British forces will not be ready to undertake a land war in Afghanistan for weeks, and must not be pushed into premature action, senior officers warned yesterday.
The commander of the Royal Marines, the troops expected to perform difficult and dangerous raids against Taliban and al-Qa'ida positions, stressed the need not to be "hasty", while senior naval officers said that extensive preparations had to be made before the force could be deployed on the ground.
Brigadier Roger Lane, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, spoke about the impending land war as exercise Saif Sareea (Swift Sword) II, the biggest deployment of British troops since the Falklands war, was coming towards its end.
A Lynx helicopter was lost overboard from a Royal Navy frigate on Saturday evening, it was disclosed yesterday. Two crew members were rescued from the sea, and are said to have suffered only minor injuries.
Brigadier Lane said: "I want to make sure the forces are totally prepared. We don't want to be hasty, we want to be right. We must make sure we have the broad range of capabilities we need. We will be ready when we are ready."
The 200 marines who will form the nucleus of the British task force will perform two weeks of live firing exercises in Oman before they set off for Afghanistan. However, they cannot stay in Oman after that due to the extreme sensitivity over the conflict throughout the Muslim world.
Brigadier Lane said: "We have made a commitment to the Omanis that we will withdraw by Ramadan, and I must fulfil that commitment."
The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which is being stripped of its fixed-wing aircraft to take on board helicopters that will fly the Royal Marines into Afghanistan, will also not be ready for some time.
The carrier will receive its complement of helicopters tomorrow, but it will not be in a position to deploy them for at least another two weeks, senior defence sources said.
Despite claims by government ministers that British troops will "smoke out" Osama bin Laden "from his cave", senior military officers disclosed that no rules of engagement, or command and control for the mission, or targets had been set up.
Brigadier Lane acknowledged that his task would be hampered by lack of intelligence from the ground in Afghanistan, a problem noted by the Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce.
"It will limit what we can do," he said. "This will undoubtedly be a hard campaign to plan. We all said it is not going to be easy."
The Duke of York was among a large number of dignitaries watching a naval operation during the exercise in Oman yesterday. But Saif Sareea II has taken on a war footing, with a host of senior military officers from Britain present, including the Chief of Defence Staff.
The brigadier said: "My men are mature, measured and confident. There is no triumphalism and this is not a crusade.
"Taking part in the exercise here has opened us to a different culture and this will be very useful in what we do next," he said.
The Sea Harriers aboard the Illustrious will be replaced by a mixture of combat and transport helicopters. The carrier expects to receive four Chinooks, eight Sea King Mark IVs, three Gazelles and three anti-tank Lynx.
To accommodate them and some of the marine assault party, 144 loads and 250 passengers have been moved from the ship during the night.
HMS Invincible is expected to be replaced at the end of March next year by the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. She has also been taking part in exercise Saif Sareea II, but is being returned to Britain to be reconfigured.Reuse content