Select Committee on Defence First Report


4  THE ROLE OF UK FORCES IN IRAQ

Equipment issues

66. In our last report on UK operations in Iraq, published on 10 August 2006, we expressed our concerns about the equipment shortages and deficiencies facing UK Forces in Iraq. We were concerned about the vulnerability of UK Forces travelling in Snatch Land Rovers and called upon the MoD to review the use of these vehicles and consider "off the shelf" purchases to address the problem. We also expressed our concern at the shortage of helicopters in theatre and the pressures on air and ground crew which resulted from these shortages. We called upon the MoD to examine the problem of helicopter availability as a matter of priority. We highlighted the poor reliability of the airbridge carrying troops into theatre and stated that it was unacceptable that Servicemen and women, many of whom were serving greatly in excess of their Harmony Guidelines, should have their leave disrupted by the MoD's inability to provide a reliable airbridge. We also noted that UK Forces in Iraq had expressed their concerns about the structure and level of their allowances and had reported to us that there was insufficient financial recognition of their service while on operations. Finally, we observed that persistent breaches of Harmony Guidelines suggested that UK Forces were overstretched.[96]

67. Over the past year, the MoD has procured 100 Mastiff armoured vehicles for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as an additional 38 Vector patrol vehicles. It has also up-armoured around 70 FV430 MK3 Bulldog tracked vehicles. In his statement to the House of Commons on 8 October 2007 the Prime Minister announced the purchase of a further 140 Mastiffs for use in both Iraq and Afghanistan.[97]

68. We asked the Minister for the Armed Forces on 24 July 2007 how the Mastiffs already deployed were performing in theatre. Mr Ainsworth told us that UK Forces had "a high degree of confidence in them" since they offered "a level of security […] that is fitting to the job they are asked to do". In evidence to us on 23 October 2007 the Secretary of State for Defence maintained that the Mastiff had proved "an astonishing success". Lieutenant General Wall said they had been "hugely successful". They had been procured and delivered quickly and had been readily integrated into the day-to-day business of UK Forces in Iraq.

69. In written evidence to us, the MoD argued that the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process was working well in "rapidly delivering to the front line the battle-winning capability required by our Armed Forces". It stated that as of August 2007, "91% of all equipment procured under the UOR process was deemed either highly effective or effective by troops in theatre".[98] The Secretary of State told us that UK Forces in theatre were now better equipped than ever before. The MoD was "learning lessons" about the impact of using its equipment in harsh environments which "take their toll on the vehicles" and "on those who maintain them". Mr Browne said that these lessons were being fed into the MoD's long-term procurement programmes.[99]

70. The Secretary of State also told us that the availability of helicopters was improving. He announced in March 2007 that the UK would convert eight Chinooks and purchase six additional Merlin helicopters which would "increase our Chinook and Merlin fleets capability by 20% and 25% respectively.[100] The Minister for the Armed Forces told the House on 9 October 2007 that "we expect all six Merlins to be operational next year".[101] In a written statement, Mr Ainsworth told the House that "on current plans we expect to see the [Chinook] aircraft delivered by the end of 2009".[102] It will be important for the MoD to monitor closely the progress of the Merlin and Chinook programmes and, if necessary, take appropriate action to prevent slippage so that these helicopters are available for operational use as soon as possible.

71. We examined the issue of the airbridge in our Strategic Lift report published on 5 July 2007. In the report we highlighted the good performance of the C-17 large transport aircraft and recommended that "given the performance of its C-17 large transport aircraft, the MoD must give consideration to the acquisition of additional C-17 aircraft".[103] The Government Response to our report stated that:

    The Department agrees the recommendation. The C-17 has proved a great success on operations and we keep our C-17 requirements under continual review…. On 26 July 2007 the MoD announced its intention to purchase a sixth Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, as part of a number of measures to enhance operational effectiveness.[104]

72. We welcome the deployment of additional armoured vehicles to our Forces in Iraq and are reassured that the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) process is delivering much needed equipment to our Forces in theatre. The deployment of additional Mastiff and Bulldog armoured vehicles has significantly improved the force protection available to our Forces in Iraq. However, we are concerned that current operations are reducing the planned lives of equipment and that this could lead to potential capability gaps in the future. We are also concerned that equipment returning from operational theatres—whether it was procured through the routine acquisition process or as UORs—will require substantial expenditure to repair, refurbish, support and store, and it appears that no provision has been made for this in the MoD's budget. This will make the management of the MoD's budget increasingly difficult. We expect the MoD, in its response to our report, to set out how it plans to address any capability gaps arising from the intensive use of equipment on current operations, its estimate of the costs needed for repairing and refurbishing equipment returning from operational theatres, and how this will be funded.

