Military, Products

Objective Confirmed for UK’s Rotary Force

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | April 1, 2010
Send Feedback


As the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War comes to its conclusions, arguments continue to rumble back and forth between the politicians involved and a selection of senior military commanders. While the politicians say that they gave all that the British military commanders requested to deploy and sustain operations in Iraq (then also Afghanistan), a good selection of the military refute this including Lords Guthrie and Boyce, ex Chiefs of the Defence Staff and Gen. Sir Richard Dannett, ex-Chief of the Defence Staff.

Helicopters were one element of the force structure where concerns applied, with force commanders on the ground not only lacked sufficient rotary support in terms of transport and resupply, but also in what fire support and ISTAR they could provide. It should be remembered that the UK’s first AW101 Merlin helicopters only deployed operationally to Iraq in 2005 with the brand new WAH Apache Longbows following them a year later into Afghanistan.

However, as in many conflicts, it is the military that carry the burden of adapting to the situation before them and, if they are fortunate, their government will recognise any weakness and try to rectify the shortfall.


Fast-forward to March 2010 and the office of Rear Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, the commander of the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), near Salisbury, Wiltshire. The Joint Helicopter Command was formed in 1999 to bring together under one command the battlefield helicopters of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. But the force structure is changing—and for the better he says. “The new rotary strategy was endorsed just before Christmas and we are now in the implementation stage. It is a very exciting strategy which is exactly what we need to equip us for 2020 and beyond.”

The basic principle is that the UK’s helicopter force will eventually comprise only four types: “We have always said we need fewer types and fewer fleets within fleets. This strategy will leave JHC with Apache (WAH-64D), Wildcat (AW159), Chinook (CH-47) and Merlin (AW101). The mechanics of it will mean that Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) will take on the Merlin role in the littoral manoeuvre capability, the Merlin pilots and crew will become Chinook pilots and crew (the UK recently decided to buy 22 more Chinooks from Boeing), the Puma Life Extension program will happen turning 28 aircraft into Puma 2s (see sidebar page 28), and they will continue until 2022-2025 when they will be replaced by a medium multi-role helicopter (around 40 aircraft). What we are missing now is a life extension for the Sea King and a formal medium role helicopter. The challenge for JHC is making the plan work.” In all this Apache continues and Wildcat is procured.

In the short term 22 Lynx Mk9As are being up-engined to LHTEC T800s [same as the Wildcat] which will give it year-round hot and high capability that it did not have before. “We are sending aircraft out next month to do that and are also looking to fit it with a.50-caliber gun and try to offload some of the escort duties from the Apache” [through an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR)].

“My vision for JHC is fewer aircraft types that are far more agile and can swing from role to role without having to go through the machinations of role change or a different fit every time. So an aircraft flies from sea to land and fulfil the land role. It will ISTAR, datalink with UAVs and have a form of motion video with the ground force commander. It will really capture all the things we want to do but being driven by whatever requirement the ground commander has.”

As for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Johnstone-Burt says “I don’t see any UAVs coming into the JHC at the moment. They are looked after by the wider army but we keep a close eye on them. DAAvn (Director of Army Aviation) has had the release to service authority for UAVs for the army and because they are now within my HQ I now have a view. I do however think there will be lots more we will be able to do.”

The UK recently ordered 22 additional CH-47s from Boeing as part of an effort to consolidate fleets to four types of helicopters. Photo by Patrick Allen

Ready for Afghanistan

From a strategic perspective, General McCrystal’s vision/doctrine is now completely joined up from Kabul right down to the tactical level in Helmand, says Johnstone-Burt. “Having recently been there, the whole philosophy of ‘courageous restraint’ is completely embedded now in our soldiers and throughout the command. The way that the Task Force Helmand Commander and the RC-South Commander are attuned is the best that I have seen in terms of the level of sophistication in understanding the tribal links and cultural complications.”

“We often talk of tipping points—but I do feel that we are at a window of opportunity for Afghanistan, and that we shouldn’t blink but press on and capitalize on the success we have already achieved, especially in Operation Moshtarak,” he added.

“I have served within JHC now for five years and I have to say that the helicopter force out there is the best I have ever seen. With the Prime Minister’s backing and encouragement, we have a density of aircraft that we have never had before and we are delivering in a way that we haven’t to date in a completely joined up fashion.”

