Army 'busting a gut' for more helicopters

The deployment of more helicopters in Afghanistan would save soldiers' lives, the head of the Armed Forces said today.

Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said his forces needed as many helicopters as they could get and were "busting a gut" to draft more into service.

His comments came as the British death toll in Afghanistan continued to rise as another soldier was killed in an explosion while on foot patrol.

Speaking in Downing Street after talks with Gordon Brown, Sir Jock said: "In this situation where you have lots of improvised explosive devices, the more you can increase your tactical flexibility by moving people by helicopters then the more unpredictable your movements become to the enemy.

"Therefore it is quite patently the case that you could save casualties by doing that."

But he warned that helicopters were "not invulnerable either", adding: "There is no panacea to this problem."

Asked about the row over whether British forces in Afghanistan had enough helicopters, the Air Chief Marshal said there was "no such thing as enough helicopters in an operational campaign".

"If you are an operational commander you can always do more and do things better the more helicopters you have," he went on.

"If I thought we had enough helicopters in Afghanistan frankly we wouldn't be busting a gut to get the Merlins we had deployed in Iraq ready to go out this time to Afghanistan.

"We wouldn't be working as hard as we are to try to get these eight Chinooks that have been sitting on the ground unusable for years into a condition where we can deploy them next year.

"We need as many helicopters out there as we can get."

Sir Jock insisted the current force size in Afghanistan was a "baseline".

"We are at 9,000, that is our baseline. After the elections we will see what else we can do."

He said he had put Chief of the General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt's "shopping list" of extra equipment for operations in Afghanistan to Mr Brown during their talks.

"The Prime Minister was very interested in that and we will be looking at that as a matter of urgency," he added.

Sir Jock said news of the latest British fatality in Helmand province was "extremely sad".

"We said that this is going to be a hard summer of fighting in Afghanistan, and that is how it is turning out to be. But it is also a very successful summer of fighting," he said.

"We are taking away from the Taliban some of their vital ground, and they are desperately trying to stop us taking it away from them. And they are failing."

Downing Street said Gen Dannatt's recommendations would be looked at "very seriously".

"There will be an internal process in the Ministry of Defence to look at how these recommendations can be implemented," a spokesman said.

He added: "Of course we will look at this very seriously."

The spokesman refused to say how any changes would be funded.

"The recommendations will be looked at by the Ministry of Defence in the normal way and they will look at both at the impact on the Ministry of Defence budget and the urgent operational requirements.

"But I'm not at this stage going to make a judgment on where they will be resourced from."

Sir Jock and the Prime Minister spoke for 40 minutes this morning.

The Downing Street spokesman insisted it was "entirely normal" that the head of the Army should return from Afghanistan with recommendations.

"The Chief of the General Staff, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Prime Minister and Government ministers are working very hard to ensure that our troops and commanders on the ground have what they need to ensure they can carry out their operations successfully," he added.

Gen Dannatt said this morning that a planned reduction in troop numbers from 9,000 after the Afghan elections later this year would be the "wrong thing to do".

"There is a thought out there that, from 9,000 that we are growing up to, that it might come down to 8,300," he said.

"My observation from looking at this operation over the last couple of days is that that would be the wrong thing to do."

He warned that the UK may even have to increase its military presence in Afghanistan if the case for a "short-term uplift" is made by the United States.

General Stanley McChrystal, the new US military commander in Afghanistan, is currently conducting a review.

Gen Dannatt, who is retiring as Chief of the General Staff later this month, said: "There may well be a case for what I would call a short-term uplift.

"Let's not use the surge word, that's sort of been worked to extinction in Iraq previously.

"But there may well be a case - and our Government will have to confront it if asked - for about 12 to 18 months while the Afghan national army can get the right strength down here, for us to uplift.

"It would be the right thing in the short term for us to stay at 9,000. Down to 8,300 would be wrong - militarily I'm quite clear about that, and, as a member of the Chiefs of Staff committee, I couldn't sign up to that now."

Defence minister Baroness Taylor said Britain had enough troops in Afghanistan for the task and she was not aware that the Armed Forces had requested any equipment which the Government had not provided.

Speaking on a tour of a BAE Systems munitions factory near Usk, Monmouthshire, she said: "The head of the Army has been giving us his views for the last few years while he has been in charge, and we have responded and the Treasury responded to the urgent operational requirements that we need.

"I don't know of anything that the Armed Forces have asked for that we've not been able to provide by way of equipment.

"And if you talk to people who are on the frontline on operations they will tell you that the equipment that the British military has is the best that they have ever had in their history.

"We are not complacent. We still want to improve it further because we need to keep developing it to keep one step ahead of everybody else."

She said troop levels were under "constant review".

"What we have got are the troops we need for the task that we are doing at the moment," she said.

"It is a difficult phase. We've sent extra troops because we know we are in the run-up to the elections and we know that the insurgents are trying to disrupt those elections."

She said UK forces could share helicopters with their allies in Afghanistan.

"I think there are some simplistic approaches taken sometimes about helicopters, because whilst helicopters are extremely important there are lots of things they can't do and they can be vulnerable.

"They can't help if you want to get somewhere quietly at night for a surprise attack. They can't help you to hold the ground that you have taken and that's very important in the phase that we are in."

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