The Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) is a typically British fudge which is intended to provide more a efficient cooperative working environment but is all about allowing all three services to maintain their own capabilities, inter service rivalry at its best. Whilst working well, it is self evidently resource inefficient.
Support helicopters are strategic assets; they often need to integrate with complicated airspace and the experience of airspace management within the RAF means they should stay. The RAF are also the acknowledged experts on the Chinook, both, from an operational and engineering perspective whilst these are persuasive arguments for the maintenance of the status quo but it is not sufficiently strong not to have support helicopters with the Army Air Corps so they can be better integrated with the Land component.
This should not be an overnight move and only when the AAC and supporting REME Regiments can support and manage the aircraft to the same level, personnel issues will also have to be carefully managed. Inevitably some RAF personnel will not wish to transfer to the AAC and this would be an unfortunate by product of the move but with careful and considered management its impact could be minimised.
Attack Helicopter has shown that the Army Air Corps can operate in an air minded manner with very complex equipment in a multinational airspace and the aim of any transfer should be to take the best from the FAA, RAF and AAC, combining it into a single, Army led, capability.
The Army Air Corps have also demonstrated that SNCO aircrew can effectively manage and operate more than just simple utility helicopters so in the long term, running costs can be reduced.
The Fleet Air Arm operates Merlins, Sea Kings and Lynx. In later posts I will propose that the Royal Marines and RAF Regiment are bought within the Land domain so for the RM specifically, much of the Fleet Air Arm helicopter capability supports the RM with comparatively few in what would be termed fleet helicopters, those that carry out anti submarine and anti surface roles. The largest challenge to overcome will be that of crewing/retention and training for both aircrew and systems operators but a single service for all rotary assets should be a long term goal in order to maximise efficiency and minimise duplication. The instances of aircrew in non aircrew roles should be closely examined and an adequate career progression path for all ranks, whilst still in aircrew roles should be a priority.
All three services rotary communities have much to offer in one way or the other and strong arguments could be made for consolidation in either of them
This would create a single entity with a common manning and training framework that would be able to achieve economies of scale and greatly enhanced flexibility.
Merging the existing rotary communities, beyond that offered by Joint Helicopter Command, would be a significant challenge but tradition has to go by the wayside and hard nosed operational efficiency has to be the order of the day.
There is no doubt that helicopters provide a significant advantage in all types of conflict but it could be argued that in the type of conflict we will most likely be involved in that importance will be greatly amplified. Our poor decisions and scrimping has resulted in an overly expensive and poorly utilised fleet of too many types and marks.
In our previous post on rotary fleet coherence I suggested a consolidation of types and the recent news on Puma and Chinook upgrades along with reports of a significant Chinook buy are encouraging but simply do not go far enough. One of our central themes in the FDR is the cancellation of CVF and JCA, some of the funds freed up from this should go towards a significant uplift in rotary capability.
Chinooks are fast, can operate in adverse conditions and have a significant payload capacity but they do not operate well in a marine environment, the airframes are not fully marinised and the rotors do not fold making them difficult to handle. The Future Medium Helicopter programme was designed to replace the ageing Sea King and Puma so that any airframe could be used for both land and marine environments. The Puma upgrade and possible Chinook upgrade seems to have been knocked into the long grass.
If one examines the specifications of the Merlin and Chinook they seem to be quite similar and in an ideal world we would have one or the other, the Royal Naval anti submarine variant of the Merlin throws a spanner into the works of this type consolidation. In a similar parallel with the Lynx, the naval Merlin is a very effective aircraft but the land based utility version is much less so, it is hugely expensive and a little wheezy with much less payload than the similarly sized Chinook.
The Puma and Chinook life extension programmes are good examples of being forced to spend big because modest spending decisions were deferred. The Puma programme particularly appears quite poor value for money but does hold out the prospect of getting aircraft for Afghanistan. When the various upgrade programmes are complete we will have upgraded Lynx, Sea King, Puma, Merlin (HC3 and HC3a variants) and Chinook (multiple variants).
