HC Deb 06 December 1991 vol 200 cc583-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]

2.30 pm
Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East)

Just over nine months ago on 26 February, nine young soldiers of 3 battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers were killed in action in southern Iraq just 48 hours before the ceasefire. One of those killed was 19-year-old Lee Thompson, one of my constituents. Eleven other service men were injured in the incident. What makes the tragic slaughter of those young men different is that they were killed, or rather murdered, by so-called friendly fire.

I fully support the views of Lee Thompson's parents. This incident was a monumental military disaster. As the circumstances in which it happened have not yet been fully clarified, there can be no confidence that the lessons have been learnt or that the deaths were not in vain. The people who killed those men have not been brought to book; they are still in the American air force and they could therefore do the same again. In the circumstances, the Government have behaved in a deplorably cavalier and grossly insensitive way towards the families of the men who were killed. Events show that the Secretary of State is prepared to take the glory for victory, but not prepared to dirty his hands when others pay the price for his decisions and, in this case, for the gung-ho actions of his allies.

The incident occurred when C company of the Fusiliers was in southern Iraq. Some 37 Warrior and supporting vehicles were reorganising in the area after a sand storm. According to the Official Report, at 1500 hours local time, visibility was clear and skies were good. Suddenly, two Warrior armoured vehicles were destroyed. Soldiers on the ground assumed that their vehicles had hit mines, but they had actually been hit by Maverick missiles from two American A10 tankbusters. The Al0s had previously been deployed by headquarters 1st British Armoured Division to attack the Iraqi positions some 20 kms—between 10 and 15 miles—east of C company. They were under the immediate control of the British assistant divisional air liaison officer.

The air controller insists that he gave the pilots the grid references of the intended Iraqi positions. The American pilots insist that they did not receive them, and they certainly did not acknowledge them. Instead, they relied on the parting words of an American pilot who gave them a physical description of the terrain in which the Iraqi targets were situated. They tried to find those targets, but instead found what they identified as a column of 50 Iraqi T54/55 tanks.

It is claimed that the lead aircraft made two passes at 15,000 ft and 8,000 ft to check the target. Although the pilots used high-powered binoculars, they failed to identify any friendly orange fluorescent markers, and the two aircraft each fired a missile from 9,000 ft.

The American pilots reported their action to the air controller, who realised that the US pilots had hit a British position and called in reconnaissance aircraft. Unlike the American pilots of the Al0s, the reconnaissance crew identified the type of vehicles from 14,000 ft and saw their fluorescent markings at 6,000 ft. Astonishingly, the board of inquiry failed to establish whether the A10 pilots should have been able to see the identifying marks from their operating height of above 6,000 ft. That inquiry proved to be a charade, and its report a whitewash. Its anodyne conclusion was that while it was clear that the American A10s delivered the missiles, it could not be established precisely why they attacked the wrong target. The board recommended the clearest standard operating procedures and sophisticated identification systems to prevent such tragedies in future. More specifically, it recommended that concise grid instructions be given to and acknowledged by pilots.

Nearly a year after the tragedy, all too many questions remain unanswered. I trust that the Minister will answer them today, or will have them published in the official record. I vow not to drop this case until satisfactory answers are forthcoming. As to the board of inquiry, do the Government accept its report and the specific recommendations that I quoted? Have the Government established a research programme to investigate improved identification systems? If so, how much money has been allocated to that project?

Why did the American pilots rely on the parting words of the pilot of another plane? Why did the pilots either not receive or not acknowledge the air controller's coordinates according to the procedures laid down? Is there any truth in the report in The Independent on 23 November that either the controller did not use, or the American pilots did not know, the secret code word that was supposed to be employed when verifying messages so as to prevent the Iraqis from transmitting false data? Is the apparent failure to use that code word a clue to the chain of events leading to the deaths of nine young soldiers? Has the Minister thoroughly investigated those points?

What kind of binoculars did the American pilots use, and how long have they been in service? Did the Minister read in the 23 November article in The Independent evidence from British troops on the ground that the American aircraft were not at 9,000 ft but as low as 150 ft above the ground? Fusilier Howard Finnan is quoted as saying that several of his fellow soldiers saw the American aircraft approach at a very low level. Fusilier Lee Thompson's mother contacted me this morning to express her great concern at the fact that Fusilier Finnan has been reprimanded for passing that information to the media. Is the Minister interested in the truth? Surely the Minister and the Government are determined to get to the truth, and should encourage Fusilier Finnan to provide information—especially as his observations were substantiated by the expert testimony of aircraft specialists in the same report in The Independent.

