WASHINGTON — The United Kingdom is looking to dive deep into data to figure out if it can “eek out” extra life on some of its most vital munitions, a top general tells Defense News.
Gen. Gordon Messenger, the U.K.’s vice chief of the Defence Staff, said in a recent interview that he believes the missiles and bombs currently in stockpile might have a longer shelf life than current standards dictate, and that the Ministry of Defence is working on new ways to use that information.
“One of the things that we’re seeking to improve is our ability to understand what the life of a missile looks and feels like in terms of capturing the data of the environmental conditions and the usage of those missiles because that allows you to make risk-based judgments on how long they can safely operate,” Messenger said.
“And I think getting more data from, you know, in some cases almost missile by missile, to understand what the sort of ‘life journey’ of that missile is. It is that sort of data that gives you the ability to make proper judgments as to the continued safe usage of that missile system,” he added.
The concept of using data is, in theory, a straightforward one. Right now, the U.K. bases the life of its weapons on standards developed by the government, with certain built-in safety assumptions about how many times a weapon can be loaded on and off a plane, how long one can stay in stockpile, and at what point the internal components start to break down.
But those assumptions may not be correct, and with new data-processing and -gathering capabilities, the MoD believes it can challenge some of those assumptions to better judge the so-called life journey of a weapon.
“I think it’s going to allow us to make better judgments than not having that data because if you don’t have that data, then you tend to have to err on the side of caution because safety is paramount,” he said.
However, such data can be easier to obtain in theory than in reality. During its recent first-ever audit, the U.S. Defense Department discovered major issues with internal tracking of equipment. In some cases, the situation was better than expected — the Pentagon found a cache of missile motors it didn’t know it had stored in one base — but if tracking data isn’t trustworthy, it raises questions about how reliable it can be when making decisions about the life expectancy of weapons.
The issue of weapons stockpiles for the U.K. has been ongoing for several years. In 2017, the U.S. agreed to sell the U.K. 1,000 Hellfire missiles out of its own domestic stockpile, a sign taken by analysts that the MoD was in desperate need of the weapons.
And during the December release of its Modernising Defence Programme document, the MoD highlighted the need to strengthen weapons stockpiles, with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson saying: “To improve the combat effectiveness of our forces, we will re-prioritize the current defense program to increase weapon stockpiles.”
But money and data won’t entirely solve the inventory problem. Part of the challenge is simply the reality that industry can only produce so many weapons — a problem the U.S. is currently experiencing. In the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget, for example, five key weapons — the JDAM, Hellfire, SDB-1, SDB-2 and JASSM — are to be procured at quantities that max out industry’s ability to produce them.
“There are some missile stockpiles that are in relatively good health. There are some that are too low for comfort and that we are looking to either eek out the life of those missile systems or procure more,” Messenger said.
Messenger declined to identify specific stockpiles that cause him concern. Both the Paveway IV (produced by American firm Raytheon and a coalition of smaller British companies) and the Brimstone (produced by European consortium MBDA) have been used extensively in the fight against the Islamic State group. Other versions of the Paveway, along with GBU-12 guided bombs and the Storm Shadow cruise missile, have been featured in that operation.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.