Future Force 2020 - RAF

Evolving the RAF for the new (budgetary) challenges

How RAF Squadrons Are Organized
The squadrons indicatively have 12 aircraft with 15 authorized pilots. This is not a firm rule, however, as Tornado GR4 squadrons have dropped below the 15 pilots figure after cuts in 2009 and should now return to 15 (or more) thanks mainly to the redistribution of personnel from the two Tornado squadrons that will be disbanded in June.

How Training Is Planned
Training progresses from initial flying training to basic and then advanced fighter training and then to an operational conversion unit (OCU). The training agency agrees with the RAF on the level of proficiency required of newly trained pilots across a range of flying and mission skills. The RAF is different from USAF in that a wingman is trained to a higher level before reporting to a squadron and is capable of lead/mission completion. (This is similar to what the U.S. Navy does.)

How Training Is Resourced

Personnel. The RAF has two accession programs for its pilots. One involves a shorter term of service than the other does. The 12-year short-service commission is the least desired by the RAF but is the one most frequently chosen by the pilots. According to the RAF, a pilot signing in for 12 years has a yearly salary of 34.670 pounds at the end of the training phase. http://www.raf.mod.uk/careers/jobs/pilot.cfm
The 16/38 program (service to 16 years or age 38) is more desirable to the RAF, but not many follow its course.
At age 38, there is a reasonable flow from fighters to multiengine aircraft; some helicopter pilots flow to fighter aircraft at an earlier age. It costs about £5.7 million (2002 figure) to train a pilot reporting to a squadron with training taking approximately 4.2 years on average.

The flying units often have a shortage of experienced pilots. This is caused by a combination of failing to achieve targets for new pilots and by pilots leaving early or not extending their service. The RAF (like USAF) is constrained by a maximum number of new pilots in flying units so as not to increase the ratio of inexperienced pilots to experienced pilots to unacceptable levels.

Squadron tours last just about three years, and it is not unusual for a pilot to do sequential tours in the same squadron. Most “ground” tours have been eliminated (because of low numbers of RAF pilots). A pilot must do a minimum of six years after OCU before leaving. The goal is to get at least 12 years’ return of service. To encourage pilots with two years remaining to complete their service, the RAF reimburses the cost of gaining a commercial pilot license. After age 38, a person who stays in a squadron is specialist aircrew and will enter a fly-only track until age 55.

After a first squadron tour, a pilot is qualified as a section lead. Typically, the best pilots go to a program like Top Gun and then return to the squadron as a qualified weapons instructor. Other top pilots take flight instructor training and return to the squadron as a qualified flight instructor. Pilots may also rotate to another squadron.

The RAF has a full-time reservist program whereby a pilot retires from active commission and comes back as a Reservist (on active duty) at lower rank/pay grade but with an additional pension. It has a series of contracts for five years up to a maximum of age 60, which essentially allows a 50-year-old to serve two tours to age 60, after which an individual can draw an active pension with an added increment of Reserve pension. Many of the Reserve pilots go into the training system but they can serve almost anywhere in the community.

Pilot work is on average 200 man-days per year, and they view themselves as getting high productivity out of each man-day. They attempt to get maximum value out of every flight hour.

Flying Hours. Views on the number of required live flight hours vary widely. The NATO minimum is 180 hours (15 per month). RAF flying hours for jet pilots is between 180 and 240 per year (18.5 per month on average). Of these hours, 150 hours (12–14 hours per month; 12.5 on average) are felt to be a safety-of-flight minimum (instruments, takeoffs, landings). The RAF also feels the additional increment for military elements of flying (e.g., warfare tactics) is about three hours per month or 36 per year for a total of 186 annual hours (15.5 hours monthly). The 180–240 hours include all flying (e.g., transit and overhead flights) not just military elements or high-quality flying, which is estimated at 75–80 percent of the total.

RAF jet pilots are generally funded at 180 hours annually (15 per month). A desired number of monthly flight hours would be about 22.5, but they acknowledge it would be difficult to fly more than 28 hours per month given all the other things that pilots must accomplish. Not all planes have the same kind of flying hours provision: for example, the Tornado has fewer flying hours than maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) Nimrods had, but far more sorties (a typical Tornado sortie is an hour and a half, those of Nimrod were of course much longer). For Red Flag, there is a pretty intensive workup. There is no deployment pattern except for Red Flag, and a more constant level of flying exists in the RAF.

Compared with their RAF counterparts, Royal Navy Sea Harrier pilots would get six to eight
weeks of additional training, including 30 additional flight hours and 15 to 25 hours on the simulators as of 2002.

Simulators: Then, Now, and in the Future

In prior generations of aircraft and simulators, the RAF trained in the air and practiced in the simulator. In future aircraft and simulators, the RAF believes it will need to teach and train in the simulator and consolidate in the air. With new technology and new generation aircraft, cognitive, cockpit, and systems management skills are as important as hand-eye coordination. As the emphasis on skills takes new directions, the training system must avoid teaching skills and practices that will rarely if ever be used in modern aircraft. The present system forces too much training on to the OCUs and often to the front-line squadrons, with a widely damaging effect on budget (flying hours cost, and eat up operational life of the airframe) and deployability of each squadron. 

The RAF has never really fallen in love with simulators, and the service continues to treat them with some suspect. The fear is that future budgetary decisions may force the direct substitution of flying hours with more simulator hours. This is seen (not completely without reason) as a threat to the quality of pilot’s training. The RAF position is that simulator training must be thought of as enhancing the total time spent training and not as replacing flight with simulator hours. While this is a sound logic and makes for very well prepared crews, it is a source of high costs and makes it hard for the pilots to meet their required flying hour targets, while simultaneously hard-working the airframes (pushing up mainteinance and need for spares) and hurting the capacity to deploy pilots and planes on operations, latest example being Libya’s Ellamy ops and their effect on pilots training, particularly for Typhoon.

This fear for simulators will have to be fought off quickly, particularly since most of the F35 training will involve simulation. The USAF is setting very ambitious targets in terms of simulator hours for pretty much all its fleets, but most notably for F35 and F22, both planes that, in fact, notoriously do not even have a twin-seat variant for flying training.

The goal must not be in determining priority between flight or simulator hours, but it must be about training effectiveness. If simulators are used to practice the less complex training events, a pilot could focus flying hours on the more complex tasks. Similarly, simulator hours could concentrate on complex tasks difficult to train for using flying hours, and flying hours could focus on tasks best accomplished by them. Fewer live flight hours could lead to the same training outcome if effective and efficient simulators were available. The RAF has been taking steps in this sense with simulators both classroom based and airplane based: the newest Hawk T2, which will train Typhoon and F35 pilots, has sophisticate built-in mission simulation capabilities, that will allow a training halfway between reality and simulation, while reducing hours needed on the actual fighter jet in OCU.

As a result, live flight hours could be reduced while increasing proficiency.
The new generation training view will require significant changes in attitudes, beliefs, and measures of behaviors. For example, the RAF measures pilot experience in hours. An open question is how to count simulator hours in the future. Flying hours are the widely accepted performance metric driving the structure of the system, as opposed to their being one measure of outcomes.
It’ll be necessary to trade real aircraft flight time for simulator training, which will help in buying the simulator capability and lower overall operating costs. It will be expensive to fly 240 hours in an aircraft like the JSF, but only 50 hours would be insufficient. But the live flying hours do not have to be used the same way in the future as they are now. It is hoped that an F35 mobile, network-capable simulator will be created, for example, which could be used in a base either at home or abroad, or inside an aircraft carrier, to help keep pilots current at all times. A lot of potential comes from Network-Enabled simulators, such as those used by the RAF in Benson, where the Puma simulator, 2 Merlin simulators and 3 Chinook simulators can be networked to provide simulation of a large scale mission involving all helicopters.
Realism will be indispensable, possibly going as far as re-creating the “fear factor” of live flying, to avoid pilots getting complacent about mistakes.

Currently, the RAF uses simulators a good bit in its OCUs. But squadrons use them a lot less. The flight-hour-to-simulator ratios vary by stage in the training pipeline.
In 2002, for initial training (Hawk), there was a 5:1 (live:simulator) ratio using a legacy syllabus. Pilots do 140 flying hours and 28 simulator hours. This increased to a ratio of 1.8:1 with reduction of flight hours from 140 to 106, and an increase in simulator hours from 28 to 60. In the OCU, the ratio was 4:1, but should have grown to  2:1 (80 flying hours and 40 simulator hours). For squadron continuation training, the 2002 ratio was about 15:1 (180–240 flying hours to 12 simulator hours). The figures I can report here are unfortunately not up to date, but finding exact figures is a complex task, and even these now-old ones are like gold. If someone is aware of current practice, I’d love to learn.  
In 2002 there was a “goal” of bringing the squadron continuation training on a 3:1 ratio (180 flying hours and 60 simulator hours) with the simulator hours consisting of one currency period and four tactical periods. I don’t know if this target was met: possibly for Typhoon, or possibly for none. But in time of budget constraints, the simulators will become more and more important: lately, even a Parachuting simulator for PARA and other air assault-units has been adopted by the british armed forces, and the Army has adopted simulators derived from high-fidelity videogames to deal with some aspect of Iraq and Afghanistan preparation. The RAF and FAA will have to draw heavily from simulators, to achieve a big reduction in “wasted” flying. The same number of total hours will be flown in a cheaper way… and there’s potential for them to be flown better, too. 
The F35 will sign the start of a new age in this sense.


Training for the F35, training for the Carrier Ops

Another error that must be avoided is to allow the RAF to create a large, land-based OCU for the F35. For many reasons:

1 – There won’t be many airframes, and the services will need as many frontline F35s as possible
2 – Land Based OCU is cheaper than a carrier-ops OCU, and it would be the start of a vicious cycle that would, inexorably, probably ensure that, soon enough, there are no carrier-capable pilots. I cannot make this fear clear enough, no matter how often I expose it. It is my greatest worry and my greatest source of doubts about RAF doing carrier aviation work.You can read more (a lot more) about this here.
3 – While operational sovereignty is good, it is also expensive, and I cannot begin to think to a scenario in which the US refuse to train british pilots. Why doing it in the UK, at great expense, when it can be done in the US, exploiting the extensive training facilities of the US Navy?

We all know well France’s Grandeur obsession, and how nationalist they are in terms of kit and everything. Yet, even them send their Navy pilots training in the US. French naval carrier pilots receive their initial jet training from the U.S. Navy after primary flight training in France.

An Aèronavale pilot comes from personnel selected by the Ecole d’Initiation au Pilotage, where they will fly a maximum of 15 sorties on the CAP, 10 Elementary Flight Trainer plane: the first is a runway turn, followed by three mission to learn take-off and landing. By the sixth mission, normally, a pilot has already shown if he’s worth the effort and money or not, so that at times there are men that do not even fly all of the 15 sorties. The ones that are selected to continue can then decide if continue as Jet pilots, Helicopter pilots or Marittime Patrol Aircraft personnel.

A second part of the students base comes through the Navy Academy, where they have to overcome a selection made up by 8 sorties on MS893 Rally basic trainers planes. The people that come from the Navy Academy is expected to be better prepared than who joins from outside via EIP, so that the selection critters are more selective, and include a further 11 sorties on CAP-10.

Until 2007, a pilot that wanted to purse a Rafale career at sea, once finished the Academy or EIP selection, would go for seven months on the base of Salon-de-Provence for training and then a further 6 months at Cognac air base for flying training on the TB-30 Epsilon trainer, before finally going in the USA.

From 2007, however, a shortcut has been adopted, and the personnel is sent directly in the US after completing the EIP. This saves almost a year in a training period that had previously stretched on 3 and half. In the US, in fact, the Aèronavale pilots first follow a 2-months course of English language at San Antonio, then 8 months on the Naval Air Station Pensacola before finally reaching NAS Meridian, where they fly on the T-45 Gishawk, the Hawk-derivative training jet for carrier ops. Young French Navy Pilots finish the course with 280 flying hours on their shoulders when they return.
In approximately another three years and 400 flight hours (and approximately 100 day carrier landings), they qualify as a section leader and are capable of night carrier landings. Finally, after about five years in the squadron (seven or eight years of total service) and a total of 1,300 flight hours, a pilot becomes a division leader. The final progression step is to mission commander where they are able to lead missions of eight or more aircraft.

French land-base cleared pilots do a minimum of 150 flying hours per year – note that this is, curiously, less than land-based RAF pilots do – and the squadrons try to apportion flying hours on a linear basis throughout the year. If exercises or deployments result in increased flying for a month, they will cut back their flying in the following months. This is very different from RAF practice, and considerably cheaper too. One might object that RAF pilots are better prepared, and it is undoubtedly true, but in times of budgetary crisis as bad as the current ones, we have to wonder if this is necessary. The French aircrafts from Charles De Gaulle have done well over Libya, and certainly did nothing less than their RAF counterparts. Operational, fully-cleared (all-weather and night-landing) carrier capable pilots flow as many as 220 hours per year, but starting with the Rafale, the French are stepping up efforts in Simulation to reduce the number of expensive flying hours required. Each pilot also drops at least one live bomb each year.   

As a compensation for their reduced flying hours schedules, French squadrons attempt to participate in various joint and combined exercises as often as possible. Each year, they conduct two air-to-ground training exercises in the south of France.
The French Navy pilots are required to serve a minimum of 15 years (RAF = 12) and do squadron tours of seven years (RAF = 2/3) if coming from the Navy Accademy or 10 years for non-Academy graduated pilots. These pilots typically move for the last 3 or 4 years onto Transport planes.
Most pilots typically serve 17 or 18 years, indicative of good success in retention of personnel.  
The RAF will have to try and match this kind of retention for the F35 fleet to ensure that the investment in pilots is not wasted.  

