HC 772 Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from Defence Synergia


1. UK air power in the 21st century must first and foremost respond to and be defined by reference to a UK strategic narrative. This narrative will define the overarching rationale for UK forces and the relationship between those forces and the UK’s national interests and security priorities, calling for their use in combined, joint, and multi-national operations.

2. A higher-level statement of national direction is required to provide the basis for formulation of national doctrine so that step-down plans for the employment of national air power resources including unmanned air vehicles can be developed to support the Government’s strategic aims.

3. It is the DefenceSynergia (DS) view that these strategic aims and a coherent supporting narrative have yet to be fully articulated. As a result, current and future plans for the employment of UK air power risk being incoherent and uncoordinated. The net effect of this is basically confusion; specifically it highlights the mismatch between the essentially ground-centric aspirations of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the limitations on national security imposed by the proposed air power order of battle (ORBAT). As it is currently envisaged, this ORBAT will be insufficient and its limitations will have direct impact, by reducing the effectiveness and operational feasibility of military, naval, and diplomatic responses to any threat.

4. Therefore, this DS evidence to the HoC Defence Committee is written to exam the nature and future of unmanned combat, surveillance and carrier launched air systems (UCAV, UCAS, UCLASS). In so doing we look at some inconsistency and gaps in the funded UK air-power ORBAT as measured against NSS expectations. Indeed, we examine current United States Navy (USN) experience into the funding and balance of defence programmes, including UCLASS, and how these are impacted in UK and the United States (US) by the spiralling costs of the F35 Lightning II procurement. We go on to examine some of the operational, technical and diplomatic issues that the advent of unmanned air vehicles may pose. In doing so we touch on whether sufficient attention is being given to developing cohesive doctrine that considers the potential ethical consequences and emerging technological challenges involved.

Main Discussion

5. Background. Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2010 and the overarching NSS set the Defence Planning Assumptions (DPA) and direction of travel for all UK forces up to the year 2020. The generally accepted view outside of MoD is that the size, scope and capability of the UK armed forces is being dictated by the comprehensive spending review (CSR) process rather than any higher level strategic bench mark. Thus in air power terms we see capability gaps emerging; some, but not all, that might be filled by unmanned air vehicles.

6. UK Air-power Requirements to meet NSS DPA. In making its assessment of UK airpower requirements DS has in mind the following statement from the SDSR 2010: “...This environment will place a premium on particular military capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR). It will demand sophisticated and resilient communications and protected mobility by land, sea and air. It will also mean that our people must continue to be our winning edge. Therefore, as the NSS also calls for UK to ‘maintain her world wide role’ we note that the NSS direction of travel is for maritime/air focused armed forces with the ability to deploy on expeditionary operations whilst carrying out independent home or overseas tasking.”

7. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles and Drones. The advent and use of unmanned combat air vehicles and drones to supplement or replace manned air-power assets is a technological work in progress which does offer advantages in situations where risking the mortality or capture of the pilot/crew could adversely affect an operation. However, whilst limited numbers of various types of UAV are already operated by British forces for reconnaissance and strike the move towards the use of UCAV as a low cost and operationally safer alternative to manned aircraft will be impacted by the available and emerging technology, not least because the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—essential for autonomous operation—is immature; the uninterrupted bandwidth required for full or partial remote control is problematic and in a cyber-warfare environment not guaranteed to be totally secure. Indeed, as control of unmanned air vehicles is often predicated upon satellite communication system’s their vulnerability is increased if the enemy has the ability to disrupt or destroy friendly satellites.

8. UCAV Aerodynamic Constraints. A further factor to be considered in the development of UCAV is that the power to weight ratio of all air vehicles is governed by the mathematics of aerodynamic design; eg total payload and range—fuel consumption to deliver a payload over distance—as defined in the “Breguet Range Formula” albeit that there is a positive trade off advantage that UCAV offers in a high “g” environment beyond manned tolerance limits. Therefore, Dr Kopp, in his paper for the UAV Australia’s conference, 8 & 9 February 2001 in Melbourne, Australia, tells us that major savings may not accrue by simply replacing manned airframes with UCAV because size and engine performance are crucial factors and the lack of a pilot and life support system offer only marginal fuel (weight) savings.

9. The Operational & Developmental Implications of UCAV. Whilst the use of small drones (army Watchkeeper and RN Scan Eagle) and medium sized UCAV (RAF Reaper) is a reality the range, speed and payload characteristics of the current air vehicles restricts their operational use albeit that the sensor data can be transmitted globally and the capability for long duration loiter is an advantage. However, if British air-power doctrine is to develop in the direction of replacing some front line manned fast jets with land or maritime based UCAV this may require far larger (heavier) airframes than are currently operated and considerable further development of AI to allow the operational discernment required in modern warfare. The law of armed conflict, ethics and concepts of “war amongst the people” as well as more prosaic issues such as national air traffic restrictions having to be addressed. EG. In accordance with UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidance paper into unmanned aircraft system operations in UK airspace—CAP722 dated Aug 2012—all military Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) are to be registered as military aircraft under the auspices of the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) regulatory framework. It goes on to say in chapter 2–3.3: “Under normal circumstances and until appropriate national airspace procedures have been promulgated, flights will only be permitted within MAA approved Danger Areas or segregated airspace. These Danger Areas and segregated airspace must provide adequate radar services (or such processes that are agreed to be considered equivalent) such that the Rules of the Air Regulations requirement for the ‘Commander’ of the aircraft to avoid aerial collisions can be fully acquitted. This will also generally involve the installation of an approved Flight Termination System (FTS) and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system.” The key issue for the committee here may be to investigate with the CAA and MAA what the appropriate national airspace procedures will be, the effect upon MoD RPAS operations and when they will be promulgated? As these regulations currently refer to RPAS would this definition require adjusting for future autonomous systems?

