F-35 and weapons
Some new information is now available about plans for putting british weapons on the F-35B. This graphic, released by US officials back in early 2015, should be confirmed:
The Block IV programme and the full list of the weapons that will effectively be integrated is still taking shape. The Pentagon and the JPO are taking time to evaluate the options and hopefully come up with a programme which is realistic and can be delivered on time and on budget. The problem is that the list of the wishes is pretty long, and steadily growing. Not everything is going to make it onto the final list.
The RAF confirms that integrating Meteor and SPEAR Capability 3 is the main priority for Block IV. Regarding SPEAR Cap 3, after a moment in which the "US option" of SDB 2 was seen as putting at risk the survival of the current programme, the RAF now confirms that they remain committed to the MBDA 100B design, which is expected to reach Main Gate in 2018.
Regarding Meteor, internal carriage requires clipped wings, especially to carry multiple rounds. These will be adopted: studies done by MBDA have long confirmed that no problems are to be expected.
After trying to secure italian participation in the Meteor integration process, the UK seems now to put much hope in Japan: a bi-national programme, known as Joint New Air to Air Missile (JNAAM) is taking shape, entering its second phase this year.
The programme is about mating the Meteor with an advanced AESA radar seeker made in Japan. There can be little if any doubt that the clipped wings will also be part of this "new" design.
Timeframes for the JNAAM have not been detailed, but the Meteor that goes into the F-35 might actually well be the JNAAM itself. Japan is purchasing the F-35A, so their interest is easily explained.
In practice, it looks like JNAAM will be the actual AMRAAM C-5 replacement for the RAF: the C-5 can now be expected to stay in service well into the 2020s, arming the retained Typhoon Tranche 1 (which cannot receive Meteor without expensive upgrades and retrofits) and, initially, the F-35B.
The AMRAAM C-5 support contract has been recently extended out to 2020, and a further 5 years or more of extension are extremely likely.
|Meteor and SPEAR Cap 3 remain the UK's primary requirement for Block IV|
ASRAAM New Build, also known as Block 6, should not present problems. Basically, it is the same ASRAAM as is already being integrated, with only minor changes, mainly obsolescence removal in some components. Similarly, SPEAR Cap 1 - Penetrator should not present serious challenges, as it is merely a replacement of the current warhead with the recently ordered bunker-buster one, with the same external shape. These two "integrations" should be little more than an update, easy to get through, as the F-35B is already receiving full integration of the current Paveway IV (2 internal, 4 external) and ASRAAM (2 external) in Block 3F.
The SPEAR "Seeker" is almost certainly a SPEAR Capability 1 development, which means a seeker for Paveway IV enabling better moving-target capability. Raytheon UK is indeed offering such a seeker option for PWIV, and the RAF is evidently interested, but no contract has yet been signed for this development and it looks like it will be the first one to get written off the list of requirements if the JPO asks the UK to remove something.
Other possible PWIV developments proposed include wing-kits for gliding over stand-off distances and a diminished power warhead offering lower risk of collateral damage. All these and more could come one day as SPEAR Cap 1 developments.
Finally, Storm Shadow. The RAF has now formalized its intention not to integrate Storm Shadow on the F-35, instead aiming to integrate its successor, which should come out in the 2030 - 35 timeframe, from SPEAR Capability 5, also known as the UK-France "Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon" programme.
The decision does not come entirely as a surprise. Storm Shadow has been a bit on the losing side as of late: substantial stock reductions have happened after the SDSR 2010 (reportedly over 200 million in value, so a reduction possibly equating to 200+ missiles) and, in France, a dramatic decision has been taken to go down to just 100 rounds in storage.
Moreover, Storm Shadow is aging. France will begin this year a programme to update and life-extend the Scalp missiles remaining in stock, and the UK should participate, although there is no official confirmation from the british side.
The Storm Shadow life-extension is believed to make up SPEAR Cap 4.
Even with the life extension, Storm Shadow should leave service around 2030, and since integration on the F-35 could only realistically take place after 2026, as part of Block V, it is obvious that it would represent a waste of money.
The decision to aim directly to Cap 5 makes sense, but the wait will be a long one. Every effort should be made to try and shorten the wait as much as possible.
