It wasn’t that long ago when the name ‘Westland Helicopters’ used to be associated with ministerial resignations, especially for those in defence. Things have been pretty quiet in Yeovil since then, but it appears that this once cold potato has been put back into the oven and the gas mark has been turned up high.
This latest hot potato comes in the form of a row that appears to be smouldering in Westminster between David Law, Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil and the Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Clacton and Harwich. Spats between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are nothing new, if anything they should be actively encouraged. However, this one concerns the defence of the realm, or the lack of it depending on who you choose to believe.
On or around 2014, development problems aside, the British Army will receive its latest combat helicopter, the ‘Future Lynx’. Unfortunately in the last few years the Lynx has had tendency to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, these being a number of fatal crashes and the subsequent groundings of the fleet.
The Lynx as we know it entered service with the British armed forces in 1978, it saw action in the Falklands Conflict, the first Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but a few. The Royal Navy use it to hunt ships and submarines, which it does very well, and the army uses it as a battlefield taxi, which it does admirably, but not as well as it should.
The gestation of Future Lynx has been somewhat difficult, following its initial inception. Defence procurement in the UK can be a dicey affair at the best of times with cost over-runs and late deliveries appearing to be the norm. The ones who seem to repeatedly get the raw end of the deal are the servicemen and women who have to operate the equipment and the tax payers who have to foot the inevitable over-inflated bill. The original Lynx helicopter also had its fair share of problems, however with the advent of the £1billion Future Lynx project, all of these problems should be ironed out; or at least we can hope that they are.
For the Lynx to become a ‘Future Lynx’ a number of modifications and improvements have been made, namely:
- New engines. The old Rolls Royce Gem engines have been replaced by more powerful LHTEC CTS800-4N engines which will vastly improve performance.
- Navy style landing gear for both army and navy versions.
- Crashworthy seating for the crew and passengers. These are the same seats as used in the American Blackhawk and vastly improve survivability.
- An uprated transmission system.
- Structural strengthening. The Lynx airframe was known to be weak in several areas.
- Crashworthy fuel tanks to reduce the risk of a post crash fire.
- Addition of a large optical aid, and in the case of the navy version, a new radar.
In addition to these modifications the helicopter bristles with the latest communication, targeting, detection equipment and weaponry that the MOD can lay its wallet on, or at least the navy version does. The version destined for use by the British Army doesn’t quite bristle as much. Being predominately land based, it forgoes the Sea Skua anti-ship and Hellfire anti-armour missiles, its dipping sonar and the radar of its navy sibling and replaces them with…….a machine gun or at least a choice of machine guns; either a single 7.62 mm or 12.7 mm machine gun to be exact.
Being land based one would expect things to be somewhat more simplistic, naval warfare by its very nature is both highly specialised and highly sophisticated. Land warfare on the other hand tends to be more bayonet technology than stealth technology, or so you would think. This assertion is incorrect however, as a close up inspection of the latest Apache gunship will testify. After feasting your eyes on its 30 mm automatic cannon, its multitude of Hellfire missiles and high velocity rockets, you feel yourself empathising with the large swathes of the Iraqi army that surrendered when one of these gunships hoved into view. Apart from its menacing looks, the Apache has a number of features designed explicitly for the modern battlefield:
- Its powerful engines are widely spaced to prevent the other engine getting damaged if one is hit by anti-aircraft fire.
- Its airframe had ‘crashworthiness’ designed into it from inception.
- A robust undercarriage for landing on rough terrain.
- It carries the latest in anti-armour missiles, rockets and has an in built cannon slaved to the pilots helmet, so where he looks, the cannon points.
- It has a ‘Longbow’ radar mounted above the rotor blades, allowing it to peer over terrain to acquire targets for its missiles and remain largely hidden from view.
- Ballistically tolerant flight controls and multiple hydraulic systems to allow redundancy in case battle damage.
With the army version of Future Lynx, there is very little on which your eyes can actually feast, but then it has a distinctly different role. It is not by its nature a gunship, so, you may ask, what does it do?
Well that depends on the MOD, and whether it can make its mind up. When the powers at be at the MOD decided they needed a Lynx replacement, the best solution appeared to be somewhat elusive. So in 2002 they called on the then Westland Helicopters to help them, and gave them £10 million pounds of taxpayers money to carry out an in-depth study to find one.
The Westland Helicopters solution was……to buy more Westland Lynx helicopters, albeit improved ones. Surprising stuff you may think; the biggest surprise being the fact that it cost £10 million pounds to arrive at this conclusion. It should be noted at this point that the nominal sum of £10 million pounds could purchase two light reconnaissance helicopters.
