Sunday, June 25, 2017

F-35 split buy idea is nonsense.

Press reports suggest that the RAF is again urging an early split buy for the F-35 programme, with the number of F-35Bs curtailed in favor of land-based F-35A. 
The idea is unworkable and highly damaging, and represent the fastest way to turn the carriers into literally wasted money by not having enough squadrons to ever fill up one. 

It takes a minimum of 4 (and arguably 5) squadrons to be able to deploy a full one enduringly on a long term operation. And it would take 3 full squadrons of 12 aircraft just to fill up one carrier (forget about filling two at once, that was never going to happen). 

Current F-35 plan is for 4 frontline sqns, we were told last year, plus OCU and OEU. And in fact, there is no manpower for more unless the services grow or Typhoon squadrons move to F-35. 
So there is literally no room for a split buy. Unless the UK turns the carriers into a complete waste of money by literally not having the sqns to fill up one. 

On current plans, the F-35B fleet of 4 squadrons will support one sqn at sea for every deployment of the carrier, and a two-squadron deployment at least every two years. This is already a significant demand to be met with just four squadrons. Any reduction will result in the feared empty decks. 

138 aircraft are arguably too many for 4 sqns, but too few for a split fleet of any relevance if we accept a minimum requirement of 4 B Sqns plus an adequate training and sustainment fleet behind them. To have a long-term sustainable F-35A force, you'd need another 4-5 squadrons, and you are never going to have money and men for those unless Typhoon goes. Considering current squadron numbers, it is already evident that the two SDSR 2015's "additional Typhoon Tranche 1 Sqns" are placeholders for F-35 3rd and 4th squadrons. 

Looking at planned peak Typhoon usage (assuming a 7 squadrons fleet, or even a 8 sqns one), from 160 purchased aircraft, the UK bought 20 to 22.8 aircraft per frontline squadron. The extra aircraft cover training and attrition and sustainment. 
Applying the same ratio to 138 F-35 suggests an achievable fleet of 6 to 6.9 frontline squadrons. Then again, we should keep in mind that in recent years no RAF squadron has ever actually developed a deployable strenght of 12 aircraft, while F-35 squadrons, supposedly, will have to. This requires larger squadron allocations of aircraft. 

Even if the F-35 ever grows to 6 squadrons (hard to say, as we have literally no idea over how many years government proposes to spread the 138 purchases), the question will still be, should we go for 4 + 2 or 6 of the same type? I'd still tend to say 6 of the same type give you a better deployable output. Gives you a comfortable 1 in 5 ratio for enduring ops and some space for reinforcements / another small, temporary operation elsewhere. 
2 squadrons give you a very limited output. Not terribly much unless you come up with a very specific role for them. SEAD by buying AARGM ER, the one weapon i'd really like the UK to get and carry internally for obvious reasons. But that is all in a distant future, with too many SDSRs in the way. 

Now and for probably all of the 2020s, nothing should distract the programme offices from aiming for at least four B squadrons. Then, after that, there might or might not be space for more and different variant, depending on how Typhoon will be doing. Typhoon and FCAS, too often forgotten in this discussion. 

The RAF is working on FCAS, an unmanned combat aircraft for the 2030s, and while the UCAVs have no pilot on board, we all know that UAVs squadrons are actually very manpower intensive, as multiple shifts of crew are needed on the ground to cover the very long missions, which can last from a minimum of 12 hours (with a loaded up Reaper) to, in future, well over a day with Protector. FCAS will not be exactly lean-manned, even expecting greater automation to be part of its capabilities.
So, i really don't see where the room for an F-35A fleet is. A split fleet of 2 squadrons and 2 squadrons would be a disaster: neither of the two would be large enough to be truly relevant.

2017 Fast Jet Fleet (frontline squadrons only) 


3(F) Sqn
1(F) Sqn
XI Sqn
6 Sqn
II(AC) Sqn

Tornado GR4

IX(B) Sqn
12(B) Sqn
31 Sqn


617 Sqn (building up)

Near future plans, beginning with first additional Typhoon Sqn build up in 2018 

Typhoon grow to 7 / 8 Sqns (the RAF apparently wants 3 additional Sqns, even though initial post SDSR reports were for 2. The third is subject to feasibility)

Tornado GR4 bows out in 2019

See how the overall number of Sqns remains, essentially, unchanged. The additional Typhoon Sqns and then 809 Sqn on F-35B in the early 2020s essentially absorb the manpower released by the demise of Tornado.
It is easy to see that the additional Typhoon squadrons are effectively placeholders for the 3rd and 4th F-35 squadrons to be built up in the late 2020s.
The aim is to continue hovering at around 9 / 10 fast jet squadrons. It is hard to see how more sqns could ever be formed without an (unlikely) growth of the services in terms of manpower (and budget).

Unless the number of A squadrons to be created 1) does not impact the construction of a sustainable and effective B fleet and 2) comes with a realistic and useful number of squadrons, i'd always recommend additional F-35B squadron(s) rather than splitting the fleet. 
A small number of F-35A squadrons are not in the UK's interest in the current and foreseable force structure, especially considering that: 

1) The UK has literally no weapon, in service or planned, which could give a sense to the A's slightly larger weapon bay. The weapons either fit the B or are too large to fit even the A. We can fill our mouths with speculation about new weaponry to fit in the larger bay, but there is no evidence of anything of the sort, nor any evidence of a real need to pursue such weapons. 

The F-35B has had its weapon bays shortened by 14 inches compared to the A and C variants. The stations 2 and 10 are rated at 1500 rather than 2500 pounds. Yet, both these factors are of zero relevance to the UK, which does not have weapons, in service or planned, hampered by these factors. 

