Towers and Blimps – Follow Up

When I looked at Towers and Blimps last month I described how the MoD told the House of Parliament in 2008

To improve the current deployed operating base protection capability, new systems have been provided in Iraq and Afghanistan using mast and aerostat-mounted visual and electronic sensors.

In all the media coverage of Afghanistan not once since then has any mention of UK aerostats being made public but that doesnt’t mean they weren’t there.

The Cortez project implementing various systems for surveillance at base locations.

News out today at Aviation Week seems to confirm that a team is now en route to Afghanistan to

establish the U.K.’s first forward operating base equipped with a fully-integrated aerostat

Persistent Ground Surveillance System (PGSS) is a US system and the latest in a long line of elevated surveillance systems usinga  combination of advanced sensors, distribution networks, aerostats, masts and analysis software. The US have several in Afghanistan.

Defence Systems Journal reported in May

PGSS – really a smaller, cheaper, more deployable version of the Persistent Threat Detection System (PTDS) — increases intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and provides a more complete surveillance picture through inclusion of information from new sensor systems including EO/IR, full-motion video, and various acoustic payloads.  Dr. Carter argued that the system provides better persistent (24/7) surveillance and associated situational awareness than can be provided by fixed wing aircraft at considerably less cost.

The PGSS aerostat is a small (25,000 ft3) helium-filled tethered blimp that can raise a payload of up to 150 pounds to 1,200-2,000 feet and remain aloft for up to two weeks.  The mainstay PGSS payload is a (98 pound) L-3 Wescam MX-15 EO/IR sensor, but the turret can accommodate most any payload or payload combination of up to 150 pounds.  PGSS has carried various acoustic (shot/mortar identication) sensors and a SIGINT payload deployment appears to be also in the offing.

Program officials noted that the coverage areas of the PGSS with the MX-15 EO/IR payload are as follows: detect a vehicle at 18km; identify a vehicle at 12km; detect a man at 12km; identify a man at 4km.

As for operations, PGSS is operated in theater by contractor personnel, with plans to eventually train uniformed personnel.  The aerostat can be filled with helium in an hour and has a requirement to remain aloft for up to two weeks.  The aerostat can be deployed/launched in sustained winds of up to 20 kts. and operated in sustained winds of up to 60 kts.

To make PGSS more tactically deployable, DoD (with NAVAIR in the lead) is pursuing a spiral development to make the 16K lb. mooring station light enough to allow helicopter sling transport.

PGSS even has its own Flickr page and the Empire Challenge 10 event at which PGSS was demonstrated has a wide range of images here

There is a great story on their deployment in Afghanistan with US forces here

It is real cost effective stuff and reportedly, UK forces will be receiving 5 such systems.

There is no doubt that this is fantastic news but is it, once again, a case of waiting for the perfect when the good enough would do?

US and Canadian forces have been using aerostats and tower based surveillance systems for several years, the first one in Iraq in 2004. Since these initial deployments the various systems have improved in many areas but the UK has been searching for the last degree of capability before deploying, wanting to integrate the PGSS feed into a Cortez display rather than a stand alone display and other enhancements that will no doubt make the UK variant superior.

TCOM 17m Aerostat
TCOM 17m Aerostat

We are really not in a position to second guess or criticise decisions made by personnel at the MoD whose responsibility this is but the question has to be asked, is this and Talisman symptomatic of our larger acquisition problems. The US and Canada seem to get equipment into theatre and improve it in the background, we wait until everything is 100% ready and then deploy.

Which is the right approach, not sure?

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August 17, 2010 7:28 pm

REMOVOR and REVIVOR are the two bits of kit in question. There are numerous mentions thrown up by Google.

There was an ISTAR handbook on the web-facing bit of the MOD net a while back that had more information but I’m damned if I can find it now.

August 17, 2010 10:12 pm

Wikileaks has the ISTAR Handbook in question but I’m unaware of an legality of linking to it, etc.

August 18, 2010 6:42 pm

Call me cynical (realistic?), but:

1. The military mindset is always ‘we have fewer systems than the US and when we get them we will have to wait years for the replacement, so let’s go for the 100% solution’ – i.e. don’t buy today if you can get better tomorrow.

2. Politicians are now acutely aware that anything less than 100% perfect kit will lead to accusations in coroners’ courts, criticism in the mass media and sob stories from bereaved parents that ‘if MOD had spend a bit more my son would be alive’ (hey, soldiers do get killed – they knew that when they joined).

