Hopefully, from the previous three sections, you can see that the UK’s amphibious force has the full spread of capabilities, especially those such as beach recovery vehicles, specialist plan and bulk fuel transfer.
Nothing to do with the British Armed Forces is ever completely simple though, there are clouds on the horizon, but equally, there are many bright spots.
A look at future plans and issues…
Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP)
The most obvious future change will be the introduction of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the QE class aircraft carriers (you might have heard of them!)
With the withdrawal of HMS Ocean without direct replacement, the current plan is that once of the carriers will act in the same role. HMS Prince of Wales is set to receive some additional changes from HMS Queen Elizabeth to make her more suited to amphibious operations.
These have not been publicly defined although the scope is likely to be relatively modest.
Although the new carriers will be worlds apart from HMS Ocean in pretty much every aspect, it should be noted they will not be able to embark any landing craft. There will be no separate vehicle hangar or vehicular access to the sea via a support pontoon. There is some potential for modifications to allow LCVP’s instead of ships boats but this seems unlikely.
In essence, they will be firmly aviation only, unless we want to mix vehicles and aircraft in the hangar and accept sling loading for vehicles only. This is not the end of the world necessarily, because other aspects outweigh the loss, but it is important to at least recognise the difference. In many pictures of HMS Ocean, she is quite close to the shore, not a location that the new carriers are likely to find themselves in either, for any number of reasons.
Current plans suggest that both carriers will be in service, fully manned, rotating into readiness and synchronising maintenance/training periods in such a manner that the UK has one at constant-readiness.
This is a flexible approach, following the basic principle of ‘one is none, two is one’
However, it does mean the one in the hot seat, as it were, cannot do two things at once, carrier strike and amphibious.
The journey towards full capability for CEPP will likely complete by 2023 on, by which time all the moving pieces will be in place; aircraft carriers (plural), F-35B’s. CROWSNEST, logistics support, training and of course, the people.
Between then, and HMS Ocean going out of service is rather a large gap.
Carrier Enabled Power Project is defined as;
The total number of aircraft onboard a QE class carrier seems to evoke huge interest online but for CEPP and the amphibious role it should be envisaged as a big flexible box into which ‘stuff’ is added as needs dictated.
If the requirement is for maximum strike, maximising the number of F-35B’s will be the order of the day, with Merlin HM.2 and CROWSNEST. Others scenarios might see F-35B’s reduced for more HM.2, yet others may see a more balanced air manoeuvre group that mixes F-35B’s with Apache, Wildcat, Merlin HC4/4a and Chinook. A couple of Commando companies would be the norm in this configuration. It should also be noted that a scenario that has the aircraft carrier full of helicopters and Royal Marines, completely devoid of F-35B’s is also not an impossible scenario.
The point here is that the size of the QE class enables this flexibility, task based, entirely as it should be.
It should also not be overlooked that the carrier might not be the only place where an embarked force is carried. Chinook’s or Merlin’s flying from a carrier could fly to Albion and pick up personnel from there.
Finally, for CEPP, it is crucial to understand that it does not operate in isolation. Fire support from frigates and destroyers, communications from a Skynet satellite, land based refuelling aircraft and ISTAR from a Royal Artillery Watchkeeper flown in from an adjacent nation are as likely to be involved as a Royal Marine or FAA F-35B.
Under, on and over water, the unmanned revolution with the Royal Navy, after a slow start, is gaining momentum.
Most of the activity has been centred on Mine Countermeasures and Survey tasks but following a number of contract awards and the hugely innovative and impressive Unmanned Warrior trials and development activities, other roles such as ISTAR and security are being explored.
One such example at Unmanned Warrior was a joint development from BAE and ASV.
The technology is designed as a retrofit to the manned Pacific 24 RIB already deployed across Type 23 Frigates and Type 45 Destroyers. These boats might also go on to the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers once they enter service.
The Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle has an interesting history, initially designed to assist tuna fishing fleets it has evolved into a mature, low cost, flexible and highly effective family of vehicles and payloads. After a 2006 trial with HMS Sutherland, the Royal Navy contracted for an extended trial period with Scan Eagle and it has proven to be very valuable during operations in the Gulf. There is also a larger version called the RQ-21 Blackjack, or Integrator. A number of losses have been experienced and the extended trial has now been terminated.