The best solution would be to have pilots trained in the US, and a small OCU Flight (as the RAF does mainly with helicopters) in a larger-than-normal squadron back home for the necessary “Conversion to role” unique for RAF/FAA practices. Of course, two/three simulators will also be necessary, of which one should be deployable, to be used on board of the strike carrier, for example.

In an interview in December 2010, post-SDSR, Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell, who commands the RAF's air combat group, gave a sort of “hint” about this possible approach talking about “a single JSF squadron with 20 – 25 crews”. This might indicate a frontline squadron of 12 planes, plus a small OCU flight with instructors. 20 crews might indicate a force of 18 planes, 25 might be for a 20 or 22-strong squadron.


Harmony Guidelines

It is now worth reasoning in terms of deployability, taking into account the Tour Interval Guidelines and Separated Service Harmony Guidelines of each service. Harmony Guidelines are designed to ensure harmony between competing aspects of Service personnel's lives: operations, time recuperating after operations, personal and professional development, unit formation and time with families. Two measures of harmony are used: Unit Tour Intervals and Separated Service. Unit Tour Intervals measure the frequency of deployment. Separated Service measures absence from normal place of duty or lack of freedom to enjoy leisure at the normal place of duty. Separated Service includes activities not captured by Unit Tour Intervals like pre- deployment training, exercises, public duties, recruitment activities, and other duties which result in personnel not sleeping in usual accommodation. 

The MoD began consistently reporting Unit Tour Intervals and Separated Service in 2006, although some data was collected already before then. Each Service has different criteria for Harmony Guidelines, reflecting different operational practices.

The guidelines can be found on the official government documents, and you can read them here. 
Unit Tour Intervals (UTI) guidelines by service

Naval Service: Fleet Units to spend maximum of 60% deployed in 36 months. These conditions of service apply to the whole RN, inclusive of Royal Marines Commandos, Commando Helicopter Force and Fleet Air Arm, even though Tours in Afghanistan see the Marines deployed in support of the Army, in a scheduled built to Army guidelines: as such, the 3rd Commando Brigade normally deploys every 4 tours. (4 x 6 = every 24 months, as army units)

[This can be exemplified by observing how 42, 45 Commandos and 29 Commandos Royal Artillery have deployed in Herrick V, then again on Herrick IX and are doing so again as part of Herrick XIV, with their deployment to be complete by April. 40 Commando deploys, under Army command, also every 24 months: it did so, for example, in Herrick VII and then as part of Herrick XII, and will deploy again in Herrick XVI]

Note that, however, the RM Commandos add to these tours a whole range of other long term deployments away from home, since their role is to cover Artic warfighting, which requires yearly exercises in Norway, and they are also tasked with Amphibious Assault, for which at least one full Commando unit embarks for a yearly exercise (currently Cougar 2011, in the Mediterranean).

Army: 24 month average interval between unit tours. Tour length is normally 6 months.

RAF: 16 month average interval between Unit tours, with a tour lenght of 4 months.


Separated Service guidelines by Service

Naval Service: In any 36 month period, no one to exceed 660 days Separated Service.

Army: In any 30 month period, no one to exceed 415 days Separated Service.

RAF: In an 12 month period, not more than 2.5% of personnel to exceed 140 days Separated Service.

The most receptive ones will have noticed that the UTI and Separated Service Guidelines of the Navy are almost exactly equal! 660 days indeed is roughly the 60% of 36 months period in deployment.
Assuming, for comfort, 30 days for month, for 36 months, is 1080 days. The 60% of it is 648 days. I believe that the correct figure, with months calculated properly, would give the very same 660 days of Separated Service tour guidelines. 660 days means 22 months in deployments of indicatively 6 to 9 months each.
Notably, despite the demanding guidelines, the report underlines that "the Royal Navy is able to meet its targets through front line gapping", which tells us that, despite broadly meeting its guidelines, the Naval Service is as stretched as the others.

For the Army. 24 months period between a six months deployment in combat zone (Unit Tour Guidelines) and a maximum of 415 days of combat/training/out of area deployment on a 30 months period. 415 days is a good 13 months.
Over 30 months, army personnel can be asked to deploy once in combat zone, for six months, and spend many more months away from “home” for exercises and pre-deployment training.

RAF personnel is given 16 months between a deployment and another, and in 12 months it can only do 140 days away from home, with only 2.5% of the total strength of the RAF being “authorized” to break these figures.
Tour length is four months, and in the 12 months in which a Squadron has had a warzone deployment the guidelines leave only around 3 weeks of out-of-area training, for example for exercises such as “Merlin Vortex” which saw the Merlin MK3 redeploy for training in Nevada, US, before they began their service in Afghanistan. 

Where do the problems lie? Well, for a thing, an aircraft carrier deploys for six or even nine months each time, and it is impensable to rotate the embarked squadron in the middle of a deployment. We could assume that the squadrons embarked would be included in the 2.5% of the personnel allowed to break guidelines, but does it make sense? Not really.

Having to rotate personnel in and out every four months is a problem, and puts an evident strain on logistics and, in an Afghanistan scenario, air transport. These graphics will make things clear: building on the Harmony guidelines of the three services, these graphics provide a plan for a continuous 36 months presence in a warzone abroad.


The above graphic shows a medium-intensity Navy style deployment. 6 month tour for each squadron, 12 months between tours. There is no indication of out of area training, but during the 36 months period each squadron could still be asked to be away from home for 10 months without breaching the guidelines. 

While is not the routine for Afghanistan, this is possible if the Navy is asked to cover an operation on her own. It is preferably not done in a Joint environment such as Afghanistan because such a demanding schedule of deployments, compared to the other services's performances, would cause quite some embarassment to both Army and RAF, and of course it would probably "hurt the sensibility" (to say the very least) of the Navy personnel, required to do so much more than the others. 

As a matter of fact, however, any of you can readers can check the rules at the link i provided earlier and do the math: even more demanding deployment timelines can be fitted within Navy harmony guidelines. 



The same deployment made in Army guidelines. A minimum of 5 Squadrons are needed to cover the same role. Any helicopter fleet with less than 5 Squadrons will be unable to deploy a whole squadron for an enduring deployment: only a Flight or Detachment of variable sizes will be sustainable. 

The same deployment, finally, covered with RAF rules. It still takes 5 squadrons, as with the Army, but there's the further disadvantage that personnel has to be transported in and out more times. 
If you'll have the patience of checking, you'll find that Chinook, Merlin, Harrier, are all fleets that do not manage to deploy more than a Flight on operations, and do so still breaching guidelines at times. Only the Tornado, with its 5-squadrons strong fleet (after cuts) is (in theory) capable of keeping a whole squadron deployed continuously abroad. 

For this and other reasons, I’m notoriously firmly convinced that carrier airplanes, and thus the JCA force, should be a Fleet Air Arm thing. However, since this is unlikely (to say the very least) to be allowed, I must inexorably put forwards my argument that the RAF guidelines MUST change.

My suggestion is that the air force personnel gets revised deployment guidelines, ideally at least something like:

Tour Length 6 months, break between tours 24 months, with at least 220 days of separated service each year, so to allow (when necessary) longer training and preparation deployments. They would still be quite permissive timelines compared to those of the other two services, and this revised set of rules would ease a lot of problems and improve deployability considerably. Such a revised timeline is ESSENTIAL if the RAF Squadrons are to be embarked to some effect on the aircraft carrier, as 220 days of separate service would allow the formation to embark for six months of deployment and have some more time that can be spent embarked or deployed abroad in training exercises.

Note that this will require also a quite expansive change in the expectations of RAF personnel in their terms of service. Now RAF personnel can expect:

1 - That their career will be based on land and primarily within the UK
2 - That they will operate mostly from their home base – rarely being required to be separated from their family and children for long.

This will have to change, at least for who joins the F35C JCA force. Typhoon and other assets will be affected only when a conflict somewhere is going on, as in Peacetime, even with more demanding timelines, deployments abroad certainly won’t augment by much, since they do cost.
But if the RAF is to deploy at sea, the pilots that do will have to start thinking of their career more in Navy than in air force terms.

Otherwise, the Joint Carrier Strike Wing will not work, and it’ll be only an immensely expensive Tornado replacement with near none capacity of proficiently deploy abroad and at sea. A Joint approach is acceptable, if done in honest and correct way. Turn our heads away from certain facts will, inexorably, lead to a future in which a NAO reports and the press slam the “carriers” for delivering no air power.
But the problem lays in the airpower, not in the ships. And it is a problem evident already now. It must be tackled.

 

The main bases 
  
Lossiemouth:  as I write, the saga of the RAF base’s closure is far from over. And much as Cameron has announced in these days that it is no straight choice to close “Lossie or Leuchars”, I believe it actually is. Closing Marham would cost too much to be a “saving”. The Tornado Logistics are based in Marham, and relocating them would require lots of time, lots of work and lots of money. It appears highly unlikely that, as long as the Tornado fleet survives Marham can close.

The rumors that sounded the most true to my ears were those of closing Leuchars, with the Typhoons moving into Lossie. It felt the most likely outcome because, reportedly:

-         Civil airline companies have an interest in Leuchars that might mitigate the economic impact of losing the RAF presence
-          Moray already lost Kinloss.
-          Moray presented a gloomy but realistic report of the economic disaster that the area would suffer if Lossie was to close, and the Treasury has asked the MOD to avoid creating “depressed” areas.
-          Moray’s campaigning for saving Lossiemouth seems to have been having considerable success
-          Keeping Lossie would make it possible to keep the Tornado OCU and training simulators in place where they already are, while moving the surviving Tornado squadrons to Marham. The space freed in Lossie would be used to house the 6° Squadron and the next (and last) two squadrons of Typhoons, expected to form.

So, I will assume, for this review, that RAF Lossiemouth will be still very active in 2020, housing the Tornado OCU until the GR4 are retired, and hosting 3 Squadrons of Typhoons, with the 6° Squadron covering the Quick Reaction Alert (North) role. The base is also likely to continue supporting a SAR flight.

Marham: safe as long as the Tornado fleet survives, RAF Marham might have a future as the base of the F35C fleet. The original plan was to have the F35 based in Lossiemouth, but a few considerations are now obligatory:

-          Does it really make sense to have the carriers in Portsmouth and the aircrafts in Scotland?
-          If Lossie gets the Typhoons, can it take the F35 too? Is it cost-effective?

Personally, I think the answer to these questions is “no”. While Marham is still quite far from Portsmouth, it might still be more handy to have the carrier aircrafts based there than anywhere else, also because the options aren’t that many, unless we consider reopening a closed base such as Cottesmore, that still isn’t any closer to the port.

Overall, Marham might be the best choice for basing the F35. Otherwise, it is hard to see an use for the base after the Tornado is retired: it is either F35 or closure.

Coningsby:  main Typhoon base, with OCU, OEU, logistics, two frontline squadrons and with the responsibility for Quick Reaction Alert South. Its future appears secure well past 2020. 

Brize Norton: base of the transport and air refueling fleet, it is possibly the most secure base of all.

Valley: base of the advanced flying training, of a SAR flight and of SARTU (Search and Rescue Training Unit) which might still disappear in a few years time if a PFI, civilian replacement is chosen for the SAR service.

Leeming and Linton-on-Ouse: flying training bases.

Benson: the Merlin HC3/3A is to go to the Navy and move to Yeonvilton, freeing up quite a lot of space. RAF Benson is vital a base for the fleet of support helicopters of the RAF: the Puma, Merlin HC3 and Chinook simulators are based here, along with the Helicopter Ops controller teams and other essential parts of the fleet of utility helos. Its future is secure, I believe, mainly because moving all these formations and the simulators and logistics based here to anywhere else would be quite suicidal a move. One of the two Merlin squadrons, probably the 28°, is likely to become a new Chinook squadron, taking over the 12 HC6 new-built Chinooks that are to be ordered (hopefully, if new cuts do not kill the plan). It would be immensely attractive to move all Chinooks on this base and close Odiham to achieve savings, but the base might not be big enough.  

Odiham: the home of the Chinook squadrons. The future of this base is not as safe as that of its helicopters: downsizing and closure are possible options as room in Benson is freed for new helicopters to be transferred there. At risk.

Waddington: home of the Sentry fleet, of the future Rivet Joint fleet, of the 39° Squadron and its Reapers (even if, for now at least, they are actually remotely operated from Nevada, in the US) and, in my vision, home of the future fleet of Marittime Patrol aircraft that will inevitably prove necessary sometime soon, to further evidence how stupid it was to scrap the Nimrods. Notably, a programme (in its very early phases) is already looking at how to close the gap by pursuing a new platform to be manned by the Fleet Air Arm with RAF collaboration.
In 2012 the XIII Squadron will reform on this base as second Reaper R1 formation, and the 39° will return here from Nellis, Nevada, US.
A base that I definitely see as safe, and that would see a definite expansion in the future becoming home of the Scavenger fleet of drones.

Northolt: home of the “Royals” with their VIP transport fleet.  

Including also Flyingdales and Menwith Hill, these are the main bases that will survive long time in the future. Several of the other stations across the country will be closed, however: the number of bases is unrealistically high compared to an ever shrinking overall fleet of flying machines, and much as it will cause an outcry and protests, it is time for everyone to realize that it is too simple to give no funds to the Armed Forces and then cry when the nearby base closes and delivers a blow to the local economy. It is one of many consequences of twenty and more years that have delivered only downsizing and cuts.
I’m struggling to find a real good reason to retain Aldergrove, for example: I don’t know what to base there, honestly, but I consider a political and economic obligation, almost, to retain a base in Northern Ireland, so that I understand some of the difficulties defence chiefs have to face when cuts are required.


