Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Tuesday, 11 August 2009 18:20 UK

'No rush' to redeploy helicopters

A Merlin helicopter in 2005
The first Merlins could be deployed this winter

The UK's military will not be rushed into redeploying Merlin helicopters in Afghanistan as "we won't jeopardise safety", the defence secretary says.

The aircraft were used for six years in Iraq but need modifications, such as new rotor blades, for higher altitudes.

"These are not family cars," said Bob Ainsworth. "There are a number of them that are broken and need repairs."

The helicopters are on display at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, following the return of the last two from Iraq.

A flypast took place to celebrate their achievements.

Senior RAF and Joint Helicopter Command officers gathered at the base, along with friends and families of personnel from the armed forces.

'Very capable'

"We'll get the first Merlins out [to Afghanistan] before the end of the year - December if we can - but we won't jeopardise safety," Mr Ainsworth told BBC News while discussing the ongoing British operations in Afghanistan.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth: "We won't jeopardise safety"

"This is about the most capable aircraft we've got from the protection point of view.

"Nothing can ever be totally safe but the Merlin is a very capable, very well protected helicopter."

The UK's forces were "better-equipped than the British contingent has been in recent times", Mr Ainsworth added.

Wing Commander Nigel Coleman said the display at RAF Benson marked "the culmination of four-and-a-half years of operations in Iraq, and it's great to have the guys back in one piece".

He said Merlin helicopters, and the crews flying them, faced "significant challenges" in Afghanistan, where some military bases were at altitudes of thousands of feet.

"Any aircraft will struggle for performance in those kinds of conditions," he added.

Air Commodore Simon Falla explains how the Merlins are being adapted for Afghanistan

Mr Ainsworth's comments about the redeployment of helicopters follow several weeks of debate about whether UK forces have sufficient aircraft to defeat the Taliban.

Last month Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown told the Daily Telegraph that "we definitely don't have enough helicopters", but later softened his remarks to say there were "enough helicopters for immediate operational needs".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown added: "For the operation we are doing at the moment, we have the helicopters we need."

But Mr Brown was "in denial" about the matter, Conservative leader David Cameron claimed, while the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, Nick Harvey, said it was "perfectly clear" this was untrue.

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