Other technology programmes have since been launched including the establishment of 700X NAS that focuses on unmanned aircraft and trials of 3D printed systems from Southampton University in the UK and on HMS Protector in the South Atlantic.
The RN also let the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator (CCD) contract in 2013.
The purpose of this contract was;
Further details on the programme were detailed in the contract notification;
AgustaWestland was selected as the prime contractor for this programme, perhaps unsurprisingly given their position at the centre of the UK Rotary Wing Strategy. It was also interesting to see that Mine Counter Measures (MCM) and Hydrography & Meteorology (HM) were included in the scope of the £2.3 million contract.
AW proposed to use the SW-4 Solo fitted with flight control systems from Thales, the same system also used for trials for the Italian MoD.
The contract has recently completed, the SW-4 Solo completing 27 hours of flight trials with 22 autonomous landings. The trials also included integration with the DNA(2) ship combat management software and mission planning activities.
In March 2017, the MoD announced a Phase II £8m contract had been let to continue this work
Unmanned Warrior 2016 is a trials and demonstration event designed to offer over 40 manufacturers and research organisations an opportunity to showcase their systems in a realistic environment.
Commander Peter Pipkin, Fleet Robotics Officer, commented;
Naval Gunfire Support
The Mark 45 Mod 4 from BAE, as used by the US Navy, South Korea, Denmark, Australia and others, is a 5”/127mm system with a 62 calibre barrel and is capable of a rate of fire up to 20 rounds per minute, the magazine will contain 196 rounds.
BAE describe it as;
A large installed base allows development costs of precision, proximity, IR illumination or smoke natures to be spread across many users. Adopting such a widely used system means natures such as IR Illumination are immediately available without expensive development programmes.
The magazine and palletised handling system will be a new design for the Type 26, taking the existing arrangement and adding improvements derived from the DDG-1000 programme.
Type 26 GCS doesn’t necessarily need the precision guided ammunition straight away, the existing Mk45 Mod 4 will provide a modern, accurate and powerful weapon system in its own right, again, another system much improved over Type 23. However, if there is a requirement for precision and additional range, options exists, albeit ones not yet completely in service in the maritime domain.
There are a couple of options for extended range and precision effects, Raytheon with their Excalibur and BAE, the Multi-Service Standard Guided Projectile.
Raytheon has recently successfully fired their 5″/127mm Excalibur N5 precision guided projectile from a Mk 45 test mount.
From the press release;
Using technology from the 155mm Excalibur, the company funded N5 may well find its ways onto Type 26, it has a range in excess of 25 nautical miles with the same accuracy of the in service Excalibur 1b. Raytheon are also developing a dual mode seeker allowing the shell to be guided to target by a laser designator.
In competition with Excalibur is the BAE MS-SGP.
This is a rocket assisted projectile with a longer range than Excalibur N5, over 50 nautical miles. The Mk 45 Mod 4 can fire 10 rounds per minute and 3 rounds within 2 seconds for Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact fire missions if needed. Each round weighs 50kg with an explosive content of 16kg.
The cost of an Excalibur 1B is reported to be $68,000, with a very high degree of commonality between the 155mm and 127mm versions. This opens up the potential for economies of scale between the British Army and Royal Navy for precision fires, even accepting the different calibres.
Raytheon are also developing a millimetric radar guidance systems for N5, specifically for attacking small boats in poor weather without external designation.
Whether the UK takes any of the options and if so, when, is open for discussion, but at least there are relatively low-risk options available, although, as mentioned above, none is yet in full naval service.
For supporting amphibious operations, Type 26 provided NGS will be a significant improvement.
The Not So good
Being Pushed Offshore
As the USMC and USN develop their amphibious concepts with seabasing and over the horizon capabilities there is a possibility, a distinct one at that, the UK and other European nations fall so far behind that they face obsolescence and the likelihood of being unable to take part in USMC operations as equals.
