The danger inherent in bold foreign policy prosecution without giving due consideration to force generation and sustainment was starkly revealed this July with the publication of confidential memos between two of the United Kingdom’s senior generals back in 2005. The UK was already committed to Operation Telic in southern Iraq, and was preparing a large-scale deployment [Operation Herrick] to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in January 2006.
In October 2005, Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, in a series of confidential memos to Gen. Sir Michael Walker, the Chief of the UK’s Defence Staff, wrote: “Our support helicopter fleet is creaking badly. JHFI [Joint Helicopter Force—Iraq] is struggling to meet its tasks even with rigorous prioritization. The overall picture is one of an SH [Support Helicopter] force ill-matched to support current operations.”
This obvious fact was also apparent to commanders tasked with taking their forces into combat, such as Col. Stuart Tootal, who commanded the UK’s 3 Para Battle Group in 2006. He resigned from the British Army on his return from Afghanistan ‘feeling frustrated by the government’s treatment of its soldiers.’ In Tootal’s book, “Danger Close,”” [published in 2009 by John Murray] he recounts his misgivings during the planning phase about helicopter availability:
“I was also convinced that the six troop-carrying helicopters and their authorized flying hours that were being made available for the operation were insufficient. As well as hindering operational flexibility, the lack of helicopters would increase risk... The issue was raised up the chain of command and supported by Butler [Brigadier Ed Butler, the senior British officer in Afghanistan during 3 Para’s deployment], but it fell on deaf ears in the MoD and PJHQ.”
In 2004, then-Chancellor of the UK Gordon Brown had insisted on a £1.4-billion cut to the helicopter budget. Over the following years, fatuous denials were issued by the government and the MoD that there was no shortage of helicopters and that commanders had been given all the support that they had asked for.
However, the UK Government’s Defence Select Committee continued to highlight what it clearly saw as lack of battlefield helicopter support.
As early as March 2005, the UK Defence Committee’s Fourth Report noted under ‘Section 6 Air’ a list of principal proposals regarding future capabilities. This included: “A plan to invest some £3 billion in helicopter platforms to replace and enhance existing capability.” However, the summary of the same report concluded: “We are concerned that recognition of their operational value does not seem to be matched by the priority or urgency which MoD gives to their future procurement plans.”
On March 2006, the Defence Committee’s Fifth Report, under Section 3: The UK Deployment to Helmand stated: “[Point 58] The airlift package in support of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, as announced by the Secretary of State on 26 January, will consist of four Lynx and six Chinook helicopters.”
Again the Committee made the following observation: “[Point 59]Given the importance to the Helmand mission of airlift capability... We remain deeply concerned about the ability of the UK’s ten dedicated helicopters to perform the extensive range of roles that will be asked of them, particularly given the demanding environment in which they will operate and the likely attrition rates that will result.”
Even as late as July 2009, little had changed. The chairman of the Defence Select Committee, the Rt. Hon. James Arbuthnot, stated in the Committee’s Eleventh report on Helicopter Capability: “It seems to us that operational commanders in the field today are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations. We are also concerned that operational commanders find they have to use ground transport, when helicopter lift would be preferred, both for the outcome and for the protection of our forces.”
The message did eventually get through and helicopter fleets have been transitioned: AW101 Merlins entered Afghanistan from Iraq, Sea Kings Mk4s were modified, Lynx Mk 9s were re-engined and a higher percentage of overall hours of availability were achieved across all fleets.
But for several years helicopter availability clearly was not up to supporting the army’s need, even though the SH force was flying as much as they were allowed to with the assets and restrictions at the time.
While senior commanders such as Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, have argued that operations are shaped with the assets available at the time, this defence cannot be used if the scale of the task is beyond the total assets deployed.
The mantra of having fewer but more capable multi-mission helicopters is untenable when a commitment is made to spread the military force too thinly, as clearly happened throughout the deployments during this period. More helicopters really do mean more options and flexibility.