Tuesday, December 5, 2017

US and British Army attempt to Strike


Nicholas Drummond, ex-British Army officer and now consultant and commentator for defence industry, has decided to start a new blog, focused chiefly on the Land environment. I've had the honor of providing one of the posts with which the blog is beginning its journey, which will hopefully be long and rich of satisfactions.

In my post, which might be followed by a wider discussion on here in the coming months, i've decided to compare what the US Army and the British Army are doing to tackle the same problems. Multi Domain Battle and Integrated Action / Joint Land Strike are far closer in concept than some may realize, but the differences in approach and in proposed solutions could hardly be any more diverse.

The Reconnaissance and Security Strike Group and the Strike Brigade are on two parallel courses. They are not entirely different, yet they never seem to touch.
It is worth spending some time reflecting on similitudes and differences, and see what makes sense and what does not.

I recommend you visit the blog and read the article.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The enduring role of the Amphibious Force



The MOD defines Littoral Manoeuvre as the “exploitation of the sea as an operational manoeuvre space by which a sea-based, or amphibious force, can influence situations, decisions and events in the littoral regions of the world. This will be achieved through an integrated and scalable joint expeditionary capability optimized to conduct deterrent and coercive activities against hostile shores posing light opposition.

In simpler terms, the ability to insert a significant land force from the sea is one of the primary outputs of a Navy and one of the key attributes of Sea Power. Keeping things equally simple, this is because the overarching truth of war is that the final effects of any military operation are felt on land. Theorists of Land Power like to remind everyone that wars are ultimately won on land, and that is certainly true. As long as humans will live on land, that will always be the case. The whole utility of Sea Power is not conquering salt water, but influencing events ashore through the denial of the sea to the enemy; the protection of own forces and economy freedom of movement at sea and sea-based strikes through Fires (missiles, naval gunfire), airpower (the carrier air wing) and land power (the landing force).
The golden age of Britain coincided with the historic period that saw economies worldwide at their highest ever dependency upon the sea. The Royal Navy dominated those times through a form of sea denial (working to keep the main competitors “trapped” in European waters) while projecting british power abroad with its ability to put enormous pressure ashore. The “gunboat” diplomacy was literally built upon the Navy’s ability to bombard ports and littoral towns into submission, land naval brigades to storm targets ashore and sail up the major river networks to reach deep inland.

Amphibious warfare became more complex and demanding over time, and it soon became impossible to land a “naval brigade” from a single warship and have sufficient strength in it to achieve decisive results; yet there are signals of a partial return to the age of “every ship an amphibious ship”. The embarkation of a relevant number of Marines in frigates and destroyers is becoming increasingly important once more in an age of hybrid threats. Marines are excellent to counter piracy; Marines can go ashore for small raids, rescue operations, first response to terrorism or disasters and for many other tasks, from defence engagement and local capacity building to more kinetic operations.
In modern times, a fleet on fleet clash has become a very rare occurrence, while the need for rapid response to events ashore has increased steadily: gunfire support, deep strike inland, blockades, counter piracy and disaster relief are frequently required.

The MOD’s Future Character of Conflict document notes that human populations and their economies remain dependent on the sea, and they are once more gravitating towards the shore.

‘In the future, we will be unable to avoid being drawn into operations in the urban and littoral regions where the majority of the World’s population live and where political and economic activity is concentrated’. (Future Character Of Conflict)

70% of the world’s urban areas are found within 60 km from the shoreline, and a further 10% growth in urbanization is expected in the coming years. 8 of the world’s 12 megacities are in the littoral zone.
 ‘We will not want to fight in urban areas, but the urban environment represents in my view a highly credible worst case – and we would be foolish indeed to plan to fight only convenient battles against stupid adversaries. Urban areas are where politics, people, resources, infrastructure and thinking enemies converge’
 (Designing the Future Army: Ex URBAN WARRIOR 3 First Impressions Report – 14 Nov 11)


The Army has concluded in its “Agile Warrior” studies that it is highly likely that over the next ten years it will be called to operate in a densely urbanized battlefield; and human geography dictates that this is highly likely to happen close to the sea.


The urbanized littoral

There is a current of thought that sees the increasingly urbanized littoral as an issue for amphibious operations. The proliferation of man-made infrastructure on the coast might negate or complicate beach landings, and the number of ports is constantly increasing.

In reality, urbanization of the littoral is at least as much an opportunity as it is a problem. Landing a military force in absence of port infrastructures is a very complex and dangerous undertaking. Amphibious forces land on beaches not because we want to capture a sandy strip of shore, but because the enemy will be closely guarding its ports. The whole point of any amphibious operation is to remedy to the impossibility to land directly in a port, and in any major operation the amphibious force’s first objective would be to secure some port infrastructure to exploit.
Beaches are more numerous than ports, more dispersed, and thus far harder to guard and defend. Littoral manoeuvre seeks first of all to land where the enemy is not. When talking of amphibious assaults most people appear to think of the scenes of Saving Private Ryan, but that is completely misleading. There is no country in the world today that can build up an Atlantic Wall, and the amphibious force commander will always seek a weak spot to violate. Think San Carlos waters: that is an opposed landing, with a very dangerous air threat, but with little immediate presence of enemy troops close to the beach. The Royal Marines were able to land in Egypt as well, during the Suez crisis, without any "Omaha beach" scene. They also stormed Al Faw peninsula in Iraq in 2003, although mostly by helicopter insertion from the sea side, as their supporting vehicles took an indirect route, avoiding the beach initially selected for the assault because it was mined. In that occasion it was not thought necessary to clear the beach, and the risk was simply bypassed. 
There is a perception in some quarters that amphibious operations are too risky and are not realistic anymore, but insertion from the sea has actually been one of the most frequent actions the British forces have been asked to carry out beween 1945 and today. 






