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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 22:09 GMT 23:09 UK
Chinook helicopters up for sale?

By Paul Adams
BBC Defence Correspondent

The National Audit Office says Britain has arguably the most capable helicopter force in Europe, but how long can such an enviable reputation be sustained?

By its own calculations, the Ministry of Defence is 38% short of its required battlefield helicopter fleet.

When so-called "harmony" guidelines - how much time crews spend on operations, leave and training - are taken into account, the shortfall rises to 66%.

RAF Chinooks
The Chinooks were meant to be in service in 1998
And the situation is not going to improve before 2017 - it could get worse first.

How has this happened?

The government argues, with reason, that a changed strategic environment, with a greater emphasis on ship-to-shore, or littoral, operations, is making additional demands on certain key capabilities.

Helicopters, which facilitate rapid and flexible manoeuvre, are in more demand than ever.

The National Audit Office report suggests ways of improving efficiency, including training, airworthiness processes and rank structure.

Despite the fact that, since 1999, battlefield helicopters from all three services have been brought under one organisation, the Joint Helicopter Command, the Army, Air Force and Navy still operate in different ways.

The blunders involved, which sound almost farcical, have resulted in the purchase of machines that may well be perfectly safe, but have so far proved impossible to certify
And, as the report points out, there are lessons to be learned, too, from the "flawed procurement" of eight Chinook Mark 3 helicopters.

The blunders involved, which sound almost farcical, have resulted in the purchase of machines that may well be perfectly safe, but have so far proved impossible to certify.

For reasons that may have made sense at the time, the contract failed to specify that software and avionics codes should be analysed according to stringent UK defence standards.

The result has been that, since delivery in 2001, the Mark 3 is restricted to limited flight trials and only in cloudless conditions.

For an aircraft designed primarily to be used by special forces, this isn't much use.

'Smart acquisition'

The failure to identify and deal with problems early on in a project's life cycle is a familiar saga.

Other projects which predate the introduction of the MoD's "smart acquisition" policy have caused similar embarrassment.

Problems with Nimrod, the Astute submarine and the Eurofighter are well known.

Fixing the Chinook's problems will cost at least 127m, but it's still not clear if the MoD has the money to do it.

In the midst of a funding row with the Treasury, officials are looking for ways to save money, not spend it.

A more likely option, it seems, is that the unfortunate eight helicopters will be sold to anyone willing to buy them.

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