73. We also welcome the planned increase in the number of Chinook and Merlin helicopters. This should improve helicopter availability when these helicopters become available for operational use over the next two years. The purchase of an additional C-17 large transport aircraft will further improve the MoD's strategic air-lift capability and we look forward to receiving the MoD's end-to-end review of the airbridge—the Air Movements Process Study—when it is published in December 2007. We will continue to monitor the MoD's equipment programme, the support to troops in theatre, and the impact of the current high tempo of operation on our Forces in our current inquiries into Defence Equipment and the MoD's Annual Report and Accounts.

Internment and detention

74. In our report last year we noted that UK Forces in Iraq maintained a Divisional Temporary Detention Facility (DTDF) at the Shaibah Logistics Base, housing people considered to be a threat to security, under the authority of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1637. We called upon the MoD to make public, on a regular basis, the number of detainees held by UK Forces in Iraq, and the grounds for detention. We emphasised that detention without trial was, of itself, undesirable, though we understood the reasons for it.[105]

75. The MoD's written evidence of 10 September 2007 distinguished between detention (defined as the period during which a person is held by MNF following arrest, until he is either transferred to the Iraqi judicial system, or released, or a decision is made by MNF to hold him as an internee) and internment (defined as the longer-term holding of an individual by MNF where it is judged that this is necessary for imperative reasons of security). The MoD stated:

    Any individual detained by UK forces will have his case reviewed by the Divisional Internment Review Committee (DIRC) […] within 48 hours of initial detention and a decision as to whether internment is necessary will be taken. Individuals are only interned where the DIRC judges that they pose an imperative threat to security.[106]

76. Following the handover to Iraqi control of Shaibah Logistics Base, UK internees are now held in the purpose-built Divisional Internment Facility (DIF) at Basra Air Station. The MoD's written evidence stated that, at the end of July 2007, the UK held 86 individuals at the DIF, of which: 1 had been convicted by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) and was awaiting transfer to the Iraqi Authorities; 10 were awaiting trial in the CCCI; and 75 were security internees. In contrast, at mid-August 2007, the US held around 20,000 internees in their in-theatre internment facilities in Iraq.[107]

77. The MoD argued that internment without trial continues to be necessary because:

    there are still individuals in Iraq whose aim is to undermine the establishment of democratic rule through violence directed at MNF, the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi civilians. Internment is used sparingly and only when individuals present an imperative threat to security. Additionally, we need to continue to hold those who have perpetrated attacks against us in the past and who we believe remain a threat to security. Further, internment is in the interest of the Iraqi civilian population and is for their protection as well as our own.[108]

78. The written evidence from the Redress Trust raised a number of concerns about detention and internment by UK forces in Iraq. Drawing on the evidence presented to the court martial R v Payne & Others, relating to the death of Baha Musa and the alleged mistreatment of other Iraqi civilians in Basra during September 2003, it expressed concern about the holding and questioning of detainees at the battlegroup level, in the period between capture and delivery to the central detention facility. It questioned whether the MoD's doctrine on prisoner of war and civilian detainee and internee handling had been fully implemented, and whether interrogators were given up-to-date training, And it asked for clarification about the role of medical staff before, during and after questioning.[109] The detention of Iraqis without trial is a matter of public concern. We call on the MoD to respond in its response to this report to the questions raised by the Redress Trust about the handling of detainees in Iraq.

The changing footprint of UK Forces in South Eastern Iraq

79. The reductions in the number of UK military personnel serving in Iraq during the course of 2007 reflects the changing footprint of UK Forces. Until early 2007, UK and Coalition Forces were stationed at several bases in and around Basra City: the Old State Building, the Shatt-Al-Arab Hotel, Shaibah Logistics Base, the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre at Basra Palace and the Contingency Operating Base at Basra Air Station.

