Leaked reports fuel army row

Nicholas Watt and Richard Norton-Taylor

Tuesday January 4, 2000

The government faced calls yesterday to set up an urgent inquiry after leaked army documents claimed that British troops were issued with 'unreliable' guns during Nato's successful operation to expel Serb forces from Kosovo.

The Tories accused the government of trying to get 'defence on the cheap' after the devastating findings in the report which said that British soldiers were so badly equipped that they forced to buy their own camp beds.

The row broke out after classified army reports on the British contribution to last year's Kosovo operation, prepared by two senior army officers for the Ministry of Defence's comprehensive 'lessons learnt' exercise, were passed to the BBC. In a damning indictment of the army's lack of preparedness, the reports said that British soldiers were severely hampered by equipment and communications failures. These included:

• New 'light support weapons' which were writ ten off as 'unreliable and insufficiently robust';
• A shortage of night vision of equipment;
• Inadequate personal radios, with up to a third broken at any one time. Radio operators were forced to use codewords and 'nick numbers' to disguise sensitive security details from the Serbs;
• Ill-defined command lines which were 'confused and fractured'.

The reports were written Lieutenant Colonel Paul Gibson, commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalion - the first British troops to enter Kosovo on 12 June - and by his commanding officer, Brigadier Adrian Freer, Commander of 5 Airborne Brigade.

Brig Freer concluded that if the Serbs had put up a fight on the day that Nato forces swept into Kosovo, British troops could have faced serious difficulties.

'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,' the Brigadier warned.

The Tories immediately seized on the reports to call for an enquiry. Iain Duncan Smith, the shadow defence secretary, complained that the government was trying to 'get defence on the cheap'.

The Liberal Democrats, who were supportive of the Kosovo operation, also raised questions. Menzies Campbell, the party's defence spokesman, said: 'If these criticisms are well-founded they show a front line reality far-removed from the triumphalist daily press conferences of the MOD during the Kosovo operations.'

The Ministry of Defence, which pointed out that the Nato operation to expel Slobodan Milosevic's forces from Kosovo was a resounding success, said that the reports were meant to be critical.

'We always, after a campaign such as Kosovo, review the events as soon as possible and as critically as possible,' an MOD spokesman said.

Ministers are believed to be relaxed about the leaks which are likely to strengthen the hand of the defence secretary Geoff Hoon in his forthcoming negotiations with the Treasury over the MOD's next three year budget.

The new pressure on the treasury was highlighted by Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the commons defence select committee. 'If the government wishes to achieve its objectives then defence spending will have to rise beyond the rather miserable level to which it has sunk over the last 15 years,' he said.

The documents are believed to have been leaked by senior army officers, probably from Brig Freer's 5 Airborne Brigade, to draw attention to the inadequate equipment they have to cope with.

Both Lt Col Gibson and Brigadier Freer, who have been decorated for their service in Kosovo, will be directly affected by government plans to wind up the 5 airborne brigade and incorporate it into a new assault brigade as part of the government's strategic defence review.

Their reports also complained that paratroopers were so badly equipped that at one point they had to buy their own satellite receivers because there were not enough to go round.

There were also problems in the chain of command, with 'too great a gap' between commanders on the ground and the international K-For headquarters. This was seen as criticism of General Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of K-for. Lt Col Gibson also complained that 'MOD spin doctoring' was an irritant. He said that the MOD was over sensitive about critical articles.,2763,118751,00.html

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