Why FRES UV Still Matters

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There are numerous UK examples of worst-in-class defence procurement. SA80, Nimrod AEW 3, Chinook Mk3 and Bowman C41 tactical communication system immediately spring to mind. While Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) have enabled limited purchases of new weapons and equipment to be fast-tracked, such as Osprey body armour or the L129A1 Sharpshooter rifle, we still seem to get major programmes wrong. The £320 million(1) spent to develop a new family of rapidly deployable, multi-role armoured vehicles, without a single actual vehicle being fielded, has already been described as a cock-up of epic proportions, but, despite official investigations and reports into what went wrong, there are still no concrete plans to procure a suitable new family of vehicles.

With the Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) looming, it would be easy to conclude that the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), is no longer needed or important. The aim of this article is not to understand how or why the FRES programme went so disastrously wrong, but to look ahead. FRES is a crucial new asset that represents a vital revitalisation and reinforcement of the Army’s capabilities to deliver effective force wherever it is needed. There are three reasons why it cannot be delayed let alone cancelled:

  1. The need for increased mobility as well as protection. As the war in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated, the requirement for armoured infantry personnel carriers that provide adequate protection against Mines, IEDs and RPGs remains paramount. The Army also needs high mobility vehicles with an offensive capability so that it is equipped to deal with a full range of threats, rather than just asymmetric ones. Existing heavy protected patrol vehicles, such as the Mastiff, are neither fast nor agile and have limited potential for mounting heavy weapons. FRES would satisfy all of these requirements.
  2. The need to deploy rapidly anywhere in the world. With the end of the Cold War, Britain’s Army has increasingly assumed the role of a global force. Whether this is in service of the United Nations, NATO, the Commonwealth or protecting Britain’s own overseas interests, the need to rapidly deploy highly mobile forces across the globe is an obligation that stems from our alliances and relationships with other members of the United Nations Security Council. Even if we were only concerned with defending mainland Britain or Europe, the ability to respond quickly would still be essential.
  3. Our current fleet of armoured vehicles is all but worn out. The need for new vehicles has existed for more than 10 years. Our current fleet of armoured personnel carriers has been in service for almost 40 years. Delays to the replacement programme have forced us to make a series of UOR acquisitions resulting in a diverse range of vehicles, adding cost and complexity to the logistics burden and sucking £700(2) million from the budget. Further delays could seriously compromise our future ability to respond to an unforeseen situation requiring the deployment of British troops beyond the borders of Europe.

Although the original plan to buy more than 3,000 vehicles is likely to be scaled-back, the next generation of armoured vehicles is set to be the largest and most important procurement programme in British Army history. Therefore, this is something we have to get right.

By the late 1990s, the time had already come for the UK to replace its ageing fleet of GKN FV432 tracked armoured personnel carriers and the Alvis CVR (T) family if light tracked vehicles, both of which are more than 40 years old. There was also a need to replace the GKN Saxon 4 x 4 wheeled APC. LSOR 1, the MoD branch responsible for AFV procurement, had originally planned to rationalise the future fleet into three types of vehicle: Heavy AFVs based on a tank chassis; medium utility vehicles and light reconnaissance vehicles. When the Cold War ended, an evolved future requirement was explored by two studies: the Future Family of Light Armoured Vehicles (FFLAV) and the Multi Base Armoured Vehicle (MBAV). These led to two definitive programmes: the Multi-Role Armoured Vehicle (MRAV) to fulfil the requirement for a new utility vehicle / APC and TRACER to fulfil the requirement for a new scout/reconnaissance vehicle family (in conjunction with the USA).

The US Army and USMC had already developed their own family of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) which provided an excellent balance of mobility, firepower and protection. The MOWAG Piranha was used as the basis for an 8 x 8 wheeled armoured vehicle family able to take advantage of the global network of metalled roads now in existence. It also provided an improved off-road capability versus previous wheeled vehicle types, so could be deployed in combat theatres where there were only rough roads and tracks, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The basic APC version was complemented by an anti-tank vehicle equipped with a large gun (a kind of wheeled tank), a mortar vehicle, an ambulance, a command vehicle and other variants.

The UK aspiration was to take the basic LAV concept and improve upon it. Since Germany and France had identified a similar vehicle requirement, it made sense to team up with our allies. In 1999, Britain, France and Germany agreed to develop a new multi-role combat vehicle (MRAV). This was called the Boxer. It was an advanced modular design that enabled the vehicle to switch roles quickly and easily. Britain additionally wanted a vehicle that would be air-transportable in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Airbus A400 aircraft.

