Army's equipment exposed as unfit to fight desert war

National Audit Office reveals tanks, helicopters and rifles failed in Oman, while Europe is warned to increase military spending

By Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 29 January 2014 03:04

A long list of the British military's most essential arms and equipment is unfit to be used in a desert conflict such as a war with Iraq, an official report discloses today.

The failures and mismanagement were discovered during an investigation into the Saif Sareea II exercise in Oman which preceded British forces going into Afghanistan last year.

The operation, the biggest deployment of British arms since the Gulf War, highlighted shortcomings in almost every sphere. Boots melted in the heat and the Army's main battle tank, the Challenger II, chugged to a halt because of the "wrong kind of sand". The radio system, Clansman, proved useless and only around half the helicopter fleet was operable at any one time.

The report by the National Audit Office is the first into a military exercise. Saif Sareea, with its force of more than 22,500 troops, 6,500 vehicles and trailers, 21 Navy vessels and 65 planes and helicopters, is seen as a dress rehearsal for any war against Iraq.

The report found that despite taking four years to plan the exercise, the Ministry of Defence had got the expected temperature in Oman wrong and had not foreseen the problems which could be caused by the heat, dust and sand.

The Challenger, which would lead any British armoured thrust into Iraq, faced the most serious difficulties. The MoD ignored the advice of the 4th Armoured Brigade and failed to adapt the tanks to desert conditions because it was too expensive.

As a result of the "peculiar characteristics of the fine dust" from the desert the tanks' air filters became clogged after just four hours and they ground to a halt. Only half the Challengers deployed were available for the grand finale of the live firing exercises in front of international dignitaries.

An extra 55 tons of spare parts were flown out in an attempt to keep the Challengers going, but this in turn prevented other detachments and units being supplied.

Moving these supplies also proved a problem. The Army's fleet of heavy-duty forklifts – Container Rough Handling Terrain (CRHT) vehicles – could not be maintained because the commercial contract to do so only applied in Britain and Germany.

The National Audit Office said the MoD had failed to look at different options open for the Challengers. While a full adaptation to the desert would have cost £92m, a temporary and effective skirting for the tanks would have cost less than £500,000.

Even when the tanks were moving the commanders could not communicate with each other because of the faulty Clansman system. They had to frequently stop to exchange information verbally. "Stopping a brigade of tanks and getting them into a huddle is not the best way to operate," said the director of the National Audit Office study, David Clarke.

The plastic air filter on the AS90 self-propelled guns melted. Eventually a solution was found, but it meant the mobile guns only worked when static.

The exercise also showed that the rotor blades on the Lynx helicopters, which would normally last for 500 flying hours, needed replacing after just 27. The rifle used in the exercise, the old version of the SA 80, kept jamming because of the dust. The new modified version, the SA80-A2, has subsequently faced similar problems in Afghanistan. The men and women also suffered. There was a shortage of desert combat suits and boots, as well the miscalculation of the temperature.

The report said: "The official line that troops deploying in the 'cooler months of autumn' did not require desert boots was disingenuous when temperatures were regularly over 45C (113F), boots were melting and foot rot was a major issue."

Where it all went wrong

* The Challenger 2, Britain's main battle tank, repeatedly broke down because of "wrong kind of sand". Only half were available on last day of exercise.

* The CHART system, essential for heavy lifting of containers – the way any major movement of equipment now takes place – did not get any maintenance because the contract with a private company, KALMAR, was only for Britain and Germany.

* Troops sent with heavy winter boots instead of desert ones. Some bought their own, but for many others " the temperatures were regularly over 45 Celsius, boots were melting and foot rot was a major issue".

* The Clansman radio systems abjectly failed. No new system will be available to replace Clansman for another two years, and thus not in the timeframe for Iraq. Several other communications system – one called VITAL-- also regularly failed or crashed.

* Only 45 per cent of helicopters worked anything like effectively.

* The AS90 self-propelled gun had to have extensive surgery because they had been ordered without hot weather specifications. Even after that they would only work while static, and overheated while being moved. One caught fire and had to be written off, at a cost of £1million.

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