Sir John Bourn, the Head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament today that Exercise “Saif Sareea” II, held in Oman in 2001, successfully demonstrated that the United Kingdom is capable of mounting a balanced, coherent force over a long distance. Among the United Kingdom’s allies, only the United States has shown that it could undertake a deployment of similar size.
Despite the redeployment of some elements to operations in Afghanistan, each of the three Armed Services met the majority of their objectives for the Exercise and gained valuable training experience from operating in a desert environment. Much equipment performed well, including Warrior armoured fighting vehicles, the C17 strategic lift aircraft, and the Personal Role Radio.
A number of other, non-warfighting, elements also operated successfully, for example, the provision of food and the recovery of personnel and equipment. The Operational Welfare Package, which included the provision of telephone and Internet facilities, was a qualified success given that it was not always possible to make it available to units in the field and in more remote locations.
One of the benefits of the Exercise was that it also identified a number of areas where there is room for improvement. NAO staff, who examined the Exercise at first hand in Oman, have been able to confirm and review these lessons. They include:
- Shortages amongst key personnel such as engineers, signallers and medical services.
- Equipment that did not work well in hot and dusty conditions, some of which needed more logistic support than expected to keep going. The Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, for example, worked well but required substantially more air filters, road wheels and track pads than planned to keep it operational. Other examples include the AS90 self-propelled gun and some vehicles. Also, a number of personnel complained about the suitability of their personal equipment and clothing, particularly boots.
- Difficulties in keeping track of equipment, spares and stores dispatched to the Exercise.
Some lessons identified during previous operations were relearned, which illustrated the tendency that skills learned on medium size operations such as the Gulf War dissipate over time as people move on. There is a strong argument that exercises of the size of Saif Sareea need to be conducted regularly in order to keep skills and experience up to date and to check that lessons previously identified have been implemented.
Complexities in the scoping, costing and funding of the Exercise led to difficulties in the planning process. No overall investment appraisal to inform the most cost-effective design for the Exercise was carried out, although options were informally costed. Planning went through several iterations regarding size, location, and budget until the Department finally settled on deploying a medium-scale joint task force to Oman within a budget of £90.3 million.
Uncertainty over the design of the Exercise acted against the achievement of maximum value for money. For example, the Department was forced to pay an additional premium of £1.2 million for chartering aircraft to transport personnel at a time when it had not finally settled on the number going to Oman. The final cost of the Exercise will not be known until July 2003 though it is likely to be about £83 million. In future, the Department should ensure that the scope and funding of exercises is clear and agreed at the outset.
The Exercise met its foreign-policy objectives by developing relations with Oman and by showing that the United Kingdom is strongly committed to the Gulf region. The presence of United Kingdom forces in Oman, while a coincidence, ensured a swift response to the events after 11 September 2001.