Friday, September 26, 2014

Parliament approves


Parliament has approved the beginning of combat operations over Iraq against ISIL, and the Tornado GR4s already in Cyprus will likely fly their first mission very soon from Akrotiri. They have been flying reconnaissance sorties for a while already, along with the first (and for now only) Rivet Joint in service.
There might very well be a SSN already positioned for eventual Tomahawk launches. The RN maintains a SSN(T), with the T standing for TLAM, Tomahawk land attack missile, east of suez at all times, and it could fire its cruise weapons from the Gulf. Another could well be in the Mediterranean, too.

There will be time to talk in greater detail about the british operations and contribution to this fight, which doesn't have a clear end in sight. Tonight it is time to wish for happy hunting and for a safe return for everyone that will be involved.

The little that can be said right away is that already it looks like the most precious contribution that can be made will be tanker support, as well as ISR support, both in extremely high demand.
Combat aircraft are likely to be relatively less important, in a way. First of all, they are going to be few in number: the talk at the moment is for 6 Tornados, and it is going to be hard to do more, since the Tornado force is down to just three frontline squadrons, and of these one is ramping down ahead of disbandment next year (II (AC) Sqn), another has just returned from its last Afghan tour (IX Sqn) and one has just deployed in Afghanistan (31 Sqn). Add the Tornado deployed to Africa to support the ISR campaign to locate Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, and the overstretch is evident.
Typhoon will have to be used, if the Iraq effort is to be ramped up. But Typhoon, as we know, is still years away from the much needed full air to ground capability, so there are many limitations, ifs, buts and maybes.

Another factor in limiting the reach of the air campaign is the distance of flight and the need for air refueling. France's own 6 Rafales, for example, flying from Al Dhafra, only fly one mission a day, roughly, tipically with two aircraft, even if double pairs have also been used. Each mission takes several hours and several AAR contacts. France has only one KC-135 tanker assigned to the operation, named Chammal, so it is very much dependent on coalition tankers, mainly USAF ones.
The USAF has been flying over 30 tanker sorties per day, and in the relatively short time since the beginning of the operations, CENTCOM has already registered a staggering 1289 tanker sorties.
The number of air strikes compared to the sorties flown is very low: only a few more than 200 airstrikes, with some 350 weapons expended in Iraq, and even less in Syria. The need for tanker support will only grow greater as the fixed, known and static targets are taken out and the focus shifts more and more to hitting mobile and relocatable targets. This will require aircraft to loiter and to hunt for targets, and will require endurance and lots of fuel. Plus, of course, even more ISR to locate the targets.
The RAF might be able to provide a Sentinel R1 to aid the ISR effort (difficult to say the least, since one is in Africa and Afghanistan still calls for Sentinel surveillance as well, which means a forward fleet of 3 machines is already well busy as it is) and some Voyager. There are 9 Voyager in service, but one is for air transport only and one is in the Falklands. When the QRA tanker requirement at home is added in, it is evident that there isn't much to go around in this field either. 
The options, in any way you want to look at it, are limited. 

Main air bases for the campaign. Approximate positions only. Incirlik is a NATO base, but Turkey is not granting authorization for its use for combat operations, at least for now. Not clear if RAF aircraft from Akrotiri will fly over Syria despite the risks this implies and despite the political hesitations. Curving south over Jordan or north over Turkey, on the other hand, only add more distance.

The overall responsiveness of coalition airpower to developments on the ground is, at this stage, still quite slow for obvious reasons: one major difference could be made by forward basing inside Iraq. The US intend to deploy aircraft to Irbil, and these will have much better chances to provide endurance and responsiveness over Northern Iraq. Of course, this does require boots on the ground, which the US already have in hundreds, with an Army Division HQ also on the way. Super Hornets coming from the USS George W. Bush (CVN 77) can also compensate the tiranny of distances somewhat, and some help comes from the USMC Harriers of USS Bataan and USS Makin Island as well.
The USAF has employed B-1 bombers as well, which have huge range and endurance, and they are likely to account for a big share of the USAF contribution so far in terms of strikes and ordnance dropped.

The start of RAF ops comes together with the announces that Belgium is to contribute 6 F-16, Denmark 7 F-16 and the Netherlands on Wednesday promised 6 F-16 plus two spare aircraft to the Coalition in one week's time.
To all of the men and women involved, again happy hunting, and wishes of a safe return.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FRES SV has a contract




After years of hesitations, rethinking, changing of minds, messing of requirements, wasting of money, starts and stops, FRES SV is finally “the thing” after the signing of a production contract worth 3.5 billion pounds and covering the delivery of 589 vehicles in various configurations.

