Thursday, September 27, 2012

The unmanned revolution

A very interesting study from DroneWarsUk has put together government data about UAV expenditure and projects, and so doing it has provided excellent food for thought and analysis. Considering, of course, that while they openly oppose the use of unmanned air systems, especially armed ones, i totally support their employment, simply for one reason: they work and deliver effect.

Since 2007, the UK has expended and/or committed around 2 billion pounds for purchasing, operating, researching and developing unmanned air systems.

The MQ-9 Reaper fleet accounts for 506 million pounds in approved purchase and support costs. The original order for 6 drones made in 2007 was followed by a 135 million order in 2010 for a further 5 Reapers and associated equipment and ground control section.
In the meanwhile, one of the original 6 Reapers was lost, so that the total fleet, at deliveries completed, will number 10.

So far, Reaper has been notoriously controlled by british personnel from 39 Squadron RAF based in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, US. However, with the 5 new Reapers due to be delivered, XIII Squadron RAF, which ceased being a Tornado GR4 squadron early in 2011, is to stand up again this autumn as a Remotely Piloted Air System, based in Waddington, in the UK.
39 Squadron itself is to finally relocate to Waddington in the next future, once XIII Squadron is operational. The relocation of 39 Squadron will be phased to ensure there is no disruption to UK Reaper support to current operations.

This way, the UK will have brought home the ground control section of the Reaper force. But Reaper has not yet been given a safe and certain future: being a UOR-funded equipment, by the end of operations in Afghanistan the RAF will have to either bring it into Core Budget and find the funding to keep it going, or divest it. This situation also implies that the RAF so far has no plan at all to base Reapers in the UK, and fly them from UK air bases. The drones are obviously based in Afghanistan, and their future remains, at the moment, a question mark.
It is however widely expected that the RAF will keep Reaper, as a stopgap on the way to Scavenger if nothing else (there won't be a Scavenger before 2020 at best), which might actually end up being a development of Reaper itself: the option is far from having been ruled out.

The Reaper is currently the only armed unmanned system available to the UK. It has flown more than 38.000 hours and has employed weapons since 2008. They have employed weaponry 319 times as of early September, and have killed hundreds of talibans, including important figureheads, while tragically killing four civilians in one occasion, when in 2008 two Taliban pick-up trucks loaded with explosives were taken out with a Reaper attack.
There are of course various accusations that the number of civilian victims is actually higher, but the official figure is four. 

DroneWarsUK adds to the Reaper's costs an estimate of the impact of the armed UAV on expenditure for satellite bandwidth. I'm not sure of the validity of their estimate and reasoning, even if it is obvious that, without the bandwidth-hungry drone, the Armed Forces would need less satellite comms capability.
The Skynet satellite system costs 200 million pounds a year, and DroneWars estimates that up to 10% of the figure might be made up by the needs of the UAVs. This particular figure, however, remains uncertain.  

The Hermes 450 fleet is operated by the Royal Artillery with contractor's support. There are a dozen drones, sustaining 5 to 6 daily task lines. The UAVs are leased on a pay-by-flight basis, as a stop-gap measure on the way to the much enhanced, UK-built and owned Watchkeeper. The lease had to be renewed several times, since Watchkeeper failed to become operative by the end of 2011 as was once expected, and again was unable to deploy in 2012, with the first Watchkeeper task line now expected in theatre in Spring 2013.
The cost of the lease since 2007 is put at 181 million pounds.

The already mentioned Watchkeeper is currently the largest and most ambitious UAV program in the UK, and indeed is probably matched only by the US Army's Gray Eagle UAV project.
This complete, fully-integrated UAV system is due to be the main eye of the army for years into the future. 54 UAVs and 13 Ground Control Stations are on order, plus at least 21 Tactical terminals, mounted in specifically-configured Viking all-terrain vehicles.
Cost of the Watchkeeper is booked at 847 million pounds.

Watchkeeper is packed up for transport by a DROPS truck

The Watchkeeper is unarmed, but has a margin of payload available that would allow carriage of a couple of light guided weapons such as the Thales LMM missile (13 kg, with a warhead of just around 3 and laser guidance). The Royal Artillery is keen to gain weapons capability to turn the Watchkeeper into a hunter-killer platform better able to deal with time-critical targets, but there is no funding available at the moment. The "A-TUAS" (Armed Tactical Unmanned Air System) program, as it is called, remains "on hold", possibly to proceed sometime in the next few years.  

The Desert Hawk expenditure has been approved at 42 millions since 2007. The original order was for 144 mini-drones, but 27 have been lost during operations. There have been several successive additional orders and capability insertions, up to the currently in service Desert Hawk III.
In Afghanistan there are regularly a dozen 5-man detachments of DHIII operative, with each Detachment having several (possibly six) UAVs. The system is operated by the Royal Artillery and is, of course, totally unarmed.

Special Forces have and might still be using US RQ-11 Raven mini-drones in partnership with US forces on operations. The SAS in 2005 acquired the BUSTER mini-UAV in unknown quantities.  

The T-HAWK vertical take-off, man-packable UAV was initially operated by the Royal Engineers, but was subsequently assigned to Royal Artillery personnel as the RA became the Army's UAV authority. T-HAWK is used as an integral part of the TALISMAN route clearance system.
12 UAVs were procured, for a booked cost of 3 million pounds.

The PD-100 Black Hornet is the most recent and less known addition to the force. This nano-UAV weighting only 16 grams is a tiny helicopter that fits in a hand, but can fly for up to 25 minutes, depending on wind conditions and other factors. It uses internal rechargeable batteries for power and can fly at up to 1000 meters of distance. The PD-100 Black Hornet is a complete system comprising two or three nano air vehicles (NUAV) and a ground control element fitted in a light, small box for transport with a total weight inferior to 1 kg.  
Thanks to its tiny sizes, it can fly even into buildings and provide the troops with situational awareness. An unknown number was ordered in November 2011: the value of the "initial" contract was put at 2.5 millions, but 20 millions were indicated as through-life value.
This is likely to include further expected acquisitions and successive capability-insertions: the MOD wants the nano-UAV to provide night vision too, something that, at the moment, could not be fitted. As technology progresses, it is hoped that this and other features will be added.

While there is no certainty, it would appear that the MOD has procured 100 or more nano-UAVs, so possibly between 33 and 50 complete "Personal Reconnaissance" systems. It would appear that the nano-UAV number 100 was delivered to the MOD last June.

Black Hornet in action
Cost, as explained, is indicated in 20 millions.

For research and development, Mantis and Taranis received, as of 2010, funding for 167 million pounds.
In January 2012 BAE was awarded a much publicized 40 million contract for the definition of "Future Combat Air Systems", and most recently a 30 million Joint Effort with France was announced, relative to work for the design of an UCAV for entry in service in 2030.
The UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) has strike missions as main role, and it is expected to be an ultra-long range, stealth, highly-survivable bomber capable to deliver precious strikes deep into enemy-held territory, even in presence of significant enemy air defences. 

