22 January 2007

A glimmer of hope

The picture shows tent fabric after being exposed to a mortar bomb explosion in Basra. The damage doesn't look much but each hole has been made by a red-hot jagged fragment of steel, big enough to do serious harm to anyone the other side. And, in Iraq, tent fabric is all that stands between many of our soldiers and death or injury, soldiers who are exposed to a barrage of rocket and mortar fire every single day.

The nature of the damage is more obvious here, on the steel cover of an air-conditioning unit which has been "splashed" by mortar fragments. The photograph was taken on a British base last year. So common is this type of damage that soldiers scarcely take any notice of it, although the bombs remain just as deadly, their frequency is increasing and the accuracy of the insurgents is improving.

As of now, virtually every building on some of the bases is pock-marked with mortar damage. Steel and concrete however, are more forgiving than flesh - both deaths and injuries are mounting and, at the present rate it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident.

Yesterday was a light day with the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel exposed early in the morning to an attack by five mortar bombs, while the Basra Palace was attacked by six Katyusha rockets.

Fortunately, there were no injuries, but that was not the case last Thursday when six British soldiers were wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp. We asked, "Now will they do something?" after the camp had come under fire the three times from a mixture of mortars, rockets and small arms. One soldier was said to have been seriously injured and five others received lesser injuries.

Yesterday though was also the MP's turn to ask questions. Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, was able to challenge the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne. Having already asked him last December if he would consider providing the anti-mortar equipment, C-RAM, she asked him whether:

In the light of the tragic incident at Basra palace camp last Thursday in which six soldiers were injured, one seriously, will the Secretary of State reconsider evaluation of the C-RAM anti-mortar system and counter battery radar, in order to give our bases in Iraq considerably better protection and a retaliatory response, given that existing, so-called "layered" protection methods are clearly not working?
Browne, who had been batting away questions from a variety of Conservative MPs, was surprisingly emollient. "I give the hon. Lady my reassurance," he said, "that we keep everything under review." He then added:

I know that the commanding officer in Basra keeps the issue of force protection constantly under review, and I will specifically ask him to advise me again on the capability that she asks about. However, I do not want to leave the House with the impression that there is no capability to counteract the indirect fire threat. There is indeed a very specific capability…
He would, he said, ensure that he was given a view on that in the light of the event that she mentioned, and would write to her.

Someone who did not fare as well was shadow defence secretary Liam Fox who, as we feared, relied on the substance of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph story for his attack, where Sean Rayment alleged that troops in Afghanistan had been denied essential equipment on cost grounds.

Such equipment as is required – beyond that normally acquired through the standard procurement process – is obtained though a procedure called the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). With that in mind, Liam Fox asked:

Can the Secretary of State tell us how many urgent operational requirements have been made of the Ministry of Defence in the past year from Afghanistan, and how many have been turned down?
Here, Browne was adamant. "All urgent operational requirements that have been approved by the chain of command have been acceded to," he said:

That is entirely as it should be, and the process of urgent operational requirements has been approved and commented upon favourably by independent investigations on a number of occasions. Contrary to media speculation over the weekend, no such requirements have been turned down on financial grounds. Indeed, over the past couple of years more than half a billion pounds have been invested in urgent operational requirements in relation to supporting our troops in both theatres. It is part of the nature of urgent operational requirements that they continually come forward and are approved.
One thing the Fox did do, though was refer to the Apache "rescue" and (rightly) point out that the Army needed a smaller helicopter. Browne's answer was odd. An alternative helicopter was available, he said, and could have been made available, but a tactical decision was made by the commandos to deploy the Apache in this particular way. This simply does not compute and, I suspect, we will be returning to this issue.

As to helicopters in general though, Browne referred to Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan who had stated: "I have not asked for additional helicopters and the supply system is working well, with no soldiers or marines running out of supplies." After a brief homily about the difficulty in buying these machines, he then delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce, staring down Fox with the words:

Let me also say to him that there is no truth in the suggestion that urgent operational requirements in relation to night-vision goggles were turned down for financial reasons, as was reported in the press.
Although the helicopter question was good, Fox is going to need to know more about why the top brass are so reluctant to demand more machines before he is able to dent Browne. And dent Browne, he was unable to do. Relying on flawed information, he left himself wide open to attack, with no comeback. As expected, Browne exploited the opening and the game was over.

However, at least, through Ann Winterton, Browne is looking seriously at force protection. He now knows his card is marked in that, if there is a disaster in the future, he can be held directly and personally responsible. In that, there is a glimmer of hope that we might save some lives. It is only a glimmer, mind you. And imagine how quickly action would be taken if the Houses of Parliament were being mortared each day and the MPs had to sleep in unprotected tents in Palace Yard.