MoD to increase Chinook fleet

UK defence secretary Bob Ainsworth announced today that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is to give a major boost to the military helicopter fleet with the provision of 22 new Chinook helicopters.

The first 10 new Chinooks will start to roll off the production line in 2012 and be completed in 2013, increasing air support on the front line in Afghanistan.

The Chinook fleet in total will increase in size from 48 to 70 airframes, which will include eight Mk3 Chinooks and replacements for two Chinooks lost on operations.

The announcement is part of a new Future Helicopter Strategy that will deliver a 40 per cent increase in the number of lift helicopters available for use on operations in extreme conditions, such as those in Afghanistan.

The new strategy will see the ageing Sea Kings, which the Royal Navy and RAF currently use, being taken out of service early. The navy’s future helicopter requirements will be met by a combination of the Merlin fleet and new Wildcats.

The army will also operate Wildcats alongside the Apache. It will mean that following the retirement of Puma from 2022, the UK’s military will operate four core helicopter fleets of Chinook, Apache, Wildcat and Merlin, with around 65-75 of each aircraft.

News of the strategy comes as a report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) pours criticism on MoD programmes for being unaffordable.

The report warns that the MoD’s short-term approach of reducing equipment on some projects and taking the decision to cut others will lead to long-term deficit increases.

According to the NAO, in 2008-09 costs on 15 defence projects increased by £1.2bn with two thirds of this increase directly due to decisions to slow projects.

The MoD has also taken the decision to save £194m by reducing Lynx Wildcat numbers by 23 per cent, from 80 to 62 helicopters, cutting planned flying hours by a third.

The NAO claims that unless the MoD addresses the underlying budgetary and governance issues it will not consistently deliver value for money or the operational benefits.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: ‘The MoD has a multi-billion pound budgetary black hole that it is trying to fix with a “save now, pay later” approach.

‘This gives a misleadingly negative picture of how well some major projects in the MoD are managed, represents poor value for money and heightens the risk that the equipment our armed forces require will not be available when it is needed or in the quantities promised.’

Ian Godden, chairman of A|D|S, the UK’s AeroSpace, Defence and Security trade organisation, said: ‘More helicopters for our troops in Afghanistan are of course welcome – but as ever, we have to question at what cost this will be to the armed force’s future capability.

‘So often in the past we have seen programmes accelerated to provide vital services at the detriment to other programmes causing greater costs and loss of services, and there is a very real fear that this will result in the same.

‘Today’s announcement is like painting over the damp patches in your house, giving a superficial fix to a far deeper problem that will only re-emerge later and in a far worse condition.’