Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The evolving budget situation: GEOINTELLIGENCE improvements

One rare, if not unique case of capability that is being genuinely preserved (if not expanded) in numbers and also expanded in quality, is the little known Field Deployable Geointelligence capability of the Army. It certainly doesn't rank among the most well known, nor among the most celebrated capabilities, but teams from 42 Royal Engineers regiment (Geographic) will actually be found pretty much always supporting any kind of deployment, operation or force at readiness, from the Lead Commando battlegroup to the Airborne Task Force, from Operation Telic to the Olympic Games. 
One key factor of any operation is, in fact, knowing the environment in the highest possible detail, so that collecting data and build multiple layers of information about the area of operations is absolutely vital. The GEOINT capability of the British Army has significantly improved in recent years with the introduction of new equipment in support of operations in Afghanistan, and a complete renewal of the kit is ongoing under the Field Deployable GEOINT program, part of the wider Project PICASSO which provides strategic to tactical level mapping and digital geographic information and imagery derived intelligence to UK forces.
Notable UORs delivered in recent years include GEOSYS, a deployable computer system made up by more than 100 systems, each able to process up to four terrabytes of mapping, geographic information and intelligence data individually and substantially more when additional network storage is added. These computer systems, contained in characteristics green boxes, are meant to be used as standalone systems, or networked ones. The GEOSYS system is employed to collect, analyse and store intelligence data, from photographic images and digital maps to stereo enabled 3D imagery. The information is then processed and used to inform mission planning, either with electronic presentation or in hard copy, produced with printers procured as part of the UOR, along with a number of 14ft containers fitted with internal storage space and work surfaces. 
GEOSYS was sourced from Raytheon Systems UK, while the containers were made by G3. 
The other and more important UOR is DATAMAN, which uses COTS technology to deliver a powerful server system that can be accessed by troops in the field via ruggerized laptops. The product offered by DATAMAN to the soldiers is known as GeoViewer, a military software which resembles the common Google Maps but which offers access to between 300 and 350 different layers of information about the terrain. Any kind of useful information will be accessible, including data about known IED placements in the area, pattern of life information, and simple but highly relevant environment data. An overview of the DATAMAN system and its impact on operations is available in Angus Batey's weblog and archive.
At its simplest level, Dataman supplies a detailed map to its connected users. The map is not moved around from computer to computer, but held on the server: connected users access information tagged to the map, thus minimizing bandwidth requirements. Dataman allows this rich intelligence picture to be shared laterally, permitting any officer conducting an operation in a given area to better understand the changing nature of the space around them.

Information is added to the system from a variety of sources (including on-the-ground troop reports, signals and communication intelligence, open-source intelligence such as news reports, overhead imagery from aerial platforms, etc.) and validated by GEOINT specialists from JAGO (JointAeronautical and Geospatial Organization).  It is tagged to a specific location, permitting the operational units to "drill down" into the layers of data and learn about what has happened there over a period of time. In this way, an officer planning a convoy could, for example, decide which roads to avoid by looking at locations of past IED emplacements, or assess the likelihood of ambushes by checking possible routes for recent insurgent activity.

The move to integrate different data types in a single accessible system has been driven both by the determination in the British military to end the unintended stovepiping of GEOINT, which has seen the geographical element of military intelligence effectively separated from other sources of battlespace information, and by the desire of soldiers who have come of age in a net-centric era to use the consumer technologies they are familiar with in their work environment. Traditionally a very specialised discipline, GEOINT is being opened up to the non-specialist user. The results benefit everyone.

DATAMAN, first deployed in 2010, reaches into other databases covering, for instance: Counter-Improvised Explosive Devices, ISTAR, medical facilities, cross-country movements and patrol tracks, offering unprecedented situational awareness about the terrain to the officers.

