Helicopter capability - Defence Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Our inquiry

1. We decided to inquire into helicopters in October 2008, in the light of the forecast reductions in the size of the fleet in the medium term. Operational experience has firmly established the value of helicopters to a wide range of operations. Indeed, an operational deployment without helicopters would now be very much the exception. Therefore, we wanted to establish whether the forecast reduction in numbers of helicopters would lead to a reduction in overall capability. We soon found that the meaning of 'helicopter capability' varied with its use, and could be used to describe everything from the efficiency with which helicopters are maintained to the operational effect that they produce in-theatre. We set out these different definitions in greater detail below, explain how they relate and how, to some extent, they are interdependent.

2. We announced the terms of reference for our inquiry on 12 March 2009, and we received written evidence from the MoD, industry and learned societies. Before holding oral evidence sessions, we visited the military bases at Middle Wallop and RNAS Yeovilton on 6 May 2009. We spoke to a wide range of personnel from all three Services, from those at Joint Helicopter Command in charge of all battlefield helicopters to the maintenance crew responsible for keeping deployed helicopters in the air. Our visit to Middle Wallop and Yeovilton proved invaluable and we record our thanks to all those involved. Our discussions that day have informed our oral evidence sessions, and indeed, this Report. On 19 May 2009, we took evidence from representatives from industry. On 2 June 2009, we took evidence from the Armed Forces, the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support (Quentin Davies MP) and officials.

Why helicopters?

3. In its written memorandum to us, the Royal Aeronautical Society describes helicopters as "one of the most versatile and ubiquitous of military platforms".[1] The RAeS notes further that "from its early roles in medical evacuation and tactical transport, the helicopter has evolved into a formidable offensive aircraft, as well has emerging as a powerful element in the provision of tactical heavy lift."[2] The Minister confirmed in evidence to us that, for the Armed Forces, "Helicopters are absolutely key assets. We could not contend with the challenges in insurgency and counter-insurgency operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan without helicopters."[3] Put simply, helicopters are key enablers for the Armed Forces to do their job. Recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have required extensive use of helicopters, in particular to avoid the threat from roadside Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a practice developed in response to the threat from IEDs in Northern Ireland. Helicopters are not, however, invulnerable. In Afghanistan, the threat from small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns is very real. The risk is mitigated through a combination of defensive aids suites (DAS) and advanced flying tactics, but in a case such as a casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) in a hostile environment, the decision taken by a Commander to deploy a helicopter is still finely balanced and requires a great deal of skill and nerve from the pilot and air crew.

4. As well as being an enabling force, helicopters are widely recognised as a force-multiplier that is, a force element which increases the effectiveness of others on the battlefield. In its memorandum, the RAeS argues that "theatre forces without the tempo, mobility and reach provided by helicopters are likely to have to be larger to achieve the same aims and would operate at a higher level of risk."[4] Rear Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, Commander of the Joint Helicopter Command, told us that helicopters could "deliver tempo to the ground force commander; in other words, they can ratchet it up or down, manoeuvre and put in fresh troops without breaking contact."[5] Furthermore, the roles played by helicopters are an effective counter to the challenge of so-called 'hybrid warfare', a term coined by Frank Hoffman, an American academic. Hybrid warfare is a mix of conventional and unconventional methods of warfare, which may vary from day to day or even hour to hour. In a recent speech at the 2009 Air League Slessor Lecture, Major General Barney White-Spunner, Commanding Officer of 3rd (UK) Division and former commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, described the role played by helicopters in meeting the challenge posed by the combination of conventional and unconventional tactics. Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt described how the modern insurgent "can move at will; he can exploit the dense urban environment and terrain; he can use the local infrastructure and transport facilities to hide, plan, attack and escape at will and use it to his own advantage in dislocating our own forces".[6] His view was that "the battlefield helicopter is the perfect antidote to the hybrid warrior in the sense that the agility, flexibility, versatility and potential lethality of a battlefield helicopter counter the apparent advantages of the hybrid warrior".[7] This has all been brought to the fore by recent events, and has necessitated a very public explanation of what the Government sees as being the role of helicopters in current operations in Afghanistan.

5. The blurring of the hi-tech and more primitive methods in insurgency operations is mirrored to some extent by the convergence of tactical roles played by the helicopters themselves. Older helicopters have adapted to the hybrid battlespace: Chinook, for example, provides both 'heavy lift' of troops and kit and CASEVAC as described above. Newer platforms such as the Apache have been designed with the convergence of tactical roles in mind. Contributing to Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) has become a key task for all helicopters.[8] There are also good cost and efficiency arguments for multi-role helicopters. The large number of types and variants of helicopter in use within the UK Armed Forces leads to inefficiencies and increased costs.[9] The MoD's current plans include the consolidation of several 'legacy' platforms into the Future Medium Helicopter, an issue which arose several times in the course of our inquiry. We were also made aware of the value of the helicopter for the maritime commander, especially in its potential for extending the reach of frigates and destroyers. Helicopters provide many vital capabilities to the modern Armed Forces and, with the challenge of hybrid warfare, are becoming increasingly relevant to current and contingent operations. Their status as force-multipliers lends further weight to their value. They are a cost-effective means of increasing the operational impact of other force elements and therefore, of operational capability generally. As such, it is essential that the fleet should be 'fit for purpose', both in terms of quality and quantity.

