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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 15:59 GMT
Q&A: Equipping the armed forces
A British soldier in Iraq
Many soldiers complained of a lack of equipment in Iraq
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon is facing increasing pressure to resign over the death of a British soldier in Iraq who had been forced to give away his body armour.

Sgt Steve Roberts was shot dead as he tried to quell a protest - a Ministry of Defence report showed a flak jacket could have saved his life.

The BBC's defence correspondent Paul Adams takes a closer look at the issues surrounding equipment supply in the armed forces.

Q: Is it usual for all soldiers to be issued with full body armour?

A: Enhanced Combat Body Armour (ECBA) is not currently standard personal issue, but there are some observers who believe it should be.

This would make it the personal responsibility of each soldier to ensure they are protected and should, in theory, avoid situations in which one set of soldiers is forced to hand over their jackets to another group.

The Ministry of Defence ordered adequate supplies of ECBA for the Iraq operation (Operation Telic) but the National Audit Office found in December that "insufficient numbers were distributed in theatre.

This was largely as a result of difficulties with "asset-tracking and distribution".

Asset tracking - military jargon for knowing where all your equipment is at any one time - has been identified as one of the major problems experienced by the military during the war in Iraq.

Q: Are UK soldiers frequently asked to give up their body armour, or other equipment, to colleagues?

A: Commanders on the ground have to make decisions based on a whole range of factors, including operational timetables and equipment available.

Shortages of ECBA meant that priority was given to "dismounted infantry", rather than tank crews.

Q: Is there any kind of defence that Geoff Hoon can mount against his critics?

A: Mr Hoon's defence is based on the fact that, by common consent, Operation Telic was a major success.

Independent confirmation of this is contained in the NAO report, which concluded that "personnel and equipment performed impressively", and described the huge logistics effort as a "success", despite problems with asset tracking.

Had the problems been as acute as critics have suggested, he might argue, then British forces might have suffered greater losses.

To date, the death of Sgt Roberts is the only casualty known to be linked to problems with equipment or supply.

There may be others, but no similar stories have yet emerged.

Q: What does this case mean in terms of the MoD's planning and stockpiling of equipment?

A: Despite the message of overall success, the tragedy of Sgt Roberts highlights a number of fundamental problems.

Senior military chiefs have admitted that the operation was threatened by the late arrival of equipment.

General Sir John Reith, the chief of joint operations, told the Defence Select Committee last year that "we came perilously close".

Critics argue that a policy of "just in time" (ordering equipment for specific operations, rather than the traditional stockpiling of stores, known as "just in case") means that problems of supply are inevitable.

Add to that the fact that, for political reasons, the key decisions about the operational budget were not taken until mid-December, and the breathless speed with which the Iraq operation was put together becomes apparent.

The Americans, meanwhile, had been building up their men and equipment for months.

Q: Can Mr Hoon come out of this latest scandal in one piece?

A: Taken by itself, the Roberts affair would not appear to be a resigning matter.

Shortages are a fact of military life and soldiers always complain that they do not have enough.

Geoff Hoon is a successful Defence Secretary with four years of service, a loyal Blairite who enjoys respect in the Ministry of Defence.

But as MPs wait for Lord Hutton to publish his conclusions into the circumstances surrounding the death of the Government scientist, Dr David Kelly, Mr Hoon looks vulnerable.

His precise, lawyerly demeanour and apparent inability, or unwillingness, to show a personal side, are not public relations assets, and make him an easy target for critics looking for someone to blame.

Hoon accused of neglecting duty
13 Jan 04  |  Politics
UK troops 'left without key kit'
11 Dec 03  |  Politics
Hoon 'sorry' over soldier's death
16 Jan 04  |  Politics


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