Whir of helicopters drowns out real defence questions

Yesterday, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron used his first question to the Prime Minister in Parliament to challenge him on his record of equipping British forces with helicopters in Afghanistan:

“Will he start by admitting that when British forces were sent into Helmand, they did not have sufficient helicopters to protect themselves and get the job done?”

He was revisiting an issue that had blown up in July last year when General Richard Dannatt (the already outgoing and subsequently Conservative Party bound head of the British Army) said he had to borrow a US helicopter to travel around in theatre.

Perhaps even more damningly the 11th report of the Defence Committee revealed that a “lack of helicopters is having adverse consequences for operations”.

Yesterday, Cameron cited Colonel Stuart Tootal, former commander of 3 Para, and Lord Malloch-Brown, the former Foreign Office Minister to back up his point.

Brown has three lines on helicopter provision. First, he says that commanders always said they had enough helicopters to do the operation in question.

This is a rather clever way of giving the impression that there are always enough helicopters because no commander worth their salt would design any operation on the basis of having helicopters that they don’t have.

Brown’s second line is to point to recent improvements in the provision of helicopters to Afghanistan and mention spending:

“We have increased the flying time by more than 100 per cent [is he right?]…the Merlins were adapted, and are now in Afghanistan…the Chinooks were also adapted…I have to say to him that the amount of money spent in Afghanistan now is £5 billion a year”

Third, Brown reminds us that “we are part of an international operation in Afghanistan, where we share equipment with our coalition partners.” (And this is not limited to foreign militaries. NATO and the MoD also have contracts with civilian firms like Skylink to provide them with additional helicopter lift.)

Of course, PMQs is all about political posturing not the nitty-gritty of policy. The government’s difficulties with helicopters fitted David Cameron’s theme for the day: he wanted to portray the Prime Minister as unwilling to take responsibility for the big decisions. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, claimed quite the opposite by insisting he had significantly increased spending on front line equipment.

Verbal jousting over helicopters in Prime Minister’s Questions does point to serious procurement problems within the Ministry of Defence. According to Rob Dover at King’s College London, “avionics is a particularly rich source of problems in UK defence procurement”. He documents various delays as American-bought avionic square pegs for the Chinook and Nimrod helicopters were fitted into British round holes.

But it also perhaps masks much deeper problems facing the defence budget which is in line to be cut (whisper it) by at least 11% in real terms between 2010 and 2016.

This figure comes from a RUSI report which suggests tough choices will have to be made over expensive long term projects such as replacing Britain’s nuclear submarines, and the building of two new aircraft carriers. If these were to be cut, or delayed that could mean job losses in the Defence industry.

In addition, operations in Afghanistan cost £4.5 billion in 2008/9. The only way that could be significantly reduced would be by scaling down Britain’s military presence. Britain’s tight financial situation is a serious consideration in its continued participation in NATO’s operation in Afghanistan.

More generally, the direction of defence spending and the issue of Britain’s military role in the world is up for review almost as soon as the new MPs take their seats.

In subsequent posts, we’ll have a look at some of these issues in more detail. This is a little out of my usual sphere of reading so if you think I’m missing something or just plain wrong…get commenting!

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