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The history and heritage of the Wildcat can be traced back to the late 80s, early 90’s with the development and testing of various engine and avionic configurations of Lynx. Namely G-LYNX as the LHTEC T800 demonstrator and ZT800 as the Super Lynx 300/800 demonstrator. The concept of a small, agile, powerful multi role helicopter jammed with technology has proved to be popular and very capable. With over 14 countries using various different marks of Lynx, the design and concept is clearly a sound one. Despite the Lynx being a technological leap forward in the mid 70s, the overall design and some of the engineering principals are dated and future growth in the Lynx platform is now at an end. Even though ‘new’ Lynx are just going in to service with the likes of Algeria and Thailand, their ‘future proofing’ is limited.


In 2002, the UK MoD initiated an 18-month assessment and paid Westland £10 million to look at what could replace the Lynx fleet (Army and Royal Navy). Unsurprisingly, Westlands answer was another Lynx. Previously, this was called the Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft (SCMR) and Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH) programme.The Lynx fleet was due to go out of service in or around 2012-2015. An unmoveable fact that has been on the cards since the AH7 came in to service in 1989 and when the HMA8 came in to service in the early 90’s. Early discussions regarding increasing the life of the current Lynx fleet proved to be an economical vortex because both the AH7 and HMA8 were old airframes (the HMA8s were all converted HAS3s, some of them dating back to 1978-79) and the potential life increase would not have been viable compared to the cost. AgustaWestland (GKN-Westland prior to 2001) had proposed a re-engined (LHTEC T800) Lynx as far back as 1991 as well as an upgraded avionics suite in the form of the Super Lynx. At this time, the MoD showed little interest despite the fact that the RR Gem engined Lynx were not performing well and their avionics were dated. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the MoD started to show a mild interest in replacing the Lynx fleet. To be fair, it was more a fact that the Treasury was unwilling to commit any funding for new helicopters; an action that would come back to bite them during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Westland had wanted to develop a replacement for the Lynx for some time as the export maritime Lynx had been one of its most successful products. As is quite often the case, the UK MoD is seen as a ‘show case’ for the Defence Industry which helps to springboard the export market. Prior to 2002, Westland had a proposal and had made offers to the MoD. Knowing the limitations the UK MoD was in regarding its appetite for large budget Defence procurements, Westland came up with a solution. The proposal was to take its fleet of Lynx and ‘recycle’ them. This would entail taking airframes back to the factory, removing useful components and placing them in to a new airframe tied to new T800 engines (the engine developed for the US Army RAH-66 Comanche programme) and a new avionics suite. This idea went further than the ‘Super Lynx’ programme which is effectively just re-engined Lynx airframes with a customer avionics package. The ‘Future Lynx’ plan was to take the essence of the Lynx and place it in to a truly new aircraft. Although Westland quoted using 70% of legacy components such as gearbox, transmissions, hydraulics and Automatic Flight Control System to produce the Future Lynx, the airframe (the limiting factor) would be all new fitted with T800 engines and a totally new avionics and mission systems. Development from the Merlin would also be squeezed in to this new package. Early presentations from the company showed old Lynx entering the factory with a turn round time of approx 6 months to turn it in to a Future Lynx and with a price tag of £3 million each (2000-2001 figures). This plan was very attractive to the MoD not only on cost but also time scales.


The MoD had left it very late to decide on a Lynx replacement and the proposal appeared to fit the bill and also potentially save embarrassment for its lethargy. The proposal was a very good idea had it not been for one minor point. It was bollocks. The time scale was ludicrously unrealistic, most of the components Westland planned to use had to be redesigned to satisfy current design standards and the complexity of the task was underestimated. Unfortunately, the MoD had left it too late to allow a true competition to be undertaken and at this point they were pretty much committed to the Somerset based company. The cost and time scale esculated and the price per airframe actually came to somewhere in the region of £24 million for the AH and £26 million for the HMA.


The Royal Navy was more than happy with a similar, upgraded type to replace the Lynx HMA 8 and it was seen as a direct evolution to their current capability and role; a small Maritime Attack and utility helicopter. The Army however, were undecided. Despite the Fleet Air Arm being a small part of the Royal Navy, their role of eyes, ears and protector of the Fleet has a large influence in capability. The Army or more precisely, the Army Air Corps did not have the same influence. The AAC is one of the smallest Arms within the British Army but has approx 1/3 of the Army’s defence budget. The AAC had performed what was considered a coup back in the early-mid 90’s by procuring the WAH64D Apache. The most expensive and the most capable Attack helicopter on the market at the time. Despite the fact that the procurement of Apache was based on the threat of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s and conventional based warfare. And despite the subsequent fall of the USSR in 1991, the programme continued and has actually proven, to a certain degree, its worth in Afghanistan acting as a gunship and protector of troops on the ground. Not strictly what it was purchased for and more of a temporary solution to cover a gap in capability that the Lynx AH Mk 7 could not cover due to poor performance.