The problem is a simple one; operating the joint seabase further offshore because of proliferating threats such as mines, anti-ship missiles, precision artillery and even ATGW’s means the issue is cycle time. When the amphibious vessel is close inshore, landing craft have short forward and return journeys, so even though they are slow, forces can still be built up relatively quickly.
Using the same slow landing craft but over much increased distances mean cycle time is so great, landing operations become so extended as to be untenable.
Recognising this change the Royal Marines instigated a couple of equipment programmes to get from ship to shore at a much faster pace than with the LCVP and LCU craft.
The fast landing craft, Partial Air Cushion Supported Catamaran (PACSCAT) was an innovative design that had similar dimensions to the LCU Mk10 but could travel at 40 knots unladen and about half that with a Challenger 2. The trials programme validated the concept although noise and fuel consumption were reportedly significant.
None of these programmes progressed.
Defending the Amphibious Gap from Predatory Budgets
With HNS Ocean out of service in 2018 and CEPP not realistically available until 2022/4 the Royal Navy will have to defend its ‘amphibious capability’ from other budgetary priorities.
Obviously, carrier strike is going to consume a great deal of the Royal navy’s budget but at least that is known and relatively stable. Yet to come though, is Type 26 and Type 31 and the huge grey shaped thing in the room, Successor.
The reduction 42 Commando by 200 posts is a clear sign that the Royal Navy has significant manning challenges and that the Royal Marines are under pressure.
From a political perspective, it now means that the only thing left to cut from the Royal Marines are the two manoeuvre elements, 40 and 45, and if these are reduced, in reality, it means the end of the amphibious force, which I suspect is well known by those that planned the change as it presents the MoD with a difficult public relations issue.
Impending Out of Service Dates
By 2030, CEPP will have been in service for about half a decade and the LPD’s and LSD(A)’s will approaching out of service.
- RFA Mounts Bay: 2031
- RFA Cardigan Bay: 2031
- RFA Lyme Bay: 2032
- HMS Albion: 2033
- HMS Bulwark: 2034
This means by CEPP In Service Date, a replacement for the LPD’s are going to have to be in concept stage at least, else it is likely that Mr Capability Gap will be making yet another appearance. If this replacement is a like for like, or perhaps something more akin to a Mistral class is certainly open for discussion. But of if it is the latter, the whole basis on which the UK delivers amphibious forces would have to change.
What are the current plans for replacement?
An October 2106 FOI answer provides the answer;
Which is perhaps a bit of a problem, although to be fair, I expect the naval shipbuilding planning capacity is absorbed with T26 and T31 at the minute and there is still plenty of time between now and having to start work on replacement programmes.
There is also the political problem of introducing a vessel that looks like an aircraft carrier if the chosen solution looks like a Mistral or Juan Carlos I.
In addition to the LPD’s, the Royal Marines Bv206’s are also well overdue for replacement. In fact, a couple of attempts at doing such have come and gone with no replacement in sight. BAE have proposed a variant of the BvS10 called the Beowulf which would seem a low risk option, but no news on actually purchasing it.
The Light Gun is also likely to be out of service in the not too distant future and if it is replaced with a 155mm system the logistics overhead may not be wholly met with the existing lift available.
Whilst the QE Class carriers represent a significant improvement and the various unmanned systems in development or on show at Unmanned Warrior show great potential, as ever, budgets remain a challenge.
The real problems facing the Royal Marines are twofold;
First; in light of increasing threats and trends to move offshore, the traditional operating concept is likely to face risks of obsolescence and being left behind by the USMC. What role would they then play in either a UK only operation (small scale) or coalition operation with the USMC? Whilst the UK may well be able to afford playing with the USMC in the aviation domain, it cannot afford to do so in the aviation domain, and amphibious.
Second; it is the perennial one facing many UK defence capabilities, cash. With delegated budgets, Successor, Carrier Strike and the Surface Fleet all will be at home to significant bills during exactly the same period that the Royal Marines need to spend money on vehicles and ship replacement programmes. These competing priorities mean that the Royal Marines are likely to be a fairly low priority for funding.
To summarise, there are troubling times ahead.