Friday, 29 December 2017

From Marlborough to Carter: In Search of a Maritime Army

"It can reasonably be argued that had the Lines never been built, or had they been broken by the French army under Marshal Masséna in the autumn of 1810, the British would have had to evacuate the Iberian peninsula. This would have left the Portuguese and Spanish to their fate; Napoleon’s grasp over Europe would have been complete, his possession of Lisbon and capture of the Portuguese fleet could have shifted the balance of maritime power towards France; Britain could eventually have again been threatened with invasion."
-Col. (Ret'd) G.W.A. Napier, Royal Engineers, 2008

While we're all engaged in the drawn-out process of recovering from the Christmas food-coma I thought i'd get in one last piece before the year is out and stretch the old intellectual muscles for the first time in a while. As 2017 drifts into 2018 the British Army are fast returning to their old position as the slightly unwanted red-haired stepchild of national military strategy (and investment). Their use of the limited resources at hand also appears less than stellar. The present is an interminable struggle between keeping the fumes of the Cold War heavy army going, until a hoped-for but probably not coming deliverance in the 2030s, and beggaring themselves to deliver a rather rickety-looking medium-weight "Strike brigade" concept (which has been dissected in much more detail elsewhere).

Although some would debate this point, in my view this lack of focus is symptomatic of an army that still does not fully understand what it is and what it can realistically be. It is largely an institution still run at the highest levels by people who served most of their careers in the heady days when the UK's military was continentally postured, with a very large (by today's standards) British Army of the Rhine and a whole tactical air force positioned behind them. Whatever the merits of this approach, we can say with a high degree of certainty that those days are gone, likely for good, and that we need a new model for the army. In my view, as the title suggests, this model should be maritime. Before we go any further I need to quite clearly state what a "maritime army" is and what it is not, to avoid any unnecessary confusion.

A maritime army is one with its structure and capabilities designed around securing control of the land insofar as it enables them to secure control of, and exploit, adjacent bodies of water to its advantage at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. It is not a marine corps, inherently light or medium-weight, amphibious or focussed on landing and raiding. Nor is it an excuse to cut the army and give its resources to the other services. It does not have to move its personnel everywhere by ship all the time. It is not a new concept and reflects much of the British Army's own rich history. Even a cursory examination of where and why the army fought for the last several hundred years displays a strong proclivity towards campaigning in support of maritime objectives. One merely has to look into why the army has spent a significant portion of the last 300 years fighting its major wars in the low countries to begin to understand the relationship between the activities of the British Army and the use and control of the sea. It is no coincidence that Marlborough, Wellington, Haig, Montgomery and many others all largely fought over the same ground in Europe.
It is no coincidence that the British Army has spent hundreds of years fighting over the same ground.
Ground which enables the control and use of the sea.

Fundamentally, the maritime army acts as an enabler for the application of all forms of sea power, from military action to logistics, and in turn sea power acts as an enabler for the maritime army. Sea power gets the army where it needs to go, supports it when it gets there and brings it home (or evacuates it) when the army needs it to. General Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) ordered the construction of three lines of deep fortifications, the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras, to deny the major port-city of Lisbon (and the Portuguese navy) to the French during the Peninsular war in the early nineteenth century. In doing so he was safeguarding the sea control which fed, supplied, inserted his army onto the Iberian peninsula. The same sea power which had also saved it from destruction in the Dunkirk-esque evacuation from Coruña. It is just one of any number of examples of sea and land power working in tandem to deliver decisive results which neither could have achieved on their own.

This short foray into history and theory brings me back around to the modern British Army. I will begin with an observation from General Sir Rupert Smith (Ret'd) which highlights the inherent brittleness of the modern British army:

"In the Gulf in 1990-91, commanding the British armoured division... I had all the up-to-date tanks in the British army, and because the engines were unreliable I was also given very nearly every tank engine in the inventory. The rest of the army had been stripped of its equipment to give me a sustainable force. I was conscious that I had the bulk of the army's modern assets in my command, that there were no production lines standing ready to replace losses, and that we had other commitments that might require them. I thought at the time, and still do, that I was the first British General for a long time who had to consider how to fight so as to not lose the army." (1)

This fundamental fact is not a black mark on the army, simply a reflection of how war has changed since the end of the Cold War. The paradigm of industrialised mass warfare which shaped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has quite definitively come to an end for the foreseeable future. Modern Western armies more closely resemble the exquisitely-drilled professional armies of the eighteenth century than those of the World Wars. What must be borne in mind at all times when discussing how we structure, equip and plan to employ the army is that we must "consider how to fight so as to not lose the army.".

For example, throwing the Army's planned 'warfighting division' into a theoretical conflagration in Eastern Europe or the Baltic States would almost certainly result in the functional loss of the army. With such limited ability to replace the losses in trained personnel and equipment the British army would effectively cease to exist. These may sound like harsh words, but this is the world we live in. In a peer or near-peer conflict the army must be employed in a manner which allows it to deliver effects without suffering irreplaceable losses, this is made even more difficult because the threshold for what might constitute irreplaceable losses is already terribly low and there is not much we can do about it.

I may seem somewhat melodramatic when it comes to this point, and while Churchill in his usual concise manner cut to the point when he said that "wars are not won by evacuations", the ability to recover the army has on numerous occasions been the only thing which has staved off its destruction and catastrophic defeat. We need to be aware that sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of the men on the ground, things go wrong and events unfold in ways we did not foresee. In the future we may, as in the past, have need to get a large part of our army back in one piece; because the alternative is losing the army entirely. I will leave the tactical detail of the how to others with more time to delve into the depths of delivering specific capabilities, however on this subject I will say that I find Think Defence's proposal for a port-opening capability to be amongst the more authoritative assessments of a means by which we could insert or recover an army by sea. In many ways the challenge is now more complex as, unlike in 1940, we have extremely limited capacity to replace lost equipment. Pulling thousands of troops off a beach with nothing but their boots and rifles will not do, the heavy equipment needs to come too.

Wars are not won by evacuations, but without them they can be lost in an afternoon. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Hawks and Crows: UK Airborne Early Warning

"What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge."
-Sun Tsu, The Art of War

In modern naval warfare the "foreknowledge" that Sun Tsu spoke of (in his era this was largely gleaned by spies), which allows the commander to anticipate and preempt an adversary's actions, comes from a range of sources. It may come from intelligence gathered by satellites, submarines, the passive electronic warfare equipment of his own warships and from radar surveillance aircraft. This piece will examine the latter in the context of the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, endeavouring to provide some clarity on the matter.

Platforms, Radars and Systems 101
I apologise in advance, but for the benefit of the layman the basic terminology of this field bears explanation before I can launch into some analysis of the specific options for the UK. Presently the radar surveillance aircraft I referred to at the start (commonly called Airborne Early Warning or "AEW" aircraft) encompass a spectrum of platforms and radar systems. Broadly speaking the platforms are either Rotary wing (helicopters) or Fixed wing (traditional aircraft). Radar systems can be broken down into a myriad of subcategories, but the key divisions are between mechanically and electronically scanned systems. The latter are usually abbreviated to AESA or PESA, shortened forms of Active or Passive Electonically Scanned Array, which are fundamentally similar types of system in terms of their capabilities, if not resilience to damage. Electronically scanned radars use phase shifting to "steer" the radar beam, or beams, onto the target (and can do so at incredible speed) whereas mechanically scanned systems are steered by moving the radar emitter itself. The popular image of a radar system, a big rotating system that looks a bit like an old bedstead, is an example of a mechanically scanned radar.

