Attack helicopters worth £1.2bn will lie idle for years

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A fleet of 67 advanced attack helicopters for the British Army, worth £1.2bn, will lie idle for years because of delays in pilot training, MPs said yesterday.

Members of the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Ministry of Defence for delays which will mean the Apache attack helicopter - one of the most powerful in military use - will not be in service until 2006, which is two years behind schedule.

MPs said that the delay had pushed the cost of the project up by a total of £26m and warned that the delay could leave a gap in the Army's defences after the Lynx anti-tank helicopters are withdrawn from service at the end of 2005.

The committee criticised ministers for signing separate contracts to build the aircraft, and supply weapons and train staff, warning that the two deals were now "out of step", leaving the MoD paying £34m for training courses which were not held. They also criticised as "flawed" a deal to provide spares for the aircraft.

The MoD bought the Apache helicopters from Westland at a cost of £4bn. The helicopters'state-of-the-art equipment allows pilots to read a car number plate from 11 kilometres away and launch missile attacks while hovering out of sight behind buildings or hills.

The committee's report found that the MoD faced a 17-month delay in introducing a new flight training simulator for the helicopters, while officials dramatically underestimated the time it would take to train pilots to fly the new aircraft; from 15 weeks to 26 weeks. The MPs said that the training schedule also did not take account of "the uncertainties of the British weather".

Edward Leigh, the chairman of the committee, said yesterday: "As a result of serious mistakes by the Ministry of Defence in introducing the Apache, the armed forces have not yet been able to benefit from the enhanced operational capability that the helicopter will provide.''

He added: "More than £24m of taxpayers' money has been wasted on additional costs and 40 helicopters, worth over £1.2bn, will sit idle. In introducing future capabilities, [the] MoD must put in place much clearer programme management arrangements and realistic deadlines."

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