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Friday, June 1, 2012

UK Defense Budget: Helo Procurement Ticks Along

By Andrew Drwiega

Existing military helicopter procurement for the United Kingdom’s armed forces appears to have been given short/medium term approval following the announcement by defense minister Philip Hammond of the delayed planning round (PR) 12 Committed Core Equipment Program to the UK’s Parliament on May 12, 2012.

According to Hammond, the delay of PR12 had been due to the Ministry of Defence wrestling with the £38-billion “black hole” in defense spending that had been left by the previous Labor government in 2010. He said that now for the first time in years the MoD’s core equipment program was fully funded and affordable.

The £1-billion order of 14 new Boeing Chinooks (12 new and two replacements) for the Royal Air Force (RAF), announced in August last year by the previous defense minister Liam Fox, has now been confirmed. The aircraft will be built at Boeing’s Ridley Park facility near Philadelphia and will be delivered between 2013 and 2015. In 2009 the previous government announcement an order for 22 Chinooks, but the order was never confirmed.

There will be money for the UK Apache Life Extension Program, which should bring technologies already planned in the U.S. Army’s own Apache fleets within Block II and Block III upgrades into the British version of the attack helicopter. AgustaWestland assembled the majority of the British Apaches under license from Boeing and are a unique version of the attack helicopter. This has resulted in the problem that a number of Boeing’s Block upgrades for U.S. Army aircraft cannot be directly applied to the British version (the UK version has Rolls Royce RTM322 engines and BAE Systems HIDAS defensive aid suites, for example).

Hammond also guaranteed the delivery of the RAF’s Puma Mk2 upgraded helicopters, a program that was launched in 2009. As virtually all of the 28 helicopters are nearing completion, with the work largely carried out in Romania overseen by Eurocopter, this would have been costly and embarrassing to cancel. The Puma has been in service in the UK since the early 1970s.

Additionally, Hammond confirmed “investment in new Wildcat helicopters, the Merlin upgrade program and the assessment phase for Merlin marinization.”

The AW159 Wildcat is a modern, improved version of the British Army’s Lynx helicopter, which also is of late 70s vintage. The Wildcat program currently plans for the manufacture of 34 AW159s to the Army, 28 to the Royal Navy and a further eight in a light attack configuration. Delivery is set for the end of 2016.

As for the AW101, the Merlin Capability Sustainment Program (MCSP) is a £750-million update to the Royal Navy’s AW101 Merlin anti-submarine/anti-surface helicopter. The program includes technology enhancements to the aircraft, ground preparation/analysis systems, training systems and support infrastructure. The assessment for the Merlin marinization refers to the transfer of RAF Merlin Mk3s to the Royal Navy to replace the Sea King ‘Junglies’ of the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) that are nearing the end of their service life.

Hammond said, “The government is determined to get to grips with a legacy of poor project management, weak decision-making and financial indiscipline within the MoD. We have made a symbolic break with the failed practices of the past and the vast black hole that blighted defense spending has gone.”

This is not to say that there are still many areas where investment has been shelved. One example is the halting of the rotary wing element to the UK Military Flying Training System (UK MFTS), where new helicopters were intended to bring rotary flight training up-to-date with the modern glass cockpits that are seeing increasing use with all of the services. Instead the Defence Helicopter Flying School looks set to continue training pilots on its aging Eurocopter AS350s and Bell 412s at RAF Shawbury.

One particular point to note in the PR12 statement was that the research and development (R&D) spending across defense would remain at a very low 1.2 percent of the total £160-billion budget. With British helicopter fleets in the main having been worked extremely hard, first in Iraq and more recently in Afghanistan, the number of hours that each of the fleets has endured—especially the Chinooks, Apaches and Merlins—and rapidly advanced all the lifetime milestones. It is likely that the overall number of helicopters in the MoD’s inventory will continue to decline in the coming years (the Sea King fleet will be gone by 2016 and it is doubtful whether the full quota of British Apaches will be maintained and at what level of complexity compared to their U.S. block-upgraded cousins).

What is certain from the current budget is that no next generation rotorcraft development will be possible in the UK for some time to come.

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