Some very interesting questions asked by the Parliamentary Defence Committee to minister Nick Harvey and to Air Vice-Marshal Mark Green, Director Joint and Air Capability have given me the feeling that someone in the Committee follows my blog and has read of my doubts about the aircraft carrier decision.
Of course, i'm not the only person expressing said doubts and asking such questions, so there is no actual way to tell if i influenced things at all, even though it is nice to think i might.
But, in order, let's see what interesting answers we get from the Uncorrected Evidence published on the Committee's webpage, about the main point of the debate at hand: Maritime Patrol Capability.
Let me make a little premise: with the Nimrod MRA4 and with whatever future MPA platform eventually pursued, we are looking at a platform that is required to cover a few roles that can be summarized with:
- Surface surveillance, over sea and land. This will require a suitable radar, and infra-red cameras and other equipment. Tracking ships and ground vehicles, or even walking people on land poses some real challenges, but generally, this role is the one most easily covered, and there are mature or almost mature unmanned aircrafts on the market that can do all of this efficiently.
- Intelligence. The Nimrod MRA4 had a really significant capability as a wider-spectrum ISTAR platform, with good ELINT/SIGINT capability (ELectronic INTelligence; SIGnals INTelligence). The airplane was being fitted, in fact, with an Israeli Elta EL/L-8300UK Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite, a powerful ELINT system, which would have enabled the Nimrod MRA4 to detect all sort of electronic radiations and turn them into valuable intelligence data. One operator was assigned to the ESM, and the MRA4 would always carry a "swing-role" operator on another console which could help for communications.
The MRA4 would have been so able to assist the 3 specialized ELINT/SIGINT Nimrod R1 of 51 Squadron, and/or their forthcoming replacement, the American Rivet Joint, procured under AIRSEEKER initiative.
The Nimrod R1 was high in demand, and indeed its retirement was delayed to allow the plane to serve over Libya last year. The Rivet Joint, which are again coming in number of 3, will be just as high in demand, so it is highly desirable for an MPA for the future to come with suitable supporting capability.
Another important role of the Nimrod was to act as a powerful communication relay platform, one of the reasons why the MR2 flew over Afghanistan before the tragic disaster that claimed 14 lives. With SATCOMS, NATO Data Links and multiple radios, including Have Quick II ones suitable for direct communications with the US assets, the MRA4 would have been formidable in this role too.
A future MPA platform will need to come with comparable capabilities to be a true addition to the ISTAR capabilities of the Armed Forces.
|AIRSEEKER has the merit of maximizing collaboration with the greater US resources in the field. It benefits both partners greatly: even the USAF, after all, only has 17 of these precious assets.|
These capabilities are harder to replicate on a UAV, because they require space, power, and personnel at the console. However, to a limited scale, some capability is available on unmanned platforms: communications relay pods on UAVs are already common enough, and Germany is putting into service the EuroHawk, a customized variant of the american Global Hawk kitted for SIGINT role.
- Sub-Surface Surveillance. And here we get to the true stumbling block. The MPA platform is meant primarily to detect targets under the sea's surface. The Nimrod's primary role, and the most demanding and complex, was to detect, track and engage enemy submarines. The MPA needs to be able to find and attack enemy submarines
And this is not something that UAVs cannot do. There is nothing on the horizon either, so it is going to be a very long time before a UAV can tackle this mission.
Ever since the second world war, airplanes have been fundamental and instrumental in the difficult chase for enemy submarines. Losses in the Atlantic were drastically reduced when the black hole in the middle of it was covered thanks to carrier-borne antisubmarine airplanes. Today, MPAs flying ahead of a Task Force to clear the way are just as indispensable if you are to send a fleet against an enemy with submarines.
A drone with a marittime radar won't do. It will not be able to protect Trident from enemy submarines, it will not detect russian subs coming near the british shores for a sniff, it will not be able to assist frigates in the protection of convoys and task forces against enemy submarines, it won't be able to fly ahead of a fleet and make sure that the way is clear, allowing the task force to sail (relatively) swiftly: frigates will be left doing all the work.
Mainly, 8 frigates, the ones with the 2087 sonar set, the submarine hunters that really matter.
