Monday, November 28, 2011

The armed forces out of SAR; EMALS launches the F35C

The big news of today are that the Transport Department will take entirely over Search and Rescue matters from 2015, with the current Sea King fleet manned by RAF and RN bowing out and the military accompanied to the exit door, after many years of sterling service in the role.

The UK organisation for civil maritime and civil aviation search and rescue is derived from the UK Government’s adherence to the Convention on the High Seas (1958), the Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) (1974), the Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (1979) and the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago 1944).
The UK is subsequently responsible for SAR measures for ships, aircraft and persons, whether civilian or
military, in the the UK SAR Region (UKSRR), a rather immense stretch of ocean stretching well out into the Atlantic.

The UK SAR area of competence is quite huge, with its far-away western limit being 030° 00’ 00” W

All Sea Kings, of all variants, are to bow out by 2016, and with the Sea King the military role in SAR is to end. The new contract for SAR services, expected to be awarded in 2013, will have to be mission-ready in time to replace the military in the job.

That will mean a considerable reduction in the helicopter force available to Navy and RAF both, probably accompanied by losses of jobs and redundancies.

In the case of the Royal Navy, the SAR mission is covered by 771 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall and HMS Gannet in Prestwick, near Ayr – the latter being the busiest search and rescue unit in the UK. The Sea King HAR5 is used, in its typical red-grey colors.

771 Naval Air Squadron
HMS Gannet, the Sea King det at Prestwick airport, is the most active SAR base in the UK
A RN Sea King HAR5

In the RAF, SAR is a job for the Sea King HAR3 / 3A helicopters of 203 (Reserve) Squadron [OCU for the type, based on RAF Valley since 2008], 22 Squadron [three Flights, A flies from Royal Marines Base Chivenor, B flies from the AAC base at Wattisham and C from RAF Valley] and 202 Squadron [again three flights, A in RAF Boulmer, B in RAF Lossiemouth and C at RAF Leconfield]. RAF Sea Kings operate from Boulmer, Chivenor, Leconfield, Lossiemouth, Valley and Wattisham and have a maximum endurance of 6 hours. This gives a radius of action of approximately 300 nautical miles from base, that can be extended by refuelling from forward bases, oil platforms or suitably equipped RN ships. They are well known for their yellow fuselage.

The RAF SAR helicopter force, on 3 squadrons, will also be lost come 2016

The RAF Sea King HAR3 SAR helicopter is quite an iconic and well known sight

The RAF provides Mountain Rescue Teams based at Kinloss, Leuchars, Leeming, Stafford and St Athan. Each MRT is available at one hours notice and is operationally controlled by the ARCC at RAF Kinloss. The teams are fully equipped with their own vehicles and have a comprehensive communications suite which includes VHF, UHF and HF radios as well as a Satcom capability. The teams work closely with the military SAR helicopters and can provide a rapid response to both military and civilian incidents in all areas of inhospitable terrain.
RAF MRTs maintain a close liaison with the Police and civil mountain rescue organisations. At the moment, it is not clear what their fate will now be.

The RAF also used to maintain one Nimrod MPA at 60 minutes readiness, 24 hours a day, at RAF
Kinloss for SAR duties. The Nimrod could fly at high speed to a distance of approximately
800 nautical miles from base and then search for a period of 5 hours, and did so to great effect more than once. Of course this is one of the capabilities lost ever since the Nimrod MR2 was grounded, and the MRA4 cancelled.

Overview of the current Armed Forces contribution to the SAR effort and organization. The MCA adds four bases with helicopters, with one of these bases due for closure in 2015 under the new plan.

In terms of losses, the Maritime Coastguard Agency also was deprived of its 4 Emergency Towing Vessels in the government budget cuts. Anglian Prince, Anglian Princess, Anglian Sovereign and Anglian Monarch, were based in strategic locations around the UK, with two covering the south coast of England, at Falmouth in Cornwall and Dover in Kent, and two in Scottish waters, at Stornoway the Western Isles (the Outer Hebrides), and Lerwick in the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney).
One of said vessels, the Anglian Prince, had its most known Swan song by helping out the grounded HMS Astute submarine. 

Still, the four-strong fleet did not survive the drive for cuts, and was chopped for just over 30 million pounds of savings.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening told MPs that her department would take over the service, which will be fully civilianised, provided from ten bases instead of the existing 12. The two bases from which SAR helicopter operations are to be removed are RAF Boulmer (2015) and MCA Portland (2017).
Other activities at RAF Boulmer will be "unaffected".

From 2015 onwards, the Portland base will be entirely closed down, so it is not just a matter of losing the helicopter flight. The south coast will instead be covered by a new Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) in Fareham, Hampshire. This is part of plans for the Future of the Coastguard service

The single Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) manned by 96 regular coastguard staff divided into shifts to provide comprehensive 24 hours a day throughout the year. The MOC will act as a national strategic centre to manage Coastguard operations across a network of interlinked coastguard centres, as well as co-ordinating rescue activities for many incidents occurring anywhere around the coast of the UK on a day to day basis depending on demand and work levels in other centres. The MOC will generate and analyse a national maritime picture using information from a variety of sources. It will be based in a ready built operations centre at Fareham originally constructed as a Fire Control Centre.

