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Afghanistan: Helicopter Force Levels

Volume 685: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they have taken since 25 July to improve helicopter force levels in Afghanistan.

My Lords, I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering our deepest condolences to the families and friends of all those killed and injured on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan over the Summer Recess, and in paying tribute to the hard, dangerous but vital work that is carried out on behalf of us all.

Since 25 July we have sent two additional Chinooks to Afghanistan, making a total of eight, and increased the number of flying hours. This capability meets the operational commander's requirement at present but is kept under constant review. In addition, we continue to have regular discussions with the NATO Secretary-General, NATO allies and other ISAF troop-contributing nations on force generation for ISAF, including, where appropriate, assets such as helicopters.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the families of those killed, and our thoughts are with the troops who have been very seriously wounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brigadier Ed Butler has publicly asked for more helicopter lift. In the light of the Prime Minister's promise that commanders will get whatever they need to defeat the Taliban, and in light of the fact that we apparently have no helicopters to send and that many of those there are on their last legs, will the Government consider, as the Americans do, contracting independent companies with helicopters in the region to provide logistical support for the RAF and to help with reconstruction? Might the cost be part-funded by those NATO allies unable to make good their promises of men and material?

My Lords, we are considering such an avenue. I returned from Afghanistan yesterday after spending time there talking to our troops on the ground and gaining an understanding of what they saw as the key lessons that we should learn relating to equipment such as helicopters and to their needs. The whole area of helicopters is complex. None the less, there are a number of important avenues which we can take and are taking. We have a very active programme at the moment which is looking to address our helicopter capability. It includes the use of commercial assets but also looks at areas such as crews, spares and airframes to ensure that our requirements are met in going forward in theatre.

My Lords, from these Benches I add our condolences to the families of those who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and our hope for a speedy and full recovery for those injured since we last talked about those theatres.

On 3 July, the Minister told me that, with regard to the eight grounded HC3 Chinooks:

“We are working very hard to find a fix-to-field solution for those Chinooks that makes sense and I hope that we get that done this year”.—[Official Report, 3/7/06; col. 77.]

Given that General Richards said on the radio this morning that we now have only six months to sort out the problem in Afghanistan, what progress has the Minister made over the past three months with regard to these helicopters?

My Lords, I have spent a considerable time talking to both the company involved—Boeing, from which we procured those helicopters originally—and the team in the Ministry of Defence which has responsibility for fixing the problem. It gets absolutely the highest priority. I had a meeting today on the whole picture of helicopters, which included the grounded Mk3 Chinooks. I am expecting today an answer from the company concerned. We are doing absolutely everything we can to improve the position relating to helicopter assets. There is no doubt, as I have said in this House, that we have a shortage of helicopter assets overall. We need to address that. We are learning in Afghanistan that helicopters are a real force multiplier and we need to provide additional resources. It is complex. It is not just about the airframes, as I have said, but I am confident that everything that can be done is being done, and I have responsibility to make sure that that follows through to have effect on the ground in response to what I have been told in the past few days by the troops in Afghanistan.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to remind everyone—not least the media in this country at times—that this is not just a British and American operation? It is NATO plus many other countries under the auspices of the United Nations, and it is profoundly important that we achieve what we set out to achieve in Afghanistan because the ability otherwise to destabilise the whole of an already unstable region is very high. All power to the Minister’s elbow in terms of getting more helicopters in, but there are 30-odd nations involved in this, so it is much wider than just Britain and the United States.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is absolutely right—this is a NATO operation—but we must be realistic. We have a responsibility to our troops to make sure that they have the resources to do the job. We are putting considerable pressure on our NATO allies, which includes talking to them about the provision to us of assets such as helicopters. Notwithstanding what is agreed within NATO, we must push NATO to deliver, to make sure that our forces have what they need to do the job. They have done an outstanding job in Afghanistan this summer. We underestimated what we were up against in Afghanistan but, despite that, because of their courage and dedication, they have inflicted a tactical defeat on the enemy. We now need to build on that over the next six months. I am committed to making sure that they have the resources to do so.

My Lords, the implication of what the Minister says is that there is inadequate helicopter effort elsewhere, other than in Afghanistan. He is suggesting that there is a need for considerably more helicopter airframes and hairs. Where is the lack of helicopters impinging on the services at present?

My Lords, a decision was taken two years ago on the forward investment in the helicopter programme, which did not take into account what are, with the benefit of hindsight, the enduring operations that we are now undertaking. That has put pressure on our helicopter capability, which I have been very open about with this House. The question is not how we got here but what we are going to do about it now. We are making robust efforts to improve our helicopter capability. The shortages relate to the pressure of going back into training back in the UK. Assets are being sent forward to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which then puts pressure back in the home base in terms of the opportunities for crews to train and practise. We need to address that and we are doing so.

My Lords, has not the shortage of helicopters, to which the noble Lord again referred this afternoon, been a problem for as many years as some of us can remember—at least for as long as he and several of his predecessors have presided over these matters? Is not the real problem that the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply failed to provide enough money for these purposes, and that is why there is a continuing shortage?

My Lords, absolutely not. The noble Lord is wrong. All resources required to carry out operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan have been funded. Nothing asked for has been refused on the basis of a decision from the Treasury or Ministers.

The nature of our operations has significantly changed from what we faced some years ago. My challenge as the Procurement Minister is to ensure that we are more rapid and adaptable in the development of the procurement of equipment to meet today’s challenges. We are making real progress; for example, on the protected patrol vehicles this summer. Identifying and delivering a requirement in under a year is pretty fast work.