Summary, Trends and Issues
Although the MoD, Services and Industry often come in for a drubbing, the fact remains that Complex Weapons is a high point and between, they deserve huge credit for capability husbandry.
Yes, there have been a few mis-steps that we can observe with the benefit of perfect 20:20 hindsight but from the industrial and political turmoil, or even chaos, of the nineties, has arisen a UK and European complex weapons powerhouse.
The UK has also managed to retain key capabilities onshore with Thales, Raytheon and MBDA.
Challenges remain, and it would probably have been wiser to include Raytheon in the Complex Weapons Portfolio, but that is for the future.
There are a number of observable trends and issues in complex weapon evolution, especially considering the time from concept to service cans sometimes be in decades, and it is worth looking at a few of them, not in any particular order.
Air to Ground – Increasing Precision, Decreasing Bangs
With a more rigorous and evolving interpretation of the Laws of Armed Conflict, a generally more litigious environment and greater operational need to reduce collateral damage in stabilisation conflicts over the last couple of decades, the trend has been smaller warheads with greater precision.
Precision, warhead size and reducing numbers of aircraft (driven by reducing budgets and increasing unit costs) exist on a circular path, each linked to the other. Smaller bombs and greater precision allow the same number of aircraft to carry more weapons, or for the cynic/realist, fewer aircraft can carry similar number of bombs as greater numbers of aircraft.
With increased accuracy the warhead size can be reduced.
Instead or laying a spread of bombs across an area that contains a number of targets in the assumption that enough bombs = enough destroyed targets, the emerging method is to accurately place one warhead on one target.
There is also a danger that high levels of precision lull decision makers and the public into thinking war can be conducted like micro surgery, without casualty or unintended consequences.
Air to Surface – Stand-Off Distances
With the proliferation of effective ground to air defence systems, the safe zone in which aircraft can operate with impunity has decreased. This has resulted in a trend for greater stand-off ranges, whether for SPEAR Capability 3, Brimstone 2 or Sea Venom, each has a greater range.
In any given weapon, the fuel fraction will therefore become greater in proportion to warhead. This has been achieved in general, by increases precision and improvements in energetics and efficiencies in propulsion.
None of this is a bad thing, operating at greater stand-off distances may not be required for many operational situations but against modern air defences, better to have and not need than need and not have. This is also why Meteor will be such a revolutionary system, although in the air to air domain, the ability to stand off at distance and destroy the enemy whilst they are trying their best to be invisible.
This is why SPEAR Cap 3 is such a good idea but it does lead on to the next trend.
Increasing Costs – Reducing Inventories
Running out of precision munitions during Operation ELLAMY was not a fiction, it is clear from operational data on the release of precision munitions in Afghanistan that the UK could not support the expenditure rates of both campaigns with existing inventories.
There is only one reason for the reduction in complex weapon inventory and that is cost.
A wider analysis of weapon cost v precision should illustrate that increasing precision means reducing numbers of aircraft and munitions to achieve a given effect i.e. increases in costs of munitions are balanced by reducing costs elsewhere but whilst this is true, it still has not allowed the UK to increase inventory.
One thing does seem a constant, after every conflict we are surprised by rates of expenditure, land, sea or air.
This is not a good thing.
Insensitive Munition Compliance
Modern missiles are now IM compliant, this means the warhead and energetics are subject to a range of qualification tests including fast heating, slow heating, bullet impact, fragment impact, sympathetic reaction and shaped charge jet impact.
Achieving IM compliance adds cost and can sometimes cause development problems but in the long run, these should be seen as wise investments if casualties caused by munitions exploding whilst in storage or carriage can be reduced, this is a good thing.
Re-use and Multi Service
The UK has access to a collection of cutting edge missile components, careful re-use should be an undercutting theme for future development.
The best example of this with current systems is the Common Anti Air Modular Missile (CAMM) that is used in the Land and Sea Ceptor systems. By using the ASRAAM as the base missile, MBDA have evolved a concept that whilst not unique, does provide a huge range of benefits derived from commonality and large manufacturing base. For example, instead of refurbishing the RAF’s ASRAAM stocks, the MoD found itself in a position where buying new off the CAMM line was cheaper.
