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 All existing Army Lynx’s will be replaced by Lynx Wildcat and all Gazelles will be withdrawn with no replacement.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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