Why FRES UV Still Matters

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.

The three contenders for FRES line up at Bovington. Left to right Boxer, Pirhana and VBCI
The three contenders for FRES line up at Bovington. Left to right Boxer, Piranha and VBCI

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 its 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 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 tin 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 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 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:

FRES-UV-Table-1

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 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 country than a tracked vehicle, which means that any wheeled FRES UV might not be able 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

FRES-UV-Table-1-489x600

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 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)

19 Comments
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Marcase
Marcase
October 13, 2010 7:16 am

“…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.”

Indeed, but Boxer is a modular vehicle and the plan is to airlift it “disassembled” – so two Hercs (or heavy helicopters) will be needed to transport either the chassis or the module.

An expensive and arduous enterprise to be sure, but it does enable a heavy, protected vehicle – and not just a traditional wheeled light/medium LAV-type – to be transported via air, and into austere airfields at that.

This airlift capability is a traditional advantage of “light” wheeled vehicles (and CVRT) and a paramount requirement for expeditionary forces.

Besides Boxer, the Patria AMV is also modular and Afghanistan-proven. If hubris rules out the former, the latter is a viable option, also because the USMC is taking an interest in it.

Tony Williams
October 13, 2010 9:08 am

One potentially important development on the horizon which would benefit 8x8s is the hybrid drive, in which the diesel is merely a generator supplying power to eight electric motors, one in each wheel hub. This removes the complexity, weight and vulnerability of a mechanical gearbox and 8×8 transmission (mine explosions have been known to send driveshafts spearing through vehicles), allows for sophisticated traction control, and permits much greater design flexibility (particularly in the engine location). It also ensures there is plenty of electric power to meet increasing demand for that. A small, quiet, low-IR signature auxiliary engine could provide power for systems while the vehicle is stationary and also to move it at low speeds.

Prototypes have been built and their designers claim that recent improvements in electric power technology make these hybrid systems more efficient than mechanical transmissions. So far, they have not been accepted by armed forces which are understandably concerned about untested technology, but the longer the wait for FRES UV (or whatever replaces it), the more attractive this looks.

paul g
October 13, 2010 10:42 am

tony,
your comment has sparked a lightbulb in my head! I was looking at the snazzy photos of the paris motor show and one of the stars of the show was the jaguar gas turbine hybrid car 2x35kg gas turbine engines powering 4x electric motors in the hub, flipping 940 odd horsepower!!! Bonus is it’s all british tech sounds to sensible to pursue

Jed
Jed
October 13, 2010 3:36 pm

In the light of the SDSR I am all for some cuts to regular army formations, IF the “cheaper” citizen soldiery of the TA is increased – as such we need a decent, cheap replacement for the Saxon. A vehicle that is “good enough” as a battle taxi, command and comms vehicle, protected logistics and ambulance but NOT a wheeled MICV. No developmental items like hybrid drives, just off the shelf stuff, as you note there are plenty of designs out there, and there are also plenty that are not 8 x 8’s.

I would suggest a brigades worth of Boxer and and a brigades worth of Warthog for the regular infantry, and some cheaper wheeled APC for the rest, but that of course flies in the face of Admin’s mantra of standardisation !

jedibeeftrix
October 13, 2010 3:54 pm

broadly with you there Jed.

P4
P4
October 13, 2010 3:59 pm

Nexter’s contender for FRES UV is now in combat action in Kapisa.

paul g
October 13, 2010 3:59 pm

why not buy the terrex instead of boxer then it’s one contract to ST kinetics, just a thought

paul g
October 13, 2010 4:05 pm

forgot to add make HCR weisel and therefore keep their role as 16AAB recce regiment how many weisels could you get for the price of one ASCOD? bang the lightweight BAe turrent on it 260 20mm rounds plus the 120mm mortar 1x air portable speedy fire support for the brigade

IXION
IXION
October 13, 2010 4:24 pm

I do not agree with the contention that just beacuse the otherside has Heavy Armor and tracked 155mm etc we need it.

Most 2nd rate Armies have lots of these things, but would fall quickly to Airpower (as did the Iraqies)in Gulf 1 and 2.

Most would be 1st or 2nd generation MBT that will ne easily vulnerable to modern ATGM of various types from various platforms.