80. With the exception of Basra Air Station, all UK and Coalition bases in South Eastern Iraq have now been handed over to local Iraqi control. On 20 February 2007, command of the 10th Division of the Iraqi Army was handed over to local Iraqi control. On 20 March 2007, UK Forces handed over control of the Old State Building to the Iraqi Army 10th Division, the first Coalition base to be transferred.[110] On 8 April, the Shatt-Al-Arab Hotel, which had been the main base from which operations in the northern part of Basra City had been mounted, was handed to Iraqi control and later that month, on 24 April, Shaibah Logistics Base, a major UK base on the outskirts of Basra City, was handed over to the Iraqis. Most recently, on 3 September, UK Forces completed the handover of Basra Palace, the last Coalition base inside Basra City. UK and Coalition Forces in South Eastern Iraq are now all based at the Contingency Operating Base Basra Air Station.

81. The consolidation of UK and Coalition Forces at the COB at Basra Air Station followed the transition of three of the four provinces in the UK's area of operations to Provincial Iraqi Control. Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces were transferred to Iraqi control in July and September 2006 respectively. Maysan Province was transferred to Iraqi control in April 2007. On 30 October 2007, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki announced that the Iraqi Army would assume control of Basra Province from UK Forces in December 2007.[111]

Table 5: Key dates in transition to Iraqi control in MND(SE)

Date of handover to Iraqi control Province / Base / Division
13 July 2006Al Muthanna Province
30 July 2006Camp Smitty, Al Muthanna
30 August 2006Camp Abu Naji, Maysan
21 September 2006Dhi Qar Province
20 December 2006An-Najaf Province (in MND (Centre South))
20 February 2007Command of Iraqi Army 10th Division
20 March 2007Old State Building, Basra City
8 April 2007Shatt-Al-Arab Hotel, Basra City
18 April 2007Maysan Province
24 April 2007Shaibah Logistics Base
3 September 2007Basra Palace
December 2007*Basra Province

* Projected date.

Source: Ministry of Defence[112]

The changing role of UK Forces

82. The impending handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control, scheduled for December 2007, will presage a change in the role of UK Forces in South Eastern Iraq. In a statement to the House of Commons on 8 October 2007, the Prime Minister announced that "the next important stage in delivering our strategy to hand over security to the Iraqis is to move from a combat role in the rest of Basra province to overwatch" across the whole of South Eastern Iraq and transferring overall responsibility for security to Iraqi control. Switching to a position of overwatch, the Prime Minister stated, would have two stages:

83. The Prime Minister outlined the implications of the transition to overwatch for the number of UK Forces deployed in Iraq:

    We plan from next Spring to reduce our force numbers in southern Iraq to a figure of 2,500. The first stage begins now. With the Iraqis already assuming security responsibility, we expect to: establish provincial Iraqi control in Basra province in the next two months […] move to the first stage of overwatch; reduce numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 at the start of September to 4,500 immediately after provincial Iraqi control and then to 4,000; and then in the second stage of overwatch from the Spring […] reduce to around 2,500 troops, with a further decision about the next phase made then. In both stages of overwatch, around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq but elsewhere in the region.[114]

Table 6: Projected reductions in UK force levels from September 2007

DateNumber of troops
September 20075,500
November 20075,000
Christmas 20074,500
From Spring 20082,500


Source: Ministry of Defence[115]

84. In a joint statement on 31 October 2007, welcoming the Iraqi Prime Minister's announcement that Basra Province would be transferred to Iraqi control in December 2007, the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, and the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon David Miliband MP, emphasised that "the transition of Basra does not signal the end of our commitment to the people of Iraq". Instead, "it now enters a new stage" in which:

    we will continue to train and mentor the Iraqi Security Forces and we will protect the border and supply routes, while retaining the capability to support the Iraqis directly if so requested. But the Iraqis will take the lead, as they have proved more than capable of doing in Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Maysan.[116]

Despite ceding control for security in the region to the Iraqis, Mr Browne and Mr Miliband emphasised that the UK would "remain closely engaged with the Government of Iraq to promote national reconciliation, and to ensure the development of a diverse and strong economy".[117]

85. Until now, UK Forces in South Eastern Iraq have held overall responsibility for security in Basra. As the Minister for the Armed Forces told us in evidence on 24 July, "we are […] the ultimate guarantor of any chance of progress" in South Eastern Iraq.[118] With the switch to overwatch, this would change. Iraqis themselves would assume responsibility for security across the whole of MND(SE).