Brimstone never gets mentioned. Unfortunately, internal integration of Brimstone is very likely to be a problem due to the weapon being rail-launched rather than dropped. The development of Brimstone 2, with a whole new propulsion rocket, would have been the perfect moment for introducing a "drop launch" mode, but it does not seem to have happened. There is no talk of external integration either, for now.
However, SPEAR 3 is more of a mini-cruise than a CAS weapon, so that integrating Brimstone (or an eventual 3rd generation variant of it, coming out from SPEAR Capability 2) is probably going to be required at some point to provide a more adequate spread of capabilities.
|The Common Weapon Launcher, if funded into service, will enable carriage of 2 Paveway IV or 3 Brimstone or 3 SPEAR 3 on four of the six external pylon of the F-35.|
If the Common Weapon Launcher development progresses, this triple rack (being developed for Typhoon by adapting the existing triple Brimstone rack) could then become an attractive (and obvious) option for external integration on F-35 as well, potentially doubling the number of Paveway IV that can be carried externally and allowing carriage of SPEAR 3 and/or Brimstone rounds when complete stealth is not a requirement. All this, however, is left for a rather distant future, not before Block V (so after 2025/26).
In the meanwhile, BK-4 is now flying and will soon be in british hands for good. The production contracts for LRIP 9 and 10 should come soon, while some long lead orders have begun for Lot 11 as well.
It is confirmed that Marham will have an Integrated Training Center.
Finally, Squadron Ldr Jonathan Smith RAF will be the 1st international pilot to complete the entire F-35B training at MCAS Beaufor, following the move of the training squadron from Eglin.
V-22 Osprey for the UK?
There is not any remaining doubt about a very real british interest in the V-22 Osprey. From a number of news and declarations, it seems pretty clear that both the Royal Navy and the Special Forces Director are pushing for an Osprey purchase.
Officers from the JHC confirmed the interest days ago, but said that it is "unlikely" that the purchase might happen. The british interest for retrofitting helicopters (believed to be the Chinook, ideally, but with Merlin HC3 as alternative; SEE BELOW in this article) for air to air refueling (a new capability) is apparently a consequence of the impossibility of ordering Ospreys.
The Royal Navy interest is due to the Carrier On-board Delivery mission and, potentially, for the future ability of the V-22 to act as a tanker for AAR of helicopters and jets. Special Forces are interested because of its reach and speed, and AAR capability: the Osprey does not require a "slow" tanker, but could use the existing Voyager probes. So it costs more to procure, but does not require equipping C-130s as tankers.
|V-22 demonstrating AAR capability from drogue adapter on KC-135 boom|
|Photo by Mike Yeo|
There is interest in France and in Italy as well, and even Spain has thought about it, but all countries seem to be in a "we'd like to, but we can't" situation. The possibility of a cooperative acquisition programme is fascinating but unlikely to solve the money and manpower problems.
The british special forces do have helicopter requirements in the next few years, which include replacing the Lynx AH9A when it goes out of service in 2018. Currently employed by 657 Sqn AAC, the Lynx might end up perhaps extended to 2022, but a replacement is a real need.
The Special Forces Director seems to like the idea of going from Lynx to Osprey, but probably will have to settle for far less ambitious solutions. In 2011 it was almost forced to accept the Wildcat "Light Assault Helicopter" variant, in numer of 8. It did not progress back then, but it might return.
There is even the risk that nothing comes, which would be worse still.
In any case it goes without saying that, if the Osprey was purchased, it certainly would not go to the Army Air Corps: the RAF would most certainly want to take it, and only the Fleet Air Arm might have a chance to obtain it instead, due to its usefulness for the carriers.
The MOD and HMG continue to be silent on the incoming U-turn which will see the Army taking back the whole CBRN mission after it was moved entirely to the RAF Regiment back in the previous SDSR (after years of "jointery" in the Joint CBRN regiment).
The latest Factsheet provides no additional details.
In the meanwhile, however, FALCON Sqn (Royal Tank Regiment) is continuing to work up towards operational capability with the re-activated Fuchs recce vehicles. This year will include training exercises in Jordan that will put the sqn to the test.
|FALCON on exercise. DROPS carrying the Decontamination equipment are in sight.|
The unit is a Very High Readiness formation available to the Field Army Command. It comes with two Troops (13 and 14) alternating into the "Vanguard" role.
