LPD-17 San Antonio class amphibious assault support vessels are just entering service with the US Navy, and 11 ships of this class are eventually slated to replace up to 41 previous ships. Much like their smaller predecessors, their mission is to embark, transport, land, and support elements of a US Marine Corps Landing Force. The difference is found in these ships’ size, their cost, and the capabilities and technologies used to perform those missions. Among other additions, this new ship is designed to operate the Marines’ new MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, alongside the standard well decks for hovercraft and amphibious armored personnel carriers.
While its design incorporates notable advances, the number of serious issues encountered in this ship class have been much higher than usual, and more extensive. The New Orleans shipyard to which most of this contract was assigned appears to be part of the problem. Initial ships have been criticized, often, for sub-standard workmanship, and it took 2 1/2 years after the initial ship of class was delivered before any of them could be sent on an operational cruise. Whereupon the USS San Antonio promptly found itself laid up Bahrain, due to oil leaks. It hasn’t been the only ship of its class hurt by serious mechanical issues. Meanwhile, costs are almost twice the originally promised amounts, reaching over $1.6 billion per ship – 2 to 3 times as much as many foreign LPDs like the Rotterdam Class, and more than 10 times as much as Singapore’s 6,600 ton Endurance Class LPD. This article covers the LPD-17 San Antonio Class program, including its technologies, its problems, and ongoing contracts and events.
Latest updates[?]: NHIndustries has flown the first of 22 new NH90 helicopters for Qatar, with the consortium announcing in late December 2020 that both variants ordered by the Gulf state had made their maiden flights. According to NHI, the flights of the first NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) and Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) variant NH90 for the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF) included take-off, general handling, functional checks, and landing operations. The QEAF is due to receive 12 maritime NFH and 16 land-based TTH variant NH90s under a USD2.8 billion deal signed in March 2018.
NH90: TTH & NFH
The NH90 emerged from a requirement that created a NATO helicopter development and procurement agency in 1992 and, at almost the same time, established NH Industries (62.5% EADS Eurocopter, 32.5% AgustaWestland, and 5% Stork Fokker) to build the hardware. The NATO Frigate Helicopter was originally developed to fit between light naval helicopters like AW’s Lynx or Eurocopter’s Panther, and medium-heavy naval helicopters like the European EH101. A quick look at the NFH design showed definite possibilities as a troop transport helicopter, however, and soon the NH90 project had branched into 2 versions, with more to follow.
The nearest equivalent would be Sikorsky’s popular H-60Seahawk/ Black Hawk family, but the NH90 includes a set of innovative features that give it some distinguishing selling points. Its combination of corrosion-proofing, lower maintenance, greater troop or load capacity, and the flexibility offered by that rear ramp have made the NH90 a popular global competitor.
As many business people discover the hard way, however, success can be almost as dangerous as failure. NH Industries has had great difficulty ramping up production fast enough to meet promised deliveries, which has left several buyers upset. Certification and acceptance have also been slow, with very few NH90s in service over a decade after the first contracts were signed. Booked orders have actually been sliding backward over the last year, and currently stand at around 500 machines, on behalf of 14 nations.
As the U.S. decides who will be president for the next four years a review of procurement spending indicates that the Trump Administration has shown little difference in appropriations versus previous administrations, despite claims to have radically increased spending.
The upshot is that the last four years saw about $2.9 in spending appropriated in inflation-adjusted dollars, which was larger than Barak Obama’s second term, but less than the Obama Administration’s first term.
President Trump’s campaign speech claims of spending during his term relative to previous terms are incorrect. President Trump claimed this year that military spending in the 90s “used to be ‘million.’ And then, about 10 years ago, you started hearing ‘billion.’ And now you’re starting to hear ‘trillion,’ right?” Of course, U.S. defense spending hit the billions in the late 1940s, and recent spending has been on pace with spending from the decade previous.
The Trump Administration has done little to change the often-criticized Pentagon trend of investing more money in fewer pieces of equipment, such as fighter jets that cost a quarter billion dollars each when fully kitted out. The navy is running fewer ships that each cost more. Previous administrations did no better in reversing this trend, of course.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden stated multiple times that he has no plans to reduce military spending, but indicated a desire to refocus military budgets and planning on “near-peer” powers Russia and China, while attempting to recover some of the goodwill of allies tested by the Trump Administration’s active skepticism in cooperation with allies, especially the NATO alliance.
Latest updates[?]: Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) is under pressure from the military to complete the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation of its Hai Chien 2 anti-air missile by this year. The Navy wants to start limited production of the missile from March next year so that the Tuo Chiang Class corvettes can have an anti-air capability. Unfortunately for NCSIST, the institute has run into problems integrating the missile with air defense radar. To meet the deadline by next year, it has to start shipborne testing in the next few months. So far, the missile has only been fired at sea once in 2014. Another effort to have the missile fired from the Mk 41 VLS is also delayed as the indigenous Hsun Lien naval combat systems is behind schedule.
