Blair delayed kit

John A Silkstone

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Britain’s top military commander admitted today that soldiers in Iraq were left without life-saving body armour and even proper boots and clothing because Tony Blair delayed authorising the war plans.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup told the Iraq Inquiry the armed forces had been underfunded in the years leading up to the invasion which led to shortages of equipment.

The Ministry of Defence told Downing Street that the military needed six months to prepare for the war but the Prime Minister only gave four months notice, he said.

The comments about the shortage of funding for the military will increase pressure on Gordon Brown, who was chancellor at the time of the invasion. The Prime Minister, who The Times revealed today will this week commit Labour to billions of pounds of extra defence spending, will give evidence to the inquiry later this month or early March.

Sir Jock, the chief of the defence staff, said the military had warned ministers about the risk of delaying orders to manufacturers of vital equipment required for the invasion in March 2003.

“We made absolutely clear to ministers that if we could not engage with industry - and that was the critical element - we could take things no further and that was a serious risk that they would not be delivered by the assumed start of the operation,” he said.

Sir Jock, who was the deputy chief of defence staff (equipment) from April 2002 to May 2003, said that although there were orders for sufficient equipment for the invasion force there was not the time to ensure it was delivered to all troops on the ground.

“In part for both clothing and body armour the issue was it was being done so rapidly, at the last minute, that no one was quite sure who had what,” he told the inquiry.

On combat body armour he said: “Quite clearly not everybody who needed it in theatre got it when they needed it and had it [the orders] been two months earlier then those sort of issues, I think, could have been untangled.”

One of the first British casualties in Iraq, Sergeant Steven Roberts, was shot dead three days after being told to give up his body armour because of the shortage.

The inquiry has heard that Mr Blair refused to allow the military to make open preparation for the war as it would harm diplomatic efforts as Britain and the United States were pushing for the United Nations resolution 1441 which became the legal basis of the invasion.

Sir Jock told the inquiry that the funding difficulties dated back to the Government’s spending review in 1998 which foresaw the military being transformed in to a “expeditionary force”. However, the budget allocated by the Mr Brown at the Treasury “was a little way short of that which would have been required for the totality of what was implied by the review”.

“When we got to the equipment plan for 2002 we had to make some difficult decisions,” he told the inquiry.

Sir Jock said the key areas as Britain fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan were "logistic support" - providing equipment and supplies - and a shortage of strategic aircraft.

“Basically we needed more capacity to be able to support two different theatres,” he said.

There were also problems because eight Chinook Mark 3 helicopters designed for the special forces were unusable because the United States refused to give Britain the computer software required for them them to fly.

Sir Jock also revealed that military chiefs had warned the Government in 2004 against committing a major British force to Afghanistan while troops were still battling insurgents in Iraq. In the event, Britain committed thousands of troops to operations in Helmand province in 2006.

“It is fair to saw that some of us were very nervous because the assumption was that we would be drawing down in Iraq at the same time we were ramping up in Afghanistan,” he told the inquiry

“I certainly took the view, and a number of my colleagues did, that thinks never work out as you expect or as you plan.

Sir Jock, who was appointed chief of the air staff in July 2003, said ministers were warned of the “risk of placing a burden on our forces that they could not sustain in the long-term”.

“We would have preferred to see some substantive downward movement in Iraq before going into Afghanistan,” he said.

Sir Jock said the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan should teach the Government that the military needs to be prepared for long-term occupations rather than short-term warfare.

“When you go in you are quite likely to be committed for a long time and you are going to be stuck,” he said. “It is not the sort of environment where you can just pick up the ball half way through the game and go home.”
 
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