I want to start a conversation about commonality across the three services for equipment.
We have on many occasions looked at this, discussed how generally, it is a good idea, but never really got into why it does not always happen and perhaps, how it should happen.
First, is commonality a good idea?
The answer might sound obvious, of course it is.
If we want to drive down costs across the whole of defence, commonality is one means. It means we can achieve economies of scale and drive down support costs by reductions in spares holdings, training courses, consumables management, spreading wear and tear across a larger fleet and reducing the inevitable manufacturer second or third line maintenance contracts.
Just looking at one of those, training, if all three services have their own unique requirement and resultant equipment, it means three training courses, those training courses but have courseware generated and validated, trainers have to be trained, training facilities maintained and wherever there are people costs, we also have pensions, healthcare and other welfare provision.
In any way you look at it, cost reduction is derived from economies of scale, and economies of scale can only be achieved through commonality because lets face it, the RAF is not going to be ordering hundreds of anything major any time soon and neither are the other services.
Casting the net wider, multi-national or collaborative development projects strive for commonality but very rarely achieve it, the recent A400M example is illustrative of this. The RAF will be spending between £30m and £50m of the defence budget, or taxpayers hard earned, on release to service for the difference between the baseline A400M and the UK version.
To put that into perspective, that is between 3 and 5 years running costs for a Bay Class LSD(A), or 3 to 5 years of the Red Arrows if you want to keep it light blue.
However, if we strive for commonality is there a danger of ending up with sub optimal solutions across all three services?
Another obvious answer, yes, of course there is.
So the argument becomes one not characterised by black and white, but shades of grey.
For an example, let’s start with automatic cannons, a piece of equipment that could be argued, has a high potential for the elusive goal of one size fits all.
In the light blue corner, there was the Aden 30mm cannon that was still in service when the Mauser BK 27mm was introduced on the Tornado and Typhoon. If we do end up purchasing a cannon pod for the F35B, it will not be the Mauser or Aden, the General Dynamics GAU-22/A
See what I am getting at, all of those fire roughly 20mm-30mm projectiles at the Queens enemies, all are different, all require their own support contracts, armourers courses and ammunition holdings. That ammunition will potentially be life expired at different points and require expensive disposal.
On face value it seems ludicrous that there are so many variations on a very similar theme.
But dig a little deeper and the choices made by which we ended up with this menageries of 30mm weapons are all reasonable and in many ways are all eminently sensible.
Could we put a Rarden in a Tornado, might be somewhat difficult reloading the clip at 30,000 feet, is a high rate of fire cannon like the 27mm Mauser really suitable for shipboard use. Electrical or mechanical cycling might sound an esoteric difference but in a complex electromagnetic environment like a frigates deck, safety says it is not. Does the 30mm Bushmaster have the required performance of the 40mm CTA against existing and emerging armoured vehicle threats?
These are all considerations that drive divergence.
And yet we come back to the cost realities of pursuing the 100% solution, simply, in a world of finite or reducing defence budgets we might have to face compromise.
Another example, Brimstone, why is it this was not specified for carriage on Apache or storage and handling on ships. Storm Shadow stand off cruise missile, another example, why was this not examined with ground or ship launching in mind?
It is here that we see the pernicious effects of inter service rivalry.
If Storm Shadow, just one example, could be ship launched, or fired off the back of a truck, as it should be, the service uniqueness evaporates and the platform most suited for the task should be used.
Libya showcased the brilliant capability of the Tornado, in flight refuelling and all round goodness, a brilliant capability to have. But what if during the billion pound development of Storm Shadow, the MoD had insisted on platform launch diversity?
The Royal Navy Tomahawk cruise missile, another fantastic capability, accepting the differences between Storm Shadow and Tomahawk, why can we only deliver this weapon from a very small number of submarines?
Without dissecting the specifics of Libya, it seems common sense to have platform diversity for as much equipment we have.
Looking at future equipment, the moribund Fire Shadow loitering munition, a piece of equipment that the Army developed in isolation, why not have a version that can be air launched, submarine launched or even launched from a frigate using Harpoon launch tubes?
The Third Generation Maritime Fires (TMF) project was a strong effort by the MoD, DSTL and BAE to utilise AS90 barrels/breaches in the existing Mk8 mountings and in service NATO standard 155mm ammunition to meet the future naval gunfire requirements. It would have provided ammunition commonality across the Royal Navy and Royal artillery, tapping into the wide number of 155mm manufacturers for current and future requirements, whether that is plain old HE or extended range precision natures. Even if the bagged propellant charges were not used and some other combustible case used instead to meet naval fire resistance requirements (so still some development) the expensive bits at the front would still be common. The two part ammunition might have slowed down the rate of fire but to compensate, it would have had a bigger bang.
Economies of scale, tapping into the significantly larger 155mm ammunition market and shared ammunition.
What a brilliant idea.
Except it was defunded and cancelled in 2010 and now the Royal Navy will be striving for commonality with other naval forces, those equipped with either the BAE 5″ Oto Melara 127mm.
One promising development is the Common Anti Air Missile system that after decades of service specific unique solutions to the common requirement of shooting down aircraft is addressing the needs of both the Royal Navy and Army.
Was this a fortunate by product of Rapier and Sea Wolf going out of service at roughly the same time or was a demand from the MoD for commonality and launch platform diversity?
I would hope it was the latter.
This means the MoD, through the defence lines of development and through life cost management approach is actually getting better, but then I come back to Fire Shadow.
Which then leads me on to Wildcat.
Commonality, a laudable goal, results in a suboptimal capability for one party.
Commonality is a complex subject with no easy answers!
At every requirements setting exercise, do we now look at the other services future requirements and think you know what, with a tweak here, a bit more cost up front and an acceptance of compromise, we could save a shed load of money in the long term?
Can the MoD spend to save or is cross service requirements governance too weak.
Who will sign off on potentially increasing development programme costs whilst possibly reducing narrow service centric capabilities against the promise of savings in jam tomorrow?
Is single service politics just too strong or are capability arguments that result in a lack of commonality entirely plausible and we just have to suck it up?
Merlin HC3 anyone?