THE row over equipment shortages in Afghanistan grew last night after a senior UK defence industry official accused the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of “cocking up”
the procurement of helicopters.
Robin Fox, managing director of Northern Defence Industries – which represents more than 200 defence contractors in the North of England – said “political nonsense”
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had left British troops desperately short of helicopters in Helmand province.
And he accused politicians of loving “to strut and pose around the world scene, backed by our ability to successfully conduct these kind of campaigns. What they don’t want to do is pay for it”.
His comments came as the MoD announced that another soldier had died in Helmand province yesterday – the 19th in 22 days.
The soldier, who was attached to 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was on patrol in central Helmand province when he was killed by an explosion.
The latest tragedy and Mr Fox’s comments will inflame the row over whether British soldiers sent to Afghanistan are under-provisioned.
They came hours after a senior minister admitted UK forces did not have enough helicopters and as a former British commander in Helmand insisted the operation was “insufficiently resourced”
to counter a widespread insurgency.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing growing anger over claims that UK soldiers are facing unnecessary dangers because a lack of helicopters is forcing them to move over ground rather than by air.
Although the Government insists it has ordered more helicopters for Afghanistan, Mr Fox said extra aircraft would already be there had the MoD opted to buy US Black Hawks.
Instead, politicians rebuffed the offer and decided to press ahead with upgrades to older helicopters.
But until the upgraded aircraft become available British soldiers are having to make do.
Mr Fox, a colonel in the Territorial Army who recently returned from active service in Afghanistan, said: “The procurement system has cocked up in getting enough rotary wing assets for use in (Afghanistan).
“We know well the story of the Chinooks that have sat in a hangar for years because nobody got it right, but why the hell didn’t we buy a shedload of Black Hawks from the Americans, which are cheaper and better than the alternatives?
“Frankly, it’s a load of political nonsense going on.”
Mr Fox said the helicopter shortage was a symptom of “a greater disease across the support that is given to our troops on operations. It’s a lack of funding across the whole… not just for helicopters.”
The Prime Minister dismissed any suggestion that British lives were being lost because of a shortage of helicopters, insisting troops had all the resources they needed for the Operation Panther’s Claw offensive in central Helmand.
He said the Government had increased the numbers of helicopters deployed in the country, with more due in the coming months.
Mr Brown added: “I am satisfied that Operation Panther’s Claw has the resources it needs to be successful.”
But Mr Fox said: “Gordon Brown is perhaps not as committed to the military as he might be. You just have to look at the amount of funding that was not released during his time as Chancellor.
“It was really interesting to hear the Chancellor Alistair Darling saying ‘Any requests from the military have always been considered by the Treasury’.
“Well, I know from personal experience that requests for funding go up through the chain and they get as far as the Treasury and they don’t get any further. And yes, those requests are probably quite seriously considered, but somebody at the end of the day says ‘No.’ “I think the hand of Gordon Brown still remains very firmly on the Treasury.”
Mr Fox was particularly scathing of the decision not to buy American helicopters.
Defence ministers spurned three deals to buy Black Hawk aircraft, which would have helped to plug the shortage facing British troops.
The most recent rejection came a few weeks ago when ministers opted to stick with plans to refit the older Puma helicopters.
Mr Fox said some of the helicopters available to UK troops in Afghanistan could only be used for six months of the year – because the Afghan summer is too hot.
“The Black Hawk fits what we should have. Allegedly it is superior operationally, superior in terms of on-going maintenance and it’s cheaper.
“I really do get very cross sometimes when we see some very crazy decisions made about spending lots more money than we should do on inferior kit when we could actually make better decisions.”
The Government is gearing up for a major defence review that could spell the end for big items such as aircraft carriers and fighter aircraft.
Mr Fox said it had some tough choices to make.
He said: “Do we still want to intervene around the world?
To maintain a nuclear deterrent?
To fight alongside the Americans in Afghanistan or Iraq? To be able to go into Sierra Leone? To go and do a Falklands?
“The ability to do all of that comes with a big price tag.
Our politicians love to be able to strut and pose around the world scene backed by our ability to successfully conduct these kind of campaigns.
What they don’t want to do is pay for it.”
And he warned that the current policy could end in bloody defeat.
“We have a fantastic tradition within the forces that means we do go and take on enormous odds – and win.
“At some point lots of people will get killed and it will all fall apart because we haven’t resourced it properly.
“We’ve salami sliced year-in year-out and just relied on the fact that the military will always do it.
“Is Afghanistan going to be our tipping point? If we’re not careful, I think it could be.”