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A Case for Coherence


The recent announcements of helicopter upgrades that we have blogged here and here, especially the Puma and Lynx upgrade, are to be welcomed, despite their apparent poor value for money, they will return airframes to operations and that can only be a good thing.

The Chinook upgrade especially will result in a wholly consistent and coherent modification status across the whole fleet. The Puma upgrade will also result in the same state but the Lynx, Sea King and Merlin fleet will consist of a wide variety of modification states and versions. From a through life management perspective this is a bad thing, over complicating training, logistics and maintenance. The overwhelming desire for more airframes for operations, almost at any cost, means this situation will be compounded. The same is true for Army vehicles, perhaps even more so.

The replacement for the Sea King Commando and Puma helicopters is covered in the Future Medium Helicopter programme. All existing Army Lynx’s will be replaced by Lynx Wildcat and all Gazelles will be withdrawn with no replacement.

There still exists a need for a three tier helicopter fleet, large, medium and small. The large slot is naturally filled by the Chinook although some have argued that the CH53 might be a possible replacement given the fact that it can be embarked on a ship, with its folding rotor and tail. The Chinook does not have folding rotors which limits its ship borne deployment options. However, given the existing investment in Chinook the significant investment in replacing it does seem like poor value for money. There is also a proposed European heavy lift helicopter to replace the German CH53’s but given the likely issues this also does not seem an attractive option either.

I have previously argued that the Puma and Sea King Commando should be replaced as soon as possible with a single type, a Merlin equipped with tail fold as per the Italian Navy’s TTH transport variant. This would satisfy the medium slot.

For the light slot the Army is proposing to withdraw the Gazelle and replace all of its Lynx fleet with the Wildcat. I have stated it many times but the Wildcat is very poor value for money, is totally unsuited to the light utility role because it is too small to lift an infantry section (unless they are clad only in their underpants) and offers a sensor fit that is replicated in the Apache, Watchkeeper and a number of other manned and unmanned systems. Richard Stockley reinforces these points here

The usefulness of a light utility helicopter should not be underestimated; it can perform many roles that are unsuitable or impossible for a larger aircraft like a Merlin or Chinook to perform but their principal advantage is their numbers, lower cost should enable many to be obtained.  At approximately £25m each the Wildcat is eye wateringly expensive; very few will be obtained because of it.

Although I like the look of the US Marine Corps UH-1Y because it is proven, has excellent avionics, a massive logistics base, low cost and is very robust, Richard thinks the AW139 would be a better fit for the UK and is quite a bit shorter which means deployment on our ships would be much easier.

One of the primary tasks for a light/medium utility helicopter is the tactical transport of an 8 man infantry section or fire support section (Javelin or Sustained Fire GPMG for example) with all their kit, others include casevac or light cargo movement. The UK uses the Chinook in the medical evacuation role because of the space in the cabin allows a number of medical specialists to work on the patient in the all important immediate aftermath of the injury and it is very fast. The US on the other hand uses the Blackhawk in this role for their Pedro teams (combat rescue). It could be argued that the Chinook is too large for tactical rescue; its downwash has on occasion exacerbated a situation so a small airframe for the role might be useful. It would not be armed with anything apart from self defence weapons as this would dramatically increase cost and this is what we have Attack Helicopter for but a comprehensive sensor, defensive aids and avionics fit should be specified.

Our proposal therefore, is to replace the Gazelle and Lynx Wildcat with a medium utility helicopter that is smaller than Merlin but larger than for example an EC635. The NH90 and Blackhawk would be slightly too large so this leads logically to the AW139, which is actually slightly smaller than the Lynx but able to carry much more.

Given that Richard has much expertise on these matters I thought I would have another look at the AW139.

Agusta Westland AW139

The Agusta Westland AW139 is a derivative of the Augusta Bell 139 and is the best selling helicopter in its class. Although larger than the Gazelle and officially classed as a medium helicopter it is much smaller than our traditional classification of medium as embodied by the Merlin. Both the Lynx and Gazelle are small and but more or less too small to be useful.

