Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Solving the Ocean problem

The LPH(R) program has been dead for several years now, and like it or not it is officially down to the carrier(s) to replace the capabilities currently brought to the table by HMS Ocean. Now alone in the LPH / Commando Carrier role, with HMS Illustrious going out of service, the newly refitted HMS Ocean is almost certainly on the last leg of her life. Her OSD is likely to be confirmed for 2018, and the carrier, hopefully but not certainly the both of them, will have to accomodate her role into their schedule as well, or the Royal Marines risk to face a grim future. 

Since 2010, years of effort to build up the most complete and credible amphibious capability in Europe have been squandered and crumbled by reductions in shipping, in supports, in vehicles and landing craft projects. Having recently re-read "3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands No PicNic", by Major General Julian Thompson RM, it is very much alarming to see how the last three years have brought back the Marines on the same dangerous edge of destruction they faced in the early 80s.
The brigade today would have much the same problems it had in 1982, which means, to my cynic mind, that 31 years have been largely wasted and no lesson has actually been learned firmly enough to avoid falling back into the same old pits. The brigade was desperately short of helicopters back then, and would have even less today: 847 NAS is going to have just four, perhaps six on deployment Wildcat helicopters, and the Sea King HC4s (which was new in 1982, and is very old today) are far less than back then. Their replacement, hopefully fully online by 2020, will be of just 25 Merlin HC4 in total.
Save for the introduction of Viking and some other kit, the brigade has less of everything: less light guns, less helicopters. The loss of HMS Ocean and the incoherent, messy plans for embarked fixed wing aviation would put the brigade back in the same position as in 1982: no air superiority, no adequate air reconnaissance, little in the ways of air support, and no appropriate helicopter support ship for amphibious operations.

The Royal Navy is probably not without its faults. Thompson in his book remembers how the Navy already in 1970, pressed by cuts and budget problems, tried to halve the number of Commandos from the then 4 down to 2. Ironically, back then it was the Army's opposition that prevented that from happening.
In 1980, the Navy tried again, because faced by the cost of the submarine-borne nuclear deterrent (see the similarities? There's the Successor SSBN on the horizon...) and by a very limited and precise sets of roles assigned in the Cold War scenarios by a MOD 100% focused on Germany and convinced that out of area operations would never happen again. Instead of directly proposing the disbandment of Commando units, the Navy focused then on axing the amphibious shipping (again, see the similarities...). Thompson was told so in December 1981 by First Sea Lord Henry Leach. Not without sadness, of course, but that was the direction the Navy was inclined to follow to preserve other parts of its "body". Argentina's hurried, foolish move came a few months early: had they let the winter pass, and acted later, the carriers and amphibious ships would have all vanished, victims of cuts, and the islands today would be named Malvinas.

The Royal Marines of today are precious to the Navy. Their involvment in Afghanistan has made the whole navy proud and has kept the admirals at the table. During 3rd Commando Brigade tours in Afghanistan, up to 40% of the total british involvement in Afghanistan was covered by the Navy. In a land locked country. This was an immense demonstration of how flexible and full-spectrum the navy is, one aspect that should very much be used to reinforce the case for maritime power investment when sitting at the budget table. Investing in the Navy does not and should not mean "just" ships. There are excellent reasons for making the Navy the centre of what is supposed to be an expeditionary armed forces structure.

Moreover, the flexibility of the RN Response Force Task Group has been proven multiple times since the SDSR came out, with the quick response to events in Libya and, to a lesser degree, to Sirya, and then the Philippines natural disaster. 
In a time in which Her Majesty's Government wishes to continue to play a big role on the international stage while avoiding to put boots on the ground in a traditional, expensive and risky way, the unique ability of the Response Force Task Group to bring enduring, self-supporting power (land, sea, air) without having to actually "go all in", is a major premium that needs to be highlighted, understood, funded and exploited.  