The ever growing number of harbors and ports on the world’s shores is seen as a negation of action spaces for the amphibious force, but in truth it represents a new opportunity: any port, even a small one, is better than a beach as it immensely simplifies and speeds up the flow of stores, vehicles and troops ashore. In light of this single truth, more ports means that the enemy has even more entry points it needs to guard and protect. This will force an even greater expenditure of troops and resources in the attempt to defend the coast. In turn, this will leave beaches even more exposed.
The amphibious force in the urbanized littoral will need to be able to clear more and greater man-made obstacles and will need to be prepared to fight in an urbanized space, but on the other hand will have greater chances to secure port facilities early on. This makes entry from the sea more viable, not less. 

Urbanization of the littoral also means that more and more economic interests will be concentrated in “easy” reach of the sea-based force. A highly mobile force inserted by the sea could rapidly inflict crippling damage to an enemy nation's infrastructure.


A2AD and STRIKE

Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD) is today’s main concern in military planning. Whether we should consider this a new thing is at the very least debatable, since warfare has always comprised a whole series of efforts to prevent the enemy’s movement into a given area. Some area-denial systems have been around for decades (the ever present mine, but also, to stay in the littoral, the shore-based missile or gun battery) and others are more recent and descend from the normal evolution of technology (UAS, the ubiquitous shoulder launched missiles, both anti-air and anti-tank, all the way up to ballistic missiles, including the nascent anti-ship ones). Is A2AD truly new? Arguably, no. The means have evolved, the aims and the application, not so much.
Is A2AD a reason to abandon amphibious operations? No. What concerns military planners is not the enemy’s wish to deny an area, as this has been a fact of life in warfare since the night of times, but the perception that, in the endless fight between “sword and shield”, the sword currently has the upper hand.
Whenever amphibious operations or aircraft carriers are called into question the real problem that emerges is an evident lack of faith in the current escort ships and their weapon systems, for example. In the land domain, there is finally an awakening to the fact that there are rivals out there which could actually strike western forces by the air, something for decades has been more or less unthinkable. Different other areas of warfare that the west has neglected for many years are now, inexorably, advantages that opponents are well equipped to exploit.
Few of the problems that compose the A2AD conundrum are genuinely “new”.

The US and British Army, which both came out of Afghanistan and Iraq in a bad position and in countries now very much averse to new ground operations abroad, have immediately picked up on the A2AD discourse to find new arguments for Land Power. In the US this has generated the Multi Domain Warfare doctrine; in the UK it has brought about “Joint Land Strike” and the Strike brigade.
The underlining argument is that in presence of A2AD threats which could deny access to air force and navy elements, the land forces will manoeuvre in deep against the adversary to take out key nodes of its multi-layered defences.
There are many questions connected with this concept, particularly in the British case which puts way too much emphasis on Ajax and a wheeled 8x8 APC, formulating highly questionable hypothesis about what they will achieve once teamed. There are also some merits, however, and the expectation of having to deal with a wider battlefield involving great distances to cover seems justified by recent experiences, from Iraq to the Ukraine conflict.

The Strike Brigade is based on the ambitious concept of deploying a medium armour force ahead of the heavy armour brigades. From the Air / Sea Port of Debarkation, the brigade would then be asked to move up to 2000 kilometers to secure objectives and hit enemy weak points through mobility and a greater freedom in the choice of routes. Dispersion is the key to Strike, with the experimentation seeing independent groups from Battlegroup down to Troop level operating independently in up to 60 points of presence. Among the many doubts that this concept raises is the very issue of theatre entry. An Air Port of Debarkation is mentioned but it is pretty much impossible for the UK to ever be able to deploy a Strike Brigade by air. The US Army once hoped to deploy a Stryker brigade by air thanks to the USAF’s C-130 fleet, but it soon became evident that only C-17 had an hope and the whole concept more or less vanished away. It takes 15 C-17 sorties to deploy a single Stryker company group, which the US Army keeps at high readiness in support of its air assault component, and that is with an APC that weights a good 10 tons less than any British Army MIV candidate. To do the same, the British Army would require the maximum lift capacity the RAF is equipped to express. 
The Strike Brigade, just like the armoured brigade, is firmly tied to a Sea Port of Debarkation. The crews might well come by air, but their vehicles almost certainly will not. One of the hypothesis of employment that have circulated include the “replacement” of an amphibious landing by a debarkation in a friendly port in a nearby country followed by a road move to the objective, in order to avoid the enemy coastal defences. While this might have some merit in some circumstances, unanswered questions include how the Strike Brigade would deal with the Land and Air firepower available to an enemy well equipped enough to put up such an A2AD bubble. An enemy with the kind of capability required to shut the Royal Navy out of the picture will be more than able to batter back Ajax and wheeled APCs and moreover will have the capability to strike back against the nearby country which allows the Strike Brigade to disembark. This, in turn, might well mean that said nearby country will not want to open its ports to the british contingent to avoid being drawn into the conflict. A2AD includes not only the kinetic means of area denial, but also the political ones: lack of access to an area can be due to multiple different factors.

The need for a sea port is unchanged, and will remain unchanged until air transport becomes able to deal with the weight and volume associated with military operations. Today it simply is not an alternative.
As long as the vast majority of goods in trade and supplies in war will need to travel on ships, ports will be the key to a country’s future and to the feasibility of any military option.
The amphibious force is the only instrument the UK has to gain access to a shoreline when ports, for whatever reason, are not immediately available.