2) The UK is not equipped to air-refuel F-35A. While probes for the F-35A are a possibility, so far nobody has actually paid for them and requested them, having Booms on the tankers instead. Arguably, the UK too should go for the boom on Voyager rather than the probe for F-35A, considering the boom would also benefit Rivet Joint, P-8, C-17 and allies. Either option has a cost that eats into any saving enabled by the A being cheaper than the B. As does having two logistic and training lines, even though they are closely related and partially overlapping.  

The F-35A has space reserved for the AAR probe but so far no one has taken up that option.

3) An additional small fleet below "critical mass" is essentially a part-time tool, or a full-time tool at small number of deployable airframes (well below Sqn level). Not very helpful. An additional Sqn of the same type can actually affect the number of force elements at readiness a lot more. I'd rather have more deployable F-35Bs, even with their slightly shorter range, than two fleets locked in a fratricide battle for insufficient manpower and money.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Building on strengths: what happens to the amphibious force?

1- Introduction and Air Manoeuver 
2 - Amphibious force and the Royal Marines cut
3 - what happens to the amphibious force?

What happens to the Royal Marines, exacty? The honest answer is that we don’t yet really know. Very few details have been provided about Commando Force 2030 and the exact shape that 42 Commando will take as it loses its amphibious assault role.

The Royal Marines provide force protection for the fleet as well as “green” boarding teams, trained to undertake complex assaults on ships that oppose resistance. In 2010, these roles were grouped within 43 Commando, in addition to the main role of this unit which remains protection of the nuclear deterrent and related installations. Two squadrons within 43 Commando initially delivered the fleet roles: P Squadron and S Squadron. P was actually largely manned by the Navy, and used to be around 167 strong. It provided force protection teams for deploying RN and RFA vessels, but it did not last long: formed in April 2010, it disbanded 31 December 2013 when the manpower crisis within the Navy made it indispensable to recoup all posts for other needs. At that point, the Force Protection task was given to the Commando in its “Standing Tasks” year. 45 Commando was the first to be given this responsibility.

40, 42 and 45 Commando have so far operated to a 3-year Force Generation Cycle: one year in “Standing Tasks” position; one year in “Generate” position, training for high readiness; and the third year in “Operate” condition, with responsibility to deliver the Lead Commando Group at 5 days notice to move, with vanguard elements at 48 hours notice.
Standing tasks include defence engagement abroad, training and assistance, and, since 2013, ships Force Protection.

Ex Black Aligator, 2015 

S Sqn, still part of 43 Commando, provides the Fleet Stand-By Rifle Troop (FSRT), the Fleet Contingent Troop (FCT) and the Maritime Sniper Teams (MST). The Fleet Stand-By Rifle Troop provides 16 “green” boarding teams, complete of sniper pair from MST, which are cleared for boarding Non-Compliant ships. The Contingent Troop provides four teams, supported normally by two sniper pairs, trained for Opposed boarding. They are called upon in the most complex situations.

Where does 42 Commando fit in? It is pretty likely that S Squadron will move across from 43 Cdo. The rumor that has started to circulate says S Sqn joins, Juliet Company disbands, Lima and Mike companies re-role for ships force protection. Kilo company’s fate is not mentioned.
Manpower reductions can be expected especially in the HQ and Logistic companies, as the unit, in this new role, will not need its 81mm mortars, Javelin missiles, HMG and GMG and medium machine gun troop with GPMG. It might retain some machine guns, but certainly in reworked structures. Logistic support in the new role will also be very different and will probably require a lot fewer men.

43 Commando, if S Sqn moved out, would remain with just O and R squadrons, in the nuclear deterrent protection and Faslane / Coulport recapture roles. What impact on politics, if men move out of Scotland, though? 

The Lead Commando Group responsibility will fall on 40 and 45 Commando alone, in a two-year force generation cycle. The ambitions for the LCG are unchanged: 5 days notice to move and ability to insert two company groups (one by helicopter, one by landing craft) within a 6 hour window of night darkness. The Commandos, unless the new 2030 plan changes their structure, have 4 combat companies each, plus Logistic and HQ coy, the latter incorporating the fire support role with Mortars, AT Platoon and GPMG SF.

It seems that the Special Purpose Task Group, a company-group unit of up to 200 personnel, will actually come out of the Lead Commando Group and serve as its forward-based vanguard, with the shortest reaction time (provided it is close to the right area of operations, obviously). It is planned  that a SPTG will always be embarked on the aircraft carrier out at sea, along with at least one “Unit of Action” comprising 4 Merlin HC4 helicopters.

According to what Jane’s report, the Commando Helicopter Force will assign 12 Merlin to 845 NAS, which will form three “Units of Action”. 846 NAS will have nine helicopters, mainly tied to training and operational conversion plus the provision of a couple of helicopters at high readiness for the Maritime Counter Terrorism reaction force. Four helicopters at any one time will be in the sustainment fleet.
847 NAS, with 6 Wildcat, will provide two 3-strong units of action.

The first Merlin refurhished to HC4 standard, with FLIR not yet installed. The carriers are an opportunity; the loss of Ocean a big issue; but focusing too much on "lighter, by helicopter" would be a huge and painful mistake. 

The Lead Commando Group, yearly formed upon 40 or 45 Cdo, will include either 59 or 54 Commando Engineer squadrons, rotating yearly into readiness, plus a Logistic Task Group from the Commando Logistic Regiment; a formation from 30 Commando IX providing air defence, police, reconnaissance and communications plus EW teams from 14 Royal Signal Regiment.
29 Commando Royal Artillery provides a gun battery with L118 and Fire Support Teams from 148 Meitkila Bty. As yet unannounced, but pretty much certain, is the disbandment of one battery within the regiment, between 7, 8 and 79. With one Commando less to support, the 12 guns can be expected to concentrate within two 6-guns batteries, exactly as happens in 7 Royal Horse Artillery within 16 Air Assault Brigade.
7 Bty, based in Scotland, has hung in the balance since 2010, but with 45 Cdo, also Scotland based, staying in the amphibious role and with the know political implications of any manpower shift in the area, the pain might suddenly shift on someone else. 

