The UK’s ability to conduct tactical battlefield airlift, particularly among the country’s special forces operators, will be constrained until 2028 when initial operational capability (IOC) of the first of 14 new CH-47 Extended Range (ER) transport helicopters is expected to be achieved.

Detailing the status of key equipment programmes for the British Army, senior officials from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the UK Defence Committee on 21 February that the revised timescale was a result of issues on the US Government’s side, which is managing the export through its foreign military sale (FMS) programme.

At the time of the FMS agreement, it was anticipated that deliveries would begin in 2026, with IOC coming one year later. However, deliveries will now only take place from 2027.

The UK MoD had hoped to move the timeline for the programme forward, but it has been unable to do so with the adjusted timeline the latest setback for the British Army as it struggles with key platform acquisition programmes.

It was also revealed that 14 older CH-47 airframes will be retired from the fleet of approximately 60-70 at present, as the ER variants are inducted into service. With the 14 ER platforms predominantly dedicated for special forces, this means regular forces will see a reduction in available aircraft numbers.

UK transport fleet feeling the pinch

In addition, UK tactical airlift, of which the CH-47 platform one element, will be further hit as the C-130J transporter begins to leave service this year. As reported in October 2022 by Airforce Technology, the UK’s Defence Equipment Sales Authority will make the C-130J fleet available for acquisition as they are removed from service in the 2023-2025 timeframe.

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UK special forces traditionally utilise the C-130J as an insertion platform due to its ability to conduct operations on unprepared airstrips. The CH-47(ER) would offset some of this loss, with the larger A400M transporter also expected to conduct such operations, although UK military certification of the A400 has not been completed.

Baseline modernised CH-47 helicopters are capable of speed in excess of 300km/h, with a fuel capacity of around 4,000 litres. The Block II programme, which the ER variant is derived from, is understood to have a maximum gross weight of 54,000lb or just under 25,000kg, or an empty weight of around 13,000kg.