For the rest, the Strike concept borrows quite a few pages from amphibious forces’ concepts and doctrine. After an amphibious landing it is important to move rapidly inland and secure objectives before the enemy can respond in force. The mobility and dispersion of Strike have much in common with the attributes and needs of littoral manoeuvre.
Increasingly, amphibious forces around the world are seeking speed and agility to evade the threats lined up against their operations. Fast landing craft make it possible to keep the amphibious ships far from the shore, out of range of most weapon systems. From there, fast landing craft can take multiple directions, further complicating the task of a defender.
Long range insertion of troops by helicopter is used to create a defensive screen around the landing zone and to beat back the enemy presence. The USMC has brought this concept to its present day pinnacle thanks to the MV-22 Osprey, that has the range and speed to push one thousand miles inland when necessary.
Once ashore, the landing forces are relaying on increasingly mechanized elements that give the protected mobility and firepower needed to push deep inland. “Strike” as a concept is familiar to any amphibious force. The USMC is looking for an 8x8 armored vehicle to increase its ability to push rapidly and decisively inland. 
The Royal Marines have sadly fallen behind these developments. They were the first to employ helicopters for vertical encirclement during the assault on Suez, but in more recent times their attempt to stay up to date has been frustrated by lack of funding. Their Fast Landing Craft programme is on hold, leaving them to operate the terribly slow LCU MK10, which requires the amphibious ships to sit just a few miles away from the shore. Their Force Protection Craft requirement remains unanswered, meaning that they lack the fast, agile combat boat they need to escort the landing craft in and out of the littoral area; to suppress enemy defensive positions on the coast; to insert small reconnaissance and raiding teams and to push deep inland exploiting rivers. Their mechanization has not progressed beyond the Viking, while elsewhere 6x6 and 8x8 are becoming increasingly common.


ARES trials: beach landing from an LCU MK10 

There is an unjustified disconnect between the Army and the Marines, despite the fact that their operations are always closely connected. Any “Strike” concept worth of the name should be very much part of the amphibious capability discussion and vice-versa.
The Royal Marines, conversely, have attempted to carry on bypassing the constant cancellation of their equipment programmes by promoting themselves as a lighter, “quasi Special Forces” element with their “Special Purpose Task Group” approach. This is single Company groups, inserted chiefly by air and carried by a single ship, useful for very small scale, very short term raids.
While this approach has its own uses, it is not amphibious warfare and it will not represent a strategic option for the UK nor a role substantial enough for the Royal Marines to survive. There is no specific need for Royal Marines for boarding an helicopter and going ashore light for a short, quick task. Plenty of other infantry units, beginning with the PARAs, can do that, and the entire Corps would end up crushed to death between a Navy short of money for ships and an Army eager to protect its own capbadges.

A USMC MEU is always resourced with a troop of Abrams tanks. MBTs remain invaluable for clearing out enemy resistance and provide protected firepower. The british amphibious force should see heavy armour with much greater frequence as well. 

The amphibious force’s true value is in the fact that it gives a capable, medium to heavy entry option that air assaults simply cannot match. Ships and landing craft carry everything that helicopters and cargo aircraft cannot carry or anyway cannot insert in enemy territory. Landing craft can bring ashore a mechanized battlegroup mounted in Viking and reinforce it with anything up to Challenger 2 MBTs. This is the true value of the amphibious force: it deploys with the protected mobility and firepower needed to carry on complex, demanding tasks which are beyond the possibilities of an air assault force.

It is time for the Marines and the Army to forge a much closer alliance and work together on ensuring that the UK retains an adequate forcible entry capability.


Be a hero where you need to be and where you can be one

The UK does not have the budget to do everything it wishes or even needs to do in order to be a global power. For example it is not in a position to be a major continental power matching the mass of armoured and mechanized forces fielded by its allies.
What it needs to do is decide where it wants “to be a hero” and resource those areas appropriately.
Amphibious warfare is one such area. The UK needs to retain its amphibious capability because:

-          Any operation it decides to mount abroad will pass through one or more ports. Without adequate amphibious and port opening capabilities in support, any future operation will only be possible if someone else secures a port of entry. It would signal a dramatic loss of operational independence, much more definitive than the current limitations imposed by lack of mass.
-          As “Global Britain” attempts to secure new allies and new markets in the Middle and Far East, its naval group will become more important than ever. The Navy’s Expeditionary Force will be the face the UK shows to potential allies and opponents in Asia, in an area where the sea, islands and shores are key. Lacking the ability to go ashore in force would severely curtail the value and capability of the task group.
-          There is every reason to believe that the urbanized littoral is where interests, risks and opportunities will concentrate. Human populations continue to concentrate near the shore or along rivers, canals, estuaries and lakes for their economic value and for their impact on a nation’s road network.

The UK is in a good position to be a world leader in the amphibious arena as it has arguably the greatest treasure of know-how of anyone in the West, thanks to a history of operations that include Suez, the Falklands, Kuwait and Al Faw. It already has most of the pieces in service and paid for. It already has one of the most significant amphibious components in NATO.

With the carriers coming online the big pieces are all in place, and the United Kingdom, in a rare moment of wisdom and awareness of its potential, had actually also taken leadership of a NATO Smart Defence initiative to develop a strategic Port Opening capability to enable theatre entry. Unfortunately, nothing has ever been heard about it since then, even though this is a capability that would be simply invaluable both in war and in peace (for example for disaster relief, such as after the Haiti earthquake, when establishing a point of easy access from the sea is vital). The UK can be a world leader in this area, with relatively tiny investment.

The blueprint for the UK to be a leader and framework nation in littoral manoeuvre is also the blueprint for the survival of the Royal Marines in the future. Going lighter and lighter will soon make the Corps redundant. The future of amphibious capability is “Strike”. While the current Army “Joint Land Strike” concept is very questionable and the structure proposed for the Strike brigade completely out of tune with the stated ambition, the value of an expeditionary, mechanized force is not in question.
Such a force hinges on a Sea Port of Debarkation, and the Marines are a key capability to ensure there is an entry point. Unsurprisingly, one of the very first scenarios to be war-gamed in the simulators at Warminster for the Strike Experimentation saw the Strike Brigade, supported by the amphibious task group, enter a notional African state where they faced a “multi-faceted” threat dispersed in a complex environment.

