09 April 2004
A badly botched procurement deal has left the armed services with a £259m fleet of helicopters that can be flown only in clear weather and above 500 feet, the National Audit Office has found.
An extra £127m will be needed to get the eight Chinook HC3 helicopters into service by 2007, 50% over budget and nine years late, says the NAO report, Battlefield helicopters.
Edward Leigh, chair of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee, described it as 'one of the most incompetent procurements of all time'.
He said: 'Instead of desperately needed helicopters, the MoD might as well have bought eight turkeys. They can just get off the ground but cannot fly enough to be useful.'
The new Chinooks were delivered in 2001 but the unreliability of the cockpit software means that they can only be used for limited flight trials. 'There were too many dials to put on the dashboard,' said David Clarke, the report's main author.
The Joint Helicopter Command has admitted that Britain has a severe shortage of helicopter capability. A year ago it reported that 'it has become the norm to double, triple and sometimes quadruple earmark [rotary] assets'.
The NAO confirmed that the deficit in overall helicopter availability is 66% when staff holidays are taken into account. The greatest problem is at sea, with a 87% shortage in amphibious helicopter capability. It is predicted this lack of assets will persist for at least 13 more years.
The watchdog recommends that the current shortfall be reduced by eliminating incorrect specifications and slippages in deliveries.
Otherwise it praised the Joint Helicopter Command for its joined-up approach since taking responsibility for the rotor vehicles of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force in 1999.
The NAO recommends improvements to flight training where army pilots are not meeting their flying targets. A single service to take over responsibility for the airworthiness of craft has also been mooted.
The MoD acknowledged the criticism of the Chinook deal. It blamed increased operational requirements for the shortfalls and said it had 'already conducted a number of internal activities to learn lessons for the future'.