The Fleets: making the best possible use of them

Typhoon -   Best case, the fleet will number 107 planes by 2015/16, with the Tranche 1 planes being retired. The risk of going further down, to around 90, exists and has already been voiced by RAF top brass in a few interviews. The hope is that the cut-syndrome will one day reach a stall, and that 107 planes will survive (out of a planned fleet of 250, then 232, then 160!), because that is arguably the minimum realistic figure to maintain five frontline squadrons active in the coming decades. If the MOD is really lucky, Oman will buy 24 of its 52 (1 was written off after a crash landing in 2008) Tranche 1: they are planning to buy the Typhoon to replace their Jaguars, and they have been offered either new airframes (almost certainly coming off from the never-to-be-built Tranche 3B planned for the UK) or used RAF Tranche 1 of the latest blocks. Considering that the RAF Tranche 1 have had laser-designation pods and air-to-ground weaponry integrated, considering that they are still pretty new and that they would probably be sold at a very good price, Oman might decide that the T1 are fine. Other buyers around the world might express an interest, too, so with some luck the MOD might have chances to make some money out of the retired airframes.

As painful as it is, the decision to retire the Tranche 1 early makes financial sense: the Tranche 1 planes came into service in four different standards: Block 1, Block 2, Block 2B and Block 5. All the Tranche 1s are being brought to Block 5 standard through the Retrofit R2, and when they reach this they receive the designation FRG4 from the RAF (T3 for the trainer twin-seat). The upgrade takes as long as 12 months for the older Block 1, and 6 for the Block 2B. The modifications also include a different rudder terminal, more resistant, and different external fuel tanks with internal pumps that allow a faster, easier balancing of the plane as fuel is used up.

The Tranche 2 entering service are even more advanced, and go under the name of Block 8: the avionics’ computers are more up to date, but this means different supports are needed than those used by Block 5, and a good part of the Line Replaceable Items are not compatible. The Tranche 2 airframe is also different, incorporating solutions that give it, in RAF words, a “considerably longer service life”. By 2013, the first Tranche 3 planes will start to arrive as well, and the RAF wants them to be complete and fully compatible with the whole range of weaponry in service from as soon as they leave the factory. The Tranche 2 Block 8 planes will be upgraded in time, with the weaponry integration effort planned in 2014.
Just this quick summary makes it evident that upgrade the old Tranche 1 planes would be expensive and require a lot of work. Overall, it is judged more effective to retire the old T1s and retain only the Tranche 2 and 3A, with better and up to date capabilities, with a long life ahead of them, and with the potential of being upgraded further.

Ample information about the Typhoon is available in the Eurofighter Typhoon article.


Typhoon frontline squadrons  

3 Squadron – This squadron is an will remain an Air Defence dedicated squadron, covering the Quick Reaction Alert (South) from Coningsby. It will have 12 planes, of which 4 will always be at very high readiness, to take off for a scramble whenever a call comes.

11 Squadron – Also based in Coningsby, it has been the first “swing role” squadron, being cleared for air to ground attack with laser guided bombs. In time, the “Swing Role” squadrons will be capable of employing the whole range of weapons, from Paveway IV to Storm Shadow, while still retaining their capabilities in air to air combat whenever needed.

6 Squadron – RAF Leuchars. Might relocate to Lossiemouth. Just like the 3 Squadron in the South, this unit will cover the QRA and air defence role. 

43 Squadron – Should reform this year on Leuchars. Again, it might successively relocate to Lossiemouth. It will be a swing role squadron.

111 (To be Confirmed) Squadron – It is not yet sure which number and badge the final Typhoon squadron will bear, but it seemed probable that it would be the 111 reforming. Again, it will be a swing role squadron.

1453 Flight – The Falklands should definitely get 4 swing role fighters, with adequate stock of weaponry to deal with every circumstance, up to the worse ones.

Of the 3 Swing Role squadrons, there will always be one in High Readiness, ready to deploy to support operations abroad, while another will be in training and the third “recovering” from its own high readiness period.


F35C Joint Combat Aircraft

The Joint Combat Aircraft, as I said would, in my opinion, be better exploited by giving it to the Fleet Air Arm, but I will stick to the official MOD plan and try to look into the future to take a peek at the possible structure of the new Joint Strike Wing. Hoping for it a better luck than the Harrier wing had.

The initial fleet the RAF is aiming for is for 40/50 airplanes by 2020, up to 80 or 100 planes in the longer term, with acquisition to be completed by 2023.

A possible initial configuration for the F35C force is:

800 NAS – Since the target is to provide carrier strike capability in 2020, the RAF might be generous and allow the FAA badge to return first. It will be a frontline squadron with secondary OCU role, covered by addition of a “Flight” for training. 12 airplanes is the frontline-consistence desired, with 15 to 18 pilots. I’ve already exposed my belief that UK pilots should train in the US to get carrier-ready, and exploit the much larger us navy fleet to cumulate hours on the F35C. It has also been promised that most of the F35C will be done with simulators (50% of the training, in fact, standing to some US Navy figures), so I expect that the need for an OCU will be much minor. The already reported Bagwell’s interview seem to support this expectation.

1° (F) RAF  – Frontline squadron, with 12 airplanes.
The 1° Squadron, last RAF Harrier formation, is a likely candidate for resurrection.

617 RAF – Frontline squadron with 12 airplanes.
This is a bit more of an hazard. The original JCA fleet plan for 800 and 801 NAS, 1(F) and IV RAF Squadrons, building on the Harrier heritage. But with the death of FOAS and the JCA now due to replace Tornado as well, I believe that the 617° Dambusters badge and ethos really shouldn’t be wasted.

The formation of this squadron would ensure that the UK could, in wartime, surge a complete airwing for its carrier. In normal periods, the carrier would embark the single F35C squadron at high readiness state and, as often as possible, a second squadron, the one in Training phase. The third would be in its “recovering” period. Overall, this is compliant to the line of action exposed in the SDSR and fits the latest declarations, on 18 May, of the First Sea Lord and RAF chief before the Parliamentary Defence Committee.

A fourth squadron, which could be 801 NAS, is more a dream than a real possibility, but remains touted.

On the front of the weapon-integrations, for the moment the only weapons the UK has founded the integration of are:

ASRAAM – cleared for carriage internally and externally (2 + 2)
Paveway IV

Budget cuts have delayed to date to determine the integration of Brimstone and Storm Shadow, while so far there is no official requirement for integration of the Meteor, even if the UK has been supporting MBDA in its fin-redesign effort to make sure that the Meteor missile fits the weapon bays of the F35 (which was particularly challenging in the F35B, which notoriously has much smaller bays than the F35A and C). MBDA is in talks with Lockheed Martin regarding the possibility of integrating the weapon from the start. The problem is likely to be that LM does not want to take the risk and cost of adding the missile integration effort to the schedule of a plane already far more expensive than it should be.
MBDA is in talks regarding F35 + Meteor with “six countries”, (almost certainly inclusive of UK and Italy) but it appears unlikely that any of these nations will fund the effort, despite being supportive of it. In the end, MBDA might have to renounce, or be bold and fund the integration with its own money in order to pursue, afterwards, export contracts for the missile along the many nations expected to use the F35.   

The long-term target is to have on the F35 the Meteor, ASRAAM, Paveway IV, Brimstone and Storm Shadow. The RAF is also planning to have the SPEAR capability block 3 to employ with the JSF, while there seems to be no interest at all in fitting ALARM to the F35. This is, admittedly, something else that bugs me to no end: common sense suggests that, being stealth, the F35 is the “first-hour” attack platform of choice, and logic suggests that it should be the F35, exploiting its low-observability and superior sensors suite, to chase the enemy air defence radars, weakening the SAM batteries to make the sky safer for other planes, from Typhoon to cargos, to transit by. The hope is that this obvious fault is fixed in time. 

Tanker aircraft fleet – Think Defence has had a detailed and perfect review of the tanker aircraft situation, and I can only agree with him that the Cargo variant of the airbus would have definitely been the best choice.  Probably, had the RAF been given funding and permission to buy the planes outright, it would have been aimed for the cargo variant. The PFI, however, planned to have part of the planes operating with civilian airlines as we all know, and this probably had merit in setting for the Passengers variant. This means a much reduced cargo capacity: the A330 MRTT has the traditional wide body 2-deck layout of the A330. The lower deck on both versions is the same; it can carry a combination of military 463L pallets and civilian LD3 and LD6 containers, typically either 8x 463L, 1x LD6 and 1x LD3 or 25x LD3. The difference is in the top deck, which in the RAF variant will have no cargo door and seats semi-permanently installed. Instead of seats, the upper deck in cargo variant could carry up to 26 more 463L pallets, within a cargo value of 45 tons. Palletized seats sets are also available, so that nearly infinite configurations of seats and pallets are available. Cargo-configured top deck can be fitted with up to 252 palletized seats. It is also likely that the palletised intensive care facilities used on C17 by the RAF won’t be compatible with the Voyager in the passenger configuration, while almost certainly if the top-deck had been acquired in cargo configuration we could have relieved the few C17s from the “flying hospital” role. 

On the other hand, the A330-200F Cargo Variant weights 11000 pounds more and carries 12000 pounds less transferable fuel, in exchange for all its advantages. 

But it is too late for changing the decision by now, anyway.

Now the MOD has finally realized that leasing the planes to civilian airlines is unlikely to be a successful attempt. Far more likely (and reasonable) is that the French air force will buy hours out of part of the tanker fleet of the RAF, since part of the budget cuts to the French Armed Forces is a delay in the much needed replacement of the AAR fleet. There is not yet a firm agreement in this sense (reportedly, the French are trying to get a bargain price from the RAF), but both sides need an agreement, and it is thus likely that some kind of solution will be found soon.
Both countries militarily would benefit a lot more from Cargo airframes, but now is almost certainly too late to even think about changing kind of plane. The first plane is already in the UK, and I believe that changing the variant of A-330 at this point would be suicidal.
It remains a mistake made, undoubtedly. And I bitterly have to underline that, when the French air force will finally get around to replacing its own tankers, it will most likely buy its planes outright, and buy the A-330 cargo variant.

But let’s try and look at the positive side: the A330 Voyager, however, still represents a massive improvement in capability from the Air to Air refueling fleet currently available, and offers some really impressive performances. Notably, some possible mission profiles include:

-          Self deployment. A Voyager can support a packet of four Typhoon fighters (for example) in a 5000 km deployment travel, while also carrying 15.000 kg of payload.
-          Towline missions: a Voyager can spend 4 hours and 30 minutes on station at 1850 kilometers from its base, refueling other planes from a reserve of 50 tons of fuel. In another scheme, with the distance reduced to 925 kilometers, the time on station is 5 hours, with 60 tons of fuel.
-          MEDEVAC role can see the plane fitted with up to 130 stretchers.
-          The Voyager will be able to carry 291 persons on a 6000 miles travel.

And already, there’s been official speculation of using it as an ISR platform as well: "FSTA is much more than a tanker," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. "It has the ability to stay airborne and provide a [communications] relay facility for much longer than our current aircraft types."

You will pardon me if I express very serious doubts about the effective possibilities of this, in particular as long as the problem with the insufficient level of Electronic Countermeasures and self-protection features is not fixed.

A400M fleet – Again I do agree with Think Defence here, when he suggests acquiring a few AAR kits for the new cargo plane. It would allow one single aircraft to cover all of the needs of the Falklands garrison, and the A400M would be a precious and very effective tanker capable to easily resupply in flight helicopters. A niche capability, very precious, also to better support special forces operations. The AAR kits should and could be bought along with the French, who already plan to acquire them. With a funding contribution, the UK could acquire the possibility of using the kits when needed, and possibly have a limited number of them assigned to its needs. Joint maintenance with France and maybe even Germany’s fleet appears as the most promising way to achieve savings along the life of the fleet.

Notable A400 Atlas features include:

-          Combat troops load of 116
-          37 tons of useful payload
-          66 stretchers plus 8 seated medics in MEDEVAC configuration
-          Kneeling landing gear for ease of field operations of loading/unloading
-          3750 naval miles range with 20 tons payload
-          2600 naval miles range with 30 tons
-          1780 naval miles range with 37 tons maximum payload
      29 to 41 tonnes of transferable fuel can be carried (depend if the cargo-bay mounted tanks are used or not) and two refueling pods can be fitted under the wings. The A400 can refuel two fighter jets at 400 knots speed and 22000 feet of altitude, but also refuel helicopters at 110 knots and 5000 feet, something which the Voyager can’t do. 
       Take off at maximum weight in 3000 feet (To Be Confirmed) 
       Landing at maximum landing weight in 2000 feet (To Be Confirmed)
-          Cargo bay is 23,11 meters long, 4 meters wide and 3,85 meters tall, offering plenty of space for carrying even the latest vehicles, and the future FRES SV and UV. 

C17 fleet – The RAF makes no mystery of the wish of getting “at least another”, and an 8th C17 has never been deemed an impossible thing. However, it has not been promised either. In terms of requirements, 22 A400M and 7 C17 are not going to suffice, but the difficulty in getting any money to spend makes it real complex to try and acquire more planes.
The French are however reportedly very interested in getting some of the RAF’s heavy strategic air mobility, and it might be possible, in future, to get a contribute in funding from them for expanding the C17 fleet with perhaps 3 more airframes, which would be a massive boost in capability.

