As the planned drawdown of armed forces from Afghanistan continues, the U.K.'s military is considering how the nation's tri-service helicopter force will be supported once operations there end.

“We haven't yet seen the effects of the Afghan drawdown. Of course, we are very interested to see how this goes,” says Trevor Pritchard, development director at Vector Aerospace. A subsidiary of EADS, Vector is the leading “depth support” contractor for much of the U.K.'s helicopter fleet, including the Sea King, Lynx and Chinook, although the Sea King fleet will be retired in 2014. The services used to have two separate structures—a forward, day-to-day support element covering consumable item replacement and similar simple tasks, and “depth” for complex repair and overhaul. Now, they have established “pseudo-depth” facilities forward: first at Basra air base in Iraq, and then at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

“The U.K. is likely to maintain aircraft in-country throughout the campaign, right to the very end, so the work isn't likely to stop right away,” Pritchard says. “Lynx and Chinook will be there for some time.” After the end of combat operations, Pritchard predicts: “We expect to see maintenance packages becoming less—we haven't seen this yet, but—and there is likely to be less emergent damage and crash damage. And we do expect to see an increase in helicopter reset at the end of the campaign. This should come by 2015.”

This view is mirrored by John Ponsonby, senior vice president for customer support and training at AgustaWestland. “The drawdown will see a drop off in Urgent Operational Requirements [UORs] to be embodied,” he says. “And the aircraft will be tired, and the [Defense Ministry] will be looking at what to do with these platforms.”

Helicopter support for all types other than the AH-64 Apache has been costing £270 million ($430 million) per year for the past three years, and UORs have totaled close to £1 billion since 2002. However, according to industry executives, support costs have not risen alarmingly over the past 2-3 years—even though the number of deployed helicopters has risen.

One reason for this is that U.K. rotary-wing support has become more integrated in the last 10-15 years. There are no longer support lines for regular and emergent overhaul or for modification; the process is aimed at tackling all of these in one system. This has been achieved through Integrated Operational Support (IOS) contracts that bundle up all aspects of support for a given platform—engines, airframe, avionics, special electronics and other items—into a single support contract, normally issued to the prime contractor.

“An IOS contract can be managed globally,” Ponsonby says. “So you can have high levels of flying hours for deployed fleets, along with management of those aircraft not on operations. An IOS contract allows you to take management decisions across a fleet, and not across small units.”

Executives identify key lessons that the U.K. has learned about rotary support after a decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I guess what we do on the [Royal Air Force] Chinooks is the most interesting,” Pritchard says. “In March 2009 [in Afghanistan], we started supporting Chinooks at Kandahar [Afghanistan] and then Camp Bastion. Now, we have a very good idea about what the status and state of each aircraft is before they come back to us [in the U.K.]—this gives us very valuable insights into the aircraft.”

Vector employees deployed to Afghanistan play an important role, Pritchard says. “They consider themselves not just spanner [wrench]-turners, but very real deliverers of capability because of the work that they do. [The deployed Vector personnel] do more helicopter husbandry—not just the long-term stuff. If you don't look after corrosion and so forth, it can have a very bad, deleterious effect over time. The [uniformed] guys in-theater don't have much time to do some of this work, so this is where we come in. Afghanistan has seen very effective collaboration between industry and the deployed forces.”

“[Operational tempo] management is key,” comments AgustaWestland's Ponsonby, adding that this means “knowing how a fleet gets used, so that you can plan for the spikes. Also, special areas of interest for us have been in managing the embodiment of UORs. We set up joint modification organizations to establish how we merge operational requirements for an aircraft type, or even a particular aircraft. We have established a joint industry/[Defense Ministry] set of teams at Yeovil [the base for AgustaWestland in the U.K.] to manage the complex task of UORs.

“Look at that experience of providing that integrated support, and huge lessons have been learned on both sides: How do you manage risk, maintenance, modifications? It has been a very positive experience on both sides,” Ponsonby adds. These lessons are unlikely to be forgotten or ignored.”

The Vector and AgustaWestland executives agree there has been one particularly important change in the philosophy and practice of support: the rise of “depth forward” as a concept. This has allowed some complex tasks to be undertaken in-theater, avoiding spending hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time to transport helicopters back to the U.K.