Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Puma,Chinook And Serendipity

Despite the recent large cuts in the British defence budget as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review,recent reports suggest further cuts may be neccessary.

Peter Luff,the Minister for Defence Equipment,Support and Technology,recently confirmed the need for further cuts:

"The big decisions have been taken;the fundamental assumptions won’t be changed,but there were unallocated savings identified which were a matter of public record and which we now have to find.”

One of the areas which might be targetted for further cuts is the support helicopter fleet.

As helicopter shortages in Afghanistan have had a high media profile,cutting the helicopter fleet might sound inappropriate.

There have been significant shortages of helicopter capacity on operations in Afghanistan.

Men have almost certainly died as a result of those shortages.

However,the helicopter shortage in Afghanistan was never the result of not having enough helicopters.

On the 23rd of February 2009,British armed forces owned 603 helicopters.

Only a small fraction of those were in Afghanistan.

The problem was,not having enough in theatre flying hours from the right type of helicopters which could be useful in the "hot and high" Afghan conditions.

In recent years,the number of helicopter flight hours in Afghanistan has increased significantly.

Bill Rammell,then Minister of State for the Armed Forces,said the following on the 5th of October 2009:

"I can say,however,that between November 2006 and April 2009 we increased the number of helicopter flying hours in Afghanistan by 84 per cent."

"This investment will,by May 2010,allow us to double the number of UK battlefield helicopters in Afghanistan and increase the number of flying hours by more than 130 per cent. compared with November 2006.

 We constantly keep this situation under review."

General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue,Chief of Defence Materiel said on the 1st of December 2009:

"I think the Chief of Defence Staff said the other day, you could always use more helicopters, but there is a sufficiency of helicopters in theatre at the moment.

 Yes, we are pushing more out there.

The figures I have got written here:there is a 48% increase in the numbers of helicopters between June 2009 and June 2010 and a 45% increase in flying hours.

They are building up the whole time but,as CDS said, you could always use more."

Merlins deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and the Merlin fleet has also been increased in size with the purchase and refitting of Danish Merlin H.C.3as.

Army Lynx have been upgraded to make them more suitable for operations in Afghanistan.

Royal Navy Seakings have also been upgraded for use in Afghanistan.

The Chinook fleet has been upgraded for Afghan conditions and increased in size with the long delayed introduction of the 8 H.C.3.s.

Helicopter capacity is planned to increase further in the future.

Under the Future Helicopter Strategy,the Puma fleet is being upgraded for operations in Afghanistan and it's service life extended from an original Out of Service Date (O.S.D.) of 2012 to 2022,while an additional 24 Chinooks were due to be purchased.

Originally 30 of the 32 operational Pumas (from a total fleet of 45) were to be upgraded,that was reduced to 28 and then further reduced to just 24 following the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Upgrading these 24 Pumas will cost £339 Million or £14.125 Million per helicopter,each of which will stay in service for just 10 years or less after the upgrade.

The Strategic Defence and Security Review also reduced the planned purchase of "F" model Chinooks from 24 aircraft to 14.

Unfortunately,much of this extra capacity will arrive too late for operations in Afghanistan.

British forces are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014,according to British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking on the 20th of November 2010:

"The commitment we have entered into today to transfer the lead responsibility for 
security to the Afghan Government by the end of 2014 will pave the way for British 
combat troops to be out of Afghanistan by 2015."

The draw down of Western forces in Afghanistan is widely expected to begin in 2011.

Kevan Jones,then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defence,said on the 1st of December 2009:

"The first Puma Mk2 aircraft will enter squadron service in 2012.

The upgrade of the entire fleet is planned to complete in 2014."

The upgraded Pumas will be coming in to service just as the need for helicopters in Afghanistan declines.

When it was announced back in 2009 that additional Chinooks would be purchased,they were expected to "roll off the production line in 2012":

"The first ten new Chinooks will start to roll off the production line in 2012 and be completed in 2013,increasing air support on the front line in Afghanistan.

 The Chinook fleet in total will increase in size from 48 to 70 airframes,which will include eight Mk3 Chinooks and replacements for two Chinooks lost on operations."

However,no order was placed for these helicopters at that time and they still had not been ordered in January 2011.

Delivery dates are therefore likely to start long after 2012.

A 3 year wait for Chinook delivery is typical.

If ordered in 2011,the new Chinook H.C.6s are unlikely to start arriving until 2014,too late to be of any use in Afghanistan.

The Recent Strategic Defence and Security Review also resulted in large cuts to the size of British forces which will in turn reduce the demand for support Helicopters in the long term.

With the recent large cuts to the size of the ground forces there may not be a need for these additional helicopters after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Britain is currently sustaining a division sized force in Afghanistan,in future it plans to sustain only a single brigade on operations.

