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10-year Chinook saga grounds Britain in Afghanistan

LONDON (Reuters) - Part of the difficulty British forces face in Afghanistan, where 15 soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks, can be traced back to mistakes made in procuring helicopters more than a decade ago, experts say.

A handout photograph from the Royal marines shows members of 42 Commando during Operation Aabi Toorah (Blue Sword) in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in an image released March 19, 2009. REUTERS/MOD/Crown Copyright/Handout/Files

In 1995, Britain ordered 14 U.S.-built Chinooks, hoping the twin-rotor, heavy-lift helicopters would enable troops and equipment to be shuttled around a battlefield like Afghanistan.

The helicopters were delivered by Boeing in 2001, but eight of them could not be used because software source code needed to certify their airworthiness was not supplied. Access to the code had not been specified as part of the contract.

As a result, the helicopters have spent most of the past eight years sitting under wraps in hangars, while the Ministry of Defence and Boeing have engaged in protracted negotiations.

In the meantime, the cost of the helicopters has risen by more than 70 percent to 422 million pounds ($690 million), and is expected to top 500 million by the time they are finally fit to enter service, probably some time next year.

Parliament’s public accounts committee, in a report published in March, called it one of of the worst procurement mistakes it had seen, “bordering on irresponsibility”, and said it could put the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan at risk.

In the past two weeks, public anger over the rapidly rising death toll has prompted opposition politicians to criticise the government for failing to get enough helicopters to the warzone.

“If you want to move more troops around the battlefield, you need more helicopters,” David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, told Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a parliamentary question-and-answer session on Wednesday.

Brown defended the government’s record, while reiterating a promise to get more helicopters to Afghanistan by next year -- a reference to the troubled Chinook programme.

“Loss of life is tragic, but it is not to do with helicopters,” he said, to jeers from the opposition parties.

MORE HELICOPTERS, MORE CREW?

With at least 10 of the 15 British troops killed this month hit by roadside bombs, public anger has focused on the increased dangers soldiers face when they have to move by road. U.S. troops moving by road have also faced a heay toll.

Given the vast distances involved -- Helmand province, where Britain’s 9,000 troops are based, is bigger than Switzerland -- heavy-lift helicopters are the best, safest solution.

General Richard Dannatt, the head of Britain’s army, acknowledged the need for more air assets as he visited the front line in Helmand on Wednesday.

“Air mobility is a key enabler and I know the commanders need a lot of that,” he told the BBC, referring to the Chinooks.

“We are reworking a number of Chinook helicopters, eight of which will come on line quite soon,” he said.

While the Chinooks may be ready for deployment next year, air defence experts say that may not be sufficient -- training of crews and support staff also has to take place.

“If you gave the air force those eight Chinooks tomorrow, they couldn’t do anything because there aren’t the crews and maintenance teams to support them,” said Andrew Brookes at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“Unless the money is spent on training extra crews for the Chinooks, and you’re going to need 12 or 13 crews to support eight more aircraft, they’re not going to be much use. It’s a lot more complicated than just increasing the number.”

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