Minister is forced to retract admission on helicopters

A furious Gordon Brown today forced an outgoing minister to retract his admission that British troops in Afghanistan do need more helicopters.

Hours after outgoing Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown delivered the devastating final salvo, he was forced to rush out a statement this morning taking it back.

The former top UN official had admitted that British forces fighting the Taliban did not have enough helicopters, a question that has dogged the Government and Gordon Brown directly for weeks now.

He also said ministers had done a poor job of preparing the public for high casualties.

Lord Malloch-Brown, one of the most high-profile outsiders brought into government by Mr Brown in 2007, is leaving office at the end of this month.

He admitted: ‘We definitely don’t have enough helicopters. With these modern operations and insurgent strikes what you need above all else is mobility.’

He added: ‘We didn’t do a good job of warning the British public that we and the Americans were going on the offensive.’

His remarks sharply contradict the Prime Minister, who insists troops have enough resources and appeared to have sent Downing Street into a fury.

Critics say a lack of helicopters has contributed to mounting casualtiesThe peer was forced to send out a statement by way of ‘clarification’, insisting there were ‘sufficient’ resources for the current operations.

Released shortly before Gordon Brown’s monthly Downing Street press conference, Lord Malloch-Brown said he knew the issue was a ‘high priority’ for the Prime Minister.

‘There is a huge procurement effort ongoing in the Ministry of Defence to deliver just this,’ he said, repeating Mr Brown’s claim helicopter numbers have risen 84 per cent in the past two years.

He added that extra Merlin helicopters would be sent to Afghanistan later this year and that the Nato helicopter fund would also start to deliver more aircraft within the next few months.

The Prime Minister then told reporters: ‘For the operation we are doing at the moment, we have the helicopters that we need. Lord Malloch-Brown has corrected any misrepresentation there has been of what his statements are this morning.’

He added: ‘It is completely wrong to say this operation is under resources and under provided for and it is completely wrong to say it is not working.’

Defence think thank, the Royal United Services Institute, described the original comments as ‘astonishing’.

Director Professor Michael Clarke said: ‘He seems to be throwing down a challenge, which is to say “we have to rethink our strategic priorities over Afghanistan and what we are trying to achieve there”.

‘That is something a number of people have said, but for a Government minister to say this at this time is very interesting.’

And despite the Prime Minister’s repeated insistence troops have what they need, senior army figures still disagree.

Today, Brigadier Ed Butler said the overall mission in Afghanistan has been compromised by a lack of equipment from day one.

The retired officer said he had made clear in 2006 when he was commander of British forces that they only had ‘just about enough resources to do what would be seen as a very steady state task’.

‘I think the wider campaign in Afghanistan, and this has been the case from the early days, has been insufficiently resourced to undertake a proper counter-insurgency.

‘I made it very clear from the word go into the Ministry of Defence that we had only just enough to do the job in hand and certainly that would not take any account of the Taliban taking the fight to us or for any expanded operations which we might get into.’

He had warned that any expansion in operations in the region would require ‘more helicopters, more intelligence and more boots on the ground’, he added.

The Defence Ministry’s own annual report admitted yesterday that the armed forces are overstretched and do not have enough money to keep operating at current levels.

It says the military are not ‘ready to respond to tasks that might arise’ and are failing to ‘build for the future’. An increasing percentage of units had serious weaknesses.

Lord Malloch-Brown’s comments came after Labour peer Lord Foulkes caused outrage by accusing Britain’s top soldier of disloyalty and helping the Taliban.

He attacked General Sir Richard Dannatt for daring to speak out about the shortage of equipment for troops in Afghanistan.

He said public demands for more helicopters by General Dannatt and Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, were ‘giving succour to the enemy’.

His remarks triggered an avalanche of counter-attacks from former senior officers and politicians.

Westminster sources said he is a notorious establishment toady who slavishly defended his close friend Michael Martin, the disgraced former Speaker of the Commons.

After an undistinguished ministerial career – clouded by an episode of drunk and disorderly behaviour – he was given a peerage in 2005.

His comments represent a dramatic escalation in the war of words between Labour loyalists and senior military commanders.