The "classic" mechanically
scanned Radar
"Doppler radars" also use the Doppler effect to gain an additional piece of information about a contact: its velocity. "Synthetic aperture radars" collate information over time (and space, as they're fixed to a moving aircraft in our case) in order to build up a radar "picture" of the environment. As a general rule, the higher up a radar is above the surfave of the earth, the further it can potentially "see". The platform and the radar are tied together by a Mission System, which converts radar information into useful data for the operator. Datalinks then allow the operator to share that information with other units, such as ships and aircraft, in the vicinity.
An AEW aircraft is a combination of these three fundamental components: platform, radar and mission system and as we shall see, not everything is as clear cut as it may superficially seem.

The Contenders
In the choice of an AEW solution for the UK's new carriers two aircraft loom large in the public's perception: the Northropp Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and the Augusta Westland (Now Leonardo) Merlin Crowsnest. The latter having been selected to replace the Sea King ASaC.7 "Baggers" which have been in service in various forms since the end of the 1982 Falklands War. The contention is that, because of a slew of factors, Crowsnest constitutes a vastly inferior package to Hawkeye and that the latter was a realistic option for the UK. From the outset I will state unequivocally that Hawkeye is both a superior system and, for a range of reasons, not a necessary or suitable component to meet the needs of the UK carrier strike group.

The Best of the Best
E-2 Hawkeye is a superb machine. The first iterations of the design were introduced to the US Navy in the 1960s and through a series of progressive upgrades, modifications and new models the core aircraft has endured for over 50 years. It is a mature and excellent design and the latest model, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is the best carrier borne AEW solution out there. It combines an impressive fixed wing platform, with a pressurised crew compartment (allowing it to fly high, almost 35,000ft, with a mission altitude of 25,000ft), six hours endurance and the ability to refuel in the air. It is also a large, heavy aircraft, over 43,000lb in its combat configuration, requiring steam or electromagnetic catapults and arrestor gear to launch and recover it.

Its AN/APY-9 AESA radar is both mechanically and electronically scanned, i.e. the disc-like radome rotates and the radar itself can electronically shift the direction of the beam at the same time. Officially the system can detect contacts "beyond 350 miles", although its true capabilities are likely greater (and, rightfully, classified). It is able to detect small objects, such as missiles or "stealth" aircraft, over cluttered land and littoral environments and provides continuous 360° coverage. It is without a doubt the best radar system mounted to a carrier-borne aircraft presently in service.

Finally, the mission system and datalinks are, as is to be expected, first-class. Its open architecture mission computer is state of the art, combining a range of inputs from the radar and onboard electronic support measures (other means of detecting an aircraft, surface ship or land based contact) into the picture displayed to the three operator terminals in the back of the aircraft. The aircraft's datalinks include the older Link 16 system, used widely throughout NATO. In future they will fit the broad-band Tactical Network Targetting Technology (TNTT) system: massively increasing the data that can be shared with surface ships, enabling them to target contacts beyond the range of their own sensors. This is part of the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system or NIFC-CA.

The Best of the Rest
Crowsnest is the latest evolutionary step in the development of British helicopter-borne AEW, building on decades of experience operating the Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) helicopter. Crowsnest essentially mates an upgraded version of the proven Searchwater 2000 mechanically scanned pulse doppler radar to the Merlin Mk.2 helicopter.

The Merlin Mk.2 itself remains an impressive machine, designed initially for anti-submarine warfare. It's origins mean that the aircraft has a highly competitive endurance, even when compared with E-2D, of five hours. While presently not fitted Merlin also has the capacity to fit a refuelling probe, allowing it to extend its time on-station. Although it is important to note that the UK possesses no carrier-capable refuelling aircraft. The only real STOVL option being the V-22 Osprey with the "VARS" tanker kit. It has a service ceiling of around 15,000ft, although its normal operational height would typically be below that. Compared with the E-2D it's a relatively small and light aircraft, between 10 and 14,000lb in its combat configuration. It requires nothing more than a flat deck and hangar of the appropriate size to operate from, meaning it can potentially embark on anything from a Queen Elizabeth carrier to a Type 23 frigate; which makes it a highly versatile AEW platform.

Merlin Crowsnest
The Radar system fitted to Merlin Crowsnest will be an upgraded version of the Searchwater 2000, a mechanically scanned pulse Doppler system. Although it lacks some of the functionality of an AESA system like AN/APY-9, Searchwater 2000 is renowned for its high resolution and ability to detect small objects in cluttered land and sea environments. Its GMTI ground targeting mode has also proved highly useful, as its record in Afghanistan strongly bears out. This is to be expected, as the radar itself can be used to detect small watercraft and submarine periscopes against the background clutter of a choppy sea. Although the range is not available in the public domain it can be reasonably estimated to be in the range of 100-150miles.

Crowsnest uses the Thales Cerberus mission system, which provides a broad range of C4I (Command, Control, Consultation, Computers, Intelligence) facilities, can track multiple air, sea and land contacts in real-time. The aircraft uses the datalinks commonly found throughout NATO, Link 11, Link 16 and Link 22, to disseminate information to other platforms such as surface ships and aircraft. While these aren't designed to provide the same level of broad-band information capacity as TNTT will for E-2D they are perfectly adequate for communication between the aircraft and the platforms it will support. Limited over-the-horizon targeting can be facilitated using the aircraft's datalinks, although it has nowhere near the capability for mass sharing of targetting data facilitated by the systematised approach of the US Navy with NIFC-CA.

The Choice
From what's been laid out so far it may seem that the choice is clear, the more capable platform is obviously the better choice. If only it were so simple. It bears stating from the start that AEW aircraft do not exist in a vacuum, but as part of a network of capabilities and within a country's overall force structure. Both solutions offer advantages and disadvantages. E-2D is a fantastically capable carrier AEW aircraft, but it is large and requires much more complex and manpower intensive support from the carrier (in the form of launching and recovery gear as well as large ship-side maintenance teams). The aircraft itself is also blisteringly expensive to procure, at £190m each in 2016/17, whereas the Crowsnest programme in its totality cost £269m for ten AEW kits to fit to the Royal Navy's Merlin Mk.2s. As the figure for Crowsnest only includes the kits and upgrades, and not the aircraft (~£21m) the cost to procure an AEW Merlin comes in at around £50m. Through-life operating costs, which make up the bulk of the expense of operating an aircraft, are also vastly greater for E-2D.

It is understandable why the costs would be so much greater for the UK to bring Advanced Hawkeye into service when the challenges of doing so are clearly spelled out. They include, but would not be limited to:

-Bringing into service and operating a carrier with catapults and arrestor gear for the first time in almost 40 years.

-Generating a sustainable training pipeline for a tiny number of UK E-2D pilots.

-Keeping said pilots qualified for catapult takeoffs and arrested landings.

-Bringing into service a whole new aircraft type with unique logistical needs for spare parts.

-Maintaining high enough aircraft availability from a small fleet to provide useable and useful embarked aircraft at short notice.

-Maintaining that small fleet over the long-term, given the additional stresses on the airframes from catapult takeoffs and arrested landings as well as eventual replacements for worn out aircraft.

-Providing enough "spare" aircraft so that mechanical problems or accident do not cripple the force's ability to generate aircraft for operations.

The catapult assisted takeoff required
by E-2D wears out aircraft quicker.
None of these problems are easy to solve and none of the solutions come cheap. Procuring and maintaining an operationally useful number of E-2Ds, without putting unbearable strain on the Navy's budget (or the RAF's, for that matter), would almost certainly have serious knock-on effects to other programmes.

