As with other posts on the subject, I have lumped this one in the RAF section for convenience, I think one commenter made the point that it would have been better to bases these series of posts on capabilities rather than services and this is a very god point but at this stage I want to push on. As I move beyond this and the next stages of discussion on land forces I will probably do some consolidation and reorganisation.
Before we look at the future it is worthwhile reminding ourselves where we are.
The following are currently in service;
Chinook HC2, Chinook HC2A, Chinook HC3, Merlin HC3, Merlin HC3A, Puma HC1, Sea King HAR3, Sea King HAR3A, Griffin HAR2, Merlin HM1, Lynx Mk8, Lynx Mk7, Sea King ASaC, Sea King HC4, Sea King Mk5, Sea King HAS6(CR), Apache AH1, Lynx Mk7, Lynx Mk9/Mk9a, Gazelle, Bell 212HP AH1, Squirrel, Squirrel HT1, Griffin HT1 and this doesn’t include the A109E’s for VIP transport and Dauphin’s used for RN FOST etc as these are provided under contract.
We stand slack jawed in wonderment why we only have a handful of militarily useful and deployable types despite all three services operating a helicopter fleet totalling 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’
Second guessing numbers of future and current aircraft is difficult because of inconsistent reporting and changing definitions so treat the numbers in this post as ‘approximate’
The main types are;
Apache AH Mk 1; the Apache is an incredible machine and the UK version has a number of significant differences between other operators which make it the cream of the crop. Avionics, defensive aids and engines all provide an uplift in capability, provide commonality with other UK aircraft and adds features such as anti icing and folding rotor blades that allows them to operate in all weathers and from ships. The latter was ably demonstrated recently when 3 Apache’s from 656 Squadron Army Air Corps operated from HMS Ocean as part of Exercise Joint Warrior. Operating aboard were 120 engineers, maintainers and support crew (before anyone says that this seems excessive for three aircraft it was a training mission)
We often lament UK specific gold plating of existing systems but this is an excellent example of why sometimes it is worth spending the extra.
It is a highly specialised aircraft and its introduction was not without significant problems but in time honoured fashion, the forces have ironed out these problems. Apache was a classic Cold War programme, designed to destroy the advancing armoured red menace in Germany with a combination of its 16 Hellfire missiles, CRV-7 rockets and 30mm ATK M230 Chain Gun. Of course, by the time it entered service the Cold War was well and truly over but it has showed its versatility and acquired a fearsome reputation in many operations since. The design is typically US of A, a money no object drive for performance that resulted in a system with little compromise but an expensive price tag and equally expensive logistics tail, operating costs are significant.
With the benefit of hindsight the Cobra might have been a better fit (it was certainly in the competition) because of its lower price and logistics requirements but we ended up with Apache, at least we avoided the Tiger!
The total fleet consists of 67 aircraft, one was damaged in Afghanistan in 2008 and no doubt numerous are sitting in hangars with bits hanging off them because we don’t have enough spares to maintain a useable fleet. DASA lists 51 in the forward available fleet. FAF is defined as the number of aircraft required to undertake the mandated task; including aircrew and ground crew training, ‘in-work’ rectification and operational / tactical trials. In January last year the Forward Available Fleet was 44 with an ‘available for service’ quantity of just 18. Available for service is defined as those within the forward fleet that are considered capable of carrying out their planned missions on a given date. This figure can vary on a day to day basis but it is still a good indicator or what size force we are able to generate.
By the way, yes, that’s 18 out of 67.
Availability of aircrew has been a problem with Apache, as at March last year, over a third of Apache aircrew were in breach of harmony guidelines and there is a shortage of instructors, a reflection on the accelerated speed on introduction and obviously high operational demand.
The real issue with Apache is we are not using them to their full potential because there are no armoured threats in Afghanistan, but we are using up valuable and finite airframe hours brassing up a few flip flop wearers riding a Honda or launching CRV-7 rockets into Taleban compounds because there is nothing else that can do it. CRV-7 is still widely used, a testament to the fact that not everything needs to be guided to be effective.
