Monday, November 28, 2011

The armed forces out of SAR; EMALS launches the F35C

The big news of today are that the Transport Department will take entirely over Search and Rescue matters from 2015, with the current Sea King fleet manned by RAF and RN bowing out and the military accompanied to the exit door, after many years of sterling service in the role.

The UK organisation for civil maritime and civil aviation search and rescue is derived from the UK Government’s adherence to the Convention on the High Seas (1958), the Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) (1974), the Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (1979) and the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago 1944).
The UK is subsequently responsible for SAR measures for ships, aircraft and persons, whether civilian or
military, in the the UK SAR Region (UKSRR), a rather immense stretch of ocean stretching well out into the Atlantic.

The UK SAR area of competence is quite huge, with its far-away western limit being 030° 00’ 00” W

All Sea Kings, of all variants, are to bow out by 2016, and with the Sea King the military role in SAR is to end. The new contract for SAR services, expected to be awarded in 2013, will have to be mission-ready in time to replace the military in the job.

That will mean a considerable reduction in the helicopter force available to Navy and RAF both, probably accompanied by losses of jobs and redundancies.

In the case of the Royal Navy, the SAR mission is covered by 771 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall and HMS Gannet in Prestwick, near Ayr – the latter being the busiest search and rescue unit in the UK. The Sea King HAR5 is used, in its typical red-grey colors.

771 Naval Air Squadron
HMS Gannet, the Sea King det at Prestwick airport, is the most active SAR base in the UK
A RN Sea King HAR5

In the RAF, SAR is a job for the Sea King HAR3 / 3A helicopters of 203 (Reserve) Squadron [OCU for the type, based on RAF Valley since 2008], 22 Squadron [three Flights, A flies from Royal Marines Base Chivenor, B flies from the AAC base at Wattisham and C from RAF Valley] and 202 Squadron [again three flights, A in RAF Boulmer, B in RAF Lossiemouth and C at RAF Leconfield]. RAF Sea Kings operate from Boulmer, Chivenor, Leconfield, Lossiemouth, Valley and Wattisham and have a maximum endurance of 6 hours. This gives a radius of action of approximately 300 nautical miles from base, that can be extended by refuelling from forward bases, oil platforms or suitably equipped RN ships. They are well known for their yellow fuselage.

The RAF SAR helicopter force, on 3 squadrons, will also be lost come 2016

The RAF Sea King HAR3 SAR helicopter is quite an iconic and well known sight

The RAF provides Mountain Rescue Teams based at Kinloss, Leuchars, Leeming, Stafford and St Athan. Each MRT is available at one hours notice and is operationally controlled by the ARCC at RAF Kinloss. The teams are fully equipped with their own vehicles and have a comprehensive communications suite which includes VHF, UHF and HF radios as well as a Satcom capability. The teams work closely with the military SAR helicopters and can provide a rapid response to both military and civilian incidents in all areas of inhospitable terrain.
RAF MRTs maintain a close liaison with the Police and civil mountain rescue organisations. At the moment, it is not clear what their fate will now be.

The RAF also used to maintain one Nimrod MPA at 60 minutes readiness, 24 hours a day, at RAF
Kinloss for SAR duties. The Nimrod could fly at high speed to a distance of approximately
800 nautical miles from base and then search for a period of 5 hours, and did so to great effect more than once. Of course this is one of the capabilities lost ever since the Nimrod MR2 was grounded, and the MRA4 cancelled.

Overview of the current Armed Forces contribution to the SAR effort and organization. The MCA adds four bases with helicopters, with one of these bases due for closure in 2015 under the new plan.

In terms of losses, the Maritime Coastguard Agency also was deprived of its 4 Emergency Towing Vessels in the government budget cuts. Anglian Prince, Anglian Princess, Anglian Sovereign and Anglian Monarch, were based in strategic locations around the UK, with two covering the south coast of England, at Falmouth in Cornwall and Dover in Kent, and two in Scottish waters, at Stornoway the Western Isles (the Outer Hebrides), and Lerwick in the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney).
One of said vessels, the Anglian Prince, had its most known Swan song by helping out the grounded HMS Astute submarine. 

Still, the four-strong fleet did not survive the drive for cuts, and was chopped for just over 30 million pounds of savings.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening told MPs that her department would take over the service, which will be fully civilianised, provided from ten bases instead of the existing 12. The two bases from which SAR helicopter operations are to be removed are RAF Boulmer (2015) and MCA Portland (2017).
Other activities at RAF Boulmer will be "unaffected".

From 2015 onwards, the Portland base will be entirely closed down, so it is not just a matter of losing the helicopter flight. The south coast will instead be covered by a new Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) in Fareham, Hampshire. This is part of plans for the Future of the Coastguard service

The single Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) manned by 96 regular coastguard staff divided into shifts to provide comprehensive 24 hours a day throughout the year. The MOC will act as a national strategic centre to manage Coastguard operations across a network of interlinked coastguard centres, as well as co-ordinating rescue activities for many incidents occurring anywhere around the coast of the UK on a day to day basis depending on demand and work levels in other centres. The MOC will generate and analyse a national maritime picture using information from a variety of sources. It will be based in a ready built operations centre at Fareham originally constructed as a Fire Control Centre.

Several current MCA sites are being closed, starting from next year and out to 2015, and a reduction in the number of personnel is also planned.

The new SAR helicopter plan will also be the end for HMS Gannet, and it will be the end for all the military SAR flights deployed in 8 different military bases all over the country, which will be replaced by sole-civilian units.

A most interesting passage in the MOD announcement is:

Bidders for the future service will be able to put forward options which will utilise a mixed fleet of modern helicopters based on the capabilities required at each of the bases (such as range, carrying capacity and endurance). The services will be capable of delivery by different contractors providing complementary services.

This seems to imply that several different kind of helicopters could be used, differently from what was expected in the famous, cancelled Soteria contract and associated aborted SAR replacement plan, which would use a single helicopter type (the Sikorsky S92 in the Soteria proposal)

We will see which kind of operational fleet will emerge from the 2013 contract. We will also see if the "fully civilian" method survives, or if, as had been suggested prior to Soteria contract being cancelled, a number of RAF and RN crews eventually have a reprieve and continue to serve in the SAR role with some kind of arrangement.
The current military SAR crews, after all, represent the SAR expertise within the armed forces, and have a secondary C-SAR role and capability in wartime mobilization.

It is to be hoped that the MOD, at least, won't have to fund the service anymore as it passes under another Department jurisdiction. Funding a Sea King SAR replacement was always going to be a problem for the cash-stripped ministry of defence. Now, if the government was bright, the billion or so planned for the replacement SAR initiative within the MOD would stay with the MOD, and be used for replacing the many capabilities lost with the loss of Nimrods.

One can hope, at least.

In a much more pleasant news, the EMALS catapult continues to enjoy success, and has now launched the F35C, in a major achievement for both programmes, and representing a great news for the both of US Navy and RN.
The US Department of Defense announced today that the first launch happened November 18.

In the past 12 months, the EMALS team launched a T-45 Goshawk, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, a C-2A Greyhound and several F/A-18 aircraft with and without stores, while the F35C totaled some 50 steam catapult launches, ensuring capability with the current C13 steam catapult, that in the US Navy will be working for a lot more years, even as EMALS goes online on the new-built carriers.

Ensuring compatibility with EMALS remained fundamental, and even more so it was to provide information and reassurance to the UK, which has in the EMALS the future of its carrier strike capability. 

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