The Royal Marines have a long-standing requirement for UAS support and would probably kill to have a dedicate UAS battery, but the decisions about 29 Commando Royal Artillery are in army hands and Land Command will want to shift as much manpower as it can into other areas.
The Royal Marines have resorted to double-hatting their Air Defence troop, training it on Desert Hawk III mini-UAS, plus a little reserve element as 289 Commando Troop, 266 Battery, 104 Royal Artillery regiment. However, 104 Regiment will cease to be a UAS unit as part of Army 2020 Refine, converting to close support with L118 and AS90.
The Marines have also tried to work with the army to launch a Joint Mini UAS programme for procuring a replacement, but the programme was denied funding several times in a row and to this day no one knows what will deliver Battlegroup-and-below ISTAR after Desert Hawk III goes out of service in 2021. The Army already plans to disband 32 Royal Artillery regiment, the main DH III user, and give its spaces over to 5 Royal Artillery regiment as part of the Defence Estate reduction.

News reports have included news of a possible reduction in the landing craft inventory as well, and it is probably a certainty. For a start, the Royal Marines disbanded 6 Assault Squadron in 2010 when one of the LPDs was mothballed. Only 4 Squadron remains, moving from Albion to Bulwark when the ships alternate into the operational phase.
When next year HMS Ocean leaves service, its 9 Assault Squadron and its four LCVP MK5s will also go. A number of the 21 LCVPs are almost certainly going to go out of active service as the number of active davits shrinks. Hopefully, an Assault Squadron will be formed to provide LCUs and LCVPs for the Bay class LSDs, at least.

The Royal Marines have for years attempted to replace part of the LCVP fleet with a flotilla of combat boats for force protection, surf zone and riverine operations. Swedish CB90 boats were loaned and extensively trialed, but no visible progress has been made towards procuring any hull. A squadron of these boats would provide a lot of capability in a range of roles, including counter-piracy, extending the reach of a Bay class acting as mothership by hundreds of miles in every direction. Money, however, is just not there for anything.

Another important requirement that has run aground is that for a fast landing craft to replace the very slow LCU MK10. A faster craft is an absolutely key requirement for the future as it would enable the amphibious ships to stay further away from the beach, keeping out of harm as much as possible. Unfortunately, despite a rather successful test campaign with the PACSCAT prototype LCU, more than 3 times faster than the MK10 when laden, no purchase has materialized.

On the vehicle front, the Marines have a requirement for replacing the old and unprotected BV206s in their many supporting roles within the brigade. The All Terrain Vehicle Support ATV(S) or Future ATV calls for up to 233 vehicles in a range of variants including troop carrier, mortar carrier, ambulance, command, repair and logistic flatbed. The vehicle would replace the BV206 and serve alongside the Viking, with the latter being more protected and combat-oriented.  The Support vehicle should come with a max protection to Level 2 standard. The first attempt at launching the programme dates all the way back to 2008, yet no progress can be reported to this day, almost a decade later.

The Viking itself has had a bit more luck, securing funding for a substantial upgrade and refurbishment, worth more than 37 million pounds. 99 vehicles have been refurbished, and two new variants introduced: 19 vehicles in Crew Served Weapon carrier configuration and 9 in Mortar Carrier configuration.
The British Viking vehicles originally came only in Troop Carrier, Command and Recovery variants, but in 2008 field conversions of some troop carriers into ambulances were carried out in Afghanistan. They might not have been retained into long term service, however.

The Royal Marines originally ordered 108 Viking vehicles in the early 2000s, as part of the Commando 21 reorganization. The Viking All-Terrain Vehicle (Protected) was meant to provide armoured, amphibious mobility to the Commando groups, and it hit its IOC in 2005, with deliveries completed by 2006.
The Royal Marines took 33 of the new vehicles with them in Afghanistan during their tour in October 2006, and the all terrain mobility of the Viking proved incredibly precious during operations, so much so that the British Army asked to retain a Viking presence in theatre in the long term as Herrick 6 began. The Army obviously had no Viking-trained personnel, so the new big mission of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group became the support of the Afghan effort, in parallel to the deployment of the vehicle at sea on amphibious operations, including a raid inland in Somalia last year.
Further orders for Viking vehicles were made during the years of service in Afghanistan: in June 2008, for example, 14 new vehicles were ordered.
Eventually, 24 Viking of the much improved MK2 type were also ordered during 2009, with deliveries completed in 2010: these were 22 troop transports and 2 command vehicles.
In 2007 a separate order was placed, for 21 Vikings which will be part of the Watchkeeper UAS system , carrying the Tactical Party that will enable ground forces and HQs to access the data from the unmanned aircrafts and assign missions to it.
In total, more than 160 Vikings have been ordered by the UK, but at least 27 were lost during operations. 21 are Army systems within the Watchkeeper batteries, and 99 remain in Royal Marines service.

The 9 Mortar Carriers should be at the same standard as that showcased at DSEI 2011 by BAE Systems, including a turntable for mounting the 81mm L16 mortar and space for the stowage of 140 rounds.
The 19 crew-served weapon variants come with a protected mount for an additional weapon on the rear car, in addition to the MR555 weapon mounts already present on all front cars. These shielded mounts can take any weapon, from a 5.56 Minimi to the HMG .50 and the GMG. The mount weights some 380 kg complete with the .50 HMG and offers STANAG Level 2 ballistic protection to the gunner.
The Viking Crew Served Weapon variant showcased by BAE Systems as a very impressive, all-inclusive mobile fortress meant to provide fire support and ISTAR to the forces on the ground: it was in fact shown fitted with a Remote Weapon Station with a .50 HMG mounted over the front car, a shielded ring mount mounted on top of the rear car, Boomerang III acoustical shooter detection system and retractable, mast-mounted EO/IR sensor payload. It is not clear if the 19 CSW vehicles for the Royal Marines will any of the more advanced features.  

