At the end of March as part of its Air Power series of conferences, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), located in Whitehall, London, ran a conference on The Future Use of Battlefield Helicopters in Support of Land Operations. It was organized alongside the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command. RUSI has long associations with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and regards itself as a think tank on defence and security research.
With the MoD committed to buying two Queen Elizabeth Class (CVF) aircraft carriers, currently scheduled to enter service in 2016 and 2018, keynote speaker Professor of Strategic Foreign Policy Greg Kennedy, based at the Joint Services Command and Staff Collage, questioned whether two short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) ‘ski jump’ decked carriers were the right decision and the best value for money in terms of the UK’s strategic ambitions. “Carriers don’t make sense without a catapult,” he said at one point, noting that developments in Unmanned Aerial Systems that could potentially operate at sea might be hampered without the availability of a catapult. He also questioned whether another type of helicopter capable carrier ‘in the mix’ would not have been more appropriate.
Rear-Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, Commander, Joint Helicopter Command, spoke of the continuing requirement, proven through recent operational experience, for continuing with manned helicopters. “ISTAR is important, but still with a man in the loop [meaning airborne and potentially in control of other assets].” He stressed the vital importance of configuring helicopters with a full range of capabilities—and strategies—that allowed them to fully integrate with land forces.
He said that the current war in Afghanistan was “the most sophisticated and complex COIN [counter insurgency] we have ever faced.” He praised cooperation with industry but underlined that there was an imperative for battlefield helicopters to “keep up with rapid technology insertion” particularly Defensive Aides Suites (DAS), communications suites, Target Acquisition Designation Sight (TADS) and spatial awareness: “Our reliance on [our crews’] courage during red-illume [a night with no moonlight] is becoming routine. The extraordinary is becoming the ordinary.”
Johnstone-Burt said that “the acquisition process needs to be far more agile.” He stressed that there was still room to gather, process and exploit intelligence far more effectively; and for decision makers to understand and interpret the information being processed. “Our ability to accelerate the op tempo on our terms is essential,” he said while underlining the point that “even the Taliban have Pentiums and encrypted cell phones.”
Col. John McCardle, who recently returned to the Joint Helicopter Command after serving as the commander of the UK Joint Aviation Group (COMJAG) in RC-South, Afghanistan (April-October 2009), said that the three lines of tasking currently being operated were non-discretionary operations (basically reacting to the enemy), framework and sustainment operations (resupply and troop movement) and deliberate operations (taking the war to the Taliban on ISAF’s terms, not theirs). He said that attack helicopters (AH) were a key enabling factor in the ongoing air operations, but as tasks increased with the expansion of air operations, so had the need for AH. It had not been unusual for five calls for AH over 24 hours in his area of operations (AO), he said, adding that “regional demand often outstrips supply.”
McCardle confirmed that the environment was still the most dangerous factor in operations: “more damage is sustained by operating in the harsh environment than by the enemy.” During the very hot summer months, lift capability can be degraded by between 50-80 percent in some aircraft with crews often “operating on the limits of the safety envelope in summer.” He said that the hardest task remained dust landings, at night and in red illume—and sometimes in conditions that were beyond night vision goggles (NVGs). He said helicopters remained a high value target for the enemy and that the threat from heavy caliber weapons and RPGs remained the greatest threat, especially when flying low and slow with under-slung loads. Remaining unpredictable whenever possible remains one of the best methods of defense, he said.
The participation of Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, gave an infantry perspective of the role of helicopter support. He lamented the lack of aviation assets available to him during his pre-deployment build-up training and said that the wrong type of helicopter was available on exercises—Sea Kings rather than Chinooks (unfortunately this is a reflection of the current pressure on the CH-47 fleet).
Cartwright said that in Afghanistan aviation was essential to COIN operations from the infantry viewpoint as it allowed them to maintain the tempo of deployed operations and to create surprise. “We became an aviation battle group. Aviation is the jam—thin though it is—in the battle group sandwich.”