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Should British Battlefield Helicopters be Operated by a Single Service?

Time for a Change?

This year’s Defence Command Paper revealed that the 4 medium-sized helicopters currently operated by the 3 Services would be replaced by a single type under the Medium Helicopter Programme. The imminent arrival of a new helicopter type should also be a pertinent time to review the status quo and ask the question ‘Who should command and operate the UK’s battlefield helicopters?’  My view is that the current operating model that pivots around Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) has run its course.  A single Service should operate all of the rotary assets to make the output more efficient, streamlined and practical.

Joint Helicopter Command – the Old Kid on the Block

JHC was formed in 1999 as a result of  the 1998 SDR’s ‘joint approach’ that also saw the formation of Joint Force Harrier and the Joint Ground Based Air Defence organisation.  JHC amalgamated the helicopter fleets of the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF,) the Army Air Corps (AAC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) into a single command, reporting directly to Chief of the General Staff.  As an organisation, JHC sought to improve training, standards, doctrinal development, support and to increase availability of assets on the battlefield. To do this, JHC would look to draw on equipment, personal, subject matter experts and integrate them into one package.

JHC’s strength is its ability to integrate the shared aspects of operating helicopters whilst at the same time exploiting the advantages of each capability by harnessing a large amount of expertise across the 3 Services.  Despite such an extensive and dramatic organisational change, we need to bear in mind that the individual services still retain ownership of their respective personnel, aircraft & equipment.

The Prime Minister, Secretary of State and the Chief of Defence Staff have all acknowledged that the character of warfare is changing and changing rapidly.  They have outlined how UK forces should expect to operate in a complex and uncertain environment and need do so in an increasingly integrated manner.  The UK’s direction of travel is to  move away from the principle of mass and to focus on tempo and manoeuvre; battlefield helicopters will provide an important capability in allowing this to happen.

The Current State of Play – Overlap, Overlap, Overlap

As an umbrella organisation, JHC operates a range of battlefield helicopters.  The RAF operate the Chinook and Puma 2 in the support helicopter (SH) role, the British Army operates the Apache in the Attack Helicopter (AH) role, and the Wildcat in a Reconnaissance Helicopter (RH) role.  These two types combine to form an Attack Reconnaissance Team (ART).  The AAC also operates the Gazelle in a scout role and the Bell 212 for Jungle operations.  The Royal Navy’s CHF operate the Merlin and Wildcat in support of 3 Commando Brigade.  This is quite a collection and of these aircraft types, the Puma 2, Gazelle and Bell 212 are all marked for retirement by the middle of this decade,  to be replaced by a single medium lift battlefield helicopter. This is a significant amount of overlap across a number of assets that provide similar capabilities operated by different Services in a ‘joint’ environment.

Joint in Name Only?

Twenty years after its formation, the question remains whether JHC is joint in name only? JHC’s force elements are drawn from a collection of squadrons, regiments, and flights all with a different ethos, history and way of operating.  This is in stark contrast to the US Army’s battlefield helicopter force, which operates all of its helicopters organically without having to rely on their Air Force or Navy counterparts.  The risks and challenges with command and co-operation between Services is clearly stated in Joint Doctrine Note 1/20 ‘Air Manoeuvre’.  It outlines how a unified command ensures the interests of the maritime, land or air environments do not undermine mission success.  This begs the question whether efficiency and output would not be optimised if British battlefield helicopters were operated by just one Service; improving training, standards, doctrinal development, support and increase availability of assets increasing flexibility?

Sicily, Arnhem and the Duty Holder Construct

It is interesting that JDN 1/20 cites Seb Ritchie’s Arnhem: Myth and Reality: Airborne Warfare, Air Power and the Failure of Operation Market Garden as an example of how over 70 years ago, the Allies recognised the need for unity of command in air manoeuvre.  After the invasion of Sicily, they agreed that the responsibility ‘should not be delegated to lower headquarters since positive coordination can be ensured only by the one agency in control of all elements.’

Will the Real Duty Holder Please Stand Up?

The very complex Command Structure & Duty Holder chain which is responsible for Air Safety and ensuring that associated Risk to Life for the Air Systems within their Area of Responsibility is As Low As Reasonably Practicable and Tolerable goes totally against this point Ritchie is making.

From a JHC perspective, the Duty Holder starts with the Delivery Duty Holder as either a RAF Station Commander, a CHF Royal Marine Colonel, or one of two Army Colonel’s (Deputy Commander Find & Attack).  The Operating Duty Holder is Commander JHC, currently a RAF 2 Star, based at Army Headquarters.  We also need to bear in mind that each service maintains ownership of their personal & assets.  This means the RAF helicopter Stations come under 2 Group (soon aircrew will transfer into 1 Group with support staff placed in either 2 or 11 Group,) commanded by AOC 2 Group, also a 2 star billet.