The upgrade improved protection on the older Vikings bringing them in line with the latest MK2 standard. The gross weight grew up to 14 tons, and front and rear hulls were rebuilt to integrate the latest generation V-shaped mine-resistant protection (with the exception of the rear cars of Repair and Mortar variants). Modifications to brakes and suspensions and to all other affected components were part of the overhaul. Unfortunately, not enough money was available to replace the powerpack of the older Vikings to fully match the MK2, but wiring and mount modifications were carried out to simplify later adoption of the more powerful engine. The MK1 and 1A employ a 5.9 litre Cummins engine, while the MK2s use a 6.7 litre one. The MK2 has greater electrical power output, increased to 260 amperes.
The vehicles are equipped with blast-protected seats, hung on rails, and come with four-point seat belts.
The vehicles can take add-on armour kits and can be fitted with a cage armor to resist to RPGs, but with these additions they are no longer amphibious. Extra protection kits were procured as part of the refurbishment.
The Full Operational Capability of the renewed Viking fleet was announced in April 2016. At the time, the upgrade was said to secure the Viking’s future out to 2024, at which point another upgrade would extend that possibly to 2034.

It is not clear exactly how the 99 vehicles are distributed and employed. A recent news report says that the “Viking Squadron” is a 167-strong formation, formally under control of the Commando Logistic Regiment. Based in Bovington, where work started in 2013 to build a permanent Royal Marines facility, the unit has a trials and training cell plus supports and is structured on 3 Troops of 16 Vikings each, plus mortar section with 4 vehicles.
Two Troops are kept at 5 days notice to move and can provide lift to half of the Lead Commando Group, while the third Troop is kept at 28 days notice. Under Commando 21, half of the strength of a Commando unit was meant to be tracked, and half wheeled. Jackals are also part of the Royal Marines inventory. In general, 19 Crew Served vehicles and 9 Mortar carriers suggest that the objective of the Viking refurbishment programme was to provide protected mobility essentially to the sole Lead Commando Group.

Despite the hard work done in the field, the Royal Marines have not had a good time at home and in the budget battles of the last decade and more. Their priorities for the future remain almost completely unaddressed and the amphibious shipping has, since 2010, taken some savage hits. It is not a good time for the amphibious force, and there is no telling when things could look up.
In my opinion, the Marines need to try and position themselves differently: the Special Purpose Task Group is not a bad idea, but it is a dangerous example of shrinkage of what amphibious forces are good for. Fighting light and inserting by helicopter is just a tiny percentage of what makes amphibious forces important, and it is the least “special” bit of their job. There are already Light Role infantry and Parachute troops for that.

What makes the amphibious force unique is the ability to carry out a forcible entry carrying a lot of heavy equipment. If the amphibious force loses its ability to kick down the door and go ashore with vehicles and stores in quantities adequate to support maneuver even against well equipped enemies, their purpose is lost. If the Marines become nothing more than Light, airmobile infantry, the next cut will be a lot more painful, because they will no longer be unique, but just another infantry formation in the pile, just more expensive.

Arguably, instead of procuring yet another articulated, light, all-terrain BV-X vehicle, the Royal Marines should seek to become heavier. The Commandos never operated a combat vehicle like the US AAV-7 or the LAV, but it is probably high time for them to begin doing that. Arguably, Viking is the All Terrain Support vehicle and the actual gap is in the combat role, where a new, amphibious 8x8 vehicle would give a lot more bite and purpose. Money is of course the problem, but the Corps should begin to consider its future in new ways. They could have, and perhaps should have, positioned themselves as a true Strike Brigade candidate, even if that meant accepting greater army control. Because the truth is that 3 Commando Brigade already depends heavily on Army’s decisions through its Logistic, Engineer and Artillery component. It risked to lose a lot of those in 2010, and next time might not be able to parry the blow, especially because it cannot expect financial and even less manpower help from Navy Command, which is by now the image of despair, trying hard not to fall off the knife’s edge.

BAE - Iveco ACV swims ashore from an italian LPD during trials for the USMC ACV programme. The ACV can be equipped with an unmanned turret with 30mm gun; or carry a 120mm mortar, as well as come in Troop Carrier configuration. This is the field the Marines should aim towards. 

Going lighter is not going to help. The british armed forces are already overloaded with light and poorly supported formations. The Air Assault task force experimented in Joint Warrior with air-inserted light armour in the form of Foxhound, and this is a very welcome development.
The Royal Marines, however, need to reconsider with attention what makes them special, which is their ability to deploy a significant, well equipped force, much heavier than any force that can move in by air. The Corps should work to go heavier, not to go lighter. The field of “light” is already overcrowded. The “Medium” field should have been the Marines’s realm. Trials have begun with the Ares variant of the Ajax family to prove that it can go ashore from LCU MK10, but this is not enough, and might be too little, too late.

Ares goes to the beach 

In my opinion, the top priority for the Corps is to procure a faster, large landing craft, indispensable for littoral maneuver as part of a wider effort to build itself a role in the Medium weight arena, working together with the Army. 

More of this work alongside the army is what really sets the amphibious force apart. Air Assault is someone else's job, and going there means losing capability... as well as the Corps, in the long run. 

