British helicopters 'risk escalation' of Libyan conflict
Britain's deployment of Apache helicopters in Libya marks a tactical shift in the military campaign against Moamer Kadhafi's forces but sparked fears Friday that it would escalate the conflict.
"There's certainly the potential for escalation," retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a defence analyst, told BBC radio after British officials confirmed Thursday the decision to use the attack helicopters in the stalled NATO campaign.
"They are quite terrifying when they are on the battlefield, and if you are not used to that sort of firepower, then you are going to be pretty frightened by them.
"It really depends how you want to use the Apaches," he added, saying that using them to protect civilians and block Kadhafi's supply convoys would not be an escalation, but using them in assault operations or to reinforce rebel attacks against the regime would be.
Reports suggest the Apaches and their warship carrier HMS Ocean, which are now in the Mediterranean, could be in action within 24 hours. But a government source told AFP this was a "very ambitious" timeframe.
Earlier this week, as ministers were still mulling the deployment, junior defence minister Nick Harvey denied it would be an escalation of the military operation, which is authorised by a UN resolution to protect civilians.
"The targets would remain the same; it would simply be a tactical shift in what assets we used to try to hit those targets," he told lawmakers.
"We would have at our disposal a weapon with a greater degree of precision, which is better able to hit targets, including moving ones, and with a lower risk of collateral damage."
The helicopters are highly manoeuvrable and equipped with massive firepower, and have been used to kill Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
"Their biggest strength is their ability to use their electro-optics and command and control systems to be able to root out individuals and groups of fighters before directing firepower or troops onto them," Parry said.
But Labour defence spokesman Jim Murphy warned Friday: "This move represents an intensification of military efforts."
He added that it would "put British service personnel in greater danger" -- unlike the fighter jets currently bombing Libya, the lower-flying Apaches are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and even small arms fire.
Anti-war campaigners Stop The War Coalition echoed Murphy's concerns, claiming the move "brings the deployment of ground troops one step closer".
© 2011 AFP