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Helicopters (rotary-wing aircraft) are in use across all three services

The Ministry of Defence’s current strategy for helicopters is predicated on the conclusions of the Defence Rotary Wing Study of 2012, which was commissioned after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The publication of sector-specific strategies for surface ships and combat aircraft has prompted several MPs to urge the Ministry of Defence to consider a similar approach for helicopters.[1]

The Defence Rotary Wing Study

In 2012 the MOD confirmed its intention to focus its rotary wing capability on four core fleets: Chinook, Wildcat,[2] Merlin and Apache helicopters, and extend the out of service date for Puma to 2025. This was announced as the results of its Defence Rotary Wing Capability Study.

The conclusions of the 2012 study were reiterated in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which set out the intended force structure under Joint Force 2025 and confirmed existing plans to upgrade the Apache and Chinook helicopter fleets. The 2018 Modernising Defence programme set out the intention to improve the readiness and availability of some key defence platforms, including helicopters, but did not provide specific detail.

Calls for a new strategy

The Ministry of Defence has in recent years published several sector-specific strategies, on naval shipbuilding in 2017 and future combat aircraft in 2018. Robert Courts, while welcoming the combat air strategy, pressed the Defence Secretary during a debate on the RAF Centenary in 2018 to “start thinking about helicopters”.[3]

Both the shipbuilding and combat air strategies discussed at length the sovereign capabilities needed to maintain skills in these areas.

At the 2018 Farnborough Airshow the Managing Director of Leonardo Helicopters UK called on the Government to commit to a future military helicopter procurement programme in order to guarantee the long-term viability of Leonardo’s production site in Yeovil. In a 2017 debate Marcus Fysh pressed the Government to support the helicopter industry in his Yeovil constituency.[4] Lord Ashdown, who previously represented Yeovil, in a debate in the House of Lords in July 2018, called for solid commitments by the Government in order to ensure the sustainability of the UK helicopter industry in the longer term.[5]

Strategic Partnering Arrangement with Leonardo

Boeing is the prime contractor for the Apache and Chinook; while Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) is the prime contractor for the Wildcat and the Merlin and supports the current Apache fleet. Leonardo Helicopters is based in Yeovil.

In July 2016 the MOD signed a new 10-year Strategic Partnering Arrangement with Leonardo Helicopters which envisages the MOD spending approximately £3 billion with the company over the next decade on the upgrade and support of its helicopter fleets.[6]

The arrangement recognises the mutual relationship that exists between the MOD and Leonardo as the only helicopter through-life design and manufacturing capability in the UK[7] and the provider of maintenance and support to over a third of the MOD’s helicopter fleet.[8]

The arrangement commits both sides to working together to achieve improvements in cost-effectiveness, ensure innovation to meet the UK’s future defence needs and promote exports.

However, it is worth noting that the agreement is not a legally binding contract with a definite financial value attached, but an indication of support.[9]

Helicopters in the UK Armed Forces

Helicopters (rotary-wing aircraft) are in use across all three services and Strategic Command. There are 322 rotary-wing aircraft in the UK armed forces, as of 1 April 2019. Chinooks are the most common type with 60 aircraft, followed by Apache. The 322 figure includes training and other helicopters.[10]

The Chinook is one of the most easily recognisable of the helicopter fleet. It transports personnel and goods and carries heavily loads, either internally or underslung. It first entered service in the 1980s. The Chinook (heavy lift) sustainment programme will see it extended in service until the 2040s.

Apache is an attack helicopter used by the Army. It first entered service in 2004 and originally had an out of service date of 2030 but this was extended in the 2010 Strategic defence and Security Review to 2040. Under the Apache Capability Sustainment Programme, in 2016 the MOD opted to upgrade the fleet with the purchase of 50 Apache Ah-64E (replacing the Mk1) from the US Government under a Foreign Militery Sales arrangement.[11] The helicopters will begin entering service with the Army in 2022[12] with final delivery planned for 2024.[13] In 2019 the MOD extended the support contract for in service Apache’s with Leonardo until they retire in 2024.[14]

Wildcat is a multirole aircraft used by the Army and the Royal Navy. The Army uses the AH Mk1 variant primarily for reconnaissance, command and control, transport although it does have attack capabilities. The naval variant operates from surface ships and perform a variety of roles.

Merlin helicopter variants are used by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. A number of Merlins will be fitted with Crowsnest to support the aircraft carriers. Crowsnest is a helicopter-borne radar system that provides long-range airborne surveillance, control and early warning capability. Amid concerns about delays to the project, the Minister for Defence Procurement said the MOD is “confident” the Merlin Mk2 helicopter, fitted with Crowsnest, will be available for HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment in 2021.[15]

The Puma HC Mk2 is the RAF’s medium support helicopter. It has a number of roles, including tactical transport of troops, weapons etc on the battlefield. The Puma is expected to leave service in 2025. Puma is supported by Airbus Helicopters UK Ltd.

Others helicopters include the Gazelle and the Bell 212, used by the Army, and the Juno, Prefect and Jupiter training helicopters.

[1]     HC Deb 26 November 2018 c114

[2]     The Wildcat replaced the Lynx Mk 7 and Mk9a in service with the Army in 2014 and the Lynx Mk8 in service with the Royal Navy in 2017/18.

[3]     HC Deb 26 November 2018 c114

[4]     HC Deb 24 January 2017 c39-46WH

[5]     HL10 July 2018 c893

[6]     The MOD and Leonardo (formerly Westland) first agreed an SPA in June 2006. That original agreement has subsequently been revised and renewed. “MOD signs new partnering arrangement with Leonardo Helicopters UK”, Ministry of Defence, 11 July 2016

[7]     There are other helicopter manufacturers in the UK, such as Airbus, but Leonardo in Yeovil is the only company that offers “end to end” capability, from research and design through to production, in-service support and upgrades.

[8]     “MOD signs new partnering arrangement with Leonardo Helicopters UK”, Ministry of Defence, 11 July 2016

[9]     ibid

[10]    UK armed forces equipment and formations 2019, Ministry of Defence, 8 August 2019

[11]    “MOD orders new fleet of cutting-edge Apache helicopters for the Army”, Ministry of Defence, 11 July 2016

[12]    “MOD orders new fleet of cutting-edge Apache helicopters for the Army”, Ministry of Defence, 11 July 2016. The number of Apache varients in service between 2018 and 2024 is set out in correspondence with the Defence Committee, 12 December 2018

[13]    PQ272138, 9 July 2018

[14]    “£293 million deal for Apache fleet”, Ministry of Defence, 17 January 2019

[15]    PQ5524, 22 January 2020; PQ5522 and PQ5523, 23 January 2020

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