Friday, May 10, 2013

What is really wrong with the aircraft carriers...

The new NAO report on the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers program (also known as CVF, Carrier Vessel Future) unsurprisingly describes a world of ignorance within the MOD, and exposes the costs connected with some of the bad decisions made in the years.

But the 74 millions wasted in this double switch is nothing compared to the damage caused by far worse and even less coherent decisions taken by this government and by those which came before it. The 2008 decision to slow the program down, taken by Labour, added more than 1.5 billion of costs in the long term while adding absolutely nothing in terms of capability, so Labour should have the decency of just shutting up about this program in particular. 
But even this disaster is not quite the one i'm going to talk about. 

The real tragedy here is the lack of any capability to clearly select a path and follow it through with coherence. The ongoing uncertainty, the constant rethinks, the inability to recognize the capabilities that absolutely need to be preserved, are the real problems UK defence is wrestling with. 

Much more than carriers

Since the SDSR came out, i’ve been lamenting the total lack of coherence and strategy that is so evident in british military planning. The latest NAO carrier strike report adds even more to this astonishing awareness: the government and the MOD have no real idea of what they want to do.

There is not a focus. There is not a clear idea of what capabilities are needed and consequently no real plan to avoid gapping all of them in sequence. The ability of the MOD to fill up pages and pages of meaningless, useless rambling is amazing, but there is no evidence of a coherent plan behind the description “deployable armed forces”.

Deployable how? With what ambitions? With what means?

The provision of carrier strike is only part of an alarming lack of planning for the future. The “deployable armed forces” of the SDSR are facing, among others:

Soon to be gapped capability to deploy special forces safely by air, due to imminent withdrawal from service of the suitably kitted C130Ks, without Project HERMES having delivered the same level of capability on the C130Js.

Depleted capability to transport heavy equipment by sea, thanks to the removal of 2 out of 6 of the Point-class RO-RO vessels.

Insufficient air cargo capability, despite the welcome purchase of the C17s.

Depleted capability for the Army to operate in the Littoral and sustain its logistic effort in presence of water obstacles (removal from service of the Ramped Craft Logistic vessels without a replacement)

Dramatically reduced amphibious capability, due to the removal of 1 Bay-class LSD and the mothballing of one of the two LPDs.

Much depleted capability to operate at sea in presence of underwater and surface threats, due to the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft.

Much higher risks are due to be accepted in future when deploying the fleet in dangerous areas, due to the gapping of maritime airborne early warning capability.

Lack of air cover for the fleet for at least seven more years.

Most of the key enablers making complex deployments abroad possible have been or will be removed from service in the next few years. How does this fit in the ridiculous, vague claim about still having deployable forces?

It is time the MOD decided what it wants to be able to do, and take coherent decisions to reach the target.

The carriers are key enablers for an expeditionary force. They are indispensable in a wide range of scenarios which require the projection of military power far away from the UK’s shores. They are perfect for interventions that chiefly require air power, such as operations in Libya in 2011. But they are also excellent to gain air superiority far away from home and protect the arrival of land forces, including land-based aviation, which is notoriously most vulnerable on the ground, and which would incur huge risks in trying to deploy to a menaced base in a war zone in absence of friendly forces providing cover.

And they are of course essential to support a forcible entry operation, especially an amphibious assault.

For the UK, the two new aircraft carriers in construction are even more important because they are also the only possible replacement for the current LPHs platforms (HMS Illustrious and HMS Ocean), since the notional LPH(Replacement) program has been dead in the water at least since 2006.

A tiny spark of understanding of this factor emerged in the SDSR, when the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept was revealed, and there was the first open talk of using the new vessels to carry not just fast jets, but Marines and their helicopters at the same time.

Ever since, the UK’s Strike Carriers have effectively been, in the facts if not in the design, Landing Helicopter Aviation vessels (LHAs). The Queen Elizabeth class is not just a replacement for the Invincible class carriers, but it is going to be the successor to HMS Ocean and to the “Commando carrier” HMS Illustrious (in itself a “re-rolled” Invincible class vessel).

