Tag Archives: Borgundy

2019 Self-Propelled Artillery Revisit

Last time on Parvusimperator Picks a Self-Propelled Howitzer for Borgundy, I ended up going with the big, expensive Panzerhaubitze (PzH) 2000. I also eliminated wheeled vehicles out of the gate for concerns about capacity. Since it’s been a while since I’ve talked much about the Queen of Battle, I thought I’d revisit my procurement decision, because that’s loads of fun to write about and tend to be popular with you, dear reader. While available systems have not changed, let’s open the floor up. We will require protection for gunnery crews while firing, to simplify this a little1. So let’s dig in.

First, I’m going to relax my tracked-vs-wheeled constraint. This is artillery. It’s a support vehicle. With the range of modern systems, it’s not critical that the system be a perfect match for tanks and IFVs. Also, trucks should have no trouble getting to wherever a wheeled system is. What is important is 155mm caliber, an L52 gun, and a careful look at how we might plan to use the system. Wheeled systems have advantages in lower maintenance costs, better mobility via roads, and generally better strategic mobility if you care.

Somewhat-recent events in the Donbas reminded us that artillery is a very effective killer, and that a reasonably sophisticated opponent will endeavor to use counterbattery radars to locate and destroy one’s own artillery. So we’re thinking hard about shoot-and-scoot. Let’s get on to some plausible contenders.

As before, we have the German PzH 2000. It’s well protected, tracked, and has an excellent capacity of 60 projectiles plus charges. It has a five round MRSI capability. On the downside, it’s expensive and the heaviest at 56 tonnes. Once its empty, it has to be reloaded in the usual, manual way.

We also have the Korean K9 Thunder. It’s tracked, with a capacity of 48 projectiles plus charges. It has a three round MRSI capability. It also is the only one available with an armored resupply vehicle, the K10. The K9 weighs about 47 tonnes. In its favor are the fact that the South Koreans are buying tons of these, and they have a nice upgrade roadmap. The currently available K9A1 improves the electronics and navigation systems over the previous model, and is the current standard if one was buying today. Samsung Techwin is also working on an A2 version with fully automated shell and propellant handling and a reduced crew. It should also feature an increased rate of fire.

There’s also the Swedish Archer system, which has a low capacity of 21 rounds, but has a very high degree of automation. Like the ill-fated Crusader, it has entirely automated handling of artillery rounds, propellant charge modules, fuse-setting, and primers. As a result, it has a best-available six-round MRSI capability. Weight is somewhere in the middle at 33 tonnes. It was supposed to have a resupply vehicle, but that got axed.

Finally, we have the Boxer RCH, which takes much of the gun from the PzH 2000 and mounts it in a fully automated turret on the back of a Boxer MRAV. It has low manning, but not much is available about it, because no one has bought any. This is one of many mountings of the Artillery Gun Module on various chassis, and the same system has also been mounted on an ASCOD 2 chassis.

We also have Denel’s G6, which saw combat in the border with Angola, and has been kept up to date by the scions of Gerald Bull’s Space Research Corporation. It’s a somewhat large wheeled vehicle, and builds on South African experience in making mine-resistant platforms. Current versions have improved fire control and ammunition handling, and are equipped with an L52 gun that has a chamber with 23L (JBMOU-compliant2) or 25L capacity. These are the G6-52 and G6-52L versions, respectively.

We have contenders. Let’s look at some salient characteristics in a chart. Note reloading rates, instead of time to completely reload. MRSI are the maximum number of rounds possible according to the manufacturer. Bursts are 3 rounds, as fast as I could find the manufacturer claiming they could shoot them.

SystemWeight (tonnes)CapacityMRSIburst (sec)Reload Rate (shells/min)
PzH 20005760595
K9A1 Thunder474831512
FH08 Archer33216202.5
Boxer RCH38.53059?
G6-52(L)46475 (52) or 6 (52L)154.7

On to some commentary. Archer was supposed to be a joint Swedish-Norwegian project, but the Norwegians pulled out. Digging through old defense magazine articles, Norwegian concerns were the low capacity with lack of automated resupply system, issues with too large a dispersion, and too high ground pressure. Archer has seen no export success, and seems to be expensive.

Recently, K9 has been seeing quite a bit of export success in Europe due to its very reasonable cost and favorable licensing terms, which is notably less than that of Panzerhaubitze 2000. It also beat the Mista-S in an Indian tender. Other export users include Norway, Finland, Estonia, Poland, and Turkey.

