Casualties of Budget and Strained Relationships

With the US government in partial shutdown, publicly-owned shipyards are furloughing workers and restricting activities to critical maintenance. This sort of thing will have far-reaching implications for the readiness of the world’s largest navy.

Time may be running out for the A-10, the world’s best close-support aircraft. The Chief of US Combat Air Command has said that if sequestration continues, the “Warthog” will be sacrificed to fund the F-35 and the role passed to that aircraft. The Army, understandably, is not happy. It isn’t just an issue of the A-10’s famous 30mm Gatling cannon- the F-35 is a more delicate platform with a higher minimum speed, and would have to carry out the close support role from a distance and at speeds that make it difficult to distinguish the situation on the ground. It will also of course be much more expensive, something that will become instantly apparent the first time an F-35 takes ground fire. An A-10 can be shot to pieces, fly home with its pilot safe and be repaired and back on the line in a matter of days or weeks. An F-35 in that situation would be a total loss.

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Tom Clancy, author of such classic techno-thrillers as The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, has passed away at the age of 66. In his memory, USNI republishes his 1982 article advocating hovercraft as nuclear launch platforms. Not perhaps the tribute he might have wanted. Clancy was a man with a clarity of vision about his country’s potential and role in the world, which the country unfortunately did not share.

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Argentina is replacing old Mirage IIIs in its inventory- with used Mirage F1s from Spain. The Argentine armed services have been unable to recoup their aging equipment stocks for decades, and that seems unlikely to change.

China’s J-31, the “other” stealth fighter, is likely destined for export, filling demand for stealth aircraft created by the F-35 among the sort of countries America doesn’t sell to.

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The Diplomat on tensions in the Russo-Chinese relationship- still rosy on the outside, but Russia is struggling to show its neighbour that it is still a great power to be dealt with. Russian suspicions of China’s strategic intentions go back to the Mao era, and are compounded by Russia’s history of invasions from the east and geographic indefensibility. Paranoia, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Russia is irritating China through its enhanced strategic ties with Vietnam and its involvement in that country’s offshore drilling exploration. Vietnam has ordered Su-30MK2 aircraft from Russia as well as a new batch of Kilo class submarines. If the Americans were making those sales, China would call it containment. Although Vietnam’s navy and air force are in no position to take on China, Vietnam plays on its previous record of fighting against the odds to intimate that it could raise the cost of hostilities prohibitively.

At the 65th anniversary of the founding of the South Korean Armed Forces, the ROK Army paraded a new land-based cruise missile (caution, the picture in the BBC article was of old Nike Hercules SAM variants). South Korea already has a land-attack cruise missile capacity.

After years of hemming and hawing on both sides, Taiwan is again saying that it wants to buy new American weapons, including a replacement for its F-16s. Taiwan, which held undeniable military superiority over the People’s Republic of China at the turn of the millennium, now faces a People’s Liberation Army that has modernised in every dimension and holds vast numerical and technological advantages.

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.

Fly-By-Night Contractors, the Bo Trial and Iran’s New Kit

Canada paid $1 million to a German contractor to produce noise-monitoring equipment for the Victoria-class submarines several years ago. Not only was the product not delivered, it seems that the company is no longer registered in Germany, although CBC News has found a trace of them in Turkey. While Canada’s defence acquisition programs could fill textbooks with examples of what not to do, one usually expects that contractors for such major pieces of equipment would be internationally known.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese press has been riveted by an innovation– a relatively open trial of a senior Party official. Son of Bo Yibo, a powerful Party elder, Bo Xilai rose to the position of Secretary of the Communist Party in Chongqing, simultaneously holding a Politburo seat, until his wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the death of a British citizen and the Chongqing police chief claimed that Bo was involved in widespread corruption and abuse of power.

Bo’s ongoing trial has captivated Chinese media. Never before has the evidence against a senior official been laid out so publicly. Usually, such trials are conducted behind closed doors, as the trial of Gu Kailai was, and very little of the legal process happens in the courtroom in any case. Why the exception?

