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Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future


Key Lessons

  • The value of providing heavy direct and indirect firepower to support lighter forces has been reinforced by this operation. Additional opportunities need to be provided for lightly equipped ('light') brigades to train together with heavy forces. These issues are being addressed in MOD's Future Army Structure work.
  • Equipment decisions taken in response to the lessons from Exercise SAIF SAREEA II were vindicated during this operation.
  • Heavy armoured vehicles, such as Challenger 2 and Warrior and AS90 performed well in the context of the conditions and threats faced on this operation.
  • The fleet of smaller reconnaissance vehicles provided a valuable capability that underscored the philosophy of reconnaissance using stealth. These vehicles again demonstrated their utility during stabilisation operations.
  • The modified SA80 A2 rifle worked well under the testing conditions in Iraq. The provision of the Minimi Light Machine gun and SA80 Underslung Grenade Launcher specifically for this operation was also greatly valued.
  • Enhanced Combat Body Armour proved effective in reducing casualties. Its inclusion in standard equipment issue is under consideration.
  • The ability to operate confidently and effectively at night enhances force protection and capability, not only on the battlefield but also for logistic support. The Department is reviewing the scales of issue of night vision equipment.
  • Expeditionary campaign infrastructure should be provided in sufficient quantities and in the right timeframe to ensure that accommodation and personnel support services are available for deployed UK personnel on sustained operations, particularly in arduous locations.


5.1  This operation used a combination of lightly equipped and heavy forces to great effect and achieved a far higher level of integration than had previously been possible. The equipment available to UK land forces was technologically far superior to that of the Iraqis and allowed our troops much greater freedom of manoeuvre. The programme of upgrading the ballistic protection of many of the major UK armoured vehicles enabled them to operate in the face of higher levels of threat. Furthermore, the range of capabilities available to UK commanders allowed them considerable choice in how they conducted the battle. Overall, land equipment performed well and reliability levels were often exceptionally high despite the challenges of a very demanding environment.

Light Forces

5.2  On this operation UK light forces fully demonstrated their strategic deployability, with 3 Cdo Brigade conducting the initial assault and 16 Air Assault Brigade securing the Rumaylah oilfields - both key early successes. These light forces were well prepared, trained and equipped for their initial tasks; however they became more vulnerable as they moved north and came into contact with more capable enemy weapons systems. However, changing the force mix - specifically the regrouping of Challenger 2 and AS90 self-propelled artillery to support them - mitigated these limitations, particularly in the urban environment or where the conventional threat was greatest. The operation confirmed that light forces, enabled by joint and combined arms, particularly from the air, can deliver heavy effect.

Armoured Vehicles and Artillery

A Scimitar and armed Land Rover on patrol in southern Iraq
A Scimitar and armed Land Rover on patrol in southern Iraq

5.3  Capable of day or night operation in a variety of challenging terrain and scenarios, UK heavy forces played an important role. They conducted dynamic and rapid manoeuvre, and showed their value in both open terrain and more complex urban environments. Appliqu armour fitted to Challenger 2 and Warrior prior to the start of the operation was particularly successful and none of these vehicles were lost due to enemy action. The high level of protection and firepower of Challenger 2, Warrior and AS90 provided UK heavy forces with an advantage in encounters with Iraqi regular and irregular forces and enabled peace support operations. That said, the Iraqis used very few effective anti-armour weapons and coalition ground forces operated throughout under the umbrella of air supremacy.

5.4  The deployed fleet of 116 Challenger 2s fired a total of 1.9 tonnes of Depleted Uranium (DU) and 540 High Explosive rounds, whilst the 36 AS90s and the 105mm Light Guns fired around 9,000 and 13,000 artillery rounds respectively; some 2000 of the former were bomblet shells. The Challenger 2 was used to provide very precise firepower effects, in circumstances where the risk of collateral damage prevented the use of artillery. This was crucial when operating in cities and towns such as Basrah and Az Zubayr. Artillery was critical in preventing freedom of movement of enemy forces in the open battlefield. DU munitions were used because of their penetrative capability against armoured vehicles. Whilst there is no reliable scientific or medical evidence to suggest that DU has previously been responsible for post-conflict incidences of ill-health, all UK personnel who served in Iraq will have access to biological monitoring.

A Scimitar and Spartan of the Queen's Dragoon Guards train in the desert
A Scimitar and Spartan of the Queen's Dragoon Guards train in the desert

5.5  Smaller reconnaissance vehicles in the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) fleet were also highly valued. The improved levels of ballistic protection fitted to these vehicles successfully reduced the risk from small arms and mines. Their utility in this operation reinforced the requirement for maximum mobility, whilst maintaining stealth in order to carry out successful reconnaissance missions. The increased armour protection improved the utility of this equipment in the light armour role. In the reconnaissance role these vehicles proved highly effective, with crews able to locate targets and coordinate air support to attack them.

