Rush to war 'left troops without vital body armour'

Ministers ignored warnings that military needed more time, Iraq inquiry is told

British troops were left with shortages of crucial body armour in Iraq after ministers ignored warnings that the military needed more time to prepare for the invasion, the head of the armed forces has said.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, in charge of delivering equipment at the time of the March 2003 invasion, told the Iraq inquiry that military planners were left with unrealistic delivery dates because of the speed at which Britain was hurtling towards war. He said that had Tony Blair allowed him to plan for two extra months, it would have made a "significant difference". The inquiry has already heard that Mr Blair delayed planning as he feared the preparations for war would become public.

Gordon Brown was also put under further pressure ahead of his appearance, expected at the end of the month, at Sir John Chilcot's inquiry after another senior military figure said army chiefs had threatened to resign over cuts Mr Brown made to the defence budget a year after the Iraq invasion.

One of the first deaths suffered by British troops was blamed on shortages of body armour. Sergeant Steven Roberts, 33, a tank commander from Shipley, West Yorkshire, was killed less than a week into the invasion. He had been forced to give up his body armour. A coroner investigating his death described the delays in delivering the kit as "unforgivable and inexcusable".

Planning within the Ministry of Defence descended into confusion because of the pressure caused by Mr Blair's timetable, Sir Jock told the inquiry. He said that the shortages of enhanced body armour, boots and desert-combat uniforms would have been avoided if planners had been given six months to prepare, instead of the four they were given.

"The problem of course was that we simply didn't have enough time, as it turned out, to do everything we needed to do before the operation started," he said. "I think in part for both clothing and body armour, the issue was it was all done so rapidly at the last minute, no one was quite sure who had what."

He added that ministers were warned in late 2002 that there was a "serious risk" that troops would not be fully equipped if the invasion took place in March. "We made it absolutely clear," he said. "If we were not allowed to engage with industry – and that was the critical element – we could take these no further and that there was a serious risk that they would not all be delivered by the assumed start of operations."

He also admitted that senior military figures had been "very concerned" about the Government's determination to commit troops to major operations in Afghanistan while forces were still deployed in Iraq. "There was absolutely this concern about the overlap between Iraq and Afghanistan, and the doubt whether we would actually be able to reduce in Iraq quite as quickly as we were planning at that time," he said. "We would have preferred to see some substantive drawdown movement in our deployment in Iraq."

General Lord Walker of Aldringham, the former armed forces chief, said that tensions between the military and the Treasury, then headed by Mr Brown, came to a head at the start of 2004.

"There was indeed a list of stuff that we were having to make decisions about, and I think we drew a line somewhere halfway down the page and said, 'if you go any further than that you will probably have to look for a new set of chiefs'," he said.

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