A British Lieutenant-Colonel who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan had only weeks previously warned superiors that men would die because helicopter shortages were forcing troops to travel by road.
Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, Commanding Officer of the Welsg Guards, also told commanders that the organisation of helicopter support in Afghanistan was ‘not fit for purpose’, a leaked memo reveals. On June 5, in his “Battle Group Weekly Update” to the Ministry of Defence, he wrote: “I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters — we all know we don’t have enough. We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”
Despite this the Government and the Ministry of Defence insist that there are enough helicopters in Afghanistan, effectively calling a liar a man who died in action. If a senior commander on the ground says that he does not have enough of something, it should not be for whitehall warriors or mandarins to say that he doesnt know what he’s talking about. Whilst helicopters would not eliminate risk – men still need to be on the ground and to close with the enemy – they would reduce vulnerability dramatically. The gall of the politicians is unbelievable.
Part of the problem perhaps is the history behind the Royal Air Force. Traditionally the RAF has prided itself on fast jets, fighters and bombers. Whilst these are no doubt valuable and very impressive assets, this is to the detriment of more important roles such as support helicopters, close air support and long range transport. Fighters are an independent, sexy feature of the RAF. Whereas the other roles are unglamorous and involve working with other services, and as the junior service the RAF is fiercely protective of its independence. Look at the background of senior RAF officers – by far the majority of them are ex-fighter or bomber pilots.
It would surely be accurate to state that British Military Aviation is hardly fit for purpose. We currently have no dedicated maritime fighter-bombers to operate from our aircraft carriers, instead relying on RAF Harriers, which is hardly ideal. The Army invests in its own close support assets in the shape of the Apache gunship helicopter. There are nowhere near enough support helicopters, particularly the Chinook workhorses. Meanwhile, the RAF has some 200 Eurofighter Typhoons to show off in. An incredible aircraft, but it does illustrate much that is wrong with British military policy in the 21st Century.