Sunday, 8 February 2015

Some Stuff I've been pondering this week

Evening all. Lot to get through in one sitting, but let's dive straight in.

First up is a story over at War is Boring about the USAF wanting to get rid of some of its EC-130H Compass Call aircraft (first saw this link over at Think Defence, brought up by user "TAS"). TAS made the jokey comment that we should all pitch in a few quid in order to buy some and naturally I agree because as anyone that has read this blog for any length of time will know, I loves a bargain so I does! 

And in all seriousness this does seem to be something of a bargain if it turns out to be the real deal. I say "if" because a classic budget trick used the globe over is to offer up something for being cut that you know damn well nobody will accept, and the Compass Call aircraft might very well fall into that. If not then it seems the USAF would genuinely be willing to mothball seven of its fleet of 15 aircraft, saving approximately $300 million over the next four years (which would seem to suggest an average running cost of about $10.7 million/£7.02 million per year, per aircraft).

Of course instead of just saving money they could make some cash, by selling them to us friendly Brits! Although the Compass Calls are laden with secret squirrel kit it shouldn't be too much of a problem to get authorisation for a sale, not least because the UK has just started taking delivery of the new Airseeker aircraft, which are basically the same as the USAF Rivet Joint. The two countries have a long history of sharing sensitive information and knowledge, and this sale would offer the USAF the additional benefit of keeping these helpful aircraft in service, albeit now in UK hands.

And I think a purchase would make a lot of sense for the UK. Here is the chance to snap up a massive capability leap for the RAF at a bargain basement price. The base Hercules aircraft itself is already in RAF service so a pool of trained pilots, ground crews and spares already exists. What doesn't exist in the RAF anymore is a strong Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) capability, not least since the ALARM missile was retired. 

Supposedly this will be covered in the future by a mixture of using the F-35's radar as a jammer along with various guided munitions, but I think a dedicated aircraft like Compass Call, with the ability to jam radars, communications and just about any other electronic signal that you can think of, would be a real boon to UK forces. As was pointed out in the War Is Boring article these aircraft have served over Iraq and Afghanistan and represent a handy little tool to have around, being useful in both full scale conventional campaigns and smaller scale "COIN" wars and interventions, such as the current operations taking place over Iraq against ISIS.

The US want shot of some of theirs, we could make good use of some, so I'm sure if the powers that be wanted then a good deal could be accomodated. That is of course providing the treasury plays ball. And that's the real sticking point, in that government budgets are nothing if not inflexible. While we routinely here about money being found for new projects, typically a short investigation yields a revelation that in fact the money has just been jigged around a little and that the "new" spending is simply planned work being pulled forward from later years (as happened recently due to a £900+ million underspend by the MoD). 

It's not purely an MoD problem, its been well documented across government that there is a lack of flexibility in budgeting and as a result an inability for ministers and their civil servants to pounce on deals like this. We can dream I guess!

Now, from that same War is Boring article I noticed that the USAF is still touting the $550 million (£361 million) price tag for its planned Long Range Strike Bomber. This seems rather odd/laughable to me, because the USAF doesn't exactly have a sterling track record of delivering programs to their budgeted time and cost profiles. It's likely to be made harder by all the requirements I see kicking about.

Because one of the problems with a project like this is that because it's always going to be quite expensive in the first place, people have a tendency to start demanding it perform a host of other side roles in order to obtain value for money. As the requirements expand, so does the amount of crap that the aircraft is required to haul around. This adds to cost, which tends to drive down the unit numbers, which encourages more people to add yet more shit to them to make them yet more multi-role, and so the spiral continues, till you end up with one aircraft that can practically fight a war by itself, but only at the expense of the rest of the air force.

Having learned absolutely nothing from the past it already seems the USAF is heading down this path. Given some of the things that people seem to expect the LRSB to be capable of in the future, then at the current rate it will eventually just be a massive collection of radars glued together with a big dollop of hope, with enough space for a handful of bombs somewhere in the middle.

It really doesn't have to end up like that. A new design that is a little more "stealthy" compared to the B-2, a set of engines (there are plenty of options available) and re-use the radar from the F-35, and Bob's your uncle. Just build a bomber, not a death star and the $550 million per aircraft cost should be more than achievable. At this stage it's a viable and successful project just waiting for someone (or several people) to come along and f**k it up!

Back in the UK and we have a general election looming, in case you didn't know from all the wall to wall media coverage which is only going to get worse as we approach May the 7th. What I found amusing though was a big push being made by the MoD to get more service personnel to vote, with the revelation that around 1/3 of the armed forces are not on the electoral register. It seems to me a rather cruel campaign in a sense, to encourage members of an organisation that has seen thousands of cutbacks delivered by successive governments to then vote for them. Politicians it would seem still have no sense of tact and never miss the chance to grab a few headlines.

Every now and again though politicians do finally do something right. After all, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. And on that note £500,000 from the fines imposed on banks as part of the LIBOR rigging scandal will be given to the Fly Navy Heritage Trust in order to help them carry out repairs on a pair of Fairey Swordfish aircraft. Some of the money will also be used to build up a supply of spares. You can read more about that here on the Royal Navy's website.

And finally the local hooligans of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, have been off tearing up the Stanford Training Area in Norfolk, exercising as a battle group along with engineers in order to seize a simulated airfield. All this is part of a build up to a six-week joint exercise in the US with part of the 82nd Airborne division. Which raises a question in my mind.

My question goes as such; what is the purpose for II Squadron, RAF Regiment?