It is in widespread civilian and police use and the Irish armed forces use it in a tactical capacity whilst double hatting for a number of more civilian oriented roles

There may be better choices in terms of pure military capability but the AW139 is a sensible and low cost option for the wide range of tasks a utility helicopter would be expected to carry out. It can lift a full section including their kit, be fitted with self defence machine guns, can have a fast rope fitted, comes with a winch, has modern avionics, can lift a 105mm Light Gun, very economic (about a third of the running costs of an NH90) to run and is in widespread service.  It will require some modification, self sealing fuel tanks, more robust under carriage and defensive aids for example.

Qatar paid 260m Euros for 18 AW139’s. If one assumes a third for training, logistics etc that works out at roughly 10m Euros each.

FB Heliservices already operate the AW139 as part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School, specifically for Search and Rescue (SAR) training. They are also operated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Agusta Westland AW149
Agusta Westland launched the AW149 in 2006 and is a slightly larger and more ‘military’ version although this might be a little too large, veering into NH90 country, with associated cost increases. This may be a more suitable type depending on cost factors.

If introduced it would be ideal if a Rolls Royce RTM322 engine could be detuned and fitted as this would mean engine commonality across the helicopter fleet, excepting the Chinook, the costs savings would be considerable. If not feasible, then the existing Pratt and Whitney PT6C engine could be replaced with the LHTEC CTS800 engine that has been fitted into the up engine Lynx AH9A’s and will be fitted into the Wildcat. We have already paid for a number of them so it would make sense to re-use if possible.

This would leave a decision on the Royal Navy Wildcat, in my zeal to create a coherent fleet it would get the chop as well and be replaced with a maritime variant of the AW139. Although long term savings would be considerable, the short term cost should not be underestimated and I wouldn’t hazard a guess what the creation of a maritime variant of the AW139 would cost although all of the systems could be transferred from the Wildcat design. If this were not feasible the RN Wildcat design should be retained.


Moving beyond the current fleet problems and lack of airframes for operations, a coherent, long term strategy for helicopters is needed to ensure future operations can be met without having to scramble for solutions, short term decision making and costly stop gaps.

The only way to do this is with a long term investment plan that provides industry and the armed forces with the confidence to prepare and make appropriate investments.

Agusta Westland have been a controversial choice for many years and their performance has often left much room for improvement but if we are to maintain a national capability to design, manufacture and maintain helicopters then we must accept their place and ensure that good performance is appropriately rewarded and where poor performance is in evidence, appropriate penalties applied. If we absolutely have to maintain helicopter manufacturing in the South West then we would have to insist they were manufactured in the UK, rather in Italy.

A few quick ideas;

  • Stay with the Chinook in the medium to long term
  • Replace Sea King and Puma with tail fold Merlins
  • Cancel Wildcat and replace existing Lynx and Gazelle with AW139/149
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11 Responses

  1. Your conflating a lot of issues in your post.

    I totally support your idea and call for “coherence” in the helo fleets. However you keep referring to the Lynx Wildcat as a “medium utility” type – it is not, it is a sensor and weapon carrying “armed reconnaissance” helicopter. The original CONOPS was for the Wildcat to operate in front of the Apache teams to find, fix and relay targeting data to the Apaches. Weapons were primarily for self defence. This is similar to the way in which the U.S. Army uses its OH58D Kiowa Warrior. This is why the Gazelle is not being replaced, the Gazelle used to be the scout for the TOW armed anti-tank Lynx’s.

    The Lynx AH MK9 LBH (Light Battlefield Helicopter) is the Army’s light utility variant. This it what you should be comparing to the AW139 / 149 family.

    However you are right to question the Wildcat, and its value for money. Would it make more sense to purchase additional Apache’s (and bring this fleet to a coherent standard?). An Apache with its radar, some drop tanks and reduced self protection weapons load is a well protected and well equipped sensor platform for armed scout and recce work. If necessary buy additional Apache’s without the radar (making them cheaper) and work them into the fleet with the radar equipped variants.

    So what would the army gain by introducing the Aw139/149 (which is a great piece of kit by all due accounts) over re-fitting the Lynx AH 9 with CTS 800 ? It does not really matter now, as its too late to change on that decision.

