Sunday, December 2, 2018

About that Split Buy idea...

Not long ago, Johnny Mercer, tory MP for Plymouth, made a vehement plea for honesty in the handling of Defence issues. I cannot possibly overstate how important it is to bring back some honesty in this sector, because there is a clear shortage of it.

I’ve written in other occasions that the way the Defence planning and budgeting is handled in the UK institutionalizes dishonesty and makes it endemic. It also ensures that the leaking of news to the press will continue, forever and ever, no matter how many times the practice is scolded. Watch any hearing of the Defence Committee with serving top brass; and then any of the many hearings with retired top brass. Compare and contrast.

Some of the most gigantic problems with the UK’s way of handling defence are:

-          What little the MOD says publicly about what it plans to procure, how and when is only ever published with 12 months of delay. Parliament gets little to zero actual say on the matter. Compare this to what even the Italian Parliament, not to mention the French or American one, get to do about the defence budget of their own countries. I don’t think I need to add more, it should be pretty obvious that there is an immense problem of accountability. Parliament gets a (very partial) letterbox view on the MOD plans, months after things have already taken place. Obfuscation about future intentions is sometimes complete.

-          The defence committee is a total paper tiger with little actual power.

-          Whatever little power the committee has is most commonly not exploited because serving top brass are literally not allowed to speak their mind freely in front of it. They must always stick to the official line, which is why as soon as they retire they seem to change from doctor Jekyll into mr. Hyde. It makes them look stupid and it makes the committee hearings look like bad comedy.

-          Without a defence committee to speak to, officers are dangerously short of options for fighting back against a developing situation inside the MOD that they feel is potentially disastrous.

This is, in ultra simplified form, the main reason why leaks to the press are constant and why the MOD constantly ends up mired in such disasters and embarrassing U-turns. This is something that the UK absolutely needs to change, sooner rather than later. 

The lack of clarity over future plans seem to extend all the way to the narrow circles of officers defining requirements for the future of the services. Looking at certain decisions, or indecisions, makes one wonder whether one project office talks to the other at all. 
There are quite a few things to say about Strike, for example, or about the never-ending saga of the Warrior CSP and its relationship with Ajax and MIV, which the army seems incapable to settle in a rational way. 
Today, however, I want to write about the F-35 programme because Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor at Sky News, has given voice to a worried leak, coming from the Navy, about the RAF’s intention of splitting the F-35 purchase, abandoning the carrier-capable, short take off and vertical landing B variant in favor of the A variant, which can only operate from fully established land airbases.  

The report sadly comes as no surprise although, for the very first time, it goes as far as suggesting that not even the first 48 aircraft are “safe”, as the RAF is reportedly pushing to switch to the A variant possibly already with the next contracts in line, which will cover production Lot 15 (UK expected to procure 7 aircraft) and Lot 16 (6 aircraft).

The UK has just taken delivery of its 17th F-35, BK-17, the third to be delivered this year and also the last. It concluded the 3 aircraft purchase for the UK in Low Rate Initial Production lot 10. Next year, a single F-35B will be added, from LRIP 11. The UK has also confirmed mere days ago that, as part of the first-ever “Block Buy” contract in the F-35 programme, it will procure the expected 17 airframes over lots 12, 13 and 14 (3, 6 and 8 respectively). This is perfectly in line with what was earlier approved with Main Gate 5 and already reported on by the NAO.
Lot 15 is expected to include a further 7, leading the fleet to a total of 42 by the end of 2023, as was promised in the SDSR 2015, with Lot 16 adding 6 more to get to 48 by January 2025.

No purchase plan has been detailed for the year 2025 and beyond.

I don’t believe that Main Gate 5, which authorized the procurement of these first 48 aircraft, will be re-opened and modified. I think it is highly unlikely. But from 2016 onwards the noise about the RAF purchasing the A variant has only ever gotten louder. To ignore it would stupid, because it is a fact that the RAF is interested and in favor of the split. They have said as much, despite some indignant reactions to the latest Sky News report. 

The first F-35B embarkation on HMS Queen Elizabeth has just concluded, and it was a great success. Trials progressed faster than planned and some test points originally meant for next year's deployment were brought forwards. 15 short rolling vertical landings were also carried out. Two USMC aircraft were employed because the only 3 test-instrumented F-35Bs the UK has are based in Edwards, on the Pacific coast of the US. As they are busy with tests of their own ahead of the IOC declaration next month, it would have made little sense to interrupt their work and fly them across the US. Next year, some 7 british F-35Bs are expected to embark for a new WESTLANT deployment and more elaborate trials. 

Unfortunately, the prospect of a split buy is not properly understood or debated. Much dishonesty surrounds the implications that a split buy would have. Some have been led to believe that 48 aircraft are all the carriers need. Some believe that, since the carrier can embark 36 and there will be 48, there is no problem at all and the air wing will be there. Unfortunately that is not how it works, and if only 48 aircraft are procured, and only two frontline squadrons formed, it must be made very clear that the carrier will most likely never be given a full air wing unless the USMC, Italy, or maybe Japan, which is reportedly to join the F-35B train soon, fill the holes.

Any honest debate about the split buy must be clear on the fact that the carriers face severe repercussions from a change of plans. It is a 100% certainty. Some people believe the UK will form more squadrons as a result of a split buy. This is almost certainly false. Any debate about the possibility of a split buy must acknowledge facts, not dreams. You might believe that never having a full air wing at sea is acceptable, and i will disagree vehemently but at least appreciate the honesty. What you can't do is pretend that the split buy will not make semi-empty decks a reality. 

A change of approach

Much has been said about how the Royal Navy will need to change its approaches, going back to generating task groups from years in which its focus was primarily on multiple single-ship deployments. Much has been written about the difficulties of ensuring that enough escort ships are available to sail together with the aircraft carrier and even more has been suggested about how this will impact the residual ability of the tiny escort fleet to generate hulls for other standing tasks.

Surprisingly, despite much “aircraft carrier with no planes” rethoric on the socials, very few have actually taken some time to acknowledge that it is imperative for the RAF, or part of it anyway, to change its own methods if Carrier Enabled Power Projection is to work. When was the last time that a RAF squadron deployed with its nominal strength of 12 aircraft? We have to go back many years. These days it does not happen, not even on operations. Op SHADER, for example, is about a Squadron (minus) of Tornado GR4 (8 aircraft) and an even smaller Typhoon contingent, of 6 aircraft. Major exercises, such as the recently concluded Saif Sareea 3, normally see 8, 10 aircraft at most. Events including 30 aircraft at once are literally extremely rare; the RAF 100 Typhoon contingent was literally one of few events that have seen so many real Typhoons flying together, ever since the type entered service.

