Sunday, October 30, 2016

"More ships". Where?

Ultra quick post because the "more ships" line thrown out at random by the government has gotten annoying enough that it deserves a detailed answer.

As of now, the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary have:

- Lost RFA Diligence 4 years early; without any real replacement plan being in the works, removing one unique and very precious capability which used to set the Royal Navy apart from other european navies, which no not have a comparable forwards repair vessel which also doubled up as submarine tender.
Very damaging loss, for very little money saved.

- RFA Tidespring is many months late, for reasons no one really know. She is now not due in the UK before "early 2017", and after that it'll take a while to complete her fitting out and put her through final sea trials. She was originally expected in service this month.
In the meanwhile, it is almost certain that RFA Gold Rover will go out of service by the end of this year, as planned, Her deployment to the South Atlantic was meant to be the last hurrah of her service life, with decommissioning once back home. Her replacement was meant to be ready, but it will not be for several more months.

HMS Lancaster and HMS Dauntless are in reserve, tied into port as "harbour training ships" many months before entering refit, most likely because the manpower crisis has gotten bad enough to require this sort of pauses.
Lancaster should enter refit in mid 2017 and Dauntless around the end of the year. They won't deploy again before 2018 at the earliest.

That is a loss of four deployable hulls for zero gain in 2016.

Joint Expeditionary Force - Marittime 2016 
Taurus 2009 deployment. The escort on the top left side is the french Dupleix, but even without her the 2009 - 2016 difference remains scary. 

2017 should eventually see HMS Queen Elizabeth delivered, but 2018 will see HMS Ocean bowing out in exchange.
The River Batch 2 patrol vessel HMS Forth will enter service, but apparently HMS Clyde, the Falklands Patrol Ship, will promptly be dropped out of service by not renewing her lease (she is still RN operated but contractor owned). The idea seems to be to send HMS Forth down south to replace her.
4 more River Batch 2s are expected to enter service over the next few years, but the 3 River Batch 1s will be removed in exchange, meaning that there is going to be at most 1 extra OPV. The SDSR says "up to six" OPVs (up from 4), but by the look of things 5 is the actual number.

The SDSR also announced that the 3 oldest Sandown class minesweepers will be removed from service by 2025 at the latest.

The permanent losses the RN and RFA face this year and over the next few are:

- HMS Ocean
- 3x Sandown class minesweepers
- 3x River Batch 1
- 1x River Batch 1 - Helicopter (HMS Clyde)
- RFA Diligence
- x2 Rover class tankers

Also, the first Type 23 frigate is due out of service in 2023 and there's no telling yet if there will be a Type 26 ready to take her place.

The new hulls entering service are:

HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Prince of Wales
5x River Batch 2s
4x Tide class tankers

That's 11 ships going out, and 11 coming in. At most, the number of hulls will roughly float at the same level. And even this only if we exclude the ships that have already been lost since 2010, and the two mothballed escorts.

The losses since 2010 include also:

HMS Ark Royal
HMS Illustrious
4x Type 22 frigates
RFA Fort George
2x Point class Strategic Sealift Vessels
RFA Largs Bay
RFA Bayleaf
RFA Orangeleaf
1 Albion class LPD mothballed

More ships my arse.
It could get even worse considering that there is no clear way ahead for the "after RFA Argus", and the Type 26 and Type 31 programmes as of today give no real assurance that the number of escorts won't drop even further, at least temporarily.
The 3 remaining Fort class ships should be replaced one for one by three new supply ships.

It takes a hell of a lot of creative accounting to talk about "more ships" just because a bunch of OPVs have been ordered as an emergency stopgap measure.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Strike Brigades? Only if the price is right.

Let’s call things with their name, first of all. The “Strike Brigade” is a mechanized infantry brigade with a budget and planning-induced identity crisis. It is a manifestation of the famous “medium weight” force concept that has been doing the rounds for many years. The MIV, Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, is FRES Utility Vehicle given yet another acronym.

