UK DEFENCE – SEARCH AND RESCUE – CALLING ON GOVERNMENT TO SCRAP SAR-H BASED PRIVATISATION PLANS
By Howard Wheeldon, Senior Strategist at BGC Partners
08 Nov 11. Nine months since the first attempt at privatising UK search and rescue operations (the proposed SAR-H programme) collapsed in a heap there is increasing concern that the coalition Government remains determined to place UK Search and Rescue capability within a new Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Whilst it is very clear that investment in UK search and rescue capability must be prioritised the prospect of future search and rescue based helicopter operation being placed into private sector hands with civilian crews must in my view be very firmly opposed.
UK search and rescue operations directly employ in excess of 700 military and civilian personnel. Assuming that further extending the life of the twenty-five strong fleet of search-and-rescue Sikorsky Sea King Helicopters currently in service with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy has been ruled out we continue to believe that the better option would be for the government to abandon the idea of a costly and likely high risk PFI and to look at replacing the current helicopter assets with a UK designed and built Helicopter. Given the high regard in which UK search and rescue activities are held internationally and by the many thousands of people whose lives have also been saved over the years by a combination of military and civilian based services we continue to believe that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy search and rescue operations should remain in the professional hands of the military.
That new investment is required in Helicopter assets and in the training of military personnel to operate the services cannot be questioned and this must now be a priority issue for government. However, whatever is to emerge from government over the coming weeks as a potential replacement for the first SAR-H attempt needs to be very much better thought out than the first attempt. It must of necessity take into full consideration the high level of professional commitment of the military crews involved and the serious risk to their own lives. It must ask the question whether the private sector would have similar levels of dedication and commitment. Of course in these more difficult economic times it must also look at the cost of SAR’s based operation to see whether this can be better done in another way or whether some costs should be shared or even passed on. Whatever, at the heart of this argument we should take great care to ensure that the right decision over the future of UK Search and Rescue operation is made rather than going for the off-balance escape route just to avoid up-front funding. Funding is of course hugely important and it does remain a very serious issue. To achieve the desired result may indeed require looking at various other options so at this stage nothing should be ruled out.
At this stage I would express serious concern that losing control and operation of UK search and rescue capability by the military and particularly the all important skills base could have very serious longer term consequences for our armed forces with regard to overseas deployment.
If we are to assume that a replacement SAR-H plan will likely end up being a direct PFI replacement to the previously abandoned ‘Soteria’ consortium bid we are left with no choice but to question what if any benefit UK taxpayers might receive by handing out what would likely be a £7bn plus PFI contract to the private sector. Up to now we have failed to be convinced that any of the suggested figures for the handling of search and rescue operation to the private sector stack up. In addition we continue to believe that pushing search and rescue operation toward private sector involvement that will also we assume shift overall responsibility for its operation from the Ministry of Defence to the Department of Transport would