5.6  The Swingfire anti-tank guided weapon system, which is fitted to some UK reconnaissance vehicles, was also of great utility during the combat phase. It was the longest range, integral weapon system available to reconnaissance units and was used in approximately half of their attacks despite representing only a quarter of their main weaponry.

5.7  Exercise SAIF SAREEA II in Oman in 2001 exposed a number of equipment issues pertinent to operating in the desert environment. These included the impact of the desert environment on Challenger 2 and the AS90 self-propelled gun. As a result, plans had been put in place to modify these vehicles for operations in desert environments by 2005. Once contingency preparations for deployment to Iraq began in autumn 2002, the Department accelerated these modifications. Challenger 2 was fitted prior to the operation with specialist filters and fans together with skirting to reduce dust ingestion. The procurement of air conditioning units for AS90 was also advanced, and while there was not time to fit these before the start of combat operations, the combat phase was completed before day time temperatures rose sufficiently high to affect AS90's excellent performance. In the event, all of the UK's armoured vehicles were found to be highly reliable during this operation, with average availability rates for the combat phase of 95% for the Challenger 2, 88% for Warrior, and 82% for the AS90. The ageing armoured engineer vehicles also performed very well, with availability levels of 84-100%. Only the Combat Engineer Tractor, introduced into service in the 1970s, experienced availability levels below 50%, although this did not lead to particular operational difficulties. This last vehicle is scheduled to be replaced when a new fleet of armoured engineer vehicles (Terrier) is brought into service in 2008.

Personal equipment

British soldiers are briefed on the new Minimi light machine gun
British soldiers are briefed on the new Minimi light machine gun

5.8  Standard issue black army boots and green combat clothing are designed to be used in temperatures up to 35C and 39C respectively. The highest temperatures reached in the south of Iraq during the combat phase averaged only around 31C. Nonetheless given that the temperature was likely to rise to over 50C during the summer months, and the need for appropriate camouflage colours, the Department prepared to issue desert clothing to all deploying forces, as discussed in Chapter 8. Notwithstanding the localised shortages that occurred, the necessary compromise in clothing designed for hot climates between robustness against wear and tear and the use of lightweight material to improve comfort did not satisfy all users. The fabric used to satisfy these competing demands remains under review by the Defence Logistics Organisation. However, all clothing and equipment provided to Service personnel is tested, subjected to 'consumer' trials and procured to a high quality and reliability standard - indeed, quality standards form part of the original contract requirements. MOD personnel also visit contractors both during and after production to ensure that the required standards are met, and further random checks are carried out on delivery of the clothing to the storage depot.

5.9  Enhanced Combat Body Armour provided personnel with significant levels of protection Initial analysis of data from the operation by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has indicated that body armour reduced the number of US forces killed in action wounds by at least 50% (possibly up to 90%), and those killed in action overall by 20% (possibly up to 32%). Although data was not available to conduct an analysis for UK soldiers, the results can be regarded as indicative. The difficulties surrounding the supply of body armour are described in Chapter 8.

A Challenger 2 from the Queen's Royal Lancers in Basrah
A Challenger 2 from the Queen's Royal Lancers in Basrah

5.10  The provision of a night vision capability to some soldiers through a Head Mounted Night Vision System and other thermal imaging equipment such as Lion and Sophie improved the ability of our forces to operate at night. The improved shared situational awareness such equipment provided also greatly enhanced their operational effectiveness. These systems were used for surveillance and target acquisition in close combat, and were found to be particularly effective in the urban environment. Vehicle commanders and support troops also used this equipment to enable marshalling and logistic manoeuvre to be carried out at night. The majority of these systems were obtained specifically for the Iraq operation through Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) action following their excellent performance in operations in Afghanistan.

5.11 The small arms used by UK forces during this operation were also highly effective. Lessons related to previous problems with the maintenance regime of the modified SA80 rifle A2 had been implemented, and units expressed confidence in its performance. The rifle was used for the first time in Iraq in combination with the night vision system mentioned above. This enabled our infantry to move and to acquire targets simultaneously at night, a potent capability enhancement. Infantry effectiveness was also significantly enhanced by the procurement through UOR action of additional individual weapons systems. The Minimi light machine gun for example was widely used and praised for its effectiveness. It was considered to be a major factor in the speed of manoeuvre on the ground and contributed significantly to successful infantry operations, particularly in urban environments. The SA80 Underslung Grenade Launcher, which had previously proved its worth in Afghanistan, also performed well, although it was not delivered in time to everyone. A programme to procure this weapon for land forces is now underway.

