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Top Stories 2017: International Acquisition

USNI News polled its writers, naval analysts and service members on what they consider the most important military and maritime stories in 2017.

The following is part of a series. Please also see Top Stories 2017: Navy AcquisitionNavy OperationsMarine Corps OperationsMarine Corps and Coast Guard AcquisitionInternational Operations and New Administration

The Great Canadian Fighter Squabble

A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 flies over the flightline during the 2016 Shaw Air Expo at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. on May 21, 2016. US Air Force Photo

A cross-border business dispute, a series of campaign promises and the purchase of a fleet of second-hand strike aircraft made for one the most confusing multi-national arms deals of recent memory, as Canada seeks to replace its original fleet of about 130 Boeing CF-18 strike fighters from the 1980s.

The original intent of Ottawa was to replace the older CF-18s with about 70 or so Lockheed Martin CF-35A Joint Strike Fighters, with the first entering service in 2019. However, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during his 2015 election campaign to scrap plans to buy the JSF on account of cost and reliability concerns.

Instead, the Trudeau government and the U.S. State Department worked out a foreign military sales deal that would have the Royal Canadian Air Force field 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as part of a $5.23-billion proposed arms package as a stop gap measure, until Canada reassessed its needs in mid-September.

Ottawa axed that deal after Boeing complained to the U.S. Commerce Department its commercial business was at a disadvantage due to Canada subsidizing its commercial aerospace competitor Bombardier.

Following the trade spat, Canada announced a new competition for 88 fighters and warned competitors, “bidders responsible for harming Canada’s economic interests will be at a distinct disadvantage.”

Still facing a short-term gap until this new competition can be held, the Canadians are now offering Australia $388 million for 18 second-hand Australian F-18 Hornets – a move that will have to be approved by a Trump White House that has backed Boeing in the trade dispute with Bombardier.

Queen Elizabeth Carrier in U.K. Royal Navy Service; Air Wing to Follow

Royal Navy Photo

The Royal Navy commissioned its largest warship in history in 2017 and rejoined the club of navies with aircraft carriers, after its last carrier decommissioned in 2014.

The $4.1-billion HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) commissioned on Dec. 7 and is the first of two 65,000-ton conventionally powered carriers planned for the RN. The second, Prince of Wales (R09), is set to commission in 2020.

HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017. Royal Navy Photo

The first-ever carrier two-island design is built around two Rolls Royce MT-30 gas turbine prime movers and is set to field the U.K. fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters.

While the ship is in service, the F-35s are not. When Elizabeth leaves on its first operational deployment, it will be with U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs as part of its air wing.

North Korea ICBM Development

Hwa Song 15 missile test in November 2017. DPRK Photo

A string of North Korean missile and nuclear tests struck panic in world leaders and sparked a nasty rhetorical conflict between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

The speed to which the North Koreans were able to develop the missile and nuclear technology under strict international sanctions surprised many in the West.

Still, experts were quick to check the boasting from official state media. While Pyongyang claimed the weapon could easily reach the mainland U.S., researchers and analysts weren’t so sure.

Following a successful test of the so-called Hwasong 15 intercontinental ballistic missile, North Korea watchers at the 38 North blog assessed, “though North Korea continues to progress, our assessments have not changed in that a viable ICBM capable of reaching the west coast of the U.S. mainland still remains about a year away.”

In early December, reports emerged that North Korea is accelerating work toward a submarine-launched ballistic missile system.

High-Tech Chinese Cruiser Launches

Type-055 Cruiser via Chinese language internet

In July, the People’s Liberation Army Navy launched the first in a new class of guided-missile cruisers that borrows heavily from the Western school of surface technology.

The roughly 12,000-ton cruiser includes 128 vertical launch cells and large solid-state Active Electronically Scanned Array air search radars.

The look of the Renhai cruiser is more reminiscent of a Western mode of large surface ship design. Unlike Soviet or Chinese designs of the past, the Type-55 is built around a vertical launch system that is largely agnostic to the type of missile that can be loaded, as long as the missile can integrate with the combat system — a feature that would allow different types of anti-air, anti-ship or strike loadouts, as opposed to more specialized launching systems.

While the size of the ship is among the largest in Asia, the efficacy and effectiveness of the weapon systems and sensors remain unclear.

“Beijing apparently plans to make the Type 055 its primary surface warship for the 21st century. Including the eight initial Type 055 DDGs already planned, the PLAN could order up to 30 of the massive ships by mid-century,” according to Popular Science’s Eastern Arsenal blog.

Japan Aegis Ashore

Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Complex in Devesulu, Romania. MDA Photo

In mid-December, after more than two years of speculation, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed it wants to buy two Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense batteries, the cost of which could approach $900 million apiece.

The system, based on the Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat System used by the U.S. and Japan’s fleet of guided-missile destroyers, Aegis Ashore pairs a Lockheed AN/SPY-1D(v) air search radar with Raytheon Standard Missile 3 ballistic missile defense interceptors to target and destroy ballistic missile threats.