These systems complement and enhance older equipment which has been around for years: TACISYS and TACIPRINT. The first item was delivered by ULTRA Electronics in 1997, although an early iterations based on the system prototypes was used to support operations in Bosnia in 1995. TACISYS (Tactical Information System) is a mobile computer system providing various geographic products, and is housed in a container mounted on a 4 Tonne Daf truck. The system is mobile to support manoeuvre formations in the field, to collect and process GEOINT and to make it available in support of planning. 11 such systems were originally procured and have been in use ever since, including in Afghanistan. 
TACIPRINT (Tactical Printing System) is a mobile printing press housed in a container mounted on an 8 Tonne Bedford, used to produce maps rich with overlaid information. Separately, a fleet of 4 tonne trucks were equipped as MAPSP (MAP Supply Point) and designed to carry and distribute up to 72.000 maps. 
This equipment is now being replaced with new, more modern systems which build on the success of the UOR equipment recently introduced and, of course, of modern electronics and printers. 
The Geographic regiment is receiving a one for one replacement for TACISYS with the new TIGAS (Tactical Information and Geospatial Analysi) vehicle, a DURO II 6x6 fitted with a specialized shelter produced by Marshall Land Systems to serve as the working environment for two GEOINT specialists and their equipment, including servers, computers and plotter. 
TIGAS will deploy on the field to collect and analyse GEOINT data, which can then be shared via network and/or be used to produce hard copy material and maps. These will no longer be produced by the old TACIPRINT, but will be made and distributed by the new Tactical Map Dissemination Points (TMDP), 2-man laboratories housed in 20-ft containers mounted on 15T MAN SV trucks. 

TIGAS and TMDP overview

TIGAS and TMDP have been delivered by Team SOCRATES, a group of companies lead by Lockheed Martin and comprising Marshall Specialist Vehicles; SCISYS; Actica Consulting (security and communications); KNK; Polaris Consulting and Safety Assurance Services.
11 TIGAS and 3 TMDPs have been delivered, and the MOD has now awarded the order for FDG Tranche 2A, which will deliver further TMDPs, possibly more TIGAS vehicles, and equipment to set up a Forward Map Distribution Point, which should be a large deployable facility meant for the higher levels of command (Division and above). A Forward Map Distribution Point, equipped with older technology, was set up in Kuwait during Operation Telic, for example.  

The TIGAS vehicle comes with a tent that can be used to exand the working and living space - photo Marshall Land Systems

The new Field Deployable GEOINT has hit IOC in August 2013 and should have achieved FOC in October 2013. The kit developed for FDG is fully UK proprietary and is said to have gained the interest of several countries, so that export orders in the near future are a distinct possibility. 
The UK modernized GEOINT capability sits within a collaborative project called Allied System for Geospatial Intelligence (ASG), in which the british armed forces partner with USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to collect, analyze and share relevant intelligence. 

This equipment is employed by 42 Royal Engineers regiment (Geographic). The regiment is based in Hermitage but is due to transfer into Roy Lines, a new structure built on RAF Wyton. 14 Field Squadron, part of the regiment, has been based in Germany to support BAOR for some 68 years: it has lowered its flag for the last time on German soil on the 18th of July 2013, at a ceremony in Ayrshire Barracks, M├Ânchengladbach. The squadron moved back to the UK in the summer 2013, directly into the new building at Wyton, and will be followed there by the rest of the regiment by September 2014.
The regiment also includes the squadrons 13 and 16, plus the 135 Reserve squadron. 
Moving to Wyton is part of the riorganization which sees the regiment sit beneath the 1-Star Command called Joint Force Intelligence Group (JFIG). This Command sits under the headline ‘Defence Intelligence’ and is itself part of the new Joint Forces Command (JFC) – headed up by a 4-Star Officer. RAF Wyton has been expanded and new buildings have been built ("Pathfinder" and the "Roy Lines", the new home for 42 Engineer Regiment) under Project PRIDE, as part of the riorganisation. 

TIGAS on mobility trials

Being under Joint Forces Command, 42 Engineer will be the only unit of sappers not directly under the command of 8th Engineer Brigade. The regiment has since decided to adopt the common formation flash designed for JFC.  

Joint Forces Command Flash

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The evolving budget situation: capabilities in the air - UPDATE

The International Military Helicopter conference has started this morning, and the top officers of the british Joint Helicopter Command have delivered speeches in which they shared some interesting news on the helicopters situation in the armed forces.

