Select Committee on Defence Thirteenth Report


3  CHALLENGES FACING UK TROOPS

Armoured vehicles

51. At its Basra Palace base, we met the UK's 20 Armoured Brigade. We were shown the equipment used on patrol, particularly the Snatch Land Rover. We heard that Snatch were very good vehicles, but they were old and could often break down. Many had previously been used in Northern Ireland. They were fast and manoeuvrable but not well armoured and were particularly vulnerable to Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack. Similar concerns were voiced by UK troops at the Shaibah Logistics Base.

52. The Secretary of State for Defence has explained that the Snatch Land Rover had proved "a popular option" in other operations, particularly in Afghanistan. It was "mobile and a good all rounder". It also had "the right profile to help our troops to engage with the people of Basra". To build bridges with the local population, it was important to avoid "the vision of our troops thundering down narrow streets with battle tanks"; this was "not exactly what we wanted to convey to the people of Basra". However, Mr Browne accepted that "things are changing".[27] He told the House:

    The level of violence in Basra has increased…the weapons that the terrorists use have changed radically…that is a serious issue…[I] have asked for a review… That review is ongoing, but I am unable to give…a specific date for its completion. I accept that the protection of our armed forces is my most important priority as Secretary of State for Defence.[28]

53. In a debate in the House on Armed Forces Personnel on 6 July, Mr Browne stated:

    The threat from improvised explosive devices—IEDs—has been evolving over the past two years… Responding to that has been one of our highest priorities. In the past two years alone, we have spent £120 million on improving force protection for our ground troops in Iraq, including electronic counter measures for Snatch Land Rovers and other vehicles. We continue to invest in further research on IEDs in collaboration with the USA, and we are determined to maintain our world-leading capability in that area.[29]

54. He added:

    Improved armour is also part of the solution…additional armoured options will become available to commanders over the next year. A new patrol vehicle, Vector, will enter service in Afghanistan in 2007. We have already upgraded the protection on the Warrior, Saxon and the CVR(T), and we are currently upgrading it on the FV430 vehicle.[30]

55. Nevertheless, he stated that Snatch Land Rovers "will continue to be an important option" because "the Army's approach to its role in Iraq…requires a low profile and a highly mobile patrol vehicle that allows troops to engage with local people".[31] He noted that:

    Larger and significantly heavier vehicles, such as Warrior, might be better armoured, but they are not always suitable for the lower profile and less intimidating manner in which the Army often prefers to operate. That, in turn, feeds into the security of our forces, because their relationship with the people with whom they work is an important component of security.[32]

56. In evidence to us on 20 June, Mr Ingram suggested that "there is a balance of risk in all of this which has to be taken". There was nothing "off the shelf" which could be purchased by the MoD which offered UK Forces enhanced protection whilst affording the same degree of speed and manoeuvrability. He accepted that the UK had vulnerabilities but stated that "every armed force has a vulnerability or vulnerabilities".[33]

57. During our introductory evidence session, on 11 July, with the Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Des Browne MP told us that the increased threat of IEDs "has generated a set of circumstances where…we need to look at whether there is a need for something between…Snatch Land Rovers as a form of land transport and the Warrior". He stated that, in ordering a review of the use of the Snatch, he had "accepted in principle" the need "to see if we can identify resources that can be procured and deployed in the timescale that would provide that [the required] level of protection while we wait for other armoured options becoming available". The Secretary of State told us that he expected his review of Snatch to report "imminently".[34]

58. In the longer-term, FRES (the Future Rapid Effects System) may offer a solution to the problems associated with the Snatch. During the evidence session with the Secretary of State for Defence, David Gould, Deputy Chief Executive, Defence Procurement Agency, told us that the in-service date for FRES was uncertain and that it would "not contribute to the immediate problem we face in Iraq and Afghanistan". He said that:

    we do have to look at the trade-off between time and capability. If the answer is that we need to do something early then we have to be realistic about the capability increment that the early answer will give you, but we need to understand and be prepared to make that trade-off.[35]

59. We are concerned at the increasingly sophisticated nature of the threat and the consequent vulnerability of UK Forces travelling in Snatch Land Rovers. We welcome the Secretary of State's review of the use of Snatch vehicles in Iraq and believe it is essential that this review be completed as quickly as possible. In the long-term, FRES may offer a solution to the difficulties associated with the Snatch, but its introduction is too far off to offer an answer to current operational needs in Iraq. The MoD should consider an "off the shelf" purchase as an immediate and interim replacement for Snatch, even if it does not fulfil the long-term capability requirement. It is unsatisfactory that the lack of capability was not addressed with greater urgency much earlier.

