Friday, July 17, 2009

Army pushes for more helicopters - BBC

The deployment of more helicopters to Afghanistan would save soldiers' lives, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, has said.

Following criticism of the government for failing to give troops air support, Sir Jock said more helicopters would "quite patently" prevent casualties.

The government insists that the military has never been so well resourced as it is at present.

Meanwhile, the 185th British death of the conflict has been confirmed.

A soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Rifles died in an explosion while on foot patrol near Gereshk in central Helmand, the Ministry of Defence said.

He was the 16th to die this month, as the Army continues an offensive aimed at increasing security ahead of Afghan elections planned for next month.

'No panacea'

Prime Minister Gordon Brown spent 40 minutes with Sir Jock Stirrup on Friday morning.

Afterwards, Sir Jock told the BBC he was "busting a gut" to get more helicopters redeployed to Afghanistan.

"I have always said that there's no such thing as enough helicopters in an operation campaign," he said.

"In a situation where you have lots of improvised explosive devices, the more you can increase your tactical flexibility by moving people by helicopter, then the more uncertain, more unpredictable your movements become to the enemy.

"Therefore, it is quite patently the case that you could save casualties by doing that."

He said operational commanders could always "do more and do things better" with extra helicopters, but acknowledged they were "no panacea".

His comments come after the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said he was returning from Afghanistan with a "shopping list" of equipment to protect British troops from roadside bombs.

Sir Jock said he did not know how much this would cost, but said such things were non-discretionary and had to be provided.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said his remarks have intensified the pressure on the prime minister, who has insisted the government is providing the equipment and resources that are needed for the current operations.


The prime minister's spokesman said Sir Jock would go into further detail about equipment requirements in the future.

"Of course, we will take decisions in the light of that military advice," added the spokesman.

He said there would be a wider review of troop numbers, both at UK and Nato level, in the autumn.

"We will review the position on troops along with our allies after the election," he added.

The government has promised to consider demands for more equipment to protect UK forces in Afghanistan from roadside bombs.

The head of the British army, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, says he was compiling a "shopping list" including surveillance and intelligence equipment.

Downing Street says the PM will take decisions in "light of military advice" and review troop levels with allies.

Gen Dannatt, who steps down from his role next month, told the BBC it was "critical" to tackle the problem of improvised bombs.

Doing this required more coalition or Afghan personnel to build intelligence, better "overhead surveillance" of Taliban activity and greater technical ability to see where they were planting explosives, he said.

"That will be a shopping list that I'll bring back," he added.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said: "He's talking about things like UAVs [or unmanned drones]... that could spot where the Taliban are laying bombs."

However, she said with government budgets shrinking it was unclear whether the Ministry of Defence would be given funding to meet these requests.

Business secretary Lord Mandelson said the general's views on troops' equipment requirements would be taken "very seriously".

"They will not go without whatever they need to carry out their very important operations in Afghanistan," he said.

Gen Dannatt had said that, despite reports, the military never made a direct request for 2,000 extra personnel.

But he warned that reducing numbers to 8,300 would be wrong and that Nato might ask for more personnel for a 12 to 18-month period.

Conservative leader David Cameron said the government must listen to military commanders.

"The prime minister has been telling us all week that they have got enough helicopters and actually now we know they don't," he said.

He refused to say whether his party would spend more on defence if it was in government, claiming it was about "commitment" rather than funding.

With commitment, he said, six Chinook helicopters which had been grounded by computer problems since their purchase at a cost of £250m eight years ago could have been in action.

Earlier, shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox had said it was "extremely likely" that a Tory government would agree to a request for more British troops in the short term.

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