Although non optimal, this is a coherent approach, and the only one financially sustainable and feasible, as the MOD is simply not going to be given the money to build and run the QE class purely for carrier strike, while fielding a number of sufficiently capable amphibious vessels.

While France has the nuclear powered Charles de Gaulle in the carrier role and three Mistral LHDs in the amphibious role, the UK will have to approach the problem differently.

In itself, this is because a quite debatable choice was made in the 90s to build an amphibious fleet made up by ships built around a single, main role: the LPDs (HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark) carry the best part of the task force’s landing crafts and the command and control facilities. The Bay-class LSDs carry the most of the “first wave” vehicles (more equipment would disembark later on from the civilian-standard Point RO-RO cargo vessels) while HMS Ocean (which had to have a sister which in the end was never built) would carry a big share of the Marines, and nearly all of the helicopters.

The separation in roles is dramatically reflected in the ships’ designs: the LPDs and LSDs have large flight decks, but lack hangars. Carrying and maintaining large number of helicopters on open decks at sea is nearly unthinkable, so HMS Ocean’s vast hangar is an absolutely fundamental part of any amphibious task force.

The separation of the roles is not a wrong concept in itself, but it is not a concept suited to the Royal Navy’s budget. As the failure in building a sister for HMS Ocean and the reduction in the original planned number of Bay LSDs (up to six, then reduced to four) remind us, even when the plan was first conceived it was not financially sound.

The reality is that, had the Royal Navy pursued the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) path and built Bulwark and Albion in such configuration, much better capability would have been obtained. The French Mistral class vessels are there to remind us of the mistake made.

The credibility of the amphibious capabilities of the UK in the era that will follow the decommissioning of HMS Ocean rests in the cavernous hangars of the QE vessels and on their vast flight decks: the new carriers are desperately needed to keep the RN able to deploy meaningful task groups in the future.

Can’t think more than half an hour ahead

The return to the F35B has one only real advantage over the F35C: it removes the large short term expenditure which would have been needed to modify HMS Prince of Wales at build to take aboard the US EMALS catapults and AAG arrestor wires.

In the long term, the F35B risks to cost more and is surely going to deliver less capability than the F35C. In terms of costs, the NAO notes that the F35B is at least 10 million pounds more expensive, per plane, than the F35C. More importantly, its through-life running costs will be 20% higher. And other sources have suggested 25% higher.

There is a real risk that the reversion to the F35B will end up being a “save now, spend more later” decision. The NAO in its report suggests that, over a 30 years period, the F35B will cost 600 million less than the F35C option, but I’m unconvinced.

We could regret this decision in the future for a whole range of reasons: the inferior capability of the F35B could end up being a problem some day. Its cost, already expected to be higher, could escalate further. Worse, catapults and wires could soon end up being needed all the same, when the importance of large, weapon-capable unmanned aerial vehicles will grow enough to make them indispensable even for a MOD which is getting way too used to look the other way and ignore uncomfortable facts.  

For now, the MOD is hiding its head under the sand by deciding that the first UCAV (notionally planned for the 2030) will be a purely RAF affair, and will only operate out of land bases.

A great example of joint thinking and long term strategic planning, isn’t it?

I have to accept the bitter truth, however: in this case, the MOD did not have the chance to think ahead. The treasury was in no case going to help the MOD cover the higher initial costs of the catapults solution, so there was no way to accommodate the conversion costs in the budget without cutting savagely back in many other areas of Defence. 
However, the decision to return to the B can only be truly accepted, supported and welcomed if it means retaining both carriers in service. The high cost of fitting catapults and wires would have made it virtually impossible to operate both ships in carrier role. The second could and should have served as LPH, for the reasons covered earlier, even though the lack of strategic thinking of course made the government conceive the absurd, insane idea of selling or mothballing such a precious asset.  

However, the F35B makes it possible to operate both vessels as LHAs, combining the provision of combat air capability to the provision of helicopter support to amphibious operations. With the advantage that, with two hulls, an LHA is always available for deployment. 
The one thing that the return to the F35B must give us is the entry in service of both ships. 

Of course, the above concept is too simple to be readily grasped by government and MOD, and we are vaguely tempted with the option of having both ships in service, while the actual decision is pushed back to 2015.