Several current MCA sites are being closed, starting from next year and out to 2015, and a reduction in the number of personnel is also planned.

The new SAR helicopter plan will also be the end for HMS Gannet, and it will be the end for all the military SAR flights deployed in 8 different military bases all over the country, which will be replaced by sole-civilian units.

A most interesting passage in the MOD announcement is:

Bidders for the future service will be able to put forward options which will utilise a mixed fleet of modern helicopters based on the capabilities required at each of the bases (such as range, carrying capacity and endurance). The services will be capable of delivery by different contractors providing complementary services.

This seems to imply that several different kind of helicopters could be used, differently from what was expected in the famous, cancelled Soteria contract and associated aborted SAR replacement plan, which would use a single helicopter type (the Sikorsky S92 in the Soteria proposal)

We will see which kind of operational fleet will emerge from the 2013 contract. We will also see if the "fully civilian" method survives, or if, as had been suggested prior to Soteria contract being cancelled, a number of RAF and RN crews eventually have a reprieve and continue to serve in the SAR role with some kind of arrangement.
The current military SAR crews, after all, represent the SAR expertise within the armed forces, and have a secondary C-SAR role and capability in wartime mobilization.

It is to be hoped that the MOD, at least, won't have to fund the service anymore as it passes under another Department jurisdiction. Funding a Sea King SAR replacement was always going to be a problem for the cash-stripped ministry of defence. Now, if the government was bright, the billion or so planned for the replacement SAR initiative within the MOD would stay with the MOD, and be used for replacing the many capabilities lost with the loss of Nimrods.

One can hope, at least.

In a much more pleasant news, the EMALS catapult continues to enjoy success, and has now launched the F35C, in a major achievement for both programmes, and representing a great news for the both of US Navy and RN.
The US Department of Defense announced today that the first launch happened November 18.

In the past 12 months, the EMALS team launched a T-45 Goshawk, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a C-2A Greyhound and several F/A-18 aircraft with and without stores, while the F35C totaled some 50 steam catapult launches, ensuring capability with the current C13 steam catapult, that in the US Navy will be working for a lot more years, even as EMALS goes online on the new-built carriers.

Ensuring compatibility with EMALS remained fundamental, and even more so it was to provide information and reassurance to the UK, which has in the EMALS the future of its carrier strike capability. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

End of an Era; start or another?

Negotiations between the UK and the US have concluded, and the fate of the whole Harrier fleet is now signed. Out of the 74 Harriers stored at Cottersmore, two will be retained to be gifted to UK's aviation museums, while the remaining 72 are going to the US, along with their spare engines, for 110 million pounds.

A true bargain, for airplanes with life still in them and maintained in flyingworthy conditions, no matter if, as the US lately started to say, they won't be operated by USMC pilots (contrarily to what they said earlier) but just cannibalized for spare parts. Even as source of spares, at 110 million pounds they are little short of a gift.

These 110 million pounds should be in addition to an earlier deal, worth some 50 million, for the whole stock of spare parts, but at the moment it is not entirely clear. If 110 million was the total, well. Holy hell. US officers must be real awesome at negotiating.

The only certainty is that this truly does mark the end of an era in the UK.

The Harrier era. 

An Harrier GR9 flying over Afghanistan, with the typical Afghan warload of the type: 2 Paveway IV bombs, 2 x 19 shots CRV7 rocket pods, 2 external fuel tanks, SNIPER targeting pod and Joint Digital Reconnaissance Pod.

What is planned to be the F35 era is beginning now.
November 20 saw Lochkeed Martin rolling out of factory the first UK F35, a B model, destined to test and development trials. Named BK-1, it will be delivered to the UK in the new year, but will mainly, or perhaps exclusively, undergo ground and flying tests in the US. 

Two more F35Bs are on order for the UK test fleet, but at least the third is going to be swapped for a much more useful F35C, since that's the variant that now has the UK's eye.

BK1 roll out

The F35 is at risk, like pretty much every other Pentagon programme, due to the failure of the cross-party supercommittee in Washington in trying to reach an agreement over the plan for public spending cuts to apply in the next few years. This much feared event technically gives the go-ahead to an automatic, dramatic freeze in government spending that, if implemented, would hit the Pentagon like a sledgehammer, due to 50% of its value having to come from the spending voice "National Defence", which is made up, in value terms, 96% from the Armed Forces.

Of course, political action has already started to find a way around it, and the F35 is actually pretty safe. Cutting it would have disastrous military, economic and political consequences that pretty much rule the option out. But of course, it is a situation to keep under watch all the same.

