Helicopter capability - Defence Committee Contents

3  Aircraft and support



22. Table 1 in the MoD's written evidence to us sets out the helicopters currently in use with the Armed Forces.[39] Of the types of helicopter in service, several have subset marks. There are, for example, four different marks of Lynx, three of Merlin and five of Sea King. Beyond this, as additional equipment is added through the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process, the coherence of the fleet is reduced further, which impacts upon how easily they can be maintained. Mr Nick Whitney of AgustaWestland told us that

    Where you get problems I think is when you modify smaller batches of aircraft within those fleets. That is when you get the problems in terms of support. You get a different mark of aircraft and this is particularly relevant when you are on operational deployment and you are looking to fit certain pieces of equipment for operations that you will not fit to the rest of the fleet. That can give difficulties in terms of support and maybe training and other areas and lines of development.[40]

23. Several of the organisations which submitted written evidence to us argued that a fleet with fewer types of helicopters would be more capable, easier to support and cheaper to run. The Society of British Aerospace Companies wrote that "a fleet which consists of a wide variety of aircraft is likely to incur significant costs in terms of maintenance and support. A more standardised fleet maximises value for money and introduces broad cost savings across all the lines of development."[41] This point was echoed by Mr Nick Whitney of AgustaWestland in oral evidence, when he said that

    There is a fixed cost associated with operating aircraft. The more aircraft you have, the more you spread that fixed cost across your fleet. Equally, the points you raise about having small fleets, the training burden and the additional cost that that incurs, the problems that that incurs can all be solved by having reduced numbers. You need the budget to be able to make that happen.[42]

24. The MoD is planning to reduce the number of different helicopter types through a programme of retiring some obsolete models and consolidating others. The introduction of Future Lynx will reduce the number of Lynx helicopters from four sub-types to two, and plans for a 'Future Medium Helicopter' (FMH) will, if proceeded with, consolidate Sea King Mk 4 and Puma into one type with battlefield and maritime marks. Other helicopter types such as Chinook and Apache have plenty of life left in them and can have their OSDs pushed back through a mixture of capability sustainment (CSP) and life extension (LEP) programmes. Enclosure 1 to Section 2 of the MoD's written memorandum to us illustrates the current plans for the provision of helicopter capability in the medium term.[43]


25. If the life of one type of useful platform can be extended by replacing and upgrading particular parts at a reasonable cost, then it is entirely sensible as a general principle. There are, however, cases when life extension programmes are not the right choice. During the inquiry into Future Capabilities conducted by our predecessor Committee, the then Chief of the Air Staff (now Chief of the Defence Staff) Air Chief Marshal Stirrup said that

    In terms of the 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.[44]

26. The MoD currently plans to extend the lives of the Puma and Sea King Mk 4 fleets, in order to bridge the gap between now and the introduction of FMH between 2017 (for the maritime version replacing Sea King Mk 4) and the early 2020s (for the battlefield version replacing Puma). We raised specific concerns with industry witnesses on 19 May with reference to the proposed extension to the life of the Puma fleet. Answering the general question of how the decision to extend a legacy airframe or not is taken, Mr Nick Whitney from AgustaWestland explained that

    Industry will have a requirement to upgrade an aircraft and we will upgrade that to within the design specification that is laid upon us. That may or may not prove possible. If you require full crashworthiness on an old aircraft that may not be possible because physically the structure is incapable of being upgraded to that point.[45]

27. On the specific question of the Puma LEP, Mr Derek Sharples from Eurocopter told us that the project would "see the aircraft re-engined; new avionics systems; new digital autopilot; it will see new engine control systems; new tail rotor blades; a strengthened tail."[46] These improvements would undoubtedly make Puma a better helicopter, but would not affect the aircraft's crashworthiness and aspects of survivability. At our second session on 2 June, the Minister said that he "did not like the sound" of using crashworthiness as a factor, as he "would not dream of flying any helicopter that we were not absolutely certain was as safe as it possibly could be".[47] This sounded to us as if the MoD had begun to share our doubts as to whether extending the lives of both Sea King Mk 4 and Puma would really be a sensible course of action to take, taking account of the age of the Sea King and the survivability of passengers in the Puma in the event of an uncontrolled landing. The Minister admitted that proceeding with the LEP would result in "extended exposure to risk"[48].