The most interesting part however is the indication of a Scavenger requirement for a total fleet numbering up to 30 MALEs, with a through-life cost of 2 billion pounds over 15 years.
Normally, support and running costs account for 60% of the total expenditure, so the development and procurement of the Scavenger solution would be budgeted at less than 1 billion pounds.
Scavenger is expected to have significant Strike capability: the Mantis demonstrator from BAE, expected to be the basis for development of the production-standard aircraft, was shown fitted with 6 underwing pylons suitable for Paveway IV guided bombs and Brimstone missiles.

Aimed at the Scavenger requirement is the collaboration with France on the BAE-Dassault "TELEMOS" MALE development. Committment to Scavenger is expected to be part of the 2013 defence budget. An announcement was actually expected already this summer, but the new government of France imposed a delay as it reviews its defence strategy (and, crucially, funding). France has recently signed a deal with Germany for collaboration on a MALE drone, in practice unilaterally expanding the bi-national project Telemos to involve Germany.
It remains to be seen how the UK will react, and what kind of future Telemos will have.

It should also be reported that a 40 million pounds UOR has been launched by the Royal Navy for the procurement of a UAV for employment on RFA ships and Type 23 frigates. It is widely expected that ScanEagle, or its newer, more capable incarnation, the RQ-21 Integrator, will be selected, as the Navy already validated operations of ScanEagle from Type 23 frigates as far back as 2006. Integrator uses the same launch and recovery kit and methods as ScanEagle, so it would make sense to go for the newer, more capable system as it would only imply minimal changes from the procedures already validated with ScanEagle in the past.
There is also a program for the demonstration and, in time, for the purchase of a rotary wing UAV which might be armed, and that will form an important part of the future mission capability of ships such as the Type 26 frigate.
These marittime UAVs programs are to be welcomed, as they will finally give the Navy improved situational awareness during deployments in congested and potentially hostile waters, such as in the Persian Gulf. 

If anything, my greatest worry and complaint is that Scavenger and the new UCAV, as it stands, are not to be made aircraft carrier capable, in no small part because they would need arresting wires and very possibly catapults to be fitted to the ships.
And as we know, the very questionable decision of going STOVL was taken instead.

Monday, September 24, 2012

SDSR: the words it didn't say

Time and obsessive attention on my part continue to bring forth more and more unpleasant and obscure elements of the SDSR and of the successive "restructuring" in programs and timelines. today confirms a fear that i've reported more than once on this blog, that the Royal Navy will have a gap of at least four years in Airborne Early Warning capability when the Sea King ASaC MK7 is retired in 2016.
Crowsnest, which is confirmed as part of the Core Budget at least, is not expected to deliver before 2020. Indeed, some documents suggest that it could be 2021 or even 2022 before it can enter service.

The recent damning report of the Defence Committee on Marittime Surveillance after Nimrod contains the hint, where it notes that:

There is the potential for other capability gaps to occur, such as when the Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopter is withdrawn in 2016 to be replaced by the Project Crowsnest operating from the Merlin Mk2.

This is another blow to the operational effectiveness of the Royal Navy, that is close to being zeroed. It is also spitting in the face of hard-gained direct and bloody experience: the Falklands evidently have not seen enough ships sunk to learn the goddamn lesson.

There is also apparently no hope left to see the AEW package going on the (at this point wasted) remaining Merlin HM1 airframes, as the MOD's description of Crowsnest is:

Project CROWSNEST will satisfy the requirement for an assured Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) capability to provide long range surveillance and battlespace management to Carrier Strike and Littoral Manoeuvre task groups. Project CROWSNEST is to replace SKASaC. The mission system solution will be hosted on the existing Merlin Mk2 aircraft, affording that platform a true multi-role capability across the air, maritime, land, surface and sub-surface environments. This will exploit the flexibility inherent in having a bolt-on sensor package that could allow either Anti-Submarine Warfare or ASaC role to be discharged dependent on the Commander's requirements (although to note the two roles may be mutually exclusive for concurrent or simultaneous operations). 

Another sizeable reduction in the strenght of the Fleet Air Arm is ahead, with the loss of the current AEW squadrons, and the passage of yet another mission on the shoulders of a shrinking Merlin community, with the predictable result that there will be no longer enough ASW, nor enough AEW. A disaster on the whole line.
It's worth remembering that the Merlin is also supposed to "close the gap" left by the loss of Nimrod.
Someone in the MOD really believes that Merlin is a wizard, and not an helicopter present in a fleet that will only number 30 and supposed to deliver 6 to 8 Small Ship Flights, carrier-wing flight (up to 6 helicopters) and presence in Bahrain for maritime security, and presence on RFA vessels.
Asking for miracles.  

Also, the SDSR said that the Hunt and Sandown classess of minesweepers would continue service (in number of 14, so one is due to retire soon...?) and start the transition to a "new capability" from 2018.
This was widely read as implying the start of their replacement with the MCM, Hydrographic and Patrol Capability ship (MHPC), but it now appears that this was very wide off the mark.
A DSTL call for papers on technological innovation in marittime applications contains a little bit of detail on the shape of MHPC, described as a "phased approach".
Ultimately, it is revealed that in 2018, at most, there will be a capability insertion into the current vessels, but new ships are not due until a decade later, in 2028 at the earliest. 

In 2018, if the plan survives the next planning rounds, the Hunt class of minesweepers (or, more likely, a selected number of ships in the class) will finally get the first new Unmanned Underwater Vehicles and Unmanned Surface Vehicles designed to provide a flexible stand-off MCM capability.
In particular, Thales and ASV Ltd have recently teamed up to develop a novel USV which will conduct payload trials in 2013 and is targeted at the Royal Navy needs, specifically for adoption on the Hunt. This new unmanned vehicle will have full payload flexibility, with the capability to tow sonars and sweep equipment and/or the capability to remotely deploy other drones, such as underwater mine-clearing devices such as the in-service SeaFox.

This is, however, only the latest reincarnation of a requirement that has been agonizing since 2005, when the Hunt minesweepers lost forever their on-board towed influence sweeping equipment.
This was due to be swiftly replaced with unmanned systems which would be fitted to 4 of the Hunt vessels under a 150 million contract. The unmanned vehicle, developed by ATLAS under the acronym FAST (Flexible Agile Sweeping Technology) didn't actually enter service, however: instead, it is to this day being used to research and demonstrate the use of unmanned vehicles in off-board MCM operations.
In 2011, FAST deployed at sea, controlled via radio, and launched a SeaFox mine-disposal drone, acting as a communications relay platform keeping the Mission Command center (installed in a container on the shore) in contact with the SeaFox in action underwater, in a world's first.

The Thales USV (which is actually apparently required to be Optionally Manned) is expected to deliver a more complete, all-round capability, which will finally enter service. Hopefully.
The numbers have reduced, and from 4 Hunt vessels fitted now the ambition is to fit only one. 
The MOD expects to buy two complete USV systems, one of which will be integrated on a Hunt vessel, while the other will be "deployable" and configured so to be operated from the shore or from a vessel of opportunity.
The USV will have to operate remotely at 12 miles from the mothership and will have to offer a wide variety of capabilities: electric, magnetic and acoustic influence sweep systems, but it will also demonstrate deployment of other, smaller Unmanned Vehicles and deployment and employment of sonars and sensors meant to detect the mines.
This will be a demonstrator to the future MHPC full capability, while delivering (with many years of delay) a replacement for the influence sweep capability once offered by the Hunt.

The USV project is part of an Unmanned Vehicle demonstrator program that was kick-started this year, to define a full equipment set comprising Medium and Small Underwater vehicles, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), Delayed Disposal Charges (as opposed to the current One-Shot SeaFox disposal vehicle, that is sacrificial, the DDC is placed on the mine and detonated when the unmanned vehicle has gotten back to safety - one off the shelf option being the COBRA system intended for use on SeaFox itself) and a surface craft capable to deploy the unmanned vehicles at stand-off range.
The package, once fully defined, will be globally deployable and able to operate from shore and from ships.

At least, the MCM package is taking the right shape, and much of the necessary systems and capabilities already exist and are, to a degree, proven.
The 2011 demonstration with FAST, SeaFox and deployable command post ashore was particularly precious and illuminating. With the USV hopefully demonstrated next year, the system will get considerably more mature.
The bad news is, of course, that MHPC vessels are far, far away in time.

In the early 2020s we should see the entry in service of the 3 vessels of the MARS Solid Support Ship type. There is still little in the way of detail about these vessels, meant to replace Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin. Fort Rosalie had a "first" last year when it became the first RFA vessel taking aboard an Apache helicopter, which it delivered to HMS Ocean for operations.
Fort Austin, which had been in reserve from 2009, has been re-activated and is about to re-enter service following an extensive refit.
Unless their lives are further extended, however, the Forts will retire in the first years of the new decade (Rosalie in 2022, Austin in 2021), and for this reason "additional work on MARS" is part of the funded Core Budget for the next 10 years. Their replacements will be needed not far into the future (in defence planning terms).

The MARS SSS requirement was once only for 2 vessels, because the support to amphibious and army forces ashore from the sea would be provided by 3 "Joint Sea Based Logistic" vessels. Unsurprisingly, the JSBL was soon enough killed in budget cuts, and currently the assumption is to have their intended role "added" to the SSS, with a boost from 2 to 3 ships.

The SSS will employ the new "Heavy-RAS" kit from Rolls Royce, which can move 5-ton pallets instead of the current 2, a dramatic improvement. The H-RAS kit is already being installed in a shore training facility at HMS Raleigh.
The ships are also expected to have, much like the current Forts, a great Aviation-Support capability, with large hangars for multiple helicopters. 

Other than this, though, we do not know much about the ship's design yet. However, an interesting concept drawing has appeared, which shows a two-spot flight deck, a triple hangar for Merlin-sized helicopters and, most interestingly, a RoRo ramp for vehicles and a LPD-style well deck. This feature, which has appeared on several designs of "Joint" Solid Support vessels around the world, might be inherited, along with the role of support to troops ashore, from the defunct JSBL. It is too early to say if this project will be the definitive one, but it seems safe to assume that some real consideration is going into giving the SSS a vehicle deck and the possibility to operate with large LCU crafts for the delivery of supplies, vehicles and logistic services to troops ashore. This is important, since the JSBL ship might well have been cancelled, but the requirements that brought to her in the first place are still very much there.

The MARS SSS concept art, quite detailed, shows very well the important aviation capabilities, but, crucially, shows a RoRo ramp for vehicles and a well deck.

Alive, but in coma, are two more "projects", the replacement of RFA Argus and of RFA Diligence. Diligence entered a new Major Service Life Extension refit, being given the hundredth breath of life, to enable her to deliver her invaluable services well into the 2020s, but will eventually need replacement. Its OSD has been pushed to the right again and again, and she was already life extended in 2007, out to 2017. If the new life-extension is as ambitious, it'll be a further 10 years. At some point, though, it will be impossible to delay the decision any further.

Argus will also not live forever. Replacing her with two much enhanced 200-bed hospital ships was one of the big promises already of the SDR 1998, and here she is, still going strong and with no real alternative yet in sight. And no second vessel in the role either.
The attempts to proceed with a replacement have been numerous, and came up with several impossible acronyms, from Primary Casualty Receiving Ship (PCRS) to Joint Casualty Treatment Ship (JCTS), the current denomination of Argus herself, which is also an invaluable Auxiliary Aviation Ship used for training, but also for maritime security and disaster relief operations, deploying in the Gulf or in the Caribbean.
Currently, the name of her intended replacement is "MR3MC", keeping up the tradition of impossible acronyms. This stands for Maritime Role 3 Medical Capability.

Is it really so monstrous to suggest that the International Aid budget, only budget seeing a net increase (and what an increase, at + 35%!), helps funding an hospital ship that could well be a big investment in the kind of "soft power" that the government loves, being in first line to help in case of disaster or to routinely provide support to countries in need, while also meeting RN needs?
I don't think it would be unfair.

The Diligence replacement, indicated with the acronym OMAR (Operational Maintenance and Repair Ship) was first studied in 2006, but naturally did not go far.
I found mention in a DSTL document of a mysterious "FRC", which i suspect means Forward (or Future) Repair Capability. It was accompanied by a tiny concept drawing of a ship that would appear fitted with large cranes, space for various containers, hangars and workshops.

Interestingly, the MR3MC, the FRS and the MARS SSS seem to share the same hull design, obviously stretched and adapted to each role.

Much less detailed concept art of the new Diligence replacement (?) and of the new hospital ship. Far too early to say that they will happen and actually be as drawn, but at least there seems to be thinking going on still. The hospital ship shows a large flight deck that would enable the vessel to continue to serve as aviation training ship. The base hull design seems to be the same. 

The MARS SSS is a fundamental capability for the armed forces, as it is indispensable to sustain military effort abroad.

At times, the "want of frigates" blinds us all to the less glamorous but even more important needs of the armed forces. But Logistic Ships and other vital enablers should always be in spotlight in a coherent strategy. Without them, lots of frigates will be largely useless.

The Royal Navy is certainly short on escorts, but much as in the Army capbadges always get all the attention, in the Navy destroyers and frigates take the attention away from the kind of specialized shipping that makes the RN important.
Aircraft carriers, amphibs, SSNs and logistic ships are what really make the Royal Navy relevant and capable. Mine Countermeasures follow, also due to the fact that the americans (quite weak in this sector) value the british MCM competency immensely.

