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Helicopter-factory MP: Rather than 22 Chinooks, why don't we have 5? Or none at all?

This is all excellent news for our people on the front line, then. But it's damned bad news for British industry, as the C-17, the Chinook and the Reaper are all made in America. Rather excellently, it seems that Whitehall for once managed to keep its plans secret from the bloodsucking British arms biz - notably by failing to inform the Parliamentary Defence select committee of them. The committee's chairman, James Arbuthnot, is a tireless advocate for the British weapons industry. Had the plans reached the committee, they would almost certainly have been leaked giving the arms biz time to exert its huge behind-the-scenes influence.

But they weren't told and the plans are now set in motion. He's spitting mad, of course: splendid.

Needless to say, the rearguard action has already begun. David Laws MP, representing the town where Blighty's last military helicopter factory is situated, thinks the Chinooks should be built there, not in the States. He also thinks the UK ought to buy more Merlin HC3 troop carriers and less Chinooks.

Just for reference, the idea of building American choppers under licence in Yeovil has been tried more than once. The last time - funnily enough this was a decision taken when James Arbuthnot was defence procurement minister back in the '90s - saw most the British Army's Apache attack helicopters assembled there.

The end effect of this was to make them slightly better than American-made ones - the Brit Apache has more powerful engines, for instance. However, each UK-assembled Apache wound up costing roughly five times as much as an imported one and taking far longer to arrive. Your correspondent recently asked a British Apache pilot whether he'd rather have one UK Apache or five American ones.

"Five American ones," he said unhesitatingly.

As for buying more Merlin HC3s, one should recall that the Yeovil-designed cabs cost significantly more than Chinooks - but carry less than half as much, and have much lower serviceability rates to boot. We shouldn't have bought any in the first place, and we certainly shouldn't buy any more.

If Mr Laws is listened to, rather than 24 Chinooks we would get 5 at most - or even fewer, if some of the painfully-saved cash were indeed diverted into Merlins. Let's hope everyone ignores him as he deserves. Yeovil already has a vast order for shockingly overpriced Lynx "Wildcats", after all - he and his rapacious constituents should be very grateful that hasn't been axed in favour of cheaper, better copters from Sikorsky.

Summarising, then, it's been an excellent week for Blighty's fighting troops and an excellent week for us taxpayers. It's very seldom we find ourselves saying this, but Well Done MoD - and well done politicians for approving these plans.

With a general election coming up, however, we would like to note that this late burst of good work really isn't enough to counterbalance the long sequence of awful defence-procurement decisions by the Brown government. We would, though, point out that the Tories' record over time is every bit as bad, and that Liam Fox - Tory defence spokesman - has failed to give these latest plans the cross-party endorsement they deserve. This indicates that he and perhaps the Tory party as a whole care about the election first and Blighty's defences a long way second.

No matter - for once it's nice to feel, as a taxpayer at this time of year, that one is buying a nice Xmas present for our boys and girls risking life and limb on our behalf far away.

Merry Christmas to any of ours out there who might be reading this. ®

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