Defence Minister Nick Harvey rejects French claims that Britain is about to send Apache attack helicopters into Libya – but confirms it is an option being considered by the UK.
Military chiefs are considering deploying Apache attack helicopters in Libya but no final decision has been made, the Government has insisted.
Defence Minister Nick Harvey contradicted claims by French defence minister Gerard Longuet that Britain would follow the French in sending helicopters into the fight against Colonel Gaddafi, after Labour MPs complained Parliament was being “kept in the dark” about the deployment of UK forces.
Mr Harvey told the House of Commons: “My understanding is that the French have indeed taken a decision to deploy their attack helicopters in Libya. I state again for the avoidance of all doubt: no such decision has been taken by the United Kingdom.
“It is an option we are considering and there is absolutely no sense in which it is true to say that we have kept Parliament in the dark about a decision.”
On Monday, Mr Longuet told reporters at a European Union meeting: “The British, who have assets similar to ours, will also commit. The sooner the better is what the British think.”
Labour’s John McDonnell said any decision by the Government to use attack helicopters will make a “qualitative difference to the strategy because it will mean a greater risk to UK service personnel”.
His colleague Dennis Skinner said: “Hasn’t this intervention been subject to mission creep ever since it began?”
Hasn’t this intervention been subject to mission creep ever since it began? Dennis Skinner, MP
Mr Harvey said the use of helicopters would not represent an escalation of the mission but only a “tactical shift” to improve the ability to strike moving targets more precisely.
It is understood that, if authorised, Apaches would fly from HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean for joint operations with French aircraft to stop Gaddafi’s forces targeting civilians in Misrata.
Helicopters fly lower than warplanes and are more exposed to ground fire. There are fears that Nato troops could get sucked into ground fighting if aircraft are downed and there are attempts to rescue the crews.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers, director of research at the Royal United Services Institute, estimates that the cost of Britain intervening in Libya has already exceeded the £100 million mark and could rise dramatically if helicopters are sent in.
He told Channel 4 News: “I would be surprised if we hadn’t spent more than £100m, and probably quite a bit more than that.
“If we start introducing new systems like Apache helicopters it could rise substantially. Helicopters are very costly in terms of crews, maintenance, spare parts and so on. And if we start losing them it could get very expensive – up to £50m or £60m per aircraft.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if we hadn’t spent more than £100m on the Libyan operation – and probably quite a bit more. Prof Malcolm Chalmers, RUSI
Shortly after the beginning of the conflict last month, Chancellor George Osborne told the Commons that the cost of military operations against Colonel Gaddafi “will be in the order of tens of millions of pounds, not hundreds of millions”.
Prof Chalmers said: “I think the new turning point in the last couple of weeks has been the denial of Misrata to the regime. If they had taken Misrata they could have negotiated the partition of the country.
“Because Misrata has been secured, that’s now a very important base for rebel forces to expand out of. It means the regime has to fight on several fronts at once, and that’s when the regime starts to get more and more wobbly.
“More arms supplies are getting through to the rebels, so that’s also shifting the balance of forces. On the surface, it seems a little bit static, but I think it’s entirely possible that there will be a real breakthrough on the ground soon.”