Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NATO and Choppers

It's a common refrain, but European militaries are ridiculously short of helos, especially those with the capability to operate where they are most needed, places that tend to be hot and high.
BRUSSELS, Nov 27 (Reuters) - In conflicts from Afghanistan to Africa, international efforts to secure peace are being hobbled by a chronic lack of the tool vital to all modern militaries -- helicopters.

A shortage of top-end machines needed for tropical conditions plus a reluctance of countries to bear the costs of deploying them are being exacerbated by a procurement logjam that means a major renewal of Western fleets is years off.

Recent appeals for helicopters by the United Nations, NATO and European Union mission commanders have faced a deafening silence, forcing planners to study second-best options such as "rent-a-chopper" deals with the private sector.

"We should be better off when the new-generation helicopters arrive, but the procurement gap only starts closing in about two years," complained one NATO official.

The shortage is hitting peacekeeping throughout the world.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned this month that the planned U.N.-African force in Sudan's Western Darfur region would not be able to fulfil its mandate without a further 24 helicopters to help cover a region the size of France.

A separate EU-led operation to safeguard refugees spilling across the border from Darfur into Chad and the Central African Republic is also at least 10 machines short, commanders say.

Why are helicopters important?

"Without helicopters, nobody moves in that kind of terrain," said Andrew Brookes, defence analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

"Helicopters can do 3-4 miles (5-6 km) a minute and get you wherever you need to get. On the ground, it might take 10 hours and the battle is already lost by the time you get there."

A tale of two militaries:

IISS's annual 2007 survey of global military muscle put the U.S. armed forces' total helicopter fleet at 6,023 while defence analysts estimate NATO's European members have around 2,100.

Pointing the finger at Britain's continental allies, Foreign Secretary David Miliband this month questioned how EU countries had only provided 35 helicopters for NATO's 40,000-strong force in Afghanistan and none at all for Darfur.

The hidden cost...

Tim Ripley, defence analyst at Jane's Defence Weekly, said the real cost of helicopters was in maintaining and operating them -- especially in the hot and dusty conditions where many conflicts are played out.

"Every 500 hours of flying time you have to take them apart, and put them together again. It is an open-ended cheque book issue and most countries have finite money to spend on this."

Ripley estimated an eight-helicopter deployment for a year meant setting aside 24-32 machines because of a need to rotate machines every three months, not to mention a team of 150-200 personnel to maintain and run them.

"The only (European) allies able to do this are Britain, France, Spain and Italy," he said.

Inadequate equipment certainly exacerbates the situation.

Even that assumes that those countries have the machines that can pass the "hot and high" test -- that is, have the power to achieve sufficient airlift in areas such as Afghanistan, where the air is thinned by heat and high altitude.

"When we were putting together the requirements for the Afghan mission, we discovered surprisingly few member states' helicopters were up to the job," said the NATO official.

Ripley said only British, Dutch, and U.S. forces had the powerful versions of the Chinook CH-47 heavy-lift helicopter needed for work in Afghanistan, while Germany had a limited number of CH 53 machines that can also serve there.

About those CH-53s...

There is a solution on the horizon, but it's run into (entirely expected) problems...

Military officials expect the shortfall to ease as more armies take deliveries of European aerospace group EADS's multi-role NH90 helicopter, but the question is when.

The group announced in July that the project had run into problems serious enough for it to take a 105 million euro ($155.9 million) quarterly charge.

"A lot of NH90s have been ordered that haven't arrived yet," said the NATO official.

So what's the stop-gap? Turn to the Russians!
As a stopgap, NATO and EU are looking to rent out workhorse helicopters such as the Russian-made Mi-17s to take over the least challenging transport tasks in places such as Chad and Afghanistan, freeing up core fleets for vital operations.
This problem isn't going to be going away anytime soon, especially with the probable decrease in the U.S. fleet during the recapitalization period that will follow a withdrawal from Iraq. The lesson to be learned here is that you lose seemingly mundane capability like helos at your own peril.

h/t: Alert 5