No wonder the aircraft maintainers are going bald!
Further purchases of Merlin or Chinook at this stage will simply perpetuate this mix of aircraft types. The short term expedients are designed to generate airframes for Afghanistan but they do not solve medium or long term coherence requirements.
What would the fleet look like if a blank sheet of paper was the starting point?
* An attack helicopter that could also be deployed in a naval and land role
* A specialist maritime anti submarine and airborne early warning helicopter
* A Light/Medium utility helicopter that was common to naval and land roles
* A heavy lift support helicopter that could be used both in a naval and land role
The proposal is to do just that, it is radical and very expensive but in terms of our overall FDR proposal, consistent with the overall direction.
Timing would be a challenge, this simply articulates a vision.
In the Attack Helicopter role the existing AH.1 Apache is a natural fit, especially the UK version which has many attributes that are far superior to the US versions and in other posts we will discuss air launched weapons and availability/maintenance of high value equipment. All 67 airframes should be bought to a single common specification.
In the specialist anti submarine role the existing Merlin HM.1 (or upgraded HM.2) is also a natural fit. The airframes that are not being upgraded to HM.2 standard should be used as donor airframes for the future airborne early warning programme, a replacement for the significantly underrated Sea King ASac.7 aircraft as they go out of service.
Replacing the Lynx Wildcat would be a utility variant of the Agusta Westland AW149, this is much more suited to the role of land based utility helicopter and could also be used in the maritime roles with some of the mission equipment from existing Lynx and planned Wildcat. Existing Lynx would be disposed. As the FIND role is now carried out by UAV’s and other airborne ISR platforms the specification can be moderate for the land role. The two variants would have a high degree of commonality and both be marinised with folding rotors are other modifications to make them suitable for naval deployments.
The Naval variant would be split across the 6 Type 45’s and C2/C3 Future Surface Combatant, in addition to training, fleet rotation and attrition spares. The utility variant would be split between a number of field regiments with some dedicated solely to the casualty evacuation role in dedicated units in order to retain them in that dedicated and specialist role.
Merlin HC3 and HC3a (the ex Dutch airframes) would be disposed as replacements become available.
For the heavy lift Support Helicopter role we propose to join the USMC Heavy Lift Replacement programme to replace the Merlin and Chinook with a single type, the CH-53K.
The CH-53K is currently in advanced development and will provide the USMC with a significant uplift in their rotary capabilities, larger and more powerful that the Chinook and Merlin it can also be deployed aboard ships. A single type to fulfil all support and maritime heavy lift requirements, the CH-53K is expected into service starting in 2015 although deliveries for the UK would not likely be possible before 2020. Within this time frame the LPH (HMS Ocean) replacement should be either in advanced design or early service so it should be designed and built with the size of the CH53K in mind.
It will have a large cabin, high speed and payload (up to 16tonnes for short distances) and is designed for low maintenance. Additional features include extensive avionics and sensors, an in flight refuelling probe and excellent hot/high performance. The USMC have ordered over 150 of them and with a UK order of 80 airframes some additional economies of scale should be achievable.
A number should be converted to a long range special-forces variant.
The UK rotary capability needs a radical step change in capability to maximise the relatively small but highly skilled force.
1. Consolidate all rotary aircraft in the Army Air Corps or some renamed Army formation
2. Bring all 67 AH.1 to a common standard
3. Retain Merlin HM.1/HM/2 and convert 6 unconverted airframes to an AEW variant
4. Cancel Lynx Wildcat and dispose of existing Lynx variants
5. Purchase approximately 40 AW149 for naval role
6. Purchase approximately 80 AW149 for Land light/medium utility and CASEVAC
7. Withdraw and dispose all Merlin HC3 and HC3a
8. Withdraw existing Chinook fleet
9. Purchase 80 CH-53K airframes
10. Dedicate a small number of CH-53K to special-forces use