Daniel Korski

Helicopter reality

Helicopter reality
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There is something oddly comforting about discussing NATO’s Afghan mission in terms of kit, helicopters and troop numbers - or the lack thereof. These are tangible categories. You either have the right amount or you don't. And if you don't, then it is because somebody made the wrong decision or failed to make a timely one. Even Mrs Janes, grief-stricken after the killing of her son, seems to take some comfort in the question of equipment while Liam Fox has made much political capital of the Government’s failures.

There are just two problems with this kind of approach to warfare. First, the stories in the press about helicopters take precedence over reality. Has the government cut the defense budget? Yes. Did it for a long time run on a peacetime budget and on SOPs? Yes.

But this is now changing. Since the summer of 2006, the number of British airframes available to commanders on the ground is up by over 60%, and the number of helicopter hours by 84%. In addition, the Merlins which had been based at Basra have been re-deploying to Helmand, increasing the capacity of UK helicopter lift by 25%. Eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters are also being converted to a support role for the NATO deployment. Finally, a number of Lynx Mk 9s are being re-engined so that from mid-2010 they will be able to operate in the extreme Afghan summer conditions.

Is this enough? Perhaps not. Does the UK have the right kind of helicopters? Perhaps not. The Gazelle and and RN Lynx cannot fly in Helmand’s hot and dusty conditions while those helicopters that can are needed for search and rescue and for basic and pre-deployment training. It is a political decision to decide the balance of forces for various defence tasks. But the tone of the press would lead you to think nothing is happening, which is not true.  

The second problem with the focus on helicopters is that it reduces success or failure to tangible things. Unfortunately, even if there were more helicopters available, and even more troops deployed, success could not be guaranteed. For that, the US-led coalition will need a different, more political approach, which I have sougth to sketch out. By focusing on helicopters, troops and equipment, both the Government and the Opposition fudge the real debate about what will be needed for NATO’s mission to succeed.