On the Subject of Helicopters


The issue of helicopters has been brought to a head this week following the news of 15 casualties in Afghanistan in less than a fortnight. The opposition and media have hammered the hapless Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defence. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff and Air Vice Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, the current Chief of the Defence Staff, also raised the issue.

Even the usually toothless Defence Select Committee gave the PM and SoS Defence a grilling.

Stepping aside from the fact that the mainstream media and most of the opposition have only really run in any meaningful way with this issue when they smell the vulnerability of the Prime Minister combined the cynical newsworthiness of the death of the highest-ranking officer in operations since the Falklands conflict it is obvious that the lack of helicopters, amongst many other issues, is having a material effect on the strategic objectives, in so much that we have any.

If the assumption is made that Afghanistan is a conflict whose successful resolution is in the long term interests of the United Kingdom then it must follow that we must take the task seriously and not fight with one hand behind our backs, in short, we must do what it takes and if it takes more helicopters then so be it.

This week has also seen the growing importance of blogs and discussion forums so in a blatant attempt to jump on the bandwagon we thought there was room for another article on the issue of helicopters, in particular, to look beyond the soundbite politics and simplistic answers so prevalent in the debate.

Helicopters alone are not the answer

That world-renowned defence expert, David Milliband, stated that helicopters alone were not the answer. Gordon Brown insisted that the Army is properly equipped yet it was obvious that when General Dannatt was in Helmand and being ferried about in a US helicopter the truth is somewhat different, as Sir Richard pithily stated, the reason he was in a US helicopter was that no British one was available.

Labour politicians were quick to point out that because many of the casualties were incurred on foot patrol helicopters would not have made any difference. Towards the end of the week, the labour spin machine had swung into action with murmurings about Sir Richard angling for a Tory Peerage or well-paid job in the private sector by dabbling in a political arena he had no business in. The Secretary of State for Defence even had to write to his junior ministers to warn them off a smear campaign that would, if perpetuated, backfire spectacularly.

Lord Mandelson accused the Tories of seeking political advantage rather than giving united backing as if he had ever passed up the opportunity for political advantage!

Prime Ministers Question Time was dominated by Afghanistan and in particular the issue of equipment with the Prime Minister trotting out the same old meaningless statistics.

In this toxic political environment, it is hard to separate fact from fiction, spin from fact and total nonsense from the mainstream media.

Are Helicopters Part of the Answer?

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear (incredibly we actually agree with the banana boy), helicopters alone are not the only answer but they are part of the answer.

As seems to be usual with the mainstream media though, there is a tendency to seek simplistic answers to complex questions. Helicopters cannot take and hold ground, they cannot interact with the local population and they cannot seek an engagement with the enemy, they are an enabling capability.

However, they can patently provide two things that contribute massively to both military effectiveness and casualty reduction; unpredictability and speed of response.

Road bound, we are predictable, especially in the conditions where large vehicle movements are signalled to the enemy by the huge dust clouds thrown up and a network of local informants. Helicopters contribute to the element of surprise, appearing in strength at locations with very little advanced warning is one of the most effective tactics available, a tactic our forces are unable to utilise fully because they lack air mobility. Rapid vertical envelopment and a rapid airborne reaction to fluid events can be shocking to the enemy and as the United States, Air Cavalry demonstrated in Vietnam, incredibly effective.

Without this and with a significant logistical tail we are not following much of the accepted counter-insurgency doctrine we created. The growing demand for greater forces, in order to hold ground so expensively won, is fair enough but without the vehicles and helicopter lift to support them, it would be pointless. We are facing a formidable enemy who can blend into the local population; we need to exploit our technical and qualitative advantages.

The core mission is to destroy the Taleban in the most efficient manner possible, agility supports this and helicopters underpin agility. The mission is not to protect our troops from roadside bombs and we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact but increasing casualties undermine support and when looking at the bigger picture force protection issues are important, helicopters again contribute but don’t solve entirely this problem.

