Afghanistan and the Case of the Missing Helicopters


Helicopters, or at least the lack of them, have generated a number of headlines and a great deal of consternation in Westminster over the past few weeks.  David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, has made a great deal of political capital out of his comments that the UK armed forces have over 500 helicopters available, with only 30 of them currently deployed to Helmand Province. 

This information is undeniably correct, however, it is important to take a look at the facts behind the statement rather than accept at face value what is merely a political sound-bite.  What the commanders on the ground are shouting for is more troop-carrying helicopters, and of the 500+ aircraft supposedly available, it comes as no surprise that not all have a troop-carrying capability.

Helicopters are not simple creatures, they are on the whole highly expensive and complex pieces of equipment; however, given their capability and flexibility, they are highly valuable and highly sought after battlefield assets.

With regards to their day to day management, for any number of aircraft deployed in theatre only a proportion of that number will be serviceable and available for operations at any one time.  This is due to the need for ‘down time’ for regular routine maintenance and the repair of any faults that materialise during use; the harsher the operational environment, the greater number that may be unavailable.  Looking at Afghanistan, although 30 helicopters may be based there, you can bet good money that the full complement will not always be available.

In addition to the aircraft, the services have a finite number of air, ground and maintenance crews to support them, all of whom cannot be deployed in theatre at the same instance.  Troops need to be rotated out of theatre on a regular basis; in addition to this a number may be sick or injured, undergoing training or promotion courses and will therefore be unavailable for operational deployment.  As these crews are highly trained specialists, it can take years and cost millions to create significant increases in numbers.

So, with regards to David Cameron’s magic 500 helicopters, the breakdown in numbers are as follows*:

Apache WAH-64D – total number 67: Nine of these attack helicopters are already deployed to Afghanistan, of the 58 remaining in the UK, one is awaiting repair following a crash landing and 15 are in storage.  Of all the aircraft, only 32 have the necessary equipment fitted for use in Afghanistan.

Chinook HC 2/2a – total number 40: Eight Chinook’s are currently deployed in theatre, although some sources site several additional aircraft.  On paper this leaves 29 to 32, depending on who you believe, available for use.  In addition to this a number of aircraft are utilised by the Operational Conversion Unit permanently for training.  However, recent reports suggest that there are insufficient numbers of trained aircrews to keep the remainder airborne.

Gazelle AH.1 – total number 42: The Gazelle is a light observation helicopter and is due to be retired around 2012.  Given the type’s limited remaining service life and the time/cost considerations to fit them out for Afghanistan, in addition to their limited hot and high capability, this aircraft should not be considered for deployment.

Lynx Mk 3/Mk 8 – total number 61: This aircraft is primarily a naval helicopter, its role being anti-ship and anti-submarine.  Given that Afghanistan is land-locked and the number of aircraft required for deployment at sea and for training, this aircraft should not be considered for deployment.

Lynx Mk 7/Mk 9 – total number 94: Of the 94 Lynx helicopters belonging to the Army Air Corps, 72 are Mk 7’s and 22 are the Mk 9 wheeled variant.  Four Mk 7’s are currently deployed to Afghanistan, although due to the limited power of their Gem engines they are severely restricted during the Summer months.  Of the 22 Mk 9’s on strength, 12 are currently undergoing a conversion programme to replace their Gem’s with more powerful CTS800’s; these aircraft will not be completed until November 2009.  Given the numbers of aircraft available, although this does not reflect the number of aircraft in squadron service, more Lynx aircraft could be deployed.  However, given their limited performance and troop carrying capability, it would appear pointless to deploy them in larger numbers unless they have been fitted with the new engines.

Merlin Mk 1 – total number 42: Again, this aircraft is primarily a naval helicopter, however, if necessary, they could be de-roled and converted into troop carriers.  These aircraft have also recently been fitted with a new defensive aids suite, making them suitable for deployment if required.