If we ever needed a reminder of the appalling inability to think more than half an hour into the future, we have just been given it.

Self-inflicted problems

The capabilities of the F35 for the UK are further harmed by, again, the lack of a coherent plan inside the MOD. So far, the UK has only required the integration of ASRAAM and Paveway IV onto the aircraft, and according to the NAO even these requirements haven’t yet been finalized and fully costed.

There is also an ongoing saga about how and where the ASRAAM will have to be fitted on the F35: at the beginning there was a (ridiculous) requirement to integrate four ASRAAM for internal carriage. Why the RAF deemed necessary to spend huge amounts of money to try and carry four short range, infrared-guided missiles in the enclosed weapon bays of a stealth fighter goes beyond my possibilities of understanding. A return to the first Sea Harrier, with the ASRAAM carried internally replacing the Sidewinder carried externally?

It becomes even more ridiculous when you think that no one else is bothering with trying to integrate an IR missile for internal carriage on the F35; and it becomes worse when you realize that carrying 4 ASRAAMs internally means not carrying AMRAAM and not carrying air to ground weaponry.

In 2008, the difficulties and cost of such a stupid idea became clearer, and the plan changed, with ASRAAM to be integrated on the two internal AA stations in replacement of the AMRAAM and on the two AA-only external stations under the wings.

Today, it is not clear if this is still the plan of if the ASRAAM is now only due for external integration. 

ASRAAM: stations 4, 5, 7, 8 then rethink, 1, 4, 8, 11. And now?

With the AMRAAM due to leave british service by 2017 and a plan for the integration of Meteor on the F35 having not been finalized yet, the F35 at entry in service risks being as well armed for air to air combat as a Tornado GR4. How to downgrade a multirole aircraft to an under-armed bomb truck.

For a good few years, it appeared that the UK might not integrate Meteor at all on the F35. Hard not to think that the RAF was doing so not to harm procurement of the Typhoon. After all, the one service getting the bad end of the deal would have been the Navy, which ever since it lost the Sea Harrier FA2 has been tragically lacking a capable fighter for the air defence of the fleet.

Fortunately, MBDA, aiming to export opportunities, self-funded efforts to make the Meteor compatible with the weapon bays of the F35, and now the MOD seems to have regained a little bit of wisdom: a recent interview saw the Italian chief of the defence staff confirm that the UK has asked Italy to join a bi-national effort to integrate the Meteor on the JSF, presumably as part of the Block IV software release.

We have to hope that this is confirmed, otherwise the F35 might be done to the sole ASRAAM for a good few years, well into the 2020s.

The Paveway IV is only meant to be integrated on the two internal AG stations. Why?

Good question. I can’t find an answer.

Other weapons have been deleted from the list of requirements (Paveway II and III, Brimstone, Storm Shadow) and will only reappear… sometime, later on. Maybe with the Block V software release.

Just maybe, though. The NAO reports:

The Department is now planning to procure 48 STOVL aircraft in the first tranche in the same quantity and production profile as the carrier variant. Given that the STOVL variant will deliver an aircraft with less range and endurance over a target area compared to the carrier variant, the decision potentially represents a reduction in capability. However, since 2010, the Department has confirmed that it does not have plans to use weapons which would require the greater payload capacity of the carrier variant.

That reads to me like an admission that the F35B is not planned anymore to be able to employ weapons such as Storm Shadow. I hope I’m wrong, because it would make absolutely no sense if this was the case. They hopefully mean that they have no plan to procure a 2000 pounds bomb for internal carriage (the F35B has weapon bays that are 14 inches shorter than the F35C’s ones, limiting it to weapons with the same volumes as the US 1000 lbs JDAM.  

However, the things that make no sense are so common these days around the MOD that it wouldn’t surprise me if my pessimist interpretation was correct.

Among other self-inflicted problems, it is worth highlighting these passages of the NAO report:

As the Carrier Strike capability draws upon both air and navy forces, there is a risk of divergent views on delivering its benefits. There have also been a wide range of views as to what constituted the wider capability known as Carrier Enabled Power Projection while the Senior Responsible Owner has lacked budgetary power and authority to bring coherence to its elements which draw upon the different forces.

