JOINT HELICOPTER COMMAND COMBINES FORCE CAPABILITY WITH LEADERSHIP AND STRENGTH
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
06 Oct 14. The formal handover last Tuesday (September 30th 2014) by the Royal Air Force of its EH101 Merlin Helicopter Force to the Royal Navy combined with standing down of 78 Squadron at RAF Benson and the standing up of 846 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. But there is another side to the story as well as this should be seen as a further strengthening of Joint Helicopter Command.
The change is a very significant one for both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and it also highlights the growing importance of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) which now has responsibility for all land based Royal Air Force Chinook and Puma HC2 helicopter operation in the UK. To an extent the change may also be considered as equally symbolic as it marks closer the day when, following the standing down in 2015/16 of 202 and 22 Squadron Sea King HAR3/3A Search and Rescue (SARF) force capability will, apart from the RAF Akrotiri based 84 Squadron currently flying Griffin HAR 2 helicopters, mark the end of a long chapter of Royal Air Force control of rotary based operation.
For the time being my understanding is that 846 NAS will work alongside 28 (AC) Squadron at RAF Benson until the new RNAS Squadron unit relocates to Yeovilton early in 2015. At that point 28 (AC) Squadron will also be stood down. While the loss of the superb AW EH101 Merlin Mk 3 fleet from Benson and RAF control will be regarded as a sad day for a great many this should in my view be set in context with the fact that the 25 upgraded Merlin Mk 4 helicopters that will eventually emerge from the ongoing Fleet Air Arm conversion programme and that will, when complete, replace the venerable fleet of Royal Navy Sea King HC.4 helicopters has been very well thought out and planned. As Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford said in his speech marking the handover at RAF Benson last week, “rather than mourn [the loss of 78 Squadron Merlin force] we should use this as an opportunity to celebrate the partnership between our two (Royal Navy and Royal Air Force] services”.
Whilst I would admit to having been initially surprised and somewhat disappointed when the announcement of rotary capability policy change was first made I can say now that in hindsight, based on the combination of affordability and improved capability options, I genuinely believe that the policy change is the correct way to move forward. I would add that while this strategy will see the Royal Navy having a substantially upgraded fleet of EH101 Merlin helicopter capability to be eventually be based at RNAS Yeovilton, the transition in rotary force capability will also allow Joint Helicopter Command, responsible for Battlefield Helicopter and Air Assault Force elements of all three services, to finally come of age.
Formed in 1999, operating approximately 197 rotary and aircraft platforms and based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) is an example of Force ‘jointery’ at its best. JHC is a unique force that is designed to be agile, interoperable, sustainable, resilient and affordable. Today JHC can be seen as having been a hugely successful element in supporting the activities of all three main force elements and should be considered a vital part of the UK’s war fighting capability. By combining air assault and battlefield elements of all three of our armed forces together with the back room civil service organisation required has proved not only that ‘jointery’ allows the armed forces to capitalise on the available strengths of each other whilst preserving single service ethos and values but also that it cuts overall cost.
Currently operating Boeing Chinook (Mk 4 and Mk 6) and Apache attack helicopters, Airbus Puma (Mk 2), AgustaWestland Merlin, Lynx (Mk 7 and Mk 9A), Se