Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 14:27 UK

Defence minister 'busting a gut'

Helicopter in Afghanistan
Gordon Brown insists the UK military has never been so well resourced

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth says he is "busting a gut" to get more helicopters out to Afghanistan.

But Mr Ainsworth said it was not possible for "every single commander" to have "every single vehicle".

"It can't be done, but we've got to reach for that," he said. He denied there were any "contradictions" in ministers' viewpoints on the issue.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown reasserted the UK had enough helicopters for an offensive in Helmand province.

Nineteen soldiers have died in Afghanistan this month.

UK forces are currently engaged in a major offensive - known as Operation Panther's Claw - against insurgent strongholds in Helmand.

Complicated machines

Speaking during a visit to HMS Monmouth, which is currently docked in Cardiff Bay, Mr Ainsworth said: "Our military commanders don't plan operations and didn't plan Panther's Claw not knowing exactly what they've got in terms of capability.

"They knew how many helicopters were available for that operation."

I'm worried there's an impression these sacrifices are being made at a time when we are not making progress
Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

"We are busting a gut to get more helicopters out there," he added. "There are eight Chinooks waiting to go out there.

"The Merlin fleet will be out there by December. I was all over it again myself yesterday to make sure it can't be done quicker."

Mr Ainsworth said helicopters were not like family cars, which needed a service once a year.

"There are people who think if we've got 100 helicopters we can put them in Afghanistan," he said.

"They are not Ford Mondeos. They are operating in just about the worst environment in the world with dust, heat and height.

"They break and they're breaking all the time. Some are fixed in theatre and some come back here."

His comments come a day after Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown fuelled the on-going political row over resources for the Afghan operation.

Lord Malloch-Brown told a newspaper that "we definitely don't have enough helicopters".

He later clarified his comments, saying "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 also been "contradicted" over helicopter numbers by army chiefs and commanders serving on the ground in Afghanistan.

'Huge progress'

Mr Ainsworth went on to say the increasing toll of British casualties in Afghanistan was not in vain.

He said: "I'm worried there's an impression we are not moving forward and these sacrifices are being made at a time when we are not making progress.

"We've made huge progress, there's real momentum in Afghanistan."

Hitting back at criticism about the level of other equipment for troops, the defence secretary said: "There's a misconception we can keep people safe with bigger, better, more armoured vehicles.

"We already have huge, massively-armoured trucks they feel totally confident with, but they have their limitations.

"With the counter-insurgency operation they've got to get out of the trucks and meet people."

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