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Time to move on from Chinook to the real MoD cock-ups

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Comment The British government has issued yet another damning report into a famous and long-running Ministry of Defence clusterfuck, the case of the Mark 3 Chinook helicopters. Meanwhile, far more expensive procurement errors - in which the chance to improve matters didn't pass by long ago - continue to be largely ignored.

A Chinook on ops in Afghanistan

Not actually the problem child.

The Chinook story is well known. Way back in 1995, the British forces, desperately short of general-purpose lift helicopters, managed to free up some cash in an attempt to get some more. Twenty-two British-Italian Merlins, each capable of lifting about four tons, were ordered - they wound up costing around £35m each (around £750m all up) and to this day are plagued by low availability.

In addition fourteen new American Chinooks were ordered, able to lift ten tons apiece, for £20m each (total spend £280m, a quarter of the helicopter money). Those Chinooks which managed to join the RAF's existing fleet showed good availability, so much so that an RAF Chinook in recent years has been about twice as likely to be available for use as an RAF Merlin.

All this means that Merlins offer about one-sixth of the capability for the same money as Chinooks do. This was known in advance; back in 1995 senior MoD officials insisted on orders in writing before ordering the Merlins, as this plainly offered poor value for money. This has never been widely reported.

What has been widely reported is what happened with the Chinooks. Eight of them were intended for use by the UK's special forces, and the MoD told the manufacturers to kit them out with a customised, unique cockpit avionics fit. Boeing did so, fulfilling the contract spec. At this stage, the MoD needed to certify the special choppers - designated HC3 - as airworthy (the civil aviation authority doesn't handle military aircraft). After much internal wrangling, the MoD decided that it couldn't clear the special Chinooks for instrument flight, meaning that they could fly only in daytime and nice weather. This rendered the HC3s useless, and as a result they have sat in hangars in the UK for the past seven years while the MoD argued with itself about what to do. (The other six ordinary HC2 Chinooks went to war without trouble).

Over the years, various politicians and Whitehall officials have vied with one another in issuing colourful condemnations of the idiotic Chinook HC3 buy. ("The MoD might as well have bought eight turkeys", "the most incompetent procurement of all time", "gold-plated cock-up" etc.) It has become a fashionable target for abuse.

While all this has been going on, the UK has plunged into two large wars in which helicopter lift has not only been a major limiting factor on achieving anything, it has also been the difference between life and death for many of our troops.

The Merlin isn't much good in the hot-and-high conditions of Afghanistan, where only the most powerful helicopters - like the Chinook - can lift a useful load. It hasn't done much good in Iraq, either, largely because of its amazingly low availability - in recent times, the whole fleet of 22 has often been able to deploy no more than five choppers to Iraq. Even these five have suffered 20 per cent downtime. This has on at least one verifiable occasion led to an otherwise unnecessary ground convoy setting out and being hit by roadside bombs, causing the death of Major Matthew Bacon and the horrific maiming of two other British soldiers.

No apologies are offered for repeating the statement of Major Bacon's family, which we gave the last time we covered the shameful state of British military helicopter lift.

Matthew was just 34 ... He was just reaching his full potential and had everything to live for. His life was full of happiness... The real tragedy is that he had been booked to go on the regular helicopter flight between those two places. If it were not for the breakdown because of a fault with the hydraulic systems of the Merlin helicopter that was due to collect him and 20 others from Basra Palace at 7am that morning he would be alive today ... To us, his parents, his brother and his soul mate he was truly a hero.

We cannot imagine how life can go on without him.

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