It is an extremely expensive way of maintaining an airborne 30mm cannon and rocket launcher.
Full operating costs per hour, including depreciation and finance charges, are stated as just under £42,000 per hour which is more expensive than any other aircraft in UK service apart from Typhoon and C17. For a reason why, have a look here
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 (Project Julius) upgrades we will have a fleet within a fleet although vastly improved on what it is now. There is still the intention to order 10 or 12 Chinooks to replace attrition losses and provide a modest uplift but these seem to be forever talked about (they were first mooted in 2009) but never ordered so who knows whether they will ever actually enter service. They were first mentioned at the height of the helicopter scandal (30 was the rumour) and if ever there was a cynical political ploy, this was it. Given that it is unlikely, even if ordered today, they would be of much utility in Afghanistan by the time we had started the draw down one does have to question the validity of this order, especially as a new build Chinook might be sufficiently different to even the Project Julius upgrade to need a new logistics and training system.
What is Project Julius?
In January this year the Boeing UK Rotorcraft Support team began flight testing the first Chinook Mk4 helicopter for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Project Julius is the MoD’s name for the effort to modernize the current Royal Air Force Chinook fleet. Project JULIUS will modify 38 Mk2/2A Chinooks into the Mk4/4A configuration and eight Mk3 Chinook’s into the Mk5 configuration.
The Mk3 aircraft are of course the world’s most expensive helicopters due to the MoD’s truly world leading cost saving techniques!
A major part of the modification for both the Mk4/4A and Mk5 aircraft is the Thales TopDeck cockpit which will provide improved situational awareness, increased safety and options for future capability enhancement. The Thales UK’s TopDeck cockpit suite includes an onboard mission planning system and a ground mission support system completes the tactical mission capability.
The first of the upgraded aircraft will be available for operations towards the end of this year
The entire Mk2 fleet will be fitted with the JULIUS cockpit by early 2015, followed by Mk2A and Mk3 modifications by 2015 and 2016, respectively. The modifications also include the addition of a third crew-member seat, upgrades to the Honeywell T55-714 engines and an update of Airworthiness & Safety Certification and Qualification for the modernized Chinook. Tablet computer ‘electronic flight bags’ will also be provided as part of the project. The existing engines are being replaced with Honeywell T55 L714A engines, although a couple of RAF Chinooks do currently use this engine. The engine upgrade improves power by approximately 20%, increases fuel efficiency and reduces maintenance requirements. The net result will be improved performance and greater availability.
The aircraft are being modified at the Gosport Fleetlands facility operated by Vector Aerospace, Boeing’s principal subcontractor for deep support of the RAF Chinook fleet.
This programme will still see a fleet within a fleet but the commonality benefits will be significant, ruthless commonality in action, especially for maintenance and training. The project was announced in 2009 at a cost of £408 million, the engine element cost £128m and the avionics the balance of that figure, although work first started on the project definition in 2008.
The Chinook is without a doubt an excellent helicopter, fast, sturdy, and with excellent lift performance especially in hot and high conditions.
If there is a downside it is a simple but very important one, they are not designed for operations at sea. No operator has a rotor fold system which means they have to be stored on deck, this simple fact immediately means that the operations from sea need something else, un unwanted duplication and we all know how much I dislike unnecessary duplication.
The UK has a requirement for vertical heavy lift from either sea or land, not sea and land. There is no reason why a single type should not be used in either role but because the Chinook does not have the facility for rotor blade folding its employment from ships becomes compromised. Of course it can land on the deck of Ocean, CVF and even the Type 45 but cannot ‘operate’ from these ships. All stowage and maintenance would have to be carried out on deck or so massively compromise carriage of other aircraft it would not be worth bothering.
What would be ideal is a common medium/heavy lift helicopter that can operate equally well from the hangar of CVF or a hangar in Bastion. This means we could mix and match, switch airframes between operations and seamlessly transition from one mode to another whilst maintaining a common support infrastructure that has economies of scale.
