Thursday, November 11, 2010

Further considerations for UK retirement of the Harrier VSTOL capability

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in May 2009 "Alternatives for modernizing U.S. Fighter forces" grapples with options should, basically, the Joint Strike fighter (JSF) or F-35 program be cancelled.

Interestingly the report makes the point that US Marine Corp concerns about the 2018 in-service date slippage for their own AV-8B Harrier replacement, "instead of being retired as F-35's are delivered to the Marine Corps, AV-8B's would be retained as long as they are flight-worthy" (page XIII). This is in contrast to the United Kingdom, whom as part of the outcome of a recent, resources-led review decided to scrap the Harrier capability ahead of the introduction of a new generation aircraft carrier.

US Marine Corps plans are all based on retaining the AV-8B Harrier through 9,500 airframe hours (page 10).

The report then makes the killer blow (on page 13), "The Marine Corps AV-8B's were purchased (or remanufactured and upgraded) more recently than many F/A-18 A/B/C/D's of more modern design and, hence, have substantial remaining service life"

One of the big alternatives touted in UK circles to the JSF or navalised Eurofighter typhoon is the F-18 Hornet (which would be bought from the US). Why on earth does the RN not lease or buy some of the US aircraft and fly them until they reach the limit of serviceability ?

For the USMC with the resources they can consider the Harrier as obsolete on the modern battlefield. However many of the scenarios for which the is organising would be 'lower intensity' by definition - for which aproven airframe like Harrier is an essential force multiplier.

Alternatively, as was already suggested in 2007, why not manufacture new Harriers under licence in India ? BAE Systems are seeking to carve out a niche in the emerging Indian defence market and US is deploying the President on a major tour (which must chafe the FCO)...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Whither Close Air Support assets for UK Joint Operations

Whither Close Air Support assets for UK Joint Operations
November 10, 2010

Close Air Support (CAS) or TACAIR as the American Armed Forces refer to it, is a highly skilled mission applying aerial firepower against targets in close contact with infantry and Marines on the battlefield.

The application of precision guidance to bombs and traditionally unguided munitions makes this mission massively important. Add to that the need for close working and communication between troops on the ground in contact and the pilot and you have a highly complex ecosystem which, if disrupted can render CAS impotent as a military capability.

Hence the post-decision uproar concerning the end of the Harrier VSTOL ("jump jet") force in the United Kingdom. Whilst there have been leaps and bounds in helicopter gunship support post the Gulf War of 1991, helicopters remain vulnerable to jet aircraft over the battlefield, lacking speed of engagement for one. The Harrier has been a unique asset, able to operate in very rough environments and take off without the need for any significant runway. A group of retired veterans of the Falklands War of 1982 have protested publicly the loss of the Harrier which totally emasculates Naval aviation for the foreseeable future.

The Apache AH-64 gunship in service finally with the Army Air Corps has become the principal close support direct fire (as opposed to indirect artillery) asset for the British Armed forces.

The sad truth underpinning this argument is the fact that deciding the successor to Harrier has been left low in the in-tray in favour of securing Aircraft Carriers, Eurofighter combat aircraft and other programs. Whilst in every spreadsheet metric the Joint Strike Fighter offered a superior capability, one day, at a price per unit to be determined - its qualitative flexibility has been left to one side.

The Harrier is truly a venerable asset and probably JSF will be in turn challenged by the Moore's Law-like development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The military themselves know the shelf-life of an aircraft and, one suspects, were delinquent in leaving decisions over its future to the fast-jet fraternity of the Royal Air Force - who have no place in their future for close air support.

The Americans had a similar problem with the A-10 Thunderbolt (or "Warthog"). Unloved by the US Air Force it was put on the back burner and then, once conflict recommences in Iraq, it becomes a key support capability to the Army and Marines and upgraded to A-10C standard.

The failure of the British Defence Establishment, leaving decisions over the fleet held by the RAF, to the RAF dooms capabilities such as close air support leads to discussion pieces like this, whilst military capabilities are being turned into razor blades.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Anglo-French Defence Cooperation: Last refuge of the scoundrel

Anglo-French Defence Cooperation: Last refuge of the scoundrel is defence collaboration (with apologies to Samuel Johnson)
November 4th, 2010

Faced with economic challenges the British and French Governments recently met and signed a treaty which had probably been under preparation since the summer to find any way to share defence resources without creating dependency between one another.

Anglo-French defence arrangements always seem to come to the fore when the chips are down, only to disolve when the situation picks up. Think about the 1960s and the development of the Jaguar aircraft for example. In the 1991 Gulf War the aircraft had more capability that the more-modern Tornado (laser designation for one) thoguh of course it was the first casualty of defence cuts. Also think of the Puma helicopter, dumped in favour of the Chinook etc.

The measures agreed between the UK and France include (bullet points below are directly from the UK MOD website - italicised comments those of the author):

• jointly developing a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) as a non-standing bilateral capability able to carry out a range of operations in the future whether acting bilaterally or through NATO, the EU or other coalition arrangements - this concept will be developed over the coming years;
Paper staff exercise. No cost. No commitment. Note timescale is 'coming years'

• building primarily on maritime task group co-operation around the French carrier Charles de Gaulle - the UK and France will aim to have, by the early 2020s, the ability to deploy a UK-French integrated carrier strike group incorporating assets owned by both countries;
As soon as 10 years away. It would seem to be that the RN will be providing air defence pickets and submarines to train as they lack CV capability in the coming years (if not already). No cost savings benefit. political statement though useful for training RN.

• developing joint military doctrine and training programmes;
Little cost. some joint training probably already occurs under NATO auspices.

• extending bilateral co-operation on the acquisition of equipment and technologies, for example in unmanned aerial systems, complex weapons, submarine technologies, satellite communications and research and technology;
Watchkeeper UAV program from Thales must feel like it has brought back from the dead given the hype around BAE System's Taranis this past Farnborough 2010. Collaboration on equipment procurement has, by rule of thumb, always taken longer, cost more, and been of dubious military utility - however the saving grace is that it insulates against political cancellation.

• aligning wherever possible our logistics arrangements - including providing spares and support to the new A400M transport aircraft;
Some cost savings once A400M is in service. I saw my first mockup of the A400M at Farnborough in 1990.

• developing a stronger defence industrial and technology base; and
A hardly substantial statement of intent.

• enhancing joint working to defend against emerging security concerns such as cyber security.
Surely one would want to work with the Americans on this - IT & France ??

So in summary the devil must be in the detail as the UK MOD makes no reference to joint sharing around the nuclear deterrent capability each nation possesses explicitly other than a passing reference to submarines (all RN submarines are nuclear) and strengthening R&T efforts.