LONDON — The U.K. is withdrawing its Royal Air Force AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin HC3 transport helicopters from Afghanistan as part of the drawdown of British combat forces in theater.

The move, announced on June 4, comes after four years of continuous operations by the Merlins in theater operating from the coalition base at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. The aircraft will be dismantled and returned to the U.K. on Boeing C-17 transport aircraft in the coming weeks.

The aircraft were operated in theater by the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) (JHF(A)). The withdrawal of the Merlin, and the Sea King last year, leaves just small fleets of Westland Lynx AH9A utility helicopters, Apache attack helicopters and CH-47 Chinooks remaining.

According to the U.K. defense ministry, the need for helicopters has been reduced significantly as Afghan forces increasingly take over responsibility for security and policing. The number of U.K. bases in the province has shrunk from 137 in 2010 to 11 this year, and this means fewer helicopters are needed to support them. As a result, support helicopter flying hours have dropped from 2,300 hr. a month in 2010 to around 1,350 now.

The withdrawal will allow the full fleet of Merlins to be back in the U.K. ready to be transferred to the Royal Navy and be used by the Commando Helicopter Force amphibious support helicopter fleet in 2015, replacing the aging Westland Sea King.

As part of the transition, several navy crews and engineers have been working at the RAF Merlin main operating base at Benson, Oxfordshire, where they have been learning to operate and maintain the aircraft. Several Royal Navy crews have also been flying the aircraft in Afghanistan in recent months.

Work to prepare these Merlins for operations at sea is currently unfunded, but officers are hopeful of retrofitting a folding main rotor head and tail boom to the aircraft to make them compatible with the deck lifts and hangars of Royal Navy vessels, including the new Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carriers. The transition will make the Royal Navy the sole operator of the EH101 in the U.K.