The Merlin Mk2 Challenge

The Merlin Helicopter Fleet was was identified as one of the two main Naval Helicopter for the Royal Navy, the other being the Lynx Wildcat. The Merlin Mk2 in particular, would be the key anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter for the ASW-centric Royal Navy, an upgraded version of the Mk1. There however, is another role for the Merlin Mk2. It is to be used as a Airborne Early Warning (AEW)/Airborne Surveillance And Control (ASAC) aircraft. This after all is to replace the age-old Sea King Mk7 which have held the ASAC role for a long time since after the Falklands War.

All seems rather simple, but the challenge boils down to numbers. It was longed planned that only only 30 out of 38 Mk1s would be upgraded to the new Mk2 standard. Dividing that between ASW and AEW/ASAC roles, not forgetting there needs to be Merlins for the Type 23s/45s and training/operational conversion units, 30 is a rather low number. Then in May 2014, a report stated that another few Mk1s would be upgraded although the number was not stated. This report further revealed further details:

In the current fleet configuration, 25 Merlin Mk. 2s need to be available at readiness with five in maintenance. Of those 25, 14 will be dedicated to the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier (QEC) when that ship puts to sea as part of a task group, with aircraft configured for the ASW role and the airborne early warning mission, equipped with the radar system selected through the Crowsnest program.

That sounds much better for the future Royal Navy, particularly for the carrier-centred Response Force Task Group (RFTG)/COUGAR deployment. Even so, the numbers must be finalised to be more than 30 to make the Mk2 force credible. From the quote, 14 Mk2s will operate off the Queen-Elizabeth Class carrier, though this depends on the mission. This news release, particularly page 71, states that an adequate force would be 4 Merlins for ASW activities, and 4 for AEW/ASAC. It has been reported that only ten Crowsnest (see also this article ) radar sets would be purchased, and not all ten will probably be used. I would wage, as has others, that at the maximum eight (8) sets will be for AEW/ASAC duties, and the remainder for training/OCU.

It sounds nice to have more than 30 Merlin Mk2s but the number must be finalised soon. Stepping back, it’s all about the two carriers. If we have 14 Merlin Mk2s operational on one carrier but the other rotates, we need spare Mk2s to deploy on the next carrier when it relieves the second. Theoretically, there should be 14×2=28 Merlin Mk2s for rotation, though that would mean really stretching the Royal Navy’s budget. But let’s be conservative and have only four Merlin Mk2s (in rotation with the AEW/ASAC Merlins). That means exactly 34 Merlin Mk2s to be brought in service. There’s also the other eleven (11) Merlin Mk2s by the way. We know around five or six (5/6) will be for the small ship flights, 829 Naval Air Squadron (NAS). That leaves the other half for training/OCU or even rotation if the budget is tight and regretably, only 30 Merlin Mk2s will be around from 2015.

Another challenge is which helicopter squadrons will be around when the final numbers of Merlin Mk2s will be fixed. At present:

Merlin Squadrons:
814 NAS
820 NAS (both ASW Merlin Mk1/Mk2s based upon the assault ships/QECs/RFA ships
824 NAS (training/OCU “Parent” unit for the ASW Squadrons)
829 NAS (small ship flights for Type 23/26/35 frigates and destroyers)

Sea King Mk7 AEW/ASAC Squadrons:

849 NAS (training/OCU “Parent” unit for the AEW/ASAC Squadrons)
854 NAS (AEW/ASAC Squadron)
857 NAS (AEW/ASAC Squadrons)

Basing upon 30 Merlin Mk2s, 829 NAS will definitely survive, especially with the future Type 26 frigates with Sonar 2087. 849 NAS will survive until at leasr 2018, operating seven/7 Sea King Mk7. It will probably disband afterwards. Now with 30 Merlin Mk2s and 14 operational on a QEC, that would mean 1) at least one squadron on the QEC. This one squadron will govern all 14 Mk2s, but they be split amongst ASW, AEW/ASAC and Search and Rescue (SAR) duties (you need SAR for an aircraft carrier! Don’t just depend on your escorts). Or 2), two (2) Squadrons governing all 14 Merlin Mk2s on the carrier, meaning one squadron for ASW, one for AEW/ASAC.

