Overstretched army struggles to fill new role

The military hope leaks will force an increase in funding to match ministers' ambitions for Britain to be Europe's peacekeeper-in-chief

Richard Norton-Taylor and Sarah Hall

Tuesday January 4, 2000

The picture painted by two of the British army's most senior commanders in Kosovo, of guns and radios which did not work properly, of confused lines of command and control, of intelligence not reaching those who needed it on the ground, of inadequate briefing about the law covering war criminals, was predictably seized on yesterday by opposition spokesmen to castigate the government.

Yet they raise fundamental questions about the post-cold war role of Britain's armed forces which neither the previous Conservative government nor its Labour successor has been prepared to face . Tony Blair's rhetoric and his administration's foreign policy ambitions - with British forces playing the lead in Europe and in UN peacekeeping missions while maintaining the nuclear 'deterrent' - have not been matched by extra funding.

For months Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, and his predecessor, Lord Robertson, have been warning of overstretch. This spring, Britain's contribution to the K-For peacekeeping force will be cut to below 4,000 from its peak of 10,500.

For years, senior officers and ministry of defence civil servants have been complaining privately about the 3% annual 'efficiency savings' imposed on them by the treasury.

There will be many in the MoD today who will be only too pleased about the leaked reports of Lt Col Paul Gibson, commander of the 1st battalion of the parachute regiment, and brigadier Adrian Freer, commander of 5 airborne brigade.

Whatever the precise motives of the leakers, the MoD may hope the reports of inadequate equipment - many of which, including those relating to radios and guns, have been known for a long time - will put pressure on the politicians in general and the treasury in particular. The defence budget, is now about £21bn, compared with some £25bn six years ago.

There is little new in commanders complaining about their equipment. The army had to cannibalise Challenger tanks for spares during the 1991 Gulf war when it could only just deploy a single armoured division. Then infantry complained that their then brand new and expensive Heckler and Koch SA 80 rifles were prone to jamming.

According to figures released recently by the MoD, a third of the army's newest tanks and more than half its older models are not fully operational. The figures, obtained by Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, suggest the army is having problems with its frontline armour, with implications that could be serious for its ability to take part in future military operations.

Only 65% of new Challenger 2 tanks were fully operational at the end of September. Last year all were fully operational. Only 39% of the army's older Challenger 1 tanks are fully operational, compared with 67% last year.

The figures are well below army targets. The MoD has declined to disclose the number of tanks unfit for military service. John Spellar, armed forces minister, told Mr Campbell the number of armoured vehicles held by frontline units and the number operational were classified.

The army has ordered 386 Challenger 2s, but probably fewer than 100 are in service. It has had 420 Challenger 1s; they are progressively going out of service. The figures show few of the ageing fleet of smaller armoured personnel carriers and combat vehicles meet readiness targets.

The MoD wants more than 250 Eurofighters for the RAF which may or may not be adapted to land and take-off from the navy's planned two new aircraft carriers. The navy's fleet of ageing surface ships badly need replacing and its budget shortfall has meant cancelling exercises. The ministry is also due to order a heavy lift transport aircraft, a decision on which has already been postponed.

These projects, costing tens of billions of pounds, will all be needed, says the ministry, to fulfil the government's ambitious plans for rapid reaction forces in an upheaval laid down in the 1998 strategic defence review. The 1999 defence white paper, published before Christmas, gave little hint of the troubles, or of the difficult and hugely expensive decisions ahead.

The army remains short of skilled technicians as well as modern and reliable equipment. It remains 5,000 short of its official trained strength of 109,000, while the navy is some 1,500 short of its notional strength of 40,000. An MoD 'performance report' released at the same time as the defence white paper showed that the army's training and recruitment agency reported only a 17% success rate in reaching its assigned targets.

The government, meanwhile, is urging its European partners to increase their military effectiveness and join forces in a 60,000 strong 'Eurocorps' before the end of the decade. Moves towards more effective European capabilities were driven by warnings from the US that it will not be prepared in a future European crisis to provide the 80% of the hardware and intelligence it did in the Kosovo war.

