David Cameron's unannounced visit to Basra yesterday and today – with his shadow foreign secretary William Hague – is another piece of evidence that tends to confirm our own impression of the electoral importance of the military adventure in Iraq.
That he was prepared to abandon a long-standing appointment to speak at the CBI annual conference, further confirms the importance, as does his comment before departure that: "The situation in Iraq is one of the most critical issues facing the British government and our country."
Characteristically though, Cameron - the man who came to listen - is seen in one of the few photographs published in today's newspapers (this one in the Yorkshire Post) talking to Lieutenant General Richard Shirreff. And why the general should be wearing his helmet in a location described as "Basra Air Station" - one of the safest areas in the whole of southern Iraq - is not immediately clear.
This notwithstanding, Cameron's presence in Basra does underline the politicians' concern that, contrary to conventional wisdom, headline domestic issues will not necessarily predominate at the next election. The indications are that security, defence and foreign policy issues could be far more central than they have been in other elections.
This is not entirely because of the convergence between the main parties on the "social" issues. The campaigning in the next election will be done against the backdrop of troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rarely has the terrorist threat been so grave. The effects of "globalisation" will have reached down to the lower levels and most voters will understand that there is a direct connection between what happens overseas and their own prosperity and safety.
Thus, assuming that the Tories can position themselves on the "soft" issues – not so much to win the argument as to neutralise them as election winners for Brown - the emphasis must then be on foreign affairs and defence. The Tories must dominate these issues in a way they have so far failed to do. It will require of "team Cameron" a major change in direction, moving away from the "social agenda" in order to give equal (or certainly more) time and prominence to the hard-edge.
That makes the most important men in the Cameron team his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague (pictured), and his defence shadow, Liam Fox. Also, because of the huge importance of military equipment and the fact that there is – with Labour's failings – a huge open goal, the shadow minister responsible for defence procurement is a key man. He is, currently, Gerald Howarth.
The calibre of the team, however, simply reinforces the view that the Conservatives will lose the next election. Hague, for all his early promise and his performance as Tory leader, is simply not cutting the ice.
Even recently in The Sunday Telegraph, he argues for strengthening the international institutions, writing:
Unless we have a more representative Security Council, a more dynamic EU, a more cohesive Nato and a strengthened international effort against nuclear proliferation, the crises of coming years might well be impossible to resolve. Such goals should be at the top of the list of the objectives of British ministers. Otherwise, there is a grave danger that international institutions will not be able to find solutions to 21st-century challenges.From Rwanda to "oil-for-food" and Darfur, the UN has proved a dismal failure, corrupt, self-serving and incapable of reform. The pages of this blog have constantly recorded the failures of the EU, not least the negotiations on Iran, a failure also matched by the IAEA. And Hague wants a more dynamic EU and a strengthened international effort against nuclear proliferation?
Nato, struggling for a role, has not performed well over Afghanistan and is being constantly subverted by the EU. Its survival, much less greater cohesion, is not certain and it remains to be seen whether there is the political will to keep the organisation alive.
What we see here, therefore, is a total lack of new thinking, a failure to recognise that the post-war settlement is breaking down and, probably, the day of these colossal international dinosaurs is over. We need new paradigms, but we will not them from Hague.
As for Liam Fox, as a Tory defence spokesman, he has proved to be a major disappointment. At one, going for the cheap soundbite while consistently missing the bigger picture, his interviews seem to lack coherence and he seems to have no idea of where the defence debate should lie. Furthermore, of the few semi-original ideas he has offered, he has shown no sign of understanding the complexities of what he is saying, or given us any idea that he would be in a position to deliver.
Perhaps, though, the Conservatives do not yet need a detailed defence policy. With more than two years to go (one assumes) before a general election, Liam Fox can happily wait until Cameron's policy commission has reported before he starts to deal with the detail.
That, however, is to ignore the opportunities presented by Labour activities. For instance, the MoD is fully committed to introducing the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), a £14 billion re-equipment programme that requires a fundamental re-structuring of the Army and which is the main reason why so many of the traditional Country regiments have been abolished.
Few if any in the media are going to notice if Fox does not mention FRES but, so fragile are Labour's plans – and so uncertain is the system – that it represents an open goal, a huge target of opportunity that, if attacked, could score multiple brownie points for fox and his Party. Yet, on this issue, we get nothing but silence.
Similarly, there are huge opportunities open to Fox in attacking the government's record on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and especially its forward plans, which may lead to the expenditure of as much as £10 billion. Yet, despite seriously poor performance and some questionable decisions in the offing, once again, we get nothing but silence.
Fox has an agenda but, clearly, that does not include behaving like an opposition spokesman and attacking the government.
While he covers the big issues, though (or fails to do so), the failures at a lower level are just as important. Small issues may be crucial in the greater scheme of things but, in politics, it is very often those small things that can make or break a government (and opposition) – who can forget the War of Jennifer's Ear?
In charge of the defence procurement portfolio, however, is Gerald Howarth and he typifies the total ineptness of the Cameron experiment. For instance, whatever else could be said about the "Snatch" Land Rover issue, it was highly political, representing an egregious failure of Labour properly to equip our troops.
With Booker in the Sunday Telegraph, we went live with the story on 17 June and The Sunday Times picked it up a week later. But nowhere in these stories was there a mention of Gerald Howarth, which meant that the Tories were given no "credit" for pushing the issue. And the reason was quite simple. Although he had been given the details weeks earlier, including photographs of destroyed Land Rovers and the now famous RG-31 picture (above right), from him there had been no comment – no reaction at all.
