Hoon: Forces starved of cash before Iraq war

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The armed forces were starved of cash in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the official inquiry into the conflict was told today.

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon said the forces' budget was underfunded for years prior to the war and had to rely on efficiency savings.

As a result, he said, the Ministry of Defence had to buy much of the equipment needed for the conflict at the last minute through the system of "urgent operational requirements" (UORs).

But prime minister Tony Blair refused to allow active preparations for war to begin until just five months before the invasion was launched because he did not want to undermine diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis through the United Nations.

As a result, some kit - such as desert combat fatigues and desert boots - failed to reach the front line in time for the start of the war in March 2003.

"Some got to theatre in time, some did not," he said. "There were certainly complaints about desert combats. Quite a lot of soldiers went into action in green combats and they didn't like it.

"Some soldiers did not have the right boots."

Mr Hoon said that when he became defence secretary in 1999 there was a belief in the MoD that they had never received the cash that they needed to fund the 1998 strategic defence review.

When he pressed the Treasury for additional funding, he was rebuffed.

"There was quite a strong feeling that it was not fully funded. Part of the way that it was funded was by a commitment to serious efficiencies to the way existing equipment was used to release cash for some of the new acquisitions.

"I think everyone accepted that was a pretty challenging target," he said.

"Certainly, in subsequent CSR (comprehensive spending review) programmes we asked for significantly more money than we eventually received."

Mr Hoon said the MoD had to submit a list of UORs to the Treasury, which was finally approved on October 4 2002.

By that time he and the chief of the defence staff, Admiral Lord Boyce, were becoming concerned that Mr Blair had still not decided whether he wanted to deploy an army division in support of the Americans, which would normally take six months to prepare for.

When they tried to press the prime minister for a decision so they could begin the necessary preparations, Mr Hoon said they were told to "calm down".

"When we both went to meetings in Downing Street saying 'Look, you need to get on with this', we were told 'Calm down, you can't get on with it while the diplomatic process is under way'," he said.

"The argument I was given very clearly from the prime minister and the foreign secretary (Jack Straw) was that if we were seen to be overtly preparing for war, that would affect our ability to secure a (UN Security Council) resolution.

"Mike (Lord Boyce) and I went to meetings in September where we were both made very well aware of the attitude in Downing Street towards the requirement for minimising publicity and avoiding visibility of preparations.

"There was no doubt of the fact that we could not go out overtly and prepare."

Mr Hoon admitted that some British troops in Iraq were left without enhanced combat body armour because of problems in tracking the distribution of equipment.

Some military units were given double the required sets of armour and some were provided with none, he said.

Mr Hoon said: "Something like 36,000 sets were shipped to Iraq.

"From the lessons-learned process afterwards, one of the problems was that there was not a very effective tracking system once the containers were unloaded.

"I suspect probably what happened was that some units ended up with two lots of everything, and some units ended up with nothing.

"So the distribution on the ground in Iraq was not satisfactory."

Mr Hoon told the inquiry he was told in September 2002 that enough enhanced combat body armour was available for all the frontline forces.

He said military officials told him extra body armour should be ordered for the other troops but advised this was a "tranche two requirement".

The former defence secretary said: "What I understood that to mean at the time was that we had enough in stock for the front line, for those who were going to be fighting.

"It was desirable clearly to have more available but that the military judged this to be of a lesser priority."

Inquiry panel member Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a military historian, pointed out that this shortage caused the death of a British soldier.

He said: "One of the consequences of this problem was that in key places there weren't enough of the relevant body armour, so local commanders had to make their own priorities about who should get what, which as you know in at least one case led to a tragic outcome."

Tank commander Sergeant Steven Roberts, 33, who was born in Cornwall and lived in Shipley, West Yorkshire, was shot dead by a comrade while struggling with an attacking Iraqi near the southern city of Al Zubayr on March 24 2003.

The 2006 inquest into his death heard he was left exposed by "serious failings" in the Army's supply and training methods which meant he had to give up his body armour just three days before.

Mr Hoon said Sgt Roberts' death demonstrated how the distinction between the front and rear lines was blurred in the Iraq conflict.

Mr Hoon told the inquiry that the military told him they were ready for the 2003 invasion.

He said: "We spent a lot of time on ensuring that we could deliver this equipment in time.

"If anyone had said, 'look, we have some doubts about whether we're ready', then that would have been absolutely a show stopper."

New UK military helicopters would be coming into service now if it had not been for defence budget cuts six months after the Iraq invasion, the inquiry heard.

Mr Hoon said accounting changes introduced by the Treasury in September 2003 left the Ministry of Defence facing "difficult" cuts in its future equipment programmes.

He agreed that the budget was left under "severe constraint", but added: "I don't believe that it was relevant to helicopters in Iraq. This is going back to 2002, 2003, 2004.

"I suppose it's reasonable to assume that by now, had that budget been spent in the way that we thought we should spend it, then those helicopters would probably be coming into service any time now."

The former defence secretary agreed that the shortage of helicopters led to UK forces becoming more reliant on lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers.

But he stressed that roadside bombs were less of a problem in Iraq than they currently are in southern Afghanistan, and that getting among the local population was "part of the ethos" of the British Army.

Sir Lawrence asked Mr Hoon whether concerns about the number of British troops being killed in Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq were brought to his attention.

He replied: "I think it was beginning to develop at the time that I left the department."

Mr Hoon also said he had opposed Mr Blair's decision, in July 2004, to commit British forces to southern Afghanistan while there were still substantial numbers engaged in Iraq.

"I believed that it was necessary to reduce our commitment in Iraq before taking on what was a Nato mission," he said.

"I felt that at that time, given our commitments in Iraq, it was probably better to allow other countries to participate in that particular mission until we were in a better position to do so."

He said that his concerns were shared by the military chiefs.

"They wanted to be clear that they weren't going to be involved in two substantial operations simultaneously," he said.

The inquiry was adjourned until tomorrow.