Each troop has 4 Fuchs vehicles in two sections; plus 2 Coyote MEP vehicles carrying C2 and Logistic Sustainment kit. Each Troop also has a Decontamination capability provided by 2 Multi Purpose Decontamination Systems, currently carried on the old DROPS trucks, due for replacement with EPLS in 2017.
A 9th Fuchs is held by the Sqn HQ and works in a Confirmation role. 2 more Fuchs are possibly being used for tests and evaluation purposes, while a simulator for training has been activated.
A number of Panther and Husky vehicles are also part of the squadron's fleet of some 30 vehicles.
|The old IBDS has now been replaced by a more capable, wider-area system|
The Integrated Biological Detection System has been replaced by the new Biological Surveillance Collector System. Probably two such systems have been procured, and according to the contract notice for support services, each system comprises an advanced, containerized laboratory and a number of fixed, unattended sensors which can be deployed around a wide area. The sensors are, at least for now, not networked, which means that CBRN specialists must regularly visit the sensors to collect their findings. Networking is expected to be added later on. Initially, the BSCS will be taken up by 20 Wing CBRN.
The area protected is reportedly much larger than what could be covered by IBDS, but the system obviously remains a static solution, good for protecting major HQs or key rear line areas.
It is worth reminding thet the Ajax armored vehicle comes with CBRN sensors providing mobile early warning from the very frontline.
|Light Role Teams, possibly 8 of them, are the most recognizable expression of the RAF Regiment CBRN capability. It is now apparently planned to move everything back into the Army field.|
Re-absorbing the capabilities provided by 20 Wing (CBRN), RAF Regiment (composed of 26 and 27 Field Squadrons) will take time, investment and manpower. FALCON Sqn is too small to do everything on its own, and hundreds of soldiers will be needed. The consequence of the return of CBRN into the Army might imply a change of role for one Cavalry regiment, probably one of the Light Cav formations.
The SDSR Joint Force 2025 graphic shows 12 MCM vessels, down from 15 today. The Factsheet confirms that 3 of the oldest Sandown class vessels will leave service by 2025.
This is not unexpected as it is felt that the Hunt ships are more useful and, more importantly, more suited to be refitted to serve as motherships for the unmanned vehicles of the offboard MHC and Sweep capability in development.
The Hunt class vessels are being re-engineered and re-engined, with 5 vessels refitted by the end of this year. The remaining 3 will now however take longer to retrofit, and the programme will not be over before late 2019.
It is not clear at this stage whether the delay is connected to MHC work: the Royal Navy has been planning for a few years now to convert at least one Hunt into a mothership, needed for further MHC sperimentation.
The conversion of up to 4 Hunt vessels is part of the (UK only) Unmanned Combined Sweep capability programme, and so the first few vessels of the class might soon have their stern modified with an unmanned vehicles "hangar", a cargo space for the larger unmanned surface vehicles and an A frame for their launch and recovery.
We might learn more about the "unmanned future" late this year, when the Royal Navy will hold the "Unmanned Warrior" exercise / demonstration as part of Joint Warrior 16-2.
The factsheet again confirms that two more OPVs will soon be ordered, bringing the total of River Batch 2 vessels on order to 5.
The fleet will grow to "up to six", which is a way to say that the future of HMS Clyde, the Falklands patrol vessel, is still uncertain. It might be kept into the far future, giving a fleet of 6 OPVs, or be replaced by one of the new vessels, giving a fleet of 5.
The River Batch 1 ships will be withdrawn from service, and might find customers abroad: Bangladesh is reportedly interested.
The factsheet reaffirms that the role of the OPVs will be expanded to cover standing tasks abroad:
We will use these ships to support our destroyers and frigates in delivering routine tasks and to enhance our contribution to maritime security and fisheries protection.
An earlier post-SDSR statement by the First Sea Lord had already made it clear, while also adding that the Royal Navy will try to use reservists on board the OPVs whenever possible, which makes sense.
In the meanwhile, as a last confirmation that the Royal Navy has finally seen the light on OPVs, the North Atlantic standing tasks is, for the second time, being covered by a River: HMS Mersey has deployed days ago, following the success of her sister HMS Severn, which proved the feasibility of giving the Caribbean role to the OPVs.
MARS Solid Support Ships
They are expected to enter service around the middle of the 2020s, roughly in line with the out of service dates for the current Fort ships, which are spread 2022 to 2025.
