The saga of the British government’s drive to replace the 70-year tradition of military involvement in providing the majority of the UK’s search and rescue (SAR) helicopters with a privatized ‘for profit’ organization in order to divest the service off the military balance sheet is now at an end.
The announcement by Patrick McLoughlin, the UK Secretary of State at the Department for Transport (DfT), regarding the selection of Bristow Helicopters as the future provider of the SAR helicopter service in the UK was disingenuous at best, and at worst the affirmation that long-term policies regarding SAR have been led by accountants rather than strategists.
The very first part of the statement disguises the fact that the drive to civilianize the SAR service has been running since May 9, 2006, not the Nov. 28, 2011 as was stated. The date in 2006 marked the first joint announcement by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that began the quest for the “harmonization of UK SAR.” This in fact marked the beginning of the end of military SAR helicopters in the UK as the team quickly demonstrated a lack of commitment to investigate too closely the option of retaining the military part of the structure. This had been preceded by an increasing lack of investment by the MoD in the SAR force and its equipment as those serving in the force at the time attest.
Standing the military down from the civil SAR role does not mean that the requirement does not exist within the armed forces. They still retain a responsibility for delivering personnel recovery, a milder approach to rescuing isolated personnel, although full combat search and rescue operations are beyond the UK military and they do not train for that level of expertise and joint coordination. The RAF has not participated with aircraft and air/ground crews in any of the European Defence Agency or European Air Group exercises over the last few years (although one or two observers/coordinators were sent at best). It is also still unclear about who would respond to a military aircraft crash at sea, particularly if the aircraft is armed. There is a danger now that SAR expertise will be sidelined in terms of training and equipment within UK forces, which will impact the front line capability.
From 2006, the way in which the SAR-H program was conducted was secretive with very little public discussion up to the declaration of the Soteria consortium (Royal Bank of Scotland, Sikorsky, Thales, CHC Helicopter) as preferred bidder at the end of 2010.
However, RBS pulled out of the consortium and details emerged that representatives of CHC had received commercially sensitive information and on Feb. 8, 2011, DfT made the decision not to sign the contract. This meant that the bidding process was effectively restarted which has now led to the appointment of Bristow. CHC did bid again but was asked to stand down before the final decision between Bond and Bristow was made.
There was little, if any, discussion about continuing the SAR role within the military. At one point the SAR-H program did require a percentage of crewmen to be from the military, but this brought into question civilian managers having authority over military personnel, which was unworkable for numerous reasons.
When McLoughlin stated that the contract “represents a major investment by the government in providing a search and rescue helicopter service,” it should remembered that it is saving from the defense budget by standing down the military SAR force and the base facilities that were being used.
He continued: “Experience of front-line operations has informed the military decision that the skills required for personnel recovery on the battlefield and in the maritime environment can be sustained without the need for military personnel being engaged in UK search and rescue.” In fact, in the past SAR crewmen who were experienced paramedics were taken from their roles in civilian SAR to supplement the crews operating in Afghanistan. This statement also fails to acknowledge that senior pilots operating in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years actually had SAR experience prior to joining support helicopters. SAR operational deployments were also seen within the military as an excellent posting for “decompressing” from Afghanistan for those who had seen tough tours there.
One agitator in the whole process has been the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), which has harbored a desire to ease the military out of helicopter SAR activities for well over a decade and now has its wish. Its 30 years of experience in SAR does not match the 70 years (ironically celebrated this year) by the RAF.
Many will point to the growth of civil SAR providers, however many of these have small operational areas of responsibility with the exception of China. Most of the major SAR operators including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and of course the U.S. continue to operate military SAR.
Key considerations when providing a helicopter SAR include the following. First, rescue missions during the night using night vision goggles (NVGs). The military uses NVGs as a matter of course and have a huge amount of experience, training and confidence in operating with them on. In the United States, the U.S. Army’s special aviation unit, the 160th, are known as “the Nightstalkers” for precisely that reason. The military views night operations as the safest time to fly, thus training hard for it. A civilian organization will not be able to replicate the level of competency that this background instills, nor is it likely to spend as much time training, either real or synthetic.
Secondly, the military training ethos is built around calculated risk taking, vital when making go/no go decisions. The breadth of training and techniques required by all military pilots, from snow to desert, hot and high to nap-of-the-earth, are all qualities that a civilian pilot does not need to train for, but will not therefore have to face the continuous challenges that this training demands of career military personnel.
Losing the military element to SAR also means a decreased range of operating options. Where before Royal Navy helicopters could land to refuel, if required onboard naval vessels, this will not be an option for civilian-registered helicopters, as crew will not have the relevant training and experience.
McLoughlin also makes no mention of the fact that the number of bases will decrease from the current 12 locations to 10. All of the military bases currently used are now excluded from operations, regardless of whether the site was suitable and the effect that this will have on local communities. While he is also keen to emphasize the creation of new civil jobs, he makes no mention at the military jobs that will disappear as the result of this decision. Some personnel may leave the armed forces and be recruited by Bristow Helicopters, but the overall effect is likely to be a decrease in the number of helicopter specialists within the armed forces.
While the professionalism of civilian SAR crewmen and operators is beyond question, there is now the possibility of industrial action by commercially employed individuals as an ultimate option to resolving contractual disputes—something that the military could never do. While this is unlikely, it is possible.
The declared ambition of the quest for a civilian SAR operator was for an organization that could “match or exceed” the version it was replacing, which does not impart a feeling of vibrant expectation.
The DfT contract award will provide Bristow Helicopters with £1.6 billion ($2.4 billion) over the lifetime of the service provision which starts in 2015, is planned to be fully operational by 2017 and should then run for up to 10 years. During the SAR-H days, the contract was to have been 25 years but the general opinion at the time was that this did not allow the civilian operator to make a profit.
While there is no question about the sincerity and ability of Bristow Helicopters to manage a SAR service, something it already has a depth of experience in doing (according to the company it has operated over 15,000 missions during which more than 7,000 people have been rescued), the task now being asked of it as the UK’s sole provider and operator of SAR helicopters is much bigger than anything before.
The question remains: If the customer (UK government) wants to keep the cost at a minimum and not pay as much as it would have if it retained SAR within the military, what incentive is there for the civilian SAR operator to keep its helicopters, equipment, crewmen and ground staff at the peak of capability and performance and not siphon money off to ensure profit margins are kept up? Maybe that’s what is really meant by at least “matching” what went before? Many industry watchers believe Bristow Helicopters will face a tough challenge to maintain expectations while making a profit over the 10-year period without further investment by the government.