Despite the higher cost, Panzerhaubitze 2000 has also seen plenty of export success with other NATO members as well as Qatar. It also has an armor kit designed to protect it against DPICM-type submunitions that you might find in a counterbattery rocket artillery salvo, especially if your opponent is Russia.

And the Boxer RCH hasn’t been bought by anyone yet. Rumor has it that it’s the favorite with UK MoD in their upcoming procurement contest. That said, it’s quite heavy for a Boxer variant, and it needs a different engine.

Denel has a long history of working on long range V-LAP rounds, and the G6 can take advantage of this. The G6-52L can use its non-JBMOU chamber to fire the M9703 base-bleed/rocket-assisted EFRB VLAP projectile a distance of 73 km in tests. Which is best in class by far. Otherwise it’s a pretty solid option with good but not great capacity for ammunition.

At this point, I’m strongly considering the G6-52L. At least until we consider some other things. First, Denel’s own (old) marketing materials basically dropped the 25-liter chamber version, focusing on the version that is JBMOU compliant with JBMOU compliant ammunition. The G6-52 itself hasn’t been exported anywhere: Denel’s last export order was the regular G6 to Oman in the late 90s.

Also, all of the present ammunition development work is being done to getting more range out of a JBMOU-compliant gun system. So the range limitation of the other guns isn’t likely to last, and we’re not likely to see more good testing on the -52L version. As a result, I can’t go with it. Regrettably.

We’ve now come back to the choice I had last time, and my answer is the same. I prefer the better fire rate and submunition protection of the PzH 2000. Things to keep an eye on would be an aggressive price move from Samsung, or the rumored K9A2, which is supposed to include fully automated ammunition handling and reduced crew. If that keeps the reasonable stock of ammo, we’d prefer it, especially since it might also improve the rate of fire.

Let’s also take a brief moment to talk about the usual 800 lbs. gorilla in the room: the US Army. Having had a few M109 replacement programs terminated, they’re being quite a bit more conservative this time with a two-stage approach. The first stage, which has just entered production is the M109A7 upgrade, which replaces the M109’s powertrain with that of the M2 Bradley, and upgrades the suspension to handle more weight. Gun upgrades, as well as an automated ammunition loading system, are coming as part of the second stage. The gun is supposed to have an L58 barrel, so it should be pretty fun. For now, there’s not much worth looking at, unless one uses or plans to full-fleet Bradleys. It’ll probably be interesting to look at in the future, however.

  1. So we’re going to ignore for now all of the nifty “towed howitzer replacements” like CAESAR. Those are super simple though, and ought to be mounted to a common truck. 
  2. Joint Ballistic Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement to standardize ammunition and propellant charges for the Next Generation of NATO artillery. 

On 40mm Grenade Launchers

The evolution of western 40mm grenade launchers is a bit of a back-and-forth affair. Initially, we had the M79, which is a single barrel, break-action weapon with its own wooden stock. Sort of an old shotgun given a huge dose of steroids. It was proven super effective in Vietnam, launching a very reasonable amount of high explosives with a minimum of setup. Of course there were drawbacks, especially due to the low rate of fire and limited amount of rounds that could be carried.

The first approach to fix this was called the “China Lake Grenade Launcher.” Taking yet more cues from shotguns, this was a pump-action grenade launcher, with a three-shot magazine for the fat 40mm rounds. Where the M79 weighed about 6 lbs empty and 6.5 lbs loaded, the China Lake launcher weighed 8.2 lbs empty and about 10.2 lbs loaded. Usage was mostly confined to Navy SEALs, who were generally fond of the weapon. The US Army was focused on its SPIW program, which would end up going nowhere. Unfortunately, that meant that the sensible China Lake launcher also went nowhere.

The other approach was the cheap and cheerful M203, an underbarrel launcher that attached to the rifleman’s M16. It’s much lighter at 3 lbs, but has a shorter effective range and makes the rifle a bit awkward to use. Also, the sights aren’t integral with the M203, which leads to more opportunities to lose or screw up a zero. Some standalone launchers were made starting in the 90s, but they never achieved much in the way of widespread use. The original M203 attaches to an M16A1 or M4 by means of a pair of barrel brackets. Some newer variations can be attached to picatinny rails instead.