The support helicopter requirement in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review was for 63 "Chinook equivalents".

A "Chinook equivalent" being a means to measure the capacity of the then planned 116 strong support helicopter fleet in multiples of what a single Chinook could carry.

Current plans will result in a fleet of 60 Chinooks,according to British Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The number of Chinooks is going from 46 to 60, and we will also be refurbishing the Puma helicopters to add to capacity."

Those 60 "Chinook equivalents" being in addition to the expanded 25 strong Merlin fleet and 24 upgraded Pumas.

Giving a total capacity well above the 63 "Chinook equivalents" planned under the previous Strategic Defence Review.

In total,the support helicopter fleet will in future have 109 Chinooks,Merlins and Pumas,only slightly less than the 116 support helicopters listed in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.

Despite significant reductions planned in the size of deployable ground forces,support helicopter lift capacity will in future far exceed that which was planned in 1998.

Additional helicopter capacity purchased to counter shortfalls in Afghanistan will arrive too late to be of use in that theatre and may thereafter be surplus to requirements.

The cost of providing that capacity will have severe impacts on other elements of the armed forces during the current financial crisis.

There will be long term costs of operating that surplus capacity and retaining basing capacity at R.A.F. Benson.

These costs will be increased by the need to sustain an additional airframe type in the case of the Puma and a "fleet within a fleet" in the case of the new Chinook H.C. Mark 6s.

These problems were explained by the then Chief of the Air Staff (later Chief of the Defence Staff,now retired) Air Chief Marshal Stirrup in evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee Eleventh Report,Helicopter capability,published on the 14th of July 2009:

    "In terms of the overall efficiency of the helicopter force, the sooner we can reduce the overall numbers of types, the more output we will get from the force as a total.
    It is not just a case of extending old types in service to meet the requirement, that is not necessarily the most efficient way of doing it."

There are additional issues with the Puma upgrade.

The Puma Life Extension Programme (L.E.P.) has been criticised by the House of Commons Defence Committee:

 "Given the age of both Sea 
King and Puma 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 

 We do not believe that these LEPs will provide adequate capability or value for the 

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."

Evidence to the committee suggested that the Puma update was being pursued due to time scale and budgetary issues rather than on the basis of capability and value for money.

According to General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue in testimony to the Defence Committee:

 "We would have required 44 Merlins,to replace Puma and Sea King.

 There were only between 14 and 16 affordable by 2015,which is in the middle of the gap,so we would not have had as many helicopters for the same amount of money as we have got with Puma."

The third supplementary memorandum from the Ministry of Defence,dated the 14th of January 2010,confirms some of the General's figures:

"To clarify, it was the view of AgustaWestland that 44 new Merlin helicopters could,when operated alongside our existing fleet of helicopters,deliver the same operational effect as the current Sea King Mk4 and Puma fleets.

Our analysis suggested that 49 new Merlin would be required to meet Defence Outputs."

But the same document also says this:

"To procure new helicopters with an equivalent level of capability as offered by the Puma LEP would have required an additional £500 million-£800 million over the next four years.

This additional funding could not be found without detrimental effects elsewhere across the Defence Programme.
  Within the current funding profile assigned to the sustainment of the Puma and Sea King Mk4 and the delivery of the Future Medium Helicopter project,we could only afford to buy a maximum of seven new helicopters by the end of 2012,with up to 18 helicopters delivered by mid-2015.

 This approach would create a substantial gap in lift helicopter numbers from 2012 until at least 2017 that, at its worst would reduce support helicopter Forward Fleet numbers by up to 40%.

Such a shortfall would reduce the numbers of support helicopters we could deploy on operations from 2013 for at least five years and would create a significant shortfall against the current requirement in Afghanistan
  We concluded,therefore,that within available resources we needed to sustain either the Puma or the Sea King Mk4 if we were to avoid an unacceptable impact on operations.

Of these two types,the Puma LEP will deliver a much more capable aircraft with significantly improved performance.

We now plan to retire all marks of Sea King during 2016 and the planned investment in the Sea King Mk4 has been substantially curtailed."

Note the claims that between 44 and 49 new Merlin helicopters would have been required to replace both the 42 Seaking Mark 4/6C and 32 Pumas which were "in service",a total of 74 helicopters.

This suggests that 2 Merlins were expected to do the job of 3 Seakings or Pumas.

This is also backed up by the following comment also taken from the same third supplementary memorandum from the Ministry of Defence:

"........the Merlin has about twice the lift capability of our current Puma fleet and offers slightly better performance than the upgraded Puma—this is why we want to focus our investment in Merlin on delivering our maritime requirement." 

