Monthly Archives: August 2014

Boots on the ground

The Russia-Ukraine crisis has raised the sombre spectre of a return to Cold War relations between NATO and the great bear, and the security situation in Eastern Europe has deteriorated so rapidly that the US-led defence alliance has barely had time to collect its wits.

NATO has been engrossed in preparations to finalise its withdrawal from an unsatisfying, unpopular, and prolonged overseas mission in Afghanistan. However, once again it must turn its eyes to the East and attempt to contain the threat – real or perceived – of its old nemesis and raison d’être, Russia.

The Russiaoutbreak of civil war in the Ukraine, thanks to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and support for Russian-speaking separatists, has prompted the Eastern European nations bordering the conflict to seek reassurances from NATO that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty is worth more than the paper it’s written on.

Poland and other former Soviet bloc states, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are set to air their concerns about the security implications of the crisis at the upcoming NATO summit, scheduled to be held in Wales on September 4-5.

Poland, which has found itself smack bang in the middle of a potential confrontation between NATO and Russia, has in recent months accelerated its ten-year military modernisation plan, which is one of the largest military expenditures by any European NATO member.

Three tenders for 70 multirole helicopters, 30 attack helicopters, and a short and medium-range missile and air defence system have been given priority status in order to beef up the country’s immediate defensive and attack capabilities.

The overall shopping list for Poland’s modernisation effort is extensive, with air defence systems, UAVs and helicopters to be purchased for the country’s air, navy and ground forces at an estimated cost of 130 billion pln (€31.5 billion).

Poland is taking its security situation seriously, and has made no secret of the fact it would like to see more NATO and American troops and infrastructure stationed within its borders.

The issues of whether NATO will choose to permanently station its forces on the eastern borders of Russia, create a weapons cache there, modernise its existing air bases and ramp up joint exercises and air patrols will no doubt be hot topics at the upcoming summit in Wales.

For his part, UK prime minister David Cameron has advocated a schedule of joint-exercises, the establishment of new military infrastructure, pre-positioning of equipment and supplies, and enhancing the region’s NATO Response Force of up to 25,000 troops.

While the Eastern Europeans are pushing for US and NATO boots on the grounds to act as a visible deterrent to any future Russian aggression, Germany is said to oppose any permanent NATO bases in the territory of the alliance’s eastern member states.

Known unknowns

It has been quite a while since the US Army last made an attempt at a clean-sheet rotorcraft design.

The story behind the previous effort with the RAH-66 Comanche hardly needs to be recounted here – although in hindsight the decision to terminate the programme was a sensible one.

Cancelling development after nearly $7 billion had already been spent is never going to garner positive headlines, but this step allowed the army to pump funds into an upgrade of the current fleet, a vital necessity given the nature of the Afghan conflict.

This time around, with the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme, the army is taking a very deliberate approach in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of projects such as Comanche, and more recently the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The selection of Bell Helicopter and a Sikorsky- Boeing team for the next phase of the Joint Multirole – Technology Demonstrator (JMR-TD) effort was predictable enough not to require too much further examination – although I outline the plans of both teams in the latest issue of Defence Helicopter.

Bell Helicopter is offering its V-280 Valor, which it describes as a third-generation tiltrotor, while the team of Sikorsky and Boeing is extolling the virtues of its SB>1 Defiant co-axial design.

The two teams can0 JMR TD now begin to prepare their candidate aircraft for a first flight in 2017, in what is shaping up to be a protracted battle of tiltrotor versus co-axial compound configurations.

While this provides a hint of what might eventually be fielded, some intriguing aspects of the programme remain – to quote that well-known philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, we are dealing with many ‘known unknowns’ when it comes to FVL.

FUTURE ROLES

The JMR-TD is not a ‘fly-off’ in the traditional sense, and only aims to better inform any future FVL decision, of which acquisition activity beyond this point is yet to be funded.

The future role of the other two contenders for JMR-TD – AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft – was unclear at the time of writing, although the technology investment agreements (TIAs) signed with all four venders may allow funding to be allocated to take their designs forward.

Dan Bailey, the army’s programme director for JMR-TD/FVL, revealed earlier in 2014 that 100 flight hours for each of the two selected vendors had been built into the programme, so if this amount wasn’t required it could open up additional funding.

