Gethin Chamberlain in Fallingbostel, Germany, for The Scotsman, 22 January 2004
BLACK Watch troops were sent into battle in Iraq without the equipment they would have needed to survive had Saddam Hussein decided to use chemical or biological weapons against them.
Yesterday, Lieutenant Colonel James Cowan, the commanding officer of the Black Watch, one of the regiments in the thick of the fighting, told The Scotsman the shortage of equipment in the Gulf was due to the government’s unwillingness to commit to war until all possible alternatives had been explored, while the regiment’s quartermaster during the conflict criticised the shortage of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) protection suits and equipment.
Despite government assertions that the purpose of the war was to remove Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, British units were sent to the Gulf without enough NBC protection suits to go round, without equipment to decontaminate vehicles after an attack and with unusable detection equipment intended to provide early warning of an attack.
While both men said it was important to keep complaints about other equipment shortages in perspective, they said that future problems could be avoided by a return to a system where essential items were held in stockpiles rather than being purchased at the last minute.
Other senior military figures went even further, calling the failure to supply soldiers with adequate NBC gear “criminal”.
The government has faced fierce criticism over the issue of equipment for troops, with claims that soldiers were sent into action without body armour and appropriate medical equipment.
The widow of Sergeant Stephen Roberts demanded the resignation of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, after saying her husband’s life would have been saved had he not been told to give up his body armour so it could be given to infantry soldiers.
Yesterday, Lt Col Cowan, the Black Watch commanding officer, said that many of the problems that had been highlighted stemmed from getting rid of stockpiles of military equipment. He said the decision to leave the purchase of equipment had been taken because the government did not want to be seen to be preparing for a war while a debate was continuing at the United Nations Security Council and in Parliament.
“As a result, many items of equipment were not available in the right numbers, in the right place, in the right working order at the time they should have been and I think that is widely acknowledged,” he said.
“I think there is a clear realisation that if decisions had been taken earlier then the right kit could have been in place, but there is a clear understanding as to why those decisions were not made.
“Because the government was walking that political tightrope with the UN Security Council and with its own votes in Parliament it could not take a decision to commit to war any earlier than it did. The government itself was not minded to go to war until it had given Saddam Hussein the very last opportunity.”
He said he believed that the government did not want to go to war unless it had to. “To start procuring all sorts of equipment that suggest a war is a very, very powerful political signal that it didn’t want to take,” he said.
“I think the lesson that is learnt is that if you want to leave the decision for operations to the very last safe moment then you have got to have the necessary stockpiles in place in order that you can deploy your force safely.
“I think there are things that you have to have available and the ones that have come out of this war are combat body armour, desert combats, combat boots, NBC equipment and the various medical elements of what was required, clearly things that should have been held in sufficient numbers.”
But he said it was important to keep the shortages in perspective: “We moved millions of tons of equipment and thousands of soldiers over thousands of miles in an extremely short period of time, got them all there, largely correctly equipped, across the line of departure to comprehensively defeat an enemy who essentially failed to put up any kind of meaningful resistance and thereby winning the war. That was a remarkable feat and one shouldn’t let the various things that went wrong obscure that fundamental fact.”
Lt Col Cowan spoke of the government finding itself in a difficult position because the relatively low number of casualties drew attention to individual cases. “People have an expectation that there is a sort of contract between government and army. Armies are sent to fight wars and governments are there to ensure that the very fewest number of people are injured as a result. And that is the difficulty they find themselves in,” he said.
“People now expect war to happen without any death or injuries. Perhaps we are going to reach the point where there will be no deaths at all in any future war, but I have to say I think that is naive and unreasonable.
“I think particularly in the land environment, it is unreasonable. War is inherently complex and chaotic. It is inevitable that accidents will happen, mistakes will be made.”
He said he believed that, theoretically, there had been enough body armour for the whole force, but his own driver did not have any because he had arrived with an advance party three weeks earlier than the rest of the regiment and had missed out on the issuing of armour. Other soldiers had been issued with body armour that did not have a pouch to accommodate the ceramic plates needed to stop a bullet, so had resorted to taping the plates to their backs.
The increasingly bitter row over the death of Sgt Roberts has brought accusations that his life could have been saved if he had been issued with enhanced combat body armour.
The Black Watch Regimental Sergeant Major, Brian Cooper, who was the regimental quartermaster in the Gulf, said that despite the complaints from soldiers and their relatives, the only serious shortfall had been in the supply of NBC equipment. “There is only one area where we were really let down and that is NBC kit – the whole lot, suits, decontaminants, the lot,” he said. “One of the main things we went there for was weapons of mass destruction. If that is what they sent us for, then it was not sufficient.”
He said the requirement was for there to be three NBC suits for each soldier, but he had struggled to make two available. Equipment that was out of date was simply redated to extend its shelf-life, none of the detection equipment had been calibrated, rendering it unusable, and there was nothing available to decontaminate vehicles if there was an attack.
“None of the stuff worked. It was a good job that nothing happened out there,” he said.
But RSM Cooper said he believed other complaints about equipment had been overstated.
Body armour was available, he said, although some soldiers – including himself – had to tape on their ceramic plates, and although the ammunition arrived late, and some items were in short supply, enough arrived in the Gulf to get the job done, even if some of it was in the wrong place.
“The only thing we would have struggled with was if they had used WMDs weapons of mass destruction against us,” he said.
“I think they did a fantastic job with the amount of stuff they got out to us, but it could be improved. My thing is that we should never have got rid of mobilisation stores. We should hold all this stuff, then we could get the right sizes, everything would be up to date and the NBC kit could be calibrated.”
NBC suits are designed to protect soldiers from WMD attacks but once exposed to chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, they have a limited operational life and must be replaced with a fresh suit.
Vehicles exposed to such attacks must be decontaminated if they are to remain operational and sensors designed to detect chemical and biological attacks have to be calibrated to make them effective.
* The military funeral of Lance Corporal Andrew James Craw, 21, of the 1st Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, took place in Tullibody, near Alloa, Clackmannanshire, yesterday.
He died in an accident near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on 7 January, two days after he had arrived in the country.