The Navy HQ is, this time, on the Marines's side, thankfully. The involvment of Navy HQ in the fight to save 148 Meiktila and 24 Cdo Eng is telling, in this sense, and has had some success, with both being (at least partially) saved from the chop. 1st Sea Lord Zambellas has said recently while speaking in the US that he sees a strong case for the Marines, and that he does not expect further reductions, but actually thinks there's a case for growth. 
I absolutely agree, but despite the nice words, the many problems remain and the way ahead isn't clearly marked.
Only recently, the cuts in manpower to supporting elements of 29 Commando Royal Artillery (REME in particular) have forced the commander to decide that the planned retention of 3 gun batteries is pretty much unachievable. 7 (Alma) Battery is to leave Arbroath (save for a Fire Support Group which continues to fly the flag, possibly to avoid scottish rage!) to retreat to Plymouth, where it will join the pooled resources left to the gun batteries, to task-generate one battery to support the Response Force Task Group. 
As always, the shortage of supporting elements stemming from Army 2020 comes out in the light: and again i ask, what use 31 infantry battalions if to keep all of them they have to be small and scrawny, while also affecting disproportionately the supporting elements that make them deployable and useful in the first place...?

The Army, faced with its own painful cuts, is rowing against the Marines as it has been trying to redirect cuts away from its main formations. The cuts to 3rd Commando Brigade army supports were originally planned to be even worse, and thankfully Navy HQ stood up firm for once, and avoided the worse scenario becoming true. The parts have inverted from the 80s, but the Royal Marines still sit in the middle, in an uncomfortable position. 
The Royal Navy itself, while supportive, is stretched far too thin in manpower and budget terms, has accepting tough reductions in amphibious shipping capability despite its support for the Marines, and the senior service notoriously faces an uphill struggle in manning figures over the coming years, which put both the second carrier and the three new OPVs in danger: the first might "enter service" only partially, being tied mothballed most of the time and only pulled into activity when the other hits refit time (like with the LPDs HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark post-SDSR 2010); the seconds might end up being brought into service at the expense of early decommissioning of the three River class vessels currently in service. Despite them having entered service as early as 2003 and despite a 39 million investment in 2012 to purchase them outright, as they earlier were contractor owned and given to the Navy on lease. 
I fear this is a defining moment: the SDSR 2015, despite the optimism of some, is highly unlikely to be a happy rebirth of defence. It'll be a matter of new, painful choices. May the 350th birthday not be the last of the Royal Marines as we know them.

Under Carrier Enabled Power Projection it has been effectively written in stone that it will be down to the carriers to absob the amphibious force's aviation requirements, as the previous practice of geographically separated Amphibious Group and Carrier Group has been cancelled as unaffordable, and replaced by the all-singing all-dancing Response Force Task Group. A number of studies have been launched as a consequence, and most of them are centered on the carriers.
HMS Queen Elizabeth's commander has said in its Twitter answering event a while ago that carrying LCVP landing crafts in the boat bays is being considered for the future; a study is underway (or has finished, the wording in the reports does not make it too clear) on how to organize and paint the deck of QE to provide 10 spots for simultaneous helicopter operations (up from an initial design of 6 very large spots. There are, anyway, 12 deck positions serviced to serve as aircraft / helicopter operation positions).
The carrier has room for 250 Royal Marines and can carry more depending on how the air wing is shaped (and the related manpower figure changes consequently); using the boat embarkation area aft of QE for some Marines to boat transfers will probably be investigated as well. 

The 200-pages book let out by the Royal Navy in occasion of the naming of QE also adds that using some of the available space to increase EMF accommodation and support spaces at the first refit is being looked at. There will be a lot of work to be done to certify ships spaces and facilities for the Embarked Military Force's helicopters, stores and ammunition.
An indicative all-LPH TAG has been defined as a flight of 3 Chinook, 12 Merlin HC4, 8 Apache and 6 Wildcat; while an Hybrid air group comprising 6 - 12 F-35B plus helicopters for a Commando group is being studied.
(see pages 68 and 69).

The vehicles capability of HMS Ocean is not particularly noticeable, and anyway it was relatively often out of the picture when HMS Illustrious or another of the CVSs served as Commando carriers. As was to be expected ever since her sister was not built. So in itself this will not be too much of a blow, while certainly not helpful. 

