Wattisham, Wallop or someplace else?

UNITED KINGDOM

RECENT YEARS have seen an unprecedented period of change for Joint Helicopter Command with helicopters transitioning from the RAF to the Royal Navy (Merlin HC3/HC3A fleet), stalwarts like the Sea King HC4 and both Lynx variants (AH7/AH9A) retiring, and new variants like the Chinook HC6 and Merlin HC4 introduced.

The helicopter grabbing most headlines for a range of reasons is the Apache AH-64. Since the US Army is switching to the AH-64E, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) initiated its Attack Helicopter Capability Sustainment Programme with the aim of addressing the legacy Apache leet obsolescence. During the Farnborough International Airshow 2016, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced a $2.3 billion deal to acquire 50 AH-64Es for the Army Air Corps. The new aircraft will replace the UK’s current leet of 67 Apache AH1s (equivalent to a US Army Block 1 AH-64D) with an out of service date of 2023-2024.

However, in 2017 Boeing announced that only the first 38 aircraft had been funded in a $411 million deal, although the MoD insisted at the time that funds would be forthcoming for the remaining 12 aircraft. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the remaining 12 aircraft would be procured or will they be delayed.

AIR International met with Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) Commanding Oicer, Rear Admiral Jonathan Pentreath, to discuss some of the key questions pertaining to the AH-64E acquisition, including the beneits of the E model and where the aircraft will be based.

Rear Admiral Pentreath conirmed the UK government is on contract with the US government for 50 aircraft and that the next 12 should be on contract by the end of 2018. He also conirmed that the UK’s first Apache AH1 has already been stripped down and that some common components will be refurbished and incorporated into the new E-model aircraft.

The Apache AH1’s Modernised Target Acquisition and Designation System (M-TADS) and its Longbow ire control radar will also be stripped and returned to their original manufacturer for signiicant enhancements. To ensure the UK’s attack capability is not degraded, JHC expects to receive its first AH-64Es in 2020 which will enter service from 2022. The forward leet will comprise 32 aircraft with the remainder in training and scheduled maintenance. According to Joint Helicopter Command the 25% reduction in the Apache leet has been deemed suicient to meet future capability requirements and represents good value to the tax payer, though it’s diicult to reconcile this assertion given the current level of threat in today’s world.

Equipped with greater computing capacity and updated sensors, the new leet of AH-64Es will be easily upgradeable to ensure cutting edge of combat capability throughout its service life. A crucial aspect given how the Ministry of Defence is redeining the tactics used in taking the ight to an adversary.

Rear Admiral Pentreath explained how the AH-64E ofers a signiicant improvement to the UK attack helicopter capability. He said: “While the new platform looks very similar to the AH-64D, new engines, drivetrain and main rotor blades will deliver a boost in aircraft performance. Inside the cockpit, new software will create a more stable operating system and, with the introduction of a revolutionary cognitive decision aiding system or CDAS, pilots will be able to prosecute targets quicker and operate in a safer manner. For improved target engagement, sights and sensors on the nose turret and rotor mast will be upgraded to enable identiication at greater ranges and also enhance aircraft protection. Finally, new datalinks will expand battleield situational awareness, expand our operations with ground troops and implement a manned-unmanned teaming [dubbed M-UMT] concept with unmanned aerial system and other helicopters while advancing interoperability with our allies.”

Perhaps the toughest decision regarding the Apache AH-64E centres around where it will be based. From the outside looking in, there appears to be scope for base consolidation, but in reality a decision takes time to conclude, they are not straightforward and often require greater infrastructure spend and upheaval which makes change unattainable. Commenting Rear Admiral Pentreath said: “There are no changes in place at the moment but a basing study is taking place which will conclude in the autumn and it is impossible to predict how this will conclude. There is an intent to rationalise base numbers if practicable. However, moving personnel and infrastructure is not cheap and will require major upfront investment which may prove prohibitive. Rebasing Apache presents the first opportunity, with the assumption that the AH-64E model will be based at the same location rather than split between two locations.”

wo Army Air Corps 663 Squadron Apache AH1s landing at RAF Lakenheath, England during readiness training with the then resident HH-60G Pave Hawk-equipped 56th Rescue Squadron. TSgt Matthew Plew/US Air Force
A US Army AH-64E Apache helicopter assigned to Task Force Tigershark, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, 7th Infantry Division prepares to depart for a mission at Jalalabad Airfield, Afghanistan. Captain Brian Harris/16th Combat Aviation Brigade

The current Apache AH1 force is based at two locations; training takes place at Middle Wallop, Hampshire and the frontline squadrons at Wattisham, Sufolk. Other potential options exist and these will be determined as part of the autumn review.

Cost implications of such a move aside for one moment, the long-term beneit of consolidating Apache operations (legacy or E model) at one base appear sound. Added to this are the advantages from basing the entire Apache force closer to the Salisbury Plain Training Area in Wiltshire. While inancial considerations may ultimately prove decisive, the decisions about future Apache are not straightforward as Rear Admiral Pentreath explained: “Being closer to Salisbury Plain and operating with the rest of the British Army alongside its personnel, tanks and armoured vehicles feels right, but the Apache’s role has changed from counterinsurgency operations to one of taking the ight to the enemy in deep battle. You can therefore make the argument that Apache should be lying into Salisbury Plain to attack in order to maximise its training beneit. The strongest arguments for basing Apache around Salisbury Plain area are twofold. Firstly, to be closer to Wildcat AH1s based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, Somerset, and teaming both types together to derive more than the sum of the parts. This is currently diicult with the two bases [Wattisham and Yeovilton] over 200 miles [320km] apart. Secondly, with the vast majority of Army Air Corps and REME [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] support personnel based either at Yeovilton or around Salisbury Plain, greater stability personnel could be achieved from having them all working and living closer together. Our options remain open but Apache is the closest crocodile to the canoe and we need to conclude on this soon.”

Teaming Wildcat and Apache together is providing good results as recent operational testing has proven. Examples include using the Wildcat’s camera and electrooptical/ infrared sensor to provide a battlespace picture used to direct the Apache on to its target. This efort will be consolidated further from a ‘ind’ perspective once the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial system achieves its release to service in early 2019.

Rear Admiral Pentreath described Wildcat, Apache and Watchkeeper operating together as a powerful combination. He said: “Watchkeeper’s outlook is more optimistic following the problems of previous years. Contractors are working closely with Defence Equipment and Support and the Military Aviation Authority, and training of Army personnel is underway. Wildcat and Apache have already operated together. Tests include a first successful launch of two Hellire missiles by an Apache against a target laserdesignated by a Wildcat. Teaming Wildcat and Apache together is proving highly efective.”

The Hellire shots took place in June 2018 when a Wildcat helicopter, operating from and to Yeovilton, successfully laser-designated a target mounted on a barge six miles out to sea at the Aberporth range for two Hellire missiles launched from an Apache operated by 4 Regiment, Army Air Corps.

Given the command and control (C2) changes envisaged by JHC, which could see future Apache and Wildcat headquarters combined from a C2 perspective, basing the Apache AH-64E leet closer to the Wildcat AH1 leet at Yeovilton looks very sensible.

Watchkeeper has sufered from software glitches, stricter UK aerospace regulations and Army staf shortages which meant the system failed to gain its critical air safety certiicate for release to service declaration by November 2017, the date nominated for 90% full operating capability. Fifty-four Watchkeeper aerial vehicles were ordered by the MoD, five of which have crashed, the most recent in June 2018 while operating from Aberporth, Wales.