Typhoon: it'll keep us waiting forever
The Ministry of Defence has revealed, in an article on the magazine Defence Focus, issue 273, August 2013, the next planned milestones for the Typhoon fighter jet.
A lot of capability is coming, but, as always with this plane which has sucked the MOD budget dry over decades, slowly. So slowly that, well before the plane is mature, the 52 jets of the Tranche 1 will be withdrawn from service unless there is a (more and more unlikely) change of plan. So slowly that, unless Typhoon gets a mid-life upgrade and life extension, maturity will be achieved just nine years before the type is expected to retire from service.
It is frankly astonishing and depressing to see how the Typhoon sets for itself modest targets and yet constantly fails to achieve them. The weapons that have to get integrated on the aircraft aren't new, except for the Meteor anti-air missile. Brimstone, Paveway IV, Storm Shadow, have all been in service for years and have all long been expected to be integrated on the Typhoon. Yet, even the In Service Date (ISD) for Paveway IV is two years away (2015). A depressingly long time, for the integration of a laser/GPS guided bomb and for the preparation of the force for its use.
The milestones ahead are:
January 2014: delivery of first Typhoon Tranche 3A (airframe number BS116) to the RAF
April 2015: 5th (and last, almost certainly) frontline Typhoon squadron stands up on RAF Lossiemouth
2015: full ISD for the Paveway IV
2016: first Typhoon tranche 1 scheduled to be withdrawn from service, a mere 10 years after the first frontline RAF squadron (3 Sqn) was stood up at Coningsby
2017: Meteor initial testing
2018: Meteor ISD. Storm Shadow ISD at the "end of the year"
2020: Brimstone 2 missile ISD
2021: AESA radar expected to reach full capability
2030: currently expected Out of Service Date for Typhoon
A tiny little bit of good news comes from the fact that the 27mm gun mounted on Typhoon (which years ago barely survived a mental plan to get rid of it to save some money) has now been given Frangible Armour-Piercing (FAP) ammunition, made by the german Rheinmetall.
The company thus offers a new type of ammunition for its 27mm automatic cannon. Highly effective against hard- and soft-skinned targets, the company’s frangible armour-piercing (FAP) ammunition 27 x 145mm/ PEB 327 performs its mission without conventional explosives or a fuze. Weighing 260 grams, the projectile is completely inert. It consists of a core made of a frangible tungsten mix, enveloped by several layers of tungsten-steel alloy. When the projectile penetrates the target’s outer skin, it progressively breaks up, causing catastrophic damage as it travels deeper into the internal structure of the target. A high-energy cloud of fragments and shrapnel results, reliably destroying the target. Thanks to its inert projectile and lack of toxic elements, the FAP 27mmx145 is also suitable for training purposes. Moreover, there is no need to store special service ammunition, obviating the need for expensive demilitarisation at the end of its shelf-life. This results in substantially lower lifecycle costs. Rheinmetall has already started to supply the Royal Air Force, the first customer for the 27 mm FAP, with 244,000 rounds of this innovative ammunition.
FAP ammunition is a valuable addition to the Typhoon's capability, especially when coupled with the proper software for land attack, rolling out now with the current program of Typhoon enhancements. This includes gun strafing modes.
But all the rest is not pleasant. The dates are all uncomfortable. And this is before further delays happen, obviously. In particular, the AESA radar is likely to suffer further slippages, as there is no contract at all agreed by the partner nations with the Euroradar consortium. Only hopes that drag themselves forwards, year on year, barely alive.
Paveway IV integration is ongoing by a long time, and it is depressing to see that ISD is still so far away. I don't think there's any other case in the whole world where the integration of a 500 lbs bomb and its release to service take so damn long.
There is a contract signed for the integration of Meteor on the Typhoon, finally. The document was only signed last June, buring the Paris air show. The 2018 ISD for Meteor represent the hundredth slippage of the intended entry into service of this new air-to-air missile. In the NAO Major Projects report 2012, the ISD for the missile was described as:
The first Front Line Unit is declared Operational with at least (CONF)*** missiles and having demonstrated achievement of In-Service Date 2 Key Performance Measures.
and was scheduled for June 2017, after having been planned for 2015. Earlier still, the ISD had been planned for 2012.
The extent of the delays to Meteor has been so great that the RAF has had to maintain a stock of AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles for use on the Typhoon, which would otherwise have entered service without a medium/long range AA weapon. The OSD for AMRAAM has had to be pushed to the right already twice, and the NAO notes that the AIM-120 missiles could exhuaust their intended shelf life before the replacement is delivered.
