Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 8 of Session 2004-05, dated 18 March 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"It is simply disgraceful that the MoD has spent a quarter of a billion of taxpayers' money on the botched procurement of 8 Chinook helicopters that cannot be flown because MoD can't determine if they're safe. This is one of the worst acquisitions seen by my Committee.

MoD urgently needs to work out whether the helicopters can be made fit for operations and how much this would cost the public purse, or whether there is any other good use for the helicopters aside from breaking them up for spares.

The Committee was pleased to see, though, that the Joint Helicopter Command has brought clear benefits, reducing the unnecessary duplication of capabilities across the three services when deployed on operations. MoD should now do more to harmonise training practices, examine whether the Army's leaner command structure should become the norm, and look at the value of introducing a single organisation for assessing airworthiness."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 8th Report of this Session, which examined the scope for increased harmonisation in battlefield helicopter support and training; helicopter and equipment shortages; and the procurement of the Chinook Mark 3 helicopter.

In October 1991 the battlefield helicopters of the Royal Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force were brought under a single "Joint Helicopter Command". The Joint Helicopter Command is responsible for training, standards, doctrine, and support for operations. In April 2004, the Department had an overall fleet of 357 battlefield helicopters to operate in support of land, amphibious, and Special Forces' operations.

The Committee found that the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command has avoided the duplication that occurred when the three services deployed their helicopters separately; for example 40% too many helicopters were deployed in Bosnia in 1996 because capabilities were duplicated between the services. The Department can further harmonise training practices and should review whether there should be a single body responsible for airworthiness rather than the three separate arrangements currently used. There are also striking differences in the command structures of the Royal Air Force and Army. In Northern Ireland it takes 77 RAF officers to run 17 helicopters while the Army has 38 officers to run 34: the Department should consider whether the leaner Army command structure should set the pattern for harmonisation.

As regards the number of helicopters, there remains an alarming gap, 20% to 38%, depending on how it is measured, in the numbers of helicopters needed and those available. The Department is no longer proposing to fill this gap and this will potentially increase risks, including the risk of overstretching equipment and pilots.

The gap in helicopter numbers has been exacerbated by the fact that the Department cannot use 8 Chinook Mark 3 helicopters purchased in 2001. The Department failed to specify what its requirements were for independently validating the manufacturers' software codes and cannot assure themselves that the helicopters can fly safely. Only 45 of 100 'essential elements' set out in the Department's requirement were actually specified in the contract. This was one of the worst examples of equipment acquisition that the Committee has seen.

Click here to view Report