Sunday, July 17, 2016

Status update: what is moving and what is not

Army plans

In April 2014, the MOD decided to split the massive “Mounted Close Combat Capability Change” programme into four:

-          Armoured Cavalry 2025
-          Armoured Infantry 2026
-          Armour; Main Battle Tank 2025
-          Mechanized Infantry 2029

The date at the end indicates the desired completion time. The budget for the Mounted Close Combat super-programme was 17.251,83 million pounds.
Data released this year, and current to September 2015, reveals that the Armoured Cavalry programme has a budget of 6831,55 million, for procuring, putting in service and supporting for the first few years the Ajax fleet.
The Armoured Infantry programme is chiefly composed by Warrior CSP, but the army also “aspires” to finally launching the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle programme. The budget is currently given as 2176,45 million, but since ABSV is yet to come and the Warrior CSP procurement hasn’t yet been contracted, the sum is destined to grow.
No additional update is given on the status of MBT 2025 and MI 2029. Assuming the overall budget is still 17 billion, there are 8243,85 million to commit to the missing pieces, the biggest of which is clearly going to be the Mechanized Infantry Vehicle 8x8.

The Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme, another initiative that is navigating a tormented and endless path to a Main Gate point that never seems to arrive, was described as having a budget going from 1.2 billion to 700 million. The latest figure I’ve come across is 920 million.
Even 700 million pounds are quite a lot of money for a Life Extension Programme which is not expected to touch the gun and that will not replace the powerpack. It is hard to say why changing sights and communications should cost so much on Challenger 2 when a similar programme in France is going on for some 300 million euro.
Is it an implicit admission that Challenger 2 obsolescence is truly that desperate…?

We know very little about the MIV programme, too. The latest words of general Nick Carter suggest a requirement for 4 battalion sets (two battalions for each “Strike” brigade), which is one more than was planned under Army 2020 (one mechanized battalion in each of the three Reaction Force brigades). There are clear requirements for a multitude of variants, including mortar carrier, ATGW and ambulance, but there is no certainty that money will be there to actually do something about it.

Meanwhile, there have been reports about the British Army being very interested in purchasing American Joint Light Tactical Vehicles as solution for the Multi Role Vehicle Protected requirement. Due for production in the tens of thousands, the JLTV might be the only product with a realistic chance to achieve a pricetag close to the MOD objective of 250.000 pounds per vehicle.
The MRV-P programme remains, in my opinion, somewhat confused. Its relationship with existing vehicles such as Foxhound, Husky and Panther is unclear, and the numbers indicated for the first purchase are too low: if there is no money for greater numbers and if there isn’t actual clarity about what to do with it, the British Army should not add yet another vehicle to its already vast collection.
Clarity is needed, first of all. The British Army should also determine the future of Light Protected Mobility Battalions, and act consequently: if they are to be serious warfighting tools, they should not depend on old Land Rover WMIKs to provide firepower support to the Foxhounds. Mobility, but moreover protection, are unequal, with the Land Rover at serious disadvantage. Purchasing more Foxhounds, in WMIK and in Logistic configurations, would give these units a whole different level of effectiveness.
It is also necessary to think about how to distribute Husky and MRV-P, and how to move from the first to the second over time.

General Carter also candidly confirmed to the Defence Committee that the “defence engagement battalions” will be small (just 300 men) in no small part due to the need to recoup manpower to direct towards the Strike Brigades and the other units needed to make it feasible to deploy at Division scale, as mandated by the SDSR. Two to five infantry battalions will be downsized and re-orbated, meaning that the manpower margin recouped varies from 500 to 1300 men.
Beyond the obvious (freeing up manpower without being allowed to disband battalions and face capbadge bunfights), the Defence Engagement battalions are supposed to become the go-to units when it comes to training, mentoring and helping friendly forces abroad. Supposedly, these battalions will be elite units, containing a greater number of officers, SNCOs and specialists, but there is every reason to be doubtful in front of the claim: where are those specialists going to come from, considering that the manpower is already an issue now?


There are now an official announcement and a deal signed for the procurement of 50 Apache at the Block III standard, and this is good news, because it hopefully dispels the risk of seeing the number dropping even further.
The confusion around the Apache situation endures, however, since the MOD, Boeing and everyone else appear unable to provide details and a definitive answer to the question: is it a remanufacturing project, or a new build programme?

