It has been in the works for quite some time, and will be a building site for several years still, but the UK is finally standing up its own Combat Aviation Brigade to bring some order in the convoluted and overlapping command arrangements of its helicopter forces.
I’ve known about this plan for many months, but couldn’t really talk about it before some sort of official announcement was released. This finally happened yesterday, even if, primarily because of the pandemic, it was an extremely low-key news.
I’ve been and I remain extremely critical of much of what the Army is doing and saying about its future, but for all it’s worth I can certainly say I am a big supporter of this one move. It is arguably long, long overdue and the brigading of the units involved in fielding aviation groups in support of british land forces has long featured in my recommendations for the future structures of the Army.
The Wings of what once was 24 Air Mobile Brigade have been chosen as the TRF for the new 1 star command, 1st Aviation Brigade (1st Avn Bde). Fun fact: in my proposals for the future, as far back as 2013, I had seen this coming. It has to be admitted, however, that it was a relatively easy guess: the other likely candidate was the Striking Eagle badge that used to be 16 Air Assault Brigade’s symbol until the return of Pegasus In 2018 and which has stuck around since as badge of the Attack Helicopter Force.
Back to serious matters, 1st Aviation Brigade is the main component of a wider restructuring of Army aviation (known as Project COLINDALE) which has been very, very slowly progressing ever since 2015.
Primary drivers for change are the need to generate efficiencies; the need to build a C2 construct capable to brigade aviation elements in support of a Divisional deployment, rather than penny-packet groups only suited to brigade or sub-brigade deployments; and the ongoing review of the infrastructure footprint of the Army Air Corps.
Notoriously, all three Services have had to craft a plan to divest a lot of bases, barracks and land in an effort to achieve savings and enable the modernization of the remaining infrastructure. Army Aviation is supposed to do its bit in this project, but decisions on the future footprint remain elusive. Essentially, the biggest dilemma is whether to close down Middle Wallop or Wattisham, since Yeovilton is going nowhere and there isn’t a real alternative to keeping Aldergrove for operations in Northern Ireland.
From what can be observed from the outside, the closure of Wattisham with the migration soutwards of the Apache squadrons is the desired outcome, but clearly the complexity and cost of the move are very much preventing the sealing of a definitive plan. It is clear that the time for such a move is now, if not yesterday, since the transition between the current AH1 standard and the new Block III standard is soon to begin on the flightline, with the first remanufactured helicopters arriving this year. The Army would like to co-locate all Apache training phases, currently split between Conversion To Type carried out by 673 AAC at Middle Wallop and Conversion To Role done by 653 AAC, Wattisham, with the ultimate objective of also merging the 2 squadrons into a single one (653 AAC).
3 and 4 Regiments will remain otherwise relatively unchanged, each with its two frontline squadrons and with an uplift to manpower in the ground element to sustain an higher operational tempo for high intensity operations.
In terms of Command and Control, aviation groups have so far deployed under the control of HQs pieced together from disparate Joint Helicopter Command resources, assigned to the commander of one of the constituent forces. The Commander of the Attack Helicopter Force has been the core for one such “makeshift” Aviation Task Force (ATF-1); Commando Helicopter Force provides another (ATF-2) and Support Helicopter Force (RAF Chinook and Puma 2 squadrons) provide the basis for a third.
The use of Force Commanders and augmentees from JHC is no longer judged sufficient as it lacks the command capacity and battle staff power needed to plan, refine and execute multiple tasks at the necessary speed, concurrency and endurance.
The formation of a permanent 1-star command with associated staff also offers the benefit of providing a “plug-in point” that better enables integration with international forces and, primarily, with the US Army’s own Combat Aviation Brigades. Most countries the UK will be working with, have long had a 1-star Aviation HQ directing employment of Aviation Battlegroups, and others, like France, have in recent times gone in the same direction.
1st Aviation Brigade, based in Middle Wallop, will be born out of the progressive merging of the current Attack Helicopter Force (AHF) command element (the overarching command sitting above 3 and 4 Regiments AAC) with the Aviation Reconnaissance Force (ARF, essentially the overarching command element overseeing 1 and 5 Regiments AAC) and later of the Watchkeeper Force (WKF) as well.
Instead of having separate AHF and ARF forces, the Avn Bde will instead be a deputy commader in chief for the ATTACK and one for the FIND functions.
Watchkeeper will continue to be operated by 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, which continues to work on equipping and training 4 equipment batteries. The change of command won’t be particularly dramatic since 47 RA has been under Joint Helicopter Command control already since 31 august 2016, when it resubordinated from 1st ISR Brigade as part of efforts to overcome the problems that have tormented this UAV capability in its work up to full service readiness.