The only other country which operates E-2 from the deck of a carrier is France. However, what France delivers with the Charles De Gaulle is a part-time capability. Extended periods where the ship is unavailable through maintenance, or simply doesn't have its one or two Hawkeyes embarked, is likely what gives the squadron the slack to be sustainable at all with its tiny fleet of 3 aircraft. If the UK were to replicate such a force structure the end result would be the same, a brittle part-time capability that's good when you've got it but lacks any real depth for sustained operations. Indeed the US Navy's four aircraft E-2 detatchments were unable to keep an aircraft aloft indefinitely. In order to achieve this they're now moving to embarking squadrons of five E-2Ds on their carriers.

In this context it is clear that E-2D's capabilities come at a serious cost, which would inevitably fall on other areas of defence. In comparison the cost of Crowsnest is much more manageable, using an aircraft that is already mature and in service with the RN. It is an evolutionary development of an already successful helicopter-based AEW aircraft which does have some advantages over Advanced Hawkeye. These include its versatility, not being confined to the carrier is a serious advantage when considered in the context of maritime security operations where they could be operated from escorts, amphibious ships or fleet auxiliaries.
The "bolt on/bolt off" nature of the radar system also means that the helicopter can be repurposed for the anti-submarine role if necessary.

It is also essential to remember that Crowsnest is not the only AEW aircraft available to the UK. The RAF own and operate the formidable high-flying E-3 Sentry,  with its service ceiling of 41,000ft, based on the Boeing 707 commercial airliner. Its long range, coupled with a handful of key overseas bases owned by the UK means that in practically all the areas where a peer or near-peer conflict involving a UK carrier might occur, long range land-based AEW would very likely be available. In those circumstances Crowsnest would perform valuable local coverage as well as command and control for the carrier group, as well as surface search (a function that the E-3's massive AN/APY-2 PESA radar is poorly suited for). It must be borne in mind that the US Navy's requires its carriers to be able to operate totally without the need for land based support largely because their Pacific role and massive budget pressures and allows them to do so. Neither of these factors are relevant for the UK.

An RAF E-3D Sentry
Final Thoughts
So there you have it. Why the best of the best is rightly held up as the gold standard for carrier-borne AEW and why it is unsuitable for the UK, which will still have a highly effective AEW solution in the form of Crowsnest and E-3 Sentry. This once again highlights an important point about the dangers of playing "top trumps" when talking about military equipment. No single piece of equipment exists in a vacuum and the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. It's no use having an exquisite AEW solution if by having it you compromise other, equally important, areas of spending. Quite often the old mantra "better is the mortal enemy of good enough" holds true when it comes to these decisions. Pushing the envelope out too far would very likely lead to a compromised capability, some shiny equipment but in tiny quantities and without the requisite behind the scenes support to actually get real value out of it. For now though it's clear from where I stand. Hawkeye is better, but Crowsnest (and Sentry) are good enough.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Beyond the Sangars: Towards a Post-Afghanistan Army

“Then fall in lads behind the drum
With colours blazing like the sun.
Along the road to come what may
Over the hills and far away.”

-John Tamms

The modern British Army is a mess. I say this because it needs stating up front, plain and clear with no ambiguity. The Army is a mess. After more than a decade of high-tempo operations across two theatres, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are now left picking up the pieces of wars which shattered the Army’s preconceptions of their role and the force structure needed to carry it out. Having built, over the space of that decade, an Army that could sustain a large-scale enduring combat commitment the UK now finds itself in possession of a force that it cannot realistically use. The protracted ‘wars of choice’ of the first decade and a half of the 21st century are likely over; the political will to wage them is almost entirely spent. Any future UK involvement in such conflicts will, if we have a choice, be through air and sea power. If necessary this may be coupled with a small land contingent, made up of advisors and Special Forces.

This political environment, it would seem, is Kryptonite to the Army. They are trapped between a mass of modern equipment designed to fight another, politically unthinkable, counterinsurgency war and the aging remnants of the ‘heavy’ Army left over from the end of the Cold War. The modern British Army is stuck in limbo without a clear role or coherent structures to fulfil it. Nor does the money or the political will exist to re-equip the existing force to the standard they wish to achieve. A heap of other problems are piled on top of this, from the old issues of the ‘cap-badge mafia’ (political constituencies within Parliament who would make wholesale reorganisation quite difficult) to the lack of ‘war stock’ equipment and the paucity of supporting arms relative to the combat arms.

So, what to do?

The obvious solution is, of course, simply to cut the size of the Army once again, to ‘cut your coat according to your cloth’ and assume that a fully equipped army of 82,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists is neither affordable, nor an especially useful tool for the UK to possess.  The ‘optimum’ figure occasionally mentioned for such a smaller army is usually placed in the region of 60-65,000 regular soldiers. This would, the line of thought goes, allow the whole army to be provided with an adequate amount of modern equipment to fully remodel them to suit the nation’s needs post-Afghanistan. What the nation needs of the army in this scenario is a little less clear. Usually accompanied by a degree of hand waving and suggestions which vary wildly from a light intervention force akin to International Rescue to a renewed (but much smaller scale) British Army of the Rhine sat somewhere in Eastern Europe as a deterrent to the Russian Hoards.

The reason why these suggestions appear to vary so much is because, simply, neither the country nor its political leaders or the Army know what they need from it. Therefore we’re left in the rather uncomfortable position where an arbitrary force size (a deployable division, at 6 months’ notice) has been set out but without the political imperative to equip, train or exercise it sufficiently. This is because, as presently constituted, Britain’s political leaders do not see a reasonable use for the formation they have specified as the army’s desired maximum-effort output. To bastardise Dean Acheson’s famous quote ‘the Army has lost a Corps, but not yet found a role’.

Given that the political (and therefore the funding) situation is unlikely to change radically in the near future, we must look to alternatives. The presumption underlying the following suggestions is that the Army’s role remains unclear. This assumes that no distinct opponent, against whom the force would inevitably be restructured, emerges. While Russia could constitute such a threat these suggestions follow the present political assessment that it does not, but it may in the future.

I must strongly express that these ‘proposals’ are deliberately broad-brush, designed to stimulate thought, rather than to lay out exact structures in great detail.

The Exquisite Army
This proposal takes the present manpower/equipment trade-off to the other end of the scale. The size of both the regular and reserve forces would be drastically reduced, potentially to as few as 60,000 in total, in exchange for not only a fully equipped army but one able to spread plentiful cutting-edge equipment across the whole force and to the Royal Marines. The ambitions of such an army could be much more diverse and specialised than the present force, with hugely more money available to be invested in supporting communications, logistics, intelligence, reconnaissance, Special Forces and cyber capabilities. At the ‘teeth’ end of such an Army ‘transformational’ capabilities would have to substitute for manpower in conventional operations and intelligence for mass when fighting irregulars. It goes without saying that the deployable Army would be smaller, and it would struggle to sustain an enduring operation such as those conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, as the core assumption is that the UK will not be involving itself in such operations in the foreseeable future then this may be a risk we are willing to take. Nor would this army last especially long in a conventional war against a peer opponent, but once again the underlying assumption remains that such a war is extremely unlikely and would rapidly result in an exchange of weapons of mass destruction in any case.

A smaller army less burdened by manpower costs could pursue fully fleshed out vehicle programmes.

