The government has signed a deal to buy six assault helicopters from France at a total cost of €140 million and the expenditure was approved behind closed doors by the parties on the House defence committee on Monday. Nobody questioned the decision or the wisdom of spending such an amount of money because defence expenditure is sacrosanct – bolstering defence capability has always enjoyed unconditional support from the political parties.
There are questions that need to be asked, however. Can we afford the expense, at a time when public finances are already stretched, and the government is under increasing pressure to support vulnerable groups because of soaring prices? Were there no more pressing needs this money could have been spent on? Would the purchase of six assault helicopters make any real difference to defence capability, even if the plan is to buy another six in the future?
The government reasoning is that it has to replace the 11 Mi-35 assault helicopters, which it has agreed sell to Serbia because the maintenance costs demanded by the Russian manufacturer were extortionate. In other words, the assault helicopters are considered a key part of the National Guard armoury. Nobody ever asks whether having six or 12 assault helicopters would effectively defend Cyprus from an offensive by Turkey (no other country is likely to attack)? Our government has shown it had no intention of using the assault helicopters either to protect the Cypriot EEZ or to liberate the occupied area so we can only guess they have been bought for defensive purposes and to take part in the October 1 military parade.
If the helicopters could be used for firefighting at least their purchase could have been justified and we would get value for money, but this does not seem possible. This year, the government was again desperately trying to lease firefighting aircraft before the start of the fire season. Bearing in mind that firefighting aircraft are needed every summer, should the government not have prioritised the buying of two or three instead of spending the taxpayer’s money on attack helicopters that are unlikely to ever be used? And in the extremely unlikely event they are needed how useful would they be?
As we are seeing all over the world, big fires have become much more frequent and more devastating because of the changing climate conditions and are a constant threat. Having a number of firefighting aircraft always available is imperative in these conditions which are not disappearing any time soon. A government with foresight would be investing in firefighting equipment and aircraft instead of attack helicopters, bearing in mind there is much bigger risk of a fire devastating the country than war.