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Helicopters (Operations)

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

The provision of battlefield helicopter capability in Iraq and Afghanistan has attracted considerable interest among hon. Members and the British public. I therefore felt it would be helpful to set out in some detail, within the constraints of operational security, the current position, and our future intentions.

This statement does not cover our wider plans on helicopters: it is focused on our plans relating to current operations over the next two years. At the same time, I am keen that hon. Members appreciate the wider context. While we are focused on providing as much helicopter support as we can to troops on operations, we must also manage our helicopter fleet to ensure that we maintain a sustainable capability in the future. One question often asked by hon. Members is why the number of helicopters deployed is significantly less than the number in our inventory. The answer is that the number deployed is limited by the need to keep the burden on our airframes, crews and ground support staff at a sustainable level over time. We also have to make aircraft available in the UK for training, maintenance and essential modification programmes. This means that, as a rule of thumb, it takes three additional helicopters to sustain the deployment of a single helicopter on operations.

To this first principle we have added recently a second principle, which is that if possible, each helicopter type should be deployed in only one operational theatre at any time. Concurrent deployment of a single type in both theatres increases the pressure on crews and supervisory staff, with implications for our ability to train them effectively between deployments, for harmony ratios, and ultimately the risk of them leaving the service. On the positive side, focusing each helicopter type in one theatre has allowed us to rationalise our logistics and support arrangements. We have completed the process of consolidating our medium and heavy fleets across the two theatres, with Merlin and Puma in Iraq, and Chinook and Sea King in Afghanistan.

Against the background of these two principles, we are making significant progress in enhancing UK helicopter capability for operational commanders. I have approved the decision to commit the Merlin fleet (alongside Puma) to Iraq, to support our continuing efforts to train and mentor the Iraqi army, and maintaining the ability to re-intervene in extreme circumstances. We intend to deploy a further two Merlin to Iraq towards the end of this summer.

Turning to Afghanistan, the drawdown in Iraq has enabled us to remove Sea King from Iraq and, working with AgustaWestland, to fit them with new, state-of-the-art main and tail rotor blades to deliver improved performance in hot and high conditions, and deploy them to Afghanistan. They are performing extremely well, and a further two helicopters deployed last month.

Through the deployment of the Sea Kings, and improvements to support and crewing arrangements for Chinook and Apache (assisted by the consolidation of types in one theatre), we have increased the total amount of flying time—measured by the number of hours per month—available to commanders in the south of Afghanistan by over a third since last March. (We do not release the total number of helicopters or hours for reasons of operational security: it would allow others to infer too much about our overall capability.) But we are clear that commanders on the ground will always be able to use more helicopters, and we are determined to continue to make every effort to give them the options they need.

Chinook is the UK support helicopter best suited to the demanding hot and high conditions in Afghanistan. In the last six months, we have ramped-up the maintenance regime and logistics support to increase the HC2/2a Chinook flying rate on operations by 20 per cent.

In relation to Apache in Afghanistan, we are clear about the importance of ensuring that we maximise this proven battle winning capability. We deployed the Apache on operations three years ahead of schedule, and have been increasing steadily on the number of Apache flying hours available to commanders each month—most recently by a further 15 per cent. at the end of March. We aim to increase flying hours by a further 25 per cent. by early next year, by deploying additional helicopters, and we are building the logistic support required in terms of spare parts and personnel, particularly engineering manpower, to enable this.

Finally in relation to Afghanistan, it is important to recognise that we are operating there as part of a wider NATO effort, and we draw significantly on helicopter assets provided by allies. We continue to work with allies to identify opportunities for further increases in the capability of the overall NATO fleet. For example, the UK and France have undertaken to support initiatives to set up training courses for crews, and to upgrade aircraft—and recently we established, and agreed to provide seed funding for, a helicopter fund to help improve the availability of NATO and EU helicopters on operations. There were expressions of interest in this latter initiative from several countries at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest, and we are following these up.

In addition, since February 2008, NATO has had in place a commercial helicopter contract designed to enable the movement of freight across the whole of Afghanistan. This contract was recently replaced in the south of Afghanistan by a new contract specifically to deliver the movement of up to 10,000 kilograms of freight per day for the Kandahar hub in Regional Command (South), freeing up a significant number of flying hours for Chinook (and the Apache which support them) for higher priority tasks. In the hotter summer months, this can enable the equivalent of an additional four Chinook sorties per day. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the contracts closely and assess whether there are opportunities to shift any more of our helicopter tasking on to contractors.

That completes the summary of current initiatives on operations. In relation to additional capacity for the future, in March 2007 the Prime Minister and I announced we would be investing in additional support helicopters, purchasing six Merlins from Denmark, and modifying eight Chinook HC3 helicopters to a support role. We stated at the time that this choice of projects had been based on their potential to generate additional capability for operations over the following two years. In relation to Merlin, it should be noted that this sort of timeline—under two years from procurement to fielding—is much shorter than the standard either in the UK or internationally.

Rightly, we have set ourselves challenging targets; and we are making progress towards meeting those targets.

Since the delivery of additional Danish Merlins to the UK last July, the aircraft have been undergoing a complex conversion to meet the UK standard, carried out in partnership with AgustaWestland. We have been modifying the aircraft to a standard where they are suitable for operations in Iraq, including the installation of improved communications systems and state-of-the-art main rotor blades. Three have now been delivered to the RAF for training purposes. The remaining three will be delivered this summer. The addition of these six helicopters will increase the Merlin battlefield helicopter fleet by 25 per cent. and will enable us to deploy the further two Merlin to Iraq this summer referred to above. In the longer-term it remains our intention to deploy Merlin to Afghanistan, and we are looking at what further steps we can take now to shorten the lead-in times ahead of any possible deployment.

We are also making progress with the HC3 Chinooks. This conversion programme involves a redesign of the cockpit area and avionics bays, as well as the modifications necessary to operate in Afghanistan. A contract is in place with Boeing to carry out the conversion work, and we have secured funding from the reserve for the additional theatre-specific modifications necessary for Afghanistan. The project is on schedule for the first converted Chinook to be fielded in late 2009, allowing the Chinook force to begin deploying more helicopters to theatre. The remaining seven will become available over the following months, the last one entering service during the first half of 2010. This is some two years in advance of previous options to field these aircraft. All other enabling personnel and support issues have been planned and funded to coincide with the delivery of the modified aircraft to the front line, thus ensuring that we are ready to deploy them at the earliest opportunity.

I hope that hon. Members will recognise from this short summary that despite the challenges and constraints in this area, we have made significant progress both in delivering additional capability from within our existing assets, and in procuring and adapting additional assets to give operational commanders additional options over the next two years. This is not an area where we can ever afford complacency, but I believe this summary demonstrates that we are on the right path.