Commando Helicopters of the Royal Navy & Royal Marines

First published: 19th July 2012 | Capt. Alan Hensher MBE RN

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1. Introduction

2. Historical Overview

3. The Current Role

4. Conclusion

5. Recommended Reading



Si vis pacem. Para bellum
(If you wish for peace, prepare for war)
Flavius Vegetius Renatus. 380 AD

This well recognised maxim arguing for deterrence has endured from the 4th century to be as important as ever in a dangerous and uncertain world. Moreover, it finds full and modern day expression in the UK’s amphibious forces as one of the most capable and flexible tools of war. An amphibious task group has the ability to deploy, support and rapidly re-deploy a self-contained highly trained force that has not only proved crucial to British success in many crises and conflicts but instrumental in preventing several more.

An amphibious task group is a complex maritime force requiring well-honed and close co-ordination of its many functions and weapons systems. These are designed, first, to counter the air, surface and sub-surface threats including mine clearance in the Amphibious Operating Area (AOA), then to deliver the ground force ashore. The critical manoeuvre is of course the ship to shore movement of the military unit. For the UK this means landing craft (both utility and vehicle/personnel), hovercraft and the primary method that is the main subject of this work, the helicopter.

The Royal Navy has led the way in the UK in the introduction, procurement, development and operational deployment of military helicopters from the late 1940’s. This paper, therefore, starts by presenting an historical overview of the development of naval helicopters, their mission and their evolution. It then goes on to outline the current role of the Royal Navy and Royal Marine’s commando helicopters as part of the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) including Air/Ground co-operation. This will lead to the conclusions, which will consider the future relevance of this force and it role.

An important purpose of this paper is to illustrate that the commando helicopters in particular have roles in both amphibious conflict and more conventional manoeuvre dependent conflicts, for example Afghanistan. These squadrons have been a vital component of the UK forces that have been committed there for the last ten years, adding further laurels to a history already resplendent with them.


Historical Overview

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines as full-time operators have encompassed the full range of military helicopter activity within the Defence structure of the United Kingdom for over 50 years. Indeed, they have been the innovators of many of the important developments including radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) as exemplified by the successful Airborne Search and Control (ASaC) Sea King.

Naval Helicopter Roles
Search and Rescue (SAR); Military or Commando Helicopter Support; Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Ships’ Flights in destroyers, frigates and RFA’s capable of dropping ASW weapons or firing Anti-Ship missiles and more recently, Airborne Search and Control (ASaC) have evolved as the five main strands of Naval Helicopter activity during the past half century. Initially ASW was the dominant Naval role. By exploiting the helicopter’s unique qualities to hover and transit at up to 100 knots to effect detection of submarines by dipping sonar or monitored sono-buoys and to attack by homing torpedoes or depth charges, ASW protection was extended to well beyond the detection range and attack capability of the conventional surface ship screen. With the demise of the Soviet Union the submarine threat has diminished over the past 2 decades but a seed-corn ASW capability has been retained, with the ASW Sea King now replaced by the more capable Merlin Mk1 (soon to be replaced with the Mk 2). The Sea King remains in service until 2016, in the SAR, AEW and Commando role.

Search and Rescue
SAR techniques that are now used globally, such as the double lift, stretcher casevac and SAR divers for submerged rescues were pioneered mainly by the Royal Navy. In the 1950’s the SAR helicopter became a more effective and economic replacement for the Plane Guard destroyer, formerly required to be close astern of the Aircraft carrier during flying stations in case of an aircraft ditching or aircrew bale-out.

Helicopter Operations from HM, RFA and Merchant Ships
The development of helicopter operations from small ships and RFA’s has expanded widely from the 1950’s so that now almost every HM ships of frigate size and above and many Royal Fleet Auxillary ships can and do operate helicopters. Originally intended for ASW this facility has now become as important for the deployment of commando/military support helicopters: a facility that proved its value in the Falklands Campaign, the Gulf war and most recently the Libyan conflict. The ship-borne Lynx helicopter with its radar, sophisticated EW and air-to-surface missiles has become an important extension of a ship’s weapon system by adding an over the horizon search and strike capability that has been equally effectively employed [through the Mk 7] over land in the Commando role in Afghanistan. Any ship with an embarked helicopter has an enhanced Anti-Piracy capability.