The end result of this new spend on Chinook will be a fleet comprising 46 aircraft with an out of service date of 2040. The RAF maintains Chinook at a very high availability rate, from the total fleet it seems to average about two thirds fit for purpose which compared to Merlin or Apache is very high, the upgrades should see even this good performance improved.
Merlin; again a number of variants are in service even within the utility role (HC3/3a) 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 and RAF Puma, have folding rotors, folding tails or other equipment to make them suitable for maritime operation.
Penny pinching and short termism writ large, with significant cost penalties later, typical MoD activity.
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 on the large side although king of the hill in terms of submarine killing. 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.
Merlin operating costs are very high, just under £28,000 per funded hour and the payload is relatively low for an aircraft of this size which limits its usefulness in the support helicopter role, in essence, it is good for personnel but less useful for stores and vehicles. Performance at altitude is also limiting.
The Merlin replaced Wessex and supposedly Puma, although in our usual penny pinching way we forgot about replacing Puma. As with Apache, Merlin requires a complex and costly support infrastructure and it might be a reasonable to believe that Apache and Merlin have sucked the money out of the helicopter budget.
If ever there was a political/industrial focussed aircraft it is the Merlin and unfortunately it results in an aircraft that would seem to be overly complex, overly expensive, occupies nearly the same space as a Chinook but with only half the lift despite having 3 engines and a very complex gearbox.
Merlin answers a question no one actually asked, apart from the Royal Navy anti submarine capability area of course. Now I am not one who thinks the submarine threat has gone away, far from it, the proliferation of very quite hybrid propulsion submarines means that whilst the threat level might have diminished, the ability to do anything about it is getting more and more difficult. The HM.2 upgrade will make the most potent anti submarine capability in the world (Merlin, Type 23, Lynx/Wildcat and RN crews) even more effective.
Out of a total fleet of 42 Merlin Mk.1’s (although some have been lost in accidents) we are upgrading 30 and the fate of the remainder remains unclear.
Lynx; we have a number of Army and Royal navy variants in service but they are all due to be replaced by 2 variants of the Lynx Wildcat (Future Lynx), a maritime and land version.
Providing a very useful service in Afghanistan is the upgraded Lynx Mk9A. In May last year they started operating in a variety of utility roles such as Combat Logistic Patrol escort, Support Helicopter escort, light transport, radio rebroadcast and limited ISTAR. Validating the general requirement for a light utility helicopter they have proven to be a success but it is uncertain what overlap there will be between Wildcat entering service and the 9A’s being withdrawn in 2016.
The Lynx Mk.9A is an upgraded version of the Mk.9 and features LHTECH CTS800N engines which offer significantly more power over the original ‘wheezy’ Rolls Royce Gems. These have vastly improved the Lynx’s hot and high performance in Afghanistan. Prior to the upgrade Lynx were severely restricted especially during the summer months. This additional engine power also allows the Mk.9A to carry heavier weapons as pictures have been released of the aircraft fitted with the 0.50 M3M HMG, which is a significant increase in fire power and range over the usual 7.62 L7 GPMG. In addition to the new engines the Mk.9A is also fitted improved secure communications equipment.
The Mk9A’s allow the Apache Attack Helicopter to be used more effectively and sparingly, reducing airframe hours and operating costs.
A total of 22 Mk9’s have been converted in 2 batches, the first batch costing £6.5 million each and the second batch £4.5 million each.
Poor performance in high temperatures was noted in the first Gulf War so this upgrade has taken nearly 2 decades to complete.
Quite why the MoD have selected the Wildcat for the AAC remains a mystery, of course the public face of the MoD makes the point that it will supplement the Attack Helicopter but this conveniently forgets Watchkeeper, the fact that Attack Helicopter actually makes a better recce platform than Wildcat, that Wildcat has no radar, an EO turret with a limited downward tilt angle and has very little utility in the ‘utility’ role means nothing when sustaining Agusta Westland is the main driver. When it became obvious that the Future Lynx would be unable to meet the requirements of the Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH) programme it was changed to Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter (BRH), neat eh.