The history of FRES and of the programs that came before is a messy, sorry novel which has cost hundreds of millions and delivered nothing for it, but I want to focus on the good side of the news for this once. FRES SV has undergone the last major changes (to date) behind the scenes following the release of the SDSR 2010 (October 2010) and, moreover, with the three-months additional cutting exercise of 2011, which shredded several pages of the SDSR and generated the Army cuts known as Army 2020.

Prior to the Army cuts, FRES SV was a program meant to develop across three “RECCE” production Blocks plus a “Medium Armour” and “Manoeuvre Support” blocks totaling up to a maximum of 1238 vehicles, 10.000 jobs and with production in the UK. After the cuts of summer 2011, FRES SV has shrunk massively: the Medium Armour and Manoeuvre Support blocks were lost practically right away, and the Block 2 and Block 3 have looked increasingly unlikely, up to the point of being effectively reabsorbed into the sole Block 1. And production in the UK is, at best, highly unlikely, as the reduced quantities to be purchased mean General Dynamics will almost certainly want to keep work in its plants in Spain, or ask for quite a lot of additional money to step up an assembly line in the UK. Jobs realistically sustained in the UK will be no more than 1300 unless an assembly line is indeed started up. 

FRES SV as once envisaged. Quantities and number of variants were much higher.

The good news is that in the last few years the program has remained stable and has worked to reabsorb the main army needs into the sole Block 1, and the result, as it stands today, is reassuring in the sense that the numbers outlined appear perfect for Army 2020, with its three armoured infantry brigades. The variants announced also cover most of the needs, even if a few questions remain, in particular regarding what can be done to replace the Samaritan CVR(T) and the FV430 ambulances.

In fact, the contract calls for the production of:

245 “turreted” vehicles, with the CTA40 mm gun. 245 gun turrets were reportedly ordered months before the contract.
Of these:
-          198 Cavalry vehicles Scout
-          23 Joint Fires Control variant
-          24 Ground Based Surveillance variant

A further 256 vehicles are variants of the turretless Protected Mobility base vehicle, of which:
-          112 Command and Control C2
-          59 Protected Mobility Reconnaissance Support troop carriers
-          34 Formation Reconnaissance Overwatch vehicles
-          51 Engineer Reconnaissance vehicles

The final 88 vehicles are for recovery and repair, specifically:
-          38 Recovery
-          50 Repair

Most of these variants haven’t been properly demonstrated yet, as the Block 1 production run was once expected to include 589 vehicles, yet, but coming only in Cavalry Scout, Protected Mobility Reconnaissance Support, Repair and Recovery variants. The other variants have all been pulled forwards from later production blocks, and there have been only some basic feasibility demonstrations done over the course of 2013 to ensure that the Common Base Vehicle Hull could be adapted for the various roles.
Such demonstrations have been made for the ambulance variant as well, but an ambulance variant has not been included in the contract. 

The Scout in the latest CGI
 
There is consequently serious enduring uncertainty about how these variants will be configured. Very early graphics and information dating up to 2011 suggested, for example, that the Ground Based Surveillance and Joint Fires Control variants would be based on the turretless hull, but this has now changed entirely. I’m particularly impressed by the change of heart regarding the Joint Fires Control variant, since up to at least 2011 the Royal Artillery was planning to have this vehicle able not just to designate targets for artillery and air attacks from under armour, but also to carry a full 6-man dismountable Joint Fires Support Team. The use of the turreted variant appears to me to suggest that this second requirement has been dropped, because for what has been seen so far, despite deriving from an IFV, the Scout vehicle won’t be able to carry that many, if any, dismounts (early prototypes showcased only had a couple of seats in the back).  

The work done by the Royal Artillery to shape a way forwards for the FV514 variant of the Warrior will no doubt feed into the design of the FRES Joint Fires Control variant. One question waiting for an answer is also how many FV514s will be upgraded for Joint Fires Control for use in Armoured Infantry Formations. Will these vehicles also be permanently attached to AS90 artillery regiments, like once happened? And when will the RA be able to launch a formal upgrade program for the FV514? The Warrior CSP will only deliver mechanical, electric and protection upgrades to these Warriors, but the complex mission equipment will have to be selected and fitted separately under RA responsibility. Originally, FRES Joint Fires would come from the Block 2 production lot and would replace all Spartan vehicles used for Fire Control tasks: current situation is unclear.