With the names corrected and put into context, we can move on to the real questions about this whole enterprise. Is the Medium Brigade a valid concept? Where does it fit in the force structure? Is the British Strike brigade worth the cuts the army is expected to take elsewhere in order to fund MIV?

The “Medium Weight”force

There is medium and medium. The US Medium Brigade is the Stryker brigade, originally born to employ 19-tons 8x8 vehicles designed within very demanding constraints in terms of volume and weight because the whole brigade had to be compatible with C-130 air transport. There was a price to pay for such an approach, and it was paid in protection and payload. The flat-bottomed Stryker proved to be too vulnerable to IEDs and mines, and it also suffered from limitations to its mobility on the difficult terrain of southern Afghanistan. To be fair, the terrain was atrocious for pretty much any vehicle and some restraints were not necessarily the Stryker’s fault, but the first deployment, in summer 2009, proved very controversial and very expensive. The vehicles were kept in use in Afghanistan under that, but when a second Stryker brigade was ordered into theatre, it was instructed to leave its vehicles behind and use MRAPs and M-ATVs instead.
Meanwhile, a programme was launched for developing a Double V Hull modification that increases underbelly protection. The dream of airlifting entire brigades of armoured vehicles using the Air Force’s C-130s was over, the reality of war had dawned.
In the meanwhile, though, a lot of money had been expended pursuing a concept of operations that was scarcely realistic, and the selection of such a light platform had introduced issues that could have easily been avoided. Among these, the failure of the Mobile Gun System variant, a Stryker with an automated 105mm gun on top, meant to provide intimate fire support to the Stryker infantry battalions. The production of this variant was eventually discontinued, leaving the Stryker brigades considerably weaker in terms of firepower.

More recently, the US Army has launched an emergency programme for partially fixing the firepower problem. With the IFV variant equipped just with a RWS with a .50 HMG, the Stryker brigade is too lightly armed to face a symmetric or hybrid fight against comparable vehicles, which in Russia and China tend to always come with a big gun on top. A new programme has been started to fit a large Remote Weapon Station with a 30mm gun on top of the IFV variant. C-130 compatibility is completely out of the window now, but at long last the heavier, much modified Stryker will have a wider usefulness. The original one had behaved well in Iraq, doing well on roads, in urban scenarios and in benign desert conditions, but it had performed badly in Afghanistan and would have been at a terrible disadvantage in any hybrid / symmetric warfare scenario.

Stryker, before and after coming to grip with the idea that the enemy will fire back. 

The US Stryker brigade is made up by 3 infantry battalions mounted on Stryker IFVs, supported by a Fires regiment with 155mm M777 towed howitzers and by a Recce Cavalry squadron also mounted in Strykers.
It is a wholly wheeled brigade structure, and with DVH and 30mm gun it is a potent formation, useful in a wide range of scenarios.
There is still a problem left to fix, however, which is the insufficient number of fault-prone Mobile Gun System vehicles. The US Army today is considering a new Mobile Protected Firepower requirement which calls for an armoured, light and highly deployable vehicle able to provide fire support to the infantry, destroying enemy tanks, bunkers and strongholds.
The requirements have not yet been fixed into stone, and the US Army is basically letting industry put its ideas forward: BAE is offering a modernized M8 Buford, which was originally developed years ago as a very light tank, capable of being air-dropped, to serve as a replacement for Sheridan. The programme eventually was killed off, leaving the American paratroopers without air-droppable armour and firepower, a gap that remains very much a concern for the airborne divisions.

Light and mean, the modernized M8 is a good candidate for MPF. Its ability to be airdropped is bound to awaken interest in the Airborne divisions 

The russians have never lost sight of the importance of firepower. All their units, including paratroopers, are heavily mechanized and supported by a lot of direct and indirect fires. The Sprut is an air-droppable light tank with a 125mm smoothbore punch. Airdroppable APCs, IFVs, mortar and SAM carriers also are part of the russian para's arsenal. 