When it then emerged that Lord Drayson was to supply troops with the dangerously fragile Pinzgauer Vector, full details were sent to Howarth who had thus a powerful story with which to approach the media.
But although in July he posted a robust piece on his website, his action was entirely negated by his visit to the Pinzgauer factory. There, he allowed himself to be photographed at the wheel of a truck (pictured here) for a corporate advertisement, praising the superb Pinzgauer.
When it emerged that four soldiers had been killed in a "water taxi" as they used the Shatt-al-Arab waterway for want of suitably protected vehicles, Howarth was informed. Response there was none.
When it emerged that the British Consulate was being evacuated and that British troops in their own headquarters were being subject to constant mortar attacks, yet no attempt was being made to procure counter-measures, Howarth was more than informed. He was invited to supply this blog with a 1000 word piece setting out the Conservative policy on this and allied issues – with a promise that it would gain a reference in the Booker column. Promise there was but response there was none.
When the ghastly story of the government's failure to supply adequate UAV surveillance emerged, Gerald Howarth was informed. Response there was none. And when it emerged that troops were at risk in Afghanistan through lack of thermal imagers, Howarth was informed. Response there was none.
Now, in a piece billed as an exposition of my view of what the (Conservative) Party must do to win the next election, I have been a long time coming to the point (or points). One thing which would now seem obvious as to what they must do – this is to fire Gerald Howarth.
As a shadow minister dealing with procurement, he is worse than useless. He has allowed one of the most dangerously useless procurement ministers in recent times, the Lord Drayson (pictured), to escape without tarnish, and even to enjoy pieces in the likes of The Independent, which today runs a long, highly laudatory "puff", about the minister, with the headline: Lord Drayson: Britain's top gun.
With the defence procurement goal wide open for innumerable "scores", if the shadow minister for procurement cannot even lay a glove on his opponent then it is time for him to go.
But, to focus on Howarth alone would be unfair. There is a broader issue at stake here: the Conservatives have forgotten how to campaign as an opposition. They have never really had to do so seriously and, over the eighteen years that they were in power, any skills they had have been long forgotten.
Going back to pre-Thatcher days, most knowledgeable political commentators will be aware that the rise of the Tories then owed much to the efforts of the Conservative party's research department but even more to the efforts of the Institute of Economic Affairs think-tank.
The core of that effect was, essentially, research – and the dissemination of the fruits of that research – of a calibre which, currently is no longer available. The research department has been broken up and there is no think-tank of any stature informing or guiding "team Cameron".
In opposition, however, research is also used to fuel attacks on the government and here, the Conservative effort is dire. The information which Howarth could have used – had he been able – was not supplied within the party machine. Unlike the US, where there are senior political researchers of some stature, that research function is treated as a job to be carried out by juniors, passing through to better posts – and paid accordingly.
The crucial issue here, though, is that research-driven information is best used indirectly, in servicing the media.
Bear with me on this one – I know what I am talking about. For a part of my career, I was responsible for doing the PR for an egg industry trade association, just after the start of the salmonella scare when producers were being branded killers of grannies and babies.
To get through to a hostile and uninterested media (uninterested in what we had to say, that is), we found the most effective way was to supply them with what they needed most – good, reliable information.
Then, there was a "market" for weekly information on food poisoning, which was difficult to get as the authorities had stopped releasing the figures. I was able to get it and ran a weekly service, collating and analysing the data and sending out a fact sheet to media operations. The information was not about eggs per se but it established our reputation as a trustworthy source and soon reporters were coming to us for comment and more information.
And that is how the Conservative Party needs to operate in order to win. The "big hits" by the leaders are all very well but what we need is the constant drip-drip approach with there never being a period when the Conservatives are not actually in the media, attacking the government. By contrast though, many shadow ministers produce nothing for ages and then churn out dire press releases about their agenda and expect the media to drop everything and publish it – bitching like mad when they do not.
To produce such research-based information though is actually beyond the capability of this party, dominated as it is by "team Cameron" who are only concerned with their own headlines. But then, that is of no concern to Boy and his acolytes. Winning the election is not their game. They have bigger fish to fry – the total destruction of the Conservative Party.
And that is the subject for the third and final piece.
There seems to be something of a bandwagon effect running as more newspapers and the BBC join what is becoming a growing chorus of condemnation of British military equipment.
Some more issues were raised yesterday in The Daily Express, by reporter Padraic Flanagan, writing from Afghanistan. They were picked up, uncritically by the BBC and also by Matthew Hickley of the Evening Standard.
However, such is the ignorance of the journalists, their evident lack of research and their superficial approach to what is - as our readers will readily acknowledge - a complex technical subject, that the media activities have not taken us any further forward.
The reports in question feature Sergeant Stephen Brown of 45 Commando, second in command of the unit to which Marine Gary Wright belonged when he was killed by a suicide bomber last month, while riding in a "Snatch" Land Rover. From such a source, therefore, one might think that we could get some really pointed and searching criticism. But not a bit of it.
All we actually get is Brown saying that he doubted whether Wright's death could have been prevented. To the entirely unquestioning hacks he simply says that a better-protected vehicle could have stopped others in the vehicle becoming casualties, adding that the "Snatch" Land Rovers left troops exposed. "They are slow and offer no protection from improvised explosive devices," he says.