First of all, the theme is unsurprisingly about reductions. They confirmed that the Apache fleet is definitely going to shrink, and provided a vision of the frontline strength that the JHC will be able to offer as the current programmed numbers in the various fleets are reached. Specifically, the magic number is 148 airframes in frontline fleet.
The break down is reportedly as follows:

19 Puma HC2 (out of 24 in the total fleet)
46 Chinook (out of the around 60 in total that will be available when the HC6s are all delivered)
24 Wildcat AH1 (out of 34)
20 Merlin HC4 / 4A (HC3 / 3A until navalisation and life extension work will take place) (out of 25 in total)

This would leave some 39 aircraft out of the count, and this would be the Apache fleet, suggesting an expected total no higher than around 50.

Regarding Apache, the position of the army is clear: the future they want is the Apache Block III, now known in the US as AH-64E Apache Guardian. According to Brigadier Neil Sexton, deputy commander Joint Helicopter Command, the army expects to finalize the plan to transition to the Block III “in the next two years” and sign a contract for the new helicopters shortly afterwards, with the aim to get the helicopters before the end of the decade.
As anticipated already some time ago, the favored option appears to be using new-build airframes, transferring all the kit that is still valid from the current machines to the new ones. The excess engines, targeting sensors and other valuable components will be kept as spares. 

The UK originally procured 67 Apache AH-64D (Block I standard), but one has since been written off, leaving 66. The fleet of 67 was used to provide 48 machines in six frontline squadrons, 8 in one training squadron, 1 for development and trials, 1 for the Empire Test Pilot School and 9 for the Sustainment Fleet.
The buy of 67 aircraft was in itself a cut from an hoped 91 helicopters in 9 squadrons, one of which would have been the Royal Marines’s 847 NAS.

It is widely anticipated that the fleet will shrink to 4 frontline squadrons, perhaps with a fifth acting as a support formation for advanced conversion to role training, such as for ship operations, giving a frontline strength varying between 32 and 40. The Block III will compensate the reduction somewhat thanks to improved capabilities, including manned – unmanned teaming, which will allow the Apache to work closely together with the Watchkeeper UAV of the Royal Artillery, and other systems.

The JHC is also determined to acquire a new fleet of training helicopters which can act as surrogates, allowing crews to effectively train for their roles using less expensive machines than the frontline ones. The idea currently sees six helicopters of the new type, equipped with appropriate kit to simulate and replicate the actual frontline machine, assigned to each operating base.
This would be a separate activity from the training done at the Defence Helicopter Flying School at Shawbury. 

The same new type of helicopter would also ideally replace the Bell 212 used in support to training exercises, and could be assigned to 5th Regiment AAC for security support in Northern Ireland.
This suggests the possibility that this new helicopter would effectively replace the last Gazelles (OSD 2018).

On the naval front, there are confirmations that the Merlin HC3 navalisation and Life Extension program aims to install the same HM2 cockpit already in use on the ASW variant of the helicopter, so that the pilots will receive exactly the same training, with obvious advantages.
This suggests that in good time Merlin training for both fleets could be centralized on the Merlin Training Facility in Culdrose. Currently, the Merlin HC3 crews are trained in RAF Benson, while the Royal Navy’s HM2 crews are formed in Culdrose. 

HM2 cockpit
UPDATE: during the second day of the IMH event, some more info was released on the Merlin transition from RAF to Royal Navy. The current plan (still provisional in terms of exact date) sees 78 Sqn standing down in September, with 28 Sqn disbanding in mid-2015.
The Merlin force will transfer under Navy command this year, as soon as the manpower balance shifts in favor of the Fleet Air Arm.
The first two Merlin navalised and life-extended, to be known as MK4 / HC4, will be ready in September 2017, and it is expected that work on the first helicopter will begin soon after the announcement of the contract, expected this week.
With the last Sea Kings going out of service in 2016 and the last of 25 Merlins HC4 possibly not delivered before 2022, the amphibious force is looking ahead to years of extremely low availability of appropriate support helicopters. This can be considered, by all means, another capability gap in the long list.

The gap will be mitigated somewhat by modifying "several" Merlin HC3 with a folding rotor head (possibly coming from the stored and non-updated Royal Navy HM1 helicopters, so that would mean between 8 and 12 machines). These interim machines will likely be known as HC3I.
The IOC for the helicopters at HC4 standard is expected in early 2018, with 7 such machines available. 

