Wednesday 15 July 2009

"Unsafe" gun runners supplying "Our Boys"

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth, it seems, has been rather less than frank about the availability of helicopter support for "Our Boys" in Afghanistan – but in a rather unusual way. There was one more helicopter available to deliver supplies than he was admitting.

The downside of this intriguing piece of news, however, might just explain his reticence. The additional machine was leased via Nato, operated by a Moldovan charter company, Pecotox Air, which has been banned from EU airspace for safety reasons and which has been implicated in arms trafficking.

These embarrassing details would not have emerged but for the unfortunate incident yesterday when it was reported the helicopter, a giant Mi-26T, registration ER-MCV (pictured above), was shot down by the Taleban a mile from the British military base in Sangin.

Misleadingly, the AP report (link above) cited the Moldovan operator claiming that the aircraft had been "ferrying humanitarian aid" when the crash took place, a detail quickly corrected by Reuters which had Western forces confirming that the helicopter had been "bringing supplies to a British base at Sangin." According to the Los Angeles Times, it was contracted specifically to supply British forces.

Although The Times, in its report, falls for the "humanitarian aid" story (and misspells the charter company's name), with a moment's reflection the implausibility would be obvious. The aircraft was reported as being leased by Nato, an arrangement which was flagged up in October 2007, as a means of relieving the chronic shortage of helicopter lift in theatre.

One thing we know, Nato is not a humanitarian organisation. It most definitely does not charter helicopters to distribute aid – not least because the NGOs and aid agencies have their own budget for this work and would object to such efforts being associated with the military. However, it is obvious why Pecotox Air would want to mislead, as it would not want it widely known that it was delivering military supplies to British bases.

The fact that "unsafe" gun runners should end up supplying "Our Boys" is a story in itself. For several years, this blog has advocated that the British government should charter civilian helicopters directly, having been made aware of a number of reputable companies who could supply Russian-built helicopters - including the Mi-26 - upgraded with European avionics and flown by security-cleared ex-military crews.

However, such were the objections raised within the MoD - and especially by the RAF, which argued on safety, operational and security grounds against permitting civilian aircraft into military airspace – that, although the government relented briefly, it turned down a long-term arrangement. Instead, it chose to throw its lot in with Nato and charter an aircraft through this source.

By this means, the government was able to distance itself from hostile media and the political fall-out, with the Conservatives strongly against the use of such machines. Going through Nato also by-passed RAF objections.

In taking this option, however, the government lost control over the selection of the contractor, which was managed by Nato in Brussels on a lowest-bidder-wins basis. As a result, British taxpayers ended up paying for a helicopter operated by a company banned from the airspace of EU member states on safety grounds, with a record of gun-running, the machine flown by a Ukrainian crew, possibly of uncertain loyalty.

Whether a better-equipped machine would have evaded the Taleban attack is moot, but one suspects that this machine would not have been equipped with the latest defensive aids (which have proved extraordinarily successful).

How many supplies have been lost – and the cost – has not been disclosed, and probably never will. But at least Bob Ainsworth will no longer have to conceal the identity of his "secret" machine. It now lies a charred wreck, with seven dead as a testament to a very dirty war.