Now, Sergeant Brown is undoubtedly a good NCO, but one wonders whether he has seen the effects of a suicide bomb on the RG-31 (illustrated) – or indeed whether he even knows what an RG-31 is. Then, as our readers know, the Germans have the Dingo and the Dutch have the Bushmaster, both of which demonstrably offer considerable protection against mines and IEDs. Did Sergeant Brown know about these before making his observations?
More to the point, did any of the hacks know about them or, as always, are we just seeing them write down, totally uncritically, what they are told, with not a brain-cell's worth of questioning or analysis?
But, if they sell the pass here, it actually gets worse. According to the Express report, Brown then complains that a shortage of "Viper" (sic) and "Sophie" thermal-imaging equipment was hindering his troops in halting further attacks. The units, we are told, designed to work over different distances, work by showing the user a "heat map" of the body, and can reveal a suicide bomber by the tell-tale "cold spot" around the midriff shielded by a belt of deadly explosives.
Sergeant Brown is quoted as saying that the men in Lashkar Gah had barely a tenth of the imaging units they needed. "These units will save people's lives," he says. "They allow you to look at the potential threat and see him coming, but having to pass them around by hand and pick up your weapon – by that time he's on top of you."
Such is the fact-checking skill of the hacks, however, that none of them realise that the so-called "Viper" is in fact a Vipir. This is a small detail but another crucial piece of information which is missing is that the Vipir is a compact thermal imaging sight for the SA 80 rifle. It is a very nice piece of kit and it can be hand-held, but it is primarily designed as a rifle sight.
The relevance of this missing information will become evident in a moment but let us first deal with "Sophie". The complaint is so easily dropped in by Flanagan but "Sophie" is, in fact, a much larger piece of equipment than "Vipir". It is also fragile and expensive and, according the Army website, deployed at company level only. It would be entirely unrealistic for Wright to expect personal issue - and nor would it do his men any good. As you can see from the illustration, it is not possible to use "Sophie" and a weapon at the same time. For him to appear to ask for them gives the MoD a possible comeback and an opportunity to belittle the Sergeant.
But what is particularly interesting here - if the hacks were switched on - is that the equipment is obsolescent, scheduled for replacement (in the US Marines, at any rate) with a much better unit. If there is a complaint, it is that the British Army is not getting the up-to-date kit.
Ironically, though, the issue of thermal imagers was taken up during the lunch-time news on the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme. And it is here that the biggest mess was made of the issue. On the programme, the self-important Shaun Ley tells us that Brown's platoon is issued with three Vipir sights, when it needs 25. He then interviews the defence procurement minister, Lord Drayson and challenges him about the shortage.
Amazingly, the dreadful Drayson comes back saying that, "we've sent over 1400 sets of night vision goggles to Afghanistan…". These, of course, are totally different bits of kit – they are image intensifiers. They do not pick up infra-red radiation but simply intensify the available light in the visible spectrum. They cannot even be used in daylight, and would be useless for detecting suicide bombers.
The idiot Ley, however, clearly doesn't know the difference. "So as far as you're concerned," he says, "there's no issue of shortage either from the manufacturers or delay in issue at this end". "No there isn't," says Drayson, completely off the hook.
Something really, really does need to be done about these amateurs. The newspapers are bad enough but the BBC is in a league of its own. Yet, they are so full of themselves, they do not even begin to realise quite how full of crap they really are.
A start would be for their "flagship" news programme, the World at One, to be renamed Muppets' half hour.
Another soldier has been killed in Basra today, announced by the MoD with the usual "deep regret". What else can they say?
The soldier, unnamed as yet, was a member of the Parachute Regiment, shot while taking part in a planned search and detention operation in Basra City earlier today. He was evacuated to a nearby military hospital and died from his injuries.
It is a horrible thing to have to admit, but there is a hierarchy in our concern about death – there always has been. Not all deaths are equal. Hence there is greater concern over one soldier in action than the one killed, apparently by accident, on a firing range in England yesterday.
And, on this blog, it takes precedence over the 202 people killed yesterday in Baghdad as suicide bombers ripped through a Shi'ite market in northern Iraq on Friday and mortars crashed on rival Baghdad neighbourhoods, ramping up sectarian tension a day after the bloodiest bombing of the conflict killed
Two more bombers killed 22 people at Tal Afar near the Syrian border today and the country looks more like it is approaching civil war than ever before, as the Iraq government imposed a curfew in the capital and also closed the international airport. The transport ministry then took the highly unusual step of closing the airport and docks in the southern city of Basra, the country's main outlet to the vital shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite religious figure in Iraq, has condemned the bombings and issued condolences to family members of those who were killed. He called for self-control among his followers, but there is no telling whether his writ will hold firm and the Shi'ites will or even can stop their hard men going all out of the Sunnis.
You would not be human if you did not recoil from this with horror and, unable as we seem to affect the course of this violence, it is entirely natural to want no part of it, and from there to pull out our troops. The death of another soldier today can only strengthen that feeling.
What is most troubling though is the lack of resolve either way. There is no politician of any stature saying, unequivocally, that we must quit and be done with it. Nor is anyone saying that we must get stuck in there and do whatever it takes to bring peace and stability to Iraq, taking the losses and paying the price.
Instead, there is the government's attempt to build a fictional scenario that things are somehow getting so much better in Basra that we will soon be able to pull back our troops into their bases, prior to their departure.