As a result, and to address concerns raised by the Committee of Public Accounts, in response to our Carrier Strike report, the Department made the Programme Director of Carrier Strike a full-time, two-star role and gave the role of Senior Responsible Owner for Carrier Enabled Power Projection to a three-star officer responsible for capability decisions across the Department. This move has effectively strengthened the budgetary authority of the role and in April 2013 their mandate was also clarified. The Senior Responsible Owner chairs an Executive Programme Board which is attended by those responsible for the delivery of all of the key elements of the capability. These changes are a welcome clarification of previously inadequate governance arrangements; however, the Senior Responsible Owner will continue to face difficult challenges in successfully delivering the Carrier Strike capability and overcoming the historic, cultural differences between the forces.

I don’t even want to comment this. I think it speaks by itself. To keep the matter under some degree of control, it has taken the formation of a castle of multi-star posts, just like it happened when Joint Helicopter Command had to be formed to remedy to the inconvenient placement of the battlefield support helicopters under RAF command instead of in the hands of the Army.

Thanks for confirming once more that bringing the RAF into the business of naval aviation ranks high among the worst decisions ever made.

The only relief provided by the NAO report is the information that the Chief of Defence Staff is uncomfortable with the lack of carrier air capability and applied pressure to avoid gapping it for any longer time than strictly unavoidable. This is reassuring. However, Chiefs change, and the presence of the RAF in the carrier air equation risks being a source of problems and infighting forever. Will we always enjoy the presence of a Chief of Defence Staff capable to preserve the carrier capability, or will we end up having a new Harrier tragedy?

Or a Nimrod tragedy, too. You can choose your favorite disaster.

Lack of vision

Another stunning demonstration of the lack of honesty and understanding within the MOD planning is the disastrous approach to the replacement of the Airborne Early Warning capability currently provided to the fleet (and to the joint force, as the enduring commitment to Afghanistan demonstrates) by the Sea King MK7 ASaC.

Already some time ago I had written that I was only waiting for the inexorable coming of the idiotic comment sayings that, with no carriers in the water, we don’t need AEW either.

Could I be kept waiting for once? Of course not.

Defense News reports on the NAO document and notes the statement offered by Hammond in reply:

The Department does not consider that the phased introduction of Crowsnest undermines the delivery of carrier-strike capability. Crowsnest will enter service at the same time as HMS Queen Elizabeth and will be fully operational by 2022. Until then, its maritime surveillance capabilities will be augmented by other platforms and systems.

There is one, and one only advantage that an helicopter-based AEW solution offers over the much more capable Hawkeye aircraft: an helicopter can be based on almost any kind of modern warship.

Sea King MK7 has in recent times been operating from HMS Ocean as well as HMS Illustrious, and it has also been aboard Type 45 destroyers.

An helicopter AEW platform, or HEW, If you want, with the H for Heliborne, has the advantage that it can provide any kind of flotilla an invaluable AEW solution, even if there is no large flat top in sight.

HEW does NOT NEED the carrier.  

The carrier NEEDS the HEW platform.

Moreover, not only the carrier needs HEW, the whole fleet NEEDS HEW.

Conclusion: the lack of a carrier does nothing to reduce the importance of HEW.

The need for early warning of incoming air and, later on, missile attacks has been clear even since the 1940s. The massive air attacks, and the threat of the japanese Kamikaze in the Pacific theatre were the original driver for the quick development of early warning solutions.

First was the radar picket ship, vessels fitted with powerful radars sent ahead of the task force to form a first line of defence and to provide early warning to the thick of the force.

Of course, being on a picket ship was a very dangerous job: picket ships were the first to be attacked and the first to be sunk.

Desperation with this situation brought to the light a number of imaginative solutions, including the use of submersibles fitted with radars, destined to stay on the surface to track enemy air activity. Submersibles were harder to spot from the sky, and could always dive underwater, so they had much better chances of surviving the day. But they also made for poor platforms for air control radars.

Nonetheless, the US Navy did use many such EW vessels. The last such boat to be kitted for the role was a nuclear propelled submarine!

