Minutes of the All Party Group for Reserve Forces, meeting 8 December 2009. A More Imaginative Approach to Improving Helicopter Availability
Air Marshal Sir Tim Jenner KCB FRAeS
Julian Brazier MP (Chairing)
Richard Benyon MP
David Crausby MP
Rt. Hon. Bruce George MP
Linda Gilroy MP
James Gray MP
Dai Havard MP
Gerald Howarth MP
Lindsay Hoyle MP
Mark Pritchard MP
Col. Julian Radcliffe (sponsor)
Col. Hugh Purcell
Col. Paul Beaver
Derek Conway MP
Lord De Mauley
Mike Penning MP
Chairman’s Opening Remarks
The Chairman proposed that the Group add two new Vice-Chairmen: Lindsay Hoyle, who deserved a decoration for his actions a few weeks ago in his role in the battle for TA funding, and Tony Baldry. There were no objections and the proposal was agreed.
Secondly, it had been suggested that the Group should be known as the All Party Reserves and Cadets Group from now on. There were no objections and the proposal was agreed.
The Chairman stated that the Group was fortunate to have Air Marshal Sir Tim Jenner to speak and he gave a brief synopsis of his career. He was the first pilot to land a Wessex in Northern Ireland at the start of the The Troubles. He later flew Pumas, was Assistant Chief of the Air Staff and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Strike Command before choosing to leave the RAF. He then became Chairman of Serco’s military division and was now its Senior Military Advisor. In coming to talk about some ‘outside the box’ ideas on helicopters, he would be addressing a big topic of the moment.
Sir Tim thanked the Chair for inviting him to speak, explaining that he was a helicopter pilot through and through and that, before leaving the RAF, he had been involved with all the recent major reviews, including the last Defence Review. He had been with Serco for 8 years now and he gave a brief explanation of what Serco does. It is a UK company with a £2.6 billion turnover; over 70,000 employees worldwide, with about 30% of its business in defence and 30% of this was within the helicopter world.
His aim was to present a list of ideas on how best to use manpower, some of which had been tried, some of which were just ideas, but all of which had a manpower theme running through them. The Afghan surge that would happen shortly would highlight the fact that the UK did not provide that many helicopters to the frontline. We were also about to be hit by JHC’s 2020 vision and some kind of Government procurement announcement. There was a lot going on in the helicopter world and it was difficult to identify where the pinch points were that restricted helicopters on the front line; whether it was a lack of helicopters, a lack a trained crews or whether other factors were in play.
We were in an environment where the defence budget had been habitually over-stretched for many years but there had not been the necessary review every four or five years. This meant that the review next year would probably result in cuts between 10% (optimistic) and 30% (pessimistic) – but in any circumstances the impact was likely to be very serious. New thinking was required to ensure that resources were optimised but, at present, there was not much evidence of this. The MoD appeared to be waiting for the review and not really ready to make any major change in advance of the process. While this was probably in some ways sensible, it could be missing short term opportunities. It clearly needed to preserve front line capabilities as much as possible, which implied that future cuts would be in the support area budget. The boundary between operations and support would be challenged further and uniformed manpower would probably decrease and the number of civilians directly supporting MoD increase. Phrases such as ‘total force concept’ tripped easily off the tongue but the review needed to look at manpower as a continuous spectrum (continuum) rather than looking at the uniform part first and then the rest. He would look at manpower, equipment, training and support.
Currently the number of reservist air crew employed on the front line was small and opportunistic; they were largely employed to fill gaps rather than in accordance with any formal plan. The review needed to look at various methods of using reserves, particularly air crew. A start point could be the TA or American model of deployable formed units, but no one was sure whether this concept was affordable. There was, however, enthusiasm amongst individuals to do it and it was workable, but it was not so clear whether there was the same enthusiasm among employers. The cost of training people for operations such as Afghanistan needed to be looked at and should not be underestimated. There were some other ways and there might be a solution using the formed unit approach to fill a ‘blue light’ role.
Sponsored Reserves was a concept that was underused and there could well be ways of using them to increase availability at the front line. An example was the Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter competition that required 66 individual military posts. These posts were principally required to support the operational SAR detachment in the Falkland Islands. However, this requirement could be kept going using Sponsored Reserves, thereby releasing uniformed personnel to the front line. There were also at least 15 - 20 pilots employed as instructors on helicopter simulators in industry who could be re-deployed as flying instructors within the UK flying training machine. Moreover, both of these ideas could be put into effect very quickly.
