A £2bn radio system may not be available for troops in Iraq because British trials have found serious faults with it.
The Army and Ministry of Defence are now locked in crisis talks over the controversial - and incomplete - radio and communications system, Bowman. The system is due to be deployed when the 12th Mechanised Infantry Brigade takes over in the Basra sector for six months from March.
There have been a range of complaints over the Bowman: the headsets don't fit over standard helmets; the main kit is so bulky it needs a trailer to pull it; while fitting it in tanks has proved awkward. Soldiers are so despairing they now joke that Bowman stands for "Better Off With Map And Nokia".
12 Mec Brigade was the first major unit to be kitted with the £2.2bn radio system, built by General Dynamics. This autumn, the brigade carried out an exercise on Salisbury Plain in which the Bowman personal radios worked, but little of the data-processing side did.
The MoD held talks last week to decide whether it should risk sending the brigade to Basra on the basis that half a communications system is better than none.
"It's a hell of a problem," an MoD official said last week. The Army has been crying out for nearly 20 years for a secure radio system to replace the Clansman system used in the Falklands. An order was placed for BAE to produce a system known as Archer. While BAE built a radio that worked, developing a data-processing system hit snags and the order was cancelled.
An order was then placed with General Dynamics for the Bowman system. Later, an order was added for a data system, or CIP - communications information platform - for a total price of £2.2bn. Since then there have been a range of complaints, as the system has been introduced in 12 Brigade and 7th Armoured Brigade in Germany. The main kit for the infantry was meant to fit into the back of a Land Rover - but it fits only if the spare wheel is jettisoned. Instead, it has to be towed in a separate trailer.
The headsets were found not to fit with most of the Army's standard headsets and helmets - a problem the contractor says could have been solved if the Army were prepared to spend an extra £10m on modified headphones.
Tank crews of the Armoured Corps say they find the Bowman equipment they have to fit into Challenger and Scimitar tanks bulky and awkward. The system also means the tank commander has no direct intercom with the driver.
"There are some problems with the tank intercom," a spokesman for the company admitted. A tank commander said gloomily after the MoD crisis talks: "It's pretty fundamental for the way any tank crew operates."
On the data-processing side, only the system which gives "situational awareness" is fully working, according to both the Army and the industry. The system is supposed to be able to communicate a whole range of battlefield data digitally.