Report on MoD’s Chinook helicopter programme

05 March 2009

The Public Accounts Committee today publishes a report examining the MoD's programme to make airworthy eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters.

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

"The story of the MoD’s programme to make airworthy eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters, acquired from Boeing in 2001 for special operations work, has been one of bad decision-making to the point of irresponsibility. The consequences have included a shortage of helicopter support in Afghanistan thereby heightening the risk to the lives of British troops.

"The programme was hamstrung from the start by the appalling decision to buy the aircraft without securing access to their software source code. This meant that the MoD could not show that the cheaper, modified cockpit avionics which it had chosen met UK airworthiness standards and hence that the helicopters were safe to fly. Eight years after they were delivered, the Chinook Mk3s are still sitting in hangers and the cost of getting them into the air is probably going to top £422 million, probably by a big margin.

"The need by our forces in Afghanistan for helicopters for high risk special operations has necessitated fitting the more basic Chinook Mk2 helicopters currently in service there with a bolt-on night enhancement package. This has made the aircraft harder to fly and the use of the package has been judged a key risk to the helicopters’ airworthiness. There is a big question mark over whether it is a risk the department should accept.

"I can’t imagine it will be much comfort to our soldiers in Afghanistan in need now of helicopter support, but the Chinook Mk3 project has thrown up a slew of procurement lessons. Not least, the MOD should minimize the number of modifications it requests when buying off-the-shelf equipment. The long-term consequences of such modifications can be very expensive indeed."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its eighth report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Ministry of Defence (the Department), examined the original procurement difficulties, the Department’s decision-making processes and the impact of the procurement on operations.

In 1995, the Ministry of Defence ordered 14 Chinook Mk2a helicopters. Six of these were retained as Mk2a and have flown satisfactorily ever since they were delivered. The other eight were modified to an Mk3 standard in order to meet a requirement for Special Forces. We examined the procurement of these eight helicopters in our report on Battlefield Helicopters and considered it to be one of the worst examples of equipment procurement that we had ever seen.

The Department has a history of long delays and cost increases within its procurement projects. Even by these standards, the Chinook Mk3 project has been a catalogue of errors from the start. The original contract was ill defined, preventing easy access to software source code that was key to enabling certification for airworthiness. Further operational requirements and difficult commercial negotiations led to a five year period of protracted negotiation and slow decision making under a project known as Fix to Field.

The absence of these helicopters has meant that British troops in Afghanistan have had to make do with fewer helicopters, make an increased number of dangerous journeys by road and, due to the specialist nature of the Mk3, rely on heavily modified Mk2 helicopters for use on high risk special operations. The modification of the Mk2 Chinook cockpit to enable their use in low light conditions was a far from perfect solution and compounded safety risks. These delays have potentially put the lives of British service personnel at greater risk.

In 2007, under mounting pressure to provide additional helicopter lift to Afghanistan, the Department scrapped the Fix to Field project in favour of a new project called Reversion, designed to accelerate the helicopters’ entry into operational service. In assessing the Reversion project, however, the Department failed to consult with Boeing, the manufacturer of the helicopters, with regard to the potential costs or timeframes, and the estimated cost of the project subsequently grew by 70 per cent.

The cost of the eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters once they enter service will be in excess of £422 million, or £52.5 million each. Alternatives that may have been available at the time the original order was placed may have been cheaper than the final costs of these Chinooks.

Image: PA Photos

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