Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Army vehicle projects post-DSEI 2015

SDSR 2015 – Issues, analysis and recommendations going towards the review


Army vehicle projects - Post DSEI 2015 

Royal Air Force 
Royal Navy 

The following is a small update to the Army's situation, with the addition of the latest updated (and non updates) coming out of DSEI. It is hightly recommended to read the previous chapter, "Army Projects and Requirements", if you aren't up to date. 

The Challenger 2 problem

DSEI brings confirmation that the British Army is increasinly aware of the big obsolescence problems of Challenger 2. The biggest issue at hand is the decreasing efficacy of the L30 rifled cannon, particularly in the anti-armour role. The problem is well known: the Challenger 2 uses 2-piece ammunition, which makes it impossible to employ an APFSDS penetrator with the length and mass required to ensure lethality. The CHARM 3 penetrator is incredibly small compared to the latest, long darts which have been developed for the smoothbore 120 mm guns. A small dart inexorably means low lethality, and there is little that can be done to improve the CHARM 3’s effect.

In addition, the rifled gun is now unique in NATO, and its HESH round, which used to add useful flexibility not matched by the rounds available on smoothbore cannons, is now more than balanced by a whole range of novel generation multi-mission shells developed for smoothbores.

It is increasingly evident that the L30 is the biggest problem at hand, and at DSEI, british army officials have, for the first time, admitted that it simply does not meet the requirement anymore.

Already back in 2006, a Challenger 2 was experimentally retrofitted with a smoothbore L55 cannon by Rheinmetall. Changing the gun proved to be pretty easy, but the enormous issue is the storage of ammunition. Pretty much none of the spaces currently available can be readily adapted to carry the longer one-piece ammunition. Especially not in a safe way: if currently the launch charges and HESH can be stored below the turret ring, where they are somewhat less vulnerable, one piece ammunition does not afford that luxury. One piece ammunition need specific storage spaces, protected with armored bulkheads and with solutions for “venting” an explosion away from the crew, like on the American Abrams.

In practice, retrofitting the Challenger 2 with a smoothbore cannon requires a “new” turret. That’s why the Challenger Lethality Improvement Programme was dropped. Subsequently, plans to adopt a more powerful and fuel efficient engine also had to be shelved. As of last year, the LEP was heading towards a mere obsolescence-removal exercise involving, primarily, electronics.

At DSEI, the British Army has kicked the ball back to square one, recognizing that such a LEP would not solve the issues. What can be done? Hard to say. It is no longer taboo to say that the Challenger 2 might be replaced. The options, however, are limited: there is talk of a possible new-generation MBT project to be launched by France and Germany, and it would be great if the UK could be involved, but we don’t even know yet if the project will effectively start. We don’t know if the UK can get into it, and we don’t know when such a new tank would be available, and at which cost.

So, what? 

The Challenger 2 experimentally fitted with a smoothbore L55 gun. Storage of the ammunition is a huge issue that requires vast redesigning of the turret spaces.

There is a very real risk that complexity and costs will end up giving us a LEP which does not solve the big issues. This would be a bad outcome, but it remains likely. The sad truth is that Challenger 2 can’t do with a simple “Life Extension Programme”, but needs a big Capability Sustainment Programme, like Warrior.

The biggest obsolescence Challenger 2 is grappling with is its main armament, and ignoring this defeats the whole purpose of having MBTs. Add to this the obsolescence of sensors and electronics, and the turret really could be replaced entirely, pretty much. A new engine would also help, since Challenger 2 is a dead last in terms of speed if not of mobility in the wider sense, especially in the “mobile fortress” configuration which has been used in Iraq, with the installation of big add-on armor kits.

And all the issues be solved?

Money as always will be the chief factor. We don’t know exactly how much money Challenger 2 will get. Last year Jane’s reported that the LEP budget had gone down from 1.2 billion to 700 million pounds. Which is a huge amount of money under certain points of view (certainly for an electronics-only LEP!) and not quite enough under others.

One option is doing away with the Challenger 2 entirely. There are still Leopard 2 tanks being sold on the cheap: Poland has paid just 180 million euro for 119 Leopard 2 tanks with all accompanying equipment. Of course, these were not at the latest standard, but they bring the L55 smoothbore, which is the key to solving the lethality problem.

The latest standard Leopard 2s, the A7, obviously cost quite a lot more. Saudi Arabia was about to procure 200 such tanks back in 2011, and the pricetag was indicated in 1.7 billion euro.

The UK needs a workable plan to put in service at least 200 MBTs armed with the L55 smoothbore, if its heavy armor is to remain credible. 
Extra money, of course, is highly unlikely. Some room for manoeuvre could be obtained, but only by shifting money away from other armoured vehicle programmes. The budget for Challenger 2 is to come from within what was, until 2014, the Mounted Close Combat Capability Change Programme, which is now broken down into four main areas: Armoured Cavalry 2025; Armoured Infantry 2026; Armoured Main Battle Tank 2025 and Mechanized Infantry 2029.