What the army required was a Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH). Unfortunately, Lynx is too small to be a true troop carrying utility helicopter. Having realised this, and to save the potential embarrassment of having a troop carrier that couldn’t carry enough troops, the MOD changed the role to that of Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter (BRH). This way it didn’t matter how many troops it could carry, any troops at all would be seen as a bonus. It was a case of massaging the role to fit the aircraft as opposed to buying an aircraft that actually suited the role.
Given this new role it could now peer from behind cover and observe the enemy at will, although it can’t because the observation aid is in the nose, requiring most of the aircraft to be exposed to view the enemy. This was to maintain commonality with the navy version.
In its new role it can now designate targets for the Army Air Corps Apache gunships, which unfortunately it can’t do all of the time because it doesn’t have a ‘Longbow’ radar. The Apache uses two types of Hellfire missiles, semi-active laser guided and millimetre radar guided.
Guess which one Future Lynx can’t designate for?
At least it can carry troops and deploy them at will around the battlefield. Well it can, but not as well as you’d expect. The original Lynx could carry nine troops, but not with all their equipment and certainly not with a door gunner. Movie buffs familiar with such films as ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Blackhawk Down’ will remember scenes of the door gunners blazing away as the helicopter approached a hot landing zone. The Lynx can do this too, or at least half of it as it only carries one door gunner at a time. This creates a tactical problem for the Lynx crew; if the enemy fires at the aircraft from the other side, where there is no door gunner, what does one do? Answers on a post card to the MOD. If the Lynx does manage to land in one piece, it cannot deploy an infantry section of eight men as the cabin isn’t big enough, especially with a door gunner on board. Future Lynx cannot do this either as it carries less troops than the current Lynx courtesy of its crashworthy seating. As if to confound its problems, if the Lynx did have the space to carry the additional troops, it wouldn’t get off the ground anyway as its current Rolls Royce engines lack sufficient power.
The Lynx as we know it is the army’s ‘battlefield taxi’, or at least it should be if it could carry enough troops, and two door gunners to defend itself against hostile fire. The Lynx Mk 7 had the advantage of carrying eight TOW anti-tank missiles, or it did until the Apache gunship pulled the rug from under its skids to become the army’s number one tank killer. The Lynx Mk 9 cannot carry TOW missiles, but has a robust wheeled undercarriage for landing on rough terrain, something the Future Lynx does not. It has a navy style undercarriage, again to maintain parity with the navy version. The army version of Future Lynx isn’t destined to carry missiles of any sort either.
To compare Future Lynx against its contemporaries also raises a few disparities. It appears to be too large and expensive to be a light reconnaissance helicopter and it is too small to be a true troop carrying, utility helicopter. So what is it? As any aircraft designer will tell you, a helicopter is a compromise of function, performance and cost. If it cannot carry out the basic functions of its role, what is its purpose? If it cannot fly and operate within the expected parameters, how can it adequately perform? And if it is too expensive for the role expected of it, is it actually worth it? In this sense the army version of Future Lynx seems to be too much of a compromise.
The Lynx has been likened by those who fly it, to something akin to a flying supercar, in that it’s fast, it’s highly manoeuvrable and a pleasure to ‘drive’. But like the famed supercars it emulates, it is temperamental, prone to unreliability and expensive to maintain. With the Future Lynx price tag being muted at £14 million pounds per helicopter, it doesn’t come cheap either. A light reconnaissance helicopter, such as the Eurocopter EC145, a helicopter favoured by many UK police forces as their spy-in-the-sky, costs less than half of the Future Lynx. The Americans should know they’ve just bought several hundred as medevac helicopters for their army. The EC145 in the utility role can also carry nine troops compared to Future Lynx’s seven, even though it’s a lot smaller, lighter and has the same crashworthy seating. The Agusta 412EP Griffon, used by the RAF to train helicopter pilots, also costs significantly less, and can carry a full infantry section with the added bonus of two door gunners, something of a novelty in the circumstances!
In essence the army version of Future Lynx is simply a navy helicopter without the advantage of guided weapons or radar. It is under sized, under armed, overly expensive and seemingly ill-suited to its intended role. So why is the MOD buying it?
That, it seems is the £14 million question. Part of the MOD selection criteria looked at the ‘strategic’ view of Future Lynx. Westland Helicopters was and is the UK’s one and only helicopter manufacturer. To buy a foreign make would effectively consign Westland’s to oblivion. So, to maintain the UK’s helicopter manufacturing base, the British Army uses Lynx helicopters. The twist in the situation is that Westland’s has now become Agusta Westland, teaming up with the Italian helicopter manufacturer. This has led to the product range being expanded, so the Lynx helicopter is no longer the only possible choice from the Company brochure. However, the MOD being the MOD, is standing by its decision, thus giving the British Army no choice but to stick with the Lynx until 2039.
