Brits running out of choppers

Independent:

British forces are so short of helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq that they are considering renting them from other countries, or even from the controversial US security contractor Blackwater.

As a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's Helmand province claimed the life of another UK paratrooper, The Independent has learnt that the Ministry of Defence will hold a crisis meeting at 5pm today to discuss leasing helicopters from former Warsaw Pact countries as well as commercial companies.

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Nato, but not Britain directly, is believed to be negotiating with Blackwater, which has come under fierce criticism from the Iraqi government and the US Congress after 17 civilians were shot dead in Baghdad last year. Another option being explored by the MoD is leasing Cougar helicopters from oil companies involved in offshore production.

Two more soldiers were killed this week in Helmand, bringing the British death toll in Afghanistan to 114, with 340 injured. The vast majority of casualties in a recent sharp rise have been caused by roadside bombs and suicide bombers. Soldiers are forced to travel by road because of the lack of helicopters.

Analysts point out that in South Armagh in the early 1980s the prevalence of IRA roadside bombs caused all movements by the British military to be undertaken by helicopter – 70 aircraft were supplied. Helmand, which is six times bigger than Northern Ireland, has just 16 passenger helicopters.

The British force in Helmand is supported by eight Chinooks (up to 40 passengers) and four Royal Navy Sea Kings (up to 10). Four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters are also based in Helmand, but cannot fly between 11am and 11pm in the summer, the traditional fighting season, because of the effect the heat has on their engines. There are also eight Apache gunships, but they cannot carry passengers. When the USSR occupied Afghanistan it had 1,000 helicopters to support and supply its troops.

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I think the reason for this shortage is a government that tended to buy votes with social programs rather than take care of its defense by buying hardware needed for the troops. Perhaps they were to taken with the "peace dividend" at the end of the cold war. Certainly the US made that mistake with the Clinton cuts which have left us short of troops. I find it hard to believe that the US can't find some choppers to sell the Brits.

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