The “carrier with no aircraft” rhetoric is sadly anything but empty. If the current approaches do not change, even the Navy’s minimum ambition of having a full squadron of 12 embarked for every deployment (that means once a year, for perhaps 6 or more months at a time) will simply not materialize.

F-35B squadrons will have to be resourced with more manpower and more equipment packs (spares) and the Joint Lightning Force will have to size its plans on squadrons of 12 deployed aircraft, not on smaller packages. They will have to deploy in greater numbers, and more frequently. There will be impacts on harmony for the manpower involved and there will be impacts to consumption of spares and maintenance of aircraft in general.

This, in itself, is a revolution and it is not going to be any easier than the Task Group challenge the Navy faces. The difference is priority: while there is no doubt that the Royal Navy will try hard to make its capital ship programme work, it is fair to wonder whether the RAF is genuinely interested in making a change of this kind. If it is not committed to it, the decks won’t see many aircraft. It is that simple.

Across the Channel, France does manages to generate an air wing of 20 or more combat jets roughly once per year. When the Charles De Gaulle deploys, a couple of squadrons are regularly embarked. With the recent demise of the last squadron of Super Etendard, the French are heading for a navy-owned, all-Rafale M fleet numbering 44 jets in 3 squadrons plus a small OCU element within a larger OCU squadron, joint with the air force. Two of these three squadrons of Rafale M will be embarked every year. And before anyone tries to belittle the Charles de Gaulle availability, I’ll remark that she does deploy, although her deployments tend to be frequent but short; probably also as a consequence of being a “lone wolf”, with no second hull available to ease wear and tear and cover periods of maintenance in port.

A brief history of some notable CdG recent cruises

February – May 2010  deployment included “Brilliant Mariner” exercise in the Arctic Circle, embarked group of 12 Super Etendard and 7 Rafale M
June 2010 – training in the Mediterranean alongside USS Truman

13 October 2010 – 21 february 2011 – “Agaphante” deployment to Indian Ocean, flew 240 sorties over Afghanistan while there. 12 Super Etendard and 10 Rafale

20 March 2011 – 12 August 2011 – “Armattan”, 1350 sorties; 8 + 2 Rafale M and 6 Super Etendard
March – June 2012, training deployment with 8 Rafale and 7 Super Etendard
Refit period durint January – August 2013

20 November 2013 – 18 february 2014; “Bois Belleau”, deployment in the Indian Ocean in support to CSG-10, USS Truman

13 january – 19 may 2015; “Arromanches 1”, Indian Ocean then retasked against ISIS; 12 Rafale and 9 Super Etendard
18 November 2015 – 16 March 2016 “Arromanches 2”, 18 Rafale and 8 Super Etendard
30 September 2016 – 14 December 2016; “Arromanches 3”, 24 Rafale M, first deployment without Super Etendard

The Royal Navy has publicly voiced a plan for routine deployment of a squadron of 12, with a two-squadrons major deployment / exercise roughly once every two years. A number of RAF officers, serving and retired, have told me in no uncertain terms that they do not think the RAF subscribes to even this humble and unimpressive plan, and that we should not expect it to be the norm. They fully expect less aircraft to be embarked, and if they are right it will be difficult not to feel that the whole project is a failure and that the ships are indeed too large and should not have been built in their current form.

We are heading for a force of 48 jets that deploys a smaller air wing than a force of 44 jets. It will please no one.

The carriers have been built to comfortably embark three F-35 squadrons at once, but there is now a very real risk that the UK won’t ever have three squadrons at all. The F-35 plans have, for most if not all the history of the programme, rotated around a target of 4 frontline squadrons. Air Cmdr. Harvey Smyth, the commander of the U.K.’s Lightning Force went on record as recently as May 2016 describing plans for four squadrons of 12 jets, plus the OCU which would, over time, also grow to number 12 aircraft.
It is obvious that with four B squadrons it would be much more realistic to aim to “routine” 2-sqns embarkations and it would be much easier to eventually surge up to three for a major operation.

We have to go back to Operation Telic in 2003 to get to see 30 Tornado GR4 deployed (plus 20 Harrier, a few Jaguars and 14 Tornado F3 for air defence). Focusing on regenerating the ability to deploy such a substantial air wing and doing it with much greater frequency would be a revolution in itself. If training exercises are seen as a separate event from embarkation and deployment on the carriers, the deck will be even more empty.  

138 aircraft (and 150 before that) seem too many to sustain "just" 4 squadrons. The Typhoon fleet was, at one point, going to have 107 aircraft and five squadrons (plus OCU, OEU and Falklands detachment), despite having to cover the all-important QRA requirement. With the retention of 24 Typhoon tranche 1 in the longer term, the plan is now for 7 squadrons from 130-some. But, as we’ve seen earlier, the actual deployable size of these squadrons is debatable at best, and that has to be taken into account. On the other hand, the Typhoon sustainment fleet is supposedly dimensioned to ensure that the fleet can be maximized was it ever needed in its air defence role. 
Those who say that a 138 aircraft buy should support the formation of more than 4 squadrons might have some merit. Note, however, that just saying it won’t make those extra squadrons appear.

What is certain is that splitting the purchase will make it difficult, if not impossible, to ever increase the number of squadrons. F-35B airframes are of little use as sustainment fleet in support of F-35A squadrons, and vice versa. Inexorably, there will need to be two separate sustainment fleets, and this means an higher net number of aircraft parked into hangars. Parked F-35As will not enable F-35B squadrons to deploy, and vice versa. Two squadrons of B and two squadrons of A risk to never match the availability of deployable assets that would come from 4 squadrons of a single type. This is a fact. And while F-35B squadrons could always replace or supplement F-35As operating from a land base during an operation, particularly an enduring one requiring multiple squadron rotations, the F-35A squadrons will not be able to replace the B ones at sea or in smaller / austere air bases.

Some spares will be common, but many others won’t be. Much of the training will be common, but some of it won’t be. The engines are similar, but not at all the same. Whenever in the future there will be a need for upgrades, there will be two (small) fleets fighting for the same (small) budget, and it is extremely, unpleasantly likely that we will end up going through new versions of the fratricidal battles between Sea Harrier and Harrier GR7/9, or between Harrier and Tornado.
To say “it is going to be different this time” is, I’m afraid, pure naivety. The very same reasons now put forwards in favor of an F-35A purchase will be used again in the future to ensure that it gets first dibs. One of the two fleets risks to become the poor cousin, the one who has to beg all the time because it is the last of the line. And it is easy to see which one is most likely to end that way.