While the current Mobile Protected Firepower is aimed first of all at the Infantry Brigades, BAE clearly believes that the “new” Buford could kill two birds with one stone by gaining the interest of the airborne commanders as well.
And the birds could become 3 if the US Army decided to replace the troubled Stryker Mobile Gun System with the new MPF.
Interestingly, General Dynamics’s own entry for the MPF contest is the Griffin, a vehicle in the 28 to 32 tons range, not air-droppable, armed with a light derivative of the M1 Abrams gun turret and with the british Ascod SV / Ajax chassis as hull.  

The very first appearance of the GD Griffin, a light tank based on the Ascod SV / Ajax hull armed with the american low-recoil force 120mm gun originally developed as part of the abortive Future Combat System programme, Armerica's own FRES nightmare. Photo courtesy of Army Recognition

The Italian medium brigade is in many ways the most impressive in the western world. It is meant to be equipped with 3 infantry battalions mounted on the Freccia IFV, which comes with a turret and a 25mm gun. In the 30 tons region, offering good protection and firepower, the Freccia is an excellent platform. The Italian army also wants to give the medium infantry battalions a lot of firepower, with medium-range vehicle mounted anti-tank missiles at the Company level and long-range missiles at Battalion level. Similarly, the battalion has vehicle-mounted 120mm mortars, while the companies are due to get 81mm mortars of their own. That’s a lot of firepower. Unfortunately for Italy, procurement of the Freccia is progressing relatively slowly, and while one brigade is mostly outfitted, the second one will only be ready years into the future, while a third brigade set, once planned, will almost certainly never be funded.

The Centauro 2 brings a 120/45 smoothbore gun to the fight. 

The strength of the Italian brigade is its Cavalry element, which includes a squadron of 105mm- armed Centauro 8x8 tank destroyers, with a new generation Centauro 2 in development, armed with a 120/45 smoothbore gun and much improved V-hull and protection. The other two squadrons of the Cavalry regiment are meant to be equipped with the Freccia Scout variant, in two sub-variants: Far and Close.
The “Far” sub-variant comes with the Horus mini-uav in launch tubes on the flanks of the turret. A mast-mounted Lyra radar and long range EO/IR sensor complete the variant’s equipment.
The “Close” variant is equipped with Spike anti-tank missiles in place of Horus UAVs, and is meant to carry an Unmanned Ground Vehicle in the back.
If all vehicles will be funded, procured and put into service, the resulting capability will be very complete and will set a new standard.

The Freccia Scout "Far". The Horus UAV is fitted, while the Lyra radar is shown dismounted. 

The Horus launcher is virtually identical to the Spike ATGW launch box that equips the Freccia Close, leaving the enemy wondering. 

A reconnaissance UGV is carried by the Freccia Close 

Currently, the Italian Army is struggling with the provision of artillery to the medium brigades. Industry has proposed an ambitious self-propelled 155mm howitzer on 8x8 chassis, but for now there is not a real plan because of lack of money. 
If this gap will be properly filled, the Italian medium brigade will be a truly potent force.

The French medium brigade, under the latest “Au Contact!” force structure plan, will be a large brigade with two cavalry and 3 infantry formations. Its primary platforms, however, will not be 8x8 but 6x6 vehicles: the new Jaguar cavalry scout and the Griffon APC.    
The French have of course the VBCI, a large 8x8 IFV, but unlike Italy, Germany and the UK, they have procured it first of all to replace their tracked IFVs, rather than as a complementary capability.

EBRC Jaguar


One lesson of Mali (and Afghanistan too) was that insurgents make a large use of high caliber russian weaponry, from 14.5mm machine guns to the ZSU-23 23mm guns. Having big guns to reply is important, and when tanks begin to be part of the scenario, the medium force needs the means to respond if it has to have real ability to move quickly, fight and win. 

Ironically, the French operations in Mali which are the main inspiration behind the British Army’s renewed craving of 8x8s were carried out in large part with 6x6 and 4x4 vehicles: the AMX-10RC with its 105mm gun; the Sagaie with its 90mm, and then the 4x4 VAB APC. The VBCI, of course, was also deployed and did well, but it was just a small component of the combined task groups fielded in the country.

