UK to buy more Chinooks but faces tough budget choices

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The UK is to acquire an additional 22 Boeing Chinook helicopters and a seventh C-17 transport aircraft as part of a £900 million ($1.47 billion) spending package aimed at bolstering its operations in Afghanistan.

But the plans have received a lukewarm response from UK industry, with aerospace and defence trade body ADS warning that "stopgap measures will damage both the armed forces' future capabilities and industry's ability to supply their needs".

Meanwhile, the UK National Audit Office's latest major projects report describes the Ministry of Defence's current acquisition programme as "unaffordable", and warns of a potential funding shortfall of up to £36 billion.

 
 MoD to buy more Chinooks for Afghanistan

Although a contract has yet to be placed for the Chinooks, the MoD says the first 10 heavylift helicopters will be delivered in 2012-13. There will also be extra funding to enhance the capabilities of the UK's General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper long-endurance surveillance unmanned air vehicles, and to improve defensive aids suites and support arrangements for RAF Lockheed Martin C-130J transports.

To provide extra resource for Afghanistan operations, the MoD says it has taken "difficult decisions about areas of defence that are not directly linked to operations", such as reducing the number of service personnel by 2,500 and launching a review into cuts to its civilian workforce.

Other cost-reduction measures include cutting the RAF's fleet of BAE Systems Harriers and moving the remainder to RAF Wittering, resulting in the closure of RAF Cottesmore. Meanwhile, the ageing Nimrod MR2 fleet will be phased out a year earlier than planned - by March 2010 - while the introduction of the new-generation Nimrod MRA4 will be delayed by a year, to 2012.

"We must ensure that we prioritise spending on operations to achieve success in Afghanistan," says UK defence secretary Bob Ainsworth.

The UK's decision to grow its Chinook fleet from 48 to 70 airframes forms part of its Future Helicopter Strategy that the MoD says is aimed at delivering "a 40% increase in the number of lift helicopters available for use on operations in extreme conditions, such as those in Afghanistan".

Rear Adm Tony Johnstone-Burt, commander, Joint Helicopter Command, says: "The superior lift performance of the Chinook has proved invaluable on operations."

Royal Navy/RAF Westland Sea King helicopters are to be taken out of service early and replaced by a combination of AgustaWestland AW101 Merlins and Lynx Wildcats.

Following the planned retirement of the Eurocopter Puma by 2022, the UK's armed forces will operate four core helicopter fleets comprising the Westland Apache, Chinook, Merlin and Wildcat, each numbering 65-75 aircraft.

"It's a sad day when the [Chinook] helicopters requested so long ago are finally announced late in the day almost as an afterthought," says ADS chairman Ian Godden. "So often in the past we have seen programmes accelerated to provide vital services at the detriment to other programmes, causing greater costs and loss of services."

ADS has renewed its call for an urgent strategic defence review and a "refreshed defence industrial strategy".

Meanwhile, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, says: "The MoD has a multi-billion pound budgetary black hole which it is trying to fix with a 'save now, pay later' approach. Bold action will be required to prioritise defence spending as part of the planned strategic defence review after the [2010 UK] general election."