Despite China’s ominous military buildup across the strait, key weapons sales of P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, Patriot PAC-3 missiles, and diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan had been sabotaged by Taiwanese politics for years – in some cases, since 1997. The KMT party’s flip-flops and determined stalling tactics eventually created a crisis in US-Taiwan relations, which finally soured to the point that the USA refused a Taiwanese request for F-16C/D aircraft.
That seems to have brought things to a head. Most of the budget and political issues were eventually sorted out, and after a long delay, some major elements of Taiwan’s requested modernization program appear to be moving forward: P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, UH-60M helicopters, Patriot missile upgrades; and requests for AH-64D attack helicopters, E-2 Hawkeye AWACS planes, minehunting ships, and missiles for defense against aircraft, ships, and tanks. These are must-have capabilities when facing a Chinese government that has vowed to take the country by force, and which is building an extensive submarine fleet, a large array of ballistic missiles, an upgraded fighter fleet, and a number of amphibious-capable divisions. Chinese pressure continues to stall some of Taiwan’s most important upgrades, including diesel-electric submarines, and new American fighter jets. Meanwhile, other purchases from abroad continue.
As Asia-Pacific nations invest in submarines, serious regional players also need to invest in anti-submarine capabilities. Aircraft like the P-8A Poseidon are great, but nothing really replaces dedicated and capable ASW ships. Their opponents’ anti-ship missiles are also experiencing a jump in capability, so a secondary air defense role isn’t optional. Australia’s 2 remaining FFG-7 Adelaide-class frigates have finished an expensive and somewhat rickety systems upgrade, but they fall short of what’s needed, and won’t last all that much longer. The Adelaide-class will soon be succeeded by 3 new Hobart-class AWD. The RAN’s 8 ANZAC-class frigates are receiving much smoother ASMD air defense upgrades that will make them quite useful, but their service life will begin ebbing around 2024. Hence Australia’s SEA 5000 Future Frigate program, which may receive an early push from issues with Australia’s naval industrial base…
Latest updates[?]: The head of Australia's $32.2 billion Sea 1000 program has confirmed that construction of the pressure hull for the first of 12 Attack Class conventionally powered submarines is scheduled to begin in 2024. This will follow the construction in 2023 of a hull qualification section to prove procedures, equipment, and skills at the submarine construction facility now being built at Osborne North near Adelaide by government-owned Australian Naval Infrastructure to the functional requirements of Sea 1000's French-owned designer and build partner Naval Group.
Buoy oh buoy…
News reports from Japan indicate that country is suggesting to Australia that they go in together to build a new series of non-nuclear submarines, hoping to finalize a deal before the end of the year. The Australian DOD would confirm only that they are indeed talking to several countries about cooperating on a new series. The previous Australian government (Labor) had promised 12 new keels, but the sitting government put those plans into a study phase, concerned that doing so would result in an availability gap between the new subs and the existing Collins class boats.
The January 2010 failure of a generator aboard HMAS Farncomb was just the latest in a long history of problems faced by its fleet of 6 Collins Class diesel-electric submarines – which have sometimes been reduced to just 1 operational vessel. That readiness issue presents an immediate financial headache for Australia’s government, and adds a longer-term challenge to the centerpiece of Australia’s future naval force.
With just 6 submarines in its fleet, Australia’s current deployment set-up leaves little room for error. Even a normal setup of 2 in maintenance, 2 for training but available if needed, and 2 on operations makes for a thin line, given Australia’s long coastline and sea lanes. Almost 15 years after the first Collins Class boat was delivered, they are still short of this goal. When crewing problems are added to the mechanical issues, the failings of its current fleet are creating sharp questions about the Australia’s 2009 White Paper plan to build 12 new diesel-electric fast attack submarines, as the future centerpiece of the 2030 Australian Navy.
Latest updates[?]: Saab has signed an agreement with Australia to provide combat management systems for Navy's surface ships. According to the agreement, Saab will deliver its Next Generation’ Combat Management System (CMS) to Australia’s new Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and the Supply class auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ships. Saab will also modernize the 9LV CMS currently in use in the Anzac Class frigates and will provide the software for the future tactical interface for the Hobart class air warfare destroyer (AWDs) when their current CMS is modernized.
The FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates make for a fascinating defense procurement case study. To this day, the ships are widely touted as a successful example of cost containment and avoidance of requirements creep – both of which have been major weaknesses in US Navy acquisition. On the other hand, compromises made to meet short-term cost targets resulted in short service lives and decisions to retire, sell, or downgrade the ships instead of upgrading them.
