Helicopter shortage has troops at mercy of Taliban

The Sunday Times

Five British troops killed in Afghanistan on Friday were caught in a cruel trap, retreating from one blast only to become the targets of a second, even more lethal explosion.

At 5am, a 30-man platoon was making its way along an alley in Wishtan, one of the most dangerous parts of the northern Helmand district of Sangin, when a bomb exploded between two compounds with 16ft-high mud walls.

One rifleman died instantly and five more were wounded, as well as their Afghan interpreter.

A signaller radioed for assistance and a quick reaction force was sent from a nearby base. A medical team took to the air in one of the few helicopters available to Brigadier Tim Radford, the force commander, as the patrol pulled back to regroup.

While they withdrew, a second bomb in the “daisy chain” went off, killing three more soldiers instantly — including one of the already injured men — and wounding another.

As the medical team arrived, American and British Apache helicopters circled overhead, firing intermittently to prevent the Taliban from mounting further attacks. The seriously wounded were ferried to the field hospital at the main British base at Camp Bastion, but a fifth soldier died on the way.

At Forward Operating Base Jackson, where the bulk of 2nd Battalion, The Rifles are based, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson, held a brief service of remembrance for the five men, whose deaths doubled the numbers his battalion had lost during their current tour.

“They paid the greatest sacrifice in the service of their friends, their regiment, the battle group, our country and the good people of Afghanistan,” said Thomson. Then he added: “We will not be turned”, and ordered the bugle major to sound the advance.

The deaths took the number of British troops killed in the space of 24 hours to eight. The way they died has highlighted the toll of the Taliban’s bombing campaign.

Twelve of the 15 British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan in the past 12 days were killed by bombs; three quarters of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the past two years have died this way.

A large number of soldiers have also suffered “life-changing” wounds in bomb attacks. The MoD refuses to give details, but more than 50 are known to have lost limbs in such attacks.

A shortage of helicopters has forced troops to resort to supply convoys that are up to 100 vehicles long and stretch for two miles, leaving them easy prey to Taliban roadside bombs.

Former generals insist the problem has been a lack of helicopters and the government’s failure to give troops the resources they need. Major- General Julian Thompson, who commanded troops in the Falklands and in Northern Ireland, compared the large numbers of helicopters the troops used there with the small number in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s absolutely critical that you have more helicopters with a decent payload,” he said. “When the IRA mounted their culvert bomb campaign in South Armagh, we never travelled in anything other than a helicopter. Supplies went by helicopter. The commanding officer went by helicopter everywhere.”

Last week Gordon Brown insisted the government had sent more helicopters, saying: “We now have almost twice as much helicopter capability as we had two years ago, and we have made orders for new helicopters as a result of the increasing demands that came from both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Brown was responding to criticism by Lord Guthrie, the former chief of the defence staff, who blamed Brown and the Treasury for refusing to give commanders the troops and helicopters they needed.

“As far as helicopters are concerned, of course they need more helicopters,” Guthrie said. “If there had been more, it is very likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs.”

Relatives of one of five dead soldiers whose coffins were paraded through the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett last week, reacted angrily on Friday to a perceived government failure to provide enough funding for the troops. Anne Smith, whose 22-year-old grandson Lance-Corporal Dane Elson was killed by a Taliban bomb a week ago, blamed shortages of kit for the deaths and said Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary, was unfit to hold office. “He’s not fit to be a minister, sat there speaking to us on the television, uncaring. He hasn’t got a sentimental bone in his body,” she said. “Where is he today, he’s not here with us, is he?”

Elson’s girlfriend, Claire Wells, 23, said that given the limited money the government was prepared to spend on the deployment, the troops should be brought home. “They shouldn’t be there,” she said. “There are too many of our lads dying. They are fighting a war that we cannot win.”

This week an inquest will open into the death of Trooper James Munday, the first of 10 soldiers killed in Jackal armoured patrol vehicles, where the driver and commander are vulnerable to roadside bombs. Relatives of Munday, who was 21, are to speak out.

Yesterday the parents of Ben Ford, a private who was killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan two years ago, accused the government of wasting money while the armed forces lacked resources. “How much money do we need to throw at other things in this country before we realise the armed forces need that cash?” said Jane Ford. “What is Gordon Brown doing? Is he just sitting there counting his own money?”

Despite Brown’s denials, a lack of resources in Afghanistan has dogged British forces since they first went into Helmand in early 2006. John Reid, the then defence secretary, who said he hoped British troops might leave without firing a shot, imposed a 3,150 “manning cap” on troops deployed. The cap was imposed at the insistence of Brown, who was then chancellor.