    A maritime AW139/149 would be great to replace the Lynx, which is sometimes a little small for dropping boarding parties etc. But, if all the Wildcats went to the Navy, then the RN would have a considerable fleet, including the old Lynxes already flying. Some could maybe even be fitted with a modern light weight dipping sonar for better ASW capability for new ‘cheap’ ocean patrol vessels (Future Surface Combatant – Capability 3).

    As for consolidating on the AW101 Merlin – not just for Puma / Commando SK replacement, the should also replace Sea King AEW – get rid of all the old Sea Kings completely to get towards that more ‘coherent’ fleet !

    So how about:
    RAF – Chinook and Merlin (heavy and medium support)

    Apache – (armed scout/recce, attack, anti-tank etc)
    Lynx Mk9 – (light battlefield utility)

    Merlin – (ASW, AEW&C, Command medium support)
    Lynx / Lynx Wildcat – ASuW, ASW, and general utility

    I am all for replacing Lynx with AW149, but what is the real requirement and where would the money come from ???

  2. “So what would the army gain by introducing the Aw139/149 (which is a great piece of kit by all due accounts) over re-fitting the Lynx AH 9 with CTS 800 ?”

    1. The army would gain an aircraft that would be capable of lifting a full infantry section in addition to having two door gunners, rather than the part section and single gunner carried by Lynx.

    2. Global spares availability and ecomies of scale from a very large production run(who else is going to buy the Wildcat?).

    3. Availability of attrition replacements from civilian sources that can be modified, as opposed to buying new ones from AW.

    4. AW139’s can also be sold on the civillian market when the MOD has finished with them, which means the MOD can get some money back. Who’s going to buy a second hand Wildcat? (see 3)

    I could go on, the forces that have recently purchased from AW (South Africa and Algeria) stick to using the Lynx in the maritime role and have chosen the AW109 for the light battlefield role.

    There is also the inherent problem of inter-service rivalry to consider, as anything bigger than the AW139 starts to resemble a support helicopter, and the RAF wouldn’t want the AAC treading on their toes. Unfortunately the RAF appears to have very big feet in that regards. In this sense the AW139 simply offers a greater capability per aircraft at a more competitive price compared to the Lynx, that is what the army would gain.

    My choices would be:

    RAF – Chinook/Merlin

    AW139 (light battlefield utility)
    AW109 (recce)

    Super Lynx 300

    Where would the money come from? Scrapping Wildcat and buying the Super Lynx 300 for the Navy would save a kings ransom for starters.

  3. Thanks Jed, excellent comments as ever.

    Can I answer them in no particular order?

    Where would the money come from, good question and one to which I don’t have an answer except to say that a long term investment in fleet coherence would be a wise investment and avoid having to be backed into various expensive corners as we have been recently. I guess its about priorities.

    I know the original CONOPS for Wildcat was as a Battlefield Recce Helcopter (BRH) but this was born from the Battlefield Light Utility and Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft requirement. So the BRH evolved because of cost and contractual issues not military utility. I think there is much less of a need for anything to find targets for AH because it does a pretty good job of that for itself, previously it would be working alone, seeking out armoured targets and then fair enough, a separate recce platform might be useful. However, with the advent of UAV’s and more extensive ISTAR across the board this becomes less of a requirement so it is something that is looking for a role, in reality the Wildcat will do many of the roles of the BLUH except it will be massively gold plated and not very good at them, the worst of all worlds. The sesnor fit for the Wildcat isnt that brilliant anyway.

    The Apache is carrying out many tasks that are better done by a light/medium utility type and being knackered in the process. This leaves us with the Mk9’s which will go out of service as the Wildcat comes in, at the same time as the Gazelles also go out. This is a massive reduction in numbers although the Gazelle is hardly used now.

    I like your idea of replacing Wildcat in the BRH role with stripped down Apaches but does the Longbow radar add that much to the capital or running costs and the Longbow has proven very useful in operations in Afghanistan. Would this be good value for money given the Apache line wopuld have to be restarted at Westlands.

