In a manner not seen since it came of age in Vietnam, Afghanistan has thrown a spotlight onto the vital role of the helicopter in fighting and winning modern conflicts. As part of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Ministry of Defence outlined their Rotary Wing Strategy – aiming to reequip and modernise the UK armed forces rotary wing fleet over the next ten years. Half way through that timeframe, MoD Defence Equipment and Support showcased their progress at RAF Benson – home of the modernised Puma HC.2.

When the SDSR is mentioned, first thoughts always jump to the losses in capability induced by the removal of service of types such as the Harrier GR.9 – and the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4. Less often spoken about are the successes implemented by the SDSR, and one of these is certainly the huge increase in capability to the helicopter fleets of the Royal Air Force, Fleet Air Arm and Army Air Corps. The Future Force 2020 concept envisages a core fleet of four types – Wildcat, Merlin, Chinook and Apache – with the Sea King, Lynx and Puma all eventually being withdrawn from service (although the Puma is also being sustained with a significant upgrade). Over the last year (2014-15) five separate helicopter variants have all reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC), and are now ready for initial military operational use.

Pete Worrall, the Ministry of Defence (Defence Equipment and Support) Chief of Material (Joint Enablers) is particularly proud of the progress made towards this goal so far and, as the then Director Helicopters in DE&S during the 2010 SDSR, he should be.

“I am especially pleased because on the instigation of the strategy, I was Director Helicopters and I remember us pouring over how we take the strategy forward, and there is nothing like taking a paper strategy and turning it into heavy metal for the front line – in this case metal that flies. I’d like to pay tribute to the people who made this possible because these things don’t happen overnight, especially when these helicopters are being delivered on or advance of time, and to budget. And that’s my own project team in DE&S that supports all these helicopters, comprised of both military and civilian personnel of all specialisms. The front line commands have been absolutely super customers helping us, helping to get the requirements right. To MoD HQ who supported us through the procurement process and certainly last but not least to our Defence Industry, who have been absolute stars supporting us on this journey, and they’re the ones who have to produce the product in the end. It has been a really tremendous joint effort to produce this success.”

Chinook HC4/5/6

As part of the Rotary Wing Strategy, the existing fleet of HC.2/2A and HC.3 Chinooks are being modernised under Project Julius, Project Benic and Project Baker. Integrated at the Vector Aerospace facilities in Fleetlands, Gosport, the Julius upgrade centres around providing a modernised cockpit based on the Thales UK TopDeck system. Project Baker seeks to enhance the defensive aid suite (DAS) of the Chinook with a new system from Selex ES, whilst Project Benic upgrades the communications suite of the aircraft.

In addition to the HC.4/4A/5 standard, 14 new build Chinook HC.6s are being delivered to supplement the fleet – of which 6 have so far been received. The first three were delivered in 2014 after completing flight testing at NAS Patuxent River. We asked Group Captain Richard Maddison, RAF Odiham Station Commander and Commander of the UK Chinook Force about the logistics issues with flying a mix fleet of legacy, Julius and new build aircraft:

