PARIS — European nations field several hundred military helicopters, for heavy transport, battlefield utility, and various attack missions.
Yet, six years after the beginning of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, European military contingents deployed in both countries remain woefully under-equipped in terms of helicopter support.
The lack of helicopters forces ground forces to deploy and resupply by road, with trucks that are extremely vulnerable to improvised explosive devices and to other kinds of attack, which together have accounted for most of the casualties suffered since military operations began.
At a recent meeting in Brussels, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, chairman of the European Union’s Military Committee, noted that "the European [helicopter] fleet consists of around 1,700 helicopters (.../...) [which] are for the most part old, with some airframes having been in service for over 30 years, often under severe conditions of use." He added that "spare parts...are in short supply, and there is an increasingly urgent need to maintain them. All in all, barely 50 percent of the aircraft are available at any one time."
The real issue is Europe’s shortage of helicopters that are suited for operations in very hot, and very high, locations. Most helicopters in European forces are designed for ISA +15 conditions, so they run out of power as soon as the thermometer tops 30 C or the altimeter tops a few thousand feet.
The British army took several years to react, but has now procured additional EH-101s from Denmark, and launched the upgrade of mothballed Chinook Mk 3s and the re-engining of some Lynx Mk. 9Ts, but they will not be available for several years.
In parallel, other European helicopter initiatives are taking shape, but at geological speeds. In a nutshell, "NATO is focussing on addressing immediate needs for Afghanistan, while [the European Defence Agency, (EDA)] is working on more structural solutions," the head of the European Defence Agency, Javier Solana, said at the same Brussels conference.
EDA is taking a three-pronged approach to reducing the helicopter shortage, Solana noted. In the short-term, training helicopter pilots to fly in more challenging environments, such as deserts and mountains. For the medium-term, it is looking at options for upgrading existing assets, in particular the hundreds of Mil helicopters in the inventories of central and east European countries. For the long-term, beyond 2020, the French-German project for the Future Transport Helicopter offers an excellent opportunity for wider participation in Europe and also offers potential for transatlantic cooperation.
Once again, the problem is Europe’s inability to react quickly. When faced with an urgent need for heavily protected vehicles to protect its soldiers from improvised explosive devices, the Pentagon ordered 22,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, of which more than 10,000 have been deployed in theater since the first was delivered in 2007.
European shortcomings were pointedly illustrated by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in an Oct. 25, 2007 speech at the Conference of European Armies, when he pointed out, "Earlier this year the U.S. extended its Aviation Bridging Force in Afghanistan in Kandahar because the mightiest and wealthiest military alliance in the history of the world [read: NATO] was unable to produce 16 helicopters needed by the ISAF commander. Sixteen."
One important aspect of the problem is cost. Gen. Bentegeat estimated the cost of the NH90 at a little more than €20 million ($26 million) apiece, while each flying hour costs €7,000; in all, the purchase price will be paid a second time to operate a helicopter for 15 years at the rate of 200 flying hours a year — the European norm. In other words, an NH90 will cost €40 million each to buy and operate through 15 years.
But helicopters as sophisticated as the NH90 are not needed for all missions, so inexpensive civilian-owned helicopters, like the Mil-8/-17 series, available in large numbers could cheaply and quickly take up the slack until more lasting solutions can be implemented.
At its last meeting on April 2, the EDA Steering Board tasked the Agency to present to ministers in May "a comprehensive approach with an associated roadmap for upgrading Mi-17 transport helicopters."
EDA should urgently establish a transport helicopter pool, so it can deploy effective and affordable helicopters to Afghanistan as soon as possible. Upgrades and developments are a waste of time, and a diversion of resources, as long as basic, urgent needs for helicopter capacity are not met.