Following the decision to withdraw the Seakings without replacement,it would take far fewer Merlins to replace the Puma fleet alone than to replace the Puma and Seaking fleets.

Perhaps around 16 Merlins would have been needed to replace the capacity of what was at that time a fleet of 32 Pumas.

While the 28 - 30 upgraded Pumas would only enter service between 2012 and 2014,the Merlin alternative was stated as "seven new helicopters by the end of 2012,with up to 18 helicopters delivered by mid-2015".

A fleet of 18 Merlins would give a greater lift capacity than the existing fleet of 32 Pumas.

These figures suggest that buying new Merlins instead of upgrading the Puma fleet would not "create a substantial gap in lift helicopter numbers from 2012 until at least 2017".

Note also the claim that buying new helicopters "would create a significant shortfall against the current requirement in Afghanistan".

This is claim difficult to understand,the Puma fleet is not used on operations in Afghanistan.

The Seaking fleet is operating in Afghanistan but spending the £339 million from the Puma upgrade budget on new Merlin helicopters would not have affected the Seaking fleet.

Both the Puma and Seaking fleets would have continued in service while new helicopters were built had the £339 Million from the Puma life extension instead been spent on buying new Merlins.

We must question the veracity of claims that buying new helicopters would have led to a shortage of capacity.

There does not appear to have been any sound logic for upgrading the Puma fleet rather than purchasing additional Merlins.

There were also concerns about the safety of the Puma fleet.

Older helicopters such as the Puma are built to far lower levels of crash worthiness than modern aircraft like the Merlin.

Their structure is less able to withstand the stresses imposed during a crash.

Other problems with the Puma were set out in the "Dixon,Moss report":

"A comparison of the S.H. (Support Helicopter) accident records,at Annex C,supports a common belief that Puma is more vulnerable to crash damage (and to subsequent loss of life) than other types of B.H. (Battlefield Helicopters) involved in similar missions.

A likely explanation for this may be the fact that,relative to other B.H.,Puma has a particularly high C of G (Centre of Gravity,more correctly Centre of Mass).

The resulting high crash moments generated by it's gearbox and engines,coupled with a relatively short wheelbase and tricycle undercarriage,makes for relatively poor crash worthiness compared with,for example,Chinook which has a lower C of G and wheels on each corner.

The propensity of Puma to turn over after a heavy landing is well known and increases the vulnerability of crewmen and passengers who are not properly restrained."

These problems cannot be fixed,they are integral to the design of the Puma according to Mr Nick Whitney:

 "If you require full crashworthiness  on an old aircraft that may not be 
possible because physically the structure is  incapable of being  upgraded to that point."

As the recent Nimrod crash demonstrated,the safety of the Puma fleet has the potential to become a political and legal liability.

There are alternatives to current plans.

Canada purchased a number of CH47D Chinooks for use in Afghanistan.

With Canadian forces pulling out of that country,the 5 remaining Chinooks may be available for purchase.

Those aircraft are in Afghanistan at present,they need no modifications to operate in theatre.

They will be available for use at least 2 years before any new Chinooks or upgraded Pumas can be delivered.

Those 5 Chinooks are CH47D standard,the aircraft which the British Chinook H.C.2 is derived from.

Thus they are eminently suitable for upgrading to the new H.C.4 standard under the ongoing project Julius after they are withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014.

This would give the United Kingdom a largely homogenous Chinook force of 51 H.C.4/4a/5s.

It will reduce the support Helicopter fleet to just 2 types,Merlin and Chinook.

Combined with the current fleet of 25 Merlins this will give a total support helicopter fleet capacity similar to the 63 "Chinook equivalents" planned in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.

Purchasing and later upgrading these Canadian Chinooks will be significantly cheaper than current plans to upgrade Pumas and purchase additional CH47F/H.C.6 Chinooks.

This financial saving will be especially important during the current difficult period before 2015.

There will be no need to update the Canadian Chinooks until after the Chinook H.C.3s are upgraded to H.C.5 standard in 2015.

Work on upgrading these helicopters will also be done at Fleetlands in Gosport,keeping money in the United Kingdom,in line with the government's policy on encouraging British industry.

Unlike the Puma upgrade which primarily benefits workers in Romania and France. 

A second alternative,if there is no immediate need for additional helicopters in Afghanistan,is to purchase additional Merlins instead of upgrading the Pumas and buying more Chinooks.

The Merlin is considerably cheaper than the Chinook,probably half the price.

It is also better suited to operating from ships.

Much of the money spent on Merlins would stay in the United Kingdom,creating jobs in a weak economy and importantly returning significant tax revenues to the Treasury.

Effectively giving the taxpayer a significant discount.

Purchasing more Merlins would also be in line with the European Union's Europeanist procurement policy which the Prime Minister subscribes to.

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