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18 Nov 03. The FT reported that The Ministry of Defence made “serious mistakes” in buying Apache attack helicopters for the army, delaying their introduction by two years and wasting more than £24m of taxpayers’ money. These are some of the findings by the Commons public accounts committee into the fiasco that has seen 40 of the 67 helicopters put into storage because of a shortage of pilots.

The flaws in the £4bn programme were first highlighted by the National Audit Office last year. The watchdog pointed to blunders by the MoD, including delay in awarding a contract to train pilots, problems with the aircraft’s weapons and advanced radar and the inability to communicate with ground troops.

The report by the committee confirms that the MoD still needs to rectify many of the problems and warns the lack of communications with the ground could lead to friendly-fire deaths. Some progress in training pilots has led the MoD to bring forward an earlier target of when the helicopters will be fully operational by six months to August 2006 but the committee warns enough uncertainties remain to pose a continuing risk to the programme. The training problems arose after the government decided at a late stage to procure the £1bn training programme separately. This led to a two-year delay in placing the training contract. Any further delay in introducing the Apache into service will have serious implications for the army’s capability as it must scrap the current anti-armour weapons on its Lynx helicopters by the end of 2005.

The committee’s criticism will embarrass defence chiefs who have hailed the Apache “as the most significant weapon system to enter service in the British army since the tank in 1916”.

Comment: In a previous incarnation the Editor reported extensively on the contest between Apache, Tiger and Cobra, fought so intensely between BAE, GEC and GKN-Westland. It was apparent from a very early stage that the Apache was regarded a s a must for the Army Air Corps and the contest undertaken to bring the price down. Both GEC and BAE took counsels opinion and were told that they both had a case against the Mod for wasted costs of the bid of £25m each. With the merger of the two companies, BAE was compensated by the contract for the DAS, with its HIDAS product. However during the bidding process the complexities of the Apache as a flying machine became apparent and a number of observers suggested that they were simply too complex for the exiting Army pilots to fly. With limited numbers and very few attrition numbers added to the requirement, the major part of the training was to be undertaken on simulators provided by the joint Boeing/GKN-Westland facility. Even now, as the machine is entering service, a ‘mid-life’! upgrade for the TADS/PNVS system was suggested using the new Lockheed system now on the U.S. machines. We reported in our Parliamentary Questions that this has been delayed, not surprisingly given that there is little use for such an advanced system for a helicopter in storage!

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