It has been said that a good MPA can do the work of 12 frigates. And it is quite true, due to the speed with which the airplane can deploy over the area of interest. Of course, the airplane cannot stay, so that submarine-hunting ships remain necessary, but fleets need MPAs to contribute to the otherwise ungodly amount of work needed.
Otherwise, give the Royal Navy 108 ASW escorts. That's 9 x 12. But do not try telling us that 8 frigates fitted with the 2087 sonar can do their normal work and do the Nimrod's one too. It's a lie. A dangerous lie.
- Search and Rescue. This requires thermal cameras and radar, as it is a surface search, essentially. But, in addition, you want to be able to throw dingies in the water for the survivors. Another something that you will have difficulties doing with UAVs.
|People often fails to appreciate just how many roles the Nimrod would have covered, and how much capability it offered. For a long time, it was a true cornerstone in the defence policy of the UK.|
And now, on to the hearing's most interesting passages:
Mrs Moon: To the Chair’s first question, you acknowledged that Britain is a maritime nation, with a huge maritime economy vital to the success and prosperity of this nation. Would you agree that maritime surveillance should be a sovereign capability?Nick Harvey: No, I do not think I would agree to such a sweeping statement. There is a great deal we can do in co-operation with our allies and partners. There is a great deal that we do do in the way of co-operation and information sharing, and there are various new initiatives being undertaken in NATO and in the EU that would assist international co-operation in this field in the future. I would certainly accept that there will be elements that we want to keep sovereign, but the proposition that the whole piece must, of necessity, be sovereign is not an analysis I would share.
We could have it done for us by someone else, or we might do it in collaboration, in other words. I guess it is acceptable, particularly the second option.
Can't NATO help somehow...?
Nick Harvey: We are supporting the tier 2 NATO smart defence proposal, which is being taken forward through an investigation led by Canada, under the auspices of the NATO Naval Armaments Group, to provide a long-term solution by means of maritime patrol aircraft procurement. The solution at this stage is not determined, but one option would be to have some sort of shared NATO capability, perhaps akin to the AWACS model. An approach of that sort would provide a multinational procurement option delivering economies of scale, so we are certainly interested in that.
It would not be a bad solution. A consistent fleet of shared MPA airplanes (no less than 20, considering that the NATO's combined sea area is monstrously huge) would make for a good solution. But my observation is: will it ever happen? Will people contribute? And how many decades are we going to have to wait before it comes online?
Judging from the AGS effort, tiny in comparison (5 drones and related ground segment) and yet barely alive, delayed again and again and downsized just as frequently, a NATO MPA fleet is not very likely. To say the least.
Even though, yes, the need for it exists: Italy needs replacing its Atlantic, and the "interim" purchase of 4 ATR airplanes risks being the only solution available for much longer than officially planned. Germany bought second-hand P3 Orions, but they won't last that long and they aren't making the german military that happy, France itself will need to replace its own Atlantic airplanes.
The problem is that, as the UK itself teaches, needing something does not automatically mean funding it, otherwise Nimrod MRA4 would currently be in service.
There is also a shorter-term NATO initiative on the matter, but...
Chair: So when the Scottish National party says: "However it was put on record in a recent PQ that the UK is, ‘not currently planning on participating in this project’", is that incorrect?Nick Harvey: There is more than one NATO initiative, which it might be worth teasing out. We are not participating in another tier 1 NATO smart defence project in this area led by Germany that is looking at options to share and pool existing maritime patrol aircraft assets. Because we do not have any, we are not part of that. It is, to be charitable, just conceivable that the Scottish nationalists might have been referring to that.
I'm pretty sure that "not having any" is not so good an argument against the NATO plan as Harvey makes it sound.
Purpose of the sharing motion is to ensure that, collectively, the requirements are met. I'm sure that the UK could aks to be put under the umbrella of this shared MPA fleet (if it ever comes together) and receive help in exchange for a monetary contribution.
A fair arrangement, but, of course, it is not like the government can scrap MPA and immediately after pay NATO to make its own airplanes available, now can it...?
Much better to wait. "We decided to take the risk, and we will deal with it."
Hoping not to regret it horribly at some point.
