidates: they already come with longer legs thanks to their fat tanks; and they will exit from their ongoing JULIUS modification fitted also with the same digital flight controls introduced by the HC6, The addition of the probes would make them very capable.

The V-22 appears not once but twice in this slide, shown both as part of the embarked force and as an element of Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift (MITL). This doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it is still worth noting.

Regarding the Fleet Carrier / Carrier Strike end of the business, the Royal Navy is doing what it can to restore a proper air wing beginning with the helicopter side.
Last year's Deep Blue exercise saw, for the first time in years, a major carrier ASW deployment with a standard complement of 9 Merlin helicopters working to keep the task force safe from enemy submarine action.
This year's Deep Blue did not include quite as many Merlin HM2 but on the other hand it introduced the other key bit: AEW coverage and Anti-Air Warfare. Sea King ASaC Mk7 were embarked and employed to protect the task forces from the attacks of the Hawk jets of 736 NAS playing as aggressors.

The Royal Navy wants the carrier air wing to include a 9-helos ASW squadron and a 4/5 helos strong AEW force. To achieve that, it is planning to restructure the Merlin force over the next two years:

820 NAS will become a permanently carrier-roled ASW squadron.

814 NAS and 829 NAS will be merged together to provide Small Ship Flights for the Type 23 frigates; a flight at high readiness for the Fleet Ready Escort / Towed Array Patrol Ship and a few extra flights for reinforcement of the carriers.

849 NAS will continue being the AEW squadron, moving from Sea King ASaC Mk7 to Merlin HM2.

824 NAS will be the training unit.

The loss of one of the current squadrons in order to accommodate the indispensable AEW-roled unit might, unfortunately, signal the final surrender of the Royal Navy in the quest for getting the 8 remaining Merlin HM1 upgraded and kept in service.
It seems reasonable to assume that, had those helicopters been funded, 814 and 829 would not be merging.

The large number of helicopters will tipically mean fewer F-35B. A large air wing will tend to have 24, rather than 36, F-35B on board. This would mean embarking half the squadrons (2 out of 4 once the intended Lightning Force is fully built up), which is not unrealistic. More should be achievable, but not routinely.

Finally, the brief suggests that Type 45 and F-35 could work together very closely to take down air threats. This is absolutely doable and should be an objective for the future, but the reality is that, as of today, the Royal Navy does not have the kind of Cooperative Engagement Capability equipment in use in the US Navy.
While US F-35s will be trialed as nodes within a Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air (NIFC-CA) network as soon as this month, british F-35Bs do not currently have a clear path to follow to reach the same capability. The Royal Navy had hoped to fit the US CEC system to the Type 45 destroyers, but funding never materialized.

It would be a major upgrade and a big step in the right direction to join the NIFC-CA project sometime in the future.

The two complete documents can be seen below:

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Light Mechanised Infantry and Light Cavalry: the next orphans?

The British Army seems to have dropped the unwieldy "Light Protected Mobility Infantry" definition for the more immediate Light Mechanised Infantry title. But this is the minor of the changes that affect the 6 infantry battalions mounted on Foxhound.
A much greater change of plans regards the structure of these dramatically undersized units: they now have only two Rifle Companies each. The army apparently calls these "Strike Companies", but i'm not really ready to care for general Carter's questionable obsessions.

Notoriously, Army 2020 got around the political imperative of not cutting more than 5 infantry battalions by making all other Light Role and Light Mechanised battalions a lot smaller. The establishment of these units, all  ranks - all trades, is 561 and 581.
A big part of the cut comes from eliminating three rifle platoons: initially, the structure was on three companies of two platoons plus a GPMG Section, but in more recent times the Army has chosen instead to keep the GPMGs grouped up into a traditional Machine Gun platoon and put all 6 remaining rifle platoons in two companies.

The current structure of a Light Mechanised Infantry unit is as follows, exemplified here by 3 SCOTS, The Black Watch:

Alpha (Grenadier) Coy     
1, 2, 3 rifle platoons

Bravo Coy
4, 5, 6 rifle platoons

Charlie Coy (Manoeuvre Support Coy)
Mortar platoon
Machine Gun Platoon
Assault Pioneers / Pipes and Drums

Delta (Light) Coy – Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR)
Recce Platoon / Sniper Platoon (when combined, they make up the "Patrols" platoon)
Anti-Tank Platoon 
Intelligence Section

Signals Platoon 

As can be observed, the other bit of novelty is the conversion of the third Rifle Coy into an ISR Company grouping signals, the intelligence cell, snipers, recce and Javelin missiles. 
The Javelin has probably been included in the ISR company because of the value its aiming unit has when used as a battlefield surveillance sensor. 