When it finally ends its days, the Lynx will have been in service for over sixty years. Sixty years of temperamental reliability, high maintenance costs and political interference. Why doesn’t the RAF use it? The RAF doesn’t use it because the RAF has enough political clout to say no. Why does the Royal Navy use it? The Royal Navy uses it because it is a navy helicopter and it suits its role to a tee. Those sophisticated systems that it carries also justify its purchase and operating costs. Why does the army use it? The army uses it because the Army Air Corps is not a service, it is a corps within a service and therefore lacks the political clout that the RAF and the Royal Navy seem to enjoy.
So what, if any, are the alternatives?
- Buy a foreign equivalent, such as the Blackhawk or the Eurocopter NH90. That could cost British jobs and is therefore politically sensitive unless licence production can be secured. In fact Westland’s previously had a licence production agreement with Sikorsky to build the Blackhawk, however the UK government refused to buy it.
- Purchase or lease Agusta 412EP Griffon’s. These are already used by the RAF as training and rescue helicopters. Although they have some of the drawbacks of their Vietnam era forebears, they are still an effective aircraft and are used by several other NATO countries. They are also inherently cheaper. These could be used in the short term until something better is developed.
- Develop and adapt the Agusta Westland AW139, which is a civilian helicopter, into a military transport. This would take time and money, but it is still cheaper than Future Lynx, it is also manufactured by the same company and it can carry more troops.
- Build a bigger Future Lynx, with a larger cabin to hold more troops. Now there’s a possibility! In fact Westland’s has a lot of experience in doing just that. The Westland WG30, although not a commercial success and did court some controversy, was derived from the Lynx Mk 1. In simplistic terms they took the engines, transmission and rotor head and stuck a larger fuselage underneath that carried nearly twice as many troops. Although not perfect, it proves the concept is feasible.
David Hillcoat, Agusta Westland’s Future Lynx Programme Head, stated in 2007 that, “The aircraft looks the same, but it’s completely new.” In essence the Future Lynx is 95% different to the current Lynx models, with very few interchangeable parts. If this is the case, why didn’t they have the foresight to make the cabin larger? The fact is they could have, but it’s the MOD that issues the specification and requirements. Agusta Westland just makes the product, and in this case the MOD merely changed the requirements to suit what Agusta Westland could produce. The MOD also tendered the BLUH, sorry I mean BRH, to Westland’s under a single tender, so Westland’s effectively got the contract without any competition whatsoever.
For our £1billion, UK forces will get sixty two helicopters; thirty four for the army and twenty eight for the navy. These numbers have been reduced however, from a total of seventy aircraft. Yet the overall project costs are still being cited at £1billion. Are development costs soaring? Are we, the tax payers missing something? Where are our eight missing helicopters?
It is only fair at this point to state that the Lynx is not a bad aircraft, it is not a widow maker by any stretch of the imagination and all aircraft have their own problems and idiosyncrasies. Future Lynx is a vast improvement over the current Lynx. Its engines are a lot more powerful, giving it greater performance. Its airframe is stronger and it has crashworthy seating, which will significantly enhance crew survivability. Its systems are a generation ahead in capability and when it is eventually unleashed on the high seas by the Royal Navy our enemies will no doubt have many sleepless nights. This version of Future Lynx definitely has a deserved future, and rightly so.
However, what is good on the high seas does not always translate to the battlefield. Navy helicopters have in the past served with distinction overland, the Sea King in the Falklands Conflict was a war winner, the Wessex started life as a navy helicopter and both were manufactured by Westland’s. But these aircraft, unlike the Lynx, are dedicated troop carriers and cargo shifters. Their primary task is to haul men and equipment, which they did, and some still do admirably. However with the Lynx, Westland’s and the MOD seem to have got lost along the way. The ‘Huey’ of Vietnam fame set the standard for troop carrying utility helicopters. It was cheap, simple to maintain, robust and could haul a section of men, including door gunners, across the battlefield. Unfortunately, the Huey is old, noisy and relatively slow. The battlefield has changed significantly since Vietnam and the modern helicopter needs to be somewhat more sophisticated, but unless a helicopter can meet the basic criteria of what is essentially a ‘battlefield taxi’, it is not truly fit for purpose.
Fortunately for Future Lynx, it has friends in the right places, friends such as General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue, Chief of Defence Material. He was quoted in the recent ‘Defence Equipment 2009’ report, when asked, “(If) an off-the-shelf solution would have provided the same capability at lower cost?” He replied, “I do not actually agree ….. that we could buy a helicopter which you could fly off the back of a ship and fly in the battlefield and have a common helicopter. I do not agree that we could buy that cheaper.” When pressed further, he went on to say that, “…(Future Lynx is) exactly what’s required.”
