'Top Gun' Prince Harry set for Afghanistan return

This photo, issued by Clarence House, shows Prince Harry standing in front of his Apache Helicopter in March 2011. Prince Harry could return to Afghanistan after he qualified as an Apache attack helicopter pilot with an award for his gunnery skills, the Ministry of Defence says

Britain's Prince Harry could return to Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence said Thursday, after he qualified as an Apache attack helicopter pilot with a special award for his gunnery skills. The 27-year-old -- the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II and third in line to the throne -- has completed 18 months of "intensive" training including a stint in the United States. Harry received a prize for being the best co-pilot gunner at a dinner on Wednesday to celebrate the completion of training by around 20 pilots, St James's Palace said in a statement. He was given a polished 30-millimetre round from an Apache cannon, mounted on a stand, at the dinner at Wattisham Air Station in Suffolk, eastern England, where he has been training. A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that Harry could serve in Afghanistan but said that the young royal first had to gain further operational experience. "We do not comment on individual states of deployment. But in the normal run of things we would expect that he would be deployed in eight to 12 months," the spokesman told AFP. Harry's father, heir to the throne Prince Charles, was "very proud" of his son's achievement, the Prince of Wales's office said. Harry, a captain with the Army Air Corps, is keen to return to combat in Afghanistan after he was hastily withdrawn from his first tour of duty in 2008 when a media blackout was broken. His elder brother Prince William is currently on a six-week tour in the Falkland Islands as a Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter pilot -- a deployment that Argentina, which claims the British-ruled archipelago as its own, has slammed as "a provocation". Britain has around 9,500 service personnel fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, the second largest contingent after the United States. Britain has used the two-man Apache helicopters in Afghanistan to hunt Taliban fighters, gather intelligence and provide cover for larger Chinook transport helicopters. As co-pilot gunner, Harry sits in the front seat of the Apache and is responsible for commanding the mission, firing weapons and liaising with forces on the ground, with some flying duties. He is known as Captain Wales within the Army Air Corps. Harry's course included two months of training in the United States last year at bases in California and Arizona. Colonel Neale Moss, the commander of the attack helicopter force at Wattisham, paid tribute to the graduates for passing an "extremely challenging" course. "This requires composure, dedication and hard work and I congratulate all of the students as they go forward to join an operational squadron and continue to learn more in their aviation careers," he said. British Apaches also served over Libya last year as part of a UN-backed, NATO-led mission to protect civilian protesters from the forces of late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi. Britain's royals have a tradition of serving in the armed forces, sometimes during conflict. Harry's grandfather Prince Philip, the queen's husband, served on several Royal Navy warships during World War II and his uncle Prince Andrew served as a Sea King helicopter co-pilot in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina. Charles also served in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

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