Author Archives: rtshephard

The Royal Navy’s new carrier – is it a waste of space?

 

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Beyond the hyperbole and hysteria that will greet the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth to Portsmouth, it’s worth bringing up its use as a platform and what has been sacrificed elsewhere in order to achieve this milestone.

Pushing around 70,000t at full load with a full complement of crew and aircraft, the carrier is without question the largest naval vessel ever to serve in the UK Royal Navy and a benchmark for the country’s return to maritime power.

Or not?

The two carriers, Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales, have topped the £6 billion mark to build and will soak up hundreds of naval service personnel from a hugely diminished pool. Capital ships being decommissioned are being cannibalised of their own crews to make up the numbers, while destroyers and frigates take it in turns to become alongside training ships on account of manpower shortages, equipment removals and engineering failures.

Capable as they are, only six T45 ADDs have entered service, down from 12 planned. These vessels have not been without their own controversies.

The 13 Type 23 frigates will be kept on beyond planned working lives because of delays to the Type 26 programme. Eight T26 will enter service, and be augmented by a yet-to-be designed and barely conceptual T31(e).

There has been no proper response from the UK MoD to Sir John Parker’s National Shipbuilding Strategy report.

Harpoon missiles fitted to the T23s and T45s will be retired next year leaving a national navy, that purports to be a blue water service, without ship-based ASuW capability. The scenes recently showing the Brazilian Navy dispatching the former HMS Brazen in a sinkex with a range of kinetic systems will be beyond replication by the RN from 2018.

The hard-used Ocean will leave. Albion and Bulwark take it in turns to sit mothballed. The SSN fleet will fall to six hulls as delays impact the planned one-out, one-in replacement of the Trafalgar’s with the Astute’s.

Embarked unmanned capabilities were removed this year from the frigate fleet amid cost crunches, a notion that the RN has done little to deny.

The new River Batch 2 OPVs will have to shoulder more of the maritime policing and low-end participatory duties the navy has to cover.

RFA Diligence, the only forward repair ship able to service RN ships, is unlikely to be replaced. One of the four Bay-class landing ship docks was sold after the 2010 ‘review’.

What has been missed after 2010 is an opportunity to mould the RN for the challenges of the 21st century. Can it create that onion-layer of security that a carrier strike group can work within? Will the carriers have the embarked capability necessary to fulfill their roles?

The navy has fewer hulls. Less amphibious capability. No ship-to-ship missiles. Fewer personnel. Less innovation. All for two big ships.

The carriers will slot into the US Navy’s demands, moving into the gaps created by its own CVN replacement programme and emerging challenges elsewhere. It’s an instrument of policy and bombast that could cause more harm to its service than good.

The service seems stripped of its core. Is it now an unbalanced bobblehead of an organisation standing on some pretty unsteady ground?

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Terror drones

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A still taken from a video published by the pro-ISIS Amaq news outlet purportedly showcasing insurgent drone operations

It makes sense that unmanned technologies have migrated across the traditional battlefield and into use by a variety of non-state actors and terrorist organisations.

The ease of acquisition and use of such systems has presented organisations such as ISIS capabilities that not too long ago would have been unthinkable, both in terms of intelligence and surveillance gathering, but also increasingly in rudimentary strike roles.

One only has to look at the simple economic value in converting a simple drone that costs no more than a few hundred dollars into relatively stealthy weapon, to see why they can be viewed as a force multiplier by the non-state actor organisations.

Add to that the notion that a successful strike can damage or destroy equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the physical and psychological threats for the soldiers and operators on the ground, and a potent combination is created.

Judging by what we can see from promotional material published by ISIS after operations, a range of payloads are also being developed. These are predominantly ‘dumb’ munitions in the sense that they are unguided, but when dropped from a height of just a couple of hundred metres can still effect significant damage.

Insurgent conversations in the deep web of chat rooms and internet lounges point as well towards the ambition (or perhaps hope, as it is difficult to quantify written words with intent and ability) to deploy chemical and biological payloads.

The notion of a small quadrotor, unheard above the din of ground activities, effectively carrying or becoming a dirty bomb is one forces have to be aware of.

For more on this topic read  ‘In the Wrong Hands’ in the upcoming edition of Unmanned Vehicles where we explore the methods and digital efforts terrorists go to in order to cover their planning efforts.

How to name your drone

This writer enjoyed a nice bit of banter recently when having posted a story about the French Patroller UAV, a question was posed on social media asking why a more pugilistic nom de guerre was not chosen to boost potential exports.

It’s an interesting point and makes you wonder just what hidden meanings are being kept in the naming of an unmanned system.

Some go for the avian theme because, you know, UAVs fly and stuff. Some examples and in no particular order includes the ScanEagle, Desert Hawk, Heron and Global Hawk. China took this a step further with its Wing Loong family, translating into something like Pterodactyl. Apparently.

Abstracts are also well represented as well as names that infer protection, security, destruction and oblivion. Again, in an order chosen entirely by rolling a dice, we have the Reaper, the Shadow, Predator and one of the newest reported on last month at the Paris Air Show, Nightwarden.

