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Afghanistan: Helicopters

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2008

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the need to supplement the existing helicopter fleet in Afghanistan in the event of an increase in troops.

My Lords, we do not comment on future troop deployments, but our force levels are kept under regular review by chiefs and Ministers as part of routine defence business. Helicopter support to ISAF operations in Afghanistan is provided from a multinational pool of helicopters, to which the UK makes a significant contribution, and we always keep this under review.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Following the loss of nearly 200 surface transport vehicles at the weekend in the raids in and around the NATO bases of Peshawar, from which 75 per cent of the entire resources for the front line come, will any consideration now be given to utilising civilian helicopters, which would also take off some of the pressure from our own front-line resources?

My Lords, there is a significant problem following the incidents at the weekend and it will affect some NATO operations. Fortunately, most of our supplies go by different routes but there is pressure on the airbridge to deliver them. There is already a NATO contract with civilian operators to provide airlift for non-personnel to areas in Afghanistan. That has proved successful and extremely helpful and we continue to keep it under review. It is not suitable for troop movements but it is suitable for freight and it has been a significant help.

My Lords, is it not a massive indictment of the Government’s procurement policy that six years after first deploying in Afghanistan they are scratching round the world, borrowing and begging helicopters? Have they thought about trying eBay?

My Lords, I am somewhat surprised at the tone of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lee. I know, for example, that he is very keen on co-operation with our European partners, so he will be aware of the British-French initiative, which I am sure he supports, to get more helicopters into theatre. This is not simply a British problem; it is a problem for all our allies who are engaged in those situations. There has been a great deal of co-operation on this matter and I should have thought that the noble Lord would applaud the efforts within NATO and European countries generally to try to improve this difficult situation, in which we all need as much airlift as possible.

My Lords, it has been known for some time that there has been an increase in Taliban activity around Karachi and Peshawar and therefore the attacks that took place with very serious damage to a substantial amount of equipment came as no great surprise. What steps have been taken with the Pakistan Government to try to further improve security of supply, for which an airbridge will simply not be enough?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord King, is right: the airbridge will not be enough. It is very difficult to get our equipment and forces into Afghanistan when we are relying only on the airbridge. We have tried to work closely with those in Pakistan to achieve as much security as possible. Obviously, we put a great deal of emphasis on good relationships between those in government in Pakistan and President Karzai and others in Afghanistan, because it is only through better co-operation there that we will make significant progress in this matter.

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the policy of not commenting on leaks about defence matters. Did she hear the radio news this morning, when it was said that a Ministry of Defence source had informed the BBC of a date for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq? Can she say whether the anti-terrorist police have as yet gone into the BBC today?

My Lords, over the past two months how many helicopters have been out of service for maintenance reasons and have therefore not been available for operational duties?

My Lords, maintenance of helicopters is very time-consuming; I have seen the figures on how many hours of maintenance are required for just one hour of flying. It would not be possible to deploy more helicopters forward because we have to take account of the fact that some helicopters are on operations, some are being transported to theatre, some are undergoing modification because of urgent operational requirements, some are being used in training and some are being brought back from theatre. There is a range of aspects to this. It is not simply a question of saying that all our helicopters can be in theatre, as that can never be the case.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness enlighten us further on what she said in July about the six additional Merlin helicopters that were coming from Denmark and the modification of the eight Chinook aircraft by Boeing? What is the progress on that?

My Lords, the Chinook helicopters are now undergoing the kind of fitting that will make them operational. We are doing that in such a way as to make them ready for theatre in the shortest possible time. The Merlins from Denmark are being used in training.