Thursday, February 19, 2015

A good alternative to SSBNs...?


A new proposal has been put forwards as an alternative to the Successor SSBN programme which is due to produce 3 to 4 new submarines as replacement for the current Vanguard class, with entry in service beginning in 2028. The effort is known to the general public as "Trident replacement", but it is a very misleading name for the project, as what needs replacement is the submarine, not the Trident missile.


Successor - a quick summary 

The same Trident 2 D5 missiles currently in service will continue to be used at least out to 2042, so it is most definitely not a matter of replacing Trident. The warheads are also good out to 2032 at least, as they are subject to a life extension programme which brings them to MK4A standard. A decision on an eventual replacement is not expected to be required before the late 2030s, and it is to be assumed that, if possible at all, efforts to eventually replace the warhead and the Trident missiles themselves will be coordinated in the 2040s.

The four Vanguard submarines, on the other hand, can no longer be life extended safely and effectively. Their useful life has already been stretched and the first of the class is now due to soldier on until 2028, but it is assessed that extending further is not desirable.
Main Gate for the Successor programme, which will finally place a formal contract in place for the acquisition of 3 or four new generation submarines, is planned for early 2016, but design activities and procurement of key long lead items (included the new PWR3 reactor core and the special steel for the hulls) are already underway, with a spend ceiling of 3.3 billion pounds by 2016. As of december 2014, 1243 million pounds have already been committed. Notably, 206 million are for the upgrading and restructuring of the Barrow shipyard facilities which are key to the UK's ability to build submarines, and the usefulness of this investment goes beyond the Successor itself.
The new PWR3 reactor, more advanced than the current PWR2, builds on very significant amounts of technology shared by the United States. Its features include a far longer unrefueled service life (the american equivalent reactor project for their own new SSBNs aims for a 40 years unrefueled service life, versus a target of 25 years for the PWR2) in order to minimize in-service costs during the life of the vessel; and enhanced safety.

In October 2014, a notable long lead contract has been placed, with a 59 million dollar contract signed with General Dynamics Electric Boat for the production of the 12 Trident launch tubes for the first SSBN. The US Department of Defense, in the same contract, has ordered a first batch of 5 tubes for its own SSBN.
This unprecedented level of collaboration is part of the Common Missile Compartment initiative. The CMC is being designed in 4-tube modules which are then integrated into the submarine at build: 3 sections will form the british CMC compartment (12 tubes in total, down from 16 in the current Vanguard class), while the US SSBN will have four sections (16 tubes, down from 24 in the current Ohio class).
The first 4-tubes module should be assembled beginning in August 2016; the first launch tube is expected to be delivered for installation in the module during November the same year. The 1st Quad Pack module should be completed in April 2018, with deliveries of all the 17 tubes currently on order completed by November 2017.
Initially, it had been thought to "future proof" the tubes by producing them with a 97 inches diameter, but this idea was shelved to save money, and the diameter will stay at 87 inches: whatever missile eventually replaces Trident 2 D5 will have to share the same diameter.

Other design features of the british SSBNs aren't yet known in detail. A CGI image released by the MOD suggests that an X configuration for stern control surfaces is being planned, like in the US for the SSBN(X). Despite having less launch tubes, the new SSBN is expected to be as large as the Vanguard, and possibly slightly heavier. Growth is being contained, however, with the aim of reducing to a minimum the need for infrastructure changes in Faslane and Coulport. What is good for the Vanguards must be good for the Successor as well.
In a similarly pragmatic decision, according to 2013 data reports, the Successor will draw largely from the Astute class SSN, sharing the same sonar and combat system, the same torpedo tubes arrangement and the same mast sensors. A Common External Communications System is also being acquired, which will use the same launcher and Comms buoys for both Astute and Successor.
It has been suggested that much of the crew will be able to seamlessly transition from SSBN to Astute SSN at any time, due to the great commonality.

As part of budget cuts, the SDSR 2010 has mandated a new round of reductions in the number of warheads and operational, embarked missiles. Currently, the Vanguard class SSBNs deploy at sea with no more than 8 Trident missiles equipped, in total, with 40 warheads. Each Trident missile can be fitted with up to 12 warheads, so the current totals are far, far reduced from the original 16 missile / 192 warheads load envisaged for the Vanguard. The number of operational, availlable warheads has also been reduced, to a maximum of 120 (was 160 before the SDSR), our of a total of 160 (was 225 before SDSR). 

The Trident 2 D5 missiles are exactly the same used by the US Navy. Indeed, the UK has access to up to 58 such missiles (not clear if the few expended in trials over the years have been replaced or not), which are maintained as part of the US Navy's total. To safeguard the independence of employment of the deterrent, the nuclear payload is british.

For comparison purposes, France maintains a total of 300 nuclear warheads; three sets of 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles for it's four SSBNs and 54 air-launched ASMP-A missiles.

