Friday, December 2, 2016

Strategy is a long term vision

There is not too terribly much that can be said on sir Parker’s review of the UK shipbuilding situation, at the moment. His is merely a list of suggestions, an independent report which might or might not generate policy changes. To know whether his recommendations have changed anything, we’ll have to wait for the actual Shipbuilding Strategy which the government has promised to publish sometime in “spring 2017”.
That document is the one we want to read, and the one from which answers should come. We can only hope that something serious comes out of the whole exercise, but skepticism is more than justified.

The single most important recommendation formulated by sir Parker, in my opinion, is this:

The MOD Sponsor should establish a transparent Master Plan for naval shipbuilding that lays out Defence’s procurement plans for each series of naval ships over the next 30 years. This should be backed by “set and assured” capital budgets for each new series of ships. The Master Plan should be reviewed at each SDSR.

The importance of an overarching, long term vision cannot possibly be overstated. What sir Parker denounces in his report is that the Royal Navy’s future is dependent on a series of programmes that almost come out of the blue. There is no master plan, there is no long term vision guiding the succession of studies, assessments and attempts to launch a new shipbuilding programme of any kind.
The result of the short-termism is evident in today’s frankly desperate situation, in which the Royal Navy, at very short notice, has been saddled with 5 OPVs that it didn’t really want nor yet need (the current ones could easily last another decade, as was planned until recently); while at the same time seeing its main frigate programme not only delayed, but broken into two halves, the second of which has no defined shape, role, budget. RFA Diligence is gone without replacement, RFA Argus is very much at risk of ending the same way within the next 4 years, and the future of everything else is still vague and indefinite, subject to the shifting fortunes of yearly budget negotiations.

Ultimately, the current process involves many people and too many ‘hand-offs’. Too many think they have a vote, or even a veto, in the process. Current governance is not sufficiently clear. There is no assured “Capital budget” for a RN project which means programmes are subject to arbitrary intervention and delays adding to cost. Senior Responsible Owners’ objectives and accountability are not always properly aligned. There is a clear system of financial approvals via the Investment Approvals Committee, but the system is not always applied intelligently to ensure that good quality information and early engagement with decision makers results in well evidenced and timely decisions. The result is a lack of empowered project grip.  

Sir Parker talks of “set and assured” capital budgets for the 30 year plan, and this would clearly be helpful, but it is also evidently very complicated. Even just a more flexible commitment would help, however, as it would help the Royal Navy’s struggle to preserve what’s left of the fleet.
The navy itself needs to plan that far ahead, not so much in terms of what the singular ship will look like that far away in time, but in terms of how to retain and possibly enhance a capability. There are, in my opinion, two critical cases in which long term planning is long overdue: one has to do with the role of the MCM, Hydrographic Capability (MHC) mothership expected to eventually replace current Hunt, Sandown and Echo classes, beginning in 2028. The MHC mothership plans have taken, this far, a very far back seat, with all MHC attention going to the payload development and test.
There are certainly good reasons for focusing on the new unmanned vehicles and the new kind and breadth of stand-off mine clearing they enable. It is a great innovation, with all the risks that innovation entails, and until the system is proven the Royal Navy cannot take a final decision on whether the future mothership will be a steel-hulled, multi-role vessel or a novel edition of the super-specialized GRP hulls in use today.

The Royal Navy, however, needs to take a decision quickly because as Type 31 drops down the capability ladder to become a “light frigate”, or a General Purpose vessel, the fields of usefulness of Type 31 and of the potential MHC Mothership begin to overlap.
Without a plan, there is a very real risk that the Royal Navy, within a decade, goes from having no “second line” flotilla to having three classes of second rank ships: Type 31, River Batch 2, MHC. It would be an incredibly bad use of money, because it would leave the high end fleet of escorts short of numbers and capability, while overcrowding the lower segment.
Sir Parker mentions that containerized MCM kit could one day be deployed from Type 31, and while this might well be, the point that needs to be made, very quickly, is what overlap exists between Type 31 and MHC – Mothership. Can they become the same programme? If not, how can the RN make sure that the Type 31, while being “light” is an escort oriented towards the high end of warfare, with MHC covering the low end, rather than duplicating a same set of limited capabilities?
This is how wasteful procurement is born: lack of clarity, lack of long term vision.