    In binning the Wildcat and going for a 139/149 the AAC would finally get a cab that can lift a fully equipped section, a light gun or light stores that would have a reasonable sensor fit at a cost that is a fraction of what Wildcat is.

    Thanks for highlighting the Sea King AEW, forgot about those but I think the MASC programme will reccomend Merlin with the Cerberus mission kit from the existing airframes.

    Sorry for rambling!

  4. Just random thought here, but why do we need a medium frame?

    Would a “light” helicopter, big enough to carry a field gun or infantry section be big enough to have mission specific fits, so we could basic light utility frames, and then add sonar and depth charges to some, radar and anti ship missiles to others ect.
    That way every light helicopter would be broadly the same, following the same helicopter service procedure and requiring the same parts, and just bits of mission specific kit would require specialist repair.
    Can a sonar and operator just be bolted on to the frame, plugged in and be good to go?

    We could then have the heavy lift fleet, again, a basic frame capable of carrying a platoon and kit or a light tank, and specialist units that operate the same basic frame, but with extra equipment bolted on for specialist roles. Presumably you could launch one off a carrier with a pretty hefty sonar and weapons load, or fit a well equipped operating theatre in one.

    Along with Apache of course, which is a different issue really.

  5. Ha ha, this is turning into another interesting thread, although I believe we are all violently agreeing with one another really…. :-)

    Richard – A109 for recce – no way ! Which variant ? If all you need is a modern day Gazelle, fair enough, but I don’t think there is a version that can lift a useful sensor and self defence (weapon and ECM fit, like DIRCM) load with a decent endurance and the ‘hot and high’ performance to play nicely in the sandbox.

    AW139 civvy airframe plus military comms and ECM could maybe be a cheap replacement for Lynx AH 9 in the LUH role – but if you start to add too much kit it becomes the AW149 and I am not sure that is quite so cheap ?

    I have no issue with Wildcat be replaced by earlier / cheaper Super Lynx 300 variant for the jolly RN though……

    Admin old chap – has the Longbow really been that useful in Afghan ops ? I have heard great things about its usefulness in de-conflicting airspace when U.S. Apaches, UAV’s and fixed wing assets have all been jostling around the same target set – but surely the upgraded ArrowHead EO/IR sensor suite would be more useful for searching out a “section” of insurgents in the hills than the radar ?

    DominicJ – why would we need an ASW version of a heavy lift helo ? Merlin is pretty darn good at that job and its only a “medium” platform.

    It sounds like your desirable heavylifter would be more CH54 Skycrane than Chinook – I am all for developing a Skycrane variant of the new super-super-Jolly CH53K, ditch all the weight of a cabin and carry special modules (or light tanks !) as required :-) There was a U.S. site dedicated to this somewhere (Airland Assault?), with a model of CH54 Skycrane modded with wings and the Pisecki fan tail for more thrust, but I cant find the link, sorry !

  6. Perhaps we need a post on what we actually need each category of helicopters to do, types should follow I suppose.

    As a starter for 10

    Heavy Lift
    Palletised stores
    Underslung stores
    30-50 pers
    Artillery and ammunition resupply

    Medium Lift
    Palletised stores
    Underslung stores
    Light Vehicles
    20-30 pers
    Light Artillery
    Joint personnel recovery (C/SAR)

    Light Utility
    Infantry section with full kit
    Infantry support weapons movement (ATGW, SF GPMG, Mortar etc)
    Underslung stores
    Command personnel movement/Liaison
    Light stores (spares, ammo, water, fuel etc)
    Route recce
    Radio relay
    Supporting AH

    Convoy and Support Helicopter escort
    Close air support
    Anti armour attack

    Surface and sub surface attack
    Light lift
    Supporting amphibious operations


  7. “DominicJ – why would we need an ASW version of a heavy lift helo ? Merlin is pretty darn good at that job and its only a “medium” platform. ”
    It was just part of my probably loopy attempt to remove the need for a medium helicopter

    From the list posted by Admin
    All the medium seems to do that isn’t replicated by the others is C/SAR, which I wouldn’t imagine cant be done by the light ones.