Fortunately, by then, technology had progressed enough to make airborne EW platforms viable and effective.

Already once the Royal Navy had the great idea of gapping the AEW capability. It was swiftly punished with the Falklands War, which saw the senior service having to take a step back in time, all the way to using picket ships and, to a degree, submarine EW as well, when five submarines formed a line on the edge of Argentina's 12-nautical-mile (22 km; 14 mi) territorial limit to provide some form of early warning of incoming air raids.  

A cost was paid for this in sunk ships and lost lives. HMS Sheffield is a good image of this, as she was a picket ship, deployed ahead of the main force to make up for the lost capability provided, until not much time before, by the Gannet AEW aircrafts of the old HMS Ark Royal (IV).

Evidently, not enough ships and lives were lost, because the MOD is once again planning to gap this vital capability, from 2016 all the way to 2020 or, more exactly, 2022. Four to six years of return to “stone age” for the Navy.

There is no hiding behind the superior capabilities of the Type 45 and of its Sea Viper missiles. Physics has not changed, and the radar horizon for the detection of low-flying enemies continues to be too close to the ship for defences to work properly.

And at the Falklands the threat was the subsonic Exocet. Today, the threat could well be a massive, supersonic Yakhont missile fired by the BASTION coastal defence batteries sold by Russia to countries such as Siria.

Defences might have improved, but offensive weapons also have, and a missile coming low on the waves at Mach 2 or 3 will leave a ship struggling to react in the few seconds it’ll have between detection of the incoming threat and impact.

But perhaps mr. Hammond believes that the enemy will not want to use its missiles against frigates, destroyers, amphibs and merchant ships. Maybe the enemy will only fire its missiles if there is a carrier to try and hit.

Maybe. But I don’t think so. And Hezbollah doesn’t, either. There’s many people out there who probably don’t agree with mr. Hammond.

I hope, not for him but for the sailors that would pay the ultimate price in such an event, that he can get away with this insane decision without having his own HMS Sheffield moment. 

A decision taken is never definitive  

Another dramatic problem is the dramatic way in which programs even of primary importance tend to drag on and on and on without ever delivering. Even when the MOD takes a decision and starts some kind of activity, it takes uncountable years and uncountable acronyms and "studies" and "assessment phases" and "main gates" and "planning rounds" to get any progress in. 
Again, we return to the tragedy of AEW. 

The Royal Navy has been trying to find a replacemet for Sea King MK7 for well over a decade. We were still in the 1990s when the Future Organic Airborne Early Warning Aircraft (FOAEW) started. And with further research we might find out that the activities started earlier still. 
In the early 2000s the acronym changed, to MASC (Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control) and in 2010 we arrived to the current CROWSNEST name. 

Capability delivered: none. 

Only this year CROWSNEST has entered the Assessment Phase. The selected path is to fit palletized radar equipment to the existing fleet of Merlin HM2 helicopters, with two proposals to choose from: Northropp Grumman/Lochkeed propose the VIGILANCE radar pod, which they have been testing in flight since last year, on a Merlin HM2. 
Thales proposes migrating the CERBERUS/Searchwater 2000AEW kit from the existing Sea King MK7 to a the slightly modified Merlin HM2 airframe. 

Thales proposal, with existing radar from Sea King MK7 migrated and fitted on sliding rails on the side of the Merlin HM2 fuselage.
The Vigilance pod proposed by Lochkeed.
Nothing revolutionary at all, in other words. It proposes to use an helicopter which will return in full service after the upgrade to HM2 standard over the next year. An helicopter that is currently planned to leave service in 2030, notably. 
If Thales wins, even the radar could remain the same, perhaps just touched up a bit. 

Yet they are dragging it along, for budget and non-budget reasons, so much to expect an entry in service only in 2020, with systems that won't be fully operational before the end of 2022. 
That's 9 years from the start of the Assessment Phase, and well over two decades after the whole saga began.    

To set the proportions straight, the E2 Hawkeye was born from a US Navy requirement in 1956, entered service as E2A in 1964 and by 1971 it had been completely upgraded twice, up to E2C standard. All in 15 years

I won't add anything else. I think facts speak loud enough.