UK approves Puma upgrade as helicopter debate rages on

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The UK Ministry of Defence is to approve a major life-extension programme for the Royal Air Force's Eurocopter Puma HC1 transports, as national debate continues over the number of helicopters deployed in support of operations by its armed forces in Afghanistan.

A more than £300 million ($494 million) programme to equip the Puma fleet with new engines and avionics is to proceed, with the MoD having decided that "it is not feasible to advance the purchase of the [replacement] Future Medium Helicopter" instead at this time. The latter procurement is now expected to deliver new aircraft to replace its upgraded Puma HC2s from 2022, and RAF and Royal Navy Westland Sea Kings by 2017.

 
 © Eurocopter
Puma to extend its service with the RAF

The MoD has opted against advancing a proposed Sea King life-extension, and "is continuing to assess how best we can continue to deliver the capability currently provided by the Sea King Mk 4," says defence secretary Bob Ainsworth. The MoD aims to invest £6 billion on helicopters over the next 10 years, he adds, including the purchase of 120 new aircraft worth £3.5 billion, and to upgrade another 200.

One of the RAF's eight stored Chinook HC3s flew recently after undergoing so-called "reversion" work to clear it for use, and the long-range type will be available for operations from mid-2010. Almost £130 million in funds have also been approved to perform an engine upgrade to 25 of the RAF's legacy Chinook HC2/2As, with 15 already having received the modification. The remainder will be completed between 2012 and 2014.

Further measures being undertaken include a roughly £140 million engine upgrade to 22 of the British Army's Lynx AH9s, and the introduction of six ex-Danish air force AgustaWestland AW101 Merlins worth around £175 million. These have boosted the RAF's fleet of the type by 25%, and will enable the service to deploy the Merlin to Afghanistan from late this year.