May 24, 2010 / 3:22 PM / 9 years ago

Bomb expert's widow queries army Afghan policy

LONDON (Reuters) - The widow of an army bomb disposal expert killed in Afghanistan said on Monday her husband was under relentless pressure and his elite unit “badly overstretched” on the day he died.

Christina Schmid, whose husband, Olaf, was blown up defusing a Taliban bomb last October, spoke out just hours after the army’s bomb chief quit having publicly voiced similar disquiet.

Defence spending is a prime candidate for cuts as Prime Minister David Cameron seeks ways to reduce a record budget deficit.

But the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will struggle to wield the axe, particularly in Afghanistan, with such anxiety brewing over the resourcing of troops.

The government, which is committed to a strategic defence review that will likely endorse deep cuts, is also hamstrung because it has made Afghanistan it’s No 1. foreign policy priority.

The defence ministry (MoD) said on Monday army bomb disposal chief Colonel Bob Seddon would step down in January.

In a brief statement it said he remains a commanding officer and would not comment on the reasons behind his decision.

Interviewed by the soldier’s widow for a BBC documentary, to be aired later on Monday, Seddon expressed fears about a shortage of trained officers, the length of tours, and the lack of rest for his men.

The MoD said the screening of his interview was entirely coincidental and not linked to his resignation.

Staff Sergeant Schmid, 30, was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on the last day of a five-month deployment. It was his third call-out of the day and he had defused 64 devices during his tour of duty.

He was one of four of Britain’s top bomb disposal experts to die in Afghanistan in just over a year.

Schmid’s widow said her late husband had found the job in Afghanistan “physically and mentally relentless,” adding that “less tangible” factors like fatigue could be to blame and needed to be scrutinised.

She told BBC television that experts like her husband were “under considerable pressure. And if we are out there, decade in, decade out ... we need to double-check we are doing everything we can to ensure they are the safest they can be.”

Writing in The Sun, Christina said: “Despite doing the most dangerous job in Helmand, I learned they are badly overstretched and lack the correct equipment.

“I found the robots used by bomb disposal teams are not fit for purpose and there are too few (Mastiff) armoured vehicles to provide protection.”

In the BBC documentary, Seddon appeared to echo what Christina had learned in letters from her late husband and what she had uncovered through the course of her investigation.

“I am very concerned as their head of trade at the pressures that they are facing,” Seddon said.

He also stressed he thought the army “could do with more high-threat teams and IED operators in Afghanistan.”

In a statement on Sunday, new Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who visited Afghanistan this weekend, said countering the IED threat was a “top priority.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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