Australia’s 6 ships of this class have served alongside the RAN’s more modern ANZAC Class frigates, which are undergoing upgrades of their own to help them handle the reality of modern anti-ship missiles. With the SEA 4000 Hobart Class air warfare frigates still just a gleam in an admiral’s eye, the government looked for a way to upgrade their FFG-7 “Adelaide Class” to keep them in service until 2020 or so. The SEA 1390 project wasn’t what you’d call a success… but Australia accepted their last frigate in 2010, and the 4 remaining ships will serve until 2020.
Latest updates[?]: The Falkland Islands have welcomed the arrival of new patrol vessel HMS Forth. British Forces South Atlantic Islands say that the ship has taken over the mission from HMS Clyde, which has offered protection to the Falklands and nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands for the past 12 years. The long-term deployment of HMS Forth will see the ship act as the guardian and patrol vessel for the Falkland Islands and Britain’s South Atlantic territories. HMS Forth is a Batch 2 River Class Offshore Patrol Vessel and is fundamentally different in appearance and capabilities from the preceding Batch 1. Notable differences include the longer 90.5 meters long hull, a higher top speed of 24 knots, a Merlin-capable flight deck, a greater displacement of around 2,000 tonnes and greatly expanded capacity for accommodating personnel.
The UK’s forthcoming Ocean Class 90m+ Offshore Patrol Vessels stem from a shipbuilding sector agreement that the UK MoD signed with BAE in November 2013. Britain needed to find an affordable bridge-buy that kept its naval shipyards running in-between completion of existing ships, and delayed construction of the new Type 26 frigates. Rather than paying termination and industrial costs to keep the shipyard idle, the UK government decided to buy 3 OPVs, for delivery by 2017. This would also allow the Royal Navy to retire or gift out the existing River Class OPVs HMS Tyne, HMS Severn and HMS Mersey.
As of August 2014, the contract for these new open-ocean patrol vessels is complete…
Latest updates[?]: AAR Government Services won a $118.6 million firm-fixed-price contract for two C-40 aircraft. The deal is for the procurement, modification as well as delivery and includes associated peculiar support equipment and common support equipment for the Marine Corps. The C-40 is the military version of the Boeing 737-700C transporter. The C-40A or Clipper provides critical logistics support to the United States Navy. The contract is for the acquisition, modification, acceptance and delivery of two Boeing 737-700 Increased Gross Weight series commercial aircraft that will meet USMC C-9B replacement medium lift requirements and will be designated C-40A. Under the contract, a passenger-cargo configuration shall be certified to meet 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 25 or military airworthiness standards that will consist of seating and cargo pallets that will provide the USMC with the added mission flexibility to configure the aircraft in a cargo-passenger configuration. AAR will perform work in Illinois, Indiana, Florida, and Oklahoma and estimated completion date is in September 2021.
The 737 based C-40 Clipper represents a substantial upgrade over the 1970s-era, DC-9 based C-9 Skytrains and 727-based C-22Bs that have performed its transport roles to date. The C-9s are still in service with the US Naval Reserve and USAF, but they’re expected to be be phased out as the C-40s take up the load. Meanwhile, concern has been expressed about the funding levels for this replacement program, as well as the USAF and US Navy C-9 fleet’s continued durability. The USAF’s C-9A models are of particular concern.
The C-40 comes in 3 variants; the C-40A is a Navy aircraft, while its counterpart C-40C and executive/ VIP C-40Bs are USAF planes. The USAF’s C-40 leasing contracts have been a source of some controversy, but the program has continued, alongside Air Force and Navy buys.
Latest updates[?]: The US Air Force awarded AAR Supply Chain a $210 million ceiling contract for contractor logistics support for the Afghanistan Air Force. The contract will provide the Afghanistan Air Force with full C-130H contractor logistics support to include maintenance and repair, as well as on the job training for local Afghan nationals. The C-130H Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. It features a loading ramp and door in the tail that can accommodate palletized loads, vehicles and troops. The aircraft can airdrop up to 42,000 pound loads or land on short, unimproved airstrips in forward combat zones. Work will take place in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is expected to be completed by January 29, 2025.
When a USAF program to refurbish 20 Italian C-27A light tactical transport planes for the Afghan Air Force formally imploded at the end of 2012, the American looked for a longer-term plan B. At the high end, the proposal was to hand over 4 ex-USAF C-130H Hercules 20 medium tactical transports. In August 2013, we wrote:
“It’s a move that will require fewer pilots, which should be a plus for the Afghan Air Force, and it’s an easy move for the USA to make. On the other hand, they’re replacing maintenance-intensive planes that the AAF couldn’t maintain even with contractor help, with a smaller set of aged and maintenance-intensive planes. It doesn’t sound like they’re solving the problem…”