British military helicopters are at risk of crashing while wheels are literally falling off Army Land Rovers thanks to poor maintenance and funding cuts, according to a damning report by the Defence Safety Authority.
The UK watchdog's six-monthly report, published earlier this week, is a blistering look at Ministry of Defence safety systems. Lieutenant General Richard Felton, who recently took post as the director-general of the DSA, took no prisoners in his first report.
He found, among many other things:
- Cuts to the defence budget are causing the irreparable loss of helicopter flying skills
- "Repeated incidents of Landrover wheels falling off"
- Increasing skills shortages within critical frontline engineering trades
- "Embryonic and fragile" safety management systems in RAF flying training units
- A shortage of nuclear-trained personnel in the Defence Nuclear Regulator
- Failures to inspect a naval fuel depot in Singapore for safety led to it being partly shut down
The Joint Helicopter Command has been so badly affected by shrinking defence budgets, caused in part by the large number of super-expensive projects the department is committed to, that flying hours have been slashed across the entire military fleet. Felton explicitly warned that "the risk [caused by lack of regular training] is of Controlled Flight Into Terrain" – in layman's terms, crashing into the ground.
This affects virtually all military helicopter fleets – as well as the Army's Thales Watchkeeper drones, two of which crashed into the sea in undisclosed circumstances earlier this year.
"Fragile" safety systems within RAF training units are particularly concerning as one of the named units is No.6 Flying Training School, responsible for the University Air Squadrons (which tempt students to join the RAF with free flying lessons) and the Air Cadet Air Experience Flight units, in which children aged 12-18 get their first taste of flying with an RAF pilot at the controls.
"This report comes at a time of continued significant change in capabilities, organisations and the way we do business in defence," wrote Felton, warning that the ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review 2017* is "likely to lead to further changes to organisations and potentially outputs, owning to activity reductions".
The full DSA report can be read on GOV.UK.
Currency fluctuations are affecting the MoD particularly badly because virtually all big military equipment programmes are being bought from the US, and thus priced in dollars. The resulting budgetary chaos has caused the MoD to propose cutting vital warships, potentially leaving the Royal Navy unable to defend areas such as the Falkland Islands. ®
*SDSR2017 is not the current defence review's formal name – the MoD seems curiously unwilling to draw attention to its latest round of defence cuts. Defence-watchers are increasingly using the unofficial name to keep the issue in the public eye.