Professional troops deserve a supply system to match

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The Independent Online

Not for the first time, the voters and taxpayers of this country have reason to thank the Commons Committee of Public Accounts

Not for the first time, the voters and taxpayers of this country have reason to thank the Commons Committee of Public Accounts. Its latest report reveals a disgraceful catalogue of shortcomings in the way British troops were equipped for combat in Iraq, and it does so with exemplary clarity and conciseness - qualities not automatically associated with the politicians of today.

While the war in Iraq was, and remains, a deeply divisive issue, there are two points on which supporters and opponents of military action will probably agree. The first is that, in purely military terms, the initial operation was a spectacular success, reflecting the skill and professionalism of our military. The second is that, whatever the rights and wrongs of any war, those sent to fight for their country are entitled to be properly equipped. A government that cannot guarantee adequate supplies risks forfeiting loyalty as well as lives.

We knew, from complaints of soldiers and their families at the time, that there were serious failures in the supply system. We also knew that a shortage of body-armour led directly to the deaths of several soldiers. What emerges from the report, however, is the extent of the shortages and the fact that similar supply problems have dogged each conflict in which British troops have been engaged, from the 1991 Gulf War on. From desert boots to chemical detection kits, equipment was in short supply or defective.

This time, unusually, the problem was not one of funding. Money was, and had been, thrown at the procurement problem, including £55m spent on computerised tracking systems over 10 years. Even so, 200,000 units of body armour - life-saving equipment - were untraceable. Any supermarket chain does a better job of keeping tabs on its stock.

Unusual, too, was the role of the political climate. The sensitivity of the Iraq war, the committee found, led ministers to delay decisions on procuring equipment that should have been made much sooner. This is a salutary lesson: unpopular wars not only affect the standing and credibility of the government of the day, they can also have a direct impact on the safety of our troops.

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