In future, fitting refueling probes to allow the super-cargos to refuel in flight might be not just good but necessary: the C17 was originally leased as a stop-gap interim measure during the waiting for the A400M, but its peculiar capabilities have made it a cornerstone of the RAF capability, and now this ‘defect’ can hardly be accepted.

A Tactical airlifter?

The C17 and A400 are both “heavy lifters”, and by 2022 the C130J will be gone, and even the Bae 125 (6) and 146 (2) used by “The Royals” RAF squadron for VIP transport will be retired. Since cargo transport will always remain a fundamental requirement in the future operations abroad, and since there are a whole lot of missions for which an A400 (and even more so a C17) are oversized and overexpensive, it might be a good move to look at solutions for a niche “Tactical Transport” capability. Also because the new types offer greater capabilities, but numbers are cruel, and by 2022 there will have been a massive drop in frontline strength.

Two options are possible: BAE systems is offering a military version of it’s the 146, the BAe 146M. Capable to deal pretty nicely with non-prepared runways, the aircraft is offered with digital instrumentation and auxiliary fuel tanks. Electronic self-defence systems could also be added.
The BAe proposal is attractive mostly for the price factor: a converted Bae 146 in freight variant could be acquired for as little as 5 million dollars, a true bargain. The 146 is not young, but BAE says that many of the aircrafts available for sale have used less than half their flying hours, and are thus well suited for an upgrade/conversion.

The four engine jet in its 146QT freighter configuration features a large freight door, has a 11-12 tonne payload and a rough field capability.
In a brochure released at DSEi 2009 BAE says the 146-300QT version has a range of over 1600 nautical miles. An extended range fit could take the range out to over 2200 nautical miles with a 12 tone payload. In passenger variant, 80 to 109 seats are provided.
BAE Regional Aircraft Asset Management has 146QT and 146QC (quick change) aircraft available now and additional aircraft can be converted to order. The conversion takes up to seven months.

A number of BAE 146M so converted could be acquired for a very low price, and given to the 32° The Royal Squadron: a palletized VIP facility could be prepared in order to be fitted inside the plane when required, as can be done on the Alenia C27J Spartan. The squadron would so replace the VIP transports and provide the RAF a good tactical airlift capacity at a very low cost.

Another alternative is the C27J Spartan: new design, military all the way, and excellent performances.
68 troops can be carried, or two up-armored HUMVEEs, or 36 stretchers and six attendants for MEDEVAC role, or 10.000 kg worth of standard pallets. A flying gunship conversion has been offered, and a VIP fit that can be installed in the cargo bay is available and has already been ordered by several customers. http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/AC-XX-Gunship-Lite-A-C-27J-Baby-Spooky-05001/ 

However, the much higher standards in terms of avionics and self protection mean that 25 to 30 million dollars each are the minimum likely cost to face.

I’m fascinated by the BAe 146 option: it offers very good performances, at a very low cost. It looks like a true bargain, and it might be really worth looking at it with attention.



Future Force 2020: SPEAR

The Selective Precision Effect At Range (SPEAR) is the most important and fascinating programme of the RAF for advanced weaponry and ammunitions for the next decade. Spear was conceived initially as a two-stage program. The so-called Drop 1 would cover a short-range weapon, with a powered weapon being purchased to meet the longer-range Drop 2 requirement.

Spear is now seen as comprising five capabilities, according to British industry executives. Capabilities 1 and 2 would likely be met by developments of the Raytheon Paveway IV and the MBDA Dual-Mode Brimstone, respectively. Capability 3 is understood to correspond to what was previously Spear Drop 2. The fourth element of the revised program encompasses upgrades to the Storm Shadow cruise missile, while the fifth element could cover a longer-range cruise missile.

SPEAR is also probably going to be the most expensive RAF weaponry programme, though, and we have to ask ourselves if:

-          It is justified and needed in all its parts?
-          Can’t it be done in a cheaper way?   


SPEAR Capability block 1

The main guided bomb in the future of the UK’s Armed Forces is obviously the Paveway IV, the latest addition to the RAF’s arsenal, already proven by usage in Afghanistan. Paveway IV is the british answer to the USAF’s JDAM, and it undoubtedly built on American experience with the Joint Direct Attack Munition: while the USAF first focused on a bomb guided on its targets by the GPS and then found out that a secondary laser-targeting mode was desirable, the Paveway IV was immediately conceived as a combined guidance weapon, using GPS and Laser, depending on the situation. The weapon is a guidance kit based on the existing Enhanced Paveway II Enhanced Computer Control Group (ECCG) added to a modified Mk 82 general-purpose bomb with increased penetration performance. The new ECCG contains a Height of Burst (HOB) sensor enabling air burst fusing options, and a SAASM (Selective Availability Anti Spoofing Module) compliant GPS receiver. It can be launched either IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) only, given sufficiently good Transfer Alignment, or using GPS guidance. Terminal laser guidance is available in either navigation mode. The bomb displayed amazing accuracy, and can be detonated at impact, with delay to exploit penetration against protected, buried targets, or it can detonate in the air for air-burst effect. The Paveway IV guidance kits can also be modified to fit other sized warheads, but for now it is being used only for 227 kg warheads. Its stand-off range is significantly greater than any other precision guided bomb. Paveway IV's unique manoeuvrability means that, if necessary, following launch it can turn and attack a target behind the delivery aircraft. The availability of dual-mode laser/GPS guidance within a single weapon also means that air forces do not have to incur the expense of maintaining two separate (laser and GPS) weapon stockpiles.

As part of SPEAR Capability block 1, a series of enhancements to the Paveway IV are to be pursued:

-          Low Yeld Warhead for reduced collateral damage in urban environment
-          Enhanced Penetrating Warhead for engagement of deeply-buried reinforced targets
-          Extended Range with wing-kit
-          Improvements to the GPS signals security

In particular, point 4 is already being undertaken by Raytheon, while point 3 should be the easier of all to fulfill, because the Paveway IV system is already compatible with the addition of wing-kits, and many such systems are already available, with an obvious leading contender in the form of the MBDA’s Diamond Back wing-kit, which would allow the bomb to glide for tens of miles to strike targets while keeping the launcher aircraft as far away as possible for enemy air defence weaponry.

Point two, perhaps the most interesting, would fill in a gap of capability of the RAF, which is currently not well equipped for the destruction of deeply-buried targets, which can range from caves where talibans hide to modern bunkers and underground facilities which have never passed out of fashion and remain common throughout the world. Most likely aimed to an upgrade of the Paveway IV and AASM respectively, the joint UK-France development programme through MBDA of the bunker-buster Hardbut warhead is the most probable answer to this requirement.

The second test firing of the Hard and Deeply Buried Target (HARDBUT) Next Generation Multiple Warhead System (NGMWS) was carried out successfully at the Biscarrosse test range of DGA Essais de Missiles on 14th September 2010. The HARDBUT Technology Demonstration Programme (TDP) is a successful warhead research programme jointly funded by the UK MoD and French Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) with MBDA UK as the Prime Contractor. The NGMWS is designed to defeat a wide range of targets such as command and control facilities, infrastructure and underground facilities including caves, reflecting current and potential future operations.

All these modifications appear overall “easy” and relatively inexpensive, and I can’t find a single good reason for stopping these improvements. Savings would be little, while capability gaps would remain.


SPEAR Capability Block 2

We get to the Brimstone missile, which I think is the definitive anti-tank weapon. Fire and Forget, carried in numbers (up to 12 on a Tornado GR4, up to 18 on the Typhoon, even if integration on the second has yet to come) and deadly effective, the Brimstone gives the UK the capability to stop dead in their tracks large formations of enemy armor with a single sortie of a fighter jet. However, such a tank-busting scenario is (relatively) rare. I say relatively because the last time that such a mission could have been effected was just as far back as 2003 in Iraq, definitely not so long ago, much as some “experts” talk about 2003 like it was prehistory already. I think that, to whoever reads regularly this blog, argumentations such as “we did not need to employ tanks and anti-tank weaponry from 2003, they are useless in the modern world!” look like the total nonsense they are, so I won’t express just why such reasoning horrifies me. We could just say that, pretty much, every kind of equipment and the army itself is “useless” and “not employed” between a war and another. It is an affirmation on par with the earlier one, in terms of stupidity.

However, Afghanistan, and the second part of the Iraqi campaign, have been a quite different kind of war, the first COIN experience of the Army after the Northern Ireland campaign, and the first (but very possibly not last) experience of what COIN can really be in troublesome middle-east nations. Here, tanks have been rare or inexistent targets, while air strikes have often been required to tackle apparently much less challenging requests, such as killing surgically a lone Taliban sniper firing from a “killing hole” in a compound. This has led to major changes to the Brimstone missile, which has had to evolve to adapt to a whole different range of uses: mainly, this is visible in the Dual-Mode Brimstone and in the development of a Multipurpose HE/FRAG warhead addition in place of the purely anti-tank tandem warhead of the original design.  The Dual-Mode Brimstone adds to the original millimeter-microwave radar guidance a Semi-Active Laser mode, allowing for pin-point accuracy and for third-part designation of targets, most notably by hand-held target designators used by the troops on the ground. Typically, this reduces the load of a Tornado GR4 to 3 triple rails and 9 missiles, since the fourth Brimstone rail is replaced by a Laser-Designation pod such as Litening III, but in exchange, thanks also to modifications to the warhead including the addition of Blast-Fragmentation elements, the DMB is far more flexible and capable to engage targets going from a group of insurgents in the open or into a compound to single, lone snipers hidden in holes and behind walls. In other words, the most common targets in a COIN scenario such as Afghanistan.

The Brimstone Dual Mode offers the first true insight of what the Americans are trying to do with the Joint Attack Guided Missile (JAGM) project, destined to replace all Hellfire and Maverick missiles in the navy and army and air force. The Americans, building on the Hellfire (just as the Brimstone did) are trying to create a multi-mission missile with a triple seeker (millimeter-wave radar, Semi-Active Laser and Infra Red imaging) capable to engage static and moving targets with pin-point accuracy, low-collateral damage and ensured killing power against targets ranging from Main Battle Tanks to lone snipers in hiding, even in crowded urban setting. The US Armed Forces are making a reality the “single-stock” concept that should already be a reality in the UK thanks to the Brimstone: instead, despite being capable of replacing Hellfire on helicopters and drones, of being fired from fast-jets, drones and helicopters and even ground platforms and boats, the Brimstone never made it past the Tornado GR4 so far, with Hellfire being continuously bought in numbers for the drones and the Apache helicopters.

Now there is obvious scope for further developing the Brimstone Dual Mode, enhancing its Inert nature for improved handling safety, to make it modular so that it can be assembled pre-mission with the most adequate kind of warhead, to fit it with a base multi-mission explosive head and to make it the weapon of choices across the armed forces. And the SPEAR programme will likely, one day (finally) come around to this as solution to the “50 kg section”.

But arguably it is too late already. Instead of sinking money in creating yet a new system, funding development, trials, integrations and buying stockpiles of missiles, the obvious way to go is joint the American effort on the JAGM missile and replace, in the long run, the Brimstone and Hellfire and Maverick stockpiles entirely with the new common missile, on all platforms from Typhoon to F35C and Apache and drones. With the Americans already doing firing trials, and with their armed forces bound to produce and acquire thousands of rounds, going for commonality here is bound to ensure massive savings in terms of money. MBDA should still be in time to get on the JAGM train, at least in the role of producer for the UK, so to mitigate the damage to the industry and avoid further job losses. The JAGM, being ground-launchable as well, could easily find its way into a possible, future FRES Anti-Tank missile vehicle (conceptually, a replacement for the old Striker and its Swingfire missiles, but combining the High-End JAGM with something more expendable such as the LMM, as I already discussed in the Army posts, to make it not-so-much of a tank killer but a multi-role fire support platform).

A 2010 GAO document estimates total JAGM program cost over 20 years at about $6.4 billion: $1.64 billion for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation; and $4.74 billion to build 33,853 missiles. Experience of weapon development and acquisition programmes suggests caution in taking to literally the cost estimates, but at 230.000 dollars a piece, the JAGM would probably be quite a bargain for the UK armed forces, as the cost of a Brimstone Dual Mode is 175.000 pounds according to a parliamentary answer about the cost of weapons used in Libya (the conversion from standard Brimstone to DMB costs between 37.000 and 45.000 pounds in 2010 money, so the original Brimstone must have been somewhere in the region of 130.000 pounds apiece). The JAGM is being developed by two different teams in competition:

-          Lockheed Martin’s JAGM’s body and tri-mode sensors build on the existing body designs and sensors from Lockheed Martin’s AGM-114 Hellfire missile family, with its options of Hellfire II semi-active laser or millimeter wave Hellfire Longbow missiles, and on the cooled sensors used by the Lockheed/Raytheon Javelin imaging infrared (IIR) missile to add extra fire-and-forget insurance.

-          The Raytheon/Boeing team is using the Brimstone (!) missile as body (Brimstone is a joint MBDA-Boeing product) and the tri-mode laser/radar/ uncooled imaging infrared seeker would leverage Raytheon’s existing Common Tri-Mode Seeker (CTMS) program. This sensor is an evolution of that used on the GBU53-B, better known as Small Diameter Bomb II, that Raytheon is under contract for production for the USAF.
The uncooled infrared seeker currently offers less resolution than Lockheed’s cooled seeker, but is more reliable, lighter, and cheaper to maintain. The CTMS is already part of the NETFIRES NLOS-LS PAM (now pretty much dead after the NLOS programme was sacrificed in US budget cuts), and helped Raytheon win the GBU-53 Small Diameter Bomb Phase II competition – against Boeing, no less – in 2010. While the SDB-II seeker will be used for tests, JAGM production will use a dedicated 4th-generation upgrade.

