Military, Training

Shaping the UK’s Helicopter Force Post-Afghanistan

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | August 1, 2013
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One of the criticisms of the early years of British military operations in Afghanistan from the summer of 2006 was that there were not enough soldiers – or helicopters – to support the challenge of the mission. Early on, accepted policy in Helmand Province dictated the support of regional seats of government, which effectively tied the British Army into “platoon houses” soon after, which significantly hampered its ability to conduct proactive, deliberate operations.

Although the United States Marine Corps (USMC) first began permanent operations in the spring of 2008, it was not until a year later in 2009 and the arrival of 11,000 Marines that really changed the military balance to allow ISAF forces to fully prosecute deliberate operations on a continual basis.

Once USMC and the British forces began to work together, through the overarching structure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the volume of well-equipped soldiers backed by a significantly strengthened rotary force of all types – light, medium and heavy lift, as well as attack helicopters, quickly took the fight back to the insurgents.

Aircrew of a Griffin helicopter operating out of RAF Shawbury
in Shropshire are pictured during a search and rescue exercise.

When Air Vice Marshal Carl Dixon became the fifth commander of the United Kingdom’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) in April 2011, he wanted to continue to improve the structure of helicopter availability: “When I took over I looked at the issue of helicopter provision and associated areas including the training, engineering and support components, as well as what the aircraft were being used for in theater.” JHC was founded in 1999 to unify battlefield and air assault helicopters operationally from the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force, the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps (AAC).

One success of that goal has been the increase in the generation of flying hours through “a fundamental improvement in support by industry, derived through the hard-headed, clever writing of contracts which for the first time incentivizes flying, not repair and overhaul.” Praising helicopter OEMs AgustaWestland and Boeing as well as the government’s own procurement and support agency DE&S (Defense Equipment & Support), it is now a case of “the more we fly, the more money is made.” The squadrons over in Afghanistan have felt the effect of this, he added.

Dixon reflected on the arrival of USMC in Helmand Province as an opportunity for JHC to improve its cooperative relationships: “We professionalized how we worked in a NATO context with the United States Marine Corps in theater,” he explained. The quick development of a peer relationship then secured the delivery of an integrated effect across Helmand. “As far as the soldier is concerned, there is a seamless look and feel to who is doing the flying, which is a real win,” he said.

Another important factor has been the “right-sizing” of the area of operations (AO) for the UK. Dixon acknowledges that the UK contingent started off being “thin on the ground” but believes that there is now “a proper sense of force balance related to terrain.” However, his JHC personnel are likely to be among the last to leave, again facing the prospect of a decrease in friendly force numbers and the inherent difficulties that will pose. “They will have to become more maneuverist and the end may very well resemble the beginning where there is not a lot of structure outside of main operating bases,” said Dixon. “We have already started to practice that ‘light on the feet’ model in training.”

Post Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Future Force 2020 strategy has required a rethink about how helicopter forces will be used in the future. But he said it would not be a return to the days when helicopters were simply seen as a support asset: “The helicopter force I joined in 1982 was very much a support business, especially pre-Apache. We were combat support assets in the mind of the land force. Our transformation through Iraq and Afghanistan has been from support to combat role. All crews are in harm’s way every day now and that is accepted – I have never seen a more integrated or happy relationship that has been forged in the heat of battle. We are now peers of the teeth arms and we are seen generally be defense as part of the ‘warrior class’.”

Dixon’s objective is to retain this “intimacy” going forward: “Where before it was just 16 Brigade [16 Air Assault Brigade is the British Army’s foremost rapid response air maneuver unit], the whole of the Army is now helicopter literate.”

Training – A New Approach

With a decrease in the size of the Army, as well as a refocus away from Afghan-specific tasks and training, Dixon believes the JHC will now be faced with managing expectations. He says what is now needed is more plurality. “The trick is to stay focused on contingency requirements rather than allow fractured training to develop.”

Taking training as an example, he recognizes the developing need for maritime and littoral maneuver operations as well as the continuing need to know how to operate in “hot and dusty places.” Cold climate skills also need to be refreshed.