There was much more scope with ground crew, and the forthcoming review should look hard at the boundaries between military and civilian. There was considerable scope for introducing civilians on a Sponsored Reserve basis who could deploy to the front line. Currently, Serco had about thirty and the scheme worked admirably. They had originally been contracted to provide 300 hours a year, but were actually deployed for about 16,000 hours so far, and it worked. So far, they had received a remarkable 19 medals and awards.
An announcement on helicopters was awaited which would not solve the problem overnight, but might do so in three or four years’ time. Meanwhile other procurement models could be looked at and any solution that increased the number of helicopters would be good news. There might be better ways (cheaper ways) of doing it, leasing being one. Such a proposal was put forward a couple of years ago that might have been effective, however it was not pursued.
Training and Support:
The Defence Helicopter Flying School model worked well. It was a joint military/civilian operation and there was scope, if one wanted to, to turn those civilians into Sponsored Reserves.
There was also scope to introduce a more coherent simulated/synthetic training concept, and some kind of plan along these lines, where training was networked, could easily be worked up by industry at low cost.
Across the board, there were a whole host of services currently carried out by a mix of uniformed persons and civilians, such as Motor Transport and Air Traffic Control. RAF, Army and Navy bases were all very different; however, he believed that manpower could be provided more efficiently at a base:deployment ratio of 2.5:1 rather than 5:1 by employing concepts such as Sponsored Reserves. This would relieve some of the burdens on base commanders of having to worry about things other than getting their front line personnel operational and ready to deploy. Industry need to offer a more joined up service, with companies coming together, and this could save around 20% or more on running costs and give more helicopter availability. While these were just ideas, there was firm foundation to them. The manpower mix needed to be viewed more as a continuum, making sure that the bit in the middle where civilians turned into military was exploited more effectively. The forthcoming review would provide an opportunity to press for these things to be done.
Questions 1 - 3
1. Lindsay Hoyle MP asked where the real cuts were going to fall and who was going to take the real pain?
2. Lindsay Hoyle MP stated that it seemed that quite a few helicopters in the UK had never been deployed. He asked whether this was because there was no money to bring them up to the standard needed in theatre, or if there was a drag factor between the training of crews and crew availability to ensure these helicopters were better used.
3. Richard Benyon stated that the Gazelle had been a real workhorse in Northern Ireland and it was his understanding that it could be extremely useful doing a similar role in Afghanistan. He could not understand why it was it being sold, and so cheaply, while ‘commanders were being injured because they had not the use of this particular platform’.
Sir Tim Jenner
It was undeniable that if there were cuts in the order of 20-25% some major programmes would have to go; if capabilities continued to be spread across the spectrum, the result would be emaciating, as one would end up with very small amounts. Burden sharing in the EU was less likely and capability versus cost was out of kilter in some programmes. Continuing with Harriers could be debatable because the extra capability they gave did not justify the cost and the A400M programme was vulnerable, being seen by some as a lost cause. The Nuclear issue, while seen by many as a waste of money, was a political decision.
All of Mr Hoyle’s points on helicopters were true, but it was not known where the real pinch points were, whether it was lack of helicopters, lack of trained crews in the right place at the right time, or lack of support for the crews. It was likely an amalgam of all of these. The training system was quite difficult to keep synchronized, and previous cuts had greatly affected this, it also needed to become more efficient. There was now a new military training system contractor; the process and content just needed to be sorted out.
There were around 48 Gazelle in service and about 12 would remain in Northern Ireland until 2016, but there was no realistic role for it in Afghanistan as it could only carry the pilot in ‘hot and high’ Afghan conditions and had no suitable defensive aids suite. (Colonel Beaver confirmed this point). Indeed half of the helicopters there were hard pressed to perform in circumstances in which the Gazelle just would not work.
Question 4 Gerald Howarth MP
4. If one moved more towards Sponsored Reserves, e.g. in Search and Rescue, the military might only be left with preparing for operations, fighting and winding down from operations. If there was no other role left to play that did not involve putting lives on the line, this would severely impact retention. Such roles are fine for a young man, but as soon as one has family responsibilities, this can change. How would this scenario fit into the calculations?
Chairman observed that the plan for the contractorisation of the MCA (Coast Guard) service is that, apart from the uniformed posts that Sir Tim mentioned, all of the aircrew will become simply civilian. The Coast Guard official who had briefed him told him that they asked MoD whether they wanted these people to be Reserves so that they can be used in an emergency, and were surprised that MoD said that they weren’t even considering that.