28. The Minister acknowledged this possible risk when he revealed that in fact, he had

    asked for a complete re-examination of this matter which admittedly is at the eleventh hour. It does not mean to say that we are to go in a different direction; we may go back to the model that I have just set out which is the formal position of the department today. We do not have any consents from the Treasury or anywhere else to go in any other direction and I may not seek them. It may be that we shall decide to go in another direction even at the eleventh hour but we shall do it without holding up matters at all, so we shall take decisions very rapidly. The alternative, which I want to ensure we fully explore, is the possibility of dispensing with the need to spend the taxpayers' money on upgrading aircraft which have reached a certain age. The Pumas must be 30 years' old."[49]

He went on to expand on this statement, saying that what was being discussed was "bringing forward the future medium helicopter procurement which would then certainly need to be done on a modified off-the-shelf basis".[50] If it went ahead, it would "not be quite a UOR but possibly not the rather laborious full-scale classic international tender which up to now has been the policy and formally remains the procurement policy for the future medium helicopter".[51] Finally, he said that he wanted "to make absolutely sure we have fully explored the alternative before we sign contracts. In any event we shall be signing contracts in the course of this year."[52] While we are grateful to the Minister for raising with us his uncertainties about the decision to extend the life of Puma, we do not feel that we were given the full picture on this issue by other witnesses. We very much regret this.


29. In 2004, the National Audit Office produced a report on Battlefield Helicopters in which it calculated that there was a 38%. deficit in available helicopter lift, which would continue until 2017/2018.[53] Over the course of our inquiry, it became evident that the biggest long term challenge was in the support helicopter fleet. The deficit emerges in the form of the Sea King Mk 4 and Puma fleets. Battlefield lift is predominantly provided by the RAF in the form of Puma, Merlin, and Chinook. The CHF provides the Sea King Mk 4, which is capable of both battlefield and seaborne amphibious support. Over the next ten years, numbers of Mk 3 and 3a Merlin are expected to remain the same, as long as the Capability Sustainment Programme is agreed to. If the Chinook fleet suffers no losses, it too will remain the same, but will be augmented by the addition of the eight 'reverted' Chinook Mk 3 procured in the early nineties.

30. It is worth noting that, even with the LEP, there is a serious question mark over whether Puma, even in its upgraded form, would be of limited utility in combat operations. Given the age of both Sea King and Puma and the poor survivability of the Puma, extending their lives at considerable cost is not the best option, either operationally or in terms of the use of public money. We do not believe that these LEPs will provide adequate capability or value for the taxpayer. Only a procurement of new helicopters can meet the original objective of reducing the number of types of helicopter in service within the UK Armed Forces.



31. In its written memorandum, the MoD explains that

    Whereas the Equipment Programme is designed to deliver long-term core capabilities that can be employed globally to meet a range of potential future threats, the intention of UORs is to adapt and respond quickly to unforeseen requirements specific to particular operational environments and emerging threats—for example as a result of the enemy forces' developing techniques, tactics and procedures.[54]

In our Report on Defence Equipment 2009, we concluded that "the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process has continued to prove highly effective in enabling vital equipment to be provided in quick time to our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq."[55] The helicopter fleet has benefited from significant improvements delivered through the UOR process, for example:

  • the fitting of improved Defensive Aids Suites;
  • the upgrading to 'Carson' rotor blades on the Sea King Mk 4;
  • the fitting the Merlin Mk 3 with the British Experimental Rotorcraft Programme (BERP) Mk 4 blades;
  • the addition of Display Night Vision Goggles to the Sea King Mk 4 and Merlin Mk 3; and
  • the upgrading of the engines of 22 Lynx Mk 9 with the Rolls-Royce T800 engine.[56]

32. All of these are welcome. The National Audit Office notes that "[n]one of the helicopter types were designed specifically to undertake missions in hot and dusty countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan",[57] and furthermore, that "[t]he mountainous nature of Afghanistan also means that helicopters are forced to fly at higher altitudes where the air is thinner and greater engine and rotor-blade performance is required."[58] The improvements to rotor-blades and engines will doubtless decrease the frequency of occasions on which it is simply too hot to get a helicopter off the ground with the required load on board, but it remains to be seen just how much of a difference it makes over the hottest part of the year.

33. Over the course of our written and oral evidence-taking, two primary concerns on the issue of UORs emerged: the first, their impact upon coherency, and the second, the question of 'theatre-entry standards'. SELEX Galileo drew attention in its written memorandum to the procurement of Defensive Aids Suites (DAS) as an example of a time when a less disruptive strategy could have been adopted.[59] In her evidence to us, Dr Beatrice Nicholas from SELEX Galileo explained that she believed the specification for the UOR was "often interpreted extremely narrowly", which had implications for future coherency.[60] We raised the question of the impact of UORs upon coherency and the creation of so-called 'fleets within fleets' with the Minister, and he admitted that

    UORs always do raise the issue of coherence because the theory is that you are buying something for just one particular campaign and operation and may not want to have it as part of your core defence capability. That is the theory of it, but in practice you may well say that there are other insurgency-type operations in similar conditions and that something you have purchased for one particular UOR ought to be kept in permanent inventory and you should maintain the support, spares, training and so forth accordingly.[61]

