By Tim Ripley in London

Ageing fleet forces £400 million spend to plug gaps

The UK Ministry of Defence is looking to spend more than £400 million ($760 million) leasing medium-lift transport helicopters to fill its shortfall in battlefield lift capacity.

The MoD announced the new requirement, dubbed Interim Medium Lift, last week, to replace or augment the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy's ageing Westland Puma and Sea King fleets. This is to bridge the gap until new-build helicopters can be purchased in a decade's time under the Future Rotorcraft project.

The first leased helicopters will be required from 2011 and they will be expected to serve for up to 10 years.

The decision by the MoD to ask industry for bids to lease medium-lift helicopters under "commercially operated, military registered" (COMR) arrangements follows several months of examining plans to extend the service life of the 1970s-vintage Puma and Sea King fleets. The COMR option would allow the ministry to save on capital costs and fund the leasing from existing operating budgets.

Although the ministry is seeking proposals from industry to replace the UK's entire inventory of around 70 Pumas and Sea Kings it is unclear if all the options will be taken up. The ministry says it has not yet closed the door on upgrading existing helicopters and all options remain on the table.

The ministry says it wants to lease helicopters to fulfil 23 basic "task lines" or missions each day, and an additional 18 task lines to meet littoral manoeuvre requirements from Royal Navy amphibious warfare ships. Under the leasing concept, industry would be contracted to provide 13,500 flying hours each year for the basic service and an additional 16,000h if the littoral manoeuvre capability was taken up.

The examination of the COMR solution for medium-transport helicopters follows closely on the heels of the UK deciding earlier this year to lease replacements for the Army Air Corps Gazelle liaison helicopters under Project Stockwell.

Eurocopter has already offered to lease EC225 Super Puma derivatives to the UK, via service provider FB Heliservices. AgustaWestland says it is considering offering a range of products, including its AW139, AW149, NH90 and EH101 helicopters or upgraded existing Sea Kings and Pumas.

Source: Flight International