Heat

60. In addition to our concerns over the level of force protection provided by existing UK patrol vehicles, we were concerned by the working conditions of UK personnel in those vehicles. We witnessed at first hand the extreme temperatures our troops are subjected to in the back of the Warrior, which, we were told, exceeded 60 degrees Celsius. Some medical staff expressed the view that there could be fatalities as a result of these temperatures unless Warrior and other armoured vehicles were fitted with air conditioning or some other cooling system. Although we recognise that our troops go through an acclimatisation process, we believe that the conditions they endure risk compromising their ability to carry out their duties in the most effective way.

61. In evidence to us on June 20, Mr Ingram told us there were no plans to equip Warriors and other armoured vehicles with air conditioning and suggested there may be technical difficulties in fitting such equipment. An alternative solution under consideration by the MoD was to provide "coolant packs that soldiers can wear around their body armour". Mr Ingram said that this too had a drawback in that "we do get to the point of how much more encumbrance can we put on them [the soldiers]". Nevertheless, he told us, "if there is a solution, it will be found because we recognise the importance of that, and it can be done under UORs [Urgent Operational Requirements]".[36] We are sceptical that coolant pack would be sufficient in the intense heat of the Iraqi summer, especially given the existing amount of kit soldiers must carry.

62. We are concerned by the extreme temperatures to which our troops are subjected in armoured vehicles in Iraq. We call upon the MoD to investigate as a matter of urgency how the threat of heat exhaustion can be most effectively overcome, including examining the feasibility of equipping vehicles with air conditioning. UK troops have been operating in Iraq for over three years: it is unacceptable that resources have not yet been provided to combat the high temperatures.

63. We are also concerned that attention is given to the position of cooks and kitchen staff and that measures are taken to provide sufficient ventilation and to maintain properly air-conditioning equipment. More broadly, we believe that our troops require adequate air-conditioned environments not only while they are on duty but when they are at rest so that they can recover from the excessive heat. Effective recuperation is crucial to troops' alertness and hence to the avoidance of casualties.

Helicopters

64. In Iraq, we heard that helicopters were a critical enabler to military operations in MND(SE). At Basra Air Station, we visited the UK Joint Helicopter Force—Iraq (JHF-I). The JHF-I plays a vital role in responding to incidents and taking casualties to hospital, moving men and materiel around theatre, providing "armed overwatch" and "top cover", and conducting surveillance operations. The JHF-I demonstrates how the three Services can work together very effectively. But we were also told that demand for helicopters greatly outweighed supply. The view was expressed that the UK had insufficient helicopters available in theatre, that shortages were exacerbated by technical issues related to the heat of the Iraqi summer, and, more fundamentally, that the UK invested too little in helicopter procurement.

65. We heard that the demand for helicopters placed a significant strain on both air and ground crew, many of whom were in breach of their Harmony Guidelines. Many personnel had been required to do multiple tours of duty in Iraq. As the loss of a Lynx helicopter in Basra on 6 May 2006 demonstrated, aircrew face constant risks in carrying out their operational duties.

66. In evidence to us, Mr Ingram accepted that helicopters were in short supply and that their crew were stretched. He told us:

67. Mr Ingram agreed that the shortage of resources, which was particularly stark in comparison with that enjoyed by the Americans, was "tough" on the crews, but insisted that "we can only deploy that which we have both in platforms and in personnel".[38] He suggested that the MoD was addressing the shortage of helicopters and stated that "we have a very sizeable rotary wing programme which is currently evaluated as to what we need, how many and what the cost is going to be".[39]

68. We were impressed by the work of the Joint Helicopter Force—Iraq (JHF-I) which fulfils an essential role in enabling UK operations on the ground. But we are deeply concerned at the shortage of helicopters in theatre and believe that unless measures are taken to increase the number of helicopters and to reduce pressure on crews, the effectiveness and coherence of UK operations on the ground will suffer. We call upon the MoD to examine what steps it can take to remedy the shortage of helicopters and implement them as a matter of urgency.

