Heavy Lift: U.K. Heavy Lift Program

By Tom Withington | March 1, 2009
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Countries continue to scramble in order to supply troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with necessary search and rescue, attack and utility helicopters.

The availability of medium- and heavy-lift helicopters for U.K. military operations has been a pressing issue since Great Britain began military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the past eight years, British newspapers have published articles bemoaning the nation’s lack of military helicopters for intra-theatre lift in Iraq and Afghanistan with increasing frequency.

However, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) is pursuing several programs aimed at ensuring that those helicopters the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF) possesses under the cross-service Joint Helicopter Command umbrella are able to provide the required lift and can cope with the harsh hot-and-high operating conditions of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the MoD is thinking about the future composition of the U.K.’s medium- and heavy-lift military helicopter force as a number of types approach the end of their service lives.


Better Late Than Never

In early 2007, the MoD announced a series of measures to revitalize the U.K. medium- and heavy-lift helicopter fleet. Six AgustaWestland EH-101 Merlin helicopters were acquired second-hand from the Royal Danish Air Force at a cost of $341 million. Meanwhile, the RAF’s 33-strong Westland Puma HC1 fleet is expected to receive an extensive upgrade, while the Royal Navy’s Westland Sea King HC4 medium-lift machines have received new rotor blades. On the heavy-lift side, eight Boeing Chinook HC3 aircraft, which have yet to fly, will join the current 40-strong HC2 Chinook fleet.

The AgustaWestland EH-101s (known in RAF as the Merlin HC3) aircraft are the newest addition to the RAF medium helicopter family, having arrived earlier this century. The latest Danish additions are deployed with the 78 Squadron at RAF Benson air base in Oxfordshire. The base is already home to the 28 Squadron, which flies the balance of the air force’s 22-strong Merlin fleet. Since their entry into service, the aircraft have been outfitted with forward looking infra red (FLIR) sensors, ballistic armor, machinegun pintle mounts and also a hook for underslung cargo; all as a result of Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) for the Iraq and Afghan theatres.

Benson is also home to the 33 Squadron, which flies the Westland Puma HC1. One of the oldest types in RAF service, these aircraft were delivered in the early 1970s. Most recently they have been active in Iraq but the aircraft are not getting any younger. This has prompted the MoD, in collaboration with Eurocopter and British defense contractor QinetiQ, to perform a study on how the life of these aircraft could be extended. Any life extension program (LEP) could include new avionics, engines, communications and countermeasures. The improvements would take the service life of these aircraft to 2022; 12 years after their anticipated retirement. In MoD parlance, the upgrade: "will address obsolescence and enable the aircraft to continue to operate effectively in a battlefield environment."

What Else is New

In terms of the engine modification, Charles Claveaux, vice president for product and market strategy at Turbomeca, specified that this could include the replacement of the "Turmo engine with the Makila 1A1" powerplant. The Makila engine, which is standard equipment on the Eurocopter Super Puma/Cougar series, should not be too difficult to retrofit according to Clavaux, given the high degree of commonality between the two engine designs. "It’s relatively easy to change the engine because the design of the Makila is close to the design of the Turmo, but you have to change some parts of the helicopter because the Makila is a larger engine than the Turmo". Crucially, the Makila will give the Pumas an increase in performance: "The Makila is a 1,800 horsepower engine compared to the Turmo which is 1,500 horsepower. The fuel consumption of the Makila is 20 percent less than the fuel consumption of the Turmo. The Makila engine is a really good improvement for the helicopter. It provides some performance improvements in hot and high conditions," said Claveaux.

However, as of late 2008, the British government had still to give the go-ahead for the Puma LEP, despite the fact that the aircraft continue to be heavily used by the RAF despite their age.

One recent arrival to the Afghan theatre is the venerable Sea King HC4 helicopter. Originally purchased to support Royal Marine commando operations, these aircraft have been outfitted with a new rotor blade system that will help them cope with the challenging environment. A Carson composite main rotor and AgustaWestland five-bladed tail rotor were installed, tested and deployed in only 12 months after a UOR from the MoD. The program cost $10.1 million.

According to Malcolm Tier, QinetiQ business group manager for rotary wing evaluation services at MoD Boscombe Down, "The Carsen blade project will enable the aircraft to operate in theatres which were hitherto unavailable to it. You can take the old blades off and put the new ones on and you get a vast increase in capability. The big problem about operating the Sea Kings in Afghanistan is the country’s height above sea level. The air is much thinner and the drop-off in terms of lift and forward speed is significant. The Carson blade is enabling the aircraft to operate at its operational and design capability at higher altitudes." The MoD is now also looking at whether the Sea King’s life can be extended to 2017. However, before then the U.K. MoD is expected to launch the Future Medium Helicopter program that could see the acquisition of up to 60 medium-lift machines to replace the Sea Kings and Pumas.

