Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 39 of Session 2003-04, dated 16 September 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that UK Armed Forces faced greater risks in Iraq as a result of shortages in equipment, particularly enhanced combat body armour and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical protection, and urged the Ministry of Defence to take the necessary steps to address these gaps before any future operations.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 39th Report of this Session, which examined the Ministry of Defence's ability to deploy forces at short notice for operations in Iraq; logistics and shortages of equipment at the front line; the consignment tracking system; and the Department's process of identifying and implementing lessons.

Operation TELIC was the United Kingdom's contribution to the overall Coalition effort to remove Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime in Iraq in Spring 2003. It was the United Kingdom's largest operational military deployment since the 1990-91 Gulf War, involving some 46,000 personnel, 19 warships, 14 Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, 15,000 vehicles, 115 fixed wing aircraft and nearly 100 helicopters. Within four weeks of hostilities beginning, United Kingdom forces had achieved their key military objectives, demonstrating the professionalism of our fighting forces.

The Committee found that the Ministry of Defence (the Department) deployed a large, highly capable force to the Gulf in around 10 weeks, less than half the time that it had taken to send a broadly similar sized force for the 1990-91 Gulf War. But the speed of deployment exposed areas where risks had been taken on how quickly gaps in capability, for example in stock holdings, could be made good. The Department should ensure that the management information that it uses to report its readiness to deploy forces identifies these gaps and how they could rapidly be made good if required. To address the particular risk of the extent to which urgent purchases were expected to make up any shortfalls in stock and equipment levels, the Department could involve contractors in the early stages of planning an operation, provide early funding of some 'at risk' areas and make provision in supply contracts for surges in production. Given the risk to supply of ammunition for Underslung Grenade Launchers when the Swiss Government withdrew its export licence, the Department should identify any other cases where sourcing from overseas could put supplies at risk and seek alternative sources.

Equipment shortages at the front line exposed troops to increased risk. As a result of a combination of shortages of initial stockholdings and serious weaknesses in logistic systems, troops at the frontline did not receive sufficient supplies of a range of important equipment including enhanced combat body armour and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical detection and protection systems. The Committee were particularly concerned that armoured vehicles including the Challenger 2 tank did not have viable Nuclear, Biological and Chemical defence filters fitted and that operational filters had not been delivered by June 2003. While armoured vehicle crews may have had recourse to their personal protective suits and respirators, the Committee consider that both the wearing, and the robing and disrobing of such protective equipment must inevitably seriously impair their operability.

Deficiencies in equipment management were exposed. For example, the Department has issued 200,000 body armour components since 1999 but does not currently know their whereabouts. It is conducting an audit to establish their location. The entire stock of 4,000 Residual Vapour testing kits was unserviceable. The Department should re-examine how it keeps track of small but important items such as body armour, including whether more items of kit should be designated as 'personal issue', for which the person issued with the kit is held accountable. The Department should also draw up, and undertake, a regular programme of testing the serviceability of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare protection equipment.

Despite investing over £550 million since the first Gulf War in new computerised systems that include an asset management capability, the Department still lacks a credible consignment tracking system. This was a major reason why some equipment did not reach frontline troops when they needed it. The Department should consider whether it might be better to quickly procure a system that meets essentials rather than trying to develop a technically advanced bespoke system. The repeated identification of important logistics lessons since 1991 suggests fundamental shortcomings in the Department's ability to learn and act upon lessons from previous experience. The Department should identify ways to prevent lessons identified in warfighting slipping down the list of priorities during peacetime.

United Kingdom forces played a valuable role in achieving improvements to conditions in southern Iraq immediately following hostilities but the handing over of responsibilities to civilian agencies needs to be better planned and carried out. Planning for the post war period in Iraq had not been well developed, leaving British troops with much to do in the immediate aftermath of the fighting. The Department should draw up a protocol setting up agreed arrangements for full, early and continued consultation between all interested governmental, non governmental and civilian agencies and contractors. It should also devise a scheme for the rapid deployment of civilian personnel or sponsored reserves and consider whether these arrangements should be practised in one of its exercises.

Mr Leigh said today:

"UK military operations in Iraq demonstrated the commitment, bravery and professionalism of our Armed Forces and those civilians and contractors who support them. In return, our Service personnel deserve the proper tools to do the job and the best possible protection.

My Committee's Report today underscores once more that our Forces faced greater risks as a result of shortages in equipment, particularly enhanced combat body armour and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical detection and protection. This is utterly unacceptable and the Ministry of Defence must take the necessary steps to identify gaps in provision and how these may be best addressed in time for any future operations.

It is high time too, after this Committee's repeated urging to address failings in logistics systems, that the MOD put in place an effective consignment tracking system so commanders on the ground can quickly locate important supplies."

Click here to view Report