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Armed Forces: Future Rotary Wing Strategy

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2009


My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Bob Ainsworth) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am today announcing a new strategy that will see the Ministry of Defence deliver increased levels of helicopter capability for our Armed Forces. The strategy’s priority is support to operations, and through it we will deliver, by 2016, an increase of some 40 per cent in the number of helicopters suitable for deployment in hot and high conditions, such as Afghanistan.

At the heart of the strategy is the procurement of an additional 22 new Chinook helicopters, with a further two expected to replace those that were destroyed in Afghanistan this summer. The current Chinook fleet has seen continuous service on operations over the last 20 years, and it has performed superbly in Afghanistan. It is a proven capability that is highly regarded by those who fly it and troops who use it. Delivery of these aircraft will not only mean more aircraft able to operate in the kind of conditions seen in Afghanistan but also a significant increase in the overall lift capacity of our helicopter fleet. We anticipate delivery of 10 new-build Chinook during the course of 2012 and 2013, including two to replace the aircraft recently lost in Afghanistan. The proposed investment in these new Chinook builds on the £400 million that the Ministry of Defence has invested this year to improve the operational performance of the existing Chinook fleet by delivering enhanced engines and cockpits.

Beyond increasing levels of capability, our other main focus has been on simplifying the delivery of helicopter capability. As the HCDC set out in its recent report, Helicopter Capability [HC434], the optimum means to achieve efficiencies is through reducing the number of different types of helicopter fleet; with each fleet type comes an associated support cost overhead and training cost. The new strategy will enable the department to reduce the number of fleet types.

We aim to remove all marks of our Sea King fleet by 2016, with its roles to be delivered by our Merlin helicopter fleet or, in the case of UK peacetime search and rescue capabilities, by a joint private finance initiative service that we intend to provide with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. To enable this transition, we intend to capitalise on our past investment in Merlin and its over-water capabilities and safety features, including by modifying our Merlin Mk3/3a helicopters to enable them to operate effectively from amphibious shipping as well as continuing to contribute to our battlefield lift requirements.

The £300 million Puma Life Extension Programme, which will deliver a step change in the aircraft’s capability, will proceed, delivering vital battlefield lift capability for operations alongside Chinook until at least 2022. Beyond the retirement of Puma, we intend that the Ministry of Defence will operate four broadly equal-sized core helicopter fleets comprising Chinook, Apache, Wildcat and Merlin, with much smaller niche fleets for specialised roles. As a result of the measures set out above, we do not intend to proceed with the Future Medium Helicopter competition.

We anticipate that the reduction in fleet types will produce substantial through-life cost savings over the next decade and beyond. We are also exploring the possibility of further benefits that might arise through, for example, estate rationalisation and the more efficient delivery of training solutions.

Although the major components of this strategy will be subject in due course to separate investment decisions, the new approach represents excellent news for the overall helicopter capability available to our Armed Forces and provides industry with a clear vision of our investment priorities over the coming decade against which they can align their resources. While a significant percentage of the planned investment will be made on a US product (Chinook), we anticipate that much of the investment required to deliver other elements of the strategy will be made in the UK, supporting UK jobs, and sustaining essential onshore skills as well as delivering value for money.