In my modest opinion, the Raytheon/Boeing team is in the best position to win the contract. I can’t be sure, of course, but they start from an already existing tri-mode sensor which is already planned to be in USAF’s inventory from 2013 and they build upon the proven Brimstone, already cleared for Helicopters, Fast Jets and Drones and Ground launches. The Hellfire is not cleared for fast jets, and it will need some serious changes to be made compatible with high speed launches. Anyway, the Lockheed missile was test-flied successfully on a F/A-18 just months ago, and the development is going well for both teams (better for Raytheon, however: the Lockheed missile failed one engagement during the 3 tests funded by government: LM will have to fund further firings from its own pockets, but that does not mean it is out of the game). 

JAGM has a lot to share with the Dual Mode Brimstone. Here is shown mounted on a F/A-18. 
 
Whatever the winner, the JAGM promises to be the perfect answer not just to US needs, but to UK’s needs too. It will offer great performances, too: fired from helicopters, it will have a range of 0.5 to 16 km, with a range of 2 to 20 km when launched by fast jets. Once it reaches the target, a multi-purpose warhead similar to the Hellfire II’s packs a shaped-charge designed to defeat the most advanced armored threats, along with a blast fragmentation capability to defeat ships, buildings, and bunkers with a two-phase warhead punch.

SPEAR Capability block 3

Targeted mainly at the F35, the Block 3 SPEAR is a cruise missile capable to be carried into the bomb bays of the JSF. As of 2010, the design of the weapon seems to have crystallized on what MBDA calls Capability 100B: essentially, a mini-Storm Shadow missile, weighting around 100 kg and with a range of 100 to 180 km. Reports (and the weight) seem to suggest that the 100B missile would be carried on a four-pylons rail in the fashion of the American Small Diameter Bomb: with a rail on each Air-Ground pylon in the two F35’s weapons bay, a single JSF would carry, stealthily, 8 missiles and 2 ASRAAM or 2 Meteor missiles.

It is yet unclear which kind of targets this missile will be facing: will it be of any use against ships, for example…? The UK has been utterly abandoning the field of air-launched anti-ship missiles, and with the demise of the Nimrod MRA4 currently the UK has NO air platform at all which could employ anti-ship missiles against enemy vessels. This admittedly puzzles me, to say the least. Trying to sink a warship with laser-guided bombs is not really going to work without several planes being lost to the enemy air defence: the UK lost ships in the Falklands to bombs, but we should not forget how many argentine planes went down in flames to launch those bombs. And they were facing missile systems obsolete and primitive (Seacat) or still full of flaws and limitations (Sea Dart with its near incapacity of hitting anything flying low) that only years later would have been truly mitigated, or new and modern but still affected by teething problems (Sea Wolf). No one of us today would like to be ordered to get close to a Type 23 to drop bombs on it, with the levels of efficiency that the Sea Wolf has reached, and ships such as the Type 45 would cause a decimation in any formation of planes coming in heavy with bombs. We might argue that an engagement against big warships has been rare in the years (Uk forces have had to engage mostly just small corvettes and FACs that Lynx with Sea Skua could easily dispose of, in the last few wars, and in the Falklands, luckily, the torpedoes of HMS Conqueror were enough to send the argies back in port before the task force was put before the trouble of finding a way to deal with the 25 De Mayo and its escorts…) but I think this is not nearly enough. Even the Royal Navy SSNs do not have anymore a sub-launched anti-ship missile after the Sub-Harpoon was retired, so they’d need to repeat the HMS Conqueror feat and come real close to their targets in a war, and the Type 45 is all but bare of anti-ship missiles. This does not seem like much of a problem until we reason in terms of COIN, but one day these deficiencies might cause serious trouble.

In its current form, I’m not sure I see real, immediate need for Capability 100B. It would be a silver bullet good for hitting strategic targets from a stand-off range, but this means kind of invading the Storm Shadow’s field, without a real reason. Of course, this changes if the 100B turns out being a cruise missile capable to hit moving targets as well as stationary, reinforced and well protected buildings. If Capability 100B will be a suitable anti-ship weapon too, then I’m all in its favor. But if it is going to be a missile good for taking off bunkers and bridges and runways, no thanks: we have the Storm Shadow already, and it makes more sense to buy more of those and integrate them quickly on Typhoon and F35C. Even if it can’t be carried in more than two units at a time for plane, and even if it does not fit into the weapons bays of the F35C, it is still the most sensible option. The Royal Artillery is also awaiting funds for Extended Range guided shells, long-range Guided MLRS rockets and ATACMS missiles, all cheaper solutions to hit targets of that nature at range. 

A model of Capability 100B from MBDA
I see another role, instead, for a Stealthy F35C carrying all its weapons inside: Suppression of Enemy Air Defences. SEAD missions will continue to be necessary to enable an air campaign over a technologic enemy, and SAM systems continue being high on the wish list of most nations, from Iran to Venezuela, since they are the simplest and cheapest way to contest air superiority. Iran knows that its air force has little chances of rivaling with the US and NATO forces in the sky, and creating an air force capable to truly compete requires immense amounts of money, advanced airplanes, training, expertise and AWACS platforms. SAMs are a far cheaper and simpler “Air Superiority-Denial” asset that can give headaches to the enemy.

The ALARM is currently employed by Tornado GR4. Differently from the AGM-88 HARM, the ALARM packs all the sensors it needs to target enemy radar emissions, while Germany and Italy had to modify a few tens of their own Tornado GR1 to make them “ECR”, cleared for the electronic war, for seeking, targeting and destroying enemy radars. The Typhoon can in theory carry up to 6 ALARM, but there’s currently no integration plan for carrying the missile, and there’s no plan at all to put the missile on the F35, so far. Budget problems have been killing this kind of measures, but the RAF will have to find a way to fund the missile integration effort or lose the capability to carry out any kind of SEAD mission when the GR4 are retired. I even heard that, apparently, the ALARM is slated for retirement in 2013. I do not believe this is true, but if the RAF is willing to lose its capacity to disable enemy SAM batteries and radar networks I have to question, once more, the sanity of the junior service’s top brass, because such an idea is suicidal to say the least. If the 2013 rumour is true, the RAF is effectively going to have a years long gap, because there’s no way a replacement programme can start now and give results in time.

The ALARM is an excellent missile, much superior to the US’s HARM, and battle-proven. It is expensive, which is a drawback, but it is capable of some very impressive feats. It was capable to kill enemy radars even if those were turned off after being targeted when the HARM still couldn’t even dream to do it. And the ALARM has a rather awesome “Loitering” mode in which it flies at altitude, turns off its rocket and hangs from a parachute, waiting for enemy radars below to turn on. This allows a force of strike jets to fly into enemy territory, covered from above by enemy attempts of turning on the radars at the last moment to fire a barrage of missiles and then shut down again to avoid counterstrike. As soon as a radar turns on, the ALARM dives down from the sky and kills it.

But the ALARM, just like the HARM, is a BIG missile. It just won’t fit in the bays of the F35, not even the large bays of the F35C (the F35B has smaller bays than the other two variants because of the space eaten by the VTOL fan). And this kind of kills the main role that, in my opinion, stealth fighters should have: killing the enemy air defence capability to allow non-stealth airplanes to operate “safely” in the enemy sky. Carried externally it will still work, but it kind of kills the rationale of having weapons bay: we are paying an high price for getting a low observable strike platform, and to ruin that monstrously-expensive plus by putting weapons under the wings is acceptable only after the enemy defences have already been weakened considerably and risk is low. In the first hour, the decisive moment, the F35C will need to be as stealth as it can be. And SEAD missions are the very first steps to make in the first hour of a conflict.

The missile that replaces the ALARM (NOT in 2013 I hope, since I am horrified by the loss of SEAD capacity that an ALARM retirement in 2013 would cause, but a replacement will obviously be necessary at some point) is, in my mind, a lot more important and needed than the current Capability Block 3 SPEAR. How to tackle this vital requirement?

The Dual Role Meteor

MBDA has been touting a fascinating proposal: an anti-radar offspring of the Meteor BVRAAM missile. Combining active and passive radar sensors, this Meteor development would almost replicate the concept of AWACS-Killer air to air missile so loved by the Russians, by making the Meteor capable to lock in the electromagnetic signals coming from an enemy ground radar or AWACS and kill them. Advantages are many: commonality, economies of scale given by a greater number of missiles acquired, a missile that might be capable to cover two very different roles at once and, very important, it would be a missile sized to fit perfectly into the F35C weapons bay. Such a radar-killing Meteor would have increased chances in air to air combat too, capable to follow enemy radars without emitting tell-tale signals that inexorably warn the enemy that a missile is coming for them. Compared to the HARM, it would offer a much higher speed and a greater range by far. Capable of over Mach-4, the Meteor ARM would replicate the original concept behind the HARM (High-speed Anti Radiation Missile): it would be faster than the SAMs, and it would kill their guidance radar before they can strike the attacking aircraft. A GPS system could memorize the position of the enemy radar, so to still be able to complete the engagement even if the enemy was to turn the radar off once detected, and since the Meteor comes from the start with a two-ways data link, it could be possible to retarget the missile in real time towards a different radiation-source if the primary target was lost and rules of engagement denied the possibility of a “blind” strike. Again, retaining at the same time the active radar seeker in the same missile, with the adequate software the Meteor would become capable to engage ground targets as well.

This concept would follow the line that the USAF and US Navy are tracing with their Joint Dual Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRADM) a programme still in its early phase of life, which is targeted at developing a successor to the Sparrow, AMRAAM and HARM missiles, capable to attack air and ground targets, combining active and passive radar guidance while retaining AMRAAM-compatible sizes, so to ensure ready and easy integration and allowing internal carriage on F22 and F35. It is likely that such a double-role Meteor would have an higher unitary cost, but advantages would come from having a single, larger stock of missiles covering all roles. A Meteor with an air-ground capability, besides, would come a lot more handy, in a lot more situations.

Challenges, of course, are not as trivial as it seems: fitting both active and passive radar seeker into the limited space available is a noticeable feat of technique. But it is also a feat already done more than one time. The same AARGM 88E, the latest HARM variant, has a seeker of this kind, and another was part of the then-abandoned german Armiger missile.  A sizeable expansion of the software of the missile will be needed, very possibly a new proximity fuze better capable to determine when to detonate the warhead to deal with the new range of targets (radar aerials, vehicles, troop concentrations) will be needed, along with modifications to the fragmentation warhead, which will probably require an enhancement, primarily to fire heavier, deadlier fragments capable to kill the mobile radar vehicles of SAM batteries. The useful “loiter” mode of the ALARM will be lost, but trying to replicate it would be terribly expensive and hardly justifiable, considering that, at over Mach 4, the Meteor will offer a reaction-time short enough to compensate.

MBDA sustains the feasibility of this kind of approach. However, on top of the technical challenges, there is to consider that the UK risks being alone in funding such a development, unless France (far less likely Spain and Sweden or others) can be lured into a common programme. Germany and Italy, in fact, have invested lots of money in the new, enhanced AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile: essentially, an improved HARM. Italy spent 158 millions euro to acquire 250 missiles and have them integrated on its 30-some Tornado ECR, and Germany also invested in this programme, making it unlikely to see them committing precious funding into yet another anti-radar missile anytime soon. Similarly, the JDRADM risks being really expensive a programme to join, and the new missile might come too late to replace ALARM, and too soon to make it acceptable to replace the Meteor after investing so heavily in it. Buying the AGM88E, however, (which is pretty much the last option on the table) would be far less than optimal.

At that point, better to extend the life of ALARM for as long as it is feasible.    


SPEAR Capability Block 4

MBDA-Led, joint anglo-french upgrade and sustainment programme for the Storm Shadow missile. Italy, being the third major user of the missile, could likely participate to the upgrade programme, while Saudi Arabia is unlikely to collaborate, save probably having its missiles later updated by BAE.

Not much is really known and firm about these future upgrades, but a two-way datalink is almost certainly going to figure, to allow re-targeting and increasing the control over the missile post-launch, just as with the latest Tomahawk IV. Other improvements are likely to include an increase of the range of the missile, particularly since the upgrade will build upon experience matured with the SCALP Navale with its 1000+ km range.

It is to be noted that the 250 km range figure for Storm Shadow is the range for a low-flight profile engagement from launch to hit. If the missile could do at least part of the cruise at altitude, efficiency of the propulsion would be much higher, allowing for a much longer range.

The TAURUS KEPD350, to provide an example, has a ceiling cruise altitude of over 7000 meters. Flying at altitude requires less consume of fuel, so that, when it is possible to fly the missile at altitude, range grows to 350 km, or even to over 500 in some attack profiles.

It is widenly thought that the real range of Storm Shadow is much higher than 250 km, but the exact data is of course classified.

Another upgrade considered for Storm Shadow was the DUMAS, for which development started in 2006 in a collaborative programme with France. DUMAS technology combines an active infrared scanning laser and a passive infrared detector which, used in conjunction with sophisticated algorithms, detects, images and identifies targets. 
DUMAS will improve existing and new missile systems by increasing target search areas and by providing powerful automated target identification capabilities. It was meant to  demonstrate a new seeker capable to guide the missile on moving, difficult targets, while also providing before-strike enhanced imagery, valid also to conduct a first mission-effect estimate.
The DUMAS is believed to have informed subsequent developments and researches tied not just to the Storm Shadow but also other elements of SPEAR.   


