The conflict in Afghanistan has transformed the way the U.K. views its helicopter forces, but now senior commanders are looking at how those changes can continue to be practiced as the end of combat operations there draws near.
“The relationship has been forged in the heat of battle,” says Air Vice Marshal Carl Dixon, head of the U.K.'s Joint Helicopter Command, the tri-service organization that looks after the country's battlefield helicopters.
“Memories are long of the number of times helicopters have bailed soldiers out of problems and carried them into dynamic situations. We need to keep that intimacy. The whole British Army and Royal Marine organization has become helicopter-literate. [That is] a product of the Afghan experience, which has required every soldier and marine to use helicopters as part of normal business and to rely upon them in a fight.”
Working from their base at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province for the last eight years, the command has managed to forge a strong relationship with the U.S.. Flying with the U.S. Marines is so closely coordinated that Dixon says there is now a “seamless look” to the two countries' helicopter operations in Afghanistan.
Dixon says the U.K. has put much of its training effort into the mission in Afghanistan, but forces must now start planning and training for future engagements elsewhere.
“Our training apparatus has been immersed into Afghanistan, bending all our sinews into one thing. The trick for the future will be to stay as focused but recognize that more plurality needs to come into the training environment,” says Dixon. “Helicopter literacy is going to be an important issue for ground forces training in the future.”
While Afghanistan has enhanced some skills—such as dissimilar-aircraft formation-flying, combined fires and hot-and-high operations—it has “thinned others,” particularly in terms of simply flying rotorcraft from austere locations rather than main operating bases like Camp Bastion.
Other training changes may be in the pipeline, too. Since 1997, all U.K. helicopter pilots have been trained through the Defense Helicopter Flying School private finance initiative contract with Bristow and Cobham-owned FBHeliservices atShawbury, England. The service has proved the viability of a private contractor conducting training, and there are plans to bring the school under the umbrella of the Military Flight Training System in 2019.
“An opportunity is emerging to take a fresh look at the way we do rotary-wing training,” Dixon says. “A number of things, such as much higher-fidelity synthetic training and use of software in training products, allow us to move a significant amount of real aircraft flying into the synthetic space with the financial benefits. . . . There are a number of options, ranging from the replacement of the status quo right the way through to a different model.”
One idea being considered is for frontline pilots to perform skills-recovery flying on a fleet of helicopters that are less costly to operate than frontline types.
Recognition of the Joint Helicopter Command's work in Afghanistan is perhaps demonstrated by the funding it has enjoyed in recent years. Every helicopter type in its fleet has received or is about to undergo some kind of major investment or modernization. The newWildcat is now entering service with the British Army, while updating the EH101 Merlin and Apache attack helicopter are top priorities for the force. The Merlin upgrade program, which is currently unfunded, will add folding main and tail-rotor systems as well as address obsolescence issues to ready it for shipborne operations with the 's Commando Helicopter Force.
Meanwhile, the Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Program to modernize the British Army's Apache helicopters is being assessed. Dixon says, “the signs are that we would likely go down the upgrade route.” The key issues at stake are addressing obsolescence in the U.K.'s aging Block I aircraft and ensuring the fleet's longer-term sustainability as the U.S. Army and other countries upgrade to the Block III standard. The program aims to make sure that the Apache continues to perform as the “teeth” of the helicopter forces until about 2040.
Dixon says recognition of the role of helicopters in Afghanistan has permeated the Defense Ministry at every level of policy, with its crews flying in and out of harm's way every day there in a way that was inconceivable just a few years ago.