Thursday, March 17, 2016

British Army "reviewing" whether to lose some more firepower

The British Army’s infantry has one particularly demanding aspiration in mind:

Project Payne
The aim is achieving a reduction in carried load to as low as 25 kg in marching order (interim target is 40 Kg, apparently) and 20 kg in assault order.

Compare those values with an average for “patrol order” in Afghanistan, and you realize how difficult it is to go down in weight without simply cancelling key bits of equipment from the list. VIRTUS, of course, is working to make the body armour and load carriage equipment both lighter and more comfortable, but it is only one part of the story.
One key part of the story that never seems to get much mention is:

Project Atlas
A Combat Load Carrier was rapidly identified as a necessity if the infantry is to achieve the desired load reduction while ensuring the platoon still has the kit it needs. Pack animals and vehicles both considered, according to the papers. The solution would be assigned at Coy and/or Platoon level.  

The current, interim solution is the Yamaha Grizzly 450 Quad Bike with trailer; grouped at Coy level.  

Tomorrow’s solution is…?
Apparently, in the minds of some in the top brass, it is leaving the Section without LMG and the Platoon without mortar, rather than procuring a load carrier / mobility platform.
The official version is that a light tactical mobility platform to replace the Quad Bike could come in 2020, and pack animals might return as well.

But in the meanwhile Jane’s reports that the British Army is considering whether to remove the 60mm platoon mortar from service, and even the Minimi LMG could be removed from the arsenal.
The justification? The 40mm underslung grenade launcher makes the mortar redundant and the LMG really is no good, better to depend on Battlegroup assets and/or GPMGs passed down by Company, if luck assists.
I mean, the enemy will be suppressed in some way, whatever it is, and the sharpshooter will pick them apart with precision, the new magic word of the day. Honest.  

Nobody in the world thinks any of the two is a good idea? Hey, this is the British Army, we don’t care.

The sorry story of the British Army’s firepower goes back many years. Possibly decades. But I will only summarize the most recent episodes of the saga. To fully grasp the "funny" side of the story, you must consider that the Sharpshooter, the current key piece on the chessboard, did not really exist in the british army until a few years ago and has been on the point of vanishing again as soon as combat operations in Afghanistan winded down and his weapon, the L129A1, procured as UOR, became an immediate candidate for disposal.

But the L129A1 was popular enough not to be thrown away, and the uncertainty about its worth, role and future became just one part of a more complex story, going from "it isn't that good" to the "it makes the LMG redundant" within less than 3 years of magic. Enter the: 

Platoon Combat Experiment (PCE)

PCE was a 3-year study (it should be complete now) meant to examine the full combat effectiveness of the dismounted Infantry Platoon. The focus of the study was Platoon lethality and Dismounted Situational Awareness (DSA). Experiments were run yearly through a 6-week programme broken down into 3 weeks on Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) using Tactical Engagement Simulation (TES, the laser-based training system) and 3 weeks in Sennybridge Training Area (SENTA) conducting live firing. The results of the experiments were meant to inform the ORBAT and equipment requirements of Army 2020’s infantry platoons. As of May 2014, the three phases of PCE were described as:

Year 1 (2013) baseline experiment to gather the data on current configuration of weapons, equipment, DSA and lethal capability.

Year 2 (2014) Intervention year. Having examined the data from year 1, areas found to require change were targeted to determine the way forwards. Two main targets were selected:

-          Load reduction, with the aim to drop from a “Patrol Order” (Op Herrick) of 42 kg average to an Assault Order of 27 kg or less.
-          Rule of 4; evaluating the merits of a return to a Platoon on 4 Sections. Manpower being fixed, this is only achievable by reducing the Section from 8 to 6 men.

Year 3 (2015) Final intervention and confirmation year. Having studied the data from years 1 & 2 the final year was meant to be used to conduct further interventions, in different areas or adjustments in those from year 2. The selected ORBAT and equipment configuration coming out of year 2 would be used. Finally, the results would be studied and compared to determine the way ahead.

