Why vital kit failed to reach British soldiers

Supplies were adequate - but no one knew where they were, write Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Fatal shortcomings in the military supply chain have been exposed by the furore over the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts in Iraq nearly 10 months ago.

Until his widow, Samantha Roberts, began speaking up, there was little to contradict the assurances of Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, that any problems in getting equipment up to front-line troops were minor.

Now others are coming forward to say that many more were in the same position as her husband.

Sgt Roberts was shot dead three days after being ordered to hand over his protective body armour to another soldier because of shortages. An officer from the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, has disclosed that "none of us had body armour when we crossed into Iraq". It has also been claimed that another soldier, Sgt Albert Thomson of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, had his leg amputated because Army medical staff lacked essential surgical equipment.

Channel 4 News, which broadcast an interview with Mrs Roberts, received a number of emails from service personnel. A member of an armoured engineer squadron said he and his colleagues had crossed into Iraq, on 1 April, with "no body armour, no morphine, no radios, in soft-skin Land Rovers and not one round of ammunition between us". Another serviceman said there were "no desert combat uniforms, or boots, the [NBC] suit didn't fit properly. The respirators were out of date, so before the war they just redated it."

It is a military axiom that no plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy, and it applies to logistics as much as anything else. But military sources, Whitehall officials and academics say the difficulties of logistics in the Iraq war were compounded by political delays, late changes of plan, problems co-ordinating with the dominant American forces, technical glitches and outmoded working methods.

The result was that, though adequate supplies might have been in theatre, commanders did not know where they were. While some units had too much of essential items, such as boots and desert camouflage, others had none. In response to Mrs Roberts's complaints, for example, Mr Hoon said 38,000 sets of body armour were sent to Iraq. But a Ministry of Defence report pointed out that while this "should have met the total requirement ... late delivery against an advancing timescale, coupled with difficulties in equipment tracking and control of issue, led to localised shortfalls. Priority was therefore given to those personnel on the ground whom commanders judged to have the greatest need, principally dismounted infantry."

In keeping with the "just in time" philosophy of military supply adopted by the MoD in recent years, before the war it had three sets each of desert combat clothing for 9,000 personnel and 10,000 pairs of desert boots, "sufficient to equip those soldiers held at the highest level of readiness". The decision to go to war brought a rush to increase these quantities, but too late.

More than 40,000 pairs of desert boots and 80,000 sets of desert clothing were sent to the theatre, enough to equip each serviceman and woman requiring desert clothing with boots and two sets of clothing. But "tight timelines, inadequate tracking, and some instances of incorrect boot and clothing sizes" meant they did not all get to the right place at the right time in the right amount, the report said.

Although the threat of chemical and biological weapons turned out to be illusory, supply failings meant not a single tank or armoured vehicle was fitted in time with the required filter to guard against CBW attacks. And the entire stock of vapour detection kits, needed after a suspected chemical attack, was found to be unusable.

The problems of obtaining equipment, from weaponry to spare parts, from medical kits to the activated carbon needed for chemical and biological warfare suits, led to a flood of Urgent Operational Requirements orders, or UORs. Intended for use only in the direst of emergency, they became almost routine. More than £500m was spent in rushing equipment to the region; in one case crucial spare parts were flown out, duplicating a shipment that was still on the high seas.

According to Christopher Bellamy, professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield University, "just in time" logistics, which draws many lessons from the delivery systems operated by big supermarket chains, has been rendered out of date by the end of the Cold War.

"Then we knew where the battle would be," he said. "Now we are engaged in expeditionary wars all over the world, and we need to have stockpiles of equipment suitable for fighting anywhere from the Arctic to the equator. Instead of a 'just in time' system, we need to move to 'just in case' logistics.

"If we had had that in the Iraq war, every soldier would have been issued with body armour as part of his personal equipment, rather than trying to ship it separately."