Prince Harry could return to combat duties in Afghanistan within the year following an announcement on Thursday that he has successfully completed an intensive training course to fly the army’s Apache attack helicopter.
The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the prince – Captain Wales to his colleagues in the military – has qualified to fly the aircraft, which is one of the most sophisticated in the armed forces.
But a return to Afghanistan will raise difficult issues for his commanders, who are likely to be accused of putting PR before common sense if he is deployed back to the conflict zone. His first tour four years ago ended in semi-farce when a worldwide media embargo was broken, albeit inadvertently, by a weekly gossip magazine in Australia. The prince was rushed back to the UK for his own safety.
Since then he has made it clear he wants to return to Afghanistan to complete a mission cut short last time – and, perhaps, to finally put behind him a reputation for unedifying youthful buffoonery.
Thursday’s announcement may help, because the Apache course has defeated even experienced pilots, and the prince appears to have been the best in his class of 20, trumping the achievements of his older brother, William, who is currently in the Falklands flying Sea King search and rescue helicopters.
The MoD said Prince Harry had been awarded a prize for being “best front seat pilot” – an accolade to “mark out the student whose overall performance during the course is assessed as the best amongst his peer group”.
He was told of the honour at a dinner on Wednesday night during which Colonel Neale Moss, the Apache force commander, congratulated the group for completing a 16-month course that, he said, “requires composure, dedication and hard work”.
In military jargon, the prince is now on “limited combat ready” status, which means he could be sent to Afghanistan with 662 Squadron, part of the 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, based at Wattisham in Suffolk. “It is true to say that he might be deployed in the next six to 12 months,” said a source. “The media needs to act responsibly over this.”
The MoD wants to avoid endless speculation about when and where he might go in Afghanistan, and there seems to be no suggestion at this stage that he might be prevented from doing so for his own safety or that of his colleagues.
Those exact concerns led the then head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, to stop the prince being deployed to Iraq in 2007, saying that to send him to Basra would “expose not only him but also those around him to a degree of risk that I now deem unacceptable”.
A year later, however, he was in Afghanistan, where he spent 10 weeks with the Household Cavalry Squadron before being whisked back to the UK following the publication of his whereabouts in New Idea magazine.
How the MoD will attempt to restrain coverage this time is unclear, particularly as it has no leverage over social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook – a factor that renders meaningless the kind of embargo agreed by all major media organisations four years ago. The MoD will devise an emergency extraction plan to get him out of Afghanistan if details of his whereabouts begin to filter out.
The prince has made no secret of his desire to go back to Afghanistan, despite the risks and the likelihood that his deployment could act as a rallying call for insurgents who would regard him as a prize target.
The 27-year-old appears to genuinely love military life, and wants to make the most of his time in service. “I really enjoy the army,” he said in an interview. “Anyone who says they don’t enjoy the army is mad. You can spend a week hating it and the next week it could be the best thing in the world and the best job you could ever, ever wish for. It has got so much to offer.”
The prince can count on the support of “granny”, who was behind his deployment last time, and the rest of the royal household.
The consensus seems to be that the army has been the making of him. A few years ago Prince Harry was probably the last person you would want at the controls of an Apache helicopter, which can fire several types of rockets, including laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and has a 30mm cannon for close-quarters fighting.
In 2005 he was forced to apologise after he was photographed wearing a swastika armband at a friend’s “colonial and native” fancy dress party. The Board of Deputies of British Jews led the uproar, saying the costume was in bad taste, and a former armed forces minister declared the misjudgment showed the prince was “not suitable” for the royal military academy, Sandhurst.
In a statement from Clarence House, the prince admitted it had been “a poor choice” of outfit.
His regular evenings at the Boujis nightclub in London often led him to come out unsure on his feet and swinging, often in the direction of the nearest paparazzi.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011