The key to the future is going ashore heavy, not light. A mechanized force is required to face complex threats and deal with vast battlespaces. The Marines must focus on how to be part of that force, and on how to get a larger army force where it needs to be. In the short term this means retaining the LPDs because they are key enablers for such a “heavy” entry.
Longer term, resurrecting the Fast Landing Craft is a key requirement to increase the survivability of the whole force by enabling the amphibious vessels to launch the assault waves from over the horizon.
The Force Protection Craft should become a primary responsibility of 42 Commando now that it has been forced into becoming the “Maritime Ops” specialist. The FPC is needed to accompany the Fast Landing Craft in its long transit from amphibious ship to shore, protecting it from threats including fast attack boats, suicide boats and other hybrid threats that could be lurking in the littoral. The firepower of the FPC would also provide intimate support in the early phases of the landing. It will be particularly important for suppressing enemy anti-tank missile teams, which represent a grave danger to the landing crafts.
The FPC should also be used to regenerate a true, powerful riverine capability to perpetuate Strike along the waterways.


A US Navy Riverine Command Boat (a development of the swedish CB90) operating from a RFA Bay class LSD in the Gulf. These assets provide force protection and reach, including up rivers. They can operate hundreds of miles away from a mothership, turning a single vessel into a "task group" perfect for Littoral operations and counter piracy 

The Marines and the RLC’s Port regiment should work together around that “Sea Port Opening” capability that the UK took the lead of within NATO but never did anything about. Opening a port is fundamental for progressing an operation after the initial landing: the UK is only equipped to land a single battlegroup, and can only augment that assault force by reactivating the mothballed LPD and by taking ships up from trade.
Large transports, beginning with the Strategic Sealift RoRo vessels (the Point class, unfortunately cut from 6 to 4 ships in the 2011 round of cuts) need to insert a larger army force if the operation is to achieve its aims.  


What would be lost along with the Albion class

In light of the above considerations, few cuts proposals ever made less sense than the rumored withdrawal of the Albion-class LPDs.

An Albion can operate 2 Merlin or even 2 Chinooks at the same time, but does not have a hangar. That is an unfortunate weakness, but when the two LPDs were designed the expectation was that there would be two LPHs to accompany them. Surface assault and air assault were deliberately split on two separate platforms, but problems began very early on when the two LPHs became one, today’s HMS Ocean.
With hindsight, a class of two large LHDs, combining the surface assault and air assault capabilities in a larger hull, would have been a more sustainable choice, but there is no easy correction now. With air assault needs covered by the second of the QE class aircraft carriers, it is imperative to maintain the LPD capability until the ships are due for replacement, in the early 2030s.

The Bay class LSDs have a flight deck that can land one single Merlin. They have no hangar. Today they are regularly seen with a shelter that provides an enclosed maintenance space, but for a major amphibious operation this structure might actually need to be removed to restore the full capacity of what was designed as cargo deck.

The LPD carries 4 LCU versus 1 and has four times more well dock space, enabling two lanes operations and keeping up operational tempo to enable the delivery of more waves during one night period. The Bay class ships have a well dock dimensioned for a single LCU MK10. This was a welcome last-minute addition to their design. Still, a single Albion carries one LCU MK10 more than the whole fleet of 3 Bay LSDs put together.  
The importance of the LCU is that it is the only landing craft able to carry any kind of payload up to a Challenger 2 MBT. The mexeflote raft can carry even greater payloads but it is extremely slow and unprotected and is more suited to follow-on reinforcements than first wave insertions.

The LPD carries 4 LCVPs versus zero on the Bay. The latter can only embark them as deck cargo, stealing space otherwise destined to stores and containers. It is worth remembering that an amphibious operation would already see the Marines’ LCACs (light hovercraft) carried on deck, and the group would also carry at least one of the four army workboats that are used to aid Mexeflote ops (towing, tugging etcetera) and dracone ops for delivering fuel ashore.  
Some of the LCVPs should be eventually replaced with the Force Protection Craft. In 2011 the Marines trialed the Swedish Combat Boat 90 and demonstrated its compatibility with the LCVP davits.

The LPD is fitted with the command and control spaces and communication outfit needed to run the amphibious operation, while the Bays have a much more basic communications fit, which has only been enhanced somewhat in recent years using equipment taken out of the prematurely decommissioned Type 22 Batch 3 frigates.

The Bay has twice as many lane meters of storage space for vehicles and embarks more or less the same number of troops. The tables normally detail 305 for an Albion and 356 for a Bay, but the crew of the LPD includes 40 or more men of the Beach Tactical Party, which goes ashore with the HIPPO beach recovery vehicle, a communications team, excavators and trackway dispenser to open a safe exit from the beach, enable movement of wheeled vehicles on soft terrain and push back landing craft if they ran aground, so the difference is actually much smaller.

Losing the LPD means losing the dedicate amphibious C2 centre; some aviation assault capability; most of the group's landing craft; the tactical beach party; a good share of the capacity for stores within the group and a Company-group worth of accommodations for Marines and support elements.
That is before considering that one third of the Bay class is regularly Gulf-bound, where it serves as MCM mothership, and another ship of the class ends up spending Hurricane season in the Caribbean as a disaster relief first responder. While they could both be recalled ahead of a large amphibious operation, the UK conversely would probably not want to gap those standing tasks in “peacetime”, so that without the LPDs the Marines would often literally have no amphibious ship available at all.

Without the LPD and its landing craft the UK would no longer be able to insert the current battlegroup (1800 strong including its support elements) and, moreover, it would lose the capability to insert a mechanized element. Today, an amphibious group including an LPD and a couple of Bays can send ashore the beach tactical party and a whole company group mounted in Viking armoured vehicles (16 troop carriers, command and recovery vehicles plus 4 mortar carriers) in a single wave of 6 LCUs. Without LPD this capability is destroyed. 

