With the UK Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm having already been hit by the early retirement of the BAE Systems Harrier GR9 fleet late last year, its supporters are growing increasingly concerned that its Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) is also at risk.
An internet-based lobby group named The Navy Campaign is encouraging backers to lobby MPs and ministers to safeguard the future of the CHF, and to see through a proposal to replace its Westland Sea Kings (below) with AW101 Merlins now flown by the Royal Air Force. The latter would be modified from the HC3/3A standard to a Mk 4 configuration more suited for naval operations.
© Craig Hoyle/Flightglobal
Plans to transfer the RAF's Merlins hinge on an order being approved for a further 12 Boeing CH-47 Chinooks, but speculation has increased over the last several weeks that this could be at risk during the Ministry of Defence's Planning Round 2011 process.
"If the CHF were to miss out on the promised upgrades and the intended transfer, the Fleet Air Arm will drop below critical mass," the campaign group warns. "At this stage, it will become much easier for opponents to argue against its continued existence."
It notes that the organisation's personnel are specialists in embarked operations and in supporting operations by the Royal Marines, which it says distinguishes it from the RAF's rotorcraft community.
RN Sea Kings are operating from Camp Bastion and Kandahar airfield as part of the UK's Joint Force Helicopter (Afghanistan) organisation. The type is used during the deployment and extraction of UK and coalition forces and to perform tasks such as resupplying forward operating bases.
© SAC Andrew Seaward/Crown Copyright
The Joint Helicopter Command revealed details about the troop-lift potential of its current assets in January, during the UK exercise Pashtun Jaguar. The Sea King can carry between five and 12 passengers in Afghanistan, depending on seasonal conditions, while the more powerful Merlin (above) can transport between 12 and 20, it says.