Developing

Afghanistan: Camp Bastion Equipment Return

A major operation to airlift thousands of tonnes of military equipment from Afghanistan has begun as troops prepare to leave the country.

In what could be seen as the biggest spring clean in the world, the redeployment effort will see everything from nuts and bolts to helicopters and armoured vehicles returned to the UK.

The British presence will be almost halved by the end of this year to 5,200 and all combat operations in the country should be over by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan forces in control.

The plan is to leave as little as possible behind.

At Camp Bastion, the main operating base in Helmand which has grown to the size of a town, there are now expanses of dust where canvas villages once stood as empty tents are removed.

From the heavily-armoured trucks to far smaller trailers and buggies, battlefield vehicles sit parked up in a 700-capacity compound.

Used and out-of-date ammunition is collected, ready to be sold for scrap.

Since January some £70m worth of British equipment has left Afghanistan and this is expected to increase rapidly as the withdrawal gathers pace.

Lieutenant Charles Ashington-Pickett explained that as well as ensuring nothing goes to waste, the process should prevent weapons and other potentially lethal equipment going astray.

"We class this material as ACTO, meaning attractive to criminal and terrorist organisations," he said.

"This ranges from weapons and ammunition to radios, cameras and batteries."

Until the beginning of this year roughly £500,000 worth of equipment each month moved through six huge canvas warehouses at Camp Bastion.

They are now handling 60 times as much - about £30m each month. Some is reused within Afghanistan but increasingly it is being flown back to the UK and stored or sold on.

Major Katie Lamont's unit is responsible for sorting and packaging the loads. One of their roles is to handle spent ammunition and live rounds which can no longer be used.

These will be melted down as scrap metal, with the high brass and steel content meaning the decommissioned rounds can be sold for £2,000 per tonne.

Maj Lamont said: "One aircraft can carry 80 tonnes worth about £160,000. The cost of the flight is about £20,000 so it represents good value for money."

Unwanted armoured vehicles will go through an advanced service, similar to an MOT, and a high powered chemical car wash to ensure no insects or contamination are brought back to the UK.

Staff sergeant Paul Dunning, whose team of engineers are coming to the end of a six-month tour, expects to have serviced 370 vehicles ready to return by the time they leave this month.

Those in charge stress that the fight is not over. British troops still import more equipment than they export but this balance is shifting as the 2014 deadline approaches.