A multimillion-pound decision by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to purchase Chinook helicopters without securing access to key software code, may have risked the lives of troops in Afghanistan, a group of MPs has said.
Eight transport helicopters, purchased from Boeing in 1995 and delivered in 2001, have remained grounded for eight years because of cockpit computer system problems.
In a damaging report, the Committee of Public Accounts said the Chinook Mark 3 programme had been hurt from the very start by "bad decision making to the point of irresponsibility".
By failing to specify in the contract that it required access to software source codes, the government was unable to assess the safety risks and establish whether the eight Boeing Chinook Mk3 helicopters were airworthy, the PAC said. This kept the helicopters out of service, and left special forces troops in Afghanistan fighting without proper air support.
"Given that software is key to the operation of most modern defence equipment, this is irresponsible," said the report.
In “one of the worst examples of equipment procurement that we had ever seen”, the PAC said the government had attempted to upgrade the helicopters for use by special forces in Afghanistan, but ended up with a mix of digital and analogue systems that did not work effectively together and prevented the helicopters from entering service.
The cost of the programme spiralled from £259 million for the eight Chinooks, to more than £422 million by changing the systems to bring the helicopters into service. The PAC added that MoD failed to consult supplier Boeing before making a decision on cost and timeframes.
Special forces troops were left using “heavily modified” Mk2 helicopters in the interim, potentially putting lives at risk, the PAC said.
Defence minister for equipment and support Quentin Davies, said the report offered “nothing new” and insisted the government had learnt its lessons.
He added: "We have fundamentally changed our methods of doing business, but this episode will remain a salutary example to us all.
Davies added that the MoD had flying hours and helicopter numbers in Afghanistan by 60 percent over the last two years.
Richard Bacon MP, a member of the committee, accused the government of a “bargain bin mentality”, which involved trying to cut costs on technology without thinking in the long term.
Its “bizarre” specification demands meant the Ministry of Defence “now has eight helicopters that still cannot fly on a cloudy day and have still not entered service,” said Bacon.
The Chinook helicopters have been riddled with controversy since their introduction to UK forces in the 1980s. In 1994, an RAF Chinook helicopter crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, killing all 29 people who included Northern Ireland counter-terrorism experts.
Since then, the two pilots were blamed posthumously and officially for the incident, but there has been a ongoing dispute between the government on one side, and some MPs and victim's families as to whether the crew were at fault or whether there was a separate software failure, with the engine control system.