Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, by Lewis Page

Blunders behind the lines
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The Independent Culture

One of the most lethal dangers facing British and US forces in Iraq now is a new type of infrared roadside bomb. An armoured Land Rover or a Humvee ripped apart by these "Improvised Explosive Devices" is a frightening and sobering sight. As Coalition forces frantically develop counter-measures against the attacks, the insurgents alter their tactics to keep one deadly step ahead.

Some of the technical details are the subject of a D-Notice. But there is no argument that the technology used for the devices - supplied by the Iranians, according to the British and US governments - is cheaply obtained and the bomb-making skills easily disseminated. This is the type of so-called "asymmetric campaign" that the West faces in its "war on terror". One of the charges made by the former Royal Navy officer Lewis Page in his book is that, instead of addressing these fresh challenges, Britain's defence chiefs are still locked in a Cold War mentality, in which billions of pounds are squandered on heavy weapons that are no longer needed and that, in any event, often fail woefully in performance.

The National Audit Office produces reports on the massive profligacy and inefficiency in defence contracts. Journalists can see the effects on the ground only too easily: soldiers in Kosovo forced to use mobile phones because their battlefield communications system failed; the notorious SA80 rifle jamming during firefights in Sierra Leone; troops in Basra using eBay to replace shoddy gear.

In Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs, Page catalogues the mind-boggling scale and extent of wastage by the military-industrial complex. UK plc has paid billions over the odds on a variety of projects. They include the production line at Westlands for Apache attack helicopters, raising costs to £40m each when they could have been bought from their original US manufacturers for £12m each. The Navy's 44 Merlin Mark 1 anti-submarine helicopters have cost nearly as much as it will need to send a manned mission to Mars. By the time it came into service, its enemy, the Soviet submarine fleet, was no longer a threat. The SA80 rifle needed 85 modifications; £1bn was spent on developing the Nimrod, a project then shelved. The list goes on...

Much of Page's chagrin is directed at BAE Systems, formed when the Tories privatised the aerospace industry and now effectively an offshore holding company which has made a vast fortune from defence contracts. He rails against "pork-barrel" politics, but the story of BAE is not very different from other flogged-off national assets.

Page, surprisingly, does not mention that one reason for the shortages faced by British troops in Iraq was that vital procurement was delayed - because the Government did not want to reveal it was preparing for war. One of the resultant problems was in obtaining material for protection against nuclear, chemical and biological warfare - the supposed threat by Saddam Hussein that Tony Blair used to join the US-led invasion.

Overall, Page has taken painstaking care to detail how the men and women of the British forces - the lions, for whom he is a passionate advocate - are let down by the political and military establishments. Page's donkeys and dinosaurs will accuse him of being a junior officer who has not seen combat and is now making sweeping generalisations. But his job as an underwater bomb-disposal expert was extremely hazardous, while "Unlike most of the British armed forces I have actually encountered and disposed of 'weapons of mass destruction', albeit British rather than Iraqi."

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