MPs clash over helicopter provision for troops fighting in Afghanistan

July 14, 2009 at 12:13 pm Leave a comment

Chinook
by Peter Taberner

The Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth assured the Commons yesterday that the government is providing troops fighting in Afghanistan with enough helicopter cover.

British soldiers are taking part in an offensive designed to increase security for the Afghan elections next month.

He was speaking during defence questions, amid growing concerns over the resources available to soldiers.

“As we have said repeatedly, we have seen a huge uplift in the helicopter frames available to commanders, and also in helicopter hours: over the past two years, there has been an 84 per cent. increase,” Mr Ainsworth said.

“There will be more by the end of the year, we will have the Merlin in theatre, and we will get some of the eight Chinooks out into theatre in 2010.

“The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises points up the problem; changes in how operations are being conducted have led to more ground operations, which cannot be conducted from helicopters.

“At the moment, troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang are clearing compounds and taking on the Taliban in one of their heartland areas.

“There has been hand-to-hand fighting, which, sadly, resulted in some of the deaths that took place over the past week or so.

“That cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle or a helicopter.”

Shadow defence minister Dr Liam Fox was far from convinced and asked whether the government regretted cutting the helicopter budget by $1.4 billion in 2004.

“People in this country understand the security need for our mission in Afghanistan and they understand that in wars there are casualties and fatalities,” Mr Fox said.

“What they do not understand is why we are not doing everything we can to reduce the risks to our forces.

“We do need more and better armoured vehicles and we do need better ways of countering improvised explosive devices, but if we cannot move our forces by air, they will be more vulnerable on the ground.”

Mr Ainsworth replied:

“The hon. Gentleman goes back to a decision that was taken some time ago.

“We have made great strides to increase helicopter availability and capability, with a large degree of success over the past two years in Afghanistan.

“There are now 60 per cent. more helicopter frames and 80 per cent. more helicopter hours.

“Merlin is yet to be moved into theatre, and enhancements are possible both to Lynx and Chinook. That would make them better helicopters, more capable of dealing with a very difficult theatre.”

Former Secretary of State for Defence John Reid, Labour MP for Airdrie and Shots, was provoked after Conservative MP for Devzies Michael Ancram criticised the Government for previously misleading the situation in Helmand province deploying soldiers in the hope that a “single shot would be not fired.”

“May I confirm what the Defence Secretary has just said?

“May I tell the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that, no doubt inadvertently, he has just misled the House?

“I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. I did, however, insist that we would not be aggressors.

“We did not seek war. We did not go there as part of an invasion. For our part, we would be happy to go and work with the Afghan Government and leave without firing a shot,” Dr Reid blasted.

MPs from all sides paid tribute to the 15 soldiers who have perished over the last 13 days. The total number of deaths in Afghanistan is now 184.

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