The Viking provides protected mobility and firepower. It is amphibious, but too slow to routinely proceed on its own from an LPD to the beach. A Royal Marines company group can be mounted, along with its Mortas section, in 20 such vehicles. An 

The loss of the LPDs would have a completely disproportionate impact on the amphibious capability of the UK, and any claim that the Bays can fill the gap is at best misinformed and completely dishonest at worst.


What the UK can have with the Albion class

Within a few more years, the bleeding capability gap caused by the early demise of HMS Ark Royal will be closed with the entry in service of HMS Queen Elizabeth. At that point, if the UK does not mutilate further its capabilities in the ongoing “review of the review that isn’t really a review”, the Royal Navy will be able to match the Expeditionary Strike Groups of the US Navy.

With one QE class at the center, carrying a company group of Marines in addition to their helicopters and at least a squadron of F-35B, the group would then have one Albion and at least two Bay LSDs. The landing force would be closely comparable to a Marine Expeditionary Unit of the US Marine Corps. This would be a potent expeditionary force, able to threaten the sea side of any opponent and valuable enough to gain influence for the UK East of Suez, an area which is inexorably growing again in importance as the economies of Asia gallop and the world’s money increasingly goes east.

The USMC MEU. The United Kingdom lead commando battlegroup resembles this force. Centered on a QE carrier, an LPD and a couple of Bay LSDs, it could field a substantial air element; 6 LCU MK10 and 4 LCVPs. The armoured element would come with Viking, with non-armoured BV-206 vehicles in support. The RM also employ Jackals. 


The acronym CEPP, Carrier Enabled Power Projection summarizes what the carriers really are about: they ensure the fleet has the air support it needs to operate in the congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained environment of current and future warfare. Without organic air power, a fleet cannot venture far from the air cover coming from land bases. Without a fleet capable to go into a contested environment, far from home and potentially far from friendly land bases. there can be no power projection at any serious  scale. With the Navy planning to have one carrier at Very High Readiness (5 days notice to move) and the other at 20 to 30 days notice to move, continuous carrier capability is a realistic aim.

A USN Navy Expeditionary Strike Group: the Royal Navy expeditionary group would have Queen Elizabeth in place of the LDH; an LPD and a couple of LSDs plus Type 45s, Type 26s and an SSN, with the RFA in support. A full spectrum response force which would be the face the UK shows to the world. 

Air power is a fundamental requisite but it is also primarily a support element. Ground operations of some sort will always be required to achieve the desired results, and the naval expeditionary force can only be considered complete if it maintains this equally important element of capability.

The value of an Expeditionary naval group is summarized as follows:

-                     It safeguards the UK’s forcible entry option, albeit limited by considerations of mass. The UK simply does not possess the numbers required to mount a large operation independently; but a powerful naval group preserves a degree of operational freedom and puts the UK in a position of leadership within a coalition effort.

-          Its global deployment is a statement of intention that is not matched by any other short-term deployment form. At the same time, it does not come with the dangers of a long term presence in foreign territory, which can generate as many bad feelings as good ones.

-          It is valued by the US as it helps cover all stations, enabling the progressive shift of US naval groups to the Pacific. The UK has not been able to provide a comparable level of assistance since its last aircraft carriers helped cover the gaps created by the US involvement in Vietnam.


-          It represents a capability that, in Europe, only France can, in part, replicate. The amphibious force is also closely integrated with the Netherlands’ own Marines and is an enduring connection link between UK and Norway as the Marines are the UK’s arctic specialists and the designated reinforcement for NATO’s northern flank.



Saturday, September 9, 2017

Shipbuilding Strategy and Type 31: it does not actually look like renaissance.


The strategy

In its Shipbuiling Strategy, the MOD claims to have accepted all of the recommendations put forwards by sir Parker, and this is a welcome surprise, although on several points their acceptance is tied to too many exceptions.
With a courageous decision, the MOD opens the gates to the possibility of building frigates away from the Clyde. This of course opens their flank to SNP complaints about “betrayals” of workers in Govan and Scotstoun, but having a workable shipbuilding alternative to the yards in Scotland is not just a political weapon, but a strategic must. The UK cannot possibly depend entirely on Scottish yards as long as nationalistic nonsense about independence remains such a real danger.
In addition, breaking the BAE Systems monopoly is pretty much the only thing left to attempt in order to reduce the cost of building ships in the UK. The pricetag for the Type 26 frigates is simply monstrous and the Royal Navy desperately needs a way out of the death spiral.

In an earlier article I argued that working to a 30 years horizon when defining future plans for entire capabilities (and thus entire classes of ships) was the single most important factor. I remain of this opinion: short termism and insufficient joined up thinking has ended up forcing a premature order for OPVs that are being paid an absurd amount of money to bridge an occupation gap and keep the workforce going. Further to that, it has generated the Type 31 itself, a ship that risks to be an extremely low-capability constabulary worker which in some ways overlaps with River B2s and arguably with what the MHC mothership should have been (and could still be).
I did not expect the government would accept the 30 years plan recommendation. The inclusion of this element in the strategy is a very welcome development, and in some ways a surprise. However, it is clear that the MOD “Master Plan” is not and will never be the kind of outlook that is necessary and that sir Parker argued for.

The Master Plan will not be public. It will be an internal document, guiding the actions of the “Client Board” chaired by the 1st Sea Lord. The details will not be released. Industry should get some visibility on it, but the secrecy will ensure that the plan never translates in a commitment with any sort of assurance attached to it. Just like the Equipment Plan at large, it will remain subject to endless and stealth change. This negates much of its usefulness: I’m sure the Navy already compiles long-term plans of its own, after all. What was needed was a clearer direction, with a substantial degree of “certainty” attached to it. Something like the US Navy’s own 30 years ships master plan, in other words.

