Further evidence that British forces were ill-equipped to fight the Iraq war emerged yesterday after it was established that the pilots of two helicopters that crashed in mid-air did not have night-vision goggles.
Six Royal Navy officers and one US servicemen were killed when their two Sea Kings - which were flying in darkness - collided head-on only a few hundred yards from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. It was Navy policy not to issue their squadron with night-vision goggles.
These new allegations come amid a growing scandal over the death of Sgt Steve Roberts, who was killed after being told to surrender his body armour.
A source close to one of the bereaved families said: "This wasn't an accident - it was total negligence. The family still hasn't received an adequate explanation from the Royal Navy ... It is being white-washed."
Official documents leaked to The Independent on Sunday reveal that neither pilot had been issued with night-vision equipment, even though they had to fly at very low levels on night-time missions. The document shows that the Royal Navy now admits that that decision - a long-standing policy - could have cost the men their lives. "There may be a flight safety requirement" to issue night-vision goggles, a senior Navy officer said.
The Sea Kings were both flying at 200 feet above sea level over the Gulf in the early hours of 22 March, effectively on identical flight paths. One was returning to Ark Royal from a mission and the other was flying out to take its place. Both had turned off their main identification light, because it caused problems for pilots flying at low level.
The families of the British casualties are understood to be furious about the circumstances of the accident, after they were told that flight controllers on Ark Royal had watched the aircraft flying towards each other. Relatives of the dead believe the official board of inquiry into the incident has failed to uncover the real cause of the collision. At least one family, the parents of thepilot Lt Philip Green, has complained to senior Navy commanders but has so far had no response.
The transcript of a private meeting to discuss the crash, between senior Navy officers and several families at RNAD Culdrose, the squadron's base in Cornwall, reveals that the Navy knew they were flying in very poor visibility.
"The crew were flying legally under the visual flight rules. However, the conditions would have been poor, making life very difficult for them," the minutes to the meeting, on 11 June last year, state.
The transcript also reveals that Navy commanders admit the decision not to issue night-vision goggles (NVGs) to the squadron, known as 849 NAS, has to be reviewed. "We do need to look at the procurement of NVGs. It is often down to [the] role of the aircraft that determines the need and no case has been made for the issue of NVGs to 849 NAS. There may, however, be a flight safety requirement."
The families were then told that a long-running problem with the helicopters' exterior warning lights "may have been a contributory factor towards the accident".
The Navy admitted that Sea King pilots routinely turn off a high-intensity strobe at the front of the aircraft - similar to the landing lights used by commercial airliners - because its light bounces back into the cockpit at low level.
The Navy's investigation into the crash also raises significant doubts about whether Ark Royal had given the pilots adequate radar cover. It suggests there was confusion over the presence of another RN Lynx helicopter in the area, and over whether the Sea King pilots were told there were other aircraft near them.
Keith Simpson, a Tory defence spokesman, said this new controversy raises further "critical" questions about the quality of equipment given to British forces. "Ministers must ultimately take responsibility for that," he said.