The first RAF Merlin helicopters have arrived in Afghanistan to address the acute shortage of aircraft, which has been blamed for the rising toll of deaths and injuries to British soldiers. The aircraft,dispatched from RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, are being reassembled at Camp Bastion, Helmand. The first batch will be flying within weeks, with the full complement of six to be operational by the end of the year.
The Merlins can carry up to 20 people and will be used to ferry troops and equipment, reducing the number of land convoys, which have been repeatedly hit by the Taliban. Roadside bombs account for more than 80 per cent of recent British and Nato casualties.
Before his own death from a roadside bomb, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British officer to die in action since the Falklands war, complained about his soldiers having to risk road moves because of the shortage of aircraft.
The system for managing helicopter movements in Afghanistan was "clearly not fit for purpose," Lt Col Thorneloe said in a memorandum.
"I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters – we all know we don't have enough," he said. "We cannot move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road." This increases the troops' exposure to IEDs [improvised explosive devices].
Nato uses charter air companies, mainly from eastern Europe, to ferry supplies. However, their crews have grown reluctant to undertake risky missions after one of the helicopters was shot down, killing some of its crew.
The Merlins are being sent to Afghanistan after the withdrawl from Iraq and there was concern that they may be vulnerable to Taliban ground fire which has brought down several helicopters recently.
However, following a £42m refit, which also prepared the helicopters for the high altitude and fluctuating temperatures in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence says they are ready for service. An MoD spokesman said: "The Merlin is a well protected helicopter and the fleet has already successfully flown thousands of missions in Iraq, often in the face of significant danger. We are, however, taking measures to further improve the Merlin ballistic protection."
The news comes as RAF chiefs are reportedly preparing to sack up to 10,000 staff – a quarter of their manpower and close up to five large air stations. The moves are said to be designed to pre-empt cuts under a strategic defence review pledged by both Labour and the Conservatives after the next election.
*A British soldier from the 7th Battalion The Rifles, attached to the 3rd Battalion The Rifles Battle Group, was killed in Afghanistan yesterday, the MoD said.