3. MOD project teams are fiercely competitive (especially when it comes to funding) and the status and influence of a project links to how expensive and sophisticated it is, as well as its military importance. They have a vested interested in going for the best: much more difficult to cancel – just look at JSF.

4. MOD culture does not encourage risk taking, quite the reverse. At best you get a small bonus; at worst you find yourself having all future advancement blocked or being threatened with prosecution for manslaughter (as with the Nimrod incident). Going for the 100% solution and not rushing things is a safe option. It is the equivalent of the old IT dictum that ‘no-one was ever sacked for buying IBM’.

5. Contractors have a vested interest in selling the best (most expensive) and will always claim that ‘next year we have a new model entering development’. They are well aware of points 1-4 and play up to them. Contractors want very expensive, long drawn out projects with lots of interim payments. With a bit of luck the product will be obsolete by the time it finally enters service and the whole cycle then begins all over.

August 19, 2010 6:41 am

I don’t think its a case of seeking a 100% solution. UORs exist to provide capability at the 80/90% solution, and to provide something that does the job quickly and easily. The vast majority of HERRICK kit is sourced via UOR, so we’ve been able to get a lot of good kit into theatre quickly.

Part of the problem is the integration piece though -when I used to lecture on UORs & policy, I always made the point that buying UOR kit was easy, and could be done extremely quickly. The real challenge lies in integrating it into service – the delays occur when we ensure that the kit we’ve bought is capable of working with the equipment we expect it to operate with. Its likely (not an expert on this one) that many of the delays in full fielding are due to integration issues, and ensuring the kit actually works with what we’ve got.

This in turn highlights the challenge we face in procurement. Conventional procurement is slow, but provides a range of tested equipment which is derisked along the way, and (hopefully!) by the time it enters service is capable of working in all the environments envisaged, alongside all the equipment in service. Chances are that it will work, even if it does take a long time.

UORs mean we get an 80 or 90% solution into service, which can meet a capability gap, but which is sourced quickly and usually off the shelf. Its quick to buy, but time means the usual downselect and trialling process cant’ happen – and problems with the kit may not crop up until later on. At this point they are fixed to work with HERRICK specific equipment – which is often where the delay comes in.

The trade off is between getting kit into service that may not work fully that saves lives quickly, and spending time to get the kit working properly whilst soldiers are taking casualties. Its an impossible dilemma to solve.

One final thought, UORs and HERRICK equipment are driven by the front line. If a request is put in for kit (providing it is a proper UOR and not just a request for something nice from Silvermans!) then it will be staffed and supported by the military chain of command, and very quickly signed into production. The majority of UORs go from ‘front line idea’ to ‘spending approval granted’ in days. That after 7 years in two theatres we don’t have the same balloon capability says much about what commanders on the ground thought they needed at the time.

If frontline commanders aren’t asking for something, and requesting it via UOR (or conventional) routes, then how is MOD to know that there is a requirement? The process is only as good as the feedback submitted to it.

August 19, 2010 10:20 am

Jim, perhaps I should have added that MOD rarely achieves the 100% solution: 80-85% is as good as it gets and too often it is more like 70%. I wasn’t really talking about UORs. UORs are the sticking plaster to be used when the procurement systems gets it wrong or when unanticipated technical developments mean that something appears that cannot be ignored. The UOR process seems to work well and I gather has been copied by the French. The real problem is the ordinary equipment programme that goes on over many years. I can remember balloons being suggested as a possible countermeasure to insurgents in May 2003, but nothing was done. They did not need to be a UOR. Why?

MOD procurement is very dependent on the user (the armed forces) specifying the requirement. Too often they are not doing this and some of the judgments made by senior officers have ben very poor. Look at how slow they have been in demanding UAVs, despite Israeli and US experience. My feeling is that a lot of very good officers left the armed forces during Options for Change in 1991-94 and the Army in particular was left with the Second or Third XI running it. British generalship and senior command has been dire over the last decade (and I have been involved in studying this for a think-tank) – there is no getting away from the fact that the military has performed erratically at best and there has been a high level failure in terms of strategic vision, doctrine and operational command in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too many of the people at the top now were unfortunately not culled in the early 90s. I know some of them and while there are some very good ones, there are people who struggle intellectually. However, they all have bags of confidence, look good on TV and in meetings, and can be relied upon to not rock the boat.

What is needed both operationally and in terms of procurement are some serious lateral and innovative thinkers. For much of the post-war period the British Army prided itself on having a number of eccentrics and original thinkers. These people have virtually gone to be supplanted by politically conscious’company men’ who know the rules and don’t cause problems. Unfortunately company men are not what you want in wartime. It is said that every Royal Navy captain in September 1939 had been either promoted, retired, given a shore job or was dead within 12 months.

