£400m upgrade for RAF C-17As and Chinooks

The UK's Boeing Chinook HC5/HC6 helicopters are to be enhanced with state-of-the-art defensive systems, while the Royal Air Force's (RAF's) C-17A Globemaster III fleet will receive a software and hardware upgrade. The UK Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin announced on September 12 that a £400m investment will enable these upgrades to these two vital UK assets.

The UK’s C-17 fleet – which recently played a key role in the UK’s evacuation from Afghanistan – will receive a £324m investment. This will upgrade software and hardware to improve airlift capability as part of a contract with the US Air Force (USAF). The UK’s fleet of Boeing Chinook HC5 and HC6 helicopters will be enhanced with state-of-the-art defensive systems, as part of a £64m contract with Boeing Defence UK (BDUK) which will make them harder for adversaries to detect.

RAF C-17A Kabul
Royal Air Force C-17A Globemaster III ZZ175 at Kabul/Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, on August 20 while participating in the UK military contribution to the evacuation of Afghans eligible for relocation to the UK through the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP). Under Operation Pitting, the UK military was involved in the evacuation of British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation under the ARAP.
MOD Crown Copyright/LPhot Ben Shread

Jeremy Quin said: “Whether evacuating people in Kabul, transporting people to hospital during COVID-19 or providing crucial logistics on the battlefield, the C-17 and Chinook provide an invaluable service to our Armed Forces across the globe. This investment ensures our aircraft are equipped with cutting-edge technology to face a myriad of emerging threats from adversaries.”

The investment builds on commitments outlined in the Defence Command Paper earlier this year, which confirms an operational obligation to both aircraft as part of the Integrated Force 2030 approach. This is further supported by the £24bn increase in defence spending over the next four years, announced by the Prime Minister in November 2020.

Negotiated by Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), the five-and-a-half-year C-17 contract will continue the highly specialised support for the aircraft under the ‘Virtual Fleet’ concept, where all nine operating nations have access to a world-class support solution.

Upgrades will include enhancements to the Beyond Line of Sight satellite-enabled communication equipment, a wider field of view via the Head-Up Display in the cockpit to help increase pilot situational awareness and widening the scope of the current free-fall parachuting capability.

The five-year Chinook helicopter contract managed by DE&S will see the installation of state-of-the-art Infra-Red Suppression Systems (IRSS) across some of the fleet, offering better protection from threats posed by new missile systems using the heat (infra-red) signature of the aircraft to target. IRSS technology will counter with blanking plates on the helicopters which mask the hot components and redirect airflow to cool the exhaust gases, making it more difficult to target.

Chinook HC5 [MOD Crown Copyright]
The UK’s fleet of Boeing Chinook HC5 and HC6 helicopters will be enhanced with state-of-the-art defensive systems, which will make them harder to detect for adversaries. MOD Crown Copyright

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said: “I am delighted with the introduction of these state-of-the-art upgrades to the Chinook and C-17 Globemaster, as well as the significant benefits of nine allied nations working together on C-17 as a Virtual Fleet. These measures will ensure our Chinook and Globemaster squadrons can operate wherever and whenever needed across the globe.”

The contracts will support around 200 jobs across the UK. Around 100 will be sustained at BDUK sites across the country as the Chinook upgrade is rolled- out, contributing to an estimated 450 people employed in Chinook support across the wider Defence supply chain.

Around 50 new jobs will also be created at RAF Brize Norton, taking the total to around 100 employed on-site to provide maintenance and logistics for the C-17 fleet. This new agreement announced today provides continued support to the C-17 under a Virtual Fleet concept whereby the UK and eight other nations who operate the aircraft have access to cost-effective and efficient support, as well as additional spare equipment, parts and resources.

The current RAF C-17A fleet comprises eight aircraft, based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, and flown operationally by 99 Squadron, while also used by 24 Squadron (the Air Mobility Operational Conversion Unit) and a detachment from 206 Squadron – the Heavy Aircraft Test and Evaluation Unit at MOD Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. The RAF CH-47 fleet is a mix of eight Chinook HC5s, 14 Chinook HC6s and 38 Chinook HC6As. The main operating base for the type is RAF Odiham, Hampshire, where it is flown by 7, 18 and 27 Squadrons. The type is also flown by 28 Squadron at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire, which is the Chinook Operational Conversion Unit, and by 1310 Flight at Gao, Mali, in support of French forces.