The Husky recovery is the current interim solution

The Foxhound Logistics and WMIK variants would have an obvious role to play within the Light Mechanised Infantry

The recce platoons in Army 2020 have been slimmed down, to 24 men. The number of sniper pairs should still be 8. There was the ambition to train all recce infantrymen on the L129A1 to add long range precision firepower, but it is hard to say if this is being done for real or not. 
The reconnaissance patrols are usually composed of a 6-man team from Recce platoon plus a Sniper Pair, and four such patrols are generated. 
The Anti-Tank platoon has four detachments, led by corporals. 


In terms of vehicles, the battalion is currently a mix of many different platforms: the Rifle Companies are mounted in Foxhound vehicles, while Anti-Tank, Machine Gun and Recce ride in RWIMIK +. 
The battalion probably employs some Panther too, meaning that, from a logistic point of view, the whole formation is a bit of a mess. 
The Mortar Platoon uses the Husky, which is also employed by the REME Light Aid Detachment. 
It has to be assumed that the REME are still using the few Husky Recovery vehicles that they created when still deployed in Afghanistan: the army has a requirement for an actual Light Mechanised Recovery Vehicle but so far hasn't yet selected the platform. 
Supacat is showcasing at DVD 2016 a Recovery vehicle developed on the Coyote 6x6 chassis, which could be a good solution for the needs of PARA, Marines, Light Cavalry and Light Mechanised Infantry. 
Other offers have been made, one of which based on a DURO chassis. 

Supacat's offer for the Lightweight Protected Recovery Vehicle requirement. 

The Army has a Multi Role Vehicle - Protected requirement that should move on in the near future to deliver a few hundred general purpose, protected vehicles and a new protected battlefield ambulance, and this could end up adding yet another vehicle to the roster. According to recent news reports, the Army has been seriously considering the opportunity of selecting the american Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which, being due for a massive production run of well over 50.000, might be the only contender with a chance to fit the small budget. 
I remain personally concerned by the way the MRV-P programme seems to lack a true long-term plan, and clarity about how MRV-P fits within the other fleets and how the number of different vehicles can be cut down to achieve logistic simplification over the coming years. If MRV-P is to be successful, the Army must be prepared to build up its numbers with regular purchases over the years, and make it part of a coherent programme for replacement of old platforms. 
The first MRV-P purchases seem destined to replace shares of unprotected support vehicles (Land Rover, Pinzgauer, DURO) in a number of roles and positions across the army, but this must only be a beginning, not a one-off. The army has already started and then abandoned too many programmes, ending up with an endless list of different vehicle types. This time, it must do things differently. 

The planning gap: the Army quite clearly does not know what it wants going ahead. The confusion is made even more evident by Foxhound OSD being given as 2024: frankly, an absurd proposition. 

MRV-P variants duplicate, in a way or another, a variety of vehicles including Panther, Foxhound and Husky. It is imperative to formulate an actual long term plan to move from multiple vehicle types down to one or two. Foxhound's uniqueness is given by its high protection level, which is two NATO STANAG levels higher than what is requested out of MRV-P. The level of protection requested should determine which proportion of the fleet needs to be made up of Foxhound variants and which can be covered with MRV-P. 

From a Light Mechanised Infantry point of view, the priorities beyond proper, protected Recovery vehicles and ambulance should arguably be the replacement of the RWIMIK +. It is hard to accept that the firepower of the battalion should ride into battle in a platform offering less protection and, probably, somewhat inferior mobility than that of the troop carrier within the rifle companies. 
The Foxhound WMIK variant should be brought in to solve the problem, and General Dynamics has been offering other variants of the base Foxhound: this year it is showcasing a SF variant and a C2 command and communications variant that could be a perfect long-term replacement for Panther and beyond. 
The Army needs to formulate a plan which, i suggest, would need to capitalize on Foxhound on one side and on MRV-P on the other. The main differences between the two will be protection and cost, with the Foxhound being much better armoured and much more expensive. Over the coming years, the Foxhound, in all its variants, should equip the light units closer to the line of fire, with MRV-P in its variants covering the rest of the requirement, leaving completely unprotected vehicles to the non-frontline jobs. 