The larger engines mean higher fuel consumption but the fuel tanks remains the same and the aircraft overall is much heavier, nearly a tonne, although the extra power compensates. With crashworthy seating the space in the cabin is limited, no more squeezing 12 toms in the back as per the old days in Northern Ireland, with a door gunner we will be lucky to get 2 or 3 in, and only then if dressed for the beach!
A great deal is made of the fact that Wildcat will be able to use the existing training and logistics systems in place but is this actually the case?
Wildcat will have a completely new avionics system, will need a new simulator developing and have a much higher training overhead than current versions. The commonality between the old and the new is also under question although given that Wildcat will replace all Lynx versions then at least duplication will be reduced.
In order to provide some differentiation between the Apache and Wildcat only the GPMG and M3M machine guns are planned. The Block 3 upgrade to the Apache remains a more attractive proposition in an either/or situation so Wildcat will remain largely unarmed.
The primary role for the RN’s 28 SCMR aircraft will be to perform anti-surface warfare tasks, with each aircraft required to carry the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapons (FASGW), light and heavy variants, 185km from a host ship and remain on station for 1h. The aircraft will also carry the Stingray torpedo for anti-submarine warfare missions, in conjunction with the Merlin HM.2 and utility tasks are also expected to be carried out using the Wildcat. It has also been reported that of these 28, 4 would be the Army version for CHF.
For the Royal Navy it could be argued that Wildcat is not a bad option, it will insert a hugely capable aircraft into an already established maintenance and training pipeline, even if the differences between Wildcat and Lynx are many, the costs of a new type would still be more. However, it is still a tremendously expensive aircraft and will be coming into service in a timeframe that will see a drastically reduced surface fleet. As the RN transitions to the larger Type 45/26 the relatively small size of Lynx becomes less of an attractive feature and more of a problem.
A cynic might say that Wildcat is in fact the saviour of the Army Air Corps, without the handful of Wildcat planned to be in service the AAC would be a single type Corps, if that happened it could be argued that the entire Corps was a one trick pony and ripe for absorbing into the RAF. Given the amount of real and intellectual currency the Army has spent on Apache the ‘Wildcat or nothing’ option, despite all the hot air, was grabbed with both hands.
Costs have continually risen to a point where 60 odd aircraft will cost £1.7 billion although the alternatives on offer were more expensive when considering the costs of introduction and through life support.
On the other hand, Wildcat will have state of the art avionics systems, good sensors and optics, a secure data link and full communications fit from day 1 etc so it will be an improvement over both current naval and army variants.
There will also be a great deal more commonality between the army and naval variants which is never a bad thing from a support perspective.
So, Lynx Wildcat, for all its problems and issues, is generally the ‘better than nothing’ option and due to enter service in 2013/14
Sea King; is 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. All variants of Sea King are due out of service in 2016 but with the collapse of the SAR-H PFI it is not clear if an interim contract will be in place prior to this so the Sea Kings operated by the RAF and FAA in the search and rescue capability might have to soldier on until a sensible replacement can be found or new SAR contract let.
There are two SAR variants in service, the RAF HAR.3/3a and RN HAR.5
The remaining two Sea King variants are the ASaC7 airborne early warning and control which is currently supporting operations in Afghanistan and also in Afghanistan, the HC.4 Commando. The latter is a utility variant that was upgraded with the composite Carson blades which deliver a useful performance improvement for not very much money.
No replacement for the ASac7 has yet been announced although many options exist including a fixed wing capability now CVF has changed to conventional launch and recovery.
Puma; The RAF currently has 43 in the fleet, 22 in the forward available fleet and in the same time frame as other figures in the post 11 available for service. Although the Puma saw action in Iraq it has not been deployed to Afghanistan because the pressure of yet another type in theatre would be problematical and the performance penalty of getting it to theatre entry standard would render it ineffective in the environment conditions of Helmand.