Everyone who has the armed forces's efficiency at heart should always keep in mind that, at times, the back-end is more important than the front-end.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The ballistic anti-ship missile panic

The reports about China's development of a ballistic anti-ship missile have given new (questionable) arguments for air force fans to attack the aircraft carriers. Too vulnerable, they say, forgetting that ballistic missiles have been a threat for land airfields for many years. At one point, Vertical Take-Off and Landing was the answer to what was expected to be "the end of all airfields", which would be devastated by barrages of missiles and bombs. 
Days ago I wrote a quick comment piece that proved, sadly, a prophecy: while people obsessed about "too vulnerable" aircraft carriers, an attack on Camp Bastion took place, and 6 US Harriers were destroyed on the ground. 
Although it does not appear that this time indirect fire was the main threat, the attack on Bastion proves me right on both the need for improved Base-ISTAR and also the need for an effective C-RAM capability. 

Today I want to return on the subject of the ballistic carrier killer and look at the matter in greater detail to make a few considerations. 

The DF-21D

The new bogey man, I call it, because it is causing all sort of bold assertions and an unjustified amount of panic. The Dong Feng (Eastern Wind, in Chinese) DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod. 4 in NATO nomenclature) is, reportedly, a ship-killing variant of a well known two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) land-based medium range ballistic missile in service in China for several years in nuclear (DF-21A) and conventionally armed variants (DF-21C). The DF-21 itself is a derivation, engineered in the 90s', of the Ju-Lang JL-1 missile originally developed to be launched by the submarines of the Xia class.
The DF-21A is road-mobile, mounted on a trailer towed by a large truck, while the DF-21C is mounted on a WS-2400 Tractor, Erector, Launcher (TEL) 10x10 high-mobility vehicle, which is also used by the DF-21D, to enhance survivability by allowing the system to move offroad, making it harder to locate.
The DF-21C has a payload of 2000 kg, and the DF-21D has probably the same space and weight envelopes. Differently from the C variant, however, the D needs a propulsion system and a complex guidance system fitted in that same space and weight. 

DF-21C missiles on parade. The DF-21D is supposed to look very much like its conventional brother, and share the same TEL vehicle.

Much of what we know about the DF-21D is a mix of speculation, Taiwanese-intelligence and US Intelligence analysis. 
We believed the range of the DF-21D is 2000 km but 3000 have also been suggested, and we assume that it is armed with a single, large maneuverable warhead (MARV) capable to pierce the armored decks of a Nimitz aircraft carrier, even if there is who talks of submunitions meant to destroy sensors and airplanes parked on the deck. 

The warhead is possibly equipped with a hybrid propulsion system, with liquid or solid fuel, in order to be able to maneuver and avoid interception in its exo-atmospheric flight phase. 
Unofficial Chinese sources say that the warhead is fitted with a Synthetic Aperture Radar in order to look down over the target area and locate the ships it is supposed to hit, and for terminal guidance would be provided by a multi-mode seeker combining millimeter-wave radar, electro-optic seeker and possibly passive radar homing. 

According to Taiwanese intelligence reports, the DF-21D should have entered service at the end of the 11th 5-years Plan of China, so around 2010, with a first production block of 15 to 20 missiles. Production is estimated at 10 to 15 units per year, allowing a force, by 2020, that in theory could number 150 launchers. 
For what we know, so far the DF-21D has never been tested against targets at sea, but only against land objectives.

In the words of China itself, the DF-21D is a long term capability that was first announced in 2003 and that plans to deliver: 

- By 2010, a ballistic anti-ship missile capability with a range of 1800 to 2000 Km. 
- Improve range and targeting by 2015
- Extend engagement capability at intercontinental level by 2020 (14.000 km or more) 

This is part of a larger plan of strengthening for the Strategic Missile forces that includes development of hypersonic missiles with global attack capability by 2025. 

A graphic demonstration of the Ballistic Missile capabilities available to China. In red, the indicative range of the DF-21 family.

In the Chinese forces, ballistic missiles are assigned to the 2nd Artillery Corps, which controls the nuclear and conventional missile resources as well as organic Electronic Warfare elements, force protection and support. 
The assumption is that China has so far been giving the DF-21 to two Missile Brigades based in front of Taiwan, each expected to be organized on 6 battalions with 17 launchers each in 2 batteries. This organization is that of the land attack DF-15 missile brigades, that, we assume, will be maintained. 
Within these two brigades, the anti-ship variant of the DF-21 missile is supposed to have been trialed and brought to IOC in 2010. 
Up to 40 anti-ship systems might be in service as we speak. 

And by this time, the number of "assumptions" is already very high. 

The doctrine

The DF-21D employment is part of an operational concept adopted by the Chinese forces to confront an enemy (the US Navy) that they cannot face directly with hopes of victory. 
The use of long-range bombers with anti-ship missiles is nothing new, as it is the approach the old URSS used before China. 
And ballistic anti-ship missiles were probably imagined by the Russians, as well. The idea is that the ballistic missile gives the US navy a difficult enemy to deal with, without China needing to risk any asset near the carrier battlegroups of the Americans. 

Obviously, the long range anti-ship ballistic missile is meant to neutralize aircraft carriers sailing towards China, but it is also meant to cut communications line across the Pacific and isolate hostile powers in the area (Taiwan first of all, obviously, but Japan a close second). 
The ballistic anti-ship missile is meant to keep the US away from the area, in a perfect example of Anti-Access strategy. 
To do so, the conventional DF-21 missiles meant for land attack could be used first, to force the US Navy (incapable to determine the kind of warhead fitted to the missile) to employ its SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles before the actual anti-ship Dong Feng is launched. 
The old tactic of saturation, nothing more, nothing less. 

The US are not helped in countering this tactic by the fact that the SM3 intercepts enemy missiles in their exo-atmospheric phase, so that during a saturation attack done with normal ballistic missiles there would be no real possibility to wait and track the trajectories of the warheads re-entering the atmosphere to hit only those on a dangerous trajectory. 
The US Navy would have to run the risk and hold fire, or potentially waste a huge number of precious interceptors against missiles with nearly zero effective chances of hitting the ships at sea. After that, the actual anti-ship guided warheads would follow, and find the defences of the carrier battlegroup severely short of ammunition. 
To make things worse, currently there is pretty much no way to reload vertical launch cells at sea with new missile canisters, making saturation a real issue, even for ships such as the Burkes and Ticonderoga, which carry dozen of interceptors. 

The doubts

There are many reasons to doubt of the effectiveness of the ballistic anti-ship missile. In our estimates, we are likely giving the new system capabilities it actually does not have. 
The reports about hybrid propulsion, SAR radar and multi-mode seeker bring forth several questions, from the size of the warhead to the feasibility of putting any kind of radar and electro-optic sensor inside such an atmospheric re-entry vehicle. 
The space for the actual warhead is likely to be tiny, if there really is a propulsion system and multiple targeting sensors fitted to the re-entry vehicle. 