That the MPA requirement is very real and very urgent it is, indeed, pretty much evident. Nick Harvey won't admit it, but when he recognizes:
As we have described, the 2015 National Security Strategy and SDSR will have to make a further analysis of the threat posed here and the gap that we are taking. By that stage, we will perhaps have a clearer picture of the resources that will be available going forward. The prioritisation across defence-across the three services and the different operating environments-will be ranked at that time in the SDSR process. And then, with annual budget cycles thereafter, there will be further refinement, according to the current reading of the picture.
he very much gives the sense of "we do need this, but we won't say it until 2015, now that we have cancelled Nimrod. And perhaps we won't say it then, neither, if the budget is cut further. SEEDCORN will last up to 2019, we might want to extend that in the case."
20 pilots sent abroad in 5 years, at over 2 million pounds of cost per year... The Committee, unsurprisingly, is skeptical about the effective amount of ASW knowldge that Seedcorn will preserve.
Hard not to share their worries and doubts.
Last but not least, if a new MPA platform will be procured, will it be a complete Hunter-Killer, like Nimrod MRA4 was, or will it only be Hunter, unarmed and needing assistance for the engagement phase?
Nick Harvey: I do not think that it is essential that the attack capability has to come from exactly the same platforms. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, because it would make things faster, but I don’t think it’s an absolutely essential prerequisite that it must.
I think it is retarded to have an unarmed MPA. When the airplane detects a submarine, what does it do? Follows it around until a frigate, or an helicopter from a frigate, arrives in the area? What if the airplane has not enough fuel?
What if the frigate is hours away?
Does Nick Harvey have an idea of how complex it is to detect and track a modern submarine?
We ended up putting Hellfires on Predator UAVs because it was often ineffective to call in another asset to hit the target found by the drone, and said target was normally an insurgent or pick up truck, and he suggests having the MPA go hunting submarines without weapons aboard?
Please, someone warn him that it is very, very stupid a thing to say.
Besides, it is worth remembering that the Nimrod was to be wired to be compatible with carriage, on 4 wing stations, of weapons from Sidewinder to Storm Shadow.
The flexibility of an asset such as Nimrod, with 11.000 kilometers of range, carrying Storm Shadows, should never be underestimated.
Nimrod would have been a very respectable "global" missileer, capable to bring cruise missiles on targets very far away from the UK.
Endless and expensive Tornado raids from Marham to Libya, anyone...?
Moving on towards a more general ISTAR approach, the Committee asks about what will happen to assets currently funded by the Treasury for operations in Afghanistan.
This includes Reaper drones, Shadow R1 airplanes and, albeit in a different way, Sentinel R1. All these assets could well be lost in 2014/15 when Afghanistan operations end, making the ISTAR picture even bleaker. What is going to happen?
Chair: What is the military advice in relation to this ISTAR capability? Do you think that, when we no longer have that net additional cost money coming in, there will be an ISTAR vulnerability unless money is spent on it?
Air Vice-Marshal Green: There is a planning assumption at the moment that we will allocate some of that unallocated provision, which is sufficiently high up the priority order as we sit here today, to ISTAR capability.
Some of the unallocated 8 billion pounds announced in the 10-years budget is, as expected, going to be used for the retention of UOR equipment moving into Core defence budget. For the RAF, this is expected to mean Sentinel R1 safe, and Reaper safe. Shadow R1 is an harder guess: it is said to have the Special Forces' support and appreciation, though, and this might well save it too.
The RAF Regiment and the Army are also collaborating to decide how much of the invaluable Cortez system of systems for surveillance and base-ISTAR is retained in the long term, under Project Barricade, it is worth remembering.
And then we get to the part that justifies my opening to this article: UAVs, aircraft carriers, CATOBAR.
