Planning a war, badly

by Iain Paton

The Iraq Inquiry has called for anyone with information which might help its work to get in touch. To examine the political decision-making and military planning that led up to the conflict, it has to take into account the experiences of ex-service personnel like me, who saw a war being planned from the middle of 2002.

I was a Royal Air Force officer (Flight Lieutenant) from 1998 to 2004. I served at Headquarters Strike Command from 2001 until late 2003 and took part in UK/US communications network planning in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. My role was certainly not a frontline role but it was near the centre of operational war planning and equipment procurement support.

I would not want to overplay my own experiences or evidence as it is part of a bigger picture that I hope Chilcot considers. But from what I saw at the time, I concluded that war planning for Iraq had started in mid-2002 under great secrecy, to the exclusion of other operational and procurement functions, and that this was driven by the requirement for political secrecy. The argument that any planning was “contingency planning” may seem to hold water, but it is undermined by the level of secrecy, which was far different to the post-9/11 environment when I supported planning for operations in Afghanistan.

The fact that war planning for Iraq was ongoing was very highly classified (top secret plus further clearance was required for access). I was granted enhanced security clearance and cleared for access during late 2002, although I was not “read in” to the main operational war planning, which indicates the extent of the “need to know” principle. I was also involved in the communications network planning for operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and my recollection is that there was far less of the secrecy attributed to the planning for Iraq. In fact, the Iraq war planning was so restricted in terms of “need to know” that we had to make our own arrangements for data network planning with US Coalition partners, as this wouldn’t have occurred otherwise and UK ships, ground units and aircraft would not have had data communications capability. This included a liaison meeting in San Diego during October/November 2002 organised at our own initiative independent of any direction from the chain of command.

This leads on to the other issue of equipment procurement and support, of which I do have direct experience. I was responsible for requesting an urgent operational requirement (UOR), an upgrade to a software system for designing communications networks to allow fully validated interoperability with the US. This UOR was drafted in late 2002 but not signed off until 2003 and not delivered until well after operations had commenced. During the interim period, we “hacked” the network data manually at some risk of data corruption or systems failure, which we had to accept.

There was also the wider issue of equipment procurement and support, and my colleagues and I provided advice to the Defence Procurement Agency and the Ministry of Defence on systems interoperability issues. There was a rush to fit “network enabled capability” in terms of data communications to a whole range of platforms, almost at the last minute. This included the C-130 Hercules, Royal Navy ships, air-air refuelling aircraft and mobile ground units for commanders’ situational awareness and battlefield co-ordination. The equipment fitted in many cases was cannibalised from the scrapped Sea Harrier programme. It was only because of the intense work of military and civilian contractors that this equipment was fitted in the short period available, and ongoing troubleshooting was frequently required to resolve data communications problems that might have been avoided with earlier testing.

Also, I was in daily communications with forces in Iraq, and also elsewhere. I was told by two colleagues in particular that there were shocking equipment issues including shortages of NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) individual protective equipment. This included Cyprus, which was supposedly within threat range according to one of the claims in Tony Blair’s dossier.

I resigned in December 2003 following the second round of the Hutton Inquiry and left the RAF in 2004 after the twelve-month notice period. The reasons for my resignation were the appearance that no-one would be held to account by Hutton for the deceit surrounding the war, and also rumours of drastic cutbacks to be made in 2004.

I welcome the Iraq Inquiry but I am concerned it may be another fait accompli, and that evidence will be funnelled towards an inevitable conclusion. My experience is fairly limited but my hope is that the Inquiry will consider a wide range of evidence and accord it the appropriate weight, particularly if similar accounts are being given by a number of people. However, I am concerned that any disclosure made by serving or ex-serving personnel could be prosecuted as an unauthorised disclosure of protectively marked information under the Official Secrets Act, or a breach of Ministry of Defence instructions on unauthorised communication in the case of those who are still serving, and the Iraq Inquiry needs to clarify these points.

3 comments to this article

  1. Stan Rosenthal

    on October 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm -

    Come on, Iain. It’s hardly suprising that there should be this level of secrecy regarding contingency planning for an Iraq conflict given that the anti-war lobby were seizing on every scrap of information to turn the public against the war, not to mention the need to keep such information from the enemy.

  2. Iain Paton (former RAF)

    on October 19, 2009 at 10:59 pm -

    Surprised or otherwise, I was there.

    I was also there in 2001 for the Afghanistan planning (which became Veritas and eventually Herrick)….which was not kept under wraps in the same way.

    My opinion is that it was kept closely under wraps because of political reasons, and that the war planning commenced in mid-2002. There is a difference between the operational details of war planning (which are highly secret with good reason) and the fact that operational planning is ongoing in the first place.

    Chilcot needs to establish a definitive timeline and a narrative, looking at the material available and the submissions (and evidence at hearings) of those who were involved to piece together the jigsaw. Blair, Straw and Hoon will say that there was no fait accompli but the evidence of those involved will tell a different story.