Sunday, October 14, 2012
Fast jet fleet of the future
In its October issue, Combat Aircraft Monthly has published a new report into the future of the frontline of the RAF, which is an expansion on a series of rumors and reports first published by Jane's some time ago.
While not yet officially confirmed, it seems to be a quite accurate representation of the new plans of the MOD for the future force of fast jets available to the armed forces.
The recent past tells us that in 2010, prior to the SDSR, the UK lined a force of 12 frontline squadrons of fast jets: 3 squadrons on Typhoon, 7 on Tornado GR4, 2 on Harrier GR9. The nominal strenght of the Typhoon and Tornado squadrons is 12 jets, while the Harrier squadrons had only 9 due to an endless list of earlier reductions and cuts.
During 2011, two Tornado GR4 squadrons (XIII Sqn, RAF Marham, now to stand-up as second Reaper squadron; and 14 Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth, which re-born as Shadow R1 squadron, with the planes coming out of 5 Squadron, where they had been flown together with Sentinel R1) were disbanded, and, notoriously, the Harrier was retired from service, shrinking the force down to 8 squadrons.
Today, following the return to life of 1st Squadron, re-formed officially on 15 September on the Leuchars airbase, the UK lines 9 fast jet squadrons: 4 on Typhoon and 5 on Tornado GR4.
According to the MOD Business Plan 2012 - 2015, 1st Squadron will now face a long build-up period towards IOC, which will conclude in March 2013.
The 5th Typhoon squadron is on the way, too, and it will stand up and achieve IOC between April 2013 and March 2015.
Again in March 2015, the reduction in the Tornado GR4 force and readiness level will be fully implemented, with around 96 aircrafts in the fleet (down from over 130) and with just 18 Force Elements at Readiness (down from 40). It is expected that this will mean the disbandment of a further two squadrons, leaving a force of 3 Tornado squadrons to carry on until the Out of Service date for the type, now officially set as March 2019 (down from 2025, then 2021).
In the meanwhile, it is planned/hoped that the Typhoon deliveries will be completed (2017) and that the Typhoon force will achieve Full Operating Capability by March 2018.
By then, it is hoped that the Typhoon will be capable to employ Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles, while there seems to be currently no plan to migrate the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod. Unfortunately, there is no firm date for the integration of the weaponry on Typhoon. The RAF once hoped to have it by 2014, but there seems to be no chance in hell of it happening, unless the UK (and possibly Saudi Arabia) go ahead on their own with the integration effort.
In December 2010, after the SDSR's publication, Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell, commanding officer of the Royal Air Force's No. 1 Group (the HQ from which all combat squadrons depend) released an interview in which he painted a sad future of a RAF down to just 6 squadrons by 2020, with 5 being on Typhoon and 1 on F35.
At the time, however, they were reasoning on an order for 96 F35C, with a consequent build-up of the force in the years past 2020 and out to 2027 or further out into the future. Bagwell, in a demonstration of (bitter) realism, said that he was only sure about the single F35 squadron by 2020, implying that the rest of the plan was very much at risk.
The 5 Typhoon squadrons are justified by the existance of a plan for the shredding of all of the Tranche 1 aircrafts between 2015 and 2018/19, leaving a total of just 107 airframes. This plan is even mentioned on the RAF's Typhoon webpage.
In his interview, Bagwell said that the number of Typhoons was even at risk of shrinking further, with the Omani order possibly coming out of the UK's total without a replacement buy, bringing down the fleet's consistence to just 95.
The deal with Oman, which has been described as "imminent" for years now, is currently expected to be signed by year's end, but there has not been any recent mention of the planes coming out of the RAF's totals.
For a while, Oman thought about ordering up to 24 Typhoons, possibly Tranche 1 ex-RAF, but things changed with time, Oman ordered additional F16s instead, and eventually decided that it wants only 12 Typhoons, but fully-capable Tranche 3 ones.
It is still possible, in theory, that the RAF is forced to lose a dozen Tranche 3 production slots, ideally with a production tail added in 2017 to ensure the UK gets all 40 Tranche 3s on order. In the worst case, they could be simply lost.
But, as i said, this possibility has no longer been hinted at, so it probably has been abandoned, luckily. We have to keep in mind the UK would have to get the Eurofighter consortium and the partner countries approving such a change in the plans: an agreement was reached to reduce the Tranche 3 order for all 4 the countries, but another unilateral cutback might meet resistance.
Other things have changed, as well, since Bagwell released his interview. Namely:
- The standing up of the 4th and 5th Typhoon squadrons has been speeded up by a year.