As of May 2014:

-          L129A1 and L86A2 LSW: uncertainty on the way ahead, despite decision to take L129 into Core after earlier suggestions of scrapping it. PCE Year 1 results showed, surprisingly, that the LSW, adjusted and put in the hands of a private having received adequate progression training and Small Arms Corps guidance, was the best performing weapon in Live Fire events over the 4-500 meters range.
The results on ranges between 500 and 800 meters again saw the LSW performing as well as the L129A1, with the 5.56 bullet having greater speed at the same range. However, the L129A1 and the ACOG 6x sight were found to be not adequately ballistically matched. A new sight graticule for the ACOG was funded, and the trials were to be repeated. The L129A1 was also rejected as Sniper No 2 weapon, with the intention of launching a new procurement effort after firming up the requirements.

In May 2015, courtesy of the 1st Princess of Wales regiment which provided the information, I learned that:

-          1 PWRR had just been scaled to receive the L129A1 in Sniper No 2 role; but there were some logistic issues still to be tackled and LSW was being used in the interim within the sniper pair. The LSW was described as “performing very well in sharpshooter role” but most pairs continued to call for the 7.62 of the L129A1. A change of heart on the Sniper No 2 decision? No money to procure a dedicate sniper support weapon as hoped in 2014? Who knows.

-          For Section-level sharpshooter role a definitive answer could not be provided, but I was told that Armoured Infantry battalions probably would not be given the L129A1 on the assumption that long range fire support would come from the Warrior’s coaxial 7.62 MG. Not quite the same as a sharpshooter and there is a point to be made that infantry and IFV aren’t glued and the IFV might not be able to follow everywhere, all the time. But there are not enough L129, that much is known, and AI Coys are those which would suffer the less if deprived of the sharpshooter. At least they do have the Warrior.

-          As of now, L129 is in use both in Sharpshooter and Sniper No 2 role. But LSW is also being re-issued in numbers after having pretty much vanished for a few years.

Even so, as of August 2015, more trials were planned with the L129A1 fitted with the adjusted ACOG sight. After testing it with standard ammo, the plan was to employ high performance ammunition to determine if the new combination would give the desired 800 meters effective reach. The 16’’ barrel is probably a limiting factor: a longer one would solve the effective reach issue, but would affect bulk and weight (and cost...).  

On top, the L86A2 LSW in normal configuration, then an LSW in "A3" configuration, proposed to improve its performance, with the same bipod as the L129A1 (bottom)
L129A1 in Sniper No 2 configuration, with suppressor and 12x sight. The ACOG 6x is used in Sharpshooter role instead.

Small Arms Suppressors: initially considered as part of efforts to reduce the number of troops sustaining noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), they were found to potentially have other merits on the battlefield and a full experimentation was ordered. The army procured bespoke suppressors for every platoon weapon, including the LMG Minimi and the GPMG. As of 2015, there was no definitive conclusion, with both pros and cons having surfaced, and more time required to make any choice.

BURMA Coy, 1st LANCS, was given the suppressors for a fact-finding ride. They performed well on SA80 and L129A1, greatly reducing the noise and even the recoil, while they performed horribly on the belt-fed weapons, somehow causing the recoil to get much stronger and, not so surprisingly, becoming white hot during sustained fire, both with LMG and GPMG.

UGL Fire Control System: the FCS for the underslung grenade launcher is not popular with the troops, who feel it is too heavy and cumbersome. SASC’s answer is that it should not be kept attached to the rifle all the time, as removing and attaching it is a 15 seconds (on average during the trials) operation.
“Some work” was put into developing the UGL into a stand-alone weapon rather than a rifle attachment, apparently with the blessing of the Special Forces community. In February 2014 the MOD put out a tender notice asking for a lightweight, battery-powered Mounted Ballistic Sight to replace the ladder sight of the UGL both underslung and stand-alone.
Not sure if a procurement actually followed, but it sounds a lot like the Vectronix-Wilcox RAAM FCS, procured in 2011, is a designated victim of the efforts to shed weight and will likely not live long. The MOD 2014 notice calls for something weighting less than 450 g, rather than the around 790 of the FCS. 

As of 2016, the UGL itself might be dropped in favor of a standalone version, ideally a multi-shot grenade launcher if it can be procured. We'll see.

L128A1 Combat Shotgun: ingloriously removed from service, without much of a word.  

PCE Experiment. The reportage from the field: BURMA Company, 1st LANCS, was tasked with the Year 2 trials. The 4 sections of 6 men were armed with “a mix of platoon weapons including the LMG Long Barrel and the L129A1 Sharpshooter”. The inclusion of the Minimi is important in light of the latest news, and the fact that it had the long barrel is also very interesting as currently all LMGs in british army service are short barreled, which impacts their effective reach. The possibility of procuring and retrofitting the longer barrel has been on the cards for a while. A “Reconfigured LMG” was a future requirement within the Infantry Lethality project as far back as 2011. 
Nowhere had I ever read before about the possibility of dropping the LMG from the army’s equipment being even considered. It popped entirely out of the blue, for me.