The budget for the MCC super-programme, was last indicated in 17.251,83 million, but spread over many years, towards 2030. The budget covers the whole life costs, not just procurement, and also includes simulators and initial support packages. It is very hard to guess how this figure breaks down, and thus nearly impossible to tell how much money could be shifted to Challenger 2.

In addition to Challenger 2, this pot of money must provide for the FRES SV / Ajax programme, the Warrior CSP, the ABSV if it finally kicks off and the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle (MIV) which is the new name of what once was FRES UV, so we should not be fooled into thinking that there is any real abundance.

Fixing the Challenger 2 programme, however, is a big priority, in my opinion. An MBT which is no longer lethal is no longer credible, especially not out to 2035 or 2040, which are the dates towards which the Out of Service moment should be pushed thanks to the LEP.

Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, WCSP, Ajax.  

I hoped DSEI would bring news about this key programme, which represents the way out from the ancient FV432, which currently has a 2030 OSD which would give it a good 70 years service life. It is ridiculous that the Army is still stuck with this old workhorse, which was once supposed to be replaced by Warrior, and which to this day is still seeking a successor. Unfortunately, little to no news came out of the show.

The ABSV might have to wait until 2017 to hit Main Gate, with deliveries of an unknown number of vehicles in an unknown number of variants due to be completed, in the Army’s “aspiration”, by 2026.

Armoured Infantry 2026, the name of the programme, is also, in one short phrase, the objective the Army has: renewing the armoured infantry by 2026, rolling into service the Warrior CSP and the ABSV.

My frustration with the Armoured Vehicles strategy of the Army are well known. To this day, the degree of uncertainty surrounding not just ABSV but WCSP is astonishing, and throws ridicule on the notion that “armoured infantry is the core of Army 2020”.

For now, the WCSP plans to upgrade a mere 380 Warrior, of which only 245 are Section vehicles with the new turret and gun. These numbers are flat-out insufficient for the six battalions planned, and Lockheed Martin UK, which assembles the turrets, says it is “hopeful” that more will eventually be ordered.

It is also not clear what the variant split is regarding the remaining 135 vehicles. Several news releases mention a “command” variant which has never existed in the Warrior fleet. There are Infantry Command vehicles, which are minor variations of the Section vehicle, and thus part of the 245.

There used to be a Battery Command variant used by Royal Artillery AS90 batteries, but only 19 were produced and I understand they have ceased to be used already years ago, with a number converted in ambulances for use in Afghanistan.

What’s left is the FV514 variant, the Artillery Observation vehicle. Not clear what, if anything, will happen to these. Until at least 2011, the plan was to have a FRES SV Joint Fires variant AND upgraded FV514, made into Joint Fire direction platforms as well.

Whether this is still the case, is an unknown. The FV514 was going to receive only the basic mechanic and protection upgrades under WCSP, with the RA supposed to fund a separate upgrade to the mission equipment, to turn the FV514 into a platform capable to direct mortar, artillery and air attacks from under armour. The Royal Artillery experimented possible configurations at least into 2011, but what happened afterwards is a mystery. 23 Ajax in Joint Fires configuration are on order, but the number is pretty tiny, considering that each AS90 battery, alone, used to employ 3 FV514.

If it depended from me, I would NOT bother with a FV514 upgrade. The FV514 has a dummy gun, so it won’t get the new turret. Even if it was “dressed up” so that it continues to resemble other Warriors, the additional sensors needed for the Joint Strike role would make it recognizable all the same. Another problem is that, unless the Royal Artillery manages to get the Joint Strike upgrade incorporated into WCSP, the FV514 would have to go to factory a first time for WCSP, then again for the separate upgrade. How many years would it take, and how long would the units be left without their vehicles?

Moreover, is it worth it in any way to try and jam so much modern equipment into an old horse like Warrior, even after it gets a modernized architecture under WCSP?

If I was the one making the decision, I would forget about FV514 and purchase a few more Ajax Joint Fire variants. More modern, less cramped, and with a working gun.

The FV514 hulls would be very useful for ABSV, which should convert “surplus” Warriors into mortar carriers, APCs, ambulances, maybe command-support vehicles (“true” Command posts should come via FRES SV / Ajax, in the form of the ATHENA C2 variant) and Anti-Tank Guided Weapon carriers.

The insufficient number of Warrior getting the new turret and gun is a major concern. One way to reduce the need for Warriors is via ABSV: if the ATGW variant materializes, the Anti-Tank Platoon will not need Warriors (unlike now). An ATGW variant allowing the launch of missiles from under armour, as well as the carriage of dismount Javelin teams, would be a massive improvement in the Army’s capability. 

