Helicopter shortage hurts UK in Afghanistan-report
* Airlift restrictions mean more troop movements by road
* Trying to make aircraft last longer not best option
By Luke Baker
LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) - A shortage of helicopters is hurting British operations in Afghanistan, a report by a parliamentary committee said on Thursday, adding to pressure on the government to increase resources in the war zone. In a report whose publication was timed to coincide with a debate about the quality of British frontline troops' equipment, the Defence Committee said there were concerns about the number of helicopters and the defence ministry's programme for procuring new ones.
"We believe that the size of the fleet is an issue, and are convinced that the lack of helicopters is having adverse consequences for operations today," the report said.
"Helicopters provide many vital capabilities to the modern armed forces, from the movement of troops and equipment around the battlefied to the detection and confrontation of submarines at sea. We were concerned both by the proposed reduction in the size of the fleet, and by the emergence of a 'capability deficit' ahead of the introduction of newer helicopters."
The report will fuel calls by opposition parties for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to send more helicopters and armoured vehicles to Afghanistan, where 15 British troops have been killed this month, most of them by roadside bombs planted by Taliban insurgents.
There are less than a dozen heavy lift helicopters for the 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan, limiting the ability to fly people and equipment rapidly round the battlefield. As a result, more have to move by road, exposing them to roadside bombs.
Brown came under fire in parliament on Wednesday, when opposition Conservative leader David Cameron suggested that soldiers' lives were being put at risk because of a lack of aircraft -- a charge Brown brusquely rejected.
The government finds itself in a tight corner. The financial and economic crisis is putting the budget under severe pressure, so it can ill afford spending on expensive new defence programmes.
Instead, the government is planning a defence review next year, which is expected to produce cuts in the 36 billion pound ($59 billion) defence budget, and is trying to extend the life of existing defence programmes, including helicopters, some of them more than 30 years old.
The Defence Committee said it was unconvinced by plans to extend the life of air assets, which would undermine the objectives of the armed forces.
"Only a procurement of new helicopters can meet the original objective of reducing the number of types of helicopter in sercive within the UK armed forces," the report said.
The report also acknowledged that sending more helicopters to Afghanistan would make no difference if there were not enough crews to fly and maintain them.
The report found that air and ground crews were stretched after repeated deployments and manning was under severe strain.
"Operations in Afghanistan have now been made the highest priority, what is know as a 'campaign footing', but this has stretched the manning of the helicopter fleet," so it was not feasible to rush more helicopters to the war zone, it said. (Editing by Tim Pearce)