Honesty required

It is true that the unitary cost of the F-35A is significantly lower than that of the B, and that the sustainment cost is probably going to be substantially different as well. This is probably the most compelling argument in favor of an A purchase, for obvious reasons. The price of all three variants has been decreasing steadily, lot after lot, and the latest LRIP 11 unitary prices stand at:

89,2 million USD for an F-35A
115,5 million USD for an F-35B

Some supporters of the A argue that the purchasing 90 As will generate a substantial saving that can be reinvested in other priorities, possibly beginning with more spare parts to sustain the two fleets. These supporters are, in my opinion, the only ones speaking with honesty, because the small differences in combat range, maximum G and weapon bays dimensions are far less credible motives to pursue an A purchase.

Can we first of all start the debate from honest premises for once? Let’s admit it: the MOD needs to save money, and the RAF (the F-35 budget holder) believes it has a way to save money that will only hurt the carriers, and “not the rest”. From their perspective, that’s entirely fine. It depends on whether or not you agree with that sentiment. I do not. There is already Typhoon, and a single fleet of land-only platforms is enough. I’d very much rather build up the ability to deploy at sea an air wing large enough to enable complex operations. This is, after all, the whole reason why there are a Queen Elizabeth-class and a Joint Combat Aircraft programme.

I’ve said it in other occasions and I will keep saying it: it was an enormous mistake to call them “strike” carriers. To virtually restrict their usefulness to the realm of strike, deep or not, is to undersell their usefulness. If Strike was the problem, it could be tackled in many ways, from expanding the Tomahawk arsenal and the number of launching platforms to adopting long endurance UCAVs. 

What aircraft offer over waves of cruise missiles is flexibility. The carrier air wing is a shield as well as a sword. The Navy needs it to be able to push with confidence into contested environments where there is an enemy air threat. Aircraft are needed to support the fleet in all kinds of missions, not just for “strike”. Strike is possibly the dead last on the list of why the ability to deploy airpower not just near the sea but at the center of a naval task group is so important. Whenever there is a debate on the survivability of carriers my argument is simple: what would the survivability of a surface task group be like without the carrier? That is the real heart of the matter. 

For close to two decades western armies have battled with a technologically inferior enemy, completely devoid of air power of its own, only in presence of overwhelming, readily available air support.
The fact that anyone could ever argue for navies to fight a pear or near pear enemy without assured, organic access to air support is mind-boggling. However good you might believe a Type 45 to be at shooting down enemy missiles and aircraft, you do not want it to operate without the outer bubble of security represented by the air wing operating at range. It is exactly because I’m a believer in air power that I support aircraft carriers.

The differences in raw performance between B and A are not enough to make an argument. The B can be carried and potentially based closer to its targets, more than compensating any range difference. Air to Air refueling will do the rest, as it always has.

In addition, the RAF literally does not have a single weapon, in service or planned, which would fit the A’s bays but not the B’s. The largest weapons such as the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon will almost certainly internally fit neither (it is a Storm Shadow and Harpoon replacement and it is pretty hard to imagine, given the requirements, that it could get that much smaller); all others will fit both. The advantage is absolutely virtual, and development or procurement of weapons specifically sized for the A will only further expand the differences between the two fleets. “But this one carries XY, the other can’t”. We have already seen this movie. This is actually part of why I think a split buy can only result in trouble further down the line.

The F-35B has weapon bays which are 14 inches shorter than those found on A and C and a payload limitation to two of the external pylons. 

The difference between variants. Both B and C use a special pod containing the gun and 225 rounds, mounted on the central pylon under the fuselage. The A variant has the same gun but installed internally and with 180 rounds. 

The smaller unitary cost of the F-35A is definitely attractive, and I’m not blind to it. However, there are good reasons to doubt of the exact extent of the savings to be reaped. The need for two separate sustainment fleets will eat away part of it; the need to procure two different stocks of spares will be another cost to contend with. Training differences will have their own cost too. Notably, as of today, the F-35A is only equipped for Boom air-air refueling, which the RAF is not equipped for. Money will be required to either fit Booms to Voyager or to add the probe on the F-35A. Space is reserved on the A for such an adaptation and in theory it can be done easily, but even if it worked without a single hitch, it would still require a budget. The purchase of booms for Voyager would be a most desirable investment as it would also benefit the C-17, Rivet Joint and Poseidon fleets and, possibly, the Wedgetail fleet if the new AWACS procurement proceeds. But there will be a substantial cost to this solution, however, and a new training burden to absorb.

There is a possibility to retrofit the A with refueling probes, but as of today nobody has gone in this direction

When all these factors are considered, is the saving still noticeable? Can it in any way compensate the negative implications of a split buy? In my opinion no, it can’t. Not unless the number of squadrons ends up higher than 4. A split buy will do nothing to increase the number of deployable combat aircraft; it will only split that number across two variants, not interchangeable. It will, de facto, turn “carrier without aircraft” from social media slogan to cold, hard fact.

If there was a realistic hope to get six squadrons, 4 of B and 2 of A, I might sympathize with the idea, even though even in that case I’d still be wondering whether maximizing the number of deployable assets from a single fleet wouldn’t be more efficient.

The biggest problem of all is that, already as things stand, even getting to four squadrons looks increasingly challenging. 

Manpower and TEMPEST

Honesty is required when it comes to manpower and timeframes as well. The UK will only complete its first 48 F-35 purchases in 2025, and a further 90 would have to follow to complete the intended 138 aircraft purchase. There has been no official indication about when the procurement effort will end. A "project end date" in a Major Projects spreadsheet suggest 2035, but in Written Answers the ministers have suggested that purchases could end in 2048, the year in which the F-35 is supposed to leave active service. 

Now; I think nobody believes, even for a second, that the 2048 OSD will hold true, just as the 2030 OSD for Typhoon didn’t stick, but I encourage every reader to ponder the seriousness of purchasing the last few aircraft in the very same year currently assumed as the end of the service life of the type. Clearly, the minister is not being honest in his answer, even assuming that the idea was to purchase less “sustainment fleet” aircraft by relaying on the fact that the production line can be expected to be open and active for many years into the future. You’d still not be procuring your last few replacement aircraft in the literal OSD year, would you? 

