British troops serving in southern Afghanistan have been warned that no extra Chinook helicopters will be made available for at least 12 months, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.
The delay has frustrated Army commanders and could undermine operations against the Taliban, who are expected to launch a full-scale spring offensive against British and Nato forces.
The helicopter shortage will force more troops to travel by armoured vehicle, rendering them vulnerable to attack with bombs and mines, which have been responsible for many deaths in the past 18 months.
Commanders had hoped eight Chinooks, originally acquired from Boeing in the United States in 1995, would be made available to counter any spring offensive.
They have already described 2008 as a “make or break” year in Afghanistan, as intelligence reports suggest the Taliban will attempt to drive British and Afghan troops out of the recently liberated town of Musa Qala.
The most successful operations against the Taliban have all involved the use of helicopters, which allow commanders to deploy large numbers of troops to enemy-held areas very quickly.
Every senior commander who has returned from Afghanistan has told Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the head of Britain’s Armed Forces, that the Helmand Task Force is desperately short of support helicopters.
Yet the Ministry of Defence insists commanders have all the helicopters they require to fight the Taliban.
The Prince of Wales met about 500 paratroopers, with their wives and girlfriends, yesterday as the men prepared to leave for Afghanistan.
Greeted by Lt Col Joseph O’Sullivan, the Prince – who is Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment – met members of the second battalion near their base in Colchester, Essex. The visit followed criticism of the MoD by two coroners after they heard that the deaths of three British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq might have been prevented had they been better equipped.
More than 7,800 British soldiers are now based in Helmand. But while the number of troops has more than doubled in the past two years, the number of helicopters has remained broadly the same.
The force is currently supported by eight Chinooks, which can carry up to 40 passengers each, and four Royal Navy Sea Kings, which can carry up to 10 people.
Four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters are also based in Helmand, but these cannot fly between 11am and 11pm during the summer. The force is also supported by Apache attack helicopters, but they do not carry passengers.
One senior officer said: “Support helicopters are vital because of the flexibility they provide and the manoeuvre capability they give us.
“Without them we will have to go by road and in the Helmand desert the Taliban can see you coming from quite a way off, so by the time you arrive at the enemy’s position they have melted away. If we assault in vehicles we lose the element of surprise and that favours the Taliban.”
The extra helicopters were promised by Tony Blair two years ago and commanders hoped they would be available by the end of next month.
In 2006, Mr Blair said: “Let me just make one thing clear – if the commanders on the ground want more equipment, armoured vehicles for example, more helicopters, that will be provided. Whatever package they want, we will do and it’s not surprising, incidentally, that as a mission proceeds, so you may make adjustments as to what is and isn’t necessary,”
The eight Chinook Mark 3s were mothballed immediately after purchase from Boeing for £252 million because of software problems.
Last year, however, ministers decided to spend an extra £100 million updating the aircraft after it became clear that a shortage of transport helicopters was undermining the mission in Afghanistan.
The procurement has been described by the Commons Public Accounts Committee as one of the “worst examples of equipment acquisition”.