Even assuming the tremendous speed of the re-entry into Atmosphere gives the warhead sufficient kinetic energy to be lethal on impact, we come straight to the next issue: developing a seeker window that allows the radar and electro-optic sensors to look out towards the target while resisting to the heat and stress of re-entry into atmosphere. 
The temperatures involved, the speed, the violence of the impact with the atmosphere, are tremendous. A tiny vulnerability in the heat shield means catastrophe, as the shuttle Columbia demonstrated not so long ago with tragic consequences for its crew. 

The actual feasibility of a maneuvering warhead that, during the re-entry phase, can significantly alter its course to detect, track and pursue moving ships that will have changed their position by a good bit since the DF-21D has been launched is also questionable. 
Hitting a ship at sea is not like delivering a large warhead on a static land target with an acceptable CEP. Delivering a nuke or a conventional warhead over a static target of which we know the position is one thing. Hitting a moving ship in the middle of the sea is a whole different story. 
There is too much stuff that must be crammed into the re-entry vehicle. Technology might be moving fast, but it is hard to believe that the Chinese have solved all the issues involved. 

Crucially, the biggest vulnerability of the DF-21D is in the "Find" phase. Even assuming the missile can do what it promises on the tin, the Chinese first need to detect and track the position of the ships to be hit. And this is a task far more complex than most people realize. 
The crucial capability here is that provided by satellites. The Chinese are in fact putting satellites into orbit to provide coverage to the South China Sea, with a number already deployed and 8 more planned. The satellites are of the HJ-1 type, fitted with SAR radar and/or electro-optic sensors, and of the Yaogan type, fitted for ELINT tasks. 

It'll be around satellites that the opening phases of any conflict between the two superpowers will revolve. The "player" that shoots down the most enemy satellites while preserving more of its own, gains a fundamental upper hand. 
Blind the satellites, destroying them or using electronic warfare or just hiding from them (you can actually hide from most satellites, guiding your ships into a different area of sea at the right time, and it is a simple geometrical issue, with times and routes easily calculated upon observation of the orbits of the enemy satellites) and you have seriously reduced the chances of the DF-21D to achieve anything. 

Iran's own missile 

Iran also claims to have developed a ballistic anti-ship missile, but its claim is even less substantial and raises even more doubts than China's own. 
Iran showed images on its state television of a barge in the water being hit and sunk by what was presented as the warhead of a ballistic missile, but hitting a motionless barge for the state television's camera is hardly demonstration of any realistic capability.

The countermeasures 

Since the end of the Cold War, the US Navy carrier wing has massively reduced its long range air defence effort, focusing more on land attack. It cut back on dedicate CAP patrols, and removed the "air defence" fighter from the Wing with the F14, along with the long range anti-air missile, the Phoenix. 
One countermeasure to the Chinese threat will be reversing these decisions, strengthening the carrier wing against air threats. In this sense, the interest for increasing the number of missiles carried by the F35 and the interest in the Meteor long-range missile are both indicative. 
Improved air defence will be indispensable to keep bombers, missiles and, crucially, reconnaissance airplanes and UAVs away from the battlegroup. 

Improved anti-ballistic capability, on land and at sea, is already a necessity, with the proliferation of ballistic threats, from the SCUD to the Iskander, up to the Dong Feng. It is very much likely that the UK itself will have to take note of the ballistic threat at some point (currently, it has nearly zero capability of its own to counter ballistic missiles) and the MOD has indeed studies open, and a partnership with BAE to keep the Type 45 and its Sampson radar up to date and readily available to take on a ABM role. The Type 45 also has space for 16 new missile cells, while Raytheon has developed a data link that would quickly enable the destroyer to employ the SM3 missile in ABM role.

The US is planning to expand progressively the capability of the SM3 missile, and plans to have more ships ABM capable, and more interceptor missiles at the ready. 
There are also studies to fit AMRAAMs with Infra-Red seekers, adapting them as ballistic missile killers, and this could be a cost-effective measure capable to massively increase the resilience of deployed forces against the ballistic threat, even if this project is intended to kill a ballistic missile in its boost phase, thus requiring the launching airplanes to enter enemy airspace. It would arguably be better to have more possibilities of hitting the enemy missiles in the re-entry phase, to counter the Dong Feng. 
The US Navy is also due to enhance air defence for its ships with the SM6, a Standard missile fitted with the radar seeker of the AMRAAM to finally give the Aegis system a fire-and-forget weapon, in place of the current semi-active missiles. This will greatly help in reducing the risk of saturation in front of massive air attacks. The UK in this area leads the way thanks to the formidable performances of the Aster/Sampson combination. 

The age of the UAV can help, too. The US Navy is investing to bring, by 2018 or 2020, the first UCAV into the carrier air wings, as a platform capable to collect intelligence and strike enemy targets at greater distance from the enemy.  This too can be an effective defence: the further away you are from the enemy shore, the harder you are to find and target.


It is way too early to be frightened by a weapon system of dubious effectiveness, known mostly through stories, suggestions and guesses. There are many good reasons why we should doubt of the effective capabilities of the DF-21D, and there are, in general, good countermeasures already on the way. 
While it would be stupid to ignore the Dong Feng appearance, it would be even worse to fall into panic and start with unsustainable programs for weapons adequate to counter this specific mooted threat. This would only make China happy. It is a trick that NATO itself used against URSS in the Cold War. To fall for the same trick would be rather embarrassing. 

Even more unjustifiable to my eyes is the position of those who say that the aircraft carrier is now "too vulnerable" and destined to lose importance and quickly become obsolete. Its effective vulnerability is questionable, and arguably inferior, in many ways, to the vulnerability of land airbases, no matter how well defended. 
Ballistic missiles have been and are a threat for airfields from many years. It is possible that, in the future, they will be a threat to aircraft carriers as well. But this should not lead to bold and dumb claims.

Ultimately, the "obsolescence" of the aircraft carrier is denied by the simple fact that airplanes, manned or not, still need bases in order to operate. And airplanes are, today more than ever before, fundamental in any kind of operation. 
In my opinion, it is more "likely" that we will see a submarine aircraft carrier one day, more than is likely that we will see the obsolescence of floating bases for aircrafts. 
Just as we depend on runways on land, we depend on runways on the sea. Both kinds of runways are vulnerable in their own ways. 
But until the airplane becomes obsolete, or somehow ceases to need a base from which to operate, there is no alternative to the aircraft carrier just as there is no alternative to the use of airports. 

Has anyone tried to think of the vulnerability of any kind of fleet at sea without the air cover and air support provided by a carrier air wing...?  
Also, has anyone tried to think of the vulnerability of air bases in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, when on the opposing coast, in China, literally thousands of ballistic missiles are based, ready to be launched for a massive opening strike...? 
Has anyone noticed the events in Camp Bastion...? 

