RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

Fighter Procurement News- India, Netherlands

India’s much-heralded purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter, critical for closing a yawning gap in India’s force structure left by the retirement of MiG-21s and other older aircraft, is moving forward at a snail’s pace, as India contemplates an expensive integration of Russian missiles for the platform. Never mind that India has a large enough air force to comfortably use two sets of ordinance (as they already do with their Mirage fleet), or that having two ordinance sets provides a nice insurance against flaws in any one system, integration of new weapons and the consequent delay in procuring the fighters could well cost more than maintaining two sets of ordinance.

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The Dutch government, in a stroke of illogic that beggars belief, has decided to purchase only 37 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years, while selling their new naval support ships. The expensive F-35 was always going to cripple Dutch force structure and defence procurement, but it seems the government is trying to mitigate the damage by purchasing a force so small as to be useless for anything beyond domestic air defence, a role for which the F-35 is hardly the optimal aircraft. There is a word that a government wanting to preserve capabilities while cutting costs should be strongly urged to consider: Gripen.

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Speaking of which, an interesting piece on the possibilities of the Gripen for Canada can be found here, and a more formal one from the Ottawa Citizen here. The Gripen in its new NG version is a real balm to the ills of modern fighters. It is not only reasonably priced, but has a low cost of ownership, a complete array of integrated weapons (a big problem with other platforms including Eurofighter and F-35), high speed (unlike the Super Hornet and the F-35), great manoeuvrability (the F-35’s dogfighting ability has frequently been questioned), up-to-date electronics… It is neither a demigod of aerial combat like the Eurofighter nor a full stealth aircraft like the F-35, but neither is it far behind in those areas, and if the RCAF can buy two Gripens to an F-35 with a guarantee that maintenance costs won’t leach money from other important capital programs (of which the RCAF has several), it would be more than worth it.

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In other news, the crisis in Syria has seen a prolonged congregation of Russian, American and NATO ships in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A map of the ships from earlier this month.

Canada’s Support Vessels: Good sense from an unexpected quarter

In a National Post article, the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie, proposes a better way to build up the national economy with the troubled and long-running Joint Support Ship requirement. Rather than having a Canadian yard build these ships at unnecessary expense, the contract could be used as an incentive in free trade negotiations, for instance with South Korea. The ships would be built cheaply by experienced yards, and benefits to the Canadian economy from the trade agreement would far outweigh the jobs that would have been created by giving the work to a Canadian shipyard. One could add that the same logic would apply just as well to the Surface Combatant procurement- and instead of getting fifteen frigates with destroyer price tags, Canada could instead end up with eight to ten highly capable destroyers for a reduced price.

Logically, it makes complete sense. Politically, it doesn’t deliver the ridings and looks like an admission that the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy was flawed, and so is unlikely to happen.

In related news, from the American Enterprise Institute and Mark Collins, an analysis of NATO’s incredible shrinking navies- begging the question of why the RCN needs a force on par with Britain or France.

F-35 Still A Fiscal Curse

Two insightful pieces on the F-35 from Defence-Aerospace.com.

First, the real reason for the 22% drop in support cost estimates: they lowered the estimates– nothing else changed.

A second article, Disarmament by F-35, describes the cancerous effect of the program on acquisition budgets. The Netherlands, for example, will spend half its capital budget on 58 aircraft over six years. The strange loyalty shown to this “too-big-to-fail” program means that it starves other programs in any country that touches it. South Korea should be glad they got away…

Royal Navy Procurement and Doctine- On the wrong tack

The year is 1992. A full decade after the fiasco of naval doctrine and procurement policy that was the Falklands War and the punishing and unnecessary losses that resulted, the Royal Navy has risen from the ashes to a form that, if not ideal, is at the least far more capable and survivable than the Royal Navy of the Falklands War. Three carrier hulls provide air cover using upgraded Sea Harriers with better radar and AMRAAM missiles. Eighteen Broadsword class frigates provide point defence missiles, anti-submarine and anti-surface capability, while the new Type 23 frigates will maintain that level of capability. The Type 42 air defence destroyers all have close-in weapons systems to deal with missiles. The Trafalgar class submarines are in commission stalking beneath the waves. With such a navy, the Falklands War would have been entirely one-sided.

