Sunday, August 26, 2012

Towards FF2020

Army Air Corps plans

The Army Air Corps is expecting a major mid-life upgrade for the Apache fleet, to extend their service life out to 2040 and keep the helicopters roughly in-line to the US ones. Studies to determine what the upgrade will include are ongoing, and it is possible that some further "naval" features will be added to the helicopter following the experience of operations in Libya. The Future Land Operating Concept studies also make it clear that the Army expects to operate in the littoral more often in the future, so improving the Apache's capability to go at sea is going to be important.

The other big change on the cards is the start of the Wildcat era, which will also imply the loss of one Aviation Regiment and one base under the Army 2020 plan.
The Army Air Corps is due to reorganize its command structure forming the "Aviation Reconnaissance Force", which will control both the 5th Regiment (Manned Airborne Surveillance), flying Defender and Islander fixed-wing airplanes and the 1st and 9th Regiments, flying the Lynx helicopter. This new command should be up and running by the end of this year, under the command of Colonel Richard Leakey.

The 1st Regiment, currently based in Germany with 2 squadrons and formally part of the 1st UK Division, will return to the UK to be based on the Fleet Air Arm base of Yeovilton, where it will be joined by 9 Regiment AAC, transferring from Dishforth, by 2015. Dishforth is likely to close by then, as it will be effectively empty, with nothing in sight that could use the base.
1st and 9th Regiments will then merge as they convert to the Wildcat. The Army's Wildcat Fielding Team is already up and running at Yeovilton, alongside the Navy's 700W squadron, which is working to validate the naval variant.
The Army variant of the Wildcat (AH1) will hit IOC next year, and according to current plans the first squadron to convert to the new machine will be 847 Naval Air Service, the squadron supporting 3rd Commando Brigade.

Officers of the Army Air Corps said in July that the plan is for the AAC to operate 4 Wildcat squadrons. It would appear that they refer to frontline squadrons (of course the squadrons will have the manpower, but will only get the full complement of helicopters for deployment, due to the small number of airframes available), and they did not expand on how flying training will be delivered. Currently, 671 Squadron at Middle Wallop acts as Conversion to Type squadron, preparing crews for the Lynx (and Gazelle and Bell 212 too), but it is not clear if there will be changes to this.

Assuming that the 4 AAC squadrons are "frontline" ones, the net loss would be of just one squadron, as 9th Regiment has 3 Squadrons and 1st Regt has 2. Of course, the reduction in airframes that will happen as the Lynx AH7 is retired from service in 2015 is so serious that the actual reduction is worse than it appears, but still acceptable. Especially since, thanks to 847 NAS, the force can meet the "rule of the 5" and have enough manpower to sustain a long enduring committment was it ever necessary.

Farnborough: the first Wildcats are delivered to the MOD. The helicopter in the photo is of the AH (Army) variant, and clearly lacks the radome. The Army and Naval variants will anyway share a lot, included the color scheme. Army Wildcats come wired for later installation of the radar, and for adoption of weapons. Initially, only the naval Wildcat will carry missiles, however.

The Lynx AH9A currently used in Afghanistan will live on at least until 2018, and it might live on longer than that depending on how the situation will evolve. Once it retires, the AH9A will serve the AAC one last time by acting as a source of spare parts for the Wildcat (they have the same engine and other parts will be transferable), enabling a saving of probably around 20 million pounds in spares. Useful to the very end.

One thing that has somewhat vanished from the radars is the increase of the Wildcat order to 66 airframes as part of the Light Assault Helicopter procurement plan. This adjustement to the plan, which appeared in Planning Round 2011, would see 4 AH1 helicopters from the 34 on order become "Light Assault Helicopters", fitted with additional secure radios, fast-roping kit and other Special Forces gear, with a further 4 LAH produced in addition to the current order to give a force of 8 machines.
This plan was confirmed in a ministerial written answer on 14 December 2011: 

Angus Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many Lynx light attack helicopters he plans to convert from the battlefield reconnaissance version; and what the conversion cost will be for each such helicopter. [85589]

Peter Luff: We are planning to increase the number of Wildcat helicopters being purchased from 62 to 66. The fleet will consist of three types: 28 Helicopter Maritime Attack (HMA), 30 Army Helicopter (AH), and eight Light Assault Helicopter (LAH). Four of the LAH aircraft were previously to have been AH type. The costs of conversion are still under consideration.