Replacements to the M203 have been concerned with fixing some of its less than desirable traits, chief among them the inability to use longer ammunition. The US Army’s replacement for the M203, the HK M3201 does this by means of a side-opening action. It also has an integrated grip to facilitate standalone usage, and has integral sights. These don’t have to be rezeroed if the launcher is moved between rifles or attached to the stock kit. However, the M320 is a bit heavier than the M203. The integrated pistol grip and included vertical folding foregrip seem to indicate that the M320 is optimized for standalone use.

The big competitor to the M320 is FN’s EGLM, which had an extension to move the trigger down where it could be fired from the rifle’s regular grip using the middle finger of the rifleman. Extensions are available for both 5.56 magazines and 7.62 NATO magazines. The EGLM can also accommodate longer rounds, but does not have integral sights. Also, like the M320, it has a double action trigger. This is marketed as giving second strike capability, but I really don’t think that’s all that important given that you aren’t using super old grenades.

So let’s get to picking. There are a bunch of other grenade launchers out there that are marketed in packages to go with various other service rifles, but that’s not a big deal to us M4 users in Borgundy. And when I go looking for fancy rounds that you can’t fit in an M203, I mostly get a bunch of “less-than-lethal” options2. Great if you’re the LAPD, but I don’t really see the utility for standard issue to the infantry. The other thing that you can load in the EGLM and the M320 is the Pike missile, which is a pretty cool laser guided mini missile with about 2,000 m of range. However, that’s quite a bit of reach for the regular grenadier in the rifle squad, given that the standard 40mm round has an effective range of about 400 m. Again, it seems kind of a niche weapon. Great for special forces. I’ve also mentioned that I’m not buying the second strike argument as anything anywhere close to necessary. The M79 and M203 don’t have that, and soldiers have been using those effectively in combat since the 1960s. And at the end of the day, the venerable M203, even with the picatinny rail adapter, is going to be way cheaper than the competition.

So we’ll go with the M203A2 (or equivalent; the M203 is a widely licensed system), which has the picatinny rail attachments. We’d want to purchase the stock kits to go with these as well, since we’d expect3 these to be used more often in the standalone configuration as long as we can keep that configuration reasonably compact and light.

We should also talk about the the Milkor MGL (M32 in US Service), which is sort of like a successor to the China Lake Launcher idea, albeit from South Africa. It has a six-round, revolver-style magazine. Clearly, it’s trading weight for capacity. An M203 in standalone configuration weighs a bit less than 5 lbs unloaded, depending on options.4 The six-shot M32 weighs 15.4 lbs unloaded. And that revolver magazine makes for a pretty bulky gun. Anyway, I’m kind of skeptical of the M32, given that the grenadier is still likely to have to carry a carbine in addition to it. At least the rounds it fires actually work, unlike the XM25. I think it would be reasonable to procure some M32s, but I’m not really sure where to put them in the TO&E. Probably in the back of a vehicle somewhere.

And there you have it. Cheap and cheerful launchers for cheap and cheerful grenades. In terms of basis of issue, I think two per squad is a pretty reasonable choice.

  1. Under no circumstances should this be confused with the SIG P320 pistol, which is known in US Army service as the M17 pistol. 
  2. People also talk about medium velocity grenades, but I can’t seem to find anybody actually issuing any. Even the US Army. 
  3. I don’t have a ton of M203 experience either way, but the consensus at Primary & Secondary amongst those who have used them is that standalone grenade launchers are better. 
  4. LMT’s L2B weighs 4.7 lbs in standalone configuration. We can go lighter if we get their L2X with a 7″ barrel and its compact stock kit, which at 3.6 lbs all up is the lightest launcher I can find. 

On Light Machine Guns

The US Army has decided that they might could replace the M249 with something. Possibly. Or maybe it’s just Lucy Van Pelt with her football. Anyway, the US Army claims it wants “Overmatch”. Or something.


The fear is, of course, Russians (or Chinese or whoever) with level IV-equivalent body armor. Let’s think about this for a minute. Level IV hard plates are rated to stop the .30-06 M2 AP round, which is a pretty darn good steel-core AP round. And no existing round short of .50 BMG is significantly better at penetrating armor than .30-06 M2 AP; it’s actually better at penetration than both Russian 7.62x54mmR B-32 API and 7.62x51mm M61. I’m not sure how a new 6.8 mm cased telescoped round is supposed to be massively better at armor penetration than .30-06 M2 AP, unless it’s supposed to use a tungsten core. Tungsten becomes problematic once you look at the cost and where most of the world’s tungsten is mined.