At the time a Lynx replacement was sought, the MoD and more precisely the Army was cognisant that it had just spent a huge amount of the defence budget on what was seen at the time as a legacy purchase designed to defeat a threat that had just disappeared. Therefore, an appetite to spend another large chunk of the budget to replace Lynx was not forthcoming. The Army wanted something that gave true flexibility and utility and had realised in the previous 20 years that the Army version of the Lynx was a compromise. The AAC had used the Lynx in a similar vein as the rest of the British Army had used the GS Land Rover. It had fitted whatever role it had been thrust in to more or less but didn’t really excel. The opportunity to address that came with the requirement to replace the Lynx. The AAC and some quarters of the Army viewed a version or derivative of UH60 Blackhawk as the obvious choice. With this, the Army could mirror (albeit on a very small scale) the US Army’s philosophy. Allied to that, a potential common power plant with the RR RTM322 engine (Merlin, WAH64D Apache) and the chance for AgustaWestland to revisit the ill fated relationship with Sikorsky of the late 80’s (Westland WS-70). This option would potentially tick all the boxes. License built Blackhawks at Yeovil, common powerplant, universal capability. Unfortunately, this proposal was seen as non starter by some as it was seen as encroaching on the Support Helicopter role and if it went ahead, the RAF would actively pursue it.


At this time, the MoD was seeking to reduce the amount of different helicopter types it operated. It operated Sea King (5 variants), Merlin (2 variants), Chinook (several variants including the HC3 debacle), Puma, Gazelle, Lynx (4 variants) and Apache. It wished to streamline different types in to specific roles; Find, Fix and Lift. ‘Find’ would be fulfilled with some form of light recce helicopter, ‘Fix’ or kill would be the Apache’s area and ‘Lift’ would be broken in to two areas; Merlin and Chinook. This strategy carries over to the FAA capabilities too. For the Army to continue with a Blackhawk type, this would have required the Navy to accept a version for Maritime Attack and for the RAF to cede the Puma. These two factors ensured any further discussion of Blackhawk was placed firmly in the bin. The Royal Navy did not see a Sea Hawk (or even the MH60 navalised Blackhawk) as suitable because the SH60 is very expensive and did not meet their requirements and the RAF were starting to push the aging and unsuitable Puma HC1 replacement, the HC2 Puma to fulfil light/medium lift in lieu of losing the Merlins to the Commando Helicopter Force. Highly political and very much individual service nest lining.


The Army suggested it wanted a utility helicopter to replace its current utility helicopter (which was what the Lynx AH7 really was since losing its Anti Tank role). Hence the BLUH programme. The issue tied to the above aggravation of the other services was that it is very hard to justify to the Treasury what ‘utility’ actually was. It’s easy to explain to the bean counters what ‘Fix’ is – kill stuff or ‘Lift’; by showing them pictures of Chinooks. But to quantify utility is in itself a generalisation. If it is to lift troops then the answer that comes back from the bureaucrats is ‘Chinook/Merlin’. If it’s to neutralise targets, they will quote the £35 million WAH64D. If it’s Battlespace flexibility and dynamic adaptability, they will just look blank and retire to the Whitehall/Westminster bar. The idea of a Blackhawk was shelved very early on (even when Sikorsky directly presented a deal that would equate to 30 aircraft; the latest MH60M derivative, costing £17 million per airframe with all associated logistics and training). When it came to a Lynx replacement, it had to fulfil a common platform strategy that firstly ensured Westland would secure the contract and secondly that the prime role was Maritime attack (again, ensuring a viable export market). With this, the Lynx-Wildcat became the only option. And with this, the AAC/Army had to revisit its requirements. The previously know BLUH aspect of the programme became the BRH – Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter. This new title satisfied the ‘Find’ side of the MoDs philosophy.


In April 2005 the UK Government announced the selection of the AW159 for the Army and Royal Navy's requirements. Or more accurately, the rewritten requirements fitted the offered proposal. A programme assessment phase, which was completed in early 2006, demonstrated that the AW159 met the rewritten BRH and SCMR requirements. Somewhat unorthodox, the MoDs requirement for a replacement did not take the usual steps of placing that requirement out to open tender. This may have meant other helicopter manufacturers had been out-bidded on a closed contest due to the requirements been driven by the offer. The details of why this large contract was never put out to tender remains sketchy but naming the aircraft and programme Lynx-Wildcat or Future Lynx may have led to the assumption that the programme was merely an upgrade to a current in service type. The route the MoD and AW took may be seen now as a double edged sword as both organisations are actively trying to distance the two types; for export sales purposes and for capability reasons. It is actually a new aircraft. The reality is, they share a common legacy but are very different aircraft.