There is some risk that part of the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile stocks will not endure until the revised In-Service Date and hence we may fall below the minimum required stockpile liability, although this cannot be confirmed at present.
As far as i know, the Storm Shadow and Brimstone situation could be even worse. Their integration has suffered constant delays in the years, and there is not yet a signed contract, which means that further delays are more than possible.
Storm Shadow, however, should begin test flights on the Typhoon this year, thanks to Saudi Arabia's money and requests. Hopefully, at least the (ridiculous) 2018 target will be met.
The Brimstone 2020 ISD is an even greater problem, as the Tornado GR4, the only platform currently employing the missile, will be retired from RAF service by the end of March 2019, meaning that even in the best case scenario, there will be another gap (the hundredth) in the capabilities of the british armed forces. Any further delay would make the situation even worse. The Typhoon is due to receive the Brimstone 2, the new variant, in development, of the successful Brimstone Dual Mode, comprising a new, more lethal and multipurpose insensitive-munition (IM) compliant warhead and IM rocket motor.
It is expected that the Typhoon will be used, possibly as early as next year, as the platform for the flight tests of the SPEAR 3 missile, a new weapon in development specifically for use on (and into, crucially) the F35. It would be a nice addition to the Typhoon's capability, but there seem to be no plan for integration, and judging from the other weapons, it would take a decade anyway...
The Conformal Fuel Tanks aren't mentioned among the milestones, but one has to hope that they will be adopted at some point, because Storm Shadow, despite early promises, seem to only be compatible with the two "wet" underwing pylons. Which means that, in order to carry the larger cruise missile, Typhoon must do away with external tanks, dramatically reducing its fuel load and, consequently, its strike range. CFTs would remedy to this problem.
There is a very real risk (and in some cases, a certainty) that important capabilities will be (at least) gapped as the Tornado GR4 force is swiftly reduced, then wholly removed from service in March 2019. The RAPTOR high-definition imaging reconnaissance pod has not a planned future after the withdrawal of Tornado, and a replacement is not in sight. For a while at least, there might not be the capability to fire Brimstone missiles. And further delays are always possible, which would make everything even worse.
By April 2014, two of the five Tornado GR4 squadrons will be disbanded: 617 Sqn and 12(B) Sqn will go, with the first scheduled to move onto the JSF program to work up to become the first british, frontline F35B squadron.
It will 2016 before the squadron stands up again, in the US, on the MCAS Beaufort airbase, and 2018 before it moves to Marham, in the UK, and achieves an initial combat capability. A second F35B squadron, with navy colors, will stand up later on, with the plan yet to be finalized and announced.
With the fifth squadron on Typhoon to stand up only in 2015, it means that next year the RAF will be down to just 7 frontline squadrons (four on Typhoon, three on Tornado GR4) and only in 2015 will return to 8 (5 + 3).
The consistency of the frontline fleet will further drop in 2019, when the remaining Tornado squadrons disbanded. It is seen as highly likely that, during 2019 and 2020 at least, the UK will be lining a paltry six frontline squadrons of combat jets (5 Typhoon, 1 on F35B) rising to seven possibly within 2023.
Some time ago, it was suggested that the Tranche 1 Typhoons could be kept into the 2020s, to sustain a sixth and perhaps even a seventh squadron, to keep up the number of frontline fast jets formations. It does not seem to be the plan. The suggestion would appear to have been turned down, if it ever was seriously made within the RAF.
That means retiring 52 Typhoons aging just about 10 years each, while cutting, in the next six years, the number of combat squadrons from 9 to 6.
Before the SDSR 2010, the combat squadrons were 12 (3 Typhoon, 2 Harrier, 7 Tornado GR4), and this means that, in less than ten years, the consistency of the UK's fast jet force will have been brutally halved. And despite promises of possible "additional F35 orders", it is hard to see the force being in the position to argue for the regrowth of combat squadrons if the number is allowed to drop so much, so quickly.
Regardless of what you think of the airplane, Typhoon is a disaster under many points of view. It is taking ages to live up to its promises, a lot of its capability will continue to exist only on paper for many more years. It has sucked the MOD budget dry over decades, swallowing billions of pounds. And when the deliveries are completed, around 2018, the RAF will have taken 160 Typhoons without, on current plans, ever having more than 5 frontline squadrons. That's a combat force of 60 aircrafts, from a total order of 160.