Skip to 2013. The carriers have followed their Harriers into the scrapyard. Their replacements are the size of fixed-wing carriers but designed for STOVOL operations. The new carriers are vastly overbudget, and will carry the least capable variant of the extremely expensive F-35. The new Type 45 destroyers lack any effective capability other than air defence. The Broadswords died young, and the Type 23s will have to soldier on for some time before their replacement comes along, a design based on a late 1970s concept of what a frigate should be. The submarine force is in a poor position, with the Trafalgars showing their age much sooner than their American 688 class counterparts, and the new, late and expensive Astute class showing serious design flaws. The Royal Navy is incapable of launching expeditionary operations against anything more than light opposition on its own hook, and even if promised capabilities materialise, the Royal Navy will still be hampered by its own doctrine and planning.

For the third time in the last hundred years, the Royal Navy has faced a drastic budget reduction with a minimum of critical thought and planning, and in so doing, made itself vulnerable. Lest anyone blame the politicians alone, go back and look at the advice British governments have gotten from their sailors, and then look at what the Royal Navy does with the budget that it does have. Here are a few of the problems with which it has saddled itself:

Doctrinal Fixation

The Royal Navy has made serious doctrinal errors by perpetuating old ideas in the wrong situation and in a changed climate.

First, it has squandered the opportunity presented to acquire full-sized carriers by equipping them with V/STOL aircraft, something that was originally regarded as a temporary expedient when the idea was conceived. The mistake in my opinion goes back to the idea that the purpose of a carrier is to strike land targets and conduct ASW work, which was behind the brief retention of the GR. 7/9 Harrier force after the Sea Harrier had bit the dust. This is a doctrine only suited to conducting operations in small third world nations that can’t fight back. If you don’t have the tools for air superiority (and the F-35B is eminently unsuitable for this role), you don’t have the precondition to conduct any other kind of air operation.

Second, the Royal Navy has perpetuated the obsolete doctrine of the separation of air defence and ASW ships, while leaving anti-surface and strike roles primarily to submarines. In an era in which frigates are expected to have at least some area air defence capability, they are planning frigates without this ability. In an era of a reduced submarine force and a global increase in SSM-armed ships, leaving serious anti-surface work for the submarines is a luxury the RN can no longer afford. Like it or not, this is an era in which every hull needs to be able to do a little of everything, and with reduced hull numbers, forming task forces to accommodate multiple roles is a luxury. It should have been realised in the planning stages that the Type 45 design was not providing value for money, either in terms of number of SAMs carried or in terms of capability for cost and hull size.

For purposes of illustration, consider an alternate pair of surface combatants, the KDX-III class of South Korea and the Formidable class, Singapore’s La Fayette derivative. The KDX-III class carries more than twice the Type 45s’ SAM load, plus sixteen anti-ship missiles, vertical-launch ASROC, cruise missiles, two anti-submarine helicopters and a formidable multi-layered close-in defence including ESSM, RAM and Goalkeeper. The KDX III is also not much more expensive per unit than the Type 45, despite only three of them being built. You could bring in all sorts of arguments to invalidate the comparison, but the bottom line is that the Royal Navy bought a one-trick pony while South Korea bought the most heavily armed ship to be built since the last Kirov-class battlecruiser was launched.

The Formidable class, meanwhile, includes a full range of capabilities expected of a modern frigate, including Aster missiles and Herakles radar for air defence in an economical and advanced platform. In other words, it can protect itself and other ships while operating in a hostile environment. Instead of something like this, the Royal Navy has essentially updated the Type 23 concept.

Misplaced Priorities

The Royal Navy made a number of decisions in the nineties and oughts for which it is paying in the 2010s. One was HMS Ocean, a perfectly superfluous helicopter ship built in response to a particular one-time capability gap. This and other indulgences in the amphibious role took up resources that should have been paid forward in maintaining basic capabilities in other areas. Capabilities planned and funded in this era fell quickly to budget cuts. Other poor decisions included abandoning the Horizon frigate project with Italy and France in favour of the Type 45, whose only significant differences are the radar fit and the combat system- and the lack of meaningful secondary armament. In general, the Royal Navy has been very poor at leveraging partnerships with European nations.

