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9 August 2016 · 3 min read

Common sense in UK defence?

The UK MOD is to buy its new fleet of Apaches directly from Boeing

In my blog last week I highlighted the calamitous processes, and often illogical decisions that characterise defence procurement. However, the announcement during the Farnborough Air Show that the MOD will buy 50 AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopters from Boeing may well be turn out to be one of the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) most sensible decisions yet.

The current UK Apache AH-1 (AH-64D equivalent) has been an outstanding asset to the British Army in both Afghanistan and Iraq. However it was bought at unnecessary cost. The original fleet of 66 Apache helicopters was produced by Westland in Yeovil under license from Boeing. In 1995 it started assembling US built components and added UK modifications that more than doubled the price to about £44m per helicopter. Spare parts were then bought from Westland at a mark up from Boeing’s original price.

The new AH-64E will be bought through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) network directly from Boeing in the US. The UK helicopters will be almost identical to those flown by the US Army and other international customers. The UK will be able to draw on a global supply chain for its new Apache fleet, and will therefore benefit from economies of scale for spare parts.

Whilst UK Apache pilots adore their helicopter, they have become frustrated over the past decade that their Apache has not developed technologically in the same way as the US versions because the UK variant has not been able to incorporate upgrades. The new fleet will be able to benefit from any new software, modifications and weapons that are incorporated into the US fleet. This will not only help keep the aircraft more capable for longer, but it will allow greater inter-operability between the UK, US and other allies who fly the Apache. This benefit will not only be felt by pilots, but by ground troops as well, who will no longer need to worry about whether it is a US or UK Apache overhead as they will be able to network into both in exactly the same way.

Press reports during Farnborough focused on the fact that this probably sounds the death knell for Britain’s ability to build combat helicopters. However, from my external perspective, this looks to be the MOD making a rational decision based on procuring the best equipment at the best possible cost, which is extremely heartening. One further crucial question remains though - who will be awarded the lucrative support and maintenance contracts for the helicopters? Leonardo (formerly Augusta Westland) is the incumbent but Boeing is undoubtedly an option. Political forces will undoubtedly be at play here because jobs at Leonardo’s site in Yeovil are at risk and it will be fascinating to see who wins out. Twenty years on from the so-called Westland Affair when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine clashed over the future of Westland (as Leonado was then known), history may well be repeating itself.

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