The answer seem to be: it is a remanufacturing project, but so much of the helicopter will be newly built that confusion is legitimate. Existing Apache AH1 will be dismantled and the valid systems and components will move across to the new machines, receiving the upgrades and changes needed.
The Apache remanufacturing involves a new rotor, new and more powerful engines, updated sights and targeting system, updated radar, newly built airframe, data link 16, manned-unmanned teaming and other upgrades. The US Army is rebuilding all of its own Apaches, uplifting them to AH-64E, and will also procure around 60 wholly new as replacements for losses and attrition.

The first british AH-64E is expected to come out of factory during 2020, and the In Service Date is given as 2022. The new airframe, made of composites and slightly modified to better accommodate the Block III systems, comes with a life of 10.000 hours. It should be less prone to corrosion issues, despite the lack of proper navalization: the US Army has been bringing the Apache out on ships more and more frequently in the Pacific theatre, so the British Army should not have any grave issue. Manually folding rotor should come as standard.
The AH-64E won’t be a naval helicopter, but the Apache AH1 never was, either. The addition of some features (including emergency floatation gear) over time remains desirable to make shipboard operations simpler and safer.

Boeing and MBDA have just completed a series of MOD-funded Brimstone launches from an AH-64E, and the results have been good. The MOD hopes to replace Hellfire in 2021, and Brimstone, offered by MBDA as the Future Attack Helicopter Weapon, is the obvious choice. An integration contract should materialize sometime in the near future, so that the AH-64E can enter service with it as its main weapon.

The MBDA video about FAHW is very interesting, and it shows two important features: airburst detonation mode and anti-air employment of Brimstone. The US Army has experimented ground-launched Hellfire missiles as anti-UAS weapons, and a similar capability for Brimstone, extending also to larger and more challenging targets (such as the KA-52 in the video) would be particularly helpful for British Apaches which have never been equiped with Stinger missiles nor with Starstreak, despite a demonstration campaign carried out years ago.

P-8 Poseidon and Sentinel R1: the future of ISTAR

The regeneration of MPA capability is finally confirmed and on the move, and we also have a delivery schedule:

2 aircraft will be ordered in 2017 for delivery in April and December 2019 (Production Lot 8)
3 aircraft will be ordered in 2018 for delivery during 2020  (Production Lot 9)
4 aircraft will be ordered in 2019 for delivery in 2021  (Production Lot 10) 

Unless there are delays on the US side, these dates imply that the UK Poseidons will come with Increment 3 standard. It should also come with 6 rather than 5 workstations, following the US and Australian decision to fit the additional console to better exploit the growing capabilities of the type.

What we do not know yet is how (or even if) these airplanes will be armed. The UK has elected to follow a pure Off The Shelf approach for the purchase, so that no british weaponry will be integrated, at least for now. The question thus becomes whether or not the UK will order a stock of US torpedoes (and wing-kits for their deployment from altitude) and whether anything will be done on the anti-ship missile front. With the loss of the Nimrod, the RAF also lost its last anti-ship platform, after all, and it is not clear if the old stock of air launched Harpoon is still in storage and if it could still be used. 

The current thinking in the MOD is that the P-8 Poseidon will also replace Sentinel R1 in the 2020s, but how this will be done is not, at this stage, clear. An obvious solution is trying to obtain from the US the export of their AN/APQ-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor radar pod, which is in development specifically for the P-8 and is also serving as base for the radar proposed by Raytheon for the USAF’s JSTARS replacement programme.
Fitting a different radar sensor is also an option: the P-8 can take it, and can carry out long range overland radar surveillance, despite flying tipically a bit lower than Sentinel.
One issue, already underlined by RAF officers, is that 9 aircraft are too few to properly cover both sea and land requirements. An additional batch of 3 aircraft would help, and the number 12 has circulated at times in the period leading up to the SDSR: if Sentinel will leave service in the early 2020s, increasing the number of P-8s and adding a land-surveillance radar will be very important.