The Type 26 itself is already suffering from severe lack of long term vision. The Royal Navy arrived to the Type 26 programme after close to two decades of desperate attempts to get a new frigate programme on the move. Countless efforts began and died without ever generating a single ship, and the last of the big studies had eventually come up with a fleet-wide plan for 10 “C1” high-end ASW combatants supported by 8 “C2”, simpler “general purpose” frigates, with a third class, the “C3” for OPV roles and MHC mothershipping.
Type 26 came out of the killing blow dealt to that tentative long term plan: C1 and C2 were merged into Type 26 and their cumulative total was reduced to 13, with any C3 equivalent deferred to a vague future.
Then, just a few years into the Type 26 programme, the Royal Navy has been effectively kicked back to a C1 and C2 situation, where 8 Type 26 are supposed to be the C1 element and the Type 31 the C2.
This is an example of catastrophic long term planning failure, and the Type 26 now arguably suffers of design imbalances caused by having to be the “one and only”. The Type 26 has been designed with extremely long logistic endurance, a vast defensive armament spread in two different areas of the ship, a very large mission bay and a Chinook-capable flight deck, and thanks to the MK41 it has the potential to be very well armed as well (overlooking for a moment the fact that right now she is far more likely to have empty cells than filled cells, again for lack of clarity on the future and cash shortage). Was all this necessary in an ASW-roled escort which, by virtue of its role, would spend most of its time in task group? They are all very helpful attributes, but being in task group means having relatively easy access to extra firepower from the other vessels; access to fuel and stores replenishment; aviation support.
Currently, the RN is facing the prospect of having a large, multi-role ASW vessel inside the task group and a cheap, light frigate doing solo deployments. One is left to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to have built a somewhat simpler ASW escort, more rationally thought out for Task Group roles, and a capable “global combat ship” as supporting element, designed to be a capable “solo player”.
Imbalances caused by lack of long term clarity, again.

Another area that needs long-term clarity is the amphibious capability, left in disarray by the loss of HMS Ocean without replacement, which damages very badly the UK’s capability in the sector and imposes a hybrid use of the new aircraft carriers, under the acronym CEPP, for Carrier Enabled Power Projection.
The long term solution, if a realistic amphibious capability is to be retained, is to replace the current LPDs with LHDs, combining aviation spaces with well dock and large landing crafts. But this will be extremely complex unless a coherent plan is worked out well beforehand and the government endorses the requirement. As of now, would you be willing to bet any money on the LPDs being replaced at all…? I would be very torn.

The lack of a long term plan inexorably makes it almost impossible to sustain the shipbuilding sector. How can a serious industrial and infrastructural project be put together if there is not a realistic idea of what it is that the Navy will buy, how it will do so and when? Who could ever seriously invest in shipbuilding if the only thing somewhat assured is that a few frigates will, indeed, one day be built again, while everything else might simply be replaced by vessels built abroad, if not by nothing at all?
A long term plan is desperately necessary. Everything depends on such a plan, and on decisions to be made. If we look ahead, we see that a shipbuilding plan for the surface fleet includes:

-          3 large Solid Support Ships, probably close to 40.000 tons each, to be built between 2020 and 2025
-          8 Type 26, between 2017 (hopefully) and the 2030s
-          N Type 31 between X and the 2030s
-          N MHC ships, to be defined, from the late 2020s onwards

The LPDs should enter “replacement age” around 2030 – 2032. Now that they alternate in and out of service in 5 year intervals their useful life might be effectively stretched out, but their lack of aviation facilities and overall insufficient troops and vehicles capacity, in light of the loss of Ocean, suggests that a replacement is needed sooner rather than later, so the carriers can eventually concentrate on being carriers, rather than LHAs. Depending on the choices that will be made, building the LHDs would also help sustain the whole shipbuilding sector.
By 2039, the Type 45 will all have gone out of service too, unless their 25-years life is extended. The Royal Navy is currently planning to have them gone by 2039, taking the last MK8 Mod 1 guns with them (there is currently no money for ever retrofitting the 127mm gun on Type 45).
Depending on how the government wanted / was financially able to proceed, there is no real shortage of work: these programmes often overlap, suggesting that for many years there could be a relative abundance of orders. Assuming all programmes eventually start and that ships are not procured abroad. And this is what the strategy needs to say.
In the early 2020s, the RFA Argus question will resurface as well, and a successor to RFA Diligence is highly desirable, so there is in theory a need for a couple of large civilian ship conversions or new builds, if the government is willing to endorse the requirement.

The Venator 110 is sir Parker's idea of what a Type 31 base design could be. Hard not to agree with him, especially since the two BAE alternatives seen so far, the Avenger and Cutlass, have little good to offer, particularly the former. 