HMS Ocean's capability to carry light and medium vehicles, and deploy them to the shore, is quite limited. The vehicle deck is small, and the vehicles can only drive down to landing crafts thanks to a ramp and a floating, folding pontoon that the ship carries on deck and deploys in the water by crane.
The vehicle deck, (53) is small. There is a ramp leading to the flight deck, one leading to the stern exit, and a RoRo ramp in the side for port embarkation / disembarkation
The floating pontoon can be seen on deck in this photo. The exit of the flight deck vehicle ramp can also be seen. The pontoon, folded, is carried on top of the structure of the ramp's exit.
The side RoRo ramp for embarkation
HMS Illustrious, serving in the Commando Carrier role, has no RoRo ramps or vehicle deck. Still, it has been seen embarking small numbers of vehicles, including BV206s as in this photo. Helicopter delivery to the shore via Chinook, though, becomes the only available option.

There is also a chance to absorb some or all of the negative impact depending on how MARS FSS shapes up to be: the Fleet Solid Support requirement has merged with the previously separated Combat Support Ship Auxiliary (earlier called the Joint Sea Based Logistics, a ship that would have been designed and built specifically to support ground forces ashore with stores, vehicles and afloat maintenance workshops) and the early designs the MOD and the industries of the Naval Design Partnership have put together include carrying a couple of LCVPs and having a RoRo deck with steel beach or even a well dock, giving some very real capability to carry and deploy ashores stores and even vehicles. Depending on if and how MARS FSS progresses post SDSR 2015, the problems might be in large part ironed out. 

The early concept for MARS Fleet Solid Support would help plug the gaps in amphibious capability, making it twice as important. Her new generation Heavy RAS equipment and vast cargo holds already make this vessel extremely important to support the logistic requirements of the carriers in high intensity ops.

The next SDSR will be a turning point of huge proportions. And the navy desperately needs to get this one right.

There is always some room for dreams, as long as you remember what reality is like.

A perfect solution would be to have HMG get serious about sanctions versus Russia, by exploiting the unique chance represented by the two Mistrals being built by France. It is painful to observe how well things could slot into place, if there was the money and political will to place such a blow. The two vessels could probably be taken up and re-fitted with RN communications, weapons and essential kit to enter in service in 2016 and in 2018: the first could replace the LPDs Albion and Bulwark. 
In 2016, Albion is expected to be re-activated from her current sorry state in HMS Tamar, Devonport, by removing the seals and controlled humidity kit that keeps her dormant and, hopefully, well preserved and by re-storing her to bring her back into active service. Bulwark, which would hit her refit point that year, would be mothballed in her place. 
The first Mistral could be used to replace the LPDs, and it would be a painful (they are still young ships) but actually pretty advantageous trade, capability-wise. The Mistrals have greater troop and vehicle cargo spaces, a well dock of equivalent capability, and, crucially, a hangar and flight deck allowing them to be a replacement for Ocean at the same time. On the other hand, Mistrals have no davits for LCVPs. 

The vehicle deck of Dixmunde, french Mistral-class LHD, used to bring armoured vehicles to Mali

The vehicles / cargo spaces are much larger than on the Albion-class LPDs

The cost would be (partially) offset by doing away with the need to refit the LPDs any further, and by a substantial reduction in the number of LCVPs. The second Mistral, in 2018, would directly replace HMS Ocean, and two ships would replace three, of different types. 

HMS Bulwark's vehicle deck. The ramp in the centre leads up to the flight deck. Beyond the ramp, there's the well dock with the LCUs. Behind the standing officer, there's the side RoRo ramp of access.
the dock of HMS Bulwark. Rolls of Trackway and BV206 vehicles can be seen in first line in the vehicle deck.

It would be a more than happy trade in terms of capability, but not financially fair enough to make the plan cost-neutral. Which is the reason why this scenario is a dream. It is a semi-serious, dreamy suggestion due to the high and sudden up-front cost of taking the ships and fit them out for RN use. 

Then again, it would be a great investment for the future. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Light Role Infantry battalions and Regular - Reserve integration

As the re-ORBAT process picks up pace within the army, with battalions and regiments shifting to their new Army 2020 structures, some information starts being available to paint a picture of how things are going.

