UK's 'homebrew firmware' Chinooks set to be usable a mere 16 years late

After burning hundreds of millions into the bargain

The Ministry of Defence has started replacing the flight control software on its all-but-useless Chinook Mk.3 special forces helicopters, a mere 16 years after bungled attempts to bake its own software without involving manufacturer Boeing.

Branded "the most incompetent procurement of all time", the Chinook Mk.3 saga began in 1995, as erstwhile Register defence correspondent and editor Lewis Page related ten years ago:

Boeing delivered the HC3s in accordance with the contract, at which point the MoD needed to certify them as safe to fly. (Military aircraft are dealt with by the MoD, not the civil authorities.) After scratching their heads for a while, the men from the ministry decided that their own specially requested modifications meant that the helicopters could not be cleared for instrument flying... The MoD people don't have any reason for saying that the HC3's instrument fit is unsafe; they merely say they can't prove it isn't.

The flight control software had been modified by a third-party firm after the MoD decided it didn't want to pay Boeing the going rate for changes – though until an exposé by The Times in 2009 [paywalled] the official version of events was that the MoD forgot to write something along the lines of "access to flight control software source code for validation testing" into the contract. This was exposed as an outright falsehood, which Boeing apparently went along with to keep its customer sweet.

Amazingly, the MoD decided that it didn't need to involve Boeing in what were basically firmware modifications to a Boeing product. After the military aviation safety regulator, a wholly owned subsidiary of the MoD, refused to sign off on this madness, the ministry eventually backed down.

At the time we reported that the MoD was paying Boeing £90m to downgrade the helicopters into Mk.2s, the entirely successful British Chinook version which flew operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In spite of this the eight Mk.3s have languished around sunny Blighty ever since, being used mainly for domestic training exercises. For years they have been classified as being in the MoD's "sustainment fleet" as opposed to the combat-ready "forward fleet". In January, according to a Freedom of Information response from the ministry (PDF) revealed all of the Mk.3s were at Fleetlands airfield in Hampshire, which is the UK's privatised military helicopter overhaul facility.

They were there as part of Project Julius, which is the name of Boeing's contract to rip out their cockpits and replace them with the new Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS). As Aviation Week reported, it is based on Thales' TopDeck system. The actual work was meant to be done by Vector Aerospace at Fleetlands. DAFCS achieved Full Operating Capability in September 2015, with the RAF's Mk.2 Chinooks set to receive it and be upgraded to Mk.4 status.

An RAF spokesman confirmed to The Register that the eight Mk.3s at Fleetlands in January were "being modified to Mk5 standard," adding that "the modifications were planned upgrades as part of an on-going modification programme."

Sadly the Mk.3 DAFCS upgrade didn't go to plan. Sixty Fleetlands workers were put at notice of redundancy in August last year after Boeing decided to do the cockpit upgrade work in-house, in an apparent row over costs.

In summary, then, the Mk.3 Chinooks which were delivered nearly two decades ago have still not flown operationally, despite being bought explicitly for special forces use. In 2008 the NAO announced the eight helicopters would have cost the taxpayer £422m.

Shortages of helicopters during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost the lives of British service personnel. While the Mk.3s are no longer costing lives, the vast amount of money squandered on them over the last 16 years still hasn't given us aircraft that can be used in battle. The modification to Mk.5 standard essentially brings them back to normal configuration; something that should have been done more than a decade ago, and without wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. ®

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