SPEAR Capability Block 5

Rumours about this last touted development went as far as to suggest a 600+ km supersonic cruise missile. Frankly, this looks largely injustified, unless:

1)      – The RAF is trying to sell this missile, if nuclear-tipped, as a “cheaper” option to replace Trident
2)      – The RAF with this missile aims to reduce the importance (and priority) acquired in the last few   years by the strike capability of TLAM-equipped navy submarines.

In both cases, this missile would still be the worst possible decision, and it represents the last thing I’d use funding for, much as it fascinates me. I struggle to justify it, or find a real role for it in the balance of the forces. The more I think about it, and the more it looks like the personification of the desire of the RAF of getting back in charge of strategic strikes, downplaying the utility (and need) of Tomahawk.

My personal opinion is that Capability 5 is the very last thing money should be used for.


Conclusions

-          ASRAAM, later updated building on the CAMM missile development, will remain the short-range weapons for air to air duels.
-          METEOR, to become the main anti-air asset of the RAF replacing AMRAAM, should be further developed to take on the role of ALARM as well and take on a full multi-mission capability.
-          PAVEWAY IV, the main guided bomb, and possibly, at some point in the future, the only model of guided bomb kept in service. Improvements to include a weapon data link and anti-jam GPS to start with. A wider range of warheads should be made available for the common guidance kit, including a reduced-yield warhead and a bunker-buster one building on HARDBUT. A wing kit is somewhat desirable, but it does not look like an urgency, and with money being at such a premium, this upgrade should be delayed. The IR-Imaging seeker looks more sensible, since it would make the Paveway IV even more accurate, and capable to strike even fast moving targets, if the similarly-kitted JDAM is an example to trust.
-          Capability Block 2 seems to copy exactly the same requirements of the American JAGM, with this missile offering the premium of a single kind of weapon for the whole fleets of jets, helicopters and drones. My suggestion is to pursue the JAGM instead of trying to invent again the warm water.
-          Capability Block 3 looks quite useful and undoubtedly fascinating, but not entirely justified. An alternative option is buying the already available Small Diameter Bomb II, capable to defeat even a moving MBT. It is not a powered weapon, but it can glide up to 75 naval miles in optimal conditions of launch, and might suffice. It’ll have the bonus of coming already integrated on the F35. The most sensible approach however, in my opinion remains the deferral of this voice of expenditure, with the money re-directed towards the earlier proposed Meteor upgrades, so to close the bleeding gap in SEAD capability.
-          Capability Block 4 by 2020/25, the Storm Shadow will definitely need an upgrade to stay in step with the natural evolution of requirements and technology. No reasons to deferral the updates, particularly because this should be the least expensive element of SPEAR.
-          Capability Block 5 looks totally unjustified, and in times of ever-shrinking budget, thinking of sinking money on this super-missile is hard to stomach. And by the way, long before development of this missile can hope to conclude, the Indians will long have tested their Hypersonic Mach 5+ variant of the Bramhos. At that point, it’d be a lot cheaper to just buy that, if the need for such a piece of kit will be really felt.


SCAVENGER – the UK’s MALE

Budget and numbers

A recent internal Defense Ministry document puts a nominal price and program size on Scavenger. Life-cycle costs are estimated at £2 billion ($3.3 billion). The procurement would be for 20 aircraft to support operational needs, although an additional 10 air vehicles would likely be needed as attrition reserve for a 15-year program life, so I will assume the acquisition of 30 drones. The development and fielding timeline is expected to stretch eight years, so the ISD target date is around 2018.

The 2 billion figure for life-life total expense for the programme is a good starting point to try and determine the budget that is expected to be used for Scavenger. Normally, through-life support for an asset is the source of (indicatively) 60% of the cost. Assuming this empiric value for Scavenger, we see that perhaps as many as 1200 millions will be necessary for running the system in its 15-year operative life. This would leave 800 million pounds for acquisition of the machines, but a billion has also been previously mentioned as a possible budget for this procurement. A fleet of 30 machines would thus mean an unitary cost ranging from 27 to over 33 million pounds for each drone. This is roughly the same that the UK is paying to acquire US MQ-9 Reapers, according to the figures reported: 5 drones are being acquired for a total of 135 million pounds, or 27 millions per drone.

This might be a bit optimistic: Scavenger will most likely be the result of the joint work of BAE and Dassault, and it will be a new machine born out of a requirement list that, as much as possible, will have to harmonize the needs and requirements of the RAF, the RN, the British Army, and also those put forwards by France. The french plan for a long-term fleet of up to 60 drones, and the new machine could gain significant export orders if things are done the right way, but even so there will be design costs, inflation and capabilities to pay for, and while some of today's technology will become cheaper by the time Scavenger hits production, undoubtedly there will be costs coming up from other aspects.

It has also been suggested that Scavenger would be a way to mitigate operational shortfalls the U.K. will face as a result of program cuts made in last year’s Strategic Defense and Security Review. In particular, the system has been touted as a means to take on some of the maritime surveillance tasks left unmet by the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 program and by the ground-surveillance requirements that the Sentinel R1’s retirement would bring.

The doctrine center's report, however, wisely pours cold water any many of those notions. “Scavenger is unlikely to be in the same class as Sentinel in terms of its ability to monitor a very wide area or to provide radar imagery at equivalent standoff ranges.” For maritime surveillance, the current notion for Scavenger would only “partly alleviate” the loss of the Nimrod MRA4, with effectively no contribution to the anti-submarine warfare mission unless the unmanned aircraft’s envisioned role changes dramatically. It is in fact self-evident that, while Scavenger could go and do surface searches (without the speed and range of the MRA4, however, and with sensors inexorably smaller and less powerful), it will have no ASW capability at all. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy is working to help set the Scavenger requirement, in part to ensure that forces at sea can benefit from the intelligence collected.

The Navy also wants to plug a tactical surveillance hole, and this year will demonstrate a medium unmanned helicopter capability to help refine its needs. This, however, is likely to evolve into a Fire Scout-like unmanned helicopter, and will substantially be the drone that will be operated out of the Type 26 frigates and other warships. Such an unmanned helicopter, is hoped, could also help the army fill certain other specific needs of the ground forces while retaining the highest possible commonality with navy drones. I will later take my shots about what this might mean, but what should be clear is that this drone requirement is separated from Scavenger, which aims at fielding a Medium Altitude, Long Endurance drone which can complement and replace the Reaper.

The present: MQ-9 Reaper

in January 2005 the 1115° RAF Flight was established at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, to operate US Air Force-owned General Atomics M/RQ-1 Predator unmanned Remotley Piloted Air System (RPAS). RPAS is the official RAF acronym for drones: the name is meant to make it real clear that the airplane is piloted and controlled by human beings, even if there is no pilot on board. Admirable effort in political correctness, but as expected not enough to avoid tons of countless examples of scaremongering about “terminator machines” and unmanned platforms “which drop bombs on their own”. The press is an enemy that can't be defeated, unfortunately, so that's how things go.

45 members of the RAF were assigned to this bi-national collaborative programme, which also allowed the UK to have voice and direct participation in a whole series of tests, trials and experiments about the use of drones, their limits, their good points, and the kit that they need/best operate with. This practice became known as the Joint UAV Experimentation Programme (JUEP), which looked at RPAS applications for other emerging requirements. Part of these trials, between December 2005 and February 2005, saw the testing of a RAPTOR reconnaissance system on board of Reaper. During those trials a DB-110 recce sensor and tactical data link taken from a Royal Air Force RAPTOR targeting pod was integrated into a US Air National Guard stores pod normally carried by a Lockheed Martin F-16. The new configuration was carried on the inner port pylon of a National Guard's Predator B's wing. The proposed compact DB-110 pod is optimised for carriage on a centreline pylon, and could provide the basis for a highly integrated cross cueing sensor suite for the Reaper.

On 3 January 2007, as the RAFacquired 3 MQ-9 Reaper drones from the US as part of a UOR for Afghanistan, the 39 Squadron RAF, which had last operated with the English Electric Camberra recce plane up to 2006, was reformed to operate the new machines. The RAF squadron was reformed on RAF Waddington air base, but it actually works in Creech AFB, Nevada, in the United States. The 45 men already present in the base became the 'A Flight' and continued with their collaboration with the USAF, while 'B', 'C' and 'D' Flights were formed to operate the 3 Reapers, which were deployed to Kandahar airfield to provide a persistent ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) capability to British and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In 2009, the 39 Squadron lined, in Creech AFB, a force of 12 two-man crews, assigned to a fleet of 3 Reapers, which became two after one was lost in Afghanistan to an engine failure and crashed in June 2008. A team of Special Forces was sent into the crash site to remove the secret technical equipment, after which the wreckage was destroyed by RAF Harriers.
Although the aircraft can fly for up to 17 hours, when fully armed, the crews only fly for a maximum of four hours each to ensure fresh eyes are always watching the British troops on the ground. And because much of the flying is on autopilot, crews can take lavatory breaks, stretch their legs and, in some circumstances, take a call from their wives.
The crews are supported by a tri-service team of intelligence specialists, signalers and meteorologists and part of the personnel works in Afghanistan to maintain the drones themselves, in Kandahar.

In the control room of the Reaper, at Creech AFB, the pilot sits on the left-hand side and the sensor operator sits on the right. The pilot has a throttle and a joystick from where he can release bombs or fire missiles. In front of the crew are 10 computer screens, of which two provide high-resolution, real-time video imagery of the ground. The other screens provide the crew with the information they need to fly the mission. Crews talk to Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTacs) – the troops who identify targets and call in air strikes – on the ground in Helmand. When a Reaper is providing top cover for British troops, the JTac is in constant communication with the crew. Using a device known as a "Rover", a laptop computer, the JTac can also see the same video image as the crews in Creech and can direct the Reaper onto targets.
The crews often work with members of the Special Forces conducting surveillance and strike operations against senior al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders or High Value Targets (HVTs).

The RAF reapers were used for RECCE only for roughly a year, and the drones began to carry weaponry only in early 2008. The drones use Paveway bombs and Hellfire of various variants (included the Hellfire N, armed with a thermobaric warhead) but are not currently capable of using british stores such as Paveway IV and Brimstone, because no integration has been funded. Notably, for ease of use on Reaper, a twin rail for Brimstone is available, but the RAF has not acquired this.
Currently, 4 Reapers are available, and a further five are on order. 9 Reapers will allow the RAF to keep up to 3 simultaneously in the air over Helmand.


In 2012, it has been announced, XIII RAF Squadron will be reformed on RAF Waddington to use the new Reapers, and command them (finally) from the UK. It is not totally clear if 39 RAF Squadron will progressively relocate back to Waddington or if that is not on the plans yet.


The main stats for Reaper are: 
Weight - Empty: 1676 kg
Fuel capacity: 1815 kg / 2230 liters
Max Take-Off weight: 4763 kg with 385 kg of sensors and 1360 of weapons
Weaponry load: four underwing pylons, normally loaded with 2 x 500lb Paveway laser guided bombs and
4 Hellfire missiles on two twin rails
Speed: 260 knots maximum, 200 knots cruise
Endurance: 17 hours fully armed – 2 Paveway + 4 Hellfire
24 hours unarmed (up to 28 according to some sources)
14 hours maximum endurance at maximum load   
Max Range: 5927 km
Weight: 10,000 lbs
Maximum altitude when armed: 25,000ft
 Unarmed 50,000ft
Wing Span: 60ft
Length: 36 ft
Engine: 1 x 1000HP turbo prop
Sensors: three cameras - Day TV, low light, infra-red.
AN/APY-8 Lynx II Synthetic Aperture Radar, range 85 Km
Electro-Optic sensor turret with laser targeting
Store Pylons: 7
o    Up to 1,500 lb (680 kg) on the two inboard weapons stations
o    Up to 750 lb (340 kg) on the two middle stations
o    Up to 150 lb (68 kg) on the outboard stations
o    Center station is currently not used

More stores can be carried than those used currently in Afghanistan, but two bombs and four Hellfires is the standard loadout. Stinger missiles have been trialed on the outwards pylon, and the USAF plans to test AIM-9X Sidewinder and even AIM-120C AMRAAM on it at some point, while also integrating a maximum load of 4 BRU-61 pylons with 16 Small Diameter Bombs.


The Reaper can be dismantled into its main parts and fitted into a purposefully-designed container for carriage inside cargo aircrafts such as C130J and C17.
The MQ-9 aircraft operates from standard U.S. airfields with clear line-of-sight to the ground data terminal antenna which provides line-of-sight communications for takeoff and landing. The PPSL provides over-the-horizon communications for the aircraft and sensors. 

An alternate method of employment, Remote Split Operations, employs a GCS for takeoff and landing operations at the forward operating location, while the CONUS-based crew executes the mission via beyond-line-of-sight links (satellite). This is the method used, also by the RAF, for operations in Afghanistan.

The future: Scavenger MALE

What do we want from Scavenger? This is the first question we have to answer.
Indicatively, the BAE/MOD joint demonstrator programme, the Mantis, gave us indications of the general direction the programme is taking:

·         Two engines, for improved survivability
·         Good stores carriage capability, with indicatively 6 underwing pylons and a centerline under-fuselage pylon, which might even, in time, receive a gunpod.
·         Radar, Electro-Optic sensor turret and other sensors
·         Strike capable to act as Hunter-Killer asset. Must be fully compatible with RAF weaponry.
·         36 hours endurance unarmed and possibly up to 29 when armed, judging from Bae data about what they expected from a production-standard Mantis.