‘These are TIA agreements, not procurement contracts fully funded by the government, therefore using the term “downselect” is improper. Each party, government and vendor, has rights to rescope the agreement or stop efforts under the agreement. That is the beauty of an S&T effort,’ Bailey told me in clarification.

It would certainly be worth advancing aspects of the designs by AVX and Karem to help inform FVL, in particular the latter’s optimum-speed tiltrotor technology.

Karem_Aircraft_JMR_TD

‘What makes it different is the rotors are very lightweight, very rigid, they are not articulated and they are capable of wide-range speed variation, which gives it the ability to build in efficiency both in hover and forward flight. This removes some of the design compromises that traditional tiltrotors have between the need to be an efficient hover rotor and an efficient forward flight rotor,’ Ben Tigner, JMR programme manager for Karem Aircraft, told an audience in July.

 OPEN COMPETITION?

The other pertinent question is how open any future FVL competition will be to European rotorcraft manufacturers.

Bailey has been careful to specify that not being selected for the flight demonstration phase of JMR-TD does not mean companies are ‘out of the game in any way’. Certainly the US team at Airbus Helicopters is outwardly confident that its internal S&T efforts will keep it in the running when any FVL solicitation finally rolls around.

Such uncertainties must be frustrating for an industry that is used to chasing ‘winner-takes-all’ procurement competitions. However, despite previous acquisition disasters, there is some evidence that the army is taking a more sensible approach this time around.

The multirole and joint nature of the plan is aimed at addressing long-term life-cycle costs, a sensible move given that more than 70% of a platform’s cost comes from operation and sustainment after it has been fielded.

According to Bailey, the FVL effort gives the army ‘an open door’ to think about how it maintains its aircraft, rather than being restricted by legacy systems and processes.

The Pentagon is also attempting to ‘cross boundaries’ and take a mission-centric approach to the way today’s helicopters will eventually be replaced under FVL.

For example, the USN chose the H-60 as its SH-2 replacement in the mid-1970s largely because it was already in production for the army and had a cabin big enough for the racks needed for the mission systems.

As plans evolve to replace the current Seahawks and Black Hawks, it is unlikely that the successor for each will be in the same weight class, given the differing mission and payload requirements of the two services.

So some grounds for cautious optimism then, although there is still plenty of time in the lead-up to the full FVL procurement for requirements to snowball out of control or for efficiencies to be lost in the pursuit of commonality.

One thing is certain, however – with the FVL programme expected to replace between 2,000 and 4,000 medium-class utility and attack helicopters, it’s all to play for.

Dont ignore Africa

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The humanitarian disaster and advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Northern Iraq have dominated the headlines in the last week or so alongside the Israeli intervention in Gaza. But these have taken the focus off of Africa where there have been some significant developments.

Somalian president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud announced a push by African Union and Somali government forces to remove the al-Shabaab militant group from its remaining strongholds in the country. Despite continuing attacks by the group in Mogadishu it is thought that this latest effort – Operation Indian Ocean – will allow the government to administer control over most of the country for the first time in decades.

In Libya levels of fighting have increased in recent weeks resulting in the evacuation of foreign nationals and in the Sahel region in the north of Mali insurgent groups are stubbornly resisting the UN and French efforts to remove them. France and the UN are also struggling to contain ethnic violence in the Central African Republic where the President and Cabinet have just left office.

However, in July France initiated a new counter terror mission: Operation Barkhane, to test its capabilities in the region on the back of its deployment to Mali under Operation Serval. Barkhane will include some force elements from Serval as part of an effort to bolster regional cooperation stretching from the Atlantic coast and across the Sahel. A force of about 3,000 troops will be commanded from the N’Djamena, the capital of Chad and it will include about 20 helicopters such as Gazelles, Pumas and Cougars; 200 armoured vehicles – likely to be VBCIs, VABs, and ERC 90s; 10 transport aircraft; six Mirage or Rafale fighter aircraft; and three Harfang UAS.

Using other bases across the region Operation Barkhane is expected to include the participation of forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. France sees security in the Sahel region as directly linked to its own national security, feelings shared by the United States which, under AFRICOM, has been running the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) for some years that includes military-to-military cooperation with Sahel states as well as targeted diplomatic efforts.

