Page last updated at 18:23 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 19:23 UK

Helicopters 'are no magic wand'

By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Brigadier Andrew Mackay in Afghanistan
Chinooks can carry up to 55 people

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).

A bullet fired from the ground will go in and out a Chinook, and anyone in between gets wounded
Amyas Godfrey, RUSI associate fellow

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.

One of the myths is that helicopters are a simple workhorse, but they're not

Michael Codner, director of military studies, Royal United Services Institute

The two-seater Apache attack helicopters are considered "world beaters" but the Lynx is a scouting helicopter which cannot be used in summer due to Afghanistan's high temperatures.

If reports are to be believed, Britain has fewer than 30 helicopters in Afghanistan.

Yet, Mr Codner, of RUSI, says Britain's armed forces have 520 "frontline" helicopters. So why aren't more in service?

"One of the myths is that helicopters are a simple workhorse, but they're not. They require a lot of maintenance," he says.

At any one time, many will be undergoing major engineering work, out of service or suitable only for training, he adds.

"There is a need to make helicopter availability better but that is not something you can change overnight."

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, points out that part of the problem stems from a "disastrous cock-up" in 2001 when modifications were made to eight Chinooks which left them un-airworthy.

After years of discussion to find an affordable and effective solution, those aircraft are now being reverted to their original design. The MoD says these could be back in operation by 2010.

"It's not very impressive when we know we needed the helicopters in theatre. But you can't blame the government for a problem that lots of people were party to," says Mr Felstead.

Meanwhile, Mr Godfrey blames years of "chronic underfunding" of the British military for the shortage of helicopters.

'Air cavalry'

The government though says it has made efforts to boost its fleet.

Six Merlins, which are medium-weight troop-carrying helicopters, have been bought from Denmark and are expected to be operating in Afghanistan by December.

Defence officials say there are also plans to spend £2.5bn upgrading more than 200 helicopters and £3.5bn acquiring about 120 new ones over the next 10 years.

Merlin graphic
Six Merlin helicopters are set to arrive in Afghanistan by the end of 2009.
1. Capable of air-to-air refuelling.
2. Particle separator protects engine in dusty environments.
3. Cabin holds 30 seated or 45 standing combat troops with full equipment, and can carry vehicles. Machine guns may be mounted from cabin.
4. Fuselage built to resist crash damage and small arms fire.

However, in stark contrast to Britain, the US reportedly has 120 helicopters in Afghanistan.

Mr Codner puts this down to the US's much larger defence budget and the fact they have made a bigger commitment in Afghanistan.

Mr Godfrey says it is also to do with a different ethos.

Ever since the Vietnam war, the US wanted to create an "air cavalry", whereas that was never a goal for the British army, he explains.

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