Friday, 8 August 2008

More targets?

It is not at all surprising that we could get little insight into the plans of the MoD to augment the UK helicopter fleet in Afghanistan. According to Janes (no link, subscription only), nothing firm came out of the recent "helicopter summit" held in the MoD.

Instead, it seems, defence secretary Des Browne ordered a study team to fly to Afghanistan "to come up with new options to increase the number of helicopters available". Options, as always, include the rapid purchase of new helicopters, leasing and upgrade plans for existing fleets.

We are told that one senior ministry official involved in helicopter procurement "expressed disappointment" that the summit had not produced concrete results. "Browne's ability to launch a major new helicopter procurement is seriously constrained by the problems with the [MoD] budget," this official said.

Not least, Janes asserts that, although an equipment review was launched in April in an attempt to prioritise procurement plans, the prime minister has yet to endorse its conclusions. This leaves – or so we are told – the MoD in some difficulty, unable to make longer-term decisions.

The only sustantive change we have, therefore (which was agreed prior to the summit), is that the RAF is to move 24 helicopter pilots and aircrew from the service's home-based search-and-rescue (SAR) force to reinforce battlefield-support helicopter units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The transferred personnel are to be retrained to fly Merlins and Chinooks.

Meanwhile, some newspapers are reporting that Des Browne is considering an increase in the British contingent in Afghanistan, with "top military leaders" believed to be to wanting an increase to 14,000 from the current 8,200.

This has been on the agenda for some time, but there has been some relectance within the higher reaches of the MoD simply to commit troops without the supporting infrastructures and assets. Without more helicopters and armoured vehicles, tactical mobility is limited, which in turn limits the utility of additional troops and risks an increase in the casualty rate.

Whether significant numbers of troops are committed, therefore, will – or should – depend on whether additional assets can be procured. In this, as there is talk of scaling down the Iraqi operation, some of the helicopters currently flying in Iraq can perhaps be redeployed to Afghanistan and, after all, the six additional Merlins may find their way to that theatre.

Certainly, without addressing this issue, additional troops could, unfortunately, just mean more targets for the Taleban.