A Northern Heavy-lift

I have traditionally been rather sceptic of some of the more innovative new capabilities suggested for the Finnish Defence Forces on Twitter. The issue is usually money, and in particular that with a number of gaping holes in the budget the money available could usually be better spent on more conservative endeavours. Today, however, a rather interesting suggestion appeared.


Now, before you (yes, especially you Army officers) move one to more realistic proposals, hear me out on what make this proposal more interesting than, say, a multi-national amphibious division.

Vertical Movement

It is no secret that both Finland and Sweden like airborne movement of light infantry. Sweden have their own airmobile battalion in the 31. Btn of the Life Regiment Hussars K 3, while in Finland several units, including the special jaegers of the Border Guards (who have their own helicopter wing), the paras of the Utti Jaeger Regiment, and the different readiness units spread out over the country, all regularly train with helicopters. The benefits are obvious. A helicopter will get you from point A to point B quickly, especially through rugged terrain the difference compared to ground transport is significant. It also needs a relatively small open space to be able to land on, and the units transported need relatively little training compared to the traditional way of doing vertical movement by parachuting people out of airplanes.

Of course there are issues as well. Helicopters are relatively squishy (though not as badly as some of their detractors suggest), and expensive to operate. While the units being transported need relatively little training, crewing the helicopters on the other hand is a very complex and demanding task. This means that there will always be a limited number of helicopters available, while at the same time their utility means that they will always be in high demand. The end-result means that it is risky for any commander to count upon having helicopter support when requested.

Nordic Operations

Three Bell 412 SP helicopters of the 339 SQD, Royal Norwegian Air Force. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli / Forsvaret

Both the Finnish and Swedish Defence Forces use the NH90 for tactical transports, with the Swedish Air Force also use the UH-60M Blackhawk in the same role. While Norway operate both the NH90 and the EH 101 Merlin, they are mainly reserved for maritime roles, with the main tactical transport being the venerable Bell 412 SP. While the Bell 412 certainly is a considerable improvement compared to the Vietnam-era UH-1D, it is still a relatively old and light system, hauling a maximum of 11 passengers and an underslung load of 1,500 kg maximum.

The Finnish Defence Forces officially states that NH90 is capable of transporting 16 passengers and has an underslung capacity of 3,000 kg, while the Swedish Air Force is happy to cram in an even twenty passengers, or half that number if the soldiers bring their gear with them. This highlights an important point in airborne operations: light infantry don’t travel light, and certainly not if they are planning on doing a lot of fighting.

The setup of a regular Finnish jaeger company, sporting 268 or 297 soldiers depending on if it has three or four jaeger platoons on strength. Which boxes do you leave at home if you’re on a lift with a dozen helicopters? Source: Jääkärijoukkueen ja -ryhmän käsikirja 2018

Especially if one starts looking at support weapons or want a serious amount of ammunition and supplies brought along, it quickly becomes evident that ten NH90s or Bell 412s won’t allow for much in the way of Operation Market (though a remake of Operation Deadstick just might be possible).

Increasing the number and/or size of helicopters have always been felt as being too expensive, and it is a great irony that only thanks to the serious delays of the NH90-program the Swedish force actually has the largest inventory of medium transports of the three countries. However, there are a few reasons why a tri-nation heavy lift force could work.

The Case for Heavy Lift

The utility of even a limited number of heavy-lift helicopters is obvious. Case in point being the famous Chinook Bravo November of the Falklands War, where the single surviving Chinook of the British forces, flew 1,500 troops and 550 tons of cargo during the conflict. Less well-known is the fact that this distinguished old lady is still in active use, and has seen service both in Iraq and Afghanistan, though now upgraded to HC.4 standard.

A British Chinook coming in to drop off not one but two 105 mm light guns during an exercise in Oman. Source: MoD / PO[Phot]Lewis.S.J. via Wikimedia Commons

A heavy-lift helicopter is able to significantly add to the combat value of an airmobile unit, either in the form of more soldiers, a single Chinook could lift a platoon of jaegers by itself, or by carrying significantly more supplies to the battlefield. This also includes items too heavy for the NH90, with an underslung load up to and above 10,000 kg being possible (depending on fuel and other cargo).

