Military, Products, Services

UK Refits Helicopter Force for Afghanistan

By By Giovanni de Briganti | October 1, 2009

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) operates a fleet of 586 helicopters, comprising eight different models broken down into 19 marks or variants. Quite a number of these helicopters have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but since the end of July, all have been withdrawn from Iraq and returned to the UK.

MoD has launched a series of initiatives to modify several helicopter types for operations in Afghanistan, where extremely hot temperatures combined with high altitudes severely limit rotary-wing operations. British forces have found that the Sea King Mk4 can carry only six troops during the day but 10 in the cooler night hours. The limited availability of British helicopters, designed for the mild climates in Europe, and thus ill-suited to the high temperatures, sand and dust in Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to a shortfall in capabilities that have been bluntly criticized by the Parliamentary committees and the National Audit Office.

After ignoring the helicopter capability shortfall for several years, MoD finally began to act in 2007, when it bought additional Merlins from Denmark and launched a great number of smaller initiatives, ranging from new rotor blades to minor software upgrades, to generate more capability.


Overall, helicopter operational capability has only been possible because of the heavy recourse to Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs), a fast-track acquisition process that functions outside the normal procurement process. According to the Royal Aeronautical Society, AgustaWestland alone has embodied 63 UORs in the UK helicopter fleet over the last five years, compared to three UORs during the first Gulf War and just one for the Falklands War. "Overall, there is a clear need for MoD to prioritize its requirements," the RAeS noted.

The rather haphazard nature of these UORs and larger upgrade programs is due to the fact that they are being undertaken, under intense operational pressure, to compensate for the abrupt cancellation by the Treasury in 2005 of £1.3 billion in helicopter investment funds, which threw a wrench into the MoD’s fleet management plans from which they have not yet recovered.

Once ongoing programs are complete, the UK support helicopter force — where the capability shortfall has been most acute — will consist of 156 aircraft, involving 28 Merlin Mk3s, 48 Chinook Mk2/2As, 38 Pumas and 42 Sea King Mk4/6Cs.

Current plans call for Merlin, Chinook, upgraded Sea King and re-engined Lynx Mk9 to be deployed in Afghanistan, but the upgraded Pumas will also be available if needed.

Pre-deployment modifications are principally focused on the Merlin, Chinook, Lynx and Sea King fleets, as the Apache has not encountered any major performance problems.

The Puma and other planned upgrades are part of the MoD’s overall fleet management program, which aims to acquire over 120 new helicopters (estimated cost of £3.5 billion) and upgrade over 200 others (estimated cost £2.5 billion) over the next decade. In addition, MoD also will lease 67 helicopters at a cost of some £50 million per annum.

Life Extension Programs

In July, MoD was preparing to award two life extension program (LEP) contracts for its Puma and Sea King fleets, but froze them at the eleventh hour to instead re-evaluate the advisability of bringing forward the procurement of the Future Medium Helicopter (battlefield lift) program, currently scheduled for initial deliveries (of the naval version) in 2017 – 2018.

The LEP upgrade of 38 Puma HC1s now in service would cost approximately £300 million, but would only delay their retirement by 10 years, from 2012 to 2022, and this has led some to argue that buying new helicopters would be a better use of the money.

The Puma LEP appears set to go through, although no contract has yet been announced. "Following a review, the MoD decided that it is not feasible to advance the purchase of the Future Medium Helicopter and forego the Puma life extension program, without placing unacceptable risk on operational commitments," MoD noted in a July 16 statement, adding that "our principal responsibility is to our forces on operations."

A similar but less ambitious LEP for the Sea King Mk4 is also planned, but implementation depends on the outcome of MoD’s negotiations with the Treasury. The following details the major ongoing UK helicopter programs:

CH-47 Chinook

The Royal Air Force (RAF) operates 33 Chinook Mk2s and six Mk2as (one was destroyed in Afghanistan on August 20), of which 15 were being retrofitted with the improved T55-L-714A engine.

