Escalation: British attack helicopters now set to join the fight in Libya

In a significant escalation of the conflict, the Apaches – based on HMS Ocean – will join French helicopters in risky operations which reflect deepening frustration among British and French defence chiefs about their continuing inability to protect civilians in Libya.

Apaches, which are being used in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, can manoeuvre and attack small targets in relatively built-up areas. Heavily armed Apaches and French Tiger helicopters are equipped with night vision equipment and electronic guidance systems. Forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have shed their uniforms, are using civilian vehicles and hiding armour near civilian buildings, including hospitals and schools.

The decision to deploy the helicopters is a clear recognition that high-level bombing from 15,000 feet cannot protect civilians who continue to be attacked by rocket and mortar shells.