The RAF Puma’s were assembled by Westlands and first delivered in 1970. In 2007, at the height of the helicopter scandals it was announced that at least 28 HC.1 would be upgraded to HC.2 standard to extend the out of service date to 2025 although other sources cite 2022 as the revised OSD and work on the upgrade had been going on for a number of years before the announcement including a £20 million contract to Eurocopter for a test rig and early design work to inform the assessment phase. The MoD web site mentions ‘beyond 2022’ and the first are due to be delivered next year.
The extension/upgrade with see a number of improvements, more powerful Makila engines, glass cockpit, communication, navigation systems and an improvement in safety.
At around £10-15 million (depending on the options for the final pair and whether you include the assessment work) each this is actually a low cost means of obtaining a useful life extension, making use of established support mechanisms although many systems will of course, be significantly different. It is not clear if the upgrade cost includes simulators or other expensive conversion items.
It should also be noted that when announced, the contract was for £220 million and now seems to be hovering at the £300 million mark plus and some reports indicate only 24 will be obtained, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, contradictory information is easy to find.
One of the key attributes of the Puma is its compact dimensions, unlike Merlin and many would argue that a Chinook/Puma force represents a better balance than a Chinook/Merlin combination. The original Puma offered 16 seats or 12 plus a realistic combat load. This was later reduced by fitting an internal fuel tank in the cabin so although the upgrade will offer a low cost package; we should question whether it is good value for money.
The contract does provide a low cost gap filler until the longer term picture can be decided upon.
Whether it is value for money, I guess it is better than nothing, which is the alternative.
Gazelle; one of the best looking helicopters ever made the Gazelle is showing its age. The Army has 27 on the books with a forward available fleet of 22 and, as at January 2010, 14 available for service. None are deployed to Afghanistan although I think France has some there, they are currently being used at BATUS in Canada to support the training function. With an out of service date of 2018 the Gazelle force in Canada will likely be replaced with an external contract but although initial indications were that the Gazelle would be withdrawn by 2012 it has been reported by Janes that they will be life extended to reach the original OSD.
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 discussed!
Issues; the problem the UK has is not helicopter numbers, total fleet size is 522 across all types. The real problem, and it would not be hyperbole to describe it as a scandal, is that of availability. Whilst the mainstream media might have a field day about helicopters they never pick up on the shocking availability figures.
This is what happens when you neglect training, logistics, maintenance and other support capabilities.
We might spend money on FRES or Type 45 or Typhoon but do this we strip the back office of resources which has a dramatic impact on actual capabilities. As good as the Merlin or Apache is, they are very expensive hangar decorations if unavailable to commanders in the field and might as well be used as gate guardians for all the value they deliver.
If we take a snapshot and availability is always a snapshot, in March last year the UK armed forces had an in service fleet of 522 helicopters.
Of these 522, 300 were in the forward available fleet, or just over 60%
Of the 300 in the forward available fleet, a mere 200 were actually available for use, or again, about 60% of FAF
If we compare the available for service to the total fleet we get a woeful rate of 38%
Particular lowlights of the FAF to Available for Use measure include the Apache at 41% and Puma at 50%. Comparing the total fleet to available for use throws up another few interesting percentages; Merlin HM.1 at 33%, Apache at 27%, Puma at 26%, Lynx M9/9a at 35% and Merlin Mk3/3A at 36%.
We should be clear that these are snapshots at a point in time, the figures are a year old and there are very good reasons behind some of the individual lowlights but the bottom line is we are failing to maximise on our considerable investment in helicopters.
Of course total numbers still matter, for example, we are replacing 187 RN/Army Lynx and Gazelle with less than 60 Wildcat so no matter how much Wildcat will deliver in terms of availability improvements it is still a serious reduction and like ships, helicopters, no matter how good there, can be in three places at once.