Bo became a powerful figurehead for the Party’s populist wing, surrounding himself with the trappings of Maoist “red culture.” The populists believe that the Party has deviated from its principles by failing to use its newfound wealth to balance the economic inequalities and address the problems of development that still claim far too many casualties in China. While Bo himself was rather circumspect on most of these issues, the Party might well think it wise to let this sordid courtroom drama play out in the public eye to disabuse the populists of their fallen hero, rather than risk turning Bo into a martyr. There was believed to be substantial apprehension among the wealthy Party elite when it looked as though Bo Xilai might rise to the Politburo Standing Committee during the transition of power last year. There is, after all, no rhetoric that can be more powerfully used against a Communist Party than Communist rhetoric. Given China’s slowness to balance the inequalities of development, the populists do indeed have a popular case.

So the Bo trial is not the beginning of a new age of transparency, nor is it any less unthinkable that Bo would be found innocent than any other official the Party puts on trial. It is simply that the Party has judged it safer to air some of its dirty laundry in this case than risk the entire case being seen as an attempt to crush a popular leader.

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Iran has announced that it will soon unveil a number of domestically-produced weapons systems, notably including a new submarine. Given the record of Iran’s past domestic defence products- midget and subscale submarines, “destroyers” that anywhere else would struggle to qualify as frigates and alleged stealth aircraft built on the scale of jet trainers, it probably won’t be anything to get excited about. The Gulf States, of course, will be watching closely, as will the United States and Israel.

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An article at Foreign Policy.com highlights (or repeats) an interesting truth of the digital age: that many pieces of information that were once products of professional intelligence gathering can increasingly be found through open sources. Daniel Prieto asks what we can do to leverage the march of OSINT more effectively.

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On Thursday, Japan intercepted some Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers intruding in its airspace. Although some might think such intrusions the main purpose of the Bear fleet (in its career since 1956, the turboprop-powered bomber has probably become the most intercepted aircraft of all time), it is an unusual blip in an otherwise cordial Russo-Japanese relationship.

Tank Biathlon, Typhoon, and the Vicissitudes of DIY Procurement

India’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, the Arihant, launched in 2009, has brought its reactor online and is to start sea trials. It may seem a long time to wait, but such is the way of India’s defence programs. Arihant itself is likely to be a stepping stone to more advanced designs. It is designed with strategic functions in mind, with twelve intermediate range ballistic missile tubes. The K4 SLBM is slated for testing. While they wait, India is reportedly negotiating to lease a second Russian Akula II class attack submarine.

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Meanwhile, more delays are likely to hit Vikrant, India’s first indigenously-built aircraft carrier. With an estimated in-service date already pushed back by four years to 2018, navy sources now say that it will not have completed sea trials until 2020. While it is planned to launch August 12th, Vikrant as yet has none of its propulsion systems installed, and piping will be laid while the carrier is tied alongside.

Vikramaditya

Vikramaditya

These delays are partially attributed to the difficulty of procuring needed parts from abroad and the five-year delay and vast cost overruns experienced with the Vikramaditya, the rebuilt Russian carrier formerly named Admiral Gorshkov. India plans to build up to two more carriers of a larger design. All future Indian carriers will carry the MiG-29K Fulcrum, and notionally a naval variant of the HAL Tejas. The latter is a small, locally-developed fighter, which took over two decades to achieve operational capability.

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There are a number of fighter competitions coming up in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has expressed an early preference for the Eurofighter, citing the advantages of standardising with Saudi Arabia, which is in the process of taking delivery. As further competitions develop in Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar, it will be interesting to see whether that idea gains ground. If so, it would be a major boon to a beleaguered program. Negotiations are in progress for a 60-aircraft order for the UAE, while Saudi Arabia, the ultimate splurger of the region, may buy between 48 and 72 additional aircraft.

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Russia has invented a new “sporting event”- the tank biathlon– and has got agreements from the United States, Germany, Italy and a few eastern states to send teams. While not substantively different than other standing tank competition, the East-West dynamic does add an element of interest. Oddly, the announced purpose of the games is to showcase the quality of Russian equipment against its Western equivalents, and yet the Russians are to limit themselves to Cold War vintage T-72s.

Meanwhile, Russia is set to take delivery of its first T-50 stealth fighter, which will start military flight testing before the end of the year, with operational status anticipated in 2016.

