Time and obsessive attention on my part continue to bring forth more and more unpleasant and obscure elements of the SDSR and of the successive "restructuring" in programs and timelines.
DefenseNews.com today confirms a fear that i've reported more than once on this blog, that the Royal Navy will have a gap of at least four years in Airborne Early Warning capability when the Sea King ASaC MK7 is retired in 2016.
Crowsnest, which is confirmed as part of the Core Budget at least, is not expected to deliver before 2020. Indeed, some documents suggest that it could be 2021 or even 2022 before it can enter service.
The recent damning report of the Defence Committee on Marittime Surveillance after Nimrod contains the hint, where it notes that:
There is the potential for other capability gaps to occur, such as when the Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopter is withdrawn in 2016 to be replaced by the Project Crowsnest operating from the Merlin Mk2.
This is another blow to the operational effectiveness of the Royal Navy, that is close to being zeroed. It is also spitting in the face of hard-gained direct and bloody experience: the Falklands evidently have not seen enough ships sunk to learn the goddamn lesson.
There is also apparently no hope left to see the AEW package going on the (at this point wasted) remaining Merlin HM1 airframes, as the MOD's description of Crowsnest is:
Project CROWSNEST will satisfy the requirement for an assured Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) capability to provide long range surveillance and battlespace management to Carrier Strike and Littoral Manoeuvre task groups. Project CROWSNEST is to replace SKASaC. The mission system solution will be hosted on the existing Merlin Mk2 aircraft, affording that platform a true multi-role capability across the air, maritime, land, surface and sub-surface environments. This will exploit the flexibility inherent in having a bolt-on sensor package that could allow either Anti-Submarine Warfare or ASaC role to be discharged dependent on the Commander's requirements (although to note the two roles may be mutually exclusive for concurrent or simultaneous operations).
Another sizeable reduction in the strenght of the Fleet Air Arm is ahead, with the loss of the current AEW squadrons, and the passage of yet another mission on the shoulders of a shrinking Merlin community, with the predictable result that there will be no longer enough ASW, nor enough AEW. A disaster on the whole line.
It's worth remembering that the Merlin is also supposed to "close the gap" left by the loss of Nimrod.
Someone in the MOD really believes that Merlin is a wizard, and not an helicopter present in a fleet that will only number 30 and supposed to deliver 6 to 8 Small Ship Flights, carrier-wing flight (up to 6 helicopters) and presence in Bahrain for maritime security, and presence on RFA vessels.
Asking for miracles.
Also, the SDSR said that the Hunt and Sandown classess of minesweepers would continue service (in number of 14, so one is due to retire soon...?) and start the transition to a "new capability" from 2018.
This was widely read as implying the start of their replacement with the MCM, Hydrographic and Patrol Capability ship (MHPC), but it now appears that this was very wide off the mark.
A DSTL call for papers on technological innovation in marittime applications contains a little bit of detail on the shape of MHPC, described as a "phased approach".
Ultimately, it is revealed that in 2018, at most, there will be a capability insertion into the current vessels, but new ships are not due until a decade later, in 2028 at the earliest.
In 2018, if the plan survives the next planning rounds, the Hunt class of minesweepers (or, more likely, a selected number of ships in the class) will finally get the first new Unmanned Underwater Vehicles and Unmanned Surface Vehicles designed to provide a flexible stand-off MCM capability.
In particular, Thales and ASV Ltd have recently teamed up to develop a novel USV which will conduct payload trials in 2013 and is targeted at the Royal Navy needs, specifically for adoption on the Hunt. This new unmanned vehicle will have full payload flexibility, with the capability to tow sonars and sweep equipment and/or the capability to remotely deploy other drones, such as underwater mine-clearing devices such as the in-service SeaFox.
This is, however, only the latest reincarnation of a requirement that has been agonizing since 2005, when the Hunt minesweepers lost forever their on-board towed influence sweeping equipment.
This was due to be swiftly replaced with unmanned systems which would be fitted to 4 of the Hunt vessels under a 150 million contract. The unmanned vehicle, developed by ATLAS under the acronym FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) didn't actually enter service, however: instead, it is to this day being used to research and demonstrate the use of unmanned vehicles in off-board MCM operations.
In 2011, FAST deployed at sea, controlled via radio, and launched a SeaFox mine-disposal drone, acting as a communications relay platform keeping the Mission Command center (installed in a container on the shore) in contact with the SeaFox in action underwater, in a world's first.
The Thales USV (which is actually apparently required to be Optionally Manned) is expected to deliver a more complete, all-round capability, which will finally enter service. Hopefully.
The numbers have reduced, and from 4 Hunt vessels fitted now the ambition is to fit only one.
The MOD expects to buy two complete USV systems, one of which will be integrated on a Hunt vessel, while the other will be "deployable" and configured so to be operated from the shore or from a vessel of opportunity.
The USV will have to operate remotely at 12 miles from the mothership and will have to offer a wide variety of capabilities: electric, magnetic and acoustic influence sweep systems, but it will also demonstrate deployment of other, smaller Unmanned Vehicles and deployment and employment of sonars and sensors meant to detect the mines.
This will be a demonstrator to the future MHPC full capability, while delivering (with many years of delay) a replacement for the influence sweep capability once offered by the Hunt.
The USV project is part of an Unmanned Vehicle demonstrator program that was kick-started this year, to define a full equipment set comprising Medium and Small Underwater vehicles, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), Delayed Disposal Charges (as opposed to the current One-Shot SeaFox disposal vehicle, that is sacrificial, the DDC is placed on the mine and detonated when the unmanned vehicle has gotten back to safety - one off the shelf option being the COBRA system intended for use on SeaFox itself) and a surface craft capable to deploy the unmanned vehicles at stand-off range.