For each frontline Typhoon squadron of 12 airplanes, if the retirement of the Tranche 1 between 2016 and 2019 goes ahead, the MOD will have procured and paid for 32 aircrafts. An abomination.
F35: 48 guaranteed. Maybe not.
The F35, in the meanwhile, is moving onwards. Main Gate 4 is due in the coming months. This is expected to mean approving the purchase of 14 jets, which will be used to form the first frontline squadron on the new type (617 Sqn).
The UK has so far received three airplanes, to be used for tests and evaluation. A fourth aircraft will be part of the LRIP 7 lot of production, and long lead orders have been placed for four more inside LRIP 8.
The fourteen jets to be now approved might or might not include these four. It is not clear yet.
17 Squadron has given up its Typhoons (moved to 41(R) Sqn) and has disbanded to move onwards towards an F35B role. Between late 2014 and early 2015, the squadron will stand up again, on Edwards AFB, in the USA, as Operational Evaluation Unit for the british F35B force. 617 Sqn is scheduled to stand up in 2016 as the first operational squadron, based on MCAS Beaufort, where the personnel will be trained and the squadron built up to strenght before it moves back to the UK in 2018.
Flightglobal reports that decisions on weapons integration will have to be made as well. Unfortunately, this part is not as clear as we'd like. SPEAR 3 is described as a replacement for Brimstone, and this is incorrect as they are two completely different weapon systems and will actually co-exist at least for part of their service life. The misunderstanding probably generates from the fact that all complex weapons programs in the air sector have been grouped under SPEAR (Selective Precision Effect At Range); with SPEAR Capability 1 covering development and improvements to the Paveway IV bomb, SPEAR Capability 2 covering the evolution of Brimstone, SPEAR Capability 3 being a whole new weapon primarily developed with the F35 in mind, and with SPEAR 4 being the planned mid-life upgrade to Storm Shadow, to be made in the early 2020s in collaboration with the french.
Here is interesting to note the 24 number: in order to carry 24 SPEAR 3 missiles, the F35 will have to carry six quadruple racks, which means four will be carried externally, under the wings. This seems a wise approach.
Paveway IV, at least for now, is only being integrated for internal transport, which means just two bombs. Hopefully, this is only valid for Block 3 software, with an expansion to cover external pylons afterwards, because it would be a waste to ignore the other hardpoints.
The ASRAAM situation couldn't be more confused than it is. Once it was planned (who knows why) that it would be integrated for all-internal carriage, with four missiles to be fitted in the bays. This ridiculous arrangement, which would give a stealth load consisting of just four short-range AAM, in a sort of modern imitation of the Sea Harrier FSR1, was abandoned by 2008, with the decision to move to an integration plan comprising two internal and two external missiles.
Now, although it is not clearly explained, it seems we are down (as was to be expected, see my earlier reports on the complexities of using IIR, rail launched missiles from inside the weapon bays) to the sole external integration.
|F35 sporting an internal load of 8 SPEAR 3 and two Meteor missiles. Sometime in the future. Hopefully...|
The good but bad news of the day is that the MOD is still only hoping to have Meteor integrated as part of the release of the software Block 4 on the F35 fleet (not before 2020, indicatively). The news is good because it confirms that the MOD is working on it, but it is bad because, by this point, we should have much more than just hopes in hand.
One year ago, the US hoped to finalize the list of requirements for Block IV by March 2013, but it seems the target has been missed.
The delay in formulating a final request for Meteor integration might be partly due to difficult negotiations between UK and Italy: the two nations hope to share the Meteor integration costs on a 50:50 basis, but in Italy the F35 is a particularly sore political subject right now, and the italian MOD is probably having a tough time in getting a go ahead for this project.
Perhaps more worrisome is the news that even the 48 F35B order promised as part of the 10 year budget will actually be approved on at least two separate Main Gates: according to Flightglobal, a "Main Gate 5", planned for around 2017 is "expected to approve the remaining balance of the first tranche of F-35 procurement."
In practice, if Main Gate 4 approves the order of 14 airplanes, in addition to the 3+1+4 already delivered, ordered or pre-ordered, Main Gate 5 will have to confirm the order for the remaining 26 airplanes.
In the middle, in 2015, there's a Strategic Defence Review. And they never seem to deliver good news.