MoD to buy 14 new Chinook helicopters in £1bn deal

Liam Fox: "We went into Iraq with too few helicopters... we can't allow that to happen in the future"

The RAF is to receive 14 new Chinook helicopters in a £1bn contract, the Ministry of Defence has said.

The deal, with US firm Boeing, will bring the total force of Chinooks to 60 - the biggest capability in Europe.

Announcing the deal at RAF Odiham, in Hampshire, Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the government was "committed to delivering a top-class equipment programme that is properly funded".

Dr Fox also met personnel that had recently returned from Afghanistan.

Chinook helicopter

  • Aircrew: 4
  • Max speed: 185mph [298 km/h]
  • Length: 51ft [15.5m]
  • Rotor span: 60ft [18.3m]
  • Weight: 50,000lbs [22,680kg] max
  • Range: About 300 miles

Sources: Boeing, RAF, GlobalSecurity.org

The Chinook is vital to Nato operations in Afghanistan, offering support to both British and other nations' forces.

It has room for 54 troops or can carry at least 25,000lb (11,340kg) of freight.

The £1bn contract includes development, building and five years of support.

The first aircraft is due to be delivered in 2013, with all 14 fully operational by early 2017, the MoD said.

Dr Fox said the government deal had brought "reality" to the defence budget, which could now deliver real equipment.

The MoD has been trying to balance the books since last October's strategic defence and security review (SDSR).

The SDSR saw the cancellation of equipment including Nimrod MRA4 reconnaissance planes and the early withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal and Harrier jump-jets.

'Massive step up'

Analysis

This announcement has been a long time coming. The last Labour government first promised to order another 22 Chinooks in 2009 amid intense criticism that the British military did not have enough helicopters in Afghanistan.

In opposition, Liam Fox led the attacks on Labour that Britain's armed forces had been left short. But in government he's been having to answer the difficult question as to whether the Ministry of Defence can really afford it.

In the end he could not go back on a promise to provide British troops with the equipment they said they needed. But he's had to cut the Labour commitment from 22 to 14 new Chinooks. He says it makes military sense given his government's reductions in the number of military personnel. It also makes financial sense given that he still has to find savings in the MoD's budget.

The reality is that the new Chinooks - the workhorse of the British military - will arrive too late to make much of a difference in Afghanistan. Most of the new helicopters will be delivered in 2014/15. All British combat troops will have left Afghanistan by 2015.

But the defence secretary hopes the new helicopters will ensure that the RAF has enough Chinooks for any future conflict. And, just as politically important, that he can't be blamed for the shortages that dogged Labour's last days in office.

Earlier this month, 30 US troops died in Afghanistan when their Chinook helicopter was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade. It was the deadliest incident of the 10-year war.

Aviation expert Paul Eden said helicopters tended to be more at risk from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, as they were flown closer to the ground than planes.

He said Chinooks were not any more at risk from conventional weapons than other types of helicopters, but that some adversaries would regard bringing down a Chinook as the "ultimate" result, due to the aircraft's size.

"People go out of their way to shoot one down," he said.

A spokeswoman from Boeing also said Chinooks were no more at risk from conventional weaponry than other helicopters.

She added that the aircraft had an all-digital cockpit which increased their "situational awareness" so that they could see "more of what might be coming at them".

Mr Eden said the Chinooks were armoured in crucial areas and carried infrared technology that allowed them to see missiles being launched and counter them.

But he said it was harder to evade grenades or simple bullets: "The bullet moves very fast - by the time they've noticed it's been fired they basically could have been hit".

He said pilots had to fly tactically to avoid such weaponry, and Chinooks would often be escorted by aircraft with more firepower, such as Apaches.

Mr Eden said Chinooks were valued for their power, which allowed them to be effective in high altitudes.

He said the CH-47F model ordered by the RAF was "a massive step up in capability".

"In effect it's almost a new helicopter."

The air force also planned to bring some of its older-model Chinooks up to the same capability, meaning it would end up with a "super, super-capable fleet", he said.

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