In the 1st LANCS regimental journal for the year 2014, Lieutenant Graeme Cleave, BURMA Coy, writes about the Platoon experiment. The very first technical observation he makes is that they found the best tool in the platoon’s arsenal is the 60mm platoon mortar.
The same that could now be dropped from the equipment table.  

“We learnt very quickly that effective use of the mortar not only defeats the enemy at long range it also gives you freedom of movement on the battlefield”.

The Kingsman yearbook 2014 – Page 27

In combination with the Sharpshooter, the platoon mortar allowed the Sections to clear out enemy positions from over 600 meters away.
I find this in no way surprising. It also tallies with the post Op Herrick reports which specify that the great majority of enemies killed were taken down by sharpshooter / sniper fire or by HE, with everything else mostly only providing suppressive fire to fix the enemy in place.
It should be noted that in Afghanistan the Minimi was snubbed at times… but not in favor of a no-belt fed approach. Rather, the infantry patrols preferred to shoulder more weight but carry the firepower and reach of the GPMG Light Role.
How do we get from here to the possibility of losing both the mortar and the belt-feds, I have no idea.
There is a massive hole in the train of thought, that transits through abortive attempts to make the GPMG lighter to arrive to this proposal of only having belt-feds in the Support Coy, with the GPMG SF.

There is one single major force in the world which has removed belt-feds from the Section / Squad. That is the USMC, which has replaced its own Minimi, the M249 SAW, with the M-27 IAR, an automatic rifle with integrated bipod, which can deliver semi-automatic “sharpshooter” precision or full auto suppressive fire. 

However, it should be remembered that the USMC squad is 13 men strong and the Platoon includes a Weapons squad with M240s belt-fed 7,62 mm guns. The british platoon has no weapons squad and no organic GPMGs and is a smaller force in general.
The US Army platoon is 39 strong, with 3 sections of 9 and a weapons section. The French use a platoon of 40 men, which also includes support weaponry.

The British Army briefly worked on putting a platoon of GPMGs within Rifle Companies in Light Role regiments as part of Army 2020, also to mitigate the problem of only having 2 Rifle platoons now. The paired reserve battalion is supposed to provide the missing platoon in each Coy, but whether this is realistic is still all to be seen. In peacetime, it seems that more often than not, it is not actually doable as troops have been repeatedly borrowed from other regular battalions.
The Rifle Coy's Machine Gun Platoon was formed in some battalions, but then quickly dismantled: it seems to have lasted a year at most, before the GPMGs were sent back to the Support Coy from which they had been “stolen”.  No resource in the British Army is ever additional these days: robbing Peter to pay Paul is the rule.
An attempt to adopt the Fire Support Group as peacetime structure, forming three multi-weapon groups comprising machine guns, GMG and anti-tank missiles was also short lived, and everything seems to have reverted to Machine Gun Platoon, AT Platoon, Mortar Platoon, Sniper Platoon, Recce Platoon, Pioneer (mini-) Platoon. There is just less of everything.  
The firepower deficit that the British Army already has when compared with any other army, at all levels from platoon to battalion, would only get worse under this new mortar and belt-feds “review”.

The few positives from the PCE trial were the top marks reserved for the Laser Light Module LLM MK3, which seems to have gained everyone’s favor as one of the best bits of kit the army has procured in recent times. 
One definitely good point of the whole exercise was the lot of work done at night, including platoon attacks in IR light only. “Mastery of the night” rhetoric abounded when the FIST sights and NVGs were procured, but the Op Herrick campaign report warns that, for a whole series of reasons, the army did not actually press the pedal on night fighting, probably missing a lot of good tactical advantages over the Taliban.

