Monday, January 01, 2007

Airy promises

Something we meant to pick up yesterday was a letter from a Mr A James of London N1, who wrote, under the heading, "Airy promises, but still no choppers":

When Tony Blair last summer promised the British soldiers serving in Afghanistan that they would get "anything they need" we were told that there was hollow laughter at the Ministry of Defence and among Service chiefs, because supplies, and especially the desperately-needed extra helicopters, cannot be conjured up from nowhere.

So maybe it would be unfair to ask the Prime Minister at this year's end how many helicopters have been sent to Helmand since he made that promise. But, when he returns from having suntan oil rubbed into his shoulders by the Bee Gees, can he tell us whether one single new helicopter has actually been ordered and, if so, when it will reach our Armed Forces?
Actually, if we had halfway decent newspapers, they would be asking the questions.

And they might also be asking why, in the absence of enough helicopters, the US were providing them, to the extent that the UK was relying on "charity" to conduct its normal operations. The photograph above shows the gunner on a US UH-60 helicopter giving the thumbs up while transporting "British air reaction forces" near Al Amarah, on 15 December 2005 (British soldier arrowed).

This is one of the many stories the British media have missed, another of which is the tangible effect of the lack of tactical helicopters – brought home by this remarkable series of photographs of the British Army headquarters building in the Basra Palace complex.

This first one (right) shows part of the main building as it was in 2003, shortly after it had been occupied by British forces and taken over as the Brigade headquarters. (Note the parked Land Rover in front of the entrance.)

A year later, in May 2004, and the same bulding looks a little the worse for wear. It has acquired a radio mast and a shack in the roof, and some camouflage netting is draped over one wall, but the aspect is still open and there are vehicles parked in front of the entrance. Note also the tree to the right of centre, which appears to be thriving.

An now for the most recent of the photographs. This is taken October 2005, after three and a half years of "peacekeeping" which has been so successful that the British government is ready to hand control back to the civil authorities.

And, as testament to that "peace and stability", gone is the open aspect to the grand palace entrance. After months of rocket and mortar attacks, the area is barricaded with huge concrete blast walls and Hesco fortifications, with sundry equipment in the forecourt. The tree appears to be dying and the lamp post is damaged.

None of these are media photographs and they, unlike the media, illustrate how bad the situation really is in Basra, providing some background to the evacuation of the British Consulate, an ignominious decision to run away, for want of suitable counter-measures - including, as both Booker and I have pointed out, tactical assault helicopters.

As to the rest of the equipment needed, we get no detail from the media at large and while it is now becoming almost fashionable to criticise the government for its failures to provide equipment, Gen Lord Guthrie, a former Chief of Defence Staff, now joining the chorus (again). But not one of them, nor any media source seems to be able to get past the simplistic mantra of a "chronic lack of transport helicopters and adequately protected vehicles".

Perhaps they ought to look over the Iraqi border. Even the Jordanian Army is curently better equipped than us (above left) - and yes, it is (ironically) a Eurocopter.


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