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Getting boots off the ground
Choppers are vital—and hard to find
Jan 24th 2008
MOVING troops across southern Afghanistan usually involves a giddy mountain-hugging flight in a transport helicopter—preferably escorted by a mean Apache attack helicopter. Despite the risk from old-fashioned ground fire, particularly in narrow valleys, a ride in a chopper is still better than land travel on ambush-ridden or non-existent roads.
Western military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would be much riskier, and probably impossible, without the widespread use of helicopters. No NATO meeting passes without a request for the allies to send more choppers to Afghanistan. But even comparatively well-equipped Western forces, such as Britain's, have been stretched to find enough machines.
The situation is even more acute for the United Nations. Its peacekeepers need the power and mobility that helicopters offer in remote, rough places but find it increasingly difficult to beg and borrow enough.
After much delay, the UN has started to deploy to the bloodied wilderness of Darfur, in western Sudan, to beef up the 7,000 African Union peacekeepers and create a hybrid force of 26,000 troops. Foot soldiers have been fairly easy to find, but no country has yet provided the 18 transport and six attack helicopters that the UN requested. Without such airlift, the new force may be as powerless as the one it replaces. In neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic, a parallel European Union peacekeeping mission struggled to find choppers until France—the main contributor to the mission—reluctantly stumped up ten aircraft. UN officials now doubt they could launch another peacekeeping mission in, say, Somalia.
Is there a real lack of helicopters, or just too little political will? Richard Gowan, of New York University, notes that sub-Saharan countries have many wars but hardly any helicopters; traditional UN troop contributors, such as India, are close to the limit of what they can supply; some Western countries such as America and Britain are overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan; while others are reluctant to become involved in fighting, be it counter-insurgency or tough peacekeeping.
America has thousands of helicopters but is already worried about its ballooning, billion-dollar bills for wear and tear on its military equipment (and the administration flinches at the thought of military involvement in yet another Muslim country). European NATO countries have more than 1,000 transport helicopters, but still rely heavily on American airlift in Afghanistan. That reflects the outdated design of their armed forces, still focused on territorial defence against a Soviet invasion; military plans assume a defined front line with rear staging areas supplied by road. In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, there are no front lines and road convoys everywhere are among the most vulnerable targets.
Worse, flying in new conflict zones is harder than in Europe. Helicopters perform poorly in hot weather and at high altitude. Both apply in Afghanistan in summer months. Even in low-lying Iraq, British forces found that their Lynx helicopters, designed to carry a dozen soldiers, could manage one passenger at best during the summer heat. Among European NATO arsenals, few helicopters have defensive equipment such as flares and chaff to deflect shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles.
Helicopters are expensive and delicate machines requiring heavy maintenance, especially when flying in dusty conditions. That means that each aircraft needs about 30 ground crew, who in turn have to be protected from attack. Countries are reluctant to endanger such valuable—and vulnerable—assets, particularly in uncertain or unpopular missions.
Britain is slowly withdrawing from Iraq, but finds itself fighting an unexpectedly hard campaign in Afghanistan, where it forms the second-largest foreign contingent. In the scrabble to find more helicopters, it has taken over six Merlin search-and-rescue helicopters ordered by Denmark. It is also fixing the costly botched procurement of eight heavy-lift Chinook helicopters, grounded in 2001 because they could not be certified as safe.
Other big European allies are deployed in the quietish north of Afghanistan, and reluctant to become involved in the fight in the south. France and Italy, moreover, say they are heavily committed in other operations, for instance in the Balkans, in southern Lebanon and now in Chad.
For UN peacekeeping, Western countries generally prefer to send money rather than troops and vital equipment. The bulk of the UN's manpower comes from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. India is already the biggest donor of helicopters to the UN, while Pakistan is busy fighting militants in its tribal areas. “The situation would change overnight if China, which is starting to get involved in peacekeeping, were to lend some of its helicopters,” says Mr Gowan. Another source might be Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet-block countries, which have plenty of helicopters, but have so far offered few of them.
For now, the UN makes up the shortfall by hiring private firms to provide helicopter transport. Such commercial aircraft are not insured to fly in combat zones, even to pick up wounded soldiers. But the UN is loth to hire attack helicopters privately; it would seem—horrors—like hiring mercenaries. Yet when 500 UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone were taken hostage in May 2000, it was not just the arrival of British paratroopers that turned back the advancing rebels; it was the unsung actions of a South African mercenary, strafing and rocketing the rebels from his Soviet-made Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopter.
Source: The Economist