The UK doesn’t have, and never has had, an overarching coherent rotary aircraft strategy.
When decisions are informed by industrial expediency, short term budgetary pressure, knee jerk reactions forced by existing inadequacies and a complete lack of inter service coordination the result is precisely what we have now and to add insult to injury, acquisition incompetence on a biblical scale completes the sorry picture of too many types, with too few capabilities that cost way too much money.
Chinook, a number of variants are in service that will still be somewhat different, despite the hundreds of millions about to be/already spent on engine and avionics harmonisation, result in a fleet within a fleet although vastly improved on what it is now, a good thing. The headline grabbing order for an additional 22 seems to be on the back burner pending the SDSR and in the amphibious role, have to be operated completely from an open deck because we don’t have folding rotors. Neither does any other operator for that matter but the point remains.
Merlin, again a number of variants, even within the utility role (Mk3/3a) and the HM2 upgrade is not covering the entire fleet. None of the utility variants, which might be a replacement for the RM Sea King Commando, have folding rotors, folding tails or other equipment to make them suitable for maritime operation. Any conversion will be costly when with some foresight we could have obtained the same version that the Italian navy has. In the frigate role, primarily anti submarine, it could be argued they are too big, resulting is extremely costly modifications to the frigate fleet in order that they can be operated. In some ways, this size is also a benefit so swings and roundabouts on that one but there is no doubt they are large for the ‘frigate’ role.
Future Lynx, Arguably too small for the anti submarine role and for the Army, a retrograde step. Less than optimal sensor arrangements, a lack of door gun positions and no weapons planned mean that they will be a step back in many regards, despite costing three arms and seven legs. They will also be obtained in such small numbers that there remains uncertainty whether they will completely replace the AAC’s Mk9a’s.
Puma, a very expensive upgrade process will deliver improvements but these will be marginal and not brilliant value for money. Another aircraft that cannot be operated from ships in an enduring manner.
Sea King, still plugging away in the SAR, Airborne Early Warning and Commando role. One of the unsung success stories of the rotary fleet but despite a recent cost effective upgrade are in dire need of replacement.
Gazelle, just seems to be languishing in the doldrums, counting down the days to being pushed quietly out of service.
Apache, the AH1 Attack Helicopter is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the rotary fleet but despite a troubled introduction is providing invaluable service
Others, bringing up the rear are a number of other types, the Squirrel and Griffin in the training and SAR role, Dauphin for FOST transport, A109E on VIP duties and some SF types perhaps best not even discussed!
We stand slack jawed in wonderment why we only have a handful of militarily useful and deployable types despite all three service operating a helicopter fleet numbering several hundred. Those that are able to deploy are being run ragged and have cost an even bigger fortune to get ready for deployment which raises an interesting point about the definition of ‘in service’
There are plans afoot to consolidate the types and engines but they do not go far enough in some respects but in others will result in capability gaps and a dangerous reliance on very large tactical transport, eggs and baskets springs to mind.
Quite frankly, it is a load of dog toffee, totally devoid of any strategic thought or commitment of resource.
If we accept that helicopters form a central part of any future force composition, whichever direction we follow, then helicopters must be viewed as a strategic capability, too important to be left to the vagaries of inter service politics and held hostage by political/industrial concerns.
In order to achieve any degree of economy the number of airframe types, avionics systems, sensors, DAS and engines needs to be significantly reduced. It really isn’t rocket science and is well known by everyone but the less diverse systems one has the cheaper the through life costs are. Fewer types and components have implications all through the support chain, less training courses, tools, test equipment, people who train the trainers, pensions, wages, accommodation, simulators, simulator maintenance contracts and well, you get the picture. You might be well and truly fed up with me banging on my ‘ruthless commonality’ drum but if we are to achieve maximum effect from our dwindling budgets we cannot afford anything else. As a guiding principle therefore, any strategy should be underlined by a commitment to standardisation across the board.
Industrial concerns are valid concerns but the need to sustain Westland’s has resulted in Future Lynx and Merlin, arguably part of the problem. We should always consider the sustainment of sovereign engineering capabilities but these must be secondary concerns.
Given that spending on helicopters takes place in various places, not just defence, a holistic view across the whole of the public sector is also a valid approach. It is quite scandalous that most air ambulance services (Scottish ones are funded by NHS Scotland) are sustained by charitable donations, for a supposedly 21st century nation this is simply not acceptable. Airborne rescue, whether that is at sea, on a mountainside or motorway is the role of the state, not a private sector organisation. When one looks at these civilian government or semi government operators the diversity situation is not any better there either.
