Bunker mentality as UK prepares for Gulf War II

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If Britain is plunged into Gulf War II, its forces will be directed from a 300ft-deep bunker in London's suburbia. Ian Burrell went below ground to observe the preparations.

Beneath a 20ft screen showing pictures from CNN, military chiefs scuttled between computer terminals swapping details of latest developments in the Gulf. As each day passes without a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis, so the likelihood increases that the bunker near Pinner, in the suburbs of north-west London, will switch to a war footing.

Yesterday, as a British naval task group continued to exercise in Gulf waters, military chiefs who run the bunker, officially known as Permanent Joint Headquarters, Northwood, admitted Britain's part in any conflict would be marginal. An Army source said: "The Americans' combined power really is ... formidable; it's really quite impressive. Our ability to contribute to that force is relatively limited."

He conceded the US forces did not need British support. "The [Americans] have the power and capability to do whatever they have in mind on their own. [Britain's] military contribution is second to the political contribution we are making in this area."

Yesterday it emerged that the British force already in the Gulf has not been inoculated against chemical and biological weapons, despite American and British concern that Iraq possesses such weapons. The vaccines given British and US forces in the 1991 war have been linked with debilitating illnesses suffered by many veterans of the conflict.

The task group exercising in the Gulf in Operation Bolton is based around the carrier HMS Invincible, which has 21 aircraft aboard. A second carrier, HMS Illustrious, is undergoing final preparations in Gibraltar before heading for the Gulf to support or replace Invincible. On 20 January the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, sent a directive to the Northwood bunker, where it was received by the Chief of Joint Operations, General Christopher Wallace. The directive laid down what Britain hoped to achieve by Operation Bolton. An Army source said: "The aim is to get the UNSCOM inspectors back into Iraq and to give [Iraq] a clean bill of health that it has no nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in its armoury."

The directive also gave Gen Wallace notice of the agreed rules of engagement, should a conflict develop, and the forces and budget at his disposal.

The operation has so far cost pounds 10m but the expense could escalate if Britain uses its Joint Rapid Deployment Force, which is on 48 hours' notice to leave for the Gulf. The force is based on the Parachute and Commando brigades and has air and naval support.

While emphasising that they preferred a diplomatic solution to the crisis, military chiefs have identified three areas where British forces could make a significant contribution.

They involve taking photographs from the air for use in bombing missions, taking part in armoured reconnaissance operations on the ground, and deploying mines at sea.

Gen Wallace would oversee any conflict from a gallery which overlooks the Operations Room at the pit of the Northwood bunker, which became operational in 1996 after Nato staff abandoned it at the end of the Cold War.

From his seat at the head of a conference table can see a bank of television screens which connect him via video conferencing links to other bunkers that will come into action if a conflict develops. One is beneath the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, another is at Strike Command in High Wycombe and, most importantly of all, he can have face- to-face contact with General Anthony Zinni, his American counterpart at US Central Command in Tampa, Florida.