Of less immediate interest, the F35B ran into trouble, again. VTOL operations have been stopped after worrisome cracks were discovered in the VTOL Lift Fan components, after 18 days of operations at sea aboard USS Wasp. The problem (in theory) was actually expected, and a differently designed component is already present on the fifth experimental F35B, BF-5, and on the new ones being built, included BK1. BF1 and BF2 have had their flying enveloped restricted. BF3 has not yet developed the cracks, due to having flown less hours.

It is not the only issue. The whole F35 test fleet has had some teething problems to correct, and probably there will be more too (hopefully, though, not too many and not too serious...!), but the F35B is especially complex and vulnerable, and has been plagued by an endless list of issues, some of which have been fixed, some no (like the 14-inches shorter weapons bay compared to the other two variants, which limit the internal carriage capability to 1000 lbs bombs, against 2000 lbs planned. The weapon bays had to be shortened as part of ample modifications in the 2004/05 period, connected to severe overweight issues). 

The F35B, which is on a 2-years probation period, made progress, though: three of the five propulsion system glitches have been fixed, with the remaining two expected to be cleared by February. A cracked bulkhead discovered in durability tests last November has also been redesigned.

The F35B is critically important for the US Marines Corp, so i expect it to survive and avoid cancellation as well. But this does not cancel the fact that the issues left ahead are many, and the B variant is, effectively, the less capable in terms of range and payload, and the most expensive. 
The move to the C variant might well be vindicated if things continue on this path. 

In the meanwhile, the UK has also presented its preliminary request for long-lead items, worth 200 USD millions, for the (first of two, hopefully) EMALS set destined to the national Strike Carrier, almost certainly to be HMS Prince of Wales, despite the government refusing to confirm anything before late next year.

The latest round of Parliamentary Answers contained the confirmation that the government, in agreement with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, stopped some elements of build work related to the STOVL design, such as the ski jump. It is expected that the removal of the ski jump will be captured in a formal amendment in early 2012, and further changes arising from decisions on conversion will be captured in 2013. These changes involved no contract cancellations and no penalties.

To date, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has spent around £13 million on investigations into conversion of the operational Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier. The MOD has approved expenditure of up to £48 million for study work on conversion up to the end of March 2012.
Costs for the remainder of our investigations—to December 2012—remain under development and are due to be considered by the MOD approving authorities in February 2012.

Conversion cost for one carrier was put by the NAO at a minimum of 800 millions and a maximum of 1200. The MOD's own figure is not disclosed, but apparently sits in the NAO-delimited field. The money is being allocated for the programme, starting from Planning Round 11. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Buy a plane, get an air force

Truly multirole

The US Marines saw many times the SOCOM, US Air Force-flown AC130 gunships in action. In particular, they have seen their effect in 2001, during operations in Afghanistan, and the USMC has always had a wish for that kind of enduring, highly accurate and devastating fire support from the air. But an AC130 costs a lot: at least 3 times as much as a latest generation KC130J, the multirole tanker variant that the USMC uses.
The Marines couldn’t afford that cost, nor a single-use fleet of warplanes like those assigned to the special forces. But they realized that, perhaps, they could exploit planes they already had, and turn out a genuinely multirole solution, at a very advantageous cost.

Enter the Harvest Hawk (Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit) programme, one of the most interesting plans ever, and moreover, one that works and delivers.

The KC130J

The KC130J is the Multirole Tanker/Transport plane used by the USMC. Its main role is to refuel USMC planes and helicopters, as it did in 2001, toppling up the fuel tanks of the CH53 and CH46 helicopters carrying the Marines from the USS Peleliu assault ship, in the Indian Ocean, all the way to the small airstrip south of Kandahar that would become Forward Operating Base RHINO after that historical 400 miles vertical amphibious assault. 

The KC130J is without a doubt the best Tactical Tanker currently out there on operations. It only takes a 1000 feet runway to take off and land, can fly low, is fully night-vision compatible and has an extensive self-protection kit of electronic countermeasures and radar warning receiver.

The KC-130J carries its fuel mainly in the Wing tanks and in two underwing external long-range tanks, which means that in most missions the cargo bay remains available for carrying personnel and kit. With the wingload of fuel, the KC130J can distribute 57,500 pound of fuel to other helicopters and planes, with a 500 nautical mile operating radius. Refueling is carried out thanks to two standard probe and drogue pods mounted under the wings. The KC130J is thus capable to refuel all USMC, US Navy and most NATO airplanes, but not USAF ones, since the USAF continues to favor the Boom AAR method.
When more offload fuel is required, the cargo bay can be fitted with a fuselage tank capable of  an additional 24,392 pounds of fuel.  