Even with all these measures to contain costs and achieve maximum efficiency, the Successor programme remains expensive. The December 2014 update to Parliament assures that the programme for now promises to respect the original 11 to 14 billion pounds pricetag set in 2006. Adjusted for inflation, that means 14.21 to 18.09 billion pounds in 2014 money (Bank of England calculation). We will assume a price range between 15 and 20 billion pounds for four submarines as a measure of prudence. A price which, of course, many charge of being still too optimistic.


Centre Forum steps in

Toby Fenwick, former Treasury and DfiD civil servant as well as RAF Intelligence reservist between 1995 and 2009, has written a paper, published a few days ago by Centre Forum, to argue for the abandonement of the plan for a continuation of Trident and a cancellation of the SSBNs, in favor of an air-dropped nuclear deterrent which would cost less and deliver much greater conventional capabilities in exchange for a diminished nuclear arsenal.

The list of recommendations made by the document are the following:




It is evident at first read that the nuclear arsenal resulting would be much weaker than the currently planned one, but at the same time it is evident that the proposal would bring much enhanced conventional military capability in the air and at sea.

The proposal is to adopt the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb, which is deployed in Europe as part of the NATO Nuclear Sharing deterrence concept. The B61s are tactical, free fall bombs meant for supersonic carriage, and a part of the arsenal is made available to allies for employment on their own aircraft: for example, Germany and Italy have Tornado IDS squadrons with a nuclear strike role, and the F-16 is also used. Other B61s forward stored in Europe are available for use by USAFE aircraft.

The B61 exists in several different variants, but the US has launched a costly refurbishment programme which will leave only one type of weapon in operation, the B61-12. This is obtained employing the B61-4 variable yeld warhead and introducing a new tail kit which, while not adding actual precision guidance, dramatically improves accuracy on the target and gives a modest "stand-off" range in a high speed toss towards the target. Some 480 bombs in total will be refurbished, at a cost estimated between 10 and 12 billion dollars.
The B61-12 is to be integrated for internal carriage on the F-35A.

A B61-12 being tested in the wind tunnel

The proposal is to seek integration of the B61-12 on the F-35C as well, which is physically feasible since the weapon bays have the same size (not so with the shorter bays of the F-35B), so that RAF and Royal Navy can procure 138 F-35C, to be used as dual capable aircraft.

The document also contains indications on the expected price of the proposal, which to be workable requires considerable investment in conventional capabilities surrounding and enabling the deterrent.




It is to be appreciated that the document keeps track of the need for aircraft carrier embarkation and delivery in order to make the deterrent capable to strike back against any enemy, and that it consequently makes provvisions for enhancing the surface fleet to provide more appropriate escort, adding more Type 26 frigates and Hawkeye radar aircraft.

It is also good to see that the author did not ignore the need to provide Barrow with more SSNs to buy in order to keep the yard active and it's key skills alive: one of the roles of the Successor programme is also to bridge the gap between the construction of the Astutes and the future project for their replacement. Years and years of inactivity destroy the workforce and squander the precious skills required for building submarines. It is a lesson re-learned at the cost of much money and great delays to the Astute project: after years of inactivity, the design team ended up having to ask the americans for help in order to finalize the Astute's design. So, if SSBNs aren't built, SSNs must take their place, or the cost could well be the loss of the nation's ability to build any at a later date.

The passage to catapults for the carriers brings an evident boost to capability and is required since only the F-35C can hope to carry the B61-12 internally. The purchase of Hawkeye is key to giving the air wing  and the carrier itself the survivability they need.


The problem

A nuclear deterrent based on the B61-12 would be much less capable than Trident, this is definite. The key issue is not the power of the warhead, but the certainty that an enemy anywhere in the world can be reliably hit. Any possible existential enemy of the UK must be keenly aware that there is a credible deterrent which is unquestionably able to strike back and make him pay a price which cannot be possibly accepted.

The reach of the B61-12 is the main problem. The document says that F-35C launched from UK bases could strike 2500 nautical miles away with Voyager tankers support, and goes some way in explaining how, using british bases overseas and the carrier's air wing the reach can be made sufficient to strike virtually anywhere. There are obvious difficulties with such a scenario, and there is pretty much the admission that any delivery flight would be more or less a suicide.
Then again, if it ever came to flying a real nuclear bombing mission, coming back to base might not be an option anyway.
The key, as always, is not doing it for real, but showing in a convincing way that it could and would be done. The deterrent must be credible in the sense that an enemy must be convinced that cornering the UK would result in a devastating nuclear revenge which would make any conquest ultimately futile. The deterrent must represent an implied, unacceptable price to pay that forces an enemy to drop the idea of acting in the first place. If we get to the actual use of nuclear weapons, it means the deterrent has failed, even if it later succeeds in delivering nukes on enemy towns.