The Elastic Army
A much more radical version of the small army model, the ‘elastic’ Army would be designed with two outputs in mind. First, the provision of a small and capable regular contingent (likely an over-strength Brigade) held at high readiness for rapid reaction. Secondly, the ability to expand significantly within a reasonable timeframe, say five years. This model would not see the Army equipped with plentiful cutting edge equipment, although the regular portion would see the best of what’s available, instead opting for what is affordable, robust, easy to maintain and crucially easier to train on. The end result is a small regular army acting as the custodians of a large war stock and the experience base for a much larger pool of relatively raw manpower. Clearly the reserves would have a much larger role to play in this structure, which would likely necessitate additional legal protections and incentives to serve as a reservist. This model’s clear strength is in its ability to credibly and promptly respond to the emergence of a dangerous peer or near-peer opponent. It also offers a deterrence value through a significant latent capability, the Army equivalent of the reserve fleet. There are still obvious drawbacks though, the regular force remains quite limited in what it could achieve alone and would lack the technical edge to fully compensate for its lack of mass with ‘transformational’ technical capabilities.

The Elastic Army, a small regular force
with a large reserve of equipment.

The Reformed HERRICK Army
Essentially a refinement and restructuring of what already exists, moving the presently allotted manpower around to fill the gaps which exist in combat service and support roles. This structure offers a bit of everything but still suffers from many of the problems of the smaller structures. While it has more mass, it still lacks the mass to make success in a conventional near-peer war a realistic prospect. It would remain burdened with the present mess of equipment procured as urgent operational requirements for the wars of the 2000s and would struggle to find the money to replace them in a coherent or timely manner. The same goes for what remains of the heavy army. At best we would be applying a sticking plaster to the problem, keeping the ability to deploy a theoretical Division under the assumption that future developments will lead to the army being re-equipped in a more thorough manner. Muddle through until the money becomes available. It would be easy to dismiss this out of hand as a pointless fudge, but given a little political backbone and willingness to stand up to the ‘cap-badge mafia’ and reallocate some manpower a lot more capability could be squeezed out of the present Army.

The Reformed HERRICK Army, a fudge
but with some improvements.

The Large Army
At this stage it may be rather confusing to see a proposal for a significantly larger army than the present one, especially given the affordability and equipment issues already raised with the ‘reformed HERRICK Army’. The short answer is that a much larger army, say returning to the 100,000 regulars of the 2000s, is simply not possible. The slightly longer answer is rooted in the question of how you would go about equipping it. Clearly a pool of equipment is needed for training and the smaller-scale operations envisaged in the preamble, but beyond that how much is needed? The Army that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan essentially became a two tier force, with those deployed being well equipped and those not deployed being much less well equipped. Would it not be possible to accept adequate equipment for, say, a third of the Army with the equipment moving to the unit which required it? If coupled with ‘off the shelf’ purchases from production lines which are likely to remain open for the foreseeable future then the Army could, in theory, be moved to a much more robust ‘fully equipped’ state within a reasonable span of time without the need for extensive and difficult recruitment. The advantages of such a structure would be in its large but lightly equipped manpower pool, well suited to military aid to the civil power and deployment in peacekeeping and advisory capacities. The weaknesses, however, are also quite evident. It would still struggle to put a significant force into the field at short notice, potentially having compromised its logistical depth for additional ‘front-line’ manpower and would undoubtedly still be very expensive.

The Large Army, sparsely equipped
but able to fill the gaps fast.

I began with the simple statement that the British Army is a mess. Due to the consequences of two protracted wars in the Middle East the political will to use, or equip, the army for large scale operations does not presently exist. However, that does not mean that this will be the case forever. The structures I have roughly sketched out all attempt to strike a balance between the perceived needs of today and a longer-term requirement to hedge against the emergence of a serious unforeseen, misperceived or underestimated threat. There is no ‘optimum’ solution, because there is no clear threat against which the army can be measured and designed. Too much depends on the personal views of commentators to chart a clear course forwards. In this I hope to have outlined some ideas and stimulated some thought rather than offering concrete answers, because at present there are none to be found.

But for now, I shall “Publish and be damned.”

This post was inspired by Sir Humphrey’s recent blog post: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Deployable Division?”
Available at:

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Back in the USSR: The Modern Russian Navy and the West

"The national Russians, in the heart of their country, are nowhere contiguous to the sea; but wherever they are found on the coast they appear as strangers and dispersed colonists."
-J.G. Kohl, Russia and the Russians

The Russian navy’s modernisation and re-equipment programme is grounded in a sophisticated national maritime strategy, posing a series of challenges for the west. Not least for the UK; which had been, until recently, operating under the assumption that post-Cold War Russia was a spent power.

Russian involvement in the crises in Syria and the Ukraine has led to an increasingly confrontational relationship with the West of late, which has spurred a reappraisal of Russian capabilities and the challenge posed by their armed forces. At sea these challenges arise from a more active submarine arm, which the West is not well prepared to confront, coupled with a revitalised green-water flotilla and increasingly professional amphibious forces. 

Onto this is somewhat messily tacked a troubled, but nonetheless capable, blue water surface fleet. 

Russia’s submarine programme remains the most significant area of their naval modernisation, with investment in a large fleet of conventional (SSK/SSI) and nuclear-powered (SSN/SSGN) attack submarines. Part of its nuclear deterrent is also carried aboard a fleet of 13 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Their ambitious modernisation programme involves overhauling twelve Soviet-built SSNs, SSGNs and SSBNs of the Project 971 Shchuka, Project 949A Antey and Project 667 Kal’mar classes. Upgrades will focus on replacing the boats’ armament and vital systems to extend their service lives by 15-20 years. 

While this appears impressive, and in many respects it is, the underlying factor driving them is the failure of the Project 885 Yasen SSGN programme to deliver affordable and timely replacements for the Shchuka and Antey classes. The impetus for modernising the Kal’mar class also appears to be similar: technical troubles with its replacement, the Project 955 Borey SSBN, and its weapon system: the RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Russia’s nuclear submarine industry also remains impressive; with the latest Project 955 Borey SSBN taking 8 years from laying down to commissioning , in-line with Western equivalents.

Despite the apparent strength of their nuclear submarine industry, the Project 677 Lada conventional submarines ran into technical troubles after the first boat failed to live up to expectations. Her problems seem to have been focussed around the boat’s new air independent propulsion (AIP) system. The project was halted in 2011 and the two other boats under construction had to undergo a major redesign. Two further boats have now been ordered, bringing the total to five. 

The Lada is reportedly significantly quieter than the existing Project 636.3 Varshavyanka diesel-electric boats, already known for their low radiated noise levels and difficulty of detection. The delay did, however, precipitate orders for two batches of six improved Project 636.3s for the Pacific and Black Sea fleets as an interim solution, many which have already been delivered.

The troubled Project 667 Lada SSI
The end result of their SSK, SSN, SSGN and SSBN modernisation programmes is a precipitate increase  in the activity of the Russian submarine fleet. Although they are regenerating from a low base, the return to a much higher operational tempo has caused some concern in the West.

The reappearance of the Russian nuclear submarine force in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean is a particular challenge to assumptions made by the UK as recently as 2010. The UK’s shrinking SSN force (currently fluctuating between six and seven boats as the Trafalgar class retire and new Astute class boats replace them), record-low number of ASW frigates, overburdened Merlin ASW helicopter force and gapped maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) all point to a badly hollowed-out anti-submarine warfare (ASW) force that will struggle to rise to Russia’s challenge in the near future. However, there may now be some recognition that the Russian challenge is real and requires a response; with the 2015 SDSR pledging to close the MPA gap and eventually increase the number of fleet escorts beyond 19. This is bolstered by an order for three additional Sonar 2087 towed arrays, for use on the Type 26 and potentially the Type 31e, increasing the Royal Navy’s total from 8 to 11.

