Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009

Minister defends UK forces' kit

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe
Lt Col Thorneloe died in an explosion near Lashkar Gah in July

The UK government has denied troops in Afghanistan are not properly equipped after it emerged a British officer criticised supplies before his death.

Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, 39, warned of a helicopter shortage in a memo before he died in a roadside bombing.

In response, forces minister Bill Rammell said "no military chief" and "no minister" could guarantee against the loss of life.

Col Thorneloe is the most senior British officer killed in Afghanistan.

Mr Rammell told the BBC that advice from the military was that troops did have enough helicopters for the Afghan campaign.

"It is not an issue of ministers being unwilling to commit the resources. That is why we've significantly expanded the helicopter fleet - both in terms of numbers and flying hours and why more are coming," he said.

The Ministry of Defence says additional Merlins are being deployed and more Chinooks will be sent during the coming year.

Mr Rammell: "The idea we're not resourcing this operation is a million miles from the truth"

"We do not commit troops, and the service chiefs will confirm this, if there is an unacceptable balance of risk," the minister said.

But he added: "That cannot guarantee against the loss of life, because the Taliban have hugely increased their planting of improvised explosive devices.

"We cannot succeed in Afghanistan just in heavily-armoured vehicles or in helicopters.

"The military will tell you that to win hearts and minds you need boots on the ground - that entails a risk."

'Not fit for purpose'

Col Thorneloe, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, was killed on 1 July during Operation Panther's Claw, the offensive against insurgent strongholds in Helmand province.

Trooper Joshua Hammond also died when their convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Lashkar Gah.

In memos sent three weeks earlier and published in Saturday's Daily Mail, Col Thorneloe warned his brigade commanders in the UK about a shortage of helicopters in Helmand, and the increased risks posed to British troops.

Adam Holloway: "There are not enough helicopters, and there never have been"

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

"We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road.

"This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it."

Col Thorneloe, from Kirtlington, near Oxford, said he had "virtually no" helicopters of the type which would allow him to move troops by air rather than road.

He also termed the system used to manage helicopter movements in Afghanistan as "very clearly not fit for purpose".

Deployment 'inflexibility'

Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Jock Stirrup said that while more helicopters would always help operations in Afghanistan, there had been sufficient numbers for this summer's operations.

He said Col Thorneloe's comments related to the deployment of craft within Afghanistan.

"The key element of criticism was inflexibility of allocating helicopter assets within theatre, which to Rupert didn't seem to make sense," said Sir Jock.

"He was saying that if we allocated the helicopters in a different way, we would get more available."

The memos from Col Thorneloe were leaked by an official to Tory MP Adam Holloway, a former officer.

The MP said they showed the government "aren't taking this war seriously".

"For the last three years we've been told constantly by the government that our guys have got enough helicopters to do the job," Mr Holloway said.

"Anybody who's visited Afghanistan and spoken to the soldiers knows there simply aren't enough helicopters and there never have been."

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