Military Support

Naval helicopters have been employed for military support of ground forces continually from the ‘50s in Malaya, Suez ’57, Borneo Confrontation ’62 – ‘66; Falklands ’82, Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to the present day, often operating from and with the support of a Commando Ship or Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH). The helicopter has become an essential component of almost any military activity, now progressing well beyond the earlier basic tasks of lifting troops, equipment and casevac, to perform a wide range of roles; Intelligence, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), armed helicopter strike and close air support (CAS), airborne radio relay (rebro) and convoy escort and protection.

Commando Role

It is in the Commando Role that the projection of ground forces by helicopter from the sea has demonstrated an optimum military capability and political flexibility. The trio of Commando ship; RM Commando or Army Unit and Helicopter Squadron including Army Armed Helicopters (such as Lynx and Apache) constitutes a small but powerful force. This effectiveness is multiplied many fold if accompanied by an Aircraft Carrier and a full Amphibious Task Group. The ability of maritime forces to operate in international waters close to the combat area for sustained periods without the need for establishment of a land base within a host nation confers significant political and military advantages by a timely presence in strength for prevention and deterrence.

Genesis of Commando Ship (LPH) concept
The technique of landing troops and equipment by helicopter from the sea was originated by the US Marine Corps in the early 1950’s (known as the Vertical Envelopment Technique) and adopted by UK, first in 1956, from a conventional carrier at Suez. In 1959, the conventional aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark was converted to the Commando role to be followed a year or so later by the similar conversion of HMS Albion. Both ships played a decisive role in the deployment and support of Royal Marine Commando or Army Units and Naval helicopter squadrons and in the success of the Borneo Confrontation campaign from 1962 to 66. For the first time the versatility of the Commando Ship was demonstrated in providing logistic and technical support over a sustained 4 year period to the embarked military unit – RM or Army –and to its helicopters, both onboard and onshore, Army and RAF helicopters and light fixed wing aircraft can also operate from or be lifted to the combat area in a Commando ship.


The Current Role

Commando Helicopter Force (CHF)
The CHF is very much part of the FAA, but under the operational command of Commander in Chief Land Forces as part of the JHC. It comprises 4 squadrons: 848 (SK OCU), 845 and 846 (front-line SK sqdns) and 847 (front-line Lynx sqdn) and over 850 personnel. Each of the 3 front-line squadrons has its own deployable capability, with an ability to be self sufficient in the field (in support of the land forces) through deployment of their own tented Forward Operating Bases (FOB). Theses FOBs can either be deployed from sea by vehicle or lifted by the aircraft as underslung loads. This is a capability within the JHC unique to the CHF; no other JHC unit is able to project itself ashore from being afloat and then operate as a self-sufficient force in the field, which of course provides ultimate flexibility and versatility in an efficient and effective package, eg. Falklands, Gulf 1 and 2. Naval air Commando squadrons are trained regularly in Mountain and Arctic Warfare conditions in Northern Norway.

Air Ground Co-operation

Over the many years embracing Suez, the Borneo campaign, the Falklands, the Gulf wars, Iraq and Afghanistan the Royal Marines and the Navy’s Commando helicopter squadrons have become well practised in operating together. The essential ingredient of this rapport is mutual trust and in particular that the RM or Army ground commander is given helicopter tasking authority, albeit with recognition of specialist air factors. This procedure is always practised by the Royal Navy but not usually by the RAF in their belief that professional aviation experience is a pre-requisite for air tasking or similar functions.

Maritime Experience
When air squadrons of any service embark in a Carrier and Assault ship there is a well-recognized need for the squadron personnel to integrate with the parent ship’s company. This requires an awareness at least of the operating conditions unique to embarked aviation. These include the limitations of space and associated intensification of demands on safety, Radhaz on the flight deck and conflicting requirements for flight deck space for non-aviation activities such as training of embarked Royal Marine or Army units or Replenishment at Sea (RAS). Such integration flows from a broad mindset that accepts there are factors outside aviation which dictate the ship’s actions in both combat and peacetime situations. This maritime orientation is inherent in the Naval Air Commando squadrons. For Army and RAF air squadrons it is best engendered by actual embarked experience of some few weeks duration.

The Aircraft
Each of the 3 front-line SK squadrons of the CHF comprise 10 SK Mk 4 aircraft (although this is set to change with a gradual drawdown in numbers expected in the run up to the SK out of service date of 2016 and transition to Merlin Mk4, of which there will be 25), with 848 NAS operating 9 airframes. The SK Mk 4 can be fitted with GPMG for self defence and can also be fitted with an electro-optical camera for the ISTAR role – the Merlin Mk4 will most likely be similarly equipped. 847 NAS comprises 6 Lx Mk 7 (these numbers too are set to change as the Squadron transitions to the replacement battlefield helicopter, the ‘Wildcat’) and carries a GPMG; the removal from service of the TOW missile system some years ago saw both the strike and ISTAR capability removed. An air to surface missile system for the Wildcat is under consideration.