While the US Navy’s mass is certainly greater than the Royal Navy it also faces problems in ASW, with its SSN force due to shrink from 52 boats to 41 by 2029. This would be less concerning if their focus and resources weren’t being drawn towards the Pacific, due to tensions with China. The early retirement of all of its Spruance and most Oliver Hazard Perry class ASW ships has also caused problems, with the task now left to non-specialist Arleigh Burke class destroyers. While new equipment may be needed, possibly sooner than expected, the most pressing requirement is for the regeneration of critical ASW skills which have atrophied since the end of the Cold War.

The Green Water Navy
One area where Russia has made real strides is in small surface combatants. With 13 Project 21630 Buyan, Project 20380 Steregushchiy, Project 20385 Gremyashchiy, Project 20836 Derzky and Project 22800 Karakurt corvettes launched since 2006 and a further 17 in various stages of construction. These ships, ranging from 500-2000 tons, are equipped with surface to air missiles; close in weapons systems (CIWS) and strike-length cells for a small number of cruise or anti-ship missiles. Making them highly capable for their size, although their ability to remain at sea for prolonged periods remains limited. These new ships augment a large number of Soviet-built corvettes and missile boats of the Project 1131M Parchim, Project 1124 Grisha, Project 1234 Ovod and Project 1241 classes.

While Western navies may seem better prepared to deal with the threat of small surface combatants, the Royal Navy in particular has extensive experience of combatting them in the Falklands and first Gulf wars, in reality these new Russian ships pose significant challenges. This is partly because they appear to have been designed with the lessons of these conflicts in mind. Russia’s design response makes a repeat of the 1991 battle of Bubiyan, where Iraqi missile boats were destroyed easily by helicopters and aircraft, unlikely.

One of Russia's n Steregushchiy corvette

In comparison with these vessels the US Navy’s smaller surface combatant, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), seems distinctly underwhelming, with its only clear-cut advantage being its speed. It is outclassed by its Russian counterparts in many fields, including short-range air defence systems in the case of the larger Steregushchiy and Gremyashchiy classes, and in terms of cruise and anti-ship missiles by all of Russia’s modern corvettes.

These ships alone pose new challenges to the western model of using missiles delivered by rotary wing aircraft against smaller surface combatants. However, when operated alongside larger surface combatants, equipped with capable air defence missile systems such as Redut, the effectiveness of present Western doctrine and equipment is thrown into question.

This is particularly concerning as smaller Russian ships have proved successful on the export market. Algeria have already acquired two Project 20382 Tigr corvettes and Brazil have also expressed interest. While a direct conflict between Russia and the West remains unlikely, proliferation of these smaller ships to third party navies greatly increases the chances of Western navies coming into contact with them in the future.

Amphibious Forces
Russia’s amphibious forces have undergone a decade of troubled development. Steady funding was, until recently, being provided for new amphibious ships. These included two Project 11711 Ivan Gren tank landing ships and, until 2014, four French-designed Mistral class multirole amphibious assault ships. To be delivered by DCNS and the Russian United Shipbuilding Corporation. However, the collapse of this programme shortly after Russia’s invasion of Crimea resulted in none of them being delivered.

 While several designs for Mistral-like amphibious ships have been proposed since, a firm order has yet to materialise. It now seems unlikely that the Russian navy will realise their ambition to have the first of these ships ready for 2020. As with many Russian naval construction programmes, the Mistral surrogate seems to be creeping to the right, with the Russian defence ministry suggesting that the first could now enter service in 2022. Unless a significant number of these new amphibious assault ships are ordered, the Russian navy will find itself forced to operate aging Project 1171 Tapir and Project 775 Ropucha LSTs well into the 21st century. 

At present the funded component is inadequate to replace their existing capabilities. While Russia’s amphibious forces are limited in their ability to project power out of area, something which a future helicopter carrier could change, their ability to threaten states in Russia’s near abroad, notably in the Black Sea, Baltic and High North is considerable. The professionalisation of their naval infantry has also continued apace, with almost all their conscripts now replaced by regular troops. Regular amphibious exercises, on a smaller-scale to their Soviet predecessors, have again become a routine feature of Russian military activity. There are also indications that Russia may restart the production of the formidable 400 ton Project 1232.2 Zubr assault hovercraft. These developments point to a focus on their traditional role: short-range operations in support of ground forces, rather than overseas expeditionary employment. 

The formidable Zubr assault hovercraft 

This is problematic for the West, as Russia’s ability to threaten its neighbours, including NATO members, with amphibious force remains a significant concern. Considering these forces are tailored for operations in close proximity to the Russian mainland, where they can be more effectively supported by land and air forces. There is some, more limited, potential that these forces may be used beyond Russia’s immediate region in the future, potentially in the Eastern Mediterranean, using the Tartus naval base. A battalion of Russian naval infantry, deployed to Syria in 2015, indicates Russia’s ability project a modest amphibious force beyond its near abroad. 

Russia’s short-range amphibious potential is clearly of concern for many of the weaker states which encircle the Black Sea and Baltic. The presence of these forces allows Russia to hold those regions at risk, signal political intent and implicitly threaten the security of a number of allied states. Coupled with an increasingly modern and capable green water corvette navy these forces continue to pose a significant challenge, mostly below the level of conflict.

The Blue Water Fleet
The final aspect of the Russian Navy’s re-equipment programme concerns their blue water ‘great power’ navy. This force is formed around three capital ship classes; the Project 1143.5 Orel heavy aviation cruiser: Admiral Kuznetsov, Project 1144 Orlan nuclear powered cruiser: Pyotr Velikiy and the three Project 1164 Atlant cruisers: Moskva, Marshal Ustinov and Varyag. In addition the Admiral Nakhimov, a Project 1144 Orlan cruiser built by the Soviet Union, is presently undergoing a major modernisation aiming to bring her back into service by 2018. After which the Pyotr Velikiy will undergo a refit to bring her up to the same standard. Both ships will eventually carry the S-400 air defence missile system and 3M-54 Kalibr anti-ship missiles. In future, hypersonic 3M-22 Tsirkon anti-ship missiles may also be added. The three operational Project 1164 Atlant cruisers also recently underwent refits replacing their anti-ship missiles and radars with more capable models.

Admiral Kuznetsov is expected to begin an extensive two and a half year refit in 2017; aimed at rectifying the shortcomings in her deck equipment and propulsion system exposed by recent operations. The refit, planned to be complete by 2020, will allow the Admiral Kuznetsov to operate for up to 25 more years.

The aging carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

The Russian Navy seems quite capable of keeping legacy Soviet capital ships in service through a series of extensive, if erratically managed , modernisation programmes. However, serious question marks remain over their eventual replacements. The more ambitious of these are the Project 23000E Shtorm nuclear powered supercarrier and twelve Project 23560 Lider/Skhval nuclear powered ‘destroyers’, designed to displace over 17,000 tonnes. It is unlikely that Russia’s shipbuilding industry has the ability to build the former, especially considering their poor performance during the refit of the Soviet-built Project 1143 Krechyet carrier Admiral Gorshkov, now INS Vikramaditya, for the Indian Navy. Similar doubts hang over the Project 23560 Lider/Skhval. Commentators seem to agree that Russia’s ambitions are unrealistic, placing the maximum possible at three or four, due to economic and industrial constraints.

Presently these programmes appear to be in limbo, both may be “indefinitely postponed”   in the 2018-2025 state arms programme in favour of investments in land and air forces . 
This leaves the Russian navy operating fourteen Soviet-built Destroyers of the Project 956 Sarych and Project 1155 Fregat types, ranging from to 24 to 32 years old. Without firm plans for replacements, in practice it may fall to Russia’s new generation of frigates to provide task group escorts in the future. More modest ships, of the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov and Project 11356P/M Admiral Grigorovich classes, will fill the roles of older Soviet destroyers.

