Not for the first time in its history has the AgustaWestland Lynx Wildcat been the focus of this website or the media in general, and not for all the right reasons. Lynx Wildcat’s latest foray back into the headlines has been due to vast increase in its development costs. The actual cost of the Lynx Wildcat project has been open question since it the initial budget for the aircraft was announced as £1billion for 70 aircraft; with a mix of both navy and battlefield reconnaissance helicopters. This was then adjusted to 62 aircraft, although the price tag remained the same; with the approximate cost for each aircraft being muted at £14million.
Following recent questions asked in the House of Commons by Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, regarding the costs of Future Lynx, Quentin Davies stated that the total cost is now forecast at a staggering £1.7billion for the same 62 aircraft. Allowing a sundry cost to each unit for spare parts, training and infrastructure etc, this demonstrates a unit cost, including development, in the region of £20-25million. Although the aircraft offers a greater capability over the existing Lynx models, this additional capability does not equate to £1.7billion, and not by a long shot. This also pushes it into the cost realm of the Chinook and Merlin, for a fraction of the lift capability. In this sense Lynx Wildcat is a prime example of the ‘Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns’; but you don’t need a degree in economics to work that one out.
If the Lynx is the one and only answer to the needs of our armed forces, which it isn’t, this beggars the question why the MOD does not simply adopt the existing AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 model that is already in service with a number of foreign forces, including Oman, South Africa and Malaysia; and has been for a number of years. The development costs have already been paid for and although it will not have the systems proposed with the Lynx Wildcat, it will definitely come a very close second. Given the costs involved this would appear to offer greater value for money, plus given its similarity to the current Lynx and it could be brought into service sooner.
Long time supporter of Westlands is David Laws, MP for Yeovil, he gave the following comments to the Yeovil Express, dated 20th July 2009:
It would a disaster for both the armed forces and for South Somerset if there was any attempt to stop Future Lynx from proceeding. It is essential that Future Lynx goes ahead, to replace the existing fleet of Army and Navy Lynx helicopters. The Conservatives just do not appear to understand that we need both Future Lynx and a medium lift helicopter – and in my view this should be the British Merlin helicopter. It would be madness for the Ministry of Defence to think again on Future Lynx, and it would cause yet more uncertainty and delay. This project is already well advanced in Yeovil, and when Future Lynx/Wildcat is delivered it will lead to a big improvement in helicopter capability. We have to find the money to meet all of our helicopter needs, and we should be focusing on reducing the number of helicopter types in service, instead of buying Blackhawk helicopters, as the Conservatives are suggesting. We should in my view concentrate on four main helicopter types – Apache for ground attack; Future Lynx/Wildcat for naval operations, light transport and reconnaissance; Merlin for the Future Medium Helicopter; and Chinook for heavy lift. We should be focusing now on securing extra money from the Defence Budget to buy more Merlins and Chinooks, rather than questioning the much needed Future Lynx/Wildcat.
The above comments come as no surprise as the AgustaWestland factory is in Mr Laws constituency and he would gladly welcome any influx of investment into that locality, but his primary concern is for the manufacturer, not for the end user. What isn’t mentioned above is that the Lynx helicopter has already demonstrated poor performance in Afghanistan and is unable to cope with the hot and high conditions. Our forces therefore, seem to be operating quite well or at least coping without the need for a dedicated Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter (BRH), which was the whole point of introducing Lynx Wildcat in the first place; the role thus seems to be somewhat redundant before it actually gets into service. Battlefield reconnaissance at the moment is carried out through a combination of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) and dedicated surveillance aircraft. The Apache attack helicopters, which the Future Lynx was meant to compliment, seem to be coping quite well without it.
The Lynx Mk 9’s used by the Army Air Corps are currently going through an engine upgrade programme and will undoubtedly be deployed to Afghanistan once back in service. This leaves a very large question mark over Future Lynx as it would be cheaper to simply manufacture additional Lynx Mk 9’s for a fraction of the cost which would still provide a significant proportion of the proposed capability. So, contrary to Mr Laws’ comments, Future Lynx is not ‘much needed’ it is merely ‘much desired’, neither would it be ‘madness’ for the MOD to cancel Future Lynx, nor would it be a disaster for the armed forces if it did, if anything it would make financial sense as there are cheaper alternatives waiting in the wings; alternatives which are manufactured by the self-same company.
As with all defence projects there is a cut-off point where both the MOD and the Government need to accept that a project is no longer financially viable and a cheaper alternative needs to be sought. As an example the United States Government cancelled the RAH-66 Comanche reconnaissance/attack helicopter even though an obscene amount of time and money had already been committed to the project. This goes to prove that merely throwing money and effort at a project will not always guarantee success or result in an effective weapon system, as priorities can quickly change. In addition to this, in these economically difficult times there is also a moral question regarding the expenditure of this nations tax revenue, is it right that we spend vast sums in developing a helicopter which demonstrates only marginal improvements in capability and performance as is the case with Future Lynx?
Despite what politicians may think, the Future Lynx/Lynx Wildcat is not the only game in town as AgustaWestland have a number of helicopters in their product line-up that could be adapted to suit the roles of both reconnaissance and light utility; namely the AW109 or the AW139. Given the sums the MOD seems eager to spend on the development of Future Lynx alone, these alternatives could be modified and militarised for a fraction of the cost and would still help secure the long term viability of the company. Unfortunately AgustaWestland, the MOD and David Laws appear to be somewhat blind to this.
AgustaWestland as a company produce a number of truly exceptional and highly regarded aircraft; however, the fact that no other service in the world has purchased the Lynx as a battlefield helicopter apart from the Army Air Corps must at least say something. All other current Lynx users utilise the aircraft in a maritime role.
In sharp comparison to David Laws, Douglas Carswell MP, may think that the Sikorsky Blackhawk is the veritable panacea to all our support helicopter woes, which it isn’t and acquiring it could possibly make matters significantly worse. However, whatever the outcome of the Future Lynx project, the solution will not be achieved by simply throwing additional money at it. The solution should be achieved by diligent consideration of the viable alternatives and the selection of the most cost effective, this may even result in introducing more than one type. Having commonality between a navy and an army aircraft may be desirable but one shouldn’t be selected to the detriment of the role of the other. Unfortunately the procurement of Future Lynx seems to be more about politics than practicalities, with scant regard to cost or common sense. So, whatever emerges from this morass, given the lives at stake and the costs involved, it had better be worth it.