One of the workhorses used by British forces in Helmand Province is leaving the country early under the UK’s phased withdrawal.
After four years flying in Afghanistan the British fleet of Merlin helicopters has completed its final mission and is being readied to leave the country early.
The announcement is the latest development in the UK’s phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.
During their time serving in the conflict the helicopters have flown in excess of 18,000 hours, moved more than 7,900 tons of kit and stores, and transported over 130,000 personnel.
Engineers will now clean and dismantle the helicopters so they can be flown back to their base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire on C-17 transport planes.
Commenting on the announcement, Group Captain Frazer Nicholson, the Commander of the Joint Aviation Group, based in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, said: “In 2010, we required more than 2,300 helicopter hours a month and now that number has dropped by around 40%.
“We are now able to redeploy the Merlin from theatre as we simply do not need the helicopter capacity we currently have.”
The Merlins operated in conjunction with Chinook helicopters as troop and equipment carriers but the number of UK bases in Helmand Province has fallen – from 137 in 2010 to 11 this year – meaning fewer helicopters are needed to support them.
British forces based in Afghanistan are being scaled back gradually to complete a full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Around 5,200 will be serving in the country by December of this year compared to a peak of 9,500 in 2012. That will diminish further throughout next year.
“The Merlin fleet has served with distinction in Afghanistan but our role has changed significantly in recent months and returning the Merlin fleet now is a key element of our orderly drawdown from Afghanistan,” said Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
“British forces on the ground still retain appropriate capability to move personnel and equipment by air as required, as well as support our Afghan and ISAF colleagues,” he added.
Squadron Leader Kevin Harris, Officer Commanding 1419 Flight, Merlin Detachment at Camp Bastion, paid tribute to those who flew or worked on the helicopters.
He said: “The aircrew and engineers have worked tirelessly to operate the Merlins in support of UK forces in Afghanistan and it has been an immense privilege to have commanded such a fine group of young men and women.”
After their return to RAF Benson the Merlins will join the rest of the Merlin Force in the ongoing transition of the aircraft to Joint Helicopter Command’s Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force.
The maritime force is trained and equipped for expeditionary joint operations and the Merlins will be prepared for their new role in supporting amphibious operations.
RAF personnel are currently training the Royal Navy aircrew and engineers on the operation and maintenance of the helicopter, which is due to move to a maritime role by 2015.