10. If the RN ambition is to match US UCAV concepts for carrier borne operations then Catapult and Arrester gear (cats n traps) would have to be reconsidered for the Queen Elizabeth class (QEC). The USN X-47B Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft which is currently being developed and tested is the size and weight of a large fast jet with considerably more range. [Specifications = 2100 nm range, weight 44,500 lbs with a pay load of circa 4.500 lbs.] As trials in July 2013 aboard the carrier USS George H W Bush have demonstrated this size of air vehicle requires catapult launch and arrested landing capability. Alternatively the RN could opt for a long range land based UAV ISTAR technology such as “Global Hawk” and accept restrictions in range, payload and effectiveness of lower performance UCAV for shipboard operations.

11. US Congress View of Future Naval Aviation Fixed Wing v UCLASS The committee may wish to consider the views of future naval air power development offered by J. Randy Forbes, Congressman from Virginia’s fourth district, Member of the US House Armed Services Committee and Chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee who has recently said the following in respect of US maritime air-power development:

“In my opinion, the great debate in the Navy today is in regards to finding the right balance between quantity and quality, and while that debate is most often taking place in regards to surface warfare specific to ship numbers, it exists in...naval aviation in the form of the future Carrier Air Wing...I strongly believe the F-35C has not only sucked all the innovation out of the carrier based naval aviation community today, but it has sucked all the money out of the naval aviation overall heading into the future.”

Congressman Forbes notes “it may cost up to $1 billion to accelerate the UCLASS program yet for the F-35C, that’s the annual cost increase of a program that has a never ending list of problems specific to promises unlikely to be kept regarding capabilities.”

Congressman Forbes goes on to say: “I do not know if UCLASS can meet existing objectives for the program in the next 10 years...I do believe however that if the Navy wasn’t sinking every last dollar into the F-35C...the Navy would get more mileage with multiple UCLASS programs while holding the CVW line with Super Hornets than the Navy would get with continued investment in the F-35C...(which) ...has passed all cost threshold red lines... but it’s entirely possible a cut in the buy of F-35Cs is coming in the next budget simply because the money isn’t there to absorb the cost increases any more...It will cost the Navy $44 billion just to build 340 F-35Cs. The Navy could build 12 plane (sic) Super Hornet squadrons for $20.4 billion and take the remaining $24 billion and innovate UCLASS, and save money in maintenance and operations while ending up with more aircraft.”

12. Some Thoughts on Weapons Platform Types and Numbers. It seems clear that the future capacity and capability of UK Air-Power assets is under continuous review and that UCAV is now forming an important part of this mix. However, with the MoD wedded to a two fast jet strategy (Typhoon & Tornado to 2019, Typhoon & F35B Lightning II from 2020) deep penetration capability may be gapped. The RAF will effectively reduce to circa 155 of two fast jet types by 2020 with the RN having a significant share of the proposed F35B fleet. What is missing is a Tornado GR4 replacement to meet the RAF operational requirement (OR) for a Deep Penetration Offensive Capability (DPOC), which decision, according to MoD evidence to the NAO in Apr 2013, has been deferred to 2030 and is now being designated as a Typhoon replacement.

13. This DPOC OR is a possible contender for a move in the direction of UCAV. Work is being carried out by BAE Systems with the Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicles (Experiment) Integrated Project Team (SUAV(E) IPT) responsible for auditing and overseeing the “Taranis” project. However, this 18,000 lb (Hawk sized) £143 million development aircraft is due to fly in 2013 and is some way off providing the RAF with certain future stealth DPOC. In the interim, the cost of each F35B Lightning II is now officially acknowledged by the NAO to be circa £90 million, which has necessitated the UK reducing its buy from 138 to 48. The cost of acquiring, arguably limited “stealth” capability, absorbing large chunks of the defence budget affecting, as Congressman Forbes says in a US context, many other programmes.

14. The Air Power Mix—Critical Mass. Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon—a former Chief of the Air Staff—has estimated that with the planned personnel numbers and mix of fast jets (questionably 107 RAF Typhoon and 48 RAF/RN shared F35B) the RAF will be below critical mass and only realistically capable of fielding and maintaining 2 attack squadrons forward of UK main bases on enduring operations. [See UKNDA paper Funding Defence Mar 2013]. This equates to circa 30 Typhoon jets for land based tasking if, as planned, the F35B is dedicated to carrier operations. The DPA requirement being 12 F35B routinely embarked on QEC with the capability to surge to 36 in an emergency—a tall order from a total fleet of only 48 airframes. The total UK deployable air-power post 2020 being a notional 66 fast jets operating forward from land and sea once training, manning and maintenance tasking are included.