A Sensible Future
The sensible and pragmatic thing to do is to carry on pretty much as we are, or in other words, a series of short term programmes to get us over a funding gap and a medium term consolidation into 4 broadly similar sized fleets, Apache, Wildcat, Chinook and Merlin.
In many ways, the UK is not short of helicopters, but it is short of deployable helicopters with sufficient aircrew and logistics support. It is in this area that we should be concentrating over the next decade or so as Future Force 2020 begins to be realised.
Making better use of what we have and reducing operating cost should be the underpinning strategies and this is pretty much what the MoD is aiming for, making significant consolidation of types, introducing ruthless commonality (not in my sense of the word though) and improving availability to negate the need for more airframes.
This will require increasing investment in logistics, support, maintenance, spares, training and aircrew.
Building on this increasing utilisation there are a number of capability enhancements and development areas that should be considered, making the assumption that the four major types will be as described;
Apache; The assessment phase for a planned upgrade will commence next year and the most obvious thing to do would be to utilise the Block III enhancements currently in low rate production. Many of the US Block III enhancements will be in advance of AH1 but others, such as additional engine power, UK Apaches have had since day 1, in fact the RTM 322 has more power than the upgraded GE T700-701D engine found in the US Block III aircraft and this has allowed the Longbow radar to be retained on UK Apaches in the hot conditions of Afghanistan whilst US ones have had to have theirs removed.
Other Block III enhancements that we should cherry pick include UAV data links which will enable Apache to integrate with Watchkeeper and improved sensor turret amongst many others. Beyond the Block III upgrades there are also a couple of emerging technologies that will have matured by the time the assessment phase concludes including the Radiance Technologies Ground Fire Acquisition System or GFAS which is a fearsome capability, essentially, a series of sensors placed distributed along the fuselage which detects/classifies ground fire and in real time indicates its source to the aircrew, thus allowing them to slew the 30mm canon or launch other weapons.
The planned out of service date for Apache is 2030.
Emerging concepts of operation may include coordination with Watchkeeper and of course, Wildcat.
One area I would like to see explored more is Apache’s utility in the littoral and maritime environment, where the 30mm cannon would be very useful, and the UK version, with its additional EM shielding and folding rotors is well suited although not as evolved as the various Sea Apache propositions. To support this enhanced role, it would make sense to integrate the MBDA Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) to supplement the Wildcat.
As mentioned above, Apache’s are very expensive to operate and using their precious airframe hours and scarce aircrew for inappropriate missions should be reduced by the introduction of complimentary capabilities on other aircraft. The reason the Army Air Corps have not pushed for weapons integration on Wildcat is to protect the funding line for the Block III upgrades but this is false economy. There is no chance of increasing the fleet size so in addition to improving availability we should, in parallel, use them sparingly, the current funded hours for Apache is about 18,500 per year, about the same as Chinook.
It might also be sensible to reduce the overall size of the Apache fleet to a point where it can sustain enough to cover a single Multi Role Brigade on an enduring operation, or larger formation for a shorter duration/other out of area intervention, to free up funding for other capabilities and extend in service life. Reducing numbers might actually increase fatigue depending on operational tempo but the total fleet size is something that is worth investigating if cheaper and complimentary capabilities, such as arming Wildcat, could be funded
Merlin/Puma; the HM2 upgrade as part of the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme is now underway and will modify 30 of the HM.1’s with a wide variety of upgrades.
With 28 Wildcat and 30 Merlin, the Royal Navy will spread these out across 19 major surface vessels with additional deployments on CVF and other vessels as needed. It is hoped that the HM.2 will achieve a greater availability rate than the HM.1 so the number should be acceptable.
I am not sure what will be gained by moving the utility Merlins into the CHF but there is no doubt that each of the Mk3/3a’s should be converted for maritime use, at least with a folding rotor and necessary electronics. As the Sea Kings go out of service a small additional buy of Merlin’s might be the pragmatic thing to do or, convert the remaining HM.1’s. This conversion would not include fitting a ramp so major structural modifications would be ruled out.
