Skip to main content

Sudan: Military Helicopters

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many helicopters have been made available by the United Kingdom and by the NATO member states to the African Union–United Nations force in Darfur.

My Lords, we have not offered any helicopters to the UN for Darfur. I am afraid that is because our helicopters are fully committed elsewhere. I am not aware that any other NATO country has yet offered helicopters for UNAMID. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations wants 18 transport and six tactical helicopters for UNAMID. We are supporting its lobbying efforts with a range of countries, and working on options to meet that shortfall with others on the Security Council.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that only one week ago the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that:

“We need … helicopters. We’re not getting them”,

and that that was,

“putting the entire mission … at risk”?

On 1 January, that entire mission takes responsibility for Darfur. It consists of 26,000 African Union and United Nations peacekeepers—the largest number that Africa has ever volunteered. It is absolutely vital that that mission does not fail, and that we do not stand by while another genocide occurs in Africa. Given that the Prime Minister announced yesterday that more Sea King, Merlin and Chinook helicopters were being made available for Afghanistan, could the Government not spare one helicopter to make peace instead of war?

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks eloquently on a point that frustrates me as much as it does her, because we have not found those helicopters for Sudan. I am assured that all British helicopters are fully committed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that no others are available supplementary to our own homeland security needs.

There are other NATO helicopters. However, they suffer from needing upgrades and logistics support. We are looking at both those helicopters and others from elsewhere in the world to see if we can facilitate their availability. That matter has been raised in recent days by both the Prime Minister, in conversations with other leaders, and the Foreign Secretary with Mr Ban Ki-Moon since his letter of 6 December. I have also had a number of intense conversations with the peacekeeping department about it.

My Lords, we have just begun a Question, but we have heard little from the Labour Benches. I suggest that we do it that way round, as we have time.

My Lords, I am grateful. Are we looking at contractual arrangements to both convert and deploy helicopters brought in, if necessary, from some civilian sectors? I think that has been done elsewhere in the world. I understand the problems about both servicing and converting them, but looking at that would be a better option than trying to take some of our helicopters away from other vital needs. This is urgent.

My Lords, my noble friend will be reassured that we have suggested to the DPKO a number of commercial options. There are real limitations to it—some real obstacles are to be overcome—as the AU lost some troops recently at Haskanita and the commercial helicopters were unable to fly in to bring out the wounded for insurance reasons. While there may be commercial solutions to the 18 transport helicopters, it is hard to envisage that the six tactical helicopters—attack helicopters—will be available on commercial terms. We need to find a troop contributor willing to provide them and to help it to be able to provide them.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is absolutely right. UNAMID is desperate for these 24 helicopters—18 transport and six light helicopters, as the Minister said. Was this matter raised at the rather unfortunate EU-Africa meeting the other day down in Lisbon? Certainly there was an intention by UNAMID and the Secretary-General of the UN to raise it, and I wonder whether we made any contribution.

Secondly, is the Minister really so sure about this lack of helicopters? Would he ask his officials to look again at the Army helicopter centre at Middle Wallop or at RAF Upavon or RAF Odiham? I can only say, living in those parts, that there seem to be an awful lot of helicopters buzzing around all the time and a lot more parked on the tarmac. Could not some of them help in this desperate situation?

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord and I should go on a weekend scavenging hunt and see if we could rustle up some helicopters. On the other part of his question, the matter was raised at the Lisbon summit. The DPKO sent a team to meet the Government of Sudan to clear the other major obstacle, which is the composition of the force and willingness to allow non-African units to participate. We are working with other European partners to see how we can bring this back in front of the European Heads of Government or Foreign Ministers very early to see whether collectively we can find a solution to this problem.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the meeting with the parliamentary group on Sudan two weeks ago in which he said that,

“once force has been deployed, it is vital that its credibility is not undermined”?

He also criticised the Government of Sudan for trying to determine the composition of that force. How is it possible for the force’s credibility not to be undermined if we do not provide the helicopters?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct—it will be undermined if we do not have the helicopters. I share the view of this whole House: we have to find these helicopters. Having been part of the UN team that originally designed this force, I know that it was the smallest numerical option of those that we offered and its effectiveness was utterly contingent on having the mobility that helicopters would provide. There is no alternative—we have to solve this problem.