The package, once fully defined, will be globally deployable and able to operate from shore and from ships.
At least, the MCM package is taking the right shape, and much of the necessary systems and capabilities already exist and are, to a degree, proven.
The 2011 demonstration with FAST, SeaFox and deployable command post ashore was particularly precious and illuminating. With the USV hopefully demonstrated next year, the system will get considerably more mature.
The bad news is, of course, that MHPC vessels are far, far away in time.
In the early 2020s we should see the entry in service of the 3 vessels of the MARS Solid Support Ship type. There is still little in the way of detail about these vessels, meant to replace Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin. Fort Rosalie had a "first" last year when it became the first RFA vessel taking aboard an Apache helicopter, which it delivered to HMS Ocean for operations.
Fort Austin, which had been in reserve from 2009, has been re-activated and is about to re-enter service following an extensive refit.
Unless their lives are further extended, however, the Forts will retire in the first years of the new decade (Rosalie in 2022, Austin in 2021), and for this reason "additional work on MARS" is part of the funded Core Budget for the next 10 years. Their replacements will be needed not far into the future (in defence planning terms).
The MARS SSS requirement was once only for 2 vessels, because the support to amphibious and army forces ashore from the sea would be provided by 3 "Joint Sea Based Logistic" vessels. Unsurprisingly, the JSBL was soon enough killed in budget cuts, and currently the assumption is to have their intended role "added" to the SSS, with a boost from 2 to 3 ships.
The SSS will employ the new "Heavy-RAS" kit from Rolls Royce, which can move 5-ton pallets instead of the current 2, a dramatic improvement. The H-RAS kit is already being installed in a shore training facility at HMS Raleigh.
The ships are also expected to have, much like the current Forts, a great Aviation-Support capability, with large hangars for multiple helicopters.
Other than this, though, we do not know much about the ship's design yet. However, an interesting concept drawing has appeared, which shows a two-spot flight deck, a triple hangar for Merlin-sized helicopters and, most interestingly, a RoRo ramp for vehicles and a LPD-style well deck. This feature, which has appeared on several designs of "Joint" Solid Support vessels around the world, might be inherited, along with the role of support to troops ashore, from the defunct JSBL. It is too early to say if this project will be the definitive one, but it seems safe to assume that some real consideration is going into giving the SSS a vehicle deck and the possibility to operate with large LCU crafts for the delivery of supplies, vehicles and logistic services to troops ashore. This is important, since the JSBL ship might well have been cancelled, but the requirements that brought to her in the first place are still very much there.
|The MARS SSS concept art, quite detailed, shows very well the important aviation capabilities, but, crucially, shows a RoRo ramp for vehicles and a well deck.|
Alive, but in coma, are two more "projects", the replacement of RFA Argus and of RFA Diligence. Diligence entered a new Major Service Life Extension refit, being given the hundredth breath of life, to enable her to deliver her invaluable services well into the 2020s, but will eventually need replacement. Its OSD has been pushed to the right again and again, and she was already life extended in 2007, out to 2017. If the new life-extension is as ambitious, it'll be a further 10 years. At some point, though, it will be impossible to delay the decision any further.
Argus will also not live forever. Replacing her with two much enhanced 200-bed hospital ships was one of the big promises already of the SDR 1998, and here she is, still going strong and with no real alternative yet in sight. And no second vessel in the role either.
The attempts to proceed with a replacement have been numerous, and came up with several impossible acronyms, from Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS) to Joint Casualty Treatment Ship (JCTS), the current denomination of Argus herself, which is also an invaluable Auxiliary Aviation Ship used for training, but also for maritime security and disaster relief operations, deploying in the Gulf or in the Caribbean.
Currently, the name of her intended replacement is "MR3MC", keeping up the tradition of impossible acronyms. This stands for Maritime Role 3 Medical Capability.
Is it really so monstrous to suggest that the International Aid budget, only budget seeing a net increase (and what an increase, at + 35%!), helps funding an hospital ship that could well be a big investment in the kind of "soft power" that the government loves, being in first line to help in case of disaster or to routinely provide support to countries in need, while also meeting RN needs?
I don't think it would be unfair.
The Diligence replacement, indicated with the acronym OMAR (Operational Maintenance and Repair Ship) was first studied in 2006, but naturally did not go far.
I found mention in a DSTL document of a mysterious "FRC", which i suspect means Forward (or Future) Repair Capability. It was accompanied by a tiny concept drawing of a ship that would appear fitted with large cranes, space for various containers, hangars and workshops.
Interestingly, the MR3MC, the FRS and the MARS SSS seem to share the same hull design, obviously stretched and adapted to each role.
|The MARS SSS is a fundamental capability for the armed forces, as it is indispensable to sustain military effort abroad.|
At times, the "want of frigates" blinds us all to the less glamorous but even more important needs of the armed forces. But Logistic Ships and other vital enablers should always be in spotlight in a coherent strategy. Without them, lots of frigates will be largely useless.
The Royal Navy is certainly short on escorts, but much as in the Army capbadges always get all the attention, in the Navy destroyers and frigates take the attention away from the kind of specialized shipping that makes the RN important.
Aircraft carriers, amphibs, SSNs and logistic ships are what really make the Royal Navy relevant and capable. Mine Countermeasures follow, also due to the fact that the americans (quite weak in this sector) value the british MCM competency immensely.
Everyone who has the armed forces's efficiency at heart should always keep in mind that, at times, the back-end is more important than the front-end.