Helicopter capability - Defence Committee Contents

4  People and training



44. We noted previously Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt's identification of people as the 'least robust' leg of the 'capability stool'. The deployment of personnel on operations is governed within each of the services by 'harmony guidelines', which aim to provide sufficient time within an extended cycle to cater for operations, training and leave. Each of the services have, largely for historical reasons, different guidelines. We were told that not all fleets were achieving the JHC target of a 'rule of five', that is, one tour on followed by four tours off. The Sea King and Apache fleets are currently operating on rules of three and four, which does not allow for adequate decompression, training, leave and preparation for the next tour. Nor has the pressure of repeated deployments been without consequence in terms of retention. Nevertheless, the Admiral told us that he had found that

    Retention is not as bad as I thought it would be. At the moment, compared with the service averages in the Army and Royal Air Force it is very small. We talk about the premature voluntary release (PVR) rate; in other words, the rate at which people resign earlier than they would otherwise. For the Army and RAF it is a fraction, which is surprising. For the Navy it is slightly higher than the average for officers and about average for the other ranks.[80]


45. In evidence, the Minister told us that he had been consulting with regard to "what we can do to improve retention and recruitment and we are making some substantial changes in those areas".[81] This was something that the Admiral had already alluded to in his earlier evidence

    We are also looking at ways to retain our senior NCO air crew who are gold dust with massive hours of experience and are fabulous pilots. We are looking at ways to improve their pay scales and pension rights to encourage them to stay on longer than they might otherwise. In terms of the engineering shortages again we are looking across all three services and all my fleets at the moment. It is interesting that the Royal Navy and Air Force are overmanning us in terms of our engineering support in order to enable us to cope with the gaps and shortfalls, but that means drawing people from the rest of their core area. As far as the Army Air Corps is concerned the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers are helping us by doing a review—the Apache, Lynx and also UAVs are our top priority—to make sure we get them fully manned as best we can.[82]

46. Rear Admiral Simon Charlier, who told us that "[w]hen we have surge operations, particularly in this joint environment, it is quite right to place a priority on that and take the hit elsewhere in the Navy."[83] Operations in Afghanistan have now been made the highest priority, what is known as a 'campaign footing', but this has stretched the manning of the helicopter fleet. It is therefore unfeasible to surge helicopters into theatre. Joint Helicopter Command is to be commended for its efforts in delivering trained manpower to the front line, and then giving personnel sufficient time to do all the things at home that enable them to go back for repeat tours. However, we believe it essential that the parent Services examine the basic manning levels to enable personnel from all three Services to be deployed and rested on an equitable basis.



47. The MoD's memorandum states that the three Armed Services maintain full command of the recruitment and training of their helicopter personnel.[84] Aircrew applicants for all three Services are subjected to medical screening, aptitude testing and flying grading before attending a selection board.[85] All aspiring pilots begin with elementary flying training, first jointly for six weeks at RAF Cranwell and then for between 13 and 26 weeks with their 'home' Service, before being divided into either the Fast-Jet, Rotary or Multi-Engine streams. Rotary pilots then go on to the joint Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. In its written memorandum to our inquiry into Recruiting and retaining Armed Forces personnel, the MoD wrote that "the situation with Support Helicopter crewmen is also finely balanced, although action taken recently to streamline the training regime has released crewmen to the front-line earlier".[86]

48. The early stages of pilot training have been "the subject of several reviews".[87] Training at Shawbury comprises a combination of Ground School and flying training—all pilots are trained in both Single Engine Basic Rotary Wing and Single Engine Advanced Rotary Wing flying, with RAF pilots being given further training on Multi-Engine Advanced Rotary Wing—before transferring to Operational Conversion Units, where they are trained on the specifics of the aircraft they will fly in theatre and in the tactics and techniques required to support the full range of flying required of a helicopter pilot. Having completed OCU, pilots are designated 'Limited Combat Ready', and progress to full 'Combat Ready' whilst with their Units. Training for technicians is far more diverse, and covered in detail in the MoD's memorandum.[88]


49. The question of the difference between the aircraft that are used for training in the UK and those equipped with all the latest UORs which are deployed in theatre arose during our visit to Middle Wallop and RNAS Yeovilton. We described this problem in the context of the UORs earlier in this Report, where we also noted the Minister's commitment to minimise the gap. We also took evidence on this issue during our session with industry. On the question of the difference between training and theatre-entry standard aircraft, Mr Derek Sharples from Eurocopter told us that "it would not be cost-effective to use the same aircraft for training, in particular for basic training, as is used front line, because of course these are very expensive and sophisticated weapons systems."[89] However, he seemed later to concede that some familiarity would be beneficial, saying "you should where possible familiarise on systems which are similar to those you will operate in-theatre. It is clearly cost-effective; it is clearly more efficient training; and it clearly brings to the pilot more familiarisation with the systems that they will ultimately be asked to operate in battle."[90] This point was echoed by Mr Alex Sharp from Sikorsky, who commented simply that "the more commonality you have in training, clearly gives you benefits in the field - no question".[91] Increased joint working between the three Services has shown benefits in the same way that increasingly close working between the military and industry has done. We recommend that the MoD presses ahead with its programmes to consolidate and make more common the various schemes in place for training helicopter air and ground crew. The MoD should take steps to eliminate the time lag between delivery of UORs in theatre and the upgrading of equipment at home. In this respect, it is unacceptable for personnel to encounter new equipment for the first time in theatre.

80   Q 111 Back

81   Q 195 Back

82   Q 109 Back

83   Q 116 Back

84   Ev 71, para 3.2 Back

85   ibid., para 3.3 Back

86   Defence Committee, Fourteenth Report of 2007-08, Recruiting and retaining Armed Forces personnel, HC 424, Ev 106 Back

87   Q 125 Back

88   Ev 73, paras 3.15-3.26 Back

89   Q 8 Back

90   Q 10 Back

91   Q 11 Back

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