1 Feb 2010

Stirrup admits Iraq body armour problems

Short session but some pretty important points.

Missing kit and procurement problems have come up before but remember this; the Chief of the Defence Staff is “the professional head of the UK Armed Forces and the principal military adviser” to the Defence Secretary and the government. Put another way: top brass.

Jock Stirrup got in quick admitting that getting the right kit to the right places had been a problem. Specifically – crucially – he admitted that the army could have done better delivering enhanced combat body armour to the troops that most needed it.

Quite an admission in itself; all the more so when you consider that asset-tracking was a problem a whole 12 years prior in Gulf War one. Lessons learned?

He was less clear on the equally thorny question of helicopters.

On the one hand he appeared to think they had sufficient choppers for conventional forces; on the other, there was always a need for more for “special forces” operations. The sense of impotence both CDS’s felt at having eight Chinook Mk3 helicopters (currently worth £422m) “sitting in a shed” was evident.

(You can read a ferociously-damning parliamentary committee report on the Chinook Mk3 fiasco here – “one of the worst examples of equipment that we had ever seen.” It looks from this MoD page as though the first re-kitted helicopters only eventually entered service last month.)

Stirrup and Lyne (who else?) sparred briefly over whether the UK military in Basra has managed a winning strategy or only a winning exit strategy.

Stirrup did concede real concern that the British withdrawal to Basra airbase would be seen by the militia as a success. The truth was, he said, that relentless rocketing in the city centre was causing casualties; casualties are to be expected but these ones weren’t achieving anything of strategic benefit.

Perhaps unsurprisingly since he’s no longer in the job the grandly-titled General the Lord Walker was stronger still.

Getting four instead of the recommended six months to plan the campaign was far from ideal and created risks for his soldiers; although he suggested that a mix of “can-do” attitude and extra hard work just about got them there on time.

Unlike his successor Walker said he was under no misconceptions about a “get in, get out” campaign; he knew they’d be in for the long haul.

Concern though at the way the US ran its operations, with Donald Rumsfeld and CentCom overruling commanders on the ground; “not the way we do things here,” he grunted.

Vivid imagery too: special forces operating to try and cut out the cancer that were the insurgency and trouble-makers. And he was very unhappy about media coverage of the Black Watch’s deployment to the “Triangle of Death”, as good as suggesting that the media caused three British soldiers to be killed.

But Walker’s real bug-bears lay not in Iraq but in Whitehall and budget cuts which in some cases are only now cutting in. The Treasury cut funding for a range of projects, almost to the extent to which he said the top brass threatened there’d be resignations.

And procurement: if you’ve never been involved in procurement keep it that way, he thundered. The FRES armoured vehicle shambles had led to pain, agony and death in places like Afghanistan.

The old soldier had a final volley left in him which he let loose right at the end.

He didn’t want to be nasty to the “poor old Americans” (I think US stocks started plummeting at about that stage) but the single-most damaging thing that happened to Iraq – from which he thought we’d never recover – was Paul Bremer’s “vice-regal” tenure as CPA boss in Iraq. Gosh.

Potentially more controversy tomorrow morning with former DfID SoS and Cabinet-resigner Clare Short.

Evidence from 10h00, live Tweets at twitter.com/iraqinquiryblog. See you then.