The UK government has announced a larger than expected fresh commitment to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, confirming yesterday that another 1,400 British personnel and at least nine more aircraft will be deployed to support coalition operations in the country.
ISAF’s close air support capabilities in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province are to be boosted through the deployment of a further four BAE Systems Harrier GR9 ground-attack aircraft from the UK’s Joint Force Harrier. This will increase the number of UK Harriers at Kandahar airfield to 10 aircraft, with these operated on rotation by Royal Air Force and Royal Navy squadrons. UK secretary of state for defence Des Browne earlier this month announced that the Harrier detachment will remain in Afghanistan until 2009, marking a continual presence for the type since September 2004.
UK support helicopter services in Helmand – currently provided using eight RAF Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC2 transports – are meanwhile to be expanded through the deployment of four Westland Sea King HC4 commando assault helicopters from the RN’s 846 Naval Air Squadron (pictured below). This will be the first time that the UK has deployed Sea King HC4s –inappropriately for Afghanistan nicknamed “Junglies” – to participate in the ISAF mission, although the type is currently in use in southern Iraq.
An additional Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules tactical transport will also be deployed to Afghanistan as part of the UK’s expanded commitment, which will see its troop level in the country rise to 7,700 personnel. The expanded force package is also to include “additional reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities,” the Ministry of Defence says.
Noting that the UK armed forces will face continued stretch due to parallel missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, chief of the defence staff RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup says: “Since last May we have made progress against our strategic objectives [in Afghanistan]. This uplift in UK capability will enable us to retain the initiative our armed forces have seized, and to maintain the momentum they have established.”
In a further development, the MoD yesterday confirmed the selection of Lockheed’s Sniper ATP targeting pod to meet an urgent operational requirement to equip UK Harriers deployed to Afghanistan. Deliveries will run between March and June 2007, according to Lockheed.