No other detail released.
Amphibious role for the carriers
The factsheet reaffirms the objective of being able to land a 1800-strong Royal Marines battlegroup, even after HMS Ocean will have been withdrawn. Both carriers will receive mods to enable greater capacity to carry and deploy amphibious forces. The SDSR had mentioned the sole HMS Prince of Wales but, as could be guessed, she is likely going to just be the first to get the mods.
The scope of the upgrades is not detailed, but adding accommodations and preparing spaces for carrying ammunition and stores for the embarked marines is highly likely. Studies have also been completed on how to arrange helicopter spots on deck, dividing it in 10 operational areas. It is not clear if HMS Queen Elizabeth (which hasn't had her deck coated and painted yet) will be able to get the 10 spot deck right at build. Might have to be added during a later refit. Hopefully, Prince of Wales will get it from the start.
Unavoidably, Tornado GR4 gets another life extension, with the third squadron extended again, out to 2018. The OSD remains 2019.
No further detail is provided about when the two new Typhoon squadrons will form. It is highly likely that they will depend on the rundown of Tornado.
FCAS, the joint project with France for developing a UCAV, continues. A national technology programme will complement the joint studies with national developments.
No details provided, but the number of training aircraft to be procured to replace Tucano, G.115 and Beechcraft 200 will go upwards a bit from the abysmally low expected totals published by the NAO a while back, as the new shape of the RAF will require more crews.
Announcements for both the Fixed and Rotary Wing training fleet programmes are to be expected this year.
A new force generation cycle
It is now confirmed that the Army will have to adopt a different readiness cycle, on 2 rather than 3 years, as the requirement for 2025 is to have one armoured and one strike brigade at readiness at any one time.
The factsheet provides no indication about if and how the Army will continue to be able to sustain for enduring operations a brigade in the field. The focus of all documents remains on the "Maximum Effort", that is elevated from 30.000 in the SDSR 2010 to 50.000, of which 30.000 made up by the Army division with 3 brigades.
Despite what was earlier said in the House of Lords (the division would have two armoured and one strike brigade), it seems far more believable to assume that such division would have one armoured and one strike brigade, with the third composed by PARA and/or Royal Marines. Even so, it remains a formidable force, and one which would take quite some time to be generated. The expected "notice to move" required is not detailed.
Greater Ambition. By 2025 we will be able to deploy a force of around 50,000 drawn from:
• A Maritime Task Group of between 10-25 ships and 4,000 to 10,000 personnel.
• An Army Division of three brigades and supporting functions of between 30,000 to 40,000 personnel.
• An Expeditionary Air Group of between 4-9 combat aircraft squadrons, 6-20 surveillance platforms and 5-15 transport aircraft and 4,000 to 10,000 personnel.
• Joint Forces, including enablers and headquarters, of around 2,000 to 6,000 personnel.
A force of 2 to 5 Light Role Infantry battalions will be reconfigured (and made smaller to free manpower, presumably to enable the formation of the strike brigades) into units with an establishment of 450 to 500 men, tasked with defence engagement and training abroad.
The most optimistic reports have suggested that these battalions will be a "Tier 2" Special Forces capability resembling the US Green Berets, but there is every reason to be skeptical: where would the army find the money and the wide range of precious specialists in all trades which are required to form US-style "A teams"?
The effective capability range is likely to be much more modest.
Joint Force 2025 will require the Ajax family of vehicles to equip four rather than three brigades. Ajax will continue to provide armoured cavalry, primarily tasked with reconnaissance, to the armoured brigades, while also serving the Strike Brigades, where it will also deliver a "Medium Armour" capability.
Medium Armour used to be a capability area of FRES, and was about creating a light / medium tank with a 120mm gun. Unfortunately, Medium Armour in its original shape has been cancelled to save money and is extremely unlikely to come back.
Logic suggests that Ajax could be asked to equip 4 regiments rather than 3, requiring a bit of a change in terms of regimental allocations and structures since the number of vehicles purchased is, again, unlikely to grow.
Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme
There will not be a smoothbore gun retrofit nor a powerpack change, but the army hopes to expand the range of ammunition natures available (no details, however). On the mobility side, it appears that new Hydrogas suspensions and a re-manufacturing of the existing engine to improve reliability and performances are on the cards. More power and better suspensions are very much welcome, considering that when fitted with the full range of add-on armor, RWS and jammers the Challenger 2 weights an astonishing 75 tons.