It’s All Gordon Browns Fault

The Defence Select Committee highlighted their concerns about the lack of airlift in their report on the initial Afghanistan deployment, a couple of years ago.

To quote the report

We are deeply concerned that the UK airlift and close air support capability may not be sufficient to support the Helmand deployment.

Despite this simple warning and repeated signs before and after that the UK simply did not have enough airlift, the MoD has not delivered.

Rushed out in time for the, as usual sparsely attended defence debate, on Afghanistan this week the Select Committee again reported on the woeful situation of helicopter support for operations in Afghanistan

Behind the headlines and obvious spin from the government the simple truth is this, the Government, MoD, Service Chiefs, Investment Approvals Board, Treasury officials and the myriad of others involved in allocating each capability a slice of the defence budget simply decided that helicopters did not warrant the priority over many years that everyone and his dog are now saying they deserve.  We highlighted in a previous post the diminishing real-world value of the defence budget so hard decisions would have had to be made and evidently the decisions made were simply incorrect. What many also seem to have missed whilst they are busy flinging insults is that whilst the RAF and RN operate the larger support helicopters like Chinook, Puma and Sea King they come under the control of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), JHC comes under HQ Land, it is, therefore, the Army that ultimately decides funding priorities for non-SAR/fleet helicopters. Established following the Strategic Defence Review in 1998 JHC comes under the ‘operational command and budgetary control of HQ Land Command’ This is not the whole story in the labyrinthine world of defence funding but nevertheless, the Army retains a great deal of influence

That said, whoever is or was in charge there has been chronic underinvestment in helicopter capability for many decades and now in the face of reality, the cumulative effect of those decisions is a growing butchers bill and decreasing likelihood of a successful outcome in Afghanistan.

So is it all Gordon Brown’s fault?

Not entirely, but he is the head of the ship and responsibility must rest where it falls. Gordon Brown would not look so ridiculous if he simply admitted there was a problem instead of the brazen display of deceit and obfuscation as displayed in his recent appearances.

The USMC has 120 helicopters we have 10

Much of the reporting this week has focussed on comparisons with the US forces in Helmand. In some articles and interviews, it was stated that we have 10 Chinook and the US forces have 120. A US Combat Aviation Brigade does indeed have approximately 120 helicopters but it comprises a number of types, including not only Chinook but also Apache attack and Kiowa recce types. This CAB would be expected to support an entire Division and in the case of the USMC, they have a mission-specific Marine Aircraft Group.

The Combat Aviation Brigade from 82nd Airborne Division and Marine Aircraft Group 40 provided aviation support for the recent major operation in Helmand, Operations Khanjar (Strike of the Sword)

It is fair to say, however, that the US forces enjoy much greater access to helicopters than do ours, it’s just not as dramatic as the figures used this week.

Whilst we might have 10 Chinooks in the theatre, only 7 of them are available for routine taskings. The others are used for on-call casevac and other purposes. We have a small number of Lynx (which can’t fly in the day and are being withdrawn) and 8 Sea King HC4’s

We Have Increased Helicopters by 60%

If we look at what improvements there have been in helicopter availability it is evident that it is a fairly limited.

Flying hours on the Chinook fleet have been allowed to be increased (wow, thanks, it’s not like we are at war or anything)
6 Chinooks, the same Chinooks that were the result of the biggest defence procurement fiasco in recent history are being reworked at great expense. Without going over the old ground it’s hardly something to crow about, correcting the errors will result in probably the most expensive half dozen Chinooks in the world, some £52 million each. First ordered in 1997 (yes that’s over twelve years ago) they will go into the general Chinook fleet and be deployed as and when available, which should be in 2010 although some have reported this is optimistic. So it is, not 6 extra, they would have been in service 10 years ago if it weren’t for monumental MoD incompetence.

14 Sea King HC Mk4’s have been fitted with Carson composite blades, manufactured by Ducommun in the USA, allowing them to operate in theatre. It has been reported that 8 of these modified aircraft are in theatre. This programme was first started in 2006 and completed in 2008 and is an example of a modest investment (just over £5m) extending the usefulness of a sturdy and capable airframe. As a stop-gap, this is a good one but it will create problems further down the line and convince the Treasury that they can be life extended even further past their out of service date, 2017, which is not the case.