On the “rule of 4” side, there were both good and bad things to note: the commander likes the flexibility that a fourth maneuver unit gives him (and who wouldn’t) but notes that a 6 man squad becomes combat ineffective very quickly as soon as the first casualties are suffered.
It should be noted that when the British Army worked with 4 sections in the past, those numbered 10 men each…

Finally, a related point. Note that, due to Warrior CSP having room for just 6 dismounts, the Armoured Infantry Coys seem destined to have 6 men Sections regardless of whatever they might think of them, since I don’t think we can expect an additional Warrior in each Platoon, or even an APC addition.
As we saw before, the AI Coy section probably won’t have a Sharpshooter (at a minimum not one with L129, maybe LSW could still be included within the 6) and the LMG might well be the other bit that goes.

Lightweight mortar: it was reported already back in 2013 that the British Army would shelve the 60mm mortars it had procured as UOR for Afghanistan. Back then, it was said that the platoon mortar, or “commando” mortar, would remain in use only with PARA and Royal Marines. That was not (entirely) correct. The handheld M640 ended up being taken into Core as replacement for the 51mm platoon mortar, and remains in Army-wide use (for now at least).
The 60mm mortars which have been shelved are the M6895 and M6-895C, which are heavier, have a longer barrel and are used with a bipod, with a much greater range (around 4 km). These were procured to give the maneuver forces in Afghanistan more mobile mortar platoons. The 81mm L16, too heavy for the kind of foot patrol work required in Afghanistan, more often than not would not go outside the FOBs.
These two mortars are the ones which have been left available only to PARAs and Royal Marines. 

But now, once more, the Army is considering removing the platoon mortar from service, with the same justification used back when the 51mm was withdrawn without direct replacement: the underslung grenade launcher made it redundant. With the difference that the 51mm ammunition production had ended and it made no sense spending big money to try and restart it. 60mm ammunition is readily available worldwide.
Never mind the fact that the handheld mortar can hit out to 1000 meters and beyond, while 40mm grenades only reach 400 meters. Never mind the larger payload of the mortar’s bomb and their greater lethality. Nor the fact that the mortar can fire IR illumination shells, cold smoke, white phosphorous smoke, colored smoke. The Multi Role Fuze permits the selection of Low or High burst detonation for area effects.
It is a lot of firepower and flexibility available at platoon level, and there is no reason to throw it away, especially without procuring any kind of replacement whatsoever.

The British Army in Afghanistan has used MITHRAL hand-fired rockets for creating smoke curtains and putting up colored smoke signals at ranges of up to 1000 meters without depending on the mortar, and maybe these will continue to be used, but even they are no replacement.  

There are alternatives to the platoon mortar? Not really, at the moment. No one else is throwing the platoon mortar away, even if it weights 6+ kg.
The US Marines and US Army have been working on weapons which might at some point provide a full alternative, but none of the two is so far mature enough to replace the mortar. The XM-25 is extremely interesting, but not yet mature and individually not lighter than the 60mm mortar. The ammunition, though, weights less.
The M-32 revolver grenade launcher is another interesting system already in use in the USMC and now to be purchased by the Australian army as well, but it still doesn’t give you the reach of the platoon mortar.
Medium Velocity 40mm grenades, expected to reach as far as 800 meters, are becoming more mature as time passes, but we are not there yet. 

Lt.Col. Iain Moodie, SO1, Dismounted Close Combat, Capability Directorate Combat, speaking at the Soldier Equipment and Technology Advancement Forum (SETAF) in London on 14th March, suggested that the Army might look at the Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless rifle as a possible replacement due to the flexibility it offers thanks to the wide range of ammunition available.
The US Army has seen a resurgence of interest in the Carl Gustav already years ago, putting many back in the field in Afghanistan to give long-range firepower options to its infantry. The US Army calls it the Multi-Role Anti-Armor Anti-Personnel Weapon System (MAAWS) M3. It weighs approximately 22 pounds with each round of ammunition weighing less than 10 pounds, but already back in 2012 there were ongoing attempts to make it at least 5 pounds lighter. Ammunition available include the High Explosive and High Explosive Dual Purpose Rounds, HEAT, illumination, anti-structure, multi-target and smoke. 

M3 Carl Gustav with the US Army
It is not any lighter than the platoon mortar, but is possibly even more flexible, and if provided with suitable anti-structure ammunition it could remove the need to carry the heavy MATADOR Anti Structure Munition  rocket launcher, compensating somewhat. 

On the ground, the Matador ASM, one of the less frequently observed weapons of the British Army. Money wasted? Maybe. For sure, it isn't light.
The user can usually load and fire four rounds within one minute.
The blast radius stemming from a High Explosive round is anywhere from 50 to 75 meters. The user sets the firing distance on the MAAWS by simply rotating a labeled meter at the top of the round.
The Carl Gustav is an interesting option, but until it is on the way to the Platoon, I really would not want to see the mortar go.

