In the letter, Blundell asserts that the report is a “detraction from a program that continues to make good progress toward full service capability. This includes our expectation of imminent release to service from the [Defense Ministry] to begin air-to-air refueling operations ahead of substantial buildup of capability throughout this year and next.”
Three Voyagers have entered service with the RAF, but they are only cleared for use in the air transport role because of issues with their hose-and-drogue refueling system. After problems were discovered with the basket, AirTanker says a new one has been “trialed and successfully tested and is waiting for 'paper' approval from the [Defense Ministry].” The company says it expects this “imminently.”
The NAO report also focused on helicopter lift, in particular updating of CH-47 Chinook avionics and the introduction of the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat. Project Julius is a £280 million effort to achieve a common avionics standard among the 46 Chinooks now in operation with the U.K. armed forces and the 14 extra aircraft ordered from Boeing. Due to delays in the software integration process for the Thales TopDeck cockpit, officials pushed service entry back 19 months to April 2013 from September 2011. However, the first Julius aircraft were able to reenter service last summer and were deployed to Afghanistan in December, reducing the delays by 10 months.
Introduction of the Wildcat into British Army service has been shifted to August 2014 from January 2014, while the naval version is still expected to enter service in January 2015.
Less clear, though, is progress in co-developing with France the naval Wildcat's primary weapon, the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon (FASGW) (Heavy). According to the NAO, decision points for the new weapon, which will replace the Sea Skua anti-ship missile, were delayed last year because of the need to secure approval from France.
“Discussions are still ongoing, but are dependent on the outcome of the French government's spending review that is currently being undertaken,” the NAO says. “There will now be at least a 19-month gap between the existing capability leaving service and the new missile being available.” The NAO adds that the Defense Ministry is examining whether it can extend the life of the Sea Skua until the FASGW weapon is operational.
The in-service date of the new Meteor air-to-air weapon has been pushed back to June 2017 because of delays in the completion of the Eurofighter Typhoon's Future Capability Program 1, which is now expected to enter operation in December 2013, boosting the type's multirole capabilities in the air-to-air and air-to-ground role.
Meanwhile, costs for the development and introduction of the Queen Elizabeth II-class aircraft carrier also increased by £217 million between 2011 and 2012. The NAO points out that the increased expenses are a result of the ministry and industry “having greater understanding of the costs and not being able to fully deliver agreed cost-reduction opportunities.”
Amyas Morse, NAO comptroller and auditor general, says the Defense Ministry “faces a difficult task of striking a balance between delivering the capabilities it wants and those it can afford. There will always be factors over which [it] has limited control, but it must do more to learn from previous projects.”
While the NAO report focuses on program management problems, several former senior commanders have expressed concern that defense is seen as a “sacrificial lamb,” suffering larger cuts to meet austerity measures than other government departments.