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Watchkeeper is another rather banal three-syllaballed naming effort from those with no imagination.

Watchkeeper

British Army Watchkeeper

Let’s not forget the Guardian series either which between sea and sky looks to watch over as many domains as it sensorial fingers will allow. The UK meanwhile seems to have taken a decision to lean away from killer-drone PR and named the successor to its MQ-9 Reapers, inspirationally, as Protector.

Then you have the Triton which in a doff of the cap to ancient antiquity refers to the son of Poseidon (the mythical sea-God, not the MPA) as a messenger of the sea. Quite apt. The UK’s Taranis demonstrator aircraft also riffs off the deitic theme.

 

We can conclude this missive with the Net Ray. No, me either.

Net Ray

AR3 Net Ray

Aerial evolution

Counter-insurgency has been the defining format of military operations, particularly for Western countries, for the past couple of decades. As regular forces adapt to a more conventional approach to conflict, so too do unmanned vehicles have to take into account the prospect of denied-airspace operations.

As expressed recently by a NATO official in London, platforms and operators are so accustomed to working in compliant airspace that operating in contested environments could well prove difficult. As it stands, the UAV is a sitting duck for ground and airborne defence systems, given that it is slower, less manoeuvrable and infinitely less robust.

Militaries and industry aren’t complacent about the problem, however, and are busy trying to find the best ways to get their platforms into areas that might be viewed as less than welcoming.

However, there exists a way of thinking, doing and building that emerged as a consequence of a time in which we once lived and that is rather less suited to the time in which we now find ourselves. As fast as technology moves, mankind and its way of dealing with state and non-state combat moves faster, and is looking to leave present unmanned CONOPS in its dust.

Reaper extends range in Afghanistan

 

Tackling challenge

We have seen unmanned systems shot down by both sophisticated and relatively simple methods in battle zones from Yemen, to Syria and Ukraine. There is no evasive manoeuvring, no reaction to the threat, just a target plodding along in unfriendly skies.

But then again, do we need to bother about ensuring drones are safe from physical attack? If you have hundreds, if not thousands, of systems saturating a denied area at a single time there will be a point when air defence systems won’t be able to cope. Making the rate of attrition high enough to effectively physically and financially overwhelm a targeted enemy remains one of the best possible use cases for unmanned systems. A machine going down in a plume of smoke is still just a machine.

Of course, at present, the more capable systems are of a cost that more or less prohibits these tactics, although some tactical platforms now come in at a price that may allow such action when technological miniaturisation and sophistication improves. Swarm programmes are also being investigated and researched by militaries and government keen to explore this capability.

But it is not just the physical threat that the drone has to worry about. Being bounced out of the sky by modern day versions of Me109s and flak cannon are only the most visible of threats for unmanned systems, with cyber security generally considered as critical to safe and secure operations. Examples of drone hacks usually only refer to suggestions or rumour but one – the optical hack of Israeli drones by Western allies in 2016 – lay bare the scope of the threat and the potential ease with which it can be accomplished.

2016 AFRL Commanders Challenge

Human function

Hardening systems that generally require a great deal of data throughput between the platform and ground station is ongoing throughout industry and operator alike, but until the UAV is able to ‘think’ for itself and decide on actions without having to refer back to control, it remains a significant issue.

Even today, there are very few manned aircraft that have the capability to penetrate denied airspace and successfully carry out the assigned mission, and all this with the benefit of having one of the most sophisticated systems ever made – the human being – controlling the platform and making on-the-spot decisions in real time.

Creating an artificial system that is able to imitate enough of the machine learning and decision-making functions of a human operator is one of the great challenges for industry.

Taranis

For more on counter-UAS trends, see the latest issue of Unmanned Vehicles magazine.

Richmond missing missiles?

Hard-working and part of a 13-strong Royal Navy frigate force HMS Richmond should ideally be one of the more capable and versatile platforms in the fleet.

And it usually is. Perhaps however, until now.

Social media images on Monday showed the frigate leaving Portsmouth on a tasking, something far from out of the ordinary for the hard-pressed Type 23s, only this time it appears that the quad-packed Harpoon missile launchers are missing.

With the Harpoon recently stated as due to be retired in 2018 the capability was coming to the end of its useful life anyway, but eyebrows might be raised at seeing the only ASuW missile fitted to the vessels removed ahead of its out-of-service date.

When contacted the UK’s Ministry of Defence said that ‘it would be inappropriate to comment on the details and specific weapons systems carried by each of our ships’.

Furthermore, the MoD said that all Royal Navy ships ‘carry a range of offensive and defensive weapons systems and sail with the appropriate capabilities for their tasking’.

Potentially this means HMS Richmond, commissioned into service 22 years ago, is left with more traditional projectile weapons for surface warfare. It is not known if the removal of the Harpoon from the vessel is temporary.