In the News

The perhaps inaptly-named Global Force 2012/2013 reports on the operational readiness of a Royal Navy that has been rapidly shedding key elements of its expeditionary capability for several years. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in the state of key Royal Navy capital programs, this is an essential and fairly comprehensive source.

Russia’s massive Eastern exercise concluded last week, the final numbers are out, and a number of key problems ranging from technical difficulties to marksmanship have emerged. Just what the exercise was preparing for remains a mystery.

Indian Think Tank IDSA writes with understandable concern about the rise of both Chinese and Japanese nationalism and its implications for the region.

The US Air Force is diversifying its basing options and increasing its presence around China’s periphery. Given that a RAND Corporation report (later disavowed by the company despite being impeccably reasoned) several years ago showed that the US would lose an air war with China over Taiwan even in perfect conditions, partly due to limited basing options, this is a reasonable move. Japan may also be feeling the heat from a PLAAF that is approaching parity in quality of equipment and already outnumbers the Air Self Defense Force by a considerable margin. On the other hand, the risk of provoking an arms race in a region that has so far avoided anything that could justifiably use that label should be taken seriously.

A prison break in Pakistan frees 248 Taliban– bad news for a country in which some regions are at the mercy of jihadist groups, and a further bad sign for Afghanistan, which waits for the final withdrawals of Western forces with understandable apprehension.

Surprise Exercises in Eastern Russia

How many countries these days have 1000 armoured vehicles to put into a single exercise? Russia does, and it has. President Vladimir Putin ordered a surprise exercise in the Eastern Military District, commencing on the 13th and running until the 20th. This is an all-arms exercise on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Air Force and the Army, all on a massive scale. Sources quote upwards of 100,000 personnel, 500-1000 tanks and armoured vehicles and 130 aircraft.

Naval components of the exercise include mine-hunting and anti-submarine warfare drills directed against conventionally-powered submarines, while the air force is flying top cover to maritime operations. The land component is primarily important as a mobilisation and logistical exercise. The big question which intelligence agencies will be examining is how the forces are being deployed.

Historically, the main purpose of Siberia-based land forces was to keep China in check following the Sino-Soviet split. Whereas Soviet military doctrine in the West strictly adhered to the principles of a strategic offensive, a different approach was taken with China, relying on layered defences and fortified areas.

Key Questions

The question now is what the present tactics and deployments of ground forces will indicate. Will there be a southern or an eastward orientation? Will the tactics me based upon manoeuvre warfare or defence-in-depth? As there is reportedly an aggressor training component to this exercise, nations interested in answering those questions will have ample opportunity to do so.

Why?

Why this exercise? Why now, and why in the east? Logical answers may be few and far between. As with any military involvement, this sort of sabre rattling buys Putin a certain amount of political capital and is a convenient distraction from domestic political problems, of which he has more than enough. Geostrategically, the exercise is somewhat puzzling.

While Russia has historically harboured suspicions of Chinese strategic intentions, that relationship is now quite friendly, and the thought of hostilities between the two de facto allies seems absurd. But who else is there? Russia’s dispute with Japan over the Kuril islands has not impaired friendly relations. Likewise, Russia does not need to care about North Korea. The Russian Pacific Fleet is far removed from the disputes of the South and East China Seas, and from the trade route choke point of the Malacca Strait. In short, this is the exercise of a useless muscle.

Still, it is less useless than Russia’s forces in the west, which guard against the evil Western imperialists- and could probably stroll right through to the Bay of Biscay at this point if they really wanted to, given the state of European land forces and Russia’s vast armoured superiority. If Moscow wants to call attention to its military strength and geopolitical importance with a large exercise, the East is certainly the less silly option.

This could also be a reaction to the US “eastward pivot,” reminding everyone that Russia too has a Pacific Fleet and providing China with some semblance of the multipolarity it prefers. Considering that Russia and China have just concluded joint naval exercises, however, the timing seems odd.

Of course, ego is the go-to explanation for all Russian military behaviour. “We will show our vast military power so that everyone knows how important we are! And of course, we must be on guard in case the evil (insert name of country or alliance) try to invade our vast, cold, inhospitable territory that no one actually wants. What, we don’t have any enemies left? Well then make one, do I have to think of everything?”