Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Army 2020 in detail: Royal Artillery

3 - Royal Artillery

The following tables show the intended restructuring that the regular regiments of the Royal Artillery are to undergo as part of Army 2020. The information dates back to December 2012, and reports on the shape of the force as decided in September 2012. A number of changes had already taken place by that point, with some of the batteries of the disbanded 40th Regiment RA having been re-subordinated to other regiments. The changes outlined in the tables give the final intended Army 2020 structure of the Royal Artillery.

Despite the time that has passed, the information should still be valid in its entirety. Several of the changes outlined in the tables have already happened, others are underway. The fate of 29 Commando Royal Artillery should include the survival of all its batteries, but with a rather savage cutback in manpower: the three gun batteries seem to only line 12 guns in total, or four guns each, down from a normal figure of six. The regiment, according to a note from the commander, had been asked to modify its ORBAT to account for a reduction in manpower going as far up as 20%. The effect of the cut, however, was somehow softened by the uncomfortable truth that the regiment already was understrenght, so the number of redundancies was kept to a minimum.
For a long while, 148 Battery sat on the edge, about to be removed from the ORBAT, but it was eventually saved, thanks to the resistance put up by Royal Marines command and Navy HQ.

Possible further changes beyond those outlined here might come in the training regiment and in the various batteries employed in the training role as the Royal Artillery plans out the future.

The restructuring of 12 Royal Artillery regiment appears confirmed by the Force Troops Command document, which confirms that there will be three Stormer HVM batteries, one aligned with each of the armoured infantry brigades. The third battery on Stormer will be obtained by the re-roling of the current HQ Bty. A new battery identity, coming out of suspended animation, goes to the new HQ for the regiment.
16 Regiment Royal Artillery restructures on four Rapier batteries, and the two regiments share 42 Battery as an air defence support element.
49 Battery remains independent, as the user of the LEAPP system.
The Reserve will no longer supply Rapier formations, but 106 RA will instead deliver two reserve Stormer HVM (295 and 457 Bty) batteries and one LML battery (265 Bty).

Of particular interest is the evolution of the UAS force, which is already switching away from its current campaign posture, meant to support the enduring operations in Afghanistan, to a new structure aligned to the Army’s new shape.
This probably means that at least one battery will lose its “full spectrum” capability to focus only on mini-UAVs. Currently, the batteries are structured to include T-Hawk detachments for the support to EOD work in the Talisman convoys; Desert Hawk III detachments in support of both bases and mobile forces; and Hermes 450 task lines.
The force continues to support operation Herrick, and is also working towards consolidating in Larkhill, with 47 Regiment transferring from its current home in Thorney Island. 47 Regiment RA will move from Thorney Island to Larkhill in the summer, between June and July. 43 Battery is indeed already based in Roberts Barracks, Larkhill, and the rest is to gradually follow.
10 Bty, 47 Regiment also is about to deploy to Afghanistan for Herrick 20, and it seems that they will bring with them one Watchkeeper task line, for the first ever operational use of the new tactical UAS. In the meanwhile, the UAS personnel have seen their tours sized at four months, which means that personnel from the two regiments is rotated in and out of theatre regardless of the battery that is deployed in that specific moment. Personnel rotate under directions coming from the central management, and it is thus pretty normal to end up de-linked from the parent battery for periods of time.
It is very reassuring to see that the UAV force made up by 47 and 32 Regiments will express a powerful capability, spread over six “flying” batteries of unmanned air systems, plus two HQ batteries and a shared support battery.
Three UAS batteries will be aligned with the reaction force armoured infantry brigades, and are likely to retain the full spectrum structure. They will get Warthog vehicles modified to act as carriers for the Desert Hawk III detachments, and they will also have Viking vehicles carrying the ground tactical node of the Watchkeeper system.
Two more support the Adaptable Force, and hopefully will maintain the full-sprectrum structure as well. 21 (Gibraltar 1779-83) Battery, in the Very High Readiness air assault role appears likely to shift to a mini-UAV only role, more realistic to deploy in earnest, possibly from the air and with as little logistical footprint as possible, although I can’t confirm this at present. The battery so continues to be directly aligned with 16 Air Assault brigade, for which it once provided air defence with the Starstreak LML missile system. The air assault, very high readiness air defence role has now moved out to 12 (Minden) Battery in 12 Regiment, instead. 

The Integrated UAS Batteries as shaped by the Afghanistan experience. Note to the equipment detail: Desert Hawk III and T-Hawk are both being brought into core budget. It is almost certain that Black Hornet will also be retained. Black Hornet is the only army UAS that is employed by infantry instead of RA specialists.
Another interesting element is the STA force, 5 Regiment RA. The regiment is to have its batteries changed to align them to the Reaction Force. One battery looks set to be “lighter” than the others, as 53 Bty is to be configured to provide STA support to 16 Air Assault Brigade in the very high readiness air assault role. It is probable that the battery will bear greater similitude with the Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron of 30 Commando IX than to the other three STA batteries of 5 RA, which will be heavier and include a full range of capabilities to support the three armoured infantry brigades.
These batteries will employ MAMBA, as well as the lightweight counter mortar radar, and the plan appears to include the retention of some of the CORTEZ base-ISTAR equipment, including the large surveillance aerostats. I read time ago that Royal Artillery and RAF Regiment were collaborating on base-ISTAR equipment, including the aerostats, and it makes a lot of sense: it would be very interesting to get fresher and more detailed information about this.
Unfortunately, there won’t be five “ready-to-go” STA batteries with the same, complete range of capabilities, which puts another problem on the planning schedule for a possible future enduring operation, and unfortunately the Adaptable Force misses out completely on having a STA formation aligned with its brigades. Support for training and for future deployments will thus present some serious challenges, in a repeat of the problem already evidenced in ICS support.
There used to be two reserve batteries in the STA role, but it appears that there will be none under Army 2020, as the existing batteries are converting to GMLRS.
The Honourable Artillery Company remains, however, on three squadrons providing additional covert special observation patrols for the reinforcement of 4/73 Sphinx battery.