Responding to questions in the UK’s House of Lords in November last year Earl Howe, minister of state at the MoD, said that the current batch of Harpoon missiles had ‘reached the end of its natural life’.

‘To replace it would require significant investment in a new missile stockpile. It was the Royal Navy’s judgment that that would be a less than optimal use of its budget for future investment.

He continued: ‘Its judgment was that investing in the carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the new submarines and the offshore patrol vessels, as well a range of missiles and capabilities, rather than reinvesting in a 1980s weapons system, represented the right order of priority for the Royal Navy’s overall capability. That firmly remains its judgment.’

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Not something that HMS Richmond can do at the moment (Photo: US Navy)

The risk remains

Congratulating itself on a job well done late last year NATO said it would end its counter-piracy Ocean Shield mission in the Indian Ocean and move assets elsewhere, predominantly the Mediterranean.

The European Union’s own anti-piracy mission news streams have been full of gleaming ship visits and friendly training exercises with even friendlier regional forces.

It was probably with no little degree of consternation that the maritime industry was snapped wide awake with the confirmation by EU NAVFOR that the Comoros-flagged fuel tanker, Aris 13, was hijacked by suspected Somali-based pirates on 14 March. Reports indicate that the vessel is operated by a UAE-based company.

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This is the first successful hijacking in the region since 2012, although attacks do still occur but until now unsuccessfully due to the increased use of best practices at sea, defensive measures as well as the slightly more controversial use of embarked (and armed) private security contractors.

According to the EU force, the ship and its crew are currently being held in an anchorage off the north coast of Puntland, a region that gained a degree of notoriety in recent years as something of a pirate haven.

Reports said that the attack on the vessel was reported by the ships master who issued a mayday as two skiffs, fast craft traditionally used by Somali pirates, were closing in on his ship in the Gulf of Aden.

The next steps in the tale are perhaps best told by EU NAVFOR.

‘Upon receipt of the mayday alert an EU Naval Force maritime patrol aircraft was launched from its base in Djibouti to overfly the tanker and make radio contact with the ship’s master. Despite hailing the ship several times, no contact was made and the situation on board remained unclear until late this afternoon, when the EU Naval Force operational HQ in London was able to make telephone contact with the ship’s master,’ it states.

‘The master confirmed that armed men were on board his ship and they were demanding a ransom for the ship’s release. The EU Naval Force has now passed the information regarding the incident to the ship’s owners.’

ShiuFu1-300x203.jpgThe UK’s Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) detailed a warning issued by EU NAVFOR earlier this year informing yachts of the dangers in passing through the area, which in years gone past had seen a number of hijacks and ransoms such as that seen with the SY Quest in 2011, resulting in the deaths of four crew.

In the most recent warning, it states that the ‘danger of piracy and consequent loss of life and property in the Gulf of Aden, Yemeni waters and Somali waters remains a threat to sailing vessels’ and that such craft were ‘strongly recommended’ to avoid the area.

Notably, it says that the conclusions of this report state that ‘Somali-based pirate networks and their affiliates retain both the intent and capability to conduct acts of piracy’.

The MSCHOA also mentions ‘numerous incidents’ of armed robbery, indiscriminate shooting and attacks on local fishing dhows’.

Clearly this shows that the threat for merchant, fishing and leisure vessels in transit through the High Risk Area, often coming close to shore in order to save fuel costs, puts them at great risk from attacks.

The resultant prospects once captured and held for ransom are grim, with insurance costs and a corporate need to balance cost with benefit, often playing just as important a role as pure humanitarian concerns in deciding whether to accede to demands.

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Back on the map

The Gulf of Aden and the Bad al Mandeb strait are very much back on the public maritime map after what purports to be a video of a suicide attack released earlier this week on a Royal Saudi Navy warship operating in the waterway.

A video claiming to show the moment of the attack has been widely distributed online.

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Reports indicate that the vessel is an Al Madinah-class frigate. Four of these vessels were constructed for Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s. Displacing around 2,600t they are relatively small although they are equipped with surface to surface and surface to air missiles, a large main gun and helicopter deck and hangar.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of regional and international allies against a Houthi rebellion in the country, a conflict that has turned increasingly brutal on both sides.

The attack on the Saudi vessel comes just a few months after a UAE aid vessel, although Houthi rebels claim it was a warship, was hit by missile fire launched from the shore. In both cases the damage caused to the vessels appears to have been severe.

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In the same month the USS Mason, USS Nitze and USS Ponce were subjected to missile attacks similar to the one that hit the Saudi vessel.

The US and the UK have all increased patrols in the area as a response to the spate of attacks, which indicate a high level of symmetric and asymmetric capabilities being employed by the Houthis. Iran also sent vessels to the area although it is widely believed they are supporting the Houthis in what has become a proxy war between the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 2000 the USS Cole was damaged in a suicide attack while docked at the Yemeni port city of Aden with the resultant loss of 15 US service personnel.

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With commercial and military shipping using the vital stretch of water the prevention of similar attacks occurring again will be uppermost in military planners minds.

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