14 January 2020

Royal Navy to begin unmanned minehunting operations

The UK Royal Navy will begin minehunting and survey operations using unmanned surface vessels (USVs) in March 2020.

The navy will deploy a mix of unmanned and remotely-operated USVs and submersibles designed to detect ‘smart mines’ and conduct survey missions of the ocean and seafloor from HMNB Clyde.

The active service follows a £13m contract award to Atlas Elektronik UK, the culmination of years of work and ongoing trials from the Royal Navy, Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) and Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

Initial operation of the vessel will be carried out under the Royal Navy’s Project Wilton which aims to develop and deliver the navy’s unmanned minehunting and survey programmes. Wilton has three vessels under its control; two remote-controlled and one manned boat alongside several submersible vehicles.

Maritime capability assistant chief of staff Commodore Mike Knott said: “With equipment and personnel now operating on the Clyde, the transition to widespread use of autonomous systems in mine countermeasures (MCM) is becoming a reality and places the Royal Navy MCM community at the cutting edge.”

The unmanned systems are set to supplement and support the Royal Navy’s existing manned minehunting force provided by Hunt- and Sandown-class minehunter vessels.

Knott added: “This exciting project handover is a real step forward in realising our ambition to make minehunting safer and more effective through the use of autonomous and robotic technology.”

Capabilities include Atlas Elektronik’s ARCIMS vehicle designed for minesweeping, minehunting, mine disposal, anti-submarine warfare, surveillance, force protection and diver support using several different mission module options. ARCIMS first gained notice as part of Exercise Unmanned Warrior in 2016, where 50 participants demonstrated the capabilities of unmanned systems to the Royal Navy.

Wilton is seen by the Royal Navy as a stepping stone between current and future mine countermeasures (MCM) technology, with the ultimate goal of delivering and developing a fully autonomous MCM system for the UK which would be able to be deployed from many vessels including the existing surface fleet.

The systems are designed to be transportable via low-loaders, meaning they can be quickly deployed into theatre wherever they are needed.

For the time being the vessels will be based in the UK where they will survey and patrol British waters while providing data on their use that the Royal Navy can learn from for future deployments. At the moment the vessels will be used for route survey with mine disposal capabilities being further developed.

Project Wilton is named after the HMS Wilton, an experimental coastal minesweeper launched in 1972 that was the first warship in the world to use a glass-reinforced plastic hull and laid the groundwork for the Hunt-class MCM vessels. At the time, HMS Wilton was seen to fulfil a similar role in stepping up MCM capabilities as Project Wilton is today.

Autonomy in naval forces is being largely developed with to take on the 3Ds’ of dull, dirty and dangerous missions, in order to keep sailors out of harm’s way.

13 January 2020

Pentagon initiates review of Pratt & Whitney’s F-35 engine programme

The Pentagon’s auditors have initiated a review of United Technologies’ unit Pratt & Whitney’s $66bn F-35 engine programme in order to determine why the company is failing to gain more savings from subcontractors on its share of the US weapons programme.

The review was started after Pratt & Whitney claimed cost savings of around 3% in its prices for the 12th through 14th F-35 production batches over the previous contract.

As a result, the Defense Contract Audit Agency is reviewing whether subcontractor prices are falling.

Bloomberg reported that Pratt & Whitney is the sole provider of engines for the F-35. The company and its subcontractors are expected to receive as much as $66bn of an estimated $428bn in acquisition costs for building more than 3,000 F-35 fighter jets for the US and its allies.

Defense Department F-35 programme office spokesman Greg Kuntz said that the review covering parts such as castings and forgings includes 15 to 20 suppliers.

Kuntz added that with these types of supplier audits, the programme office will be able to determine pricing accurately ahead of the next production negotiations for the 15th through 17th contracts.

In addition, the audits, which include information from subcontractors, will help in establishing a fair and reasonable price for the propulsion system.

Pratt & Whitney military engines president Matthew Bromberg told Bloomberg that the company has achieved 55% in cost reductions per engine from the beginning of production to the end of Lot 14.

Bromberg added that, over the next two years, the company aims to secure a more aggressive cost-reduction strategy that it will negotiate with the Pentagon.