It could also be some sort of Magnum 6.8mm CT round with tons of velocity, but then managing recoil becomes a huge problem. After all, steel core .30-06 is not enough, so we need more energy. More energy means more recoil, because physics is a real jerk sometimes.

Let’s also recall my usual criticisms of some sort of radically new and unproven small arms technology, which is exactly polymer-cased telescoped ammo is. We’re talking about completely new ammunition manufacturing techniques, completely new cartridges, plus massive changes in how a firearm operates. We’ll let the US Army put up and prove the stuff or shut up. Come back and talk to us in five to seven years, and then we’ll know if it’s more than the next SPIW.

Okay, so that should deal with all the WONDERCALIBER advocates. Don’t trust Big Army to buy crazy new stuff. Wait for ambitious programs to come to a conclusion. Don’t be a beta tester. Wait for bugs to get worked out. And there will be bugs.

If we’re sticking with conventional calibers and known solutions, that makes our lives a lot easier. Let’s take a brief look at squads to see how we might use the LMG. I’ve been on record before that I don’t think squad size matters too much, and I still don’t. Picking the Namer as our (Heavy) IFV of choice lets me have a nice big dismount element of nine, which makes life easy. Nine men is a pretty classical dismounted infantry squad size. Squad leader, two fireteams of four men, and one LMG per fireteam. Two LMGs in the squad is a lot of firepower, and lets either team cover the other for fire and movement if desired.

Had we gone with a smaller, more conventional IFV with a dismount team of six or seven men, I would have copied the Australians and gone with two fireteams of three men each (plus a leader in the seven-man case) and kept the two LMGs per squad. Again, fire and movement. Also, it allows for better implementation of parapet foxholes.

And now, a brief word on command. In general we’d expect the IFV commander to be in overall command, and to remain in the vehicle when the troops get out. The vehicle commander would be senior to the dismount commander.

There is the pressing matter of caliber, configuration (i.e. mag fed or belt fed), and model. Let’s take those in order. Caliber is pretty easy. It should be our usual 5.56mm to maximize bullets per pound of loadout and (therefore) volume of fire capability. It’s also a lot easier to carry, since most GPMGs aren’t workable with a single gunner (i.e. without an assistant gunner).1

And we’re going belt-fed, because we want that big ammo reserve for suppression and sustained rates of fire. Large capacity drums are bulky, heavy, annoying, and generally unreliable. They also usually have to be stowed when empty. Screw that. Belts it is, by God and John Rambo!

Belt-fed 5.56mm light machine guns. They’re super fun to shoot. We just have to pick one. For the most part, they’re all pretty similar. The one that stands out weight-wise is Knight’s LAMG, which is significantly lighter than all the rest. Which should make it a slam dunk, except that no one else has bought them. And such a massive weight savings has me nervous, since there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I have some concerns about durability, and since no one has issued them on a wide scale, no one has worked the bugs out. Again, we don’t do beta tests. So we’ll pass too. Which basically leaves a whole bunch of equivalents in FN’s Minimi/M249, HK’s MG4, IWI’s Negev, and some others that I’m forgetting. They’re all pretty much the same, and I don’t think you can go wrong. Of course, this also means that there’s not much of a reason to switch, unless you wanted to beef up your local firearms industry. Since I hate wishy-washy conclusions, I’ll go with the proven M249, mostly because it’s the only one I have any time on. It’s also been licensed to a number of other countries.

I’m sure the Wondercaliber advocates are going to ask about body armor. Well, okay. Fine. Shoot them more. It’s a belt fed. Ceramic plates are only good for a few hits. Even the multihit rated ones. You have 200 rounds in the belt. Use ’em. Also, the real killer is and always has been high explosives. 40mm grenade launchers, rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, mortars, and especially artillery. More on that in a few days.

  1. I think this might be a change from the last time I wrote on squad support weapons. It happens. 

Retro Procurement: Carrier On Wayward Son

Back in the early 90s, Brazil was looking to get a carrier. And supposedly, they were offered one of the Forrestals but turned it down in favor of the smaller, cheaper Foch. Well, we’ll take that deal, Uncle Sam. So, let’s go buy a Forrestal or two and wholeheartedly embrace naval aviation, power projection, and all those good things. This will let us develop some serious force projection capability, and provide lessons for future posts procurement projects.

