And it will be about time, since with the often contraddictory rumors continuing to come out on the press, the future of the Army is by now as murky as it can be. A true mystery, with the reports coming out on the press so far calling in question the sanity of the Defence Chiefs and MoD and throwing a lot of question marks over to the "5 MRBs" plan. The rumors appear to go against the logic and promises of the homogeneous brigades concept, namely where they announce cuts to Cavalry (Formation Reconnaissance Regiments) and Tank regiments: with the brigades expected to have a recce regiment each and "tanks", there is theorically no room for any regiment disbanding from the RAC, as 5 Recce and 5 Tank regiments are needed, and that's the current number of formations as it is.
Now the latest suggestion is that just 5 Infantry battalions will be lost, with the thick of the cuts being enforced on the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and, above all, the Royal Logistics Corps.
This second scenario might overall be the most desirable, depending on the effect it has on the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery, mostly. I have very serious doubts on the viability of a plan that, presumably, gives the almost totality of AS90 guns over to Territorial Army formations, also considering that the TA currently does not work with the AS90 at all, but has the L118 Light Gun instead.
Again, i don't think that much can be cut from the Royal Engineers without the consequences being very serious and very undesirable.
In October 2011, despite the second tranche of cuts having been announced in August, with the Army of 82.000 regulars being put as new target, the head of the Royal Engineers was still saying that the corp was planning for supporting 5 MRBs, 16AA and 3rd Commando, with the long-term retention of both General Support regiments as well. A very desirable outcome. The Telegraph article calls that in cause, however, suggesting that reality will be very, very different. And that would be a big problem.
Cuts to the RLC are more realistically manageable with the use of reserves and contractors. In the latter case, it would be an expansion of a practice that already exists, anyway: one of the best examples is the Heavy Equipment Transporter (HET) truck management. The HET is made available to the MOD under a 20 years PFI contract signed in 2001 (with a 2.5 years "start up" period) with Fasttrax Ltd, which provides the vehicles, the training for regular army personnel (REME and others) involved in the HET business, the spare parts, and the drivers to the Army.
The operators and maintainers employed by Fasttrax Ltd are all Sponsored Reserves (SR) that can be mobilised for up to nine months at a time and when 'called up' for an operational deployment, come under army command.
The press reports curiously paint a situation in which the Army is faced by two extremes:
- One reports a cut of 11 Infantry Battalions, 5 RAC regiments, and other heavy cuts in combat formations
- The other talks of a loss of just 5 battalions of infantry and heavy cuts to supporting arms instead
One would hope that, in the middle, an "happy" medium is being built. The first scenario is probably way too harsh on the combat elements, but the second risks creating an army incapable to sustain the battles it picks.
Surely there can be a more balanced mix of decisions in the restructuring? My position is very clear: i prefer to have 3 instead of 4 Infantry battalions in a brigade, but have the brigade adequately served by a regiment of Engineers and a regiment of Artillery, than have lots of infantry, unsupported.
The suspect (and in a way the hope) is that the press is drinking from leaks that paint the picture of the two "worst case" scenarios considered in the restructuring project, with the Army probably trying to sit in the middle, to find a smarter solution.
The Army Reform is however, in any case, going to be painful, and it seems, from whichever angle you look at it, that it might well be daring too much. I am impatient to hear the announcement, to see how things are worked out.
Victim of the book-balancing?
Until Planning Round 2011, the MoD has expended small amounts of money to follow and influence the US Navy work on CEC, Cooperative Engagement Capability, the well known force-multiplier system capable to dramatically enhance the effectiveness of air defence networks by enabling ships to cooperatively detect, track and engage targets.
The little money committed was meant to keep the soup warm, with the Royal Navy desperately trying to secure the adoption of the precious system for its ships. CEC was delayed countless times, with the Type 45 destroyers once expected to get it at build.