In June 2006, the UK MoD awarded the contract to AgustaWestland initially for 70 Wildcat helicopters; 40 for the Army and 30 for the Navy. The contract also provided an option for a further ten aircraft, five for the Army and five for the Navy. The original order of 70 was reduced in December 2008 to 62; 34 for the army and 28 for the navy (although in reality, 847 Naval Air Squadron takes their fleet from the Army inventory thus reducing available Army aircraft even further).


The programme was cut from £4bn to approx £1.4bn and with this massive cut, the option to reduce the number of aircraft had to be made. As well as the cut in total aircraft, various capabilities were removed (to be added at a later date). Equipment such as helmet mounted displays, offensive weapons for the Army aircraft, twin tactical processors, uplink/downlink for mission systems plus a host of other initial requirements. At this point, it was a case of keeping the programme on budget or it would be cut completely. Due to the nature of MoD procurement and their long gestation periods, the actual requirement was not keeping up with current operations (TELIC in Iraq and HERRICK in Afghanistan) and the lessons learned and identified on those operations could not be implemented (due to cost and due to adding them back when the economical climate allowed). For example, Theatre Entry Standard (TES) for helicopters required helmet mounted displays to give greater situational awareness in brown-out dust landings and take offs but this was one of the first pieces of capability dropped. It could be suggested that the Royal Navy took the early lead in the programme and had a deeper interest than their green colleagues who were still shopping for Blackhawk and this could have led to certain items being shelved in favour of the maritime role. After all, not much dust over the oggin. But as has been mentioned, it is better to at least have a new aircraft (albeit, with reduced equipment) than no aircraft at all. It is however, a false economy as these items will need to be added at some point in the near future if the aircraft is ever to deploy operationally. And when they are added, you can bet that the cost is 10 times more than it would have cost to originally design them in to the programme. Take in to account that any upgrades or mods that are made will immediately split the fleet in to a 'fleet within a fleet' with aircraft at different mod states and standards as not all aircraft will be modified at the same time. Lessons that seemed to have been ignored ever since we started operating aircraft.  


Construction of the first AW159 (ZZ400) began in October 2007. On 12 November 2009, ZZ400 completed its maiden flight at AugustaWestland's Yeovil facility. The second test aircraft (ZZ401) completed its maiden flight in October 2010 and the third in November 2010 (ZZ402).


With this now much streamlined programme, time was at a premium. The Lynx out of service date had not changed but the Future Lynx programme had already been delayed by more two years due to pauses and delays from within the UK Government. This put immense pressure on AgustaWestland to deliver within the timescales. The MoD still felt confident that the programme could be delivered on time and the assumption was that due to the commonality of the AW159 to the current Lynx fleet, the resources required to achieve IOC (Initial Operating Capability) could be kept to a minimum. This is where the almost bi-polar nature of the birth of the AW159 was considerably underestimated. On the one hand, the aircraft had been procured on the basis of its commonality with Lynx and the initial assumption that it was just an upgrade but on the other hand, it was in fact a completely new aircraft that just so happened to share some components.


To enable efficient fleet management of limited numbers of aircraft, the MoD elected to locate all AW159 at RNAS Yeovilton. The initial philosophy was that with only 58 Wildcat (as it was officially named on 24th April 2009) replacing a total fleet of over 130 Army and Navy Lynx, it would make economic sense to co-locate all the assets. This would mean that both the FAA and the AAC could utilise the same aircraft on a sort of ‘hot seat’ basis. Rather than individual squadrons keeping hold of a handful of aircraft each, the fleet would be managed in a holistic manner. The differences between the RN and Army Wildcat are minimal. They have exactly the same flight characteristics, software and limitations. Originally, the only main difference was the radar equipped HMA. This would allow a very efficient method of utilising limited airframe numbers. In fact, the Army AH could be re-roled to HMA standard by simply placing radar under the nose (fitted for, not with). Unfortunately, this plan didn’t come to fruition as the FAA elected to rename their aircraft the HMA Mk2 and the gap between the two aircraft steadily grows. Even down to different nose wheels. This should be no surprise as the Army AH and Navy HMA do very different jobs. Just like its predecessors; the HAS2, 3, HMA 8 and AH1, 7, 9 and 9A.