General Sir Kevin is obviously unaware of the ship borne versions of the ‘Huey’, such as the AB 212ASW which could carry torpedoes and Sea Skua missiles or the AB 412 Sentinel which featured an under nose radar, sound familiar? These aircraft also have a high degree of commonality with their land based counterparts and the AB 212 ASW is still operated by a number of NATO navies. Although these aircraft may no longer be regarded as state-of-the-art in naval circles, they are well proven airframes and their electronic systems can easily be upgraded. So contrary to what the General thinks alternatives are available, they are significantly cheaper and incredulously, they are manufactured by the same company! But then it’s not his money that’s being lavished on Agusta Westland, it’s ours.
Another keen supporter of Future Lynx is David Laws MP, he believes that it will be highly effective in meeting the Ministry of Defence’s needs. But then he would, the Agusta Westland factory is in his constituency, what else would we expect him to say? Fortunately for David Laws and the staff at the MOD, they won’t have to fly repeatedly over an increasing hostile battlefield in Future Lynx as our servicemen and women will.
One of the few opponents to Future Lynx is Douglas Carswell MP, he has attacked the project as a waste of money, and has stated that British servicemen and women will subsequently pay a blood price because of it. Whether you agree with this or not, serious questions do need to be raised about its introduction into army service. As a troop carrier or as a reconnaissance platform, Future Lynx certainly isn’t value for money, and not by a long shot. And although it’s a lot more powerful and crashworthy than its predecessor, its flight control systems still lacks the full redundancy and ballistic tolerance taken for granted in other contemporary helicopters. Its engines aren’t widely spaced apart either, unlike the Blackhawk or Apache. These things aren’t aesthetic design features they are the culmination of the hard won lessons of combat experience.
Future Lynx is due to have its maiden flight later this year and it won’t be introduced into service until 2014. It certainly won’t be ready for use in Afghanistan or anywhere else for the foreseeable future. In this sense, its name ‘Future Lynx’ seems somewhat apt. It is widely known that the helicopter lift capability of our armed forces is approaching that of scandalous, there are simply not enough to go around. What our forces need are cost effective, reliable helicopters that are fit for purpose, and they need them now, not in 2014.
One small ray of light to come out the Future Lynx debate is the fulfilment of an Urgent Operational Requirement for Afghanistan. Twelve existing Lynx Mk 9’s will be fitted with LHTEC CTS800-4N engines to vastly improve their hot and high performance. However, no-one has said whether this ‘generosity’ will be extended to include the crashworthy seating, crashworthy fuel tanks and cockpit airbags that the Americans seem to take for granted. It should also be noted that the lack of power in the Lynx’s engines was widely recognised during the first Gulf war in 1991. Unfortunately it has taken seventeen years and another conflict to finally spur the MOD into action.
With the proposed introduction of Future Lynx into the army our servicemen and women will once again have to gaze in awe and envy at the superior equipment used by their allies. They will have to fly into combat in a helicopter that is too small, carrying SA80 rifles that have a frighteningly chequered history and talk to each other on ‘Bowman’ radios that don’t work properly. The vital importance of just these key items cannot be emphasised enough, yet each costs millions of pounds more than it should, was late into service or both. They also failed to deliver what was simply expected of them.
This situation is clearly unacceptable, especially when cheaper, more effective and proven systems are readily available ‘off the shelf’. A country has a strategic interest to produce materials for its own armed forces, this is accepted. But the question needs to be asked, if we cannot produce the necessary equipment or even produce equipment that is simply fit for purpose, is it not right to look elsewhere? We ask a high price of our servicemen and women, and we owe them a duty when we send them into harms way to provide them with the best equipment that is available. In this sense we appear to have failed them, and failed them for the sake of national pride, strategic interests and political expediency.
Given the opportunity and sufficient funding, Agusta Westland could produce a truly exceptional battlefield helicopter that would be highly sought after, and guarantee the security of the company for a long time to come. With Future Lynx though, it really does seem that we are taking a step backwards in capability as we move forwards into the future.
Added by TD
Another eminantly suitable alternative is the Bell UH-1Y Venom or Super Huey currently being delivered to the USMC. Like FLynx it is based on an old design but unlike FLynx is well suited to the Army requirements even having such refinements as folding rotors to make it suitable to be deployed from amphibious assault vessels like HMS Ocean. This would also make it a viable alternative to the Sea King Mk4 Commando currently in service with the Royal Marines / Fleet Air Arm that are also due for replacement.
Links to relevant sources