The French Medium Brigade appears to me to be headed towards a Stryker-like firepower deficit. The Griffon comes with just a RWS, and the EBRC will be armed with a 40mm CTA gun and MMP anti-tank missiles. The 105 and 90 mm guns that so well did in Mali, being highly mobile and able to hit hard and at long range, will not be there once the AMX and the Sagaie have been replaced by the EBRC.
For a while, France has worked on a low-recoil 120 mm gun that was to be used as part of the effort to replace the AMX and Sagaie, but the plan seems to have been shelved, and this might one day prove to be a big issue.

Artillery-wise, the French brigades will be supported by the CAESAR autocannon, a 155mm howitzer mounted on the back of a truck. The CAESAR is not a proper self-propelled system (the gun crew has to dismount; the gun has a very limited traverse and can basically only fire forward over the truck’s cab), but it is a more than reasonable solution in most scenarios.

The British strike brigade is still, in many ways, a floating question mark. It will probably be January 2017 before the Army announces anything substantial about its new force structure decisions and its new doctrine, that general Carter named “Integrated Action”.
The chief of staff has however anticipated that they are looking at brigades including two infantry battalions mounted on MIV and two battalions equipped with Ajax, with the Ajax acting as the “medium armour” element.
This anticipation is very worrying and raises a number of points right away:

-          The Ajax fleet is now expected to form 4 rather than 3 regiments, without an increase to the number of vehicles purchased. This suggests that the two Armoured Brigades could lose their cavalry reconnaissance regiment.
-          Ajax is built as a Scout, with just a 40mm gun, because as soon as 2010 its role was reaffirmed as reconnaissance for armoured and mechanized formations. General Carter was Chief of Staff already.
-          A Medium Armour variant of the FRES SV / Ajax was originally part of the plan. It had to have a 120 mm gun. Remember the Griffin that GD is offering the US Army? Bingo. Of course, Medium Armour was cancelled from the british plan. Now the Scout variant looks set to be forced into Medium Armour role, without truly having the firepower for doing it.
-          Just two MIV-mounted infantry battalions per brigade, when the binary structure for combat formation has again and again proven to be a failure, being abandoned once more by the US Army in recent times after years of Brigade Combat Teams with just two battalions each.
-          4 battalions of MIV means just 1 more than was planned under Army 2020, when one Mechanized Infantry battalion mounted on Mastiff was included inside each of the armoured infantry brigades.
-          Is the British Army seriously going to deprive itself of one armoured brigade in order to gain just one “extra” mechanized battalion and slightly better vehicles for them? Seems like a spectacularly negative trade.
-          Reportedly, the MIV will be an APC with a RWS with a .50 HMG. Like the Stryker originally was. Like the French Griffon. Like the polish Rosomak APC variant. But we should not forget that the US Army is now correcting that decision, as is Poland which is retrofitting unmanned turrets with 30mm gun and Spike AT missiles to its Rosomak APC.

The british Strike Brigade, according to the little that has been revealed so far, sounds like a cut more than an upgrade. My fear is that the army is about to mutilate itself in order to, basically, make some 8x8 manufacturer happy by filling its pockets with cash.