As part of stealth cuts meant to free up money and manpower to make the investments of the SDSR 2015 possible, the RAF is due to cut the Sentinel R1 fleet from 5 to 4 aircraft and from 10 to 5 crews, while also reducing the extent of upgrades initially proposed for the platform. Air Commodore Dean Andrew, commander of the RAF ISTAR Force, however, has made it abundantly clear that he opposes this approach and will try to have the idea shredded. Unfortunately, time is not on his side, considering that the cut is scheduled for September.
The situation is complicated by the ever present problem of manpower: the RAF was granted a small uplift in personnel number in the SDSR, but at the same time it was loaded with a great number of requests which all require manpower. Supposedly, the Sentinel’s companion, the Shadow R1, should see the fleet expanded from 5 (+1 currently without mission kit, only good for training) to 8. There is a proposal to uplift the number of combat-ready Sentry crews from 5 to 12 by 2021. There will be Poseidon to man. There will be 20 Protector, which much greater endurance, in place of 10 Reaper, and these might have no pilot on board but require a great number of people back in the base. 14 C-130Js are now expected to remain, and the number of combat jet squadrons will now (thankfully) stay around 9, rather than drop to 6.
It is very clear that manpower is a problem. Poseidon alone is likely to require as many men as the SDSR gave, and maybe more, so the RAF needs to shift manpower around from within the current totals. If someone gains, someone else is bound to lose.
And, obviously, it also takes time to shift people around, re-train personnel and/or recruit and train new people.
There is an expectation that the CBRN mission will transfer to the Army, so the RAF Regiment is probably due to shrink by a sizeable number in the coming years, but the manpower margin is not immediately transferable and will not, in itself, solve the problems.
I do not think I’d feel surprised at all if the extra AWACS crews and additional Shadow R1 ended up never materializing. They seem to me to be commitments from which it will be easy to retreat in silence and darkness.

A number of upgrades for Sentinel have been funded and will proceed. These include a maritime radar mode for the radar, to appear sometime in 2018; increased SAR resolution and improved SatCom are also on the list, all to be delivered during 2017 and 2018.
A number of other upgrades remain, presently, not funded: these include adding ELINT capability, upgrading the cockpit and mission consoles and adding a Long Range Optical Sensor (the DB-110 used in the RAPTOR pod was mentioned in the past few months) to complement the radar.
Sentinel is a precious ISTAR asset and delivers extremely valuable battlefield surveillance that should not be lost, so its future (and eventually its replacement) remain a topic to follow with attention.

Meanwhile, the MOD has signed a deal to procure Protector itself through a hybrid Foreign Military Sale process, which will enable the RAF to work together with GA-ASI to modify their “Certifiable Predator B” to turn it into Protector.
The Certifiable Predator B is an internal effort started by GA-ASI to build a more capable Reaper complete of Due Regard sensor capability for flight in non-segregated airspace. It also comes with a new and longer wing carrying more fuel, giving an endurance in the 40 hours region.
The wings also should offer greater payload margins: an image released by GA-ASI shows 4 triple Brimstone racks and 2 Paveway bombs installed on a Protector. This would not be possible on Reaper, as the third station on its wing (never really employed) can only carry some 70 kg.

Certifiable Predator B with Brimstone racks. 

The Protector should massively expand the capabilities of the RAF, but it will be interesting to see if some efforts will be made to make it more survivable in presence of some enemy air defence. The Reaper is pretty much defenceless, but as Protector becomes more capable and more expensive, it would make sense to try and make it less vulnerable.
It could be worth a try to adapt the self-defence pods currently employed by Tornado GR4, since they have been upgraded and improved in recent times (first the BOZ dispenser of Flares, and lastly the Cerberus EW pods, which have been upgraded to “Common Jamming Pod, with electronics equal to those of the Typhoon’s DASS and with the same towed radar decoy added in as well) and could still be useful for years after the Tornado will be gone.

Weapon and sensor choices will also be important. Integrating Brimstone and Paveway IV seems the right thing to do, unless the special (and rather advantageous) current agreement with the USAF for access to their stocks of Hellfire and GBU-12 is to continue.
The RAF also spoke, back when the programme was known as SCAVENGER, of common pods to be developed and certified, with the ability to rapidly switch the payload within them to enable rapid evolution of the drone’s capability. This is a smart approach, and hopefully will still feature in Protector.

