What the Royal Air Force’s new Chinooks mean for the future

In a deal worth £1 bil­lion, the UK MoD has ordered 14 new Chi­nook HC6 trans­port heli­copters from Boe­ing, set to be ful­ly oper­a­tional by 2017.

alt Mak­ing the announce­ment at RAF Odi­ham, where the Chi­nook team is based, Defence Sec­re­tary Liam Fox told those in atten­dance, “These addi­tion­al heli­copters will sig­nif­i­cant­ly enhance our exist­ing heavy lift heli­copter capa­bil­i­ty.”

The first batch will be deliv­ered for tri­als by 2013, and the sec­ond by 2015. Includ­ed in the con­tract is sup­port and main­te­nance for the first five years of ser­vice.

When deployed, the UK’s Chi­nook fleet will total 60, ensur­ing that it remains the largest of its kind out­side of the US. The ini­tial pro­ject­ed order of 24 CH-47Fs made in 2009 under the Labour gov­ern­ment was reduced by ten, but is still more than the twelve orig­i­nal­ly ref­er­enced in the Strate­gic Defence and Secu­ri­ty Review (2010).

Dur­ing the height of the Afghanistan con­flict, the MoD suf­fered some of its harsh­est crit­i­cism for the report­ed lack of heli­copters avail­able to British troops. With the increas­ing threat of IEDs, trans­porta­tion by air became the pre­ferred method, yet UK forces were found to be rely­ing on bor­rowed US Black­hawks.

Pos­si­bly as a result of the pub­lic out­cry, Bob Ainsworth, the for­mer Sec­re­tary of Defence, was forced to back­track on the deci­sion to not pur­chase more heli­copters,

The air­craft has proven itself to be the stan­dard work­horse for the UK, US, and many oth­er nation­al mil­i­taries, owing to its ‘all-round’ abil­i­ties. Not only can it fly fast and low, it is capa­ble of heavy lift and mul­ti-mis­sion roles.

Its con­tin­ued acqui­si­tion by the UK MoD may indi­cate sev­er­al devel­op­ments, but pri­mar­i­ly an adher­ence to new efforts to cut costs. As the Chi­nook can fill the gap in a vari­ety of sce­nar­ios, it makes sense for the MoD to invest at this time of strained bud­gets and uncer­tain­ty over where the next con­flict may occur.

As the heli­copter is already a sta­ple with­in the armed forces, min­is­ters will also have no need to wor­ry about spend­ing on new sup­port or main­te­nance require­ments. In fact, thanks to the vast US fleet, spare parts and joint force adapt­abil­i­ty are eas­i­ly obtained.

Dig­ging deep­er, it is pos­si­ble that the con­tract hints at the future shape of war­fare – or at least, the shape that strate­gists are expect­ing it to take. More Chi­nooks could indi­cate an added empha­sis on Spe­cial Oper­a­tions, in response to coun­terin­sur­gency sce­nar­ios and the recent expe­ri­ences in Afghanistan. Where there is an option for few­er feet on the ground, it will now be the pref­er­ence.

New Chi­nooks also poten­tial­ly sug­gest an antic­i­pa­tion of the IED being an endur­ing threat, neces­si­tat­ing an increase in air trans­port. This may also hint to the UK look­ing more in the long-term towards heav­i­ly armoured trans­port vehi­cles, and oth­er air­borne assets suit­ed to irreg­u­lar war­fare, such as UAVs and elec­tron­ic war­fare.

The impor­tance of rotor­craft to tomorrow’s British Armed Forces can not be under­stat­ed. The SDSR deci­sion on scrap­ping one of its two naval air­craft car­ri­ers rest­ed much on the shoul­ders of which was more suit­ed to car­ry­ing heli­copters, while both Army and Navy are wait­ing on the intro­duc­tion of the Lynx Wild­cat in one of the few aspects of the Review to advo­cate con­tin­ued spend­ing.

Defence IQ, a divi­sion of IQPC