Besides, the formation of further F-35 squadrons, regardless of the variant employed, will depend on a range of factors, and one is clearly the rate of further purchases. It could take many years for a third squadron to stand up, and there is no telling when the 4th might follow. The last two equipment programme documents do not exactly promote optimism: the graphic of the EP 2017 show the Combat Air procurement budget nose-diving into 2027, suggesting very small purchases in 2025, 26 and 27, and possibly beyond.

Please note how the procurement budget allocation for Combat Air nearly vanishes into the 2020s. This is going to be the elephant in the room. 

In order to have all 138 aircraft by 2035 (considering two years of production time, the last aircraft would need to be ordered in 2033 to arrive in 2035), the UK would need to order at least 8 F-35 per year, dropping to six+ if the last order, rather than delivery, took place in 2035. At the moment, the purchase of 8 aircraft in a single year is only expected to happen once, in year 2020. It is not necessary to sit within the MOD’s high level meetings and be given classified briefings to see that it will be difficult, at best, to up the purchase rhythm. Typhoon procurement will soon be over; but its spiral development is here to stay (thankfully, too, but it will have a cost).
Mind you, it is not impossible, but it is pretty hard to imagine, right now.

In its infinite talent for making its budget unreadable, the MOD has this year changed the format of the Equipment Plan and cut back on the graphics, only putting up one, the aggregate for Air Command as a whole, which puts together, with uncertain consequences, what, up to the 2017 edition, was shown separated in Combat Air, Air Support and Helicopters. By the look of it, anyway, there is no reason to assume the Combat Air budget situation has seen any improvement.

There no longer is a separate Combat Air graph, unfortunately, but the Air Command aggregate published early this month does not suggest any improvement. 

Moreover, the UK is now supposed to develop its own new generation fighter, and project TEMPEST has been launched with great fanfare. The secretary of state for defence says the new fighter should enter service in 2035, and that means that development costs will have to compete for room in the budget with ongoing F-35 purchases. If the 2035 date is to be taken seriously (honestly, i think few do, but it is an official line and we can't ignore it), not just the development but also the production of TEMPEST (or whatever fighter jet will come out of it) will overlap with procurement of F-35. The implications for the budget are obvious. Can both things fit the Combat Air budget? Not if the nose-dive in funding levels evidenced by the last two EP documents holds true.

Project TEMPEST will need funding, in the same years in which the next batch of F-35s is due to be procured. Can both squeeze in the same budget? 

This, of course, is before any further reduction or change is forced upon the whole effort as an effect of the affordability gap between budget and procurement ambitions.

The implications for manpower are also important. Who is going to man the next F-35 squadrons?
The RAF is disbanding its last two Tornado GR4 squadrons next year, but is standing up two Typhoon squadrons in their place. IX and 12 are standing up respectively at Lossiemouth and at Coningsby; 31 Sqn will become the first of at least two Protector squadrons. Tornado is a manpower intensive machine, but even so I doubt the margin is enough to suddenly enable a proliferation of combat air squadrons.

2017 Fast Jet Fleet (frontline squadrons only; OCU and OEU excluded) 
3(F) Sqn  1(F) Sqn XI Sqn 6 Sqn II(AC) Sqn

Tornado GR4
IX(B) Sqn 12(B) Sqn 31 Sqn

617 Sqn (building up)

Near future plans  
Tornado GR4 bows out in early 2019
Two additional Typhoon squadrons, IX and 12, to gradually build up.

617 Sqn achieves FOC, expands into a “super-squadron”, then splits into two as 809 NAS returns, by 20203

In the meanwhile, Protector is supposed to “double” the current Reaper fleet. If that holds true (for now "only" 16 are on orderer and 16 is not the double of 10), at least one of the current Reaper squadrons (XIII and 39 Sqns) will transition to the new type; maybe both. Note that a Protector squadron might have a lower manpower requirement as the new type introduces autonomous launch and recovery capability, but don’t let the absence of a cockpit fool you: unmanned assets are actually pretty manpower intensive as their extra-long mission cycle requires multiple shifts.

14 C-130J are to stay in the long term, and it is a very welcome move, but they will need to be manned.

The number of AWACS crews is supposed to grow to 12; the Shadow R1 fleet is growing from 5 + 1 unconverted airframe to 8; Two P-8 Poseidons squadrons will have been stood up by the time 809 NAS is up and running. If Sentry is replaced by new E-7 Wedgetail there might be a positive impact on AWACS manpower totals, but it is hard to say.

11 Group has just been reformed and extra personnel is heading for Cyber and Space related posts.

Next year, after a delay (should have been this year), the RAF will take over the Islanders and Defenders of 651 Sqn Army Air Corps.

Current fleets in the Military Training System are demonstrably too small, and the RAF will be sending a hundred trainee pilots to the US, after also signing a 3-year deal with a civilian provider for additional multi-engine training as the system simply cannot cope. In 2019 one of the stated priorities of DE&S is to find a solution to the problem, which, if it materializes, will probably require more trainer aircraft.

It has been recently confirmed that by 2020 the RAF will disband its lone bomb disposal squadron, releasing manpower for other roles. The Army has just reorganized EOD by eliminating hybrid regular – reserve regiments; concentrating reserve squadrons back into 101 RE; transitioned 35 Royal Engineer into EOD role, re-organizing regular squadrons and bringing back 49 Sqn from disbandment. The current RAF Bomb Disposal role will be absorbed by units within the army’s growing EOD force; overall a reasonable solution, but it is unrealistic to expect it will be enough to open new and great manpower margins.

The newly reformed 28 Royal Engineer regiment will be taking back control of the CBRN mission during 2019, but probably 27 Squadron RAF Regiment will become one of its sub-units (alongside Falcon Sqn, Royal Tank Regiment) rather than disband, so the effect on RAF manpower is unlikely to be significant, even as 20 CBRN Wing disbands, which is what I assume will happen.

There might or might not be some manpower recouped thanks to ASDOT (Air Support to Defence Operational Training) which from 2020 will replace the current "aggressor" squadrons and the Cobham-provided, Falcon 20-based electronic warfare training aids. 
736 NAS, the Navy's aggressor squadron on Hawk T1, is expected to disband in 2020 and depending on how ASDOT will work and who will man the new system, some manpower might be able to migrate towards the F-35. 
The RAF own aggressor unit, 100 Sqn, is instead expected to carry on to 2027; after that, as the Hawk T1 era comes to an end, there might or might not be a shift of manpower to other areas. 

Where are the manpower margins coming from? The SDSR 2015 authorized only a small boost to overall manpower figures, which sadly remains on paper anyway, since the RAF has a sizeable manpower deficit and the balance of inflow / outflow remains negative. So I have to ask again, where is the manpower coming from?