The Army’s Aviation Brigade is a 1 Star Command, who also doubles as Deputy Commander JHC. The Army’s Aviation Brigade will deploy under 3(UK) Division, commanded by a 2 Star General, when conducting divisional operations. Finally, the CHF is a Fleet Air Arm asset and as such remains under the operational command of the Fleet Commander, a 3 Star, until deployed.  Surely there has to be a simpler way of doing business?  So who is best to operate the British helicopters?

The Royal Air Force – the natural choice?

The RAF was formed in 1918 after the “Smuts report” which recommended the creation of an Air Ministry to control and administer all matters in connection with air warfare of every kind.  Common sense would suggest that the RAF is best to operate any type of aircraft and helicopter.  From day one, RAF pilots are educated and trained to be air minded, learning aspects of airmanship and studying the use of air power throughout history.  The pilots operating Chinook and Puma are proven professionals in helicopter operations, assault and insertion techniques; adding ART and the CHF to their skillsets would not be that far-fetched.  JDP 0-30 acknowledges the need to integrate air with the land and maritime domains.

If the RAF was to operate the UK’s helicopter fleet, his would result in a highly effective air manoeuvre capability which could also align seamlessly with control of the air and thus enable freedom of movement for land forces.  There would also be significant workforce benefits as all RAF pilot streams (Fast Jet, Rotary Wing and Multi Engine) would come under a single command, creating an efficient, flexible and fast acting air domain minimising misunderstanding and confusion compared to having 3 services operating different helicopter platforms.

But the RAF Don’t Get This Army Stuff

The RAF regularly has exchanges set up with the Army, allowing RAF pilots to operate in the AH role.  It is here that RAF pilots are taught, exposed to and mentored in learning about Army planning cycles. Real mission planning on operations would always be conducted with pilots and ground commanders in parallel.  There is a belief that the majority of the RAF lack the required warfighter mentality to operate in the AH role.  When you look at RAF pilots as a group, and the awards and commendations that have been awarded for bravery and achievements whilst flying on operations, it’s hard to say they lack the war fighting mindset.  Although it may take time for RAF pilots to understand ground tactics and schemes of manoeuvre, it isn’t that far-fetched for AH to be completely operated by the RAF.

Simples? It has to be the Army

For the British Army to become the sole operators of all rotary assets would merely require them to take control of the RAF’s SH Force and the Navy’s CHF.  Having SH operated by the Army and operating alongside their ART would certainly create an agile capability and simplified C2 which could allow ground forces to quickly deploy and redeploy when re-tasked supporting ground forces.

The British Army has recently formed the 1st Aviation Brigade which the British Army Review Summer 2020 says creates a ‘C2 architecture that allows dynamic integration of aviation, information, CEMA, air and surface-to-surface fires.’  This then could be the framework for a Brigade operating all British battle helicopters; creating a capability within a deployable division or alongside a Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) with inherent speed, range and lethality which can out manoeuvre a peer enemy.  The primary driver for the Brigade is the need to build a C2 construct capable of connecting brigade aviation assets in support of a deployment at divisional level, rather than focusing on small groups of helicopters, suited to brigade or sub-brigade deployments.

I Feel the Need…The Need for a Tactical Commander

Jack Watling’s recent RUSI paper highlights the issues faced by JHC in having no tactical Commander who can apportion helicopters to particular parts of ground forces.  This is exactly what the formation of the Brigade is trying to mitigate and this is exactly what the US Army are doing in their reorganisation plan which started in 2006.  Under the new US Army structure, Combat Aviation Brigades sit at the divisional level, offer a full spectrum of capability, and can offer a modular combination of attack, reconnaissance and lift helicopters.

The recent announcement that the British Army will be organised around Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) was also accompanied by the news of a Global Response Force (GRF).  The GRF have at its centre an Air Manoeuvre Brigade Combat Teams (BCT), itself drawn from the newly established Aviation Brigade. Although these are significant changes for Army aviation, it is unlikely to have a direct impact on the control of the RAF’s helicopters. ‘Future Soldier’ says that the GRF ‘will be equipped with upgraded Apache and Chinook helicopters and integrated with strategic air transport from the RAF.’  So why couldn’t all battlefield helicopters be operated by the Army and rather than convoluting the structure and services?

Expanding the Role of AH

The main roles for AH on the battlefield include find, fixing and destroying armour, providing direct fire support to troops on the ground, and target acquisition using the Longbow radar.  When AH was requested by troops in contact in Afghanistan, it was widely acknowledged that the soldiers on the ground benefitted immensely having a pilot and gunner who understood battlefield tactics.  Equally, command inputs during an air assault mission can also be enhanced by the pilots flying the AH and SH platforms.

