Report on helicopter capability

16 July 2009

A shortage of medium and heavy lift battlefield helicopters is undermining current operations warns a Defence Committee report today.

Chairman of the Defence Committee, the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot, said:

"It seems to us that operational commanders in the field today are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations. We are also concerned that operational commanders find they have to use ground transport, when helicopter lift would be preferred, both for the outcome and for the protection of our forces."

The Committee is critical of the plan to extend the lives of Sea King and Puma to bridge the capability gap that will exist before the introduction of the Future Medium Helicopter in about ten years’ time. Given the age of these fleets and the poor survivability of the Puma, extending their lives at considerable cost is not the best option, either operationally or in terms of the use of public money.

The Committee does not believe that the planned Life Extension Programmes will provide adequate capability or value for the taxpayer. Only a procurement of new helicopters can meet the original objective of reducing the number of types of helicopter in service within the UK Armed Forces.

Chairman of the Committee, the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot MP, said:

"Helicopters are becoming increasingly relevant to current and contingent operations. It is essential that the fleet should be ‘fit for purpose’, both in terms of quality and quantity."

The Committee describes how the concept of ‘helicopter capability’ depends equally upon manning, equipment, training and support.

The Committee praises the work of the Armed Forces personnel responsible for manning the helicopter fleet, but there is concern over the problems associated with manpower and harmony guidelines. There is an imbalance in the frequency of operational tours between squadrons from each of the three Services.

The report also notes the improvements in availability of key helicopters in theatre such as Chinook, which have benefited from closer working between industry and the Armed Forces. However, the Committee says that in the longer term, the increased availability and improved maintenance will be no substitute for additional capacity. "Adequate capability is also a question of numbers of airframes", says the report.

Referring to the Government’s recent announcement of a strategic defence review Green Paper in early 2010, Mr Arbuthnot said:

"The time has come to appreciate fully the role of helicopters in modern operations. The MoD should seize the opportunity to recognise the importance of helicopters to current and contingent operations, and work towards strengthening all aspects of capability: the number of helicopters in the fleet, the support structure that underpins their operations, manning, both in the air and on the ground, and finally, the training for the full spectrum of capabilities described by the review itself."

Image: PA

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