I've long stood up for the purpose of the RAF Regiment. I think history has demonstrated its utility and the manpower allocation for the task is actually quite small in the grand scheme of things. But in turn I've shared some of the criticism that some have for it, such as the oddity of not having a squadron permanently deployed (on a rotating basis) to the Falklands Islands, which is arguably the one airfield the UK operates that is always at some degree of risk of precisely the kind of attack which the RAF Regiment is designed to prevent.

II Squadron is the massive oddity in the pack though. Aside from being able to serve as a regular field squadron it's also trained for parachute jumps, ostensibly giving it the capability to capture forward airfields by air assault. But the practicality of what is basically just a reinforced company seizing and holding an entire airfield is somewhat up for debate. Indeed the Parachute regiment, able to deploy whole battalions plus support would seem like a much more viable option if such a task were required.

Which rather leaves II Squadron up in the air from my perspective (no pun intended). Options for its future would seem to sit into three broad categories; 1) disband, 2) retain and attach to 16 Air Assault Brigade, with the purpose of securing landing zones (even just for resupply) while the rest of the brigade would move off to extend its operations, 3) retain and re-role.

Re-role to what though? 

Well one possibility might be to turn it into a dedicated Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) unit. The horrific execution of a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS provides us with a stark reminder of one of the many dangers faced by RAF and allied pilots when conducting operations over enemy held territory. The morale effect of knowing that help would be on hand should the pilot get into trouble and have to eject should not be underestimated, nor should be the propaganda value of captured pilots. It's also worth remembering how expensive it is and how long it takes to train prime quality pilots.

A CSAR unit built around II Squadron would prove quite handy I think. Clearly it could be given other tasks on the side if needed, but primarily it would be dedicated to the CSAR (and support to peacetime SAR) role in much the same way as the USAF's Pararescuemen are (incidentally it was the UK that essentially invented the concept of CSAR from the air in 1915 when Richard Bell-Davies of the Royal Navy Air Service rescued his wingman by landing his aircraft and picking him up from under the nose of the enemy, receiving the Victoria Cross in the process).

Such a unit would need a bit of equipment diverted its way, and I understand that in the current budget climate that's another strain that defence could do without, but I think it would be another small capability uplift that could have a big impact in the grand scheme of things.


  1. Always interesting to read your ideas...

    How about II Squadron, as you suggest, take prime responsibility for CSAR, but they have the role as part of SFSG, I would return 1 Para to the main ORBAT in 16 Air Assault Brigade and have SFSG comprising of a HQ company [specialists that have all passed Special Forces selection] a company of Royal Marines [drawn from volunteers across the Corps who have ambition for SF selection] a company of Parachute Regiment [again volunteers, from across the regiment, of individuals who are considering SF selection] and II Squadron [CSAR and drawn from the RAF Regiment]

    1. Hello anon, thanks for stopping bye,

      You could do, but would II Squadron add something unique to the SFSG? Would training for that distract from the CSAR role? And what would the Parachute Regiment lose by not having a battalions worth of spaces to rotate people into for the added training and experience of working in the SFSG?

  2. Well...good points... From your suggestion, I envisage CSAR being a SFSG tasking delivered by II Squadron [they might also be the SFSG unit to call on when SF need cordon support when dealing with Airport-based incidents] - much like the RM based company being the go to SFSG unit for Arctic, Littoral and amphibious insertion, and the Para based company obviously the go to SFSG unit when Airborne insertion is necessary...

    There would still be rotation through the SFSG from the main regiments [and the value this brings] but we return to 3 Para battalions in 16 Air Assault...

    1. Hmm, I'm just not sure that 16AAB needs three battalions. They're not going to pull off a large scale aerial assault again anytime soon. For conventional campaigns it's a brigade that could easily be supplemented by regular army units.

      As for the CSAR task, I'm not sure if it's really the sort of thing that needs including in SFSG. I think it would be better as its own little specialist area. It's more of a support task for various forms of aviation than it is anything related to SF work.

  3. Well...its always good to think these through and I bow to your greater wisdom ...but as a last word on the ideas, from me

    Three battalions, in my view, makes it easier to provide the one lead air assault battalion to rotate through the very high readiness cycle ...

    in my SDSR 2015 I disband the RAF Regiment but try to disperse a majority of the personnel through other units - hence I agree with the CSAR idea ...however, now there is no operation Herrick I think the politicians [and the faceless, unelected, treasury] looking at the SFSG and asking, "are they still required",
    "Yes, minister, they are responsible for a range of tasks including CSAR ..."
    "CSAR, what's that? Talk to me in plain speak, man."
    "It's the unit that will get you out of a public relations nightmare and prevent a media frenzy if one of our pilots go down."
    "Marvellous, can we make an announcement at the next conference and do some photos with the chaps?"
    "Well, minister..."

    1. Haha, I like you're thinking anon! Not sure about the greater wisdom though!

      You're right that it would ease the pressure on 16AAB to generate that lead battalion, but I just wonder how important that is, versus the loss that would result both in terms of skills rotation and the effectiveness of the SFSG? I imagine having a full battalion permanently attached makes it easier for the SFSG to plan and coordinate their operations?

      If you did want to go with the company from here, company from there approach for the SFSG then the absolute best way to safeguard it from politicians and grumbling general staffs would be to have a guards company as part of the setup;

      "What about getting rid of the SFSG? Do they really need it? That would save some cash wouldn't it?"
      "What, what, what? You can't dispose of the Guards Indpendent Parachute Company! And those other boys I guess, but the GIPC must be preserved minister! Unacceptable to let it go!"