The KC130J can refuel planes and helicopters (the second capability is very important to Special Forces and Marines), while a jet-based AAR asset such as Voyager is not really suited for refueling helicopters due to speed and altitude differences. 
But the KC130J is a complete Tactical Tanker, as it can land on rough terrain, potentially very close to the front or even inside enemy territory, and constitute a ready-to-deliver Forward Refueling Point on the ground. It can pump fuel into fuel caches such as the common “Pillow Tanks”, inside vehicles and helicopters even “rotor turning”, and do so at a rate of 4018 pounds of fuel per minute. With the cargo bay clear, it could also carry ground support teams and armed security teams for the functioning of the FRP, and then just take off at the end of the operation, to return to base. To make this possible, the KC130J’s propellers have been given a feathering feature (known as “hotel mode”) which stops the props but keeps the turbines going to pump fuel. This eliminates the otherwise powerful blast behind the KC-130J, allowing ground forces to operate in relative calm all around it. 

Tanker, Transport and gunship

The ability of the KC130J to refuel other planes and carry cargo at the same time became immediately attractive for the USMC officers as they evaluated their options for introducing a Gunship for their Corp. The KC130J is found hovering high above the operation areas, so it is well placed to carry out enduring battlefield surveillance and strikes, even while continuing to offload fuel to other assets when necessary. 

RoRo pallet with Harvest Hawk tactical workstation.

A modular kit that could be embarked in the cargo bay was an ideal solution, and the USMC worked to obtain just that with Harvest Hawk. The modular kit includes:

-          One roll-on/roll-off set of surveillance displays and fire control electronics that are rolled into the cargo bay. This is coupled with a modular surveillance and targeting unit that takes up the rear portion of the inboard left external fuel tank, or may simply be mounted below that tank as a surveillance turret. Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAQ-30 TSS was selected as sensor, a choice made with some wisdom, since the TSS is already in use as the main sensor of the U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopter, simplifying logistics and offering commonality. The TSS makes the KC130J capable to detect, follow, and track multiple targets, and laser-designate them for its own weapons, or for third-party attacks. The TSS installation reduces the amount of fuel carried in the affected external fuel tanks, obviously, but it is a very fair trade off seen the capabilities offered. 

The TSS, mounted at the back of one of the big external long range fuel tanks

 -          A four-rails M299 missile rack (identical to those used on Apache) for 4 AGM-114P Hellfires and/or up to 16 DAGR laser-guided 70mm rockets to the left wing, in place of the left-hand aerial refueling pod. This reduces the KC130J’s refueling points to One instead of Two, but adds a lot of firepower.

-          A cargo-ramp mounted, 10-cells launcher is mounted in the back, and contains 10 Griffin missiles, each weighting just 15.6 kg (34.5 pound), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the larger Hellfire missile. The Griffin is a 42-inch-long, 5.5 inches wide tube-launched missile with a semi-active laser seeker. It is a low cost weapon that Raytheon self-funded and developed from existing technology, aiming at drones. It is proving a real success.
Griffin has pop-out wings, allowing it to glide, and thus has a 15 kilometers range, longer than that of Hellfire. The Griffin is proving popular for most kind of engagements in Afghanistan, and the M299 racks will be, in future, made capable to eventually employ Griffin in place of Hellfires, offering 3 times as many weapons on the same rack. The Hellfire of course remains more suited for engaging “hard” targets such as heavy armor, but in many cases, heavy armor is just not around, and an Hellfire/Brimstone makes for an expensive overkill when the target is a lone sniper firing out of a “killing hole”. 

The 10-cells Griffin missile launcher mounted on the rear cargo ramp.

 -          Currently considered “optional”, is the Bushmaster MK44 30 mm gun, which can be installed to fire out of the rear left Paratroops door of the KC130J, with 160 rounds available and a rate of fire of 200 to 400 rounds per minute. The selection of the MK44 caused some concerns: while the Mk 44 Bushmaster II [30×173mm] and M230 Chain Gun [30×113mm] are both nominally 30mm, their cartridges are very different in size, power, and range. The MK44 is a big, powerful gun, presenting some real challenges in terms of mounting and stabilization for an application aboard flying gunships. The MK44 is used on armoured vehicles and ships, with great satisfaction, but when the US Air Force decided to use it to replace the 25 mm Gatling gun and the ancient 40 mm Bofors gun on its own AC130 gunships, the programme ended up being a big, burning failure: the stabilization of the mount proved ineffective, and the accuracy of the gun was affected. Of course, a weapon that “fires somewhere over there” is not acceptable, and not just for the risk of collateral damages to civilians, but for the very real risks in terms of friendly fire, as Gunship often operate supporting troops on the ground and firing quite damn close to them. The USAF eventually gave in, and “retrograded” the modified AC130s to re-embark their original weapons, despite the enduring disappointment for the performances of the 25 mm gun and the support problems of the ancient, immortal 40 mm Bofors.
The US Marines believe they have found the solution, and that the MK44 will work excellently on their KC130J.

Images from a recent Lochkeed Martin brief showing the modular MK44 gun mount and the concept for the tube-launcher modular mount, which would employ light guided weapons.

