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Pooling the Royal Navy’s, Army’s and Royal Air Force’s battlefield helicopters has brought significant benefits, Sir John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament today. Efficiencies have been produced through a joined up approach, by standardising procedures and removing duplication, but there is a large shortfall in helicopter capability and further improvements can be made.

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The important role of battlefield helicopters has been bolstered by the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command

The formation of the Joint Helicopter Command has brought added focus to the organisation of battlefield helicopters. It has helped to harmonise disparate operating and engineering standards, and is further able to draw upon equipment and personnel from the three Services. This has led to greater efficiencies in operational deployment. It has, for example, prevented such situations as in Bosnia in 1996 when the separate Services deployed some 40 per cent too many helicopters, duplicating capabilities.

There is a shortfall in helicopter capability

The United Kingdom’s battlefield helicopter force is one of the largest and most capable in Europe. The deployment of 77 helicopters on Operation TELIC was the largest operation yet undertaken by the Joint Helicopter Command, and helicopters made a key contribution in a wide range of roles. The provision of battlefield helicopters is however considerably short of what the Department requires. There is an overall shortfall of 38 per cent. This figure does not relate to helicopter numbers but to the ability to move personnel and equipment between locations. For amphibious battlefield helicopters, this shortfall is as high as 87 per cent. On current plans, these shortfalls will persist until 2017-18. If the Department were to give its personnel as much time to rest and recuperate as its own guidelines set out, the deficit in overall helicopter availability would rise from 38 per cent to 66 per cent.

The battlefield helicopter fleet should be equipped for operations across the spectrum of conflict and for various environmental conditions. Shortfalls are especially apparent in the areas of communications, helicopter protection, including sand filters, and nuclear, biological, and chemical protection for aircrew. These shortages were partly remedied for the operations in Iraq by Urgent Operational Requirements. The Department should review capability provided through this process, and ensure that essential capability is incorporated into the baseline standard of the helicopter.

The Department’s Search and Rescue fleet is not resourced to deploy overseas. This has meant that in Iraq, for example, the UK Armed Forces have had to rely upon US assets for overland Search and Rescue, and for the recovery of downed Service personnel on operations.

Enhancements could be made to maximise the efficiency of procuring, supporting and operating battlefield helicopters

Despite advances in the joint provision of flying training, further improvements can be made. Qualified pilots often do not have the recommended levels of flying training time to maintain their skills because of operational demands and a lack of helicopters. Furthermore, the separate Services’ approach to training new pilots is inconsistent and could be streamlined further.

Aircrew ranks should be reviewed to determine whether non-commissioned officers should be allowed to fly helicopters across the three Services and not only in the Army.

Important lessons can be learned from the flawed procurement of eight Chinook HC3 helicopters, which were originally intended to be introduced into service in November 1998. The Department is considering a number of options regarding how best to achieve the required capability. To bring the helicopters up to the standard of the existing Chinook fleet would require expenditure of approximately £127 million. They would not enter service until mid-2007.

"Battlefield helicopters play a vital role in today’s military. We saw this in Iraq where they demonstrated their importance, for example, in supporting the assault to secure the Al Faw peninsula. The MOD is to be congratulated on the improvements made through the Joint Helicopter Command. However, more is to be done if the significant shortfall in helicopter capability is not to limit operations in the future."

Sir John


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