In order to release some manpower for fixing some of the greatest problems with the Strike Brigades formation, the army is also going to turn five infantry battalions into “Defence Engagement” formations numbering as few as 350 men each. We might learn which battalions are chosen as early as next month.
But the real bad news haven’t yet emerged. Thinking about the lines Carter has given, it is clear to me that the conversion of one of the three armoured brigades into a Strike brigade is pretty much certainly going to entail further reductions to the number of AS90 artillery pieces, which are tracked, bulky and too heavy to fit into these wonderful “highly mobile” and “self deployable” Strike thingies.
One Challenger 2 regiment is also very much at risk. It could end up converted into the fourth Ajax-mounted formation, with the number of tanks in the british army dropping below 200 and with just two regular regiments of tanks left in total. There is a (unlikely, if you ask me) possibility that the cavalry regiments re-organization could instead re-role current Light formations, but it is hard not to fear a further Challenger 2 reduction. With no extra manpower on the way, either Jackals or Challenger 2s (or both) will have to take the hit in order to shift resources elsewhere.
As we said, it is hard to imagine how Ajax can be expected to provide 4 regiments for the Strike Brigades and still deliver recce to the two armoured brigades as well, so this could be yet another blow to the heavier portion of the army. If I were the optimist type, I’d dare suggesting that the Army might want to form two “hybrid” reconnaissance regiments using a few Ajax and the Challenger 2s from the regiment of the brigade that converts, but the MOD’s often completely absurd decisions have destroyed my optimism years ago.
The number of armoured infantry battalions also remain uncertain. Technically, there are six, but with just 245 Warrior IFVs expected to be upgraded that number could drop to four, or anyway generate two “virtual” battalions effectively devoid of vehicles.

All this, for mounting 2800 men into lightly armed wheeled APCs…?

General Carter says that he thinks of the “Strike Brigade” as a “new concept” based on greater “mobility and reach”. He is enamored of the French columns racing back and forth through Mali routing insurgents, but the Strike Brigades he is proposing are a mix and match of tracks (Ajax, Terrier) and wheels (MIV) and lack the tools the French had in Mali, firepower first of all. It is also highly questionable whether the Mali experience is applicable anywhere else. In the “2 Ajax, 2 MIV” structure that has been mentioned so far, these brigades are also quite pointless in any hybrid / symmetric scenario. Purchasing 300 MIVs will cost billions of pounds, partly funded through cuts to what the Army already has, and I really can’t see a single good reason for going down this path.
“Reach” has to include firepower, and this goes from the weapons installed on the MIV itself up to artillery, passing from the battalions’ mortars.
The Royal Artillery is aware of the need for firepower and has reportedly launched (more precisely, resurrected) a number of requirements meant to finally modernize the army’s Fires. But it is not clear how many (if any) of these programmes have any real funding line available.

How to make it even worse: selecting Boxer

The Times has written an article during last week saying that the British Army intends to purchase the german Boxer as MIV solution. Best way to make the whole thing even more painful. The Boxer is the end result of the Multirole Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) multi-national programme that the UK abandoned in the early 2000s, with the loss of 48 million pounds already expended, and selecting it now would look considerably stupid, especially since the world is full of viable alternatives, several of which also happen to be cheaper.
Boxer is very heavy and quite complex. The modules in the back can be swapped out, but this adds complexity and weight that are not really compensated by any real gain. It is an expensive beast, and while a turreted IFV variant has been proposed by industry, the first vehicle in such a configuration has yet to be built and tested, needlessly complicating the path to a true wheeled IFV purchase if the army ever decides to fix the firepower problem.
And finally, the UK is about to enter two years of complex negotiations with the EU to determine the terms of Brexit. The EU is already behaving with hostility and chancellor Merkel herself made sure to, basically, declare economic war on the UK, causing a sharp drop in the value of the pound. Does the army really wish to spend the next bunch of years pouring billions into the pockets of a country that can be expected to build obstacles on the UK’s way at each and every chance it gets?

British Army and the Boxer: a love-hate relationship...?

It would be immensely stupid. I’m still hoping that The Times got that one wrong.

Should the UK even procure a MIV at all?

Medium Brigades have their uses, and an army structure on two heavy and two medium brigades is not a mistake in itself. All depends on the cost. How much is the rest of the army going to suffer to make the MIV purchase possible? For all I can see so far, way too much.
I’d very much avoid those self-inflicted cuts, and spend the little money available on fixing what is already available. The Strike Brigades could still be formed, but equipped with the likes of Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound, at least for the near future. An 8x8 is clearly better, under many points of view, than Mastiff, but if the MIV turns out being just a lightly armed wheeled APC, it is too little of an upgrade to justify such cuts.

