Helicopter capability - Defence Committee Contents

2  Defining capability

The four-legged stool

12. The 'METS principle' describes capability as the combination of Manpower, Equipment, Training and Support. Within the JHC, an analogy has been drawn between helicopter capability and a four-legged stool. In evidence to us, Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt explained that, for the purposes of planning for between 15 and 20 years of sustainable capability on operations, each leg of the stool (people, support, training and aircraft) "must be as strong and as long as each other; otherwise, the stool will fall over."[20] He added that "there are strengths and fragilities in each stool depending on the aircraft type we are talking about, but one leg that is probably the least robust is the people", by which we took him as meaning manpower levels.[21] We found this analysis persuasive.


13. The Rear Admiral's identification of people as 'probably the least robust' did not come as a great surprise. Manning is not a challenge exclusive to the helicopter fleets, but we did learn that the frequency with which personnel are being deployed to high-intensity operations is having an effect on retention. Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt told us that "The manning situation as a whole for all our crew—air crew, ground crew and engineers—is okay and we are managing, but we are at maximum stretch and there are hot spots in certain areas depending on the fleet we are talking about."[22] He identified Apache pilots and engineering technicians as areas in particular need of improvement. Although each of the Services have different harmony guidelines, the JHC has its own, "a rule of five, so it is one on four off".[23] Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt instituted the 'rule of five' "because it was sustainable and robust and I could guarantee that with 20% on operations and 80% doing other things I could ensure that was a robust, enduring capability at this tempo for the next 15 to 20 years."[24] The JHC harmony guidelines reflect both the high level of activity and commitment to training and leave, both of which are essential for the purposes of performance and retention. To illustrate the consistently high level of activity, the Chinook fleet has been on operations almost continuously for 25 years.

14. The intensity and tempo of current operations create great demands in terms of support, and keeping helicopters serviceable and available for operations is a key challenge for the MoD to face. Closer working with industry is, by all accounts, paying dividends, but problems do exist with, for example, the number of spares for certain newer helicopters. The National Audit Office's report on Support to High Intensity Operations states that over the last two years the MoD has delivered "on average 5% above its target for serviceable helicopters to support operations" but that this has come at the cost of "availability of United Kingdom-based helicopters since 2006 [being] on average 11% below the Department's target, reflecting the priority the Department gives to equipment deployed on operations".[25] Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt commented to us that "we talk about ourselves being on what we call a campaign footing. My focus has been exclusively on delivering success in Afghanistan and Iraq."[26] Such prioritisation is entirely appropriate, but it should be noted that the stretch placed on resources is such that delivering increased capability to theatre is not without cost.

15. One such cost is in the time, manpower and aircraft available for training, particularly larger-scale or more demanding training scenarios. The particular areas identified in the course of the evidence we took where current tempo is impacting upon training were littoral (ship to shore) manoeuvre and large-scale amphibious operations. Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt said that being able "to land and take off from moving decks in rough seas by day or night" was a "core capability because if necessary we need to do that come what may. We are just keeping the flame alive in that sense, but we need to work at it."[27] It is very difficult to practice moving of large numbers of Royal Marines from sea to shore at a time when demands on their time, and of the necessary helicopters, are so great.

16. This leads to the fourth leg of the stool: the helicopters themselves. Much of the debate around the issue of helicopters takes—as we have done—as its starting point the forecast reduction in the size of the fleet. In its written memorandum to us, the MoD attributes the reduction to "changes in the way the Department delivers battlefield capabilities".[28] The MoD gives three examples. The Gazelle, a light helicopter, has an out of service date (OSD) of 2012 and will not be replaced. The MoD has 22 Gazelle in the fleet. The Search and Rescue Sea Kings (Mks 3/3a and 5) will be replaced by a joint PFI with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Lastly, the MoD points to "changes in technology and support solutions […] which allow us to provide greater capability with fewer helicopters or through the use of other assets such as UAVs."[29] The MoD bases its plans for the configuration of the Department's future helicopter fleet on "an assessment of the optimum mix of platforms (both helicopters and other non-rotary platforms) to meet capability requirements."[30]

17. Each of the steps intended to improve the operational capability of helicopters as set out in the MoD's memorandum are quite sensible. However, none of them account for the quite substantial reduction in medium and heavy lift, namely the support helicopters which move troops and equipment around the battlefield. We make an assessment of the future of the support helicopter fleet in the next chapter.


