The Merlin has been upgraded for operations in Afghanistan
The first RAF Merlin helicopter has arrived in Afghanistan to provide reinforcement to the heavily stretched air support for British forces there.
It will be reassembled and tested at Camp Bastion in Helmand province before being available for combat use within weeks, the Ministry of Defence said.
A total of six Merlins will arrive by the end of the year, the MoD added.
The government has been criticised for delays in helicopter deployment, which some say have contributed to UK deaths.
The Merlins have undergone a £42.5m upgrade since returning from Iraq in order to prepare them for the different conditions encountered in Afghanistan, including high altitudes and very wide temperature fluctuations.
They can carry up to 20 people and will be used for tasks such as moving troops and equipment around Helmand and resupplying bases.
The Merlins, from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, will join the UK's Chinook, Apache, Lynx and Sea King helicopters already in use by British forces in Afghanistan.
Dead officer's warning
Referring to the new helicopters, Col Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said: "It's not everything we need, but it's a good step forward certainly.
Colonel Richard Kemp said the Merlin helicopters "will make a difference"
"It still doesn't probably give us the ability to lift more than about 400 people at any given time, probably less than that.
"We've got a relatively small number of helicopters in Afghanistan compared to, say, the Americans, even on a pro-rata basis.
Col Kemp said there was a need "to multiply the effectiveness of each and every one of our combat units, to make our troops safer when they're travelling around the country".
The government has faced harsh criticism over the lack of helicopters to provide air support for troops.
In October, a leaked memo revealed the most senior UK officer to be killed in action in Afghanistan had sent an e-mail three weeks before his death warning about the risks posed by a shortage of helicopters.
The fleet has already successfully flown thousands of missions in Iraq, often in the face of significant danger
Ministry of Defence
Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed by a roadside bomb in July, wrote that too many trips were by road, leaving forces vulnerable.
And last week Jacqui Janes, whose 20-year-old son was killed in Afghanistan, told Gordon Brown he had bled to death because there was no helicopter available to rescue him.
An MoD spokesman said: "The Merlin is a well-protected helicopter and the fleet has already successfully flown thousands of missions in Iraq, often in the face of significant danger.
"We are, however, taking measures to further improve the Merlin ballistic protection.
"We do not, however, discuss specific defensive capabilities of our aircraft. To do so would potentially offer enemy forces a tactical advantage and compromise the safety of our personnel."
And armed forces minister Bill Rammell said: "We recognise the importance of helicopters for operations in Afghanistan.
"The deployment of the Merlin helicopters is evidence of our ongoing commitment to increase capacity and further improvements to helicopter capability in Afghanistan will follow over the next 12 months."
AW101 MERLIN HELICOPTER
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.
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