“It’s not too bad – at the moment the pain is not so much the transitions, it’s operating the legacy cockpit with new cockpit ones, so we’ve had to decide when to make the transition – until you have enough of the new cockpit, you don’t want to convert too many people. So there’s been a balance, and we achieved the balance point in December last year (2014), and there was where we stopped converting pilots onto the legacy cockpit and now only train people on the new cockpit.
We let some instructors teach on both types, but once you’ve converted to the Julius cockpit, that’s it – you’re pretty much fixed. The difference between a Julius cockpit and an HC.6 is much less (than an HC.2/3 to Julius HC.4/5), so the displays and so on all appear the same. There are different buttons on the collective when you have the various modes, but actually when you fly it if you just try and do what you normally do in a Chinook, it’s just much easier. If you want to hold a hover, you just click a button and the aircraft holds a hover for you. If you need to move the aircraft down five feet you can click down five times and it moves the aircraft precisely five feet down. The extra bit that really comes in with the HC.6 is that because it’s better, how do we train to get the most out of that? We’ll have some HC.6s in California in about a month or so and we’ll be doing the dust landings and the other bits and pieces which have really been quite hard to do on an HC.4 – exploiting the HC.6 capability. We’ll just be validating our procedures that we’ve already written and defined, but we haven’t done it in heavy dust, so we’ll do that over there, and of course the HC.6 can precisely transition to the hover, hold a hover and do exactly what we want it to do, so we’re expecting it to be more good news as we’ve already been seeing.”
Initial Operating Capability with the HC.6 was announced in January 2015, defined as being three helicopters being ready for use. Although no variant lends itself to a particular role more than the others, Group Captain Maddison stressed the benefits of having a mixed fleet of long range (HC3/5) and standard range (HC2/2A/4/4A/6) aircraft:“At the moment if you’ve flown an HC.6, you’d pretty much always choose an HC.6 (for a given mission) because it’s just easier to use, and of course being a brand new airframe there should be less snags and airframe issues. The only exception would be the HC.3s having the extended range tanks. We can put extended range tanks inside the Chinook as well, but that takes up significant cabin space and the eight HC.3s have about 5,000kg fuel capacity just on those extra fuel tanks so can fly for five hours or so, and so they might be the preferred choice in some scenarios. When they come out of the HC.5 upgrade program with the Julius cockpit – and we expect they will have DAFCS as well (Digital Automatic Flight Control System), then you’ll have a Chinook that has very extended range, modern cockpit and the DAFCS control benefits – and probably in some circumstances that is the perfect Chinook. I say in some circumstances because with the size of those “fat tanks” on the fuselage, the downwash on them means that you need a fraction more power to hold a hover – but in most circumstances you might prefer to have the extended range and just use a few percent more power.””We’ve got an aircraft with the HC.6 that is easily air transportable. It’s based on the CH-47F model airframe, which in general does not come with the extended range tanks (although the Canadians have just bought some). It’s easier to air transport – you can break an HC.6 down to air transport in a C-17 very easily. In order to sustain the Chinook out to 2060, which is certainly our ambition to align with the US program, we’ll look again in the future at the balance between the extended range tanks and the standard tank configuration. Some people will say that extended range tanks are always what you need because you are forever going places and having the ability to do that quickly is good, but the truth is when you get to an area (like Helmand province), you’re going relatively small distances and so the other argument is you don’t really need the tanks, but could use the extra power – so a mixed fleet is definitely the way ahead.”

Once the HC.6 deliveries are completed, the final Chinook force in support of the Rotary Wing Strategy is expected to stand at 38 HC.4s, 8 HC.5s and 14 HC.6s – providing a force second only in strength to the US military.

Puma HC.2

One of the oldest rotary winged assets in the Royal Air Force, the Puma HC.1 reached its Out of Service Date (OSD) in 2012 – at which point it was withdrawn for a comprehensive upgrade process. The HC.2 model of the Puma was declared to be at Initial Operating Capability in February 2015 with six crews and aircraft ready for deployment to support worldwide operations. Of the 24 aircraft to be converted to the standard, 23 have been delivered back to the Royal Air Force and will be operated by 33 and 230 Squadrons.

Delivered by Eurocopter and integrated in facilities in France and Romania, the upgrade allows the aircraft to be retained in service until an anticipated OSD or 2022 – although this may well be extended to 2025, if not longer. The HC.2 upgrade provides for far more powerful engines (Makila 1A1s) which, although not new designs, still offer 35% more power and a 25% increase in fuel efficiency versus the Turbomeca Turmo 3-C4s which equip the HC.1 variant. Other noticeable upgrades include the transition to a full glass cockpit, bringing the 1970s era Puma in line with the 21st century digital equipped assets in the MoD inventory. Again as with other upgrades in the fleet, the Puma HC.2 receives a Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS), secure communications suite, passenger ballistic protection and a Helicopter Integrated Defensive Aids Suite (HIDAS) from Selex ES.