I do not think the RAF is currently awash with bored personnel with nothing to do, so I can’t help but wonder who is going to man additional squadrons. 

My belief has always been that the two additional Typhoon Sqns enabled by the partial reprieve for the Tranche 1 aircraft would be nothing more than placeholders to be sacrificed come 2025+ in favor of F-35 squadrons number 3 and number 4, but the official line is that Tranche 1 is here to stay for the long term, well into the 2030s if not out to 2040, current OSD for the Typhoon as a type.
I keep believing that Tranche 1 will not actually survive that long; but if it does it will only make me wonder all the more how the whole thing is supposed to work.

Long range strike needs? Why was FCAS abandoned?

If you don’t accept that it is about money, let’s talk about capability. Requirements-wise, what problem does the F-35A solve that the B can’t?
Is the RAF suddenly obsessed by the marginal range advantage? Has a crucial requirement been identified for some kind of 2000 lbs new weapon that is too long to fit into the B’s weapon bays (there is a 14 inches difference in length between the B’s bays and those of the A and C variants)?

In that case, why did the UK suddenly shy away from further developing Taranis and / or continuing with the much advertised Future Combat Air System project for an unmanned combat aircraft to be developed alongside France? The UK’s refusal to carry on with the project and give the go ahead to the demonstration phase has all but turned into a diplomatic embarrassment and has allowed France to behave like the victim despite having earlier killed the joint MALE project (Telemos) and caused years of delay to the FASGW-Heavy (Sea Venom) anti-ship missile. 

The RAF has (thankfully) not completely abandoned the UCAV realm as it has launched a new initiative called LANCA which aims to come up with a “low cost” UCAV “made in Britain”. There is no telling, of course, what LANCA is supposed to be able to do, at the moment, whether it will ever enter service, in which numbers or manned by who. The MOD, naturally, does not feel we are entitled to any indication in that sense. 

If there is such a pressing need for a longer ranged aircraft with a larger weapon bay, surely the UCAV path has to be explored as answer to that need. Naturally, factors such as budget availability come back to the fore, but i don’t think the F-35A is the right answer. Not in the current procurement scenario.

These are the kind of things that the Combat Air Strategy should have clarified, but, just like the Shipbuilding Strategy before, it has only made the waters murkier.


Is the MOD desperately looking for a way to reduce F-35 procurement costs without, for a few more years at least, admitting officially that the UK is never going to procure 138 F-35? 

Is the government afraid that a cut in F-35 commitment will result in an immediate American backlash against british industry involvement in the programme? 
In particular while Trump is at the helm, there is little doubt that the US would be extremely displeased by further cuts from the only JSF Tier 1 partner. A switch of variant (again) would probably cause some disbelief and some irritation, particularly within the USMC which has collaborated with the UK in all ways possible so far, but would "hurt less" than a net cut. 

There can also be no doubt at all on the fact that all other partners are eager to secure as much additional involvement for their own industries as possible, and any reduction of the british share is a potential gain for them. If the disastrous handling of Brexit negotiations proves something is that allies will still happily take away everything they can from you, if you allow them to.
Importantly, the vast majority of regional work for maintenance has yet to be assigned to the various countries. The UK secured some valuable work for MOD Sealand but literally hundreds of other components have yet to be assigned to this or that location and contractor and it is not difficult to imagine british bidders losing some luster if the news from the MOD turn sour. 

Some say that the british Tier 1 status has been secured forever and ever by the original 2 billion pounds contribution to the design phase, but allow me to be extremely skeptical about that. 

I’m starting to fear that the MOD might allow its plans to become distorted by the mirage of F-35A-generated savings, and rush down the split buy path without having an actual, half decent plan.
Timeframe of further purchases and the overlap with the costs associated with TEMPEST are two enormous factors that make it very hard to imagine that the UK will ever procure all 138 aircraft. Would it be a tragedy? Depends on how deep the axe hits. But splitting a force of a mere 4 squadrons across two fleets, or worse still ending up splitting the purchase and then downsizing even further below the target of 4 Sqns, would be a complete disaster.

And to close, a deliberately inflammatory tease below

You know what also costs less than the F-35B? 
The F-35C. The unitary cost dropped to 107,7 million as of LRIP 11. And it has longer legs than even the F-35A, and the same weapon bay size and already comes fitted with AAR probe.

In an alternate universe there is a UK which built the carriers (from the start, not from 2011, when it was too late to change minds without paying the price for it) with catapults and procured 90 or so F-35C and also replaced Sentry with the latest Hawkeye. 

Hindsight and dreams, as they say.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

British Army going wheeled?

British Army going wheeled?

The MOD has released to the public a voluntary ex ante transparency notice in which it reveals that it has asked the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) to enter a contract for the delivery of between 400 and 600 Boxer 8x8 for the Mechanised Infantry Vehicle programme.

The notice says that 4 variants are requested, in addition to driver training vehicles, reference vehicles and related support.
The four variants are not detailed, and subsequent reports are not in complete agreement. APC and Command variants are a given, and there seems to be a consensus on the third variant being the Ambulance, but the fourth variant is given as either a Mortar Carrier or an “Equipment Support Vehicle”, which presumably would combine Recovery and Repair functions in a single vehicle. It must be noted that both Mortar and Recovery/Repair variants of the Boxer aren’t yet in production and have not been ordered by anyone, although the development of both is a distinct possibility and one of the latest Boxer customers, Slovenia, has expressed a mortar requirement.
Naturally, the development of new mission modules is a possibility and could indeed represent a chance for the british industry to develop something that could be exported to other users.

What is most interesting in the notice is the number of vehicles that are anticipated: a first batch of at least 400 vehicles is significantly larger than the expected 300 – 350 that were commonly mentioned in recent times. 400 vehicles would comfortably cover the “Strike” requirement of 4 battalions, with substantial room for additional vehicles which would cover, probably, the replacement of FV432 variants in other formations; beginning, judging from the variants, with the FV432 ambulance which is found in tank regiments, armoured infantry battalions and armoured medical regiments. The Warrior CSP requirement is understood to be for 380 vehicles, of which 245 IFVs and the others in Joint Fires direction (FV524 variant) and the 522 and 523 REME variants. The number of battalions is the same, 4, so it is immediately evident that even the lowest quantity mentioned in the notice includes vehicles for roles outside the STRIKE infantry; or, less likely, an ambition for additional mechanized battalions.