Although Admiral Gorshkov is now in service the production of Project 22350 frigates has been chronically slow and has revealed serious problems within Russia’s surface shipbuilding industry. The programme was also disrupted by Ukraine’s refusal to supply Russia with gas turbines after the annexation of Crimea. The Russian navy’s response was the Project 11356P/M frigate, the Admiral Grigorovich class. A less ambitious design based on the Soviet-era Project 1135 Burevestnik frigates, with two in service and a further four under construction for the Black Sea Fleet. This programme has also been hit by the Ukrainian embargo, with the last three ships lacking main engines.

One of Russia's legacy Soviet Destroyers

Although the timely production of new surface combatants has been blighted by technical and industrial shortcomings the capabilities of these new ships are, in most cases, improvements upon their predecessors. Although not as impressive as their Soviet-era predecessors in their day, the latest Russian frigates are well armed by European standards, carrying respectable numbers of anti-aircraft, anti-ship and cruise missiles.

The Russian surface fleet modernisation programme poses a series of complex problems for the Western alliance. It gives Russia the ability to project hard and soft power overseas, with occasional out of area deployment of a cruiser or carrier-led battlegroup. While the utility of these assets, especially the carrier, in a ‘hot’ war with NATO is more limited, their ability to be used assertively to frustrate, block and complicate the situation for the West in a limited war scenario, such as in Syria, is notable. A capability they have demonstrated in the Eastern Mediterranean. While naval diplomacy has been in vogue for the Russian state in recent years, their ability to maintain a forward-leaning posture beyond the Syrian conflict depends upon their willingness and ability to replace the remnants of the Soviet Union’s blue water navy.

Technical and tactical challenges also arise from Russia’s surface fleet modernisation. At present the open ocean anti-surface warfare capabilities of most western surface combatants are distinctly limited, in many cases relying upon updated versions of heavyweight anti-ship missile systems, such as Harpoon and Exocet, developed in the late stages of the Cold War. When compared with modern Russian-made missiles these tend to be slow, shorter ranged and carry a lighter warhead.

The Royal Navy’s predicament is likely worse than most, set to retire the venerable Harpoon Block 1C in 2018 with no official replacement due for a decade. While there has been investment in light helicopter launched missiles, such as Sea Venom, their limited range, helicopter launch platform and small warhead  make them unsuitable for attacking large surface combatants in open waters. The West’s answer to the threat posed by long-range Soviet anti-ship missiles was, during the Cold War, to extend their missiles’ range by launching them from aircraft . However, since the 1990s the stocks of these missiles have either been greatly reduced or, in the case of the British Sea Eagle, removed from service altogether.

Sea Eagle, retired in 2000

The US Navy is belatedly running a competition to modernise its anti-surface warfare capabilities. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Kongsberg have all entered new anti-ship missile systems: the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), modernised Harpoon Block II+ER and the Naval Strike Missile to equip the Littoral Combat Ship and a new generation of frigates. At a time when other navies, both allied and potential opponents, are investing in a new generation of surface and air-launched anti-ship missile systems the British government’s decision to risk gapping them for the foreseeable future can be described as questionable at best.

Failure to take the Russian naval threat seriously in the decades after the Cold War has left the UK and its major NATO allies ill-prepared to tackle the challenges posed by its resurgence, though it remains a poor shadow of its Soviet predecessor. Neglect of anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities has left both the British and American navies, as well as their allies, in need of additional resources to regenerate or seriously modernise; at a time when fiscal pressures remain intense.

At least the poor state of Russia’s shipbuilding industry, especially for large and complex surface ships, will likely limit or stymie their more ambitious programmes. Budgetary pressures from the other Russian armed forces coupled with Russia’s economic troubles may also curtail the scope and pace of their naval modernisation.

The poor state of Russian Shipbuilding,
a welcome reprieve.

Russia’s green water navy also constitutes a network of formidable littoral threats. Russia’s renewed ability to leverage these capabilities to project power in its near-abroad is also a distinct development, noticeable in Syria and the Baltic, which warrants a response. This is especially pertinent as these naval technologies have been widely exported by Russia to third-parties.  Combatting these threats should be an increasingly pressing concern for Western navies, many of which are still relying on solutions grounded in thirty year old practice.

Finally, the quintessential Cold War naval threat: Russian nuclear powered attack submarines, are back on the scene in the Atlantic and further afield. This raises questions about the credibility of threat assessments which, until recently, ignored or downplayed Russia’s capability in this field. It goes almost without saying that the West’s wider neglect of ASW forces and training, following the end of the Cold War, appears to have been a mistake. The UK and its allies are running serious risks by not remedying these shortfalls in a timely manner. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Lighter Frigate Debate: A Look "Under the Hood"

"Was I to die this moment, 'Want of Frigates' would be found stamped on my heart. No words of mine can express what I have, and am suffering for want of them."
-Horatio Nelson, August 1798

As those who have read my musings on the "lighter frigate" in the past may already know my views on the British government's plan, laid down in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, have been mixed. To some extent I continue to blow hot and cold on the issue. It is now apparent, to me at least, that there is risk inherent in all courses of action when it comes to replacing the Royal Navy's thirteen aging Type 23 frigates. The earlier plan, to build thirteen Type 26 frigates, appears to have fallen afoul of cost and potentially timescale issues. We can criticise the decision to cap the Type 26 build run at the eight anti-submarine configured hulls all we like, but the reality appears to be that BAE's construction yards on the Clyde could not deliver Type 26 at the required tempo without very significant investment (the "frigate factory"). One shipbuild per year was needed to replace the Type 23s as they leave service, without a significant decline in RN escort numbers, whereas the yard currently appears to be scaled for one Type 26 scale shipbuild per 1.5 years.

Presuming that BAE could have delivered at the specified rate of one Type 26 build every 1.5 years it would have resulted in a dramatic decline in the RN's number of escorts, with no realistic chance of recovery until the early 2040s. It would also have likely resulted in a concurrent construction programme, using the same yards, with the Type 45's replacement in the mid-late 2030s. This would have required the Clyde yards to at least double their output of complex warships, a hard ask indeed.

The 13 Type 26 option clearly had some significant problems of its own. It was by no means an "easy" option, requiring a 33% higher build rate than BAE were required to provide under their Terms of Business Agreement with the government, significant investment in new facilities to achieve that higher build rate. Coupled with a higher rate of orders than the MoD was likely capable of funding, without compromising other programmes and we've probably explained the majority of the "witches' brew" that produced the 2015 decision to cap Type 26 at eight hulls and build five or more "lighter frigates".

It's fair to say that this decision has caused more than its fair share of controversy amongst defence commentators. During these early stages hard facts have been very thin on the ground. Most of what we have to go on is based on a few "powerpoint" design concepts put out by BAE, BMT Defence Services and Stellar Systems and Sir John Parker's recommendations for reforming the UK military shipbuilding sector. Bluntly, it isn't a lot and until the government releases its "National Shipbuilding Strategy" at some point soon(ish) we will continue to speculate about the "Lighter Frigate/General Purpose Frigate/Type 31/Type 31e", mostly in the dark. 

It's been suggested that the Lighter Frigate essentially amounts to the "anyone but BAE" option and is a means of undermining their near-monopolistic position in UK military shipbuilding. For some commentators this prospect is deeply worrying, having the potential to fatally undermine the two remaining complex military shipbuilding sites in the country by starving them of orders. For others BAE's monopoly is painted as "the problem" and one of the key reasons why UK-built warships are more expensive than their overseas equivalents. I'm, personally, more inclined to agree with the former position. However, I also see the need for the Lighter Frigate and recognise that it isn't an entirely bad idea from several standpoints.