It is also finally confirmed that the intended structure of the Adaptable Force Artillery Regiments, 3rd RHA and 4th RA, includes only two Light Gun batteries, and a doubled complement of Fire Support Teams, in two (three, even, in 4th Regiment) TAC batteries instead of the canonic one. It seems clear that the idea is that regulars are better employed in the demanding FST role, while reserves from the paired regiment can provide additional guns. 3rd RHA is paired with 105 RA, while 4th RA is paired with 103 RA. It seems to remain the plan that, for reasons of geographical convenience, 3rd RHA will also support 101 RA, the Reserve GMLRS regiment, despite the different roles and equipment of the two units. 
Each of the two Reserve light gun regiments has four gun batteries. 

The Royal Artillery reserve regiments under Army 2020
The changes to the Air Assault artillery regiment, 7th Royal Horse Artillery, have taken place as planned, and the remaining gun batteries have taken up the equipment and role of the gone Aviation TAC Gp Battery, bringing it into smaller but full-capability packages that can rotate in support of the airborne task force at high readiness.

The structure of the Reaction Force artillery regiments is also confirmed, with three AS-90 batteries supported by a GMLRS (and Exactor) precision fire battery.
The future will tell if the Fire Shadow loitering ammunition will find a long-term place in the Army beyond the 39 Regiment’s Troop which has taken it for evaluation and trials. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

ARMY 2020 in detail: Royal Signals

Previous parts:

1 - Force Troops Command and Royal Engineers

The Royal Signals have completed their planning work for the changes to the corps stemming from the Army 2020 cuts. I had written already months ago about much of the major changes, at regiment and brigade level, but much was still uncertain back then, including the fate of the many, many squadrons re-subordinating to different regiments, re-roling, disbanding etcetera. Now a far greater level of detail is available.

The structure of the Royal Signals is based on the two signal brigades, but several elements sit under different HQs
The entire Corps is on this slide, including signal troops assigned to NATO and to the EOD Group. Yellow text denotes Reserve element 

The document produced by the MOD months ago about the restructuring of the Reserves had provided a good overview of the changes to reserve sub-units, but many regular squadrons have moved and are moving around between formations.
For example, all the brigade signal squadrons are being removed from the brigades and brought into the five multirole signals regiments (MRSRs). The tables that follow show the fate of the regular squadrons.

Multi Role Signal Regiments and 216 Signal Squadron

216 Signal Squadron is the only brigade squadron which does not leave its supported unit. It continues to be a part of 16 Air Assault brigade, and it stays unders its direct OPCON. It is also the only signal formation retaining a Life Support role for a deployable HQ.
3rd Commando Brigade has its own ICS and Life Support elements, provided by 30 Commando IX, and so sits outside of this analysis. 

The Multi Role Signal Regiments are born out of the experience of the Campaign Signal Regiments deploying in support of operation Herrick. Communications and information management have grown in size and in importance in recent times, and the diverse range of needs of a brigade engaged in complex operations means that the old signal squadron is definitely insufficient to cover all requirements. The MRSRs are all taking up on systems such as FALCON, to be able to build up the necessary network of communications and information systems needed to run combat operations in theatre.
The reduction in manpower, however, has constrained the restructuring effort, and has forced a number of decisions. Most notably, the removal of the brigade HQ signals squadrons, and the dropping of the life support role for said HQs. While it makes sense to observe that ICS specialists, precious and expensively trained and much needed in their core roles should not be wasted on life support tasks, but this is nonetheless a requirement that is not going away. It will have to be met somehow with the restructuring of brigade and division level deployable HQs, and it works to demonstrate the pressure the army has to deal with.

Worth of note is that the Air Support Signal Regiment (21 Sig Regt) is definitively losing its AS role. Communications support for Joint Helicopter Command will now be delivered by the lone 244 Signal Squadron (AS), which is being transferred to 30 Sig Regt.

The key weak point in the whole construction is the complete absence of signal regiments aligned with the Adaptable Force. In the words of the Corps' Colonel:

ICS and EW support to the Adaptive Force. No dedicated ICS or EW assets reside within the Adaptive Force to support the maintenance of Institutional Resilience; however, capacity within the MRSRs should allow for some support to be made available if Collective Training to maintain Institutional Resilience is properly programmed. The force generation mechanism for an enduring operation will need to take account of the lean availability of expeditionary ICS and EW force elements. Support to the AF, in homeland roles, will be found principally from the R SIGNALS Reserve.

The Adaptable Force risks being very short on Signals elements to support training, and the key problem is that it will be short of ICS and EW support when the time comes to eventually deploy, as well. As i pointed out multiple times in the past, the ability of the Adaptable Force to provide, as planned, two brigades for two out of the five tours needed on rotational basis to support an enduring operation while respecting harmony guidelines is questionable. The supports are the key, and the supports have suffered cuts that put the target very much at risk.
The MRSRs will have to somehow squeeze out of their resources a package of ICS services for the deploying adaptable brigades, and this might prove to be a real problem. This is a huge weakeness of the whole Army 2020 construct.
I find it surprising, and yet depressingly normal, that the (most likely hopeless) calls for more defence investment following the wake up call of events in Ukraine have focused on "more brigades". Cap badges are, as always, the obsession of the day. Supports rarely, if ever, get mentioned, and yet they are the real, critical weakness of Army 2020.
The Army already has more brigades than it can support, and arguably more brigades than it needs. The problem is that most of these brigades are paper tigers, simple containers of (very small) infantry battalions.
If there's one weakness that needs fixing, is in the supporting area.

Support to ARRC and JRRF

 As said earlier, 30 Regiment is to assume responsibility for the Air Support Signal Squadron as well.

