MoD ordered helicopters that cannot fly in clouds

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The Ministry of Defence was blamed by MPs for "one of the most incompetent" supply deals of all time yesterday after auditors revealed that a fleet of helicopters costing £259m cannot be flown.

A report by the National Audit Office showed that concerns over cockpit software mean eight Chinook HC-3s cannot be deployed in cloudy weather and have been grounded.

Making them operational will cost the taxpayer an additional £127m. They are expected to come into service in 2007, nine years behind schedule.

The inquiry also discovered that almost half of the Lynx helicopters needed for the Iraq war could not be used because of a failure to obtain enough sand filters. The mistakes have meant the British military is short of a third of the battlefield helicopters needed.

There is also a shortage of pilots. But while non-commissioned officers fly helicopters in the Army, the practice is shunned by the RAF and Navy.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee described the purchase of the Chinooks as "one of the most incompetent procurements of all time".

When placing the order, the MoD had failed to ensure that the software necessary to check the aircraft met United Kingdom safety standards had been secured. There was particular sensitivity because of a Chinook HC-2 helicopter crash in 1994 in the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland, which killed 29 people, including some of the most high-ranking anti-terrorist experts in Northern Ireland, in June 1994.

The helicopters were delivered in June 2002, four years' late, without the inclusion of 45 out of 100 "essential elements" deemed necessary to operate them. It was decided, because of safety worries, that they cannot be flown if there is a cloud in the sky. The Government has now renegotiated, at a cost of £127m, a deal with the manufacturers for the software needed to check whether the flight instruments in the half-digital and half-analogue cockpit are safe.

However, the technology is now more than a decade old, of a different generation, and engineers may have to be brought out of retirement to carry out the work. That will also take another three years, and, the NAO report points out, there is no guarantee of success. The MoD ordered the Chinook HC-3s in 1995. However, it soon became clear that all the specifications demanded would not fit into the existing cockpit.

One solution would have been to adopt a fully digital cockpit, as ordered by the Netherlands Air Force but that would have exceeded the budget and the decision was taken to go for a hybrid digital/analogue cockpit.

The report states: "A key issue is that the Chinook HC-3's unique, hybrid digital/analogue cockpit is reliant on software to operate. However, the contract did not specify the software documentation and code for avionics systems should be analysed in accordance with UK defence standards in order to demonstrate the integrity of the software.''

The use of Lynx helicopters during the war in Iraq was restricted to 12 instead of the desired 23, because sand filters, which take three months to manufacture, were not ordered until the eve of the conflict. An earlier NAO report on the Iraq war had found one of the reasons for late orders of arms and equipment was that the Government did not want to reveal it was preparing for an invasion.

Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "The MoD simply does not have enough helicopters. It has less than two-thirds of the capacity it needs ... The MoD has made a bad situation worse with one of the most incompetent procurements of all time."

Defence procurement disasters

¿ £205m wasted on the Trigat anti-tank missile system, abandoned after the procurement of US-made Apache helicopter gunships meant it was unnecessary as the helicopters had their own weapon systems.

¿ The Merlin helicopter, which came in five years behind schedule and £800m over budget. The Merlins were bought to replace the Sea Kings which first flew 30 years ago. Tiny cracks in the Merlins' airframes are reported to have cost millions to repair.

¿ Repeated delays, eight years, on the £2bn Bowman radio, to replace the 30-year-old Clansman system. It has been claimed that if it was available last year it could have saved six military police killed by a mob in Majar al-Kabir in Iraq.

¿ The SA-80 rifle needed 82 modifications at a cost of £80m. Special forces refused to use it. They were bought in 1986 for £384m but repairs had to be carried out immediately after triggers jammed, bayonets snapped and magazines fell out.