The Nepal-Chinook Debacle – Just why did the Nepalese turn away RAF help?

RAF CHinook HC.2 helicopterIt has been a story worthy of a Monty Python sketch. At great expense the Royal Air Force managed to deploy three heavy-lift Chinook helicopters to India in order to conduct rescue operations in neighbouring Nepal which suffered two very powerful earthquakes in April and May 2015 resulting in the deaths of some 8,000 people with hundreds of thousands homeless.

Ready to come to the aid of Nepal the air and ground crews of the three heavylift helicopters found themselves actually forbidden from flying operations over the disaster zone. Left stranded in India the Ministry of Defence finally pulled the plug on the operation and on May 15th they began to be brought home without flying a single mission.

So just what caused the Nepalese to turn away British help? Here are some of the possible reasons;

  1. The official Nepalese reason.
    The Chinook is a large and powerful aircraft. Its twin main rotors create a large downdraft and it was feared that this downdraft might cause further damage to the already weakened buildings thus endangering more lives. That’s what the Nepalese told the RAF and indeed the world’s press who took an almost bemused approach to the story. There is some truth to these fears and certainly had the aircraft undertaken missions in to Nepal then precautions would have to be taken but this doesn’t explain why the aircraft was refused to fly entirely. The Chinooks could have still moved large amounts of personnel and material around the country in support of the aid effort without coming in to close proximity to the danger zones where they could cause a problem. Interestingly the Nepalese government’s official reason later changed to [No.2].
  2. Overcrowded skies.
    Another more logical explanation could be that Nepal simply couldn’t handle any more aircraft in its airspace. In the days following the earthquake the international community flooded the tiny country with aircraft and humanitarian aid which actually caused the country’s main airport to shut down for several hours because it physically lacked the space on the tarmac to handle the military and civilian traffic. In an interview with Sky News after the decision to call the helicopters back to the UK was announced the Nepalese Prime Minister explained that this was the real reason the helicopters were refused permission to fly. It does still raise the question of why they didn’t fly any mission at all as surely some situation would have arisen where the Chinooks could have been of use especially as UN aid agencies repeatedly asked for more helicopters during the course of the whole affair.
  3. The Chinese angle.
    It has been reported in the west that China became quite anxious about the number of foreign military aircraft and troops operating in Nepal following the earthquake and put pressure on the little country to refuse certain countries from sending any more. Although not confirmed by Chinese or Nepalese sources the recent war of words between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan does support the idea that the Chinese were watching western military operations in Nepal very closely. India too has also been accused of not being happy with the number of foreign militaries in Nepal despite their humanitarian mission.
  4. The prosecution of Lieutenant Colonel Kumar Lama.
    Some political observers have speculated that Nepal refused the British Chinooks in protest over the trial of Nepalese Army Lieutenant Colonel Kumar Lama at the Old Bailey in London which began in February of this year. Lieutenant Colonel Lama is accused of torturing two Maoist rebels in 2005; accusations he strongly denies. He was arrested in East Sussex in 2013 which soured UK-Nepalese relations as questions over whether Britain had the right to charge him for the crime or not were legitimate. With international law stating that any country can put someone on trial for torture it was decided by the Crown Prosecution Service to go ahead with the trial which is currently adjourned until August. The problem with this theory is that while the Chinooks were barred from flying RAF C-17 Globemaster IIIs and Hercules C.4 cargo aircraft repeatedly flew to the country bringing in supplies and repatriating westerners.

Whatever the real reason for the refusal to allow the Chinooks to fly one question remains above all others and that concerns whether or not the RAF, MoD or Foreign Office ever consulted the Nepalese government before deploying the aircraft in the first place? It is also curious that Britain was the only country who had assets deployed to the region that were refused to use them especially since Britain was one of, if not the, largest suppliers of aid with the UK sending around £65 million worth in the first month after the first earthquake.

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