Training, EW, 3rd level Support

Other critical areas include the availability of ECM and Electronic Warfare. Both have proven invaluable and indispensable on operations, and are most definitely going to have crucial importance in the future. Even so, they can't escape cutbacks. Most notably, 14 Signal Regiment, Electronic Warfare, is to lose its fifth squadron, stood up in 2012 (better late than never...) to support the enduring deployment in Afghanistan. Again, this cut represents a serious limitation to the army's effective capability of facing a complex enduring deployment in the future.
As a little item of good news, 14 Regiment has resumed preparing airborne-capable Light EW Teams (LEWT) for the high readiness airborne task force. The Royal Marines have their own EW capability in Y Sqn, 30 Commando IX.

Special Forces 

The regiment should survive with no squadrons lost. I've added the list of squadrons as lat publicly known.

Reserve Signal Regiments and pairing arrangement

The four reserve regiments to remain after the cuts and restructuring provide support to the five regular MRSRs, and retain the Strategic Communications role in 2nd Signal Squadron.
The pairing works as follows:

37 Regiment (R) is asked to support two regular regiments at once.

As already evidenced by decisions made in other areas (es. Engineering), the key weakness of the Adaptable Force is the shortage of supporting units. It remains my belief, as i've been saying for a long time now, that if the Army high officers had been given a truly free hand, they would have taken different decisions, cutting back further on the infantry to ensure a more balanced final output.
Some of these weaknesses are the result of the somersaults that defence chiefs have had to make to obey Dave's order of seeing no more than five infantry battalions losses, and no regiment badge loss.

The result is an army which, despite claims of the contrary, is most evidently not balanced across its parts. The final capability output, to be measured in truly deployable brigades (infantry battalions are awesomely flexible and useful, but on their own they mean relatively little) is disappointing. It is probably the best that could be done given the political limits posed to the plan, but it is most likely not the best use of a given force of 82.000 regulars.
Politics and the need to have a significant number of "spare" infantry battalions to rotationally cover a huge public role liability and a large presence in Cyprus pose a significant challenge to the building up of an army that would otherwise have the chance to genuinely adapt to battlefield considerations and probably express six full deployable brigades (3 Heavy, 3 medium / light role) plus the air assault brigade at high readiness.

Sources: Royal Signals Journal - March 2014

Royal Signals "The Wire" magazine - December 2013

Monday, April 14, 2014

Force Troops Command and Royal Engineers of Army 2020

The Army has produced a good, clear brochure showing the structure of the "new" Force Troops Command, which is more honestly describable as a restructured Theatre Troops command.

The brochure is very clear in showing how units are assigned to the various brigades of the FTC, so i'll let you read it directly from the document. It is however worth noticinga few things: after a lot of speculation about the fate of the Self-Propelled Starstreak (Stormer HVM) air defence platforms, we can now say that the system looks like a big winner, not a loser.
Fears for the future of the system were generated by the news, dating back to 2009, that the Stormer vehicle would be withdrawn from service and sold. While it is true that several Stormer vehicles have been put up for sale, a sizeable force of modernized Stormer HVM remains very much in service and important. Under Army 2020, Stormer HVM will equip a total of five artillery batteries, of which three regular and two reserve.

As of now, 12 Regiment Royal Artillery has a couple of Stormer HVM batteries (9 (Plassey) Bty and 58 (Eyre's) Bty), and is apparently due to form a third battery. I've been trying to find out which colors will be assigned to the new battery, but at the moment i still don't have the answer.
Predictably, the three Stormer batteries are meant to support the three armoured infantry brigades of the Reaction Force. 
12 Regiment also maintains 12 (Minden) Bty employing the LML triple launcher. This battery has the task of generating air defence packages at very high readiness, notably to be assigned to 16 Air Assault Brigade.

106 Regiment Royal Artillery, in the Army Reserve, is to have two Stormer HVM batteries (295 and 457 Batteries) and a Lightweight Multiple Launcher (LML) capability in 265 Bty.

The document also finally clears up the position of 49 Bty Royal Artillery, which is confirmed as LEAPP formation, as passing under the command of Joint Ground Based Air Defence and as based in Thorney Island. It will however remain an independent battery, instead of being absorbed by 16 Regiment RA. 
Joint Ground Based Air Defence is under Air Command OPCON, but Force Troops Command will have a coordinating authority over the force.

Less operationally relevant, but still worth noticing, is that the badge for the Intelligence and Surveillance Brigade might not have been firmly chosen yet. In earlier Army 2020 documents produced by the Army, the new brigade was identified by the glorious badge of what in the past was Reconnaissance Corps. But in the whole FTC brochure, the Intelligence and Surveillance Brigade always appears without any badge. This might indicate that the Army is still thinking about it, on the way to the formation of the brigade, which will stand up on 1 September.

Will this be confirmed as the badge for 1 ISR Bde?

Moving to the Royal Engineers, an excellent graphic has been produced by the corps of Royal Engineers, showing the structure that the force will assume as part of Army 2020 restructuring:


The graphic is clear and immensely useful, but it needs a couple of notes. Since it dates November 2013, it shows 24 Commando Engineer Regiment in red, denoting its uncertain future. It has now been announced that the regiment will not disband as earlier announced as part of Army 2020 cuts.

Another note regards again the use of color code. Despite being an official document, the graphic contains a couple of errors: 106 Field Squadron, in 32 Regt, is shown in black, denoting regular forces. It should be written in green, as it is actually a reserve squadron.
In 33 EOD Regiment there's a second mistake, exactly opposite: 821 Sqn is written in green, denoting reserves, but it is actually a regular squadron, comprising two Air Assault and two Commando EOD troops for the support of 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3rd Commando Brigade.

In the EOD regiments, including 11 Regiment EOD Royal Logistic Corps, much is changing, as Search and EOD functions are combined in the squadrons, and RE and RLC elements get mixed and integrated together. 821 Sqn has been the first mixed RLC and RE squadron, born out of a wider restructuring process that saw the disbandment of 49 EOD Sqn in July 2013.
According to a Royal Engineers report, 11 Regiment RLC is assuming the responsibility for the provision of Search support to Special Forces for UK Resilience and work is ongoing to give it a UK Military Aid to Civil Powers (MACP) Search capability as well.
33 EOD Regiment is primarily tasked with EOD support to the Reaction Force, while 101 EOD Regiment supports the Adaptable Force.