All you have to do, though, is look at the pictures - troops in helmets, on the alert, weapons at the ready, patrolling in heavily armoured Warriors. Everyone who has a brain, however, and all the political hacks, know full well that this is simply NuLab spin, allowing, as the Evening Standard put it yesterday, Blair to bow out "on a wave of good news". If the handover of control in Basra to the Iraqis is timed for April, just prior to Blair's retirement, it would give him precisely the personal boost he is looking for.
But, if it is really that cynical, the real question is, what is the opposition – by which one means the "not-the-Conservative-party" - doing about it? What is its policy on Iraq? Should be stay or should we go, and if we stay, what do we need to do the job – whatever that might be.
Certainly, we are getting a very clear lead from Australian prime minister John Howard, who has openly declared that an early withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would have disastrous consequences and give victory to "terrorists". His country's troops were active today the southern city of Samawa (illustrated) and Howard has no intention of pulling them out of Iraq.
But, one of our readers, without a return address, has e-mailed us to suggest that it was probably time to tone down the rhetoric on Dave Cameron. He did not, we were told, "merit such constant withering scorn". "I'm afraid," wrote our correspondent, "it does EU Referendum little credit. More balance and reason would not go amiss."
OK. Would somebody … anybody, like to tell us what the Boy's policy is on Iraq, and what we should make of it? And, while they are about it, could they tell us why we should care?
Foreign secretary (in name only) Margaret Beckett has announced in Parliament today that Britain could hand over control of Basra to the Iraq government in spring next year. That would be the next and penultimate stage in the retreat started in August, when al Amarah was abandoned to the militias - with entirely predictable results.
"The progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province ...at some point next spring," says Beckett, building on the claims at the end of October that the Army was close to reaching the "tipping point" in defeating the "insurgents".
At the time, we asked, "do we really look that stupid?" – and now we have an answer. More than stupidity though, it is perhaps that people don't care any more, one way or the other – and just want our troops out. And if it takes a little fiction - like we are winning the battle against the insurgents - to disguise our retreat… well, the government will do what it takes.
In the spring, then, we can see the Army pull back into Basra Air Station and Shaiba logistics base, abandoning its three main bases in the city: Basra Palace, the Shatt al-Arab Hotel and the Old State Building. These will be handed over to the Iraqi security services and then, most likely, ransacked by the militias. At that point, up to 3,000 of the 7,200 contingent will be returned home, some to be available for redeployment to Afghanistan.
The main function of the remainder will be to provide security for the road between Kuwait and the US zones, and the dock facilities at Umm Qasr, protecting the supply lines (and the escape route).
This will leave Basra and the rest of Shia-dominated southern Iraq to the tender mercies of the Iranian-backed militias and their fundamentalist rule, precipitating either civil war or further flight of secular Iraqis. Already, we are told, the meddling of agents of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry is so obvious that in Basra, when the residents want to give an address, "they use the office of the Iranian Intelligence ministry as a landmark."
It also explains why, despite continued and continuing attacks, on the back of the most recent violence, the British government is doing nothing about the humiliating situation where civilians have to be evacuated from Basra Palace.
Despite the availability of defence measures and counter-measures, it has no intention of investing in the equipment necessary to protect its bases, when it intends shortly to abandon them.
Like Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere, who abandoned the Abu Naji base at al Amarah as a means of stopping the attacks, the British generally seem to have adopted a strategy of retreat as a means of preventing attack.
But it is not their presence, per se that seems to be the problem. According to Hakim al-Meyarhe, president of the Security Council in the elected Basra Governing Council, it is their behaviour. "British forces in Basra have made a lot of mistakes," he says, "and they continue to do so. They're arresting people inappropriately, storming into houses at night; raiding homes and families... They randomly arrest people without any permission from the government. These mistakes make people reactive (sic) negatively and violently."
"That's the reason for the mortar attacks we have here," al-Meyarhe says. "They are specifically directed against the British army interests, they're not attacks on the people of Basra."
With the British sending out such strong signals of its intentions, however, it is hardly surprising that the militias are already jockeying for position and, as we have seen, are launching a murderous campaign against those who are helping the occupiers, making it more difficult to control the region.
Most recently, the target has been the interpreters. At least 21 have been kidnapped and shot in head over the last month, their bodies dumped in different parts of the city. Another three are still missing. In a single mass killing, 17 interpreters were slain.
None of the Iraqis, be they police or army, want to share the fate of the Harkis, giving their loyalty to the occupiers, only to be slaughtered once they leave. Why should any Iraqi trust their lives to the British, who cannot even protect their own?
And so, inexorably, do we move to the end game, a sordid, tawdry example of failure and betrayal, our government abandoning its task unfinished, leaving the Iraqis to a fate unknown. But the worst of it is the spin, the attempt to disguise that unalterable fact, that we are running away. And, in so doing, what – as Charles Moore so eloquently put it – will we have gained?
Where lies the prestige of a nation, still until recently the fourth largest economy on earth, which once ruled an empire comprising half the peoples of that earth, upon which the sun quite literally never set?
Where lies the prestige of a nation which has a defence budget measured in billions - larger than the entire GDP of some countries - which is able still to keep up with the best in technology and innovation and which maintains armed forces that are amongst the best in the world?