15. ISTAR, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) & Data Exchange in an Expeditionary Age. In an expeditionary data linked and intelligence hungry age having the AWACS and active command, control, communications, computer and ISTAR (C4ISTAR) data links that provide force extension and multiplier affect is all the more crucial when the combat forces are limited in number. Being able to extend the range, duration, time and battle space management view for the combat assets available (manned and unmanned) increases the utility of the force and helps to maintain critical mass. Which may encourage the committee to ask these questions:

(a)As these ISTAR enabled asset and their systems are so important why are the remaining four RAF E-3D Sentry in the forward available fleet flying with steadily outdated communications suites; MoD cancelling an option to buy into the US Block 40/45 “Project Eagle” open system architecture upgrade programme?

(b)Will Sentinel ASTOR be retained or is this capability a candidate for UCAV?

(c)From a UK defence systems stand point why has MoD cancelled its option to upgrade the RN fleet with Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC)—to be incorporated in the US UCLASS programme and without which the F35B will not be able to maximise its arguably limited defensive potential?

(d)If the MoD insists on a two fast jet fleet strategy where would UCAV fit in to this philosophy? Will the RN wish to buy into a maritime Taranis or US X-47B system? In which case what future plans do MoD have to introduce cats n traps to the QEC?


16. Full utility of British air-power cannot be assessed least alone realised until an overarching national strategic vision provides the doctrinal basis for raising, maintaining and funding the British forces in peacetime to meet their collective roles in furthering UK interests and security. Without this clarity MoD is in the position of having to shuffle ever decreasing funding between developing technology and legacy programmes with no clear understanding of what they are being tasked to achieve, when, where and why?

17. Despite the SDSR and NSS grandly discussing the character of future conflict, in the process pointing the armed forces in the direction of expeditionary maritime and air-power enabled operations—ever more reliance placed upon data links and ISTAR capability—some of these enablers are being allowed to wither on the vine. Whilst the NSS acknowledges that the future battle space will be more complex, especially in identifying neutrals, non-combatants and friends from foe, requiring a sophisticated response—CEC, Project Eagle, Sentinel (ASTOR) and LRMPA—that provide force multipliers are being neglected or cancelled.

18. The reality for British air-power in 2020 is that RAF and RN assets are reducing in numbers and improved capability is either insufficient to fill the gaps or an illusion. Indeed, so little attention has been paid to strategy it is highly unlikely that MoD can say exactly what air-power (manned or unmanned) meets UK’s needs. This problem is exacerbated by the MoD’s rigid adherence to its two fast jet fleet policy which in effect means that any new airframe (manned or unmanned) can only be introduced by way of an offset (retirement) of another fleet and each time the numbers in service fall as cost rise and critical mass is undermined.

19. Given all the above the committee may wish to consider these questions in relation to UCAV:

(a)With only 48 range, agility and payload restricted F35B how will MoD meet the requirement to defend the carrier group with only 12 routinely embarked on QEC without the force multiplier that CEC capability offers (US UCLASS, F18 and F35B/C to be so enabled)?

(b)As Tornado GR4 is not to be replaced (2019) to fill the RAF OR for DPOC will UCAV be employed in lieu?

(c)Is a notional combat ready deployable fleet of 30 Typhoon and 36 F35b Lightning II sufficient to meet the DPA without—notwithstanding the MoD two fast jet fleet policy—being supplemented by UCAV?

(d)Do the RN intend to deploy an X-47B size UCAV at sea (full carrier ops)? If so what research is MoD undertaking into retrofitting cats n traps to QEC?

(e)To what extent is the future of UCAV in UK dependent upon the development of Artificial Intelligence? What are the legal and diplomatic implications for UK of operating fully autonomous UCAV as opposed to RPAS?

(f)What CAA/MAA agreement has been reached in respect of RPAS/UCAV national airspace procedures being promulgated. How will these regulations impact future intercontinental enabled (armed or unarmed) unmanned air systems operating from UK air bases?

23 July 2013


Note: For clarity and assistance to the committee—we offer below a list of commonly used abbreviations.

UAV Unmanned Air Vehicle

UCAS Unmanned Combat Air System

J-UCAS Joint Unmanned Air Systems (Joint USN/USAF Project)

N-UCAS (USN Project)

LMAMS Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System Small-armed-hand launched drone

UCAV Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle

UCLASS Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (X-47B)

RPAS Remote Piloted Air System RAF designation

Other Abbreviations:

ISTAR Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance

C4ISTAR Command, Control, Communications, Computer and ISTAR

ORBAT Order Of Battle

NSS National Security Strategy

DPOC Deep Penetration Offensive Capability

AWACS Airborne Warning and Control System

ASTOR Airborne STand-Off Radar

LRMPA Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft

CEC Cooperative Engagement Capability

CAA Civil Aviation Authority

MAA Military Aviation Authority

UKNDA United Kingdom National Defence Association

DS Defence Synergia

Prepared 24th March 2014