A number of B61-12s hitting major enemy towns and installations would represent a cost too high to be accepted, by anyone and in any circumstance, even if the target hit wasn't the enemy capital itself. On this i can agree.
Where the credibility gets shaky is in the delivery. A Voyager tanker can trail 4 fighter jets for 2800 miles in a transfer flight, but an actual stike mission, especially if a return to base is at least envisaged, is a whole different matter. Even bringing all 14 tankers in service (instead of just 8 + 1 transport only and 5 tankers "on demand" at 90 days notice) and fitting them with booms and receptacles so they can juggle fuel between themselves and work cooperatively, it remains dubious that it would be possible to trail a real strike package over the great distances likely to be involved. Particularly because, in order to deliver the strike with gravity-fall bombs with a stand-off reach of 40 kilometers in the very, very best case, you need a large attack squadron, knowing that many aircraft are likely not to make it to the target, even with the F-35's stealth.

Would it ever be possible to make this construct credible enough to serve its purpose? 

At one point the document talks about a snap launch of 72 aircraft in the space of little more than 2 minutes in answer to a detected nuclear attack. But it is clear to me that there could never be 72 aircraft at readiness, never mind at a 2 minutes readiness, not even if there was a significant "warning" period of worsening international situation beforehand. And moreover there would never be enough tankers to trail them to a distant target anyway.
Besides, if the vast majority of the improved tanker fleet and of the larger fighter jet fleet are tied into nuclear readiness, the potential advantage they bring in terms of conventional capabilities is lost because they aren't available for other missions. If the end result is having less tankers and less aircraft readily available for conventional operations, the whole idea is self-defeating.


Costs

The idea falls apart further when costing is examined with greater attention. The procurement of 100 "anglicized" B61-12 weapons might be simply impossible, at least in the terms envisaged in the document. The B61-12 is built by refurbishing existing bombs, and there is only a finite number of them.
It would of course be possible to purchase the new Tail Kit, which is a new production element, but all the rest, and not just the warhead, would likely have to be new. This calls into question the timings and costs estimated.

Moreover, the document assumes a 30% cost increase for the Successor programme based on the Astute's earlier mentioned troublesome birth. The assumption that costs will grow is admittedly pretty realistic, unfortunately, but i cannot help but question the method. It seems a bit unfair to inflate the cost by 30% right away, and base the comparison on this figure. A 15 to 20 billion programme cost is assumed in the document and then brought up to a 24.8 - 33.1 billion affair. Sincerely, i find this skews the discussion. Expecting cost growth and doubting of estimates is one thing, but this seems way excessive.

Again, the document assumes that building 5 more Astute SSNs will cost 5 billion pounds or less, while also enabling the adoption of the PWR3 reactor, or at least of part of its technological improvements. It seems to me like a shot in the dark. You can't assume unchanged or indeed diminished pricetags for an SSN if you also assume that you will change its very heart, the nuclear reactor. It would seem only fair and prudent to me to assume that trying to take in PWR3 tech would require quite some design work, and consequently costs.

The purchase of 138 F-35C is also described as a saving of over one billion. But this is sadly unjustified, simply because the UK does not have a budget for 138 F-35B as of now. Not even close. So, even assuming the F-35C as effectively cheaper to purchase and to operate, several billion pounds are missing from the count.

The purchase of 8 P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for 700 million pounds also look like a miracle to me, considering that Australia is going to pay 3.6 billion USD (around 4 billion AUSD) for the same amount of the same aircraft (and the supporting elements and infrastructure, but it is not like you can leave those out of the picture). It is a mistake i've already seen in other occasions: you can't just take the unitary price tag from a US multi-year mega contract and expect your purchase to come at that same price. What about spare parts, training, support, infrastructure, and everything else?
I wait to see how much Japan will pay for the 4 E-2D Hawkeye it has ordered, but i sincerely believe 900 million pounds might well prove insufficient. 

Modifying the Voyager tankers with booms is something that could indeed be done in a few months per airframe, and probably with a modest investment. But adding in the receptacle might not be as simple, and the cost suggested, i fear, is likely again overoptimistic.

The C-2 Greyhound is no longer in production, and the surviving examples are high in demand in the US Navy. Moreover, even if some could be acquired, the US Navy has estimated that their useful life will expire by 2028. A refurbishment programme which would replace the wings, the engines and the avionics and make them more common to the E-2D has been proposed, but the US Navy has not been convinced and has instead decided to procure 44 MV-22 Osprey for the role.
The document also suggests converting the Greyhound to serve also as tankers to extend the range of the F-35C embarked squadrons, but this has never been done before. I would suggest that the US Navy would have already done it, if it was that straightforward.
The MV-22 will have a tanker kit by 2017, and the navy variant, HV-22, is likely to be fitted with external, conformal fuel tanks which would also increase available fuel to give away... but this is another story, and would have a whole different cost from what the document proposes with the C-2.