Sir Bob Russell: Going back to UAVs, we have heard in evidence that there are a number of UAV programmes being considered, but there are not many that could operate in a STOVL-short take-off and vertical landing-capacity; I understand that not everybody knows what initials and the pronunciation of them means.Nick Harvey: The point to tease out here is that if you are talking in the future perhaps about an unmanned combat system that you were seeking to fly off an aircraft carrier with a weapons payload on board, that is a different picture altogether from trying to fly an unmanned system off an aircraft carrier for the purposes of surveillance, with comparatively much lighter equipment on board it. I do not believe it will be difficult to use the carriers without cats and traps on them for surveillance. I acknowledge it would be a rather different picture for aircraft with a weapons payload.Sir Bob Russell: I want to pursue that, Minister, because you have almost answered my next question. Given the recent announcement on the new carriers, to which you have just alluded, what are the implications for the use of UAVs in a maritime surveillance role then?Nick Harvey: It will be possible, I believe, to do so. This is still a fairly new area of technological development, but certainly there are options being developed elsewhere that you could fly off an aircraft carrier without needing catapults.I do not know if the Air Vice-Marshal wants to add to that.Air Vice-Marshal Green: No. The only thing I would add is that we are looking potentially at a concept demonstration programme later on this year, which would be flown off the back of a frigate.Sir Bob Russell: Off the back of a frigate?Air Vice-Marshal Green: Correct. So that is actually fired off a rail, flies around for some 14 hours and is then recaptured back to the vessel.
As expected, the chances of seeing armed drones and UCAVs on STOVL carriers are assesed as low or very low.
Congratulations. That gains you a gold medal on the Olympics of stupidity.
As for surveillance drones "not needing catapults and wires", sure, there are some: the small Camcopter S-100, the Fire Scout MQ-8B and even the forthcoming MQ-8C. But that's pretty much all of it: moving a bit higher up the scale, to the latest variant of the Predator family for example, the Predator C Avenger, which is being offered in carrier variant as well, you already end up needing wires, if not catapults.
|The Predator C Sea Avenger is a navalized, stealthy drone, jet powered, latest evolution (or revolution?) of the Predator family. It is General Atomics' offer for the US Navy UCLASS program.|
Air Vice-Marshal Green steps in to save the situation, but his words, honestly, make my arms fall off, because i fear he might be referring to the Scan Eagle mini-drone. Let me be clear: it wouldn't be a bad news at all if the Royal Navy finally managed to field a drone (after trying for over 11 years) to enhance the capabilities of its vessels, but if i'm right and it is the Scan Eagle, and we are only getting a concept demonstration, something is horribly wrong, because:
Scan Eagle was already demonstrated, trialed at sea and validated at sea with Type 23 frigate, HMS Sutherland, as far back as May 2006, under Joint UAV Experimentation Programme (JUEP). JUEP, which also trialed and validated the carriage of RAPTOR recce pods on Predator / Reaper drones, was terminated soon after and none of the solutions trialed went ahead.
Trials at sea had taken place already in 2005, involving, again, Sutherland but also Sea King MK7 radar helicopters, as Scan Eagle was seen as a complement to Airborne Early Warning capabilities.
In exchange, these earlier trials saw the Scan Eagle controlled from onboard the frigate but launched and recovered ashore.
In 2007 there was a UOR call for drones to be fielded on ships, but even the UOR ended up shelved, instead of funded.Please tell me that we are not doing it all again! All we get is trials, concepts, tests, studies, and then... nothing.
As a slight reassurance, it is to be noted that experiments with rail-launched drones of larger size have been undertaken elsewhere, such as in South Korea with a Shadow 400 (221 kg), and the famous Converteam EMKIT electromagnetic catapult promises to be able to throw a 500 kg drone into the air with a 15 meters-long rail.
Perhaps the trials will be about this kind of capability.
|HMS Sutherland, May 2006: there you go with the Scan Eagle on the back of a frigate...|
Besides, the RN has long wanted to work on a more significant VTUAV (Vertical Take-off UAV), a drone helicopter to use on board ships: it notoriously is part of the Type 26 concept and is listed for MHPC as well. Yet, it still does not actually begin, even though the Navy has been investigating options and the MOD was offered a Gazelle helicopter conversion at DSEI last year.
I'd much rather have money spent for the VTUAV, personally, and i'm worried by the fact that, once more, it has fallen into darkness and silence.
The Committee insists:
Sir Bob Russell: Coming back again and again. This could be the last question from me: Minister, when will the carriers have an effective maritime surveillance capability?
Nick Harvey: I think that you are making an assumption that this is something that we will do off carriers. I think that there is a good chance that we might, but you would be talking certainly into the next decade.