6 ex Dutch Merlin’s have been purchased but are not yet in service. In the order of £30 million each, the Merlin is a very expensive aircraft and whilst capable they are not excellent value for money. After significant modification, these 6 Merlin’s will join the existing fleet and deployed. These may be available for service this year although again, that might be optimistic.

A number of existing Lynx are being re-engined to enable them to cope with the hot and high conditions of Afghanistan. At a whopping cost of £70 million, 8 Lynx Mk 9’s will be upgraded with the LHTEC T800 (Light Helicopter Turbine Company, a joint venture between Rolls Royce and Honeywell) to enable them to operate in Afghanistan. Despite being in service with the UK for decades no one seemed to appreciate that the aircraft might perhaps one day need to operate in such an environment. The LHTEC T800 is the engine chosen for Future Lynx Wildcat so although offering what might seem poor value for money given the costs of integrating it into the supply and logistics stream it probably represented the least most expensive option. What the Lynx will be used for in theatre hasn’t been released.

Yes, it is true that we have more capability than when we entered Afghanistan, but then we have more forces in the area as well.

In fact, in the last couple of years, we have deployed more than a 60% increase of troops in theatre so it’s hardly an improvement, simply proportional to the numbers there.

In summary, 60% of bugger all is still bugger all.

Train Crash Ahead

Looking at the total numbers in the fleet, in excess of 500, one might be inclined to ask what the problem is, just get more of what we have out to Afghanistan.

We do indeed have a lot of helicopters but look at the types in detail.

  • Chinooks, 40 in fleet, 10 in Afghanistan
  • Pumas, 43 in fleet, none in Afghanistan
  • Merlin’s, 70 in the fleet, none in Afghanistan
  • Sea Kings, 90 in the fleet, 5 in Afghanistan
  • Apaches, 67 in the fleet, 8 in Afghanistan
  • Lynx, 176 in the fleet, none in Afghanistan
  • Gazelles, 133 in the fleet, none in Afghanistan
  • Other, 47 in the fleet, none in Afghanistan

A quick glance at these figures would lead one to believe that we are not serious about Afghanistan because we have hundreds of helicopters but only a handful in Afghanistan, but the Puma’s are so knackered and wheezy they would be useless, as the Lynxes. The Gazelle is very small and again, not a great deal of use, many of the Merlin’s are fleet anti-submarine types as are the Sea Kings, plus they are the ones that rescue people from beaches and stricken fishing vessels. Other’s comprise mostly of training types. If we had replaced the Puma, Sea King Commando, Lynx and Gazelles with something decent in years gone by then clearly we would not have a problem.

The types are a collection of different variants and revisions, as one would expect in such a large and dynamic fleet but again, this conspires to whittle the available numbers down yet more.

It’s is no state secret that things are going to get much worse so when the mainstream media talk of revelations about future helicopter numbers it is not strictly true but I suppose, sounds good in a headline.

Examining the fleet and planned replacements more closely;

The Puma fleet is due to go out of service in 2012 and be replaced by the Future Medium Helicopter in 2018. No orders have been placed so this 2018 target is somewhat optimistic, there is talk of a life extension programme but this will only extend their life to 2022 and news this week has signalled yet more costly dithering.

The Lynx fleet, the largest numbers of helicopters we have, are due out of service in a period from 2013 to 2015 depending on type; we plan to replace this large fleet  of over 170 airframes with 62 Future Lynx Wildcat.

All Gazelles are due out of service in 2102 with no replacement planned.

There are 40 Search and Rescue Sea Kings operated between the RAF and Royal Navy, these are due out of service by 2017 with no replacement, SAR being moved to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency who will operate a PFI scheme as a replacement.

The Royal Navy operate 42 Sea King Commando troop carrying types in two variants which go out service in 2017. These are due to be replaced in the same Future Medium Helicopter programme as are the RAF Puma’s, in 2018.