I think there is too much optimism regarding infrastructure as well, since counting on old 1969-era structures dating back to the V force seems a bit risky to me, but i'm not able to make an estimate myself.
What looks clear to me is that there is no real consideration given to the greater manpower and annual budgets which would be required by having far more squadrons of jets than planned, more tankers in continous service, more SSNs and more frigates. Even assuming that current SSBN-related personnel can cover completely or almost completely the crewing needs of 5 new SSNs, i think a lot is missing from the picture.


Conclusion

The boost to the conventional forces that an air deterrent would bring is certainly tempting. If the costing was realistic and actually feasible, i would sincerely be tempted to support a proposal like this. The credibility of the deterrent would be menaced, but i think it could be made to stay at a reasonable and thus acceptable level: i would like to think, after all, that no country in the world would consider "a few nuked cities" as an acceptable price to pay in any scenario. My way of thinking suggests to me that the demonstrated ability to deliver nuclear strikes at range, even with difficulties and limitations (it would never be the same as a 10.000 miles Trident missile launched literally out of the blue, where you can't touch it beforehand) would be enough, if balanced by such a healthy increase of conventional firepower as a byproduct.

The problem is that to stay credible, the air deterrent would tie down almost entirely those additional F-35C squadrons and, critically, the Voyager tankers. To deploy them on conventional operations will dramatically reduce the capability of the deterrent, and to keep them at nuclear QRA means badly hurting conventional capabilities. 
And moreover, the cost estimates seem to be wide off the mark, making the whole thing unachievable in the shape and budget proposed.

In the end, the SSBN once more remains as the most cost-effective and most credible deterrent solution.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Equipment Plan and major projects report 2014


The new report by the NAO has been published, and reports about the shifting of some large sums of money within the 10 year plan. The spending profile 2014 - 2024 has shrunk by 1.4 billion compared to the 2013 - 2023 variant, but it is hard to estimate the actual impact of this change, especially since the Equipment Plan does not actually details projected acquisitions, but provides merely an indication of how much money will go towards the main spending areas.
Internal adjustements have been made, shifting several billions from the Equipment Support to the Equipment Procurement voice, betting on efficiencies and savings in support costs which have for now been achieved only in small part. The MOD will need to achieve savings of 6 billion pounds in equipment support budget in order to deliver the reworked acquisition spending profile without having to bite into the Contingency fund and to protect the Headroom money which is needed in the next strategic defence review to launch new programmes.

The NAO correctly cautions that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future. We do not know if all the savings can be achieved and we have no certainty that cost in ongoing programmes won't grow above the forecasts. However, there is room for some optimism on this front, since the more prudent approach of the last few years has largely limited shocks and kept cost figures largely stable. This year's report, uniquely, actually documents a decrease of over 300 millions in costs, although this is not considering the cost growth reported in the past report stemming from the renegotiation of the Queen Elizabeth class contract.

The main danger to the equipment programme, and to defence in general, is anyway the new spending review and the new SDSR. The equipment plan, like all other manpower, capability and infrastructure targets of Future Force 2020, is completely dependent on the funding profile the MOD will be granted in the new parliament beginning May 2015.
The promised, but not confirmed budget flat in real terms with 1% boost to the sole equipment spending is absolutely crucial to enable a "steady as she goes" future for defence. And even if such an arrangement is granted, depending on the base budget figure over which the Flat line is calculated, negative differences of up to 15 billions are possible.
Any other cut would rapidly make the situation dramatic, and throw once more into disarray force structures, plans and equipment procurement, very possibly causing further damage by introducing cost growth in programmes affected by delays, reductions and descoping of various kind.

So, while the 2014 documents are all in all positive under many points of view, the future is at huge risk. I cannot stress enough the fact that for defence, in this year, the biggest and most important battles of all will be to obtain a budget as close to the assumption of Flat in Real Terms + 1% for equipment as possible. Whatever politicians will say in the coming months about defence will have absolutely no relevance at all until we don't get an indication of wheter they are committed to sticking to this indication they gave the MOD to plan upon or not.

There has been some media reporting about the 2% of GDP target for defence spending, and on the fact that it "might" be missed. Let me make it absolutely clear: as of now, there is no "might". The UK will soon fall well below the 2% point if the current budget trend stands. For how things are looking right now, a Flat budget is the best possible outcome in reach (and sadly it is actually widely expected that the MOD will not be given even just this minimum comfort), and it would still bring down the UK's defence spending to around 1.8% of GDP. It could fall down even further, and RUSI has already indicated that a landslide down to 1.5% is more than possible.
This is despite the UK being among the most vocal advocates for the agreement reached at the Cardiff NATO summit next year to pursue the 2% spending target across all european NATO countries in the next decade. Tell me what kind of ridicule it will be, in a few months time, to do exactly the opposite. Yet, it is what is bound to happen, especially since UK's GDP has been growing, and to maintain 2% spending it would actually take an increase to the budget.
Don't you worry though, the International Aid spending target of 0.7% of GDP, enshrined in law for some demented reason, is due to be met, by pouring yet more money into it. Doesn't that make you feel better...?

