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DSEI 2019: Shrinking of UK rotary power opens up capability criticism

4th September 2019 - 14:00 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

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From a statistical point of view the UK’s rotary fleet has dropped by 50 aircraft over the last three years equating to a current overall inventory of 322 helicopters, with more recent changes including the retirement of Sea King Mk7s and first deliveries of AW101 Commando Merlin Mk4/4As.

Much has been made of an Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) capability gap left by the Sea King fleet being taken out of service. However, the contingency plan of using Merlin, Wildcat, E3-D Sentry aircraft and Type 45 destroyers is looked upon as a viable interim solution until the new Crowsnest ASaC mission system is fit for operational use with the Royal Navy’s Merlin Mk2 fleet.

On that front, progress is being made in a timely manner, with the first flight of the aero-mechanical part of the system successfully completed in March 2019 and electromagnetic compatibility ground tests of the transmitting radar installed on a Merlin helicopter, successfully completed at Qinetiq’s Boscombe Down facility at the end of August. 

Further collaboration between the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and associated industry partners is set to lead to the Crowsnest capability being used to support a first Carrier Strike Group deployment in Q2 2021, preceded by sea trials set to begin in Q3 2020. 

The Crowsnest ASaC mission system is currently undergoing flight testing. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

On the issue of ASaC capability transitioning however, there is reason to suggest that the MoD - with a focus on managing its rotary-wing fleet predominately for the Afghanistan war effort – saw fit to deprioritise naval threats.

‘It’s always a challenge, particularly with a relatively small military force - which the UK is these days – to have a seamless transition from old [aircraft] to new,’ Grey Bagwell, President of The Air and Space Power Association told Shephard

‘Sometimes you have to take a degree of risk and what you had during Afghanistan and Iraq, to a high degree, was the absence of a submarine threat and as that [capability] wasn’t a priority it got pushed to the back of the queue,' he said.

Emerging threats post Afghanistan now mean that there is much for the UK to ponder at a strategic level, part of which will be defined by how helicopters are deployed during future conflicts.

‘You're not going to be employing helicopter lift in an intensive war unless you've spent an awful lot of money on defensive systems and we know… that if it was a Russian type scenario, helicopters aren’t going to be as close to the front line as they were in Afghanistan,’ according to Bagwell.

Beyond worse case operational scenarios, he is also clear that it is now ‘time to accept the fact that [national] air platform manufacturing is beyond [the UK],’ qualifying the statement by adding that there is a ‘reattack’ with the Tempest future fighter programme – led by and including a number of British industry partners such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce. 

Royal Marines stationed in Afghanistan after being dropped to their position by a CH-47 Chinook. (Photo: UK MoD)

Notwithstanding the loss of indigenous rotary manufacturing, the MoD is awaiting the replacement of its current Apache AH Mk1 fleet with the arrival of 50 new Boeing AH-64E Guardian aircraft.

The procurement is set to see the UK become the second largest export operator of the type behind Saudi Arabia, with first deliveries expected next year and all to be complete by Q1 2024, before an IOC milestone of April 2022 is due.

Attack Helicopter Command, an aviation unit within the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command, will be responsible for operating the new helicopters, with a raft of improvements strengthening capability and performance – compared to the Mk1 fleet.

Major component changes are to include: new engines, drivetrain, main rotor blades and better on-board engineering diagnostics, while the cockpit addition of a ‘revolutionary’ Cognitive Decision Aiding System will ‘enable pilots to prosecute targets faster,’ an MoD spokesperson confirmed.

‘For improved target engagement, sights and sensors on the nose turret and rotor mast have been upgraded to enable identification at greater ranges and also enhance aircraft protection,’ he added.

Separately, having commenced a three-month deployment with aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at the end of August, there are signs that capability maturity for the Royal Navy’s Merlin Mk4/4a fleet continues apace, with delivery from Leonardo of all 25 aircraft expected in April 2021.

The programme itself has been delayed slightly from an initial final delivery schedule of December 2020, though neither Leonardo or the MoD has been forthcoming about the reasons for the change. 

'MOD and Leonardo have jointly agreed a programme which meets MOD’s operational requirements,' a Leonardo spokesperson explained in a statement. 'Many factors are involved in determining the overall schedule.'      

MK4/4a structural and equipment changes are based on the upgrading of RAF Merlin Mk3/3A airframes, which includes a new automated folding tail and main rotor blade as well as new avionics, a fast roping system, roof mounted chaff dispensers and a strengthened undercarriage to increase maritime durability. 

While these moves to refresh helicopter capabilities and reduce reliance on legacy platforms fit the mould of most modern air forces, there is a lingering perception that the UK’s rotary fleet has suffered fatigue post Afghanistan and could be exposed by adversaries should high intensity conflicts emerge.

Short-term, the issue of an ASaC capability gap will be put right but if the trend of a shrinking helicopter base persists, criticism of how the UK intends to adequately support international allied missions, especially post-Brexit where it could potentially withdraw from EU-based operations, can be expected. 

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