86. Mr Ainsworth defined overwatch as "being there, able in the absolute extreme to offer support, but to stand back and allow the Iraqi forces themselves to try and deal with the situations that arise".[119] In written evidence to our inquiry, the MoD explained that overwatch is "a term specific to UK forces" within MND(SE) which "is used to describe the force structure for a given province" and "is subdivided into 3 phases: tactical, operational and strategic".[120] At the tactical stage of overwatch, UK Forces remain responsible for security:

    Initially, they are responsible for the routine provision of security. Over time, routine and non-essential Multi-National Force (MNF) activity progressively reduces, as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) take increasing responsibility for providing security as a means of moving towards security self-reliance.[121]

87. The operational phase of overwatch takes place after the transfer to Provincial Iraqi Control. According to the MoD, in this posture UK and Coalition Forces "provide a re-intervention capability, but the requirement to intervene will be only in extremis and at the request of the Iraqi authorities". The principal focus of UK Forces during this period is on security sector reform: the training and mentoring of the Iraqi Security Forces, particularly the Iraqi Army. Nevertheless, the UK continues to protect "key supply routes" and "points of entry". This is the current stage of overwatch in Al Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces, and will also be the case in Basra Province following transition to Provincial Iraqi Control which is scheduled for December 2007.[122]

88. The MoD describes the final stage of overwatch as "strategic overwatch". During this period, the UK and Coalition effort "will move to supporting the Iraqi Government and Security Forces in facing strategic threats to their internal and external security".[123]

89. The MoD envisages regional variations across South Eastern Iraq. In evidence to us on 24 July, Brigadier Hughes told us that:

    What we do not envisage in overwatch is one package fits all, so if the Iraqi Security Forces were going to ask us for support once they have got provincial control, we do not envisage them necessarily meaning that we have got to put a battle group into the middle of the city. What they might be short of is intelligence and surveillance assets, so it might be just flying something high up, or it might be another niche capability or a piece of logistics that they need putting in place. We foresee in over-watch maybe nothing or maybe very limited and a scaled approach to it.[124]

90. As the UK moves towards full operational overwatch in South Eastern Iraq, the key issues are how many troops will be needed in theatre, whether overwatch could be performed outside Iraq, and whether the UK might need to maintain a reserve of troops to re-intervene if the security situation in South Eastern Iraq deteriorated significantly.

91. In July 2007 the Minister for the Armed Forces told us that, in order to perform effective overwatch, a force of around 5,000 would be required. Anything below this number would prove difficult to sustain:

    The force is not self-sustaining and able to protect itself and do all the other work it has to do below about 5,000, so we are approaching levels where we cannot go much further […] in an actual overwatch situation we cannot go much below 5,000 because we have to sustain the force and self-protect the force itself, so overwatch itself does not take us down a lot further than that.[125]

92. Mr Ainsworth's suggestion that a force package of around 5,000 represented a minimum sustainable number reflects what we heard during our visit to Iraq in July 2007. During our visit, we were told that minimum force levels had already been reached. Although limited reductions might prove possible following the transition of Basra Palace to Iraq control, there remained a critical mass of around 4,000 to 5,000 below which the sustainability of the force package would be called into question. We heard that any further reductions would mean that the remaining UK Force would be able to do little more than sustain and protect itself at the Contingency Operating Base at Basra Air Station.

93. In his statement to the House of Commons on 8 October, however, the Prime Minister announced plans to reduce UK force levels in Iraq to 4,500 following the transfer of Basra Province to Iraqi control in December 2007 and, shortly thereafter, to 4,000 in the first stage of overwatch and to 2,500 in the second stage of overwatch "from the Spring of 2008".[126]

94. We asked the Secretary of State for Defence about the apparent discrepancy between the Prime Minister's announcement in October 2007 of a reduction in UK force levels to 2,500 from the Spring of 2008 and the Minister for the Armed Forces' suggestion, in July 2007, that a force package much below 5,000 would not be sustainable. Mr Browne denied that there were any discrepancy and told us that:

    what has changed is that we are now in a position to have a very clear idea, in consultation with our allies and with the Iraqis themselves, as to exactly what we will be doing and what tasks we will be carrying out and we plan the number of troops in relation to the tasks, so the tasks have changed.[127]

Mr Browne added that he was satisfied that on the basis of the evidence he had received the Prime Minister's "figure of troops to tasks is the right figure". That figure was "a product of a close assessment of our future requirement" and "the key to this figure has been the judgment of the military commanders".[128] The MoD subsequently provided us with classified written evidence addressing the tasks that UK and Coalition Forces would be required to fulfil following the transition of security responsibility in Basra to Provincial Iraqi Control and the number of troops that will be required to fulfil those tasks.

