Massive Cost Cutting To Hit UK Helicopter Force

AS A result of the massive overspend on the Astute submarine and Nimrod MRA.4 programmes, and with the costs of the war in Iraq, the Treasury has reportedly demanded major savings in the Defence Budget. This is placing the Ministry of Defence’s Equipment Plan (EP) in serious difficulties. In response, MoD teams, colloquially known as ‘work strands’, put forward a series of cost-cutting measures, which were intended to reduce the deficit.

AFM understands that work strand 13, led by Air Commodore Kevin Leeson, was tasked with reducing helicopter support costs and with taking CI billion out of the future rotorcraft F.P (despite the shortfalls in helicopter capability highlighted in the NAO’s recent report).

With many of the MoD’s current helicopters coming to the end of their lives at much the same time, and with a major shortage of assets to meet the required battlefield lift capability, there are three vital requirements for replacement aircraft.

The SABR (Support Amphibious Battlefield Rotorcraft) requirement outlined a replacement for the Sea King HC.4 and for the Puma in the battlefield and amphibious lift roles (and for SAR use as a side issue). Many expected SABR to be met by a further Merlin purchase, or by the procurement of marinised Chinooks.

The BLUH (Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter) requirement was intended to provide a Lynx and Gazelle replacement for battlefield ISTAR, direction of fire, network-enabled command post and light utility use. Following an unsolicited bid from AgustaWestland it was decided to procure the Future Lynx as a non-competitive procurement. To replace existing Lynx HMA.8s in the small ship maritime attack, littoral attack and ISTAR roles, the Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft (SCMR) requirement was quickly formulated. This envisaged using a derivative of BLUH, thereby providing valuable commonality and producing a potential saving in non-recurring costs. The total budget for these four helicopter programmes was around £4.1 billion, and this quickly became a target for those seeking economies, and was exploited by those who did not favour the non-competitive procurement of Future Lynx to meet BLUH/SCMR.

Certain officers reportedly approached Sikorsky and asked them to provide an unsolicited bid for the supply of 50 S-70A Black Hawks, while others pressed for a similar number of NH90s as a better solution to the BLUH role, with Chinooks for SABR. This ran counter to the wishes of the official ‘Customers’, who favoured Future Lynx, whose price had not then been ‘negotiated down’ and which therefore seemed rather high.

The Defence Management Board was reportedly critical of the high risk, unknown cost/capability strategy that was being proposed. But instead of working up a new, affordable capability requirement, followed by a traditional evaluation of affordable, low-risk, timely solutions, a new Future Rotorcraft Capability Working Group was established. This pushed the NH90 solution for the medium lift element of the former SABR requirement and for the utility element of BLUH, with Chinooks for the heavy lift element of SABR, and with a purchase of about 20 MH/AH-6 Little Birds for the ISTAR and direction of fire roles. Merlin would be fitted with JCM missiles and pressed into service as maritime multi-role, small ship ISTAR and attack platforms, allowing the cancellation of SCMR.

Instead of doing good operational analysis, then defining requirements in pure capability terms before handing the sealed and finalised requirement to the procurement authorities, there now seems to be a system in which the platform solution is being defined first, before making up a capability requirement to match. Decisions are being made based on brochure prices and on the basis of limited informal evaluation of aircraft without proven, UK applicable, military capability and safety characteristics, and procurement is being carefully directed down specific routes. At best the front line will suffer a further extended helicopter capability gap, and at worst there may be another fiasco like the Chinook HC.3.

In the short term, the Pumas will be retired early, to save operating and support costs, and the resulting capability gap will simply be accepted. The Chinook HC.3s (which will be brought into service via a ‘fix to field’ programme, at a cost of rather more than the £127 million that has been mooted) will be asked to take on some of the Puma role as and when available. Also, the RAF’s Merlins may be relegated to SAR duties to allow the Sea King to be withdrawn from service. Benson is reportedly scheduled for closure under the basing review paper, despite its useful proximity to London and HQ Strike Command.

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