Most affected by Army 2020 changes, the Light Role Infantry battalions are restructuring to reduce their regular manpower, and integrate reserve contributions to make up for part of the loss. The full unit establishment, all-ranks, all-corps, for a Light Role Infantry battalion in Army 2020 is just 561 men.
The reduction has had the most visible effect on the Rifle Companies, which are all losing a Rifle Platoon (from 3 to 2), which is to be replaced by a platoon supplied by the paired Reserve battalion.
The third regular platoon from each Rifle Coy is being re-roled to a Manoeuvre Support Platoon armed with 6 GPMG with Support Fire equipment. The end result is that the Machine Gun Platoon in the Manoeuvre Support Company vanishes, replaced by three platoons assigned directly to the Rifle Coys.
An experiment was run to make these platoons Fire Support Groups including also Javelin anti-tank missiles and GMGs, but eventually a decision was made to keep the two things separate, and task-organize the Fire Support Groups for training and operations.
This simplifies the training and preserves specific experience, as the Anti-Tank Platoon can focus on achieving best effect with Javelin and with the Grenade Machine Gun.

The battalions are using part of the manpower of the Machine Gun Platoon to re-form the Assault Pioneer platoon which in recent years had practically gone away. In many cases (if not in all, i haven't been able to verify for all battalions), the Assault Pioneer platoon is also the Drums / Pipes / Bugles platoon of the battalion.

The Recce platoon within the battalion has seen a downsizing from 32 to 24 men in three sections. 

1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, "The Vikings", has been running an Army Reserve Integration Pilot since July 2013 and is leading the way on Army 2020 restructuring. The battalion is paired to 3rd Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (3 PWRR) under the Army 2020 structure.
Its ORBAT is indicative of the new Light Role Infantry structure:

1st Royal Anglian

A (Norfolk) Coy 
2 Rifle Pl 
1 Manoeuvre Support Pl with 6 GPMG 
[3rd Rifle Platoon supplied by paired 3 PWRR Company]  

B (Suffolk) Coy 
2 Rifle Pl 
1 Manoeuvre Support Pl with 6 GPMG 
[3rd Rifle Platoon supplied by paired 3 PWRR Company] 

C (Essex) Coy 
2 Rifle Pl 
1 Manoeuvre Support Pl with 6 GPMG 
[3rd Rifle Platoon supplied by paired 3 PWRR Company] 

D (Cambridgeshire) Support Coy  
Mortar Platoon 
Recce Platoon - Reduces from 32 to 24 men in three sections
Sniper Platoon
AT Javelin Platoon (also employs GMG)
Machine gun SF Platoon - is it vanishing, replaced by the Manoeuvre Support Platoons in the Rifle Companies
Drums Platoon - was in the GPMG SF role; now re-training to take up Assault Pioneer role; learning Explosive Method of Entry (EMO), water purification, concreting etcetera

HQ Coy
Motor Transport Platoon  
Quartermaster Department – Under Army 2020 all quartermaster deps are receiving an embedded 1st Line Optimisation team of 4 men from the Royal Logistic Corps
REME LAD – barracks manning steady state 16 other ranks; increased to 2 officers and 48 ORs with 4 Close Support REME Battalion uplift for the training deployment in Kenya; indicative of operational situations 
Communication Information Systems (CIS) Platoon

The integration pilot is important as it was meant to show if and how the Reserves would be able to provide the third platoon in an acceptable way. A Coy trained with its Reserve component in the UK,

in several events, including a 2-day exercise on Salisbury Plain and Live Firing in Warcop. At the end of this preparation stage, the Reserves Platoon would deploy to BATUK in Kenya, integrated in the regular company, and immediately face the Combined Arms Live Firing Exercise (CALFEX) there. 

The report of the experience is, unsurprisingly, a mixed account of success and failure. As is to be expected, reservists had trouble in attending all the UK training events, and it was hard, and often impossible, to have everyone present in one place to face training events such as Live Firing in Warcop. The platoon, however, made it to Kenya as planned, and took part in the CALFEX. We don't have and probably won't have the details anytime soon, but the report we have acknowledges that the platoon took part in the very same training events as the regulars: again, as was to be expected all along, the reservists weren't as prepared as the regulars and could not employ all the weapons and equipment. The soldiers of today are loaded with a huge amount of kit, all of it quite complex and specialised: all of it comes with huge manuals and important training needs attached, and it can't surprise anyone to learn that the reservists struggle to take it all in the limited time they have to train and prepare.
Despite the issues, the short report, contained in CASTLE, the journal of the Royal Anglian regiment,
comes with positive tones. At the very least, however, the army is faced with the problem of a two-speed force, which comes with limitations that will have to be known, managed and mitigated as best as possible. 

