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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Insider Chat: UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox

UK Defence Secretary Dr. Liam Fox talked briefly to Rotor & Wing during his visit to RAF Odiham in Hampshire, UK, while announcing the acquisition of 14 additional Chinook helicopters for the Royal Air Force.

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

At the end of August the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary, Dr. Liam Fox, confirmed a long-awaited contract with Boeing for a further 14 CH-47 Chinook helicopters for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The confirmation came during a visit to RAF Odiham in Hampshire, the home of the UK’s CH-47 Chinook fleet.

This order is for 14 new aircraft, which includes two replacements for helicopters that were destroyed while on operational service in Afghanistan. The additions will bring the total number of Chinooks operated by the RAF to 60 (the largest fleet in Europe). Fox stated that is was still being decided if the whole force would be located at RAF Odiham. There was a suggestion that some could be positioned at RAF Benson for training, as that air station plays host to the Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility (MSHATF), which has six fully configured flight simulators for CH-47 Chinook, AW101 Merlin and Puma helicopters. The facility, opened in 1999, operates under a 40-year Private Finance Initiative with the government.

The new British Mk 6 Chinooks (similar in build to the CH-47F) will feature a digital flight control system (DFCS) but will retain the Thales TopDeck cockpit that has been set as standard throughout the UK’s fleet. The UK’s aim is to bring its entire Chinook fleet up to a digital standard through its ongoing Project Julius.

RAF will receive the first of the new aircraft in 2013 and those will enter service in May 2014. Three will be operationally deployable by early 2015 with all 14 operational two years later.

Speaking to Rotor & Wing during the event, when asked the government’s perception of the role that helicopters play within the UK armed forces structure and where the Chinook fleet was positioned within that, Fox said: “Apache in Libya [has been] extremely effective and gave us another military element in terms of the choices that we had. We [also] have the ongoing contribution [of rotorcraft] in Afghanistan and Chinook makes a disproportionate contribution to that. We felt it was necessary as we move towards the Future Force 2020 as we set out in the SDSR [Strategic Defence and Security Review] to examine what our priorities would be and Chinook was one of those priorities. That is why we have gone ahead with the contract at over £1 billion.”

Turning to the future of the UK’s WAH-64D (Longbow) Apaches, built by AgustaWestland under license from Boeing, there remains the vexing question of how the UK’s Army Air Corps fleet of 60 attack helicopters will be able to benefit from the Boeing’s Block III upgrade program.

I asked Dr. Fox if the Ministry of Defence was aware of the developments being made and whether the UK would be able to have its own version of the U.S. Army’s AH-64D (Longbow) Block III.

“It is something that we will evaluate and see if it gives us the capability that we require and if it does, if it is also within the budget we have set out,” he said, adding, “I have been very clear from the outset that we are going to learn to live within our means and we cannot recreate the abominable black hole that we inherited from the previous government. That is why I was not willing to make the announcement on Chinook until I was clear that we had the funding right through to 2020 to make it a reality and it wasn’t simply a wish list. So our armed forces can be confident that when we say that we are ordering equipment the money is there and we can deliver on time for them.”

The UK’s Coalition government has not been shy in cutting back on the UK’s defense budget. However it was left with a 10-year defense budget that was dramatically optimistic and underfunded by the previous long-serving Labour government.

On July 15, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its Report of the Comptroller and Audit General on the 2010-2011 Accounts of the Ministry of Defence (known as ‘the Department’). It stated that: “The Department has recognized ... that a significant gap remains between the anticipated cost of the Defense Program, and the likely available funding; prior to the SDSR the funding gap through to 2020 was quantified as £38 billion.”

This Labour government ‘black hole’ has been reduced by the Coalition government although current reports suggest it is still £5.3 billion short of balancing the books. With this in mind, although the Chinook order has been confirmed, there are still several outstanding issues to be overcome, not least the replacement of the Sea King force (which also hinges on the next steps in the SAR-H saga—the program to replace the current search and rescue helicopter force with a PFI contractor).

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