As for a replacement for the ASac7 Sea Kings I know most people would like to see the E2 in service with the UK and this would of course be the preferred option but the electronics on ASaC7 are usually very under rated and the lowest cost option would seem to be palletising the radar, electronics and consoles and simply fitting them into the surplus HM.1’s. Illustrations of this have shown the radome extending from the rear ramp, which of course the HM.1’s do not have so it might need some modification if this is possible. The current information on the future of the ASaC7’s and MASC (its replacement) has been inconsistent and incomplete.
As a throwaway, it might even be possible to life extend the Sea Kings, which would solve the numbers problem but still leave us with multiple types doing very similar numbers.
A lot of this would depend on how many upgraded HM.1’s we end up with, I still think 30 HM.2’s is a sensible number with the remainder used for MASC and maritime utility roles.
Puma HC2 will be viable past 2022 and this might enable the existing Merlins to transfer to the CHF to the RN becomes the sole operator of Merlin, with the RAF operating Puma and Chinook.
Wildcat; however much we might dislike the fact, it is on the way and although the Army will be short of genuine light utility types it is simply going to have to accept this.
If we could retain the Mk9A’s beyond their OSD of 2018 this would provide a sensible light utility (basic casevac, priority resupply for example) capability to supplement the Wildcat although the commonality benefits of Wildcat would be diluted somewhat.
It might even be possible to upgrade some of the older Mk7’s with the same engine as the Wildcat/9A
The final number of maritime versions may be reduced in line with a reduction of surface vessels but this would not be desirable in any way.
A key improvement I would like to see on the Army Wildcat’s is the provision of weapons beyond a manually armed door gun. No funding has been allocated for Hellfire or the LMM but it would make a natural partner to Apache and arguably a more suitable platform for these missiles, Apache acting as the eyes and Wildcat delivering the punch. This lack of funding might be seen to be protecting the Block III Apache upgrades but we have to be sensible and recognise the massive operating costs of Apache when set against what it doing.
As I mentioned above, using Apache to deliver 30mm, CRV-7 and the occasional Hellfire is not cost effective in the most likely usage scenario so we need to marshal and preserve Apache for when it is the most appropriate system.
Beyond having weapon commonality across the major types we might also consider adding a weapon turret to the Army Wildcat’s instead of a door gun and using them as a lower cost Apache.
A number of options exist and the Israelis have developed a Battlehawk variant that utilises a NEXTER 20mm cannon and lightweight mount that reportedly adds only a modest weight increase and firing stress, video and brochure here and here (H/T Solomon)
The NEXTER THL20 mounting has been fitted to some French Puma’s and is also used on Indian Dhruv and Romanian SOCAT Puma helicopters. The larger THL30 (30mm) has also been selected by a number of users (pic here)
As long as the Wildcat can provide a 600mm hole and space above for ammunition it could be fitted with the THL20.
Another option may be to mount the weapon in the nose, especially on the Army version which does not have this position occupied with radar as the naval version does and our friends at BAE have just the ticket. The F2 turret, which uses the same NEXTER 20mm cannon as above, has been fitted to the South African Rooivalk and a number of Mil 24 upgrades. Using the NATO standard 20×102 ammunition the turret, associated control equipment and 300 rounds of ammunition weighs 288kg which although heavier than a door gunner and M3M provides much more firepower.
Both options are available off the shelf, modestly priced and would allow the Wildcat to be used in the armed recce role, small craft interdiction in a maritime context and perhaps more importantly, allow the Apache to be reserved for more appropriate applications i.e. a spend to save deal.
Chinook; With the Julius upgrades the fleet will be as common as it is sensible to make and numbering some 46 aircraft. Given their high availability rates (about two thirds) it is worth questioning whether the mythical new Chinooks are needed. They will not be in service by the time we start drawing down in Afghanistan and with a likely reduction in Army strength post 2015, are they needed?
