April 2010:

He says this is Brown's last chance to be accountable for his decision. Will he start by admitting that British forces in Helmand didn't have sufficient helicopters?

July 2009:

David Cameron today said it was a "scandal" that the British army did not have enough helicopters to transport troops around Afghanistan. Speaking as a new poll suggested that the growing British casualty rate had not increased public hostility to the conflict, the Conservative leader said the government should deal with the helicopter problem "as a matter of urgency".

(Note that by this time, Cameron and Osborne had already definitively settled on the “It’s Worse Than We Think”/debt scare campaign line.)

Liam Fox:

Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, said there are not enough helicopters in Afghanistan. He said: “The Government must explain why our Armed Forces are having to do so much with so little. If we cannot move our forces by air they are more vulnerable on the ground. How on earth did we get into such an unacceptable position?”

Cameron again:

He pointed out that Britain has more than 500 military helicopters - and yet less than 30 were in Afghanistan. "What is required is commitment and focus," he told Sunday Live with Adam Boulton. "And frankly that hasn't been there for the last three years, and we need to see urgent action by the Government and that's why we are calling for it." He confirmed that the Tories would not ringfence or increase defence spending if they won the next election, saying only the NHS and overseas aid budget would be protected from cuts. But he added: "I do think you have to differentiate between the urgent operational requirements - what we need to spend now in Afghanistan to make sure our troops are safe - from some of the long-term, future decisions about defence spending."

David Cameron, two weeks ago:

David Cameron has promised Westcountry troops in Afghanistan will get "everything" they need despite expected deep cuts to defence spending. The Prime Minister even made an explicit pledge to make available more Chinook helicopters, which are partly made in Somerset, to help troops who are fighting the Taliban..."Yes, there are difficult decisions but we will have some amazingly capable defence forces with some of the latest equipment in the world, including more Chinook helicopters." Mr Cameron's comments will be seen as an attempt to undermine Shadow Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, who at the Labour Party conference last week accused the Government of "outrageous hypocrisy" for stalling over a contract to build Chinooks. In December, Labour placed an order for 22 Chinook helicopters, which will partly be built at the AgustaWestland factory in Yeovil, Somerset. The coalition had said the deal is "in the melting pot" as part of the spending review, but the contract's future now appears to be assured.

19th October and…take it away, Kevin.

The depressing thing here is that everyone realises that the SABR/Future Rotorcraft/multiple other acronyms programme, the bit of the defence procurement bureaucracy responsible for buying replacement helicopters, has been mismanaged for many, many years.

There was the buy of the infamous HC3 Chinooks, which lands on Michael Portillo’s plate. There was a whole string of nondecisions (whether to have more Chinook, whether to have more smaller helicopters like Merlins, whether to use the same aircraft for the Find and Lift elements of the requirement…) that were the work of the Labour years.

There was a catastrophically awful decision, to keep the RAF’s Puma helicopters and upgrade them at considerable cost despite the fact they aren’t powerful enough to lift a useful load in Afghanistan in summer, which was the individual contribution of Geoff Hoon.

Also, it was nowhere near as easy as the Tories used to make out. Buying more Chinook (if it was really that obvious that we needed a relatively small number of really big aircraft…) wouldn’t have worked for much of the Afghan campaign because the Americans were using as many as they could get hold of, and the one production line at Boeing was tied up by an order from Canada. Having not made the decision before 2004 or thereabouts, we had to wait for spots on the line to become available.

But eventually they did, and 22 new helicopters were ordered, which together with the existing fleet would have provided a very large amount of lift capacity (provided the landing zone is big enough…). The plan was to replace the Pumas and the new Merlins in RAF service with Chinooks, which would have had the big advantage that it would have created a surplus of the transport-type Merlins.

Why? Because the people worst off for helicopters are the Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force, which provides the Marines’ air transport and usually a surprisingly large percentage of the total. They fly three different subtypes of very old Westland Sea King helicopters, the last in the fleet and increasingly expensive to maintain. Having the ex-RAF Merlins available would solve that problem as well. The SDSR document says that there will be maritime Merlins, which there are already, and that there will be 12 new Chinooks with Merlins “alongside them”. Whether CHF gets any is a mystery.

So what are they thinking? If you’ve read the above Cameronian Compendium, you might think that the plan is to slash expensive, unilateral, maritime stuff in favour of throwing everything at Afghanistan and the support of similar air-supported expeditionary land campaigns next to the Americans. We’re meant to:

differentiate between the urgent operational requirements - what we need to spend now in Afghanistan to make sure our troops are safe - from some of the long-term, future decisions about defence spending

after all.

So, well, where are the helicopters? What’s the rationale? This is as close to a rationale as we’re getting:

On Afghanistan, Mr Cameron said: "For too long we did not have enough helicopters in Afghanistan. As I understand it today, with the extra US helicopters, there are more than enough helicopters to provide support for our troops, transport, casualty evacuation and other things.

And with that he vanished in a cloud of ink. But it’s all right ‘cos Uncle Sam will always provide. You might wonder what he thinks about it.

Also, having consulted the SDSR annexes…guess which support-helicopter type is being life-extended again? Puma. Because keeping them was a scandal in 2004, but stable and principled in 2010.