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

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Just before Christmas, the MoD announced that it would short-circuit the unbelievably tortuous process it was following towards getting the eight custom-ruined Chinooks cleared to fly. It will now take a quick and dirty path, bringing the birds into service from 2009 at an extra cost of £11m each. Some pilots are unhappy with this plan, as new displays will somewhat obscure the view from the cockpit - they'd have preferred a longer-drawn-out route delivering a nicer instrument layout. Tough, frankly. The MoD has had more than enough time to fiddle with those helicopters.

So the eight duff Chinooks will wind up having cost around £31m apiece - still cheaper than a Merlin, still more than twice as powerful, still much easier and cheaper to maintain. The RAF Chinook fleet will continue to be the best, most in-demand, most available, hardest working and most cost-effective helicopter type in British service.

The Chinook HC3 story is a noteworthy cock-up, right enough. Some eighty or ninety million pounds were wasted, and desperately-needed lift was delayed for years. But the Chinook HC3 saga was over last year.

By contrast, Merlin and Westland madness continues. The last MoD procurement chief (and UK arms industry glove-puppet) Lord Drayson decided to sort out the Merlin's awful availability by simply hosing down the Westland factory (now Italian owned, as AgustaWestland) with even more cash, under a "Strategic Partnership" deal. He ordered even more Merlins, too. Not content with that, he also gave AgustaWestland a billion pounds in 2006 - almost as much as the whole 1995 buy - for which the Army and Navy will get a fleet of 70 small Lynx helicopters for £14m each, delivery from 2011.

Just for comparison, Sikorsky took an order the following November from the US Navy for 10 Seahawk choppers, each twice as powerful as a Lynx, for about £6m each. These copters are being delivered now.

The Future Lynx deal is Merlin all over again. If we'd spent the Merlin money on Chinooks in 1995, we'd have more than doubled our Chinook fleet and seriously addressed our lift problems. We could take the Future Lynx money, buy an equal number of Seahawks instead, get them sooner and still have £580m left - with which we could buy another twenty Chinooks, minimum.

Perhaps the National Audit Office should be doing a report into that now, while the Future Lynx deal could still be scrapped, rather than raking over Chinook HC3 yet again. Perhaps the caustic Edward Leigh MP - chairman of Parliament's public accounts committee - might like to polish up a few soundbites on something that's happening now, rather than a cock-up made in the late 1990s.

Of course, that would involve a clash with powerful British industrial interests. There would be political costs. AgustaWestland would fire British arms workers if their ridiculously expensive contracts were taken away. Mr Leigh, the NAO et al would all have a most unpleasant and stressful time if they followed such a course.

But not as unpleasant a time as Major Bacon's comrades and family are having. Not to mention all our other dead and crippled service people, and all their families, and all their comrades in combat overseas right now - all paying the bloody price of missing helicopter lift. ®

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