Joel Fitzgibbon’s admission that there is no immediate solution to the problem of insufficient helicopters at Tarin Kowt to evacuate injured Australian or allied personnel is deeply alarming.

Sources based in Tarin Kowt first raised this issue with Crikey several weeks ago and again this week after the evacuation of injured SAS personnel was delayed by more than five hours when an aero-medical evacuation helicopter from Tarin Kowt crash-landed in a dust storm. There was no back-up due to dust storms at Kandahar.

Australians operating from Tarin Kowt are reliant on the American AME helicopter stationed at the US base at Tarin Kowt. There is no Australian AME at Tarin Kowt. If for any reason the US AME is unavailable — dust storms, mechanical problems, crash-landing or being needed elsewhere — the only evacuation option is an AME from Kandahar — more than an hour’s flight time to the south. It is still unclear why the US AME was not available to evacuate SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy when he was critically wounded on 8 July, leading to significant delays in his treatment.

Since yesterday a further incident has come to light in which Australian Reconstruction Task Force personnel had to be evacuated by road following an incident near Baluchi several weeks ago. The RTF is engaged in infrastructure, engineering and training work in the Tarin Kowt valley area. Injured personnel, some of whom required IV drips, had to be evacuated to Tarin Kowt, approximately fifteen kilometres to the south, by road as there was no AME helicopter available. Road evacuation necessarily exposed them to hostile fire or the roadside bombs that are becoming the Taliban’s weapon of choice in areas where it is outmatched in conventional exchanges. Crikey also understands that ADF personnel in the region have not been kept informed about the lack of evacuation contingencies.

Fitzgibbon — ably backed by Greg Combet — has made an impressive start as Defence Minister but appears resigned to being unable to provide an additional helicopter that could act as back-up at Tarin Kowt, as he told The SMH:

One, we are already overstretched. Second, our helicopters would have to be upgraded… So even if we wanted to send helicopters to Afghanistan, we’re not in a position to do so, at least not on the basis of ensuring the safety of those who fly them and those who would be recovered by them. We’re stuck with using the Americans’ and the International Security Assistance Force partners.

Fitzgibbon indicated additional helicopters may be available in April 2009.

Sources based in the region say even a non-AME helicopter could be used as a stop-gap — the soldiers injured on Monday were evacuated by a Chinook diverted from another mission. Ultimately the issue is the time taken to get wounded men to medical treatment. And there are US and Dutch helicopters — usually Apaches — available at Tarin Kowt to provide the escorts required if personnel are to be evacuated under fire.

One assumes Fitzgibbon is not trying to blame the Americans or Dutch for the lack of an evacuation contingency at Tarin Kowt. Ultimately, the responsibility for looking after our troops falls to us. The ADF is indeed overstretched and has to make judgements about how best to deploy limited resources.

Further, no one would pretend operations in Oruzgan are straightforward. But it isn’t right that Australians in harm’s way will have to wait until April for there to be some sort of back-up in the increasingly common event that the Americans at Tarin Kowt can’t evacuate them.