Firstly, even with a 25% slower build tempo, one Lighter Frigate every two years, escort numbers remain relatively stable; dipping to lows of only 18. 

Secondly, 8 Type 26 at 1.5 year intervals dovetail neatly with the projected start of the Type 45 replacement programme without the need for concurrency. This indicates to me that the "Lighter Frigate undermines BAE" argument may be too harsh. There is a steady stream of the sort of high-end complex warship building work that BAE provides on the Clyde available for those yards well into the future. 

Thirdly, one of the most astute criticisms is that bringing the Lighter Frigate from the concept stage, where we are at present, to a full-fledged design able to be built is going to take time and cost money. This is absolutely the case and where much of the risk lies. However, it is not impossible to design and develop a surface escort to a constrained timescale. Doing so may actually help avoid the problems which emerge when a steady stream of additions and amendemnts are made to a design specification the longer it takes to bring it to fruition. A process that, as Type 26 demonstrates, can add significantly to development costs. It may also limit the scope for bespoke or "revolutionary" components, with designers forced to turn to off the shelf equipment and machinery. A more constrained timescale for designing the Lighter Frigate may actually prove beneficial if it produces a well-executed, but conservative, design.

An earlier and much more modest iteration of Type 26

Fourth, there is justified concern about the viability of the proposed "block build" approach that is intended to spread work to other, smaller, yards around the UK. There are evidently issues with this approach related to the shortage of yards with the necessary skilled workforce, equipment and facilities to efficiently build blocks for a complex surface combatant. While work on blocks for the carriers appears to be a positive indication of their skills and capacity to deliver, it remains to be seen if a similar model can be made to work for the Lighter Frigate. The other issue with this approach is the apparent lack of a suitable "integration yard" (where the blocks are assembled into a functioning warship).

"The vessel should be assembled in a shipyard, backed by a company or alliance with sufficient financial and industrial capacity and capability to construct and commission and enter into the key sub-contracts."
-Parker Report, 2016

There are a very limited set of options on this front. While Sir John Parker's report suggests that BAE should concentrate their efforts on Type 26 their yards on the Clyde would be an obvious option, provided that the risk of concurrently building Type 26 and integrating blocks for the Lighter Frigate could be mitigated. Unfortunately viable alternatives are very thin on the ground. Babcock international's Appledore yard is too small and their Rosyth yard, where the carriers have been constructed, is soon to become the hub for UK nuclear submarine decommissioning. Cammel Laird on Merseyside have the facilities but likely lack the skilled workforce necessary to integrate a complex warship. Their performance constructing the UK polar research ship RRS David Attenborough may give some indication of just how capable they are in this regard. Harland and Wolff's yard in Belfast is large enough, but the company hasn't built ships (let alone anything as complex as a warship) for years, having diversified heavily into the offshore wind sector. Other "options", such as re-opening the Portsmouth construction yard, are little more than fantasy.

The options for the integration yard are extremely limited, realistically boiling down to BAE on the Clyde and Cammel Laird. The latter being a much more risky option that would almost certainly require a consortium that included BAE, to bring their skills and experience to bear, in order to make it work. It would also likely require an expansion and upskilling of Cammel Laird's modestly-sized workforce. Ultimately it might be better to focus efforts on a single complex builder, BAE on the Clyde. However, this could introduce risks to the Type 26 programme. The optimal means of mitigating those risks might be to use BAE as an assembly yard only for the Lighter Frigate, keeping all fabrication activities seperate by farming them out to the smaller yards.

Cammel Laird's yard in Merseyside
If the UK government is serious about building up a second complex military shipbuilder, it needs to consider the implications on continued investment in the Royal Navy and Fleet Auxiliary that will be necessary to sustain two yards. In shipbuilding consistent investment and orders are critical. It will be no different in this case than it is with BAE.

Overall, the Lighter Frigate is simultaneously necessary and difficult to realise. Contrary to some commentators' views, I'm firm in my belief that 13 Type 26 isn't the "magic wand" answer to this problem. A long-term failure to invest in military shipbuilding has led us to a place where there are no easy options. Blaming all of our woes on BAE's monopoly is unhelpful and disguises systematic failures in the government's military industrial strategy. "Competition" isn't a magic wand either, undermining BAE with no real alternative would be the height of irresponsibility. The only way to make a semi-competitive military shipbuilding system work would be to build a significantly larger Royal Navy, able to naturally support more than one major yard. In the author's opinion, the optimum solution would be to use BAE's Clyde yards as the integrator for the Lighter Frigate. Accepting the risk to Type 26 by giving BAE the confidence to invest seriously in their yards and expand the workforce to cope with concurrent builds. The alternative, Cammel Laird, is probably just too much of a leap in the dark at this stage. 

In the end this is about providing the navy with the number of ships it needs to carry out its duties while maintaining a sustainable military shipbuilding sector. 

Oh, and the idea that the UK will export loads of these things is probably bollocks.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Size Matters: Britain's Aircraft Carriers

"The aircraft carrier is truly amazing. I am amazed at the concept of the carrier, and the fact that it works. And it doesn't just work, it kicks butt.

-Lt. Barry W. Hull, VFA-81 Squadron, USS Saratoga, 1991

Why build big? It's a simple question asked frequently about the UK's two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Weighing in at just over 70,000 tonnes they are, by quite a long way, "the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy". Many have leveled criticisms against them because of their size, claiming they are little more than a vast vanity project, that their size makes them unsuitable for a "medium power" such as Britain and that they reflect a yearning for a status on the world stage that is undeserved. What these criticisms ignore is that there are serious practical reasons why larger carriers are, in most circumstances, a significantly better investment when compared with smaller "pocket carriers" such as the Invincible class ships the UK operated from the late 70s through to 2014; when HMS Illustrious was decommissioned.

Probably the key reason why larger carriers are significantly better than their smaller cousins is that they are a more efficient way of sustaining air operations from the sea. Generating the same effect with numerous smaller carriers, as some have suggested as a better course for the UK to follow, simply costs much more. The obvious consequence of this is that you get a force of smaller carriers that cannot deliver the same effect as fewer, larger, ships. The reason why this is the case can be neatly summed up with a single word: duplication. This is especially true of the manpower required to run two equivalent carrier forces, equal in "striking power", where the only difference is the size of the ships.  While the individual light carrier will undoubtedly have a smaller crew than an individual large carrier, you might need two or three smaller carriers to achieve the same number of sorties as a single, larger, ship and each still requires a range of highly trained crew members. To draw upon a real-world example: HMS Queen Elizabeth has a core crew of ~679, will carry and operate a tailored air group of 40 aircraft and can surge 110+ sorties a day. In comparison the 25,000t ITS Cavour has a core crew of ~451, an air group of around 20 aircraft and can surge approximately ~40 sorties a day. This means that, broadly speaking, in order to achieve the same effect as a single Queen Elizabeth you need approximately three Cavour-style light carriers on station, with manpower equivalent to double that of the larger ship. When considering the force structure necessary to ensure there are three small carriers available at all times for operations, taking the Royal Navy's current ratio of around 2 ships in maintenance for every 3 ships operationally available, you're looking at a fleet of five light carriers to achieve the same notional operational effect as a pair of Queen Elizabeths. Overall the model of smaller, more numerous, ships would require between 20 and 35% more manpower across the entire carrier force. At a time when the Royal Navy is hard-pressed to man its existing fleet a solution that involves adding up to a third more ship-side manpower to the carrier force is simply impractical and would add substantially to the force's through-life running cost.

