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Helicopter blunders hit UK forces

Eight new Chinook helicopters have been grounded due to software concerns.

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Great Britain

LONDON, England -- A series of software blunders and equipment shortages have left Britain's armed forces with a significant helicopter shortfall, an official spending watchdog has revealed.

Britain's National Audit Office (NAO) also said that eight new helicopters worth hundred of million of dollars have been rendered almost unusual because of a botched equipment order.

In its report on the performance of Britain's Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), the NAO said the UK military has less than two-thirds of its required helicopter battlefield capability.

As a result, British forces in Iraq needing to rely on U.S. aircraft for rescue missions, the watchdog said.

Helicopter aircrews also needed more protection from nuclear, biological or chemical attacks, it said.

The NAO said the 38 percent shortfall in battlefield capability, measured by lifting capability, was equivalent to 30 to 40 Chinook transport helicopters.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the shortfall in helicopter capability could not be made good until at least 2017-18.

However, if the MoD follows its own guidelines for rest and recuperation, the shortfall will increase to 68 percent.

The MoD said plans were already underway for a new generation of helicopters to make up the shortfall.

"Many of the recommendations relating to the scope for further efficiencies are already the subject of internal department work," a MoD statement said.

The report also found that Britain's fleet of military search and rescue helicopters was not capable of deploying overseas. British forces in Iraq have been forced to rely on the U.S. to rescue personnel.

However, the NAO said the shortfall had not affected operations in Iraq.

Chinooks grounded

Additionally, the Royal Air Force has been forced to essentially ground eight Chinook helicopters worth £259 million ($476 million) that have been rendered incapable of flying in cloudy weather, the report said.

The helicopters were due to come into service in 1999 but will not be operational until at least 2007 at a cost of £127 million ($234 million) for improvements.

The order for the helicopters was placed in 1995 with Boeing but radar and other software required to fly the aircraft was developed under a separate contract. Those components could not fit into the cockpit, the NAO report said.

When the aircraft were finally delivered in 2001, a new hybrid cockpit system chosen by the MoD was not able to pass United Kingdom Defence safety standards.

This meant the Chinooks can only fly in limited trial flights in cloudless skies with the pilot using landmarks on the ground to navigate.

In other shortages, only 24 Lynx helicopters were deployed to Iraq instead of the mission requirement of 33 because of a lack of sand filters, according to the NAO.

Also, the NAO report said that though biological, chemical and nuclear protection had been rushed to crews operating in Iraq, those standards needed to be applied to the entire fleet.

However, the NAO had praised for the JHC because of "significant benefits" to the British military's helicopter fleet.

The JHC is an umbrella body set up in 1999 to streamline helicopter use by Britain's Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Army.

The NAO report stated the JHC had made progress in eliminating inefficiencies caused by all three services using helicopters.

Britain's battlefield force was "arguably the most capable helicopter force in Europe," the report said.

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