LONDON, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Britain's Ministry of Defense has announced plans for a $660 million upgrade of Chinook helicopters operating in Afghanistan.
The move follows criticism of a shortage of air power in Afghanistan and demands by British commanders pressing for urgent improvements to the combat helicopters in order to halt the growing death toll.
The project will include fitting the 38 aircraft with more powerful engines to steer better in the country's harsh conditions.
The entire fleet with get new Honeywell engines and more advanced digitalized cockpits that will be fitted by Thales.
Afghanistan's high altitude and searing heat cause huge problems for the twin-rotor heavy lift combat choppers.
Defense experts say the multimillion dollar upgrade will allow the aircraft to fly longer without refueling and spend more time in front-line operations before being grounded for service and repairs.
"The Chinook is the cornerstone of our helicopter support effort in Afghanistan," said Quentin Davies, the minister of defense equipment and support, in a Defence News report. "These improvements will increase its capability and ensure it can play an even more valuable role in supporting our forces and NATO coalition allies in tackling insurgency in Afghanistan."
Despite the decision, critics insist British forces need more helicopters, not just beefed-up capability.
Last month the former head of the British Army, Sir Richard Dannat, stirred controversy with his claims that a lack of helicopters was putting British soldiers at risk in Afghanistan.
The claims have since then spawned a political row over inadequate equipment for the armed forces amid a surge in the British death toll in Afghanistan since the start of the year.
The British government has been blamed for the death of more than 200 soldiers, killed by roadside bombs planted by Taliban insurgents. The allegations suggest British troops were traveling in poorly armored vehicles to operation fronts because of a shortage of helicopter assistance.
"Upgrading the Chinook is part of a series of improvements to our battlefield helicopter force and is powerful evidence of our commitment and determination to give our forces the very best equipment," Davies was quoted as saying by the BBC.
British media said several of eight Mark 3 Chinooks in Afghanistan have not been serviced since delivery in 2001 because they were fitted with the wrong software. They are scheduled to be operational by the end of the year.
Last month, two British Chinooks were destroyed in a sequence of accidents: one crash landed and had to be destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of insurgents. Another was hit and destroyed by enemy fire.