All that aside, budget cuts have seen the Royal Navy unable to stand by a coherent vision of which core capabilities need protection- the loss of the Sea Harrier was first example. The very fact that Broadswords and Type 23s, multirole ships capable of independent operations in threat environments, were decommissioned while any Type 42s were still in commission shows a badly disjointed sense of reality. The failure to retain even one carrier or air wing, and then dumping the decommissioned carriers and aircraft on the market without the slightest planning or any coherent attempt to make other carrier-using nations an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Buy British

This is the worst mistake, and the one that’s killing the British armed forces more than any other. For political reasons, the majority of British hardware has to be developed and built in Britain. I’ve written before about the vast cost overruns this causes in terms of specialist projects like submarine construction that come with decade-long hiatus between orders. Rather than arm their frigates with the existing Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile and equip them with Smart-S or Herakles radar for next to nothing, the Royal Navy has instead funded its own ESSM equivalent and Smart-S equivalent. Rather than buying into a proven frigate design, they’re doing it themselves. Rather than buying into a European destroyer design, they made one themselves.

The pathetic thing about this dogged and expensive insistence on buying British is that they still harbour hope of offsetting their costs through export orders. Not a single country has bought or is likely to buy the PAAMS system. Few countries would consider the Type 26 in a crowded market if they could get a more capable ship for a comparable price. Above all, the doctrinal logic of the Royal Navy is so disjointed from the rest of the market that it is almost impossible to formulate a coherent marketing position for any of this material. The net result is a navy that’s far too expensive.

Conclusion

As the British armed forces rapidly shed the impressive capabilities gained over the past three decades, we can tally up the losses. Britain no longer has a meaningful armoured force, an air force capable of large-scale autonomous combat operations, or a navy capable of real expeditionary warfare. It probably didn’t have to be this way. For a brief moment back in the eighties and nineties, it looked as though the Royal Navy had turned a corner, not on tight budgets, but on the constraints of mentality that have dogged its fighting ability since the end of World War I. At this point, it would take a truly visionary leader to turn the Royal Navy back into a real middle power navy, in the bracket of the large navies now being built in Asia. Improving the budgetary situation would not be enough. There must be a change of mindset.

For related materials, see Mark Collins’ post on the shrinking Royal Navy surface fleet here.

In the News: Missiles and Radars

It’s been a busy few weeks, and there’s a considerable backlog to get through. The end of the summer has seen a flurry of defence industry and procurement news.

In the wake of a searing indictment of the UK’s aircraft carrier program by parliamentary committee, BAE Systems announces the beginning of testing for the Artisan 3D radar intended for installation on the new carriers, the Type 23 and future Type 26 frigates.

According to the release, “The ARTISAN 3D Radar will provide extensive air traffic control and medium range tactical picture capability with ground breaking features such as tracking more than 900 targets at one time and has the ability to spot objects as small as a tennis ball travelling up to three times the speed of sound.” Details on this system are spotty so far; keep in mind, however, that despite the glowing language in the press release, it is really a low-bracket, medium-range surface combatant radar, equivalent in role to Thales’ Smart-S.

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The British MOD has signed a production contract for the Sea Ceptor surface-to-air missile, planned to replace the Sea Wolf missile on present and future British frigates. Sea Ceptor, based on the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, has a much improved range (over 25km) over Sea Wolf, but is still far inferior to the 50+ km range of Enhanced Sea Sparrow (ESSM) used by other NATO countries. Like ESSM, Sea Ceptor can be quad-packed in Sylver or Mk41 Vertical launch tubes. Unlike Enhanced Sea Sparrow, Sea Ceptor has an active radar terminal seeker head intended to alleviate the burden on shipboard fire-control radars during a saturation missile attack.

