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FactCheck: how many helicopters?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 July 2009

Is Prime Minister Gordon Brown right when he says UK forces in Afghanistan have almost twice the helicopter capacity they had two years ago?

British soldiers take cover as a helicopter lands at Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan (credit:Reuters)

The claim

"We have sent more helicopters. We now have almost twice as much helicopter capability as we had two years ago."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, G8 press conference in response to a question by Channel 4 News, 10 July 2009

"In the last two years we have increased helicopter numbers by 60 per cent, and because we have provided more crews and equipment we have increased their capacity by 84 per cent."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, House of Commons, 13 July 2009

The background

The former head of the armed forces said last week that soldiers were dying because of a lack of military spending.

Lord Guthrie said a shortage of helicopters meant British forces were being put in peril by having to travel on the ground, rather than in the air.

On Friday, Brown sought to counter this criticism, by saying Britain's "helicopter capability" had almost doubled in the past two years.

Today, in a slightly watered-down version of Friday's claim, Brown told parliament that helicopter numbers had in fact increased by 60 per cent in two years, with availability up 84 per cent.

FactCheck looks at whether the government’s helicopter claims add up.

The analysis

A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman told FactCheck on Friday that the helicopter claim we first quoted (Brown's) was "wrong". This was in reference to the "doubled" claim Brown had made at G8.

FactCheck was then told: "We have increased helicopter numbers in Afghanistan by over 60 per cent, and the helicopter hours available to commanders by over 84 per cent from November 2006 to April 2009. We anticipate making further increases over the next 12 months."

This was the claim Brown subsequently made today, but what is it based on?

According to the MoD, the 60 per cent increase in overall British helicopter numbers in Afghanistan came from redirecting existing resources to the conflict.

They also said the 84 per cent increase in availability came from making existing helicopters capable of lasting longer; by more efficient repairs and use of equipment. For example, by fitting new propeller blades ahead of time, it saves that helicopter from being withdrawn from service.

The MoD was unwilling to provide FactCheck with the details of the overall increase in helicopter numbers – to show the real terms increase, from A to B...

It said specific deployment numbers for helicopters, unlike the 9,100 troops we are told about, was combat sensitive information and not to be disclosed.

It is understood the total is somewhere around the 23 or 24 mark, including: Chinook, Sea King, Lynx and Apache helicopters. However, it is an unofficial figure, and little use without a 2007 total to compare it to.

In the absence of deployment numbers, it is difficult to fully assess the precise validity of Brown's helicopter claims. But in this context, a parliamentary response in February this year was useful. It details the overall "in service" number of helicopters available to the MoD – comparing 1997 totals with 2009.

Clearly, the information provided does not specify which arenas these helicopters have been deployed to, and it is a ten-year period rather than two used by Brown, but it does at last hint at helicopter levels. It shows that in April 1997, the army had 342 "in service" helicopters; and that by February 2009 that total was down to 223.

During the same period the navy's "in service" helicopter numbers dropped from 199 to 174, while the air force's numbers increased just slightly from 119 to 127. These figures did not include eight Chinook being reverted to support helicopter standard, aircraft leased by the MoD are also excluded.

If the comparison is just restricted to the four types of helicopters currently used in Afghanistan, the numbers dropped from 369 to 343 during the 12 years.

Now, deployment and "in service" do not mean the same thing; but the overall downward trend hardly sits well with Brown's image of surging helicopter numbers.

You also have to keep in mind that the type of helicopter is very important - because Brown's use of the phrase "helicopter capability" might not necessarily mean extra airlift capacity, which is the crucial facet. For example, Apache helicopters can not technically lift anyone, while Chinook can carry up to 55 soldiers. And eight of those are still stuck in the UK, according to reports.

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said: "My suspicion, when I heard Brown's comments, were that they were including the eight Chinooks at Boscombe Down [in the UK], and the six Merlins we've have bought from the Danes - and from what I know none of those helicopters are in Afghanistan yet."

The verdict

Bob Ainsworth, the MoD minister, said in Parliament on 4 June that: "we can never have enough helicopter lift and I accept that we need to do all that we can to provide it."

While Brown is not directly claiming the UK's helicopter resources in Afghanistan are adequate, he is proclaiming a significant increase - almost 100 per cent in two years was his claim on Friday. Quite a big jump from the real terms increase in numbers of 60 per cent in two-and-a-half years, claimed by the MoD - before Brown repeated it today.

While the true deployment numbers are kept hidden, the beauty of just publicising percentage increases of course, is that going from one apple to two is a 100 per cent rise - but it's still not a lot of apples.

FactCheck rating: 3

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

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