Another major change is the replacement of the thermal sight, which might also be re-located over the turret, away from the current not too happy placement on top of the gun mantle.
The Army is calling for 227 tanks with room for growth (or shrinkage) as Oman might want to buy in and the SDSR 2015 might imply an increase (extremely unlikely) or a further decrease (unfortunately pretty likely with the loss of the third armoured brigade).
For reasons hard to guess but extremely frustrating and groan-inducing, the Army is looking at yet another 2-year concept phase before reaching Main Gate in 2019. So slow, in fact, that the Army is considering an interim solution for the Thermal imaging sensor, to enter service in 2018. Hard to even comment.
Heavier tanks, stronger bridges
Project Tyro, the upgrade to the BR90 bridging equipment, remains an army priority. By 2022, the project hopes to deliver a replacement truck for the current Unipower while reinforcing or replacing the bridge elements to deliver a Military Load Class (Tracked) of 100, at a minimum, to restore full freedom of movement even for the most heavily loaded Challenger 2 tanks.
As last published, the requirement is for 25 to 33 sets of Close Support Bridging CSB (the bridge sets which are carried and launched by the Titan bridgelayer). 33 is the current number, but a reduction to 25 as one armoured brigade vanishes would not surprise anyone.
Each Close Support Bridging set is composed of:
- 1 Titan bridgelayer (not touched by Project Tyro)
- 2 bridge sets spanning 13.5 meters (No 12 tank bridge) - requirement for new system is 12 to 15 meters
- 1 bridge set spanning 26 meters (No 10 tank bridge) - requirement for new system 24 to 28 meters
- Unipower 8x8 BR90 TBT trucks for transport of the resupply bridge sets
- Trestles and combination briding equipment to enable spanning a 66 meters gap - requirement min 60 m
The requirement extends to General Support Bridging GSB, with 12 to 16 sets planned. A set is composed of:
- 1 BR90 ABLE launch truck
- 2 BR90 TBT trucks carrying bridge elements
- bridging elements to build a single-span 32 meters
- elements to build a 44 meters span bridge with Long Span equipment -
- elements to build a 62 meters two-span bridge using fixed or floating piers
|The ABLE vehicle in the middle horizontally launches the GSB bridge. The trucks on either side carry the bridge elements.|
The GSB upgrade requirement is for a solution offering 28 to 36 meters in single span, scalable to a minimum of 60 meters while retaining a minimum MLC 100 (T).
Greater accuracy for the artillery
This year, Indirect Fire Precision Attack will try again to put something in service. The IFPA programme is a saga of Royal Artillery attempts to modernize which have almost always been frustrated by cancellation or endless delaying.
Now it is planned that AS90 will trial a precision artillery system by Orbital TK. This is believed to be their Precision Guidance Kit, a course-correction fuze with GPS which dramatically reduces the CEP for normal, existing artillery shells.
Procurement of a guided shell (with available options including Excalibur, SPG, Vulcano) was also planned, and hopefully will return to the fore.
The Royal Artillery could also definitely make good use of the Alternative Warhead for GMLRS. This round replaces the now withdrawn bomblets-carrier rocket, restoring Wide Area Attack capability with 0% of residual Unexploded Ordnance scattering. Entering production for the US Army, this round (partly) restores that "Grid Square Removal" capability that was once the pride of the MLRS but that has been lost to make it "only" a long range "sniper" with point attack capability by GPS guided unitary warhead.
It would be sweet to one day learn the fate of the Fire Shadow loitering munition, too...
Main Gate, with the decision to be made between wholly new build or re-manufacturing of existing helicopters is "months not years away", according to JHC officials.
I'm not exactly reassured: Main Gate was planned specifically for March 2016, and the "months not years" is a downgrade. Will the decision still come in march, or will it slip to the right?
Helicopter Air to Air Refueling
One of the most surprising developments coming out from the SDSR is the (possible) procurement of an AAR capability for british helicopters. Funded by the Special Forces money, it would be the main part of the SDSR promise to give SF transport aircraft and helicopters the ability to deploy "farther, faster".