The NAO Major Project report 2011 estimated the Net Cost of the new plan at 37 million pounds.
The Light Assault Helicopter was meant to replace the Lynx AH7 used by 657 Squadron, based at RAF Odiham, part of the Special Forces Support Wing, but of this plan, apparently finalized late last year, nothing has been heard since.
All statements released in the last months, as the MOD received the first Wildcat helos, speak of 62 airframes on order. While this does not necessarily go against the plan announced late next year, which might still be a plan and not a contract signed, it does cause a bit of a frown. It is likely that the NAO Major Projects report 2012, coming out in the autumn, will help understand what exactly is going on.

Replacing the helicopters used by the Special Forces is, after all, very important. So much so, indeed, that prior to the SDSR publication there were rumors about one particular, rare "spending measure" in what was going to be, as we know, a review made of nothing but cuts: at one point, a purchase of 10 helicopters for the Special Forces was mentioned, with the candidate helo being the NH90 no less.
That measure did not pass the concept phase, but replacing the Lynx helos of 657 Squadron remains a priority.

A little piece of good news is that the 6 Regiment (Volunteers) of the Army Air Corps should stand up a third reserve ground crew squadron (probably 666 Sqn) as part of the Army 2020/Future Reserves plans.
The new squadron is to stand up on Yeovilton, to support the Aviation Reconnaissance Force.

C130K and Project Hermes 

A number of C130K airplanes is likely to have its service life extended past the planned 2012 OSD, under a 10 million pounds option supported by the Director Special Forces. On the press, this was prematurely linked to the "A400 Atlas being too large to be suited to the SF mission profiles", but the actual reason (at least for the moment) is simply that the C130J is not yet ready to take on the SF role.
Unfortunately, due to delays in the US with the funding and release of the newest software for the C130J, the RAF was unable to stick to the original schedule of Project Hermes, the adaptation of the C130J to the Special Forces requirements.
A number of C130K will so have to stay around for a longer than planned time, as part of 47 Squadron.

In the future, with the C130J now planned to be out of service in 2022, it will be interesting to see how 47 Squadron is resourced for its job, since the A400 is indeed a very large plane, and the SAS seems to be already leaking out to the press that they do not consider it a good solution for their peculiar needs. Also because, clearly, there will just be too few of them...

A400 Atlas

As of July 2012, the RAF expects to hit IOC with the A400 Atlas cargo plane in 2015, with 3 airplanes in 70 Squadron. The Squadron No. 70 operated C130K until a few years ago when it was disbanded. It will resurrect as the first A400 squadron.
Full Operating Capability (FOC) will be declared in 2018, with 12 airplanes, with all 22 being delivered progressively to enable the C130J to retire in 2022.
The RAF expects to operate the A400 in the squadrons No. 70, No. 30 and No. 24, with this last squadron including the OCU Flight.

47 Squadron, the unit supporting the Special Forces missions, does not figure in the list. It is not absurd to assume that the Director Special Forces will use all its considerable political weight to ensure, come 2022, that a number of C130s live on longer. After all, the 2022 OSD for them is a SDSR10 invention, which wasn't previously envisioned.

Voyager KC2 and KC3

The Voyager force at Brize Norton is slowly working its way to IOC. Currently, 10 Squadron (a resurrected formation which used to fly VC10 until a few years ago) is the sole Voyager unit.
The Tristars fly in 216 Squadron and all VC10s are in 101 Squadron. It is not clear if both squadrons will convert to the Voyager, or if the tanker fleet will be composed by just 2 relatively lage squadrons.


  1. DJSF is right to call to keep the C-130s. But isn't there any other aircraft that can help replace it?

    What do the SAS/SBS use for helicopter transport?

    Will the British Apache upgrades match the US Block III?

    1. There is not an immediately evident replacement for C130 at the moment. A400 is a wise decision for tactical transport, considering that vehicles constantly get heavier, but for Special Forces insertion, a 130 is likely to stay the best option for a long time.

      SAS and SBS are supported by 7 Squadron RAF (Chinook) and 657 AAC (Lynx AH7). In addition, the SAS is supported by an AAC flight with 5 Dauphin helicopters in civilian colors, good for urban undercover ops.

      The British Apache upgrade is still being planned out, but it is likely to draw quite extensively from the Block III upgrade.