The Air Ambulance Association lists 30 helicopters, plus 2 for Scotland. In a total fleet of 32 aircraft there are 6 types (MD902, A109, Dauphin, B105, EC135 and BK117) with 5 engines. Police Service Air Support Units, of which there are about 30, operate 6 types (MD902, EC135, AS355, EC145, Bk117 and A109) and 5 engines. The coastguard (MCA) operate 10 helicopters with 2 types (S61 and AW139) and 2 engines although most of these are actually owned and operated by private sector organisations on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
Across the non military public sector, the public purse, via donation or taxation, is paying in one form or another, for 9 types of helicopter and almost as many engine types across a total fleet of less than 75.
We need to get a bloody grip.
So here is the Think Defence medicine…
It’s never likely to happen and is a bit ‘ want that one’ exercise but I thought it might be fun to look at it from a clean sheet of paper perspective
Organisation, the worlds of military and civilian helicopter operations are of course different, but there are common areas and any organisation should seek out this common ground in order to maximise economies of scale. Maintenance, safety, training, certification and other ‘management’ activities should at least be investigated to see where there are synergies that can be exploited in addition to fuels and other consumable purchasing. Air ambulance, police, coastguard and rescue services should be combined into a national helicopter service with close ties to a counterpart military organisation combing the best practices from the Army Air Corps, Fleet Air Arm and RAF.
Depth Maintenance, create two locations for depth maintenance of airframes, engines and avionics that will serve all government owned helicopters. Economies of scale would suggest a single large location but resilience needs would dictate location diversity, one North and one South.
Training Organisation, create a single training organisation for both basic civilian and military flying, again, this is a core government function and should not be outsourced to a PFI, as current plans indicate.
Research, establish a common research programme across a limited number of subject areas, automated landing, hazard avoidance, blade aerodynamics and advanced materials for example. Instead of stretching our resources thinly to minimal effect, specialising in a focussed range of research topics will provide greater benefit.
Equipment, wherever possible select and standardise on common system building blocks like sensors, DAS, engines and even minor components like seats.
Types, select a light, intermediate, medium and heavy airframe and deploy across the military and civilian services, with appropriate modifications. Ensure all four types can operate equally from land or ships, this is crucial. The Attack Helicopter should remain as is, not sure I would like to see the Met flying Apaches!
By combining all publically owned helicopters into a single purchasing agreement we can achieve economies of scale and relentlessly drive down operating costs.
This naturally leads on to what types, what equipment.
A bold strategy is one that ignores our legacy equipment and sets out a framework that will achieve maximum efficiency over the long term, planning ahead instead of lurching from one crisis led decision to another.
As I said above, unachievable in the current fiscally constrained time but food for thought.
Replacing the RAF’s A109E’s and Griffins, the Royal Navy’s Dauphins, AAC FLynx/Gazelle and forming the backbone of the police/rescue/air ambulance fleet will be the Augusta Westland A169. The AW 169 is a new design but based on the very successful AW139, although slightly smaller. Designed for robustness, safety, operations in hot/high conditions and with the latest avionics the 169 is designed to be fitted with weather radar, FLIR, rescue hoist, cargo hook, searchlight and a medical interior. It will also have a digital, night vision goggle compatible cockpit and be powered by two FADEC-controlled Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210 engines.
In addition to the police/SAR/air ambulance role it would be used for military twin engine training and VIP transport.
In modest numbers and equipped with a suitable DAS and other systems it would fulfil roles such as section/team transport, light cargo, liaison, escort and other varied utility roles. With a light weapon fit such as machine guns, rockets and the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) from Thales it could make a natural partner for the Apache Attack Helicopter.
It is imperative that all AW169′s in military service are equipped with folding rotors to allow them to be operated from ships, no exceptions i.e. a single design.
The shrouded tail rotor or MD NOTAR designs provide enhanced safety in the civilian role and these technologies should be investigated for possible inclusion on the AW169.
There might be a reasonable argument for a slightly larger type, the AW139 for example or even no intermediate weight class for military operations. The RN and AAC would certainly benefit from a single type (see below)
Given recent events in Australia and Germany this is perhaps a controversial proposal but I think the problems are those that are to be found with any new system and will in due course be resolved, the Finns seem to be quietly getting on with introducing theirs.