Under the 31 (HQ) Bty, 10 (Assaye) Bty and 43 (Lloyd’s Company) Bty were the first subunits to become operational with Watchkeeper, and have since been joined by 74 (The battleaxe Company) Bty and finally by 57 (Bhurtpore) Bty, which resubordinated from 32 RA during 2019.
|From 2019, Watchkeeper is finally cleared to fly from Boscombe Down. Intense operations are ongoing also from Akrotiri, Cyprus.|
1 Regiment AAC has had to abandon all ambitions of eventually re-activating 669 AAC and 672 AAC squadrons on AW-159 WILDCAT, as had once been planned. These ex Lynx units have now disbanded, leaving the Regiment composed of 661 and 659 Squadrons, plus 652 as training unit delivering both Conversion to Type and to Role. The regiment will have the ability to force generate as an Aviation Battlegroup for deployment.
4 Regiment AAC has under command 656 and 664 Squadrons on Apaches. The first is the specialist in Apache shipboard operations and the primary supplier of Attack Helicopter support to 3 Commando Brigade. 664 is primarily aligned to 16 Air Assault Brigade. The regiment will increasingly contributed to the max output required by Division scale operations, however. It should eventually take responsibility also for the combined CTT and CTR training unit, 653 Sqn.
3 Regiment AAC has the Apache squadrons 662 and 663. Both Attack Helicopter regiments will have the ability to force generate as Aviation Battlegroups for deployment.
5 Regiment AAC will oversee internal security operations (essentially, Northern Ireland and Special Forces support) and will also oversee aviation support to training overseas (7 Flight in Brunei and 29 Flight in BATUS). The regiment is otherwise made up by 2 squadrons; 665 AAC operates Gazelle helicopters from Aldergrove, while 651 AAC operates fixed wing ISLANDER and DEFENDER aircraft from the same base. Since 1 April 2019, however, 651 Sqn has been transferred to the RAF and once the new arrangements eventually reach Full Operational Capability, 651 will be removed from the Army’s order of battle. 665 AAC is instead intended to re-equip with a new helicopter replacing Gazelle. The expectation is that a small number of H-145 helicopters will be acquired for the role. Some could also replace the Gazelles of 29 Flight in BATUS, Canada.
658 Squadron, which operates in support of the SAS with Dauphin helicopters, will sit under the regiment but clearly its actual line of command is somewhere else.
The Brigade also commands 6 Regiment AAC with its 4 squadrons of reservists (675. 677, 678 and 679) who backfill ground support roles positions and provide war establishment uplift to the manpower of regular squadrons.
The training regiments (2, 7 and 9) of the Army Air Corps will not be included in the brigade. With WILDCAT training delivered directly by 1 Regiment AAC via 652 Sqn and with the same approach eventually planned for adoption by 3 and 4 Regiments with 653 AAC taking over all phases of APACHE training, it is expected that 7 Regiment AAC will fold its remaining functions into 5 Regiment AAC (training for the successor to Gazelle and oversight of overseas flights) and then disband. There are no firm official dates yet for this to happen; the main obstacle being the enduring inability to agree on whether to vacate Wattisham.
2 Regiment will carry on delivering the early phases of AAC personnel training in 668 and 676 Squadrons.
9 Regiment has been recently stood up at RAF Shawbury as part of the Defence Helicopter Flying School and has taken under command 670 AAC and 60 RAF Squadrons. It works alongside 2 Maritime Air Wing which delivers training through 660 AAC and 705 NAS squadrons. This arrangement will carry on.
The aviation brigade will deploy under 3(UK) Division for major divisional operations and will deploy scalable C2 elements and associated Aviation Battlegroups or Units of Action for smaller scale contingencies. The Brigade will be resourced to operate with “at least” 4 Avg BGs and will be able to take under command non-british formations.
In particular, it is assumed than in any “max effort” scenario requiring 3(UK) Division to be fielded, 1st Aviation Brigade would have to deploy the vast majority of all frontline helicopter fleets, as it is expected than the Littoral Manoeuvre helicopter force (the Commando Helicopter Force with the MERLINs of 845 and 846 NAS plus the WILDCATs of 847 NAS, reinforced by 656 AAC with APACHEs and some CHINOOKs for heavy lift) would be required to operate as the same time as the main ground-based force.
Air mobility up to Company level is also assumed as requirement for Rear Area security: during a Divisional deployment, a Light Brigade formed out of units from 1st (UK) Division would deploy with Rear Area security roles.
It is assumed that 2 Squadrons of CHINOOKs, for up to 26 helicopters in total, would be deployed for such a large scale operation. If massed together for a primary operation, these helicopters could easily airlift a whole air assault battalion in one wave. If realized, this ambition would mean deploying more Chinooks than are found normally in American CABs.
24 Apache would also be the target, same number as are found in an attack battalion within an American CAB.
The main weakness of british aviation is naturally Medium Lift. Wildcat has extremely limited lift capability, while the small number of Puma HC2s is expected to be, for the most part, busy with Special Forces requests. The Americans, conversely, employ large numbers of Black Hawks, including several permanently tasked with CASEVAC / MEDEVAC role. French, Italians, Germans and others count on large numbers of NH-90 for the medium lift, but, with the sole exception of Germany, are in turn much weaker in terms of heavy lift.