The carriers themselves are early fleet carrier designs, but are still quite useful. There’s not any upgrades we’d want to apply; the biggest issue is one of placement of the portside elevator, which isn’t easily fixable. The issue was corrected on the later Kitty Hawk class, and if Uncle Sam is willing to sell us some of those instead, we’d oblige. Otherwise, the Forrestals will do. They have Sea Sparrows and Phalanxes and that is all the close-in defense that they need.

Carriers are useless without an air wing, so what would we put in our new flattops? The Forrestals are big enough to carry just about anything we might want that is carrier-capable, unlike the earlier Midways. We’ll start our air wing off in the Danger Zone: two fighter squadrons of Grumman Tomcats, each with twelve of the big planes. The latest model is the F-14D, with glass cockpit, APG-71 radar, and most importantly, GE F110-400 engines instead of the awful TF30s.

Next, we’ll take two light attack squadrons, each with 12 A-7E Corsair IIs. This offsets the cost of the Tomcats mentioned earlier, especially since the US Navy had mostly replaced their A-7s with Hornets by this point. While we could also use Hornets here, the greater range of the Corsair IIs makes them our preferred choice. Our attack aircraft load continues with a “Medium Attack” squadron of 10 A-6E Intruders, plus four KA-6D Intruder tankers. The Intruder is a great attack aircraft, capable of hauling a large bombload over a good distance. Having a tanker variant is also useful for long-range strikes so as to be less dependent on land-based tankers. While I could relax the desired tankers, the US Navy’s retirement of the A-6 Intruder fleet in the 90s means that I’d go for both at the ‘used aircraft’ discount. Intruders would be also useful operating from land bases.

For antisubmarine operations, we’ll add a squadron of 10 S-3B Vikings and another of six SH-60Fs. Pretty typical.

AEW&C is super important, since that gives us radar higher up and allows us to separate the radar signature from the carrier location. For that, the only real option is the E-2C Hawkeye. We’ll take a half dozen of those. We’ll also want some electronic warfare support, so we’ll add four EA-6B Prowlers for electronic attack.

And that about covers our air wing, give or take a couple C-2 Greyhounds for resupply. But those as often as not are at a shore base.

Borgundy’s Helicopter for All Seasons

Time to do a procurement post for something I have been putting off: Utility Helicopters. This is a really crowded market, and the fact that we can probably get rid of anything on the really large end as being to similar to the CH-47 that we’ve already bought doesn’t help us very much. Since there are so many plausible options, let’s look at what we need, and then throw on some nice-to-haves that could hopefully narrow the field. That’s a lot more interesting than a deep dive into costs, and much more practicable for me (in that I’m actually willing to write it and I don’t need to track down pricing data).

First, just to simplify things a little, we want a fully combat-ready helicopter that’s been purchased by at least one other nation. Probably obvious, but it needs saying. No reinventing the rotor for this.

Next, we want a capacity of about a squad’s worth of men. As I write this, it occurs to me that I haven’t talked as much as I should about organization, and I certainly haven’t talked much about light infantry. We’ll pick ten combat-laden men as the minimum required capacity. Somewhat arbitrary, but that should cover most squad options. Note the emphasis on combat-laden; this is not a question of overall passenger capacity, but immediately usable passenger capacity for men ready to go into the fight.

Cargo capacity isn’t a huge deal, mostly because we already have CH-47s. I have no particular requirements for cargo capacity, other than there should be some. Certainly anything that meets the troop requirement above will have sufficient cargo capacity for our purposes.

We would also require medevac capability, but that is also no great burden, as most utility helicopter models available already have the capability to be easily reconfigured for stretchers.

Clearly, our utility helicopter should also have the ability to mount door guns, but again, this is no great burden. That’s a pretty standard utility helicopter feature. It would also be nice if we could mount pylons with some rockets for some extra support/attack capability. Also no great burden.

Now, let’s get on to some actual, difficult requirements. We’d like versions available with an aerial refueling probe. Specifically, we’d like this to facilitate longer-range search and rescue operations as well as long range special operations deployments. Fulfilling this is actually quite the tall order by the rules of our procurement game.

That gets us nicely to the UH-60 Blackhawk as our overall utility helicopter choice. It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s also not the most expensive, and it has the variants we want, namely the HH-60 with the refueling boom. And yes, that variant has been exported to South Korea. The Blackhawk is a proven choice, with plenty of export buys as well as good combat service. It also has an available gunship variant. As we’ll see in another post, it’s also one of the few utility helicopters to have an actual production electronic warfare variant. The Blackhawk is available with a bunch of integrated FLIR options (again, thanks HH-60), and there’s even a couple naval versions, should we want them.

