Anyone who experienced the North of Ireland in the 70s or 80s would testify that the British military had helicopters. Lots of helicopters.
Bessbrook barracks in Armagh was the busiest heliport in Western Europe.
I have no idea what happened to all those helicopters, but they seem to be missing now.
Over the past few weeks the lack of helicopters in Afghanistan has become a political issue in Whitehall with the head of the British army General Sir Mike Dannat entering the political fray.
The argument if that because they don’t have enough helicopters in Helmand province the British troops are forced to travel overland and give more opportunities for the Taleban to blow them up with IEDs.
Here would appear to be some validity to this assertion.
Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, the CO of the Welsh Guards died in an IED explosion.
He was in a Viking armoured vehicle because there was no helicopter available.
In the US military an officer of Lt Colonel Thornleoe’s rank would have his own personal helicopter.
I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about Marine Robbie McKibbon of Westport County Mayo.
Had Robbie been a US Marine rather than a Royal marine he would have been travelling in an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). Instead he was in a Jackal reconnaissance vehicle. The driver and the front passenger are over the front wheel. It is an open vehicle like a golf buggy. He didn’t stand a chance.
Currently “in theatre” Britain has 23 helicopters to call on.
Eight are Apache attack helicopters with no lift capability.
Five are aging Sea Kings. The Chinook is the workhorse of troop transport.
The UK has deployed 10. One of those is dedicated to medical evacuation “CASEVAC”. That leaves nine for troop transport.
The British Prime Minister announced, with some relief, at the Dispatch Box in the Commons that a further eight helicopters, EH101 “Merlins” would be sent from Iraq in due course.
What the opposition could have knocked back to the Pm is that the Merlin is a very unsuitable aircraft for dusty Helmand. It is a maritime beast, totally brilliant at hovering over the see on its three engines. Sand and dust make short work of the rotor heads.
There are another eight Chinooks in the UK. They were purchased in 2001 for Special Forces operations. Due to a minor error they were ordered without the proper software to operate in the digital battlefield. To put it in plain speak these brilliant beasts couldn’t fly at night.
Now these useless hulks are having the digital stuff ripped out and the older analog systems installed.
A Chinook helicopter dropping Special Forces soldiers into Afghanistan would want to fly at night? Who would have thought that they did such things at night?
Were this not causing the loss of life this story would be begging for Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson to team up again and write Blackadder in Afghanistan!
Now it is reported that the UK is to half the number of its helicopter fleet over the next ten years.
When Britain’s top solider General Sir Richard Dannat visited Afghanistan recently there was no British helicopter available to ferry him to see the troops. Instead a US black hawk ferried him about.
As I was writing this article it was reported in the British media that Gordon Brown has authorised a “surge” of UK troops into Helmand province.
Yes one hundred and forty.
This is the equivalent of the pinned down garrison, surrounded by Apaches (Indians not helicopters) and hearing the bugle.
Believing they are about to be rescued by troops of cavalry they see, coming over the hill, the bugler and no one else.
Britain just can’t do this war stuff anymore.
As I write there is news of another young Briton killed in Afghanistan by the ubiquitous IED.
Their world view maybe firmly in the middle ages, but the Taleban are technically adept at blowing up their enemies.
I write some time ago-well before this current ISAF offensive that the Taleban would invite the infidels to a bleeding contest in Helmand province and so it is come to be so.
US generals in the Vietnam War could prove they were winning the war by presenting the “body count” of enemy dead.
Grisly bar charts were shown to gullible journalists from America.
That too was a bleeding contest.
Under President Obama winning in Afghanistan is a major test of his Commander in Chief cojones. The right wing in America wants him to fail.
In the meantime the British have choices in Afghanistan-and they are all bad ones.
The British exchequer simply cannot sustain the cost of this war.
Everything else is detail.
A fascinating insight into the impoverished state of British troops was revealed when the journal of the late Lt Mark Evison of the Welsh Guards was published by his family.
Short of essentials like water, food and medical supplies he tells a grim story.
He was clearly an exemplary young man and a natural leader who was desperately concerned for the welfare of the men under his command. His soldiers nicknamed him “007”.
The young officer was shot and was not evacuated for an hour-all this time he was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
He died in the UK of his wounds.
US troops who survive five minutes on the battlefield after being injured are 95% guaranteed of living such is the efficiency of US military casualty evacuation.
I fear to think what the British survival rates are after being wounded.
It would appear that even when British troops return to the UK wounded rather than be treated as the heroes they are they are viewed with suspicion by the British state.
The USA has shown how the job is done. They have moved into an area with 4,000 US Marines and hundreds of helicopters. They have cleared the area of Taleban and are now holding that ground as a secure area. The British have been trying to secure the same area in Helmand province for the last three years with a few hundred soldiers and a handful of Chinook helicopters.
The British state should, of course, do the decent thing.
It cannot afford to properly resource its expeditionary force in Afghanistan so it should pull out of the operation.
Britain will, in all probability, do just that next year.
A token presence will remain, but Britain will have left the field of battle and, in a very profound sense, it will have left the world stage as a serious player.
This is what history feels like.