The UK is also looking at setting up a UAS School in the UK, since the USAF is already hard pressed to train its own UAS crews, and will struggle to take care of foreign needs. Simulation should enable aircraft-free training, but the actual solution has yet to be chosen. 

A long sundown for the Hawk T1

With 208(R) Sqn now disbanded, the Hawk T1 is no longer used in training of fast jet crews, but it remains employed for air support to operational training, playing Aggressor in air to air battles; helping to qualify JTACs and assaulting Royal Navy ships to let them hone their air defence skills. The Hawk T1 also is the Red Arrows’ mount.
It will be around for many years still, yet its sundown is due to begin relatively soon. The MOD has decided that 736 NAS will lose its Hawk T1s in 2020; followed by 100 Sqn around 2027 and finally by the Red Arrows in 2030 (or by 2035).

The Royal Navy is the first to have to grapple with the problem, which is also connected to the current arrangement for EW and threat simulation coming to an end in the same timeframe. Currently, a fleet of Falcon DA20 provided and crewed by Cobham provide 6500 hours a year of service in support of training exercises, jamming radars and electronically simulating aircraft and weapons. The Royal Navy is the main customer of the service, with 3500 hours, followed by 2500 for the RAF and 500 for contingencies.

The MOD has launched a new project for procuring a new solution to these requirements, under the name ASDOT, Air Support to Defence Operational Training. Interestingly, Qinetiq and Thales have agreed on jointly offering the Textron Scorpion aircraft as platform for the new service.
The pick is somewhat puzzling, because the Scorpion does not appear to be particularly suited to be an Aggressor, lacking in speed and agility. Even as replacement EW platform it seems not entirely suited, due to having only 2 crew on board, against a typical minimum of 3 for the Falcon 20.
The Scorpion will have no trouble carrying the panoply of pods employed by the Falcon (radar simulator pod, jammer pods, RAIDS pod) and it also has a weapons bay that could be used for additional payloads, but it might take some work to turn it into a proper replacement for Falcon.
It should excel at supporting JTAC and Fire Support Teams training, though.

ASDOT will be an interesting programme, judging by this beginning. We’ll see if and how 736 NAS will survive the award of the ASDOT contract: will the service provider be tasked with all the flying too, or will the current Hawk T1 part of the job still be carried out by navy pilots? It is not clear at this stage.

For RAF Red Air purposes, there have been suggestions which have included using some of the Typhoon Tranche 1, in order to have an enemy with the necessary speed and agility and sensors.

Fixed and Rotary Wing crew training 

With the award of the contract for the renewal of the rotary wing training fleet, the Military Flying Training System has made a decisive step forwards. However, concerns remain: the SDSR 2015 has brought a sizeable uplift in the number of crews to be trained, and while the number of instructors planned has been adjusted, the number of training aircraft has not been.

Before the SDSR 2015, the number of instructors was expected to be as low as 64 military and 34 civilian. This has been uplifted to 71 and 62. The number of aircraft purchased, however, has not changed from pre-SDSR expectations. 

The SDSR 2015, thanks first of all to the purchase of the P-8 Poseidon, has also re-introduced a sizeable training requirement for mission crew. The plan for training "back-seaters" has not been detailed yet, but is something that requires some thought.

In the Rotary Wing arena, we will have to see if Joint Helicopter Command will be able to pursue a further element later, that of "surrogate" helicopters for training. The idea emerged a while ago, of procuring cheap helicopters to equip as "flying simulators" to employ in some Wildcat and Apache training phases to save money.
It is to be seen what will happen to the Army's advanced helicopter crew course in Middle Wallop, as well.
An element of advanced training has been designed thanks to the formation back in April of 202(R) Sqn in RAF Valley. This "new" unit is actually the re-named and re-purposed SARTU (SAR Training Unit) which was no longer required in its original role of preparing SAR crews since that incumbence has now been moved under the Department for Transports.
202 Sqn will now provide overland and overwater winch training along with day/night mountain flying techniques and NVD operations for all RN/ RAF abinitio pilots and crewman who are destined for Support Helicopter (SH) roles.  In addition, a new course is being developed to offer bespoke training to current experienced SH operators in order to enhance their skill sets.

