Helicopter Capability: Government response to the Committee's Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09 - Defence Committee Contents

Annex A

1.   The Response to the Report addressed the concerns raised by the Committee in terms of fleet size. However, less reference was made to availability in terms of task lines required and fulfilled. What is the Government doing to ensure that, in addition to sufficient numbers of helicopters, there are sufficient trained pilots and ground-crews available in order to enable these assets to be used to their full capacity?

Currently, the Helicopter Forces within the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) are either manned to the endorsed (funded) level of establishment or will achieve the required level of manning within the next 18 months. This will allow the sustainable delivery of the required number of Rotary Wing platforms, task lines and flying hours in Afghanistan, including the planned delivery of uplifts in Merlin and Chinook in 2010 which we have already announced. Importantly, achievement of the endorsed establishments will also deliver the appropriate Force readiness cycles laid down by Commander JHC.

2.  You state that by April 2009 the number of helicopter hours in Afghanistan had increased by 84%. When was the baseline for this increase?

The baseline for percentage increases in both helicopter numbers and helicopter flying hours increases is November 2006.

3.  Is it the case that the flying hours and availability dropped off over the summer? To what extent do you estimate that the re-engined Lynx Mk9s will reduce the summer drop-off in 2010?

Due to degraded performance resulting from Afghanistan's summer environmental conditions, Lynx helicopters have since 2007 only deployed during the winter; as a result there has been a comparative hours reduction in the summer. The Lynx Mk 9a, with improved engine performance, will allow the aircraft to operate during the Afghanistan summer and deliver a year round capability.

4.  To what extent are you able to make full use of civilian helicopters, given their relative vulnerability?

Civilian helicopters are fully utilised to deliver logistical support within the context of the operational situation. Improvements to future contracts will increase utility and efficiency, but they will remain constrained by their vulnerability to hostile action. Commercially contracted helicopter support ensures that military aircraft with their range of defensive aid suites and ballistic protection can concentrate on the completion of military tasks for which they are best suited.

5.  How certain are you that the Sea King LEP will go ahead? When can a decision be expected on the nature of the investment to be made in this project? To what extent are you hoping this programme will reduce the dip in the numbers of lift aircraft owned by the MOD between now and 2020?

For the reasons highlight in response to question 7 (below) we are unable to retire our Sea King Mk4 immediately, without impacting our ability to undertake current operations. We have however decided to significantly reduce our planned investment in this fleet, and now plan to retire all marks of Sea King by early 2016, ensuring that we avoid any disproportionate increases in costs that might arise if the fixed costs of supporting the Sea King fleet were then to be shared across fewer aircraft.

We own today 38 Chinook, 28 Merlin, 37 Sea King Mk4 and 34 Puma lift helicopters (not including the nine Puma that are now non-effective and the eight Mk3 Chinook currently under reversion). Only the Chinook, Merlin and those 16 Sea King Mk4 aircraft that have been upgraded with the 'Carson' main rotor blades and new tail rotors are suitable for operations in Afghanistan, i.e. 82 helicopters. Obviously only a percentage of these could be deployed given our need to undertake depth servicing, and essential training to ensure our crews remain current and ready to deploy within our harmony guidelines.

Previously published plans would see us operating in the battlefield support helicopter role, by 2020, 48 Chinook, 28 Merlin, 28 Puma and around 28 Future Medium Helicopters, i.e. a total of 132 aircraft, all would likely be suitable for operations in Afghanistan. The plans we announced in December decreases slightly this number (to 126 aircraft) but significant increases the overall lift capacity and capability by focusing investment in more capable Chinook helicopters; Chinook offers more than double the lift capability over a medium support helicopter. We believe that this new approach best balances the need for aircraft numbers, the individual capabilities of those aircraft, and the number of hours we can operate them for.  It must be remembered that each of these aspects is important—there's no point having lots of aircraft that are unsuitable for the demanding roles we require of them.

6.   What level of investment has been made in the Puma since 1990? Would this money have been better spent on buying new Merlin or Chinook airframes to add to the existing fleet?

Between 1990 and the recent commitment to the Puma upgrades we have spent some £60M-£70M on capability enhancements to the Puma fleet. This level of investment would equate to the acquisition of about three Merlin helicopters or about two Chinook helicopters. These very modest additions to our existing Merlin or Chinook fleets would have been insufficient, by a considerable margin, to have delivered the roles and requirements assigned to the 34 aircraft Puma fleet.

7.   Can the MoD provide the Committee with a detailed summary of the evidence upon which the decision to go ahead with the Puma LEP was based?

The planning assumptions for the Future Medium Helicopter project were for deliveries to start in Financial Year 2014/15 and then continue at a rate of six aircraft per annum thereafter.  This would allow the retirement (after their respective life-extension projects) of Sea King Mk4 in 2018 and Puma from 2022. Without new investment, however, we would need to commence the withdrawal of these aircraft types from 2012. It is simply not practicable to deliver the required number of new helicopters by 2012 due to manufacturing, financial, training and logistic constraints.

Our discussions with a number of helicopter manufacturers indicated that industrial capacity potentially existed to provide 20 new aircraft by the end of 2012, with all new 56 aircraft being delivered by mid 2015. To achieve this however would require an additional £500M-£800M over the next four years above the funding already available to helicopters.  This additional funding could not be found without detrimental effects elsewhere across the Defence Programme.

Within the current funding profile assigned to the sustainment of the Puma and Sea King Mk4 and the delivery of the Future Medium Helicopter project, we could only afford to buy a maximum of seven new helicopters by the end of 2012, with up to 18 helicopters delivered by mid-2015.  This approach would create a substantial gap in lift helicopter numbers from 2012 until at least 2017 that, at its worst would reduce support helicopter Forward Fleet numbers by up to 40%.  Such a shortfall would reduce the numbers of support helicopters we could deploy on operations from 2013 for at least 5 years and would create a significant shortfall against the current requirement in Afghanistan.

We concluded, therefore, that within available resources we needed to sustain either the Puma or the Sea King Mk4 if we were to avoid an unacceptable impact on operations. Of these two types our plans for Puma will deliver a much more capable aircraft with significantly improved performance, modern avionics (such as a state of the art navigation and radio systems) and automatic digital flight control system. We therefore concluded that investing in Puma to extend its life and deliver a step change in its capability was the best means by which we can avoid a significant reduction in Battlefield Helicopter capability from 2013 onwards.

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