More recently, the plan was for the Type 45s to get CEC around 2014, with the Type 26 fitted at build in the 2020s. Now, according to a Jane's headline, CEC seems to have fallen victim to the book-balancing exercise just concluded at the MOD. If confirmed, it would be a nasty blow to the quest of the Royal Navy for improved situational awareness and better interoperability with the US.
The enhancement for a future RN with CEC-fitted Crowsnest AEW platforms, Type 45s and Type 26s ships would have been simply dramatic. If the CEC is not adopted, it makes for a very severe setback.
The worst part is that this is likely to be only the first victim to be named. More programs are likely to have been shelved or delayed to dates to be determined.
Naval Aviation: the training aspect of F35B and F35C
When the Sea Harrier fleet was around, pre-embarkation requirements were described as follows:
- First experience pilot, daytime embarkation
before going on the carrier he had to complete a minimum of 10 training sorties of which 5 from ski-jump/dummy deck for launch and recovery practice.
- For a pilot with previous experience
the requirements were to fly the monthly minimum Sea Harrier flying hours with sorties from dummy deck “whenever possible”.
The Sea Harrier community was however notoriously small and elitary. All Sea Harrier pilots used to be at sea or on training very often, they were very much active, and went to sea in a constant rotation, so had plenty of practice since they were, basically, always the same ones rotating in and out of deployment. And they were committed full time to carrier skills.
It would be far more interesting to see later requirements for carrier currency when the Joint Force Harrier changed the way things are done and introduced a much greater "on land" time.
For a comparison, good for some reflection, US Marines, who like RAF squadrons spend quite a lot of time on land, end up doing a lot more training with their Harriers before going at sea. Initial at-sea qualification for day ops, Cat-I weather conditions takes a minimum of 35 vertical landings according to a 2004 USMC manual for AV8B training. In 2008 the minimum was slightly lowered, to 30, but it is still amazingly high. That's more landing cycles than CATOBAR certification requires.
A pilot of a USMC squadron needs a minimum of 8 vertical landings on a land based dummy deck before being deployed to the ship. Field Carrier Landing Practice is done on a schedule, and re-qualification training can be required after just 30 days.
For training with the F35B and for Field Carrier Landing Practice two land-based dummy LHA decks are being built at Yuma and another at the Eglin F35 Training center. The second is the most interesting since it will almost certainly be now used by british pilots training with the USMC at Eglin. According to the plans, 6 F35B will be based there with the USMC training squadron.
The above requirements, in addition, relate to embarkation on the carrier at Cat I weather conditions, and in daylight. Then there’s the issue of weather (what about operations in Category II and III?) and night ops, which are more complex and clearly require more experience and training.
The problem of the "RAF goes on ships" approach has been in night and bad weather ops. Just landing their STOVL planes on the deck every now and then won't mean much if the pilots aren't cleared for actual war operations from the aircraft carrier, unless the UK is going to fight only in day hours and with excellent weather...
With the F35B we’ll also have to see what impact Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing eventually has on the training requirements.
The SRVL might prove indispensable to enable operations since even at 5000 lbs, the best case value, the Vertical Bring Back margin of the F35B is way too small. With as much as 1700 lbs being fuel, 3300 pounds of unexpended ordnance aren't much.
It is worth remembering how SRVL was described during the tests:
Using SRVL F-35B aircraft would approach the carrier from astern at about 60 knots indicated air speed, 35 knots relative assuming 25 knots wind over deck (the maximum speed of a CVF will be 25 knots, so 25kts WOD is achievable even in dead calm) on a steep 5-6 degree glide path. Touch down would be about 150 feet from the stern with a stopping distance of 300 to 400 feet depending on conditions (wet flight deck, pitching ships etc). That would leave around 300 feet of flight deck for margin or even “bolters”.
The SRVL technique has a significant impact on ship designs and aviation operations, Commander Tony Ray told a conference in February 2008: “We expect to trade some STOVL flexibility for increased bring-back and fuel. We have to .. check for for relevant CV criteria that apply to slower SRVL operations. For example flightpath control will be a far more important flight criteria for SRVL than it has been for STOVL. It is a CV trait creeping in”.
