05 Nov 20. Progress report – extending the life of Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates. The programme of LIFEX refits to upgrade and repair the ageing Type 23 frigates fit for service beyond their 30th birthdays continues. While delivering an important capability boost, the work has mostly taken longer than expected and here we look at progress to date.
Each frigate undergoing life extension (LIFEX) refit has a hull survey and repairs, the Sea Wolf missile system replaced with Sea Ceptor, new Artisan radar (if not already fitted) and miscellaneous other upgrades and refurbishments. Originally it was intended that 11 of the 13 ships would receive the Power Generation Machinery Upgrade (PGMU) engine upgrade, although that number may now be in doubt. (More details of the technical aspects of PGMU are described in our earlier article) Essentially the upgrade involves replacement of the four main propulsion diesel-generator sets to provide much greater fuel efficiency and performance, especially in hotter climates.
The time spent in refit appears to vary significantly between vessels, somewhere between 19 – 28 months. The impacts of the pandemic clearly do not help but progress was variable, even before lockdown. The main limiting factor appears to be the availability of enough skilled people at Devonport. Discovery of significant hull deterioration and structural problems that need to be rectified on some ships has extended their time in dock.
Although a very different era, it is interesting to compare the major conversion work to upgrade Leader class frigates that mainly took place at Devonport during the 1970s and averaged around 36 months. The dockyards of the 1970s were in the grip of obstructive unions and notoriously inefficient. The Leander conversions proved to be astronomically expensive and in hindsight, of dubious value for money. Although the failure to begin constructing their replacements sooner is indefensible, the £600M Type 23 LIFEX programme represents relatively good value. In addition to receiving an effective new weapon system, habitability improvements and much else, the service of 13 vessels is being extended for an average of about 8 years.
Assuming that the frigates are very unlikely to be run-on beyond their planned out of service dates, it becomes apparent that the expense of upgrading the engines of 3 more vessels is questionable value for money. HMS Montrose is doing a sterling job forward-deployed in the Arabian Gulf but is not scheduled to return to the UK until 2022. Even if the engine change was completed in under a year, she would emerge with just 4 years or so left before decommissioning. HMS Iron Duke is currently having her LIFEX and was in a particularly poor material state before it began which may extend the time required. If her refit is completed sometime in 2022 she will have just 3 years left to serve.
There is now some doubt that HMS Monmouth will have LIFEX refit at all and maybe decommissioned prematurely. She has been alongside in Devonport since March 2019, officially she is described as a Fleet Time (FT) unit in Long Readiness (LR). Stripped of her weapons and sensors, the majority of systems are dormant except those required to maintain a habitable environment for watchkeeping and maintenance. She retains a very small duty watch and is occasionally used as static damage control and fire-fighting training platform for crews preparing to take over forward-deployed ships. Due out of service in 2026, she could not be made seaworthy without a LIFEX refit and considerable investment. No decision has been announced but, even before the pressures of the pending defence review, HMS Monmouth looks unlikely ever to go to sea again.
HMS Richmond working up, transiting in and out of Devonport – her new base port. Note the addition of a new TVRO satellite radome and various new aerials on hangar roof. The other Type 23 allocated to the May 2021 Carrier Strike Group deployment (HMS Kent) has also received the same equipment. (Photo: Kevin Kelway, September 2020).
Testbed – HMS Richmond
The first frigate to have the PGMU, HMS Richmond went back to sea in February 2020. Effectively she is the testbed for the engine upgrade which has inevitably extended her work up and return to the fleet. Her refit employed 350 Babcock staff working a total of 1 million man-hours. 8 km of new cable and 600m of new pipework and were installed. The new diesel-generator sets have to be placed into the Forward Auxiliary Machinery Room (FAMR) below decks. The Upper Auxiliary Machinery Room (UAMR) is on main deck level and is more easily accessible via deckhead soft patches but was also completely stripped and much equipment re-sited. Early indications are that the upgrade has been a success but there are still issues to be resolved, especially the integration work with new software upgrades having to be iteratively applied. Once the system is proven and fine-tuned on Richmond, it should be faster to complete the work on the ships following on after in the PGMU programme.
