Thursday, 8 November 2007

NATO About to Lease Troop Helis for Afghanistan?

Defense Industry Daily (defense procurement, military acquisition, defence purchasing)

Its a disgrace that NATO countries cannot help each other in Afghanistan. This helicopter shortage is just one of the many NATO-coordination problems seen on the ground in the combat zone.

It also previews the potential problems that could crop up for the NATO Response Force that has recently turned operational.

The Globe and Mail article is reproduced below.


Beleaguered NATO set to charter helicopters; Though it highlights rift within alliance, decision will help protect Canadian troops

1025 words
24 October 2007
The Globe and Mail
2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- NATO plans to rent helicopters to resupply front lines and remote bases in southern Afghanistan – an unprecedented move that could reduce ground casualties even as it exposes the unwillingness of major European allies to send their choppers into dangerous, Taliban-infested areas.

Defence ministers meeting today in the Netherlands are expected to approve chartering up to 20 large helicopters, flown by civilian contractors, to provide vital airlift and reduce the number of military convoys exposed to roadside bombs. Most Canadian casualties this year have been caused by roadside bombs.

Senior officers from countries doing the bulk of the fighting are tightlipped about the scope of the commercial helicopter deal, although there is no secret about the deepening rift in the alliance between those countries willing to fight and those unwilling to help those fighting.

Outsourcing helicopter services will also relieve the severely overstrained U.S. helicopter squadrons in Kandahar whose deployment has been repeatedly extended.

NATO's Military Committee, chaired by Canadian General Raymond Henault, “recently passed to political authorities, advice for their consideration to outsource some of NATO's air transport requirements to meet airlift shortfalls in Afghanistan,” said his spokesman, Colonel Brett Boudreau.

Canada, the only country with a major fighting role in southern Afghanistan that has no applicable helicopters of its own, may reap much of the benefit if NATO opts for commercial helicopters and pilots of fortune to fill the gaping holes in airlift capacity caused by Europeans unwilling to venture into conflict zones.

Italy, Spain and France are among the Western European countries with large numbers of big, modern helicopters protected by sophisticated anti-missile defences and flown by highly trained crews. All three countries have turned a deaf ear to repeated pleas to deploy their aircraft to southern Afghanistan.

In the past few weeks, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made a final appeal for military-transport helicopters. He was turned down by Germany, France, Turkey, Spain and Greece, according to a NATO source.

Several of those countries, with troops deployed in northern Afghanistan, far from the worst of the fighting, have urged the Harper government to extend Canada's commitment beyond the current cut-off date of February, 2009. “We have run out of options, if we can't get support from allies, I guess we will have to rent it,” said one frustrated NATO officer who asked that neither his rank nor his nationality be disclosed.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was almost as blunt in advance of today's gathering of NATO defence ministers.

“I am not satisfied that an alliance whose members have over two million soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed for Afghanistan,” he said.

For more than a year, the helicopter shortfall has been among NATO's most pressing priorities and Canadian field commanders in Kandahar have repeatedly said how much they are needed.

Never before has the world's biggest military alliance rented aircraft and hired pilots to fill in combat zone roles.

Details have yet to be worked out but it's unlikely that NATO soldiers, including Canadians, will be flown in the ill-defended chartered helicopters. Rather they will airlift supplies, and ammunition. That will free up the stretched Dutch, British and U.S. helicopters based at Kandahar to transport soldiers and evacuate casualties as well as maintain supply lines.

By mid-winter, large, vulnerable, helicopters – likely aging Russian Mi-17s – will be clattering across Afghan skies delivering everything from bullets to beans to Canadian soldiers deployed in remote outposts across Kandahar province.

Finding helicopters and pilots capable and willing to work in southern Afghanistan, where extreme heat and rugged mountains make flying difficult even without the prospect of being shot at with shoulder-fired missiles or rocket-propelled grenades, will be very expensive.

According to industry sources, a U.S. helicopter charter firm with long experience in deploying large helicopters to remote parts of the globe has already been asked to begin identifying a fleet of available helicopters.

Many Western commercial operators are expected to shun flying in Afghanistan because the risks will be very high. At least 18 military helicopters – all of them armed and equipped with defensive systems such as flares to decoy heat-seeking missiles – have been shot down or crashed, killing 110 soldiers and airmen since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban in 2001. The most recent was a large U.S. Chinook that was shot down in May just after it unloaded scores of troops in southern Afghanistan. Five U.S. airmen, a Canadian military photographer and a British soldier were killed.

The cost of chartering large helicopters is expected to be very high. At standard commercial rates, an Mi-17 – the civilian version of the widely used and rugged Russian workhorse capable of lifting four tonnes – could exceed $100,000 a week, yet fly far less than the punishing days endured by U.S., British and Dutch crews. Given the high costs of maintenance and the premium civilian pilots can be expected to demand for risking their lives, the cost could easily soar. A flock of 20 Mi-17s or a smaller number of the even larger Mi-26s, might cost more than $100-million a year, one industry source said.

“We need helicopters everywhere and one of the options being studied is leasing contracts,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said earlier this month.

Although the chartered helicopters would be leased by NATO'S International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and available for use throughout the country, a senior officer said he expected most of them to be based at Kandahar airport.

Risk reduction

It is hoped that the new NATO heavy-lift helicopters will keep Canadian troops off Afghan roads, and away from deadly improvised explosive devices.

Canadian deaths in Afghanistan by incident, 2002-present

IED: 31

Combat: 15

Suicide attack: 12

Friendly fire: 8

Other: 6


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