The UK’s Master Plan offers no real assurance. Where Parker argued for a “set and assured” outlook for budgets, the MOD responded by saying that the budget for a programme is set at Main Gate. And even then it remains subject to successive reviews. In practice, there is no real change from the current arrangement. The stability of funding lines, even at programme approved and underway, will be down to common sense and good will, with no additional assurance provided by “the strategy”. While no government is ever going to set definitive budget levels for such a long horizon, it is essential that the Navy and Industry have a good idea of what kind of budgets they’ll have to work with, well before the project reaches the technical maturity requested by Main Gate. 
The Client Board chaired by the 1st Sea Lord will produce the Naval Ship Acquisition Master Plan and seek the endorsement of the “Sponsor Group”, chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Capability), which will own the actual shipbuilding strategy and refresh it periodically. The Sponson Group includes the Treasury, so the budget battles will be fought at this level. The Client Board will have to juggle the priorities within the Master Plan and allocate the budget to the various programmes, holding them to account. Project Teams will deliver the actual programmes.



The shipbuilding strategy reaffirms the intention to build all “complex” combat ships in the UK, but effectively throws everything else open for international competition. This includes the amphibious shipping as well as survey and MCM vessels, and all RFAs. This does not necessarily mean that the UK shipyards will not be selected for major programmes in this area, but it introduces a very big risk. It is difficult to win competitions with foreign yards that build more, more often and, were applicable, count on cheaper manpower. For the Navy this might not be bad news (the 4 Tide class tankers bring a lot of capability for a very good price), but it is hardly a welcome proposition for british shipyards. Clearly, the hope is that british yards will be able to benefit from Type 31 modular construction and become more competitive, but a return “to greatness” from the current condition of the sector is not going to be easy. Building 5 Type 31s in blocks is highly unlikely to suffice. Building large blocks for the carriers was one thing; the Type 31 is unlikely to have a comparable effect.

Building large ships, such as the incoming MARS Fleet Solid Support, would inject more energy into the yards. The government is promising to evaluate with favor the effects of building in Britain over building abroad, but there is no assurance that british bids for the FSS project will be successful. It is my opinion that a firm decision to assemble the large FSS vessels in Rosyth, using the No 1 dock and the Goliath crane to receive and weld together modules coming from other yards would have had an infinitely more tangible effect on the growth of british capabilities in the sector in the near future.
It is down to industry, now, to propose something similar and do it in a way that convinces the government. The FSS are likely to be ships of 40.000 tons or more, the largest by far in the fleet after the carriers themselves, and the nature of their mission dictates that they will be relatively complex systems. In turn, that means valuable and consistent work for thousands of people.
Similarly, future large amphibious ships would have a key role to play in keeping the yards going.



From a Royal Navy point of view, the draft master plan enables a series of observations. First of all, Type 26 is expected to take a long time to reach operational capability. According to the Master Plan, it’ll be 2026/27 before HMS Glasgow achieves IOC. According to a different table within the document, HMS Glasgow won’t even be delivered before 2026. That is a pretty incredibly slow pace, and does not suggest a great level of confidence in what the Clyde shipyards can do. In part, this is the fault of government which did not authorize and fund the development of the single site “frigate factory” development. The build of Type 26, a large and complex ship, inside infrastructure which is clearly inadequate is clearly not of any help. On the other hand, government is faced with the horrible risk of investing into a world-class shipbuilding facility which it might lose to a nationalistic pipe-dream; not to mention that going down from two yards to one, albeit more capable, would generate its own amount of moaning and bad press. It is not a problem of easy resolution, and we ought to accord government at least this one extenuating circumstance. Substantial investment in Faslane, in Lossiemouth and the building of the Type 26s themselves is already more than enough of a risk that they are taking. The consequences of losing all those investments to a future referendum would be nothing short of devastating for defence, first of all for the navy.

The schedule for the Type 31e is, instead, extremely ambitious. After a swift competition phase, the aim is to achieve Main Gate in the fourth quarter of 2018 and commence building in early 2019, with the first ship entering service in 2023 to replace HMS Argyll. The other four would follow at 12 months intervals, while Type 26s will only arrive every 15 to 18 months. The second Type 26 will be laid down in 2019, the third only in 2021. The timings work out acceptably due to the fact that the ASW Type 23s hit their OSDs later than the 5 tail-less General Purpose ones.

The Type 31, however, exposes even more the overall diffidence that government and navy feel for the shipbuilding industry: the Core Requirements outlined by the Royal Navy for the ship, which has a cost cap of 250 million pounds, are humiliatingly basic. The service didn’t even dare asking for a Merlin-sized hangar, or a gun of more than 76mm caliber, or a CAMM installation in its core requirements. This suggests that very few believe that british yards will be able to deliver any kind of meaningful capability within the price boundaries. Certainly the navy is hoping with all its forces that industry will be able to accommodate some of the extras (or “adaptable” features, in the document released at the industry day) within the RN design, but it seems like nobody dared putting it on paper.
Nobody will be able to complain about the requirements being too ambitious or gold plated: the list of core requests makes the Type 31e equally or less capable than some of the OPVs in service around the world. They could not possibly be any humbler and vaguer.
For the first time in many years, the MOD is doing what was done at the time of the Type 24 and 25 “Future Light Frigates” in the 70s (without generating any actual build, however) when the designers were given maximum freedom: “all you want if it does not cost more than 100 million”, write David K. Brown and George Moore in their “Rebuilding the Royal Navy – warship design since 1945”.  