Apart from the new and enhanced capabilities of command and execution of multiple concurrent operations, the Brigade will benefit from a substantial restructuring of 7 Battalion REME, which also includes 132 Squadron, Royal Logistic Corps, combining Equipment Support and repair with logistic sustainment of the deployed force.
Regimental REME workshops within 1, 3 and 4 Regiments will be restructured and strengthened with their own Equipment Support platoons and vehicle platoon for sustaining increased tempo of operations in the field.
|The 3 british Chinooks deployed in Mali give much needed Heavy Lift support to the french forces in the region. In their first year of deployment they flew for 1192 hours, lifting 7,052 soldiers and 475 tonnes of freight|
On top of those organic resources, 7 REME will provide a 2nd line of Aviation Close Support in the field, with two Aviation Companies (71 and 72) and a Field Company specializing in Recovery (70 Fd Coy). 73 Aviation Coy relocated to Yeovilton in the last few years and will merge with 1 AAC regiment’s workshop elements to provide organic support.
1st Aviation Brigade is very much inspired by the US Army’s own CABs, but, for the moment at least, will continue to suffer of some of the typically british over-convoluted and overlapping layers of command and inter-service arrangements.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, for example, the brigade does not seem destined to include 244 Signal Squadron, the designate aviation support comms units, which remains more loosely at JHC level, despite the unquestioned need for Communication and Information Support. I fully expect experience in the field to eventually lead to the resubordination of said squadron into the brigade, regardless of what the assumptions are right now.
More significantly, while 1st Avn Bde will have very significant organic FIND and ATTACK capabilities thanks to WILDCAT, WATCHKEEPER and APACHE, it won’t have direct day to day control over Manoeuvre helicopters as the CHINOOK and PUMA Squadrons are part of the RAF.
Connection with these crucial elements will be maintained through the higher level of command (Joint Helicopter Command), and deployed support helicopters will fall under 1st Avn Bde control during operations. Even then, it is acknowledged that “support helicopter squadrons have less organic life support than attack and recce formations and are not expected to manoeuvre in the same way”.
Similarly, the brigade won’t have direct control of the Tactical Supply Wing and Joint Helicopter Support Squadron.
This once again brings into focus the unhelpful awkwardness of having the troop carrying helicopters, quite frankly, sitting under the “wrong” Service. I don’t intend to denigrate the RAF’s commitment to the Support Helicopter Force, much as I will be inexorably accused of doing exactly that. I believe I’m simply stating a fact of life.
I will also immediately acknowledge that it is, at the moment and in the foreseeable future at the very least, almost unthinkable to prospect a transfer of CHINOOK and PUMA in Army hands. The effects on manpower could admittedly be disastrous if a well established RAF “family” was broken up, dramatically changing the career prospects of those who serve into it. Moreover, the Army is the Service that is most severely struggling with recruitment and retention, as well as grappling with decades of accumulated obsolescence across its structures and vehicle fleets, leading to a budget which is already broken as it is. As a consequence, I am NOT recommending a transfer at this time, although I will forever remark that it should be an objective for the future, perhaps to be incrementally implemented alongside the purchase of new build CHINOOKs to replace the oldest airframes in the coming years (assuming that the ongoing CHINOOK Capability Sustainment Programme does survive the new Integrated Review, of course).
Transferring capabilities is difficult, but not impossible: the already mentioned case of 651 AAC is an example, and the transfer of MERLIN HC3 to the Navy is another.
What I am unashamedly urging is the immediate consideration of alternative joint solutions to bring the Support Helicopter Force into the Aviation Brigade and to restructure CHINOOK and PUMA 2 ground support / life support elements to deliver a more homogeneous capability for manoeuvre and flexible basing. As of now, APACHE and WILDCAT units are aiming for an increased ability to deploy forward and switch between Forward Operating Bases and multiple FARPs to operate in bitterly contested scenarios, while CHINOOK and PUMA 2 remain more decisively tied to availability of a better established Main Operating Base.
In addition, I believe that any honest appraisal of the resources available would conclude that creating a coherent Aviation Sustainment Battalion by combining Tactical Supply Wing, JHSS and 132 RLC Sqn is the sound thing to do. 7 REME could then focus entirely on Equipment Support.
Finally, proper planning should go into an integrated plan for adjusting / expanding the warfighting establishment as required, with Reserve support coming both from 6 AAC Regiment and from Royal Auxiliary Air Force formations. 1st Aviation Brigade will indeed include 6 AAC Regiment in its structure exactly for that purpose, and RauxAF elements connected to the Support Helicopter Force will, in a way or another, end up involved in any case.
Better to properly develop the arrangements in peacetime than scramble later when deployment time comes.