Training locations will be looked at with a regard to necessity moderated by budget. “Our funding for training in America is supplemental, reliant on the Afghan commitment. We do have a choice to make now on where we continue to do environmental training, as there are other options in the Middle East and North Africa. But we will establish a core funding requirement for environmental training.” One of the questions still to be answered is whether it is necessary to provide “full force training to all environments for the Army and Royal Marines.”

Dixon says that his perfect flying hour would be to train helicopter crews while delivering a tasking effect for his Army customer. He sees this as a “generation of revenue hours. Part of the drive for the future is to get everybody training in the same real estate, or as few places as we can manage thus maximizing the revenue training hours for everybody. It’s an alchemy to cohere the whole defense training program, to embrace air transport aircraft as they get released from Afghanistan, prime movers from the Royal Navy and the fleet auxiliary – to create a training regime that brings the whole orchestra to tune. It is a main effort in management terms.”

In helicopter capability terms, Dixons states: “We still have all the skills, but the skill that has thinned is the breadth in terms of readiness. We have deepened our skills hugely with regard to integrated fires, the integration of dissimilar aircraft, conducting deliberate operations, the integration of ISTAR.” But he continued, “It is the broader view which we have thinned slightly – people mentally could sit on bergans ready for deployment – and that is the mindset we need to get back to. I want to recover the spirit of expeditionary thinking.”

A Royal Air Force CH-47 Chinook arrives to extract troops at the end
of an operation in Afghanistan.

The Military Flight Training System (MFTS) has derailed somewhat from its original objective that would have replaced the existing ab initio system based around RAF Shawbury and the Defense Helicopter Flying School (DHFS). While Dixon says that there is not “an immediately pressing need” to replace the current system, he adds that “dates have been agreed by which a business proposition would be put to the investment board at MoD to replace that capability.”

He believes that there is an emerging opportunity to conduct rotary training in a different way, pointing to the higher fidelity of synthetic training, not just full motion but also part-task, combined with an ever widening opportunity to introduce software across training products.

“I am keen to release front line flying hours to the user community,” he said. He wants to move away from a simple compartmentalized system to one that is more responsive and dynamic across the wider needs of the helicopter community. “Rather than just thinking of the first part of a pilot’s career there may be a role in the post-graduate sense in say, skills recovery, [particularly] after a long-term venture such as that in Afghanistan. So I can send front line pilots to do skills recovery on a basic aircraft rather than a front line aircraft as we have done until now. The training fleet would have much more output value than at present.”

He continued: “I have long had the view that we should make conversion-to-type and conversion-to-role as merged as we can. The minute you step into a military helicopter you are starting that process of conversion-to-role and RAF Shawbury has made enormous strides in that conversion-to-role spirit – but it is limited to one location. What I want to get away from is the seriality within the training system where we do a sequence of type conversions. There is an opportunity to have two effects: reduce the cost to defense and release equity [to] the user.”

Such a view would see ab initio pilots starting on a basic helicopter, but involving rear crew training as quickly as possible, as those skills have grown hugely, he notes. “If you [operate] the right training aircraft with the capacity to simulate some of the systems – not just crew served weapons and winch – then navigation level two for pilots could [also] be gunnery level one for the crewman. You pitch the sortie as a crew served sortie – rather than have them separate.”

Dixon insists that this is not a criticism of the current system, but more a matter of current circumstance. “Even though there is a capital cost to improve the basic training airplane, the long term benefit [would represent] a huge relief on the front-line types by saving hours. Crew would arrive combat ready in role and then only need a short-term conversion to type.” However, he admits that there is still much detail to be identified before any possible revision could occur in around six years time.

In summary, Carl Dixon unquestionably believes that JHC works. “It has stood the test of two very hard fights. The model we have arrived at is popular across the defense user community and it has replaced what we used to do piecemeal.” However, he concludes that the post-Afghanistan UK force will reshape and that his organization has got to move forward with that and be ready for any future contingency.

Related: Military News



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