Airlift

69. During our visit to Iraq, we heard that airbridge reliability remained a key concern among UK Service personnel. We witnessed at first hand the disruption caused by delays of flights in and out of, and around, theatre. The difficulties stem from problems both with the commercial service between the UK and al Udeid and with the C-130 Hercules in theatre and the availability of RAF airbridge Tristar, VC10 and C-17. Troops travelling home on leave are frequently delayed and this reduces their time on leave. It is unacceptable that Servicemen and women, many of whom are serving greatly in excess of Harmony Guidelines, should have their leave disrupted by the MoD's inability to provide a reliable airbridge.

70. In evidence to us, Mr Ingram stated:

71. We call upon the MoD to address the issue of airbridge unreliability as a matter of priority. Although we recognise the improvements already made in this area, we believe additional steps must be taken to address the shortage of available aircraft in theatre.

72. In our report on the UK Deployment to Afghanistan, we noted that concerns had been raised about the appropriateness of the defensive aid suite fitted to the C130 Hercules. We called on the MoD to provide evidence to demonstrate that the aircraft was being properly protected.[41] The Government's response reiterated the MoD's assurance that "Only Hercules C130 aircraft fitted with appropriate defensive systems are deployed to operational theatres".[42] It stated:

    We constantly review the threat and consider appropriate mitigation measures. Over recent years, several significant defensive upgrades have been embodied into Hercules aircraft. Emphasis has been on modification designed to counter the greatest perceived threats, whilst also evolving tactics and improving force protection on the ground. Following the Board of Inquiry into the Hercules C130 crash [in Iraq on 30 January 2005], MOD decided to fit Explosion Suppressant Foam (ESF) to some of our Hercules aircraft. The first aircraft fitted with ESF are expected to be available for operations in the next few months. Decisions on fitting protective systems to our aircraft must reflect a balance of investment judgement taking into account: the time it would take to fit the fleet's remaining service life; the impact on operations (by taking aircraft out of service); the likely effectiveness of the system; and the impact on other priorities.[43]

73. The MoD's memorandum states that:

    the fitting of Explosion Suppressant Foam (ESF) to some of our Hercules is currently underway. The aircraft that will be fitted with ESF will operate in both Iraq and Afghanistan and the first aircraft fitted with ESF will be available for Operations within the next few months…Accelerating the programme will not be possible without impacting upon aircraft availability for Operations.[44]

74. We note that the safety of C-130 Hercules remains an issue of concern to aircrew in theatre. While we welcome the decision to fit Explosion Suppressant Foam to some Hercules, we believe that it should be fitted to all Hercules in operational theatres. We are alarmed by the suggestion that the MoD might not be fitting protective systems because of the impact on other priorities. The protection of our Armed Forces should be given the highest priority.

75. We asked the Minister for the Armed Forces when the Hercules replacement, the A-400M would enter service, and whether it would be fitted with ESF.[45] The MoD's response states that the current estimate of the In Service Date for the A400M was 2011, that it would not be fitted with a Fuel Tank Inerting system as a standard but an Inert Gas Generation and Distribution system would be available as an option.[46] It also states that a study on Large Aircraft Survivability—which compares ESF with Inert Gas systems—will be published at the end of 2006, and will inform future decisions. We seek reassurance from the MoD that lessons will be learned and safety features will be integrated in the plans for the A400M.

Overstretch

76. During our visit to Iraq, some of the Service personnel we met raised with us serious concerns about the pressure placed on the Armed Forces by the dual deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The pressure on helicopter aircrew and groundcrew is mentioned above; other trades are under equal pressure. More generally, there are concerns that Harmony Guidelines are being routinely broken.[47] Many of those we met had served several tours in Iraq.