The Ground Surveillance vehicle was also shown as a turretless vehicle variant with a very evident mast-mounted radar and, possibly and desirably, an electro-optic sight head as well. Currently, the news releases say that the GBS variant will have a “man-portable radar”. One would hope that, like it was for the Warrior artillery observation post with the MSTAR radar, this vehicle will offer the possibility to rise the radar antenna on a mast for use from stationary vehicle, with the possibility to dismount the radar and a number of operators. Again, the relatively small space available observed in the Scout prototype showcased so far suggests that in no way more than four, and more likely just two, dismounts can fit in the back, even without thinking of how to possibly store a man-portable radar set inside the vehicle.
The prototype seen in earlier shows, while not fully representative of the final Scout, is likely indicative of what kind of space is available, and it only had two blast-protected seats on the left side, with the right side occupied by a white box presumably containing some of the electronics.

 
Mast-mounted sensor heads combining radar and EO/IR are becoming increasingly common. One would hope that the future primary ISTAR platform of the British Army, at least in its Ground Surveillance variant, will be equipped with something resembling this combination offered by Blighter

Another variant which can only attract curiosity is the Overwatch variant for the Guided Weapon Troops within Armoured Cavalry regiments. Heirs of the GW Troops armed with the Striker vehicle, CVR(T) family, armed with Swingfire anti-tank missiles capable of 4000 meters engagements, the Guided Weapon Troops (3 in each Army 2020 Armoured Cavalry Regiment) are now making do with Javelin teams capable of 2500 meters engagements, moving around on simple APCs.
It will be very interesting to see if the Overwatch FRES SV variant is just a Protected Mobility vehicle with Javelin racks and slightly different seats arrangement, or if it finally restore a longer-range, vehicle-launch precision strike capability. In years past, particularly with the TRACER program, which came before FRES but was ultimately cancelled, the Overwatch variant had to have a turret with .machine gun and boxes of ready-to-fire Brimstone missiles (at least 4), giving it quite a formidable reach and punch. In more recent times, the MOD funded a 2-year study and demonstration for a lightweight multipurpose missile turret capable to employ both anti-tank and anti-air missiles, the Multi Mission System Technical Demonstrator Programme (MMS TDP), which might come handy for the Overwatch variant. Some experience in dual-role missile turrets comes through the 2011 capability sustainment programme of the Stormer HVM vehicles, which received integration of the LMM missile as well as the latest variant of Starstreak, and a sensors and thermal imaging upgrade to enable surveillance and engagement of ground targets as well as of airborne targets.
The LMM, while not a main battle tank killing missile, could have lots of uses against lighter armored vehicles and other targets. The anti-tank capability proper could come from Brimstone (but it is perhaps unlikely due to cost) or from Javelin, which has been demonstrated as a vehicle launched weapon and also proved to an extended range of 4700 meters.  

MBDA's Multi Purpose Combat Vehicle turret could be indicative of a possible solution for a vehicle-mounted launcher for the Overwatch variant. Here in "french" sauce, the MPCV is shown being used with MMP anti-tank missiles or with Mistral surface to air rounds. 

Worth of mention is also the high number of C2 vehicles to be acquired. 112 is a big number, and seem to confirm my expectation that, due to the high complexity of wiring the electronic and comms of a modern command post, new-build FRES SV platforms have been preferred over the rebuilding of Warriors or other as yet unspecified solutions within Armoured Battlegroup Support Vehicle programme, which should take a step forwards over the end of this year and early in 2015. Thanks to its greater capacity, the FRES Command vehicle should do more than just replace Sultan, also considering that some Sultan roles have actually already been taken up by Panther. The FRES Command post variant will be seen well beyond the confines of the Cavalry regiments: it can be expected to feature in tank, armoured infantry and armoured engineer formations as well, and perhaps in armoured REME units too, replacing Sultan and also, I would guess, at least a part of the FV432s and 436. 

The most recent CGI of the C2 variant.
 
Conversely, the absence of a FRES Ambulance variant suggest that there might be greater confidence in turning out a suitable vehicle from the ABSV programme, most likely by rebuilding surplus Warriors into new variants. The MOD, however, retains the option of purchasing a second block of FRES SV vehicles if it was to become necessary, and ambulances might enter the frame in this (very unlikely) case.