If a standard deployment is going to be a Multi Role Brigade on an enduring basis plus a couple of simple/complex interventions at a small scale or a single large operation of 2 brigade strength the need for Support Helicopters should be scaled on this, plus whatever SF, training and other duties are required.
Working on the two thirds availability ratio, 46 aircraft in the fleet means roughly 30 available for use across operational, training and other duties. Working back, does this mean than about 12-15 are available for operations?
Given the most likely scenario is a single brigade strength and with the Merlin fleet this provides a reasonably capable capacity.
Given a choice of extra airframes or more money for training and logistics I would plump for the latter but of course, the extras would be very useful. I would also trade additional aircraft for a development of a folding rotor head for operating from CVF and in flight refuelling capability for SF use, paired with the A400.
Of course, the extra aircraft will push the fleet up towards the 60 point and this would be fantastic, providing the UK with a significant heavy lift support helicopter fleet.
Logistics Support; given that 3 out of the 4 main types are from our friends in the south west it would make sense to realise some economies of scale and merge the existing support contracts into a single, long term, incentivised support package that should be expressly designed to improve availability. For example, the Apache is supported by the Apache Helicopter Future Support Arrangements contract that was let in 2009, running until 2014 it will cost £439million. The Merlin is supported by the 25 year Integrated Merlin Operational Support (IMOS) contract that was let in 2006, the second five year period was recently contracted for £570 million. Despite these contracts availability continues to be a challenge and it needs to be properly gripped.
Organisation; a rather contentious issue this one but one of the fundamental principles of this strategy is to relentlessly drive down costs and if this can be achieved by the elimination of duplication then we should have zero sentimentality. This might mean moving the Apache and Army Wildcats to the RAF force or even transferring all Merlins and Wildcats to the RAF. The Commando Helicopter Force is a small force that might be better disbanded and amphibious support provided by Army Air Corps, RAF or FAA aircrew.
As in previous posts I am not claiming that this move would significantly lower costs but the principle remains, if it can be clearly demonstrated that operating costs can be reduced without degrading operational capability too far then this is something we should pursue.
The sad fact is that helicopters are not core business for any of the services and this is reflected in their funding priorities.
By the way, let’s not let this one get into discussions on disbanding the RAF etc, I have an opinion on where aircraft should be and it is well known but the current status quo is fine enough as well, there are many arguments for and against.
Weapons and Systems; one of the issues we face is the lack of weapons commonality across multiple platforms, the Army Wildcat for example will not be cleared (at least initially) for the CRV-7, Hellfire or LMM because it is an ISTAR platform but this reduces flexibility enormously. Likewise, the Merlin HM.2’s will not be able to carry LMM, Sea Skua or its replacement. This situation has to stop and so in this sensible strategy we should allocate funding to allow a common weapon fit across the three main types and that would also include getting rid of the Chinook’s old fashioned M60’s (selected because they were the cheapest option)
It would also be desirable to embark on a medium to long term coherence plan to standardise on sub systems like defensive aids and EO turrets for example.
I will be covering complex and air launched weapons in a future post in this series.
Special Forces; it would be nice to create a separate capability just for special forces use and the Joint Personnel Recovery mission but am not sure we have the money to do so and this money would probably be better spent improving capabilities across a common fleet. With the high specification of avionics, sensors and defensive aids fitted to a harmonised fleet the difference between the so called SF helicopters and your common or garden support helicopter becomes less and less. SF and JPR become a come as you are mission in terms of equipment although there will of course be some degree of specialist training. The existing ‘other types beginning with m’ will also continue as is.
So that is a sensible future, one which sees, relatively speaking, greater resources for rotary aviation across all three services but essentially, is a strategy that sees us making better use of what we have and improving flexibility/commonality across the board.
It is a coping strategy in the absence of a proper long term and ambitious vision; it’s got many many big holes in it, but is achievable.
That’s boring though isn’t it, in the next one I am going to go a bit mental and describe a vision for rotary aviation that recognises its fundamental role in the likely operations the UK will conduct over the coming decades.
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