Is he talking about the (eventual) use of drones on the carriers, or is he including Crowsnest in the "surveillance" bit? If the Sea King MK7 is retired in 2016 and the replacement does not arrive before the next decade, that makes for a big, big problem. Did the Falklands fail to teach with enough bloody strenght about the absolute need for Airborne Early Warning?
Thomas Docherty: [...] Can you confirm whether during the decision to turn the carrier decision around active consideration was given to the impact on the potential for UAVs’ usage for maritime surveillance?Nick Harvey: It certainly is the case that the implication of the recent decision for the future use of unmanned aerial systems was given deep consideration. That was an important part of the work. Rather for the reasons that the Air Vice-Marshall was just setting out, that cats and traps are not thought essential to the use of UAVs for maritime surveillance, I could not say that that was a major part of the consideration. But the future use of unmanned aerial systems more broadly was certainly something that was taken into consideration.Thomas Docherty: So again, because I am probably slow on the uptake, one of the Ministers in the discussions asked the services, "Does this have any impact on UAVs, on maritime surveillance from carriers, if we change from cats and traps?"Nick Harvey: I do not think that the maritime surveillance aspect of this was a big issue at all, but the use-Chair: Should it not have been?Nick Harvey: No, because I think that it is possible to do it anyway. But I think that the future use of unmanned aerial systems in other roles was-Thomas Docherty: Off the carrier.Nick Harvey: Off the carriers-I beg your pardon, yes. That use was indeed addressed as part of the decision.
I want to underline the absolute gravity of this statement, right now. The carriers are not expected to employ drones in the future. Drones, other than surveillance ones not needing catapults, will be land based. At the moment at least, the Navy is being told that UCAVs are not its field.
Am i sadly proven right in my bitter forecast that the RAF would do its best NOT to have UCAVs deployed on the aircraft carriers / carrier-capable at all? It does seem i am, and i think it is a very unfortunate path to take.
By now, the discussion in front of the Committee has reached the Carrier argument, and there's another really interesting passage worth reporting:
Penny Mordaunt: I have a very quick question. Clearly, the decision on the carriers was a judgment about not having that gap in capability cost plus a two-carrier option versus the whole future-proofing debate.
Nick Harvey: Yes, absolutely.
Q189 Penny Mordaunt: I am slightly encouraged by what you say about the surveillance side of things. Looking to the next SDSR, because it is still not clear whether we are going to have two operational carriers, would you say that if we ended up with one carrier that was not future-proofed, that would be the worst-
Nick Harvey: Future-proofed in what sense?
Penny Mordaunt: As in not having cats and traps. So, if you ended up with one carrier, in effect you would have lost the plus of the two-carrier option and that all-year-round capability. If you had lost that plus side, and you had got just limited capability for part of the year but with none of the upside that there would have been with retaining cats and traps, would you say that that was the worst option-the worst of all worlds? [Almost my very same words here...]
Nick Harvey: That is not a decision that has been taken, and I do not think that it is one that you should assume will be taken. I believe that by the time two aircraft carriers have been built, and that massive capital outlay has been expended, any Government carrying out an SDSR in 2015 are going to feel considerable pressure to ensure that they are used. [We all hope so, indeed!]
Penny Mordaunt: So, it would be surprising, given the closeness of the next SDSR and the decisions that have been made about the carrier options at the moment, if it were decided at the next review that two carriers were not going to be there.
Nick Harvey: The next SDSR is three years away. I cannot at this stage make any accurate forecast about the sort of security analysis that will underpin it, let alone about the financial climate that will hang over it. So, I do not feel in a position to say what would or would not be surprising. However, I do think, as I said a second ago, that there will be a pressure on the Government at that time whatever their colour.
Chair: What we would really like you to say is, "Yes, of course we need two carriers. It would be ridiculous to have just one." We accept that that may not be the appropriate question to ask for the subject matter of the inquiry today.
Thomas Docherty: I am really confused, because I thought that the Secretary of State specifically said that the reason for dumping the cats and traps was that it gave us all year round-because we could not afford putting them on two.
Nick Harvey: I believe that the Secretary of State said that he had opened up the possibility of being able to use the two hulls in a way that ensured you always had one in active use, and that that was a decision that a future SDSR would be able to take.