The UK does not need the Marines for helicopter-borne raids; it needs them for littoral maneuver and for opening doors for the Army. And the Corps, if it wants to survive in the age of constant cuts, needs to realize this. It is not an easy position to hold, between an Army short of manpower but needed for key supports; and a Navy even more desperate for manpower but that has the amphibious ships that make it all possible. 
It'll take courage and wisdom to hold that ground. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Building on strengths - Amphibious Force and the Royal Marines cut

1 - Introduction and Air Manoeuver 
2 - Amphibious Force and the Royal Marines cut 

This second chapter of the "building on strengths" series has been urged on and changed in shape by the emergence on national news of a problem that has been brewing in the background for a while. Amid enduring tightness of budgets, the Navy Command is very seriously considering cutting back on the Royal Marines in the desperate attempt of saving money.

The idea of permanently removing 42 Commando from frontline work has been lurking in the background for months. The fact that it has now appeared on the press means that it is very close to turning to reality. This leak to The Times might well be the last ditch effort to prevent it from going ahead, but it could very well not suffice.

Delegation of budget responsibilities to the frontline Commands is generally a very good thing, but when it comes to funding crises of this kind, it can turn into a monstrosity. Fallon has already clearly shrugged off the blame and appointed it like a medal on the chest of the 1st Sea Lord, and this might serve to make the cut all but unavoidable, simply because, from a Royal Navy-only point of view, the alternatives are probably even worse as they probably involve the loss of ships.

It is a fact, however, that removing 42 Commando from frontline duty will dramatically weaken the amphibious force, even in its routine battlegroup strength. The three Commandos alternate yearly into high readiness to serve as the core of the up to 1800-strong amphibious battlegroup, which includes an engineer squadron from 24 Regiment, an artillery battery from 29 Royal Artillery, logistic group from the Commando Logistic Regiment and reconnaissance, command support, police and air defence from 30 Commando IX.

It is a fact that 16 Air Assault brigade delivers the Air Assault battlegroup at readiness mostly from just 2 units (2 and 3 PARA). But it is equally a fact that they have been reinforced with the Royal Gurkha Rifles when it became clear that two battalions on their own struggled. It is also a fact that the Royal Marines have an additional task to take care of, which is provision of “Green” boarding teams to the fleet, for the more dangerous operations. This task used to be the remit of a squadron within 43 Commando, but that squadron was disbanded and the responsibility given to the Commando group in its “Other Tasks” year.

The idea for 42 Commando, I guess, might be to turn it into the permanent provider of Green teams and other supporting capabilities at lower-than-full-Commando scale. Recently, 3 Commando Brigade developed a Personnel Recovery capability for saving downed pilots in enemy territory and negate sensitive material to the enemy. A C-SAR capability that has long been needed and that the return of Carrier Strike, as well as the sensitive nature of F-35 technology and the value of its pilots, have made more urgent than ever.

The Royal Marines are also following the USMC lead on Special Purpose Task Groups, smaller forces (roughly company-group sized, in what has been seen so far on Mounts Bay in her solo deployment in the Mediterranean) adequate for raids, quasi-SF operations and rapid reaction. It might be that 42 Commando would be permanently tasked with delivery of a number of these groups. 
At a minimum, a SPTG with 4 Merlin HC4 is expected to always feature on board of the active aircraft carrier in the future, as well. 

However, even this "soft cut" would still deprive 3 Commando Brigade of mass, something it cannot afford to lose. In his end of year letter to the Royal Marines association, Major General Rob Magowan, commander general Royal Marines, wrote that the Corps was not in the condition of losing mass. At the time, the rumors about the push towards cuts to the RM were already alive and had already reached my ears and, no doubt, those of many others. The letter does not mention it directly, but the hints are clear: the fight was already on.

Unfortunately, the Royal Marines appear to be losing it, and going public now is probably the last bullet left to fire. If it misses, it is probably over. 3 Commando Brigade has been under constant assault since 2010: the Army, faced with its own great share of cuts, wanted to take manpower and pieces out of green Commando units. Initially, it looked like 24 Commando Engineer regiment would vanish, as well as 148 Battery Meiktila. In the end, both those cuts were successfully fought back and cancelled. 24 Commando Engineer has since had some actual success, growing 54 Squadron into a deployable engineer unit supporting the historic 59 Sqn. 131 (Reserve) Squadron has also been formally absorbed, with the regiment effectively mirroring the efforts and general organization of 23 Parachute Engineer regiment, with two deployable squadrons alternating into readiness.

7 Battery, 29 Commando Royal Artillery has had more of a struggle, between starts and stops: move south from Arbroath; stay in Arbroath; lose the guns and become Tac Gp only; keep the guns; wait for more announcements; repeat. Since 2010, the Arbroath-based battery, in theory support for 45 Commando in RM Condor, has faced a very uncertain future made of orders and counter-orders. 
Tthe last info I had suggested that its future was more than ever hanging by a thread as the loss of the Citadel and the need to relocate most of the brigade’s units as part of the “Better Defence Estate” project added to the shortage of guns, tight manpower margins and insufficient REME support. "Wait for further communications" seemed to be the thing. The artillery regiment is down to 12 guns in 3 tiny fires batteries, and could well end up having only two batteries, like 7 Royal Horse Artillery in the Air Assault role. In other words: the bare minimum needed to support a single battlegroup at readiness. The loss of 42 Commando as frontline unit is pretty much assured to come together with the loss of 7 Bty as well: no Commando to support, no artillery battery required. 

3 Commando brigade is one of just 6 brigades in the whole of the British Forces which will have any Combat Support and Combat Service Support units. In simpler terms, it is one of only 6 brigades that are actually deployable (in full or in part), in connection with the effects of Army 2020 Refine. To further damage this already pitifully small force is a crime, and is not a decision that should fall on the shoulders of the 1st Sea Lord alone. The whole british armed forces would come out weaker from the ordeal, even before considering the precious specialized nature of Marines units (from amphibiosity to Cold Weather and Mountain specialization) and the fact that they traditionally are a privileged recruiting ground for the Special Forces.

