138. It became apparent during our Lessons of Iraq
inquiry that the Joint Helicopter Force had faced a number of
significant challenges during the combat operation. In its report
on battlefield helicopters, published in April 2004, the NAO stated
that there was an overall shortfall in helicopter capability of
38 per cent. General Jackson argued that this figure was set against
'an absolute ideal whereby for every scenario we have, every helicopter
would be there in its full theoretical quantity'.
A more realistic assessmentrecognising 'that you are not
going to be doing everything at once'produced a shortfall
of around twenty per cent.
139. We would have expected MoD to have been keen
to take steps to reduce a capability shortfall of twenty per cent,
especially in view of the assertion that 'helicopters provide
a key capability in the battlefield and maritime environments,
and their flexibility means they contribute to the majority of
the Military Tasks'.
We were therefore surprised that Future Capabilities contained
a proposal to reduce overall helicopter numbers in response to
the improved security situation in Northern Ireland. Given the
shortfalls in the overall helicopter fleet, it would have seemed
more sensible to have redeployed those helicopters. Air Chief
Marshal Stirrup, however, argued that simple redeployment might
not be the most effective response:
, of course, talking about Pumas
are scheduled to go out of service. In terms of
overall efficiency of the helicopter force, the sooner we can
reduce the overall numbers of types, the more output we will get
from the force as a total. It is not just a case of extending
old types in service to meet the requirement, that is not necessarily
the most efficient way of doing it.
We appreciate the force of this argument in theory.
In practice, however, it depends upon progress being made more
broadly towards modernising the helicopter force. According to
Future Capabilities, the Government plans to 'invest some
£3 billion in helicopter platforms to replace and enhance
140. Air Chief Marshal Stirrup, who admitted to being
'very concerned' about the pressures which recent operations have
placed on helicopter crews, told us that MoD had 'set in hand
a comprehensive study to look at our future rotorcraft needs'.
That was in October 2004. Future Capabilities (published
in July 2004) stated that the substantial proposed investment
offered 'an opportunity to maximise efficiencies and coherence
across our future helicopter fleet,' that MoD had been working
with industry 'to review thoroughly both our capability requirements
and our forward plans' and that MoD aimed to report on progress
with this work 'in the next few months'.
141. In February 2005 MoD told us:
This is a complex programme of work and we need
to make sure we give due weight to the full range of capability,
affordability, and industrial issuesas set out in our Defence
Industrial Policy. We hope to have a clearer idea of the way forward
towards the summer of this year.
So 'the next few months' appears to have turned into
a year, and capability requirements and forward plans have turned
into 'a clearer idea of the way forward'.
142. MoD also told us:
The Department is at present testing existing
capability requirements to ensure the right balance between land
and maritime lift, reconnaissance and attack capabilities to provide
a robust force structure for the future. This work is well underway
and is being conducted by an Operational Analysis Working group
and a Requirements Working Group. The output of these groups will
inform the programme and identify opportunities where common equipment
and approaches to training and support could provide whole life
This seems to suggest that there is still some way
to go to establish what the future helicopter requirement might
be. But General Jackson was quite clear on what he wanted for
the land environment:
We need a battlefield reconnaissance helicopter,
whatever that may look like and whoever may eventually make it,
as I say, I am not your expert witness there, but I am quite clear
about that role. If it has a small utility aspect to it as well,
ie it is big enough to carry a small command group, that is a
great help. Without doubt, the Army in the field needs lifthow
much lift and the way in which that lift will be delivered and
which aircraft will do it, again these are procurement decisions,
but in terms of making the land component work, that is how I
see the helicopter requirement.
143. Future Capabilities describes helicopters
as providing 'a key capability in the battlefield and maritime
environments'. We are concerned that that recognition of their
operational value does not seem to be matched by the priority
or urgency which MoD gives to their future procurement plans.