Scavenger needs to be a true Tri-service asset, capable to operate in all climates and conditions and supporting the operations of all the services. Indicatively, the new MALE should retain good strategical mobility (must be possible to carry a whole system in an A400 'Atlas', no point in aiming for C130J since it won't be around anymore) and be capable to operate from CVF: catapult launch might not be needed, and the drone should be able to land and roll to a stop without using the arresting wires, but even so a proper, strong landing gear will be needed, and a good software capable to drive the drone during the approach and landing phase, even in bad weather. If catapult launch is needed, the landing gear will have to incorporate the necessary features. 

The Mantis drone, jointly funded by BAe and MOD, has flown for the first time on 21 October 2009 at the Woomera test range, Australia. Mock-ups of the massive drone have been already showcased at several air shows, and gained interest even from India. The Mantis is slightly bigger than the Reaper, more advanced, and with greater performances.

Folding wings are not indispensable, but could be useful to improve shipboard stowage and operations, and also to make it faster to prepare the drone for transport aboard cargo planes. They would ideally fold rotating upwards and then folding backwards, like the wings of the Hawkeye. The design constraints will be determined by the A400M cargo bay, so a space 23,11 meters long, 4 meters wide and 3,85 meters tall. As little disassembling as possible is ideally required: if we get the folding wings, it may then be sufficient to dismount the two engines (which ideally should be a really fast thing, so to allow easy replacement during mainteinance too) and possibly it might be required to dismount the tail rudder, which in the Mantis demonstrator looks quite prominent.

The US armed forces have been trialing unmanned, automatic air-refueling systems, using an F/A-18 fitted with an automated AAR engaging software which was trialed with some success. By 2018, an AAR-capable UAV might be not just common, but necessary, so that the fitting of a refueling probe and the necessary software might also need to be considered from the very start of the development.
The advantages would be significant, ensuring a better self-deploying capability and also an even longer time on station, loitering over the area to monitor.

The Scavenger drones will have to be able to operate in any kind of climate, since the UK can't afford separate fleets of assets for the different weather-related challenges: this means having good power installed to deal with the heat of desert areas, but also having de-icing systems, as on Watchkeeper.

The sensor suite will of course include a SAR radar capable to detect and track surface targets, on land and sea: an alternative approach might involve the use of special “pods” to attach to the centerline station of the drone, each pod containing the radar most adequate to the task at hand. This would offer several advantages:

·         easy fitting of diverse radar systems depending from the mission. For example, for use on the sea the drone might use a pod-variant of the AESA surface-search radar used on the Wildcat helicopter, or a more powerful radar if possible, perhaps even the Searchwater 2000N that would have been used by Nimrod MRA4. Fitted with a Searchwater air-search radar such as that used by the Sea King AsaC Mk7, the drone would be a perfect and cost-effective MASC replacement, and with progress in miniaturization perhaps sometime a downsized ASTOR radar system from the Sentinel R1 might fit.
·         Easier upgrades through life: replacing a pod is normally simpler than replacing an internally assembled radar system.

In terms of timelines and quantities, Crown's Nest (the last known "evolution" of the MASC programme) in 2010 was looking at fielding 10 AEW Merlin helicopters. After the change of the CVF from STOVL to CATOBAR; however, fixed-wing solutions are gaining more and more strength. A drone, due to the greater endurance and performances compared to an helicopter, might allow less platforms to be acquired to obtain the same effect. Introduction into service was indicated in the 2019 - 2022 period, while Scavenger is expected by 2018, so that a MASC-dedicated "tail" in production seems to be perfectly viable. 

Note, though, that trying to fit an ASTOR or Searchwater radar will bring us straight to two of the main challenges of the Scavenger:

·         Installed Power
·         Bandwidth

But we will discuss of those later on.

Another sensor we might want to be available for use on Scavenger is the RAPTOR reconnaissance system, and this is the less challenging requirement, since an arrangement has been trialed successfully on a Reaper already back in 2005.

Last but not least, we might want to have the capability of employing the Gorgon Stare technology.
Gorgon Stare is the name given to a new video capture technology developed by the United States military in a 150 million dollars programme. It is an array of nine cameras attached to an aerial drone, that make it possible to monitor the whole of a four square kilometers area in real time.
The system is capable of capturing video of an entire city, can then be analyzed by humans and/or artificial intelligence systems. 

Gorgon Stare offers a wide-angle view that can encompass a whole small town, giving a bird-eye view of a wide area, covering a surface with 4 kilometers of radius.  A massive step forwards from the single camera view of the sensor turret normally used.

In January 2011, it was announced that the program wasn't performing to expectations, and included faults such as "a large black triangle moving throughout the image," due to failure to combine the images taken by the multiple cameras, inferior image quality compared to older systems, a problematic night-vision system, inability to track people on the surface, and delays of up to eighteen seconds in sending data to the ground. In response, the Air Force said that several of the flaws had beenfixed since the report was detailing the issues had been written, that the system was never designed to offer high-resolution imagery over a wide area, and that in some areas the testing was "not sufficiently constructed to objectively evaluate the capabilities of the system," according to an anonymous source involved with the program.
Gorgon Stare’s payload is contained in two pods slightly larger than, but about the same total weight as the two 500-lb. GBU-12 laser-guided bombs the Reaper routinely carries. The pods attach to the inboard weapon pylons under the wing. One pod carries a sensor ball produced by subcontractor ITT Defense that protrudes from the pod’s bottom. The ball contains five electro-optical (EO) cameras for daytime and four infrared (IR) cameras for nighttime ISR, positioned at different angles for maximum ground coverage. The pod also houses a computer processor. The cameras shoot motion video at 2 frames/sec., as opposed to full motion video at 30 frames/sec. The five EO cameras each shoot two 16-megapixel frames/sec., which are stitched together by the computer to create an 80-megapixel image. The four IR cameras combined shoot the equivalent of two 32-megapixel frames/sec. The second Gorgon Stare pod contains a computer to process and store images, data-link modem, two pairs of Common Data Link and Tactical Common Data Link antennas, plus radio frequency equipment.

Gorgon Stare is operated independently but in coordination with the Reaper’s crew by a two-member team working from a dedicated ground station, which cat fit on the back of a Humvee. A second Humvee carries a generator and spare parts. A separate, forward-deployed processing, exploitation and dissemination team co-located with the Gorgon Stare ground station coordinates with commanders in-theater, directing the system’s sensors and exploiting their imagery in real time.

The result is a system that offers a “many orders of magnitude” leap beyond the “soda straw” view provided by the single EO/IR camera carried by a conventional Reaper UAV. The video taken by Gorgon Stare’s cameras can be “chipped out” into 10 individual views and streamed to that many recipients or more via the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL). Any ground or airborne unit within range of Gorgon Stare’s TCDL and equipped with a Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver, One System Remote Video Terminal or an hand-held receiver can view one of the chip-outs.

At the same time, Gorgon Stare will process the images from all its cameras in flight, quilting them into a mosaic for a single wide-area view. That image can be streamed to tactical operations centers or Air Force Distributed Common Ground System intelligence facilities by the Gorgon Stare ground station via line-of-sight data link. The ground station team, which will control the system’s sensors, can also transmit the relatively low-resolution wide-area view to recipients in-theater or elsewhere via other wideband communication devices, plus chip-out an additional 50-60 views and forward them as needed.

Gorgon Stare’s coverage area is classified but, as stated, considerably bigger than that provided by a single EO/IR camera: instead of looking at a truck or a house, the look can now encompass an entire village or a small city. Moreover, Gorgon Stare’s computers will store all imagery its cameras capture on a single mission, allowing the data to be transferred for exploitation after landing.

Gorgon Stare operates independently of the Reaper’s sensor turret, which MQ-9 operators continue to control from U.S. ground control stations. Bandwidth limitations prevent Reaper operators from viewing Gorgon Stare’s imagery as they fly the MQ-9: transfer the imagery via satellite back to Creech requires so much bandwidth that not even the USAF can afford it.
The Reaper crew will instead be in contact with the team in the forward-deployed Gorgon Stare ground station, however, to coordinate requests to slew the sensor ball over a target, or for other purposes. In practice, the team forward-deployed gets the whole picture, and the drone crew control the sensor turret, which can be used to focus on a detail of interest such as suspect activity, for example someone digging a hole that might be used to plant an IED. Advances in sensor capability, particularly focal plane arrays, and in image-processing capacity are the key technologies that make Gorgon Stare possible, the official wrote.

The initial deployment, designated Quick Reaction Capability Increment I, consisted of four sets of pods built at a cost of $17.5 million per set, excluding the cost of the ground control station, says Robert Marlin, USAF deputy director of ISR capabilities and technical adviser for Gorgon Stare. The production cost per pod set is expected to rise for a planned Increment II consisting of six pod sets, Marlin says, but “costs will decrease with larger production runs.”

The Increment II pods will differ from Increment I, offering twice the area coverage and double the resolution by using separate EO and IR sensor balls—one of each on individual pods—being built, respectively, by BAE Systems and ITT Defense, says Mike Meermans, vice president of strategic planning at Sierra Nevada. Increment II will produce increased coverage and better resolution by packing a large number of small cameras—perhaps hundreds—into each sensor ball, he notes. Images from the Increment II EO cameras will be in color rather than black-and-white as in Increment I. Sierra Nevada is also designing Increment II with an open architecture to permit additional sensors—perhaps a synthetic aperture radar, for example—to be added to the pods, with the data they gather integrated into the Gorgon Stare video image by the onboard computer processors.

A Gorgon Stare pod set weighs substantially less than a Reaper’s 3,000-lb. payload capacity, but an MQ-9 carrying Gorgon Stare flies unarmed because of electrical power limitations and stays aloft at 20,000-25,000 ft. for only 14-15 hr., several hours less than an armed MQ-9 which can fly 17 hours. Endurance is affected by drag from the pods, Marlin says.

The Gorgon Stare system still has its defects. But it is improving fast, and Increment II already is a quantum leap forwards from the capability of Increment I. By the time Scavenger hits service, Gorgon Stare should be a mature (and cheaper) technology, and the UK should follow the development of this system very closely. Personnel from the 39 RAF Squadron might have already had a first impact with the system as I write: it is hoped that RAF personnel will be allowed to work with Gorgon Stare, helping to inform a decision on its acquisition: and if an acquisition is envisaged, the power requirements, the weight and the drag factor of the Gorgon Stare must inform the development of the MALE drone itself.

Ideally, seen that the RAF will inexorably have less platforms than the USAF, Scavenger must be able to retain a 24 hours endurance with Gorgon Stare pods and, indicatively, 2 Paveway IV bombs and 4 to 6 Brimstone missiles – or JAGM missiles, since I propose the acquisition of the new missile for RAF use, but this is something I will explain in the SPEAR article.

Scavenger's challenges

The main challenges that the new MALE has to face are the main challenges that still brake the expansion of the UAVs and UCAVs in the whole range of missions of the air forces worldwide:

Bandwidth – to install more powerful sensors, such as Searchwater radar or Gorgon Stare, more bandwidth is necessary for the transmission of data back to base in real time. For example, the Searchwater air-search radar of the Sea King's CERBERUS suite transmits its data to two consoles operated, on board of the helicopter, by two crewmen: these two consoles should be feed via data-link, in real time, via satellite in order to enable MASC-style operations with the drone. This requires bandwidth, which means more satellites and more powerful, more bandwidth-effective transmission technology. The UK will send into orbit a new satellite, the Skynet D, in 2013, and still bandwidth will remain a precious and rare resource. A main area of concern for drone operations is ensuring that suitable datalink data transfer can be made possible, secure, and cost-effective.

Installed power – space and weight are always rare and precious on a flying machine, but more installed power will be necessary in order for the future drones to be able to power their systems and work in the roles we need them to cover. The limitations of Reaper when Gorgon Stare pods are being run are indicative of the kind of problem that Scavenger must tackle.

Cost – this is inexorably a constant. Cost of acquisition must be kept low, ideally within 33 million pounds, and operating cost and cost for flying hours must also stay particularly low in order to make Scavenger really succesful.

What do we get?
Indicatively, with a frontline strength of 20 drones we could look at two squadrons with each machines each. Both formations would be capable to offer surveillance 24 hours on 24, seven days on seven, with up to 3 drones in the air simultaneously.

The other drones

The Navy will be flying a demonstrative helicopter drone to employ aboard ships later this year according to reports. This is likely to be something similar to the Fire Scout, but probably more “ambitious”: the Fire Scout is a great machine, but it is born limited by its small payload and weight growth capacity, both issues that must be avoided with whatever the UK decides to pursue: the acquisition cost will be higher, but we will get a more capable machine with growth capacity to adapt to future needs and to allow for technology insertions that will keep the drone up to date. Otherwise, it will soon need replacement.

The Royal Navy has been offered a wide array of choices, and some at-sea activity with drones has been done within the boundaries of the MASC Sea King MK7 replacement programme: the Boeing ScanEagle drone was tested operatively in 2004 as part of the “UAV Support to Maritime Ops" strand of the JUEP. The purpose was to explore the operational utility of current UAV systems, with an emphasis on ISTAR, and the potential contribution that ship-based UAVs can make to a future maritime Network Enabled Capability (NEC)
On 4 November 2004 Thales UK, Boeing and QinetiQ signed a contract with the MoD for the Maritime Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) strand of the £21 million Joint UAV Experimentation Programme (JUEP).   The team, led by Thales UK and known as Team JUEP, flew the ScanEagle UAV in a maritime role to identify the joint service operational requirements for future maritime UAVs., exploring the contribution that UAV systems can make to a future networked maritime ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability. This includes improvements in the detection, recognition and identification of both conventional and asymmetric threats in littoral environments, and their contribution to command decision-making, and target prosecution.