If the A10s had previously attacked an Iraqi vehicle from 1,000 ft, less than one mile away, they would have found it difficult to climb to the much higher altitude from which it is said that the attack on the British vehicles was made. What is the truth of those claims? Does the Minister deny them? Does he still stick to what is rapidly being seen as a fictional account of this incident?

Fifthly, were the British vehicles equipped with black boxes emitting signals recognisable to friendly aircraft? If not, why not? When I asked the Prime Minister that question he used the security angle as an excuse to dodge it. The Minister no longer has any refuge in that excuse. Sixthly, how is it credible that the pilots did not see the orange identification marks, from whatever height they were at? Seventhly, were either of the pilots given a drug test after their mission? Eighthly, have the two American pilots been disciplined?

I give notice to the Minister that a refusal to answer on security grounds will be unacceptable to the parents and myself, especially since the Gulf war is over. This House has a legitimate interest—indeed a duty—to get to the bottom of this incident, not only for the sake of the grieving families but so that such incidents are never repeated, or at the very least, so that the most strenuous efforts are made to minimise that possibility. If Governments are to learn from this incident, the truth of the matter must be acknowledged.

Contrary to what reports would lead us to believe, the truth is that allied aircraft were in full control of the skies in the combat area and were at little risk from enemy fire —the opposite of what the report of the Army board of inquiry tries to convey. In those circumstances, pilots were not required to make split-second decisions—they had ample time to check with the air controller for co-ordinates of their targets. The American A10 pilots had ample time to identify enemy positions and vehicles precisely. More importantly, they had ample time to identify and locate allied positions and allied vehicles. That should have been the disciplined scenario. However, on 26 February 1991 two irresponsible and gun-happy pilots were on the loose, ignoring all the rules and roaming the skies in the vicinity of C company. They were intent on a kill to notch up when they returned to base. Nine men paid the ultimate price for that act, one which the Government are still trying to cover up.

The Minister must explain or seek explanations for discrepancies in the reports of what happened on that day in February. The most important discrepancy concerns the reason why the pilots destroyed only two of what they saw as the enemy target. If, as the pilots claim, they attacked a column of 50 Iraqi tanks, should they not have continued to attack and destroy as many as possible? Is it not somewhat illogical, in military terms, that they fired only two missiles and then reported to the air controller?

Mr. Terry Satchell, the father of one of those killed, commented on the report of the Army inquiry in terms that I fully endorse. He said: The pilots—the American pilots, that is—had enough stuff under their wings to wipe out half the British army. The fact that they just fired a couple of missiles shows that they recognised their mistake—a mistake they could have avoided in the first place. He went on to say: The inquiry is basically an appeasement for the Americans and he called for an independent inquiry.

Another relative, Mrs. Ann Leech, was quoted in The Daily Telegraph in July, after the release of the Army's report, as saying: You cannot tell me that an American pilot cannot tell 37 marked British troop carriers. If he—the pilot—thought that they were Iraqi, why stop at bombing just two? What does the Minister say to Mr. Satchell and Mrs. Leech and the other parents?

There seems, however, to be a conflict of evidence between the board's report and the letter from the American Assistant Secretary of Defence, Carl W. Ford, to the British ambassador in America. In that letter of 4 November 1991 Mr. Ford states that after the attack the American pilots departed and passed a report to the air controller. He makes it appear to be a routine reflex action, yet if there were perceived to be 50 Iraqi tanks, why did the A10s take out only two of them? If it was due to being short of weaponry, why did they not request support? Why let the sitting duck that they had shot up get away? If they were confident of their targets, they would surely have continued to attack the so-called Iraqi column of tanks. That would have been the action of a competent pilot. Can the Minister explain the discrepancy?

Is not the truth of the matter that the young men paid the ultimate price for a war which encouraged the indiscriminate and widespread blasting of Iraqi forces, which in turn encouraged a gung-ho attack-first-ask-questions-afterwards attitude in which aircraft took part in a high-tech turkey shoot?

The article in The Independent of the conversation of Lieutenant Colonel Hayes and his co-pilot is an example of a pilot's undisciplined approach to the serious business of war. With the knowledge of a huge discrepancy of 56 between pilot's and co-pilot's co-ordinate readings, missiles were fired killing American soldiers. It is true to say that a blasé attitude prevailed during combat, in the aftermath and at the highest level, judging from the insulting behaviour of the British and American Governments since the tragedy in February.