The notice specifies that additional variants and requirements could follow, and it specifically mentions the adoption of a “medium gun”, basically implying an IFV variant.
Moreover, the notice specifies that the MOD is asking for the option of ordering up to 900 more vehicles, for a total of 1500.
1500 does not appear to be a casual number: the Army has been planning for 380 upgraded Warriors; declares on its website 409 FV432 still in use; and fields / stores a fleet of 305 Mastiff Troop Carrier Vehicles plus 127 specialistic variants (Enhanced Communications Variant, Interim ECM, Interim EOD [possibly 23], ambulance, Protected Eyes / Praetorian) plus 118 Ridgback Troop Carrier Vehicles and 51 specialistic variants (Command, Ambulance), supported by 125 Wolfhound (Utility and at least 44 between Military Working Dog and EOD).
The total is 1515. Coincidence? Probably no.

It seems more and more likely that the troubled Warrior CSP will, in the end, be cancelled. This MIV notice seems to prepare for a WCSP cancellation scenario by making provision for the numbers and the addition of a medium gun.
Moreover, it clearly includes numbers sufficient to cover the replacement of all remaining FV432 variants as well, which means that the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle, officially “descoped” in 2016 as part of cost-growth management measures within the programme “Armoured Infantry 2026”, might just be dead for good, in favor of a huge MIV purchase.

The Warrior CSP has repeatedly missed its target dates and remains without a manufacture contract. Work is advanced on the turret and the 245 CTA40 guns are under contract, but it is not impossible to imagine a scenario which migrates the turrets onto Boxer hulls.
Lockheed Martin, perhaps genuinely aiming at future MIV requirements or perhaps shielding itself from the possibility of a WCSP cancellation, has already showcased its Export version of the turret on a Boxer.

The replacement of WCSP with more MIV would put the British Army on the same path chosen by France with the VBCI, which entirely replaced their own tracked IFVs. Moreover, the replacement of FV432 with MIV variants would represent a rather dramatic shift in favor of wheels, completely changing the scenario that currently exists within the British Army.   
Such a change of heart would do wonders for commonality and obsolescence removal from what is an aging fleet of fleets, but it would also sideline Ajax even further, leading to further questions about where the tracked heir to FRES should sit.
Ever since the SDSR 2015 was published, Ajax has looked more and more lost, ultimately resulting in its “re-branding” into a “medium armour” capability which has, it is fair to say, convinced very few people.
I’ve been and I continue to be a huge critic of the idea of leaving the armoured infantry brigades devoid of their own recce cavalry, especially if the reason to do so is to use the Ajax’s 40mm gun in support of toothless APCs in Strike Brigades. That, in my opinion, is the way to ruin both brigade types at once, destroying the capability of both.

Boxer showcased with the LM Export turret with CTA 40mm and double AT missile pod. 

Boxer with the LANCE turret with 30mm and Missiles, as selected by Australia. The module is being lifted out of the craddle. Or lowered in, depending on how you want to see it! 

A reassessment of how the various fleets will work together and how the various requirements can be covered has been a clear necessity for years, and has been a recurring theme in my posts on armour plans. A “full-MIV” scenario is not a bad outcome, and this notice seems to prepare the ground for such an approach, but it is absolutely regrettable that in the meanwhile hundreds of millions will have been expended for near zero return. If WCSP is cancelled, the Army will have once more wasted years and hundreds of millions for nothing.
Moreover, it is extraordinary that Ajax took less than a year from contract award to become a “problem”; a platform desperately looking for a role and place which is not in conflict with everything else.
Another rational alternative would be to renegotiate the Ajax contract if possible and add an IFV variant, which is being offered by General Dynamics for export, including to Australia. If Warrior CSP was cancelled in favor of an Ajax IFV variant, the british army could then concentrate all tracks in the armoured brigades and all wheels in the Strike brigades, which would enable the two formations to truly exploit their own strengths without the compromises imposed by a sub-optimal mix.
I can’t help but say it again: that the army has gotten this far without being able to formulate a comprehensive plan is an extraordinary failure, born not so much out of lack of money (Ajax is anything but cheap) but out of lack of long term vision.
I’d “gladly” sacrifice WCSP if it meant finally making a choice and getting on with it. This is the kind of thing that the Modernising Defence Programme should be about, but any residual bit of confidence in the process has been disintegrated by the insultingly pointless “statement” released this past week.

A variety of internal arrangements are offered. The Australian CRV comes with four dismounts, but an IFV variant with manned turret and a full team of 8 dismounts is also a possibility. Warrior CSP would have six dismounts; if replaced by more MIV it might allow an uplift in the number of dismounts without armoured infantry battalions

The Germans giving a visual demonstration of the payload of a Boxer APC

The notice notes that a 1500 vehicles programme could mean an expenditure of 11.5 billion over two decades. Is this unaffordable? For sure it would be challenging. However, 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, with a project end date set for 31 december 2033.
Data released this year, and current to September 2017, reveals that the Armoured Cavalry programme has a budget of 6258,19 million, for procuring, putting in service and supporting for the first few years the Ajax fleet.
The Armoured Infantry programme was composed by Warrior CSP, but was also meant to include the Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle programme. The budget was consistently given as higher than 2 billion, even when ABSV was descoped and pushed to the right with the ambition of becoming its own Categoary A programme. In the latest report, pretty much all data, including the budget value, is not disclosed for reasons of “commercial interest”, as the MOD is locked into discussions with Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for WCSP.
The budget for the Challenger 2 LEP is also not disclosed although in previous years it danced between 700 and 900 million.
Mechanized Infantry 2029 seems to now be just “MIV”, and naturally, all numbers for it are hidden as well.
A part of those 17 billions has been of course expended, but the new “super-MIV” programme would extend past 2033 (significant costs are related to support in the long term, not to procurement). In theory, there were always going to be significant sums available for armour programmes, but keeping track of it is simply impossible due to the insufficient and often contradictory information released by the MOD.
Boxer modules already ordered by other countries. 
A Boxer module

Boxer module on its container-like frame for transport 

Industrially, Rheinmetall / ARTEC have put together an impressive proposal, with 100% assembly in the UK and a commitment to manufacture 60% of the vehicle value in the country. Before the MOD choice was announced, one of the two partners in the ARTEC consortium, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), had already funded new tools at William Cook’s Sheffield and Leeds factories to prepare to manufacture the high strength steel castings, bullet and blast proof, for the Boxer.
A production line will be stood up in the UK, where “most” of the design work for eventual new, British-specific mission modules would take place, along with construction and integration of modules and final assembly of the vehicle.
ARTEC has taken onboard BAE Systems, Pearson Engineering, Raytheon U.K. and Thales U.K as partners for the Boxer programme, and a sizeable production run would bring a lot of work to the sector, for many years.

