Ministry of Defence blasted for silence over British Army's £840k mission to protect Saudi oil fields from attack

MINISTERS have come under fire after a military mission to deploy air defence troops to Saudi Arabia flew under the radar for nine months.

Tuesday, 24th November 2020, 5:51 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th November 2020, 5:57 pm

Gunners from 16th Regiment Royal Artillery, who are based at Baker Barracks on Thorney Island, have been on a mission in the oil-rich Middle East country since February, The News can reveal.

It’s understood a small team deployed to the Saudi capital of Riyadh to man Giraffe radars, which can track aircraft and missiles up to 75 miles away.

However, tight-lipped officials from the Ministry of Defence did not publicise any details of the deployment – which has so far cost the taxpayer more than £840,000.

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Soldiers from 16th Regiment, Royal Artillery, have been deployed to Saudi Arabia to protect oil fields in the island following a large-scale drone attack last year. Pictured is the entrance to Baker Barracks, on Thorney Island, where the troops are based.

The only official mention of an operation in Saudi Arabia by the government was buried within the MoD’s 220-page annual report for 2019/20.

It said: ‘The deployment of Giraffe radars to Riyadh in February 2020 will help Saudi Arabia better track and identify objects in its airspace.’

This evening the MoD finally confirmed the mission was to defend key Saudi oil fields following a large-scale drone attack in September 2019, which more than a dozen production facilities.

But the government has since been blasted for its silence over the operation, with Labour shadow armed forces minister Stephen Morgan accusing Whitehall of a lack of transparency.

Shadow armed forces minister, Stephen Morgan, who is the MP for Portsmouth South. Photo: Habibur Rahman.

Speaking to The News, the Portsmouth South MP said: ‘This is a serious issue of parliamentary transparency and scrutiny.

‘This is not a covert deployment, but government has shared precious little and not made any formal public announcement of it to the house.

‘Government must do better and I will be urgently seeking further clarity on this.’

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The 16th Regiment forms part of the British Army’s 7th Air Defence Group, alongside sister unit 12 Regiment – also based at Thorney – and reservists from 106 (Yeomanry) Regiment.

Armed with the Rapier missile defence system and the more powerful Sky Sabre system, the team plays a critical role in protecting key targets from air attack, having a permanent presence on the Falkland Islands.

However, news of the regiment’s latest mission in the Middle East only came to light during a parliamentary question by SNP defence spokesman Martin Dockerty

The Scottish MP was seeking to find out about the ‘duration’ and ‘cost to the public purse’ of the deployment.

The probe prompted the first official ministerial response on the matter from the Ministry of Defence.

In a written statement, armed forces minister James Heappey said: ‘The deployment in question began in February 2020 and is ongoing. To date, it has cost £840,360.’

The Ministry of Defence insisted the operation was a 'time-limited and small deployment’ but declined to comment on exact timescales and troop numbers due to operational security.

Speaking to The News, a spokeswoman added ‘Following the attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities on September 14, 2019, we have worked with the Saudi Ministry of Defence and wider international partners to consider how to strengthen the defence of its critical economic infrastructure from aerial threats.

‘The deployment of Giraffe radars to Riyadh is purely defensive in nature and will help Saudi Arabia better track and identify objects in its airspace. All UK personnel in Saudi Arabia are under UK command and control.’

Iran have since been blamed for the drone strikes.

American president Donald Trump authorised the assassination of Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, in January – a few weeks before British troops arrived in Saudi Arabia.

The military leader was deemed a destablising force in the region and was widely considered an architect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war against rebels in Syria and many other battles.

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