Where lies the prestige of a nation which is being held to ransom by small groups of largely ill-educated religious fanatics, intent on causing murder and mayhem, equipped with cheap, second hand weapons, and in particular the mortar, a weapon which in its present from goes back to before the First World War?
Where lies the prestige of a nation which is failing to deal with this threat, not because the technology does not exist, not because it cannot be done, but simply because it chooses not to spend the money, or expend the energy or the political capital to ensure the threat is neutralised?
Where lies the prestige of that nation which has a military establishment which seems unable for fight for the effective solutions, a media which seems to be unaware that solutions even exist and shows no inclination either to report on them or agitate for their acquisition.
And where lies a nation blessed with political classes which seem entirely unconcerned that we are being humiliated, that our entire foreign policy is at risk and that we stand to lose the prize of an independent and democratic Iraq, also losing the blood and billions in treasure so far expended on that ambition?
The irony is that the technology not only exists to deal with hit-and-run mortar attacks. In its various components, it is already in use by other forces, as this photograph illustrates, but not by the United Kingdom.
If assembled and deployed in an orderly and coherent fashion by our forces, the resultant systems could serve to fustrate those to whom murder and mayhem is a desirable state and thus send a message that the Western democracies are not prepared to be held to ransom. It would tell the world (and our own population of Muslims) that we have the technology, the expertise, the resources and - most importantly - the political will to defeat violence and the evil men who seek to gain from it.
The equipment which makes the agreeable patterns seen above is an adaptation of the Phalanx Close-in Weapons System (CIWS), originally devised in the 1970s for the US Navy to provide last-ditch protection for its ships from anti-ship missiles, when all else had failed. Quite simply, Phalanx is a radar-controlled gun capable of firing 4,500 20mm shells a minute. It blasts missiles out of the sky.
But, while it was developed as a naval weapon, the US military, plagued like us by increasingly bold insurgents - who are now using the mortar as their main weapon after the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) - hit upon a startlingly simple idea. They would shoot down the relatively slow-moving mortar bombs.
With a speed for which the cumbersome US defence procurement system is not famous, Phalanx was put to the test. In a series of land trials, it proved remarkably effective against mortar bombs - being able to destroy about 80 percent of those fired - and also the parallel threat of Katyusha rockets. Naval sets were converted for land use, acquiring the acronym C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) in the process. By June 2005, the first were being deployed in Iraq and a programme to cover all US bases is currently being rolled out.
The system is not entirely foolproof with, as we indicated, only an 80 percent success rate (maximum).
But it is entirely automatic and, even if it fails to destroy an incoming bomb, the characteristic sound of its firing gives audible warning of a mortar strike. By constructing a network of easily-reached refuges and bunkers on bases - often made from the now famous Hesco - the risk to personnel has been very substantially reduced. It is even doing good service in the Baghdad "green zone".
In a highly congested urban environment, such a system might have limited utility. But this is not the case with the base where, recently, a British soldier was killed and another seriously injured. The attack was on the Shatt al-Arab Hotel, when mortar bombs landed inside the base perimeter.
One of the 15 mortar rounds directed at the base actually missed its target and landed on a nearby home, killing two children and injuring a third.
But, as can be seen from the satellite photograph of the base (above), there are clear lines of fire and there is plenty of room to deploy numerous weapons systems.
The ground photograph shown (right) - although presenting a limited view - also shows a spacious area, with a Hesco barrier perimeter which could be protected by a suitably deployed weapons system. (The main building can be seen to the right, in the distance, behind the perimeter.)
Nor indeed should deployment of C-RAM prove a problem at Basra Palace, where the Foreign Office recently evacuated the Consulate because of continued mortaring and there troops stationed in the complex have also been subjected to intense mortar fire.
Once again from the satellite photograph, we can see a spacious site, but with some added extras. As one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, the site is surrounded by a security moat and the areas immediately around the perimeter have been cleared or naturally lack cover. Deployed weapons would have clear lines of sight and be able to cope with incoming mortar bombs in good time.
However good the system is though, it can only provide passive defence - and it should never be the case that an attacker should have free rein. Active counter-measures should always be taken.
For the British forces, we have argued that this could be provided by helicopter assault troops, guided by counter-mortar radar, which, as we have noted, is already available to our forces. That same radar is an integral part of the C-RAM system, providing the initial targeting information to direct the gun radar.
The development of lightweight counter mortar radar, however, has opened up new possibilities which have been exploited by the US Marine Corps. They have mounted the radar on a Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV), which is also fitted with a rapid-fire 120mm mortar, known as Dragon Fire. So sophisticated is this that it can be linked to the rader and rigged to fire automatically at the point from which an enemy mortar is fired.
Despite its effectiveness, though, this system will always have its limitations. As long as insurgents are prepared fire their weapons from crowded urban areas, counter-battery fire will always be restricted. The risks of colateral damage is simply too high.
In this case, precision-targeted weapons - such as the Hellfire missile - come into their own, launched by helicopters, UAVs and ground attack aircraft. But even then, the risk of colateral damage is relatively high and, in any case, few of such weapons are designed to attack targets in urban areas. One that is though, we have mentioned previously. It is the Viper Strike, laser-guided precision missile. With a 7lb warhead and a "top attack" facility, it is an important addition to the armoury.
More recently, it has been mated with a new version of a long-endurance UAV, the MQ-5B version of the Hunter, which can carry two Viper Strike missiles on a 16-hour mission.