As the ships get smaller their efficiency decreases markedly. Concepts for extremely small VTOL carriers, such as the one illustrated below, essentially amount to a reductio ad absurdum but nevertheless prove the point that greater numbers of smaller carriers become exponentially more expensive to produce the same effect in terms of available aircraft and sortie generation. Furthermore, there is also needless duplication in terms of aircraft maintainers with small carriers. It takes a similar number of trained engineers to maintain a small number of aircraft operated from a small carrier as it does to maintain a larger number on a larger carrier, once again duplication of functions across multiple platforms leads to greater manpower needs, reduced efficiency and increased costs across the entire fleet. The cost of the ship per aircraft carried also increases significantly as the platform becomes smaller. Taking into account that the RN, when presented with the opportunity to replace their old carriers, was instructed by the government that no more than two new ships would be procured it then becomes clear that two larger ships were the clear and preferable choice.
Concepts were produced for very small carriers, this modification of the "Type 43" destroyer examined the possibility of operating a pair of STOVL Sea Harriers from escorts. Image courtesy of D.K Brown & Moore's "Rebuilding the Royal Navy"

Sustained Operations:
The next major limitation on many smaller carrier designs is their capacity to conduct sustained air operations. This is due to a number of factors, but principally comes down to aircrew endurance, aircraft maintenance and supply limitations. As you can well imagine it is easier for a carrier with a larger air wing to conduct more sorties in a short-term high-intensity surge effort, however, their advantage becomes even more obvious when looking at sustaining a more modest number of sorties over a longer period of time. Facilities for planning and briefing multiple air operations are also more limited aboard smaller ships. Light carriers with smaller air groups place greater demands on a smaller pool of pilots and other air crew when sustaining operations over time, or compromise by reducing the number of sorties flown. Similarly, working a smaller number of aircraft harder to sustain operations leads to greater wear on individual aircraft, increasing the risk that they end up out of action without an available replacement. For example, during NATO bombing operations in 1995 Britain's "pocket carrier" HMS Invincible was struggling to sustain eight sorties a day with her eight embarked Sea Harrier FA.2s (and both Sea Harrier models had a reputation for being robust and reliable aircraft). A larger carrier with more aircraft embarked can better afford technical problems which prevent some aircraft from operating, because each individual aircraft's availability is less important when a large pool is available to draw from.

Logistics are also another crucial advantage of larger carriers, as greater space for fuel and stores makes them less reliant on frequent resupply operations which take time and prevent flying operations. The Invincible class were (despite some mid-life improvements to the quantity of ammunition they could store in their magazines) always tied very closely to their attendant fuel and stores ships. By comparison the Queen Elizabeth design can hold fuel and stores for around ~400 "strike" sorties, sufficient for five days of very high-intensity operations (defined as a first-day Surge of 110 sorties, followed by 72 sorties a day for four days) before needing to come "off station" in order to resupply fuel and ammunition. Alternatively, a more relaxed tempo could obviously be sustained over a longer period of time. Considering that the Libya air policing mission only required 36 sorties per day to enforce, after the first 11 days spent degrading Libya's air defences, QE could sustain a similar lower tempo operation without resupply for 11 days.

The Invincible class light carriers struggled to sustain air operations for an extended duration without reduced sortie rates and heavy dependence on attendant logistics ships.

Eggs and Baskets:
There is a superficially appealing argument that reliance on a smaller number of larger ships amounts to "placing all of one's eggs into a few very expensive baskets". While this may sound like an enlightened nugget of wisdom on the surface, dig a little deeper and you find that it's a flawed argument. Firstly, "hardening" a carrier force by using a greater number of smaller platforms only works if you have the escort warships to form multiple carrier groups. Without a sufficient number of these ships, which form a vital part of the carrier's layered defences, the available escorts will either be too thinly spread to be effective, or the carriers will have to be concentrated within the protected zone afforded by the available escorts. The first approach risks spreading available forces too thinly, dispersing them into vulnerable "penny packets", while the second only provides marginal benefits over having a single larger ship at the centre of the carrier group. Effective dispersal of the carrier force would multiply the number of effective escort groups required, something that is beyond the current capabilities of the Royal Navy. Secondly, a more dispersed carrier force would also require the dispersal of logistics support ships. As presently planned the UK carrier group will be supported by a large fleet tanker and solid stores ship, in comparison multiple smaller carriers would each require a roughly equivalent number of support ships (and would be more dependent on them, as their own fuel and magazine space would be more limited). If, broadly speaking, three smaller carriers are necessary to replicate the capability of a single larger carrier then the overall force will require something like triple the number of logistics ships and escorts; if the carriers are operated separately in order to take advantage of the dispersed approach. Even then, each group centered on a light carrier will have fewer aircraft available to contribute to the outer ring of its layered defense. This means that Combat Air Patrol (CAP) operations, designed to keep hostile aircraft away from the carrier group, would require a greater portion of the air group's effort and leave fewer aircraft available for offensive operations. What this means in practice is that the smaller carrier would be expending so much effort protecting itself and its escort group that its "punch" would end up being anemic.

The alternative approach to effective dispersal is concentrating multiple smaller carriers within the same group. This does have the clear benefits of not requiring nearly as many additional escorts and also limits the need to duplicate replenishment ships. The group's "punch" is also greater, due to the larger number of available aircraft for all duties, albeit spread between a number of ships rather than concentrated on one. Indeed, the concentrated approach was taken by the commander of the British naval task force that fought the 1982 Falklands War; with HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible operating together throughout most of the conflict. However, it is important to note that this means of employing smaller carriers sacrifices the key benefits of effective dispersal: the increased difficulty of locating the entire carrier force for the enemy, the ability to deploy the dispersed groups to different areas and the increased "coverage" this can provide (especially for anti-submarine operations). It is a fundamental principle of military operations that force be concentrated in order to achieve decisive effects, while a dispersed force may allow individual platforms to survive it is far less useful for striking hard blows against an adversary.
Operating a dispersed force of smaller carriers requires significantly more escorts and logistics ships and must still be concentrated in order to achieve decisive military effects in most circumstances.
I began this piece with a simple question: "why build big?" and the answer is now clear. When discussing aircraft carriers, from a purely functional perspective, size matters. Setting aside the soft power and symbolic implications of operating large carriers entirely, they're simply better from a pragmatic position. Smaller numbers of larger carriers are more efficient in terms of manpower, cost per aircraft carried and supporting ships than larger numbers of smaller carriers. For the Royal Navy, told that they would only get two ships to replace the remaining Invincible class carriers, the decision was clear and they chose to build two large, efficient and effective ships. This was, for all of the reasons discussed, absolutely the right decision for the UK. The new Queen Elizabeth class, once fully worked up, will be capable of conducting extremely intensive "short and sharp" air operations before exhausting her own supplies of fuel and ammunition or sustaining a lower tempo of operation for a significant time. They will be able to bring a decisive level of force to most engagements, instead of the small "penny packets" of aircraft aboard light carriers. Along with a properly constituted escort group the larger carrier is also capable of simultaneously defending itself and conducting meaningful strike operations when necessary. For those who claim that the UK's large carriers are simple a vanity project I would respond by stating that deliberately pursuing a more expensive and less effective solution, in the form of smaller carriers, because of a perception that they "better suit Britain's position in the world" is not only vain but unnecessarily introspective and downright foolish. When it comes to carriers, the UK has absolutely made the right choice. Bigger is better.