The logic behind the design of the NH90 is solid, a single design that can provide both land based medium tactical lift and ‘frigate services’ has obvious advantages. The NH90 NFH is optimised for anti submarine, surface attack and many other naval secondary roles. The simpler TTH provides tactical transport for up to 20 personnel. There seems to be a move towards larger helicopters with Merlin and Chinook but whilst this has obvious advantages of reducing the airframe and pilot count I am concerned about concentration of risk, operating helicopters is a dangerous business and by expanding the medium weight force we can provide greater resilience against loss. One of the key benefits of the NH90 is (like the Merlin) that it uses the RTM322 engine.
Unlike the FLynx, the NH90 will be able to carry a fully tooled up infantry section whilst armed with self defence door guns, both doors that is. The rear ramp allows them to enter or leave quickly and also allows very light vehicles like quad bikes to be carried internally.
The vast majority of civilian SAR is inshore or near shore, operations at extreme range are quite rare but he UK, however, has a very large area of responsibility for search and rescue and a small number of NH90′s might be used for the long range SAR mission. The Combat SAR and medical evacuation mission is one that has been neglected, in Afghanistan we rely on Chinooks and US ‘Pedro’ Blackhawks. Chinooks in the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) role are actually very well suited, fast and with enough space for a medical team with all their equipment and a small force protection team. With this role being less and less about pure evacuation and more about pushing treatment as far forward as possible but the NH90 a roomy cabin and only marginally slower than the Chinook.
Transfer all Merlin ASW systems to the NH90′s.
The RN then operate a single helicopter fleet for ASW and commando roles and the AAC have a single helicopter, with an engine that is compatible with Apache.
Not much to say here, retain the AH1 Apache Attack Helicopter and upgrade uniformly across the fleet as required. We might purchase more and back them up with a more robust support infrastructure as well.
This is where it gets even more interesting because the conventional wisdom is that the Chinook is the default choice but as there are no practical rotor fold options available it remains a ‘fish out of water’ when operating in the amphibious assault role. This has led the UK down the Merlin path but the Chinook and Merlin are too close in terms of capacities to make much sense. We cannot afford two types of aircraft that carry out very similar roles but the Chinook is a tough act to follow, fast, robust and with excellent lift performance, even in hot and high conditions. It also benefits from a mature logistics and training capability, not an easy thing to discard.
There is a European Heavy Lift programme that is in the ‘talking about’ stage, an in service date of 2020 is suggested and they will sit above the NH90 in French and German service, replacing the German CH53G’s as well. The design requirements have yet to be finalised but a payload of 13-15 tonnes seems to be the current thinking. Commonality with as much of the NH90 as possible will deliver cost savings. In these financially constrained times there seems little appetite for a brand new development and indications point to a joint effort with a US company, Sikorsky or Boeing. Whether the design choice is a conventional or tandem configuration is yet to be seen and will depend on who the US partner is, the European Defence Agency will report on the way forward in 2011. Eurocopter have already proposed a Chinook style aircraft in partnership with Boeing but where this leaves the Germans CH53 replacement is uncertain.
Whilst the US has been cycling through an alphabet of heavy lift programmes that have variously included quad tilt rotors and other unconventional designs the USMC and Sikorsky have been quietly advancing the CH53K. Designed to replace the existing CH53′s it will feature a cabin 9.1m long, 2.7m wide, 2m high and able to lift a maximum payload of nearly 15 tonnes. It’s large cabin allows many vehicles to be carried internally and will have a drastically reduced maintenance overhead (the old CH53′s are very maintenance intensive)
A special forces optimised version might also be considered.
So, lets get on the CH53K bandwagon, either as a direct purchase or via the European programme and obtain between 40 and 50 for combined land and amphibious operations.
A clean piece of paper is never easy or likely to happen but sometimes, for equipment that is so strategically important, this kind of approach is worth considering. It is a bold strategy that would of course be very expensive in the short term but over the lifetime of the equipment we might accrue significant savings to the public purse, not just the defence budget.
By pursuing a 5 type 4 engine strategy we both increase capabilities and reduce operating costs.
One thing that is often overlooked when discussing military equipment is the support chain, our helicopter availability rates paint a sorry picture despite the daily miracles of the various ground crew and maintainers.
Perhaps getting more out of what we already have is the best strategy