This kind of common sense thinking has previously been a stranger to the MoD, with almost no common systems between the Army, RAF and RN.
It is to be highly commended and is, a good thing.
As part of the UK’s Network Enabled Capability programme an increasing number of complex weapons are now fitted with a data link. This allows the system to transmit target data for confirmation, abort and even off platform targeting.
The flexibility and capability this brings is going to be far reaching.
As the sales blurb goes, missiles will not be fire and forget, they will be fire and think.
This is a good thing.
Data Link Resilience
Those extremely useful data links are designed to operate in environments that include enemy electronic countermeasures there is no doubt they represent a point of failure and in any event, enemy gets a vote.
Especially if that enemy includes Russian forces because they have an extremely well developed ECM capability.
Am sure this happens already, but exercise and test activities that include data link degradation or spoofing may well be worthwhile.
Indirect Land Precision Fire
We have seen the increasing availability of both line of sight and non line of sight precision weapons that are fired from ground platforms, not aircraft. The potential of organic precision system to conduct some of the traditional roles of aircraft in deep strike and close air support may result in future ‘budget battles’
It is interesting to note that most of the GMLRS expenditure in both Iraq and Afghanistan was characterised as being in support of troops in contact and with reduced numbers of aircraft (driven largely by increasing unit costs) the expectation of ubiquitous availability of close air support may be difficult to meet in operations where those aircraft may be engaged in interdiction or attacks against enemy air defences. In the defence, e.g. in a Baltic type scenario, the time available between grinding down enemy air defences and the commencement of ground operations may not be to our liking or expectation.
Ground forces will have to be more self-sufficient in precision fire in support of deliberate actions or in response to unexpected activity.
This is not about absolutes, it is about shades of grey, land precision fires will not completely replace aircraft any time soon, for many varied and excellent reasons, but they may supplement and replace in some instances, and those instances may increase.
In stabilisation and COIN type operations, the mix will be as established in Afghanistan, in light footprint stand-off operations the mix will be as firmly established by Libya, Iraq and Syria, in conventional conflict where we may well be on the back foot, nature of that operation will dictate that the mix will err more towards organic land based precision fires.
The Lack of Big Bangs
The downward trend in warhead size as enabled by precision and influenced by concerns over collateral damage has resulted in large warheads being somewhat of a rare breed. In a recent operation in Iraq, the RAF made great play of the fact that the Enhanced Paveway III was used for the first time and yet as we look at integration and stockpile plans for the future weapons and integration programmes on the F-35B, we may have very little scope for repeating the act.
We have also seen a stockpile reduction programme with Storm Shadow.
All well and good if our enemies continue to drive around in Toyota pickups but if they unsportingly decide to build hardened aircraft shelters or reinforced concrete bunkers then we will need to retain the ability to generate a big bang.
A penetrating warhead for Paveway IV is under development but whether this will create the kind of behind cover effects as a 2,000 pounder od 450kg BROACH warhead remains to be seen, more on this later in the carrier strike section.
For Typhoon and especially F-35, and with an eye on FCAS, we need to retain the ability to strike deep, hard and with impressive terminal effects, oo-err
You often see people bemoaning the withdrawal of the BL755 cluster bomb and MLRS submunition rocket but I think the decision was the correct one, whilst effective, in a contemporary operating environment they are both politically impossible to deploy and generally, kill lots of civilians and EOD personnel in the aftermath of said operation.
Intelligent enemies will seek to exploit this by dispersing and forcing us to expend finite precision munitions on low value dispersed targets. In light touch operations we may actually find ourselves short of targets but in conventional operations, there will be too many targets for each one of them to warrant a precision munition.
Thus, we need a return to area effect weapons.
The GMLRS alternative warhead programme is just such a weapon, and this kind of technology may well find itself being deployed in other systems of delivery.
