British government criticized over Afghanistan equipment

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s defense secretary faced angry questions in parliament on Monday over the shortage of vital military equipment in Afghanistan, where 15 British soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

British troops from the Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS) patrol a Taliban-held area of Afghanistan's Helmand province during operation Panther's Claw July 11, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

The death of eight soldiers in a single day has shocked and angered the public and led opposition politicians to demand the government say what it is doing to get more helicopters and well-armored vehicles to stretched frontline forces.

“The government must explain why our armed forces are having to do so much with so little,” said Liam Fox, defense spokesman for the opposition Conservative party, emphasizing Britain’s lack of heavy-lift helicopters.

“If we cannot move our forces by air, they are more vulnerable on the ground. How on earth did we get into such an unacceptable position?” he asked.

Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the vast majority of them in Helmand, a province in the south that has been a focus of fighting against Taliban insurgents.

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said helicopter flying hours had been increased and additional helicopters and vehicles with heavier armor would be sent to the war zone -- next year.

“We have made great strides to increase helicopter capability and availability with a large degree of success over the last two years in Afghanistan,” said Ainsworth, the third defense secretary in nine months.

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U.S. and British troops have launched an operation across southern Afghanistan in the past two weeks to try to recapture territory from militants and improve security ahead of the presidential election next month.

Both British and U.S. troops have suffered heavy losses in the offensive, largely because the Taliban are using powerful roadside bombs to deadly effect.

One of the biggest problems British forces face is a lack of helicopters, especially Chinooks, which can carry large numbers of men and much equipment over long distances, essential in Afghanistan.

At present, troops usually have to move by land, over poor roads, making them more vulnerable to roadside bombs.

“We have put (our troops) on the ground in very, very difficult circumstances, but ... without the necessary material support, insufficient numbers of troops, insufficient equipment, with no political strategy on the ground to speak of,” Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told Reuters during a Web discussion forum.

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“It’s a patchwork of different efforts that isn’t properly coordinated ... What defines success hasn’t been properly defined. I think we are deluding ourselves if we think there is suddenly going to be a victory.”

Britain does not reveal the number of helicopters in operation for security reasons, but there are fewer than 10 British Chinooks in Afghanistan, a very small number given the size of the force deployed.

Fox said the Americans had eight times as many aircraft available, and criticized the government for cutting 1.4 billion pounds ($2.25 billion) from the helicopter budget in 2004.

Ainsworth rejected the criticism and said Merlin helicopters would shortly be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Keith Weir; editing by Tim Pearce