On August 12, MoD awarded Honeywell a $185-million contract to provide additional 714A engines for the remaining Chinooks. This program will cost a total of £128 million, and the upgraded Chinooks will be delivered from 2012 to 2014.

The RAF will obtain another eight Chinooks, designated Mk3s, by modifying the CH-47s it purchased in 1995 for use with special forces. The helicopters had been sitting in hangars since their 2001 delivery because they could not meet British airworthiness standards. This program is projected to cost £50 – 60 million, according to MoD. The first three Mk3s are scheduled for availability late this year for training, and for deployment from summer 2010 onward. The additions will ultimately increase the Chinook fleet by 20 percent.


Britain currently operates two variants of the Anglo-Italian EH-101 (now AW-101) three-engine helicopter: the Royal Navy operates 42 Merlin Mk1s (also known as HM Mk1) in the maritime role, while RAF employs 22 Merlin Mk3s (HC3) in the battlefield support helicopter role.

Widely used in Iraq, the Mk3s have now returned to the UK, where they will undergo modifications (new rotor blades, improvements to the defensive aid suite, ballistic protection) to prepare them for deployment to Afghanistan, which is scheduled to begin in late 2009. In parallel, aircrews will take part in a four-month training exercise in the U.S. to prepare for Afghanistan.

To bolster its helicopter force, Britain bought six Merlins in 2007. The rotorcraft had just been delivered to Denmark, but had not yet entered service, in a complex £175-million deal that also saw AgustaWestland being awarded a contract to produce six new Merlins for Denmark. These ex-Danish helicopters are designated Mk3a (or HC3a), and have been fitted with BERP main rotor blades, new sensors and defensive aids. They entered service in July 2008, and brought the Merlin battlefield support fleet to 28 helicopters.

Although the helicopters will not see use in Afghanistan, MoD is preparing to upgrade 30 of the Royal Navy’s 42 Merlin Mk1s under the Merlin Mk1 capability sustainment program, which is intended to keep them up-to-date until their planned retirement in 2029. If no other use can be found for them, the 12 other Mk1s "will be disposed of in the most cost effective way, including consideration of sales opportunities," according to the MoD.

Sea King

Although Britain operates several versions of the Sea King, only two (Mk4 and Mk7) have been deployed to southwest Asia. Because of their limited "hot-and-high" performance, Sea King Mk4s were primarily used in Iraq for command support missions, i.e. flying staff officers around, but some have since undergone a significant upgrade. According to the Royal Navy website, this includes Carson main rotor blades, a high performance tail rotor, an updated defensive aids suite, improved avionics and radio suite to detect and deter anti-aircraft radar, missiles and guns, and a new NVG display capability. Aircraft modified in that fashion are designated Sea King Mk4+.

As for the Puma, MoD is weighing the feasibility of upgrading all of the Mk4 and Mk7 Sea Kings, the latter being the airborne early warning (AEW) variant, some of which (out of a total fleet of 13) have been recently deployed to Afghanistan for intelligence gathering.

The upgrade would bring all aircraft up to Sea King Mk4+ standard, and extend their operational life from 2012 to 2018 for the Mk4s, and from 2018 to 2022 for the Mk7s.

Alternatively, a mode modest LEP also under consideration would be limited to Carson main rotor blades, a five-blade tail rotor, and the provision of a Bowman radio.


RAF currently has an effective fleet of 34 SA330 Puma battlefield helicopters, plus five "category 5" and four "category 4" damaged helicopters. These have not been repaired, but could be upgraded to Mk2 version if the LEP goes through.

The exact number of aircraft to be upgraded and the cost of the LEP have not been made public. Under current plans, Eurocopter would carry out the LEP in Romania and France, including the refurbishment of the airframes, as well as the fitting of new Turbomeca Makila engines, new avionics systems, digital autopilot, engine control systems and tail rotor blades, in addition to a strengthened tail and tail rotor.