With just one of these UAVs orbiting a site like the Basra Palace complex, instant retribution could be dispensed to any mortar crew foolhardy enough to risk an attack, making them not only dangerous but, ultimately, futile. And, without the weight of the weapons, Northrop Grumman's new system has demonstrated an ability to fly for more than 21 hours, with a fully-capable surveillance package. Given the UK's lacklustre performance with UAV projects, here is a system which could provide an exceptionally useful asset in the fight against insurgents.
It was only last month that Tony Blair announced that our armed forces could have whatever they need to finish the job. Well, for the record, this post has detailed some of the tools that are needed, the sort of equipment that would avoid the extraordinary situation where we see the British Army evacuate a base, simply because it was being mortared. But now read this from the Mail on Sunday today:
Nothing less than our prestige as a nation rests on the willingness of our government to provide the tools needed to do the job. Can it rise to the challenge? And have we got to the point where we have ceased even to care whether it does, and are content to see our troops run away?
On the current evidence, it looks like our troops are going to be running.
It was inevitable that today's repatriation of the bodies of the personnel killed on Sunday plus the body of Kingsman Jamie Hancock, would be reported widely. Indeed, over 150 websites have recorded the event.
But there are other things going on. While the BBC ran the latest non-development in the "cash for honours" case, according to the British military spokesman in Iraq, every British location and every single base in the south Iraqi city of Basra was attacked last night (Wednesday).
"Up to 26 Katyusha rockets landed on the outskirts of the British Embassy (illustrated below right) while the Basra Airport, which is also used by British forces as a military base, came under fire and was targeted by nine such rockets," the spokesman said.
A further three rockets landed on the military base at Shaiba, south of Basra while the base on the Shatt Al-Arab strategic waterway north of Basra also sustained four rockets. This, added the spokesman, was the first time the British bases had been targeted by such an intensive barrage of rockets.
Yet this news gets only one mention, and that by the Kuwait News Agency. Not a single British agency or news outlet has reported the news.
To be fair – which I am not very often – four days ago The Telegraph reported that British forces were enduring daily bombardments of mortar bombs and rockets at their bases in Basra.
The paper added that the weapons were believed to be sponsored, funded and smuggled from Iran whose border is just over 10 miles from the southern Iraq capital. Military sources, we were told, had disclosed that there was "very, very strong intelligence" that elements inside Iran had continued to fund and support the gun-running.
Add this the other reports coming in, not least Sunday's attack on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and there are very clear indications that the security situation is not under control.
The makes all the more prescient a leader in the week’s edition of The Business magazine. It picks up on Blair’s Monday evening speech on foreign policy at the Lord Mayor's Banquet. When we reported on this, we chose to feature Blair’s call to maintain both the EU and US alliances, but The Business – like others – focused on his call for Syria and – especially - Iran to assist in the peace process.
Thus does the leader ask, "Why should Iran talk on Iraq when it is already winning?" Nobody has yet explained, it says, why Syria and Iran should lift a finger to help. Surely it would be more in character for the two rogue regimes to watch America’s discomfort from the sidelines, making the retreat even more humiliating and embarrassing wherever it can. It then concludes:
It is delusional – to put it mildly – to think that Iran and Syria will extricate America and Britain from a mess of their own creation. Why should they? Iran and Syria have won, the West is losing and the world will have to suffer the terrible consequences of this defeat for a very long time.Well, to judge from the weekend and, now, Wednesday night, this could not be closer to the truth. They are winning and we are losing.
It is probably only through the miracle of Hesco Bastion – the giant, interlocking "sandbags" used for protecting British installations (illustrated right, as used in Shatt al-Arab Hotel) - and the inherent inaccuracy of the weapons used, that there are not more coffins on their way back to Blighty.
But, as many fear, it must surely only be a matter of time before the insurgents "get lucky". Then, and only then, it would appear, will the media and the politicos finally wake up and notice what is going on.
This need not be the case, and should not be the case. If there was action now, the situation is recoverable and the war is still winnable. By the looks of it though we, as a nation, are determined to leave it until it is too late - except for the recriminations.
Never believe the MoD and never, never take any details in an MoD press statement at face value.
Even as of yesterday, this lying department of state was talking about "a routine boat patrol" when describing the bomb attack on Sunday.
Now we learn from The Daily Telegraph this morning that the four service personnel killed were on a "personnel move" from Basra Palace to another British base along the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. They were being moved by boat because this was considered the safest form of transport.
Despite the war-like action pictures being put about (above left) the two Rigid Raiders in the group on Sunday were carrying 17 personnel (including crews) and being used for nothing more glamorous and exciting than water-taxis. And it was one of these boats that got hit.
From The Scotsman we get the information that "British forces have routinely used the river as a transport route, to avoid sites where IEDs may be planted." But, says the paper, "in order to navigate the bridge, patrol boats have to pass close to the eastern bank, where the fatal attack was mounted."
The site can be seen in the video grab (right), taken from the Telegraph/ITN footage, accessible from here. (This is copyright material taken without permission for the purpose of reporting news and making comment. If the owners wish to make an issue of it – sue me.)
Now, from what appears on the grab, the pontoon bridge rises at the point arrowed, allowing navigation by small craft – but making for an ideal (and obvious) ambush point. We are now told that "military sources are reviewing river security" which is a bit bloody late, with them saying that "the positioning and accuracy suggest considerable planning".
