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Monday, 18 November, 2002, 18:21 GMT
'Don't let faulty kit kill our troops'
Simon Weston: Soldiers deserve the best weapons
As the prospect of military action in Iraq looms, Falklands veteran Simon Weston tells BBC One's 4x4 Reports that dated and unreliable equipment is putting Britain's troops in peril.

When I was sent to the Falklands, we were assured that the air defence system we had would cope with whatever the Argentineans could throw at us.

It did not. I was badly injured in a bomb attack on the British troop ship Sir Galahad, in which 47 people died and 97 were injured.

As someone who has lost friends in war, I know how important good equipment is.

I still love the lads in the service but I want to be sure their kit is as good as they are.

Argentine bomb attack on the British troop ship Sir Galahad, June 1982
The Argentine attack on the Sir Galahad killed 47
The British Army is renowned for being among the best in the world but over the past 20 years there has been an embarrassing series of failures which have put our troops at risk.

These are as basic as the way we talk to each other.

When UN troops in Bosnia were under fire from the Serbs and Muslims, their Clansman radio failed just as they were about to give their position to their colonel.

Amazingly, in the worst fighting in Europe for over 50 years, none of the soldiers were injured. But if they had been, there would have been no way of getting help to them.

The Clansman radio was supposed to be phased out in the early 1990s, but because of poor decision making and massive government cut backs on defence, we are stuck with it until at least 2005.

But there are more imminent dangers.

'Faulty' rifles

The SA80 rifle has been used by every soldier in the main army for 15 years, but it has been troubled right from inception.

Simon Weston (left) and Simon Bywater
Former marine Mr Bywater says the SA80 rifle should not be used in battle
For the BBC One programme Fit To Fight:4x4 Reports, I interviewed former marine Simon Byswater who trialled the gun in 1986.

He told me the soldiers who tested the rifles found they were magnets for dust and sand and jammed bullets.

Four years later, when troops were under fire from rebel forces in Sierra Leone, the guns jammed again.

Luckily, other soldiers had M16s to cover them.

The government sent back the SA80s to the manufacturers in Germany, Heckler and Koch, to make over a hundred modifications.

One thing I learned in service is that any weapon must thrive under neglect

Simon Weston
The SA80 became the SA80 Mark Two.

It passed all the tests in training. Yet in Afghanistan there were reports that, you guessed it, it failed again.

Some say it was a simple matter of the soldiers not understanding how to treat the rifle.

Representing the MoD, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Thorburn told me: "I think it was general misunderstanding on what you need to do in a sandy environment.

"The marines started to clean their weapons, didn't oil them enough, and when they had problems they oiled it less and it got worse and worse."

But one thing I learned in service is that any weapon must thrive under neglect.

The Ministry of Defence filmed a video to try and build confidence in the SA80 for their troops. All the trials were very successful. I hope for their sake they are as successful in action.

Half the tanks broke down during defence exercises in Oman
But there is still more to worry about.

Last year, an exercise in Oman involving over 22,000 British troops raised more questions than answers.

The official report into the exercise found helicopters were operational just 55 per cent of the time and the AS90 mobile gun rarely worked.

The tanks, however, were the biggest problem. They had to be repaired constantly because they weren't adapted for the desert.

The MoD said exercises were supposed to highlight such problems.

"We have made comprehensive arrangements for identifying lessons and, where necessary, we will make improvements to our equipment and procedures," said their spokesman.

Budget cuts

Now, Lib Dem Defence Spokesman Paul Keetch is calling for weapons to be bought from overseas, if that is the only way to ensure our boys get the best.

Since the end of the cold war, the defence budget has been allowed to whither. In peacetime it did not seem a priority and only this year is the government reversing the trend.

The way I see it defence needs to be funded all the time - not just when there's a war.

There's no doubt in my mind that we have the best troops in the world, but with the Treasury cuts, and the delay in getting the good equipment, I am still not sure we are doing them justice.

They deserve the best. I for one will find it hard to forgive a government that let our troops die because of faulty equipment.

Fit to fight:4x4 Reports was on BBC One on Monday 18 November at 1930 GMT.

With renewed conflict in the Gulf, four reporters investigate the state of Britain's war machine.


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See also:

02 Apr 02 | Wales
01 Apr 02 | Americas
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