95. Lieutenant General Wall maintained that the proposed reductions in UK Forces in Iraq were not the result of overstretch. According to Lieutenant General Wall, "this has not been driven by what is available". He maintained that "were more forces needed at this stage of the campaign […] the Army could provide additional forces […] That is not to say it will not benefit from a reduction".[129] Reducing the UK military commitment to 2,500 was "perfectly workable in light of the tasks that we envisage". The reduction would mean a that the number of Battlegroups in theatre would be cut from four to two. However, the difference in the number of Battlegroups could be "accounted for in terms of the change of tasks […] as we go increasingly towards a mentoring and supporting role rather than that which we are engaged in at the moment".[130] Nevertheless, Lieutenant General Wall maintained that, even after the drawdown of Forces, the UK would still be capable of deploying a Battlegroup in a combat role if the security situation so demanded.[131]

96. We also asked the Secretary of State whether, in light of the proposed reductions, UK Forces could be re-deployed to Iraq if the security situation were to deteriorate significantly. Lieutenant General Wall maintained that reinforcements could be found from a variety of sources, from Iraqi, Coalition, and UK Forces:

    If it is a question of delivering reserves into the MND South East area in response to requests from the Iraqi agencies and presumably at that stage through the Iraqi MoD with the Iraqi Prime Minister's endorsement, then there are a number of levels at which those reserves could be delivered, starting with the Iraqi security forces themselves, we could redeploy into the area either from elsewhere in the south or from nationwide, the MNF core-level reserves […] or indeed, if required and in extremis, additional UK forces from our own reserves.[132]

Lieutenant General Wall stated that there were sufficient UK Forces to replenish and reinforce those in Iraq if needed, irrespective of what happened in Afghanistan.

97. The MoD has said that, despite transferring security responsibility to the Iraqi Security Forces, UK Forces will retain the capability to re-intervene in South Eastern Iraq if the security situation deteriorates. If that re-intervention capability is to be credible the UK will need to be capable of drawing upon Forces from outside Iraq. We call upon the MoD to clarify how it plans to maintain a re-intervention capacity, which Forces would be assigned to that role, and where they would be based.

98. The Prime Minister's announcement that the number of UK Forces in Iraq will be reduced to 2,500 from the Spring of 2008 is noted, but important questions remain about the sustainability of a force of this size. If there is still a role for UK Forces in Iraq, those Forces must be capable of doing more than just protecting themselves at Basra Air Station. If the reduction in numbers means they cannot do more than this, the entire UK presence in South Eastern Iraq will be open to question.


96   HC (2005-06) 1241, paras 51-82 Back

97   HC Deb, 8 October 2007, col 24 Back

98   HC (2006-07) 1091-i, Ev 37 Back

99   HC (2006-07) 1091-i, Q 91 Back

100   Ibid., Q 92 Back

101   HC Deb, 9 October 2007, col 200 Back

102   HC Deb, 8 October 2007, col 73 WS Back

103   Defence Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2006-07, Strategic Lift, HC 462, para 67 Back

104   Defence Committee, Fourteenth Special Report of Session 2006-07, Strategic Lift: Government Response to the Committee's Eleventh Report of Session 2006-07, HC 1025, para 12 Back

105   HC (2005-06) 1241, paras 39-46 Back

106   Ev 36 Back

107   Ibid. Back

108   Ev 37 Back

109   Ev 41-43 Back

110   UK and Coalition Forces handed over control of Camp Smitty in Al Muthanna and Camp Abu Naji in Maysan to Iraqi control on 30 July and 30 August 2006 respectively. Back

111   Ministry of Defence press notice, 30 October 2007 Back

112   Ministry of Defence website (www.mod.uk) Back

113   HC Deb, 8 October 2007, col 23 Back

114   Ibid. Back

115   HC Deb, 8 October 2007, col 21 Back

116   Ministry of Defence press release, 31 October 2007 Back

117   Ministry of Defence press release, 31 October 2007 Back

118   Q 83 Back

119   Q 121 Back

120   Ev 39 Back

121   Ibid. Back

122   Ev 40 Back

123   Ibid. Back

124   Q 130 Back

125   Q 120 Back

126   HC Deb, 8 October 2007, col 23 Back

127   HC (2006-07) 1091-i, Q 8 Back

128   Ibid., Q 9 Back

129   Ibid., Q 13 Back

130   Ibid., Q 14 Back

131   Ibid., Q 15 Back

132   Ibid., Q 21 Back


 
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