- The Prime Minister exposed himself a lot on Typhoon, on its value for the UK's armed forces and industry, and he's backing the export effort intensely.
- In Libya, the Typhoon Tranche 1 proved more effective and useful than the RAF expected.
- Last May, the last RAF Tranche 1 Typhoon was handed to BAE for the R2 retrofit to bring it to the Block 5 standard, known by the RAF as "FRG4, for Fighter-Reconnaissance-Ground attack.
- BAE Systems is successfully collaborating with the RAF to deliver software Drops to upgrade the Tranche 1s, expand their capabilities and keep them relevant. Apparently, this method is working much better than anticipated, and at acceptable cost. It is believed to have greatly eased RAF's concerns about the cost of keeping the T1s relevant to operational needs.
- The budget was "balanced", but in the process it was made clear that ordering 90/100 F35s in the relatively near future is not possible. Philipp Hammond has since announced that the UK is planning a first order of 48, very possibly including the 3 IOT&E airplanes already on order. And this will be it, for the moment. The switch to the F35B will be complete by April 2023, according to the Business Plan, possibly meaning that deliveries will be over by then.
It will be close to 2030 before a second order can be discussed. Until recent times, the delivery of up to 138 (then 96) airplanes by 2027 had been the expectation.
- The export potential of the used Typhoon Tranche 1s proved very low, with the airplane not attractive enough for high-tier air forces and not cheap enough for the East-Europe air forces who are looking for western replacements for their russian fighters. Gripens and used F16s, cheaper and more complete in their capabilities, are dominating this market.
Jane's and Combat Aircraft Monthly report that the RAF's planning has changed, too.
With less F35s on the way, with not even the hope of jam tomorrow represented by new F35 squadrons in the 2020s and with the Typhoon T1 effectively without a market differently from what had been hoped, the RAF is now seriously thinking about keeping the Tranche 1 Typhoons and restore its earlier plan for 7 squadrons mounted on the type.
The aim is, quite clearly, the sustainment of a force of 8 to 9 squadrons into the 2020s, using what is available and on the way, instead of what exists only in hopes and promises.
The 5 Squadrons of Typhoons available by March 2015 could be supplemented by two more standing up in replacement of the 2 Tornado squadrons expected to go around that period, with the remaining 3 GR4 squadrons keeping numbers up.
In 2018, the first F35B squadron should be working its way into service, and by then the force could be made up by 7 Typhoon Sqns and up to 2 / 3 Tornado ones.
The following year the retirement of Tornado would leave a force of 7 + 1, and in the early 2020s a second F35B squadron would bring the force level back to 9 squadrons, which the RAF would try to sustain towards 2030, when a new F35 order is envisaged (either the B, or possibly the A variant) as a replacement for the Tranche 1s.
It represents a better utilization of available and funded resources, and keeps force levels up at acceptable levels. The F35B force would be very small (2 frontline squadrons, most likely) and very much carrier-focused, while the Typhoons would inherit most of the Tornado's work and roles.
This new thinking might have an impact on basing plans, as well, and a lot of things are said to be hanging in the balance: the transfer of Typhoons from Leuchars to Lossiemouth might not happen. The Army 2020 plan will have an impact as well, because Leuchars was expected to become an Army Base as part of the plan which would see a large Multi-Role brigade based in Scotland, but with the Multi-Role brigade concept dead, Scotland is now planned to host only an infantry brigade part of the Adaptable Force, meaning that Leuchars might well not be needed anymore.
Combat Aircraft even suggests that a third Typhoon base might be needed, and mentions Leeming and Cottersmore as possible solutions (I'd say Leeming, in the case, as Cottersmore is already an army base) but this would imply new and additional costs, so i'd be careful on this part. I think the RAF might just squeeze more squadrons on the existing Typhoon stations.
The magazine also suggests that the activity of Tornado GR4 out to 2014 might obstacle the build-up of the F35's force at RAF Marham, which has been publically singled out as the preferred Main Operating Base for the F35s. It suggests that, while the Tornado maintenance infrastructure stays in Marham, the Tornado squadrons might end their career flying from Lossiemouth (which would then very likely be without a future, if the Typhoon transfer is really cancelled). Again, on this point more than on others i am doubtful, as i think that standing up the F35 force on Marham should be possible even with the Tornado around.
What matters the most, though, is that the F35s are heading for carrier duties and that the chance to see 7 Typhoon squadrons is growing, while the possibility of seeing the RAF down to just 6 squadrons by 2020 is growing remote.
Not bad, overall.