Next out – HMS Portland
HMS Portland began her refit in early 2018 and as one of the youngest frigates, she likely required fewer repairs to her hull. She was fitted with Artisan 997 radar for the first time but does not appear to have received the PGMU. She is the first of 8 Type 23 to be fitted with new Ultra Electronics S2150 Bow Mounted Sonar (replacing the legacy Type 2050). This system will also be migrated onto the Type 26s in future. Portland emerged from the FSC sheds in February 2020 but subsequent has progress appears to have been slow, spending most of the year in the basin. She is scheduled to go to sea before the end of 2020 and will belatedly replace HMS Sutherland after she returned to Devonport on 23 October for the last time before entering the LIFEX cycle.
When the final Type 23 completes its engine upgrade, the Frigate Support Centre (FSC) at Devonport will be almost redundant with no major frigate refits required for some time. Both the Type 26 and Type 31s that will join the fleet in future are too large for the three dry docks in the FSC. The facility was completed in 1977 with much smaller Leander class and Type 21 frigates in mind. The dry docks were later lengthened to accommodate the stretched batch II and III Type 22s frigates but the ‘light cruiser-size’ frigates of the 21st Century will have much greater beam, demanding bigger docks.
Babcock have begun looking at options for re-building the facility to accommodate these ships but such a significant investment would need to be backed by some form of guarantee that they would be allocated refit work. As a Babcock product, they would probably be in a good position to secure maintenance for the Type 31s, although this may be complicated by the intention to forward-deploy them overseas for long periods. BAE Systems would be in the stronger position to win the upkeep work for the Type 26 and would likely want to undertake the work in Portsmouth where they already have a major presence.
By 2023-24 when the LIFEX programme is complete the RN will face a renewed challenge to find personnel. With so many frigates unmanned during the LIFEX cycle, this has temporarily reduced crewing pressures and it will be instructive to see if any of the frigates and destroyers have to be returned to ‘low readiness’ due to lack of people. RN recruitment is buoyant and the pandemic has reduced voluntary outflow for a while, but the ‘pinch points’, particularly the lack of experienced engineers and skilled trades cannot be quickly resolved.
In the period 2023-27 RN frigate numbers will inevitably fall below the ‘on paper strength’ of 13 as the first Type 23s leave service and there is nothing ready to replace them. The first Type 26 HMS Glasgow is likely to to be handed to the RN in 2025, commission in 2026 but conduct lengthy first of class acceptance trials before being declared fully operational in 2027. The first Type 31 should also be operational by 2027, although unlike Type 26s, the following 4 Type 31s will arrive relatively quickly, the last being operational by February 2030. (Source: News Now/https://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/)
03 Nov 20. GA-ASI Moves Sustainment Operations To Europe. New Dresden Facility Gives Customers Convenient Access to Support Services.
Opens Door to Additional European Partnerships through new ERSN.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), the world’s leading manufacturer of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), opened a new customer service center in Dresden, Germany on October 5, 2020. The center provides sustainment capabilities for MQ-9 fleets in and near Europe, providing customer convenience and expanding opportunities for European aerospace suppliers.
The service center is a key part of General Atomics’ European Regional Sustainment Network (ERSN). The ERSN leverages the European supply base and creates new repair capabilities that will reduce repair “turn-around-time” and the cost of MQ-9 support.
“Our sustainment services are flexible and reliable,” said Linden P. Blue, CEO, GA-ASI. “With ERSN, we’ll deliver better support while creating jobs through industry partners. We’re listening to our customers and acting on their desire to establish sustainment capability in Europe.”
“ERSN not only improves supply chain efficiency, but also enhances European sovereignty and security of supply,” said Rudolf Meinhardt, managing director of GA Europe.
