Closing the helicopter gap (on paper)

In January, I enjoyed 15 seconds of fame commenting on the shortage of helicopters for peace operations in The Economist (I’d already raised the issue on this blog and for ECFR).  I found myself in touch with Thomas Withington, an aviation journalist researching the problem.  He was kind enought to quote me back in May, but it was evident that he knew a lot more about the technicalities than I did.  Now he’s published a first-class study of which countries have what helicopters, and who might send them to Darfur.  The IHT takes up the story:

The report said military powers like the U.S., Britain and France are tied down in wars and other peacekeeping operations. But it singled out the Czech Republic, Italy, Romania, Spain, Ukraine and India, saying they have suitable aircraft needed for the mission.

A UN official in Darfur told AP the mission has only 27 transport helicopters, all commercially leased. UN documents say the mission needs 18 medium-lift military helicopters and the force has sought to get six attack helicopters. But the UN official said it has none and an offer from Ethiopia of five combat helicopters was still being discussed.

Many military helicopters that could be used by the UNAMID mission in Darfur are sitting in hangars or being used in air shows, the report said. NATO nations “could provide as many as 104 suitable helicopters for the UNAMID force,” saying the alliance members best placed to provide the aircraft are the Czech Republic, Italy, Romania and Spain. In addition, it said, “Ukraine and India could together contribute 34 helicopters.”

There was no immediate comment from the governments of those nations. The report was endorsed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has repeatedly expressed frustration over the lack of attack and transport helicopters and other critical gear that he says is crucial for the Darfur peacekeeping mission.  “Given the terrain and security situation in Darfur, it is critical that member states provide missing aviation assets,” Ban said in a statement released by his office.

The governments involved would doubtless argue that they are doing their best elsewhere: India is the UN’s #1 helicopter supplier, Ukraine has attack choppers in Liberia to deter any new trouble there, Spain has committed two planes to Chad, etc. I am increasingly inclined to think that, while I usually view the idea of “UN standing forces” as a miasma, there is a case for some sort of international helicopter pool for peace ops. That was where Thomas and I ended up in May:

The pool of aircraft “could be available to the UN, AU and others. They wouldn’t be UN owned but it might be possible to fund a standing pool of aircraft,” says Gowan. “The most convincing political basis we’ve seen for it is that it should be something largely focused on the region where the bulk of UN peacekeeping is concentrated, which is Africa, and that it should be something shared between the UN and the AU who would fund this pool for missions that were mandated by the UN or AU.”

A nice idea on paper. But not much comfort to the people of Darfur, I admit.

PS: Mark reminds me that, last November, Indian combat camels were mooted as an alternative to helicopters.  I find no evidence of progress on this front.