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The Coalition government, having already cut an order for vital helicopters needed by British troops fighting in Afghanistan, may now cancel it altogether, according to reports.

In its last months in office, the previous Labour government announced plans to order 22 new Chinook helicopters (in addition to two which would replace recent combat losses in Afghanistan). The money was to be found by cutting squadrons of fast jets - in particular, Tornado low-level deep strike bombers. The first 10 helicopters were to come into service in 2012-13.

On arrival in office the Coalition carried out a Strategic Defence Review, personally supervised by Prime Minister Cameron, in which it was decided that the Tornado bomber fleet would be preserved intact, the Chinook order would be cut to just 12 - and, controversially, that the Harrier jumpjet fleet would be scrapped entirely.

Even the much reduced Chinook order has so far failed to actually be signed, and there have since been suggestions that the Ministry of Defence financial assumptions which underlay the Review were too optimistic - thus, that more cuts might be required.

On Monday, in response to a Parliamentary question, Minister for Defence Equipment Support and Technology Peter Luff said that the order could not be confirmed "until the current planning round is settled".

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy told defencemanagement.com that he was "shocked and concerned" at the events since the election.

"The government have already reduced the order. Now they are refusing to place the order. And, worse than that, they appear to have abolished the order," he said.

"A huge question mark now hangs over whether the government will honour its pledge to provide these much-needed helicopters to Afghanistan.

"The Prime Minister promised that defence cuts will not impact on the frontline in Afghanistan. If he is to keep that promise he must urgently provide clarity on the status of the contract."

Luff did say, without making any promises, that "we understand the importance of these helicopters for the mission in Afghanistan".

The Chinook is the only military helicopter in widespread service with enough power to operate easily in the tough "hot-and-high" conditions of Afghanistan. It has been the workhorse of the entire British (and American) war there, especially since the UK committed to major ground warfare in Helmand province during 2005.

More Chinooks - and specifically, more Chinook flying hours - has been the constant demand of troops fighting there. Other types of British helicopter in Afghanistan are much smaller and less powerful, and are often unable to safely get airborne at all in the heat of the summer "fighting season".

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