Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 11:01 UK

MoD accused of Chinook 'cock-up'

RAF Chinook

The Ministry of Defence has been accused of a "gold standard cock-up" over eight helicopters which have cost 422m but have yet to fly for the RAF.

Commons public accounts committee chairman Edward Leigh said the Chinooks had been "languishing" while troops in Afghanistan needed aircraft.

They can only be used in clear conditions at altitudes above 500ft, so are useless for special forces work.

The MoD said it is confident they will be ready from the end of 2009.

A National Audit Office report says a string of problems have seen their 259m cost soar since delivery in 2001.

It announced last year that the helicopters, which are modified Mark 3 (Mk3) Chinooks and were first ordered in 1995, are to be "reverted" to standard Mk2/2a models to get them to the field quicker.

In the meantime, the MoD has added night-vision equipment to some of its standard Chinooks to enable them to carry out the sort of special forces missions the new Mk3s were intended for.

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
Edward Leigh

But the NAO says the stop-gap fix has raised serious safety fears as staff say the equipment reduced pilots' normal visibility.

Defence Equipment Minister Baroness Taylor of Bolton said the reversion of the new Chinooks to the Mk2 configuration was one of several steps the MoD was taking to increase helicopter numbers in Afghanistan.

She said: "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.

"It is one of several steps being taken to increase helicopter lift capability for operations including the acquisition of new state of the art blades for Sea Kings.

"The total amount of flying time for all helicopters, including Chinooks, has increased by a third since March 2007."

Mr Leigh, whose committee oversees the work of the NAO, strongly condemned the MoD's handling of the whole affair.

He said: "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.

"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."

The aircraft were originally ordered by the MoD in 1995 at a cost of 259m.

Cockpit software

They were delivered in 2001 but have been beset by problems with their cockpit software and have been confined to special air-conditioned hangars in Wiltshire.

Efforts to rectify the problems were abandoned last year when the government decided it was more important to increase the number of basic helicopters available for operations in Afghanistan.

The NAO says work to "revert" them to standard Mk2/2a Chinooks is proceeding well, though the cost has soared from 53m to 90m.

This is in addition to the 32m the MoD has spent on its stop-gap solution of fitting infrared night-screens to existing aircraft.

The MoD says it has earmarked funds for resolving the safety fears associated with the screens but this will not be completed until after 2010.

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