Much wailing in The Guardian today over the news that the RAF and Royal Navy will be handing over UK search and rescue to a private firm:
Bristow, a leading provider of helicopter services to the offshore energy industry, has won a £1.6bn contract to provide SAR (search and rescue) from 2016.Everyone currently involved in the SAR industry promptly objects to the change. It's not surprising, the change is a very significant one since the RAF and RN have been providing SAR around the UK for 70 years. So why does the Government want to fix what (apparently) ain't broken?
Money is, of course, a primary driver for this - the contract is £1.6bn, for a duration apparently unspecified in the Government press release on the SAR handover. If private cover costs this much, you can bet that RAF/RN cover costs more. The real reason for this change though, and believe me it's a good reason, is buried down in the article:
However, the government has argued that it needs to act because the famous and much-loved Sea King helicopter fleet is approaching the end of its useful life.The Sea Kings are ancient hardware. The licence-built UK design first flew in 1969 with updates such as the dedicated SAR variant HAR3 delivered in the late 1970s / early 1980s. It's being retired everywhere else in the world, and even in the UK the troop-carrying variant has bitten the dust. There's no way that the current Sea Kings can or should keep going much longer, getting increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain.
But the RAF and Navy have a much more modern medium- and heavy-lift helicopter - the EH101 aka Merlin in UK service. Why not use these for SAR? Well, where the 14,000lb empty-weight Sea King has a regular range of 764 miles and sea level cruise speed of 129mph, the Merlin is nearly 10,000lb heavier, with a 500 mile range albeit a faster cruise speed of 167mph. Cargo carrying capacity is not generally a big concern for SAR roles - as long as it can accommodate crew + around ten passengers this will cover the vast majority of rescue situations. The Merlin is too big compared to the Sea King, and it's really expensive - the RAF bought 44 aircraft for £4.65bn and even though a lot of that cost was set-up and infrastructure you're still looking at the thick end of £30M per bird.
But let's compare it against the replacements that Bristow will use: ten Sikorsky S92s and ten AW189s. The former is an up-rated civilian version of the tremendously successful and widely used UH-70 Blackhawk, weighs 15,500lb empty with a range of 600 miles and cruise speed of 174mph - a lot faster than Sea King or Merlin, slightly less range than the former but a comparable weight, and will set you back about £20M. Spares should be easy to find and running costs low. Specs on the latter are harder to find, but it looks to have a comparable speed and be slightly lighter; presumably there's something about the cost/range/speed tradeoff that makes it a more attractive option than the S92 for certain locations.
Bristow aren't exactly newcomers to the SAR role - they've been operating helicopters to the North Sea oil platforms for decades, which is a sufficiently challenging environment to prepare them well for UK SAR. It's still going to be an interesting hand-over, but there's no reason to think that Bristow will just let random yachting folks drown because of a clause in their contract.
The other nice thing about contracting out this service is that the contract should be very easy to spec out - the variables (weather, range, accidents) are very well known and well-established, and so unless the MoD Procurement idiots have been allowed to write the contract it's not unreasonable to think that they should cover all the major issues. This is not like tendering for a future fighter or helicopter where the requirements are hazy. We know exactly what SAR involves and what's reasonable to expect. If anything, I expect the contract to be too conservative and prevent Bristow from implementing innovations in kit or procedures that would let them reduce operational cost while preserving the same effective service.