Sir Tim Jenner
In any review the real start point had to be the core military manpower. The follow on was how to provide them with reasonable respite and reasonable ‘ship to shore’ so that they did not spend their whole life on operations. This issue had to be part of the review. In the case of Search and Rescue, it was fine in theory but not necessarily so in practice as most of the people had been there for some time and it was something of a niche market. While there was a turnover from the support helicopter side into Search and Rescue, it was nothing like as great as one would expect.
Questions 5 – 6
James Gray MP
5. Was there any intelligence that project Belvedere would be reinvented?
6. Would the A400M be reinvented and would it not cost as much to pull out of the programme as it would to stay in without the agreement of EU partners. A lot of money had been put into it and there was a capacity to sell the aircraft around the world. Were we not committed to keeping that amount of money in but taking less aircraft in order to get through these contractual issues?
Both these decisions were important for the future of RAF Lyneham.
David Crausby MP
6. Would it not cost as much to pull out A400M as it would stay in without the agreement of our European partners? I would be very surprised if the Germans would be willing to agree to it. We put a lot of money into it and there is a capacity to sell that aircraft around the world, are we not committed to keeping that amount of money in but we will take less aircraft in order to get us through these contractual issues?
Sir Tim Jenner
Belvedere was dead but there might be pressure to have a look at a similar process again in the review. It would probably go hand in hand with Vision 2020 and there might be scope to rationalize around that. The principal reason it died was there had not been the money for upfront investment to bring the relevant bases up to the right standard. This was a shame as industry would have been willing to contribute to those investments.
Some believed that the A400M had always been a waste of time, effort and money and that it would be high on the list for cutting. He did not know the current contractual position, but the further one goes down the track with any equipment and the later one cancels that programme, the more penalties there are; right now the balance could still be in favour of cancelling.
Questions 7 – 9
7. Concerning the question of designing forces which can provide surge, quality of life and the other capabilities, he had proposed, during the future army structures debate, that every MoD contract with manpower in it, from cutting the grass to providing helicopter instructors, should be tested against a number of criteria that included other users and employers. One criterion was whether those individuals could be used for other tasks. The response from the MoD was often not to want to put any extra burden on contractors that might lead to an increase in costs. For example, there was a risk that in taking a helicopter instructor and using him Afghanistan this might strip out part of the training establishment that needed to be kept intact. This undercut the argument and the idea that if things were done in a holistic way it would reduce the total cost. He believed that there were DFID staff who could be placed in the Sponsored Reserve category.
Sir Tim Jenner
Existing contracts should be looked at, but more importantly, the way that future contracts were arranged must be looked at. Manpower should be examined in a holistic way. Paradoxically, front line commanders can see this approach as a threat because any reduction in uniformed personnel is perceived to reduce flexibility. However, if one wanted to preserve as much of the front line capability as possible, these kinds of changes could deliver that.
8. Many commercial pilots were ex military and would love to remain involved with the military. The process of transition needs to be seamless in both directions. In the UK, the military work Monday to Friday, but there is a civilian company that needs pilots at the weekend, so there is an enormous amount that could be done. Somebody could be ¾ military in Search and Rescue and operate in the civilian world too, or vice versa.
Sir Tim Jenner
Releasing pilots for long periods, i.e., 3 months, might pose a problem; others thought it could be worked around. All agreed we had to be more imaginative.
9. There is a crippling problem in civilian aviation in terms a lack of proper Instrument Trained Commercial Pilots with an Instrument Rating (CPIR). It does really seem to be an ideal opportunity for joint use of simulators. Either the military could own it and the civilians lease time in it or the other way round. That resource should be redeployable.
Col Paul Beaver
This was looked at doing in 2005, but was stopped, as it would cost too much to manage the resource. CAA licensing is different to military requirements and is very complicated. The CAA requirements are extremely burdensome. Joint use of simulators was the way forward, it could be done, but managing the manpower would be the problem. The advantage could be huge, as there were many skillsets that could be brought across.
Sir Tim Jenner
I believe there are still CAA exemptions for military aircrew. They are simply a matter of negotiation between the MoD and the CAA; it might take some time but it could be done.
Col Paul Beaver
Some observations on pinch points. There is a lack of Class One Avionics Technicians in the Army who are able to deal with Apache and Lynx avionics because the training process was starved of money back in about 2003 and it takes 8 years to train a Class One. The Royal Air Force has a similar problem with its technicians.
Julian Brazier thanked Sir Tim Jenner for his time and ideas. This was an area where new thinking was badly needed and Sir Tim had made an important contribution to the debate.
Colonel (Retd.) Hugh Purcell OBE DL, Honorary Clerk to the APGRF&C