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