The trials culminated in March 2005 when a team led by Thales UK and including Boeing and QinetiQ conducted a two week long exercise with a SeaEagle UAV which also involved the Type 23 frigate HMS Sutherland and a Sea King ASaC.7 helicopter from 849 Squadron. During the exercise, the ScanEagle showed its ability to support maritime operations and land reconnaissance with flights of up to 8 hours, demonstrating capabilities which would for example, enhance the commander's recognised surface picture and enable early warning and evasive action against fast attack craft. Unfortunately bad weather and technical problems limited the trials - the UAV had to be launched and recovered from a land-based catapult rather than the frigate; and the ASaC.7 was not able to directly control and task the SeaEagle, although it was able to vector the UAV in to investigate radar contacts.

Schiebel and Thales have teamed up already from some time in order to offer the Royal Navy the Camcopter S100: the UAV can be launched automatically performing Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL), eliminating the need for special equipment and preparations at the launch and recovery sites. The helicopter navigates by following preprogrammed GPS waypoints, it can also be operated manually by the pilot. The fuselage is constructed of carbon-fiber monocoque providing maximum capacity for a wide range of payload/endurance combinations. It weights only around 200 kg, and each “system” includes two drones and a ground control station. The Camcopter is fitted with daylight and night thermal observation equipment. The payload is installed in a primary payload bay, which is configured to carry loads of up to 50 kg. The helicopter can also mount an additional forward looking camera for pilot orientation. The UAV can also accommodate other payloads, including multi-spectral sensors, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Laser Imaging radar (LIDAR) and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). Thales demonstrated the so-called “Fury”, which is a weapon-capable S100 which can be armed with a couple of LMM missiles. Endurance is six hours, maximum speed 220 km/h and a ceiling of 5500 meters. It has been ordered in at least 200 units from various countries, starting from UAE. The German Navy has acquired six systems for use on frigates.

Camcopter S100 armed with two Thales LMM missiles

Another contender, considered even for MASC-related duty, is the 2950-kg Boeing A160T Hummingbird,
which has been funded by Darpa and the US Naval Air Warfare Center. The A160T was designed to achieve an unrefuelled range of 4600 km, an endurance of 24 hours with a 135-kg payload and a speed of 260 km/h at 30,000 ft. It first flew in June 2007, and has already demonstrated a flight of 18.7 hours and hovered out of ground effect at 20,000 ft. 11 meters long, and with roughly 11 meters of rotor diameter, the A160T is already a pretty big system. The A160T has also already been extensively tested, also with very advanced sensor payloads: In May 2004, the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command awarded Syracuse Research Corp. a $13.3 million contract for the ultra high frequency, foliage penetrating, real-time moving target indicator/synthetic aperture radar for use in the A160.

The A160T is a very capable helicopter drone. The massive pod contains the foliage-penetrating target tracking radar, which once in flight can be rotated in any direction to survey a specific area.

The Hummingbird also offers significant payload capacity: in August 2009, the A160T was chosen by the US Marine Corps along with the Kaman K-MAX to demonstrate the ability to move 6,000 lb (2,722 kg) of cargo in less than 6 hours for three consecutive days. The A160T successfully completed the re-supply demonstration in early March 2010. The simulated mission delivered 1,250-pound sling loads over two 150-nautical-mile round trips, with the A160T operating autonomously on a preprogrammed mission.
In December 2010, NAVAIR awarded a $29.9 million contract to Boeing for two A160Ts and control systems.

1250 pounds have been regularly carried in tests, and the helicopter proved to be able, with such a load, of over two minutes of hovering at 12.000 feet of altitude.
The new Royal Navy drone-chopper should ideally be something that the Army can also use. The Hummingbird A160T offers very good performances, ideally representative of what the RN is probably seeking. A folding rotor will be needed in order to allow stowage on board of Type 26 frigates and other ships, because the current four-bladed rotor would obviously eat up a lot of space. The Hummingbird is offered with weapon payloads as well, such as 8 Hellfire missiles.
The Thales LMM missile might be in future fitted, but the role of the drone would, for the Navy, be that of a long-endurance “spotter” capable to keep a wide area of sea under control. Fitted with an adequate radar payload, the drone-helicopter could also provide mid-flight targeting updates to the Harpoon missiles of a frigate to allow long-range engagements. In contrast, this role during the exercise AURIGA 2010 was covered by the embarked Merlin HM1, which successfully flew low on the horizon, at safe distance, and provided targeting data that enabled HMS Sutherland to “sink” a US warship in what was called “Daredevil raid”.

At the moment in which I write, I cannot say if the trials announced for this year have anything to share with the MBDA Black Shadow. This not-well know system is a distant relative of Storm Shadow, more UAV than missile, required to be capable to deliver strikes 600 miles inland, taking off from a frigate. Moreover, it has to be a reusable platform, which means that some kind of recovery technique is part of the system. In 2009 the bids for fulfilling this requirement, known as Novel Air Capability Vision were filed to the MOD, but little is known because this particular programme is being treated as classified.  However, in 2010 rumors emerged that the winner bidder was MBDA with the Black Shadow: the news was also reported on the Italian specialized magazine “Aeronautica e Difesa”. Back in 2009, the MOD released these images of the Novel Air Capability drone, which probably many readers will have remember having seen: 

The Novel Air Capability system is shown here with very significant loads, including sensors, EMP warheads, Brimstone missiles. The drone takes off like an helicopter, and then flies like a plane. It will deliver strikes at 600 miles range and beyond.
The drones shown taking off from a Type 45's spacious flight deck. Would this drone replace the frigates' SSM fit as well...? Something might have to be sacrificed in order to fit everything into the budget.
  
The helicopter-to-stealth-plane-and-back is an impressive feature. And challenging as well. This means cost. Probably, simpler way of launching and recovering the actual drone are being considered, also because this concept is hardly relative to Storm Shadow, from which the MBDA offer Black Shadow derives. Black Shadow might look more like a multi-payload IKARA missile system with a capability to come back to the ship after the mission, and either land vertically, or on the water, or into a net of some kind pulled up with a mast by the launching ship. These methods have all been tested for the use of drones at sea.

The images are enough to make it evident that we are talking about a quite complex system, to say the very least. However, the pictures are concept arts, and must be taken with prudence: there is currently no certainty of how Black Shadow actually looks. Actually, there’s not even a true certainty that Black Shadow was really the selected bid. A first flight was reportedly planned by 2012, but the mystery is enough to doubt of the figure, and the budget constraints make it unlikely that so many developments can be pursued at once. We will have to see how things turn out to be.

In the army, the A160T could provide enduring RECCE missions, convoy-escort (armed with LMM) and also help with delivery of supplies to the FOBs, easing the load of work falling on the small fleet of utility helos and on their crews. 1250 pounds aren’t much, and ideally we’d want larger loads to be cleared for under-slung carriage, but it would already be a step forwards, and anyway the drone has been tested to demonstrate its ability to carry out multiple deliveries over the course of 6 days. This would help eating less into the expensive flying hours of Merlins, Chinooks and others, and as such would be an economically and military effective move.

I’ll be looking with interest at the Royal Navy’s eventual demonstration, hoping that this programme will be allowed to move on and make progress. It is promising, and would provide precious capability. Overall, the next drones ultimately need to be useful in a tri-service way: Watchkeeper itself was originally planned to be carrier-capable. The requirement was then dropped and moved into the list of things to consider for Scavenger/JUEP, and this time it must be pursued.

Maybe, by 2020 it will be possible to have carrier-capable SCAVENGER platforms doing MASC work, after all. That would more than balance the costs.  


The Army has pretty much filled its UAV drones aspirations with the Watchkeeper, and now it is caressing the idea of arming it, even if just with the Thales LMM light multirole missile (which is, anyway, adequate in most situations and with the advantage of very low cost, so not a bad idea at all). There is however a niche capability that the Army is keen to get, and that's an uplift in the range and volume of battlefield communications and data-sharing. The idea is to have a communications-relay platform flying above the battlefield, immensely expanding the reach of radios without having to build bigger, costlier (and heavier) battlefields radios to load soldiers with. 


Exploration in this sense is already long ongoing: in a joint UK/US, MOD/DOD programme, Qinetiq has been flying several tests with its super-light, super-long endurance Zephyr drone, fitted with a MOD-mandated communications relay pod.


Zephyr is a lightweight solar-powered UAV which was originally designed and built by the QQ1 "Edge of Space" team who were sponsored by the United Kingdom defence firm, Qinetiq. It is of carbon-fibre construction, and uses sunlight to charge a lithium sulphur battery during the day, which powers the aircraft at night. The aircraft has been designed for use in observation and communications relay.
The Zephyr holds the official endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle for its flight from 9 July to 23 July 2010, lasting 336 hours and 22 minutes (2 weeks / 14 days). Record claims have been verified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for both duration and altitude, at 21,562 meters. It beat the previous endurance record for unmanned flight by more than a factor of five. The long term target of Qinetiq is to keep the drone flying for over 3 months, which means making it more of an extremely-low cost satellite for communications than an airplane. For three 8h shifts, a pilot, navigator and flight engineer monitored battery performance and meteorological conditions each day for the duration of the endless sortie. The UAV carried a communications payload which could be used by the UK Ministry of Defence on such high-altitude, long-endurance flights. ElectroOptic surveillance payloads are also possible.
During the day, Zephyr uses its state-of-the-art solar cells spread across its wings to recharge high-power lithium-sulphur batteries and drive two propellers, flying over 70.000 feet high, away from enemy sight and possibilities of reaction and over the clouds, in full sunlight. At night, the energy stored in the batteries is sufficient to maintain Zephyr in the sky, even if it drops down a good 20.000 feet before recovering the day after. The batteries are Lithium Sulphur batteries supplied by Sion. The vehicle has a wingspan of 22.5 m, but only weights 53 kg, and is launched by five people running with it on their shoulders! The payload is in the region of the 2.5 kg for now, but should grow in future. Surveillance equipment or communications relay pod would be the obvious payload for this system. 
The image is about the launch of an earlier, smaller variant of the Zephyr (still capable to log in an already record-breaking 82 hours mission!) which had a wingspan of "only" 18 meters and was launched by 3 persons instead of the 5 required by the latest variant. The concept of the drone has not changed, however.
This is british innovation at its best, and has great potential. An Army requirement for 8 such drones has been hinted at, and i totally support it. It could lighten the load of the soldiers on the ground, give their radios better reach, and keep precious, never-enough satellite bandwidth free for other uses, such as control of UAVs and UCAVs such as Scavenger/Mantis. A battle-winner. 
The UCAV: target 2030  

The alliance Dassault/BAE might be a little less firm on this front, since while Dassault has been all too ready to jump on the Mantis train, it might not be equally keen to step away from the NEURON, in which it is massively involved. Bae of course brings its Taranis UCAV demonstrator. The target for fielding of a stealth, combat UCAV has been indicatively set in 2030.

Not overly ambitious, since the US Navy wants the UCAS X-47B to start flying operatively from its aircraft carriers in 2025 as substitute of the F/A-18 Super Hornet and pal of the F35C.

Roll out of the X-47B was at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California on December 16, 2008. First flight was expected to occur in November 2009, but was delayed due to "propulsion acoustic and engine-start sequencing issues". The X-47B carries no weapons, but has a full-sized weapons bay for simulations, as the BAE Taranis demonstrator. In order to provide realistic testing, the demonstration vehicle is the same size and weight as the projected operational craft.


On December 29, 2009 Northrop Grumman oversaw towed taxi tests of the aircraft at the Palmdale facility, and are expected to taxi the craft under its own power in January 2010. It is planned to have a three year test program at Edwards AFB, California and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, culminating in sea trials in 2013 and in demonstration of the autonomous aerial refueling with Probe and drogue.
First flight of X-47B Air Vehicle 1 (AV-1) occurred at Edwards AFB on 4 February 2011.
The X47B is arguably the most advanced drone in the world at the moment, and it is a clear example of what BAE and Dassault must match.
Nor Taranis nor Neuron are carrier-capable at the moment, nor do they match the ambitions of the X47B, but whatever drone programme emerges from the collaboration of the two industries must evidently follow the X47B lead, and develop a similar, and why not, a better machine. 
There will be no budget for a Land drone and a Carrier drone. Let's do things smartly for once, and let's have a "Good for all Seasons" machine for once. 
Apache AH1 docet. It was criticized at the start, but in Afghanistan it goes around keeping its radar on, while US-engined Apaches can't do it for lack of power. It can operate in areas and climates where the US Apaches do not venture. And it goes on ships too. Whenever the british soldier goes, the Apache can follow him and give cover. And that's what matters.


Drones long term plan i recommend: 

30 Scavenger drones from 2018, with an added "tail" of orders if the drone can be used for roles such as Sentinel and Sea King MK7 replacement.  

An order for a joint fleet of helicopter drones for marittime and over-land recce and surveillance, with load-carrying capability, to fulfill Navy's and Army's needs. 

Order 8 Zephyr drones for communications and long term, enduring surveillance, to be used by Army personnel. Possibly 47 Regiment Royal Artillery. 

Follow the X47B lead in the development of the 2030 UCAV.