The Puma HC.2 marks its first operational deployment this month, with a detachment of the type heading to Afghanistan to support the ongoing withdrawal and drawdown of UK forces. Asked about the experience with the Puma HC.2 so far, Brigadier Neil Sexton – Deputy Commander Joint Helicopter Command – was very positive, and extolled its virtues above and beyond the HC.1 model:

“A fantastic airplane – very good value for money for the taxpayer and from the JHC perspective we’re really pleased that we are going to expand the force so that we can completely crew all 24 that we’ve had upgraded. It’s going to serve us very well in Kabul, Afghanistan where it’s just deploying, and will deliver a very good “non-combat” capability to move people around from the Embassy, for the British forces who are out there, and our NATO allies who are still there under Operation Resolute Support.

In addition, because it’s so deployable in the back of a C-17 and you can rebuild it in hours (not days) it’s exactly what we need for contingency operations – potentially for example in support of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and thirdly the Army has decided it’s exactly the aircraft it needs to go and live in with British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), alongside the Army that trains out there in five big exercises a year. It’ll deliver a CASEVAC capability but also to do the troop lift for which it’s very well suited. Even in Kenya at 6,000ft above sea level it will get a full complement of troops onboard with their kit, so a really capable aircraft. The old HC.1 out there was on the limits of its performance envelope and was not carrying a great number of troops in the back. The engines in this aircraft – and they’re not new, but they’re new to us – are a revolution and it gives us a very strong capability there, and anywhere else where it’s hot and high. There is also significantly better range endurance – you had 90 minutes approximately with the HC.1, which is significantly improved with the HC.2.We’ve now got a very good digital flight control system, which effectively allows you in the worst dust we could encounter, to land the aircraft safely using the system.”

So far the budget is for conversion of 18 frontline crews from the HC.1 to the HC.2, although this is expected to shortly expand to 26 crews to support the full post-conversion fleet – as well as the commitments to the BATUK operations in Kenya. Although the HC.2 is a different machine to fly from the HC.1 because of the extent of the upgrades, the mix of live flying training and synthetic simulator training has been extremely important in delivering the crew conversions on track.

Wildcat HMA.2/AH.1

Externally similar to the hugely successful Westland Lynx – from which it was developed – the AgustaWestland Wildcat is in fact an entirely new animal. Intended almost as a direct replacement for the Lynx, the Wildcat updates the Lynx capability with 21st century equipment – such as a full glass cockpit, new AESA radar for the maritime version, significantly more powerful CTS800-4N turboshaft engines, and a Bowman communications system. Around 95% of the aircraft is of a new design, with the remaining 5% being interchangeable with the current Lynx AH.7 and HMA.8 variants. The naval Wildcat HMA.2 was flown by 700W Naval Air Squadron during testing, as part of a Wildcat Fielding Team before being transferred to operational service with 825 Naval Air Squadron in 2014.

The Army Air Corps are standing up their variant of the Wildcat ahead of the Fleet Air Arm, and as such reached Initial Operating Capability of the Wildcat AH.1 in August 2014 with three helicopters and logistical support available for operations. 27 of a required 34 airframes has been delivered so far, versus 12 of 28 for the Royal Navy. The Naval Wildcat – the HMA.2 – has also since reached IOC in January 2015 with a single aircraft able to sustain prolonged operations for up to six months (such as deployment aboard a ship – the first such is expected to be aboard the Type 23 Frigate HMS Lancaster).

Apache AH.1

As yet, the Apache is the only aircraft of the expected 2022 fleet for which a firm upgrade plan has not been agreed. The Ministry of Defence is slowly progressing plans to either upgrade the current AH.1 fleet, or replace them with up to 50 latest generation AH-64Es and a decision on the approach to future Apache capability is expected in 2016, after a decision on an estimated £1 billion upgrade program was delayed. The total number of Apaches in service is expected to remain broadly similar – certainly the 2010 SDSR, upon which the Rotary Wing Strategy is based promised that the attack helicopter force would remain largely unchanged.