The British army, as the leaked reports show, had problems in Kosovo, but they would have been minor compared with those which would have faced a European ground force engaged in pitched battles with the Serbs. Britain, France, and Germany want a 'Eurocorps' to take over command of K-For this spring. The leaked reports criticised the lack of command and control coordination, claiming that the intentions of General Mike Jackson, the K-For commander, were not always passed on properly. Gen Jackson has made it quite clear what he thought of communications between his HQ, Nato and its member governments.

The MoD said yesterday the British army commanders were deliberately asked to be critical so that lessons could be learnt, and that, in the end, the Serbs capitulated without a single allied casualty.

The main points of the reports include:


Troops had to borrow general purpose, long-range machine guns because many of theirs did not work properly, Lt Col Gibson says. The 'reliability, robustness and 'suppressive capability'' of the light support weapon used in Kosovo were 'insufficient'.

Soldiers were hindered at night by a lack of night vision devices for machine guns. 'There is currently not an in-service cupola weapon station bracket for the machine gun, which reduces the effectiveness of a considerable proportion of the brigade's firepower at night,' he added.


Battle communications were a hindrance to operations, particularly in Pristina. Radios were so insecure that the Serbs could hear everything that was said and codes had to be used to disguise sensitive security details.

One type of radio proved 'unworkable in towns' - but urgent requests for a secure replacement system went unanswered.

Meanwhile, the Clansman radio equipment, the personal radio used by the troops, proved old and 'increasingly unreliable', with up to 35% being repaired at any one time.

Legal powers

British soldiers were not told of their legal powers before arriving in Pristina, said Lt Col Gibson, and, when they got there 'appropriate advice was slow to arrive… Advice often dodged the issue, referring the matter back to the judgment of the soldier on the ground.'

The report continued: There seemed to be a great fear both of adverse publicity and the possibility of future litigation.'

Lack of clarity about troops' powers meant suspected war criminals 'were often only held for a few hours before being released' while 'the Albanian community, in particular, meted out violence on Serbs, sure in the knowledge that the battle group was impotent to do anything to stop them'.


'The gap between corps and brigade level was too great', said Brig Freer, with the intent of K-For commander 'not always transmitted with sufficient detail and coordinating instructions'. Even when detail from K-For was requested, 'it was not always forthcoming' - leading to 'improvisation at brigade level.

'The potentially damaging effects of confused and fractured command may have a damaging effect on morale as the practical expression is constantly changing orders and confusion. This may… place individual soldiers in an invidious position.'


Troops 'generally slept on the floors of buildings and were rarely able to shower' due to the lack of mobile shower units in Pristina, said Lt Col Gibson. Many bought their own solar shower bags and camp beds 'to improve their living conditions'.

Members of his battalion also bought their own lightweight global positioning satellite receivers to identify their positions at night, in bad weather or on difficult terrain.

Spin doctoring

Lt Col Gibson also suggests spin-doctoring of the Kosovo campaign by the MoD was an inappropriate use of resources. 'On the few occasions when adverse articles might have been written, there seemed to be... disproportionate command and staff effort expended over the potential implications of such articles. This may be a product of MoD 'spin-doctoring'.


The reports said tactical intelligence was 'disappointing', adding: 'Considerable intelligence products were available to Nato but these were not disseminated to battle group level.'

Imagery obtained during the air campaign was 'over-classified' and so not released, and the groups were also denied access to officers who had served on earlier Nato stints in Kosovo and so had ample local knowledge.


A lack of communication meant the families of serving personnel heard deployment details through the media rather than through official sources.

Families found out about the initial deployment from the BBC 24 to 36 hours before soldiers had the decision confirmed by their chain of command.

The cost of Kosovo

Maximum Nato force in Kosovo
28,000 ground troops, 10,200 of them British

Other contingents
United States 4,500
Germany 4,400
France 4,100
Italy 2,400
Canada 700
Greece 500
Netherlands 400

Number of British troops still in Kosovo 4,000
Total cost of Nato bombing campaign $30bn
Cost to Britain Over £82m

Combined force
Two aircraft carriers, over 1,000 aircraft including 24 Apache attack helicopters.
Total of 38,004 sorties

UK contribution

48 aircraft, 1,618 sorties

Nato forces began sorties on March 24 1999.
President Slobodan Milosevic accepted peace terms on June 3.
Nine days later, Nato forces entered Kosovo and by June 20, all Serb forces had left.,2763,118734,00.html

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