Cmdr. Mark Fegley, left, commanding officer of Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System (AAMDS) Romania, gives members of the Japanese Diet Council for Comprehensive Security a tour of the combat information center on Oct. 6, 2017. US Navy Photo

“North Korea’s nuclear and missile development has become a more serious and imminent threat to our security, entering in a new phase,” a Cabinet statement read, according to Stars and Stripes. “It is necessary to drastically expand our ballistic missile defense capability in order to continuously and persistently protect our country even during normal circumstances.”

In addition to Aegis on its ships, the Japanese defense industry has also co-developed the SM-3 Block IIA BMD interceptor with U.S. manufacture Raytheon for use on U.S. and Japanese ships.

China Launches First Domestic Aircraft Carrier

China’s Type-001A Carrier following its launching ceremony on April 26, 2017. Ministry of National Defense Photo

The People’s Liberation Army Navy launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier in April.

The still-unnamed Type-001A is based on the modified design of the Soviet-era carrier Liaoning, which the Chinese have used as a test platform to learn the ins and outs of carrier aviation since the ship was commissioned in 2012.

“The new carrier was modified from the original design to include a new S-band radar system, a smaller island to maximize the number of aircraft aboard and changes to the ski-ramp launching system,” USNI News reported at the time. “Reports from the PLA say the new carrier would field an unspecified number of Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark – an unlicensed copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 fighter.”

The new carrier is set to be followed by a more advanced design, the Type-002, that will reportedly field a catapult launching and arrested landing system that will allow the carrier to field a wider variety of aircraft than the ski-jump design of the Type-001A.

Previous reports indicated the Chinese would be interested in fielding up to four of their own carriers.

Saudi Naval Expansion Kicks Off

Artist’s concept of a Lockheed Martin Multi-Mission Surface Combatant. US Navy

In November, Lockheed Martin was awarded the first development contract for four new frigates for the Royal Saudi Navy.

The ships, based on the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship design, will be the backbone of the Saudi Eastern fleet and replace decades-old U.S.-built hulls. The Saudi government agreed to terms that would build and outfit the quartet of ships for $6.5 billion as part of the estimated $20-billion second Saudi Naval Expansion Program (SNEP II).

“The new Saudi ships will be built around an eight-cell Mk-41 vertical launch system and a 4D air search radar. The deal also includes 532 Raytheon RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSM) which can be loaded four to a Mk 41 cell. With 16 cells per hull, the Saudi Freedoms will be able to potentially field 64 anti-air missiles per-ship,” reported USNI News.
“At about 4,000-tons, the frigate can field a crew of 100 to 130. It runs on a power plant of two Rolls Royce MT-30 gas turbines and two Colt-Pielstick diesel engines. The ship will field eight RGM-84 Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles (ASM), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sonar suites, and torpedoes.”

  • Is the Saudi version of the Freedom class LCS going to have eight VLS or 16? ““The new Saudi ships will be built around an eight-cell Mk-41 vertical launch system and a 4D air search radar. The deal also includes 532 Raytheon RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow Missiles (ESSM) which can be loaded four to a Mk 41 cell. With 16 cells per hull, the Saudi Freedoms will be able to potentially field 64 anti-air missiles per-ship,”

    • El_Sid

      2×8

      Doesn’t USNI find it a little bit embarrassing that “what they consider the most important military and maritime stories in 2017” in this field were apparently only considered important enough to justify a USNI story at the time if they involved buying stuff from Lockheed/Boeing, with the one exception of the Chinese carrier? Might we expect day-to-day editorial decisions in future to be a bit more in line with what “its writers, naval analysts and service members” think is important looking back at the whole year?

      • Are you asking if we’re going to be covering more international naval aquisition stories in the future or that we should be doing more?
        As to this series, we’re reflecting the responses from the survey we sent out to select readers earlier this year. Shoot me a note and I’ll make sure you’re on the list.

        • kye154

          Sam, I think El Sid makes a very good point. Seems like many of the USNI articles focus way too much on the “glitz” of the hardware Lockheed and Boeing puts out, but says very little, about what our potential adversaries have developed, much less, how effective our adversaries are, and whether or not what we materially have is as effective as we imagine it to be. From a naval analyst perspective, it would be more informative if the USNI were to challenge the navy to test or simulate some of this stuff, either as it happens from real combat experience or from computer simulations. And, that would require to know more about what our adversaries really have and how proficient they really are. In other words, we need more in the way of investigative journalism from USNI, besides acquisitions in dollars and cents.