The Apache is expected to be one of the first Joint Helicopter Command assets available for use from the Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carrier after it first sails in 2017 – due in no small part to the operations already conducted with the type from HMS Ocean during the NATO Unified Protector operation in Libya. Many of the proposed updates to the type include provisions to increase the maritime capability of the type, such as floatation devices to help the aircraft float in the event of ditching.

Merlin HM.2

The Merlin HM.2 is a significant upgrade from the HM.1 variant, which had been in service since 1998. Produced by industrial partners AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin under the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MSCP), the upgrade seeks to annul potential issues with obsolescence of kit, and ensure the Merlin fleet remains a potent anti-submarine force and sustain the aircraft out to an anticipated OSD of 2029. Initial Operating Capability was declared from RNAS Culdrose in May 2014, with six aircraft available in support and to date, 19 of the required 30 airframes have been delivered back to the Royal Navy from upgrade. On completion of the upgrade, the Merlin HM.2 is equipped with a new glass cockpit and revamped mission system for the observers in the back. Interestingly, the rear mission system consoles can now be split in half to provide room for 12 patients in a CASEVAC role, or 16 combat equipped troops. Indeed, the aircraft was involved in the UK contribution to the Ebola crisis in Africa, embarking on the RFA Argus stationed offshore of Sierra Leone.

The Merlin HM.2 went through a rigorous testing phase in June 2014 under Exercise Deep Blue – which saw nine HM.2s deploy aboard HMS Illustrious to practise exercising the Merlin’s capability. With two Merlins airborne 24/7, the aim was to prevent Dutch and British submarines from breaching their anti-submarine cordon around Illustrious and it’s two escort Type 23 Frigates (HMS Westminster and HMS Richmond). During Deep Blue the Merlin fleet gained 480 hours of flying experience, and was approved to enter frontline use at the end of the month. The Merlin HM.2 is also in line to be upgraded to take over from the Sea King ASaC.7 under Project Crowsnest. Both Northrop Grumman and Thales have now flown their respective mission systems – with the former offering the Vigilance system (comprised of a pair of Elta Systems Actively Scanned Array Radars (AESA)) and the latter opting to adapt the Searchwater 2000 equipment currently installed on the Sea King.

Merlin HC.3/4

Although not a part of DE&S’ showcase event as it is not yet a “new capability”, the future of the Merlin HC.3 fleet is certainly worthy of note. The aircraft are transitioning to the Royal Navy to become part of the Commando Helicopter Force and will undergo a modification process to adapt them to that role. Brigadier Sexton was keen to stress that there is no loss of capability to Joint Helicopter Command because of this change, as the CHF falls within the operational control of JHC. The change will come in terms of quantity, with a smaller number of Merlins replacing the outgoing Sea King HC.4s.

“They’re not technically “lost” to the Royal Navy, they’ve just moved from the RAF ownership to the Commando Helicopter Force ownership – that’s all still part of the Joint Helicopter Command, so they’re still doing (as are the Sea King HC.4s at the moment) JHC business, primarily with the Commando Brigade and a lot of it onboard ship, but actually we still have a similar sized fleet inside the JHC to play with until the Sea Kings go out of business. Now it is a fact that we are going to lose a fleet of around 43 Sea King HC.4s so obviously there is a quality/quantity loss that we are going to have to manage without, but what do you have of course is additional Chinooks coming into service – which is a very significant aircraft that allows us to lift many more people than the Sea King. Alongside them are the upgraded Merlins (HC.4s) – and then in the land environment the Puma HC.2 – which is a very significant upgrade over the Puma HC.1. So although we’ve got many fewer platforms what we are left with is much better, capable platforms.”

In summary, this is certainly one procurement process which the Ministry of Defence has performed well. Delivering such a wide number of new airframes into service, in a relatively short timeframe is an impressive achievement – and with over £440 million expected to be saved on the support contracts for the Chinook, Merlin and Apache fleets, these new rotary assets are not only fit for task with the military, but value for money for the UK taxpayer.