Air Transportation: Britain And The Cold War Curse


July 17, 2009: British commanders in Afghanistan have asked for more troops, and a lot more helicopters. Currently, the 9,000 British troops there have 17 helicopters (10 CH-47Ds Chinooks, which can carry 33 troops or 10 tons, and seven Sea Kings, a 1950s design that can carry a dozen troops.). But two of each model are reserved for commando use. Britain has always had a SAS detachment in Afghanistan, and they need helicopters to carry out their commando missions.

Meanwhile, while the British have one helicopter for every 700 troops,  the Americans have one for every 200. British commanders believe they need (based on American experience) about fifty helicopters. The British government has promised more helicopters, but has recently withdrawn six Lynx (four seat scout helicopters) because they could not operate in the hot climate and high altitudes of Afghanistan. The British government promises more helicopters, but the troops aren't holding their breath. Also unlikely to show up are any additional troops. While 2,000 additional troops were requested, only 140 more are being sent.

The main problem here is that, while Britain has a large defense budget (by European standards) of $50 billion, much of it is committed to pay for Cold War era weapons that are of no use in Afghanistan. There, Britain is at war, but most of Britain's defense budget is still paying for jet interceptors, nuclear submarines (some armed with nuclear missiles) and many other items that were designed for a World War III type conflict against the Soviet Union.

Britain still needs some of the nuclear submarines,  as maintaining control of the seas is essential for an island nation. The nuclear weapons are hard to give up, as they are seen as an essential "weapon of last resort." Moreover, obtaining major items of equipment, like military grade helicopters, cannot be done quickly. Nor can you shed Cold War era systems quickly either. The problems Britain faces now were set in motion over a decade ago, and will take nearly as long to put right. That is, if there is any will to do right by the army troops currently fighting a real, and not a potential, war.



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