In the EOD area there are also promising news regarding the future of the TALISMAN Route Clearance system. I have to thank MikeW for dropping me a comment in which he linked me to the website of the 101 EOD Regiment association, which contains information about the future:

As a result of OP Herrick EOD deveopments in support of Afganistan it is envisaged that the 'Talisman Troop' concept for route enablement and IED search and destroy missions will be retained and further developed. It is thought that 101 and 33 Engineer Regiments will each operate four enhanced Talisman Troops.
Talisman currently comprises 5 key equipment elements: Buffalo clearance vehicle, Mastiff 2 command and control 'Protected Eyes', T-Hawk micro UAV system, Talon robotic vehicle and a High Mobility Engineer Excavator.
It is probable that Talisman will be enhanced further in the near future with one or two 'Terrier' vehicles, and a 'Husky' vehicle equipped with ground penetrating radar. 

This brief passage does not quite contain all the information i'd like, but it does give good hopes. The Royal Artillery seem set to retain the T-Hawk micro UAV. The purchase of the proven, capable Husky would provide better capability than the current PANAMA system, made up by a number of Land Rover Snatch converted into remotely-operated vehicles fitted with ground-penetrating sensors.
The incorporation of a number of Terrier vehicles is not surprising. What remains in doubt is the future of the High Mobility Engineer Excavator, which was originally purchased as a gap-filler between the withdrawal of CET in 2008 and the entry in service of Terrier itself.
It might well be that a number of HMEE will actually stay, to provide a deployable wheeled capability to complement the tracked Terrier.
No details about another component of TALISMAN, the unmanned Mini Minewolf MW240.

Mini Minewolf with all its tools
Buffalo rummaging vehicle with PANAMA in tow
PANAMA in action
Husky: a possible future addition

The retention of TALISMAN elements (or even the interity of it) and its further evolution are a relatively cheap way to meet the  Route Clearance and Mine Countermeasure RCMC requirement of the wider Army 2020 plan. Thales UK, already Mission System Design Authority for TALISMAN, is working with the Army to develop the concept to bring forwards. There is the ambition to maintain the capability and further evolve it, and Husky with ground penetrating radar could well have a role to play.
However, there are alternatives: Pearson Engineering offers its impressive Pearson Engineering Route Opening and Clearing Capability (PEROCC) vehicle, which while expensive to buy new, would arguably replace at least two big parts of TALISMAN: the sensor (PANAMA or Husky) and the rummaging vehicle, currently the US-built Buffalo. It also has a full set of rollers.
PEROCC is a big vehicle, but is air portable inside the C-17, and replacing at least two different platforms with only one could well be actually advantageous.

The huge and very impressive PEROCC brings three capabilities into one vehicle: a complete set of rollers; ground-penetrating radar and sensors; and a powerful rummaging arm. On its own, it can replace two or three of the current TALISMAN vehicles, which could very well prove advantageous.

Other big changes in the Royal Engineers have taken place in 170 (Infrastructure Support) group, which has taken under command the Royal Monmouthshire RE (Militia) regiment and has seen the Specialist Teams (STREs) reorganized across Works Groups.
67 Works Group has been disbanded under the cuts, with the remaining STREs redistributed to concentrate all Heavy Teams (Power, Water, Fuel, Force Protection Engineering (FPE) and Materials)
all under 66 Wks Gp, leaving 62, 63 and 64 Works Groups as construction teams.

How 170 (Infra Sp) Group changes

20 Works Group, for support to air force deployments, sits under 12 Force Support group, alongside the Air Support regiment (39 Regt, paired with the reserve 71 regiment).
36 Regiment, which in these years had been "loaned" to EOD Search work, has moved back into Force Support role, mainly land. In support it has 75 Regiment, Army Reserve, which is receiving the M3 rigs to become the Army's sole Wide Wet Gap Crossing regiment, replacing the regular capability which used to come from the now disbanding 28 Regiment RE.

25 Group (Close Support) is wholly new, and is born out of the Army 2020 decision to centralize control of combat support units. It will have two Hybrid Adaptable Regiments, including reserve squadrons (21 and 32 Regt) and 3 regular Armoured Engineer Regiments, for support of the Reaction Force armored brigades.
Only 16 Air Assault and 3rd Commando are retaining direct control of their supporting units. 25 Group will anyway have coordinating authority over them.

Now, if only the Royal Artillery could produce a similar graphic with all the many changes at battery level, it would be very handy! As it stands now, there is still uncertainty regarding many of the details of the Royal Artillery reorganisation, from the unnamed new battery for 12 Regiment to the exact fate of the batteries in 4 RA [97 (Lawson's Company) Battery] and 3 RHA [J (Sidi Rezegh) Battery] that lose their guns but do not disband. These two batteries become additional TAC Groups, but it would be nice to have clarity on this and other things. If the two regiments don't lose other batteries in exchange, they will both end up with two gun batteries each, and two or three TAC Batteries each, denoting that they will be containers for large numbers of Fire Support Teams.
This might be the result of the assumption that FSTs are better provided by regulars due to their more complex role (and training), while additional L118 Light Guns could be provided by the paired regiments of the Army Reserve: 4 RA is paired with 103 RA, and 3 RHA is paired with 105 RA.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The evolving budget situation: Reversing other bad decisions - 24 Commando Engr wins the day

7: Capabilities in the air  
8: GEOINTELLIGENCE improvements
9: Reassuring (with risks)

24 Commando Engineer regiment wins the day

I reported last year about the ongoing fight that Navy HQ and the Royal Marines were fighting to ensure the survival of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment. The news available in the open were few and sparse, but the delay in disbanding the formation was evident, and by november 2013 there was some optimism.

For once, this optimism has been rewarded, as a bit of common sense has won the day for once. Yesterday, the Minister for the Armed Forces, Mr Mark Francois, made a statement in Parliament that confirms that this battle is won: the regiment will not disband.