It will also be interesting to see how Engineer formations will reorganize if the Engineer Recce vehicle variant really carries no dismounts. I’m quite surprised by this, honestly, since the recce troop has always had dismounted teams moving around in Spartan or other armoured vehicles. I don’t see why the Engineer Recce would be unable to carry dismounts, being a derivative of the APC hull. What is the “specialist equipment” to be carried? At the moment, I honestly have no idea.
I’m left to wonder if the deletion of the counter mobility variant carrying Remote Delivery Mine System for the replacement of Shielder (which was silently withdrawn from service without replacement as part of SDSR cuts) has something to do with it. If not, it would be nice to understand if and how the army plans to recover a counter-mobility capability, which seems to me to be very important. 

Engineer reconnaissance variant. Reportedly, it will not carry any dismount: what will be carried in their place?

There is also an enduring need for medium-weight bridgelayers to support the independent manoeuvre of the new recce cavalry regiments. The british army is set to retain the 10 to 12 sets of truck-mounted Rapidly Emplaced Bridge Systems (REBS) purchased as UOR for Afghanistan, but this solution seems no more than a stopgap, besides with some serious limitations.
It is licit to wonder if the proposed Warrior Bridgelayer vehicle could find a place in the ABSV budget, and come to the rescue.


Warrior CSP and ABSV

As I’ve written several times in the past, with the way the armour programs of the british army have evolved, FRES SV can’t be considered in isolation from ABSV, as this second programme is needed to hopefully complete the replacement of FV430 in addition to CVR(T). Controversial reports have emerged in the public domain about the number of vehicles to be upgraded, and further confusion is generated by the recent decision to formally separate Warrior CSP and ABSV.
The NAO Major Projects report 2013 reported that the affordable fleet of Warrior vehicles numbers 565 machines, with 445 planned to undergo CSP, including 65 to be upgraded to ABSV. This was prior to the division of the two programs, and anyway always made little sense: 65 ABSV are far too few to respond to the ABSV requirement.
Press reports in more recent times have suggested that the MOD is looking at upgrading a minimum of 381 vehicles, of which 250 would be IFVs, with the turret and 40 mm gun.
Again, the numbers don’t quite add up, in my opinion: 131 recovery, repair and artillery observation post (the FV514 variant has the turret, but the gun is a dummy) appear too many, and yet too few to assume ABSV variants are counted in.
Originally, 788 Warrior vehicles entered service. An Armoured Infantry Battalion of the old ORBAT needed some 63 Warrior vehicles of which 7 between recovery and repair variants and 56 “turreted” ones, with gun. Even assuming a reduced allocation of vehicles to the Anti-Tank platoon, it is fair to assume that over 50 turreted Warriors are still needed for each battalion, and this makes it instantly clear that 250 such vehicles would totally insufficient for the 6 armoured infantry battalions that are supposed to be the hard core of Army 2020. At 56 turreted vehicles for battalion, and excluding reserve and training fleet needs, 336 turreted Warriors are required.
Compare the numbers with FRES Scout, where the 198 Cavalry vehicles slot in quite nicely with the requirement (estimate requirement 3 squadrons of 12 in each Cavalry regiment, plus one recce troop of 8 in each Tank and armoured infantry battalion = 180 versus 198 ordered, not including Radar and Joint Fires subvariants).
I would not want to invest in having all the recce vehicles I need, if then the main core of my brigades is insufficient and I can only scrub together 4 out of 6 battalions at maximum effort.  I would expect the Warrior CSP to deliver numbers more closely matching the requirement. 


Note that 380 + 65 gives 445: I’ve long suspected that the NAO and the press have been reporting their numbers and types the wrong way. 380 turreted Warriors and 65 between recovery and repair vehicles would much more closely match the requirement, and would still leave some 120 surplus Warriors available for conversion under ABSV. More, potentially, since the fleet is supposed to still include at least 643 vehicles, the original number planned for CSP upgrades.
120 vehicles could potentially suffice (albeit barely) to replace the around 20 FV430 vehicles in ambulance, APC, mortar carrier and command variants found in each armoured infantry battalion. The new ABSV programme is expected to generate an invitation to tender before this year ends, with Initial Gate hopefully to come next year, and entry in service desired starting in 2019 to keep the pace with Warrior CSP. An APC, C2, Ambulance and Mortar variant are envisaged, with the Army keeping open the door for the option of a vehicle-mounted anti-tank guided weapon system. If an ATGW vehicle was included in ABSV, the number of Warrior IFVs to be upgraded with the new turret and gun could decrease due to the vanishing need to provide a battle wagon for the Javelin teams.
Another way to reduce the number of turreted Warrior vehicles to be acquired would be to build sections including turretless APC vehicles coming out of ABSV: this could have some merit due to the fact that the number of dismounts on Warrior is to drop from 7 to 6 as part of the CSP upgrade. Replacing one or two of the four IFV in the Platoon with a simpler APC would restore the dismounted strength of the platoon, while potentially also saving money. It might be an option with enough merit to be considered.  
The clear implication is that the requirements are closely connected, and a change in one area can have impacts elsewhere.
Now that there is a signed FRES SV contract, it is fundamental to arrive to a final decision on the number of Warrior to be upgraded, and on the way forwards for ABSV: the use of surplus Warrior hulls is no longer described as the automatic way forward for the programme, but I continue to believe that it remains the most likely and most promising option. 