42 Commando is in line for the shrinking and change of role 

Dismantling this area of excellence makes zero sense when observed from a whole force point of view. The Navy budget might well be the one in most immediate trouble, but this “fix” is worse than the illness. There are other areas that could be hit with cuts without the damage being anywhere near as serious, and the primary one is the “Adaptable Force” of six “infantry brigades” in Army 2020 Refine. This container of Light Role infantry battalions will have zero CS and CSS elements at its disposal as the few it had as part of Army 2020 get either dismantled or moved to 3rd Division as part of Refine, meaning that its brigades are not deployable at all. The government needs to drop its absurd and horrendously damaging diktat that “no more than 5 infantry battalions should be lost, in order to preserve all capbadges”. This requirement, dropped on the Army’s top brass in 2010, has warped the army out of shape in an horrendous way, and now will be partially responsible of the cuts to 3 Commando Brigade as well.
The Royal Marines capability needs to be nurtured, not dismantled. They deliver unique capabilities within defence and, together with Royal Navy amphibious shipping and RFA strategic sealift (themselves already very unwisely run down dramatically beginning in 2010), they represent a huge share of the amphibious capability within NATO. The UK does itself no favor at all by depriving itself of this capability, and NATO as a whole. It is not the right way to approach Brexit negotiations either: threatening to retreat from Europe’s defence is not a very serious proposition if the forces get dismantled either way, and one of the unique or semi-unique contributions get lost before the debate even starts.

Army and Royal Marines must be looked at from the same table. 3 Commando Brigade is both a precious deployable brigade (one of far too few) and the custodian of the ability to maneuver on the sea flank and in the littoral. I cannot emphasize enough how urgent it is to fix the ridiculous imbalance of “Light Role infantry” to “everything else”. The manpower and money that go into those six undeployable, unfinished, paper-tiger infantry brigades is a treasure that the Forces cannot possibly do without in this climate. Manpower and money that should go into rebuilding lost supports, and with them lost deployable brigades. Some capbadges will be lost, but this is far, far better than the current path of self-destruction that is dismantling CS, CSS and now even the amphibious force in order to preserve more infantry regiments than the army can possibly support. That Army 2020 Refine dismantles yet another set of brigade-level supports (artillery, engineer, logistic, medical) is a act of self-harm absolutely unjustifiable, and this Royal Marines cut will add to that disaster.

Going back to my original plan for a moment, I intended to write that the UK should invest on its amphibious force. The news of the incoming cut only add urgency to the statement. The UK possesses a very large share of all of Europe’s amphibious shipping, as well as a very capable permanent strategic sealift component (the Point class RoRo vessels). It has a capable, proven, respected amphibious brigade that only needs a small investment in supports to rebuild muscle.

Moreover, the UK will have a capable carrier strike force to support and protect amphibious maneuver with. To sacrifice one to fund the other is an act of strategic blindness hard to even describe with words. The two things go hand in hand, and the 1st Sea Lord repeatedly tried to make the point clear and understood; in several speeches he explained that the Royal Navy must be defined by three macro areas being: Nuclear Deterrent (and we should also add, the all-important SSNs), Carrier Air (not strike. Air, in general, because a key contribution of the air wing is protection of the task force in a heavily contested environment) and Amphibious capability.

The big pieces are in place, and the United Kingdom, in a rare moment of sanity and awareness of its potentiality, had actually taken leadership of a NATO “Smart Defence” initiative to develop a strategic Port Opening capability to enable theatre entry. Unfortunately, nothing has been heard since, even though this is a capability that would be simply invaluable both in war (Think Defence wrote an excellent report about the efforts, back in 2003, to reopen the port of Umm Qasr in Iraq)  and peace (think about disaster relief, such as after the Haiti earthquake, when establishing a point of easy access from the sea is vital).

One bit of good news…

… related to the previous chapter of this series.
Interestingly, images coming in from Joint Warrior 17_1 suggest that someone in the army either reads me (just kidding) or has ideas similar to mine for investment on Air Assault and Air Manoeuver. The 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles seems to be playing with Foxhounds air-landed at Keevil with C-17. 

Other deliveries have included artillery and Pinzgauers towing the guns and even Apache, with rotors folded and all bits in place for rapid entry into action. 

The brigadier commanding 16 Air Assault brigade has added a photo in tweet, showing a Tactical HQ element mounted in Foxhounds for mobility, part of an “airmobile armour” experiment.
I was not aware of it coming when I wrote my recent article, I can assure you all of it. But obviously it is pretty pleasing to see some positive development, and one that goes in the very same direction I argued for.

The Tac HQ in the Airmobile Armour experiment 

Elements of Joint Helicopter Command deployed on Salisbury Plain with Joint Helicopter Force - 1 (HQ element coming from the Attack Helicopter Force. JHF-2 is amphibious-focused and comes from the Commando Helicopter Force) along with 4 Chinook, 3 Puma and 5 Apache from 664 Sqn in its new permanent attachment to the Air Assault task force. The exercise has included refuelings from fuel bladders carried inside Chinooks adding as relocatable Forward Refueling Points.