On 5 July 2012, Official Report, column 1085, the Defence Secretary made a statement to the House on the outcome of the Army 2020 review and laid out the future structure of the British Army. The announcement explained the need to restructure the Army to face an increasingly uncertain world and to create the agile and adaptable armed forces as set out in the 2010 strategic defence and security review. Included in the statement was the withdrawal of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment.

At the time of the Army 2020 announcement, the Army acknowledged that engagement with the Royal Navy was still ongoing, and this would refine the allocation of Army manpower available to support Royal Navy tasks. This process is now complete and it has been decided that 24 Commando Engineer Regiment will be retained although the regiment will be reduced in size. This change will be achieved by rebalancing Army manpower within 3 Commando Brigade and allows for the best use of available resources to deliver the strategic defence and security review and Army 2020 capability.
We envisage that these structural changes will be implemented by no later than July 2015. 24 Commando Engineer Regiment will remain in Royal Marines Barracks, Chivenor (Barnstaple).

The regiment won't disappear, and this is a major step forwards. But it is still shrinking, and considering that it never even gained the second regular field squadron that was once planned and that remains very much needed, this is no good. It is a step in the right direction, but this regiment should actually be growing in size to better respond to the busy schedule of the high-readiness amphibious force.
There is also some worry behind the meaning of "rebalancing army manpower" within the brigade, which knowing politician language could hide unpleasant news, perhaps to hit 29 Commando Royal Artillery (which already had to win its own fight earlier, to ensure the survival of 148 Meiktila Bty).

But at least, it is a step in the right direction. Let's take away some joy and hope from it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The incoming aircraft carriers: more than just carriers

HMS Queen Elizabeth will be officially named in a ceremony planned for July 4, and the ship will be pulled out of dry dock soon afterwards, so that a major, historic milestone is quickly approaching. The importance of these new carriers for the Royal Navy goes beyond the "simple" regeneration of naval fixed wing aircraft capability, expanding well into the amphibious domain. This truth has not yet been fully understood by many external observers, which continue to focus on impressive, but far less relevant aspects of the program. In this article i want to take a look at the current situation and explain how the carrier's air group is taking shape.
There is still confusion about what role the new aircraft carrier(s?) will have in the Royal Navy once they enter in service. Of course there’s realistic worrying about having enough aircraft embarked, both because doubts reasonably remain on how the RAF will utilize the aircraft (which it owns) and because the UK’s order for the F-35B is currently standing at 48, down from what once was an ambition for 150, then 138 from roughly 2006 onwards. More orders might be made in the 2020s, but no one is willing to bet on those as of now, and actually even the planned buy of 48 has to pass through the SDSR 2015 and multiple successive Gate points, which might actually reduce the number even further. I will try and provide a more in depth explanation of what is happening.

More than anything else, however, in this article i want to explain just how important the new carriers are for the future of the british amphibious capability as well. This is a key aspect, which needs to be cleared, because getting the carriers wrong would not only end the Fleet Air Arm's fixed wing branch once and for all, but also deal a very heavy blow to the Royal Marines. 

The aircraft to be carried

The Joint Combat Aircraft program, which is the purchase of the F-35B, is currently sitting at its Main Gate 4 decision point. This major development was announced a few weeks ago, with Philip Hammond releasing an interview to the BBC and with several reports appearing on the press. This main gate reportedly covers the purchase of 14 F-35B plus spares and infrastructure investment, not better specified yet, to support the whole planned fleet. It was understood that a formal announcement in Parliament would follow, but so far this has not happened. 

Of course, this silence has been interpreted by some as a way of the british government to distance itself from the F-35B, but this is absolutely false. There was never going to be a big contract signed at once for the 14 jets, but only an internal budget-setting exercise to cover purchases that will happen over several years, in different production lots, over multiple contracts signed through the F-35 Joint Project Office and the Pentagon.
The idea seems to entail receiving 14 F-35B by 2018, in order to form the training fleet in Beaufort and stand up the core of the first operational squadron (617 Sqn RAF). The UK has already ordered four jets, three of which are instrumented test aircraft destined to the soon-to-stand-up OEU Sqn (XVII Sqn RAF) on Edwards AFB, in the United States. BK-1, BK-2 and BK-4 are the instrumented aircraft, while BK-3 is not instrumented and will join the operational or training fleet.
The training fleet (expected to eventually number some 6 aircraft, judging from earlier plans) will be based on the US Marines air base Beaufort, where, in 2016, 617 Sqn will officially stand up again (the squadron disbanded on 1st April this year, with the Tornado GR4). The core of the squadron will be trained in America, before transferring in the UK, in Marham, by 2018. 

Aircraft Carrier Alliance image
If this plan is respected, the 14 aircraft the UK will soon be ordering will have to be spread at most on LRIP 8, LRIP 9 and possibly LRIP 10. This is based on the roughly 2 years it takes from contract finalization to delivery. The UK has long been expected to order 4 F-35B in LRIP 8, and on March 25, 2014, the Long Lead contract for the LRIP 9 has been signed, including materials for 6 F-35Bs for the UK. That leaves 4 more to be ordered later in LRIP 10 to make up the total of 14. The aircrafts in production lots beyond the 10th would only be delivered in 2019 and in the following years, as roughly two years separate the signing of the final production contract and the delivery of the airplane. 
In early march there was also the news of a 7 million dollar contract signed for site-activation activities for starting to make RAF Marham the main operating base for the british F-35Bs. So, even if without a formal announcement in Parliament, the acquisition programme is indeed going on.

RAF Marham is expected to be built up to include a full Integrated Training Centre, which means the UK plans to step away from training in the US to do things domestically. The ITC won’t begin operations before 2019, but we can expect investment for it to begin soon enough, if the plan does not change. The UK appears interested to gain money by selling training services in its ITC to other European customers of the F-35. Mainly, talks are ongoing with Norway. A recent agreement is pretty clear in foreshadowing the idea at the base of the collaboration: Norway’s state-owned AIM hopes to do depot maintenance for the engines of the british F-35 fleet. AIM signed an agreement with Lochkeed Martin and Pratt & Whitney in april 2012 to secure its role as a depot maintenance hub for the F-135 engine, and now wants to secure a long term gain, exploiting such role.
Norway, in exchange, would send its pilots training in the british ITC, instead of sending them all the way to Luke, in the US. 

