London: British military helicopters set to be deployed to Afghanistan were not properly equipped to fly combat missions, a newspaper said Tuesday, fuelling a row over adequate resources for troops.
The helicopters were not fitted with special armour, leaving them vulnerable to attack by Taliban extremists while transporting troops, the Daily Telegraph newspaper said, citing unnamed Royal Air Force sources.
The Ministry of Defence rejected the report, saying the six aircraft set to be deployed by the end of the year were “fit for operational use.”
“Our Merlin Mk3 helicopters have ballistic protection as standard, and are being fitted with a range of modifications to make them fit for operational use,” a spokesman said.
The newspaper said pilots wanted the helicopters fitted with Kevlar armour, which would cost about 100,000 pounds (117,000 euros, 169,000 dollars) for each aircraft, to protect them from bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
Claims of a shortage of helicopters have been at the centre of a political row over adequate equipment for the armed forces amid a surge in the British death toll in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced to defend the government’s strategy in Afghanistan amid ongoing questions about Britain’s involvement in the conflict.
British forces have suffered their highest casualty rate since the US-led invasion of the country in late 2001.
Twenty-two soldiers were killed in July fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Helmand province, as British troops waged the attack phase of an offensive, beating back the extremists ahead of elections on August 20.
The row has been deepened by a legal battle by the government to cut the compensation awarded to two injured soldiers.
A British soldier also faced court-martial Monday for refusing to return to Afghanistan as the armed forces minister insisted that the fight against the Taliban was improving Afghan lives.