Page last updated at 21:33 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 22:33 UK

UK has enough helicopters - Brown

Gordon Brown defends helicopter provision and talks up progress in Afghanistan

Gordon Brown has said the UK has enough helicopters for an offensive in Helmand - and said lives lost during the past month were not due to a shortage.

It comes after Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown rowed back on comments in a newspaper interview that the UK did not have enough helicopters.

The PM said the minister had "corrected any misrepresentation" of his comments.

Later, the Ministry of Defence said another British soldier had been killed in Afghanistan - the 19th this month.

The soldier, from the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, was killed by an explosion while on patrol in Helmand province in the south of the country.

Earlier, amid an on-going political row over resources for the Afghan operation, Lord Malloch-Brown had told the Daily Telegraph that "we definitely don't have enough helicopters".

Comments clarified

But in a statement issued by the Foreign Office on Wednesday morning, Lord Malloch-Brown, who is stepping down as a minister this month, said he had been "making the point ... that while there are without doubt sufficient resources in place for current operations, we should always do what we can to make more available on the frontline".

And in an interview with the BBC later, he said "everybody on the army and political side, from the prime minister down, agrees that there are enough helicopters for immediate operational needs".

He said had been trying to make the point that the nature of modern warfare meant there was a shortage of helicopters for military and peacekeeping operations around the world.

Conservative leader David Cameron said the prime minister had been "contradicted" over helicopter numbers by army chiefs, commanders serving on the ground in Afghanistan and now by one of his own ministers.

"I think the prime minister is in denial," he said.

The "real question" was whether the UK had sufficient helicopters to allow it to fulfil its long-term strategic objectives in Afghanistan and the answer was no, Mr Cameron added.

The Lib Dems said the minister was "right the first time" and the clarification made him look "completely dotty".

Spokesman Nick Harvey said: "It's perfectly clear to everybody there are not enough helicopters there .. I don't think anybody's going to be fooled by this blatant attempt to brush it all under the carpet."

At his press conference Mr Brown said he had not "personally talked to Lord Malloch-Brown" before the statement was issued.

He was also asked about comments made in the past week by chief of the defence staff, Sir Jock Stirrup and the head of the Army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt about the need for more resources.

Extra helicopters

The prime minister said more Merlin helicopters would be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, more Chinooks next year and numbers had already increased by 60% over two years.

For the operation we are doing at the moment we have the helicopters we need
Gordon Brown

Challenged that more helicopters would "patently" save troops' lives, Mr Brown replied: "More helicopters in general, yes. That is why we are putting them, of course, into Afghanistan. More helicopters are being ordered for Afghanistan.

"But in the operations we are having at the moment it is completely wrong to say that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters."

He added: "For the operation we are doing at the moment we have the helicopters we need."

He referred to comments made by Air Commodore Simon Falla, the chief of staff joint helicopter command, who had said there was a "pretty big" pool of helicopters and more than many countries.

He also said it was "not correct" to say he had rejected military chiefs' preferred option to send more troops to Afghanistan for the operation.

A "number of options" had been on the table, he said.

Mr Brown added that Operation Panther's Claw, the offensive against insurgent strongholds in Helmand which has claimed the lives of 18 UK servicemen this month, was "making progress".

"I am satisfied that operation Panther's Claw has the resources it needs to be successful," he said.

'Insufficiently resourced'

But Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2006, told the BBC Lord Malloch-Brown's original comments "represent the wider view both politically and militarily that there are insufficient resources on the larger scale to complete the current task in Afghanistan".

He said Mr Brown's reassurances appeared to be focused specifically on Operation Panther's Claw, but added: "I think the wider campaign in Afghanistan - and this has been the case from the early days - has been insufficiently resourced to undertake a proper counter-insurgency."

He said he had "made it very clear from the word go" to the Ministry of Defence they had in 2006 "only just enough to do the job at hand and certainly that would not take any account of the Taliban taking the fight to us".

Most of the British Army's casualties during the Helmand offensive - aimed at shoring up security ahead of elections scheduled for next month - have been caused by roadside bombs.

Critics believe troops are more vulnerable to these makeshift explosives because they are being forced to travel over ground and not by air.

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