Britain's special forces will use a new version of the Wildcat light reconnaissance and attack helicopters being developed for the British Army and Royal Navy, according to sources familiar with the plan.
The scheme to replace the Lynx rotorcraft used on special forces operations includes acquiring an additional four Wildcats and switching a further four machines from an existing order to create an eight-strong light assault helicopter force.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman declined to confirm the plan, saying the department doesn't comment on matters involving special forces.
Defence procurement minister Peter Luff confirmed in response to a Parliamentary question that his department is planning to extend the number of AgustaWestland Wildcats to be delivered to British forces from 62 to 66.
The additional rotorcraft, along with four other machines originally destined for battlefield reconnaissance and other duties, will be configured as light assault helicopters, he said in a response to a member of Parliament.
Luff didn't specify who would operate the light assault helicopters, but the sources said the variant would replace existing Mk7 and other Lynx types currently used for special forces operations.
News of the existence of a light assault Wildcat version emerged in the small print of a late-November National Audit Office (NAO) report into the procurement performance of major defense projects.
The report by the government-spending watchdog contained no mention of who would use the new helicopter type.
The MoD's signing of a deal with AgustaWestland in 2006 to deliver and support 62 Wildcats - a next-generation version of the Lynx family - was one of the programs looked at by the NAO.
The change in the order will see Army Wildcat reconnaissance numbers slip to 30 from 34, with a further eight rotorcraft forming a light assault capability. A further 28 similar machines destined for the Royal Navy for use in a maritime attack role remains unchanged.
Luff said the "costs of conversion are still under consideration."
AgustaWestland said it wouldn't comment on the potential additional order.
Deliveries of Army Wildcats from the Italian-owned company's Yeovil plant in southwest England will commence next year. Navy deliveries are scheduled to start in 2013. The timing of assault role rotorcraft deliveries is not known.
News the MoD is increasing its Wildcat numbers comes just days after the last of 22 Lynx Mk9As upgraded in a 92 million-pound ($144 million U.S.) deal with the Ministry of Defence was handed over by AgustaWestland.
The extensive upgrade included incorporation of the same engine being used on the Wildcat to enable the Mk9A to cope with the hot and high conditions of Afghanistan; a new surveillance sensor suite; secure communications; and a 0.50 cal heavy machine gun for escort and other duties in theater.