As of October 16, GA-ASI customers will have batteries repaired regionally by MADES, located in Malaga, Spain. “MADES is very proud to become the first MQ-9 component repair center outside of the United States,” said Jean Franco Montalvan, MADES Managing Director. “MADES has demonstrated the level of capability and performance that a company like GA-ASI requires from an international partner. It opens up new avenues of collaboration between the two companies that we trust will materialize in the coming years.”
In addition, Belgium’s SABCA was selected to provide depot maintenance services for electromechanical actuators used on MQ-9.
ERSN embodies GA’s goal of pursuing industry partnerships with European companies, which has continued for more than a decade. GA-ASI engages with industry across Europe on projects for manufacturing, operations and maintenance, research and development, engineering services, and payload development. The new MQ-9B SkyGuardian® RPAS incorporates components and technologies from partners across Europe. Major subsystems produced in Europe include: GKN Aerospace’s diagonal stabilizers produced in the United Kingdom and landing gear from The Netherlands; SATCOM-radomes from SABCA in Belgium; payload enclosure systems (such as the NATO Pod) from SENER Aeroespacial in Spain; radar and Electronic Surveillance Measure (ESM) systems from Leonardo in the UK; Aircraft Survivability and Electronic Warfare management systems from TERMA in Denmark; and sonobuoy dispenser systems from AEREA in Italy.
29 Oct 20. USMC Hovercraft From Textron Flawed by Propeller Cracks.
- USN says the ship-to-shore transport is safe to operate
- USMC view air-cushion craft as crucial to their operations
The U.S. Navy accepted delivery this year from Textron Inc. of the first two in a new generation of hovercraft for the Marines despite “extensive propeller blade cracking” that will require a redesign, according to service officials and documents.
The previously undisclosed problem was discovered during mid-2019 tests of the $5.7bn program to build new air-cushion hovercraft to move Marines from ship to shore.
Even with the cracks unresolved, the Navy awarded Textron a $386m contract for 15 more hovercraft that Congress had approved for fiscal years 2017-2020. But ordering those vessels was held up pending resolution of other technical problems, including issues with the main gearbox, drive-train integration and lubrication system, navigation electronics and bearings. The first two deliveries, in February and August, were each three years late.
Hovercraft “have always been important for supporting the Marine Corps’ ability to land forces ashore, and in coming years they are to form part of the toolkit for implementing the Corps’ new wartime island-hopping strategy for countering Chinese military forces in the Western Pacific,” Ronald O’Rourke, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said.
Taking delivery of the first two hovercraft allowed the Navy to begin initial operator training and “to move into the post-delivery test and trials period as we identify long-term” solutions for vessels in production, Navy spokeswoman Colleen O’Rourke said in an email. She described the flaws as “micro-cracks” in the composite structure of the blades that don’t pose a safety hazard or “an immediate impediment” to operations.
“The program is the first major naval acquisition program in more than 15 years to be designed ‘in-house’ by the Navy rather than by private industry,” according to a Navy fact sheet.
O’Rourke said the Navy, Providence, Rhode Island-based Textron and subcontractor Dowty Propellers, a division of General Electric Co., conducted a study “to understand the underlying cause and mechanisms to improve propeller blade performance.” That led to a near-term plan to provide “reinforced blade sets that will deliver later this year” while production and post-delivery testing continue and “blade redesign efforts are underway,” she said.
She added that the eventual solution for the 73 hovercraft, known as Ship to Shore Connectors, “is not anticipated to result in any significant program cost increases.”
Scott Donnelly, Textron’s chief executive officer, told analysts Thursday on an earnings call that the program is “steadily improving” and “we’re starting to feel good about that.” He said the contractor has “started to get more craft deliveries, the production lines are starting to run better, we’re starting to get supply parts coming in at the right time” so “that’s a program that obviously is going to start to be a contributor to the profit in the rest of the businesses.”
Textron rose 6.6% to $34.21 at 10:24 a.m, the most since July 30, after third-quarter earnings per share from continuing operations beat the average analyst estimate.
Currently, 12 additional hovercraft are under construction in Slidell, Louisiana. The vessels will replace the aging Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicle that became operational in 1986.
