Afghanistan troops to get 22 new helicopters

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Indy Politics

The Ministry of Defence today announced plans to buy 22 new Chinook helicopters to increase air support on the frontline in Afghanistan.

The announcement came hours before a statement to the House of Commons in which Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth is expected to unveil deep cuts in other parts of the military budget.

Mr Ainsworth said the first 10 Chinooks would be completed in 2013, and the procurement would increase the UK's fleet of the heavy-lift helicopters from 48 to 70.

The MoD has not yet agreed a price for the new RAF helicopters with manufacturer Boeing, but it is believed that the size of the order will deliver economies of scale which may keep the cost down.

The first 10 new Chinooks will be completed in 2013, as part of a new Future Helicopter Strategy which will deliver a 40 per cent increase in the number of lift helicopters available for use on operations in extreme conditions, such as those in Afghanistan.

The RAF will fly the new Chinook alongside Merlin helicopters which arrived in Afghanistan last month.

The Government has faced repeated claims that a lack of helicopters in Afghanistan has exposed troops to the risk of roadside bombs by forcing them to travel by land.

Mr Ainsworth said: "Our forces on the frontline in Afghanistan repeatedly tell me that Chinook are indispensable on operations. I am therefore delighted to announce plans to deliver more of these robust, effective and proven battle-winning helicopters.

"Helicopter capability has already doubled in the last three years and this future strategy builds on this, ensuring that our Armed Forces have the very best resources at their disposal."

The Commander of Joint Helicopter Command, Rear Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, said: "The superior lift performance of the Chinook has proved invaluable on operations.

"This new strategy will dramatically increase our military capability on the battlefield for many years to come."

The Chinook purchase is part of a £6 billion programme of investment over the coming decade.

It follows moves to increase helicopter flying hours by 95 per cent, upgrade Lynx helicopter engines and provide a £408 million upgrade to existing Chinooks and a £300 million upgrade to the Puma fleet.

Mr Ainsworth will later today set out which areas of military spending are to fall victim to "tough decisions" forced on the MoD budget by the recession.

Spending on the Afghanistan campaign is being boosted, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown yesterday announcing a £150 million boost to efforts to tackle roadside bombs.

New specialist training facilities in the UK and an analysis centre to process surveillance intelligence are to be funded by a "re-prioritisation" of existing spending plans.

Another £10 million has also been found to buy 400 state-of-the-art mine detectors amid growing public anger at Britain's rising death toll in Afghanistan, much of it caused by roadside bombs.

But other areas of spending face the axe as limited resources are shifted to ensuring soldiers are properly equipped for the expanded battle with the Taliban.

At least one RAF base is reported to be set for closure, with cuts also predicted to the MoD Police and back-office functions in a move to save hundreds of millions of pounds.

It is thought major projects like the Royal Navy's two new aircraft carriers could be vulnerable in a strategic defence review scheduled to be held after the general election.

The funding announcement comes as a watchdog blamed short-term cost-cutting at the Ministry of Defence for driving up final bills for equipment and putting frontline operations at risk.

The National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the department for trying to clear its deficit of up to £36 billion with a "save now, pay later" approach.

Conservative former defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said he was "very deeply disturbed" by reports that Mr Ainsworth planned to cut core defence budgets to fund the ongoing cost of operations in Afghanistan.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today: "That is deeply dangerous, never happened in the past and has the most ominous implications for the integrity of our Armed Forces."

Aerospace analyst and former RAF commander Andrew Brookes told the programme: "If you cut back the premier league capability of UK forces in order to just win a counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban, who have no air force, no tanks and no warships, when you finally do pitch up against a state that has those resources you could seriously end up losing a conflict that really matters to the UK in future in order to win one in Afghanistan today."