Damning report into Kosovo campaign

Monday, 3 January, 2000

Nato's invasion of Kosovo was severely hampered by equipment and communication failures, according to British Army reports leaked to the BBC.

Classified army documents obtained by Radio 4's Today programme reveal for the first time criticism by the officers on the ground, of an operation hailed by generals and politicians as a great success.

The debriefing reports have revealed that British troops had to borrow guns from other K-For soldiers because many of their own failed to work properly. There were also confused lines of command, with orders changing frequently.

At any one time a third of the soldiers' personal radios were out of action.

The reports were drawn up by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Gibson, commanding officer of 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment - the first British troops into Kosovo - and his superior, Brigadier Adrian Freer, Commander of 5 Airborne Brigade.

'Opposed entry unworkable'

The UK Ministry of Defence on Monday released a statement saying Nato was "well prepared" to launch a land campaign in Kosovo, and it was confident this would have been successful had it been necessary.

But the reports indicated that two of the most senior British commanders in K-For, the Nato force in Kosovo, thought the problems would have made entry into the province unworkable if the Serbs had put up stiff opposition.

Both men agree the K-For operation, launched in June, was a succcess - but they suggested this was because the Serbs barely put up a fight.

"It is the view of this headquarters that had the situation on 12 June been anything less than benign, there would have been command, control and communication difficulties which could not have been resolved by K-For headquarters," wrote Brigadier Freer.

Colonel Gibson said his troops had to borrow guns, because many of theirs did not work properly.

"During both blank and live training for Kosovo, the light support weapon proved to be both unreliable and insufficiently robust," he said.

'Soldiers had to use nicknames'

Their radios were so insecure the Serbs could hear everything that was said.

Commanders had to resort to using nicknames with each other to try to fool the enemy, said Colonel Gibson, and requests for better equipment went unanswered by Whitehall.

"Communications are essential for the success and survival of light forces. We were fortunate that an inadequate system was not put to the test," wrote Brigadier Freer.

Colonel Gibson said the troops could not work properly after dark because they did not have enough night vision equipment.

Soldiers had to buy their own camp-beds because the army does not provide them.

Despite having considerable intelligence and spy satellite pictures of Kosovo, Nato did not show any of it to the commanders who had to retake the province.

'War criminals let go'

Colonel Gibson also criticised problems with the legal basis on which the Paras patrolled the province's capital Pristina, he wrote.

As a result, several people they suspected of being serious war criminals had to be let go.

"There was much discussion about law but little application of justice," he said.

"Meanwhile, the Albanian community in particular meted out violence on Serbs, secure in the knowledge that we were impotent to stop them."

Brigadier Freer said the headquarters of K-For commander General Sir Mike Jackson was too distant from the troops on the ground.

This made command "confused and fractured".

He said: "Soldiers were operating in something of a vacuum which lasted for several days. There were constantly changing orders and confusion, with a potentially damaging effect on morale.

"This erodes confidence and may, in extremis, play individual soldiers in an invidious position."

Independent defence analyst Francis Tusa said these kind of reports usually involve a kind of special pleading.

"The forces will not pull their punches because the feeling is, if they do, the people at the top - the politicians - won't take any notice," he said.

Bruce George, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the committee had already begun a serious inquiry into the lessons to be derived form the conflict.

He said the leaked documents would be "helpful", but did offer a "partial view".

However, he also said the government needed to raise defence expenditure "beyond the rather miserable level to which it has sunk over the last 15 years".

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