Helicopter protection of troops questioned

Author: Press Association

The Commons Defence Select Committee also said that key battlefield operations
were being inhibited due to a lack of air transport.

The Ministry of Defence must increase the number of helicopters and train more
crew, the MPs argued.

The criticisms came in a specially-produced report, amid a furious row over
military equipment sparked by the deaths of 15 UK service personnel in
Afghanistan in just 10 days.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has insisted it is “absolutely clear” that the
heavy death toll recently has not been due to a shortage of helicopters.

But committee chairman James Arbuthnot said: “It seems to us that operational
commanders in the field today are unable to undertake potentially valuable
operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the
theatre of operations.

“We are also concerned that operational commanders find they have to use
ground transport, when helicopter lift would be preferred, both for the
outcome and for the protection of our forces.”

The committee said improved maintenance and support structures had been
“paying dividends” in terms of the available flying hours for helicopters
such as the Chinook in theatre.

But it added: “Nevertheless, helicopter capability is being seriously
undermined by the shortage of helicopters, particularly medium-lift support
helicopters, capable of being deployed in support of operations overseas.

“We believe that the size of the fleet is an issue, and are convinced that the
lack of helicopters is having adverse consequences for operations today and,
in the longer term, will severely impede the ability of the UK Armed Forces
to deploy.”

The MoD’s plan to bridge the “capability deficit” by patching up “ageing” Sea
Kings and Pumas before the introduction of a new generation of helicopters
was “not the best option, either operationally or in terms of the use of
public money”.

“Only a procurement of new helicopters can meet the original objective of
reducing the number of types of helicopter in service within the UK Armed
Forces,” the MPs insisted.

Referring to concerns about the military’s ability to protect troops and
undertake key operations with current helicopter availability, the MPs said:
“We are troubled by the forecast reduction in numbers of medium and heavy
lift battlefield helicopters, which will make this worse.”

The committee warned that the intensity of the campaign in Afghanistan had
“stretched the manning of the helicopter fleet”.

“It is therefore unfeasible to surge helicopters into theatre,” it added.

There were also worries that crews were training in aircraft which did not
have the same equipment as those in the combat zone.

“It is unacceptable for personnel to encounter new equipment for the first
time in theatre,” the report said.

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