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior

Usually our procurement posts are all about buying shiny new stuff. And that’s fine. But sometimes you can get some “pre-owned” stuff for a great price, often from major powers who have decided they don’t want it for no good reason. Let’s take a look at one such item now: the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior.

The OH-58D is a derivative of Bell’s venerable and popular 206 JetRanger. The -58D had a more powerful engine than earlier models, and added a Mast Mounted Sight. This globe-shaped module above the main rotor contained a thermal imager plus a laser rangefinder/designator, and allowed the Kiowa Warrior to observe the enemy while the fuselage is obscured by terrain. The OH-58D has two hardpoints that can take small rocket pods, Stinger missiles, or Hellfire missiles.

We should also take a brief moment to talk about the related trainer. The TH-67 is a Bell 206B-3 purchased for use as a primary trainer. It’s available with IFR-rated instruments if desired. It’s another great choice if we’re considering the OH-58, since we’d get some fleet parts commonality. Plus, it’s a common, reliable, and cheap civilian aircraft, and a trainer should be cheap and reliable to facilitate plenty of flying hours.

The Bell 206 family is very popular on the civilian market, and is still in production. As a result, getting spares shouldn’t be a problem. Current models (the model 206L-4) have a strengthened tailboom and improved gearboxes. Other options on offer from Bell include replacing the tail and tail rotor with those of the Bell Model 427, replacing the main rotor and gearbox with those from the Bell Model 4071, and upgrading to a bigger Honeywell HTS900 engine with over 800 hp.

Once we get our hands on the Kiowa Warriors, we can also start considering options for sensor upgrades in the MMS, tinkering with the communications suite, and adding a blue force tracker. As is, the OH-58Ds were very successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army2 had wanted to replace them with the gold-plated and ill-fated RAH-66 Commanche and then the ARH-70, which also went way overbudget. Currently, the Army has no scout helicopters and is trying to fill the void with other things. Oh, and complain to Congress.

We’d like to take the perfectly good ones they’re trying to sell through the Excess Defense Article and Foreign Military Sale program.

  1. The Bell 407 and 427 are themselves derivatives of the 206 by way of the twin-engine JetRanger development projects of the 80s. 
  2. Who has never known what the words “good enough” mean when they can dream of “better.” 

Looking for STARS

No, this doesn’t involve a trip to the Arklay mountains. Today, we’re looking into aerial systems for monitoring ground combat and enemy forces, also known as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). This is an often-overlooked capability, and while such systems are not foolproof, not having them can lead to a lot of embarrassment. The notion was a key part of late-Cold War Airland Battle tactics, where ISR platforms could provide targeting data for long range weapons to atrit Soviet forces before they made contact with friendly ground troops.

In terms of current capabilities, the United States has the only serious capability worth writing home about, using the E-8C JSTARS. These put a powerful, GMTI/SAR capable radar on a Boeing 707 airframe. They have proven to be extremely effective when deployed, and were sorely missed by the Europeans during their recent Libya “intervention.”1 Of course, we can’t just buy these, because the 707 is long since out of production. Also, the USAF hasn’t really decided how it wants to proceed to replace or recondition the E-8Cs. We’ll look at other people’s ISR platforms as well as things that were proposed to replace the JSTARS.

The UK operates four Sentinel R1s, built by adding the appropriate radar systems to a Bombardier Global Express business jet. This is a relatively low-cost airframe, being a business jet, though the usual UK small orders means the net result is still going to be expensive. Also, lots of the analysis and battle management workstations are ground-based, for better and for worse. A Global Express 6000 derivative was one of the proposals for a JSTARS replacement.

Brazil has deployed three R-99s, ERJ-145 conversions with the appropriate SAR capable radar, to monitor illicit narcotics tracking and other illegal activities in the Amazon basin as part of the SIVAM. Unfortunately, I don’t know that much about the radar system deployed, and this one wasn’t proposed for the JSTARS replacement, so it’s not using that particular radar package.