The idea is not new: the director special forces tried to obtain such a capability already years ago, but only obtained a few Chinook HC2A, which only have the fuselage predisposition for an AAR probe. Fitted for but not with, in other words. Impossibility to procure the probe at the time brought forth the purchase of the 8 HC3 Chinook, with their "fat tanks" for extended range.
Now it is time to try again, with the wish being to procure and retrofit a number of probes on some of the Chinooks.
The only other helicopter in british hands with a latent AAR capability is the Merlin HC3, which was trialed years ago in british skies with the assistance of an italian C-130J tanker.
Italy has now procured the HH-101 CAESAR CSAR variant of the Merlin, with AAR probes available, and has 6 C-130J tankers.
JHC officials confirmed only this week that the AAR for helicopters is a real aspiration. The rumor has been around from before the SDSR publication, however.
Details, as always, are non existent. The JHC only provided vague indications, saying we are still in an early phase and even saying that the UK might not acquire tanker kits for its own C-130J, depending on allies showing up to refuel its helicopters.
There seems to be an incredible confusion in the UK about whether AAR is a key capability or not: on one side, a shiny fleet of 14 Voyager tankers with lots of give-away fuel, on the other side several strategic platforms unable to plug in to receive.
Now, the possibily of adding a bunch of helicoper receivers without procuring the tanker capability.
Tell me that it is not dumb, if you can.
|Procuring two or more tanker kits for short-fuselage C-130Js really should be a no brainer.|
With 14 C-130J meant to be retained in the long term, there should be no particular problem. Initially, however, the MOD has signaled to LM that only the long-fuselage C-130J-30 will be retained.
The existing tanker version of the C-130J is based on the short fuselage variant, however. It is highly questionable whether trying to create a long-fuselage tanker is feasible / worth the risks. The simplest solution would be to keep some short fuselages as part of the 14.
This might already be the case: according to Defense News, the recently signed contract for extending the support arrangements for the C-130J include provvisions for the future fleet of 14, including two aircraft earmarked for helicopter refueling.
|Fat tanks and AAR probe make the "SF" Chinook, the MH-47, unique looking. Will the UK be given access to the probe? Apparently simple, the probe is something the US has been reluctant to export in the past.|
Retrofitting the HC3 (HC5 post JULIUS upgrade) with AAR probes would make them similar to the US special forces Chinook variant, and would give them extremely long legs, making them a strategic resource.
As well as Special Operations, such helicopters could cover CSAR duties, providing the UK with a capability which has been absent for an eternity.
It is understood that the Army / Special Forces Director are looking for an Internally Transportable vehicle able to be carried, fully armed and ready, within a Chinook.
|The Flyer Gen III internally transportable vehicle is used by US forces and is now being procured by Italian special forces as well. It is one of several available options.|
The combination of AAR and internally carried vehicle would represent an extremely capable combination. Although it is licit to wonder if putting the Boom on at least some of the Voyagers wouldn't have had a greater strategic effect, especially with P-8 Poseidon on the way, with a confirmed future overland surveillance role as well (de-facto replacing Sentinel R1 after 2022).
The C-130J will be upgraded with Block 8.1 software and hardware, enabling the addition of enhanced communications and self-defence equipment to finally properly replace the lost C-130K in Special Forces configuration, allowing the long delayed Project Hermes to progress.
9 aircraft have already been retrofitted with external fuel tanks, expanding range.
Merlin HM2: some more, please
The Royal Navy has not abandoned the fight to try and squeeze the last 8 Merlin HM1 into the budget for an HM2 upgrade and a continuation of service. The SDSR did not approve the request, but the Navy intends to try again and logic suggests that the best chance will come with the Main Gate for CROWSNEST. Expanding the fleet from 30 to 38 helicopters would be incredibly beneficial as it would allow for a "separate", permanent AEW fleet without biting too deeply into the availability of "normal" HM2 for ASW and Maritime Security roles.
From Zephyr to a replacement for Desert Hawk
The SDSR factsheet again does not mention Zephyr directly, but there is little doubt that it will be the platform for the "high altitude communications relay" also described as "high altitude long endurance surveillance and relay RPAS".
Zephyr 8, to be test flown this year, is expected to stay aloft for 3 months, flying as high as 70.000 feet and has british origins and has seen constant MOD involvment.
