November 18, 2009: Six British Royal Air Force AW101 Merlin helicopters have arrived in Afghanistan, in response to British army requests for more air transport capability. For a year now, much has been made of the fact that, 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 earlier this year had to withdraw six Lynx (four seat scout helicopters) because they could not operate in the hot climate and high altitudes of Afghanistan. The British helicopter force has been worked hard, with several losses from accidents.
The Merlins are 15 ton medium transport helicopters that the RAF began using eight years ago. Merlins can carry five tons of cargo or twenty troops. Top speed is 300 kilometers an hour and endurance is about four hours. These are being used in Afghanistan in addition to the heavier RAF Chinook (CH-47) helicopters already there. The army itself only has AH-64 gunships and lighter scout helicopters (except for a few transports dedicated to commando use.)
The main problem with helicopters 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. There is no magical quick cure, although Britain is trying to get the United States to provide some CH-47s quickly. The U.S. has the largest force of CH-47s in the world, and no longer has to commit so many of them to Iraq.