In my opinion, the British Army should certainly reorganize to correct some deficiencies of Army 2020 and to better reflect its own doctrine. For one, it should move back to a structure based on two deployable divisions, because it makes no sense to bang, in doctrine, on the need for a 2 star HQ handling the strategic situation in theatre if your force structure only has one such deployable element.

It should re-organize heavy armour in six Combined Arms Regiments and proceed with a Challenger 2 Capability Sustainment Programme that addresses the current two-piece ammunition problem.

It should re-organize its reconnaissance cavalry to give it the ability to fight for information, to screen the main force and deliver enhanced ISTAR. The cavalry regiments should be expanded, and the Ajax should be supported by an heavier hitting vehicle, with a 120 mm gun. In the armoured brigades, the Cavalry regiment should include a number of Challenger 2s, while the medium weight formation should introduce a Medium Armour variant of Ajax itself, to keep within the relevant weight limits.
The new cavalry structure would expand the Army 2020 regiments mounted on Ajax from 528 men to 652, with three large sabre squadrons each with two Scout Troops (4 Ajax, 2 Ares); two Tank troops (4 Challenger 2 / Medium Armour each); a Surveillance Troop with 2 Ajax Joint Fires for the direction of artillery and air strikes plus 2 Ajax Ground Based Surveillance variants with mast-mounted radar and EO/IR sensor, one ABSV ambulance and a Support Troop with 2 ABSV mortar carriers and 2 Ares Overwatch with anti-tank missiles.
Each squadron is a self-contained maneuver unit, ready to be assigned to a battlegroup, easing the force generation cycle.
This new structure would require the return to service of a number of Challenger 2s and a change to the Ajax production run: less Scout vehicles in exchange for a new variant (Medium Armour) and a slight increase to the number of Joint Fires and Ground Based Surveillance sub-variants. Four such cavalry regiments would require:

48 Challenger 2 (in two regiments)
48 Medium Armour (in two regiments)
96 Ajax
24 Ajax Joint Fires
24 Ajax Ground Based Surveillance
24 Ares Overwatch
24 ABSV mortar carriers

Obviously, more vehicles of each type would be required for training and back-up, but currently there are 245 Ajax and sub-variants on order, and I believe that number could be maintained.  

On the artillery front, my suggestion would be to prioritize the AS90 replacement over the quest for a wheeled artillery system for the Strike Brigades. I believe the benefit of a wheeled self-propelled howitzer would not really justify its cost, considering the budget difficulties the forces grapple with. A single programme could solve both problems at once: industry offers the DONAR, an highly automated artillery system, based on the Pzh2000, installed upon an Ascod SV / Ajax hull. Lighter and easier to deploy than the AS90, it offers logistical commonality with the Ajax and is in the same region in terms of mass. This makes it suitable for use in the strike brigades even if it does not ride on wheels.

A 155/52 self propelled howitzer on an Ajax chassis. Decent solution to two problems at once. 

As AS90 replacement, it offers decent protection, tracks for maximum mobility and, crucially, a 52 calibre gun with greater reach than the AS90’s 39 cal.

A wheeled GMLRS launcher shouldn’t even be considered, in my opinion, because it would, again, be a sub-optimal use of money. Yes, the M270B1 is tracked. But tracks are already part of the brigade anyway. Mass-wise, the M270B1 is lighter than both Ajax and any likely MIV candidate, so it fits the frame without problems. Being tracked it might be a bit trickier to move over long distances (the famous “self deploy” dream), but it would still be the last of the issues needing solution.

British mechanized infantry right now: is it wise to sacrifice so much to move from these to an 8x8? I don't think so. 

In the meanwhile, the mechanized infantry should ride on Mastiff, Ridgback and Foxhound. They are not faultless vehicles, but they are available and paid for, and they do their job pretty well. If replacing them with a more mobile 8x8 requires mutilating the rest of the army and still obtain such a poor result as the currently envisioned Strike Brigade, it is simply suicidal to pursue such replacement.