As stated, there should (logically) be rotating Merlin Squadrons (one/two back at a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) and those on the QEC so that as the carriers rotate, the flight personnel and helicopters do as well. Looking at the picture, since ASW is the bigger component on a QEC (but not more critical), 814 and 820 NAS both should survive post 2015/2020 so that they rotate between each carrier. If option 2) occurs, that would mean 845 and 857 NAS will survive, or one of the NAS will survive but will be double manned (like part of 815 NAS). Not forgetting the 5 or 6 NAS remaining from the 25-14-5/6. Those will either be training/OCU or even a Test and Evaluation Squadron. So either 824 or 849 NAS will survive, but not both.

All this is of course guesswork. But bottom line is that there must be more than 30 Merlin Mk2s in the future and enough NAS squadrons to make both carriers worthwhile.

Update: Well, the Royal Navy has revealed some part of it. 849 NAS, the OCU for the Sea King Mk.7 ASAC/AEW will be the one and only ASAC squadron after 2018, and turn into a front line squadron. It will have three flights of possible six Merlin Mk2s will the Crowsnest technology (logical guess.). Two of the flights are drawn from the two current frontline ASAC/AEW squadrons, 854 and 857 NAS. They will be named “Normandy Flight” and “Palembang Flight” respectively. 857 NAS will disband in 2015 and 854 later. See this link. Sad case for only one ASAC/AEW Squadron but good confirmation.

The Type 26 Frigate: The October 2014 Letter

Something letters/emails/news releases/literature exaggerates, other times the just lie to the reader. This parliamentary letter from current UK Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, to the current Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Rory Stewart may be telling a huge lie or exaggerating, or simply giving the facts which could have been given earlier. I focus of several parts of the letter.

First, Fallon’s reply states or rather confirms that the Type 26 may (the design isn’t finalised) carry the the Mk 41 VLS tubes. This is significant as previously, it was a toss up between Mk 41 or the SYLVER VLS, which the Royal Navy already uses on its Type 45 destroyers. There has been many articles on the pros and cons regarding each different VLS system, but the Mk 41 certainly is the better choice for the Royal Navy in terms of practicality (Others have covered this in greater detail so I won’t–for the moment). In any case, the sweating of whether it was going to Mk 41 is finally over.

A second more surprising topic/issue brought up from the letter is the number of VLS cells, 24. Now, if you skim through old articles and blogs about the Type 26, everyone said the first model in around 2012 had 24 cells. Then in 2013 with the high likelihood of it moving to Mk 41, the number dropped to 16, given the almost definitive displacement and dimensions of the ship. You can view NavyRecognition’s articles here and here and watch the two Youtube videos below.

16 tubes in my view would be pushing it to the bare minimum so the letter would be on the surface a welcome. But 24 tubes would mean a ship with a larger displacement (noting that the MK 41 is a heavy tube) and of large dimensions. Secretaries of State and politicians are known for never telling the truth or setting the facts straight. Stil, this is from a SoS to a Select Committee Chairman, most possibly for a report (I can’t figure out what the letter is exactly for; any guesses?). 24 is a nice touch but not without complications.

Third, the possibility of exaggeration comes in the types of weapons the Mk 41 VLS cells may fire. The letter says “Such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile), to anti-ship missiles and Anti-Submarine Rockets…”. First part, the well known Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM). It’s already in the Royal Navy, that is, with the Trafalgar-Class and the Astute-Class SSNs. But unlike the US Navy, the Royal Navy fires TLAMs via their torpedo tubes, not submarine VLS tubes or using Mk 41 VLS on their surface ships. It would mean buying the TLAM variant that can be fitted into a Mk 41 VLS tube, altering the costs complications. But ok,  it’s nice Fallon tells Stewart that the Type 26 will/may fire the TLAM. (Personally, I’m not a strong proponent of the Type 26 being a land-attack ship).

Second part, “to anti-ship missiles”. Ok, here it is not an exaggeration or a lie but just reiterating a “known-unknown” (I’m not a Rumsfeld supporter btw). No one knows what anti-surface warfare (ASuW) missile the Royal Navy will be getting. Ok, the fantasy fleet people think it’s going to be the US Nay’s next-generation Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) (see here). That’s fine, but the missile isn’t exactly out yet or even projected to be sold to the UK. Others suggest the future SPEAR III missile may be the future ASuW weapon. That supposedly can quad-pack into the Mk 41 so that would be 24×4=96 SPEAR III missiles if all the cells are filled (never the case). But again, SPEAR III isn’t out yet (though it is a UK project).