Johnstone-Burt praised the way in which the Commander Joint Aviation Group, Col. Richard Leakey and his team had planned and executed the northern part of the Operation Mushtarak. This involved 1,200 troops being inserted within two hours using more than 40 helicopters, half of which were from the UK. This meant also taking command U.S. Marine Corps helicopters and Canadian helicopters in three different zones in that area. “It went smack on the minute in the early morning of Saturday, Feb. 13 and involved massive deconfliction planning in order to manage 11 assault waves of aircraft. It was a fantastic achievement. Again quite a seminal moment from a helicopter point of view. A complex UK planned and executed operation, in coalition as a combined force with the full cooperation of our allies—and all done on behalf of the RC South commander.

Rebalancing the Force

Marlin was deployed early into Afghanistan; in fact the turn-around from when the force exited Iraq was very rapid. “They achieved full operating capability (FOC) one month early. They have already exceeded their targeted flying hours so they are over-delivering. The importance here is that they have released Chinook for deliberate operations by taking over their role in sustainability operations,” says Johnstone-Burt. “Now we want the Lynx Mk9A to go out to offload the Apache so that can revert to mainly deliberate operations.”

Johnstone-Burt says his goal is to sustain the current tempo of operations for the next five years and to be ready for future operations. UK MoD

But allied cooperation has been key to recent successes in southern Afghanistan, says Johnstone-Burt. “Col. Kevin Best, USMC, is a Harrier pilot as well as UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and he was the first MAG-40 commander in Afghanistan. He was already in close contact with Col. John McCardle who was my second Joint Air Group Commander and that was a fantastic relationship which has been built on.” One area of particular note has been the success of CSAR/casualty evacuation.

“Our dealings with the Pedros [U.S. Air Force Combat Search and Rescue teams flying UH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters] has totally complemented our Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) Chinooks. As we were co-located at Camp Bastion the two HQ teams discussed which aircraft should go on each emergency depending on the type of situation that was being faced. Their advantage is that they can get into smaller spaces than a Chinook with their onboard paramedic; get in and out fast. The MERT Chinook has a consultant trauma specialist onboard, plus a full medical team plus the protection team who can provide intrusive care in the bid to save lives.”

Vector Aerospace is a company that took over supporting many of the UK’s helicopters from the government-owned Defence Aviation and Repair Agency (DARA) in 2008. “Vector UK’s contribution [towards supporting the fight in Afghanistan] has been incredible,” states Johnstone-Burt. “For every contractor we send into theatre, we can save five uniformed personnel” [this due to the harmony scheme of rotating people through the war zone—one tour on, four tours at home—which is the official sustainable harmony rate]. “Vector with partner Boeing has given us 10 personnel out there so that saves me 50 engineers. The contractors are doing the most fantastic job in Kandahar maintaining the basic servicing for our Chinooks. AgustaWestland is also keen to help and I want to encourage that.”

Practice Makes Perfect

The JHC conducts foreign exercises in Norway (Exercise Clockwork), Kenya (Grand Prix, Morocco (Jebel Sahara) and Arizona (Crimson Eagle).

“Extreme training is as pertinent in Norway—the recirculation of snow creates a white out similar to a brown-out—as it is in Kenya. They are exactly the same principles as we experience in the desert. My overriding priority now is to do all that I can to get the rotary training—pre-deployment and environmental—as close to the army as possible. Where this is succeeding best is Kenya where we have increased the number of Grand Prix exercise from three or four to seven per year. I have around seven Puma aircraft out there permanently. Their job is purely to support the field army and to work on pre-deployment training.”

Johnstone-Burt says that this was a training ambition for many years but was unachievable due to the demands of servicing two theatres—Iraq and Afghanistan. “Pulling out of Iraq has provided a massive training dividend to the field army. Crimson Eagle in Arizona is also outstanding. It gives us hot and high conditions where we try and replicate the conditions in terms of severity and environment that we will come up against when deployed—and of course we can ‘live fire’ as well.”

“The only way we turned the Merlin force around so fast from Iraq to deploy to Afghanistan was by sending the lot to Arizona—full emersion training for the whole force. They were turned around in only a few months. We used four aircraft and we circled five flights through them. We talk about the rule of five—fighting by flight. There are five flights in every single force. The flight is balanced according to experience, seniority and capability.”

Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt seems to have the force moving in the direction he has wanted since taking over command in 2008—and he now has the breaking space to do it. “Over the last two years that has been my overriding aim—to put the Joint Helicopter Command on a sustainable footing so that we can sustain the tempo of operations that we have now for the next five years at least. When Afghanistan finishes I must still be able to deliver on the next operation, wherever that may be in the world. I don’t want to burn the force, as our American friends would describe it.”

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox