Asia Crisis

British army almost 'seized up' in Iraq, Afghan wars

* Former army chief tells Iraq war inquiry of problems

* Equipment shortages due to poor leadership at ministry

* Training time on new equipment 'verged on unacceptable'

* Military helicopter fleet, air transport inadequate

By Michael Holden

LONDON, July 28 (Reuters) - Britain's army was on the verge of "seizing up" in 2006 when it faced a "perfect storm" of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a former military chief said on Wednesday.

General Richard Dannatt, who commanded the British army from 2006 to 2009, told a London inquiry into the Iraq war that sending more troops to Afghanistan while dealing with an upsurge of violence in Iraq had stretched the army to breaking point.

"We could see that perfect storm coming to fruition in about the middle of 2006, late 2006, and I would contend that it did," he told the inquiry. "I think we were getting quite close to a seizing-up moment in 2006."

Dannatt also said that before and during the Iraq war, military efforts had been hampered by a lack of planning, procurement failures, and a "deficiency in leadership".

A year before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was no desire in the British army to take part, he said, but the United States would have been disappointed if its request for such military help had been turned down.

"The thinking that was developing was: if we are going to get involved, and we probably will get involved, let's keep our involvement as small as we possibly can," he said.

Pre-war planning had been flawed, as the Pentagon had hoped that a quick strike would allow Iraq to change direction relatively simply. "There was no plan B," he said.

Dannatt echoed testimony by other military chiefs to the inquiry that there had been serious problems with equipment and in procuring better armoured vehicles.

"I think it was a deficiency in leadership and energy in solving this problem," he said, adding that there had been squabbles at the Ministry of Defence over which projects had to be cut to find money for crucial new equipment.

When new equipment arrived, troops were often unable to train with it until they were already in Iraq or just before they were deployed.

"That's not ideal, verging on the not acceptable," he said.

Declassified reports from General Mike Jackson, the army head from 2003-2006, showed that troops had lacked basic equipment such as desert clothing at the time of the invasion and that by 2005 Britain's helicopter fleet was "creaking".

"Our support helicopter fleet is creaking badly," he wrote in a report. "The overall picture is one of an SH (support helicopter) force ill-matched to support current operations. If our SH capability is inadequate, our AT (air transport) fleet is worse."

The previous Labour government repeatedly denied accusations that it had failed to fund and equip the armed forces properly.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown told the inquiry earlier in the year that he had always provided the money to meet the military's wartime requests, either as premier or as finance minister for 10 years from 1997.

Brown set up the inquiry last year, chaired by former civil servant John Chilcot, to learn lessons from the Iraq war. It is expected to conclude at the end of this year. (Editing by Tim Pearce)