The short article covering the Integration Pilot. It won't be easy to learn from the army how serious the problems actually are, of course. The article appeared on CASTLE, journal of the Royal Anglian Regiment:

In order to provide support to their paired battalions, the Reserve is changing its own ORBAT. Army 2020 Reserve battalions are being progressively standardized on an establishment of around 400 men in one HQ Company and 3 Rifle Companies (which means several companies have been cut off and/or merged). Each Rifle Coy comes with a Support Weapons Platoon and 2 Rifle Platoons. 

The output of the Reserve battalion, once fully adjusted to the planned Army 2020 structure, should include 6 Rifle Platoons, one Mortars platoon, one Javelin missile platoon, one machine gun platoon and one assault pioneer platoon. The HQ company includes the Quartermaster department, a Motor Transport element and a CIS Platoon. 
A Reserve battalion, once fully structured and manned, should be able to provide the 3 Rifle Platoons needed to integrate the paired regular battalion, plus a number of reinforcements for the other components of the unit. The reserve battalions apparently continue to hold a supporting relationship with their regiment, as well as that with the paired regular battalion. As the 1st Royal Anglian - 3rd PWRR pairing remind us, the pairing is often done with units of another regiment entirely. 
The second Royal Anglian battalion is paired to 3rd Royal Anglian, but this is not at all the rule for all units.

On the equipment front  

The battalions are being equipped with the FIST 1A sights, in particular the Lightweight Day Sight (Elcan Specter 4x), but also the night vision equipment. The new General Service Pistol, the Glock 17 Gen 4 (L131A1), is in delivery and apparently the new fighting knife is already being issued, as well. 
Next year there should be the first deliveries of the VIRTUS tactical vest and load carrying equipment, which are for now in use only for testing and development. Selected groups in the Army are being issued the kit to try it out and make their evaluations and provide feedback ahead of the final choices. 

The L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle is being taken into the core budget, but the latest report suggests that the weapon is still searching its actual place in the Army of the future. The Small Arms School Corps, tasked with developing the training and methods for best employment of the weaponry of the Army, say that, despite the welcome the rifle received by the troops on the ground, the L129A1 isn't showing the dramatic performace improvements it was supposed to deliver. 
Its effectiveness out to 800 meters, the distance for which its 7.62x51 mm calibre was believed to be indispensable, is being questioned. The rifle is reportedly not showing particular improvements over the L86A2 Light Support Weapon, the long-barreled brother of the L85A2 assault rifle. 
The L86A2 during recent firing trials ended up being the best performing weapon out to 500 meters, and more than held the comparison with the L129A1 out to 800.

One thing that is given as certain is that the ACOG 6x sight is part of the problem of the L129A1. It is not ballistically matched to the rifle, so that it represents a less than optimal solution. Funding has been provided to modify the graticule in the sight to ballistically match it to the weapon and to the 16 inches barrel. The modified sight should be in testing already, and it should eventually enable a repeat of the tests and competition with the L86A2 to write down a final assessment and decide the way ahead for the two weapons.  
The selection of the ACOG 6x for the sharpshooter requirement was done under Urgent Operational Requirement, of course, but one has nonetheless to wonder if a better experimentation before making the purchase wouldn't have been possible.
In the meanwhile, the L86A2 is indeed making a comeback already, being reassigned to the infantry sections in the sharpshooter / support role. It is being re-rolled into service in numbers, and there is potential for upgrades to better perform in the role. the Small Arms Corps has been testing an upgraded variant, with the old bipod replaced by the same used on the L129A1 and a completely reworked forestock coming with picatinny rails, like already done with the L85A2. 
From top to bottom, the L86A2 in its traditional configuration with SUSAT sight; the modified L86A2 with new forestock, bipod and muzzle (possibly even the barrel has been changed?) and ACOG 6x sight; and finally, the L129A1 with ACOG 6x.
The L129A1 was at one point expected to be removed from the infantry sections and assigned as Sniper No2 weapon, to fullfil the Sniper Support Weapon requirement. The latest Small Arms School Corps report suggest that this decision has been reversed: the L129A1 has not been accepted as long-term solution to the requirement, which is now being formalized to then launch an acquisition programme.  

