British Army Air Corps Apache
Army

Know Your Army – Boats And Aircraft

A look at the different vessels and aircraft supporting the British Army.

British Army Air Corps Apache

Infantry and tanks may be what most people think of when they imagine the British Army, and indeed they are major elements of the Army’s fighting arm.

There is, however, a perhaps less well-known area of the British Army's equipment: its boats and aircraft, which are mostly helicopters, and those who operate them.

Vessels Used By The Army

While the Army is obviously a land-based force, it does sometimes cross water, and while the Royal Navy may help this still requires the Army to have an amphibious capability of its own.

For this, it uses elements of the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), and sometimes the Corps of Royal Engineers (RE.)

In fact, Royal Logistic Corps activities – which include things as diverse and dive teams and crane operators as well as handling a number of vessels – also support the Royal Marines.

In terms of the Army’s vessels, a number are handled by 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, part of the RLC.

Of these, the one that might seem intuitively most like a natural piece of the Army equipment is a vehicle known as the Mexeflote. Effectively a giant raft or floating pier with a ramp, or causeway, for wheeled and tracked vehicles to drive smoothly onto shore once it has crossed over water, the Mexeflote looks like a portion of an Army bridging unit, like the M3 Amphibious Bridging Vehicle or a BR90 bridge.

In fact, it is an independent unit, and one that is actually made up of various cells and engines that can be configured as required. It may not look particularly seaworthy, but it is capable of operating in waves of up to 1.5 metres in height.

Combat Support Boat foreground and Mexeflote and Army Work Boat
A Combat Support Boat is visible in the foreground in front of a Mexeflote craft, while an Army Work Boat is in the background (picture: MOD)

The Ministry Of Defence (MOD) refers to it as the largest logistic landing craft in Defence and it is capable of carrying 198 tonnes of equipment, vehicles or both.

Although it is operated exclusively by a crew of six from the RLC, the RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) is responsible for actually deploying it to locations around the world.

Another boat operated by the RLC, as well as the Royal Engineers, and one designed to assist the use of the Mexeflote, is the Army Work Boat. An all-around dogsbody craft, it is also used for assisting with firefighting and the provision of fuel (i.e. fuel being delivered across water.)

Both the RE and RLC also make use of the Combat Support Boat since it is capable of being used to support bridging and amphibious operations as well as inland water patrolling and ship-to-shore resupply (it can carry 2 tonnes of cargo or 12 personnel) and diving operations. It is also relatively quick, with a top speed of 30 knots.

Forces News gets to go aboard one of the Army’s Combat Support Boats, in this case one being used for training

The Army also makes use of smaller boats – the Rigid Raider (or RRC) and the Inflatable Raiding Craft (or IRC.) The RRC is used by the Royal Engineers and is sometimes used in rivers and during amphibious operations, while the IRC, being small and flexible, is also utilised by the Army at times, as a raiding craft to get soldiers quickly across water in small groups, and in other tasks (such as in the picture below.)

A Comparison Of The Army’s Boats:

Vessel name

Length

Speed

Weight (in tonnes)

Mexeflote

38.7 metres (maximum)

6.5 knots

169 tonnes

Army Work Boat

14.8 metres

10 knots

48 tonnes

Combat Support Boat

8.8 metres

30 knots

4.8 tonnes

Inflatable Raiding Craft (IRC)*

5 metres

20 knots

1.3 tonnes

Rigid Raider*

5 metres

30 knots

2.5 tonnes

*These two boats are also used by the Royal Marines and are covered in The Royal Marines article of the Know Your Navy series.

British Army in Belize
Members of the Royal Dragoon Guards, who had been doing jungle training in Belize, use Inflatable Raiding Craft to help with flood relief 2020 (picture: MOD)

Aircraft Used By The Army

The Army also has its own aviation corps, the Army Air Corps, or AAC.

The MOD states that it was formed in 1957 by pulling together members of the Glider Pilot Regiment and those doing air operations for the Royal Artillery (namely, those in Air Observation Post squadrons, which is to say those doing artillery spotting of targets from the air.)

In fact, an AAC had existed from 1942 to 1949 as well, though it was constituted differently, having parachute as well as glider units. The Army also had air elements going back further, with the Royal Artillery making use of balloonists as spotters in the 19th Century, and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) being a part of the Army for much of the First World War, until its merger with the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) to form the RAF in 1918.

These days, the balloons, gliders and biplanes are long gone, and the AAC is still equipped with state-of-the-art helicopters to help it perform its key roles as an air-combat, air-transportation, air-reconnaissance and air-casualty-evacuation wing of the British Army.

Pre-eminent among the AAC’s helicopters is the Apache Attack Helicopter, which the MOD says is "probably the most sophisticated piece of equipment in the world available to front-line troops”.