This is a lot of firepower, and the plane still remains capable to refuel other planes as well. Rolling down even just the Griffin launcher and palletized consoles, the cargo bay is again available for tactical transport missions, making the KC130J probably the most multirole airplane out there. MK44 excluded, the KC130J kit costs some 10 million dollars, plus some additional training for crews. Awesomely cost effective, and excellent for delivering enduring fire support, with missions typically lasting 7 or 8 hours, but with one Harvest HAWK having flown for 10 hours and fired its entire compliment of Hellfire missiles during combat operations in Afghanistan on March 14.
The kit can be removed in less than a day’s work.   

The USMC aims to have 3 Harvest Hawk kits available in each of the 3 Squadrons (they will be four in 2012 as the last Sqn stands up) of KC130Js.

And it is not over yet: for the KC130J spiral development there are plans and suggestions coming out of everywhere. The Viper Strike weapon, another ultra-small precision guided ammunition, has been selected by the US Special Forces for use on the traditional single-role gunships, and last year and this August orders was placed for integrating the weapon on the Harvest Hawk as well. The JDAM bombs, deployed probably from the cargo ramp, have also been proposed, turning the KC130J potentially into a tactical medium bomber! Again, LM offers a different solution for the rear paratroop door, which could replace the gun module with a quadruple tube-launcher assembly for guided weapons. 

The KC130J Harvest Hawk

The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the USAF themselves are noticing the value and success of the Harvest Hawk approach, and the SOCOM now plans an Harvest Hawk-like drop-in modular package for precision strike for its fleet of MC130W Combat Spear Special Forces transport planes. Similar kits could also be fielded for SOCOM’s most recent HC-130J Combat King II (fixed-wing Combat SAR platform, derived from the KC130J and capable to refuel helicopters and planes in flight) and MC-130J Combat Shadow IIs (again, a Tactical Airlifter/Air Tanker based on the KC130J), and they may even spread beyond that. Meanwhile, SOCOM remains a user of dedicate, single-role gunships, and is expanding its existing AC-130 gunship fleet to 33, with the acquisition of 16 new AC-130J models. As of now, 13 AC-130U Gunships are flown by the 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) and 8 AC-130H Gunships are flown by the 16th SOS. The 8 aging AC130H would be retired and replaced by the first 8 AC130Js, with another 8 coming to expand the fleet.

Vigilant Watch and Vigilant Hawk

The Harvest Hawk programme of the US Marines is a spin-off of the Vigilant Hawk – Armed ISR mission kit conceived by Lochkeed Martin for the rapid re-roling of C130 tactical transports for covering other impelling operational needs, namely the request, at an absolute all times high, for ISR.
Said need generated Vigilant Watch, a RoRo pallet installation comprising multispectral sensors and consoles that can transform any C130E/H/J into a capable ISR platform with minimum work: installation takes as little as 24 hours.

Vigilant Watch uses 7 different sensors, installed in two modified external long range fuel tanks. A “Vigilant Hawk lite” configuration comprises one SAR radar, one EO/IR sensor ball and 1 digital camera mounted in a modified long range fuel tank, with a RoRo pallet installation with one or two operator consoles and communications on Line of Sight and Beyond Line of Sight (LOS and BLOS).

Vigilant Hawk followed. Like it happened earlier with Predator drones, the awareness that ISR platforms often identify time critical targets but cannot independently prosecute them spurred development of a time-critical, on-board engagement capability. This concept, adopted by the US Marines, became the Harvest Hawk.  

Vigilant Watch was presented on the international market this year, and Vigilant Hawk concept is also available for export, under the LM slogan “buy a C130, get an air force”. 
Lochkeed Martin is working to expand the range of fuel-tank mounted sensors that can be integrated onto the C130: some proposals are very impressive.
Currently, Harvest Hawk flies with a modified Fuel Tank, filled with 7000 lbs of fuel, and fitted with a EO/IR sensor ball, but LM is offering to put a ISAR radar into the front of the fuel tank to give dual targeting and ground target surveillance capability. Another configuration, which leaves no fuel at all into the tank, uses also the middle section of said tank to fit a long-range side-looking recce camera, potentially like the one used by the RAPTOR recce pod, giving a triple sensor: imagery, SAR radar, EO/IR.
Another configuration offered replaces the long range camera in the middle of the fuel tank for tube launchers for small guided ammunitions, and there’s even a Marittime Patrol fit, with maritime ISAR radar, EO/IR ball and middle section containing Sonobuoys dispensers.

The possibilities are quite impressive. 

Is this of some interest for the UK?

The Harvest Hawk is a very successful programme, delivering great effect at very low cost. But the UK does not operate an equivalent mark of C130, and anyway, after the SDSR, we now expect to see even the relatively young (but hard worked) C130Js vanish by 2022, leaving a fleet of sole A400 and C17.
The RAF does not have KC130Js onto which Harvest Hawk kit could be rolled into. The RAF’s C130 also have only two underwing pilons, available for Long Range external fuel tanks, against the four pylons of the KC130.