There is also still huge value in conventional high explosives for area effects, even when hammered with ‘steel rain’ MLRS sub munitions, operational feedback from Iraqi personnel showed the weapon they actually feared the most was actually the British 155mm L15 shell.
A Return to Anti-Tank
Mr Putin has reminded the West of the enduring value of armoured vehicles and our need to counter them. Although Russia will not field as many Armata as they want, they still have access to very large numbers of late model T-72’s, T80’s and T-90’s.
A ‘Return to Contingency’ must mean more than a handful of exercises, it must also mean a return to something that had gone out of fashion, doctrine development, equipment and training to destroy enemy armoured vehicles.
The removal of ‘kill box’ feature from Brimstone 2 is an example of this trend to concentrate on anti-Toyota conflicts. The withdrawal of SV overwatch variant, another (more on this later)
Returning to air and land delivered direct and indirect anti-armour capabilities must be a priority.
Costs of Aircraft Integration
For many reasons, we have found ourselves in a situation where the costs of integrating a weapon onto an aircraft is a significant cost, in fact, a significant proportion of the overall weapon system development cost.
This means we develop a weapon for one platform and then really struggle to achieve firing platform diversity. The result, poor export opportunities and lack of flexibility. Brimstone is a good example, only fired from Tornado, with plans for Typhoon integration only in place to cover the withdrawal of Tornado. No F35, no Predator, no Apache, no ground vehicles, no naval mount and no dismounted carriage. If we are not prepared to integrate a weapon into multiple platforms it is likely it will not be exported and we end up with boutique weapons with no critical mass and development costs unable to be covered by multiple users.
Another example is Sea Venom and Martlet, £90 million to integrate those two with the 28 Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters. Again, Martlet should be available on Army Wildcat, Apache, a naval mount, vehicle mount and a dismounted option, but it is only currently planned for 28 helicopters.
£120 million for Storm Shadow on Typhoon, there are other examples. F-35 integration costs are likely to be even higher.
Because of these costs we start to get into politics, the Army will not fit Martlet or Brimstone to its Wildcat helicopters, not because of some doctrinal purity of it being a recce helicopter for Apache, buts simply because the costs of integration will lessen the argument for Apache E.
The graphic below from an earlier post on the subject provides information on research into integration costs from a Society of Cost Analysis study.
Although there have been a number of initiatives for cost reduction in certification activities by workload sharing and recognition across multiple partners, this only works if those partners do not lose out or are agreeable to the integration effort. The F-35 Universal Armament Interface (UAI) may improve matters, or it may be used as a commercial barrier.
The whole situation is becoming untenable, it is stifling export opportunities and reducing flexibility and effectiveness.
Relative Expenditure Rates and Inventory
We are now accustomed to £150m tankers refuelling £70m fighter aircraft dropping £100k missiles on £10k pickups driven by people being paid £10 a day. We accept this because it is a useful surrogate for placing friendly personnel on the ground, with all the risk, political complications and logistics tail attached.
This has been carried out in environments where mostly, those on the ground do not have credible air defences.
In scenarios where Western forces have had time to deliberately build up forces, they have also had time and space to degrade enemy air defences, the Balkans and Iraq being excellent examples. The air defence destruction has provided freedom for ground manoeuvre AND close air support.
Carrier Strike without Deep Strike
Let me begin this section with a revisit of the controversy in 2011 about RAF Tornado aircraft flying from the UK to deliver Storm Shadow missile to Mr Gadhafi. If only we had carriers the argument went, we could deliver those Storm Shadow missiles so much more efficiently and just wait until the UK’s Carrier Strike matures, our F-35’s will be able to do the same so much better.
No, they won’t.
The simple reason is that the UK has chosen NOT to integrate Storm Shadow with the F-35.
SPEAR Capability 5, nominally to be met by a UK/FRA development called the UK/France Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FCASW) / Futur Missile Antinavire/Futur Missile de Croisière (FMAN/FMC).
The current working assumption for the In Service Date for FCASW is 2030-2035.