Defence spending has to stay at least stable, so that FF2020 can at least be pursued. Any reduction will bring yet more crippling damage into forces which have already been badly wrecked in several areas, causing a definitive loss of strategic weight and throwing everything into disarray again, before the 2010 cuts and reorganizations even have a chance to be completed. It will be another axe blow while the previous blade hasn't yet pulled out entirely from the wound.

"We trained very hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up in teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."

This quote, traditionally dated all the way back to the times of Rome, is a perfect resume of what has been going on for too long in the british armed forces, where force structures and programmes have been messed up with again, and again, and again, for years. Every time, the SDR of the day has tried to sell the mess and dress up the cuts as a reorganisation for efficiency. As "doing more with less".
I can only beg whoever will form the next government to stop this state of things, and protect stability.



A look at the programmes

A summary of the most interesting bits about the status of individual programmes. 

Good news for the Astute class SSN, which seems to have finally turned the corner and got on the right course. The last big technical hurdle, the demonstration of the Top Speed requirement, has now been completed with success, the NAO reports. Up to last year's report, it was feared that at least the first 3 boats in the class would not be able to achieve the required Top Speed, although it was said that the trials were ongoing. As of March 2014, according to the NAO report, the requirement has been met.

Funding has been secured for a third "payload bay", which should actually mean a third CHALFONT dry deck shelter is being brought into service for use on the Astute class SSNs.


HMS Astute seen with CHALFONT installed

The purchase of a second Manoeuvring Training Room has been delayed to come in time with the delivery of the 4th boat, but the report assures that this will have no impact on current training requirements.
Important progress has been obtained by securing the Spearfish torpedo upgrade; the Astute Capability Sustainment Programme (not detailed, but presumably will retrofit some capabilities present at build from Boat 4 onto the earlier boats and is also expected to include new anti-torpedo countermeasures and other improvements); the integrated Communications and Radar Electronic Support Measures (CESM and RESM for Boat 4 onwards) and the Naval Extremely / Super High Frequency satcom system.

Excellent news, overall.


Complex Weapons are also treated in the NAO report, but there are no real answers about Fire Shadow, while other info, more up to date, is actually coming from other sources. DefenseNews has reported that the MOD has signed, just before Christmas, a 228 million pounds contract for the procurement of the Land variant of FLAADS, the new local area air defence system based on the CAMM / Sea Ceptor missile.
This early contract signature secures the replacement for Rapier althouth MBDA is still 6 months away from completing the work mandated by the earlier 36 million, 18-months demonstration phase deal.
Signing the contract earlier than planned might result in an earlier entry into service.

This development follows another report by DefenseNews which details how the MOD is seeking bids for the installation of a battle management, command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (BMC4I) system to deploy in defence of the Falklands Islands.
A contract should be signed in summer 2016 and the project is reportedly fully funded. The BMC4I is similar to the LEAPP system which is due to achieve operationally deployable status this year with the British Army. LEAPP is a mobile system operated by 49 independent Battery Royal Artillery as part of Joint Ground Based Air Defence. Under LEAPP, 4 "control nodes" in truck-mounted shelters have been procured, along with 3 "air picture trailers" and a single Link 11 access node, which is a specific requirement of the Royal Marines as it allows LEAPP to receive air picture data from warships via Link 11.
LEAPP provides land forces commanders with a full picture of what is moving in the air. Data is obtained by external sources, including Rapier batteries' search radars and Giraffe ABM radars (5 purchased) procured specifically to support LEAPP. Further information is obtained via air sources such as AWACS, via Data Link 16.

The Falklands system is expected to be very much similar, but the MOD has opened a competition for it, instead of ordering an additional LEAPP set. The Falklands system, though, will, like LEAPP, include a Giraffe ABM radar. The "shooting end" of the system will be a battery of FLAADS(L) missiles replacing the old and by now way too limited Rapier.

Inside a LEAPP node


Brimstone 2 is scheduled for live firing trials from Tornado GR4s at China Lake in the US later this year, ahead of achieving operational capability by November.

The first Type 23 frigate should have been re-armed with Sea Ceptor and should have fired the first missiles in trials by November 2016, which suggests that soon enough this year we will know which ship entering refit will be the first to get the new system.

FASGW is expected to deliver both Sea Venom (Heavy) and Martlet (Light) by October 2020. The Royal Navy looks set to have a gap of at least 2 years in the ability to fire anti-ship missiles from helicopters, as the Lynx HM8 and the Sea Skua missile should both be gone by 2018.