          One of the glaring examples dealt with the LCS back in 2013, when a computer simulation was run of how it would do against Chinese warships in the South China sea. (See: Warisboring, “How I Lost the Battle of the South China Sea”). The poor outcome of the LCS in that scenerio prompted a Congressional investigation in early 2014. It resulted in a report from the GAO in early 2015 confirming what the computer simulation had already found: “The lethality and survivability of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is still largely unproven, 6 years after delivery of the lead ships”. What was more profound about the report, neither the Navy or Lockheed ever tested, demonstrated, or simulated the any of the capabilities this ship before it entered production, to really know how it would stack up against an adversary. Nor did USNI write anything about what the computer simulation found, or about the subsequent GAO report to congress regarding it, or invite any discussions challenging the navy about this ship .

          In the case of the Canadian acquisition mentioned above, hardly anything is said about the reasons why the Canadians opted to buy the F-18s from Australia instead of acquiring the F-35s from America, (which made Lockheed very hostile towards Canada). Like the issue with the LCS, it too has to do with disappointing, or untested, performance and costs. Here is where USNI investigative reporting could have been valuable.

        • SDW

          I value the USNI’s independent point of view. The history of people offering “out-of-the-box” ideas and challenging the conventional wisdom is long and illustrious. The one area where it often breaks down is when the subject is acquisition. Clearly it is or is perceived to be professional suicide to tell the Emperor that an SPF-30 is indicated once a certain program has become a darling of the E-ring. Let’s not see Proceedings or the USNI in general become the industry shill that the leading organizations and periodicals dedicated to the Air Force and Army usually are.

      • Duane

        The article is entitled: “Top Stories 2017: International Acquisition”. The modifier after the colon is key.

        USNI previously published a similar 2017 review article focused on naval operations.

        And yes, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, along with Raytheon, are the largest defense suppliers in the world, so they are the ones who merit “most significant” storylines in international acquisition. A few others got mentioned here too, including the Chinese acquisition of a new large surface combatant, and the Brits their new Queen Elizabeth carrier.

        Nothing “embarrassing” about the facts. They’re just the facts.

    • DaSaint

      I saw that too. USNI needs to do a much better job of running articles by an editor prior to hitting print.

      Separately, $6.5 billion is a lot for 4 FFG, even if spares are included, unless the infrastructure and logistics is extremely expensive. Someone threw a bone at Trump.

    • number doesnt matter to me. It is the usefulness that counts.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Good picks by those that USNI News surveyed.

    The PLAN guided missile cruiser and carrier launches are troubling, and remind me of the period between WW-I and WW-II when the USS Arizona, HMS Hood, Bizmarck, and Yamato battleships were all built and launched, and ultimately lost in battle with heavy casualties. Let’s hope a repeat of naval history is not in the offing, but also hope that the USN will always be ready if needed.

  • Stephen

    Current political landscape seems somewhat out of focus. We should have seamless interchange with Canada. Our longtime ally has always had our back. I suspect the shredding of NAFTA will only benefit a very select group of individuals or corporations. Worse, someone might consider building a Northern wall… Of far greater concern; PLAN is building ships that mirror our finest AEGIS vessels. Probably constructed to improved blueprints drawn by American Naval Architects. We need to identify the flow of information & find a way to protect and preserve our innovations. It feels like someone stole an iPhone 5; reconfigured and returned to market as an iPhone X+. US has got to stop conducting R&D for PLAN.

  • Rob C.

    Type 55s are game changer for certain. Why heck can’t us produce the warships it WANTs. China seems to have no issues getting what they need? We’ve been trying get replacement for the Ticos for years. What we do? Cancel the program that was replacing it, restart and bump the price tag of a older ship design which may or may not be as effective as the Type 55s in the numbers their producing. Four right now, 50 on the way? The ships are classified as Guided Missile Destroyers, only the US so far calls them cruisers.

    Saudis were happy with the version of the Freedom they got. It’s like the US said you had take this or wait bit for another one. They have larger ship in the works for years based on the Freedom, the US Navy can’t stand someone else getting a better boat they have based on the same design?

    • China pays their armed forces peanuts and have billion plus cheap labour and centralised planning.

    • SDW

      All the services have a long history of denying the export of anything better than what the US fields. This is despite the US system’s obsolescence and more capable systems being available from non-US suppliers. The only usual exemptions from this practice have been the UK (rarely), Israel (often, but because the non-US suppler is Israel itself), Japan (like Israel but using their own money), and Saudi Arabia (they pay a premium for the on-going support). Australia is becoming another one but that’s because we get along so well with them besides, they don’t have the cash for the best stuff.

    • UKExpat

      The clear reason that the USN cannot produce the warships it WANTs is quite obvious and staring every one in the face, but nobody seems to want to acknowledge it or talk about it. It comes under many names though they nearly always all contain the word “CONCURRENCY” This scandal has literally devastated USN procurement projects for the last decade or so. Projects affected, include the F35 aircraft project, Ford Class carriers, Littoral Combat Ships, Zumwalt Destroyers, Rail Guns, etc. etc. In other words, most projects with large quantities of new high technological content. Until such time as this scandal has been properly acknowledged and a suitable correction programme put in place to correct the damage then the long delays and massive cost over runs will continue to seriously undermine the USN’s fighting credibility.