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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

International Military Helicopter Conference Focuses on Budget, Resource Management

The following represents a snapshot from some of the leading presentations made during the International Military Helicopter conference, Jan. 20-22, 2015 in London.

By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief

The Finnish army has now received 20 NH-90s, although availability rates have caused concern. Photo courtesy of NH Industries

“We started our helicopter force from virtually zero, and we have faced a lot of challenges,” said Major General Abdul Wahab Wardak, commander of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) speaking on the second day of the International Military Helicopter conference in London (Jan. 20-22, 2015), an annual event managed by IQPC Defense.

More than 20 senior military speakers attended the event from forces across the U.K., Europe, North America, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. The conference was chaired by Lieutenant General Gary Coward (Ret), a former commander of the U.K’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC).

General Wardak was the first senior Afghan military officer to attend such a conference in Europe and his message was that in order for the AAF to be able to operate successfully, it was still often criticality short of all kinds of capability and support, from more modern aircraft, greater numbers of helicopters and a working logistics chain providing maintenance and spares to ensure helicopter availability.

The Afghan military has a small percentage of the air strength that has been available to the ground troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan over the last decade. Despite the near-complete withdrawal of ISAF combat forces, Wardak stated that Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers were suffering an average of 50 casualties each day through their engagement with al Qaeda/the Taliban.

The ANA operates six Corps across Afghanistan, although there are only four Russian-built Mi-17s available to each Corps on any day. These are supported by two older Mi-24/35 attack helicopters per Corps although their current rate of availability is not high. By his own admission, the AAF is facing a lack of spares of just about everything for its Russian rotorcraft. “Our challenges are maintenance and the training of our pilots,” he stated.

The Mi-17s, in particular, perform the widest range of tasks from daily logistics supply, VIP transport roles and, when available, casualty evacuation. Receiving life-saving medical attention within the golden hour is scarce if none existent for the ANA. Wardak’s requirement for running the rotary aspect of the AAF is compressive. In addition to the urgent need for a reliable supply chain for spares and parts of all description, his needs also encompassed the professional repair of aircraft, the lack of an equipment laboratory, lack of lubricants of all types, no fuels lab, a lack of professional maintainers and the need to train technicians and young engineers as well as aircrew.

The Mi-35 fleet is due for replacement by the end of 2016 and a fixed-wing aircraft is being brought in to fill the gap. The AAF has already begun to receive the first of what will be a fleet of 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light air support aircraft. Initially the first Super Tucanos are being sent to Moody Air Force Base, in Georgia, to allow 30 Afghan pilots and up to 90 maintainers to be trained before the planes are delivered into the fight in Afghanistan.

Further MD 530F helicopters will also be provided to the AAF from MD Helicopters through a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Unlike the initial unarmed six (now five due to an IED incident) that the AFF is already using to train its new Mi-17 pilots at the Shindand air base in western Afghanistan, the 17 new MD530Fs will be equipped with guns and other weapons/systems which will allow them to support ground forces in combat. Deliv-eries should be complete by the end of the year.

The keynote speaker on the first day was the Honorable Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army (acquisition, logistics and technology). Shyu began by reemphasizing the last four years of pressure that has affected the U.S. defines budget: “Sequestration forced tough decisions.”

She said that her department was operating off two budgets - with and without sequestration - without knowing what the final result will be. Post-Vietnam, U.S. Army investment had been in “the big five: the Apache attack helicopter, the M1 Abrams tank, the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle, the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and the MIM-104 Patriot ground-to-air missile.”

But she added that the military was now being called to be ready to fight at every level, from terror-ism through to nation states, which meant that army aviation had to be able to conduct full spectrum operations in contested environments.

To achieve this with the background of budget restraint meant that it was necessary to divest the force of ageing systems and reduce operational costs. Money was being spent on resetting exist-ing equipment and modernizing/updating current platforms to “buy back weight and power.” Forward looking Science and Technology (S&T) spending was still being committed to Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP). In total, by accepting the Aviation Restructuring Plan (ASRI), the Army was divesting over 750 aircraft.

Britain Faces Contingent Demand

Major General Richard Felton, the current commander of the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command, began with the vision that it was necessary “to change focus and mindset to meet the challenge of contingency post Afghanistan”. He added that the unpredictability of future deployments meant that there was “a need (for) forces to be comfortable with uncertainty, conceptually agile and flexible to deal with complex environments and unclear outcomes.” They would also be most likely combined, joint, intragovernmental, interagency and multinational.

With the UK also enduring continued cuts to its defense budget, Felton said that government for-eign policy would remain on this contingency basis and intervention focused. “But the JHC will not forget the lessons it learned in Afghanistan including the development MERT [Medical Emergency Response Team], first use of UK attack aviation, deliberate air maneuver and aviation find and integration.”

He said that, currently, more than two-thirds of the JHC was at five days notice to move or greater. Over land, the ground troops are supported by Apache AH-64, Chinook Mk6, Puma Mk2 and AW159 Wildcat. He also said that the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers would add a step change in the UK’s capability and capacity to project force.