The Draft Master Plan shows that the MCM and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme is still moving roughly on the same path as before, anticipating the IOC of a new ships for the period 2028 – 2032. The Capability Decision Point is expected before 2022: by that point the joint MCM programme with France should have been extensively trialed and the UK-only unmanned sweeping capability should also be (finally) mature. The expectation is that a number of Hunt-class ships will be modified to turn their “open” sterns into mission areas equipped for carrying, deploying and recovering the unmanned vehicles employed by the new MCM solutions. The Sandowns are not suitable for the same kind of conversion, on the other hand they are key, with their Type 2093 sonars, to mine hunting in deeper waters.
The MCM flotilla badly needs the unmanned systems to progress: the unmanned sweeping system is more than a decade late, considering that it was meant to replace the conventional sweeping capability of the Hunts, last deployed at sea in October 2005. The unmanned sweeping capability, born as FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) became a rolling programme of demonstration and experimentation, but while it allowed to advance the future of MCM ops this prevented the Navy from re-generating a deployable sweeping capability in the times once planned.
Both Hunt and Sandown class MCM ships are receiving updates and life-extension interventions in their refits, but the two fleets are in the crosshair of budget cutting: the SDSR 2015 made clear that 3 ships would be removed from service by 2025, and the Times now report that 2 ships will leave service already next year. According to Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent for The Times, those two ships would be in addition to the 3 already earmarked for dismission, signaling a cut of 5 hulls.
It is clear that the entry in service of the novel systems cannot happen soon enough, and that shaping a way forward for the Mothership segment is a matter of increasing urgency. Removing the need for specialized, expensive GRP hulls for MCM ops opens the door to the adoption of larger, steel-hulled vessels with far greater sea legs and utility across a wider range of constabulary tasks.
Unfortunately, the Type 31 and the River Batch 2 have invaded the “patrol” sector and the P has been shaven off by MHPC. It would be a grave mistake, however, to not exploit the MHC mothership as a way to enhance the global presence of the Navy.
I never made any mystery about my opinion on the Type 31 / MHC matter: if the “Light Frigate” ends up being an extremely low-key patrol ship for constabulary tasks, the only sensible thing is to merge Type 31 and MHC and build a single class of self-escorting motherships for constabulary tasks.

Interestingly, a capability decision point for the post-Type 45 world is expected as soon as 2022, with the aim of achieving IOC with a future AAW solution in the 2033 – 2037 time window. Assuming that a new ship is implied, this would mean decommissioning the Type 45 at the end of its intended service life, without extension. The 25 years service life of HMS Daring would expire in 2034, in theory, and by 2039 the whole class would be gone. Replacing, rather than life-extending, is a key recommendation of the Parker report that the government, at least for now, seems to embrace.
There is every reason to doubt about the long term commitment to the approach, but that is another story. It is also going to look pretty weird to begin decommissioning the Type 45s before the last of the Type 23s is replaced!

Very vague indications come about Future Maritime Security UK and Overseas Territories. The Draft master plan doesn’t help in understanding whether the idea of losing all River Batch 1s in the next two or three years is still the plan, or if there have been changes. It also offers no clue as to what comes after the P2000s or the Gibraltar patrol boats, the latter supposedly due for replacement within two years.

By 2022 the Navy expects to decide on the future of the Amphibious flotilla, which will reach the end of its service life in the early 2030s. Jane’s reported recently that a pre-concept study, expected to report in early 2018, is evaluating a Multi Role Support Ship concept which could cover amphibious, forward repair and medical capabilities.
It seems too wide a spread of roles to be covered with the same hull. Clearly, medical capabilities would benefit from a ship with ample aviation facilities and a well dock for boats and crafts, but the Forward Repair capabilities offered by RFA Diligence until its untimely demise seem far harder to conciliate with the rest. It is at least comforting to know that something is moving.

Before 2022 is over the Navy also expect to have to take decisions about the replacement for the Auxiliary Oilers, also known as “Fast Fleet Tankers”, RFA Wave Ruler and Wave Knight. The replacements should achieve IOC around 2030, according to the table.

The navy is aiming to hit Main Gate for the MARS Fleet Solid Support programme in December 2019, with contract award by March 2020. The Draft plan confirms that the 3 vessels are meant to replace the “Auxiliary Fleet Support – Helicopters”, aka Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie as well as the Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Fort Victoria. IOC is indicated in the late 2020s, while delivery was repeatedly promised “around the middle of the 2020s”. The two things are not incompatible, but the current OSDs for the three Forts will have to be extended if a colossal capability gap is to be avoided: Austin would bow out in 2023, Rosalie in 2024 according to earlier plans.

The future of RFA Argus remains a huge concern as well. The Draft plan puts the Medical Ship decision point in 2028 at the earliest, while the last OSD given for RFA Argus is 2024. IOC for the future medical capability is given close to 2040: frankly, the most puzzling element in the entire table.



The Type 31e

The document revealing the requirements for the Type 31e design distinguishes between “Core” and “Adaptable” features. Core is described as what is designed, integrated and assembled in the UK and represents what the Royal Navy absolutely wants to have.
The Adaptable features are described as “available for build under license overseas”.



As a consequence, it is to be assumed that at least a part of the “adaptable” features will not be available for the Royal Navy, not even as “fitted for but not with”. Even FFBNW has a cost, after all, and whatever doesn’t fit in the 250 million simply won’t be included.

The Core requirements include:

-          a crew of 80 to 100 with some room for augmentees and specialists.
-          Capable of fitting a hull-mounted sonar
-          6500 nautical miles at economic speed and 28 days logistic endurance
-          armour in key areas for the protection of personnel
-          hangar for a Wildcat and Rotary Wing UAS system, or alternatively for a single medium helicopter such as NH-90
-          Seaboats and ability to carry and operate unmanned vehicles
-          Interoperable with allies as well as joint forces and civil authorities
-          Sensors for operating area situational awareness
-          Medium gun and light guns for anti-FIAC use and maritime interdiction
-          Point Defence Missile System or CIWS and FFBNW point defence missiles
-          Ability to replenish at sea
-          Commercial shipbuilding standards are the default, with enhancements only where a clear need or benefit exist

Everything else falls in the “Adaptable” bracket, beginning with:

-          Flight deck and hangar suitable for Merlin operations
-          CBRN citadel
-          Command and Control for Maritime Task Unit and up to Task Force
-          Active hull mounted sonar for ASW
-          Towed array sonar and ASW weapons
-          Anti-ship missiles
-          Space of an embarked force of 40
-          Mission bay or deck space for 2 containers
-          A gun of caliber superior to 76mm, fit for Naval Gunfire Support

