The Ministry of Defence was today accused of a "gold standard cock-up" over the bungled purchase of eight Chinook helicopters which have yet to see operational service almost seven years after the RAF took delivery of them.
While commanders in Afghanistan have been crying out for extra helicopters, the aircraft - which were supposed to fly missions for the Special Forces - have been lying idle in special air-conditioned hangars in the Wiltshire countryside.
A report today by the National Audit Office said that the first of the Chinooks would still not be ready to enter service until the end of next year, while the cost of the programme has doubled to almost £500 million.
At the same time, a stop-gap programme to fit existing RAF Chinooks for special operations was described by the NAO as "sub-optimal" having led to safety concerns among pilots.
The saga began in 1995 when the MoD ordered the eight helicopters from Boeing for £259 million.
They were configured as the high-tech Chinook Mk3, equipped with extra "fat" fuel tanks, night vision equipment, and enhanced defensive aids in order to carry out special operations.
In order to cut costs, however, the MoD ordered a one-off "hybrid" digital-analogue cockpit computer system. But when the RAF took delivery at the end of 2001, they found that it did not work properly.
As a result, the Chinooks were deemed only to be airworthy at altitudes above above 500ft in clear condition when the pilot could navigate by sight, making them useless for special forces work.
It then took more than five years for the MoD and Boeing to come up with a workable "fix-to-field" programme to resolve the problems which would have seen the Chinooks enter service in 2011-12 at an additional cost of £215 million - a process the NAO described as "protracted".
Throughout that time they were kept in climate-controlled, de-humidified hangars at Boscombe Down, where they are subjected to weekly inspections, with a more detailed examination every two years - a process that has cost £560,000.
By 2007, however, the need for more helicopters in Afghanistan was becoming urgent, and so Defence Secretary Des Browne abandoned the "fix-to-field" plan and ordered them to be fitted out as standard Chinook Mk2s.
In contrast to the earlier delays, the new plan was pushed through at speed, with a result that the MoD underestimated the cost, which has risen 70 per cent from £53 million to £90 million.
The MoD is now confident that they will be ready from the end of 2009.
In the meantime, it has fitted a night enhancement package for eight of its existing Chinook Mk2s so that they can be used for special forces operations at a cost of £32 million.
However the NAO said that had not been "fully integrated" into the Chinook cockpit - with the result the visual display screens directly obstruct the pilot's forward view through the windscreen.
Although the aircraft have been certified as safe to fly, the NAO said that some staff were unhappy about the risks involved.
"Senior staff in the joint helicopter command told us that the safety issues surrounding the night enhancement package were among its top concerns," the report said.
While the MoD has now identified funding to resolve the problems, it will not be ready until after 2010.
In all the NAO said that the Chinooks had now cost the taxpayer £422 million, not including the cost of sorting out the problems with the night enhancement package which remain commercially confidential.
Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts which oversees the work of the NAO, strongly condemned the MoD's handling of the whole affair.
"The Ministry of Defence's programme to make airworthy the eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters which it acquired in 2001 for special operations work has been a gold standard cock-up," he said.
"Nearly seven years since they were delivered, the Chinook Mk3s are still languishing in climate-controlled hangers - despite the fact that they are desperately needed on operations in Afghanistan.
"This is a very unhappy state of affairs, made more acute by the knowledge of how much our soldiers in the hostile terrain of Afghanistan need helicopter support."
Defence Equipment Minister Baroness Taylor of Bolton said that the reversion of the Chinooks to the Mk2 configuration was one of a series of steps the MoD was taking to increase its helicopter capacity in Afghanistan.
"The Chinook is the most capable support helicopter in Afghanistan. Based on operational need, the reversion project will allow delivery of more Chinooks to theatre in the shortest time-frame," she said.
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: "Even by the usual standards of MoD procurement sagas, this report really beggars belief.
"It is scandalous that while our troops are desperate for helicopters in Afghanistan, eight Chinooks have been left on the tarmac back in Britain.
"This is a dismal tale of dithering, bad planning, and the gross waste of public funds. It is incredible that millions can be frittered away on bad decisions and yet penny-pinching on other MoD equipment has cost the lives of service personnel.
"The MoD seems to be in a state of meltdown, yet Gordon Brown is offering neither concern nor leadership."Reuse content