Afghanistan helicopters may get extra armour — after they arrive

Merlin helicopters

Merlin helicopters

Eight Merlin helicopters being prepared for Afghanistan will be required to fly troops into combat zones even though it is yet to be decided whether to fit armour-plating for extra protection.

The helicopters being sent over four months after serving in Iraq are being modified to ensure they are safe for the altitudes in Helmand province.

Fitting the Merlin Mark 3 with a layer of armour to protect the crew and troop-passengers from ground fire is not part of the basic modifications. An option has been submitted by the RAF to consider fitting extra armour to the Merlins at a cost exceeding half a million pounds. This would be a separate modification and the request would be sent to the Treasury as an “urgent operational requirement” (UOR), funded from contingency reserves. An RAF source said: “This proposal now has to go through the chains [of command]. But it has not reached maturity.”

Merlin helicopterRAF sources confirmed that the Merlins would be sent to Afghanistan by December without the extra armour. “But they will be used for the whole range of operations, including flying in combat areas,” one RAF source said.

If a UOR goes ahead, Merlins still in the UK would be up-armoured first. Those serving in Afghanistan would have to be brought back one at a time to have the armour installed. “Or the armour could be sent out to theatre and fitted there,” one source said.

The extra armour was not a big issue, the RAF said. Too much armour would affect the Merlin’s ability to take off and operate in “hot and high” conditions, one RAF source said. “Merlins have been used for years in Iraq [without extra armour].”

1010-weapons-cache-1The main threat to helicopters in Afghanistan is from small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. In Iraq, the Merlins faced a threat from shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (Sams) but so far there is no evidence the Taleban have man-portable Sams.

The MoD is spending £45 million on the standard modification programme, including new rotor blades and better avionics and defensive aids. Some of the eight helicopters are still moving British equipment out of Iraq.

The MoD said: “The Merlin is one of our best protected helicopters and we are absolutely satisfied that it will be well protected in Afghanistan.”

Ridgeback vehicle

Ridgeback vehicle

Armoured vehicles built to protect troops from roadside bombs have been marooned at a Dubai airbase for a month because the RAF does not have enough aircraft to deliver them. The US-made Ridgbacks are to replace Snatch Land Rovers but the RAF has been focused on removing equipment from Iraq. The MoD said delivery of the 157 Ridgbacks had to be “prioritised against operational requirements”. They are likely to be moved next week.

A soldier from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, attached to The Light Dragoons, was killed yesterday by an improvised explosive device during a vehicle patrol in Helmand.

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