Helicopter capability - Defence Committee Contents

Memorandum from SBAC (Society of British Aerospace Companies)


  1.1  SBAC is the UK's national trade association representing companies supplying civil air transport, aerospace defence, security and space markets. SBAC encompasses the British Aviation Group and UKspace. Together with its regional partners, SBAC represents 3,000 companies across the UK supply chain.

  1.2  Aerospace is one of the few successful and globally competitive manufacturing sectors of the UK economy, with a turnover of £19.8 billion in 2008. The aviation sector in the same year contributed £15 billion to UK GDP, accounting for 1.1% of the overall economy. The aviation industry supports 700,000 jobs.

(A)  The current and future size and structure of the helicopter fleet.

  2.1  The current fleet of helicopters operated by the UK's armed forces stands at 524 aircraft (excluding aircraft leased by the forces) and consists of Lynx, Merlin, Sea King, Chinook, Puma, Gazelle and Apache aircraft. The Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), formed in 1999 operates the battlefield helicopter resources of the three military Services under a single command with the intent to provide a flexible and potent helicopter capability. The Royal Navy continues to retain its own maritime orientated helicopters primarily for the protection of its surface fleet. UK Search and Rescue also sits outside of the JHC and is co-ordinated by the RAF from the Air Rescue Coordination Centre at RAF Kinloss.

  2.2  The aerospace industry in the UK is both the major supplier of and provider of support to helicopters operated by the UK armed forces. AgustaWestland is the largest rotorcraft manufacturing and support company in the UK and in 2007, EADS/Eurocopter acquired McAlpine Helicopters Limited to form Eurocopter UK. Many UK companies are an important part of the supply chain with companies such as Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ, Lockheed Martin UK and Cobham playing a major role in maintaining and upgrading helicopters.

  2.3  Commanders in the Armed Forces often claim that they do not have sufficient helicopters, industry shares this concern and is also concerned that the existing fleet provides the wrong sort of capability. Prior to the creation of the JHC helicopters for the armed forces were largely procured according to individual services requirements. They were also procured according to the challenges presented by the Cold War. The change through the 1990s and since 2000 in the typical operating theatre means that increasingly machinery has to operate in very hot temperatures, and sometimes at very high altitudes. There is also increasingly a need for helicopters to carry large payloads over large distances. It is highly unlikely that these demands will decrease in the future. Flexibility should be prized in order that in future helicopters are procured which are able to perform a multitude of tasks across the three services.

(B)  Current procurement and maintenance projects

  3.1  Presently the Armed Forces operate some ten different helicopter types. 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.

  3.2  The system of Integrated Operational Support (IOS) for helicopters has been developed jointly by AgustaWestland and the MoD over the last five years and has has resulted in more cost effective maintenance for the MoD as industry is incentivised to achieve high levels of aircraft availability and fixed maintenance costs, with more of the risk being taken on by industry. The central role of partnering to improve the predictability of maintenance and reduce support costs was a cornerstone of the Strategic Partnering Arrangement signed by AgustaWestland and MoD in 2006, the SPA itself being an outcome of MoD's Defence Industrial Strategy published in 2005.

  3.3  Maintenance contracts such as the Integrated Merlin Operational Support (IMOS) arrangement are examples of agreements which place the emphasis on value for money. The contract terms are such that industry is rewarded for the number of flying hours the helicopters in question are able to carry out. This contributes to a better product for the forces and ensures that wherever possible, the maximum capability is made available.

  3.4  Partnering between MoD and industry increases the potential for successful strategic planning going forward. SBAC believes that there are also opportunities for closer links between civil and defence R&D, which would maximise value for money.

  3.5  The competition for the Future Medium Helicopter (FMH) is likely to represent the single largest MoD procurement of helicopters over the next decade. This will be an international competition for up to 70 medium class helicopters, typically between eight and 15 tonnes in all-up weight..

  3.6  As with many airborne vehicles the civil and the military aspects should not be viewed in isolation. Many of the distinctions between civil and military technology are blurred, for example many helicopters in use with the military are used as transport helicopters in the civil sector. Much of the technology in engine, rotor blade and airframes are dual use across both sectors.

  3.7  There is also significant export potential generated, with aircraft such as the Lynx and Merlin, now widely recognised as some of the best of their kind and as such are successfully exported.

(C)  The role played by helicopters on current operations

  4.1  The unique capabilities of helicopters are highly prized by armed forces across the globe. The role of the helicopter in combat scenarios has changed little since it was first employed, but broadly includes reconnaissance, medical evacuation, direction of fire in support of ground troops and are also frequently used by special forces.

  4.2  This range of capabilities is an excellent example of the value that helicopters can bring on the battlefield. The cost of helicopters should not be taken just in terms of procurement and maintenance costs but also the flexibility they provide for the Armed Forces.

(D)  The support structure underpinning helicopter operations

  5.1  The support that industry provides to the armed forces is vital in relieving pressure on them and allowing them to focus on operations. The support is not just in the form of maintenance on the assets themselves, but also in training on new and updated platforms.

  5.2  The Joint Modification Service was set up in 2008, To improve the planning and delivery of urgent aircraft modifications to the front line. To date, some 490 modifications have taken place since its launch. SBAC recommends that this activity is given priority so that the capacity in the supply chain is used most effectively. On the whole though this should be seen as a positive example of MoD and industry working together to save time and money and deliver improved capability to the front line.

  5.3  Since the first IOS contract was signed in 2005 much more responsibility has passed to industry. Under the terms of an IOS agreement the MoD sets a defined number of flying hours required and industry is required to provide the necessary number of aircraft to perform to that extent. The companies involved in the IOS contract are paid according to flying hours achieved and it is therefore in their best interests to maximise flying time and minimise faults in the aircraft—this in turn results in more consistently effective equipment for troops on the front line.

(E)  Summary

  6.1  UK industry plays an important role in keeping the helicopter fleeting operating. Helicopters offer unparalleled assistance and versatility on the battlefield and their contribution to operations should not be underestimated.

  6.2  A reduction in the number of different helicopter types would save money across the board. At present there are 10 helicopter variants in service which will incur considerable costs because of the variety of spare parts required to sustain such a fleet.

  6.3  Greater synergy between civil and military R&D, as well as long term commitment to R&D investment will help to drive costs down.

  6.4  Close long-term partnerships between industry and MoD have delivered cost savings and will continue to do so in the future, as industry has an incentive to provide airworthy helicopters for as many flying hours as the forces demand.

  6.5  Industry has a vital role to play in training the forces on new systems and upgrades to existing systems as well as the maintenance of aircraft.

9 April 2009

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