Howard Wheeldon reviews our military aircraft situation after yesterday's Chinook order announcement
First the good news: Yesterday the government finally announced a plan that will increase the number of twin-rotor CH-47 Boeing Chinook helicopters by 22 aircraft with production of the first ten starting in 2012. Ultimately, over a ten year period, taking retirements into account, the number of Chinook helicopters will, according to the statement, rise from 48 to 70. As usual with this particular government, the devil will be in the detail. In addition to the Chinook helicopters announced yesterday I expect the government will also soon confirm that one (as opposed to the two that had been requested as needed) new C-17 Globemaster will also be acquired from Boeing to bring the RAF fleet of this very fine and crucially important heavylift aircraft to seven.
Now for the bad news: firstly it is important to note that the announcement of planned Chinook helicopter and intended C-17 procurement will, despite remarks from Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth today implying that the new helicopters will immediately be sent to Afghanistan, do absolutely nothing to alleviate the huge problem that exists in troop and equipment lift in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Of course, the government will no doubt place emphasis on how it is meeting the requests of the three armed forces chiefs in providing new equipment. It is though yet another shambles from this government – mere political gesturing that accompanied by more very serious cuts will go down badly with those charged to lead our armed forces and defend the realm. The bottom line is that this announcement will be far too little and far too late to save further lives being lost during 2010. This is despite taking into full account that the helicopter fleet serving Afghanistan has at last been strengthened with speedily refurbished Merlin helicopters fresh out of Iraq, that a small additional fleet of Merlins has also been acquired from Denmark and will soon enter the fleet, along with the eight long grounded Mk 2 Chinook conversion helicopters that, ignoring an unknown quantity of helicopters that may possibly be grounded as damaged, will take the official fleet number of available Chinook aircraft to 46 some time next year. I am puzzled as to why the government claims a total 48 Chinook helicopters owned by the UK today – has it forgotten that two were lost and destroyed last year?
Secondly on the bad news front, following years of strenuous work in Iraq and now in Afghanistan we take the opportunity here to remind of our concern that we regard the fleet of Lockheed built C130J Hercules aircraft, regarded as the workhorse of RAF medium lift capability, as ‘knackered’. I sincerely apologies for using this particularly awful word but I believe the situation on available C130J lift requirement could well now be at an all time low. Clearly ahead of any final commitment to the substantially delayed A400M programme I do not anticipate anything in the announcement today that might alleviate concern on medium aircraft lift. That is regrettable because I believe the situation on available and fit for purpose C130J aircraft should be of great concern. For various reasons I will not repeat stories that I have heard of just how difficult it is, with both financial and manpower resources available, to keep aircraft such as the much overworked fleet of C130J aircraft in the sky. I may say though as a warning that at some point there may well be an accident waiting to happen and that, assuming the UK NATO commitment is not about to change, the government should take great care to ensure that something is urgently done.
Given that the UK’s existing NATO commitment is unlikely to be changed for at least another year (both Labour and Conservative are committed to a full strategic defence review) I must welcome any additional (or replacement) Chinook helicopters that the government chooses to announce. When the announcement comes I will certainly welcome the additional C-17 for the RAF even though I firmly believe this should have been two new aircraft ordered as opposed to just one. Indeed, I would have preferred to see another half dozen ordered. However, I for one will not have the wool pulled over my eyes by this government when it comes to acceptance of what is clearly the dangerous and weakened state that our armed forces are now in. Given that we have thousands of troops out in Afghanistan and elsewhere this is not an argument over what might or might not be affordable in my view. It is or should be about what is required for the mission, what is required to ensure troop lives are not being lost and about what is also required to ensure full defence of the realm and to meet our existing NATO commitments. Additionally it is about looking beyond the curve of current battlefield technique and of what the requirements will be in an increasingly unsafe world thirty years from now. It is also about how we support and recognise those that give awe to provide the freedom that we all enjoy.
Despite the urgency of requirement for additional lift capability it appears that funding for the additional equipment to be announced today will need to come from the existing MoD budget as opposed to government reserve. I am appalled to learn that this will be achieved by forcing the MoD to effect a far larger range of cynical and dangerous cuts in front line service across the RAF including cuts than I had previously expected. This will include cutting the existing number of operational Harrier and Tornado aircraft, possibly bringing forward the end service date for Nimrod MRA2 reconnaissance fleet and maybe even full closure of an RAF base. We may expect to hear of a substantial cut back in the number of civilians employed at RAF bases and throughout the MoD. Ultimately I assume it will also be about pulling remaining British troops out of Germany.
Whilst procurement of any additional lift capability is to be hugely welcomed we need to be extremely careful how we read yesterday’s government statement. As always with this lot, along with what it actually does say, given this government’s well known minimalist attitude to defence of the realm, it will be hugely important to also look for what it doesn’t say as well! The cynical view is as follows – after eight years of too little, too late they order equipment to be paid for, presumably after the election to try to make them look better. Cynicism added to incompetence! There are other dangers too. Perhaps we should also be aware that this announcement could well spell the end for the time being at least of planned Future Medium Helicopter Procurement. If right I am filled with foreboding as, if I am reading the situation correctly, this could mean that having already dropped plans to further upgrade the existing fleet of Mark IV Sea King helicopters these very fine if now somewhat elderly machines together with the much older fleet of recently upgraded Puma helicopters plus the existing if still far too small fleet of Merlin helicopters may need to be the backbone of the medium lift fleet for up to fifteen years. It had been hoped that Future Medium Helicopter would include planning to replace both Puma and Sea Kings with the UK built Agusta Westland Merlin. If right and if FMH program really is to be abandoned we may easily be led to conclude that the whole future of the Merlin program and the jobs of many in Yeovil are also brought into doubt.
Although a range of cuts across the RAF had been anticipated next year and beyond principally as a result of the planned Strategic Defence Review we are saddened that the government should, assuming media reports are correct, choose to make a case that the additional Chinook helicopters plus the C-17 aircraft are only affordable if cuts are announced now. Clearly, cuts in both front line and ‘back office’ RAF support that are being so widely talked about today will not be the last whoever forms the next government. However, we would have preferred that announcements today would have been part of the wider discussion that will form the full strategic defence review of 2010. Meanwhile we suspect that when the partners of the A400M programme meet early next year we could well see a cut in the number of aircraft that the RAF will eventually be allowed to take – assuming of course that continuation of the programme is confirmed by the government partners. It may be even worse than that – despite reassurances, we continue to remain cynical over government attitude to the actual numbers of Tranche 3 Typhoon aircraft that it will take – assuming this on the basis that aircraft still possibly designated for the UK could well move into the export programme.
Finally, although we are in little doubt that both Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be built for the Royal Navy we are bound to remain highly suspicious over the actual number of Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that will be acquired to go on top of them. Indeed, we may also question whether although they will surely be built, both ships actually go into Royal Navy service.
Howard Wheeldon is the Senior Strategist at BGC Partners