Light Cavalry 

Light Cavalry regiments, currently 3, are 404 strong and are mounted on Jackal and Coyote. They currently suffer the lack of an adequate light recovery vehicle able to follow the formation and support it right up to the line of fire. Apart from a few Husky "Recovery" created directly by the REME in Afghanistan, they currently have nothing but the gigantic MAN wrecker trucks. 
This problem should, however, be solved relatetively soon. 

Another problem facing the Light Cavalry is a serious firepower deficit. Javelin aside, the Light Cavalry does not field anything more than Grenade Machine guns (in theory, one in each Troop of four vehicles) and .50 HMGs (on the other three vehicles in the Troop). 
This firepower is insufficient to stand up to the threats likely to be encountered, and i'm not talking necessarily about russian reconnaissance formations here, but even of the ubiquitous toyota pick-ups loaded up with heavy weaponry by terrorists and insurgents all around the world. 
As the french discovered in Mali, the .50 is at a disadvantage against enemies often armed with the russian 14.5mm gun, not to mention against pick ups armed with the ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun. 

Accuracy is questionable, but this kind of combination would put a Jackal with a .50 HMG at a disadvantage in terms of range and lethality. 
The Light Cavalry needs a greater reach and greater lethality in order to be credible. The French in Mali had the Sagaie and AMX-10 to fall back on, and where these were not available they have resurrected old 20mm guns and installed them on the back of trucks, to fight fire with fire. 
The US Army, facing much the same considerations, intends to equip its lightweight recce formations with a JLTV variant armed with a 30mm gun derived from the Apache's one. 
The russian army is working on an impressive unmanned, enclosed turret with a 30mm gun, installed on top of the Tigr 4x4 protected vehicle. 

Tigr with 30mm gun turret
The M230LF trialed on top of an M-ATV of the US Army. 

The Jackal needs to follow the same path if the Light Cavalry is to be credible, otherwise it will be badly outgunned in each and every scenario. 

An orphaned capability? 

There is a big question mark floating over the british army light forces, however, due to the new Army 2025 plan. At the moment, there is little to no information available about the kind of structure that the six Infantry Brigades will assume. Moreover, there are no details regarding how these brigades will be employed and what kind of capability they will be able to generate. 
Light Mechanised Infantry and Light Cavalry were key components of Army 2020, as two "Adaptable" brigades formed around these units were part of the 5-formations cycle needed to support an enduring operation: 

Armoured Infantry Brigade x3 
Adaptable Brigade x2    (the 7 Adaptable Brigades would be used to generate two deployable force packages, to cover two successive tours in theatre) 

Under Army 2025, however, there will be a "greater focus" on one-shot, short duration, Division-level warfighting, and the SDSR 2015 document and successive (few) words offered by general Carter accurately fail to detail whether the army will still be able to support a 5-brigade cycle, making a future enduring operation possible. 
When listed: 

Armoured Brigades x2
Strike Brigades x2
Infantry Brigades x6 

the elements of Army 2025 seem impressive and more than capable to support a future enduring operation. However, this is actually far from certain, as the Army intends to keep two rather than one brigade at readiness each year (1 armoured and 1 strike). 
In addition, 5 infantry battalions will be further maimed to create "Defence Engagement" formations numbering a mere 350 men each. The re-organization of the cavalry regiments might also take away one or two Light Cavalry regiments, depending on the decisions that will be made (four rather than 3 Ajax regiments are envisaged now, and a Cavalry unit might be ordered to change role to CBRN reconnaissance as the capability is given back to the Army). 

Husky in Mortar carrier role 
The insufficient number and consistence of supporting regiments (Signal, Logistic, Artillery, Engineer) makes it unthinkable that more than 5 brigades can be adequately resourced for deployment, which means having, at best, one deployable Infantry Brigade out of the six planned. Maybe not even that. 
This risks turning the Light Cavalry and Light Mechanised Infantry into orphaned capabilities, lost somewhere within a force structure that makes little sense and that seems unable to properly, fully exploit the resources already paid for.