Two years ago the Chilcot Report into the role of the UK in the Iraq conflict in 2003 was published. Whilst the conflict officially lasted for 21 active combat days, the engagement lasted much longer. The inquiry and report took seven years to conclude, with the report finally being published in 2016.
The findings of the inquiry into the validity of the legal case for invasion and the existence of weapons of mass destruction have been widely reported. Press attention was also devoted to the lack of preparedness and adequate equipment issued to British combat troops deploying to Iraq.
But are the lessons of a conflict that took place 15 years still to be fully learned? In particular, to what extent did we repeat some of these mistakes in the later engagement in Afghanistan?
One of the very clear messages from the Chilcot report is that if the UK participates in any future military engagement, planning for such an engagement needs to improve. To some extent, military planning is never ideal. Conflicts rarely arise at the convenience of the government of the day. They often occur at short notice and in circumstances where perfect preparation is not possible. However, as a minimum, those deploying in harm’s way should expect to be issued with the best protective kit.
Experience tells us this hasn’t always been the case. A good example from the recent past involves hearing protection. Many serving in Iraq were provided with either Amplivox ear defenders or yellow earplugs known as “foamies”. Many complain these were frequently not available to them at the time they needed them, whether in theatre or during training. Where personnel were issued with hearing protection, it wasn’t always suitable for the role they were expected to perform.
It isn’t widely appreciated outside military circles that certain forms of hearing protection are now available which are specifically designed for use by infantry soldiers in combat roles. A simple example is the Combat Arms Ear Plugs, designed to allow those in combat situations to hear quieter sounds while protecting against sudden loud impulse noises such as small arms fire. These earplugs were designed for military use and were issued to some personnel deploying to Afghanistan by the MOD. However, a significant number of veterans represented by Hugh James say they were never issued with this equipment, with some not even being aware it existed.
These plugs are not expensive; a recent search on e-Bay revealed them going for £10.00 each. It can reasonably be assumed the price to an organisation such as the MOD, which would presumably buy in bulk, would be considerably less.
More recently some veterans were provided with more sophisticated forms of electronic hearing protection. One such form, which was used in regular combat for the first time in Afghanistan, was called Personal Interfaced Hearing Protection, or PIHP. Those using PIHP had mouldings taken of their ears, which were used to create custom ear plugs specifically for them. These had an active element and were designed to allow the user to hear quiet sounds on patrol while protecting against sudden loud noise. In this way situational awareness was preserved while also protecting the hearing of the individual.
Adequate training and familiarisation are critical to the success of this equipment. In some cases the manufacturers of the equipment say individuals should train for six months before deploying with the equipment, to ensure they are fully familiar with the kit and comfortable operating while wearing it. It is striking how many of our clients say they were first issued with PIHP at the time they deployed, which meant they didn’t use it. In some cases PIHP was not issued to them until they returned from deployment.
The need to preserve good levels of hearing in combat situations is vital. Those exposed to the noise of gunfire with no hearing protection typically experience ringing in the ears afterwards, which can last for several minutes, hours and even days. This distorts the ability to maintain situational awareness, with potentially fatal consequences. Suitable hearing protection improves the ability of the user to maintain awareness of the sounds around them.
With proper planning, there is no reason why adequate hearing protection should not be available for all those who need it, at the time it is required. It should also be possible to ensure military personnel have adequate time to train with the equipment and familiarise themselves with it. This, in turn, greatly increases the prospects of the equipment being used in theatre.
The hearing protection must also be appropriate; issuing infantry soldiers in Afghanistan with Amplivox ear defenders and expecting them to conduct a patrol of hostile territory is unreasonable and unlikely to gain the support of the users.
Decisions surrounding procurement of hearing protection are not made in the heat of battle, but back in Westminster. Failing to adequately address procurement issues in these circumstances is both inexcusable and unacceptable.
The Chilcot report highlighted many issues that the Government should carefully reflect on, should the armed forces of the nation be drawn into combat once more. There are simple solutions to some of the problems identified, with the correct approach to planning. It is hoped the lessons of the past will be learned and action taken, to avoid similar mistakes being repeated in the future.