Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/02/chinook_order_imperilled/

No new copters for Afghanistan troops

Needless road-bombing bloodbath set to continue

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 2nd February 2011 10:16 GMT

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".

The current operational RAF fleet of 40 Chinooks (the eight custom-crippled HC3s have yet to enter service) struggles to deliver anything beyond minimal capability. It is set to increase to 48 once the HC3s are finally sorted out, but there can't be any doubt that the 70-strong fleet foreseen before the election would have meant many lives saved and battles won for our troops, almost regardless of when and if they might withdraw from Afghanistan*.

Against this background the Coalition's decision to keep the RAF's bomber fleet and large numbers of equally outmoded navy frigates and army heavy tanks is looking worse and worse. The cost to those parts of the armed services which are actually useful in real wars looks set to become unacceptable. ®

Bootnote

*British troops have been dying for lack of helicopter lift at least since the 1979 Warrenpoint bombing in Northern Ireland. General Sir Michael Jackson revealed in his autobiography that following the Warrenpoint carnage "more helicopter hours were made available" and troops no longer had to use dangerous road routes in and out of South Armagh's "bandit country".

In Iraq there was the sad case of Major Matthew Bacon, who died in 2005 (two other soldiers merely lost limbs) when a British road convoy was bombed - a road convoy that only set out because the regular helicopter between Basra Palace and Basra airport had been cancelled.

The major's family wrote:

The real tragedy is that he had been booked to go on the regular helicopter flight between those two places...

To us, his parents, his brother and his soul mate he was truly a hero. We cannot imagine how life can go on without him.

Later in Afghanistan Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe was killed alongside one of his men in a roadside bombing. He had previously written:

I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters - we all know we don't have enough.

We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED [Improvised Explosive Device] threat and our exposure to it.

There have been many other such incidents, and several admissions from freshly-resigned British commanders that the UK simply doesn't have enough helicopters to support its frontline troops.

But it seems that politicians and the MoD will never learn, and bombers, frigates and tanks - most of which never see any serious combat - will always be seen as more important than a proper, working helicopter fleet; more important than our service people's lives.