Royal Navy forced to ground 44 Lynx helicopters

The Royal Navy has been forced to ground 44 of its frontline Lynx helicopters for up to a year after the discovery of serious fatigue in its main rotor.

The decision leaves the Navy with only 15 Lynx helicopters in use. It also poses serious questions about the security of the Navy's 20 frigates and destroyers, since the Lynx's main role is to defend the seas around fleets during wartime.

The announcement is the latest in a series of embarrassing disclosures about the armed forces' readiness and the state of its equipment.

Concerns about the capabilities of two of the Army's main machine guns have emerged recently. Earlier this week, it was also revealed that munitions for Kosovo were close to exhaustion and morphine sent to the Balkans was near its use-by date.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said last night the fatigue was discovered after a Royal Netherlands navy Lynx crashed last year. Engineers discovered that the "monoblock" for the main rotor blade had an "unforeseen fatigue problem".

The fatigue affected the titanium blocks fitted to 44 British naval Lynxs. The remaining 15 helicopters use a different design and are not affected.

The MoD and GEC Westland Helicopters, which will help to repair the helicopters, face a significant problem in finding enough titanium quickly enough since the metal is very scarce.

The MoD spokesman admitted that it could take at least 12 months to return all 44 helicopters into service. He was also unable to estimate how much the repair programme would cost.

"The prime reason for taking them out of service is safety. We're not going to risk our pilots.... The main thing is to ensure that these aircraft are made properly airworthy and the crews are able to fly them safely in future," he said.

* An aerospace factory is to close with the loss of hundreds of jobs following a business review, workers were told today.

GKN Westland Aerospace said work at its Avonmouth site near Bristol would be transferred to other plants at Cowes on the Isle of Wight and Alabama in the United States later this year.

There will be some opportunities for workers to transfer but a "significant" number of redundancies is expected.