Air Weapons 

Brimstone 2 has been finally put into service, after several months of delays due to difficulties emerged during development. The weapon is now operational on Tornado GR4 and is being integrated on Typhoon. 
Typhoon weapons integration is finally getting serious, with Meteor, Storm Shadow and Brimstone to enter service over the next two years. 
The AESA radar has finally been flown for the first time (several months later than was hoped last year) and hopefully its integration will be part of the Phase 4 Enhancements, post 2018. 

Work is also ongoing on the new bunker-buster warhad for Paveway IV, which has begun validation trials. Discussions have also already begun on ensuring that the Block IV software for the F-35 will include functional integration of the bunker-buster warhead variant. 
SPEAR 3 has been dropped for the first time, from a Typhoon. The weapon is planned for integration on the F-35 sometime in the first half of the 2020s, as part of the Block IV programme, which is expected to also include Meteor. 

Royal Navy UAS plans: ambitions, but no money

The Royal Navy has tried to launch a couple of UAS programmes in the 2016 Budget Cycle, but at least one of the two did not receive funding, Jane’s reports.
The Navy had hoped to launch the Flexible Deployable UAS programme in order to procure a replacement for the current flights of contractor-owned, contractor-operated  Scan Eagle UAS. The idea for FDUAS was not particularly detailed in public, but the Navy was looking for a “Scan Eagle plus” system offering greater “Find” capability. Purchasing a number of RQ-21 Integrator, the larger brother to Scan Eagle, already selected for USMC and US Navy use, could have possibly been a solution on the table. For now, it won’t happen.
Jane’s suggests that the Royal Navy, as a consequence, will lose the embarked UAS capability, but given the ridiculously small sums of money required, I believe the Scan Eagle deal will end up renewed before it expires next year.

The other UAS programme the Royal Navy wanted to launch is the Joint Mini UAS, and its target is procuring a more capable replacement for Desert Hawk. Obviously, the hope is to have a single programme run in common with the Army. It is currently impossible to say whether this has been able to secure some funding or not. Desert Hawk III has received an upgrade giving it digital communications and has seen its operational life extended 6 years, out to 2021. Further upgrades are being evaluated but are not under contract: LM offers a "3.1" upgrade package that extends endurance from a maximum of 90 to 150 minutes; fully waterproofs the drone and replaces the current interchangeable sensors with an integrated electro-optic, infrared and laser illuminator payload, so that all functions are available at the same time. 

This upgrade might be a cheap solution for making the DH III the mini-UAV of choice well into the 2020s, but the Army and the Royal Marines are already investigating a replacement. Plextek is working to develop a miniaturized solution for Sense and Avoid and also a mini radar sensor that could fit within a mini-UAV fit to replace DH.
Sense and Avoid would make it much safer to employ low-flying UAVs in areas where helicopter movements are also present: the British Army has had near miss events which have caused some worry.

Potentially good news for the Royal Navy come, indirectly, from the Apache CSP deal going to Boeing, as Leonardo Helicopters (ex AgustaWestland) has received, as a consolation prize, MOD reassurances about funding for the development of an unmanned helicopter. The Royal Navy wants a Rotary Wing UAS in the 2020s, so at least on this front it might have managed to move an important step forwards.

Frigates despair

Waiting for the Shipbuilding Strategy due in October, I can’t help but despair at the direction that frigate programmes have taken in the Royal Navy. The General Purpose Frigate programme launched by the SDSR 2015 is apparently aiming extremely low, and the lack of ASW usefulness is a real concern when looking at these frigates that seem not to have a clear role other than existing.
BMT is offering its Venator 110 design, and now BAE has revealed two proposal of its own, Avenger and Cutlass. The first, incredibly underwhelming and ugly, is a stretched River Batch 2 turned into a 111 meters “frigate” with some CAMM missiles and a 127mm gun.
Cutlass is little better, being a 117 meters extended Khareef corvette, in itself a development of the River design.

Above, the Avenger concept and, below, the Cutlass. Avenger seems to have CAMM cells in the boxy superstructure added amidship, while Cutlass has them in the same position occupied by Mica VL on the Khareef class. Both ships have some mission reconfigurable space amidship. 