Merlin Mk 3/3a – total number 28: A number of these troop carrying helicopters have just returned from Iraq, however given the extreme environment they have been operating in, the aircraft may require prolonged maintenance before they are redeployed.  In addition to these, the RAF recently acquired six aircraft from the Danish armed forces to supplement their numbers.  As previously, following fitment of the necessary equipment these could be deployed in sufficient numbers.

Puma – total number 34: Having been in service since 1972, the Puma is one of the troop carrying mainstays of the UK services, with several still deployed in Baghdad.  Although in recent years the type has suffered a number of losses both in the UK and Iraq, the advantage of the Puma is that it is widely used throughout the world and as such, additional aircraft can be purchased and converted in a relatively short period of time if necessary.  It also ensures that spare parts are readily available from a number of different sources.

Sea King Mk 3/3a – total number 25: This aircraft is primarily a Search and Rescue helicopter and based in the UK.  Of the 25 available, 16 are allocated to SAR duties within the UK, and 2 are based in the Falkland Islands, with the remaining aircraft utilised for training and maintenance replacements.  When deployed abroad it is usually in very small numbers, therefore, this aircraft should not be considered for deployment to Afghanistan in the troop carrying role.

Sea King Mk 4/6CR – total number 42: Six aircraft are currently deployed in theatre with a further 23 aircraft currently available.  The remainder are currently being repaired, in deep maintenance or being modified.

Sea King Mk 5 – total number 15: As previously, this aircraft is primarily a naval helicopter which, like the Merlin Mk.1, can be de-roled and converted into a troop carrier.  A number of these aircraft are presently utilised for Search and Rescue duties, due to the limited numbers available, they should not be considered for deployment.

Sea King Mk 7 ASaC – total number 13: This aircraft’s primary role is that of Airborne Surveillance and Area Control, or what used to be termed Airborne Early Warning.  Given the permanent nature of its conversion and the limited number available, this aircraft should not be considered for deployment.


Although the UK armed forces do have over 500 helicopters available, over 360 of these are not dedicated troop carriers, although a number could be readily converted if necessary.  Of the remaining 140 plus aircraft which are, 30 are already in theatre and the remainder cannot be deployed immediately because:

  • there are insufficient air crews available and of these, not all are currently trained for operating in hot and high conditions or type rated to those aircraft currently in theatre
  • not all are fitted with the necessary long range communications equipment, armoured seats or defensive aid suites required in Afghanistan
  • a number of these aircraft are in deep maintenance, being repaired or deployed elsewhere
  • a number of these aircraft are dedicated to training and type conversion within the UK

Given the above restrictions, it would be difficult to ‘surge’ a large number of transport helicopters to Afghanistan, in the circumstances, it would be more prudent to ‘trickle’ additional aircraft and personnel as and when they became available.  If the UK did decide to surge sufficient numbers, the existing stock of spare parts would quickly diminish, this would be due to the harsh conditions experienced in theatre and the need to ensure that those aircraft presently based in the UK, but grounded due to lack of spares, were made serviceable.

Taking the above into consideration, there is a strong demand for additional troop-carrying helicopters in Afghanistan, however, what is also required is a long term, coherent strategy to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of trained personnel and serviceable aircraft to achieve this.  It is not a simple case of air freighting any spare aircraft to the requisite location, this would be a recipe for disaster, but a case of providing additional funding to purchase the necessary equipment, additional spare parts and expand the present training programme to ensure that such an increase is both achievable and sustainable for the remainder of the deployment.  Our forces have a sufficient number of troop-carrying helicopters available to give our commanders the capability they need, unfortunately, what is missing is the political and financial support required to achieve it.

*(Note: given the ‘fluid’ nature of aircraft serviceability, the numbers of aircraft denoted as available may fluctuate and should be regarded as approximate.  These numbers do not include those based at dedicated training establishments, civilian aircraft with military registrations, Chinook HC.3’s or dedicated special forces support aircraft)

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