    That leaves attack and maritime, which presumably could be the same frame as the light helicopter, as most other nations do, or another type, like we have with Apache.

    This is turning into a ramble.
    The CVRT is a family of seven vehicles that all use the same basic design.
    A single light helicopter design should be able to function as a section transport, field gun transport, recon, light supply, submarine warfare platform, surface warfare platform.

    Then a much larger helicopter for transporting a platoon, palletised cargo or vehicles.
    Again, same basic design for all heavy helicopters, but they then have specialised modules fitted.

    Do we really need Seakings, Merlins, Pumas and Chinooks?
    Across the services we seem to have another 8 Helicopters lighter than those.

    Well this went on a bit, I’m to tired to go back and see of any of this makes sense, I’ll repost in the morning if its gibberish

  8. After some sleep and a re read it appears I’m agreeing with what everyone else said.

    3 basic frames, heavy, medium, light.

    Designed as cheap, spacious frames, to then have specialist equipment mounted at a later date.

    So all three services use the same light helicopter, with the same parts, and the same maintenance regime.

    They each then have their own specialist kit attached, so the Army would have an AW13/49 thats just a basic frame, for a medical evacuation, it would have a strecher and a basc medical fit, for transport it would have two door guns and some seats (or not), an attack role would have a radar/laser and a cannon/rockets/missiles, along with basic frames for light lift
    The Navy would have some with dipping sonar and torpedos/depth charges and some with radar and anti ship missiles, along with some basic frames for light lift for operations from frigates I’d guess.

    Again, a single medium frame, the merlin, which i identical for the three services, but has specialist kit adopted for certain rolls, seats, cargo handling equipment, ASW, ASuW, which the Navy would operate off Destroyers.

    Then finaly a heavy helicopter, currently chinook but evently CH53, again, all three services get the same basic frame, but it can have rollers for palletised cargo, or seats for troops ect.

    The Apache operates in its own little world, but when its serivce life ends, we could look at converting the light helicopter into a dedicated gunship, or not.

    There, I think I understand the issue now, sort of.

  9. DominiJ – are you a tad fixated on the categorisation of light -> medium -> heavy ?

    Just playing devils advocate, but what constitutes the definition of “light’ ? For example a Gazelle is considerably smaller, simpler (single engine) and “lighter” in max unloaded and max TO weight than a Lynx (twin engined).

    As was noted in the original post, if you consider the AW139 to be at the light end of the spectrum, once it morphs into the heavier AW149 it is starting to overlap a little with NH90 and moves into the ‘medium’ category.

    So actually, my take on your theory is get rid of “light” not medium ! We are ditching the Gazelle. I believe the RAF leases the A109’s used for comms / liaison / VIP transport (but I could be wrong on that). The Navy leases commercial transport helo’s to support Flag Officer Sea Training activities. And the joint Helo training setup uses leased cab’s too.

    As previously mentioned in one of the posts about consolidating on the Merlin, it was noted that to lift threat warning sensors, active countermeasures, armour and defensive weapons, you need to constantly move towards a larger platform to provide these essential survivability traits. In which case standardising on an AW149 variant as our ‘lightest’ platform, at the ‘light’ end of the medium part of the spectrum appears to bring more to the game than ditching medium in favor of light.

    For UK based support activities (and maybe Gib and Cyprus ?) why not continue with the leased Griffon’s or lease a Eurocopter EC…….. (whichever one the U.S. new LUH is based on).

  10. After some further reading….

    I did kind of start to think, maybe a Merlin sized thing could be used as a large section transport, and light could go on to mean really light, like tv nation news helicopter.

    But then came to the conclusion that this is actualy bloody complicated.

    A helicopter with two door gunners and enough room for 8 men plus kit is actualy a pretty big piece of kit.
    I think I should probably bow out at this point.

  11. well i think the army should replace its gazelles with the Merlin or puma or aw139 simply because there huge and would be perfect for heavy loads and troops and i think we should buy the super lynx 300 for the light and recce role and give the Merlin the lynx’s role of medium load

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