Britain sends troops to Qatar as military build-up continues

Click to follow

A British military team will be sent to Qatar in the next two weeks to join the 600 United States personnel who are setting up headquarters for any future attack on Iraq.

A British military team will be sent to Qatar in the next two weeks to join the 600 United States personnel who are setting up headquarters for any future attack on Iraq.

An advance party of around 30 officers from the Army, RAF and Royal Navy will be liaising with the American group led by General Tommy Franks, who will be in charge of allied forces in any new Gulf War.

Reconnaissance missions have also been taking place "on a fairly continuous basis" in Kuwait, which is expected to be the scene of a military exercise involving US and British forces in the near future.

More than 6,000 regular and Territorial Army reserves are at present engaged in a major logistics operation, codenamed Log Viper, which is due to end on 12 October. The Ministry of Defence denies that the exercise is in preparation for an invasion of Iraq, saying it had been planned for "many months". However, military planners have been aware for months that a new Gulf War might start at the end of the year, so shifting equipment and supplies to an RAF airbase in Suffolk and Marchwood, the Army's logistics port near Southampton, serves as an ideal dress rehearsal.

British military strategists are believed to have drawn up contingency plans reflecting three modes of deployment: instant response, for which aircraft and 1,200 personnel are already in position; light forces – SAS and SBS – which can be deployed in a matter of days; and a light brigade of around 5,000 which will take about a month. Sending in armour will take three to four months.

The force already in position is primarily from the RAF, and involved in Operation Northern and Southern Watch which enforces the two no-fly zones over Iraq. However, with next to no opposition from Saddam's defences, it can be easily switched to a more offensive mode.

British special forces have seen extensive action in Afghanistan. However, two squadrons – around 200 men – are considered to be relatively fresh and ready for action.

The decision to use tanks would involve the 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades, the "Desert Rats", as they they have been earmarked to take the lead in that form of warfare. However, the MoD stressed yesterday that no decision has been made to use them.

Around £90m may have to be spent to 'desertise' the army's main battle tank, the Challenger 2. A contingent sent to Oman last year for Operation Saif Sareea II continually broke down because, without special filters, sand clogged up the engines. Senior officers are also set to consider a cheaper alternative by providing skirting around the tracks of the tanks.

The military planners do not expect to get the go-ahead for even limited deployment until the end of the Labour Party conference later this month. However, they have been led to believe that sending in the troops would not be delayed by manoeuvres at the United Nations. "Our political masters are of the opinion that a build-up of forces at his border will concentrate Saddam Hussein's mind on the question of complying with UN demands", said a senior source.

With the Saudi veto on letting its territory be used for any attack on Iraq, Al Udeid airbase, 20 miles from the Qatari capital, Doha, has become crucial to US and British plans. Intensive and extensive work has made it all-weather, with a 12,500 foot (3.8km) runway, and hangars, fortified against chemical and biological attacks, for up to 120 warplanes. The base has also been supplied with satellite links which enable the command centre to co-ordinate thousands of air strikes, and to download reconnaissance footage from unmanned spotter aircraft.

According to defence sources, RAF aircraft based at Al Sulan airbase in Saudi Arabia are likely to be rebased at Al Udeid, and the base could also host squadrons sent from elsewhere. The principal aircraft there are likely to be Tornado GR4s. The number of Tornados at Ali Al Salem airbase at Kuwait are likely to be increased in the event of war.

The US is expected to position F16 and F15E fighter bombers at Al Udeid, as well as unmanned Predators and Global Hawks. The British contribution is likely to consist of a small number of RAF Tornado strike aircraft, TriStar and VC-10s to provide air-to-air refuelling, and Awacs, Nimrods and Canberras for reconnaissance.

The Americans also have four giant warehouses with mothballed pre-positioned tanks and armour to equip a mechanised brigade at Al Udeid. US engineers are due to arrive there in the next 10 days to start making these operational. Tented accommodation has been set up for up to 2,000 personnel. This could be expanded to accommodate up to 10,000 in a short time.

Kuwait will be the obvious base for launching into Iraq from the south, and the American and British force there is expected to total about 40,000. About 600 German and Czech specialist troops in chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare are stationed in the emirate. But Germany has stated it will not join a US-led coalition, and the Czech Republic has made no commitment.

The northern assault towards Baghdad will be launched from the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region, possibly with Kurdish forces alongside US airborne troops and Britain's 16 Air Assault. Some of the US troops can be transported from bases in former Soviet central Asian bases built during the Afghan conflict.

With the lack of land bases in Saudi Arabia, the allied commanders will be relying much more on naval power than the first Gulf War and Bahrain is expected to play a key role both as an air and naval base.

At least two US and British naval carrier groups are likely to be involved and the American Marine Expeditionary Force of around 4,000 is almost certain to be present. The Royal Navy contribution is likely to be made up of Sceptre/Superb and Trafalgar-class submarines, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, at present in the Mediterranean, and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, now at Portsmouth.