Airbase missile scare sparked by engineers

BUNGLING military engineers triggered a full-scale alert in Suffolk after accidentally posting a rogue missile from Afghanistan to Wattisham Airfield, new MoD documents have revealed.

The rocket, from an Apache helicopter, was unexpectedly found inside a package on the Suffolk airbase.

Around 70 workers were forced out of a hangar and surrounding buildings, while bomb disposal experts were drafted in to make the area safe.

It has now emerged that the scare was caused by a catalogue of sloppy errors by under-pressure and over-worked technicians at Camp Bastion – the UK’s main operating base in Afghanistan.

However, the MoD said no-one had been disciplined due to a lack of evidence against any individual.

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The engineers had been responsible for servicing the Apache on its return from a bombing mission against insurgents.

The rocket, one of the most powerful in the world, should have been removed (also known as ‘downloaded’) from the missilelauncher after it had been deemed unserviceable.

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But documents released by the MoD following a Freedom of Information Act request have revealed how the engineers missed the 70mm Flechette rocket on several occasions.

The missile launcher was instead mistakenly packaged up as a non-dangerous item.

As a result, it was not handled as a weapon or subjected to explosives checks during its 3,500-mile journey to the UK.

The rocket was finally discovered in a hangar at Wattisham.

The crisis, which broke out at around 11.20am on Monday, October 27, 2008, led to the evacuation of the hangar and nearby buildings.

An inquiry launched by chiefs at the airbase, near Stowmarket, found that it was a “wholly avoidable and potentially dangerous incident”.

A report on the findings said: “It is unfeasible to imagine that a rocket could have been left in the launcher following a download in accordance with the relevant procedures.

“A high operational demand for the Apache and in particular the high expenditure of munitions may have lead to over-familiarity of procedures and short cuts taking place.”

Firstly, the engineer responsible for removing weapons from the helicopter appears to have forgone download protocols in the “misguided belief” the launcher was empty.

As a result, no visual check was made to ensure there were no rockets left inside the missile pod tubes.

The probe also found that the downloading of weapons was routinely carried out by two to four technicians instead of the seven used in training. This, the report says, was “likely to increase the chance of mistakes”.

A further safety check was bypassed when engineers failed to clean or inspect the launcher after it was deemed unserviceable and therefore removed from the Apache.

The technicians admitted in interview that short cuts routinely occur on operations.

Following the removal of the launcher, it was packaged up and as such was not marked up as potentially hazardous. It was sent back to 132 Aviation Supply Squadron, 7 Air Assault Battalion REME at Wattisham through the reverse supply chain.

A number of recommendations have now been put in place including an urgent review of procedures in theatre, the requirement that all launchers be posted with a Free From Explosives certificate and more inventory forms be supplied.

An MoD spokeswoman said no individual had been disciplined.

However, she said: “We take this incident very seriously. We have made every effort to address certain procedural shortfalls highlighted by the incident and there has been no repeat of the incident to date.”

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