Wednesday, July 22, 2009

BBC NEWS | UK | Helicopters 'are no magic wand'

BBC NEWS | UK | Helicopters 'are no magic wand'

Britain's armed forces have more than 500 helicopters, but fewer than 30 are being used in Afghanistan.

The debate over helicopter shortages in the British armed forces is not a new one.

In fact, former army officer Amyas Godfrey says it has been raging since he signed up in the 1990s.

But, after last week saw eight servicemen die in the bloodiest 24 hours in Afghanistan since operations began, Britain's resources have come under very close scrutiny.

Gordon Brown says helicopter numbers have increased by 60% in the past two years but Conservatives are calling the shortage a "scandal".

Roadside bombs

The row centres on the number of "lift" helicopters, used for transporting troops.

Critics suggest if Britain had more of these aircraft, in particular Chinooks, getting around Helmand would be safer for troops.

Experts seem to agree that in the long-term more helicopters would be a benefit but are not an overnight answer.

"It's very dangerous to try to find one reason why we had a higher number of deaths in one week. The only reason is because we are fighting a war," says Mr Godfrey, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

It is the very nature of the battle in Afghanistan - to push the Taliban out, take land and hold it - which means helicopters could never be the one-and-only solution.

"The more helicopters we could have, the better," says Mr Godfrey.

"But those troops who died on foot patrol - they would have still died even with more helicopters. They are not a magic wand.

"If the government said today we are going to buy 20 more helicopters to support frontline troops, it would not be much use in the near future.

"We would have to find 40 or 50 pilots, 10 ground crew for every helicopter, buy all the support as helicopters require almost constant servicing especially in a dusty environment like Afghanistan."

Michael Codner, director of military studies at RUSI, says there is always a limit to capabilities and when soldiers are on the offensive trying to seize territory, you always want more.

"If you are going to try to overwhelm, there's no limit to what you want to have in theatre. That's the problem," he says.

The Chinook is a heavyweight helicopter, capable of carrying between 33 and 55 service personnel.

Its main use is for troop deployment and its large engine and twin rotors mean it copes better than other models in the heat and high altitudes of Afghanistan.

It is widely accepted that travel by air is less risky than on Afghan roads, where roadside bombs are a constant threat.

The country's rugged terrain and poor road network also slows down overland journeys, whereas a helicopter can fly anywhere, at speed, with flexibility.

They are however expensive - a Chinook costs several million pounds - and has high maintenance costs.

"A bullet fired from the ground will go in and out a Chinook, and anyone in between gets wounded. If you lose a Chinook, you lose up to 40 people at a time," says Mr Godfrey,

'World beaters'

The Ministry of Defence refuses to say how many British helicopters are in Afghanistan, citing operational reasons.

But reports estimate there may be up to 10 Chinooks, eight Sea Kings and five smaller Lynxes. Mr Godfrey estimates there could also be up to six Apaches there.

Sea Kings, in their different forms, operate as airborne early warning platforms, but are also used to ferry marines.

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