What next for UK’s military helo fleet?

You know the agenda is regarded as a good news story when the UK MoD holds a media day to trumpet the progress it’s made.

Far from being famous for its open and proactive engagement with the trade press, the ministry nevertheless held a useful event at RAF Benson to highlight the progress achieved in upgrading its helicopter fleet as we were passing the latest issue of Defence Helicopter magazine for press.

You can read the story from our intrepid Staff Reporter Grant Turnbull here, and there are undoubtedly some positive developments worth highlighting.

Following the MoD’s Rotary Wing Strategy in 2009, the government has invested some £6 billion ($8.8 billion) to sustain and improve helicopter capabilities, with significant upgrades implemented across the Chinook, Puma, Merlin and Wildcat fleets.

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Initial operating capability (IOC) has now been declared for the Puma Mk 2; the Chinook Mk 6; the Wildcat Mk 1/2 (army and navy versions); and the Merlin Mk 2.

‘As a result, UK forces now have new military capabilities that can be deployed around the world, with the Merlin Mk 2 currently delivering vital support in Sierra Leone to tackle the spread of Ebola; the Puma Mk 2 preparing to contribute to NATO’s training and assistance mission in Afghanistan; and the Royal Navy Wildcat deploying for global maritime operations,’ the MoD boasts in a statement.

THEATRE ARRIVAL

All but one of the 24 Puma Mk 2s have been delivered following the major modifications undertaken in France and Romania, and the first aircraft has now arrived in Afghanistan, where they are taking over from the Chinooks based at Kabul International Airport.

While the upgrade and modernisation of legacy platforms should always be applauded, the MoD also appears to be playing a bit smarter with its money, with total savings of some £440 million made on the cost of supporting the Chinook, Merlin and Apache fleets over the next five years due to new contracting arrangements.

This includes £150 million in savings made on the recently announced £420 million contract with Boeing for the in-service support of the Chinook fleet.

SHOCK, HORROR

The next big question for the MoD is how it replaces or upgrades the current Mk 1 Apache fleet – a story that has returned to the headlines in the UK of late because (shock, horror) AgustaWestland may have been doing some lobbying for things to go in its favour.

The MoD said it ‘is due to replace the Mk 1 Apache fleet with 50 latest-generation Apache helicopters with a decision on how to do this expected in spring 2016’.

With former secretary of state for defence Geoff Hoon, who was at the helm of the MoD during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, working as managing director of international business at AgustaWestland, it would be more surprising if discussions weren’t going on behind the scenes and the company meekly waited for the RfP to come out.

While AgustaWestland has been tight-lipped about how it will respond to the RfI for the Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Programme, one cost-effective option could well be the remanufacture of current airframes into a Block III-like configuration.

It would be a longer shot for the MoD to contract AgustaWestland to licence-build new AH-64E aircraft. While the enhancements provided by the current WAH-64D Block I fleet have been battle-proven during the Afghan and Libyan campaigns, this came at a significant premium – more than double the price of buying direct from Boeing, according to some estimates.

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This time around, the UK simply does not have the luxury to ‘gold-plate’ AgustaWestland’s involvement, despite the work it might provide for its Yeovil plant in southern England.

After Prime Minister David Cameron’s lecturing of his NATO counterparts to increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP at the most recent summit in September, it now appears likely the country will fall below the target by 2017.

Defence cuts have already caused current and former service chiefs to squeal that Britain was becoming increasingly incapable of any significant force projection too far from its borders given the number of soldiers, ships and aircraft now available.

TAKING ADVANTAGE

If the British Army is set on fielding new AH-64E Apaches, the purchase should be made directly from Boeing to take advantage of the multi-year agreement the company has with the US Army, which includes scope for foreign sales.

The WAH-64D has undeniably performed admirably in Afghanistan, but the current fiscal realities facing the UK means that buying the most sophisticated platform should not be the sole starting point, especially if it is at the expense of the number of aircraft procured.

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