It has been announced in Parliament that the F-35s will not wear squadron specific colors, but only the low-visibility grey national markings. Hope there will be a rethink...
... so we can see something like this. Image by savetheroyalnavy.org
Or at least, something like this, in grey. Image @ Al Clark, janetairlines.com
Depending on how things go with the announced new Defence White Paper in Italy, UK and Norway will probably have new talks with Rome about expanded cooperation. The Italian FACO in Cameri is expected to become the regional MRO facility for the F-35, which means doing depot maintenance and upgrades installation for the aircraft of the USAF-Europe as well as those of all other countries that will buy in.
As of today, a single MRO centre is expected in Europe and in the Mediterranean area, so that the options will be restricted: UK and Norway will have to choose between Cameri and the MRO facilities in the US.
Italy could collaborate with the UK by co-financing Meteor missile integration (discussions ongoing) and by sending its personnel to the UK for training in the british ITC, instead of sending people all the way to Luke and Beaufort in the USA. In exchange, the british F-35Bs could have their depot maintenance done in Cameri. Finding a fair agreement with Norway will be tougher, as Italy has already agreed to have its F-135 engines serviced by the Dutch, which are getting their F-35s assembled (and in future maintained) in Cameri in exchange.

As of October 2013, Lockheed Martin expects that the UK, in 2018, will have taken delivery of some 17 aircraft, with 9 based in Marham with 617 Sqn, 3 in Edwards with XVII Sqn, and 5 more as training fleet in Beaufort. 

The expected 2018 situation for the F-35, as of October 2013

In terms of UK-specific trials, work to develop and validate the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing tecnique has resumed after being stopped over 2010 and 2011 when the plan was temporarily changed in favor of acquiring the C variant of the F-35. Work is now ongoing with computer simulations in Warton. SRVL will improve performance in hot climates, produce less stress on the vertical lift system and add thousands of pounds of useful payload at recovery. The F-35B is to be capable to land vertically with some 5000 pounds of unused fuel and ordnance, which is a value far higher than the Harrier's and close to the 6000 pounds carrier bring back of the old F-18 Hornet, but it could prove insufficient were the aircraft to be heavily loaded with, for example, Storm Shadow cruise missiles that the UK hopes to integrate in the future. 
SRVL could add some 2000 lbs of additional payload margin, which would do wonders to enable safe operations with heavy configurations. 

It has also been reported that it is likely that up to three F-35Bs, including one of the british ones, will do their first flight across the Atlantic in the Summer, to participate at the RIAT and Farnborough airshow. 

Beyond the F-35B

The CROWSNEST program for the replacement of the Sea King MK7 ASaC has finally started to roll, and the In Service Date has been moved closer in time, to reduce the gap that will be formed when the Sea King goes out of service.

The Merlin HM2 fleet will be fitted with a palletized radar suite enabling the helicopters to take up the role of Airborne Surveillance and Control platforms. 

The Merlin HC3 and HC3A of the Royal Air Force are going to be navalized and transformed into amphibious support helicopters, under a contract which has finally been signed. It will however take time to have the whole fleet of 25 machines fully ready.

Last, but not least, the Apache attack helicopters of the British Army are now being all fitted with additional naval features, including an emergency flotation device, to enable them to serve on board of warships in a safer and more effective way.

Details of these and other helicopter programs can be found in this detailed article.

A key role in amphibious operations

A factor that not always is kept in mind when talking of the new carriers, however, is that they will not just be fundamental to restore the british capability to deploy airpower at sea and from the sea, but they will also be absolutely vital for ensuring that the amphibious capability of the UK continues to exist and to respect the levels set by the SDSR 2010.
The defence planning assumption is that the Royal Navy has to be able to land a Royal Marines commando group with related vehicles, helicopters and supports, sealifting and then landing a total of roughly 1800 men.
This is only possible using one LPD of the Albion class, one LPH and the three remaining Bay class LSDs. The LPD is fundamental because it brings to the party the command and control facilities and the most part of the landing crafts available to the group, as well as vehicles and substantial amounts of stores. The LPH is fundamental as it carries the most men and almost the totality of the helicopters. The LPD and the LSDs have very limited aviation facilities, and no hangar, so the LPH is absolutely vital in order to ensure that the battlegroup can be supported from the air and moved by air.
The LSDs transport men, boats and landing crafts, bulky materials, normally at least one army workboat, mexeflotes and a lot of the vehicles and stores of the group.

None of these components can go missing, otherwise the whole force is in serious trouble. The 1800 men figure is not casual: it is quite clearly calculated on summing the capacity of the vessels remaining in force.

LPD: 305 men
LSDs: 356 men (x 3)
LPH: around 600   

The Royal Navy has two LPDs, but only one is in service at any one time, following the SDSR 2010. Currently, HMS Bulwark is in service and acting as the flagship of the fleet, while HMS Albion has been de-stored, disarmed and tied up in Devonport, in the amphibious center now known as HMS Tamar, where it is languishing, sealed up and fitted with controlled humidity devices to preserve her. The plan as of now is that in 2016, when HMS Bulwark hits refit time, HMS Albion will be re-activated, and the two ships will swap places.

The LPHs are also two, as of now, but again this is virtual only: HMS Ocean is about to come out of major refit, while HMS Illustrious has been working as LPH / Commando Carrier in the meanwhile.
HMS Ocean will be back into action soon enough, but that will be the end of HMS Illustrious, as she will be decommissioned.
HMS Ocean is more or less just air assault. It can lower a pontoon in the water at the back that serves as a steel beach. Light vehicles can drive down a ramp and use the floating pontoon to board landing crafts, but the LPH carries just a relatively tiny number of small vehicles and trailers (tipically Land Rovers). Other than that, she is pure air assault. 

