The fact that the British armed forces don't have enough battlefield helicopters to make ends meet has been a known fact for several years now, but it had looked as though troops on the ground in Afghanistan would benefit from prime minister Tony Blair's late 2006 promise - albeit extracted like a bad tooth - that senior commanders would quickly receive any additional equipment they requested to fight the Taliban.
But it now appears that additional aircraft are not among the items needed to do the job in war-torn Helmand province, as secretary of state for defence Des Browne revealed yesterday that "UK force commanders have not requested additional helicopters for operations in Afghanistan since 1 September 2006." Responding to a written question in the House of Commons, Browne said: "Helicopter assets in both Afghanistan and Iraq are currently assessed by the military commanders in theatre to be sufficient to support operations successfully."
How can this be? While a deployed force of eight Army Air Corps Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopters, four Westland Lynx AH7 utilities and eight Royal Air Force Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC2 transports seems okay, last month's highly publicised use of two Apaches to deploy four Royal Marine passengers highlighted that something is wrong with the current force mix. Where were the Lynx that are supposed to be operating in tandem with the Apaches? Struggling with the hot and high environmental conditions - even at night? Lacking the armour required to protect their crews? Or worse, operationally useless in Afghanistan?
Flight International reported this week on a formal Eurocopter proposal to supply the RAF with eight AS330 Pumas made surplus to Portuguese requirements by Lisbon's acquisition of AgustaWestland EH101s. These may, as the EADS subsidiary claims, be fine aircraft for the Afghan theatre (despite the more than 30 years of operations already beneath their rotors) and good for another decade of use, but the time has come for the UK Ministry of Defence to bite the bullet and spend good money to acquire new helicopters, and plenty of them.
However, the MoD seems to be so awash with proposals that a decision could be hard to make: should it snap up shiny new EH101s from Denmark, field new transports under a proposed lease deal or - believe this when it happens - even provide money to get the RAF's eight stored Chinook HC3s into a working state by about 2010-11? With mission commanders having missed a trick since late last year by soldiering on with what they have rather than demanding more, perhaps the sense of urgency felt by the frontline troops just isn't getting through