Chaos of war? Or dereliction of duty by the MOD?

War is a dirty, ugly profession.

Yet we would be foolish to think men will not continue to fight and die in countries many miles beyond their own often for reasons, and because of reasons, their families back at home might not be able to comprehend or come to terms with when their loved ones succumb in battle.

So what of the current fight the MOD has on its hands as it faces yet another struggle in the courts over the standard of equipment issued to troops during the Iraq war? Is the criticism of relatives justified? Did soldiers know that when they went to war they would go with the very minimum of kit and be expected to get on with the job regardless? Is the situation in the 20th Century any different to what it was in the hundreds of years prior? Should it be different?

The argument levelled by Robert Weir QC representing some of those bringing claims is as such:

“The state is under a positive obligation to take all reasonable measures to protect the lives of its soldiers. In the context of activities that form part of soldiers’ ordinary duties, albeit that these may involve dangerous activities, that positive obligation requires the state to adopt and implement regulations and systems to mitigate the relevant risk to life, including adequate equipment and training.”

On the face of it there is nothing to disagree with in these statements. If war is dirty and ugly then it is also unpredictable. What’s more, the consequences of any sort of misjudgement – whether made in the cushy offices of the MOD or in the heat of battle – can and do result in death and injury.

My experience is that most troops regard the vagaries of waging war an occupational hazard.

As my old commanding officer Tim Collins would say, “Go to war with what’s in your pockets. The rest will follow.” And that’s exactly what my colleagues and I did when we took part in the 2003 invasion of Saddam’s nation. It could well be argued there was not enough kit to go around and that was a failing of the MOD logistical plan but these things happen and yes they do cost lives but it is something servicemen know all too well and just get on with it. Historically it has come with the territory. Again, the real question is should they just get on with it?

It is worth looking at the emotive issue of the Snatch Land Rover (which features in one of the compensation claims) a vehicle I used have used many times over 30 years of – ongoing – service. Soldiers tended to hate it, and not just because it was lightly armoured. But also because it was enclosed, had poor visibility and did not have the ability to mount crew-served weapons therefore being of little use as a firing platform.

Soldiers would rather have the much lighter, totally un-armoured WMIK Land Rover that addressed all the failings of the Snatch except its shortage of ballistic protection. But in war, mobility is often a key part of staying safe and the balance between physical protection and speed and agility is something the MOD has had to try and address over the last ten years of bitter fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Snatch Land Rover

But you shouldn’t always blame the equipment. Part of the problem with the Snatch was how it was deployed, more than once in unsuitable circumstances. This is a failure of command, down to inexperience and difficult operational situations.

(If you really want a woeful vehicle ever to be deployed into an operational theatre then you need look no further that the Vector, but that is a different and lesser-known story and perhaps the subject of another blog.)

WMIK Land Rover after IED strike

There is no universal view amongst soldiers on what constitutes best practice. I did not envy those who crossed the border into Iraq in 2003 inside a 60-tonne Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, essentially cooped up in a bullet magnet, susceptible to both mine strikes and artillery fire, as well as the attentions of the enemy’s main battle tanks.

In contrast my regiment, the Royal Irish, entered the conflict in 4-tonne DAF cargo trucks, 18 men squeezed into each open-topped vehicle travelling no quicker than 30 miles per hour.  Vulnerable? Bloody right we were, but we got on with it because that’s what was on hand and because, we as infantrymen, had a job to do and by choice non of us wanted to be entombed in metal. Ig we had we would have joined the cavalry or the tank Regiment.

As it was every man in our unit had his body armour. We knew this because the commanding officer and his RSM, me, were the last to receive theirs. This was not a procedure prescribed by the MOD, it’s simply a matter of leadership.

Had more and better equipment been available then the CO would have made sure everyone had it, but in truth it was not and we got on with the job – you can see the pattern: ‘Get on with the job, known risks, availability’.  The Army works on a simple premise in war, ‘mission first’ – like it or not that is what you sign up for and if you aren’t up for it then choose a different profession.

In the summer of 2008 in the Upper Gereskh Valley I fought a desperate battle along with just ten other British soldiers to hold a small patrol base named Attal. We were lightly equipped, far from any support and fought protracted battles on a daily basis. The attrition took its toll on my men mentally and physically.

Burdened down with heavy personal protection equipment in 40 degree heat, men got tired, took the less difficult route, did not, could not, apply the skill taught them due to sheer exhaustion.  They had lost mobility due to ‘protection’ and that eventually cost the life of one of those with me.

Leopard 2 MBT – Mobility Kill

There are many who will say that this heavy personal protective equipment has saved lives and they would be right: up to a point. We don’t know how many men would not have stepped on the IED that killed or maimed them if they had not been so bloody tired.

Physical, all-enveloping protection is not everything as the death of a Danish soldier while travelling inside a Leopard 2
main battle tank during our time at Attal proves. Confronted with a bigger vehicle to destroy, the enemy will simply make a bigger bomb. A terrible incident in March when six British soldiers were killed after their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was targeted by a Taliban roadside bomb simply reinforces the point.

All this leads to at least one legitimate complaint about the methods used to issue equipment to our armed forces. In a world of scarce resource the best stuff will always go to those some regard as the ‘best’ soldiers, the elite regiments. They do have access to very lightweight ballistic protective kit out there that better strikes the balance between the competing priorities of mobility and protection. Yet why are these people the pampered few? Better paid, better equipped than the rest of the British Army (and Navy).

Of course, it comes down to a single thing. Cost.

If the MOD looses these cases in the courts I wonder whether the families of those killed in the Falklands will then seek compensation for their loved ones who did not have ballistic protection of any kind? Or will the long forgotten Ulster Defence Regiment who lost 197 soldiers in a conflict many choose to forget be entitled to sue the MOD?

I think it is right and proper that equipment concerns are raised and where someone is culpable then legal action should be taken against them. But the bar for prosecution should be set very high indeed. To blame a lack of equipment when the equipment was not available or its purpose misunderstood by those in command is plainly wrong.

Faced with a public backlash to better protect its troops the MOD might be tempted to pile yet more protective kit onto the soldier. But while this might cover the arses of those in Whitehall, ironically it could leave men and women on the front line less able to defend themselves. Bogged down in the mud they might die because of having too much kit, not too little.

It is sobering to look back at the evidence from D-Day that took place 68 years ago this month. The stories are legion of how over-burdened soldiers either drowned as they disembarked the landing crafts which carried them towards the Normandy beaches or were unable to make fast enough progress across the sand allowing the Germans to pick them off.

Now, as then, war is an unpredictable business. Lawyers must not make it sound otherwise.