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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 18:12 GMT
Army grounds Apache helicopters
A WAH-64 Apache
The helicopter is based on a US model
Dozens of the Army's new 3bn Apache attack helicopters will be kept in storage for four years due to a shortage of trained pilots, the government's spending watchdog has said.

Eleven of the 25 helicopters so far delivered - out of an order for 67 - have been mothballed in a move described as "wasteful" by the National Audit Office.

The news is a fresh embarrassment for the Ministry of Defence which has been beset by problems with key equipment like the SA80 rifle, the Challenger II tank and the ageing Clansman radio system.


We have more than an entire squadron of attack helicopters sitting in sheds

Bernard Jenkin
Shadow defence secretary
The NAO's report warned that although the Apaches were being delivered on time, a private finance initiative (PFI) deal to train aircrew was three years late.

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch said: "It seems as though the procurement strategy for the Apache was 'buy first, think later'.

"For 11 top-of-the-range Apaches to sit in storage with no pilots to fly them until 2007 because of a bodged PFI delivery is wasteful."

Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin blamed the government for the delays.

Open in new window : Apache helicopter
A graphic guide to the NAO's report

"The delays in this programme mean that we have more than an entire squadron of attack helicopters sitting in sheds. They should be flying by now," he said.

'Reduced effectiveness'

The delay means dozens of aircraft will have to be stored away in hangars while the completion date for the initial training programme for 144 pilots is put back from April 2004 to February 2007.

The NAO warned the delay in training also put in jeopardy the delivery of 16 more Apache helicopters, scheduled for February 2005.

That would reduce the Army's capability, it added.

Contractual problems over the supply of spares could mean the Apaches kept in storage may have to be used for parts.

US Army AH64 Apache helicopter
Training estimates were based on US figures
The initial order for 67 Apaches, placed with Westland Helicopters in 1995, was said to offer the greatest advance in Army effectiveness since the tank.

A separate PFI agreement was reached with ATIL - a company jointly-owned by Westland and the Apache's US manufacturer Boeing - to cover the training.

But delivery of the hi-tech flight simulator was delayed by 17 months, pushing the start date for pilot training from 2001 to September 2003.

A spokeswoman for Boeing told BBC News Online: "We recognise we could have performed better to ensure the simulator was fully operational at an earlier time and we have significantly increased resources to resolve the issue."

The length of the training courses was extended from 15 weeks to 26, because of the 45m helicopter's complexity and the UK's poor weather conditions for flying.

As a result, the NAO said a "large number" of Apaches - some estimates say more than half - will have to be stored away in hangars at RAF Shawbury in Shropshire at a cost of 6m.

Other problems

The head of the NAO, Comptroller and Auditor General Sir John Bourn, criticised the decision to split the training programme from the main contract.

He said: "It is disappointing that because of problems with the training programme the helicopters are not expected to provide a brigade-level capability until February 2007."

The MoD said it had noted the NAO's concerns and steps were being taken to try to reduce the duration of the pilot training courses without compromising the quality.

But there are other problems holding back the Apache fleet.

Both the US and the British have encountered problems when firing anti-tank rockets, including debris hitting parts of the aircraft.

The NAO has disclosed that the first Apache crews will have no secure radio communications with British ground troops or other helicopters - although they will be able to speak to the Americans - because of delays to the Army's Bowman radio system.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin
"The delay is a direct result of the government's decision to privatise"
The BBC's James Robbins
"The delays blunt a revolution in British warfare"
Junior Defence Minister Lewis Moonie
"There are always lessons to be learnt"
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