UK Defence (9) – Joint Helicopter Command Combines Force Capability With Leadership and Strength     

The formal handover last Tuesday (September 30th 2014) by the Royal Air Force of its EH101 Merlin Helicopter Force to the Royal Navy combined with standing down of 78 Squadron at RAF Benson and the standing up of 846 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. But there is another side to the story as well as this should be seen as a further strengthening of Joint Helicopter Command.

The change is a very significant one for both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and it also highlights the growing importance of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) which now has responsibility for all land based Royal Air Force Chinook and Puma HC2 helicopter operation in the UK. To an extent the change may also be considered as equally symbolic as it marks closer the day when, following the standing down in 2015/16 of 202 and 22 Squadron Sea King HAR3/3A Search and Rescue (SARF) force capability will, apart from the RAF Akrotiri based 84 Squadron currently flying Griffin HAR 2 helicopters, mark the end of a long chapter of Royal Air Force control of rotary based operation.

For the time being my understanding is that 846 NAS will work alongside 28 (AC) Squadron at RAF Benson until the new RNAS Squadron unit relocates to Yeovilton early in 2015. At that point 28 (AC) Squadron will also be stood down. While the loss of the superb AW EH101 Merlin Mk 3 fleet from Benson and RAF control will be regarded as a sad day for a great many this should in my view be set in context with the fact that the 25 upgraded Merlin Mk 4 helicopters that will eventually emerge from the ongoing Fleet Air Arm conversion programme and that will, when complete, replace the venerable fleet of Royal Navy Sea King HC.4 helicopters has been very well thought out and planned. As Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford said in his speech marking the handover at RAF Benson last week, “rather than mourn [the loss of 78 Squadron Merlin force] we should use this as an opportunity to celebrate the partnership between our two (Royal Navy and Royal Air Force] services”.

Whilst I would admit to having been initially surprised and somewhat disappointed when the announcement of rotary capability policy change was first made I can say now that in hindsight, based on the combination of affordability and improved capability options, I genuinely believe that the policy change is the correct way to move forward. I would add that while this strategy will see the Royal Navy having a substantially upgraded fleet of EH101 Merlin helicopter capability to be eventually be based at RNAS Yeovilton, the transition in rotary force capability will also allow Joint Helicopter Command, responsible for Battlefield Helicopter and Air Assault Force elements of all three services, to finally come of age.

Formed in 1999, operating approximately 197 rotary and aircraft platforms and based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) is an example of Force ‘jointery’ at its best. JHC is a unique force that is designed to be agile, interoperable, sustainable, resilient and affordable. Today JHC can be seen as having been a hugely successful element in supporting the activities of all three main force elements and should be considered a vital part of the UK’s war fighting capability. By combining air assault and battlefield elements of all three of our armed forces together with the back room civil service organisation required, has proved not only that ‘jointery’ allows the armed forces to capitalise on the available strengths of each other whilst preserving single service ethos and values, but also that it cuts overall cost.

Currently operating Boeing Chinook (Mk 4 and Mk 6) and Apache attack helicopters, Airbus Puma (Mk 2), AgustaWestland Merlin, Lynx (Mk 7 and Mk 9A), Sea King, Wildcat, the Aerospatiale/Westland Gazelle and Bell 212 helicopters together with Islander/Defender airplanes, a large scale fleet change programme is currently underway. While the Sea Kings, Lynx Mk 7 and Bell 212 will gradually be retired over the next three years the introduction of additional Boeing Chinook helicopters, taking planned numbers of Chinook helicopters up to 46 units, the introduction of Wildcat Light Utility/Recon helicopter and the substantial upgrade work on the existing RAF Puma fleet will ensure that as a cohesive and well-structured command unit Joint Helicopter Command, will move forward from here with a modern and very effective rotary capability.