As these counter-terrorist efforts start to gather steam for industry attention is focussed on the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition in South Africa. As one of the continent’s most modern military powers, South Africa has some serious decisions to take about what role it wants to play in contributing to security in Africa and if it will pay for it. Procurement across Africa keenly reflects immediate security concerns that are typical to each area but there is the recognition among governments that insurgent groups aiming to de-stabilize various states are now much better armed than in years past and it requires a more formidable and better equipped national force to oppose them and keep state authority in place.

Following the release of the South African Defence Review 2014 in March there will be a focus on long-term equipment plans and building a stronger relationship with industry and the development of sovereign capabilities in support, upgrade and modernisation of equipment that includes the sustained manufacturing of munitions, spares and other key equipment and the ability to do system integration. The SADR also called for equipment designed for operating in African conditions including tactical vehicles, artillery, medical capabilities.

Companies will have to be more than half owned and run by South Africans to qualify to compete for the most high-end sovereign projects. Those that are more than a quarter owned and run can qualify for lower level sovereign projects and only considered after South African companies. If a foreign company is based in South Africa then it will only be allowed to compete for large projects if it can show it can offer uninterrupted through-life support. Other firms such as local branches of foreign companies can go for standard projects as long as they can show a long-term commitment to South Africa, whilst joint ventures can go for any project as long as the intellectual property is secure.

With its expected acquisition of BAE Systems LSSA, Denel – as South Africa’s primary main state-owned defence company – is looking ahead to what it can do in this landscape and is likely to take on the most sensitive procurement projects. However it is also able to partner with and sub-contract private industry and this is where the opportunities lay for other local or international industrial players. South Africa is keen to engage experienced international defence firms but it will have to outline what capability packages it will fund properly to give industry confidence to invest in the future.

The South African air transport challenge

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Where South Africa faces its greatest challenge is in the field of air transport. The South African Air Force (SAAF) has a wide mix of ageing aircraft and the older they get the less flying hours they can offer and the most costly the maintenance.

The extent of the problem was highlighted in 2012 when apparently the SAAF could only provide about 50 flying hours for each of its fighter pilots and most of its aircraft were not in service.

The actual condition of the transport wing can only be guessed at, but with the cancellation of the planned procurement of the A400M under Project Continental in 2009 the SAAF cannot provide the airlift it needs if South Africa wants to participate in security operations on the continent or support emergency engagements.

There is a requirement for about 44 transport aircraft but no decision has been taken to find an alternative to the A400M purchase.

The workhorse that provides the SAAF’s existing airlift capability are the nine C-130BZ Hercules aircraft, based at AFB Waterkloof, which were procured in 1963. Instead of replacing them there are plans to extend their lifespan until 2020 or even 2030, which would require an engine overhaul.

A life extension programme might allow the SAAF to procure other much need items, such as replacing the seven Douglas C-47TP Turbo Dakota medium transport aircraft and three C212 with eight similar aircraft, perhaps Alenia C-27J Spartans or Airbus C295s.

But the SAAF also has 11 Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft and four King Airs that will need to be replaced.

The need for adequate military airlifters was brought sharply into focus in March 2013 when South African troops were attacked by Seleka rebels during operations in Bangui in the Central African Republic. Reinforcements were prepared to go and support the South African contingent but the chartered Illyushin Il-76 and Antonov An-124 aircraft proved unreliable due to being unavailable at short notice or it was too risky an environment for commercial aircraft.

If this was not a wakeup call then what is? The SAAF needs to make public its requirements for transport aircraft and make them a procurement priority.

IDF UAVs in Gaza and West Bank operations

Rather unusually, we are not hearing much detail regarding the deployment of UAVs in the ongoing conflict in Israel between the IDF and Hamas.

It is no secret that the IDF lies marginally behind the US in terms of the development and deployment of mature unmanned systems and it is undoubtable that it will have been utilising an array of such platforms to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the past few weeks.

The Skylark UAV in operation with an IDF soldier during recent hostilities

The Skylark UAV in operation with an IDF soldier during recent hostilities

Furthermore, it is highly likely that the IDF will have used these systems for precision strikes on Hamas positions in the Gaza strip. However, the IDF has been unavailable to discuss the use of armed UAVs during this most recent conflict but we know the capability is most certainly there.