Try and think about it. You're probably going to change opinion about the "vulnerability" of the aircraft carrier.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The force of Army 2020

A recent written answer in Parliament has revealed the full list of planned Full Unit Establishments for the various kind of battalions the British Army will have under A2020. An incomplete list had already been released earlier, and i had already reported that.

Armoured Infantry Battalions (6x): 729 men
Heavy Protected Mobility - Mechanized Infantry (3x): 709 men
Light Protected Mobility (6x): 581 men
Light Role Infantry (14x): 561 men
Gurkha (2x): 567
PARA (2x plus 1 PARA which however is likely to be a completely different matter): 660 men

Type 56 tank regiment (x3): 587
FRES SV-mounted Recce regiment: 528
Jackal-mounted Light Cavalry regiment: 404
Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment: 341

In Parliament it has also been announced that the expected fighting force of the Army is to be as follows:

20.000 regulars and 2000 reserves in the Reaction Force

12.500 regulars and 8000 reserves in the Adaptable Force

The rest of the regular and reserve manpower is part of Force Troops, which include the Surveillance Brigade, Logistics, REME, Artillery, Signals and Engineers.

The UK is retaining a fleet of 227 Challenger II battle tanks, which compare favorably to Italy (200 but with cuts to come), Germany (announced a cut from 350 to 225) and roughly in line with France (254 but with cuts possibly coming, since a review of their defence "strategy" is underway).

There will be a Yeomanry regiment in the Reserve mounted on Challenger, providing replacement crews. 

Also, while detailed planning is still ongoing and official announcements are due later this year, the info i've collected suggests that the three Armoured, Reaction Brigades will be the 7th, 4th and 20th.
The current planning assumption include: 

101 Logistic Brigade to be based in Grantham
102 Logistic Brigade to be based in Aldershot

1 Combat Support Logistic Regiment and 27 Theatre Logistic Regiment assigned to 4th Brigade, in Abington

12 Combat Support Logistic Regiment and 7 Theatre Logistic Regiment assigned to 20th Brigade, with 12 CSLR in Bicester and 7 TLR on the ex-RAF base at Cottersmore.

2 Combat Support Logistic Regiment and 10 Queen's Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment assigned to 7th Brigade, in Aldershot.

Each logistic regiment to have a squadron of reservists assigned in support.

The three Armoured Brigades will be supported by 3 Close Support artillery regiments (expected to be 1 Royal Horse Artillery, 19 Royal Artillery and 26 Royal Artillery) each with two batteries of AS90 self-propelled howitzers and one battery of GMLRS.
A Royal Artillery briefing has reported that, as of 2011, the range of the GMLRS has been increased, and point targets have been hit as far as 93 km away from the launching point.

In the US, the GMLRS+ has been demonstrated, with range reaching a figure as high as 130 km.

3 Royal Horse Artillery and 4 Royal Artillery will be part of the Adaptable Force, and will be equipped with the L118 Light Gun. It is possible that these two regiments will only have 2 batteries each. It is possible that the reserve element, in exchange, will expand on more batteries.

In the Royal Armoured Corps, currently the indications are for a future force composed as follows:

Queen's Royal Hussars;
King's Royal Hussars;
Royal Tank Regiment;

On Challenger II MBT and part of the 3 armoured brigades

Household Cavalry;
Light Dragoons;
Queen's Dragoon Guards;

On Jackal and in Light Cavalry role as part of the Adaptable Force

Royal Lancers;
Royal Dragoon Guards;
Royal Scots Dragoon Guards;

On FRES SV as Recce regiments in the 3 armoured brigades. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


HMS Ambush finally going for sea trials. 

The second submarine of the Astute class is finally about to go out to sea for her trials. It'll leave Barrow in the coming days. 

The Successor SSBN moves ahead steadily and without fuss. That's how it should be! 

The US Navy signed on August 31 the document with the final key specifications of a vital element of the Common Missile Compartment (CMC) that will be employed both by the new US submarine replacing the current Ohio class and by the "Successor" vessel that will replace the Vanguard class in UK service.

The document freeze the specifications relative to the Missile Tubes and their associated equipment. The tubes, with all associated machinery, are to be built and delivered in quad packs that, assembled, will make up the missile compartment.
The US variant of the CMC is now expected to have 16 tubes, so 3 quad packs will be needed, while the UK's submarine, following the decisions of the SDSR 2010, is expected to have only 8 tubes (a 50% reduction from 16 on Vanguard, but it must be noted that already now several tubes on each submarine can be expected to be regularly empty).
The latest START treaty leaves the US the possibility to fit a max of 20 tubes to each SSBN (down from 24 on the Ohio), should it wish to, and there is some internal call for taking the maximum number, but the Navy is concerned with costs and deems 16 tubes sufficient. And, personally, i think they might even be too many already. Consideration to a 12-tubes design was given.  

Jointly funded work on the CMC has been ongoing since 2008, with the UK's participation very significant, both at technical and at financial level. According to the US Government Accountability office (GAO), the UK has provided some 329 million dollars as of March 2011, the "vast majority" of upfront design costs. The UK has also "established a significant presence in Electric Boat’s Shaw’s Cove CMC design office in New London, CT." 

It is not yet clear what the final decisions were about the specifications. One option on the cards was the adoption of wider tubes (diameter of 3.04 meters each, compared to 2.21 meters in the current SSBNs) offering greater certainties of compatibility with future requirements and with the future missile they will eventually carry (possibly to be called Trident II E6, but with the current Trident II D5 planned to live on until 2042, a lot of things can still happen). Built-in flexibility for use of the tubes for special forces insertion, unmanned vehicles and multiple all-up rounds canisters for conventionally-armed cruise missiles was also an option, likely to have been exercised.  

It is known that the famous "review of options for Trident replacement" being conducted by the LibDems in the UK includes the option of "dual-role" SSBNs with significant conventional attack capability.
The current 2.21 meters tubes can readily be fitted with 7-cell canisters for Tomahawk missiles as done by the US on the Ohio subs converted to SSGN. One of them, the USS Florida, reportedly fired, alone, some 60 Tomahawk in the first strike against Libya last year.
Personally, i'm in favor of the Dual Role SSBN, especially considering the sharp, dramatic drop in numbers of the SSN fleet of the Royal Navy.
This of course presents some additional operational challenges and risk, however, because in order to maintain continuous at sea deterrence the UK's "Dual Role" submarines would have to carry Trident and Tomahawk at the same time.

Obviously, the SSBNs could venture in conventional attack roles only against determinate classes of enemies, such as Libya: countries that, putting it simply, have no chance of finding and damaging the SSBN.
This is a complex subject, on which i'll eventually write a specific article at some point. 