The Voyager

However, it is the concept that is interesting, not just the kit. For the UK, the platform on which new roles could be introduced would be the Airbus A400 Atlas, even though there’s been official suggestions from the RAF itself that the Voyager Air Tanker could have a future ISTAR role.
It is not, in principle, a bad idea, but I have many doubts on its viability. There are only two underwing pods, and those are necessary for AAR. Sacrificing one for a pod might not be acceptable most of the time. Adding more pylons might be a nightmare: if the Boeing 767 experience with the nightmarish integration of the underwing refueling pods that cost 4 years of delay to the Italian order for the tanker is any example of what might happen, holy hell do not do it.

I also wonder how close to the target area the Voyager will ever get: it is a strategic asset, one which will spend its time as far as possible from the trouble, and thus also, most of the time, from the areas and targets it is supposed to observe in an ISTAR role.
Again, installing consoles inside the fuselage won’t be as easy as with the KC130J, where there’s a big rear cargo ramp to pass pallets through when and how you want.

However, the Voyager idea continues to turn around: after being proposed by the RAF marshal, it was caressed by the French air force in these last few days: French air force chief Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros announced on Saturday 19 that the French air force plans to acquire a first five to seven A330 MRTT tanker aircrafts in 2013 for speedy delivery, due to the urgency of replacing the KC135 fleet, which is ancient and performed unsatisfactorily during operations over Libya. A second batch, purchased later on to reach the total of 14, also would have the role of replacing France's A340 and A310 VIP and transport fleet.
France is set to acquire, differently from the RAF, the A330-200F, the cargo variant, with cargo door and reconfigurable top deck, so for them it’ll be much easier to roll modules in and reconfigure the plane to cover different roles. The RAF would have to squeeze each component through passenger doors, and while it is possible to remove seating to fit stretchers for MEDEVAC role, it is to be questioned the effective possibility of extensive rerolling including fitting of consoles and other kit.

France continues to seek an agreement (and a fair economic deal) for using spare capacity on the UK Royal Air Force’s fleet of 14 Voyagers, as part of the Anglo-French Defence Agreement, and the French general said that the French fleet, once it enters service, will be pooled with the RAF one, in what could be a major win for both countries, if the appropriate deals are made. The AirTanker consortium will have to be part of the negotiations, though, and this might complicate things that would otherwise be pretty easy. Palomeros also said that there would be discussions with the RAF over the addition of command-and-control capabilities to the joint fleet.

Again, like for the RAF’s own suggestion of adding ISTAR role and capacity to FSTA, I say: welcome concept, but I have my doubts. As always, only time will tell what comes effectively out of it, and at what cost.
The easier way to put the needed sensors on the Voyager is to swap one of the underwing refueling pods for a combined sensors pod, such as those proposed by LM for the C130, but the extent of the rewiring necessary, and the already mentioned issues with even just bringing consoles inside the fuselage make me hesitate some.
It would certainly be interesting to see proposals fleshed out in some detail, to see what would the planes do, and how they would operate. A strategic asset such as a tanker the size and value of Voyager is normally kept as far as possible from the action, differently from KC130Js of the Marines that regularly fly above “hot” zones.
Would this operating concept change? If the plane remains at great distance, its sensors have any meaningful effect and capability to spy the enemy? These are some of the questions that need an answer.

The C130J Marittime Patrol Aircraft

In terms of C130 conversions, Marshall offered to the UK MOD, post SDSR, the possibility of converting some of the Js into Marittime Patrol Aircrafts as cost-effective replacement for the binned Nimrod MRA4.
The proposal was received well, but does not seem to be a favorite MOD solution in the assessment of possible solutions to the gap in patrol capability. The reasons are probably multiple: the nightmare of the “cost-effective” upgrade to Nimrod airframes is still a fresh and painful memory, and the fear of ending up in another disaster must be high.
Again, the A400 is late, and the C130K retirement is in perfect time, which means that the C130Js are being worked real hard. Unite this consideration with the well known problem of faster-than-expected aging and stressing of the C130J wing (a report on the conditions of the fleet is expected in 2013) and with the cost that the correction of this issue would imply (at least 3 million pounds per each plane, from 2008 NAO figures relating to the older C130K), and you have another cause of hesitation.
The issue of wings fatigue, with the necessary programme of wing replacement and strengthening, figured as part of the decision-making in the SDSR: to avoid the expense, it was decided to retire the C130J fleet by 2022, instead of operating it in addition to the A400 one, with OSD 2030, as was earlier planned.
The C130J maritime patrol would be attractive only if genuinely cost-effective, but the certainty of it being cheap and merry does not appear to be there. 