The Royal Navy operate 13 airborne early warning Sea Kings for fleet protection, these are due out of service in 2018 and will be replaced by 4 MASC helicopters, a decision on type has yet to be decided but it is likely to be a case of moving the mission equipment from the Sea King’s into a Merlin.

The RAF operates 40 Chinook Mk2/2a’s that go out of service in 2015 and 2025. The older MK2’s comprise the bulk of this number, some 34 in total and these will go out of service on the earlier date. It is planned to extend their life to 2040. The 8 HC3a’s will be added to the fleet this year, maybe next and that is if the reversion work on all 8 airframes is a success. The first has only recently taken its first flight and there is a long road ahead.

This paints a sorry story of a significant future reduction in helicopter numbers, but that is only half of the problem, the real problem is availability.

The Real Problem…

The problem of helicopter airframe numbers has not just happened overnight but it obscures the real problem, that of actual availability.

For example, in recent evidence to the Defence Select Committee Quentin Davies stated that out of a total effective fleet of 28 Merlin helicopters, in May this year only 10.7 (average figure) were available for duty and out of these only 4 or 5 are actually available for a real world deployment due to training and other commitments.

It is the same story across the fleet, out of the 40 Chinook’s the reality is that only 10 are available, the others being in training or at various states of maintenance and repair.

Underneath this apparent poor utilisation or availability rate is a tale of almost heroic maintenance, stretched to breaking point logistics and an ever more weary set of flight crews.

And it is here that the real scandal lies, the behind the scenes, mundane aspects of operating aircraft; maintenance, spares, training and personnel that are preventing us making maximum use of what we actually have. Why can the Merlin’s deployed to Iraq not be immediately switched to Afghanistan, it is nothing to do with the airframes or the environment but the support infrastructure.

If the helicopter fairy magically put 50 Chinooks into Afghanistan tomorrow they would have to sit there waiting for the logistics train to adapt and for trained pilots to come through the system.

If we are to climb out the hole we have dug we must concern ourselves not with airframes, although that of course makes a significant difference, but with thesupport infrastructure to ensure aircraft are not cannibalised for spares, airframes sit around waiting for aircrew and a training goes unfulfilled.

Open the Chequebook Gordon

Unfortunately, even with an unlimited pot of cash, providing a meaningful increase in capability would not be an overnight activity. As the select committee report states, helicopter capability is built on the four pillars of equipment, manning, support and training, none of which can go from their current state to where we would want them to be in a short timescale given the current way in which we do things.

We face two significant problems, neither of which is going to be cheap or easy to resolve, that of airframe numbers and support, with the latter being the hardest to solve by a significant margin.

In the short term we may be able to find a way to accelerate the deployment of the ex Dutch Merlin’s and Chinook Mk3a’s. Even with the extra Chinook, Merlin and Lynx in theatre (which will not mean they will all be available for missions as we have shown above) this may not be enough to provide a meaningful improvement in capability.

We must also hugely increase the spares, training and logistics capability, war time is not the time for ‘lean’ maintenance. Efficiency should not be the driving factor but military effect and if that means we have a very high holding of spares on the shelf in theatre then so be it, we must accept the cost and perceived inefficiency because to do anything less is to say that just in time as a concept is more important than beating the Taleban.

The same situation also applies to the Apache Attack Helicopter Regiments and supporting REME units, which are incredibly over stretched. Restricting available flying hours for fleet management and basic cost reasons also is totally counter-productive and needs to be sorted out.

The Canadian armed forces faced a similar problem with their deployment to Afghanistan yet managed to deliver a capability to theatre in a comparatively short time comprising 6 Chinooks, 6 Griffons and 6 civilian contracted Mil-17’s

Options are available, reserve aircrew and maintenance fitters, other nations being asked for limited engineering support, using civilian contractors and other routes that would not normally be considered. This would require a bit of can do attitude and a relaxing of some of the rules and procedures that seem to slow everything down. Perhaps accepting more risk in one area mitigates a greater risk in others.