By the way, the 2012 Handbook of the Royal Navy reports that under current thinking and planning, the Successor SSBN will combine the CMC to the new PWR3 reactor as propulsion system, but will also draw heavily from the legacy equipment of the Astute SSN: the sonar fit will be the same, with the excellent 2076 system fitted. The tactical torpedo system will also be the same, so that the SSBN will likely have the full fit of 6 tubes and extensive attack capability.
The similarities will be so important that crews will be able to move without trouble from an Astute to an SSBN and vice versa.
Due to the larger reactor, to the expectation of larger tubes and better internal accommodation, despite having half of the missile tubes the new SSBN is expected to be slightly larger than Vanguard. The difference however will be minimum, and the current port infrastructure will continue to be used for the new vessels. 

HMS Tyne, HMS Severn and HMS Mersey are now property of the MOD

As announced as part of the 10-years Equipment Budget, the 3 River-class OPVs used by the fishery protection squadron have been bought outright from BAE. So far, they had been leased at a cost of 7 million pounds per year.
The lease was due to be renewed next year, reportedly at higher cost, so that the MOD deemed more effective to acquire the vessels.
They will be in service for another 10 years at least, and i would not be surprised to see them soldiering on even further into the future.

The Goalkeeper CIWS will be out of service in 2015

With the Type 22 Batch 3 frigates withdrawn, the Goalkeeper is currently in service only on HMS Illustrious, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. In 2014, with the retirement of HMS Illustrious, there will only be four systems in the Navy, and only two of them will be active at any one time, if the policy of keeping one LPD in "low readiness" on rotation is not abandoned.

As a consequence, the RN has decided that it makes no economic sense to continue supporting the complex CIWS system after 2015.
Interestingly, in 2016 the two LPDs should change position, with HMS Albion returning into full service and readiness and with HMS Bulwark "going to sleep". Both ships will face works, as they enter and exit active service respectively, and my guess is that in these maintenance periods the ships will lose their Goalkeeper pairs, hopefully replaced by Phalanx 1B or by other, more modern CIWS systems.
The removal of Goalkeeper will create some more free space aboard the LPDs, as the 30mm gun, differently from the Phalanx, has a significant below-deck penetration of 2.5 meters, evidenced by the presence of a one-floor structure under the Goalkeeper mounted on the bow of the LPDs.

The large and powerful Goalkeeper system was originally acquired in 15 units: one on each of the 4 Type 22 frigates, 3 on HMS Invincible and 3 on HMS Illustrious (HMS Ark Royal was given Phalanx) and a set of 2 on each of the two LPDs, Albion and Bulwark. The last gun is shore mounted system for training.

The Royal Air Force has taken delivery of the first upgraded Puma 

Eurocopter handed the first Puma HC2 back to the RAF. The upgraded helicopter, is part of an order for 24 machines, upgraded to HC2 standard by fitting new Turbomeca Makila 1A1 engines, more powerful and less fuel thirsty; glass-cockpit avionics; a new secure communications suite, new defensive countermeasures and ballistic protection for crew and passangers. According to some reports, the new engines and fuel tanks will allow the Puma "to carry twice the payload on a distance three times greater".

The helicopters are upgraded under a 300-plus million pounds order signed in 2009 and will stay in service until 2025. As of 2011, the NAO expected the expenditure to be 326 million pounds, with a budget approval of 339.
The IOC is described as "6 helicopters at Theatre Entry Standard" ready to deploy.
By October 2014, all 24 Puma helicopters and an upgraded simulator are due to be delivered. The 24 machines will sustain a Forward Available Fleet of 22 helicopters, with 22 crews being trained. 

The Puma HC2 is intended to "cover the gap" that will be created by the much awaited modernization and mid-life upgrade to the Merlin HC3 and HC3A, which should include navalization features and turn the Merlin into "HC4". The availability of the Puma will allow the Merlin airframes to go back to factory for the upgrade.

The Merlin HC4 is the intended replacement for the Sea King HC4 employed by the Commando Helicopter Force. Naval personnel is being trained on the Merlin and the first flight with a fully-navy crew happened this month.
The Business Plan of the MOD for the next years says that the Merlin MK4 (or HC4) will be in service in January 2017, with the Sea King HC4 out of service by April 2016. There will likely be a "mini-gap" in which the Commando Helicopter Force has very few Merlin helos available for use, if these are the dates.

The full extent of the navalization process is currently unknown. The Assessment Phase for the navalization process as been announced as part of the 10-years budget, and this will decide the full extent of the changes. Already in 2010, however, it was reported that, while a folding rotor is required, the Navy might do without a folding tail, since the Merlin won't need it to fit on the lifts of the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers from which it is expected to fly.
It remains the fact that the tail, unfolded, means a larger deck footprint, which in turn means less helicopters carried.
Then again, with only 25 Merlin HC3/3A planned to be upgraded and retained, full hangars are unlikely to be a pressing issue... 

Surprising: according to British Forces News, the UK is in talks to acquire the V22 Osprey

Reportedly, Boeing confirms that british officers have flied on the V22 and, more significantly, that talks are underway for an order.
[NOTE: the above link no longer works. British Forces News removed the article and associated video from their website. This could possibly be an indirect confirmation that negotiations are effectively underway, but it could also be an epic case of about turn caused by a firm denial of Boeing or the MOD about the reported news.] 
I still find it hard to believe, but... it's worth linking this article of mine, looking at the proposed uses of the Osprey aboard aircraft carriers.

There is also another possible destination for the V22 Osprey if it was ever acquired by the UK: special forces use. And, indeed, the Wildcat Light Assault Helicopter that was supposed to go to the Special Forces, into 657 Squadron Army Air Corps, has vanished from the radars... Can it be because of the Osprey?
I repeat, i remain skeptic. The "4 new, 4 converted" Wildcat solution was costed at little more than 30 million pounds of net additional cost by the NAO, while an Osprey solution would cost possibly up to 40 million per each airplane.
Do you think a switch from option A to option B is possible, in time of cuts? Or better, justified?

I've asked minister Peter Luff about this news, and his kind reply on Twitter says:

I can honestly say we had no plans whatsoever - but Boeing, being good salespeople, kept on offering!

A forecast, i'll dare making, though. If the V22 Osprey is acquired for the Special Forces, 657 Sqn Army Air Corps will die, and the Osprey will go to a RAF Squadron.
Remember my words!

BAE and EADS might merge; France and Germany to collaborate on the MALE 

There is apparently no way to keep EADS out of the Telemos MALE project. BAE and EADS are in merger talks, with BAE that would control only 40% of the resulting colossus.

And France has just signed a deal with Germany to collaborate in the development of a Medium Altitude, Long Endurance unmanned aircraft, while "respecting the commitment to bilateral collaboration with the UK".

Say what you want, but it looks like it is a trinational effort now. And EADS is in, in any case.