The Royal Navy desperately needs a long term plan for weapons, too. VL or canister? Type 23/45 would need the latter, Type 26 the former, Type 31? Land attack? Anti-ship? Currently, only confusion is apparent. 

All decisions about the future of the shipyards can only be taken if there is a long term master plan upon which assumptions and plans can be built.
If the three MARS SSS ships were built in the UK, in Blocks and Super Blocks, even Rosyth could have a future as the yard of assembly. As of now, Rosyth does not have much of a post-carriers future, with the Goliath crane already expected to be sold once the work on the flagships is over and all that remains is nuclear submarine dismantling and, maybe, the carrier refits over their service life.
A decision to have the SSS built in the UK could change the situation entirely, and the LPD replacement could slot on the back of the three ships (with a bit of a gap in the middle, admittedly, but probably manageable).

The recommendation to assemble the Type 31 away from the Clyde is a political hot potato. In some ways it is highly desirable, in others it is a problem. The SNP will be given something to moan about if the Clyde does not assembly the new frigate. On the other hand, if a yard down south does the job, the SNP can be told, much more credibly, that if they play their independence stunt, the flow of work for the yards will dry up and construction will move south.
It is also evident that trying to built two different frigate types at the same time in the same yard could cause all sorts of problems, including the transmission of delays from one programme to the other whenever something does not work as intended. It might be reasonable to assume that BAE systems will attempt to craft out a plan to use Govan and Scotstoun differently, perhaps assigning a frigate type to each site. What will happen with the Type 31 is, at this moment in time, anyone’s guess.

The exportability bit is the one that leaves me shaking my head. It is hard to imagine that Type 31 will turn out a great export success. The market is already quite saturated with “cheap” warships which come with extremely good capability and a very heavy load of weaponry. If the Royal Navy insists on its usual trend of trying to contain cost by shredding sensors and weapons rather than adjusting building standards and other areas, the Type 31 will never sell. Look at the ships that are being sold, or seriously considered by this nation or that: they are capable vessels. They have probably cut corners somewhere, otherwise they would cost more, but they carry sensors, they tipically have an ASW capability, perhaps not always exploited by the customer, but present. They are heavily armed. The MEKOs sold to Algeria, for example. Or the Aster-armed ships recently sold in the Gulf.
Extremely well armed and cheap vessels from Russia and China are an increasingly attractive proposition.
And there is now a strong political pressure on the US Navy calling for the design of a new “small” surface combatant to build in place of the LCS-derived Fast Frigates in the 2020s. If such a ship was to emerge, it could deal the killing blow to any Type 31 export hope before Type 31 even becomes a thing.
For a variety of good reasons, it is very hard to imagine the Type 31 actually selling, especially if it is built as something which is little more than an OPV.

The Royal Navy needs to get a Type 31 which is actually useful at escorting. It also needs, possibly, to reconsider exactly how Type 26 and Type 31 will be used to cover future requirements. Perhaps it makes more sense to have Type 31s with variable depth towed sonars doing Task Group escort work and Type 26 in solo deployments.
The Royal Navy needs escorts that are credible and that respond to the two greatest dangers out there: air and sub-surface attacks. Type 31 must focus first of all on this simple truth, like the French FTI “intermediate” frigate is doing. The lower end constabulary tasks should not be a design driver, nor, arguably, should they be the Type 31’s concern. What kind of role will the MHC mothership be able to play in that area? Knowing it in good time is fundamental.

The Marine Nationale has been clear all along about what it wanted out of FTI: a ship with capable AAW defences and a good ASW capability, at a lower cost than that of a FREMM. The Type 31 should follow the same path rather than venture in "General Purpose" non-ASW land which will never deliver what the navy effectively needs from its escorts.  

Two other recommendations stand out to my eyes: that the MOD and Navy should be more intelligent buyers of ships; and that a marine design centre of excellence is missing from the picture.
There is a bond between the two things, I feel: the Royal Navy needs to be part of such a design centre of excellence, and it must probably have its own design office inside the organization. Much, if not all, of the Royal Navy’s internal know how and capability in designing warships was lost years ago, leaving the service more or less completely in the hands of industry. This was supposed to save money, but it has probably generated more trouble than benefit.
A Navy able to design its own solutions is a more capable and intelligent customer by default. It will not need to buy the solution to every problem: it can design it and then have it realized. The Italian navy is currently kicking off a major shipbuilding programme building 7 PPA, “light frigates” that will complement the FREMMs and replace everything from two of the old Destroyers down to the current OPVs. The programme also includes a massive and very capable LHD and a supply ship. The cost of the entire programme is lower than the Type 26 alone is expected to cost, and this is extraordinary.

