HC Deb 02 February 1987 vol 109 cc517-9W
Mr. Raison

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to receive the results of the inquiry into the death of L/Cpl. S. J. Cockton on 6 June 1982; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Stanley

[pursuant to his answer,26 January 1987, c. 132]: In my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) on 25 June 1986 at c. 161£3,I set out the circumstances surrounding the loss of an Army Gazelle helicopter in the Falkland Islands on 6 June 1982. I subsequently decided that a board of inquiry should be held into the loss.

The board of inquiry's report has now been carefully considered. It has been the practice of successive Governments not to publish reports of this kind. Evidence is given to boards of inquiry in confidence and the report is likely to contain a significant amount of classified information. This is indeed the case in this instance. I wish, however, to give as full an account of the board's findings as is possible within those constraints.

So far as the circumstances of the accident are concerned, the board's independent inquiry confirmed and amplified the account of the Gazelle's mission and the role of HMS Cardiff which I gave in my answer on 25 June. Because the Gazelle's sortie was to be flown within the airspace of 5 Infantry Brigade on a brigade task, there was no requirement under the standard operating procedures in force at the time for any authority outside the brigade to be informed. Nor did the board find any evidence to suggest that anybody outside 5 Brigade had prior knowledge of the flight. At the time of the accident, HMS Cardiff was operating off the east coast of East Falkland on a naval gunfire support mission in support of 3 Commando Brigade. Concurrently, HMS Cardiff had been tasked with enforcing the total exclusion zone and, as part of this, to deter or destroy Argentine aircraft attempting to use Port Stanley airfield. The missile engagement zone of the ship's Seadart missiles covered a large part of East Falkland.

Ships, including HMS Cardiff, had been used for similar tasks on frequent occasions before 6 June. Indeed on the night of 2£3 June, HMS Cardiff had engaged an Argentine aircraft attempting to use Port Stanley airfield. When HMS Cardiff detected a radar contact over East Falkland on 6 June, it was heading towards Port Stanley airfield along a route previously used by Argentine aircraft. No friendly aircraft movements had been forecast; HMS Cardiff was unaware of the rebroadcast station on Mount Pleasant peak; and there were no identification friend or foe (IFF) or other friendly transmissions from the contact. It was accordingly assessed to be an Argentine aircraft, probably fixed wing, and in accordance with the approved criteria for engaging such contacts, HMS Cardiff fired her Seadart missiles and shot it down.

The board of inquiry noted that all staff were most conscious of the risk of accidental engagements between units of the task force and took great pains to prevent them throughout the campaign. Nevertheless, there was a lack of experience in both Army and Navy staffs with each other's procedures and capabilities.

Procedures were developing during the campaign, but neither the Navy nor the Army staffs appreciated in time the significance of a ship's missile engagement zone overlapping the land. There was a widespread lack of perception of the conflict between the air interdiction task of the Naval ships using the Seadart system over the land and the autonomous nature of land force helicopters in their own brigade airspace.

The board confirmed that the Gazelle helicopter had been fitted with IFF but that, as I said in my reply on 25 June, it was switched off because it had been established that at that time the use of this equipment caused interference with other weapon systems critical to the battle.

The particular complexities of the Falklands campaign and the involvement at short notice of staff and units unfamiliar with amphibious and joint warfare put great pressure on individuals and procdures. This was exacerbated by the difficulties of communication within the land forces, which were at that time fully stretched in the crucial advance to Port Stanley, and between them and the Royal Navy. The board concluded that the loss of the Gazelle was caused by an accumulation of adverse factors and errors among naval and military staffs at all levels. The board recommended that neither negligence nor blame should be attributed to any individual and that no action should be taken against any individual.

Since the Falklands campaign, considerable improvements have been made in joint warfare procedures and in the capabilities of 5 Brigade. In addition, staffs and units have planned and exercised the deployment of joint forces out of area, most recently in Oman last November. Everything possible has been and continues to be done to learn the lessons from the tragic loss of the Gazelle helicopter on 6 June 1982.

Our deepest sympathy goes to the relatives of the four men who died.

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