Helicopter Blade Fold Facility
The efficient use of a commando ship’s flight deck to generate a high sortie rate requires the safe and rapid movement of helicopters around the deck with ready access to aircraft lifts and the hangar. Helicopters that operate from ships should therefore have a blade fold facility. For large helicopters this should be powered blade folding as in the Sea King and Merlin Mk 4. The smaller Lynx can be folded manually. The Chinook has great lift capability but as a very large aircraft with no blade fold facility it is a net liability for continuous deck operations. The scale of the problem can be gauged from the fact that the deck space required for one Chinook can accommodate four folded Merlin Mk 4s.


Joint Helicopter Command and operations have been in practise for over ten years and work well. Even so events have shown that Joint arrangements, if taken too far, can become a casualty to overriding decisions such as those taken in the recent Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). It is important to ensure that the Royal Navy’s expertise and experience in the amphibious dimension of helicopter operations remain undiminished by joint agreements or practices. Equally joint concepts should embrace fully the versatility and flexibility of our amphibious capability to involve the Army’s ground units and Apache armed helicopters and the RAF’s Puma and Merlin helicopters with fixed wing air support as appropriate. In recent months the success of Apache armed helicopters operating from HMS Ocean in Libya with some being flown by Naval pilots is a testament to ‘jointery’ at its most effective. However, such success is not happenstance and requires a proper understanding of the associated challenges, with the presence of certain key enablers being critical to the safe and effective delivery of joint aviation from the sea. Most important is the presence of suitably qualified and experienced personnel in key positions; not only in the cockpit but importantly also in the planning process, the supervisory chain and of course the chain of command.

Currently such skills are provided by a team of CHF- the Junglies- and Commando Ship personnel to form a cadre of experts. The development of the Junglies ethos and their associated maritime expertise has evolved over some 6 decades of commando operations; if allowed to dissipate or fall out of practice its renaissance would require a heavy investment of time in the re-creation of the cadre of experts. It could not be done overnight.


The Naval Service’s Commando helicopter squadrons, known as the ‘Junglies’, have gained a high reputation with their principle clients, the Royal Marines and the Army, as a determined and efficient outfit. With an ethos of ‘can do’ that has inspired their actions over the past fifty years, and operating as frequently from a Commando ship as they do from a forward operating base or an improvised vessel, they have given stalwart support to the Royal Marines and the Army in their operational commitments all round the world:- Malaya; Suez; Borneo; East Africa; Falklands; Gulf Wars; Iraq; Sierra Leone; & Afghanistan.

What is important to evoke from this impressive record is the enduring value of the Navy’s commando helicopters as part of a joint force structure and as a vital component of the Amphibious Forces that remain a core capability of the UK’s Defence Strategy.

The nature and source of future conflict has become more than ever difficult to predict in a complex, uncertain and often dangerous world. The unexpected military or political crisis remains a spectre which demands a flexible and rapid response. The Commando Helicopter Force as part of the UK’s Amphibious Capability, is ideally structured to respond to such events.


Recommended Reading

Booth, K. (1994). Military Intervention: Duty and Prudence. In J. Gow, J. Sharp, K. Booth, T. Haiverson, P. Towle, J. Howorth, et al., & L. Freedman (Ed.), Military Intervention in European Conflicts (pp. 56-75). Cambridge (MA) and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Freedman, L., Gow, J., Sharp, J., Booth, K., Haiverson, T., Towle, P., et al. (1994). Military Intervention in European Conflicts. (L. Freedman, Ed.) Cambridge (MA) and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Hill, J. R. (2002). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Knowles, E. (Ed.). (2009). Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (7th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lovering, T. (Ed.). (2007). Amphibious Assault: Manouvre from the Sea.Woodbridge: Seafarer Books.
Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2008). Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th, Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univesity Press.
Thompson, J. (1999, Hedgewick & Jackston 1998). War Behind Enemy Lines. London: Pan Books.
Thompson, J. (2007). 3 Commando Brigade in the Falklands. London: Pen & Sword Military.
Thompson, J. (2009). Dunkirk; retreat to victory. London: Macmillan.

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