Photos have appeared on Internet sites including Twitter illustrating the first operational deployment of Elbit Systems’ Hermes 900, as well as a Hermes 450 UAV complete with unknown payload bays under each wing. Speculation continues to run abound as to whether these pods were carrying additional fuel, electronic warfare sensors or attack munitions.

Meanwhile, Hamas claimed to have captured a damaged Skylark UAV, traditionally used for ‘over-the-hill’ surveillance by the IDF and certainly not designed for direct action.

On the other side, the IDF’s official Twitter account claimed to have shot down an ‘aerial drone from Gaza’ which infiltrated Israeli territory in July. The platform was show down with a Patriot missile, it is understood.

Naturally, the IDF’s discretion in commenting on the use of UAVs throughout Operations Brothers Keeper and Protective Edge is hardly surprising but the most noticeable aspect is that we are not witnessing the worldwide condemnation of drone strikes.

This, to my mind, marks a significant first considering coverage of recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention cross-border operations in Pakistan and Yemen where worldwide condemnation of Predator and Reaper strikes has been widespread.

With the frequency of IDF artillery and air strikes from fighters hitting Gaza, it strikes me as rather surprising that international news outlets have restrained from blaming drones for any collateral damage caused. This lack of criticism appears even more peculiar when one considers the close-knit relationship enjoyed by the US government and Israeli Knesset, a case in point being the recent decision to pump an additional $200 million into the IDF’s fabled Iron Dome C-RAM system.

Questions that spring to mind are, does this lack of attention display a growing tolerance in the utility of UAVs, whether armed or not? Are observers too concerned with other aspects of the fighting to focus on the use of UAVs? Has the IDF tied down covert operation of such systems or, is it managing to successfully cloak any details from the public?

Regular critics such as Amnesty International and Code Pink have remained relatively quiet on this front, with Drone Wars UK only managing to remark [at the Farnborough International Airshow]: ‘IAI certainly seemed in no way abashed to declare that its Searcher, Heron and Eitan drones were “fully operational with the Israeli air force” during the week despite the horror and revulsion many feel at the horrific loss of life and damage to the civilian infrastructure.’

The utility of unmanned systems stretches far beyond kinetic operations and it will be interesting to hear the response of drone critics when similar systems are used for humanitarian aid/disaster relief operations, potentially in Gaza as well.

However, the deployment of UAVs over this most recent conflict has granted us an interesting perspective into what appears to be an evolving attitude towards drones.

The SOF option

International SOF operators conduct an Explosive Method of Entry (EMOE) demo at SOFIC 2014

International SOF operators conduct an Explosive Method of Entry (EMOE) demo at SOFIC 2014

Much has been written about the future operational environment as NATO begins to drawdown from Afghanistan. The past decade of operations has seen an impressive equipment overhaul in equipment and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to challenge a morphing enemy force.

One major achievement of this NATO collaboration has been the severe uplift in interoperability between coalition members and it was perfectly demonstrated at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa this May.

The demonstration, which displayed a healthy variety of insertion and extraction techniques, saw a large cross-section of NATO and non-NATO partners operating with their US hosts. It was exciting to witness Special Warfare Craft Combatant (SWCC) boats pulling up next to the convention centre and offloading operators from the US, Ireland, Malaysia, Norway and Thailand to name but a few.

Add to that, a healthy mix of nationalities on board all terrain vehicles, Little Bird and Black Hawk helicopters as well as military inflatable boats (MIBs), and you’ll begin to understand the tremendous amount of cooperation that has been involved around the globe over recent years.

And this is the emphasis. As we remove ourselves from the tunnel vision of operating in Afghanistan, the number of potential theatres continues to increase. We won’t be operating in just one of these but all of them and I’m talking South China Sea; Horn of Africa; Gulf of Guinea to name but a few. Additionally, what will happen in the Arctic and Eastern Europe?

This means that the concept of operations will change dramatically and this is happening already. No more will we see the long convoy logistics patrols shunting their cross country or masses of airborne units dropped to dominate a large area of Helmand Province.