34. The question over theatre-entry standards arose in the course of our visit to Middle Wallop and Yeovilton. Both air and ground crew told us that there were significant differences between the aircraft available in the UK for training and familiarisation and those deployed in-theatre. However, when we put this to the Minister, he went to great length to assure us that

    [I]t is an absolute principle when we buy new equipment under the UOR, apart from the core defence programme, that we buy sufficient number to ensure people can be trained on exactly that type of equipment. This goes across the board; it is not just helicopters. We always specify the numbers and amounts of equipment we need to procure taking into account the training programme so we do not have anybody going out to theatre who has not been trained on the type of equipment, whether it is weapons, communications equipment, armoured vehicles or what have you, with which they will then be working in Afghanistan. In the best run organisation something sometimes may just fall between the cracks. I trust that has not happened on this occasion. We will pursue it. That is an absolute principle. Sometimes I have expressed frustration because we cannot get more of something out into theatre—I will not say what it is—and I am told, "No, Minister; we really need this number here for training." We have that dialogue the whole time. We take the training requirement very seriously and do not want our men and women to go out to Afghanistan and run any risk at all because they are suddenly confronted with something on which they have not already been properly trained. It is an absolute principle that before we send anybody out to a war zone they are given the best possible training on exactly the kit they will use in theatre.[62]

35. We welcome the Minister's assurance that he is committed to minimising the difference between the equipment standards on an Apache in the UK and an Apache in Helmand. The MoD should commit to making training aircraft as close to the theatre-entry standard as is affordable, and we realise that this might be achieved by fitting improved systems on training aircraft in the United Kingdom or by teaching key pilotage techniques on unmodified aircraft.


36. The MoD's relationship with the helicopter industry is described in the Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS)], published in December 2005.[63] In our Report on Defence Equipment 2009, we recorded that "[a] key objective of the DIS was to move to a Through Life Capability Management (TLCM) approach to acquiring and managing defence equipment programmes",[64] but noted that "some industry representatives have raised concerns that the TLCM approach has not been fully embedded".[65] We took evidence on both the current status of DIS and TLCM in the course of our inquiry.

37. It was clear to us from the evidence that we took that Industry's position on DIS is best characterized as anticipatory. It was striking both how easily industry referred to DIS in the past tense, and how there seemed to be consensus that a new version was necessary. Mr David Pitchforth told us that Boeing, which works with the MoD on the highly successful Chinook TLCM programme,

    embraced the Defence Industrial Strategy as a good thing, which gave clarity to industry; and we have invested because of it and we would actually like to see that strategy reinvigoured and picked up and moved forward again so we can continue to use it as a roadmap to how we should be engaging with the Ministry of Defence.[66]

He later added that

    I think there is another version of the Strategy which is imminent, I guess, and we would be interested to know what that says about some of these other points that would need addressing.[67]

38. This perspective was consistent with the written evidence submitted by the RAeS which expressed concern that "ambiguity in the Defence Industrial Strategy and associated Defence Technology Strategy might lead to a long term erosion of the UK's rotorcraft defence technological and industrial base."[68] The recent Ministerial reshuffle within the MoD saw the return of Lord Drayson as Minister of State for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, with responsibility for Defence Acquisition Reform, Defence Science and Technology and the Defence Industrial Strategy. Whether this indicates a revitalisation of the long-awaited DIS 2.0 remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that any progress on DIS will be completed before the Minister's deadline of "the end of the year" for signing contracts on either the medium-lift LEPs or a modified-off-the-shelf-FMH substitute. We were concerned to hear from industry that the Defence Industrial Strategy, so far as it relates to helicopters, needs to be 'picked up and moved forward again'. The loss of momentum in relation to the Defence Industrial Strategy may lead to significant acquisitions in this sector taking place without sufficient reference to the DIS. This would be regrettable if it prevented greater rationalisation of helicopter types for the reasons we set out above. We urge the MoD to avoid this if at all possible.