13 January 2020

DARPA announces qualified teams for SubT Challenge

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced 17 qualified teams for the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge Urban Circuit that seeks to better equip warfighters and first responders to explore uncharted and dangerous underground environments.

A total of 11 teams will compete in the ‘Systems’ competition, which will take place at Satsop Business Park in Elma, Washington from 18 to 27 February.

Eight teams will participate in the ‘Virtual’ competition, which is set to run from 23 to 30 January, while two teams will compete in both the ‘Virtual’ and ‘Systems’ events.

As part of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, warfighters and first responders will be equipped to explore human-made tunnel systems, the urban underground, and natural cave networks.

The SubT Challenge Systems and ‘Virtual’ competitions will create a community of multidisciplinary teams from various fields to adopt breakthrough technologies in autonomy, perception, networking, and mobility for underground environments.

The Tunnel Circuit took place in August last year, while the Cave Circuit is planned for August this year.

DARPA is targeting a ‘Final Event’ incorporating all three underground environments for August 2021.

In order to compete in the ‘Systems’ competition, each team is required to demonstrate baseline performance capabilities and suitable safety measures.

These teams will deploy autonomous ground and aerial systems to attempt to accurately identify and map as many artefacts as possible accurately along two competition courses.

The solutions of qualified ‘Virtual’ competitors can be submitted through the SubT Virtual Portal during the submission window.

Each team can select from a repository of robot models and a variety of sensors and assemble an eSports style solution to map, navigate, and search dark, dangerous underground environments.

Last October, DARPA completed a preliminary design review of a two-stage tactical missile system.

10 January 2020

RAF to launch swarming drone squadron in April

The UK Royal Air Force in April plans to stand up a new squadron to bring swarming drones into service and assess their capabilities.

The technology, originally announced by former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, was due to be in service by the end of 2019; however, the capabilities will now be brought into service in April.

A RAF spokesperson told Air Force Technology: “The Royal Air Force’s ambitious swarming drones project continues to be developed by the Rapid Capabilities Office with the progress during recent trials exceeding expectations in a number of areas. 216 Squadron will be reformed on 1 April 2020 in order to bring the capability into service and continue its development.”

Development of the project has so far been under the control of the RAF Rapid Capabilities Office, which supports the Tempest fighter project. However, RAF has so far been tight-lipped about the size and scope of the plans.

Announcing the project in February last year at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Williamson said: “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund to develop swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences. We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year.”

At the time Janes reported that the drones would be used to locate and confuse anti-air infrastructure so conventional aircraft could destroy it.

The project has been funded through the £160m UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Transformation Fund designed to deploy and deliver advanced projects for the armed forces. Announcing the project, Williamson said that it was designed to complement the “leading edge” technology of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The MOD previously gave more details on the programme saying that the drones would work alongside fighter aircraft like the F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon to increase their lethality.

The MOD said: “The new £160m Transformation Fund will also develop swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.

“By working with our F35 and Typhoon combat aircraft, these swarms will allow our pilots to deliver precise, lethal combat power more effectively and safely.”

At last year’s Air and Space Conference, then Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier repeated the ambitious timeframe and commented on the programme, saying: “The RAF Rapid Capabilities Office is a world-leader in delivering projects, from Tempest to counter-UAS, such as our plans for swarming drones. For our swarming drones programme, if we had set about this three years ago in a traditional acquisition route we would not be where we are today.

“The team were set the most challenging objectives and I am confident enough to say the results, thus far, are looking pretty impressive. So much so that I can declare that we will shortly be forming an experimental squadron – Number 216 Squadron – to bring this capability quickly to the frontline.”

216 Squadron has operated in a number of capacities, beginning life as part of the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917. Later, 216 Squadron moved to a transport-focused role during WW2, a role it reprised during the Falklands War, operating a fleet of Lockheed Tristar 500 aircraft, before being disbanded in 2014.

10 January 2020

MOD nuclear infrastructure over budget and behind schedule

The Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) management of critical infrastructure projects on nuclear-registered sites has led to a combined cost increase of £1.35bn and delays of 1 to 6 years according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO). 

The NAO said that despite construction for some of the projects being completed the delays were largely down to problems and failures in the early stages of development, despite this MOD still needs to curtail further risks and learn lessons from the projects faults.