I’m talking about a small number force, sent out to corners of the globe to partner with local forces, utilising the latest technology to access out of bound areas, helping to facilitate C4ISTAR technology to gather intelligence in the ‘human domain’- an area which was routinely ignored in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadly, it is a fact that the US forces still dominate partners in terms of equipment, but as long as NATO and non-NATO special forces operators are capable of working alongside and communicating with each other (while hosted by said platforms), they will be able to enforce multi-national efforts worldwide.

It’s a brave new world but it is refreshing to see special forces elements taking this concept by the scruff of the neck.

Scale of ambition

There’s nothing quite like the prospect of an imminent unveiling of a new aircraft to get tongues around the industry wagging.

With its X4 project for a replacement of the Dauphin, Airbus Helicopters has done an excellent job at dropping enough hints about the aircraft to keep interest nicely on the boil without giving away many (or indeed any) competitive details.

While the aircraft’s anticipated launch at this year’s Heliexpo did not materialise, the company did use the show to give reporters a rare update on the programme.

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The aircraft was confirmed as being in the 5 to 6 tonne range and will be offered to the market with a choice of engine from Pratt & Whitney or Turbomeca. The first prototype composite structure of the X4 was due to be delivered in mid-2014 with its first flight due to take place next year.

At that time, the X4 blades had been test flown for 150 flight hours, while the main gear box had started already endurance tests.

So on the face of it, the programme is running according to plan, with an unveiling now likely to happen at Heliexpo in Orlando in March.

However, remarks by Airbus Helicopters president Guillaume Faury at the recent Farnborough airshow suggest that the company may have tempered its ambitions for the X4’s configuration significantly.

Faury revealed that the X4’s avionics and automatic flight control system would be centred on the company’s Helionix suite, already present on the EC175 and EC145 T2, allowing them to introduce any future software upgrades across all three aircraft.

He denied that this was a downscaling of ambitions, arguing instead that this matched expectations from the market for products that were ‘easy to use, easy to operate, cost effective, reliable and creating scale effect’.

‘We want the X4 to go one step further in industrialisation but as well in terms of product maturity selecting from day one the right technologies, the right level of performance, not needing to do something new immediately after entering into service. We believe the X4 as it is today for first certification and entering into service is the right product,’ Faury argued.

The image of the X4 as a sensible, cost-effective machine is a long way from previous statements by Faury’s predecessor Lutz Bertling.

Over the years he had suggested that the aircraft would redefine the way helicopters are operated, and even that the X4 would have ‘no cockpit’, leading to speculation whether this meant it would have true flight automation from take-off to landing, or simply a redesigned cockpit architecture.

Thinking perhaps this idea was simply us excitable reporters reading too much into Bertling’s comments, I went back and checked a 2011 interview with the-then Eurocopter executive VP for engineering Jean-Michel Billig.

Billig confirmed that the plan was for a new avionics suite and fly-by-wire system to be included as part of a second iteration of the aircraft in 2020.

Developed alongside partners Thales and Sagem, the system would likely see flight information projected directly onto the windshield itself, in ‘highway-in-the-sky’ style.

‘On the X4 we are trying to revisit entirely the cockpit layout, overhaul the man-machine interface and to make use of all available volume. Today on a helicopter – and it is efficient but one could question if we could not do it better – the information is primarily shown in a head-down mode,’ Billig said of the company’s thinking at the time.

‘One question was couldn’t we think of better distribution of the information, in head-up mode, which could contribute to lowering the crew workload. So you superimpose some information in the head-up mode along with the external view, which would raise safety.’

When asked about this second iteration of the X4 during the press conference at Farnborough, Faury deftly sidestepped the question and he wouldn’t be drawn on the planned layout of the cockpit.

A more cautious approach would be entirely in line with Faury’s management style and strategy, and he has placed the company’s focus this year on better customer service and product quality.

However, it would be disappointing if the revolutionary technologies once planned for the X4 were shelved as a result.

As we discover in this issue, as it prepares its 525 Relentless for the market, Bell Helicopter clearly believes operators are ready for a step-change in capability after decades of incremental advances in helicopter technology, as we discover in the latest issue of Rotorhub.

No doubt Airbus Helicopters still has a lot of surprises left when it comes to the X4 and the unveiling of the aircraft will likely create unprecedented levels of interest. Hopefully all the previous talk about ‘a whole new way of flying’ won’t cause the launch to be an anti-climax.