I'm not sure if the MOD will be happy for this. Very possibly, it won't be.

For sure, Italy's Alenia won't be amused, and will seek a way in as well.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


A new rocket attack launched by the Taliban has hit Bagram airfield, with five rockets hitting inside the perimeter, causing three dead and the destruction of one parked american Chinook helicopter.
Mortar and rocket attacks are still very common on FOBs, and the british forces have experimented rocket attacks on airfields, with Kandahar being hit in 2005 with the loss of an Harrier and the damaging of a second, temporarily removing 20% of the air support available, at the time represented by 6 Harriers.
Attacks on airfields, with mortars and rockets, are a daily thing around the world, and they are a plague that has not yet been defeated. Attacks as successful as this last one on Bagram or the 2005's attack on Kandahar are relatively rare, but we should not forget that there are other effects to the RAM (Rocket, Artillery, Mortar) offensive: mainly, the enormous number of precious "boots on the ground" that become tied in to the protection of the airfield.

Kandahar airfield, crucial for the prosecution of operations in Afghanistan, is protected by a multinational force of over 700 men, the force of an Armoured Infantry Battalion in the british army.
This always includes a RAF Regiment field squadron for force protection.
The rationale of this is that patrols and defensive operations happen outside the wire, expanding the safe perimeter around the base to a distance that makes mortar and rocket attack virtually impossible.
This is an effective method, but a resource-intensive one. 

The inner layer of defence is provided by artillery locating radars and sensors (the UK urgently procured 34 Lightweight Counter Mortar Radars LCMR from the US for operations in Afghanistan) that provide a warning for the troops to get to cover before the shells hit. The radars are also meant to cue the fire of C-RAM defense systems, but the UK has not deployed any to Afghanistan, while a number of Centurion systems (naval Phalanx 1B modified and mounted on trailers) were leased from the americans and employed in Afghanistan by joint-services batteries made up of Royal Artillery and Navy personnel.

The investment in C-RAM systems is relatively little, even in the US. In the UK, with the end of the deployment in Iraq is also ended the brief but important story of C-RAM for the deployed army. Germany is the only european country seriously addressing the C-RAM requirement, with the MANTIS system, probably the best one available at the moment. Italy's Oto Melara is working on the Porcupine system, with an italian army order anticipated, but budget issues are slowing down the process and adding uncertainty.
The RAM threat, however, has not gone away, nor it has been defeated. It continues to eat up resources and it continues to cause losses.

But the attention of most is not conquered by relatively little, dumb rockets hitting land airfields, which could well be civilian ones soon or later, causing far worse bloodshed. No. Most press, most "experts" and many commenters like it more to try and sell the argument that the aircraft carrier, the floating airfield which featured in all conflicts after the end of the Second World War, is "vulnerable" when not even "obsolete", using the infamous chinese ballistic anti-ship missile as the new big bogeyman. An untested system of which we know little, but that is apparently proving almost as successful a deterrent in the mind of some as a nuclear arsenal.
This made even more ridiculous by the fact that, for years, we have been told by the same experts of the superior technology of the Western alliance, first against the (fearsome, but nonetheless downplayed) russian anti-ship missiles and then against China's own technology.

This new fear of the anti-ship missile reminds me of the UK Defence White Paper which, as early as 1957, talked of a future in which combat airplanes would cease to exist, replaced by Surface to Air missiles, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. 55 years later, that forecast sounds like a drunkard vision, and for the foreseeable future there will still be manned and unmanned airplanes flying.
Or the never-ending talk of end of the tank age, with the MBT "obsolete" and "useless" due to the menace of anti-tank missiles: reality shows that the battle tank is still going strong, with thousands of MBTs in production and with new models coming online, with Russia due to put in service a new type by 2015 and with the Asian countries putting their own new tanks in service.

The new movement of thought saying that the aircraft carrier is obsolete is even more ridiculous than those others, because it focuses on the carrier, but does not expand to the other surface vessels. How come, those are not vulnerable to anti-ship missiles? If they aren't because they can shot down the missiles, then the carrier isn't vulnerable either, when escorted, and no one would send one on a solo mission during war.
So, what is the explanation? Also, if we removed the "vulnerable" carrier from the equation, wouldn't the other surface warships be even more vulnerable because left without air cover?
If the carrier is doomed, then surely even more so is the Amphibious ship? What should we do, buy navies of sole submarines?

The aircraft carrier is actually less vulnerable than most other platforms. A succesful attack against an aircraft carrier hasn't been seen since the war in Korea. The UK itself failed to find and sink the argentinian carrier ARA 25 de Mayo in the Falklands in 1982, when the submarines failed to locate her.
As we know, the carrier had located the british surface fleet instead, and only the weather prevented the launch of the heavily loaded Skyraiders from her deck.

How many countries in the world have a realistic chance of finding, targeting and striking an aircraft carrier at sea? Excluding allied countries, the list comes down to China and Russia. But in such a conflict, against one or both of these two major powers, there is nothing that would not be "vulnerable". Still, i know i'd prefer to be on an aircraft carrier than in an airport exposed to artillery, direct land attack, ballistic missile attack (we should not forget that Russia and China and Iran and other countries deploy a formidable array of tactical ballistic missiles, with Russia having used its Iskander as a tool of aggressive diplomacy against Poland already more than once), air attack and so along.

In most realistic war operations against minor countries, terrorist organizations and so along, the aircraft carrier would be nearly untouchable.

The aircraft carrier is "vulnerable" in the sense that, while it is much harder to hit in the first place, it can take less damage than a land airfield. An airbase can't sink, and a cratered runway can (normally) be restored quite quickly. A carrier can sink, or more realistically she can be forced out of action since repairing damage to the floating airport is undoubtedly more challenging (but not impossible, as the second world war showed more than once).

However, the vulnerability of an aircraft carrier is most likely to be tested in a major conflict between major powers. In such a conflict, you can't expect many things to stay out of trouble, and a land airfield wouldn't at all have an easier life. It would not sink, no, but it most likely would be devastated nonetheless.

In more realistic scenarios, most enemies worldwide do not have the capability to harm the aircraft carrier at sea.
While in the meanwhile, the list of successful attacks on land airfields is long and growing constantly. And i'm not speaking just of assaults on Pakistani bases, but of attacks on airfields held and fortified for years by british and american forces.

Lastly, there is no real alternative to the aircraft carrier just as there isn't much alternative to using land airfields. We will need both until the airplane, manned or not, remains indispensable for the war effort, and the airplane is here to stay, i think we can all agree on this.

I think someone has gotten its priorities wrong. If i have to point the finger to indicate which airfield is the most vulnerable, the one i'll point to is not the floating one.
Before throwing money into anti-ballistic missiles for Type 45s (which are anyway desirable for the future), i'd much prefer to see investment in an effective C-RAM system, thanks.