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Kit shortages put troops' lives at risk

Thomas Harding 19/01/2008

Thousands of troops had their lives endangered when they were sent to Afghanistan without essential equipment due to Government dithering, a damning report obtained by The Daily Telegraph shows. The revelation is contained in a document which forms part of the Board of Inquiry report into the death of paratrooper Capt James Philippson of 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery, which it partially blames on shortages of vital kit including night vision goggles and machine guns.

Appeals for supplies to fight the Taliban were ignored because politicians were afraid of committing money to an operation that might not proceed, the report discloses.

In a repeat of the kit failures that led to lives being lost in Iraq, the document says troops were sent to the most dangerous province in Afghanistan without enough body armour. Despite being the first British forces to enter the lawless Helmand province in April 2006, the paratroopers of 16 Air Assault Brigade also went into battle without vital kit such as heavy machine guns, night vision goggles and ballistic matting for Land Rovers. The report says Urgent Operational Requirements (UOR) were not processed because Whitehall dithered over sanctioning the operation.

John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, and Tony Blair postponed the key decision because they were hoping Nato allies would join the mission. "The immediate consequence was that the two-month delay effectively froze the UOR process and resulted in the Helmand Task Force deploying without much of the mission essential equipment that it had requested through UORs," the report said. It also states that the Ministry of Defence and Treasury were "unwilling to commit funds to UORs prior to any formal political announcements". "As a result, many key items of equipment arrived in theatre late and some failed to meet the deployment at all."

Thirty-three troops were killed during 16 Air Assault Brigade's six-month tour. An MoD spokesman said: "The size, composition and equipment of the task force was designed by the military, endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff and agreed by ministers." But Tony Philippson, the officer's father, said: "It beggars belief that they did not learn the lessons from Iraq."

Better body armour kit could readily be available for our troops if the government is prepared to support this new carbon fibre development. A new type of carbon fibre, developed at the University of Cambridge, could be woven into super-strong body armour for the military and law enforcement. The researchers say their material is already several times stronger, tougher and stiffer than fibres currently used to make protective armour. The lightweight fibre, made up of millions of tiny carbon nanotubes, is starting to reveal exciting properties. Carbon nanotubes are hollow cylinders of carbon just one atom thick.

The new material was developed by a group at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at Cambridge. It has emerged from efforts to create the world's strongest man-made fibre. "These nanotube fibres possess characteristics which enable them to be woven as a cloth, or incorporated into composite materials to produce super-strong products," said Professor Windle.

For body armour, the strength of fibres in a fabric is a critical parameter. Strain-to-failure - in other words how much the material can extend before it breaks - is another. The fibre created in Cambridge is very strong, lightweight and good at absorbing energy in the form of fragments travelling at very high velocity.  "Our fibre is up there with the existing high performance fibres such as Kevlar", said Professor Windle.  But he added: "We've seen bits that are much better than Kevlar in all respects". The work at Cambridge has already attracted interest from the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Army. But the new material could also find applications in the area of hi-tech "smart" clothing, bomb-proof refuse bins, flexible solar panels, and, eventually, as a replacement for copper wire in transmitting electrical power and signals. The method for making the fibre is simple but ingenious.

'Elastic smoke'
A hydrocarbon feedstock, such as ethanol, is injected into the furnace along with a small amount of iron-based catalyst. Inside the furnace, this feedstock is broken down into hydrogen and carbon. The carbon is then chemically "re-built" on particles of iron catalyst as long, thin-walled nanotubes. "It makes particles of carbon that are like smoke. But because the nanotubes are entangled, the smoke we make is elastic," explains Professor Windle. To the eye, this "elastic smoke" looks a bit like an ever-expanding dark "sock". To begin winding it up, a rod is inserted into the furnace from below to grab one end of the sock and yank it down. This stretches the sock into a filament that can be wound up continuously on a reel.

The researchers are currently seeking funds to investigate whether the method can be upgraded from a laboratory to an industrial process. Cambridge Enterprise Limited, the commercialisation office of the University of Cambridge, filed an initial patent application in July 2003. It has now granted a licence to Q-Flo Limited, a university spin-out company, which will exploit the technology. Nanotubes are graphite which is - along with diamond - one of two common forms carbon takes in nature. In graphite, carbon atoms are bonded in hexagonal structures to form flat layers that are stacked on top of one another like sheets of paper. When they make nanotubes, scientists are essentially taking individual graphite layers and folding them over so they join at either edge to form cylinders.

See also
'Woeful' shortages put soldiers' lives at risk
Our forces can't carry on like this says Army Chief
Operation Overstretch

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