Only 2 of the 7 PPA will be fully equipped with sensors and weaponry, at least initially (torpedoes, towed sonar, Aster missiles, Teseo SSM, 127mm, 76mm CIWS), with a few more having an intermediate fit including 76mm CIWS on top of the hangar, 127mm gun and Aster missiles and the remaining having lighter sensors fit and only the guns, with no Aster. But all come with significant innovations in their design, from the bow to their high speed, from the mission spaces under the flight deck and amidship to the new fixed-face radars to the impressive two-man "cockpit". 

One of the “secrets” of the current Italian shipbuilding programme is that the new ships have largely come out of the work of the Navy’s own design office. Industry is involved, of course, but in a very good way: the new ships introduce a large number of new systems (a new CIWS 76mm turret, new IRST, new radars, new towed sonar, a modular and multi-mission design, an innovative wave piercing bow for very high speeds (PPA is meant for 35 knots speeds) and others) designed by the nation’s industries. Why the UK can’t put together something as ambitious? Why has the Type 31 to be affordable only through being a depressingly low capability hull?

The long-term shipbuilding strategy for the UK must include a real centre of excellence in shipbuilding design, and the Royal Navy probably needs to have its own office inside. Shoulder to shoulder with industry, but with doors that can be locked when the moment calls for it. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Strike Brigades, the short version

"You know the tank, that we invented and we just finished to celebrate? We are going to cut a third of them so we can use Ajax out of role instead, converting a tank regiment into a "medium armour" thingy."

"We're going to leave the armoured brigades without recce cavalry so we can pretend Ajax is a medium tank and put it in an otherwise wheeled brigade, because we don't have the money to put the 40mm gun on MIV itself. We used to plan a Medium Armour variant of Ajax armed with a 105 or 120 mm gun, but we cancelled that and there is no money to resurrect it now. Instead we have ordered 245 Ajax in recce configuration and sub-variants, plus supporting variants. No problem: we build Ajax to be the reconnaissance element of armoured brigades, but we can just squeeze it into another role instead. But don't worry, we won't use it as a tank. Well, yes, we will, but only if there is no enemy MBT around, i guess. If there is, surely the air force can think about it, or Javelin, perhaps...?
Our Medium Weight force will be half tracked and with a firepower deficit, but these are details.

Direct Fire / Medium Armour variant: one of the Ajax variants that did not make it into the contract. 
Ajax Medium Armour might still see the light, but it will be on the other side of the Atlantic. The Griffin, based on the Ajax hull and armed with a 120mm smoothbore, is GD's entry for the US Army Lightweight Protected Firepower requirement. If the British Army could change the Ajax order to include a number of these, the Strike Brigade would make at least a bit more sense. 

Maybe, just maybe, we will do something for the Royal Artillery. Something very innovative. So innovative that the Royal Artillery has tried to do the same things for more than a decade, without ever getting the money for them.
In the meanwhile, we are probably going to cut a regiment's worth of AS90 self-propelled howitzers.

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Yes. The strike idea is designed to meet two outputs. The first output is what I described earlier: being able to project land power in a self-deployable fashion over greater distances, up to, say, 2,000 km.The second thing that strike is designed to do is to be able to dominate a battle space that is increasingly larger and perhaps has more population on it, that is more complex and is also able to concentrate and disperse rapidly within that battle space. The capability is being built on a vehicle piece of equipment—

 Phil Wilson: Is that the AJAX?

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Yes, it is. It is being constructed in south Wales. They start to roll off the production line, not in south Wales, but initially in Europe, come next year. We are building the capability in a methodical and deliberate fashion over time, as this equipment rolls off the production line. Rather like we did in the 1930s, the idea is to test it to destruction and to experiment with it, in the same way we did with the mechanisation of force in the 1930s, so that we get the doctrine and the concept right at the forefront and so that we understand what the structure should look like. We test it and we veer and haul from it, so that, come 2021, we have an initial operating capability. I know that may sound a long way away, but that is the rate at which these vehicles are rolling off the production line.                

Phil Wilson: How many vehicles in total will you be looking for in the end?

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Well, a regiment equipped with AJAX will have around 50 to 60 AJAX vehicles within it. Each of these brigades will have two AJAX regiments and probably two mechanised infantry battalions as well.