This is the same upgrade as the Portuguese and UAE air forces have already carried out, and creates a hybrid consisting of Super Puma dynamics and avionics on a Puma airframe. It will significantly increase the Puma’s "hot and high" performance, allowing it to be available for deployment to Afghanistan, if necessary, from about 2013.


MoD also currently operates a fleet of 176 Lynx light helicopters, 108 in the battlefield role and 68 in the maritime role. Lynx Mk 7 and Mk 9 are used for reconnaissance, escort, light transport and utility roles on the battlefield. Because of their insufficient engine power, "our Lynx aircraft are worked with seasonally," says Air Commodore Simon Falla, deputy commander of Joint Helicopter Command. "They are built for a temperate environment, they’re not well suited to the hot weather in Afghanistan, but in the winter they can work, and so from September they’ll be out there. They work in an escort role, again escorting transport helicopters and offering mutual support. In other words, looking after another helicopter as a pair."

Most Lynx will be retired between 2013 and 2015 and be replaced by a much smaller number of AW159 Lynx Wildcats (formerly known as the Future Lynx). However, 22 of the most recent Mk 9 version will be upgraded and re-engined with the LHTEC T800 turboshaft, the same that will power the Wildcat.

Originally, the plan was to re-engine 12 aircraft for £70 million, but this was increased to 22 during the first half of 2009, without any public announcement. The cost of this program is now £140 million, a very substantial amount for only 22 helicopters.

The first up-engined Mk 9s are due for delivery in October 2009, but will be primarily used for training. Their deployment to Afghanistan is planned for early 2010. The more powerful engines will enable Lynx Mk 9 to provide a year-round light helicopter capability, including during the summer months, when it is currently unable to operate because of the inability of its Gem engines to cope with the high temperatures.

Lynx Mk 7s deployed to Afghanistan, in operation with the Royal Marines, have been substantially upgraded though the urgent operational requirement (UOR) process.

Modifications have added large IR suppressors to the engine exhausts, flare launchers mounted on the rear end of the landing skids, an IR jammer mounted under tail boom, and provision for a pintle-mounted machine-gun in the starboard door. Missile launch detectors also appear to have been mounted to some aircraft, and TOW launchers and related equipment have been removed from the entire fleet, as the fire support mission has been entirely taken over by the Apache.


In addition to sending Merlin crews to the U.S. for training, Britain has sent Puma crews to Kenya, and Lynx crews are to follow with re-engined Mk 9s. "In Kenya, we’ve deployed our Puma helicopters which have also recently returned from Iraq, principally to do Army training. And Lynx helicopters will be going out there to do their pre-deployment training in Kenya," according to Falla.

Looking to the Future

Now that it has determined that it is not feasible to bring forward the purchase of the Future Medium Helicopter, MoD must decide how to best replace the Sea Kings and Pumas in about a decade’s time. The competition for this program is likely to represent the single largest MoD procurement of helicopters over the next decade, according to AgustaWestland, and will see an international competition for up to 70 helicopters weighing between eight and 15 tons in all-up weight. MoD’s planning assumptions are that entry into service of the Future Medium Helicopter (littoral) will be timed to be coherent with the retirement of Sea King Mk4, with FMH (battlefield) entering service in the early 2020s.

"Our plan for the Future Medium Helicopter is to move toward fewer types. We are looking at whether we can buy either from some of those volume military production lines or volume civil production lines where helicopters can be modified for military use," Adrian Baguley, the MoD’s head of helicopters, told the House of Commons Defense Committee in June. One of the priorities is to "make sure that it is not gold-plated and it is the minimum required to deliver the range of capabilities required of that platform," he added.

But, under whatever form FMH proceeds, it will be "the rather laborious full-scale classic international tender which up to now has been the policy and formally remains the procurement policy for the Future Medium Helicopter," said Quentin Davies, minister for defense equipment and support, during the same committee hearing.

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