39. On the positive side, closer working between the MoD and industry has proven highly beneficial. Integrated Operational Support and Through-Life Capability Management have both paid dividends in terms of available flying hours. Mr Nick Whitney from AgustaWestland explained to us that "[w]ith the new contracting methods, there is incentivisation on the industry to improve the product through-life. Previously that has not happened […] These long-term support contracts equally allow that to happen with much greater urgency and much greater effect."[69] He concluded that "[b]usiness needs predictability; and the Ministry of Defence obviously needs flexibility and it is a balance. I think the IOS arrangements allow us to strike the right balance with improved value for money."[70] Mr David Pitchforth gave us an example of the benefit that Boeing had been able to deliver, when he said that "[w]hen 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."[71]

40. An additional benefit of IOS and TLCM is the opportunity it provides for contractor staff to work in-theatre as part of a CONDO (Contractors ON Deployed Operations) scheme. Mr Paul O'Hara from Rolls-Royce explained to us that "[i]f you have deployed service engineers forwards with the units that are actually utilising the equipment you can actually stop something that would be coming back and therefore could be quite a costly rejection."[72] Dr Beatrice Nicholas from SELEX Galileo described CONDO operations as "very motivating for our staff".[73] Mr Declan O'Shea told us that Vector Aerospace had

    people in Afghanistan as we speak. In December we were requested to assist through the project team and Boeing with people in Afghanistan and in early March we deployed eight people to there. We did the proper due diligence, the duty of care and we asked for volunteers and got many people who volunteered and we rotate those every four months for as long as we are required there. Certainly it is a motivational issue for our staff; they feel that they are part of the system that is being deployed. They see the aircraft in action as well as in the hangars and we are delighted to be involved in it.[74]

41. At our second session, Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt confirmed that the Vector team was "making a tangible difference".[75] On support, closer working between the military and industry through IOS and TLCM programmes is clearly the way forward. We were impressed by the reports we had from companies of CONDO operations, particularly with regard to their consequences for process improvement and cost effectiveness through early interventions. We encourage the MoD to capitalise upon lessons learned from the success of the Chinook Through Life Capability Service programme.


42. One area where support has struggled, however, has been in the provision of spare parts. The NAO recorded in its report on Support to High Intensity Operations that shortages of spare parts were particularly affecting Merlin and Apache, as "[t]he initial procurement of spares for both helicopters is still being delivered from industry and as a consequence there are some key components in short supply."[76] This led to the MoD having to cannibalise helicopters based in the UK—a decision very much of last resort—in an effort to keep those helicopters deployed on operations in the air. Mr Derek Sharples from Eurocopter told us that "[i]t is quite common for 80% of all spares to be on stock for more than three years and never called. So you have a very small number of high rotating parts, and a very large percentage of slow movers."[77] Mr Nick Whitney from AgustaWestland explained why these shortages had arisen, when he told us that

    I think the simple answer why is that there are insufficient spares that have been procured in first instance. We are operating aircraft in theatres that are more challenging than the assumptions that were taken. If you certainly take the case of Apache, it is fielded in theatre many years ahead of that which was planned. Inevitably you work on the basis that you are going to have an increasing training and flying burden, and you plan your spares procurement around that accordingly. In the instance of Apache you ramp that up, as a result of the conflicts that we are currently in, significantly above that which was planned.[78]

43. The NAO wrote in its report that the MoD judged that "the benefits of deploying Apache early outweighed the risk posed by the lack of spare parts."[79] The urgent action being taken within the MoD to improve the acquisition and delivery of spares to all helicopters in theatre needs to be given top priority.

39   Ev 60, table 1 Back

40   Q 6 Back

41   Ev 46, para 3.1 Back

42   Q 8 Back

43   Ev 70 Back

44   Defence Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2004-05, Future Capabilities, HC 45-II, Q 223 Back

45   Q 42 Back

46   Q 46 Back

47   Q 160 Back

48   Q 161 Back

49   Q 157 Back

50   Q 159 Back

51   ibid. Back

52   ibid. Back

53   National Audit Office, Battlefield Helicopters, HC 486, Session 2003-04, figure 13 Back

54   Ev 75, para 3.27 Back

55   Defence Committee, Third Report of Session 2008-09, Defence Equipment 2009, HC 107, para 29 Back

56   Ev 75, para 3.30 Back

57   National Audit Office, Support to High Intensity Operations, HC 508, Session 2008-09, para 1.18 Back

58   ibid. Back

59   Ev 40, paras 13-17  Back

60   Q 82 Back

61   Q 180 Back

62   Q 186 Back

63   Ministry of Defence, Defence Industrial Strategy, CM 6697, December 2005, pp. 90-94 Back

64   HC (2008-09) 107, para 196 Back

65   ibid., para 197 Back

66   Q 57 Back

67   Q 59 Back

68   Ev 50, para 13 Back

69   Q 24 Back

70   Q 61 Back

71   ibid. Back

72   Q 77 Back

73   ibid. Back

74   Q 92 Back

75   Q 94 Back

76   National Audit Office, Support to High Intensity Operations, HC 508, Session 2008-09, para 1.17 Back

77   Q 14 Back

78   Q 19 Back

79   National Audit Office, Support to High Intensity Operations, HC 508, Session 2008-09, para 1.17 Back

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