5.12  The shortage of UK Expeditionary Campaign Infrastructure (ECI) had been noted on recent operations and exercises (eg. SAIF SAREEA II). A number of UORs addressed this shortfall, although delivery of this equipment was not timed for its use during the deployment and operational phases. During these phases of the operation UK troops were accommodated using US contracted accommodation and more basic tented accommodation. Since the end of hostilities air-conditioned Temporary Deployable Accommodation has been constructed in Iraq (see paragraph 11.29). The quality of this accommodation has won much praise.



In order to accomplish its mission and tasks, 1 (UK) Armoured Division needed to achieve success in five key areas: the Iraqi Armed Forces would have to be defeated (in this context meaning unable to interfere with coalition operations); Iraqi irregulars would have to be overcome; the southern oilfield infrastructure - Iraq's future wealth - seized intact and defended; the port of Umm Qasr captured and opened for use; and Saddam Hussein's regime removed from control of urban areas, critically Basrah, Iraq's second largest city.

Very clear direction to the Division, and the time devoted to analysis as the force built up in Kuwait, enabled comprehensive planning at all levels. This meant that all units in the Division understood the overall plan, their part in it, and the effects and outcomes required.

Four days into the campaign the Iraqi 51st Division had been removed from its defence of the oilfields. 3 Commando Brigade held critical oil infrastructure at Al Faw and the port of Umm Qasr. 16 Air Assault Brigade held the vital oilfield at Rumaylah and threatened Iraq's 6th Armoured Division to the north of Basrah to such an extent that it could not interfere with coalition operations. 7 Armoured Brigade held the bridges over the Shatt-Al-Basrah waterway to the west of Basrah. Although it came under constant attack from Iraqi conventional and irregular forces, this was the most crucial ground to hold in order to achieve the overall plan of protecting the right flank of the US advance to isolate Baghdad.

Meanwhile other elements of 7 Armoured Brigade were coming under fire from irregulars operating in and around the town of Az Zubayr. UK troops came under a hail of machine gun and rocket fire every time they went near the town. The powerful Brigade could have entered Az Zubayr (population 100,000) immediately, and even, subsequently, Basrah (population 1.25 million). But this would have inflicted unnecessary military and civilian casualties and considerable damage. The need to avoid comparisons with Grozny or Stalingrad influenced the plan - indeed such comparisons were probably what the Saddam regime wanted, in the hope of prompting a call by the wider International Community for an end to the conflict. Instead 7 Armoured Brigade maintained the initiative through intelligence-led precision strikes and raids on regime activists, and physical and moral support for the oppressed community. Checkpoints around Az Zubayr controlled movement and provided a point of contact for local people to talk to our forces as well as a base from which both humanitarian aid and offensive operations could be mounted. The intelligence thus gleaned proved pivotal.

In the meantime, 3 Cdo Brigade advanced towards Basrah from the south, fighting to secure the town of Abu Al Khasib (population 100,000), 10 km to the south east. In some areas the Brigade met very stiff resistance and was engaged in protracted firefights including hand to hand combat over the period 30 March to 3 April before the area was secured.

After a week of these operations 7 Armoured Brigade, seizing every opportunity, built up battlegroup-sized lodgements which then expanded to the extent that by 1 April the Brigade held Az Zubayr and the irregulars there had been killed, captured or had fled. Meanwhile similar actions around Basrah were increasing in volume and tempo, many stemming from initiatives at company, squadron and even platoon or troop level. These, combined with precision attacks against regime targets by air, aviation and artillery served to weaken the enemy's will to fight. UK land forces were also supported by coalition aircraft, for example by maintaining air superiority and providing Close Air Support. Although at no time did UK troops lay siege to Basrah, the raids mounted from the strongholds on the Shatt-Al-Basrah bridges, together with an innovative information operation, penetrated deeper into both the city and the minds of those who resisted. The disruption and piecemeal destruction of the regime within Basrah strengthened the courage of local Iraqis desperately wanting to be liberated. Importantly, the regime was losing face with its own people.

A succession of raids on 4/5 April significantly weakened the Ba'ath leadership in the city. The knowledge that their vice-like grip on Az Zubayr had been overcome in just ten days, the sight of UK troops patrolling and helping local people in the now liberated towns of Al Faw, Umm Qasr and Rumaylah, and the realisation that US forces now threatened Baghdad, all helped create the right conditions on 6 April for full entry into Basrah and the removal of the regime there. Some resistance was quickly overcome by superior UK firepower, the excellent protection offered by Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicles, and UK troops' resourceful determination. In some places irregulars fought with great venom and fanaticism. Nevertheless UK forces stuck to their task with great courage and completed it with breathtaking speed and mercifully light casualties. By 7 April Basrah was liberated, the local regime removed, and reconstruction underway.

Royal Marines pass under a monumental gateway in Basrah
Royal Marines pass under a monumental gateway in Basrah

 Chapter 4 - The Maritime Environment
Chapter 6 - The Air Environment 

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