The early idea of a re-role ability goes in some way to explaining why the Army Wildcat are painted two tone grey camouflage; the same as the HMA as opposed to a more conventional green or olive drab. It meant that should the need arise; an Army AH could be converted to an HMA within 48 hours or so. There is however a rumour that when further cost cutting was required in the programme, the idea that painting them all the same colour would reduce costs. When the decision was taken, the Army weren’t actually present at that meeting.


The programme did not just consist of the aircraft but was a complete package. This consisted of the aircraft, the synthetic training devices (simulators), training package for aircrew and ground crew and a Common Mission Support System (CMSS). Although the MoD originally didn't specify it wanted a simulator as the naive thought was that they could just use the aging Lynx simulators (that would be akin to asking a Boeing 777 pilot to use a VC10 simulator to train and conduct emergency practices!) The latter was to be a common electronic mission planning system that would be utilised by the Wildcat, WAH 64D Apache, Merlin and Chinook fleets. All elements of the programme were awarded to AgustaWestland. This would ensure all aspects of Wildcat would be managed by one source in one location and be one point of contact.


AgustaWestland subcontracted the simulator programme to Indra; a large Spanish information technology and defence systems company. Indra has a lot of experience building military simulators but not a huge amount building military helicopter simulators. The flow of knowledge from AgustaWestland to Indra was somewhat limited which quite often meant the customer (MoD) had to provide the bridge between the aircraft and the development of the synthetic training devices. The CMSS failed to deliver despite the tight programme management employed by DE&S (Defence Equipment & Support – a division of the MoD tasked to manage the entire programme). CMSS was shelved at the eleventh hour simply because it didn’t work. This came as a big surprise for DE&S who had been closely managing that part of the programme. The time wasted and the money thrown in to that part of the programme might be seen as mildly embarrassing for those tasked to manage a programme that had neither commodity on their side. The simulator side of the programme didn't exactly run on rails either and despite the fact that a single point of management dealt with all aspects of the programme, it may have been cheaper and easier to directly employ specialists in each field; aircraft, mission planning and simulator. A single point of management can quite easily be a single point of failure or a hurdle that creates bureaucratic or commercial delays.  


The decision was made to take delivery of the Wildcat by the MoD earlier than was originally planned to ensure IOC could be met on time. This meant the aircraft and its associated programme components were still very immature. Despite this, the Army Air Corps Wildcat Fielding Team (Army) took delivery of ZZ406 on the 28th May 2012. The first operational crew made their maiden flight in ZZ406 on the 18th June 2012. The Royal Navy followed nearly a year later when 700W NAS took delivery of their first HMA2.


Despite the problems with the programme, the aircraft itself is actually a phenomenal piece of capability. On top of the nose is the Wescam MX15Di Electro-Optical Designating System. This is fully integrated in to the Tactical Processor which in turn drives the mission systems. Criticisms of placing the EODS on top of the nose and therefore restricting its look-down angle are unfounded. There are virtually no circumstances where a recce helicopter is required to sit directly over the top of its target. In conventional style warfare where there may be a substantial air threat, being covert and in the low level environment is the best defence and this is where the Wildcat is well suited and duie to the capability of the camera, a large stand-off distance can be achieved. It has a very comprehensive communication suite including BOWMAN voice, DATA and COMBAT, SATURN anti jamming radios as well as HF. All radios can be placed in secure modes. The Defensive Aides Suite is fully integrated also allowing ESM. The HMA is also equipped with the Selex Seaspray 7000E active electronically scanned array radar fitted under the nose (the software for both the AH and HMA is identical).


The cockpit is a very clean uncluttered area to work with four large IDUs (Integrated Display Units) presenting every available piece of flight or mission information. Any screen can have any mission information presented as well as two separate digital moving map displays. Interaction with the screens is either via bezel keys around each screen or via a Cursor Control Device; a track ball on the interseat console. All seats (front and rear) are crashworthy and the airframe is designed to absorb impacts up to 15g. Both the AH an HMA can carry either a 7.62mm GPMG or a 12.7mm (0.5cal) M3M HMG in the crew served weapon role. Use of the EODS to spot and mark targets for the CSW makes engaging targets out to maximum range very effective. The HMA can carry the Stingray torpedo, depth charges and in the future, the Thales Martlet Lightweight Multi Role Missile system and the MBDA Sea Venom (Sea Skua replacement). The intended roles for the BRH (Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter) are ISTAR, Command and Control and limited utility. It will work closely with the WAH64D designating targets and acting as the comms hub. The HMA will be used in the Maritime Attack and utility roles.


Army versions: 30 (option for a further 4-8 LAH)

Naval versions; 28

Export; 8 (South Korea)



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