The projects which will provide key support to the UK’s continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent have a combined value of at least £2.5bn and cover three sites across the country. None of the three projects reviewed by the NAO are on schedule or on budget.

MENSA, a new nuclear warhead assembly and disassembly facility worth £1.8bn at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE)-operated site in Burghfield. The project was started in 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2023 has seen a delay of 6.3 years, with the facility currently being fitted out. The projects forecast of £1.8bn is almost 150% more than the original expected cost of £734m in 2011.

The delays have also led to costs elsewhere with the MOD having to upgrade existing facilities to comply with regulations. The NAO report says that between 2016-17 and 2019-20 the MOD has spent £21m to be able to continue to use the Burghfield site.

Another project to develop Core production capability facilities at Rolls Royce site in Raynesway designed to manufacture the nuclear reactor cores for the Dreadnought-Class of submarines was started in 2012 current forecast cost is £474m, up from £328m forecast when the project began with construction yet to begin on the second part of the facility. This project has seen a delay of just over five years.

The third, a primary build facility at BAE Systems Barrow-in-Furness shipyard has also been delayed by almost 1.7 years. Expected to be finished in 2022 the £240m facility has seen its forecast cost more than double from the £111m initially expected. The facility is designed to allow the UK’s Dreadnought Submarines to constructed using a modular technique.

The NAO said that £647m of the total cost increase was a result of the MOD starting construction on the projects too early. The projects represent 24% of the MOD’s 52 current Nuclear Enterprise infrastructure projects across the UK by value.

NAO head Gareth Davies said: “While these infrastructure projects are complex, the MOD has encountered similar challenges before in its nuclear work. Although it has recently introduced changes to enhance its oversight of the projects and improve its contracts with suppliers, it should have learnt earlier from past mistakes and the experience of others in the nuclear sector.

“Instead, the MOD’s failure to mitigate commercial and delivery risks early on has led to project delays and cost increases, as well as impacting its wider work.”

The construction of nuclear facilities has a number of inherit risks alongside those that are commonplace in infrastructure projects. Facilities on nuclear-regulated sites need to comply with additional regulations and guidance and can only be delivered by a small number of suppliers.

The NAO explained that “problems in the earlier and riskier stages of these projects have caused delays and cost increases.” The MOD has had to foot the bill for the expanded costs as the contracts mean the ministry, not the contractors bears the financial risks.

In the report, the NAO criticised the MOD for not learning from past problems with similar projects. The report says: “The MoD could have learnt more from the early stages of other nuclear infrastructure projects concluded in the UK and elsewhere. Similar challenges arose for the MoD in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as in American defence projects and UK civil nuclear projects, such as at Sellafield.”

Responding to the report a spokesperson for the MOD told Naval Technology: “As the National Audit Office has acknowledged, nuclear infrastructure projects are often large and complex with niche designs. We are carefully examining the conclusions in their report and will respond formally in due course.

“We are committed to strengthening the management of nuclear programmes, including investing significantly in infrastructure and working closely with regulators and industry partners.”

10 January 2020

US Army selects QinetiQ and Textron to build robotic combat vehicles

The US Army has selected QinetiQ North America and Textron to build four light and four medium robotic combat vehicles (RCVs) respectively.

The Army CCDC Ground Vehicle Systems Center and the Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team intend to award the companies a task assignment under the Ground Vehicle System (GVS) other transaction agreement for the RCV programme.

Through a contracting mechanism, the National Advanced Mobility Consortium is coordinating the army’s awards to industry.

The service expects to be officially under contract with both companies by the middle of next month, pending successful negotiations.

US Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center Director Jeffrey Langhout said: “The progress that our engineers, scientists, project managers and leaders around Team Warren and the army modernisation enterprise have made in moving the RCV closer to reality is truly a heartening success story for army modernisation.

“That we can get this far already is a testament to the dedication and passion of the army to giving our soldiers the best capabilities possible.”

The light and medium RCVs to be built will be used as part of the army’s Robotic Campaign of Learning that looks to determine the feasibility of integrating unmanned vehicles into ground combat operations.

A company-level experiment will also be conducted at the end of this year using these vehicles.

Based on the results of that experiment, the army will decide on how to proceed with RCVs in 2023.

Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team director Ross Coffman said: “Robots have the potential to revolutionise the way we conduct ground combat operations.”