HMS Ocean with the floating steel beach deployed
An LCU MK10 carrying BV206 vehicles comes to the steel beach during exercises in Norway
HMS Ocean normally carries just L118 Light Guns, land rovers with trailers and some BV206s
This photo of HMS Ocean during operation Ellamy shows the steel beach pontoon folded up and stored on top of the structure protecting the vehicle ramp going down from flight deck to vehicle deck

HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are LPDs with an alarmingly low capacity for soldiers (only about 300 unless you start being less permissive with the space each man has, but that is not good for months-long deployments abroad which are now the norm for amphibious task groups including the RN's RFTG), and the LPDs offer limited air facilities, with no hangar.

The Point-class RoRo strategic sealift vessels are fundamental to carry stores and lots of vehicles for the support of the landing force, but they have no accommodation for troops, and can only carry vehicles and stores meant to be loaded ashore later, when the beach head is secure.
Besides, the Points are down to 4, from the 6 they used to be, as two were released from MOD service, despite the SDSR 2010 document promising specifically that all six would stay. 

The Point class Ro-Ro ships carry huge amounts of vehicles and stores
The LSDs used to be four, but the SDSR 2010 saw Largs Bay withdrawn from service and sold to Australia. Of the three that remain, one is permanently deployed in the Persian gulf (right now it is Cardigan Bay) to act as mothership for the MCM force based in Bahrain. Cardigan Bay has been fitted with a prefabricated shelter on deck, as a hangar of sorts, and has been recently assigned a permanent Lynx helicopter flight. It has also now been equipped with a Sea Eagle UAV system, which is entering in service in this week.

The end result is that the daily reality of the amphibious force is the ability to sealift and land a smaller force than the 1800 promised in the SDSR. The vessels can of course be crammed with more men for short periods of time (up to 700 on the LPD and LSDs, and over 800 on HMS Ocean) but this is not a very realistic capability, because it is not accompanied by an increase in stores and vehicles carried. And anyway, the men will start finding the crowded vessels unbearable very quickly, in a matter of days.

For a normal, yearly deployment such as Cougar 13 this year, the Response Force Task Group spends months at sea, so the ships are preferably lightly loaded in terms of men. The already mentioned Cougar 13 is a good example: 42 Commando, the formation currently at high readiness, did not embark whole on the ships. For example, Lima company was flown out to Albania ahead of the rest of the formation moving on the ships. The occasion was exploited to conduct mountain training.
The company then traded place with Kilo company. The end result is that the amphibious battlegroup pretty much never was fully present at once on the ships. Aside from the training requirements dictating the independent movements of companies, the availability of only 2 Bay-class LSDs has obviously part of the responsibility.

The big problem on the horizon, however, is the planned decommissioning of HMS Ocean, without replacement, in 2019. The task force however obviously continues to require a big platform for the amphibious assault helicopters and for the transport of hundreds of men, and this is where the carriers step in.
Since the platform for helicopters is going without a direct replacement, the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers will have to be hybrids. It is not a choice, it is an unavoidable necessity. And hopefully the new ships can pull such a mixed role off. They will be, in fact, closer to America than to a supercarrier. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines will need to be able to cram hundreds of marines into Queen Elizabeth, along with some stores and perhaps some air-liftable vehicles and L118 Light Guns too. Helicopters, including Chinook and Apache, will have to be carried. And in addition to that, at least a squadron of F-35B, if airpower is to be finally brought back to the fleet.
The fact that the new vessels are so large gives hope that the hybrid role can be covered well, despite the design of the ship being clearly centered on delivering fast jet sorties, not to land and support troops ashore.

The Royal Navy has finally formally recognized the need to operate the new carrier as a hybrid in the SDSR 2010, with the public description of the Carrier Enabled Power Projection concept. A surprisingly detailed note was shown in the SDSR fact sheets, when it was described that:

We will plan concurrently to operate a mix of helicopters as well as Joint Strike Fighters from the carrier. This will include up to 12 Chinook or Merlin transport helicopters and eight Apache attack helicopters. The precise mix will depend on the mission.

There are obvious challenges to be faced and won, if this has to work. Embarking and employing simultaneously jets and helicopters for amphibious assaults is not at all easy. The US Marines do it routinely on ships smaller than the QE-class carriers, but specifically thought all along for such use. And anyway, the fixed wing component they use in such cases is normally made up by just 6 Harriers (possibly growing up to 10 F-35B on the new America LHAs). Obviously, they enjoy the formidable cover offered by the US Navy supercarriers: the UK doesn’t, so it will have to embark more jets to give the task force proper cover.
A key difficulty is finding suitable space for the many hundred men needed. Fast jets and helicopters require a large number of maintenance and deck personnel, and having to add hundreds of Royal Marines means needing lots of accommodations.
The needs of the Royal Marines are different from those of an aircraft ground engineer, besides: the Marines need space for their weapons and kit, and also need to be accommodated in spaces properly dimensioned and located around the vessel: they need to be able, once kitted up and ready to go, to walk easily up to the flight deck or to the ship’s boats, to board landing crafts and helicopters.

Fortunately, a secondary role as Commando Carrier was always part of the aircraft carriers design, so that there are wide corridors and spaces for the embarkation of troops. The December 2013 issue of Navy News includes one of the very first, rare mentions of these arrangements. There are accommodation quarters for “easily” 250 men, with wide assault routes. 250 men, however, will not be enough, and it will always be a struggle to balance embarked forces and air wing personnel numbers and accommodations. 
The Marines will probably be able to board boats and landing crafts from the boat boarding area in the stern of the carriers, which can be accessed via stairs going down from the hangar deck. It has not yet been cleared whether the boat areas of the carriers feature spaces and cranes sufficient for the embarkation of LCVP MK5 landing crafts. 

This photo, courtesy of navyrecognition.com, shows well the stairs leading down to the boat boarding area. A crane is fitted to a sponson just beneath the flight deck level, and it could be useful to move stores to and from boats coming up behind the carrier.
It is not yet clear if the larger boat areas are LCVP MK5 capable. Image from navy-matters.beedall.com
This image from earlier phases of the building process shows (evidenced in blue by me) one of the large openings in the sponsons for the launch and recovery of ship's boats.