So far, Germany has ordered 272 BOXER starting in 2009, with a follow-on order recently for another 131. The Netherlands purchased 200 and the last delivery has just taken place. Lithuania ordered 88; Australia selected Boxer for its army reconnaissance vehicle requirement for 211 vehicles and 223 modules and Slovenia has selected the Boxer for its battlegroups and plans a first batch of 48 IFV.
The UK’s order will at least equal Germany’s and could, depending on follow-on decisions, become by far the largest. Indeed, if the options were to be exercised, the UK’s order would swell the Boxer fleet until it is the second largest 8x8 programme in NATO after the US Stryker.
This, obviously, would have a technical and economical impact on UK’s capability in the armoured vehicle sector.

Boxer's win in Australia after a long selection process was an important factor in the British Army's own decision. It could be another key area of cooperation after Type 26

Capability-wise, the Boxer is a proven solution and was all along the candidate with the best growth margins. Reportedly, the UK will go from the start with the “full-fat” variant sized for 38.5 tons gross weight, giving ample margin to add new capability, including turrets and weapons.
The Boxer notoriously uses a common hull which is “missionized” thanks to modules installed in the back cradle. This modularity is unlikely to ever be a major factor during operations (“swap module and role mid-way through an operation”) but greatly eases the addition and evolution of capabilities during the service life. The modules can be detached from the hull and mounted in container-sized cradles for transport or to be operated inside bases, once hooked up to power and services. This potentially eases training and can reduce somewhat the requirement for hulls: the Australian Army, notably, somewhat downsized its planned purchase (from 225 to 211 vehicles) and procured more mission modules than hulls.

Generic Vehicle Architecture-compliant modules for the UK can be developed and installed over the common hull.
If Warrior CSP ends up cancelled, one particularly important variant to be acquired would be the Joint Fires variant, and Australia's work in this area could bring beneficial lessons.  

A different British Army?

The Army could be the service bringing the most changes to the MDP table. Jane’s is reporting that Gurkha numbers will swell further, probably because there is never a shortage of willing Gurkhas to recruit. The biggest novelty is that next year Gurkhas will stand up their own Specialised Infantry Battalion. Not clear yet if it’ll be the “optional 5th” which was always given as a possibility or if they will replace 2 LANCS as the 4th such unit.
2nd PWRR converted to Specialised Infantry role this year, following 4 RIFLES and 1 SCOTS.

The rebuilding of the Gurkha numbers after the cuts ordered in 2011 had already been announced and i had written about it already two years ago. 
What has since been detailed is that 2 additional Gurkha squadrons will be raised to strengthen 10 Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment, while 2 extra signal squadrons are standing up: one within 3rd UK Division Signal Regiment (249 Sqn) and one within 16 Signal Regiment (247 Sqn). Gurkha engineers growth is also expected, perhaps with a new squadron to be formed within 36 RE.

It is also now official that the Wide Wet Gap Crossing capability is to grow, with the stored M3 being reactivated, and it has been announced that the capability will stay put in Germany, along with vehicle storage and a presence at the Sennelager training facility. Details are still scarce: in particular, the M3 permanence in Germany means a change of plans for 75 Royal Engineers.

The Royal Signals are about to disband the short-lived 2 Signal Group, which was created within 11 Signal Brigade to control the reserve signal regiments under Army 2020. Reserve signal regiments are being resubordinated as their roles expand (notably with FALCON training and equipment). 32 and 39 Signal Regiments, of the reserve, have resubordinated to 1 Signal Brigade in support of ARRC and High Readiness formations. Further changes might follow as the Royal Signals looks at the creation of hybrid regiments of regulars and reservists.
10 Signal Regiment, given its specialized roles (from reserve ECM to installation specialists), is resubordinating directly under 11 Signal Brigade, while 37 and 71 joint the regular regiments within 7 Signal Group, 11 Signal Brigade.
The Army’s Information Manoeuvre Strategy which was half-announced by Fallon has not surfaced yet, but could bring great changes. According to what Fallon said at the times, it would bring together the Corps of Signals with the Military Intelligence Corps, and also bring the creation of a second EW regiment. Nothing has been heard or seen since, but hopefully one day we’ll know more.

The Royal Engineers are about to reform 35 RE into an EOD & Search regiment, joining 33 RE in the role, at the cost of one armoured close support engineering formation. 33 and 35 RE will contain the Regular EOD squadrons, while Reserve EOD will be once more centralized in its own regiment, 101 RE. This reverses, once more, an Army 2020 decision which had turned 33 and 101 into Hybrid regiments. One can’t help but notice the completely different directions followed by Signals and Engineers…
In the meanwhile, 12 HQ & Support Sqn has stood up anew in 23 (Parachute) RE, after the regiment took in some extra manpower as part of Army 2020 Refine. 12 had disbanded in 2013 as part of Army 2020 changes. 
Next year it is expected that 28 Royal Engineers will stand up as CBRN formation, presumably pulling in FALCON Sqn, Royal Tank Regiment (Fuchs and wide area surveillance) and the Light capabilities of 27 Squadron, RAF Regiment, which has already absorbed 26 Sqn and is now standing up a Parachute capability for support to high readiness formations.
The formation of a (joint?) CBRN regiment is, of course, another U-turn over 2010 decisions. Did you notice the trend yet…?

26 Royal Artillery is now 3rd Division's Fires specialist, with GMLRS and Exactor, which means there is one less AS90 regiment and that a number of batteries have resubordinated (such as 176 (Abu Klea) Bty moving from 19 to 26 RA, or H Bty (Ramsay's Troop) moving from 1 RHA to 26 RA, rallying under the flag of 19 (Gibraltar) Bty), while others have gone into suspended animation, namely 17 (Corunna) Bty and 38 (Seringapatam) Bty
This reverts the de-centralization of GMLRS which had taken place under Army 2020. I'll be honest and say that this was one of the very few things of Army 2020 which i actually appreciated, because having a wider spread of GMRLS and Exactor meant putting the capability where it needs to be. 
26 RA will still end up parcellized all the time, sending out batteries to be battlegrouped to support this or that brigade, and while there are probably advantages to having all GMLRS training and management in the same place, the mixed artillery regiment is, i believe, the right way to go. Notoriously, i'm a champion of the approach "structure and train as close as possible as to how you fight", and i've already said more than once that i'm also all in favor of permanent combined arms battalions with tanks and armoured infantry working shoulder to shoulder. 
I'm also a huge supporter of Exactor and would very much like to see it employed more widely, perhaps not by the Royal Artillery but directly by infantry and cavalry. For now at least, the Army is not "listening". But it eventually turned back on many of the decisions of Army 2020 that i thought made no sense, so perhaps one day... 

