Heli-Power conference and exhibition

Speech by Gerald Howarth, Minister for International Security Strategy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Gerald Howarth

Thank you Kevin [Jones, Director Air & ISTAR, ADS] for that introduction. May I also thank ADS more widely and the Shephard Group for organising this impressive conference and exhibition. It’s appropriate that we’re here in Farnborough, not just because it happens to be my constituency(!), but also because it’s the birthplace of British aviation and the host to Europe’s largest aviation trade show. In addition, we meet opposite the headquarters of AgustaWestland International located on the other side of the runway.

It’s been said that in some ways the helicopter is the ultimate in aviation. Back in 1908, Thomas Edison was asked for his opinion on the Wright brothers’ aeroplane. The electrical wizard pooh-poohed the Wrights’ achievement. “No aeroplane would be good”, he said, “until it could go straight up and down.”

But despite holding a pilot’s licence since 1965, I would have disagreed with Edison until recently, I’ve always felt that a propeller should be in front of you, not on the roof! Yet about two years ago, Eurocopter introduced me to the art of rotary and earlier this year I was allowed to fly the Merlin from HMS Bulwark to Yeovilton.

So I am something of a convert to the rotary world. And it’s with this genuine appreciation that I want to talk about the major role which rotary power has in current operations and in our future plans for defence.

Air power, of which rotary is an important component, remains critical to the defence of Britain and the safety of our people. Yet there is a severe lack of understanding in some quarters about the critical nature and complexity of air power and the contribution which rotary makes. It is the ultimate in versatility. I hope that the recent operation in Libya, which was overwhelmingly an air operation with a maritime component, will have driven home the message.

The challenge of operating helicopters in different environments is extremely complex, and requires exacting standards and realistic training. And although a no-fly zone may trip lightly off the tongue, an enormous range of tri-service assets is required to deliver that effect across the battlespace, not least 42 air to air refuelling tankers off Libya. There, Army Air Corps Apache helicopters, operating from the deck of HMS Ocean, have enhanced their already superb operational reputation by winning their first littoral spurs, and in the process achieved the milestone of 100,000 flying hours since entering service. It’s a reputation which has clearly drawn Prince Harry’s gaze.

In Afghanistan, the first ever operational deployment of Lynx Mark 9a followed the Apaches in building a fierce reputation for tackling insurgents on the ground, generating real fear in the hearts and minds of the enemy. Royal Navy and RAF Merlin helicopters, celebrating 10 years on the frontline, are heavily committed around the world, at sea and from the sea, as well as on land operations. And last year, the RAF’s CH-47 Chinooks transported almost 100,000 people plus their kit and supplies.

On top of this, our Chinook-borne Medical Emergency Response Teams (MERT for short), operating out of Camp Bastion, have developed an awesome reputation in a league of their own. On the CO’s office wall is a map with Bastion in the middle surrounded by concentric circles. Each circle shows the distance a MERT can cover in a set time to reach a casualty. The first boundary is ten minutes, five minutes out, and five back again. And every minute matters, the ‘platinum 10 minutes’ after injury when most battlefield deaths occur rather than the ‘golden hour’ of earlier campaigns. Without helicopters, this lifesaving level of response couldn’t be delivered.

Here at home, almost 100 people every month have good cause to be thankful for the skill and bravery of our search and rescue crew, not least the commitment of the Duke of Cambridge, and for the Sea Kings they fly. This has particular resonance today as the Cambridge Military Hospital, named after his Royal Highness’s forebear, lies less than a mile from here.

What all of these examples show is that delivering rotary power is truly a joint affair.

As you know, the catastrophic state of the public finances we inherited from Gordon Brown’s disastrous administration has forced us to review all major equipment and support contracts to ensure that the future programme is coherent with future defence needs, and, crucially, is affordable. Although the previous government undoubtedly delivered some fine UOR kit, it has been rightly lambasted for failing to ensure the core equipment budget was coherent and affordable. We’re trying to rectify that mistake by conducting a ‘Defence rotary wing capability study’, known colloquially as ‘DERRICK’, to ensure that we have the right structures and forces in place to deliver the plans outlined in the SDSR.

I can’t pre-empt the findings, but I believe there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. We are committed to increasing the planned MOD equipment budget by over £3 billion, or 1% a year in real terms, after 2015. And the SDSR clearly laid out plans for a helicopter fleet based on four core platforms from 2025, Apache, Merlin, Wildcat, and Chinook.

I am pleased we were able to announce a £1 billion contract for 14 Chinooks in August because our reforms have given us confidence that the money to pay for them will actually be there. It means we can sign contracts which will deliver genuine capability, genuine value for money, and genuine economic benefits to the British economy. So I’m confident that the plans for our future rotary wing mix will bring 21st century capability to our armed forces - in the right numbers, with the right support, and at prices we can genuinely afford.

We are also looking at how we buy and support equipment as well as what we buy. In particular, we hope that our White Paper will offer the greater clarity and predictability which industry seeks. Again, I can’t pre-empt the White Paper, but I think most of you understand the general thrust of our intentions.

To use the market where we possibly can while protecting our national security and sovereignty requirements (although we expect these to be limited). Only to use the defence budget for necessary and affordable defence capability. To provide strong support for technology investment, SMEs, and exports while creating the right conditions for growth.

And of course we’re looking to boost economic growth and stimulate innovation in the wider economy. That’s why BIS announced £32 million of government investment in helicopter production, research, and development, which, among other things, will help AgustaWestland to introduce the civil AW169 aircraft.

Above all, we will define our needs, be consistent in our application of policy, and transparent in how our business is done. I’m certain that most of you in this room will have no argument with that.

Finally, let me say a few words about exports.

The best way to sustain UK defence and security jobs in the long-term is to widen the customer base through enhanced defence exports. We’re providing unprecedented levels of Ministerial support across government for some excellent rotary wing opportunities, particularly the AW101 and Super Lynx, while interest in Wildcat is beginning to develop.

And we’re examining other ways to support exports. For instance, we are working hard to accommodate the likely interest from customer nations in UK flying training. But we look to you in industry as well to offer some innovative arrangements which can enhance our ability to support exports in this critical area.

To conclude, rotary power is a critical component of air power. It ensures freedom of movement, supports logistic sustainment, and provides essential close combat support to front line troops, together with a highly responsive medical evacuation capability.

In the most recent operational honours list for Afghanistan, I was struck that every single award in the air environment was made to rotary wing aircrew. Indeed, the first DFC ever awarded to a woman went to Flight Lieutenant Michelle Goodman for flying her Merlin into Basra under intense fire to rescue a seriously wounded casualty. This is not to doubt the bravery of other personnel in the air or the support all airmen receive on the ground - not least from you in industry. But it does shine a welcome light on the magnificent effort which our helicopter crews are putting in, day in day out, in the face of a determined and co-ordinated enemy.

Their role in military operations - now and in the future - is quite simply indispensible.

Published 19 October 2011