The L129A1 in Sniper Support Weapon configuration, with suppressor and ACOG replaced by a Schmidt & Bender 12x magnification sight
Sniper No 2

Despite the apparently brilliant start, the L129A1 is struggling to secure a role for the future. It is another chapter in the never-ending controversy that pitches the 5.56 round against alternatives of all kind, from nearly designed "intermediate calibres" up to the traditional 7.62.

Among the equipment to soon be replaced, there is also the famous M18A1 Claymore mine. The evaluation process is complete, and the new Fixed Directional Fragmentation Weapon will be assigned to units in training this December. ISD is planned for September 2015. 
The FDFW is virtually identical to the Claymore in general look, concept and effect, but with an improvement in lethality. The new mine is produced in Finland. There are no details available, but probably the new mine will also respond to other requirements such as inert explosive for safety, and hopefully weight reduction, which is always welcome. 

The army is working to introduce a Tactical Hearing Protection System capable to automatically protect the user from excessive battlefield noise; new laser targeting and mortar fire control computer and an experiment is ongoing to verify the tactical merit of having suppressors available for the whole range of weapons employed by the infantry, including the GPMG. A whole platoon equipped with the suppressors will test them during a two-weeks firing programme planned for Novembe. 

For all of 2013, the 60mm Light Mortar continued to be part of the training for the infantry battalions, but the weapon is expected to have to go after operations in Afghanistan conclude. The mortar was procured as UOR to reintroduce a capability that had been available for ages in the Platoons, thanks to the 51mm mortar. It was phased out believing that the introduction of under slung grenade launchers would provide a proper replacement, but the experience on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan proved it wasn't quite the case. 
Last year, the Army said that the Platoon Mortar would eventually leave the army again, with the weapons mothballed. Only the PARA and Commando units would retain a number of them in use, to preserve their capability and to keep alive expertise of their employment. 
This is another example of cut corner. It is to be hoped that the decision will be reversed, like it has happened in other cases.


The integration concept has merit, and in theory it should enable the delivery of strong deployable battalions, even after the harsh manpower cut. The question is: how much can effectively be squeezed out of the reserve, and how reliably? Is it going to deliver what is needed, when it is needed? The Army needs to be aware of the limitations of the concept, and plan accordingly.

My thoughts on some parts of Army 2020 have not changed. The manpower limits are tight, and are causing serious issues and lots of compromise. Many corners have been cut in the attempt to fit into a piece of cloth just too small to get everything covered. 
As we know, the government did not want to deal with the outcry connected with the loss of capbadges and specifically ordered the Army to remove no more than 5 battalions of infantry from the ORBAT, and avoid the loss of any regimental badge. In my opinion, this has had a disproportionate effect on Army 2020, forcing the Army to stitch together a plan as workable as possible, while being forced to maintain more battalions and brigade HQs than it can actually man, equip, support and train. It has to be said, Nick Carter and his team came up with quite a good plan, probably the most convincing they could put together given the political constraints... but for the good of the army and of the nation, it would be better to adjust the plan in the near future, because capability matters more than capbadges. 

As i've said several times over the past two years or so, i believe it would be better for the army to have less battalions, but with more adequate establishments. The number of brigades should also be tweaked, and support units (such as Signals, in particular) should have to be uplifted to re-align better with a structure that, in my opinion, would have to primarily focus on six brigades (the three reaction ones, and three adaptable ones, all three "complete" instead of the current arrangement of "3 to make 2") plus 16 Air Assault brigade. This is doable, i believe, within the manpower figure for Army 2020, if the Army is allowed to employ that manpower freely instead of under such severe capbadges constraints. 3 homogeneous armoured infantry brigades and three lighter brigades would enable a more effective and rational force generation cycle, and deliver, in each year, two brigades trained at suitable level to engage on operations, helping to meet the defence guidelines set by the SDSR, which assumes up to 3 simultaneous, significant operations. 

But i will discuss in detail my proposal for the army in a future article. I would like to make a series of proposals for the three services ahead of the SDSR 2015. So, watch this space.