Meanwhile, in Exercise Una Triangle, the RAF A4 force and Royal Engineer's 529 Specialist Team RE (STRE) from Wittering deployed to Cottersmore to turn the ex-airfied (now the Army's Kendrew Barracks) back into an active air hub. Tents, catering, logistics, bulk fuel installation were all exercised to create a small deployed air base. Hopefully this will be further exercised and developed in the future, to include austere basing for the F-35B in good time. According to Scott Williams, RAF pilot within the F-35 programme, Royal Engineers will renew their stock of matting panels for runway repair and construction in order to support F-35 austere operations. 
Coming to a future Joint Warrior in a non too distant future, hopefully. 
Meanwhile, you can see photos and video reports from Una Triangle on RAF Wittering's facebook page. It is nice to see that some things are still moving. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Building on strengths

 In this series of short posts I pursue two key objectives:

-          Argue that the British Armed Forces, in times of severe budget difficulties, should not pursue “ham tomorrow” at all costs, but focus instead on a number of areas in which they still have the seeds of excellence.
-          Provide a more detailed background to my “Alternative Army 2020” proposal, showing the reasoning behind certain approaches.

The approach behind my reasoning is simple: building on what is available, to secure and improve a number of key capabilities that make the UK a major player in defence within NATO.
Rather than dismantling mass and capability even further to pursue new “Strike Brigades”, or seek savings by cutting back on the more “exotic” specialties, I argue that it makes more sense to move back a step and watch the picture from a slightly different angle.

It is by now constantly repeated that the British Armed forces will always operate in Coalition and that this or that gap are not worrisome because allies will help plug the hole. However, unless the “ally” is invariably Uncle Sam, certain decisions make no sense as they are not at all aligned to what the European allies could effectively provide in a joint operation. The result is that certain cuts and proposals only exacerbate weaknesses that already exist within NATO and sacrifice precious specialism.

Does it make sense to cut back on Heavy Armour when, even with all the well known obsolescence issues of Challenger 2, the british heavy contingents are the only ones with true, recent wartime mileage in Europe?
Does it make sense to cut back on the ability to project power from the sea through amphibious operations when 3rd Commando Brigade and the shipping available for it remain a very large percentage of Europe’s capability in this specialist area?
Does it make sense to weaken the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and pretend that there is no manpower problem, when the RFA represents the vast majority of complex logistic shipping in Europe, making it a truly invaluable component not just for the UK, but for its allies as well?
Does it make sense to cut back on air-ground manoeuvre when there are 60 Chinooks, 50 Apache and 8 C-17 in service, giving the UK the best mix of tools for air manoeuvre in all of Europe?
Does it make sense to still tinker with the idea of cutting Sentinel, when the air ISTAR elements the UK can field are without rival in Europe?

Certain suggestions and, worse still, certain MOD moves appear to me to be absolutely misguided. Dismantling capability in areas in which the UK is the major European player is not going to make any favor to Her Majesty’s Government political weight. Being leaders in a number of specialist areas is more valuable than being able to field half-formed, half-tracked “Strike Brigades” able to respond “quickly” to… no one really knows what.
Not to mention that if the specialist capabilities are retained and nurtured, the potential for independent action, albeit on a small scale, remains more realistic. And the ability to take action independently is a key differentiator in the weight of a country at the table. An independent nuclear deterrent on its own will lose value if the rest of the armed forces turn into handicapped forces, plagued by capability gaps, pursuing political clout by being always the first to deploy in any new crisis. The UK still has a budget large enough and capabilities good enough to be a leader within NATO, a framework nation to which smaller players can contribute reinforcements. The UK should be, first of all, a Strategic Enabler: a military power lacking in mass, for obvious reason, but with the most complete range of capabilities possible. Even more so because it already possesses much of what it takes to do so. It is actually cheaper, or at least more cost-effective, to build upon what there already is.

Air Manoeuvre

While large-scale airborne operations are of questionable, at best, likelihood and of uncertain wisdom in this day and age, and anyway outside of the UK’s material possibilities; smaller scale parachute operations and, above all, manoeuvre by the air at battlegroup level, remain absolutely valid and useful. Air manoeuvre has been extremely effective and very widely used in Afghanistan and in Mali. In Mali, the French had some success with company-group parachute assaults as well, showing that there is still merit to having this kind of rapid insertion capability.

It is my belief that the British Army absolutely needs to maintain parachute assault as a capability, albeit at relatively small scale. Even more important is maintaining a significant ability to manoeuvre significant forces by air, both for securing key points ahead of the ground forces and for flank operations.
This is a complex, demanding and expensive proposition but, among the good reasons for insisting on this capability, is the fact that the UK is actually relatively well positioned to maintain and expand its know-how in this area. It is not my intention to produce here an history of the various SDSRs and of the procurement decisions they have generated, because it would take several pages at best, but the important thing is that the various decisions taken in the past have generated:

-          A fleet of 8 C-17 strategic cargo aircrafts, which provide a lift capability with no match elsewhere in NATO
-          A fleet of 22 A400M Atlas; not as numerous as desirable but certainly significant
-          A fleet of 14 C-130J to be retained in the long term thanks to a sudden dawn of wisdom in the SDSR 2015
-          A large and very capable helicopter fleet, composed of, crucially, 60 Chinooks providing a lift capacity that only Germany, having the CH-53, could hope to match.

Add the 50 Apache E with their proven firepower and sensors; 23 Puma HC2 and the Wildcats, and the resulting pool of resources is actually very considerable. It is easy to lose heart in front of the constant downpour of cuts and capability gaps, but there are actually still areas of excellence which could and should be better exploited.  

Arguably, the UK has better resources in this area than anyone else (always excluding the US, obviously) within NATO, yet 16 Air Assault brigade hasn’t fared too well in the last decade. Its organic supports (Artillery, Logistic, Signal…) have been eroded down to such a degree that the brigade today cannot be considered a “true” brigade. It has three regular infantry battalions thanks to the recent addition of the Gurkha rifles, but for lack of supports it would not be able to convert all three into battlegroups and deploy en masse. It has also lost the little bit of semi-organic cavalry support it had, and the Patrols platoons within the PARA battalions cannot be considered an adequate replacement.