More to Come

In 1995, the MoD purchased eight Chinook HC3 helicopters from Boeing to support special forces operations. However, since their delivery between 2001-2002 they have languished on the ground unable to fly until some undisclosed technical issues are resolved. That these highly capable machines have been grounded has caused something of a minor national scandal in the U.K., particularly at a time when helicopter lift has been in such demand. The purchase cost the British taxpayer $491 million and the acquisition was described by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee as one of the "worst examples of equipment acquisition."

The aircraft were allegedly grounded because of problems relating to the certification of their hybrid digital-analogue flight controls. However, Boeing will not be drawn on the reasons why, "That’s a really difficult question. It’s a really sensitive issue with the Boeing Company" said Ed Palek Boeing chinook Mk.3 reversion program manager.

The aircraft will be returned to flight, with all eight in service by 2010 following a $261 million reversion program. This will put the total acquisition price for the aircraft around $682 million, making these eight Chinooks the most expensive helicopters that the MoD has ever purchased. Boeing is the prime contractor for the Chinook revitalization, "We’re responsible for the design, development, modification and test of those eight aircraft as we go through this capability modification and bring the aircraft to a suitable flight status" remarked Palek. "The eight Chinooks will receive some changes; modifications to the cockpit displays and the introduction of a health and usage monitoring system."

In terms of the other Chinooks operated by the RAF, the MoD launched Project Julius in October 2008, as an initiative to roll out an improvement package that includes digital avionics integration and an upgrade for the type’s Honeywell engine to T55-714 status. Other modifications include the addition of General Dynamics Bowman radios and the Raytheon Successor Identification Friend or Foe system. Project Julius will be rolled out across the entire Chinook force, including the eight special forces’ machines undergoing the reversion work. This will enable the Chinook fleet to remain in service until around 2040. This is an important consideration given that RAF Chinook operations in Afghanistan have increased by 25 percent since May 2008.

Palek noted that the U.K. MoD, "Has found upgrades to be a very cost-effective alternative to going forward and adapting new airframes." Upgrades also help to defer the cost of purchasing new helicopters, notwithstanding the six Merlins bought from Denmark. That said, the combined medium- and heavy- lift helicopter force would dip from its present 132 aircraft to 97 machines in 2017 with the Sea King retirement and to 64 aircraft in 2023 once the Pumas are withdrawn.

The Future of the Lift

With no further medium-lift helicopter purchases during the next 10 years, the fleet size in 2025 could be under 60 percent of today’s inventory. Given the protracted nature of defense acquisition, particularly of aircraft, the MoD will have to start thinking soon about the future medium helicopter if it is to ensure that new helicopters are in service as the Sea Kings and Pumas leave service. However, as noted below, the economic outlook for the U.K. is bleak for the moment. Moreover, the government has to call a general election before June 2010 and the governing Labour party may wish to defer large defense purchases when it will no doubt be looking to score political points with voters by keeping taxes down.

While British operations in Iraq may have concluded by then, new unexpected crises may have flared up, not to mention additional contingencies in other parts of the world to which British forces may be asked to respond. Moreover, the U.K.’s combined military helicopter fleet could reduce in size by 40 percent during the next 15 years and future helicopter purchases or upgrade programs could be stymied by the U.K.’s poor economic outlook, with the country having been declared officially in recession in late January. While few would doubt the aplomb with which the U.K.’s medium- and heavy-lift helicopter fleet have operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, during the next few years they may not only face challenges from hostile action but also from the financial pressures that could grip the British treasury.

Show Me the Money

By James Careless

Forecast International’s research expects that 3,924 new-build medium/heavy military rotorcraft will be produced from 2009 through 2018. "The value of this production, in constant FY09 U.S. dollars, is estimated at $88.1 billion," said the study.

The rotorcraft covered by this market include non-U.S. products, like the NH Industries NH90 and the Korea Aerospace Industries Korean utility helicopter, plus the new UH-60M variant from Sikorsky’s Black Hawk line, the CH-47F model from Boeing’s Chinook family and the Bell/Boeing V-22 tiltrotor.

The study says Sikorsky will remain the market leader during 2009-2018 in unit production and value of production. "Sikorsky is expected to produce 1,478 helicopters for a sizable market share of 37.7 percent," it stated. "NH Industries is ranked second in unit production with forecast production of 569 NH90s, representing a 14.5 percent share of the market." This number does not include 51 NH90s that Forecast International believes will be built under license by Finnish manufacturer Patria Aviation.

As for the all-important dollar value? "Sikorsky garners a 32.2 percent share of production, worth $28.3 billion," according to the study. "Second place goes to the Bell/Boeing V-22 partnership, with production worth $21.5 billion, a share of 24.4 percent. Third is NH Industries, with an 11.5 percent share of production valued at $10.1 billion."

Given these totals, it is clear that Forecast International’s warning about the U.S. losing market share is not an imminent one; at least not in terms of an immediate collapse. However, the possibility of this happening over time as non-U.S. manufacturers increase their percentages is worth paying attention to. After all, there was a time when GM was America’s largest automaker. Now it’s Toyota.

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