To me, it begins to look very much like someone (or several persons) cocked-up and one hopes that an inquiry will bring this to the fore. But that does not change the general points made in my overnight piece.
One of the best ways of protecting transiting personnel is to use helicopters, provided the general area is under control. Without that control, however, there can be tragic results , as occurred last May when a Lynx helicopter was shot down, coincidentally also killing a female – that time Flt Lt Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill, an RAF officer.
However, ground transport in "Snatch" Land Rovers has also proved unsafe and there are too few Warriors and they are being worked to death. They are not available for routine transport. In any event, by far the safest form of transport would be a mine protected vehicle, such as the Mamba, with or without a helicopter escort.
Once upon a time, we could have taken that option, except that we sold off our Mambas, which are now used by Blackwater Security Consulting … for transporting personnel in Iraq (having survived at least two IED attacks - one pictured).
Alternatively, we could have bought the more modern and reliable RG-31s, which we had on trial in 2003 and could have had in service now – as have the Canadians, whose vehicles have survived mines and suicide bombs. But no! Instead, we bought freakin useless and vastly more expensive Italian Panthers, which can't be used in Iraq and anyway are still not in service.
So we send our people to their deaths in unarmoured motor boats and then have the Secretary of State weep in his cups about "the sacrifice made by the brave men and women of our armed forces."
Brave they undoubtedly were, but they were led to the slaughter like lambs. This is simply not good enough.
The television and radio were full of them yesterday, as were the online newspaper sites – the details released by the MoD of the four killed on Sunday in the attack on a boat patrol on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway.
According to the MoD, the four were (pictured in order above) Warrant Officer Class 2 Lee Hopkins, Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott, Corporal Ben Nowak and Marine Jason Hylton.
Says the MoD website:
…all died as a result of injuries sustained following the detonation of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) mounted on a bridge on the Shatt Al Arab River on the eastern edge of Basra City. The incident took place at approximately 1350 hrs local time. All were onboard a Rigid Raiding Craft (RRC) which was part of a routine boat patrol travelling north towards the Shatt Al Arab Hotel, a British Army base on the river. Three other UK service personnel sustained serious injuries in the attack.
Now, I have thought long and carefully before writing this piece – the third on this particular incident, the others here and here. The reason for my caution is a wish to avoid being seen as "wise after the event" or unrealistically and unfairly critical.
On the other side of the equation though is the crucially important fact that these deaths are not only personal tragedies in the own right – touching the lives of families, friends and colleagues. Each and every one diminishes the resolve of this nation and the ability of our government to maintain troops in Iraq and thus pursue this nation's foreign policy objectives.
Many in the UK, for that very reason - desirous of forcing a change in our foreign policy - are exploiting those deaths, using them as part of their argument for bringing our troops back.
The Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, on the other hand, has offered his ritual condolences, talking rather too glibly for my liking of "the sacrifice made by the brave men and women of our armed forces" but no one officially is able to dispute that these deaths were unnecessary, leaving the field to the anti-war groups.
In the minds of those anti-war campaigners, the cause is simple – Blair's determination to do the bidding of Bush and keep troops in Iraq. However, rather than disagree in principle with them, we believe also that the deaths were unnecessary. But, while we have common cause with the "antis" in that respect, they want to withdraw our troops. We do not. What we do want, in the broadest sense, is better protection, to enable our troops to perform their tasks while keeping down the casualty rate. Since no-one else is pointing this out with any force or consistency, we feel we have no choice but to agitate for this option.
Where we have to be careful though is in our assertion that the deaths were "unnecessary". This, in our view, means that they were preventable and by means other than simple withdrawal of all troops from the theatre. We would also assert that such measures as we say could have been taken do not rely wholly on hindsight.
Here, we call in aid our own piece, written on 28 September, in which we noted that the Army was mounting a high-profile security operation in Basra. This was Operation Sinbad and we suggested that, as a result, we might also see an "upsurge in the Iraqi losses".
Only five days later we were noting the death of a British soldier from an "indirect fire attack" at the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel, remarking that this might not be a coincidence. Then, a mere week ago, we were analysing the death of another soldier but also noting that four Russian technicians working on the reconstruction of al-Najibiya power plant in Basra had also been injured by a mortar strike.
Crucially, we had learned that the bomb "accidentally" hit the power plant and that the real object of the strike was "UK Armed Forces", indicating that troops were being targeted far more often than they were being killed.
This we knew anyway, from accounts of how British forces were being routinely mortared at their base in Basra Palace and how the Foreign Office had to withdraw their staff from the British Consulate in Basra.
What has also been the case has been that the Army, acutely sensitive about the losses arising from the attacks on "Snatch" Land Rovers, has been taking additional precautions, not least escorting them with Warrior MICVs, thus making them less vulnerable targets. That, and a number of other counter-measures, has made it less likely that Land Rovers would be attacked, but has not diminished overall the chances that attacks of some description would be made.
Turning to Sunday's bombing incident, we now know that – contrary to one early report – just one boat was involved. We now know also that it was a "Rigid Raider", one of several based at the Army base at Shatt Al-Arab Hotel (pictured).
But what shrieks out from the MoD report is that this boat was on a routine patrol. And you do not have to be a security expert to know that, in protecting yourself from targeted terrorist attacks, the one thing that must be avoided wherever possible is routine. Many of us have heard experts – right through the sixties, seventies and eighties in respect of the IRA campaign – drone on about varying times and routes, to the point that it has become part of our own normal background knowledge.