The Ship-to-Shore Connector is a “franchise program” for Textron’s Marine & Land Systems division, “which could more than double in revenue over the coming years as production accelerates,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Douglas Rothacker said in an email. Textron reports third-quarter earnings Thursday.
Procurement funding is projected to soar from $20m the Navy requested for this fiscal year to almost $380m by 2025, according to program documents.
The Navy’s fiscal 2021 Selected Acquisition Report, obtained by Bloomberg News, said initial “Builders Trial” testing in mid-2019 uncovered “technical concerns with the propeller blades.” This resulted in a decision to divide the subsequent formal acceptance test into two events — “unloaded” and “loaded,” which simulated carrying a 74-ton M1 tank.
“After the loaded builders test, craft inspection revealed extensive propeller blade cracking,” it said. “To avoid additional blade loss,” the first vessel’s acceptance tests “were conducted unloaded.” (Source: Defense News Early Bird/Bloomberg)
13 Oct 20. Sarcos Defense Awarded Contract by US Navy to Develop Guardian DX Highly Dexterous Teleoperated Robotic System Leveraging Guardian XO Exoskeleton Technology.
Sarcos Guardian DX remote-controlled robotic system can be added to a variety of industrial mobility platforms already in use at U.S. shipyards, military bases, and depots.
Sarcos Defense, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sarcos Robotics, today announced that the company has been awarded a contract by the Office of Naval Research to develop a remote-controlled variant of the upper-body of the innovative Sarcos Guardian® XO® wearable exoskeleton robot. The new, platform-agnostic, upper-body variant will be adapted to attach to a variety of mobile bases, such as wheeled or tracked vehicles that can operate at height. These include boom lifts, scissor lifts, and bucket trucks to address maintenance and logistics needs. Leveraging more than 30 years of technology development from prosthetic arms and humanoid robots to powered, full-body exoskeletons, the Guardian® DX defense robot variant and the Guardian® XT commercial robot variant will provide unparalleled strength, dexterity, precision, and versatility at human scale, enabling the robot to perform difficult tasks in dangerous environments while keeping the operator safe and out of harm’s way.
This contract award follows a recent announcement with the U.S. Air Force for a contract to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) system that would enable robotic platforms, like the Guardian DX robot, to learn how to perform tasks with human-like movement through positive reinforcement and imitation machine learning (ML) technologies, known as Cybernetic Training for Autonomous Robots (CYTAR™). The CYTAR system furthers the Sarcos vision of robotic systems that augment rather than replace humans by reducing the system operator’s cognitive load for basic tasks, yet still relying on human intelligence, judgment, instincts, and reflexes to manage more complex tasks.
“The Navy is very focused on improving readiness rates,” said Steve McKee, Lead for the Naval Enterprise Sustainment Technologies Team (NESTT). “A key factor in achieving this objective is the deployment of new technologies that improve the turnaround time for maintenance activities, while also increasing the safety and effectiveness of our workforce. We are very excited to work with Sarcos Defense to productize the Guardian DX robot because it addresses a significant gap that the Navy has identified. Additionally, in my role as NESTT lead, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues from the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Army regarding the Guardian DX robot, and it appears it can address a number of readiness and sustainment needs across the Department of Defense (DoD).”
“Similar to our teleoperated Guardian® GT robot for heavy, dexterous work, but designed at human scale, the Guardian DX robot can be teleoperated to perform intricate tasks that require human-like dexterity,” said Ben Wolff, chairman and CEO, Sarcos Robotics. “Examples of such tasks include the use of portable sensors for non-destructive structural testing and inspections, the use of portable power tools for grinding, cutting and welding at height, as well as lifting and manipulating heavy components weighing up to 200 lbs. Because the Guardian DX robot is kinematically equivalent to the upper body of humans, operators are able to manage the Guardian DX robot intuitively at typical human speeds by relying on their reflexes, instincts, and judgment to perform complex tasks in unstructured, often hazardous environments that historically have only been able to be completed by people directly.”
The Guardian XT commercial robot version is expected to begin shipping to industrial customers in late 2021. (Source: ASD Network)