UK service officials are contemplating extending the operational life of the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Airbus Helicopters Puma HC2 transports for an additional 10 years beyond their current 2025 retirement date, as they eye the possibility of an eventual replacement.

The proposal, contained in an initial draft study produced by the nation’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), could see the 24-strong inventory of 1970s-era helicopters performing front-line missions until 2035.

This would bring them in line with the out-of-service deadline for the Royal Navy’s AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2 and HC4 fleets, allowing the UK Ministry of Defence to replace all its medium helicopters with a common platform.

Speaking at a conference in London on 14 September, Maj Gen Richard Felton, commander of JHC, said its report, or Future Capability Study, had identified “an enduring need” for C4ISR and attack platforms in the period from 2045 onward “and it references a need for medium-lift capability”.

Stressing that no decision on the future force had yet been taken, Felton says the document will be presented to “the chain of command” in the coming months.

“We may look at the out of service dates and harmonise those so there is some sort of synergy,” he says.

The UK has already spent billions of pounds on recently-completed upgrade programmes to take the Puma and Merlin to their respective HC2 and HM2 standards, with a separate effort to convert former RAF Merlin HC3/3As to a navalised HC4/4A model also currently under way.

RAF Puma HC2 - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

Although the Puma HC2 – which received a digital cockpit and uprated Turbomeca Makila 1A1 engines as part of the enhancement programme – is presently due for retirement in 2025, an extension is well within its capabilities, says Air Cdre Simon Moss, director helicopters at the UK’s Defence Equipment and Support procurement body.

“I don’t see it as a problem if we need to move from 2025 out to the right, so long as it is not too far we could do it without a great deal of extra investment. But if you said punt it out to 2050 then that’s a different question.”

Felton says the JHC is watching the helicopter industry in both the USA and Europe to "identify what future opportunities exist" for an eventual replacement of both platforms.

In addition, it could look at a "dual use" helicopter – one developed for civil operations and adapted for the military – for any requirement. "Why do we need our own bespoke helicopter?" he said on the eve of the 15-18 September DSEI exhibition.