What we also now know is that any craft to the south of the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel base would have to negotiate a pontoon bridge, through which it seems the Rigid Raiders must have routinely passaged. And it was here that a bomb was waiting, detonated as far as we know, by remote control – which suggests that there may have been an observer watching the craft. We have not been able to find a published still photograph of the bomb site, although the Telegraph had put up some video footage. However, the paper's management is so anal about bloggers downloading its output that we have not used it. Undaunted, we have found a picture (right) of what looks to be the pontoon bridge (we think from the opposite bank).
Nevertheless, despite the general injunction about routine, there is some suggestion that this particular patrol had to be at this place at the time it was. And it seems the insurgents might have known for weeks in advance that the pontoon bridge would have a heavy British presence "as it does every Sunday" when it is opened to let large river traffic through. They would have had plenty of time to plant a device.
On this basis, the author of this assertion thus argues that the bombing was:
…another lesson that whether they (troops) are on foot, in vehicles, in the air or on the water they will continue to be vulnerable targets until the terrorists are removed from the city.This is far too passive. If a procedure has unavoidably to be adopted routinely, then there are two other safeguards. Firstly, any areas where a boat might be particularly vulnerable should be searched by land patrols, carrying out the well-known and entirely routine practice known as "route proving".
Then, looking at more general issue of how inland "riverine" patrols should be organised, we have revisited the Vietnam campaign, where the US acquired considerable experience in the use of small vessels in hostile territory. And what is particularly interesting is that, in setting up patrol formations, the US equipped them with their own organic attack helicopters, which became an integral part of the operation. Thus a contemporary source records:
A key component of the Game Warden operation was its air support element. Initially, the Army deployed detachments of two UH-1B Iroquois helicopters and their crews to PBR bases and river-based LSTs. Beginning in August 1966, however, air crews from the Navy's Helicopter Support Squadron 1 replaced the Army personnel. Then on 1 April 1967, the Navy activated Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron (HAL) 3 at Vung Tau with responsibility for providing Task Force 116 with aerial fire support, observation, and medical evacuation. By September 1968, the 421-man "Seawolf" squadron controlled detachments of two helicopters each at Nha Be, Binh Thuy, Dong Tom, Rach Gia, Vinh Long, and on board three LSTs stationed in the larger rivers of the Mekong Delta. The Bell UH-1B "Hueys," armed variously with 2.75-inch rockets; .50-caliber, 60-millimeter, and 7.62-millimeter machine guns; grenades; and small arms, were a powerful and mobile complement to the Game Warden surface units.As always, therefore, we are back to resources. Irrespective of the specific cause of this incident, there is a very strong case for arguing that small patrol baots should not operate without their own air support.
In arguing for more helicopters, we have been participating in a debate on the aviation forum pprune but, we are told by someone who looks like he knows what he is talking about, the crux of the problem is that "money is too tight" even for our suggested option, "cheap and cheerful" solutions.
If this is really the case, then it is scandalous, especially in the context of £8.8 billion having been lost from the defence budget on wasted or useless European projects.
We, of course, could not begin to suggest that the European experiment has cost lives. That would be exploiting the deaths of our troops for political ends, which only the anti-war movement is allowed to do. But it does seem that this government, for all its fine talk, is prepared to allow troops to die for want of the proper equipment. That truly makes for squandered lives.
The loss of the Nimrod in Afghanistan apart, incidents were our servicemen are reported dead tend mercifully to involve small numbers.
By historical comparisons that remains the case but, by contemporary measures, the loss of four British soldiers in Iraq on Sunday, with another three suffering serious injuries, all in one incident is a major event. Defence Secretary Des Browne has offered a tribute, to which we must add our own.
What makes this very different is that the deaths occurred during an attack on an Army boat making a routine patrol along the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra. Apparently, the boat was hit by an IED, leaving Army spokesman Captain Tane Dunlop, speaking from Basra, to say that it was "slightly unusual" for the insurgents to target a boat.
We have no further details of the incident or of the craft involved, which could have been a Combat Support Boat (pictured top left) or a Rigid Raider (below right, furthest from the ship), both of which are used routinely by the Army to carry out patrols of the waterway, which borders with Iran and is a major route of oil and arms smuggling.
Once again though, with an upsurge in activity by the Army – currently engaged in "Operation Sinbad" – we are seeing a matching increase in violence from the insurgents. It is far too early to say whether these deaths could have been prevented but one has to ask whether a "routine" patrol was too predictable – and necessary.
In this context, the words of the Viscount Brookeborough come to mind and, although spoken in the context of land patrols, seem highly relevant to river patrols:
We must ask ourselves questions about the patrols, especially mobile patrols. Is a given patrol really necessary? What is the threat and why is the IED beside the road? Could the patrol be done on foot? If we have the heli hours, could we use helis to patrol at virtually no risk? Are the helis at risk?Of course, as we well know, there is a serious shortage of tactical/patrol helicopters. Is this yet another effect of the MoD's procurement disasters?
There was a range of conclusions, which included the following. Obviously many mobile patrols are vital to achieve the mission, but occasionally, if you ask the questions carefully, it is found that the answer is that they are "not really vital". So why are we doing it? If the threat to a mobile patrol is an IED, then why did the opposition set it up? To protect something, or purely because the patrol would pass it? If the latter is correct, then there is no need to be there, and that is why the IED is there. That is a very simple but important argument.