Crucially, while joint-units outside of an alliance are something of a risk, shared transport assets have proved feasible. The Heavy Airlift Wing at Pápa have proved to be a successful concept, and one which all three countries are involved in. While not a one-to-one comparison, a similar-ish setup with say fifteen helicopters spread over the three countries (five national helicopters each) would allow for on average three being operational in each country at any given time, as well as allowing for dry- or wet-lease of the other countries’ assets in times of need. This could include both during international missions, where heavy helicopters are a sought after capability, or during national emergencies such as the large forest fires which plagued Sweden this summer.

While operating a small force of heavy helicopters alone would quickly become expensive due to the fixed cost, this kind of shared unit would offer economics of scale, and also provide an excellent building block in case an escalating crisis calls for rapid expansion of airborne capabilities. The CH-47 (there are really only two options, so we’ll just predict that the CH-47F and CH-53K would meet in a fly-off were the former would win) is also everything the NH90 wasn’t, being a tried and tested design supported by a large number of flying units, both in Europe and worldwide. This makes international cooperation (and possible expansion) relatively straightforward and cheap.

The Questions to be Solved

What are then the pitfalls that need to be avoided for this to work?

To begin with there’s always the question of workshare. With the NH90 Patria is a major service hub, and it is entirely possible that other actors would place significant pressure on local politicians in the other countries to ensure that they would get more of the work done domestically. Splitting maintenance and other support functions might mean that the envisioned economics of scale evaporate.

An even greater risk is nationalised versions. Very few joint procurements have actually succeeded in producing a situation where the same product is bought by all involved. The nightmare scenario would be one country dropping out, one buying the Chinook, and the other getting the King Stallion.

The biggest question is still the hard numbers. Keen readers will have noted that I haven’t mentioned any sums here, as truth be told I am not in a position to estimate the share each country would have to pay to operate a third of a Chinook-unit. It might very well be overly expensive, and would need some serious calculations before any commitments are made. Some funds would have to come from outside the defence budgets, as all countries’ defence forces are on extremely tight budgets already. As the helicopters would be valuable assets for emergency services and as part of disaster relief efforts domestically and internationally, having the ministries of interior and foreign affairs respectively provide part of the funding would likely be a must for this to work.

All in all it is a long shot. But it just might be worth looking into.

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5 thoughts on “A Northern Heavy-lift

  1. Reblogged this on vara bungas and commented:
    “As the helicopters would be valuable assets for emergency services and as part of disaster relief efforts domestically and internationally, having the ministries of interior and foreign affairs respectively provide part of the funding would likely be a must for this to work.”

  2. What exactly do you mean with ”standoff” between the Chinook and the Sikorsky?

    Transport helicopters are very vulnerable in a war zone. But the benefit with them is obvious. If you want to keep them out of or near a war zone to prevent them from getting shot down, then you can just as well start looking at other solutions for transport means that are more cost effective and stealthy.

    Even an attack helicopter face serious risk also from smaller caliber rounds. But they are deadly when attacking. They can however not add fire from the sides. But this is not the subject here.

    1. The only two helicopters that would be offered in case of a tender are the CH-47 and CH-53K, and I predict a solid win for the former in that case.

      I question the vulnerability argument. We have trucks able to cruise at 200 kph regardless of terrain and not bound by predictable roads. Many helicopters have also returned to base with numerous holes from small-arms fire in them without any major issue. No-one question road movement, but helicopters are somehow vulnerable.

  3. I take it that you are chosing the in and near the combat zone alternative.

    For the northern Finns it is a good choice. And also for the northeners in Sweden and Norway. They have a scarce road system and often long distances to cover. But what about for the Karelia (what might be left of it since wwii)? I see a clear advantage along Finland’s southern coast with its many islands.

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