A strategy for British troops to provide security in main urban areas while reconstruction was pursued was undermined by lack of manpower. Instead troops were sent, under US orders, to man northern outposts at Sangin, Musa Qala and Nawzad, where they were under siege from Taliban fighters. They also had only six helicopters, too few to mount effective operations elsewhere.

The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development decided it was too dangerous to do anything and failed to complete the reconstruction projects the Afghans had been led to expect.

“We’ve had three wasted years,” one senior army officer said last week, bemoaning the way in which the Americans were seen as having ridden to the rescue of the British. “As many troops dead as in Iraq and nothing to show for it.”

British numbers in Helmand have increased to just over 5,000, with an 800-man group in neighbouring Kandahar to provide back-up for operations such as the current Panther’s Claw. However, they have just 10 Chinook helicopters, two of which are for special forces use. There are five Lynx helicopters, but these cannot carry as many troops and struggle in Afghanistan’s heat and high altitude.

The Ministry of Defence lacks further decent helicopters to send to Afghanistan, largely because in June 2004 Brown insisted it was spending too much on them. He slashed the budget from £4.5 billion to £3 billion, only enough to buy new helicopters needed by the navy. That decision was taken despite a National Audit Office report two months earlier that there was a 38% shortfall in troop-carrying helicopters that was only going to get worse. The lack of helicopters forced troops to use vehicles with limited protection against bombs.

Nor are snatch Land Rovers and armoured Jackals the only vehicles to prove vulnerable. One of the eight soldiers whose deaths were announced on Friday was driving a Viking tracked vehicle. They have proved resilient against Taliban rocket-propelled grenades, but highly exposed to bombs. In addition, ministers say the

Vector light patrol vehicle, which was specially armoured for Afghanistan but suffers from similar vulnerabilities to the Jackal, is to be withdrawn altogether — except for those used as ambulances to pick up troops wounded by the bombs.

As the death toll rises, what is the way forward in Afghanistan? Tim Collins, the British colonel who won widespread acclamation for his rousing speech before his men went into Iraq, worries that the heart-searching might lead to British withdrawal, which will be seen by Islamists as a victory.

“The big danger is that the Labour government has no policy, reacts very irresponsibly to what happens in the media and crumbles and caves in,” he said. “If Labour loses its nerve on this one — which it has every chance of doing — we are in trouble.”

General Sir David Richards, who takes over as head of the army next month, is determined to fulfil the mission in Afghanistan. “It is vital to our domestic security that we do not allow Afghanistan to once again become an exporter of Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism or give such people a ‘victory’ that could inspire a much bigger threat still,” he said last month.

Civil servants try to play down scathing report on lack of equipment

Senior civil servants are trying to water down a highly critical report on the government’s defence procurement agency after a succession of failures that have deprived frontline troops of vital equipment.

The report, which was commissioned by John Hutton, the former defence secretary, is understood to be particularly scathing of the bureaucracy at the Defence Equipment and Support organisation. Its author, Bernard Gray, a business consultant, believes the organisation’s 8,000 military staff play a key role. However, he said the agency has too many civil servants — 17,000 — who slow down its work.

The report could be published this week — even though it was delivered to Hutton in May. “It is very challenging for the Ministry of Defence and there are elements within the main building who are trying to torpedo it,” said a well-placed source.

One of the worst procurement failures has been the purchase of eight Chinook helicopters for special forces operating in Afghanistan.

They were bought for £259m and delivered in 2001 but were then found, because of a software problem, to be incapable of flying above 500ft unless the sky was clear. The MoD initially decided to write them off but was forced to spend a further £250m revamping them because of a shortage of aircraft. They are due to enter service next year.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Thomson, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, wrote a eulogy to his five soldiers on the day they were killed last week and will read it out at a memorial service at Camp Bastion tomorrow. It says:

‘It has been a grim day here in Sangin but at the end of the day, as we prayed for our fellow riflemen who have given their lives in the service of their country and for the good of the Afghan people, the bugle major sounded the advance and it would have been heard right across the valley as the sun slipped behind the ridge. We turned to our right, saluted the fallen and the wounded, picked up our rifles and returned to the rampart.

I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to “crack on”. And that is what we shall do — there will be no turning, the work is too important. We are undeterred. But we will miss each fallen rifleman sorely. They lived and fought alongside us and tonight our lives are much worse for them not being here. But we can celebrate what they were and what they achieved and we are so very proud of them.

And yet in all of this, we know that our grief is nothing compared to that of their loved ones — parents, wives, children, girlfriends and families. And it is them we also hold tonight in out thoughts and prayers and ask that they may somehow find the strength and courage to face the days ahead.

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