By 2003, the war in Iraq had highlighted the threat posed by IEDs and RPGs. This mandated future vehicles with a higher level of protection, so the original MRAV requirement evolved. Instead of a vehicle weighing less than 17 tonnes, the necessary additional armour increased the weight to 25-30 tonnes, which meant that the Boxer was no longer air-transportable in a C-130 Hercules. Britain insisted on maintaining conflicting requirements for low weight and heavy protection.

One of the factors that made the MoD unwilling to compromise on MRAV specification was that the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) research of new types of lightweight armour, including electrically charged armour. It convinced the MoD that it could deliver new technology that would combine low weight with maximum protection. Germany was infuriated by the UK because it felt that such technology was still in its infancy and would only delay the MRAV programme. When no agreement could be reached about MRAV specifications, the UK withdrew from the Boxer programme. France also left to pursue its own vehicle design, the Nexter VCBI.

The parallel TRACER programme similarly failed to yield a winning design that satisfied the requirements of both the USA and the UK. Again, the MoD’s inability to compromise on design requirements stalled the project. Constantly moving goalposts made it impossible to sign off on a final design and agree on the production process. By the time MRAV and TRACER were cancelled, they had cost the UK taxpayer £188 million(1).

A new light AFV programme was initiated in 2004. Called the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), it generated a requirement for two separate vehicle families: FRES Utility Vehicle (UV) and FRES Scout Vehicle (SV). With the need for increased protection now well established and advanced armour still being researched, the requirement for FRES to be air-transportable in a C-130 Hercules was dropped. For the FRES UV, three vehicles were to be evaluated: the French Nexter VBCI, the MOWAG / General Dynamics Piranha V and, surprisingly, the ARTEC Boxer.

The winning design was meant to have been announced in November 2007 but was delayed until May 2008. The Piranha V was finally selected as the FRES UV with General Dynamics Europe as the preferred bidder, but no production order was forthcoming. Worse still, when the contract was awarded the only vehicles in existence were modified Piranha IVs, not the intended Piranha V. The project was further complicated by adding an additional layer of management (and cost). An impartial System of Systems Integrator (SOSI) was appointed to assist the MoD in the selection of vehicles and cross-vehicle systems. While arguments about IP rights and production seem to have delayed development, when the credit crunch hit late in 2008, the project was put on hold. By this time, a further £132 million (1) had been spent, increasing the total future vehicle project costs to £320 million (1).

Although the FRES UV programme stalled, the FRES SV programme continued independently with the MoD evaluating two contenders: the General Dynamics ASCOD 2 and the BAE Systems CV90. Again, General Dynamics won the bid with the winning contender announced in March 2010. FRES SV detractors believed that the requirement was a relic of the cold war and not now needed, or, if it was, that the same role could easily be performed by re-allocating upgraded Warrior MCVs to the role. A further school of thought suggested that the reconnaissance role could be fulfilled by a combination of Apache AH-64 attack helicopters supported by small wheeled vehicles (e.g. Supacat Jackal). Whether FRES SV survives the Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr and Dutch Army have started to take delivery of the production version of the Boxer. It has been hot-weather tested for operations in Afghanistan and will shortly be deployed there. The German Government, for whom political survival depends on the avoidance of casualties in Afghanistan, believes it has acquired a high-value asset that offers better protection against IEDs and RPGs than any competitor. In particular, the Boxer has been favourably compared to existing Piranha variants (used by US Stryker battalions in Iraq) which were criticised for not offering sufficient protection(3). The Boxer also offers superior mobility to Britain’s Mastiff and Ridgeback protected patrol vehicles. Many heavier protected vehicles simply cannot cope with the road conditions in Afghanistan. The German view is that if a vehicle is off-the-road due to a cracked axle or broken suspension, as the many UK protected patrol vehicles often are, this represents a fundamental failure to fulfil basic mission requirements(4).

If Boxer proves to be as successful as the Bundeswehr believes it will be, then the UK MoD will look even more incompetent for its indecision and delay, as well as for wasting money that has benefitted our allies rather than our own army. If we were now to select Boxer as the FRES UV, we would adopt it years after we could have had it and it is likely to cost us more than if we had remained a development and manufacturing partner from the outset. Hubris may well prevent the UK from recognising Boxer’s worth, but, if we reject the Boxer again, merely out of fear of further censure, our credibility will hit rock bottom. The Germans have an outstanding track record for producing best-in-class armoured vehicles.