Meanwhile, 42 Air Defence Support Bty has been disbanded and 12 and 16 Royal Artillery regiments will rebuild their own dedicate support elements to be able to deploy independently. They had been joined at the hip by Army 2020 cuts and related force structure changes, but, once again, a U-turn has followed. 

These are mostly good news, but we might find unpleasant truths later on. The long-delayed report on the future of the Army Air Corps bases is still not coming out, and the promised 4 squadrons of Wildcat helicopters are still only 2, even though deliveries have ended. This is worrying.

There could be big changes coming if Warrior CSP is given up and an “all-MIV approach” is approved.
My own advice to the British Army is to consider a wide-ranging rethink of Cavalry, reconnaissance and ISTAR. The confusion over Ajax’s role and deployment within the brigades and the fact that the future of battlegroup ISTAR is up in the air with no endorsed path to a Desert Hawk III replacement is alarming, and shows that FIND doesn’t have enough of a voice, or of a direction.
The Royal Artillery and the Cavalry are reportedly sparring over who should be responsible for the post DH III FIND, and depending on who you listen to, the spar seems to be about staying OUT of the role. I had a discussion with a cavalryman who said that “playing around with toy aircraft” is not a Cavalry role. I think and hope he doesn’t speak for the whole Corps, but it certainly left me with the worst of impressions. FIND is a key function which deserves a lot more effort. Brigades without a dedicate reconnaissance unit are a terrible idea which shouldn’t even have been put forwards. And it is ridiculous to think that the British Army can seriously think about high intensity warfare while fielding a grand total of 5 counter-artillery radars, and short ranged too.
If it takes a specific “ISR Corps” to bring a more rational approach in the sector, so be it. Each brigade will need its own ISR formation which can conduct reconnaissance, counter-reconnaissance and surveillance of the area of operations. Most nations have been organizing their cavalry according to these requirements or forming specific battlefield surveillance brigades in the case of the US Army. Mast-mounted sensors, radars and unmanned vehicles, both air and ground, have become part of the cavalry mission pretty much anywhere, with the UK as the only notable exception.
Ajax, and with it the whole recce cavalry concept, seem to have bogged down somewhere midway between the Squadron of American Brigade Combat Teams and the 8x8-based cavalry squadrons planned by the Italian army.

The US Army cavalry squadron in armoured BCTs is now composed of a tank company with 14 Abrams MBTs and the “6x36” model, in which each Troop has two platoons of 6 Bradley IFVs, each carrying 3 crew and 3 dismounts. One every two vehicles in the Troop is fitted with a LRAS long-range sensor, and the Squadron has its UAV platoon with RQ-7 Shadow drones, plus HUMINT/IMINT intelligence element.
Wheeled BTCs on Stryker replace the MBTs with the Mobile Gun System and TOW variants of Stryker. Notoriously, the US Army is moving towards the introduction of 30mm guns on the other Strykers.
In practice, the American recce cavalry has moved towards greater firepower and a greater number of dismounts. The Americans also hold on for dear life to mounted 120mm mortars.

The Italian army intends to restructure its cavalry on homogeneous regiments each containing a squadron of 8x8 Centauro II tank-destroyers, with 120/45 mm cannons; 2 squadrons of Freccia 8x8 in two variants, FAR and CLOSE; and another squadron of supporting elements.
The Freccia FAR closes equipped with HORUS tube-launched UAVs and a combined radar-EO sensor which can be dismounted or deployed on a telescopic mast; while the CLOSE carries dismounts plus an unmanned ground vehicle UGV, while replacing the HORUS tubes with SPIKE anti-tank missiles.

An early Freccia Recon FAR shown with the LYRA radar selected for it, in dismounted mode. It will also employ the HORIZON optical sight. 

The UGV seen on the CLOSE's ramp 

This image shows the UGV, the Lyra radar and HORIZON sight near a Freccia Recon CLOSE
HORUS drone seen coming out of its launch box on the Freccia Recon FAR 

The Ajax is similar to the Bradley used by the American squadrons, but does not carry dismounts. Each Sabre Sqn will continue to have a support platoon with dismounts riding in Ares APCs, replacing the current Spartan, but it will be a small component.
We were told that there would be around 20 vehicles in a “Ground Based Surveillance” sub-variant of Ajax but it is not clear if it is still the case and what additional sensors, if any, this sub-variant will be able to bring to bear. Mast-mounted long range sensors are still nowhere to be seen, leaving Ajax essentially only with its main sight, which because of very questionable design decisions needs to be removed if a Protector remote weapon station is deemed necessary. Taken all together, these weaknesses expose just why I feel that the focus of the Ajax programme was sadly not really on ISR at all.

With the rush to Strike in 2015, Ajax is now attempting to re-invent itself as a “medium tank”, with at least half of the regiments literally leaving recce behind in favor of a combat role more akin to a real MBT.
This continues to be a rash and irrational decision, that the MDP should reverse.
Despite claims to the contrary, it looks like the Ajax family has been purchased as a one-for-one replacement of the Scimitar / Spartan combination, just much larger and heavier. Ajax as the dismount-less “tank”, with more protection and firepower but less deployability and stealth, supported by a handful of APCs carrying small teams of max four dismounts. There should be an “Overwatch” sub-variant of the Ares to give the formation some anti-tank punch, but it is not clear if it will offer any more capability than just carrying a Javelin dismounted team. In this sector, in many ways, the Army took a backward leap when it retired Striker and its Swingfire missiles back in 2005.

As it stands, the Ajax family does not have the firepower, nor the full range of sensors to be a truly capable ISR system. As for its attempt to be a Medium Tank, that is just insane.
The Army needs to approach the MDP as a chance to urgently reassess how Ajax will be used and distributed. A decision on WCSP is needed, and ABSV must absolutely be taken into account as well. If all the parts aren't considered within a much needed long term plan, the Army will end up in trouble again very soon.
And i will add that the Army also needs to organize the cavalry into a force that delivers the kind of ISR and punch that a modern brigade needs. And / or procure a "true" Medium Armour variant of Ajax, which would at least possess a more credible firepower.