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Well, it (AJAX) is a completely different capability. We initially felt that we needed to buy it to replace what is called CVR(T)CVR(T) had the Scimitar, and the Spartan series of vehicles, which was a tracked reconnaissance vehicle. Of course, what we have now discovered, because technology has advanced significantly, is that it is a much more capable platform than just simply a recce platform and therefore what we are now looking for is something that can fill a capability gap at the medium weight. Although weight is a bad way of describing things, it puts it into perspective for you.

"Then we are going to do stuff with these new half tracked and half wheeled and lightly armed brigades. I have no real idea what, but we'll call it "joint land strike", because i like the sound of that and it makes us sound like the air force."

Video of Nick Carter talking of the Strike Brigade to the Defence Committee, June 2016. 14:52:00 onwards.

"Cutting a tank regiment and stripping of heavy armour all supporting units as we downgrade an armoured brigade is not going to save enough money and manpower on its own, but i really want the MIV. We have too many small and unusable infantry battalions, but government doesn't want to get bashed about the loss of capbadges so we can't disband any.
So we are going to turn 5 infantry battalions into "Defence Engagement" units of just about 300 to 350 men each, and put them in Aldershot, so we can move some men out of them and into the Strike Brigades.
Mechanized Infantry battalions are 709 strong, and we have 3 of them right now. We need to reinforce another battalion for the same role, and make adjustements elsewhere too, in some supporting elements. New Gurkha sub-units worth more than 600 men are already planned; Gurkhas are handy because you are pretty much guarranteed to meet any recruitment target you set."

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Putting that smartly to one side, what it actually means goes back to when I talked about specialised infantry battalions in answer to the very first question. These creatures, which will only be about 300 strong, allow me—because they will be built from battalions that are 550 strong—to be able to reinvest over time the 250 saving which you make into the other infantry battalions around them to make them more resilient.

Mrs Moon: They are very small though.

General Sir Nicholas Carter: But I want them to be small; I want 300-man battalions, because I want them to conduct these very specialised tasks. I want them to have more non-commissioned officers and officers. I want them to be linguists. I want them to have cultural expertise. I want them to have very professional skills, so that they are able to perform a number of outputs. I want them, for example, to be able to go into the heart of Nigeria and be able to train a Nigerian division to go into the fight against Boko Haram. I want them to be able to train the Kurds to go and fight against Daesh in Iraq. I want them to be able to train the Ukrainian armed forces to be able to provide an effective deterrent to Russia. I want them to do tasks that are at the higher end of risk, and to be able to really do something that is quite specialised. I won’t be able to create that many. I don’t want them any larger than they actually are. Oddly enough, they look very similar to some of the things that other nations have and I think that is probably a case in point.

[The above quote was the origin of the press stories a while back that described these "specialized battalions" as the british answer to the US's Green Berets. Whether they will actually be that ambitious, considering the costs of such a venture and the recruitment difficulties that come with specialists, is anybody's guess] 
General Carter oral evidence to the Defence Committee

"But that won't be enough either, so we are going to dismantle 102 Logistic Brigade. Forget about a 2-division ambition, we'll be perfectly fine with a one-shot, six-month best effort structure of a single division. The "Adaptable Force" will continue to contain a whole bunch of orphaned infantry and light cavalry formations that we aren't really able to use because we are lacking in support elements for them. We'll just say that it is a wonderful example of "golf bag approach", and that they can be "pieced together" as needed. Yes, that sounds good."

General Sir Nicholas Carter: Yes, by 2025 I want to be able to field two manoeuvre brigades—armoured infantry brigades, as we call them—and, ideally, a strike brigade. I would like to have some manoeuvre support—as you know far better than I, basic infantry to be able to protect things and guard prisoners—and, of course, all the combat service support necessary to represent the full orchestra.

Bob Stewart: Which brings in the sustainment thing. You used the term “one-off” there, so we deploy up to three brigades in a war-fighting division for a one-off campaign of probably six months, but we cannot replen, as it were, or we might be able to cobble together a brigade but we would not be able to put together a division to back it up. We could not replace it.

General Sir Nicholas Carter: No. You would not be able to replace the full division. You would probably be able to find a replacement divisional headquarters at readiness and you would probably be able to have a brigade there on an enduring basis, but if you had to go larger than that, it would be challenging.
General Carter oral evidence to the Defence Committee

"We need a gucci name for this whole thing. We'll call it "Integrated Action". Yes, that will do."