I can only be deeply critical regarding the whole affair. Again, we are back to the actual question: what is this "frigate" actually good for? And the answer always is, not much. Everything it can do comes with a load of caveats and assumptions about enemy capabilities and about other ships accompanying. 
This is looking, to me, as the very definition of waste of money, especially considering that the Royal Navy is going to have some 6 OPVs (and it could easily have more by life-extending River Batch 1s) and, soon enough, it'll have to start thinking about what platform to build to replace the minesweepers. And that one will probably emerge as a platform good enough at a range of constabulary tasks as well. 

Suddenly, the Royal Navy goes from having pretty much no low tier at all to having 3 different low tier classes, paid by opening an even bigger hole in Escort numbers. In my opinion this is abject failure in planning and strategic coherence. The result of having few ideas, and well confused, shaped by eternal budget-driven short termism. The same short termism that, elsewhere, generated air refueling tankers with drogues and strategic platforms (the receivers) fitted with receptacles.

Escort ships must be good at escorting. In a world of ever faster and deadlier missiles, of drones and of resurgent submarine fleets, Avenger and Cutlass have little to offer. Even Type 26 itself is concerning. I’ve been worried all along by the propulsion architecture chosen, which I fear will become a major issue in the future when new systems will require more power. The feeling is that the Type 45 propulsion fuck up resulted in a full and hasty retreat from integrated fully electric propulsion, and the fear is that this retreat might be, in a non distant future, cursed bitterly.

I’m increasingly worried about the capabilities that the Type 26 will actually deliver. With no programmes evident about replacing Harpoon and with no real talk about ASROC-like weapons for ASW, nor about cruise missiles for land attack, the question of what will arm Type 26 becomes more and more pressing. Someone is bound to ask, at some point, if the MK41 modules at the front are meant to contain something, and if the Royal Navy hasn’t planned ahead for it, the only possible outcome is “Fitted For But Not With” MK41. It is a movie we already saw.
But if that happens, and it is looking more and more likely, Type 26 will be an extremely underwhelming ship, without ASuW (there are no provision for above-deck canisters), without torpedo tubes, without ASROC, without anything other than CAMM and 127mm gun. 
The ship will have become uselessly expensive just to incorporate empty space "for future growth", while lagging badly in every area for at least the first part of its service life. 

If the Royal Navy ends up with such a planning failure, we will no longer have doubts about why admirals no longer make it into the Chief of Defence Staff chair. It is a bitterly painful state of affairs, because the Type 26 was the programme that had to save the Royal Navy, and might instead be, along with GPFF, the one that sinks its credibility for good. 

It is my firm opinion that it is time to think long and hard at how to make surface combat ships (bothering with the terms "frigate", "destroyer" and "cruiser" has been steadily losing relevance) actually good at something again. 
They are increasingly vulnerable to air attacks and to submarines, yet little is being done to improve the situation. The US Navy is at least trying, retrofitting its destroyers for ASW, developing the Continuous Active Sonar and investing on the rail gun, on networked, cooperative engagement of air threats etcetera, while the Royal Navy seems to be almost dead in the water.

I've written a lot about my views regarding surface warships for the future, and i recommend reading the two main articles, which i hope will contribute to encouraging discussion and innovation.

Are escort ships still up to task? 

What is a Type 31?

MARS Fleet Solid Support 

The MOD confirms that the Heavy RAS demonstrator from Rolls Royce proved that the 5 tons RAS is achievable. This is a key future feature for FSS, enabling it to transfer large paylods to the aircraft carriers, much quicker. It will also enable the new supply ships to resupply the carriers with spare F-135 engines for the F-35s. 

The MOD has begun talking with industry about the 3 FSS ships, which should be delivered "around the middle of the 2020s". The current ships Fort Rosalie, Fort Austin and For Victoria are expected to pay off beginning in 2023, but we have to assume there could be a further slip to the right to adjust the timeframe. 

The requirement has been officially classed as "non warlike", meaning that foreign shipyards will be able to present their offers, making it quite likely that, just like the Tide tankers, the FSSs will be built abroad.