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Major helicopter reorganisation for RAF and Navy

New Chinooks, Merlins handed over to 'Junglies'

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The Labour government has announced significant changes at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), whose effect will be to put more resources into the Afghan war while nonetheless cutting spending overall - largely by reductions to parts of the RAF not engaged in the fighting. However, there is also a major reshuffle of helicopters among the RAF and Navy, which will see many aircraft change services.

The headlining move comes with the announcement, widely anticipated, that the British fleet of US-made Chinook heavy-lift helicopters is to increase from 48 to 70 aircraft, with initial deliveries of ten new choppers arriving by 2013. The Chinook is the only helicopter in widespread Western service with enough spare lift to operate with any freedom in Afghanistan's heat and high altitudes, and the new copters will be extremely welcome among British forces there.

It is also expected that another Boeing C-17 heavy transport plane will be ordered to join the existing UK fleet of 5, which are regarded as crucial to sustaining the "air bridge" logistic link between Blighty and its troops in Afghanistan.

These short-term improvements will be paid for not by any budget increase, but by reducing the active forces of Tornado bombers and Harrier close-support jets, and early retirement for much of the existing fleet of antique Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol aircraft. These moves will allow closure or mothballing of some of the RAF's 45+ UK stations, with associated further job losses and savings.

Tri-service helicopter plans also appear now to be set in concrete if not stone, with an official announcement that in future the UK will operate Chinook, Merlin, Future-Lynx/"Wildcat" and Apache types only. The current, aged Sea King will depart by 2016 and the Puma fleet - even now being expensively upgraded - will go in 2022.

This could have meant a black day for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. The famous "Jungly"* naval air squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force, operating from ships or bases ashore in support of the Royal Marine Commandos, fly Sea Kings. So do the fleet's critically-important airborne radar units.

However, MoD spokesmen informed the Reg today that the plan is for the entire Merlin HC3 troop-carrier fleet to be moved out of the RAF and into the Navy, with the Merlins being sent back to the factory over the next few years and "marinised" for shipboard operations. Some of them will also be equipped with airborne-surveillance radar to replace the existing Sea King Mk7s; the rest will be taken over by the Commando Helicopter Force.

Meanwhile, the RAF airmen who are now operating Merlins will change over to operate the new Chinooks.

The influx of new machines will mean that previously-discussed plans for closing at least one British helicopter base will not now take place. Search-and-rescue units around the UK - currently a mix of RAF, Navy and Coastguard - will get new contractor-run aircraft under a PFI deal already announced. ®

*So-called from their early combat operations in the Borneo rainforest.

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