British `lucky' poor equipment not tested in Kosovo war

 

The British government is facing calls for an inquiry into the army's capability and defence funding after leaked documents suggested British soldiers were constrained by a shortage of equipment, "confused and fractured" command lines and "spin-doctoring" during the NATO operation in Kosovo.

The advance of British soldiers as part of the Kfor force that moved through Kosovo to push back Serb forces was portrayed as one of the most technically advanced of its time. But the documents, written by two of the most senior British officers in the field, suggest soldiers would have had severe difficulty if they had faced organised resistance from the Serbs.

The problems highlighted in the documents, which were leaked to the BBC yesterday, were not new.

The British army has faced criticism from within its ranks before about the performance of its equipment and command structure, but the documents have raised wider concerns about the reduction in the defence budget while Britain maintains its willingness to take part in international peacekeeping forces.

There has been a steady decline in the priority given to defence spending by successive governments in Britain since 1984-1985 when defence spending amounted to about 5.3 per cent of the GDP. The Conservative government under Mr John Major reduced it further to about 2.8 per cent of the GDP while New Labour has merely tinkered with that level.

The Conservative defence spokesman, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, called for an immediate and urgent inquiry into "defence on the cheap".

However, the Liberal Democrats defence spokesman, Mr Menzies Campbell, laid the blame for the army's difficulties in Kosovo with the Tories, saying the report demonstrated "you cannot have defence on the cheap . . . We have paid a heavy price for the long years of the systematic raiding of the defence budget by the Tories during 18 years of government.

"If we want our troops to fulfil a moral obligation to intervene where necessary to prevent the wholesale abuse of human rights we have an equally strong moral obligation to ensure that they have the tools for the job," Mr Menzies said.

The Ministry of Defence said the leaked documents were part of an exercise, intended to be as critical as possible of the performance of the armed services in Kosovo, that would form part of an overall review of the campaign to be published later this year.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence insisted that with 18 NATO allies, British forces were prepared for a land campaign in Kosovo "and were confident that this would have been successfully executed, had it been necessary."

In one of the leaked documents, written by Lieut Col Paul Gibson, commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalion, and Brig Ian Freer, commander of the 5 Airborne Brigade, it was said that "the majority of commanders and many soldiers" bought their own Global Positioning Satellite receivers because there was not enough equipment to go round. Soldiers often had to buy their own camp beds or sleep on the floor, while some of the weapons issued were "unreliable".

Most media coverage was supportive, they observed, but officers were concerned that Ministry of Defence "spin-doctoring" might have led to a waste of resources when adverse comment was made in articles and on television.

Tactical intelligence available to the force was "disappointing". Although considerable intelligence products were available to NATO, "they were not disseminated to BG [battle group] level. In particular, imagery obtained during the air campaign was over-classified and consequently not released to BGs."

Field communications were "a hindrance to operations", the document said, with radio equipment, in particular, being "old and unreliable". Brig Freer described communications as "unworkable . . . for anything other than a totally benign environment". And on surface-to-air communications he wrote: "We were fortunate that an inadequate system was not put to the test."