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Operations, Oversight Challenge Europe’s Police Aviation

Effective use of tactics and sensors is hampered by language barriers and aircraft configurations.

The European Union dream, if ever there was one, has recently taken a bit of a beating. With the British declaring they had tired of the club and opting to exit the EU plus a mix of civil unrest and terror attacks, all appears not to be well.

Originally a trading arrangement set in the wake of World War II, the European Union had morphed politically with aims of making all things the same across its member nations. That fed across to how the many different police organizations worked together and how they were equipped. One small aspect of this “guidance” is an expectation that all new police helicopters need to be twin-engine types, although uniformity in that has yet to be realized.

There are active upgrade programs in place for the EC145 fleet in France.Photo courtesy of Aldo Bidini

Recent years have seen the departure of civil policing by military formations. It was common across Europe for the national police to be a regiment of the army, and most were a gendarmerie or military police. In many countries, the original police air support was vested in the military and largely was led by military needs and traditions, including a predisposition to shun night operations and working on weekends. The idea of 24/7 availability was alien, and operations outside office hours required lengthy pre-planning. Having the army connection might make it easier for some nations to undertake the airborne use of force, but such tactics are illegal in the civil aviation regime in which many operate.

Most of that has now been swept away, and the old militaristic names and work practices consigned to museums. Most, but not all. Long-embedded work practices linger on and union pressures can often make change all the more difficult.

The countries that have now moved their military regiment-based policing to a nominally softer regime include Germany, where the Bundesgrenzshutz (or Border Guard) morphed into the Bundespolizei (or Federal Police), and Belgium, where the Gendarmerie or Rijkswacht became a Federal Police in 1992. But that leaves others that still retain military formations with civil policing roles, including France and Italy.

This multiplicity of policing styles has a detrimental effect on the level of cooperation, but not necessarily on the delivery of police air support itself. There are still many cross-border pursuit issues despite the existence of the EU. Notwithstanding the political expectations of the EU to tear down borders, getting disparate police air operations to talk to each other as equals across barriers of style, protocol and language is not easy.

The Hungarian police purchased five MD902 helicopters from the German Police Force.Photo courtesy of MD Helicopters

There have been successes. The European Aviation Safety Agency, the EU’s certification authority, has chosen to see a whole range of nominally civil air operations as “state aircraft” and outside its control. This requirement, affecting police, firefighting and customs patrol aircraft, suits some operations, but not all.

Under the EASA view, state aircraft can operate in a style that suits the operator and can undertake numerous operations outside the civil aviation rules, doing much as they please wholly unregulated. The price of that is that aircraft operated in this manner lose resale value; ultimately, disposal to civil sources is hampered at best and at worse is impossible, except to a museum. There are only so many museums.

The default for new regulations due in 2017 to 2018 was that EASA would consider all police, firefighting and customs patrol aircraft owned by government entities to be “national” and not regulated under EASA.

Now, under a revision proposed by a handful of nations (including Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Finland), individual countries can choose to be regulated under EASA rules, including Part 145 maintenance, or to opt out in part or completely and effectively have such aircraft remain “national” assets. One big reason to choose to operate under EASA rules is that you retain the resale potential of your aircraft (which national aircraft generally do not). But for some there are likely to be significant costs associated with oversight by a national regulator rather than the all-embracing EASA.

Europe’s most popular police helicopter is the Airbus Helicopters H135.Photo by Bryn Elliott

This easement was attained by a group made up of senior operator representatives of the countries involved, but it will read across to all countries. The countries seeking the easement already operate under the existing EASA regime, so it was simply a case of maintaining the status quo. Some of the former gendarmeries, now seen as civil state police agencies, always have operated in a military regime and choose to retain an option that can easily hide significant costs within a defense budget.

As might be expected, there are large differences in capability between the national operations, and that can be seen as very much an East-West divide. The former Communist states of Eastern and Central Europe (Eastern Bloc) are still playing catch-up on equipment and techniques, greatly assisted by EU funding.

The main additional funding for air support comes from the Schengen borders program. In place for 30 years now, the Schengen Area was one of the greatest achievements of the EU. Although it is arguably under strain at the moment, it removed all internal borders. That required additional funding for those countries on the EU’s outer borders – many of them formerly Eastern Bloc or, as in the case of Malta, small countries in need of bolstering their capabilities.

Across the rest of the EU, it could be said that richer nations have been able to afford larger and better-equipped operations. The contrast in capability between Germany (with its large, well-equipped Federal Police backed up by a number of modern individual state operations) and any former Eastern Bloc nation is massive.

Based in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, U.K. National Air Operations are directed from a single center.Photo by Bryn Elliott

But it is not just the former Eastern Bloc nations that are short of resources. Greece, Italy and Spain are all struggling financially and, therefore, largely are making do with the equipment they have. The region is in something of a financial crisis. Rather than increasing funding, most countries are using the buzzword “efficiency” to hide that some are downsizing and reducing their air-police capabilities.

There remain some countries that are spending money on their assets.

Sweden has recently undertaken a fleet change from the Airbus Helicopters EC135 to the Bell Helicopter 429 in a major program. Their neighbors in Norway are still pondering how future operations will be shaped.

There are active upgrade programs in place for the EC145 fleet in France and for the Netherlands Korps landelijke politiediensten or KLPD – a national police operation born out of joining together existing regional police operations in 1994. Only last month, the police in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg started to dispose of its MD Helicopters MD902 Explorers in favor of Airbus’ H145. The Explorers already have found a home with the police in Hungary, currently operators of the remaining examples of its 25-yr-old MD500E and Mil Mi-2. This allows Hungary to at least move to operating the preferred twin-engine type at an economical cost.

Over the last 20 yr, Britain had a police air service that apparently promised much and appeared to have great capability. It was based on good, well-equipped airframes that were worked to their maximum potential in terms of hours and technical capability. But much of it was an illusion.

This high-quality air asset was spread across 43 police forces, of which most had access to an aircraft. But there was little real cooperation in even role-equipping them. Among a fleet of 30 aircraft, there were perhaps 20 different build standards. As a result, many areas had a nominal service, but availability was poor due to issues in operating hours, communication and maintenance. These often were worsened by individual force pride. The result was that many areas simply did not have anywhere near the air cover that each professed to have.

All this started to change in 2014, when the National Police Air Service was created. This was thought to be a great idea, but was underfunded severely because the primary political aim was to save money rather than to improve the service. Many of the existing aircraft were disposed; others required expensive makeovers in an attempt to achieve a common role-fit standard.

In a major program, the Swedish National Police is replacing EC135s with Bell 429s.Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter

That said, the country does now have a service that offers a true 24-hr capability across the year and across all of the borders that once were a problem. The capability is being provided by aircraft that can now communicate effectively with any control room in the country.

Despite the pressing terrorist issues affecting Europe, there are still far too many operations with outdated ideas on operational issues. A significant number of units still have aircraft that are not equipped with any airborne sensors – let alone the latest ones. Some are still operating in daylight only, and many are using the human eye and a searchlight for night work. They might have sensors, but crews do not understand them, so these devices sit on a shelf somewhere. They are only brought out for special occasions, to be used by operators who are unfamiliar with them.

Too many of these otherwise skilled aviators would be horrified to learn that you can use a FLIR in daylight. That is where we come back to the lack of interaction between units and nations. Most interaction is via English. The pilots speak it and the mechanics can at least read it. But there is no existing requirement for tactical flight officers to be familiar with spoken or written English. Yet they are the ones who are given the tactical role and might need to be aware how to operate mission equipment that comes with a set of instructions in English. R&WI