Third Part which could be an exaggeration of the Type 26’s capabilities or a real fact is the “and Anti-Submarine Rockets” part. This undoubtedly refers to the RUM-139 VL-ASROC or simply ASROC, the only possible rocket launcher with a torpedo in it. Now, that would be a wonderful weapon for the Type 26, especially the eight of them fitted with the Sonar 2087 sonar, the supposedly best kind of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sonar around. ASROC however needs the torpedo to be effective. So far, the USN and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) use the Mk 46 or Mk 50 torpedo in their ASROCs. The Royal Navy’s Stingray torpedo has never known to be fitted on a ASROC type rocket, nor launched vertically. Again, costs come into play if this is a fact. Or an exaggeration?

There’s some more to be picked out of the Fallon-Stewart letter such as the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Light) (FASGW (L)) missile. It will be called the Martlet. Other issues, well read the letter yourself.

To be expanded later.

One Company: The central unit for the British Army’s external engagement

So Army 2020 plans are slightly changing (I’ll blog about that later). But first, a short post on British Army deployments. To the average observer, hey there’s x or y regiment deploying for training or military engagement. People would assume it is a whole brigade/battalion-sized unit deploying for the operation/exercise. Nope. It’s actually (usually) one company-sized unit that deploys. Let’s take a look:

1) This article does clarify that only 1 Squadron (Royal Armoured Corps terminology), D Squadron of the Queen’s Royal Lancers was deployed. Some may it’s the full QRL but it is highly likely just one squadron given the number of vehicles and troops stated.

2) This one explicitly says it’s just one squadron from the 26 Engineer Regiment, namely 30 Armoured Engineer Squadron.

3) Even in the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) area in Canada, it’s just one squadron that’s deployed per regiment. You may say the tweet just shows just D squadron but the whole of the Queen’s Royal Lancers deploy. More often that not, it is one squadron from each unit type–armoured/light infantry, armour, armoured cavalry, Combat Service Support etc that forms a Battlegroup or Lead Armoured Battle Group (see the 2012 Army 2020 leaflet).

4) For overseas exercises like Exercise Silver Arrow, it’s also just a Company that deploys/is deployed. In this case, Chindit Company, 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. (Same exercise here). For Exercise Rapid Trident, it was not the whole of the Light Dragoons, but just B Company. (See also this tweet, same exercise). In Exercise Jebel Tarik, the Light Dragoons again only deployed B Squadron, while in EX JEBEL SAHARA, C Squadron was sent.

5) Training with the UK’s closest ally, the United States (US), also involved one squadron from the (really) rapid deployment unit, the Parachute Regiment. In this case, B Company, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment “integrated” with a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) from the 82nd Airborne Division. One UK Company with one US BCT (US BCTs, even airborne/infantry are larger than normal brigade-sized units).

6) The news and social media has been writing much about Exercise Black Eagle, the British Army’s Lead Armoured Battlegroup’s training with the Polish Army in Poland. Battlegroup is the key term here–in British Armed Forces’ definition, its one unit, plus others. In this case, it’s not even one full brigade. Rather, it’s “an armoured squadron of Challenger 2s, two Warrior armoured infantry squadrons and protected mobility infantry company” (see this link . There’s actually more than that, but it’s not the topic here). The Armour squadron mentioned is C Squadron, the King’s Royal Husssars. (Ok, this link says it’s D Squadron. And for 1 R WELSH it is at least A Company, definitely 1 Platoon)

7) The lead Air Assault Task Force is not made up of all the units of 16 Air Assault Brigade. It’s not even made up on all the units of 2nd or 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. Rather it consists of companies/squadron-sized units from 16 AA, plus one, yes only one parachute-trained Rifle Company from either 2 or 3 PARA. In the latest Salisbury Plain Exercise, this was C Company, 3 PARA. Even the Lead Armoured/Mechanised task force in Exercise WESSEX STORM consists of a company-sized unit leading a battlegroup. In this case, it’s the Left Flank, 1st Battalion the Scots Guards (Left Flank is the name of a Rifle Company within 1 SCOTS).

8) Most recently, G Battery, 7th Royal Horse Artillery Regiment, partnered with the US 82nd Airborne Division’s Artillery to improve inter-operability so that both airborne forces can deploy together. See this link.

So the British Army’s exercises or deployments aren’t about whole Brigades/Regiments/Battalions. They are Company-sized units. What does this mean for the British Army in the future?

1) It obviously mean the onus is on the company. I’m not sure when the British started deploying their units via single companies–it could have been before or after the 2010 SDSR–but this certainly means the British Army and the UK armed forces overseas engagements rest with a company-sized unit.