 
The Warrior Mortar Carrier demonstrator was shown with L16 81mm mortar, ENFORCER lightweight RWS and full suite of 360° situational awareness cameras

BAE systems seem to think the same, as it showed a notional Warrior mortar carrier variant at DVD earlier this year.



Considerations on FRES SV

There has been criticism in some areas about the weight and size of the FRES SV, which supposedly make it a vehicle unsuited for its role. I personally disagree. FRES Scout is a big vehicle, but this is only fair in view of its role, which is scouting for armoured brigades made of Challenger 2s, Warriors, Mastiff and heavy trucks and artillery. While there is some merit to equipping the reconnaissance unit with a small, nimble vehicle which can move on very soft ground and in very tight places, it must also be noted that this kind of mobility is not excessively beneficial in broad terms. The current Scimitar is an excellent, agile and easily deployable light scout which can move on bridges and routes that heavier vehicles won’t be able to use. But the question is: how much of a gain actually comes from this? The Scimitar is scouting ahead of a brigade made of Warriors and Challenger 2s, and these are the vehicles that determine where the brigade can and cannot go, in the end.
It is their weight and size that dictates how long the brigade takes to deploy, and how it moves on the battlefield. The Scimitars might get some benefit from being able to use alternative routes and gain positions precluded to heavier vehicles, but the benefit will be limited, as in the end the action will need Challenger 2 routes.

The FRES SV comes with excellent soft ground mobility thanks to large tracks and to the additional road wheel, giving it a ground pressure not distant from that of the latest Scimitar MK2: this despite being 38 tons in combat weight, versus 12. Tactical mobility will still be pretty good, even if tight routes and bridges that would be perfectly good for Scimitar won’t be acceptable for the Scout.

On the other hand, the Scout comes with much greater protection, much better sensors and communications, much improved armament and with a whole different level of comfort for the crew. All these are crucial factors in modern operations, as the Scimitar MK2, with its rebuilt hull, testimonies.
Despite the upgrades they received, the CVR(T) are well past their time as primary armour reconnaissance platforms of the british army. It is definitely time to see them replaced: an APC for four dismounts which struggles to actually fit two with how much kit soldiers carry today, and a recce vehicle at the end of its evolutionary path are not going to meet the long term army requirements.

There would be, however, still use for an armoured, tracked vehicle with excellent tactical mobility and the incredible ease of deployment of CVR(T). Something that can be loaded on a cargo plane with a full load of weapons and consumables, and roll out on the runway during Air Landing assaults. Something that can be airlifted by helicopters and that can go over almost any terrain. There would very much still be uses for it, even if the gun is the old RARDEN with all its limits. I do see this usefulness more as a niche role, however: an option to keep alive on a small scale, as a complement to heavier capabilities and as a support to air manoeuvre and special forces operations. 

The Scimitar MK2 offers increased protection and more decent spaces for the crew thanks to the use of remanufactured Spartan APC hulls mated to Scimitar turrets. Weight grows to over 12 tons from the original 8, though.

Under Army 2020, the Household Cavalry saw its connection to 16 Air Assault Brigade severed. The brigade no longer has a direct affiliation to a squadron of light armour, and despite the entrance into the brigade of other kind of capabilities as replacement (namely one STA battery from 5 Regiment RA, and one UAV battery from 47 Regiment RA) the truth is that some armour protection capable to go in from the air would very much still be needed. 

 
Air Landing assault: an A400 can carry a combat ready Scimitar, a WMIK with trailer and 60 troops onto a tactical landing zone. The Scout appears likely to only be A400 capable if in air transport configuration, requiring filling up for combat after landing.
That’s where CVR(T) could and should still have a role. In an ideal world, 16 Air Assault brigade would have a reconnaissance squadron riding the CVR(T) Mk 2 vehicles coming back from Afghanistan, and ideally, in the future, a more modern platform with similar perks. 