In my opinion, this amounts to wasting a fine unit and a great opportunity. Those who have read my alternative proposal for Army 2020 Refine know that I called for a reinforcement of 16 Air Assault Brigade in its supporting parts as well as, if at all possible, the expansion to a four-battalions structure. What is needed is an “air-mechanized” brigade composed of two air mobile battalions and two light mechanized battalions (on Foxhound and Jackal). The whole brigade remains relatively light and easily deployed, but comes with everything it needs to be a true Strike force, tactically as well as strategically agile and able, from within its constituent units, to replicate the kind of combined air and ground manoeuvre that the army has most recently carried out during operation Herrick.
It is worth mentioning Operation Panther’s Claw (Panchai Palang) in the summer of 2009: 3rd SCOTS, then deployed as Aviation Assault Battlegroup, saw 350 soldiers of A and B companies (the Aviation Strike Coys in the group) airlifted in a single large wave to secure key crossing points in the Luy Mandeh wadi, north of Babaji. The reinforcements came in the form of a 64-vehicles convoy, with Mastiff, Jackal, Vikings and trucks from Camp Bastion, led by Task Force Thor, an American C-IED route clearance unit. The single-wave assault was made with 12 Chinooks, both british and American, supported by 4 Apache and 2 US Black Hawks.
2 weeks later, after holding the ground, B company carried out another aviation assault to secure another key passage ahead of the advancing Light Dragoons battlegroup. In July, during the third phase of the operation, Alpha coy was inserted using 5 Chinook and the support of 2 Apache. This operation included link-up with an armoured thrust by Charlie Company, 2 Royal Welsh in Warriors. The Fire Support Group operated on the ground, mounted in Jackals.

Air manoeuvre remains an essential capability, and the Army and RAF own the most expensive pieces already: there is no reason not to expand on them to put meat on the bones of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
As 3rd SCOTS example proves, in addition, air mobility is not necessarily a job for PARA troops, provided that the necessary expertise and procedures are well rehersed and understood within the army. In my alternative Army 2020 proposal, 51 Brigade has the same structure: 2 Light Role Battalions replace 2 and 3 PARA, and are meant to provide the air mobile element, while two light mechanized infantry battalions provide the ground mobility element. Each brigade also has a Light Cavalry regiment on Jackal.  

Several equipment problems are immediately evident:

-          The army currently lacks the capability to parachute Jackal into battle, and this means that the first Fire Support elements are forced to enter the fight as dismounts.
-          The Jackal is a good vehicle, but it was not engineered to be a rapid air landing assault platform. As amazing as it might sound, the Jackal cannot charge out, combat-ready, from a C-130 since the machine gun on top has to be removed in order to fit. So, even as an air-landed follow on reinforcement, it needs some time to make ready before it can move into the fight.

The latter problem is possibly going to go away thanks to the A400 Atlas. The first can only be solved by procuring a strong enough parachute platform system for use on the Atlas. The British Army has decided to entirely gap Heavy and Vehicle airdrops by withdrawing from service the old Medium Stressed Platform, which was compatible with the old C-130K cargo floor but not with the J’s. After seeking a modification to integrate the platform on the C-130J, the army decided that it was too expensive and accepted the gap. In the last few years, 16 Air Assault brigade has been able to parachute its artillery and other heavy loads into action only by exploiting US help and kit.
A new platform and the A400M are supposed to fix the problem.

The light cavalry mounted on Jackal has a firepower deficit, as the .50 HMG and 40mm GMG alone can’t give the reach and the heavy punch required to stand up to more threatening adversaries. Without even needing to go all the way up to Russian or Russian-style light armoured vehicles, the Jackals could end up being severely outgunned by “technicals” such as those seen in Syria. While the accuracy of fire coming from a ZSU-23 mounted on a Toyota pick-up might be questionable at best, it is not acceptable to step into a fight knowing that the enemy already has a range and firepower advantage almost every time (14.5mm machine guns, ZSU-23s and even old BMP turrets are easily found around in every theatre of war). Syria and Iraq are also showing how dangerous hastily and crudely armoured vehicle-born IEDs are: having a 30mm gun to decisively hit and stop them at a safe distance would make the difference.
The cheapest and easiest solution is to fit a number of Jackal vehicles with a remote turret armed with the same 30mm gun employed by the Apache. It is a weapon the army already has and supports, limiting its impact on logistics, and it would help the Light Cavalry a great deal. It does not weight much and it is getting a boost thanks to US Army plans to have it on top of JLTV in the reconnaissance role.

In this photo by Army recognition, a particularly capable RWS, my Moog Inc., integrating 7.62 coax, Javelin missile and M230 30mm gun. 

A simpler, lighter M230LF installation on M-ATV. The US Army is probably going to require this weapon on top of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicles used in recce role. 

From heavily armed technicals to russian Tigr with 30mm guns. The Light Cavalry is not good for much unless it has the firepower to at least compete with this range of threats. 

Another issue, until recently, was the non exploitation of the C-17’s tactical capabilities. Thankfully, in the last couple of years the Army and RAF have begun to open up airdrops, rapid air landing and austere runways capability latent in the Globemaster fleet. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before the C-17 can be fully exploited.

Heavy Air Drop capability needs to be rebuilt; it cannot be delegated entirely to US help

Relatively small investments can have a major impact on the British Army’s capability to manoeuvre from and through the air. Much of the required equipment exists. Central to my alternative Army 2020 proposal, air mobility is a key attribute of light brigades. Two such brigades, one of which based on 16 Air Assault; would provide the army with a sustainable and quickly deployable core of Aviation Assault battle groups supported by light mechanized formations ensuring post-landing mobility and lethality.
Parachute capability, normally at company group-level, continues to come on rotation from within the 2 PARA battalions, while air assault is more widely delivered by Light Role battalions.