The navalisation will include the folding tail (in 2010, serious consideration was given to keeping a fixed tail boom as a way to save money), folding rotor head, HM2 cockpit, one additional fast rope point, plus modifications to the landing gear and lash down points. An emergency egress system will be optimized on both variants (HC3 and the 6 HC3A ex-danish air force) 

It is also planned to integrate the Merlin HM2 and the Scan Eagle UAV, so that the mission crew on the helicopter can receive data feed from the UAV, and control it, using it as a mobile, long-range eye. This is not at all a new concept, however: it was validated as far back as 2006, with the Sea King MK7 ASaC. The Royal Navy is merely trying again to see if it can obtain what it already tried to get in 2007, when the first embarked UAV urgent requirement was voiced, but ultimately turned down.

The Scan Eagle has finally been procured last year, with two contractor owned and contractor operated systems now in Royal Navy use. One system is embarked already from late last year on RFA Cardigan Bay, in the Persian Gulf, and a second system is starting to operate in these days from the Type 23 frigate HMS Somerset. 

Scan Eagle was validated on HMS Sutherland... nearly seven years ago!
Joint Helicopter Command is also rethinking its CASEVAC approach. Currently, the Medical Emergency Response Teams in Afghanistan employ Chinook helicopters, but JHC would like to stop tying down such a precious machine for this role and use, when possible, another platform.

As earlier reported, including on this blog, last year the MOD was also curiously enquiring about light, air-droppable 4x4 vehicles, capable to fit ready to go into a Chinook, for Combat SAR role (and special forces work?). It is unlikely that the MOD will find a way to actually fit such a requirement in the budget, the MOD would like to launch a formal requirement in 2016 as part of the effort to constitute a C-SAR (Joint Personnel Recovery) capability, to fill one of several macro-gaps in capability evidenced by studies on Force 2020.

The end result, in the best case, could be the development of a CASEVAC / Joint Personnel Recovery capability which would see teams of personnel and medical equipment created and assigned to the helicopter most suited to the need at hand. Puma HC2 could be a suitable platform to use in the Land Domain when the size and downwash of a Chinook is excessive (in Afghanistan, when Chinook is unsuitable to reach the casualty, American H-60 platforms intervene instead), while the Merlin HC4, once navalised, would be good to go in the littoral domain.

It is early to say what will come out of these studies and ambitions, but we might see a return, in some ways, to the plans already made in the past decade, which are described in the excellent book “A moment in time.”, by Gordon Angus Mackinlay.

Combat Recovery The (RAF) Regiment provides the Ground Extraction Force (GEF) for RAF Combat Recovery. GEF’s mission is to recover Isolated Personnel (downed aircrew etc-PR Personnel recovery) and high-value assets, in all conditions and threat levels over extended periods, in any operational environment. Combat Recovery requires the small teams to insert primarily by helicopters to locate, authenticate and recover the IP(s) or asset(s). Operating in four man self sufficient teams, behind enemy lines, utilising RAF Regiment tactics and certain items of specialist equipment, until the IP or asset are recovered. The GEF is a part of E Flight, No 28 (AC) Squadron operating Merlin HC Mk3 helicopters at RAF Benson (role may go to No 78 Sqn to support the SF Flight), a further element is with the SFSG. Rescue of shot down aircrew is not just a single helo operation, combat search and rescue will involve a great deal of RAF/AAC resources, for command and control, airborne early warning, strike aircraft support, reserve helicopters, refuelling support.

NOTE : Whilst it was accepted the the UK could not afford a dedicated CSAR force and PR was the intended way, in April 2003 it was intended to have a JPR-Joint Personnel Recovery doctrine. With a Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of three Sea King HC4 on five day 'notice to move' crewed by UK Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel, with three RM Commando GEF teams, and medical personnel from the Tactical Medical Wing. With a intended Full Operating Capability (FOC) for JPR of these plus, a flight of six Merlins (crewed from SAR force), with six RAF Regt GEF teams from No 28 Sqn. Due to operations this FOC has “quietly gone away”, although IOC remains.