SPEAR 3 development continues, and the weapon should be operable before the the F-35 achieved entry in service. Whether this includes the weapon being integrated on the F-35 or not, it is not clear.

Fire Shadow's status is even more of a mystery. Asked about the matter, MBDA replied on Twitter that they remain engaged with the british army to determine the way forwards for the system.

Earlier news reports suggested that on the SPEAR 1 front, the evolution of Paveway IV, a go ahead for the bunker-buster variant should be officialized soon. As always, details are not provided, but it seems that when this variant becomes available, the RAF will withdraw from service the Paveway II and III series. I'm not entirely comfortable with remaining with only 500 lbs weapons, especially in the bunker buster role (i'm curious to learn if the 500 lbs special warhead of the Paveway IV really matches the performance of the 4 times heavier Paveway III Blu-109), but that seems to be the way things are headed.

A curious piece of news is mentioned in the Queen Elizabeth class part of the report where it is mentioned that the carrier is not fully funded to deliver the helicopter carrying role in support of littoral manoeuvre and currently has design and safety clearances limited in relation to amphibious helicopter support capability.
Sincerely, i have no idea what this is supposed to mean, and what is the current status of play: remember that, although published yesterday, the NAO report is a still image of the situation dating back several months.
Reading the book published in July in occasion of HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming ceremony, though, it becomes possible to make some guesses: the publication quotes rear admiral Fleet Air Arm Russ Harding, who is also Chief Naval Staff (Aviation and Carriers) as he explains what is being added to enable the carriers to undertake their littoral manoeuvre role. He said that a study had just been completed on how to modify the six spot deck arrangement planned for the deck layout to a 10 spot layout to enable enhanced helicopter assault operations. He also noticed that Ship / Helicopter Operating Limits (SHOL) have to be determined and written down, clearances will have to be obtained for Apache and Chinook, clearances will also have to be obtained for the Embarked Forces's and helicopter's ammunition stowage and that increasing accommodations and support spaces for embarked forces is something that is on the cards for the 1st docking period of Queen Elizabeth.
Some of these activities evidently haven't a funding line at the moment, but this will hopefully soon change, if it hasn't already from when the NAO was compiling its report.

Regarding the F-35B, the NAO report says that Main Gate 4 was passed in January. Main Gate 4 is a 2.75 billion programme to procure the aircraft needed for the first squadron (thought to be 14 airplanes, the first 4 of which have been ordered as part of LRIP 8) plus all supporting elements, including "facilities" to enable RAF Marham to stand up as Main Operating Base and initial support out to 2020. 
In absence of details it is difficult to evaluate this price figure and what it means for unitary cost of the aircraft. It really would be necessary to know exactly what "facilities" are included in the order. The UK has in fact opened a laboratory for F-35 software capability evaluation and development; while an Integrated Training Centre is planned to be built in Marham, which will require simulators, training aids and all associated F-35 specific elements. The UK is also planning to stand up a maintenance line inside a hangar in Marham, and a facility for application and maintenance of the stealth coating and its verification in another. The equipment for all these infrastructure elements is going to have a big pricetag.
The building of 3 vertical landing pads has been contracted, and Marham's runway is planned for a resurfacing as well, while existing hardened aircraft shelters will be prepared for the F-35 age. These other items, however, are probably included in infrastructure spending, not in F-35 spending.

Entry in service for the F-35B is planned for end december 2018. The UK has contributed 144 million to the assessment phase (down from a planned 150) and has budgeted a 1874 million contribution to development. In addition, just shy of a billion pounds has been budgeted for the first 4 aircraft and their activities in demonstration.
The 2749 million budget for Main Gate 4 brings the budget for demonstration and manufacture at 5622 million.

Typhoon progress includes ongoing work to integrate Storm Shadow and the capability to change target in flight, prior to launch. Meteor integration work is also progressing, and the first trial fits of Brimstone have been made.
In the RAF 2015 publication, the commander of the Typhoon force suggests that the next priority is getting funding to integrate RAPTOR, or a reconnaissance pod offering similar tactical imagery capability, to ensure that when Tornado goes out of service, the impact on capability is limited to numbers, instead of complete gaps.
On the other hand, funding for adding Conformal Fuel Tanks isn't likely to appear anytime soon.
AESA radar development is finally under contract, but there isn't, for now, a funded plan for retrofitting the radar to the Tranche 3A.


On MARS, it is confirmed that the Solid Support Ship requirement is on the White Board as it is not an item in the core budget. This means that its progress is inexorably tied to the billion pounds of Headroom money that the Navy is supposed to get from 2015.
The tanker programme seems to be going well, with the blocks for Tidespring already over 90% done in South Korea and first steel cut for the second ship, Tiderace. 

