Minister for Defence Procurement speech at the International Military Helicopter Conference - 27 February 2024

Minister for Defence Procurement's speech on the New Medium Helicopter at the International Military Helicopter Conference

James Cartlidge MP

On the subject of medium helicopters as it were, as you know, they’ve been involved in almost every operation of significance for decades, ferrying troops and supplies under fire in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan and evacuating casualties, helping NATO restore peace to the Balkans, saving countless lives with humanitarian aid from Mozambique to the Caribbean, and moving our diplomats around Kabuk when travel by road was too dangerous. And they have been in a constant state of readiness in a counter-terrorism role.

Now over the decades, UK Governments have commissioned, procured and upgraded numerous platforms including many iconic names that you’re all very familiar with, from the Scout in the 1950s, the Sea King in the 1960s, the Lynx, Puma and Gazelle in the 1970s to the more recent Wildcat and Merlin, and I’ve had the privilege of flying in a number of them, recently aboard one of our Wildcats flying to Yeovilton to see how artificial intelligence has improved their support and crucially, their availability. Very recently I visited RAF Valley to fly in the Jupiter training helicopter and actually learned while I was there this really pleasing fact that, for the first time in a long time, we now have more pupils training than in hold, which is, as you know, one of the accumulated issues from the pandemic which led to significant holes. So that’s really positive,

But a particularly memorable flight for me was last summer between Schipol and Den Helder for what’s called the Navy Day in the Netherlands. Is anyone here from the Netherlands? I don’t know if you were there, but anyway, I had an interesting ride with the Dutch Marines in the NH-90. So we’re just flying about 2,000 feet. I was in that seat by the door. You have a little sort of X-strap. And the marine said, ‘Minister you want to put your plastic glasses back on. I’m gonna give you a close up view of the offshore wind farms’, and he opened the door. All I can say is if you’ve ever experienced that, it’s very windy a few thousand feet up. The thought that went through my mind was ‘I think the Prime Minister is going to have to have another by-election very quickly’. It was very windy.

Turning to procurement and the main subject, so when my predecessor took the decision in 2021, to invest in the next generation of medium helicopter power - the efficiencies that would come from a versatile single platform were clear for all to see in terms of procurement, training, contract support, and maintenance. Fast forward to today and we’re at the next stage of that process. I’m pleased to announce that I’m about to issue the paperwork that will initiate an invitation to negotiate with all three candidate suppliers of our next generation New Medium Helicopter, Airbus Helicopters UK, Leonardo Helicopters UK, and Lockheed Martin UK.

All three companies have shown their platforms can meet the different needs of our Armed Forces, and you’ll note, listed alphabetically without any prejudice, all good competitor companies. So later, you can hear more about the process and other procurement programmes from Commodore Woodard, our SRO, senior responsible owner for delivering the New Medium Helicopter programme. And I know Commodore Woodard shares my determination to ensure that this programme is a beacon of smart procurement because as you will discover quite soon hopefully we are right in the middle of a very significant form of defence acquisition in the UK.

So this will be built around affordability and more timely and thorough challenge. Future proofed by factoring adaptability and spiral development at the concept stage. And above all, a procurement programme that implements the lessons from Ukraine which is quite simply that we must close vulnerabilities in our supply chains by strengthening UK defence skills and production. We want to expand on each of these elements. When we first announced the programme, we quickly put in train a pre-qualification process to select credible candidates ahead of the outline business case stage. This has delivered significant efficiencies for both government and industry.

We’ve also adapted our approach as a result of timely and robust internal decisions, ditching our original plan to include helicopters for our bases in Cyprus and Brunei within this programme, and instead announcing our intention to acquire six Airbus H155 helicopters to avoid unnecessary over-speccing, and overspending on platforms that were never intended operating in a war zone. In short, making a significant saving without the inefficiencies of diversifying our existing helicopter fleet.

Another important feature of our Medium Helicopter programme will be our ability to spirally develop these platforms - we will order largely off the shelf models with open system architecture that we can spiral with enhanced capabilities to meet different operational needs or to accommodate new innovations, meaning our new medium helicopter will be adaptable and future proof.

The final element that reflects our smarter approach to procurement is our UK industrial contribution consideration. This is a points based decision making process that we have designed to favour suppliers who do more to strengthen the UK defence industrial base - which should account for 15% of our overall procurement decision, we will reward those who invest in the UK’s rotary wing design industry, a critical national capability and sector and it will advantage those platforms with export potential by using an export criteria that is worth 20% of the UK industrial contribution weighting. This matters because exports sustain UK manufacturing and high value jobs in the UK and they strengthen and sustain our indigenous skills base, which is essential to building resilience into our defence sector and national security and critical if we are to remain a global player in the sector for decades to come.

Our New Medium Helicopter programme is one of the very first to have this pro-export component built into our selection criteria. As Minister for Defence Procurement, I will ensure exportability becomes a factor in all relevant new procurement programmes. We’ll be saying more on that soon. But that formula of the design requirement plus export requirements equals, if you like, a combination of the quality of work we want to see in the UK, plus its sustainability for the long term.

And I will also work to ensure that an expectation of spiral development also becomes a default in all relevant programmes. Our procurement must have the dynamism and flexibility to respond to this era of seismic technological change. That means being open minded to all that tech can offer. No platform is sacred.

So last week, I launched our new uncrewed systems strategy at the headquarters of a successful UK drone company, Malloy Aeronautics, they gave a demonstration of their T-150 drone, which has proven extremely effective delivering supplies to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including supplying Ukrainian Marines on the other side of the Dnipro River. Underlining that they really are in action on the front line. And uncrewed systems like the Malloy drone are transforming warfare and they will continue to shape it in ways we are barely able to conceive. To make sure we keep ahead of our adversaries, we are building a renewed relationship between government and industry, turning intelligence from the battlefield into solutions in the factory and a competitive edge for our forces in weeks, days, even minutes.

Now, obviously in lots of countries here some people may be sceptical about the speed of procurement as all countries face the challenge in this area. But my most insightful visit I’d say, as the Minister for Defence Procurement I’ve visited many bases and companies, was to a UK SME called Callen-Lenz, based in the southwest, who were spiralling a drone for use in Ukraine. And while I was there we had feedback from the frontline and the next day they put those changes in place. As Minister of Defence Procurement, you do not normally see that sort of turnaround in learning from procurement. That is the era we are now in - rapid spiral development. And I believe that taking that into account the recent decisions of the US to cancel their FARA programme was in large partly a reflection of this new reality and aligns with our own thinking.

Procurement must be smart, agile, and responsive, ready to pivot and adapt to the changing nature of threats and to accommodate war-winning innovations. That’s why our next generation medium lift helicopter will deliver a Swiss Army Knife platform, future proofed and procured in a way to give the UK Armed Forces and our defence sector maximum clout and flexibility, a 21st century platform delivering on our modernisation agenda that can meet multiple needs now, and be easily adapted in the future, procured through a process that incentivises investment in the UK, which will deliver high value jobs, high value exports and help make us more secure. I look forward to your questions.

Ministry of Defence
James Cartlidge MP