The FRES SV / Ajax family is supposed to include an Overwatch variant providing long-range, guided weapon firepower. Unfortunately, it seems most likely that this will end up being just an APC carrying dismount Javelin teams: this should be corrected by adding a vehicle-launched weapon too, ideally with greater range.

The use of dismounted, 2.5 km Javelin in the Overwatch role is a downgrade from Striker, which until 2005 provided vehicle launched Swingfire missiles with a 4 km reach.

Much curiosity remains about the Ground Based Surveillance sub-variant of Ajax, too. In a world in which armies are modernizing and adopting mast-mounted sensor heads combining radar and EO, the Ajax does not look much innovative at all.

There is the risk that the GBS sub-variant ends up being just an APC carrying 3-4 dismounts and their sensors, and this would be very underwhelming.

Mechanized Infantry Vehicle

The Army really wants a 8x8 APC. Indeed, it wants more than 300, so it is preparing to a new attempt at procuring them after the utter failure of FRES UV. The vehicle, coming in different variants, is meant to replace Mastiff and Ridgback, which are the current interim solution equipping the 3 “Heavy Protected Mobility Battalions” spread across the 3 heavy brigades.

A 8x8 combat vehicle is going to bring better capabilities than Mastiff, particularly in terms of mobility, but I have to sincerely say that I’d very much encourage the army to get the armoured infantry right, before getting bogged down in another major, expensive procurement programme.

While I’m not blind to the advantages offered by an 8x8 solution, I believe that replacing Mastiff is not quite so high on the list of the urgencies. I say this especially considering that the army is most likely to procure only APCs armed with nothing more than a .50. These vehicles are going to be an upgrade over Mastiff in a low-complexity scenario, but not much of an upgrade in a more complex scenario. Ultimately, since there are so many issues left to be solved in the heavy armour area, I would focus my efforts there.

Non-Articulated Vehicle – Protected (NAV-P)

Not an armour programme, but a key one. Any vehicle the army might field will mean little if there are holes in the logistic area, and the missing replacement of DROPS is potentially a huge hole. DROPS is fundamental: it carries a vast variety of key payloads which include the ammunition for the artillery. The army is in the absurd situation of having declared DROPS out of service last year, while still using hundreds, alongside with a small fleet of EPLS, exactly because it cannot do without them.

NAV-P cannot be delayed forever. It should sit high on the list of priorities. Despite the obvious urgency, no noise from DSEI.

Multi Role Vehicle – Protected

The first purchase of MRV-P vehicles might be drawing nearer, with Main Gate expected in 2017. Industry is preparing to compete, and General Dynamics will put forwards both the Eagle and the Foxhound, the latter probably in the form of its cheaper steel-hull variation.

The first purchase is reportedly expected to include 500 or more “general service” troop transports plus 78 ambulances and 27 recovery vehicles.

Obviously, if the Foxhound can be made cheap enough to be affordable (at the current pricetag, it has no real chance) it is an obvious favorite, due to fleet commonality considerations.

Much has yet to be seen and decided regarding MRV-P. As discussed earlier, the requirements suggest that 2 variants, one “short” and one “long” might be necessary, so much so that both a 4x4 and a 6x6 variant might be procured.

The high level of uncertainty, however, suggests that MRV-P remains at risk of further delays. Anyone of the other vehicle programmes could be given higher priority and push MRV-P further to the right.

Going into the SDSR, the Army’s top priorities on the vehicular front, in my assessment, should be:

-          Upgrade Challenger 2 seriously, or replace it early. If the upgrade can’t fix the lethality problem, go for replacement. A L55 Leopard 2 is to preferred to Challenger 2, at this point in time.

-          Increase the number of Warrior Section Vehicles towards 300, the bare minimum needed for six battalions. Consider that a training fleet would also be necessary, ideally, especially due to BATUS swallowing up a battlegroup’s worth of vehicles.

-          Proceed with haste with ABSV, including the ATGW variant.

-          Ajax, WCSP and ABSV are deeply interconnected: make sure they are run with coherence! Do not duplicate where there is no need to. Complex roles like C2 and Joint Fires should be left to the newer vehicle. Adjust the numbers to ensure that the three fleets complete each other.

-          Do not waste the big investment made on Ajax by cutting corners on Overwatch and Ground Based Surveillance: provide adequate tools for the job. Mast mounted sensors and a longer-range, under-armour precision weapon capability are both necessary.

-          Procure a NAV-P solution. More EPLS, or anyway a solution using the MAN SV truck as base would have obvious logistical benefits.

-          MIV and MRV-P are both needed and welcome, but they look lower priority to me, and I’d accept a hit in these areas in order to achieve better results elsewhere.