March 25, 2013
Credit: Tony Osborne/AWST
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan placed new emphasis on the capabilities of helicopters.
During the Cold War, utility helicopters were little more than battlefield runabouts. Flying supplies and shuttling personnel between front and rear echelons, they were rarely exposed to enemy fire and seldom had real self-defense capabilities. The fleet was vast, with hundreds of Bell UH-1 (Huey) Iroquois, Aerospatiale Pumas and Gazelles, and Westland Lynx serving with NATO forces. But with fleets shrinking and conflicts evolving, air arms are using these aging machines on the front lines in new roles that some were not ready for.
Afghanistan is perhaps the ultimate testing ground for helicopters, with summer temperatures above 35C (95F) during the day and much of the country more than 1,000 meters (3,300 ft.) above sea level. The hot-and-high conditions alone test the performance of these helicopters to their limits, but they also need to be fitted with armor, self-defense systems, weapons and other gear to keep them effective and safe. With payloads often chopped in half or more, so that even basic missions demand more or larger helicopters to complete tasks normally conducted by smaller machines, forces recognize the need to reexamine the capability of their rotorcraft fleets.
However, limited budgets, long waiting times for production slots and lengthy lead times for the introduction of new types have led governments to examine the potential for upgrading fleets to ensure operation in challenging environments, or to keep them available until economic conditions allow replacement.
Much of the upgrading frenzy is taking place in Europe. The U.K. alone has carried out significant upgrade programs on four of six types in its battlefield inventory.
Perhaps the most significant is Project Julius, a program to deliver commonality across the U.K's fleet of 46 Boeing CH-47 Chinooks operated by the RAF. The project, worth £500 million ($750 million), standardizes the fleet to a single cockpit avionics standard using Thales's TopDeck system, while Honeywell delivers up-rated T55-714 engines that improve hot-and-high operating capability. The upgrade was needed to standardize training and support across the Chinook fleet, which has been heavily tasked in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The project has finally allowed the RAF to rectify a procurement blunder and use eight Chinook HC3s that were ordered for special operations in 1995, but have never been fully operational due to a complex dispute over the airworthiness of their avionics source code. Even after a reversion process by Qinetiq, the ill-starred aircraft were relegated for training. But with the Julius upgrade, they could eventually fly the special forces missions for which they were intended. The upgrade also reduces differences between the older fleet and a batch of 12 factory-new Chinooks, the first of which is due this year.