MoD denies software claims for 'moth-balled' helicopters

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The Independent Online

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) today denied claims that eight Chinook helicopters have not been usable since they were bought in 2001 because of a failed attempt to design its own software for them.

The MoD agreed to buy the Chinook Mk3s in 1995 for £259m but they have been kept in storage since they were delivered eight years ago.

It has always said the helicopters have not been able to be passed as fit for use because officials negotiating the deal to buy them did not ask for the access code for the software used to fly them and Boeing refused to hand the code over once the mistake was noticed.

But the Times reports the MoD never asked for the code because, under pressure from the Treasury, it told Boeing it planned to install its own software, thinking it could save £40m by doing so.

The newspaper reports the software did not work and the Chinooks will now be used as the basic model, without a digital cockpit, rather than the high-tech models they were intended to be.

It quoted a defence insider who said: "The MoD found it couldn't design the software for the Mk3s, as Boeing had warned."

An MoD spokesman said: "The Times articles, today, suggest the MoD deliberately omitted to request cockpit avionic software for the eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters in a bid to save money.

"This is simply not true and we do not recognise the figure quoted of £40m. We have repeatedly admitted we have made errors in the specification of the software package within the contract. This has already been subject of much parliamentary and media comment.

"Problems with the original procurement of the eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters are well documented. Although the eight aircraft were delivered to specification by the contractor in December 2001, there were capability shortfalls which were largely due to insufficient evidence to demonstrate the avionics software met UK Defence Standards - the Chinook Mk3s featured unique cockpit avionics which were a hybrid of analogue and digital systems.

"These aircraft are now being converted to a support helicopter standard to allow them to be fielded as soon as practicable. We continue to make strong progress in this project and test flying the first reverted aircraft began in June 2009 and over 90 test flying hours having already been completed. The first aircraft will be available for training before the end of 2009, enabling the first increase in deployed Chinook numbers from summer 2010, subject to operational requirements at the time."

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said it the MoD had showed "disastrous incompetence" in buying military equipment.

He said: "Shamefully, it is frontline troops, not ministers, who are paying the real price for this Government's failures.

"Bob Ainsworth needs to get his act together and ensure our brave troops have the equipment they need to do their job."

The use of helicopters by British forces and the number of aircraft available to them has been a cause of controversy already this year.

A political row over the provision of helicopters to commanders in Afghanistan erupted during a bloody July which saw a mounting death toll as troops engaged in Operation Panther's Claw.

The ability to transport troops by air reduces the risk of attack from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have claimed dozens of lives.

Earlier this month, the MoD insisted six Merlin helicopters would be "fit for operational use" despite reports they would not be able to fly combat missions due to a lack of armour plating.