The parents of Lee Thompson said in their letter to the American president: We know accidents happen in wartime, but with all the high-tech equipment you proudly brag about, why is it left to an incompetent pilot to use it? The parents do not want to know the name of the pilot who gunned their son down, but they want an acknowledgment of their suffering. They have not had that from the American Government. President Bush has not deigned to send them a personal letter of condolence nor, shamefully, have they had similar acknowledgment from the British Government.

The incident occurred on 26 February. The war ended on 28 February. I am astounded that a formal board of inquiry was not convened until 15 May. Surely the Minister will agree that leaving such investigations so long merely ensures that the trail becomes decidedly cold, that clues to the behaviour of those involved are erased, and that memories become fogged. His inaction begs the question: why were investigations not begun much earlier? In answer, I contend that the Government delayed their statement on the inquiry into this serious incident until 24 July to prevent its being discussed in the House before the summer recess. For political convenience, they deliberately tried to draw the sting from this awkward incident so as to avoid embarrassment and having some of the false glory of the Gulf war being taken from them. That is an entirely cynical and unworthy strategy and it shows a blatant disregard for young soldiers' families.

The actions of Ministers and the Prime Minister, who ultimately is in charge of any war, are the true acknowledgment of the value that they place on the lives of young soldiers. The families of these young men whose lives were carelessly tossed away have been grievously insulted by the callous, heartless and insensitive way in which they have been dealt with by Ministers. Since this grave matter was reported to the House, Ministers have refused to meet and discuss the problem with a delegation of Members of Parliament whose constituents were killed. Further, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have failed to reply to my letters. They did not check inaccurate and insensitive letters that were sent on their behalf to grieving relatives. Their shocking insensitivity is shown by the fact that they allowed illegible rubbish. in the guise of an American report of the incident, to be sent to the relatives of the young men. I contend that for reasons known only to them the Government have deliberately colluded with their American counterparts to cover up military negligence of the gravest magnitude.

The Ministry delivered the report of the inquiry with a letter to the relatives on 23 July. The Minister disdained to sign it personally, leaving that to his private secretary. To rub salt into the wound, the Ministry could not even get the date of the young men's deaths correct. The letter said that they died months earlier than was the case. A later apology from the private secretary was sent, but by that time the damage had been done.

When Parliament returns after the Christmas break, a year of wasted time will have elapsed since the Gulf war and the deaths of those young soldiers. It is imperative that this should be the first matter to be dealt with by the House in 1992. I am sure that the Queen's Speech will refer to the tragedy, but to many people those young men will be just a fleeting memory of the war which television brought nightly into our living rooms.

Christmas will be a trying period for the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends of the soldiers who died in the Gulf war. Their loss will be felt even more acutely during the festivities which will reawaken the anguish of those who have become reconciled and adjusted to the loss of a son or a husband killed by enemy action. For other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends, the grief which consumes them unabated has been compounded by the gross insensitivity of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who on 21 January 1991 said that his overriding aim was to provide the most helpful support on a long-term basis for any people who were wounded in the war and for the families of those who were killed. He went on to say how happy he was to announce that fact.

Subsequent events have shown that that was meaningless rhetoric as the Minister did not uphold his promises. He has not even bothered to meet the families of those who were killed in the friendly fire accident. Does he not realise the offence that that, and his refusal even to sign the letter to the families, have caused? The Government must be severely reprimanded for that, but it is not enough. Governments come and go and it will not be long before the present Government are replaced. Regrettably, however, young soldiers like Lee Thompson are regularly sent into action. We must uncover the full circumstances of his death, but all that we have had so far is a culpable cover-up.

Without a full inquiry, we cannot fully understand and put into operation the necessary reforms of procedure and research into and improvements of equipment. That is why the Minister and the Government must answer all my questions. The Minister should also agree that the matter be referred to the Select Committee on Defence so that the Select Committee can institute a full, thorough and open inquiry with the right to call witnesses. That is why the Government should also support the efforts of the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC to discover the truth. Will the Minister allow the Robertson inquiry to cross-examine Government witnesses? If not, what has he to hide? How would the right hon. Member for Bridgwater and his wife feel and act if they were told that their son had been killed in similar circumstances?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman during his Adjournment debate, but I remind him that it is customary to allow the Minister a reasonable time to reply, and there is now very little time left.