It is immediately evident just how basic the Core requirements are. The hull mounted sonar is not requested specifically; there just has to be the ability to install it.
CAMM is not mentioned, even though the Royal Navy will be able to recoup it from decommissioning Type 23s: while Sea Ceptor has local area air defence capability, the requirement specifically talks about point defence only.
Merlin operations are not envisaged. ASW is completely left out, as is anti-ship firepower. The RN is apparently fine with a main gun of max 76mm caliber, even though this means introducing a new gun system into service. In theory a DS30M 30mm gun, a 57mm MK110 as on LCS or a 76mm would all be accepted.
Dimensions are left to be driven solely by seakeeping considerations, and the RN does not detail what the “wide range of sea conditions” exactly entails. Industry is given pretty much complete freedom: it is almost impossible to write a requirement list any poorer and vaguer than this one.

In the run up to the Type 31e announcement, industry has revealed a number of designs for “affordable” frigates. Notably, BAE has proposed AVENGER and CUTLASS; BMT its VENATOR 110, Team Stellar its SPARTAN and Babcock its ARROWHEAD.
The brochures are impressive and show flexible ships with a good spread of capability, with the bottom represented by the BAE designs, CUTLASS and AVENGER, which also happen to be the least detailed offerings. The news of a very demanding price cap being placed on Type 31 have generated comments from BAE about the competition being a dangerous race to the bottom in which industry could end up making promises it can’t keep and end “out of business”. Nobody believes they won’t file an offer but they might actually elect to put very little effort in it. The MOD in recent years has been, at least in the Land sector, apparently following a “anyone but BAE” policy, and BAE might be about to sit this one out as a sort of revenge, letting the other yards bet their future on this dangerous race.

The other designs are well detailed in the brochures released by the respective owners:


BAE AVENGER 


BAE CUTLASS









All the proposals pre-date the announcement of the 250 million pounds price cap. The reasonably capable ships proposed by BMT, Stellar and Babcock will no doubt need a considerable strip-down to meet the cost target. The key question is just how much will have to be stripped out of the design. Even BAE’s AVENGER, effectively a stretched River OPV, a sort of “Batch 3” with helicopter hangar, a stack containing CAMM cells and a 127mm on the bow, exceeds the core requirements detailed by the Navy. The CUTLASS, which is a 117m extended Khareef corvette, itself a development of the River class, is also overspecced compared to the Core demands, as it includes a CBRN citadel, a 127mm and CAMM.
What price did BAE have in mind when it formulated those proposals? What kind of money do the other proposals require?

The decommissioning Type 23s could supply a number of systems (CAMM, most notably, but also 30mm guns, decoys and radars, from Artisan to the new Sharpeye navigation radars) for transfer, but that would negate entry in service of the first ship in 2023. HMS Argyll would necessarily need to bow out early and be stripped to enable the migration of the systems to the first Type 31.
In the long term, it seems the Navy will even have 3 precious Type 2087 sonar tails in excess, as 3 are being ordered for the first Type 26s exactly to avoid the need for early Type 23 decommissionings.
In theory, the Navy will have enough sonars, radars and guns for 16 frigates as a result.
As of now, it does not seem like the Type 31e programme is meant to take full advantage of this fact. Timelines negate the feasibility of the migration.

Considering that the Navy is effectively already one Type 23 down, due to manpower issues, I see no reason why the timelines could not and would not be adjusted to make the transfer possible. If such expensive equipment can be moved across, as is the plan for the later Type 26 units as well, the Type 31 will have a bit more of a chance to come together with some kind of capability. A temporary reduction to 12 or even 11 frigates is surely to be preferred over a reduction to 8 plus 5 “large OPVs”, surely…?  

The Medium Gun passage is particularly interesting. All designs proposed by industry include the 127mm MK45 Mod 4, as planned for the Type 26. This system, however, is a new buy and requires a significant amount of money. BAE might now be tempted to offer its Bofors MK110 in the 57 mm caliber. Others might include the Oto Melara 76mm, which in its Strales incarnation doubles up as a very capable CIWS thanks to radar-guided ammunition meant to explode in the path of incoming missiles.
The 76mm, in theory, would cover two requirements at once, that for a medium gun and that for a CIWS. It still comes with a non insignificant cost, however.

CAMM, one would think, will be one of the first things industry will try to maintain in the design, and this will probably generate wider discussions with the Navy about transfer of equipment from the Type 23s.
Merlin hangar should also, one hope, be high on the list of priorities, together with the EMF accommodation and extra spaces for boats and unmanned vehicles. ASW will sadly but unsurprisingly come dead last, despite the mission being back in full force on the international scene. 
The only hope is that designers will include enough space in the stern to enable the installation of a towed array… giving the navy a chance to later on install the extra 2087 tails.
All of these, however, remain just that: hopes.

Type 31e starts off as literally the most depressing list of requirements available worldwide. Bad news for the Royal Navy, and for the export hopes for this vessel. Hopes that I consider pretty laughable, since there is an overabundance of good corvette and light frigate designs, already well established, that a customer can select. Just why anyone would want to explore Type 31e territory when there are MEKO, Gowind, Belharra, PPA and South Korea, or Chinese, or Russian alternatives on the market which come with far greater capabilities and not necessarily greater prices? A depressingly incapable Type 31e is not going to export anywhere.


Literally everything now depends on what the british shipbuilding sector can come up with. “All you want, as long as it fits in 250 million”. The one bit of hope comes from the impressive RRS SirDavid Attenborough that Cammel Laird is building, in blocks, under the terms of a 200 million contract. The ship comes with impressive specifications and sits on the opposite end of the cost scale than the Type 26, at a hefty 1 billion pounds. We are left to hope that something good can still fit within a 250 million Type 31e.