soldiers' lives at risk
BRITISH troops face going into battle in Iraq with NO protection against killer smallpox - and without the proper equipment and preparation for desert warfare.
The Ministry of Defence has ruled out the cheap jab that could save the lives of thousands, even though all American troops in the Gulf will be vaccinated against the disease.
As a force of up to 30,000 is mustered for war against Saddam Hussein, Ministers were accused last night of saddling British troops with too much shoddy gear and too little preparation.
Commanders have been starved of cash to equip tanks for the desert, and there are still serious doubts over the discredited SA80 rifle which jammed in Afghanistan.
Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch said: "With stories of dodgy kit, faulty equipment and confusion about voluntary vaccination, the danger is our boys and girls are being sent off to war on a wing and a prayer."
Iraq is thought to have the smallpox virus and UN weapons inspectors found evidence of a biological warfare programme before they were expelled from Baghdad in 1998.
US commanders have ordered the inoculation of 500,000 troops, including every serviceman already in the Gulf, because they believe there is a direct threat of a smallpox attack.
With each jab costing as little as £3, it would take a maximum of £90,000 to protect all British troops who could be sent to the region. In December, it was agreed to vaccinate just 100 specialists from the Nuclear Biological Chemical Regiment and experts from the Defence Medical Services.
An MoD spokeswoman confirmed last night: "We have decided that a smallpox vaccination for all troops is unnecessary because it has been determined that there is no immediate threat to our armed forces from the disease.
"All our measures are being kept continually under review and we do have contingency plans if there is an outbreak."
Smallpox is spread through the air and by contact, causing painful pustules all over the body that can lead to fever, blood poisoning and death.
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon now has just weeks to repair damaged morale in the forces after a series of equipment blunders and failures.
One senior military figure said: "It is a real mess and it needs to be sorted out bloody soon before lives are put in jeopardy."
Up to 55 per cent of all soldiers have had to buy their own kit because supplies are inadequate.
Soldiers have spent as much as £500 on waterproofs, desert boots, gloves, socks, thermal fleeces, webbing and sleeping bags.
A modern system to guard against friendly fire disasters, such as the one that left nine British soldiers dead from a US jet attack in the 1991 Gulf War, has still not been purchased. Defence chiefs are also concerned about how far the British are behind the American schedule.
Commanders fear their soldiers will be ordered to join US forces in combat too soon after their arrival, without acclimatisation to desert conditions which could take several months.
And serious worries remain about equipment failings exposed by Exercise Swift Sword in the desert in Oman in 2001.
Troops who took part were not issued with desert camouflage uniforms and boots.
Heavy black boots melted, causing, and the man-made fibres of standard uniforms resulted in heat stress illnesses.
Field radios broke down and tanks did not have sand filters.
Author Andy McNab, who fought with the SAS in the Gulf, said: "British soldiers will do a professional job in Iraq and politicians will claim credit for it."The least the Government could do is give them the right boots, a rifle that works, and the right inoculations for the dangers that exist there.