Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shedding some light on the Wildcat Light Assault Helicopter

Not much light, sincerely, as we still do not know what the new variant will offer over the other two, but the Light Assault Helicopter, Wildcat, seems set to go to the Special Forces support role, according to Defense News.

When i first read of the LAH variant, my first guess was that it would be a weaponized variant of the Army Wildcat, to be issued to 847 NAS, as part of Commando Helicopter Force, to improve the squadron's capability to support Royal Marines operations.
But soon after, i realized that it was unlikely, and came up with a second hypothesis, that now seems to prove true: the helicopters will be assigned to Special Forces support role, which likely means that the funding for the 4 additional airframes (plus conversion of a further 4 from the 34 Army helos on order) will come from the 500 or so millions allocated to SF in the SDSR.
Interestingly, prior to the SDSR publication there had been suggestions of a possible order for 10 Special Forces helicopters, speculated, back then, to possibly be NH90 TTH modified. Of course, clarity was never really made on the subject, as always happens with SF-related information.

DefenseNews notes that the Wildcat LAH will replace the current Lynx AH7 in the SF role, but steps short of making a guess on which unit will use them.
I feel a bit more daring than them, and i'm willing to bet that, if this plan is true, it applies to 657 Squadron Army Air Corps.

657 Sqn is part of the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, together with 7 Sqn RAF flying the Chinook. Lynx helicopters (reportedly armed with M134 miniguns) escorted Chinooks from 7 Sqn RAF in the famous operation Barras in Sierra Leone, for example. Both squadrons are based in RAF Odiham.
651 Sqn AAC flies the Islander fixed wing plane in support of Special Forces, and last but not least, the AAC also provides 8th Flight, the unit which was known to fly SAS teams in urban areas using civilian painted A109 helicopters that were captured from the Argies in the Falklands in 1982. The A109 has actually been replaced with civilian-colored Dauphin helicopters, but this is less known. 

Unless the squadron's colors are put into suspended animation to bring back to life another historic unit, and i deem it unlikely, 657 Sqn will practically certainly get the new SF Wildcats, and it will probably be the only squadron on the type with its own assigned, fixed fleet of airframes, since the 30 Army Wildcats are likely to be kept in a pool and assigned to the various squadrons (including 847 NAS) according to the needs of the moment, with airframes made available to each squadron to keep a mandated number of crews trained and current.

It is not yet clear if there will be a reduction in the number of squadrons, or in their strenght, or both. In theory, the Army Wildcat should go and equip:

1st Regiment AAC
652 AAC - according to some rumors, it will be the first unit to re-equip on the new helo
661 AAC

9th Regiment AAC
659 AAC
669 AAC
672 AAC

671 - Conversion to Role Training, part of 2nd (Training) Regiment AAC

847 Naval Air Squadron - assigned to 3rd Commando Brigade's Commando Helicopter Force (6 helos)

30 helicopters for all these squadrons are very few, considering also that the current mandated strenght for a Lynx squadron of the Army is 8 helicopters.
However, 5 frontline army squadrons would be needed to meet "the rule of the five", and if the helicopters are kept in a pool and assigned each time on a mission-shaped basis, there's no apparent reason why the number of Sqns should drop.

The 28 Navy Wildcats will go into 702 NAS (OCU squadron) and into 815 NAS, the largest helicopter squadron of the UK, in which each helicopter will go and form a Small Ship Flight, to be assigned for cruises to frigates and destroyers. As always happens with the Fleet Air Arm, a temporary squadron (700W for Wildcat) stands up to work the new type into service, as happened, last time, for the Merlin with 700M squadron. 

In the meanwhile, British Forces News reports that, after enjoying the first landings at sea on RFA Argus, the Wildcat has landed in Portsmouth, where it will prepare for the challenges of next month, when the new helicopter will embark on HMS Iron Duke and work with her out at sea to write the manual of ops for the Type 23 - Wildcat combination.

In Portsmouth, a a 31-strong test team needed to ensure Wildcat can land on a Type 23 and can be moved in and out of the hangar using the ship’s helicopter recovery system. On-board refuelling and ammunition checks were also carried out. In january, they will do it again, but out in open sea, during a 3 weeks test cruise.

As an interesting, but totally unrelated news, ex RFA Largs Bay has arrived in Australia under her new name, HMAS Choules, and new pennant, L100, sporting a very evident hangar module added on her deck.

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