What first rate oppositon would we be likely to go up against on our own that we would need Tank V Tank and artillery duels etc?

Maybe 8X8 would be fine?

Jed
Jed
October 13, 2010 5:10 pm

Paulg – Terrex looks nice, no problem with buying that !

Ixion – again, we are backing to the whole development of the threat matrix and development of strategic vision – who do we think we will be fighting ? Now I agree with some General’s that we can’t loose the capability / skill set entirely, but to me that means 1 large CH2 Regiment that rotates squadrons through the ‘rapid response’ role, and also provides the cadre to 3 TA CH2 regiments. Same for the 155mm self propelled. If you get rid of the capability entirely, some perviously unforseen circumstance is bound to arise where the lack of the capability bites us on the arse.

Mike W
October 13, 2010 9:53 pm

Jed,

“as such we need a decent, cheap replacement for the Saxon. A vehicle that is “good enough” as a battle taxi, command and comms vehicle, protected logistics and ambulance”

Have you missed out something that will certainly be needed sooner or later? I was thinking of the Internal Security role, perhaps with particular reference to the situation in Ireland. With the incidents that have happened there recently worryingly familiar, perhaps the Army should retain a fair number of IS Saxons. They are a more recent version of the vehicle with a good diesel engine. Or do you think your cheaper wheeled APC could easily cover that role too?

IXION
IXION
October 14, 2010 12:04 am

Monty I Think you missunderstood me.

I think for exactly the reasons you propose that 8x 8 would be good enough for most of our needs. Its the othersides heavy armour and artillery that would be vulnerable to our airpower.

I Just dont think that a British heavy armoured Division (remember when we had those), is ever going to go mano a mano with another first rate such force in my lifetime. (Mind you I’ve not been feeling well lately.

If we ever get involved in such the yanks can deploy theirs off the shelf. (Remember they could easily have done Gulf 2 without us, and wanted to leave our force in Kuwait in G1.

I just can’t construct a credible scenario (or even find a credible enemy present or likely in the future where we would do it on our own.

Having the capability means having a real capability which means keeping everything tip top and fully ready to go (or having the spares and manpower to put it all right quikly. so any savings by mothballing I consider minimal to say the least.

Can anyone tel me when we would need all the heavy stuff?

Jedibeeftrix
October 14, 2010 12:14 am

virtually never, which is why i would support ideas that look at putting heavy forces into the TA.

Tony Williams
October 14, 2010 1:58 am

Hybrid drive in AFVs isn’t all that new: BAE have been playing with this for several years (see: http://www.army-technology.com/projects/sep/ ) and so have GD (http://www.generaldynamics.uk.com/news/fres-second-phase-complete )

The problem, as with any new technology, is to get over the hurdle of initial acceptance. No-one wants to be the first to adopt a new system, but someone has to otherwise we’ll never make any progress!

Jed
Jed
October 14, 2010 2:46 pm

Mike W – IS – Yes

Monty and Ixion – do not write off tracked vehicles so quickly. We have had this discussion on here before, perhaps before you guys were frequenting the site.

Horses for courses, right tool for the right job, however you want to paint it – but 8 x 8 wheeled vehicles still have mobility and curb weight limitations. US Strykers, great in Iraq (well according to some) because of decent roads and largely urban battlefield – Canadian LAV and US Strykers in Afghanistan – not so good, pretty crap in fact, leading Canada to deploy Leopard II MBT’s and to setup a procurement for a Close Combat Vehicle (an MICV). Now I admit the CCV requirement does NOT declare tracks are a must, that is up to the bidder, but most of the bids are (CV90, Ascod, etc). And this is from a country / Army that decided to go “all medium, all wheeled” years ago…….

So the statement that an Army with 1000 8 by 8’s is probably more capable than one with 200 MBT is actually part of the problem – there is not “one ring to rule them all” – we need a tool box from which we can take the right tool and use it appropriately.

Jed
Jed
October 14, 2010 2:47 pm

Admin – why do comments not allow spacing between paragraphs anymore ?

admin
Admin
October 14, 2010 3:55 pm
Reply to  Jed

Jed, refresh, I have had a play with the comments formatting, should be clearer now, it was a bit crap before