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Afghanistan: Helicopters

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will provide additional helicopters for Afghanistan.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Warrant Officer Dan Shirley and Lance-Corporal James Johnson, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan this past weekend.

In March 2007, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence announced that we would be investing in additional support helicopters, purchasing six Merlins from Denmark and modifying eight Chinook HC3 helicopters to a support role. This work continues to progress as planned. On 20 May this year, a Written Statement was made to update the House on helicopters on operations.

My Lords, on these Benches we also send our condolences to the families and friends of the two soldiers whom the noble Baroness mentioned. On a happier note, I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I wish her a very happy birthday.

A large majority of the recent deaths in Afghanistan have been from roadside bombs. The families of these casualties are entitled to ask whether lives are being lost because of a chronic shortage of helicopters, leading to the use of high-risk vehicles on the ground. Does the Minister not recognise that the Government’s decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion was absolutely inexcusable? These young men and women who engage on our behalf in a vicious war in Afghanistan deserve maximum support. What are the Government’s plans to provide them urgently with more airframes, more pilots and more local ground support?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his first comment. He is right that there have been a significant number of deaths recently. That is regretted by the whole House. He is not right to suggest that there is a link between the ground vehicles that we have and the helicopters, in terms of what will be transporting people in these circumstances. We have to have a range of transport available and commanders on the ground have to judge, in difficult circumstances, what is the most appropriate vehicle and whether it is appropriate for people to be moved in helicopters. Helicopters cannot be used for all types of movement. They would not be the appropriate means of transport for people engaged in patrols or dealing with local communities. Such decisions have to be taken on the ground. We are supplying more helicopter flying hours than ever before; there has been a 30 per cent increase in them since March 2007.

My Lords, these Benches wish to be associated with the earlier tribute. Why has it taken the Government so long to recognise the vital need to increase the size of the Army and the importance of helicopters, perhaps at the expense of expenditure on heavy armour and artillery?

My Lords, it is clear that we need to strike a balance and to spend on a variety of fronts. We have put a lot of money into personal and vehicle protection, and, as I have just mentioned, we have increased helicopter flying hours in Afghanistan by over 33 per cent. We are investing £6 billion in helicopters over the next 10 years, which is £1 billion more than was anticipated when we last looked at the figures in 2006. The problem we have is making sure that we develop across the board, with the best technology available, to provide our troops on the ground with the protection and the vehicles they require.

My Lords, the Minister addressed support helicopters in her Answer. However, those helicopters are not generally used for lifting patrols, nor are they ideal. What increase is envisaged in helicopters of the size needed for patrolling and therefore the size needed to reduce the number of operations by soldiers in Snatch vehicles?

My Lords, as I said, it is not always a simple choice of whether to put people in a helicopter or a Snatch vehicle. The vehicles used are decided by the commanders on the ground in view of the nature of the operation. If we are winning the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan, as well as conducting a military operation, we cannot always use heavily armoured vehicles as that could be counterproductive. We are confident that we can increase helicopter flying hours further, and we have taken good measures to make sure that we are improving support. It is by improving support and ensuring that we have the trained crews that we have been able to increase the flying hours.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that, when the IRA started using roadside bombs in Northern Ireland, we who were then in opposition did not call for the use of helicopters—although it was suggested in some quarters—precisely because we knew that it was a battle for hearts and minds. That is why it is so important that operational commanders can decide the nature of transport vehicles, and why we put such an enormous burden on our troops in the field who must make the decision of whether to use helicopters, thin-skinned vehicles or heavily armoured ones. We are engaged in a battle with people trying to outmanoeuvre us. Will the Minister kindly remind the House that we must win that battle throughout?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to point out that our Armed Forces must operate on the ground to build constructive relationships with the local population. We must leave it to commanders on the ground to decide what is appropriate in different circumstances.