2) It means that Majors (Major is the basic rank for British Army Company) and Warrant Officer Twos (W02s) (sometimes Warrant Officer One (WO1)) are give great responsibilities–they have to be the read to lead their units/be ready to move (RTM) and have to ready to engage with international partners/allies or even be ready to engage adversaries. Majors, ther 2ICs (Captains most definitely), and their RSMs will have to act as ambassadors during military engagements/training exercises (see example 8). They will have to be ready to talk to British media, foreign media regarding a range of military and non-military topics. As leaders of only a company, they will have to quikcly learn how to work with foreign militaries, especially those with different standard operating procedures (SOPs). I believe in most other militaries, only Lieutenant Colonels and above have the academic and army training to work seamlessly with other armed forces. This is not to say all British Army Majors and senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) are not able to work with other armies. However, since companies may or will be the main unit of defence engagement, their OCs and leaders must quickly learn how to engage and related with others

3) It means a hundred plus (depending of the size of the company) soldiers themselves have to learn how to engage with other militaries or citizens (suppose they get deployed for non-combat duties). They have to learn culture, languages, SOPs, even simple manners. Which every company/battery/squadron deployed overseas must train its men to know how to work with other armies/armed forces.

4) It means as a company they will have to present themselves with the image of at least a battalion/regiment to their foreign counterparts. I mean, given the size of British Army/Royal Marine companies/squadrons, they have to show their counterparts/allieds they are still a viable force. Of course as mentioned, this company may travel as part of a larger Battlegroup–they “tailored” unit in British Army’ operations. They may be complemented by HQ staff, support arms and others. Even so, they still need to present themselves as a force. And, should conflict break out, UK companies would be the first to deploy now, especially given the Army 2020 concept of A) the Lead Air Assault Task Force, B) The Lead Armoured Task Force/Battlegroup C) and NATO’s new Very High Readiness Task Force.

More points to be added later

Weak or non-arguments for women in close combat

This isn’t exactly the Future Force 2020 or Army 2020 post I wished to write but this morning I had a tweet debate with former (yes former he is no longer in active service) Colonel Richard Kemp, the self-proclaimed commander of British Forces in Afghanistan (dubious claim but that is another matter). He was tweeting an article by the Telegraph (or Tory-graph) that said that women could be called for close combat roles. So he wrote on twitter:

“Women in Infantry. No military logic, political correctness. A further move to weaken the Army’s fighting capability”

I launched a short twitter debate (in the time I had–I’m not reposting it here as you can check out either of our accounts) and he from his high end position try to argue what I called non-arguments. These included:

The Israel Defence Force (IDF) may have women in the infantry, and so do the Kurds. I’m talking about the British Army. (Suddenly, the British Army will be weaker than these armies/armed forces if women serve in close combat/the infantry?)

Women in the artillery, CAS (Close in Air Support–either Gunships or piloted aircraft), Engineers are different from Women in the infantry. (He failed to show how so and as if the physical and mental strain for women in these combat/combat support service units make less of a difference than women in the infantry)

Women in the infantry will spoil combat effectiveness. (No definition of Combat effectiveness–see argument above and no examples in comparison to other armed forces)

Have you served in the infantry? (That was a question to me. I hate, extremely hate people challenging others over military service. Serving or having served in a combat unit or armed forces does not mean you are better off than others and have stronger knowledge of the military. Non-argument.)

Serving in the infantry is like a surgeon operating. (Facepalm. A surgeon is a specialist requiring at least two medical degrees. An infantry soldier does not require a specialist degree or is considered a specialist. Conversely, artillerymen/women. pilots, engineers do.)

Kemp cities only the 2014 Gaza Conflict where IDF female soldiers served support roles. (Like in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, women did not served in combat in the IDF? Or quasi-military organisations? Or the Mossad?)

Worst argument of all by Kemp: Women don’t join male football teams, so they shouldn’t join the infantry. (What sort of stupid argument or non-argument is that? Super Facepalm)

If Kemp thinks he owns the British Army or knows the whole combat effectiveness of the Army (he only talks about the infantry which in combat requires CSS and aerial support), I just don’t know.

PS: All this debate is due to the yet to be released UK government investigation/consultation on Women in Ground Close Combat Roles. See this article for example.

PPS: Richard Kemp WAS NOT and never WAS Commander British Forces Afghanistan. He was

!) Only Commander for Operation Fingal from 5 July 2003 to 30 November 2003–a pity few months!!!!

2) He commanded only a force of 300 plus troops!!!!