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Pantsyr

Pantsyr

In related news, Russian sources have stated that Pantsyr, the gun-missile point defence system which succeeds the Tunguska system on land, will also begin to replace Tunguska’s naval equivalent Kashtan within two years. Kashtan is currently the only integrated gun-missile CIWS system in existence, and is a formidable defence against anti-ship missiles in its own right.

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Russian defence industry exhibited some “new” missile systems at MAKS 2013. The Vympel RVV-BD air-to-air missile, in development for years and first exhibited at MAKS 2011, follows on from the AA-10 (R-27) Alamo long-range missile used on the MiG-31 Foxhound. Vympel has said that it is now looking to integrate the RVV-BD with a range of platforms, including the Su-35. Note that this is no guarantee that the Russian military will buy it- the existing AA-12 (R-77) is said by some sources to have a 100 km range, and a ramjet-powered follow-on with greater range, the RVV-SD, was unveiled at MAKS 2009. Russia may have yet to buy any of their own more recent medium-range air-to-air missiles in significant numbers, although India has probably done so as part of their Su-30 and MiG-29K orders. Vympel’s ~200km range RVV-BD should probably be seen as a specialist long-range weapon for particular roles, a successor to the “AWACS-killer” concept. In any case, if the Russian government is showing their high-end air-to-air missile families any love in connection with their recent fighter orders, it has yet to be reported.

For perspective, Europe’s first 100km+ long-range missile, the Meteor, was fired undergoing test-firings earlier this summer, while the AIM-120D version of the AMRAAM missile, with 120km range, has completed testing.

S-350

S-350

The S-350 Vityaz system, a land-based Surface-to-Air missile system, was also exhibited at MAKS for the first time. This system uses the 9M96E2 medium-range missile from the S-400. S-400 has three associated missiles, ranging from 400km extremely long range missiles to the 120km 9M96. The advantage of the S-350 is in giving the 9M96 its own dedicated tubes, allowing twelve smaller tubes per vehicle rather than the four giant tubes of S-400. S-350 will also carry a shorter-range, more agile missile, the 9M100. The S-350 stems partly from Almaz-Antey’s involvement in developing the South Korean KM-SAM Chun Koong surface-to-air system. The S-350 will replace earlier models of the S-300 in Russia’s air defence network. As such, it will not be replacing the SA-17 Grizzly/ Buk as the Army’s medium-range SAM.

Canada’s Maritime Helicopter Fiasco, Russia’s New Flankers and Carrier Costs

CH-148 Cyclone

CH-148 Cyclone

Canada is looking for alternatives to the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone as a replacement maritime helicopter. The Cyclone is years late, over-budget and still lacks key capabilities. A scathing independent assessment of the program by Hitachi Consulting recommends a program restructure, but apparently even the Canadian government can see that it will not be enough.

As I have argued elsewhere, the fault of this program was in its conception. The Cyclone was to be a single-buyer, small-order heavy maritime helicopter developed from scratch in a market already replete with proven competitors. Sikorsky offered a paper helicopter to satisfy Canada’s typically unique requirements, and Canada foolishly went for it.

Meanwhile, Sikorsky has other fish to fry, with upcoming US helicopter competitions.

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In other aviation news, the Russian Navy has confirmed its intention to buy “several tens” of the Su-30SM, the domestic variant of the acclaimed Su-30MKI multi-role fighter. While this fighter is an extremely capable air-to-air combatant, it also possesses significant maritime strike capabilities. What is not clear is how it will fit into the existing force structure, since the Soviet Navy’s old long-range strike capability was passed to the Air Force with the Tu-22M Backfire bomber regiments, and the Su-30 has no carrier-based variant.

Meanwhile, Sukhoi has been showing off its three prototype T-50 aircraft at MAKS 2013:

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The US Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford class carrier is considerably more expensive than the Nimitz class which preceded it, and the cost of the order has risen by $2.3 billion since the original order. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been looking into the program, and highlights the still-immature state of many of the key technologies of the design among other factors.

The British House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has even harsher criticisms for the contract under which the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers are being built, saying that it is “not fit for purpose” and “fails to provide industry any real incentive to control costs.” The Queen Elizabeth will be the world’s largest Short Takeoff Vertical Landing carriers when launched next year.