At the moment we have a personnel system that does not penalise failures who followed the rules, but actively discourages people who will have original ideas or concept. Unfortunately those are the very people who a few years ago would have been demanding systems like balloons. The MOD has bred a culture of mediocrity that we see in so many aspects of British life. My feeling is that the Army will need serious reconstruction work in the next decade if it is to avoid being seen as just another great institution that has dwindled to third rate status

August 19, 2010 5:30 pm

Some interesting comments there.

Firstly, on the balloon issue, I think (going from memory here) that there is considerably more to it than being ‘just a balloon’. I think I would be skating on thin ice if I said more though, although this does explain the delays. (dire excuse but sadly sometimes a necessary one!)

As for what does DSTL / Qinetiq do – answer, they do amazing work and have saved countless lives with their developments. However, what they don’t necessarily know without feedback is what Tactics Techniques & Procedures (TTPS) have changed in theatre, and what capability gap is emerging as a result of this. I spent a long time overlooking UORs, and the main thing I would say is that the solution is either there, or invented quickly, however they are responsive to developments in theatre – these can literally change by the day in some cases. The beauty of the system is that it is so slick, it can respond to these challenges – both through embedded DSTL staff in theatre, and also through excellent communication to/from the UK.

Don’t get me wrong, there is an amazing amount of stuff that DSTL come up with, which is phenomenal. A lot of good work comes out of lesson identified reports, but these are relatively slow movers compared to UORs, simply due to the time it takes to write them.

We also rely on the commanders in theatre letting us know whats changing on the ground in the way that they operate so they can identify very quick capability gaps, which can be filled ASAP.

As for the MOD over-engineering solutions – I think thats a real problem. I have a theory that it owes much to two things – regular posting of officers who have replacements arriving, keen to make their mark, and Planning Rounds.

We don’t encourage good officers to remain in procurement, those ‘high flyers’ will do a tour and then move on. If they want to be promoted, then they have to change something – often you’ll see requirements fiddled with or rejustified to make their mark. Similarly, they are very susceptible to sales pitches on new kit – part of the problem is that the lead times into service means we have the choice between fielding something on its original spec, but hopelessly outdated, or funding design changes to put new kit in to ensure it is fielded at a current standard. To do the former risks lives and efficiency, to do the latter means we can only buy less, and it takes longer to ensure the kit does what we wanted it to do. Another age old procurement problem!

The planning round is also a problem – many of the delays we have now can be attributed to the lack of funding in the early part of the last decade. Gordon Brown starved the department of funds, told it to make cuts, but also told it that for political reasons, major project cancellation was off the table (labour safe seats anyone?). The result was the ‘defer, descope, delay’ options to projects. In other words, the MOD was forced by its political masters to reduce expenditure by stripping out capability, delaying delivery dates and conciously taking risk on programmes. Everyone at all levels knew it was insane, and everyone knew that it was made to take decisions costing much more in the long run to solve the short term financial crisis. However, when the man with the purse says ‘no cancellations’ there’s not much you can do. I hold Gordon Brown personally responsible for the departments woes right now – had the MOD been able to cancel big ticket projects sooner, then much of the current financial mess could have been avoided. Instead the MOD was forced to take decisions it knew were mad, and it has been hammered by NAO as a result – but what else could it do?

I think the solution is partly the creation of a proper procurement career stream for the forces and a pay rise for the civil service project managers. Make it so that those in the forces who want to buy kit won’t be committing career suicide by doing so – e.g. have a series of tied command jobs at each rank and make them open only to those who do procurement – intermingle this with wider staff/ op tour jobs too. Once people think that they can go down this road then they will look at it more seriously. Too many people I know in procurement are either passing through for ‘broadening’ or bitter, twisted and passed over. Neither is healthy.

You also need to pay the PMs more – a typical MOD project manager will be on between 28 – 39K – and this is in one of the more senior grades. Promotion beyond this point is minimal for people who are not broadly experienced, so to become a PM in the MOD CS is to commit career development suicide. Is it any wonder that good PMs are leaving all the time to go to the private sector, where there is more money and better long term prosepcts? MOD is left with those who are either life long converts, or who can’t get a job outside. The role of the CS in my view is to provide the corporate memory to the forces – they’re there for longer and should know why things are done a certain way. If you set it so that the PMs aren’t paid sufficiently to reward their skills, and you demotivate them at the same time, is it any wonder that DE&S is in the state its in?