The MOD is referring specifically to the AH-64E Apache, which is being brought in to replace the AugustWestland Apache, a variation of Boeing’s AH-64D version, and stats given below are for the later E variant. It is designed primarily for attacking armoured vehicles like tanks as well as air defence units, but, as such a highly capable aircraft, it can perform a range of other tasks as well such as ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance), Command and Control and Escort/Force Protection.

British Army Air Corps
US Army Apache AH-64E helicopters (picture: MOD)

It is equipped with Longbow radar, enabling it to recognise 256 potential targets, prioritising the displaying top threats to its two crew, who are then able to engage them with the Apache’s 1,200 30mm cannon rounds, 76 70mm Hydra rockets or 16 Hellfire missiles.

The MOD lists the Apache’s radius of action as being 160 nautical miles, which is defined as the ability to leave base, conduct a mission and return to base comfortably (i.e. with a little fuel to spare.) This should give a range (the distance an aircraft can travel before having to refuel) of approximately 320 nautical miles, or about 590 kilometres.

As of 2021, the MOD report UK Armed Forces Equipment and Formations 2021 tables states that the MOD has 30 Apaches in its possession.

Meanwhile, the same document lists 34 Wildcat AH Mark 1 helicopters as being in MOD possession in 2021, though some of these are in use by the Navy (specifically 847 Naval Air Squadron) as well as the Army.

British Army Air Corps
An Army Air Corps Wildcat Mk1 taking part in Exercise Saber Strike in 2018 (picture: MOD)

Like the Apache, the Wildcat AH Mk1 also performs the force protection role as well as a number of other tasks on the battlefield, from reconnaissance to transportation to command and control (it likewise performs roles for the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force.)

The Wildcat also has a distinctive look in that it has a small dome mounted in front of its nose, this being an EOD (Electro Optical Device), which gives it the ability to detect targets at a significant distance.

In contrast the Apache and Wildcat, the Gazelle is a light, agile helicopter that is used by the Army for reconnaissance and observation duties. As of 2021, there are 26 in MOD possession. The AH1 model (i.e. Army Helicopter Mark 1) was developed for the Army Air Corps, being adapted from a variant known as the SA 341B.

British Army Air Corps
An Army Air Corps Gazelle with its fenestron tail rotor visible in the foreground of the image (picture: MOD)

Other services have also made use of the Gazelle in the past, though not the AH1, and the helicopter (a joint Anglo-French project) has, in one form or another, been in military use since the late 1960s.

The Gazelle is noteworthy as the first helicopter to have a fenestron tail (i.e. one that looks like an enclosed fan rather than the typical spinning blade tail rotor seen on most helicopters.) Athough the AAC now uses it for recon and observation (and sometimes casualty transportation), there have also been armed variants of the helicopter.

Also designed with a fenestration tail is the more-modern Airbus 135 Juno (or Juno HT1), which is used by all three services as a training helicopter. Specifically, the Juno is used at the Defence Helicopter Flying School in RAF Shawbury.

The AAC also operates five Bell 212 helicopters as of 2021, likewise for non-attack roles. Yet, whereas the Gazelle has space for five, including the pilot, the Bell can take 15, making it well suited to roles such as casualty evacuation and passenger transportation above the jungles of Brunei and Belize, where it is operated.

Jungle training British Army Brunei
An AAC Bell 212 helicopter seen behind soldiers securing a landing site during Exercise ULU RAJAH in Brunei in 2017 (picture: MOD)

Finally, the Army operates a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), or drone, known as the Watchkeeper.

Unlike the rest of the Army’s aircraft, Watchkeeper drones are not operated by the AAC, but instead by 47 Regiment, Royal Artillery. They use the drone as a kind of aerial reconnaissance vehicle, with its cameras and sensors able to pick up information, often on potential ground targets, at a distance of up to 200km (108 miles), in the day or at night.

Furthermore, the flight ceiling of Watchkeeper drones of 16,000 feet enables them to conduct surveillance without being detected themselves by the enemy.

A Comparison Of Aircraft Used By The British Army:

Aircraft name

Length in metres

Speed

Range in nautical miles

Weapons overview

Apache

17.6 metres

205 mph

320

30mm chain gun; 70mm rockets; Hellfire missiles

Wildcat Mk1

15.2 metres

180 mph

365

Anti-tank missiles, machine guns

Gazelle

12 metres

193 mph

434

n/a

Juno HT1

12.1 metres

161 mph

329

n/a

Bell 212

17.4 metres

140 mph**

237

n/a

Watchkeeper

6.5 metres

89 mph ***

81

n/a

**Absolute top speed that may not be exceeded – cruise speed is obviously slower.

***Cruising speed.

To learn more about the Army, read the first and second parts of the Know Your Army series on its weapons and organisation, and on its land vehicles.

And to learn about the Royal Navy, check out the Know Your Navy series herehere and here.

Cover image: Members of 656 Squadron AAC with an Apache AH1 (picture: MOD)

Forces News gives the lowdown on the Watchkeeper