Other problems come from trying to operate large number of helicopters as well as fixed wing jets. The design of the deck of the carrier is being developed and refined with these conflicting needs in mind. As of September 2013, the Royal Navy was reportedly trying to carefully design the deck to achieve 10 helicopter ops spots.

If the “hybrid carrier” works, we will have a high value vessel which will be forced to sail far closer to the shore than we'd like it to. It is true that the Royal Navy is planning for escort ships sporting flight decks big enough to easily accommodate even the Chinook (Type 45 already in service, and even the new Type 26 frigate is planned to have such capability), which could be used as forward refueling sites to allow the carrier to stay further back and still fly troops ashore by helicopter, but the feasibility of such concept is questionable.

At least, even with all the conflicting requirements crammed together, all the three key capabilities of any naval / amphibious task force will be present: fast jets for air cover and support, helicopters, troops.
But if it does not work, we will have a disaster, with amphibious capabilities badly maimed and with air strike capabilities set to remain dramatically limited by the very small number of F-35B that are going to be purchased. In practice, the gap in embarked fixed wing aviation would be closed (at least in part), but a gap in amphibious rotorcraft capability and simply in amphibious troops lift will open, making the whole task force just as crippled. It would be a case of swapping  a problem for another.

The next time someone asks what the carriers are for, or wonders why they are so big, remind them that they are very much needed, and that their huge sizes are to be blessed, as smaller vessels would never be able to approach the kind of mixed role that lays ahead. And no, there is no guarrantee at all that building smaller carriers would have been made it possible to also build dedicate LHDs. It is pretty likely that the cost of more numerous, relatively smaller ships would have been equal, if not higher, especially considering that the CVF vessels have very small crews. More, smaller ships would have almost certainly required more personnel to crew and support them, and personnel is exactly what the Royal Navy post SDSR does not have.

It is painful to watch two fine LHDs of the Mistral class being built for Russia, knowing that having at least one such vessel in Royal Navy service would solve much of the problem, and represent an excellent boost in capability. But I’m not going to spend much time daydreaming: the deal will go ahead, as the money is too much and too good to pass up. Paris is highly unlikely to truncate the deal, and even if it did, the MOD has no budget to procure the vessels. Not one, and certainly not both. Besides, the ships would need some serious work done to remove the Russian kit and have Royal Navy equipment fitted in its place, which would make the purchase even more financially challenging.
Even in the best case scenario, the problem won’t be solved until HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are replaced, most likely by large LHDs. Until then, the Royal Navy will have to make do.

This leaves the big question: will both carriers enter in service, or will the Royal Navy get only one?
If both carriers are kept, but one is held in reserve, mothballed like Albion, only coming out of its "coma" every six years to replace the sister as she goes into refit, the problem remains: perhaps a major operation (but it has to be really big) would see the second hull hastily reactivated (ala HMS Intrepid back in 1982) with the fleet then faced by the decision of perhaps using one as carrier and one as LPH, so only one of the two has to sail close to the shore.
However, this neat separation would probably be judged unworkable because if either of the two ships was damaged the task force would lose most or all of either air power or amphibious helilift. Probably, even with both ships in the task force, fast jets, Marines, helicopters and stores would still be split among the two in roughly equal terms for prudence.
In normal years and normal operations, the RFTG would still be faced with the problems coming from having a single flat top for two roles.
The above situation (with one carrier active, one tied up in port with sealed doors and Controlled Humidity kit installed to try and keep it together while it languishes in port for years on end) is probably the best outcome we can realistically hope for in 2015. Which is a bad scenario, but... not the worst of possibilities, at least.

If both ships are regularly operated, side by side, the RFTG could sail (most of the time) with both carriers in the group, one working as LPH, one as carrier (in "peacetime". In war, the split described before would probably still be preferred). This would cost more in terms of money and manpower, and i'm not optimistic. I don't think we are going to see it happening, sadly.
Even if we do see it happening, there will still be periods in which only one of the two hulls is available, with the other in refit. So the problem still pops up, but at intervals. 

Chinook night operations on HMS Illustrious during exercise Joint Warrior 14-1, in april 2014

So, the Perfect Solution is already out of the window, and it has crashed to the ground already years ago: the problem won't be eased until Albion and Bulwark are (hopefully) replaced with (hopefully) two LHDs, allowing the carrier to act as a carrier, while the large LHD carries both the large landing crafts and the helicopters, and more men.
The question is whether or not the Good Enough Solution (hybrid carrier / assault ship ala America but with greater number of fixed wing aircraft embarked, operated and supported) is achievable and workable. Considering that QEC is considerably larger than America, i think it should be achievable. But it is far from sure. It depends on how the spaces inside the carrier have been configured, on accommodations, on lots of other factors.

The worry here is that this reality has apparently been fully grasped only in 2010, with the emerging of the famous Carrier Enabled Power Projection acronym, which includes this double role problem (along with other things less directly connected to the carrier, such as MARS and CROWSNEST). My hope is that proper thinking about this problem was actually going on from many years earlier inside the RN and the design team which worked on the carriers. I hope they actually worked on the "Commando Aircraft Carrier" (which is something different from both the Commando Carrier and from the Aircraft Carrier) from much earlier, and that 2010 only marked the date in which the Royal Navy publicly admitted that, with no replacement for Ocean on the way, QEC would have, in a way or another, to do it all. Some provisions for a secondary LPH role are understood to have been into the requirements all along, and i hope they have provided a good base to build upon.

If it wasn't so, and planning for it only began in haste in 2010, the carrier design is probably going to struggle in taking the full burden of the requirements on the horizon because the time for making adequate adjustments was allowed to pass and go.
In a way or another, the concept must be made to work, because there is no real alternative in hand’s reach. What is clear is that the carriers are definitely needed. Next time someone asks, you’ll know how to reply.