77. The MoD has acknowledged that certain pinchpoint trades are under pressure but it continues to maintain that the overall situation is manageable. The Secretary of State for Defence told us on 11 July, "I do not accept that we are overstretched... There is a degree of stretch but we are able to carry out what we need to do".[48]

78. The MoD's Annual Report and Accounts 2005-06, published on 14 July, reports that "The Armed Forces continued to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations for which they are resourced and structured to deliver for the fourth successive year".[49] It states that:

    the proportion of regular forces deployed on operations and other military tasks increased from about 18% in the first quarter of the year (including about 21% of the Army) to just under 20% in the last quarter of the year (including about 25% of the Army).[50]

It is acknowledged that the tempo of operations is limiting the Armed Forces' "ability to meet the harmony guidelines, particularly for personnel in certain pinch point specialist trades required for almost every operation".[51] 14.5% of the Army exceeded the separate service guideline as at 31 December 2005 (figures for end March were not available).[52] The average tour interval for Infantry units was reported to be 20.6 months within a range of 12 to 37 months, with the Armoured Infantry most affected.[53]

79. The MoD's confidence that the UK Armed Forces are not overstretched contrasts with what we are hearing from Service personnel on the ground. We are concerned that the "can-do" attitude of which our Services are rightly proud may be leading Service commanders to underplay the pressure on Service personnel and their families. The Armed Forces can tolerate short-term pressure but sustained breaches of Harmony Guidelines will damage the Services' operational capability. This is a matter of crucial importance. We intend to take evidence on the MoD's Annual Report and Accounts in the Autumn and will give close attention to the data on Harmony Guidelines.

80. The MoD's Annual Report and Accounts 2005-06 reports medical officer shortfalls of 22.1%, concentrated in anaesthetics, psychiatry and Accident and Emergency.[54] We have been told that there is a large pay gap between the pay paid to doctors in the Armed Services and those in the NHS.[55] We intend to return to this as well.

81. During the visit we met many reservists. While all of those we met were content to be serving in Iraq and appeared to be fully capable of their role, the extent to which the MoD relies on reservists to meet operational requirements gives us cause for concern. We are concerned that the MoD's reliance on reservists may not be sustainable: this is a matter we intend to return to when we examine the MoD's Annual Report and Accounts.

Recognition

82. During our visit, many Service personnel complained to us about the financial recognition of their service on operations. Comparisons of terms and conditions of service within a coalition can easily lead to perceptions of being treated less favourably, and this can be damaging to morale. There is clearly concern among UK personnel about the structure and level of allowances. It is not unreasonable that our Servicemen and women should expect some financial recognition for active service overseas: we intend to pursue this issue further.


27   HC Deb, 26 June 2006, col 4 Back

28   Ibid. col 4, col 18 Back

29   HC Deb, 6 July 2006, col 1009 Back

30   Ibid. Back

31   HC Deb, 6 July 2006, col 1009 Back

32   Ibid. Back

33   Q 90 Back

34   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 11 July 2006, HC (2005-06) 1458-I, Q 44 Back

35   Ibid., Q 48  Back

36   Q 93 Back

37   Q 72 Back

38   Q 75 Back

39   Q 78 Back

40   Q 47 Back

41   Defence Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2005-06, The UK Deployment to Afghanistan, HC 558, paras 65-68 Back

42   Defence Committee, Sixth Special Report of Session 2005-06, The UK Deployment to Afghanistan: Government Response to the Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2005-06, HC 1211, para 26 Back

43   Ibid., paras 28-30 Back

44   Ev 21 Back

45   Q 44 Back

46   Ev 21 Back

47   In our report on the MoD's annual report and accounts, we concluded that "there have been some breaches of Harmony Guidelines in all three Services, but that the impact has been greater in the Army owing to the level of operational tempo". We recommended that the MoD take action to ensure that breaches of Harmony Guidelines were minimised and stated that "greater priority should be given to developing management systems which allow the pressure on individuals to be monitored" Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2005-06, Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts, HC 822, para 13. The Government Response to our report indicated that the MoD "minimise[s] breaches [of Harmony Guidelines] through a number of initiatives". But it recognised that "although we monitor this closely and take action where possible to minimise breaches, some force elements and specialist cadres have to deploy more often than others thereby breaching Harmony Guidelines". Defence Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2005-06, Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2004-05: Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2005-06,HC 1293, para 4. Back

48   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 11 July 2006, HC (2005-06) 1458-i, Q24 Back

49   Ministry of Defence, Annual Report and Accounts 2005-06, HC 1394, p 26 and p 35, para 30 Back

50   Ibid., p 35 Back

51   Ibid., para 180; see paras 279-280 Back

52   Ibid., p 98, p 99, para 182 Back

53   Ibid., p 99, para 181 Back

54   Ibid., p 139, para 280 Back

55   Q 55 Back


 
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