As things stand, Britain still needs a multi-role wheeled armoured vehicle. According to the MoD, the FRES UV programme is meant to recommence in late 2010 and the Strategic Defence Review is expected to greenlight the project with a new expected in-service date of 2017(5). Based on what our allies have chosen and the current limits of technology, the FRES UV requirement is likely to be a vehicle with the following characteristics:

In fairness, the UK MoD and its NATO allies now possess a much greater understanding of future threat scenarios and thus future vehicle requirements. Recent experience has also guided the ongoing development and refinement of Boxer, Piranha and other 8 x 8 vehicle designs to improve the breed. In particular, the ability to add different levels of armour to suit mission requirements offers the best possible protection, increased flexibility, ease of air transportation and future development potential. The 8 x 8 is now firmly established as the primary next-generation infantry APC. As the market for this type of vehicle matures with an increased number of competitors producing them, there is a good chance that acquisition costs, vehicle weight, and size will be reduced, while protection, mobility and firepower should also improve. Perhaps the UK’s hesitation to ensure it selected the right vehicle with the best blend of characteristics will yet prove to be a wise move?

If 8 x 8 vehicles are now ideally suited to asymmetric campaigns, the question that needs to be asked is whether they can also become wheeled MCVs suitable for all types of conventional warfare? In other words, could all-wheel-drive vehicles replace tracked ones? Tracked vehicles tend to be larger, heavier, more complex and require more maintenance than their wheeled counterparts. They’re also significantly more expensive. The latest 8 x 8 vehicles designs provide superb off-road performance thanks to highly sophisticated transmissions, suspensions and tyre systems. Tyre pressures can be controlled centrally to reduce ground pressure when negotiating soft ground. All-wheel steering provides a tight turning circle with some vehicles almost able to turn on their own axis. If a tracked vehicle loses a track, it becomes immobile; but 8 x 8 vehicles can limp home even when they’ve lost three wheels or an entire axle. Highly compliant suspensions with long travel also provide a much more comfortable ride for troops inside(6).

The counter view is that 8 x 8 vehicles have become so advanced that they are as complex and expensive as any equivalent tracked vehicle and require as much if not more maintenance. The experience of US Stryker Brigades suggests that their wheeled LAVS are easier to operate than the previous M113 or Bradley M2 tracked vehicles, offer better protection, simplify training, less prone to reliability issues and, most important of all, improve the fighting capabilities of infantry on the ground(7).

The only real compromise with wheeled 8 x 8 vehicles is that they are ultimately less agile across the country than a tracked vehicle, which means that any wheeled FRES UV might not be able to keep pace with a Challenger 2 MBT on the battlefield. For this reason, it is unlikely that FRES would replace the Warrior MCV.

As we consider future armoured vehicle options, we cannot predict the types of conflicts that will take place, only plan for a variety of possible scenarios. Therefore, we need a balanced Army that is flexible enough to perform a variety of combat roles. These have been widely discussed elsewhere but can be divided into the categories below

To be fully prepared for every situation would require a massive standing army. We can only prioritise the most likely threats and so need a balanced force to ensure a flexible and rapid response. In any event, it makes sense to retain a reasonable number of main battle tanks and tracked infantry combat vehicles, so that we are equipped to defend ourselves against any conventional threat. We are unlikely to need the same high number of armoured regiments as we had at the height of the Cold War, so perhaps a single tracked vehicle armoured division would suffice? If a corresponding rapid response division of 8 x 8 armoured vehicles could support a fully mechanised armoured division, providing protected mobility for both conventional and asymmetric warfare operations, then it would give us the necessary increase in capability to deliver troops to wherever they were needed quickly and safely.

Ultimately, the 8 x 8 Future Rapid Effects System vehicle family will be much more than a battlefield taxi. It will be capable of aggressive action and defensive support in a variety of situations. It will provide unprecedented levels of protection, mobility and firepower. As such, it should be viewed as a welcome and highly suitable replacement for FV432 and Saxon, but an asset that complements Challenger 2 and Warrior rather than succeeding them.

If the Government cancels the FRES programme altogether, what will the Army get instead? All we will have is a decrepit fleet of clapped-out armoured trucks and unserviceable APCs.

Sources:

(1) RUSI: The Disgraceful saga of armoured vehicle procurement by Peter Flach (June 2010)

(2) RUSI: FRES Alive but not quite kicking by Oliver Gorilla (June 2009)

(3) The Kevlar Coffin, Washington Times, November, 2009

(4) German Defence Ministry Report (May 2010)

(5) General Dynamics Europe

(6) Krauss Mafia Wegmann

(7) US General Accounting Office Report: US Army’s Evaluation of Stryker and M113A3 Infantry Carrier Vehicles (May 2003)

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