The Air Assault task force will train to integrate into 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. global re-sponse force, and the 11th French Parachute Brigade. Working with international partners and cooperation will allow us to “offer leaders more options when it comes to operations,” stated Felton.

He echoed Heidi Shyu’s commitment to modifying existing types, stating that “nearly all of the JHC’s 14 aircraft types are being modified or improved. The AW101 is being improved due to its move from the RAF to the RN. “We are also seeking to replace our Apache with the AH-64E model.”

Training will be diverse and demanding, including the deployment of the joint headquarters during exercises. Desert environment such as Kenya, Jordan and U.S. are preferred here, but other locations include Morocco, Norway for Arctic training, Canada and Cyprus.

The expense of battlefield helicopters requires a more symbiotic relationship with industry, which Felton describes as “the whole force approach.” He points to the need to form new relationships with industry “which will include joint governance structures, shared risk ownership, and procedures for holding to account, especially over the long term.”

Felton concluded that new opportunities could exist for personnel, particularly those in engineering “We seek a reduced regular military liability. The mantra will be: civilian where possible, military where necessary. This might take on an enterprise approach, that comprises a highly skilled work-force that merges military with civilian, with the potential to offer two-way managed career from military to civilian using sponsored reserves.”

Small Nation, Big Ambition

The head of the Qatar Helicopter Project Committee, Brigadier General Ghanim Al Shahwani, spoke about how his country is building a large rotorcraft fleet, for the Qatar Navy. Not that Qatar is having to monitor its budget carefully at the moment, being the world’s leading gross domestic product per capita nation - nearly $149 thousand per head.

“All of our helicopters will be glass cockpit-based in the future,” said al Shahwani. It will be replac-ing legacy analogue helicopters such as Sea King Mk2 / Mk3s that are currently fulfilling the Search and Rescue (SAR) role, potentially with a new NH-90 fleet.

The Qatari Air Force intends to replace its existing Gazelle light attack helicopters with 24 of the more robust and modern Apache AH-64Es. There is also a requirement for 22 NH-90s (both TTH and NFH) that will be the utility aircraft of choice. He added that anti-submarine warfare is not a high priority due to the shallow depth of the Persian Gulf where submarines are relatively easy to detect. Nor is Qatar required to play a role in a Blue Water Navy (the need to operate over deep oceans).

Qatar is setting up its own ab initio training academy for its military pilots although the rotary wing syllabus is the last to be developed. There is an annual requirement for around 30 military pilots, all Qatari nationals said Shahwani. Operationally, there are no plans for a Gulf Coopera-tion Council (GGC) force at the moment although there is an annual military exercise that usually involves the forces from all six countries.

Finland’s Troubled NH-90s

Afghan Air Force pilots (AAF) with MD 530F helicopters at the Rotary Wing Flight Training Program in Shindand, Afghanistan. Photo by Michelle Harlan, USASAC, DoD
The lack of serviceability and availability for the Finnish NH-90 has been a major issue for Finland’s Army Air Corps said Lieutenant Colonel Tuure Lehtoranta, chief of army aviation. While the current availability target is 50 percent, the NH-90 serviceability rate had previously been as low as “19 percent serviceability per day, which meant only one helicopter available for missions.”

Lehtoranta said that the 50 percent figure now took into consideration the upgrading of aircraft from their Initial Operating Capability (IOC) status to Full Operating Capability (FOC). This, he said, would take place over the next three years with on average five of their fleet of 20 NH-90s being refitted at any one time. This meant that the Finnish army would hopefully have up to eight helicopters available on any day.

The Finnish army has been working with NH Industries and associated partners to overcome what Lehtoranta says have been huge problems in spares supply: “Sending a main rotor gear box out to industry you may only have it back in three years at the moment. The average for turn around time has been 200 days on spares and that has been totally unacceptable.” He said that the industry has since launched a program to address the issue and that the army is awaiting better results.

This is important as Finland’s contribution to the newly operational Nordic Battle Group (since the start of 2015) is four NH-90s to fulfill the Medevac role within the formation. Four aircraft should allow for two to be available at any time, with one spare and one aircraft in maintenance.

When the NH-90 is flying Lehtoranta says that it performs very well and can meet the missions they had planned for it but only “when you actually have it in line and working.” He said that the army have now flown the NH-90 for over 7,000 fight hours making them third in hours flown out of all NH-90 operators.

The electronic warfare suite is working and Finnish company Patria has designed and installed ballistic protection to guard against up to 7.62 cal weapons. Said Lehtoranta, “We don’t want it thicker because that will add too much weight.” In terms of kinetic self-protection, the Finnish NH-90s have selected the Dillon M134-D mini gun.

The Finnish NH-90 has already conducted cold weather tests in Iceland and Sweden, and future international participation will include NATO Reaction Force 2016 and SOFEVAL 2017.

Other speakers that presented during the event included senior officers from the Nigeria, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, Columbia, France, Bahrain, Turkey, Italy, Canada, Japan and Brazil. A number of industry presentations were also made that included Honeywell, NH Industries, Vislink, BLR Aerospace and FH Herstal.

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