Tuesday 27 February 2007

Action this day

Defence questions yielded considerable treasure yesterday, and it keeps coming. One such was interesting enough for the Daily Mail to pick up, heading its piece, "Basra tent troops 'sitting targets' warns MP".

Actually, they have been siting targets for months, if not years, but it is nice to have an additional warning from Labour's Chris Bryant, who recently visited tented accommodation for troops at the Basra Air Station (pictured top left). In Parliament, this is what he asked:

Four weeks ago, four hon. Members were in Basra with British troops as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We saw the tented accommodation at the Shatt al-Arab hotel, which British forces were in until Christmas. It has been heavily bombed, and that is where several British troops have died. We also saw the new accommodation that the troops are now in, in the more secure circumstances inside the Shatt al-Arab hotel, but they will now all be withdrawn from the hotel to the British airbase. Does the Secretary of State worry that British troops will now effectively be a sitting target for insurgents? What is to be done to ensure that we have better ISTAR — intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance — support and that we have more secure accommodation, not just tented accommodation, for British troops?
This, of course, is something we have raised many times - and we did not even have to go to Basra at the taxpayers' expense to find out - such as here and here. The issue was also raised last month by Ann Winterton, and she has not been to Basra either. This time, however, The Mail followed it, not that Bryant got anything from the secretary of state that we had not already heard:

Des Browne: All the issues that my hon. Friend identifies are being actively pursued as we speak. The military advice that I have received is that, as we concentrate our forces back into the Basra air stations, it will easier, and we will be better placed, to defend our troops. There are a number of reasons why that is the case. I do not want to go into them in detail. I am constantly torn when it comes to giving details in the House of the steps that we take to protect our troops, because I do not want to undermine their security.

I make my hon. Friend the same offer that I have made to other hon. Members: if he wants a private briefing in relation to this matter, I would be happy to give it to him. I am not prepared to discuss in public the steps that we are taking, but he can rest assured that all the observations that he makes I have made myself on my visits. My top priority for our troops is their safety. Daily, I am involved with the chiefs of staff and others to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to enhance the troops' protection.
From what we can see, all that is being done is limited protection using Hesco barriers as blast containment walls, to limit the casualties in the event of a mortar bomb hitting a tent or building. The second photograph shows a "welfare village" opened only in January at Basra Air Station, and the principle can be seen clearly there. The building itself is unprotected, but the Hesco prevents shrapnel from mortars or rockets spreading.

Nowhere do we see the layered measures that would constitute effective protection so, on the face of it, this is very far from "doing everything that we can to enhance the troops' protection".

Browne has been personally warned, in Parliament, three times now, - if one includes Gerald Howarth - so he cannot hide behind his generals and say he did not know. If it were Churchill at the helm, I am sure we would be seeing an "action this day" memorandum. Churchill, Browne clearly is not, but he is going to have to do a great deal more if he is to avoid having blood on his hands.