UK DEFENCE – 78 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE LEAD THE WAY
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
30 Nov 10. This day not only marks the anniversary of the birth one-hundred-and-thirty-six-years ago of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill but is also the anniversary of the first operational commitment for the RAF Merlin Helicopter Force in Afghanistan. As part of Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) working alongside several other allied forces within the NATO ISAF command structure the principle role of the medium lift RAF AgustaWestland Merlin HC3 helicopter is probably best described as firstly – to provide fast, safe movement of allied troops by air to various operating and patrol bases spread across a variety of hugely difficult terrain throughout Afghanistan and secondly – to ensure that Land Forces have adequate supplies of whatever they need such as weapons, heavy equipment and food to act in support of re-supply. With the risk of attack never that far away in a theatre such as this and with the HC3’s required to be very quickly available for sudden unplanned evacuation, rescue, medical and other missions such as for instance supporting Counter Improvised Explosive Device activities it is in my view suffice to say that just as it had so successfully done in Iraq over a total five years period flying many thousands of individual missions the all weather, day, night, medium support 78 Squadron Merlin HC3 helicopters force that is currently serving in Afghanistan have over the past year already proved to be a very essential part of the NATO led Afghanistan air support arsenal.
Well equipped for both tactical and strategic roles and carrying full defensive-aid suites including three general purpose machine guns, full radar, laser and missile warners, directional infrared countermeasures equipment plus automatic chaff and flare and other equipment the Camp Bastion based Merlin HC3’s have over this past year provided massive support to Operations HERRICK and MOSHTARAK. They are thus already an essential part of the NATO alliance toolkit. With triple redundancy meaning that Merlin is powered by no less than three Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM 322 turbines and with a maximum altitude capability of 15,000ft Merlin is able to work well within hot and cold temperatures.
Having been involved with the EH101 Merlin since the product was born as an idea in the UK back in the early 1980’s and having also been involved in the aborted US101 version of the aircraft (the plan to acquire a US built version of the aircraft for the US Presidential Helicopter flight through a joint Lockheed Martin/AgustaWestland joint venture operation in Owego, NY for which no less than six aircraft had already been built and that was suddenly scrapped by President Obama last year for somewhat spurious reasons along with it immediate potential for the Helicopter to compete within the planned CSAR-X [Combat Search & Rescue] program and in the more general export campaign I have been fortunate to fly many hours in RAF Merlin Helicopters. This culminated when I was invited to spend time in Iraq during September 2005 looking mainly at UK forces equipment deployment in the Basra based Iraq theatre and that I might add coincided with the unfortunate Warrior armoured personnel carrier incident when the vehicle was attacked by an angry crowd I can I believe say with some authority that allied forces in Afghanistan are being supported by one of the very best helicopters that is available in the world.
Originally designed as a replacement for the venerable much loved and still in service Sea King helicopter it is just short of fourteen years now since the first Merlin or to give it the correct original name, the AgustaWestland EH101, undertook the first ever mission. Today is the first anniversary of Merlin operation in Afghanistan. To that end and along with two small TV crews representing both the BBC and ITV and that included the now w