Another passage i want to report is:
Mrs Moon: Listening to the three of you, I am confused about the picture that you are trying to paint. Can you clarify how you see it? Are we playing with increased risk and gambling? Do we have a reduced capability that we are trying to cover by constantly diverting platforms from here to there, leaving other areas unprotected as we do so, or is it that we don’t need it? We can live without it. We do not need maritime patrol capability. We could save over £3 billion, which is what Nimrod MRA4 cost, and the UK would be perfectly safe and secure without that capability. We seem to flow backwards and forwards between those two positions. Which is it?Nick Harvey: We have been managing without this for two years, because the capability gap started on 1 April 2010. The previous Government indicated to Parliament the means by which they would aim to cover those gaps as and when the need arose. Two years on, I would say that the extent to which we have had to re-task those other assets to cover the acknowledged gap has not been excessive. It has not left us struggling to cover the tasks that those other assets perform.As we look further into the future, if we thought that the security challenge were greater, it would become difficult to keep doing that by these means, which is why we are keen to sustain for the longer term options to recreate a dedicated capability for this task. But at the moment, the contingency that the previous Government flagged up- diverting other assets as and when necessary-has proved adequate to the task and has not put an intolerable strain upon it.
Mrs Moon, let me give you the brutal answer, the one phrased without rhetorics. Nimrod could see over the sea, and under the sea. It was one of very few assets in service that can do the latter, along with the Type 23 frigates (specifically those 8 fitted with the Thales 2087 sonar), the nuclear attack submarines (Trafalgar and then Astute, 7 boats) and the Merlin helicopter (some 38 in total).
The mix of capability offered by Nimrod (speed, range, deployability, on-land surveillance, intelligence, maritime surveillance, Anti-Submarine Warfare, communications relay) has no equivalent.The truth is that there are huge holes in the coverage of the Uk's waters, above and, even more, under the surface, as a consequence of the loss of MPA capability. And there are things that can no longer be done, that no other asset (C130, AWACS, whatever politicians will name) can provide.
Ultimately, will SDSR 2015 look at the issue?
Chair: Work on the next SDSR has already begun, has it not? We heard that from the Secretary of State last week.
Nick Harvey: The work that is now taking place in the Department will essentially start forming the basis-the work streams-that will inform the next SDSR process. I would not say that we have started yet anything comparable to the 40 or 41 specific work streams that contributed to the 2010 SDSR, but a number of quite fundamental pieces of work are now taking place in the Department that will, as the Secretary of State was getting at, be some of the building blocks of the 2015 consideration.
Chair: Will there be a work stream relating to maritime surveillance?
Nick Harvey: There will be a maritime stream, but whether or not there will be one specifically about surveillance-
Air Vice-Marshal Green: There certainly will be a work strand that relates to our future ISTAR capabilities. That will be led through my post, which, at that point, will be lodged within the Joint Forces Command. We have already discussed ownership of the issue, as part of our broader transformation, and where that issue will sit. The commander of the joint forces will be the defence authority for information. It fits within his portfolio extremely well. He looks across all environments-land, air and maritime-and it is part of that debate. The work that we have done since the SDSR, with the WAMUS study and with seedcorn, allows us to provide the right intellectual horsepower for that debate to ensure it is kept live as a component within the overall ISTAR capabilities.
My personal view, and i think i'm not alone at all in this assesment, is that it is unthinkable for the UK to be without a capable, multi-role maritime patrol aircraft.
Multi-Role because it must be able to contribute to the wider ISTAR effort, over land as well as over the sea. Ideally, it should also have some capability as a very long range strike asset. Like Nimrod MRA4.
Marittime, because it must be capable to detect surface and subsurface (the latter being the main point of the whole matter to start with) targets, and it must be able to prosecute the targets and succesfully destroy them.
The best solution is probably the american P8 Poseidon, procured off-the-shelf roughly "as it is", other than for the integration of the sole indispensable british electronics and, of course, the weaponry: Stingray torpedoes instead of US-made MK54, and, ideally, Storm Shadow under the wings.
And we also need someone to bring torches and pitchforks to the table to ensure that exaggerated attachment to the customs and traditions of one’s own Service do not lead to the absurd situation of UCAVs and drones incapable to work from the aircraft carriers being procured, throwing to hell not one but two big investments: the one in the carrier, and the one in the drone.