Another such macro-gap has been opened in December 2013 with the withdrawal from service, without replacement, of the ALARM anti-radar missile. This kills off the RAF’s specialist SEAD capability. Of course, one of the excuses given is that the UK will actually act as part of a Coalition, which will be able to do SEAD work in place of the RAF.
The problem is that with the RAF quitting this capability area, in the whole NATO there are just three countries left with SEAD capability: the US, obviously, followed by Germany and Italy.
In practice, “coalition” as often happens, actually reads as “we’ll ask the Americans”, since the availability of Italian and german resources is not too trustable. Italy’s SEAD capability was used over Libya in 2011, but Germany did not participate, and the end result was that most of the work was done by the US. 

Radar-chasing no more. Another precious capability lost.
Storm Shadow and Tomahawk are of course very good to demolish the fixed elements of an integrated air defence system, but an anti-radar missile remains a key capability to face nimbler, mobile air defence systems, and this certainly constitutes a dangerous gap, and one which brings real limitations. 
It is impossible not to notice, with bitter irony, how the United Kingdom uses the coalition excuse to cuts its own capabilities, and then roars against any call for closer cooperation and integration of capabilities not just in Europe, but even in NATO (the UK, for example, did not join in on the joint maritime patrol aircraft initiative, despite having clear interests in doing otherwise).  In other words: the conspirationists that see the reductions in national capability as a way to go towards unified european armed forces have got it wrong. It is actually worse: capabilities just vanish entirely, substituted by vague and inconsistent comments about working inside coalitions.

On the unmanned aviation front, the British Army hopes to finally get an interim release to service for the Watchkeeper UAV. This document will enable, hopefully within this spring, the army to fly the Watchkeeper in temporarily closed air corridors from Boscombe Down test airfield in Wiltshire to the Salisbury Plain training area, where the aircraft will be able to support army training, staying in the segregated airspace. It is taking a long time to satisfy the MAA authority and obtain the needed certifications, and this has imposed vast delays to the program. It is a process which will last for much longer, we can bet, before the restrictions are all lifted.
The british army at least will be able to move on with the testing of the system: on the to-do list there are exercises to validate the deployment of Watchkeeper task lines via C-17, the air-lifting, under-slung by Chinook, of the containerized elements of the system and operations from semi-prepared runways and tented facilities, in order to prepare for contingency deployments.

The Royal Air Force will keep its 10 Reapers, bringing them into core once Afghanistan operations end. The RAF will work to develop the methods for deploying and employing the Reaper in support to contingency and expeditionary operations. Even as the RAF moves the Reaper to Waddington, it will maintain a presence in Creech air force base, in the USA, to stay in close touch with the USAF and continue to share methods and expertise about Remotely Piloted Aircraft operations.

Finally, the French specialized publication Air at Cosmos reports that France and UK are talking about a possible change to the delivery schedule of the A400M cargo aircraft. France would like to delay some of its purchases to save money in the short term, and is talking with the MOD to see if the UK could and would swap delivery slots, taking more aircraft in a shorter timeframe. There is no firm plan as of now: the UK is not in a better position than France, so finding the money to take over the aircraft earlier than planned might not be easy. The negotiation is however described as serious, and it would also involve tighter cooperation over the type, and a faster build up of the joint activities.
Currently, the UK expects to receive:

3 aircraft in 2014
8 in 2015
6 in 2016
2 in 2017
2 in 2018
1 in 2021

This would complete the planned fleet of 22. The Uk retains an option for 3 more aircraft, which were originally scheduled to be delivered 2 in 2018 and 1 in 2019. The UK could still decide to exercise the options and take up these additional aircraft, but as of now it is unlikely due to budget problems. In the meanwhile, 6 RAF personnel have entered the A400M MEST (Multinational Entry into Service Team), including the first pilot.

Storm Shadow test flights finally began

In the meanwhile, the Typhoon has begun to fly carrying Storm Shadow and Taurus missiles, as the integration process begins, and in the US the Block IV software and hardware upgrade, destined to be rolled out for the F-35 around 2020, is starting to take shape. Block IV is important as it is the first point in which the UK, like the other partner countries, will be able to add further national requirements. The hope is that UK and Italy manage to agree and fund a plan for the integration of the Meteor missile in Block IV. Norway will be getting its JSM integrated, and other capabilities will be added to the aircraft, Flightglobal reports.


I recommend you follow on Twitter Tony Osborne@Rotorfocus and Gareth Jennings @GarethJennings3 who tweet live from this and other events, always supplying great information