Mr. Hughes

Would not their first response be to ask where, when and why, and would they not feel an overwhelming need to know why their son's life had been so senselessly sacrificed? Someone who holds the position of Minister should be fully aware that in the reconciliation of grief the need to know is absolutely paramount. He should also be aware that the relatives of the young men killed cannot come to terms with the ultimate finality of the loss without full knowledge of the circumstances of the tragedy. The absence of such certainty and plain, unvarnished truth, and the Government's insensitivity and lack of support, only prolong the heartache and grief. Wilfully to collude with a cover-up and to withhold information from my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Thompson constitutes an act of mental cruelty.

I shall heed your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and conclude shortly. I expect the Government and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, out of common decency and human compassion, to respond speedily and honestly, fully and frankly to the need for the truth. I have two important messages. The first is to the Prime Minister, who has produced a proliferation of charters of rights: may we have a charter of rights for service men and their families? The second is to the Secretary of State for Defence: he should reveal the truth or do the honourable thing and resign.

2.55 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Hughes) for bringing this case to the attention of the House. However, I am sad that I do not have rather longer to answer the long list of queries that he raised with me.

I wish, first, to extend my sincere condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and the families of the other soldiers killed in the incident, and indeed to the families of all the other British personnel who lost their lives in the Gulf. All of those deaths are tragic, but the fact that Lee Thompson and eight of his colleagues were killed by allies is, I know, particularly keenly felt.

Early in his remarks the hon. Gentleman said that those men had been "murdered". I hope that he will withdraw that mark, because murder is an intentional killing. There is no question of those men being intentionally killed: it was a tragic accident. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that to use the word "murder" is wrong in this case.

On 24 July, in response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), I gave a comprehensive account of the findings of the board of inquiry. I should just like to recount briefly the circumstances of the incident.

The tragedy occurred at the height of the land offensive to liberate Kuwait, on the afternoon of 26 February. Having successfully fought their way through a number of enemy positions in southern Iraq, the 3 battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—RRF—was reorganising before continuing the push towards Kuwait. Although the battalion itself was not actually fighting the enemy at the time, the battle was still very much engaged, and the Iraqis remained a threat to British forces.

The 1st British Armoured Division was being supported by United States Air Force aircraft. Earlier in the day, the division's headquarters had tasked two successive flights to attack Iraqi armour. Subsequently, a further flight of two United States Air Force A10s reported for tasking to the British assistant divisional air liaison officer. In my subsequent remarks I shall refer to him as "DALO". His intention was that the aircraft should attack the same target as the two previous flights, in a location over 20 km to the east of 3 RRF's position at 15.00 hours.

The A10 pilots identified what they thought was the target area from a physical description given to them by a departing United States Air Force F16 of the previous flight, and shortly afterwards saw what they thought was a column of Iraqi tanks and support vehicles heading north. The pilots had been briefed that there were no friendly forces within 10 km of their target, and those vehicles were closer than that to the point they had identified as their target. Having made two observation passes and seen no friendly markings, both of the A10s then fired one infra-red Maverick missile, each destroying one of the vehicles. The aircraft then left the area, having reported the engagement to the assistant DALO.

As the pilots' report of the convoy of vehicles differed so dramatically from earlier descriptions of the target, the assistant DALO asked for confirmation of the location. When given the grid reference, he immediately realised that this was not the intended target area; and that it corresponded with the location of 3 RRF. He then called up a reconnaissance flight over the area, which identified the vehicles as Warriors and observed that they were carrying fluorescent air recognition panels.

Shortly after the incident, a military investigation began. This investigation gathered much information, but it became clear that in order to establish exactly what had happened, a formal board of inquiry would be needed to consider this information and to gather any further evidence necessary. This board of inquiry was convened on 15 May. The House will recall that during last week's debate on Marine Simeon Ferrante, I outlined the status and purpose of boards of inquiry. Given that in the case of the Warrior/A10 incident, too, my Department has been criticised for excessive secrecy in refusing to release a full copy of the board of inquiry report, it might be helpful if I covered the ground once again.

Although this was a joint-service board of inquiry, it was convened by Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, and was conducted according to Royal Air Force procedures. The RAF derives its authority for holding boards of inquiry from the Air Force Act 1955, statutory rules made thereunder and Queen's regulations for the RAF. Generally, the primary purpose of boards of inquiry is to investigate and report on the facts of the matter referred to them by the convening authority and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence of an accident.

It is of overriding importance, particularly in the case of injury or death, to establish the facts as quickly as possible. It is essential, therefore, that witnesses appearing before boards of inquiry should give their evidence in a full and frank manner.

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.