FRES SV coverage pre-dates the signing of the production contract, so information is pretty much outdated. A recent House of Lords written answer instead has specified that the FRES SV contract includes an initial support contract for 2 years, associated training systems and appliquè armour packages. General Dynamics has already awarded a 20 million contract to XPI Simulation to deliver 28 high fidelity simulators as driver training aids for all FRES SV variants.
Negotiations are still ongoing to see if production of the vehicles can be moved into the UK from Spain, where at least the first 100 vehicles out of 589 vehicles will be built.

Warrior CSP and ABSV continue to be difficult to understand. The NAO report seems to pre-date a reported formal separation of WCSP and ABSV in budget planning. ABSV was to hit Initial Gate in the third quarter of 2013, but the Army has been reviewing the ABSV requirement and approach to finally try and address the need to replace FV430 by harmonizing WCSP, FRES SV and ABSV.

The NAO quotes numbers that are weird and now most likely outdated anyway. According to the NAO, from an affordable fleet of 565 Warrior vehicles, 445 would be picked for undergoing upgrades under WCSP. 65 of those 445 vehicles would have been converted in APCs and Ambulances under ABSV, while the remaining 380 would consist of, probably, of around 250 Section vehicles with turret and 40mm gun, with the balance made up by Recovery and Repair vehicles.
This number would be completely insufficient to equip the planned six armoured infantry battalions. Considering also the need for a permanent training fleet, including a good number of vehicles to assign to BATUS, these numbers would probably only enable the fielding of 4 battalions. Two would be "virtual", in the sense that, even in a major emergency, there would be no vehicles for them. This seems weird, especially considering that FRES SV numbers appear to have been carefully calculated on the requirement instead. I think the numbers might be wrong / quoted in a not correct way.

WCSP should include the basic upgrades to the recovery and repair variants, so i'm guessing that 445, 380 and 65 might be "correct" numbers in the sense that 380 Section vehicles and 65 recovery / repair look more or less adequate for equipping the six battalions planned, and the sum gives the 445 total reported for CSP.
The NAO also quotes the "affordable fleet" as counting 565 vehicles. I've been guessing that the difference of 120 vehicles between this figure and the 445 could be the ABSV fleet, especially now that ABSV is being separated from WCSP. I think the long lasting confusion is due to the fact that recovery and repair variants were originally part of the ABSV branch of the WCSP programme, although i might be wrong, while now ABSV is pretty much a different thing, as it is supposed to complement FRES SV in replacing (finally) the FV430.
In particular, the huge number of command vehicles included in FRES SV has long made me guess that they will replace FV430s in this role across not just in cavalry regiments, but in tank, armoured infantry and other tracked units.
FRES SV does not include an ambulance variant, so ABSV will have to make up for this. A mortar carrier is also required, and possibly some APCs. The Army has also suggested it is considering an ABSV anti-tank missile variant. This would require more ABSV conversions but reduce the requirement for Warrior CSP turreted vehicles in exchange (currently the AT platoons employ Javelin teams carried in Warrior Section Vehicles).
The budget, as always, will be the main factor in determining ABSV's future. 


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A golden year for Russian military programmes


We could probably discuss for days about how much of a real danger Russia represents for Europe, but those who doubt of its resurgent military capability should probably take note that Russia in the year that is about to end has been making dramatic progress in its weapon programmes. 

The navy's shipbuilding and refitting results for the year are good enough to openly talk about a golden period, and the plans are to speed up the process even more in the new year. 

Air force deliveries have also been significant, and there is now a contract in place to upgrade a total of 110 Mig-31 interceptors. Deliveries of 129 Su-34 are underway (the first two batches of 5 and 32 have been completed, and in June the first 3 of 92 aircraft in the third batch were delivered). At least 37 Su-30SM should have been delivered to, and by 2016 they will be 65, with a possible order for 50 more to follow. 
Deliveries of 48 Su-35 ordered in 2009 will be completed next year with the last batch of 14. 
By 2017 there will be also 50 Mig-29SMT, while 79 Su-25 will have been modernized by the end of this year. 

The army has not been forgotten either, with hundreds of helicopters being refurbished or newly produced, plus developments in armored vehicles, with work ongoing on the ARMATA concept which should be shown to the public in the new year.

Nuclear forces have even announced they have started a programme for putting into service new ICBM-launching trains, something that had fallen out of fashion with the end of the Cold War. 
Conventionally armed Missile brigades are steadily being re-equiped with the Iskander M tactical ballistic missile and a new missile, the R-500 Iskander K, is in development, reportedly in breach of the INF treaty due to a range much superior to 500 km. 

Keeping track of all russian programmes and deliveries isn't easy, but i want to write here a recap of the particularly impressive progresses in the Navy's programmes, particularly the submarines production. 



SSBNs

This year the russian navy has finished overhauling the Delta IV-class submarine K-84 Ekaterinburg, and returned it to active service. That brings to 6 the number of Delta IV submarines refitted and overhauled, and all are operational with SINEVA missiles. 
There are also 3 Delta III SSBNs still in service, with the SS-N-18 missile. 