Gulfstream also has an offering to replace the JSTARS that is based on their G550 SEMA variant, though with more radar focus than EW-focus. The SEMA version of the G550 is in use by the Israeli air force and has recently been purchased by Australia. There’s also a significantly reworked G550 variant, originally used with Conformal Early Warning2 arrays by the Israeli air force in the AEW&C role. The CAEW variant has also been purchased by the US Navy for monitoring their missile test ranges, and is to be reworked by L3 with electronic warfare systems in the conformal fairings to replace the EC-130H Compass Call in USAF service.

Boeing has a 737-derivative, which is pretty similar to the P-8, other than having a radar optimized for a different mission. Radar options for the JSTARS replacement proposal were similar to those of the bizjets. Annoyingly, the product page for this is no longer on Boeing’s website. The strangest thing about Boeing’s proposal (sparse as the details are) is that it didn’t do all that much to take advantage of the extra space, weight, and power capabilities of the 737 platform.

At the end of the day, 8-10 analysts doesn’t require a 737, and if you’re not going to load it up with a big radar, you can go with a smaller, more fuel-efficient jet.

Let’s also talk about the Global Hawk. The RQ-4B Block 40/RQ-4D variants come equipped with a small version of the MP-RTIP radar originally intended for the E-10A. That’s a pretty fantastic radar, and the RQ-4D3 is the highest-flying option. It does not operate in adverse weather conditions though.

Alright, let’s get picking. We’re going to want some RQ-4Ds because of that fantastic radar and because it’s a pretty natural fit for a UAV. There’s a big NATO buy at the moment, and we’d like to get in on that model. We’re also going to want a manned option though, which means we’re going to have to sort through the business jet contenders. In terms of radar systems, all of the JSTARS replacement offerings had a similar radar fit, which doesn’t help us much. According to the Business & Commercial Aviation 2018 buyer’s guide, the G550 is a little cheaper than the Global Express 6000, but the difference is probably too small to matter.

What is different is that there are a lot more military G550 variants in service. There’s also the flight tested CAEW airframe, which is useful for a few other purposes besides the AEW&C role it was originally intended for. So we’ll go with that one, since it gives us a few more options for related aircraft down the line. We especially like the idea of an electronic attack version.

  1. Or whatever we’re calling “it’s not a war because shut up” these days. 
  2. If I was going to go with a business jet derivative for AEW&C the G550 CAEW would be it, because it has a pretty nice radar, and the conformal array fit is cool. But the Wedgetail radar is a more powerful one. 
  3. The RQ-4B Block 40 that a bunch of NATO partner nations are buying. Because that totally deserves a new designation. 

Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Today we’re talking maritime patrol aircraft. There are two on the market worth looking at: Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon and Kawasaki’s P-1. Let’s look at them both and see what we like.

The Poseidon was designed to replace the P-3 Orion, and the P-8 is based on the Boeing 737-800ERX, which means it has the fuselage from the 737-800 and the wings from the 737-900. So it’s based on a recent model of a very popular airliner, which keeps airframe costs down and ensures a good supply of future spare parts. The Poseidon has a weapons bay located behind the wing, with five weapons hardpoints. An additional six hardpoints are under the wings. This bay might seem a little small, but you can’t actually put the bay between the wings, because that’s where the structure is to support the wings.

Sensorwise, the P-8A is equipped with the APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar, plus facilities for a large number of sonobuoys, and an EO/IR ball turret. It even has a sensor to detect emissions from diesel ships and submarines. In its standard, USN model, it does not have a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). This was per a NAVAIR request to reduce weight and improve range. It also allows for a higher-altitude flight profile that is more fuel efficient, especially for an airliner-derived platform. In turn, the lack of MAD has been frequently criticized. It should be noted that this shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the platform; regardless of what you think of the US Navy’s decision the P-8 can be equipped with a MAD, and the version for India has been sold with one.

The P-1 was also designed to replace the Orion, and it took a notably different path. It’s about the same size as the Poseidon, but it’s optimized for lower-altitude flying, with less-swept wings. It’s equipped with advanced avionics, including a fly-by-light flight control system, an HPS-106 AESA surveillance radar, and a magnetic anomaly detector standard. It has eight internal and eight external hardpoints for weapons. It does not have provision for midair refueling.

In terms of comparatives, the P-1 has more weapons capacity, and flies the traditional lower altitudes of the P-3 Orion. The P-8 is a higher altitude aircraft, for better and for worse. The P-8 has a big edge in terms of costs, being based on a currently-produced airliner, being in higher-rate production, and having tons of spares readily available. The popularity of the 737 platform will mean that there will be a large supply of future spares too.

