The Chilcot Inquiry usefully recalls the bureaucratic failures of the fight against IEDs.
The Chilcot Inquiry, the official British government investigation of the Iraq War, convened in November 2009. Just yesterday, more than six years on, Sir John and his fellow commissioners—Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Roderic Lyne, Baroness Usha Prashar, and the late Sir Martin Gilbert—published their massive final report. Sir John’s summary public statement is blunt: “Mr. Blair told the Inquiry that the difficulties encountered in Iraq after the invasion could not have been known in advance. We do not agree that hindsight is required.” Section 14 and its conclusions, on equipment deficiencies, provide considerably more detail. Early in those 241 pages, the members write
We have found that the Ministry of Defence was slow in responding to the threat from Improvised Explosive Devices and that delays in providing adequate medium weight protected patrol vehicles should not have been tolerated. It was not clear which person or department within the Ministry of Defence was responsible for identifying and articulating such capability gaps. But it should have been.
Why wasn’t it? After all, the British Army had suffered plenty of experience with homemade landmines over decades of fighting separatists in Northern Ireland. Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley, now visiting professor of War Studies at King’s College, testified back in 2009 that “we had forgotten institutionally how to deal with this” after a long ceasefire there. But the Inquiry also did not agree that the problem was a matter of process. “By 9 May ,” the report notes, “the MoD had approved 18 Phase IV measures at a cost of around £87 million, and a further 12 were being processed.” These were the urgent requests for materiel needed for governing and policing after occupation. A Project Duckboard was even underway for replacing the Snatch Land Rovers that the Army had used in Ulster with more robustly protected vehicles.
Rather, the Ministry of Defense didn’t buy better vehicles sooner in large part because the British Army didn’t ask for any. By “medium weight protected patrol vehicles,” the report means what we usually now call mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPs. At the end of 2006, the report claims, the British Army had exactly four of them in Iraq—Mastiffs, modified Cougars built by Force Protection in South Carolina (p. 231). Fairly, the requirement “was formulated in London,” largely in response to intelligence assessments that more powerful explosives were on their way from Iran. But buying more would have threatened what the Army considered its “core equipment programme.” For the service, the report goes on, the “most painful measure” would prove the indefinite postponement of the Future Rapid Effects System.
Getting blown up by a landmine is actually more painful. The pain never really seemed to come out of the urgent requirements and fielding process either. As a frustrated Lord Dannatt, formerly the Army’s chief of staff, asked rhetorically in his testimony in 2010, “how long does something have to go on being urgent before it becomes routine?” The US Army and Marine Corps had similar organizational aims that prioritized equipment for “a war” in the future over that for “the war” at hand. However, those two services actually had people explicitly “responsible for identifying and articulating such capability gaps.” They just didn’t do their jobs. Ultimately, MRAP adoption in the United States ran a bit faster, as former Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn once remarked, just “by making the defense secretary the program manager.”
Douglas Bland of Queen’s University of Ontario once called this the “positive arbitrariness” of ministerial intervention, and during the 2000s, it was essential in Britain and Canada too for getting the proper kit to the front lines. That’s just not an administrative mechanism on which to rely. With so many unforeseen problems arising in wartime, political leaders can’t dream up every innovative response on their own. Rather, they require inputs from industry and military staffs to properly prioritize emergent programs. Running around the bureaucratic roadblocks takes political creativity, clever engineering, and even a little luck.
What’s more, this problem isn’t going away. As Exhibit A, take in the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal. Right above the photograph of a grimacing Tony Blair, and “Inquiry Faults U.K. Over Iraq War,” we find an infographic and photograph of an American soldier, and “Obama Slows Withdrawal of Troops from Afghanistan”. Whatever unforeseen, emergent problem proves to be “the next IED,” the multinational story of the MRAP will be an enduring case study. Hindsight may not have been necessary, but we now usefully have hindsight on which to pattern the next response. We can thank the Chilcot Inquiry for continuing that conversation.
James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He recently completed a book manuscript entitled MRAP: Marketing Military Innovation.