The building of the new SSBNs of the Borei class (Type 955 and 955A) is progressing: Yuriy Dolgorukiy and Aleksandr Nevskiy have been joined by Vladimir Monomach , commissioned on December 19. 
That gives a fleet of 12 SSBNs, although the Borei are still not completely operational due to enduring difficulties with making their Bulava missiles reliable. 

Knyaz Vladimir, first of the improved second batch (955A) is in build, and during 2014 Russia has started building 2 more: Knyaz Oleg had its keel laid down on July 27, and Knyaz Suvorov had its keel laid down December 26. We do not yet know exactly what improvements the 955A introduces: long running rumors of it having 20 instead of 16 missiles are not confirmed. 
Over the course of next year Russia plans to lay down a further three Borei SSBN. 



SSNs 

The first Yasen-class SSN (885M) Severodvinsk was commissioned this year. Kazan is in build and planned for delivery in 2016.
Novosibirsk was laid down in july 2013 and this year Russia laid down two more (Khabarovsk and Krasnoyarsk) on July 27. 
Two more Yasen are planned to be laid down in the new year. 

In december 2012 the Russian Navy signed a contract to overhaul, upgrade and reactivate the two Sierra I (945) submarines Karp and Kostroma. I don't know the current state of the programme, though. 



SSKs  

The Russian Navy has this year commissioned the first of six Improved Kilo submarines (Project 636.3), all destined to the Black Sea Fleet. The submarine, named Novorossiysk, was commissioned on August 22. 
The second boat in the class, the Rostov-on-Don, has been commissioned today [correction from earlier]. 
The third, Stary Oskoi, was launched on August 28, while the remaining three (Krasnodar, Veliky Novgorod and Kolpino) were laid down on february 20, october 30 and october 30 respectively. 

One Lada class (677) submarine is in service and two more in build, and the Russian Navy has announced days ago that it is satisfied of its experimental AIP propulsion system, which is apparently due for insertion into a Lada submarine next year. Production in series is planned beginning in 2017, and earlier this year Russian Navy officers said a new class of SSK, a "5th generation" class to be known as Kalina, would be built with the AIP propulsion. 
Not clear yet how the passage from Lada to Kalina will play out. 



Surface fleet developments  

The surface fleet has been getting new items as well. The Kirov-class battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov is now in refit and upgrade, and should return to service in 2018. 

The second frigate of the Gorshkov class (Project 22350), Admiral Kasatonov, has been launched on December 12. 
Golovko and Isakov are in build. 

Two more frigates, of the Grigorovich class (Project 11356) are on the way: Admiral Grigorovich should have been delivered in November, and Admiral Essen has been launched the same month. 
Admiral Makarov, Butakov, Istomin are in build and a further ship is planned, the Admiral Kornikov, for delivery by 2017. 

One heavily armed Steregushchiy (Project 20380) corvette has been delivered this year, the Stoiky, in May.
Four ships have been delivered/are in service and four more are in build, including two
Greniyashchy (Project 20385), an improved of the 20380. The Russian Navy plans to build several more of these vessels, aiming to reach a total of 20, but orders have yet to be formalized.

The Russian Navy has launched a programme for 6 patrol ships, Project 22160, and laid down the first 2 (Vasily Bykov and Dmitry Rogachev) on february 26 and July 25 respectively. 

A second amphibious ship of the Ivan Green class (Project 11711) has also been ordered and laid down this year, on december 4. 

The brand new Submarine Rescue ship Igor Belousov has started its second round of contractor sea trials on December 25, and they should close by December 31. 

And there is of course the thorny issue of the two Mistral class LHDs ordered in France, which might or might not be delivered at some point. 

And i might be missing other elements. Not bad at all, for a single year!   



Naval aviation  

In the new year, deliveries of 24 new Mig-29K (20 single seat K and 4 twin seaters KUB) for use on the aircraft carrier will be completed. The aircraft carrier itself, though, is one bit of a bad news as she is long overdue to go into a massive refit and overhaul programme which keeps slipping further away. Forays into the Mediterranean due to the Syrian crisis and conflicting schedules with the Kirovs' own docking needs have so far prevented the launch of the ambitious rebuilding the Russian Navy was planning a while ago.   

The Russian Naval aviation is also receiving at least 12 new Su-30M, land based. 
32 navalized Kamov Ka-52KM attack helicopters are ordered for use on the Mistrals. Deliveries have begun in september. 3 in total are being delivered this year, with 13 more due in 2015-16.
Not sure yet of what, if any impact the Mistral situation will have on this issue.  

Six Be-200 seaplanes are on order, and one should have been delivered this year. They will be used to form two search and rescue squadrons of 3 aircraft each, one for the Pacific Fleet and one for Western Fleets.