Ministry of Defence: Chinook Mk 3 - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  There have been serious shortcomings in the Department's decision-making on the Chinook Mk3 project which have had significant consequences for the timely delivery of the helicopters to troops on the front-line. The Department took nearly five years to decide on the Fix to Field project. British troops in Afghanistan would have had the additional helicopter capability available to them today if procurement decisions had been made more quickly.

2.  The Department fundamentally changed its approach to delivering the helicopters in a matter of days, without an appropriate level of analysis and without going through its established approvals procedures. The Department was so confident that it understood the risks, costs and timescale issues associated with the Reversion project that it did not consult Boeing, the manufacturer of the Chinook helicopters. This confidence was misplaced and the cost of the project subsequently increased by 70%. Its post hoc justification that the Reversion project subsequently passed its regular approvals process is flawed as, once the decision had been made, it would have compounded the operational shortfalls and introduced more delays to have reversed it.

3.  The problems with the Mk3 procurement stemmed from the Department's failure to specify in the contract that it required access to the software source code in order to assess the safety risks and establish whether the helicopters would meet UK airworthiness standards. Given that software is key to the operation of most modern defence equipment, this is irresponsible. The Department should specify access to software as a clear requirement within any contract, especially where access to proprietary software is needed to provide airworthiness certification. The Department should also review its airworthiness approvals process to take into account the safety records of other nations in using similar software and equipment.

4.  In 2003, the Department introduced the Night Enhancement Package as a short-term, urgent operational fix. It will not be replaced until 2009 at the earliest, and the Joint Helicopter Command still assess it as a key safety risk. The Department has to make difficult judgements to balance the safety risk of using capabilities like the Night Enhancement Package against the operational downside of not having it at all. However, the Department should examine whether its acceptance of the risks associated with short-term fixes like the Night Enhancement Package is consistent with the priority accorded to identifying funding for long-term solutions, the duty of care it has to personnel and the principles underpinning its approach to airworthiness.

5.  Scarce Chinook helicopters are being used for basic pilot training because the Department has failed to modify flight simulators to reflect the capabilities of helicopters currently flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. To make better use of its Chinook helicopter fleet, the Department should routinely plan for the simulators to be incrementally upgraded to match, as far as possible, the current capability and equipment specifications of the operational Chinook helicopter fleet.

6.  The scale of the shortcomings on the Chinook Mk3 is not representative of all defence acquisitions, but does highlight some specific areas where the Department needs to revise its decision-making processes. Given rapidly changing operational needs, the Department should:

  • have agile decision-making processes (but this is not an excuse to ignore appropriate governance);
  • work with HM Treasury to establish minimum analytical and data requirements to underpin significant investment decisions;
  • agree with HM Treasury a formal mechanism for waiving these standards on the very rare occasions where operational or other imperatives mean they cannot be achieved;
  • analyse what it is doing differently on the Reversion project and reflect these lessons in the evolution of its existing acquisition processes, and
  • routinely draw on all available sources of knowledge, including industry partners in making investment decisions.

7.  The Department admitted that, particularly when buying existing equipment 'off-the-shelf', it tends to specify too many modifications, when what is needed is equipment that is safe, effective and can be made available for operations quickly. To better inform future decisions on whether to specify modifications to off-the-shelf equipments, the Department should analyse all such recent acquisitions to determine how often technical problems have arisen or costs increased, and whether these outweigh the expected and/or delivered operational benefits.

8.  The Department, working closely with Boeing, has achieved 20% increases in Chinook helicopter flying hours by changing the way the helicopters are maintained. This approach is being used with some success elsewhere in the Department and illustrates the scope to get better value from existing defence assets. The Department should establish knowledge sharing groups, involving those maintaining other equipment fleets and key industry partners, to make sure that successes in one area are shared and applied consistently. To foster this spirit of collaboration, the Department should monitor the rate of year-on-year improvement in helicopter availability to help quantify the effects of innovations as they are introduced.

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Prepared 5 March 2009