Much ink has been used in the past few days – of varying quality – over UK equipment issues in Afghanistan, amid broader concerns about strategy.
Helicopters, and the lack thereof, have returned to the fore as deaths and injuries have mounted since the beginning of July among the British forces deployed in theater.
The helicopter ‘problem’, however, is not simply about counting the number of tail-rotors on the flight line. The lack of helicopters is an effect, rather than a cause.
The lack of rotary capability, and particularly support helicopters, is not a new problem. The National Audit Office pointed out in 2004 that by “its own calculations, the Department (Defense Ministry) is some 38 per cent short of its required battlefield helicopter fleet, and on present plans, the overall shortage will not be overcome until 2017.”
The 2017 date was based on the introduction in the 2011-17 period of what was then called the Support Amphibious Battlefield Rotorcraft. The program name has gone, and the successor program’s planning assumption service entry date is probably toward the end of the decade. Though there is ongoing work – being carried out at short notice – to re-examine this date.
A lot has been made in the past few days of the 2004 £1.4 billion ($2.27 billion) cut in the helicopter budget by opposition politicians as a stick to beat the Labour government. However, none of the then service chiefs – at least publicly – was willing to insist that the funding had to be made available – or that cuts had to be made elsewhere.
While support helicopters are now an operational priority, in the past they appear never to have been at the top of any of the services requirements. When the inevitable pressure to trim budgets and procurement ambitions has come on, then, other projects have been protected, with helicopter capability one of the areas put forward for reductions.
The lack of helicopter lift is a symptom of a wider malaise in the UK body politic. While London continues to behave as if it can punch above its weight – and asks its military to do so – at least two decades of under-resourcing, is now all too apparent.
Picture Credit MoD/Crown Copyright