According to Moodie, the 40 mm UGL could be removed from the rifle and be replaced by a standalone, multiple (if there is money) grenade launcher.
This might also be a consequence of the fact that year 1 PCE firing trials showed the L85A2 with UGL lagging behind the L85A2 without UGL in terms of effective rounds landed on target.

The L16 mortar is supposedly going to be given an upgrade to extend its reach, but it is still delusional to think it’ll be where you need it, when you need it, all the time. And anyway, for the moment, there are actually restrictions imposed on the use of the maximum charge due to excessive noise. Noise, together with weight, is the big no-no of today’s army.
The November 2013 report about the 60mm mortar going out of the window said the L16 would be given new barrels to extend its service life. The new barrels would possibly be longer as the army hopes to obtain a longer reach from the L16A2 and could incorporate the “baffle” (Blast Attenuation Device) as fitted on the US version of the L16, to help reduce the noise and hide the flash.
There is however no evidence of any progress on this front since 2013, for all I know. 

Light Protected Mobility battalion mortar post during a recent exercise. No upgrade or change to the L16 is evident.

Hearing protection: The Army has spent years wrestling with technology to provide troops with an effective wearable Hearing Protection System. A new series of plugs, fitted with a device that automatically reduce the intensity of pulse, intense sounds, has been ordered during 2015.

VIRTUS, DSA, camouflage: Lt.Col. Iain Moodie painted a rather bleak picture by saying that jungle garments and camouflage are not funded and new Arctic equipment hasn’t even begun to be considered.

DSA developments should now be included in VIRTUS Pulse 2, for delivery between 2019 – 2022. Previously, Pulse 2 was expected to only cover the introduction of new, lighter ballistic armor plates. It now apparently will deal with DSA as well, and as a consequence presumably of power generation and distribution, previously the domain of Pulse 3.

Pulse 3 now apparently focuses on renewed small arms Lethality and on Close Combat Unmanned Aerial System (replacement for Black Hornet?). It is confusing, however, as these developments would appear to be only marginally connected to body armour and load carriage.

Some 40 million pounds are expected to be committed in 2017 to a new phase of the Future Soldier System. The I of “integrated” seems to have been dropped, meaning that we probably won’t hear about FIST anymore. 

The frankly embarrassing "concept" the MOD showed last year. The fake pad, the fake visor and the fake sight, rifle add-ons and sensors on top of the helmet truly give it an aura of seriousness. The long history of previous concepts and the latest news don't inspire any optimism.

The DSA situation within the British Army is rather dramatic in comparison to what is happening in France, US and elsewhere. It is an area of the Future Soldier programmes and even of Afghan UORs where progress has been scarce (with the exception of Black Hornet, a great addition).
A combat identification solution to prevent Blue on Blue is the absolute priority, with fielding hopefully from 2019.
Other DSA advances will probably depend in no small measure on the ongoing development of Bowman and then on Project MORPHEUS, Bowman’s replacement.

Did I already say there are too many infantry battalions increasingly becoming pointless and unusable due to lack of not just supports, but now even personnel kit? Lt.Col. Iain Moodie also said that the Army does not have the budget to equip everyone at the same way. VIRTUS and DSA releases will only happen in Tiers, and the total holdings are expected to be insufficient, requiring handing down of equipment when battalions swap in theatre.
The Adaptable / Infantry Brigades in particular can be expected to lag behind in equipment scales, but even Reaction brigades not in their Readiness year could experience shortages as equipment is prioritized for the brigades at readiness (one Armoured and one Strike, if we are to believe in the SDSR, and it is becoming harder by the day to do so).

Once more, the Army appears to be keeping battalions and brigades alive on a precarious life support, by spreading jam incredibly thin, ending up with holes all over the place.

In conclusion

Is it money, is it weight? Is it noise? Is it a bit of everything? Why would the British Army consider throwing away two important pieces like the LMG and the platoon mortar, without having procured anything that actually makes them redundant in any way?
Why so many army efforts go nowhere, lost in indecisive and contradictory approaches, U-turns, half-arsings, even when the cost is relatively minor (a few millions perhaps, hardly game changing within the budget)?

I can find no good answer.