The problem of Zephyr is that using solar power brings not just advantages but also issues: the payload margin is tiny, with only 5 kilograms available to work with. The main challenge so will probably be developing a communications relay package and a surveillance sensors package (or, with further miniaturizaiton and miniaturization, a combined payload) small enough to fit while still delivering the effects needed.
Longer term, Airbus (now owner of Zephyr) plans further developments, bringing the payload to 20 and then to 40 kg.
An operational Zephyr system could include up to 4 UAVs controlled by a single Ground Control Station. Flying several at once over the same area is made easier by the fact that no one else flies so high, so there are no deconfliction issues. Using multiple UAVs allow for very long range signal relay and means that payload problems can be somewhat avoided by having one UAV carrying surveillance sensors and another the communications relay.
There is a lot of potential. News that the MOD would purchase 3 Zephyr 8 came out before the SDSR was published. For some reason, the MOD immediately tried to silence the reports, forcing even Airbus to backtrack on its announcement.
A Zephyr purchase, though, seems all but certain at this point.
Within a few months we should have a better idea of what features Protector will come with, with Main Gate expected early this year. It should be based on the "certifiable" Predator B by GA-ASI and hopefully will finally employ british weapons, instead of requiring GBU-12 and Hellfire purchases.
Desert Hawk III has received an upgrade giving it digital communications and has seen its operational life extended 6 years, out to 2021. Further upgrades are being evaluated but are not under contract: LM offers a "3.1" upgrade package that extends endurance from a maximum of 90 to 150 minutes; fully waterproofs the drone and replaces the current interchangeable sensors with an integrated electro-optic, infrared and laser illuminator payload, so that all functions are available at the same time.
This upgrade might be a cheap solution for making the DH III the mini-UAV of choice well into the 2020s, but the Army and the Royal Marines are already investigating a replacement. Plextek is working to develop a miniaturized solution for Sense and Avoid and also a mini radar sensor that could fit within a mini-UAV fit to replace DH.
Sense and Avoid would make it much safer to employ low-flying UAVs in areas where helicopter movements are also present: the British Army has had near miss events which have caused some worry.
The Royal Navy is pushing hard to get two new UAV programmes started this year, but all depends on securing funding. The two programmes are the Flexible Deployable UAS and the Joint Mini UAS.
FDUAS is intended to be the "post Scan Eagle": the Royal Navy has extended the contract for the provision of contractor owned, contractor operated Scan Eagle systems out to the middle of 2017, with the hope of immediately moving on to a new, navy owned service. Described as a "Sea Eagle plus", the system could use a more recent variant of Sea Eagle, or the larger Integrator selected by the US Navy and USMC, or perhaps something else entirely.
It would still be a small UAV compatible with existing ships.
The JMUAS is a requirement primarily expressed by the Royal Marines, which aren't happy with how Desert Hawk performs at sea, in amphibious scenarios. JMUAS, being Joint, probably hopes to be an Army-Navy programme aiming at finding a common replacement for Desert Hawk III.
Later on, the Royal Navy continues to plan for procurement of a tactical, large, multi-role Rotary Wing UAS. The early experiments with the AgustaWestland SW-4 Solo have been convincing, but an operational system is years away, for the Royal Navy. Some interesting studies and projects are already ongoing, either for industrial initiative or with MOD funding: these include a miniaturized FLASH dipping sonar and a small pod capable to deploy mini sonobuoys, the latter potentially targeted also at the manned Wildcat helicopter.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy is continuing to experiment with small, inexpensive 3D-printed drones. After the first successful tests from the OPV HMS Mersey, a number of the same mini-drones have been embarked on HMS Protector for her current deployment down south.
Ballistic Missile Defence
A BMD radar will be procured, but it is not clear yet if it will be fixed or mobile, nor where it will be based. It will be a british contribution to the NATO BMD plans.
Importantly, BMD activities on the Type 45 destroyers will continue. So far, these have included developing suitable radar and software mods to enable tracking of ballistic targets. Simultaneous AAW and BMD is planned and might have already been tested.
Studies have also been funded to shape a plan for eventual adoption of MK41 launchers and SM-3 interceptor missiles.
No kinetic interception is going to be acquired for now, but at least a path is being opened.
A new 2* deployable standing Joint Force headquarters to command and control the Joint Expeditionary Force is promised. Probably, it is actually a modernization of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force HQ element.