18. The MoD suggests in its memorandum that (in some cases, at least) it will be possible to deliver "greater helicopter capability with fewer helicopters".[31] This rather counter-intuitive type of argument is often brought up during discussions of military technology in terms of firepower. Indeed, the Minister gave the example of the comparison of a Lancaster bomber with a Joint Strike Fighter.[32] He went on to ask

    Does it mean that eventually we can have just one or two combat aircraft or helicopters in operation? Of course not. There comes a point when the graph begins to curve rather sharply and you no longer get advantage by replacing numbers with improved technology and effect.[33]

We are glad that the Minister recognises that improved technology, whilst welcome, is only part of helicopter capability. We set out the three elements of capability in the table below.Table 1: Three elements of helicopter capability
Capability Description
Individual The technical specification of the helicopter, as expressed in terms of its ability to lift, move (in terms of range and speed), and fire (if applicable). In this sense, as technology improves, newer types of helicopter become more capable. Individual capability can be increased by upgrades and new procurements.
Corporate The ability of the helicopter fleet to support the operations of the UK Armed Forces. It depends on two things: the type capability of the constituent helicopters and the numbers in service and 'effective'. Together with individual capability, corporate capability is the 'input' of helicopter capability. Corporate capability is increased by increasing the size of the effective fleet.
Operational The ability of deployed helicopters to contribute to operations, or the Minister's 'outputs'. Typically expressed in terms of availability or 'flying hours', operational capability is increased through improving the support arrangements for helicopters through, for example, closer working with industry, greater availability of spare parts or by having more ground crew able to maintain them.

What is 'more'?

19. Brigadier Abraham told us that "Helicopters are like money in your bank account. If you are asked whether you would like some more the answer is always yes. Do you have enough to do what you have to do? The answer is yes."[34] However, 'what you have to do' is a very flexible concept, and several highly credible sources have made clear that the current lack of tactical lift is limiting operations. In its report on Support to High Intensity Operations, the NAO expands on the Brigadier's point, stating that "In Afghanistan, senior commanders on the ground have sufficient helicopters to undertake their key tasks, but greater availability of these helicopters would give them more flexibility in the planning of deliberate offensive operations."[35] During our inquiry into readiness and recuperation, Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb KBE CMG DSO, Commander Field Army, told us that "if I were a commander in Task Force Helmand and had another five Chinooks I would have a chance to manoeuvre in another way."[36] This may appear to be a mere truism, but over the course of our inquiry we have sensed that senior commanders have been reluctant to admit that manoeuvres in-theatre are in any way being limited by the size of the deployed fleet. In other words, Brigadier Abraham's statement is only true up to a point. The MoD insists that all that is needed is to squeeze a bit more availability out of the fleet and increase the flying hours. However, its duty to make the best use of public money means that the MoD should be doing this anyway - striving to improve availability and efficiency for their own sakes, irrespective of the benefits.

20. We raised the question of numbers and tactics with the Minister, who responded that

    I agree that there are certain minimum numbers that you tend to need for any particular tactical purpose, but I do not agree that two airframes are always better than one. For example, I do not suppose for a moment that two Gazelles are better than one Apache. That would be crazy. One Apache is probably better than 10 Gazelles.[37]

Such a suggestion would indeed be crazy. It would also be a category error, confusing the discrete questions of individual and corporate capability. In its written memorandum, the RAeS argued that "one helicopter can only be in one place at any one time so a reduction in total numbers of helicopters deployed represents a dilemma for a field commander."[38]

21. We do not believe that the question of helicopter capability can be properly answered without reference to the size of the fleet. We are concerned that operational commanders in the field today are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations. We are also concerned that operational commanders find they have to use ground transport, when helicopter lift would be preferred, both for the outcome and for the protection of our forces. Furthermore, we are troubled by the forecast reduction in numbers of medium and heavy lift battlefield helicopters, which will make this worse. We have an additional concern in respect of the apparent lack of training that is taking place for amphibious operations.

20   Q 128 Back

21   ibid. Back

22   Q 108 Back

23   Q 109 Back

24   Q 114 Back

25   National Audit Office, Support to High Intensity Operations, HC 508, Session 2008-09, para 1.16 Back

26   Q 122 Back

27   ibid. Back

28   Ev 58, para 1.22 Back

29   ibid. Back

30   ibid. Back

31   Ev 58, para 1.22 Back

32   Q 178 Back

33   ibid. Back

34   Q 138 Back

35   National Audit Office, Support to High Intensity Operations, HC 508, Session 2008-09, para 1.21 Back

36   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on 3 February 2009 for it's inquiry into Readiness and recuperation of the Armed Forces, HC (2008-09) 122-i, Q 103 Back

37   Q 177 Back

38   Ev 49, para 5 Back

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