In response to today’s report by the House of Commons Defence Committee into helicopter capability, Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth said:

“We are doing all that we can to get more helicopters to our forces in Afghanistan. We have almost doubled helicopter hours, together with increasing the number of helicopters for operations. The deployment of the Merlins to Afghanistan will mean a further 25% rise in helicopter hours from the end of the year. We are investing £6 billion over the next decade in our helicopter capability. But I will make sure that we will keep looking to see what more we can possibly do.

“However it is not just about buying helicopters, as the report acknowledges. It is also about investing in the training of pilots and ground crews and increasing the availability of spare parts to maintain them. We have made great strides in both to ensure we can improve the helicopter availability for our forces both quickly and sustainably.”

Following a review, the MOD decided that it is not feasible to advance the purchase of the Future Medium Helicopter and forego the Puma Life Extension Programme, without placing unacceptable risk on operational commitments. Our principal responsibility is to our forces on operations.

The planned life-extension of Puma helicopters will give them a major overhaul, with new engines, cockpit and avionics worth more than £300M, to provide a step change in its capability and deliver safety improvements. We are continuing to assess how we can best continue to deliver the capability currently provided by Sea King Mark 4.

The MoD will now consider in detail the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations on all aspects of helicopter capability, and publish our full response in due course.

Background Information

  • Following the completion of its role in Iraq, the Merlins will re-deploy to Afghanistan from the end of this year. Earlier deployment is not possible as we need to ensure our Merlin crews are adequately trained to operate in the challenging conditions of Afghanistan.
  • We are converting the eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters to a support helicopter role. Three will be available for training by the end of this year, enabling the first increase in deployed Chinook numbers from summer 2010, subject to operational requirements at the time.
  • We have also taken steps to increase the robustness of our existing helicopter fleets, including through the purchase of the six new Merlin helicopters from Denmark at a cost of around £175M. These are all now in service, increasing the size of the Merlin fleet by 25%.
  • We have carried out extensive modifications to improve the operational capability of our helicopters, including fitting new rotor blades to some of our Sea King Mk4s in order to allow them to operate effectively, which are performing very well in Afghanistan. And we are now spending around £140M putting more powerful T800 engines into 22 Lynx Mk9 helicopters which, for the first time, will mean that we will have a year-round capability from October 2009.
  • Since Nov 06 we have increased the number of Apache and Chinook flying hours available each month to commanders in southern Afghanistan by 42% and 50%.
  • 15 Chinooks are currently fitted with the improved 714 engine. We have just approved £128M funding to fit the rest of the Chinook fleet with these engines, increasing their ability to operate in the ‘hot and high’ conditions of Afghanistan and providing important flight safety benefits. This programme will start to deliver effect from 2012, with all helicopters fitted by 2014.
  • We will spend around £3.5Bn on 120 new helicopters over the next 10 years and some £2.5Bn on upgrading 200 more. We also lease 67 helicopters at a cost of some £50M per annum.
  • We intend to take forward a significant programme to upgrade the Puma medium support helicopter with new engines and modern avionics. This will greatly enhance the capability, making it one of our very best-performing helicopters in the hot and high conditions in Afghanistan.
  • New procurement programmes include the Future Medium Helicopter which will, on current plans, start to replace the Sea King Mk4 and Puma from 2017 and 2022 respectively.