    2. In that light, the UKSFs need better helicopters for future ops.

  2. Gaby

    "The Army Air Corps is due to reorganize its command structure forming the "Aviation Reconnaissance Force", which will control both the 5th Regiment (Manned Airborne Surveillance), flying Defender and Islander fixed-wing airplanes and the 1st and 9th Regiments, flying the Lynx helicopter."

    It looks then as if the future of fixed-wing aircraft in the AAC is safe. They do a much under-estimated job, especially in the surveillance role. They were invaluable in N. Ireland.

    Good news about the Lynx AH9A living on at least until 2018, and perhaps even longer. It has a different role from the Wildcat (utility as opposed to reconnaissance).

    " one point, a purchase of 10 helicopters for the Special Forces was mentioned, with the candidate helo being the NH90 no less.)

    I knew nothing of that. Impossible question for you to answer but any ideas about what might replace the Lynx in 657 Sqn? The NH90 would be nice.

    1. I expect that the Wildcat LAH will go ahead, and that will meet the needs of 657 Squadron. It is the simplest and most logic solution.
      Probably they aren't talking of it right now because contracts will only come later on.
      My guess is that Lynx AH9A will end its career with 657 Squadron, in fact, gaining time for the LAH to arrive.

  3. It would be criminal to do away with the Lynx AH9A in 2018. Given that they have been re-engined and had all sorts of other upgrades applied they can surely run for a few more years.

    Similarly it seems quite logical to keep a handful of C-130 around past 2022 for special forces work.

    With the number of airframes already dropping quite dramatically in many areas it is disheartening to see that either newish or easy/cheap to upgrade units are so readily disowned in a relentless pursuit of standardization and short term savings.

  4. Hi Gabriele,
    How many Apache's are operational, and are deployed in squadrons?

    1. In theory, 6 squadrons of 8 plus a training squadron with a further 8.
      9 or so are an attrition reserve, 2 are found busy in other roles or in reserve.
      It is possible, however, that one Apache was effectively written off and cannibalized following a crash landing which caused serious damage, i'm not sure, but i remember something about that.

      The number of airframes effectively available for use at any one time is variable due to maintenance needs etcetera.

    2. theoretically, how many Apaches per squadron?

    3. Six squadrons of 8 helos each.

  5. Gaby,

    "The Army and Naval variants will anyway share a lot, included the color scheme. Army Wildcats come wired for later installation of the radar."

    The colour scheme being what, do you think, for the Army machines? They have traditionally had green/brown land-type camouflage. What good would a Navy-type grey colour be, unless, of course the Army plans a lot more sea-based operations, as in the case of Libya.

    So the Army Wildcats will have the radars eventually. I would think that, given the Wildcat's reconnaissance role, they would be essential.

    1. I think there are currently absolutely no plans to fit a radar to the AAC Wildcats. It does not seem to be a requirement.
      In future, we'll see.

  6. Hi, newbie to the site. Just a silly question. It seems that most British AAC helicopters are painted in sky grey, except Apache. Any reasons for it? I though UK Apaches were assembled locally by a different contractor. Why retaining American style Army Green painting pattern?

  7. Thank you Gabriele.

    Good that you highlight the pitiful numbers of Wildcat.
    I have sent over 5 Freedom of Information Act requests to the MoD over the past several years demanding answers on how they mitigate for replacing 150+ Lynx across the RN & AAC fleets with a mere 62.

    I recieved mostly drivel in response, including a claim that the Army only had 5 Lynx Squadrons, and would retain them. I had already pointed out that actually there are 8, including 847 and the Lynx squadron in 5 Regiment.

    Lies, lies, lies.

    I agree with you that replacing the UKSF assets should be top priority.

    I believe such is the political weight of Director Special Forces that 47 Squadron will have its own assets, as you suggest, and that the extra Lynx will be procured as LAH for 657 Squadron. They must be! As there is nothing else.

    On air to air refueling, another PFI scandal. We had over 25 VC10 and Tristar, replaced by 14 Voyager.
    Of these, RAF will only have 9, the rest rented out, thus trashing their airframe hours. Once 1 is sent to the Falklands to replace the VC10 there then even less!

    1. Special Forces were, we are told, the only ones who actually got more money out of even the SDSR10.
      That makes me hope that their voice will be loud enough to be heard.

      My personal expectation is for the LAH procurement to go ahead, and return to the spotlight in a not too far away future.


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