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Military Aircraft: Helicopters

Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether any (a) replacement lifting gear and (b) temporary alternative arrangements were considered for those Chinook helicopters in theatre which had their winches removed. (183612)

I will write to the hon. Member

Substantive answer from Bob Ainsworth to Ann Winterton:

My Rt hon. Friend the Defence Secretary undertook to write to you in answer to your Parliamentary Question on 19 February 2008, (Official Report, column 569W) about replacement and alternative winches for Chinook helicopters. I am sorry that it has taken so long to respond.

Researching the answer to this question has required an examination of detailed Supply Chain records to provide information on the question of the availability of specific items of lifting gear within theatre. Regrettably, this work took longer than expected.

I have taken your question to arise from the incident in Kajaki, Afghanistan in September 2006 during which Corporal (Cpl) Mark Wright GC was killed. This incident was the subject of an internal Board of Inquiry (BOI), the results of which were given to the next of kin of those involved. The BOI found: that a number of British soldiers entered an unmarked minefield; that multiple mine detonations over a short period of time followed; and, that the injured were eventually extracted by a US helicopter. The BOI also found that the arrival of this helicopter was delayed by mechanical problems, and although a British Chinook helicopter arrived at the scene earlier it did not attempt to extract the soldiers, in part, because it was not fitted with a winch—all such items having been withdrawn from the Chinook force some months earlier.

The BOI concluded that no winches were available for the Chinook but the more recent Supply Chain investigation found that not all winches were affected by the maintenance issue that resulted in those fitted to Chinooks in Afghanistan being withdrawn back to the UK. In fact, a small number were available to the Chinook force at around the time of the Kajaki incident.

On first inspection it seems odd that winches could have been available to the Chinook force but not deployed forward immediately to replace the winches which were recalled. This seems particularly odd in the light of the media reporting that had the Chinook which was called to assist in the incident had a winch, it would have been able to rescue those trapped in the minefield.

The reason that the replacement winches were not deployed forward immediately can be explained by the fact that, in September 2006, there was no formal requirement for UK Chinooks in Afghanistan to be fitted with winches. Chinooks have “role equipment” which can be taken off or put on the airframe as and when it is considered necessary by the military chain of command. The aircraft that went to Afghanistan did have winches already fitted when they deployed but without a formal requirement for them, once the winches had been removed there was no immediate pressure to replace them, and there were no requests from the military chain of command in Theatre for the winches to be replaced.

This can be further explained by the fact that using helicopters to extract personnel from minefields is widely recognised as being an extremely hazardous undertaking, only to be used in exceptional circumstances; our preferred approach to minefield extraction is either through the use of Explosive Ordnance Disposal assets or through self-extraction using techniques in which all deployed personnel are trained. Given this, it is understandable that no Standard Operating Procedures existed in theatre at the time governing the use of Chinook helicopters in extracting injured personnel from minefields, and that Chinook crews are not routinely trained in winch operations in such circumstances. Indeed, the Chinook crew involved in the incident has confirmed that, even if a winch had been fitted to their Chinook they did not consider it safe, either for those on the ground or in the aircraft, to attempt a winch extraction.

It is worth pointing out however that even though the UK Chinook fleet at the time did not have a formal requirement for winches there was a winch capability available to UK forces in Theatre. Coalition helicopter assets were pooled and winch capability was available from US assets—through both a US Combat Search and Rescue capability with a HH-60G helicopter, and a US Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) Team, also with a HH-60G. And it was the US Combat Search and Rescue capability which successfully extracted Cpl Wright. That it did so successfully was testament to the ability and courage of the crew who the Board of Inquiry found “acted with complete disregard for their own safety.” In fact, this was such an exceptionally brave manoeuvre that their actions were recognised by Her Majesty with a Queen's Commendation for Bravery in the Air.

Thus there was an available winch capability in theatre but not through a formal requirement placed upon UK helicopter assets, and replacement winches were not requested. Moreover, the introduction of other temporary alternatives would not have been a practicable proposition as they would have required detailed testing to be carried out and appropriate clearances to be obtained; a process which typically takes approximately six months to secure.

You would wish to be aware that all Chinooks, Merlins and Sea King helicopters deployed on operational Immediate Response Team tasks now have a winch capability to provide greater flexibility of response to the different kinds of incidents they face.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many of each type of helicopter are planned to be in service with each armed service in 2020. (210087)

Given that the majority of the helicopters in our current fleets have out of service dates prior to 2020, and that investment decisions are yet to be taken, it is not possible to predict with any certainty the number and type of helicopters which will be in service in 2020.