£160m cost of helicopter delay could linger

It could be at least two years before a far-reaching software fix to the navy’s Sikorsky-built and Guardian-aided search and rescue helicopters is complete. By that time, the maintenance backlog and equipment longevity will…

£160m cost of helicopter delay could linger

It could be at least two years before a far-reaching software fix to the navy’s Sikorsky-built and Guardian-aided search and rescue helicopters is complete.

By that time, the maintenance backlog and equipment longevity will be long gone. The navy and chief of navy staff (CNS) estimates that the issue, which was discovered during the testing of the replacement helicopter, the Comanche, in 2017, will cost £160m ($220m) to settle.

The first helicopters – Comanche 1 and Comanche 2 – were originally expected to be delivered in 2015 but were delayed a further year and are finally scheduled to begin service with the navy this summer. Sikorsky said the navy has taken delivery of Comanche 1 and the navy’s pilot officer training aircraft, EH101, are expected to be handed over in February.

The issue is some of the cost-cutting measures the government has touted under the Project Blueprint programme, which is expected to deliver a surplus by 2020. These include every bomber and some helicopters going for immediate sale with an army of spare parts. However, the focus on cuts as the scope of the military shrinks has been met with criticism from defence analysts.

Fears that “scope creep” in procurement would lead to delays on this and other projects have also been raised by industry. The shortfall in the helicopters could cost UK contractors another £66m a year in maintenance, according to the Royal United Services Institute, who expect the cost to rise as “scope creep” in procurement ensues.

“This is a wake-up call to the government that the procurement system has its weaknesses and relies on limited government support,” said Richard Foster, director of RUSI’s defence and security programme. “It highlights the flaws in a Department for Transport provision of Capability Set Level 1.” The Capability Set Level 1 is a government framework for procuring equipment.

Defence spokeswoman Brendan Chilton said: “The navy is playing its part in delivering on the government’s defence spending plans by deploying highly capable patrol helicopters and used to carrying out search and rescue missions. The programme is running to schedule and is delivering on its schedule in line with industry and government expectations.”

In the absence of a true cost of the issue, industry is hedging its bets. A decision on if it will send out a consultant to examine the entire Helicopter Fleet Work Programme cannot be made until this summer and a report will be produced to review how much cost could be saved from a robust follow-on procurement strategy.

The British media have questioned whether the delays are linked to the decision to buy the Sikorsky-built Hummingbird helicopters rather than the AgustaWestland AW101, which was the cheaper alternative. It is already two years later than anticipated, costing the navy roughly £40m in additional operating costs.

An airframe engineer briefing to senior leaders at navy HQ in Whitehall, on the basis of senior sources who were present, outlined that both options could be pulled in the US-produced Hummingbird option.

In any event, to keep its Flight Safety Record Record Group, the navy has to consider a potentially more costly alternative: the foreign-built Eurocopter EC225 G3. The aircraft is almost identical to the AgustaWestland AW101. However, the G3 would have to be designed and customised and refurbished.

Commenting on the cost implications for the Royal Air Force (RAF), which is due to begin training its Comanche pilots in 2020, the FSA argues: “That order is already worth £800m and potentially more. The final cost of the European helicopter will depend on how much the UK seeks to influence the final hardware design.

“In 2009, there was an extensive competition that started with five helicopters, two of which were Eurocopter helicopters. The Air Force has sought influence in the design of the European helicopter, which will be commercial but supplied by UK owned and controlled AgustaWestland.”

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