In addition to operating the Apache and Chinook, the Army could also better utilise the potential of the new ‘medium lift helicopter programme’ to fill gaps in capabilities that have been created by the recent Defence Review.  An Aviation Brigade Operating ART and SH would also benefit the newly formed Strike Brigades and other BCTs through improved training, standards, doctrinal development, support and increase availability of assets on the battlefield.

How Deep is Deep Strike? Blurring the Lines

Although the Apache is arguably the best attack helicopter in the world and a potent capability for British forces, ‘tank plinking’ by the A-10 Thunderbolt has shown fixed wing aircraft to be just as affective against armour – the role the AH was first designed for.  This has led the AH world to seek out additional roles such as flying armed escorts for CASEVAC missions.  AH have also been used for strategic deep strike roles such as the Apaches of Task Force Normandy’s destroying radar positions inside Iraq.  This ‘going the extra mile’ with AH does unfortunately blur the lines somewhat as they stray into more traditional fixed wing areas.  If there are roles for AH beyond that of operating as a flying tank in direct support of land forces, should AH be operated by the Army at all?

Following previous SDSRs, Army 2020 and the recent Defence Review, the British Army decided to provide one deployable division at any one time.  Army 2020 restructuring assigned 3 Regiment (AH) to support the armoured infantry and Strike Brigades of 3(UK) Division and 4 Regiment (AH) would support 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade while still under the command of JHC.  Quite how this construct fits into the newly formed Aviation Brigade is confusing to say the least and it adds another layer of complexity of operation with each regiment/squadron separately managed and maintained until coming together and integrating at the point of delivery within a division.

Royal Navy Merlin Helicopter Westlant 2019

Can the Navy save the day?

For the CHF to take ownership of the British helicopter force they would need to significantly expand their capabilities, taking on both heavy lift and AH.  The CHF pilots  share the strengths of the Army crews in understanding battlefield and ground tactics.  They also understand the RM’s littoral operations and operating from Landing Platform Helicopter and amphibious assault ships.  This is particularly pertinent with the formation of the new Royal Navy’s Littoral Strike Group and Future Commando Force.  The delivery of small, versatile teams of Royal Marines in what appears to verge on a special forces  role, may mean that the type of helicopter support required cannot be provided by another service.  RM commanders on littoral assault missions benefit from being in command of their own helicopters, operated by their own pilots.

Back to the here and now, and when the CHF is supporting 3 Commando Bridge, it falls under the command of the Fleet Commander and is a Fleet Air Arm asset until deployed on operations where it switches command to JHC.  More layers of C2 are added when 4 Regiment AAC is tasked to support 3 Commando Brigade.   The question has to be asked whether 3 Commando Brigade really needs their own Merlin and Wildcat helicopters at all?  If this is the case, why not allow 16 Air Assault Brigade to have their own squadron of A400Ms or C-130s?  With such an overlap of helicopter roles, it would not be unrealistic for the RAF or the Army to support 3 Commando.  This mixed approach is how Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing operates helicopters for British Special Forces which are operated by RAF and Army personnel.

And the winner is..?

There are obviously many arguments as to who should operate the UK’s battlefield helicopters and during any discussion an aviator’s pride will always show through.  Though there are fewer boots on the ground at the moment, the next peer to peer war could be very different.  There is always demand for ART and SH so the right people, right aircraft, right organisation and right costs all need to be considered when choosing the overall structure of the helicopter force and the new medium lift helicopter.

Would the Navy prefer to spend their budget on ships and boats, the Army on armour, protected mobility and guns?  I’m sure they would.  Does the RAF’s focus on aircraft not place them in the best position to be that sole operator?  We also have to consider and challenge the status quo.  When the risks and challenges with command and co-operation between services are fully exposed they appear complicated and potentially inefficient.

These are just some of the pros and cons to a single service operating the entire inventory of British battlefield helicopters and there is by no means a definite answer, although I do believe that the arrival of the new medium lift helicopter provides an opportunity to examine the utility of JHC, one of the few ‘joint’ organisations still surviving from SDSR2010.

I feel the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade is best suited to control and fly all battlefield helicopters, which would optimise tempo, speed and manoeuvre which are some of the aspirations of the SoS and Service Chiefs.  For battlefield helicopters to be an effective capability, assets must have the freedom to operate as one and this requires unity and a command structure that is from one service, with the same background.  With the Army providing support, engineering, and aircrew to fly all of the platforms this could cut costs, optimise airfields and basing in the UK, improve aircrew development/career paths, and a produce greater effect on the battlefield.

British Army

James is a serving Army Officer working within the Army Recruiting and Training Division.

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