And, like everyone else who has looked at these two, we’re going with Poseidon. Which begs the question, to MAD or not to MAD? I’m going to hedge here, because I really want to see some data or some test results, but I don’t have them as an armchair strategist. I’ll tentatively say “With MAD”, understanding that I’m open to data that I don’t have right now showing that it’s really not needed.

Choosing and Buying an AEW&C Platform

Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C, often colloquially called AWACS even though that’s a specific system for the role) is what separates the Serious Air Forces from the cut-rate posers. The idea is to take a large airframe, usually a jetliner, put a big radar on it, and then have a bunch of people sitting at computers to coordinate your sorties. All the benefits of GCI in a portable package!

A large part of picking a platform is determining your constraints. We’re looking for a land-based platform that’s relatively low cost to operate and can handle a good number of friendly and enemy aircraft. For this reason, we’re going to look at the larger class of AEW&C platforms.

As a brief aside, the smaller platforms are the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, and a number of business jet derivatives. The Hawkeye is the only decent carrierborne AEW&C platform available, so if we were looking to build a naval air arm, that’s what we’d pick for the purpose.

The obvious large AEW&C platform is the E-3 Sentry. However, it is built on a Boeing 707-derived airframe, and these are no longer in production. No luck there. This problem also presented itself to the Japanese when they were looking for a larger platform to supplement their Hawkeyes in the 1990s.

Boeing obliged with the E-767, which puts the radar and computers from the E-3 onto a 767-200 airframe. The resulting widebody has space for up to 19 controller consoles, though I couldn’t find a great source on how many the JASDF use. It still uses the same radar as on the Sentry, albeit with upgrades. Also, as presently configured, it has no aerial refueling capability.

About a decade later, Boeing responded to an Australian RFP with a new design: the E-7A Wedgetail. This aircraft is based on the 737-700 airframe, and mounts Northrop Grumman’s Multirole Electronically Scanned Array radar. This is an actively scanned array, so it doesn’t need to rotate. It does posses aerial refueling capability, and is capable of mounting up to twelve controller consoles. At present, Australia has fitted ten consoles.

In terms of bigger platforms, these are the contenders. More consoles on the E-767 means it can coordinate more friendly aircraft. The more advanced MESA radar on the Wedgetail lets it refresh scans of regions faster and adjust power to focus on particular sectors with longer-ranged scans. It’s also able to handle simultaneous air and surface search. and the actively scanned array should be better at ECCM.

You can probably see where this is going. We’re opting for the E-7A Wedgetail. It’s even the cheaper option of the two. It’s telling that Wedgetail has had several export successes since being sold to the Australians. It’s also telling that the E-767 is absent from most of Boeing’s current marketing materials.

Choosing a Tanker Aircraft

Tanker aircraft are a requirement for any serious projection of airpower. And no one ever has enough of them. So let’s go get some.

Previously, the standard in aerial refueling was the KC-135, a close relative of the classic Boeing 707. Today, there are two different airframes available for tankers. There is the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330. The 767 has two tanker derivatives: the KC-767, which is derived from the 767-200ER and is in use by Italy and Japan; and the KC-46A, which is based on the 767-200LRF1 and is in use by the United States and Japan. Note that the KC-46A is bigger than the KC-767, and carries more fuel. The A330-MRTT is the tanker derivative of the A330, and it is bigger than the KC-46A.

Now on to the choices. We know from the USAF tanker proposals that the 767 options have a lower projected life cycle cost than the A330-MRTT. For many export customers, this is outweighed by the greater fuel and cargo capacity of the Airbus. On the other hand, the 767s smaller size means it can operate out of smaller airfields. It is closer in size to the KC-135R, for those looking for a direct replacement, or just trying to picture sizes.

For us, we’d also point out the massive USAF buy of KC-46As as points in its favor, since that will mean the type will get more future upgrades and development money, if only to keep the US fleet going. Further, 767s are Boeing aircraft, and have a flight envelope not restricted by the flight computer. We prefer this.

So we’re going with the KC-46A. It’ll get the upgrades, and Boeing is still making 767s for the civilian market, which is a plus. We expect to be able to cannibalize ex-civilian airliners for parts and airframes for years after the type is formally retired (as was done with the KC-135), but the longer we can go before having to do this the better.

  1. Which is actually quite a bit different from the 767-200ER.