Apart from the substantial Puma 2 upgrade it may also be worth mentioning here that the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MCSP) for the Royal Navy and for which the prime contractor was Lockheed Martin is delivering a substantial upgrade in Merlin Mk 2 capability for the Royal navy on time and in budget. Back to the here and now for JHC means that along with the backbone strength of an eventual fleet of 46 Chinooks, the new fleet of AW Wildcats,  the planned £330m Merlin Life Sustainment Programme that aims to convert 25 Royal Air Force Merlin Mk 3 and 3A helicopters to Merlin Mk 4’s for operation by the Royal Navy from Yeovilton, plus the prospect that the Apache Attack Helicopter capability sustainment programme will also be given the go ahead possibly next year will, when completed, provide Joint Helicopter Command with a formidable rotary fleet.

Having deployed on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Philippines, Sierra Leone and many other global locations over the past fourteen years Joint Helicopter Command forces have shown themselves to be well trained and able to operate in mountain, desert and arctic conditions alike. JHC has to my mind more than proved its worth and back in 2005, when I was In Iraq looking at helicopter deployment issues, I was at first hand able to experience the strength of the capability already established by JHC. In a future commentary I will also look individually at the excellence of Chinook capability.

Joint Helicopter Command structure assumes full operational command of Royal Air Force, Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) and of the Army rotary platform component. JHC currently sits within the Army Top Level Budget and its personnel and platforms are funded through the Army. JHC is currently thought to employ around 14,000 personnel of whom around 8,000 are employed in the 16 Air Assault Brigade. I believe that within this figure the current component of Reserves stand at around 1,000 personnel and that approximately 300 MOD civil servants are employed.

Together with the Air Assault Brigade, the high readiness Commando Helicopter Force (based at RNAS Yeovilton comprising around 700 aircrew and support personnel), the Attack Helicopter Force, Royal Air Force Support Helicopter Force (comprising 7, 27, 18 Squadron Chinook Force plus 33 and 230 Squadron Puma capability (based respectively at RAF Odiham and RAF Benson) in terms of force elements JHC is a powerful; combination of capability.

In addition to the above JHC comprises the Army Aviation Centre (based at Middle Wallop), the Aviation Reconnaissance Group (based at Yeovilton, Dishworth and Aldergrove), and the RAF Tactical Supply Wing based at Stafford (a key enabler on the delivery of tactical aircraft fuelling in theatre). JHC should be considered a well-structured and equipped rapid reaction force element that is able to respond to the full spectrum of any crisis requirement be it humanitarian, disaster relief or high intensity warfighting.

Domestically too JHC has found itself involved in Maritime Counter Terrorism, Counter Terrorism, National Standby, Search and Rescue aid to civil powers, police support, aircraft rescue and flood support.

In the pre SDSR 2010 period and particularly in the Afghanistan theatre the need for additional rotary power capability was clear for all to see. This has been answered through the additional Chinook capability now being made available to JHC. New helicopters such as Wildcat and the substantial upgrading of Royal Air Force Puma helicopters and capability sustainment and enhancement programmes on EH101 Merlin over the past few years undertaken by Lockheed Martin show that the UK now has a formidable fleet of rotary power.

In terms of battlefield and support helicopter capability Joint Helicopter Command has already proved great leadership and strength. The bottom line is that force ‘jointery’ has ensured that Joint Helicopter Command strategy is far more effective, efficient and affordable. Looking further out demand for fast battlefield and humanitarian rotary capability is hardly likely to diminish. Future wars may be about technology but they are also about practicality and common sense. Complex humanitarian and environmental issues are more likely to increase. Air assault forces will always need to be moved to the front line quickly and efficiently and rotary power must always be close at hand to support mission success. Battlefield helicopters can and do provide excellent all round capability and that is able to react and immediately respond to the nature of most crisis envisaged, to lift troops in, to undertake medical evacuation, to carry out manned aerial surveillance and undertake a vast range of other missions. But it takes coordinated planning, effective command and control and everyone working as one team. As a well-structured organisation and that wears an arm badge as opposed to cap badge Joint Helicopter Command has what it takes in spades.

CHW (London – 6th October 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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