Wednesday, January 17, 2007

C'est magnifique…

Four British Royal Marines, we are told by agencies and others, have staged a dramatic rescue attempt in Afghanistan, strapped to the wings of Apache attack helicopters.

This followed the death on Monday of Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Ford, who was shot when more than 200 British troops attacked a Taliban fort in Jugroom in the southern Helmand province.

At the time, Ford's fate was unknown to his comrades who discovered him missing. A rescue was planned using Viking carriers but, when the Apaches became available, they decided the fast attack helicopters provided the best opportunity to rescue him.

Two marines each were strapped to the wings of two Apache helicopters, with a third Apache and several ground units providing covering fire. After landing at the site of the earlier battle, the four soldiers found Ford dead, but were able to recover his body.

According to UK military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce, this is believed to be the first time British forces have ever tried this type of rescue mission. "It was an extraordinary tale of heroism and bravery of our airmen, soldiers and marines who were all prepared to put themselves back into the line of fire to rescue a fallen comrade," Bruce said.

That is as may be or, to put it slightly different, c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. This was an extraordinarily risky venture as the two troop-carrying Apaches would have had their mobility heavily restricted and would, therefore, have been extremely vulnerable during the whole operation. And this would not just have been a question of lives at risk. Apache helicopters are extremely expensive - ours costing £60 million apiece - and any loss would have been a propaganda coup for the Taliban.

Without in any way denigrating the bravery and determination of our troops, however, this points up the dangerous lack of equipment available to our soldiers in Afghanistan, especially helicopters.

But here, we are not talking about Chinook-type transports that the media and the bandwagon-jumping Tories have been calling for. The shortage here, as we have pointed out again and again, is in light tactical helicopters (example pictured above). The nearest thing we have is the highly unsatisfactory Lynx of which, apparently, we have only four in theatre.

To an extent, we have been able to get by because our allies have been stepping in with support, and the Americans have been particularly generous with air support and the loan of helicopters (another example of which is illustrated – this one showing Lt Gen Graeme Lamb departing a US Black Hawk helicopter in which he has just hitched a ride) so much so that the British forces have acquired the title "the borrowers".

On this one occasion though, it seems the Americans were not there to bail us out so we had to rely on the amazing bravery of our soldiers and airmen. This should not be happening. We should not have to rely on this simply to make up for deficiencies in basic equipment. The time is long overdue for Blair to turn his rhetoric into action.


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