The British military is reaching a point where a large number of helicopters are overdue for replacement, yet none seems forthcoming.
With the Puma fleet reaching the half century in service next year and the Gazelle fleet due for retirement in 2025 replacements are desperately needed. It has been rumoured that the Puma fleet may be forced to serve until 2035 but does the RAF seriously want to be operating 60 year old aircraft?
The Merlin Problem
The UK’s helicopter problem can be traced back to two main sources, the end of the Cold War and the Merlin program. Yes, that’s right, one of the best helicopters of the modern era is the problem.
During the late 1970s the Ministry of Defence (MoD0) was seeking to replace its Sea King fleet with a similarly sized helicopter. To meet this requirement Westland put together the three-engine WG.34 which was a generational jump from Sea King. At the same time Italy was also looking to replace its fleet of Sea Kings and Agusta joined with Westland to develop the Merlin.
This is where the main issue lies. The Italians wanted a larger helicopter than WG.34 and therefore the Merlin became the size it is today. This Italian size requirement comes from them requiring the aircraft to be an amphibious assault asset from day one. In contrast the Royal Navy were only procuring the aircraft in the ASW role.
Merlin being taken on by the RAF was a purely political decision. During the post-Cold War draw down the RAF wanted to replace the Wessex fleet with more Boeing Chinooks. With the development of Merlin now in full swing this wasn’t deemed politically expedient and the RAF was forced to procure 22 Merlin HC.3s.
Now if these helicopters had replaced the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) Junglies (transport Sea Kings) from day one the RAF would have been forced to consider Puma replacement much sooner.
By having another ‘medium’ aircraft fleet the RAF was able to reduce the amount of work the Puma force was required to undertake. Now to call the Merlin a ‘medium’ helicopter is very much a misnomer considering the field includes Puma and Blackhawk. In fact Merlin in military terms it is probably better to call Merlin a ‘super medium’ helicopter.
When the RAF then lost the Merlins to CHF the Puma fleet has been worked ever harder. In the five years previous to this year the Puma fleet accumulated 30,000 hours and lost one aircraft. The most amazing part about this number is a third of it was from combat operations in Afghanistan.
For a fleet of now 23 helicopters to have achieved that number proves that the aircraft is still perfectly reliable, but is it good enough?
Options for Puma Replacement
Replacing Puma is a problem as the field of vertical lift seems to be undergoing a revolution.
The US is currently looking to replace it’s helicopters in the Puma’s class with either the tiltrotor Bell Valor or pusher Sikorsky/Boeing Defiant.
Considering that neither of these aircraft is a conventional helicopter it becomes clear to see the RAF has two options. It can either look to replace its Puma fleet with a like-for-like helicopter or can look to leverage emerging technologies in a longer-term timeframe.
If the first option is pursued it becomes clear to see that the Leonardo AW149 is the clear front runner. With the ability to generate work for the former Westland site in Yeovil AW149 is certainly the best option politically.
Developed as an alternative to Puma and Blackhawk, AW149 is certainly the most modern helicopter in its class. By leveraging proven technology from the AW139 the AW149 was a low-risk, high capability program that has yet to achieve sales success.
So far, the AW149 has only seen 26 sales, although its civilian variant, the AW189, has gone on to be a huge success. If the UK were to buy the aircraft it may well stimulate foreign interest, in turn generating much needed export sales.
Can the RAF afford to wait?
If the RAF can wait, then purchasing the same helicopter as the US certainly seems attractive. This option is however prefixed with the problem of time.
The Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program is currently only at the demonstrator stage and production examples seem at least a decade away.
While the increase in capability from current generation platforms is hugely attractive the cost and time to acquire such a system is a serious problem.
Really the question that must be asked is can the RAF wait? Can Puma be kept in service that much longer?
Let’s Not Copy the French
The French are in the same position as the UK, with both its Puma and Gazelle fleets needing replacement. In fact, the French are much worse off, with many Puma derivatives also in service.
The least capable French Pumas are being replaced by the NH90, a program the UK withdrew from. The UK dodged a bullet here, with the NH90 being around £10m more expensive per aircraft than Merlin!
The rest of the French Puma fleet, together with their Panther, Lynx, Fennec, Alouette III and Gazelle helicopters are being replaced with the H160M. Just that alone makes it clear that it seems to be a stupid idea.
Replacing both light and medium helicopters with one type is never likely going to go well, although only time will tell.
So, what real options are available?
Realistically the Puma fleet will need to be replaced rather than soldiering on. This is, as mentioned above, likely to be AW149 as it’s the only option that can easily be built in the UK.
Replacing Gazelle is a somewhat different proposition.
Considering the electro-optical suite on Wildcat it could viably be procured to replace the Gazelle fleet. The development costs are paid and therefore any buy is going to be at unit cost, hopefully without unexpected extras.
The Army Air Corps never got their full planned by of Wildcats and would likely welcome the capability increase available with such an option.
If a lower cost is desired the Airbus Helicopters UH-72 Lakota is clearly an attractive option, available in MEDEVAC, reconnaissance, and general-purpose variants. Other options in the field include the AW169 and the AW109.
Whichever way the UK chooses to go a decision must be made now.
There is no way that, considering procurement lead times, the Gazelle and Puma fleets can be replaced on-time and therefore replacement must take place at the earliest available opportunity. Only then will the UK’s helicopter force be capable of carrying out all the tasks required of it.