Friday, September 19, 2014

The Union lives through yet another night

 


Big sigh of relief, as the Union gets a fairly reassuring majority of votes in a great example of true democracy. The margin isn't as great and solid as i'd like it to be, and it is clear that change is desired and necessary. But the United Kingdom has to get better and stronger together, not break down: breaking down the Union wouldn't be of any help.
I'm glad that the Union stands. Democracy has been applied, the people have spoken. Thankfully, the divisive arguments haven't won the day.
There is plenty to be done, but it shall be done together.

And on the defence front, things can get back in motion. The shipyards can expect the go ahead for restructuring and upgrading soon, and hopefully the Type 26 program will make the news in the next while.

Keep on riding. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My thoughts

The United Kingdom has fought long and hard to preserve the right for self determination, and thus it is only right that Scotland has its referendum to decide where it wants to go in the future. But if i might just share my personal feelings really quickly, this Indyref thing is a disgrace with potentially dramatic consequences for not just the armed forces, which by the way will be hit in a very vicious way, but for the economy and for the global stance of the country. I'm absolutely convinced that Scotland has nothing to gain but much to lose from Indipendence, and i'm horrified by how many people happily follow the path to disaster traced by Alex Salmond, a man that certainly does not impress me in a good way.
I don't quite manage to fully imagine how disturbing it must be for so many britons, with how worried i am myself, even though i'm from far away. As i look in from the outside, i'm praying that the No wins. Literally praying. I can't take the uncertainty anymore, and i'm eager to get this over with and learn the final result.
If it is this disturbing for me, i can imagine it must be real bad for many of you, much more closely touched by the events. 
For the armed forces, IndyRef is a big bullet to dodge, with the second being the next spending review and SDSR. Staying united is vital for the future, because a break up will be painful and will lead to more cuts and more fine soldiers, sailors and airmen being forced out despite their loyal service. It goes well beyond the issue of Faslane, and i hope that people understand it... even if it's evident that too many do not get it at all. SNP has moaned the reduction of military footprint in Scotland, yet their fantasy plan, even if it works (and i think it has no chances to), will result in further shrinkage of capability. A "fuck logic" moment, and only one of many others. 
What worries me, and surprises me in the worst possible sense of the word, is that the result is so uncertain. It is scary to me that it is such a close race, and that there is such division, and that i hear people saying that the heart tells them to break out of the Union. Sincerely, i never imagined something like this. 
Even if the no wins, as i hope, it looks like it will be with a small majority from what i see, and this is still bad news. It is painful to see Scotland in this state, and so divided and eager to get out. Moreover, such a tight margin is a source of enduring uncertainty: will we go through a whole new drama in a few years time? How will this issue evolve? A break up would be a disaster, but the "neverendum" scenario that already some fear would be just as bad and in some ways worse.

From a purely armed forces focused angle, the uncertainty resulting from a narrow victory would make me hesitate a hell of a lot in going ahead with investment in Faslane, in the shipyards, in the spaceport for which Leuchars is in the shortlist of possible locations. How can huge investments be made with the real risk of turning out being money burned soon afterwards? How can the future of the armed forces, already strapped for cash, be further tied to Scotland with the risk of even greater damage if this nightmare lives on? 
On the other hand, of course, not making the investments and bring stuff south of the border would only reinforce the divisions. It looks like a Lose - Lose situation. Very scary. 
I hope, i pray that the No wins. I hope the young generations will prove the most Unionist, to give hopes for the future. And i hope the No ends up getting a more reassuring majority than the polls suggest so far.
 
But it is clear that the UK, if it stays united, will need a future policy for reinforcing cohesiveness. A federalist arrangement with greater autonomy might be the only chance to fix the relationship. It will be complex, and i only hope things can be fixed in a lasting way. I don't want the dream to end. I don't want my spiritual homeland to fall apart. 
I love Scotland, but i do not think there's "Scotland the Brave" without the British Grenadiers March as well, or Heart of Oak and A Life on the Ocean Wave. 
The world is watching and hoping, and the friends of the UK are all, for good reasons, hoping that Unity will eventually win. 
The only countries who really like the Yes option are enemies of the UK and of all the britons have stood for in the centuries. This should be a telling sign. They know that the breaking of the Union will only leave behind two smaller, weaker countries, and a western world in even deeper crisis. 

Better together.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Solving the Ocean problem



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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