Graphic of the proposed C130 MPA conversion. The radar fit indicated, using the Searchwater in the AEW version (that of Sea King MK7, to be clear) is most evidently an error. The Searchwater 2000MR, which was mandated for Nimrod MRA4 would be the actual fit. 

On the side of advantages, the Marshall offer would use airframes already in the RAF inventory, with training and logistics already well established and very effective. It would use an airplane which costs just around 12.000 pounds per flying hour, remarkably cost-effective. And it would tap into a global logistics and support system destined to last for many more years.

The Marshall proposal uses pallets that are rolled into the cargo bay and wired in, with five tactical workstations and other role-specific kit. ESM pods are fitted in the tail and at the extremity of the wings, and a EO/IR turret, presumably the same once planned for Nimrod, mounted under the nose of the plane. The biggest modification comes in the form of a new rear cargo ramp, which is changed entirely to accommodate an installation for the Searchwater 2000 radar that was destined to the Nimrod MRA4, plus two sonobouys launcher systems. A graphic I’ve found actually shows the C130J fitted with the Searchwater 2000AEW, weird choice since that is the Sea King MK7 radar, not adequate for the MPA role.

Thanks to LM’s own proposals, this concept could be improved. For example, there is no evident provision for carriage and employment of weapons in the Marshal proposal, and the extent of modification required appears quite significant.
It would be probably more effective and easier to adopt some of LM’s kit and ideas: for example, the EO/IR turret and search radar integrated in the fuel tank under the left wing (eventually with a second radar-only kit in the fuel tank on the right wing, if necessary to provide 360° coverage) would allow the rear ramp to be maintained, and reduce significantly the rebuilding necessary.
The rear-ramp could then be fitted with a weapons rack, on the style of that employed by the Harvest Hawk for Griffin missiles, loaded however with Stingray torpedoes and sonobuoys.
Ideally, a further two wing pylons would be added to the airframe, to enable the carriage of Anti-Ship missiles as well, since the Nimrod was the only remaining plane in inventory with this capability, and anti-shipping attack is now part of the huge bleeding gap. However, the addition of two pylons would be subject to strict evaluation of its cost and complexity.

Such an arrangement, with the Tactical Workstations being mounted on RoRo pallet, and the weapons rack being mobile, would allow rapid rerolling of the retained C130Js to Tactical Transport, and/or, with the addition of Harvest Hawk modules, the transformation into gunships, at very low cost.

Worth at least thinking a little bit about it, no? The cost of buying 5 to 6 Poseidon P8 MPAs hovers at around 1 billion pounds of cost, so there’s a margin of maneuver: if the conversion of 9 or 12 C130Js could be done with a similar cost, it would become advantageous, also due to the logistics, training and support being already available. The cost per flying hour of the C130 will also be considerably lower than that of P8.

The Merlin helicopter
I’m serious.
Apparently, the Lochkeed Martin/Northropp Grumman Vigilance AEW radarpod is a spin-off of the Vigilant Watch concept, sized down to be suitable for use on helicopters like the Merlin HM2. Indeed, Vigilance pod is offered for use on the C130 as well, and probably is in relation with the proposed radar installations in the modified fuel tanks of which we discussed earlier in this article.  

The Vigilance is a 280 to 300 kg pod, entirely self-contained, which houses a powerful Northrop Grumman AESA radar, said to be related to the AN/APG80 and AN/APG81 radars of the same company. The AN/APG81, in particular, is the “super radar” of the F35.
Said AESA radar is said to offer quite unbeatable performances, with SAR and ground targeting capability, and powerful air to air AEW mode. The pod also contains the processor and power system, an IFF interrogator, GPS/INS, ESM sensors and its own cooling system. Two of these pods, mounted on the torpedo hardpoints of the Merlin HM2, can give 360° degrees of AEW and land surveillance capability. They only need a single power source connection, and can work with the software and tactical workstations (2) of the Merlin HM2, even if two more stations could be added for improved performance in the various roles made possible by the multimission nature of the radar. 

The Vigilance pod mounted on a Merlin HM2

LM and Northrop have anyway confirmed that each eventual export will be covered on a case-by-case method, so the AESA radar into the pod could come from different suppliers, eventually. The Vigilance pod has already been ground-tested at Northrop Grumman’s Baltimore facility, and flight tests will take place in the UK early next year on a helicopter, perhaps already a Merlin HM2 as it flies its own planned test and trials before returning to active service.

Lockheed Martin is self-funding the Vigilance initiative, which derives directly from a 2009-10 study of how the Merlin helicopter could be adapted to replace the Royal Navy’s aging Sea King MK7 airborne surveillance and control helicopters. And indeed, as covered in this blog, in 2010 the LM and Northrop team made a proposal based on AESA “body-mounted” radars for the Crow’s Nest requirement, ex MASC, for the provision to the Royal Navy of a new airborne early warning system to cope with the retirement of the MK7 Sea King, planned by 2016.

