When considering what type of equipment or organisational structures are relevant to the future vertical lift (including attack) the first step is to look at basic requirements.
Be it weight class, mission, payload or other factors there are clearly different types. One size does not and cannot fit all. This is where an interesting discussion can take place; I think one of the principal means of getting more value out of our not inconsiderable defence budget is through ruthless commonality and its resultant reduction in types.
How far do you go with this though, do the obvious financial and logistics benefits of commonality get trumped by the inevitable compromises that having fewer types would bring?
Therefore, instead of starting with types and specs I am going to look at what we use helicopters for, these are generally grouped into 3 categories, find, attack and lift with a few extra specialists roles.
Training; with the greater use of synthetic training systems the need for multiple types of training helicopter may be reduced but the basic need to train on the real thing will not go away.
Light Utility/Lift; this might include the plethora of tasks that helicopters get used for, everything from moving a small team, command, convoy escort, moving a few personnel from one ship to another, checking communications, conducting a route recce, delivering a high value spare part and many many more. What characterises these requirements is that do not necessarily need high speed or high payloads, often the payload is simply a few people.
Find; in the past this might have resulted in a specialist type but with the proliferation of sensor turrets, modular ESM systems and data links in most aircraft and UAV’s the need for a dedicated reconnaissance helicopter is diminishing with the role split between the attack and light utility helicopter.
Medium/Heavy Lift; there is some room for having different definitions of what medium and heavy lift means and specifically, whether there still exists a need for medium lift if we can do everything with the heavier and more capable types. Typically, the medium point means a section or enhanced section plus some stores and the ability to carry some self defence weapons or about 4 tonnes payload. Heavy lift might be defined as 30-40 personnel or about 8-10 tonnes payload. One of the most vexing questions is concerned with the top end of heavy lift, is 10 tonnes enough given the trend in vehicle weight and size (a trend that informed the A400 for example)
Anti Submarine; helicopters are one of the most potent anti submarine weapons, equipped with various specialist sensors and weapons.
Dedicated Attack; evolving from the Huey gunships of the 60’s is the dedicated attack helicopter. These are fast, high manoeuvrable, survivable and heavily armed. Latter generations concentrated on the anti tank role but in modern operations this has been joined by a number of offensive support tasks in direct support of the infantry in close combat. For this the cannon and rocket are the most common weapons used, not expensive guided missiles.
Medical Evacuation; the ability to evacuate injured personnel to a medical facility is vital and recent advances in combat emergency medicine have seen the Chinook used in this role because of its speed and space for medical personnel and equipment but in some circumstances a smaller type is needed.
Search and Rescue: whether in the civilian context or in the military Joint Personnel Recovery role the requirement is characterised by the need for long range, stability in the hover and capacity.
Airborne Early Warning; a niche application but nevertheless vital, the lessons of 1982 were quite clear but with CVF moving to cats and traps this capability may be better serviced with a fixed wing type, the obvious contender being the Hawkeye
Where this gets complicated is the need for operations at sea. Surely one would think that a homogonous fleet, able to operate equally from a ship or land base would make sense from a logistics, operational and training perspective but this is the MoD we are talking about. We have service led procurements that have resulted in a mixed fleet of aircraft that in some cases do much the same thing but only some can operate at sea.
Although not specifically a mission, but definitely a requirement, is the ability to operate, not just land, from ships.
Any look at the future must surely specify marinised systems, folding rotors etc even if the main user is not the Royal Navy or Royal Marines.
There have also been some interesting technology developments recently (lighter than air, compound helicopters, variable speed rotors and various tilt rotor technologies for example) which although might be seen as technology driving requirements, do allow us to look again at those requirements and ask if they are still valid.
In the next post I am going to look at what we have and what we plan to have and follow that up with a few ideas for the future.
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