Helicopters in the UK Armed Forces

6. Each branch of the Armed Forces operates helicopters, which are classified by the capabilities they provide.[10] The MoD identifies three 'core' types: support, find and attack, and search and rescue. Support helicopters, responsible for moving equipment and personnel, are further classified by the 'Maximum All Up Mass' into heavy lift, medium lift and light.[11] Find and attack helicopters differ between the maritime and battlefield environments. On land, targets range from buildings to machine gun emplacements. At sea, helicopters are equipped to locate and attack vessels on or under the water. As further evidence of the convergence of roles, military search and rescue is carried out by both find and attack and support helicopters.[12] Operational control of battlefield helicopters is devolved to the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). JHC was established in 1999 in order to bring a joint approach to the provision of battlefield helicopters from each of the three Services. It is responsible for the operational control of the Royal Navy's Commando Helicopter Force, the Army Air Corps, and the Royal Air Force's medium and heavy lift fleets.

7. The Royal Navy maintains a maritime patrol capability through two marks of Lynx (Mk 3 and Mk 8) and one of Merlin. The Sea King Mk 7 is used for Airborne Surveillance and Control, and has recently been deployed to Afghanistan. In addition to this 'grey' helicopter fleet, the Royal Navy provides the Royal Marines with an airborne capability through the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF). The CHF uses two marks of Sea King (Mk 4 and Mk 6c) and one of Lynx (Mk 7). The Mk 4 Sea Kings are deployed on an enduring basis in Afghanistan, and the Lynx operate alongside the Lynx flown by the Army Air Corps. Within the UK, the Sea King Mk 5 is used by Search and Rescue.

8. The Army Air Corps provides find and attack capability on the battlefield. Two marks of Lynx (Mk 7 and Mk 9) are used for reconnaissance, direction of fire, light troop transportation and command support. The Apache attack helicopter was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, since when it has played a critical role in supporting operations through close combat attack. The Gazelle fleet is being run down as it is no longer fit for overseas deployment, but retains some utility for certain training and support tasks in the United Kingdom.

9. The Royal Air Force supplies the backbone of the support helicopter fleet. The medium and heavy lift aircraft used for moving troops and equipment around the battlefield are the Chinook Mk 2/2a, the Merlin Mk 3/3a and Puma. In the UK and Falklands, the Sea King Mk 3 provides a Search and Rescue capability. The demand for increased flying hours from the Chinook fleet has led to improved in-theatre support arrangements being developed. Above and beyond the now-standard Integrated Operational Support (IOS), the MoD and Boeing have collaborated to develop a system known as Through Life Capability Support (TLCS) for Chinook. David Pitchforth of Boeing told us on 19 May that "When we took that [TLCS] on three years ago we contracted for 12,000 flying hours of Chinook. The RAF had never achieved 12,000 hours at the point when we took over the contract. We are now heading towards 16,000 hours with a target of going even higher than that in the future."[13] In our second evidence session on 2 June, Commodore Russ Harding, Head of Equipment Capability (Air & Littoral Manoeuvre), added that he "and perhaps others sitting here need to look at the other forces because the Chinook model that I hold up needs to be replicated in other places. We need to see how we get that sea change in doing that".[14]

10. Following the drawdown in Iraq, Afghanistan is set firmly as the focus of the MoD and Armed Forces' efforts. One consequence of placing that mission on a 'campaign footing' is that what helicopter assets the UK has there are intended to remain for the foreseeable future. Co-ordinated by Joint Helicopter Command, they are tasked by a Commander Joint Aviation Group in order to produce operational effect for the Commander of Regional Command South.[15] Although "the lion's share of the British helicopter capability" goes towards supporting Task Force Helmand, the capability is held centrally along with those provided by other nations in order to maximise flexibility for operations.[16]

11. Afghanistan's hot and dusty conditions prove very challenging for helicopters designed for use in Europe, the Arctic and sea operations. We were told that serviceability rates were good, but that the older helicopters "find it harder work and more of a challenge than the others, specifically the Sea Kings."[17] It is essential that available flying hours are maximised, and to this end the Sea Kings have been fitted with new rotor blades and a five-rotor tail, which has improved lift. Maintenance issues are central to in-theatre capability. The Minister told us that he was "interested in outputs rather than inputs; I am not interested in counting platforms but buying capabilities."[18] This question of 'inputs' arose the week after our second evidence session of this inquiry, when we took evidence as part of our inquiry into The Comprehensive Approach from Brigadier (retired) Ed Butler, a former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan. He explained that the threat from IEDs in Northern Ireland had forced the movement of personnel into helicopters. In 2006 he had advised that deploying more troops to Afghanistan without a commensurate increase in the amount of tactical lift would lead to severely reduced mobility.[19] Significant improvements have been made to the availability of key assets such as Chinook. However, in the longer term, increased availability will be no substitute for additional capacity. Adequate capability is also a question of numbers of airframes. We will return to this later in our Report.

1   Ev 48, para 2 Back

2   ibid. Back

3   Q 147 Back

4   Ev 49, para 4 Back

5   Q 134 Back

6   Q 131 Back

7   ibid. Back

8   We are inquiring separately into The contribution of ISTAR to operations, and will hold further oral evidence sessions in the autumn. Back

9   Q 153 Back

10   Ev 56, paras 1.4-1.16 Back

11   Ev 55, para 1.2 Back

12   UK based search and rescue is delivered by Mk3/3a and Mk5 Sea King. Back

13   Q 61 Back

14   Q 196 Back

15   Qq 94-95 Back

16   Q 96 Back

17   Q 102 Back

18   Q 171 Back

19   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Committee on 9 June 2009 for it's inquiry into The Comprehansive Approach, HC (2008-09) 523-i, Q 79 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 July 2009