"All our doctrinal studies since 2010 have said that we need deployable Division HQ for strategic handling and we have again and again concluded that mixing tracks and wheels is bad. But we will ignore our own findings again, because i really want the MIV."

And Army 2020 Refine, or Army 2025 if you prefer, is born.

I hope it dies soon, because the cost of those MIVs is going to be a great burden on the rest of the army. Fast forward to a new chief of staff and a new SDSR, please. There are better ways to use the money.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What support for the families of reservists?

The armed forces have been hit by terrible cuts in 2010, and in an attempt to contain the damage they have been directed to better and more extensively use the Reserve. This change has brought reservists closer to the spotlight, but not so their families: what can be done to better support the families of reservists, as part of the wider plan? If reservist are to successfully expand their role and face more frequent deployments, it will be important to ensure they get the support they need. 

FRAME-SW (Families of Reservists, A Mapping Exercise for Support and Welfare) is a research project that is attempting to gather information about the support provided to reserve families. The research will only be effective if it reaches the largest possible number of families, so i've welcomed the FRAME-SW call for help and i'm providing a signal boost. Below you can find the details about the project and an example of e-mail that can be used to involve other people into the survey.  

The Government and the MOD have a publically declared obligation to support all members of the Armed Forces and their families, through the Armed Forces Covenant. Defence recognises the importance of understanding and supporting the needs of families. However, there has been relatively little research on the families of Army reservists to date.

Around nine in ten volunteer Reservists agreed that their family supports their Reserve service and a higher proportion of Reservists than regulars were satisfied with the support their family received when they were last deployed on operations. This is a positive view from the Reservist but it would be useful to know how much Reservist families are aware of all the support and welfare provision that is potentially available to them. This would help to best target support and welfare for the future and to identify if there are any current gaps in provision.

Most Reservists are not employed full time and their families may have little to do with military life until their family member takes part in operations or extended training. Therefore, it can be difficult to reach the families of Reservists through traditional study recruitment methods. Reservist family members may not tend to think of themselves as part of the service community. This can prevent their views being heard. We have set up an online survey on the web and are running a social media campaign to reach out to reservist family members. However, if you are a Reservist we would like you to please help us by passing on details of our study to your family members. This also includes the family members of Full Time Reserve Service (FTRS) personnel.

The study is open to all adult family members aged 18 or over of a Reservist - mother, father, husband, wife, partner, in-law, child, sibling, relation, and friends who are considered to be part of the family. There are several ways for family members to share their opinions, including completing an anonymous online survey at , taking part in a focus group, or by phone. Please visit the website for more details , email us on, or call the team on 01865 48 2988.

This study is funded by the Ministry of Defence and is being carried out by researchers at Oxford Brookes University, King’s College London, and Aberdeen University. The study has received ethics approval from the Ministry of Defence Research Ethics Committee. Reservists and their family members can also visit our website for a signposting guide to the current welfare services for Reservists and their families. We are always after some feedback on our survey, website and signposting guide so please do have a look and contact us.

This example e-mail can be used to help spread the word among reservists: 

FRAME-SW: Families of Reservists, A Mapping Exercise for Support and Welfare.

Would your family members like to have their say on the welfare and support provision for Reservists’ families?  
We are inviting the family members of UK Reservists to complete a survey about the welfare and support offered to the families of Reservists currently serving as part of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army, or Royal Air Force. 
Your family members can take part if they are at least 18 years old and a Reservist’s parent or step-parent, brother, sister, step-brother, step-sister, grandparent, spouse, civil partner, long-term partner, child, step-child, aunt or uncle, cousin, or close friend. 
The aim of the study is to help us to understand what is important to your family. We want to understand how much families know about their entitlement to welfare and support services, their experiences and opinions about these services, and their views on ideal levels of welfare and support services when you are deployed, and on a day to day basis. We will use this information to make recommendations to the Ministry of Defence.
Please ask a family member to follow this link to complete our survey or email; or telephone us on 01865 482988. It can be completed in about 15 minutes online.
We will also be looking for family members to take part in focus groups or telephone interviews. Full details are on our website and how they can register their interest.
You can also follow us on Twitter (Frame-SW) and can message us on Facebook (

Yours sincerely,

The FRAME-SW team,
Professor Vince Connelly – Oxford Brookes University
Professor Nicola Fear – Kings College London
Dr Zoe Morrison – University of Aberdeen
Dr Sarah Hennelly – Oxford Brookes University 
Ms Joanna Smith – Oxford Brookes University

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.