Crow’s Nest is, at the moment, motionless. But the LM and Northrop Grumman proposal is shaping up, and it appears to be even more risk free and less complex than trying to migrate the Searchwater 2000AEW and Cerberus suite from the Sea King MK7 to the Merlin HM2, as proposed by Thales and AgustaWestland.
I covered the latest information available about the two proposals in my article on this year DSEI show, here and here.

The Thales-Westland proposal for Merlin AEW would use rails mounted on the side of the fuselage, over which the "bag" of the Searchwater AEW radar would slide up and down: up prior to landing, down once in the air, to have unobstructed 360° view. It is a somewhat more awkward solution, but its big issue is actually the internal consoles: can the Cerberus suite be "migrated" onto the HM2 computers and existing two workstations? If not, integration might be a real issue. LM is advantaged, since it is the company delivering the HM2 upgrade, and knows exactly how to ensure that Vigilance works seamlessly with the HM2 systems.

The LM/Northrop proposal represents the most likely and “immediate” influence of the Vigilant Hawk concept rooting in the UK in a serious way.  

The A400 Atlas

The ideal platform for a UK multi-role plane would be, undoubtedly, the A400 Atlas. The large tactical cargo aircraft will soon start its Air Tanker trials, fitted with two underwing pods, the Cobham 908E, which will turn the Atlas in an excellent tactical AAR, particularly precious for its ability of refueling helicopters comfortably, something that the UK so far has never really done, other than experimentally: the Merlin HC3 can be fitted with AAR probe, and was certified for AAR using a C130 tanker supplied by the Italian air force. That, however, was pretty much the end of it.
As already said, the UK helicopters only refuel by landing on FARPs established on the ground, potentially in hot areas.

It is an area of deficiency that would be good to fill. The Chinook is another helicopter than can be fitted with AAR probes, and the Americans do it regularly. It could prove very useful for the UK as well.
Furthermore, the acquisition of at least a number of AAR kits for the Atlas would allow the UK to avoid basing one of the precious Voyagers in the Falklands, as the local flight could cover both transport and AAR role with the Atlas and the proper kit.

But, just like the Harvest Hawk, the Atlas could do much more than that.
The plane normally is operated as Air Tanker without fitting additional fuel reserves in the cargo bay, so cargo space is still available.

One potential use for the Atlas is that of “Long Range Non Penetrator” strike aircraft. This concept, which has been around at least since 2003 and was considered as part of FOAS (the defunct study for defining a Tornado GR4 replacement), involves a cargo plane (C17, C130 and Atlas are all capable to take on this role) carrying a consistent number of cruise missiles, which are extracted in flight via rear cargo door, and launched towards their targets.
EADS is said to have offered, itself, an Atlas strike package, which could involve 12 or more Storm Shadow missiles carried and deployed from an A400 ramp.  
This would be a very cost-effective and efficient mean to conserve (and indeed enhance) the UK’s capability of striking targets at very long range, with a reaction time measurable in hours. If a modular rack carrying Storm Shadow missiles was developed, and made available for fitting inside the cargo bay of Atlas based in Brize Norton, a single Atlas could do, literally, the work of 6 Tornado GR4 plus supporting air tankers. 

Future Offensive Air System, FOAS. In this concept art, a RAF C17 is shown deploying pallets carrying each a couple of Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM), in this case apparently a modified Tomahawk. 

We have still fresh memory of the Marham-launched Storm Shadow raids against Libya, with multiple AARs needed by each Tornado GR4 involved in the 8-hours mission. At 35.000 pounds per flying hour, 6 Tornado GR4 virtually cost 210.000 pounds per each such sortie, and that’s without considering the cost of the four air refueling and of the air tankers involved.
Conversely, an Atlas cargo could deploy 12 Storm Shadow (payload of, let’s assume, 20 tons including the launch system) flying unrefueled for the whole mission. Indeed, it could strike targets further away than Libya is. 

Another FOAS related concept art, showing a C130 used as Long Range Non Penetrator strike platform, launching a new, stealth Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM).

Such a long range strike capability would provide a Time-Critical reaction capability, more effective, and at lower cost than that of any manned fighter bomber available or in development. It would be complimentary to the Carrier Air Wing / Land based expeditionary wing, which would deploy, in a matter of days, to the area of operations, to prosecute effectively the mission from close by.

It would also be very worth consideration the hypothesis of buying a few adapted Harvest Hawk kit, to make available to the Atlas fleet, starting from the squadron (currently 47 RAF, tomorrow perhaps another one) of cargo aircrafts assigned to Special Forces support role.
The US Marines are paying only 10 million dollars or so for a kit that’s proving very effective and very much appreciated on the ground. It is a remarkably low cost to pay for a capability that provides 8 or even 10 hours of Recce, communications and fire support to the troops on the ground with each sortie flown. Perhaps while carrying a AAR Cobham 908E pod under the other wing.

Definitely worth thinking about it.