Another option we should seriously consider is to swallow our pride, admit the problem and ask the US to help. We operate in a coalition and I am sure they would be open to an honestly made request, as long as we were doing something in the background to resolve the issue. This would take real political courage but the politicians would do well to turn up at Wooton Basset to remind themselves that politics must sometimes take a back seat.

As for the Future Medium Helicopter capability that is set to replace the RAF Puma’s and RN Sea King’s by 2018 the only sensible option is more Merlin’s. This is certainly not the most desirable from an airframe cost perspective and some issues such as tail and rotor fold in the troop transport version for shipborne deployment will need to be resolved but these are not impossible issues to overcome. We already have Merlin’s in the fleet so spares, maintenance, training and logistic systems are in place. We need to commit to FMH now, place firm orders and start work on the ‘back office’ functions.

It could be argued that Merlin is the gold plated option and at £30 million each it’s hard not to agree but the costs of training, spares, logistics and all the other things that support each airframe mean that it would probably work out the most cost effective choice. NH90’s have been considered and these would certainly be cheaper to purchase, they even use the same engine as the Merlin and Apache but getting a completely new type into service would be riskier and likely take much longer than with the Merlin option. The NH90 is not as capable as the Merlin either. The same also applies to the US Blackhawk which would introduce not only a brand new airframe into the system but also a new engine. In the rush to provide vehicles for Afghanistan the Army has a serious logistic and support issue, so many types creates all sorts of maintenance, spares and training issues. The issue of equipment commonality should not be taken lightly.

With the benefit of hindsight a purchase of NH90, S92 or Blackhawk would have perhaps been the preferred choice with plenty of time to bring them into service properly but we are where are.

The Future Lynx Wildcat purchase for the Army, another disgraceful pork barrel acquisition, needs to be cancelled as soon as possible, Westland’s should then be directed to get on with the FMH Merlin deal. Wildcat is a hideous waste of scarce taxpayer’s cash, as we have covered in a previous post. The Naval version is a sensible evolutionary step that will provide a good uplift in capability even though the numbers are too low but the Army version is an aircraft looking for a user. The contract should be reshaped to decrease in overall numbers and take only the maritime version.

A replacement should then be sought for the Army Lynx, again, our previous post includes some options, the USMC UH-1Y being my favoured option although our other contributors might argue differently. We do not need a Gucci tricked out all singing all dancing ‘platform’ but we do need a simple, rugged, cheap to buy and cheap to operate battlefield taxi that we can afford in large quantities. Other blogs have suggested the CH146 Griffon, which we already operate of sorts in niche roles and this would be another good option worth considering that has many merits.

The work on extending the life of the Chinook fleet is welcomed but we need more, a significant amount more. By virtue of having no tail rotor they perform superbly well in the high altitude and high temperature environment of Afghanistan, able to move significant loads they are indispensible.  We could buy a basic refurbished model (under the the Boeing/US Army CH-47 Cargo Helicopter Alternate Procurement Strategy or CHAPS programme) like Canada did for approximately £15 million, ready for service in about a year or we could go for the latest model at £20 million each which would take a little longer.

What is a correct numbers of lift helicopters, only detailed planning would be able to define that but as a rough uninformed guess, we should really have enough to lift an entire infantry battalion with support in one go, at short notice, whilst being able to mount a number of simultaneous transport, personnel recovery and other miscellaneous missions.

In Summary

Bob Ainsworth recently said

It is cruel to pretend to those who have lost their lives that we will be able to stop our people dying by providing more helicopters

Really Bob, if we can destroy the Taleban and withdraw from Afghanistan sooner rather than later and everyone with an even an ounce of military knowledge knows that more helicopters will support that aim then we will be able to stop our people dying because they will be at home not in Afghanistan.

Helicopters aren’t the only answer but they will go a long long way to bringing success, we need to be honest, admit failures and move with clarity and speed in correcting the obvious errors of the past and that Gordon, means some honesty and an open cheque book.

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