Tuesday 14 July 2009

In a class of its own

Tom Newton Dunn, writing in The Sun today has found out that the Army has given up the unequal struggle of trying to operate the Lynx helicopter in Afghanistan, and returned the entire fleet of six machines back to the UK.

This happened, according to Dunn, last May. They were "pulled out of the warzone because they cannot fly in the scorching Afghan heat."

This news is entirely unsurprising as the "hot and high" limitations of the Lynx have long been known, affecting operations in numerous overseas theatres where the British Army has been deployed. And not only were difficulties experienced in Iraq, when British forces had been sent to Helmand in 2006, the same difficulties were experienced there.

Thus, on 5 July 2006, The Independent was reporting that British forces were facing a supply crisis because nearly half of their helicopter transport fleet was unable to fly in daylight hours due to the searing Helmand heat.

Said the paper, with the 3,300 British reliant on six Chinook and four Lynx aircraft for all transport and supply, they were finding that "The extreme heat and thin, rising air of the Helmand desert has limited the Lynx ... to use between dusk and dawn, when temperatures fall to acceptable levels."

Shortly after that, on 27 July, a short report appeared on the forum of the Small Wars Journal Council, headed, "Hydarabad - Dawn Raid", describing an operation in Helmand. It makes for sober reading:

After three days in Panjawi the soldiers and equipment were sent to a staging area an hour to the east. This was to be the beginning of the biggest phase of Mountain Thrust, a joint operation of British, Canadian, American and Afghan soldiers. The British had already moved one of their units into place, to a northern point in the Helmund Province. The Canadians coordinated the move; American and Afghan units were under Canadian command.

The assembly area seemed like any other area of deserted landscape in this part of Helmund Province. Flat, dry, and littered with stones, life seemed to have left this place long ago, offering itself now as a parking lot for the columns of vehicles lined in a row.

We had left early to get here, with the instructions that we would move again in a few short hours. However, the British, in what was to become a recurring pattern during this phase of Mountain Thrust, had failed to plan, leaving their pre-positioned unit in the north without adequate supplies of water. With flights of their Lynx helicopters grounded due to its inability maintain aerodynamic stability in the hot atmosphere of the Afghan summer, the British had failed to provide effective resupply alternatives.

Complicating matters further was their lack of armored vehicles. Working from a military strategy that seemed to blend imperial arrogance with the tactics of the North African campaign under Montgomery, the British were under-equipped for the fight. Fielding open topped Land Rovers with two machine guns mounted forward and aft, it was not unlike viewing a scene from the series "Rat Patrol."

Thus, lacking the needed assets to move supplies or to ferry troops safely, the unit that had been pre-positioned to lead the attack, became the Achilles heal (sic). With only 67 bottles of water remaining amongst the 120 men, and with temperatures pressing above 120 degrees F., the entire operation was postponed while American and Canadian assets were coordinated to essentially, save the Queens arse...
We reported in detail on the unhappy experiences of the Lynx in April 2007, when we had discovered that, not only were the baseline costs per hour of operating Lynx Mk7s a staggering £23,000 but, because of its inherent fragility, additional costs were being incurred. These were, "as a result of the operational use and particular climatic conditions experienced in theatre." We wrote at that time:

These costs cover additional wear and tear, additional spares and additional equipment and are paid for by the Conflict Prevention Fund. A total of £11 million has been claimed against the fund in financial year 2006-07 for additional operating and capital costs for Lynx Mk7s operating in Iraq, of which six are believed to be in service.
At that time, we also discovered that, in order to deal with the "hot and high" conditions for its deployments in Belize and Brunei, the Army had leased Bell 212s, aircraft based on the Vietnam-era Huey. The type had been selected specifically because its "unique abilities include flying in hot and often humid conditions whilst also being able to carry considerable loads." That includes the ability to lift up to 13 troops.

Bizarrely, although the failed Lynx costs the Army £23,000 per hour, when it could actually fly, the cost per hour of operating the Bell 212 helicopter was a mere £2,000. According to official sources - six of these aircraft have been operated in these two theatres, since 1993 in Brunei and 2003 in Belize.

Similar types are operated by the US Marines and the Canadians in Afghanistan, the latter being the upgraded Bell 412, four models of which are also operated by the RAF in Cyprus, again because of the hot conditions experienced there.

As for availability, the world is awash with second-hand Hueys and, in March 2007, we noted that the nascent Iraqi Air Force had taken delivery of five "Huey" helicopters, the first of a batch of 16 donated by Jordan.

They had been refitted with modern avionics and new engines in the United States at a cost of $3.5 million each, funded by Washington. Fitted with Kevlar armour and missile defence systems, the full upgrade made them, effectively, new aircraft.

That option was available to the UK government, and for a modest outlay, the Army could have had effective Lynx replacements in Afghanistan from the very time it was deployed to Helmand. It is believed that this option was blocked because the Army preferred to wait for the upgraded Future Lynx – not due for delivery until 2014 – fearing that if a "good enough" solution had been found, the order would have been delayed or reduced.

As it is, the order has now gone through but, in desperation, the government made conditional on the order, the retro-fitting of the more powerful engine equipping the Future Lynx to 12 existing Mk 9 airframes. This was announced in December last year.

Although deliveries of the first four were originally scheduled for later this year, they will not arrive until April 2010, with the rest to follow later in the year. The ultimate scandal though is that the cost for the 12 upgrades is £70 million. At just under £6 million each, that is about £2 million more than it would have cost to procure refurbished Bell 412s.

In the annals of MoD incompetence, this saga must surely stand out in a class of its own.