The only air to ground weapon currently planned for the UK’s baseline F-35B fleet is the Paveway IV.
Block 4 software is tentatively to include Meteor and SPEAR Capability 3, again, working assumption is 2023-2025.
As we know, F-35 ISD for land operations is 2018 with sea trials starting in roughly the same period and ISD Carrier Strike of approximately 2020, followed by FOC in 2023. Things may change but these are the target dates, shown in the image below.
This leaves Carrier Strike with a capability deficit, until the mid 2020’s it will have no organic deep strike against hardened targets and no stand-off capability. Paveway IV will by then have some capability against hardened targets but whether it will offer anywhere near the Storm Shadow 450Kg BROACH warhead remains open to speculation. It will have no anti-ship capability unless Paveway IV and SPEAR Cap 3 are used in that role. In the context of Carrier Enabled Power Projection, using carrier borne F-35 in conjunction with Typhoon/Storm Shadow/Brimstone/EPII will be a very good capability, but the vision of organic carrier strike is somewhat dulled by a lack of deep strike against hardened targets until SPEAR Cap 5 and lack of anything other than 225kg Paveway IV until the mid-2020’s.
These gaps are simply trade-offs against programme schedule and costs, no point in moaning about it, but at least we should understand them.
The Royal Navy Missile/Mk41 Gap
In addition to the deep strike deficit with the QE carriers, the Royal Navy is also facing a difficult challenge with its anti-surface missiles, and to a lesser extent, with its submarine launched land attack missiles.
The current Harpoon missile is effectively unusable in anything but the highest of conflict intensity, Russian ships would have to be steaming up the Thames before permission for its release would be granted!
The problem is one of passing ships in the night, or overlapping programmes.
Current Harpoon has a planned out of surface date of 2018, regardless of whether it is carried on Type 23 or Type 45.
This means it is not going to be transferred to either Type 26 or Type 31.
Given that the current planning assumption for SPEAR Cap 5 is to replace both Storm Shadow AND Harpoon but not until 2035, the Royal Navy is facing a capability gap, about 17 years-worth, on current plans.
There is also the question of what is going to fill the Type 26 Frigate’s Mk41 Vertical Launch Silo’s.
The UK has no missile currently in service that can make use of the Mk41, there are no plans to integrate Aster, or CAMM, or even SPEAR Cap 3. Plans for SPEAR Cap 5 are very vague at the moment and the launch mechanism not yet decided, but in any case, it will not be introduced until the mid-2030’s.
The question arises, if the Type 26 Mk41 VLS are fitted, as per current plans, what is the Royal Navy going to fill them with?
At the minute, unless current plans do not change, it will be fresh air.
The Royal Navy has been interesting in laser technology for some time and the MoD has only recently announced it will be entering into a technology contract demonstrator soon. Lasers do provide a great deal of interesting capability for self-defence but to address the missile and carrier strike gaps, not really relevant.
The Lack of Overwatch
As described briefly above, the UK effectively replaced Swingfire with dismounted Javelin teams.
The British Army has a range problem, modern Russian missiles perhaps outrange the main gun on Challenger 2 (terrain dependant) and certainly ‘outgun’ the 40mm CTA on Ajax. Although many seem to take great pleasure in hyping the capabilities of the 40mm CTA against main battle tanks this is dangerous, no matter how smart the CTA 40 is, it is not a tank killer, unless we are fighting fifties vintage tanks, which we will not be.
Experience from Ukraine has also shown that whilst we have been busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowing mounted close combat and artillery capabilities to wither on the vine, the Russians have not. Against a UK armoured battlegroup could be fielded a wide range of massed cluster and thermobaric munitions fired from tube and rocket artillery, coordinated using an equally diverse and capable set of UAS.
In short, we are outgunned and outranged.
This may well have come as somewhat of a shock to many in Andover but it is still a fact.
There are many lessons from Ukraine, but for complex weapons, reliance on dismounted Javelin teams is not a suitable strategy.