In other words SRVL is a CATOBAR-style approach, just slower and without cables to catch. Its good features are:
- Much less stress on the engine and lift system, allowing it to live longer
- Much improved bring back weight margin
Problem is that SRVL is going to require skills and training. If it is not adopted, the F35B’s combat capabilities will be severely hampered and the life of its engine plant dramatically shortened, with all the costs this implies.
And in addition to the effect on training requirements, please note that 150 feet + 400 feet + plus deck free for bolters means that when a F35B lands with SRVL approach the WHOLE deck, from end to end, has to be clear and any other aviation operation on deck is likely to be stopped entirely, making SRVL effectively more invasive than even arrested CATOBAR landings are.
Of course, CATOBAR skills are expensive, and take training to be acquired and maintained: the point of discussion is the extent of the effective gap between CATOBAR and STOVL training needs.
A good reference document about the US CATOBAR certifications and currency requirements is the US Navy Landing Signal Officer's manual.
The CATOBAR "training penalty" is here broken down in good detail. For the US pilots, Initial Carrier Qualification comes with 12 Day landings (10 of which arrested) and 8 Night landings (6 arrested). The first night flight should last a minimum of 20 minutes. Carrier Qualification is to be achieved during a period of no longer than 30 days.
After achieving currency, the pilot is ready for service, and needs to keep current by refreshing his qualification by, of course, operating from a carrier.
Depending on the time that passes since he's last been qualified, he has to carry on some training to renew his currency.
If 12 months or more pass from he's last been current, he has to face once more the whole 20 landings ICQ, while if he's last been current 60 days to 6 months earlier, the pilot needs facing a Field Landing Carrier Practice (in this video you can see French naval pilots doing their FLCP - needs a runway, one carrier landing lights aid system, the Landing Signal Officer and, for night FLCP with more than two airplanes in the air, one LSO assistant ), followed by 4 day landings (2 to 3 of them arrested) and 2 night landings. No longer than 5 days should pass between FLCP and the first landing on the aircraft carrier.
A whole table of the time periods and associated training needs is available in the manual in chapter 6.2.
It is to be seen how much of the training advantage of STOVL is real and how much of it is virtual, especially with the F35B.
And with SRVL the assumption “STOVL = better simultaneous helicopter and fast jet ops on deck” goes to hell immediately.
Ultimately, to say that a RAF land-based squadron will just move out, land on the carrier and be ready to operate from it in conditions other than “light load, perfect weather”, just like that, is a full-out lie and is deliberately misleading. When you hear the gurus of the F35B telling you that is as easy and merry as that, know that you are being fed lies, with reality being, as always, a bit more complex and articulated.
What comes back from Afghanistan?
According to a Daily Mail article, up to 1200 out of around 1900 protected mobility vehicles will be handed over to Afghan security forces or anyway disposed off when the UK withdraws from Helmand.
The vehicles listed for return are Mastiffs, Ridgebacks and "a number" of Jackals (presumably the Jackal 2 will be returned, while the remaining Jackal 1s won't.) Foxhounds will also be all returned to the UK, but there's no telling how many since Foxhound is a bit late and still has not made it to afghanistan in the first place. The article says that "a small number" of Warthogs will be left behind, and this affirmation puzzles me. Some 115 Warthog have been acquired, and most of these are likely in Helmand, so what is the correct interpretation of "small number" is up for debate. Will all Warthogs be disposed off? Will damaged ones be left in situ and handed to the Afghans? Will the Army bring back only a share of its Warthogs, having chosen a niche role for them in the long term plans?
It would be a waste to get rid of the Warthog so soon and after all the money expended, especially since it has proven a good and effective vehicle which, i believe, could certainly find long term roles to fulfill.
No one will miss the Vector and Snatch Land Rovers instead: their age in the British Army is, thankfully, over.