Tuesday, 9 October 2007

A battle won … but a war to fight

Overshadowed as it was by the news of troop cuts in Iraq, it was inevitable and entirely predictable that the media should have all but ignored Gordon Brown's announcement yesterday of the purchase of 140 Mastiff protected patrol vehicles (designated MRAPs by the US forces).

The only specific pieces that show up in a Google search are one from Reuters and another from a Polish news agency, which simply rehashes a UK government release.

Thomas Harding, however, did offer the not unreasonable comment, in a more general analytical piece, that:

The MoD can be applauded for buying an extra 140 Mastiff vehicles for Iraq and Afghanistan as they have proven resilient to mines and roadside bombs. But it is unfortunate that the Mastiffs are deploying on operations as we leave Iraq after years of controversy over the Snatch armoured Land Rovers in which more than a score of troops died.
In a sense, however, the hacks were only taking their lead from the MPs, the only one of which he responded to Brown’s announcement in the debate that followed was the redoubtable Ann Winterton, who sought clarification on whether the cost would be borne by the Treasury or the Army budget.

Clarification we got and, contrary to our earlier assertion, it appears that the funding is to come out of the Army settlement. This, in itself, is a highly significant development, of which more shortly.

Ann Winterton also asked about medium protected patrol vehicles – which we flagged as a possible Cheetah purchase – when she got a response from Brown that "we are looking into those smaller vehicles…". We understand that these may not necessarily be Cheetahs - a completely different vehicle could even be on the cards - but we should be able to expect an announcement within 2-3 weeks and very rapid action thereafter.

Returning to the issue of funding, followers of this blog will know that the original order for Mastiffs was imposed over the heads of the Army brass. They were totally opposed to buying in equipment for what they saw was a short-term need, in case it prejudiced funding for their "future army" plans, and in particular, FRES. Then, it was only on the understanding that the purchase was funded through an Urgent Operational Requirement – and thus paid-for by the Treasury – that they were prepared to accept the vehicles.

That the Army is now prepared to fund the new batch itself thus reflects a new realism that current operations must be properly equipped - with dedicated rather than general-purpose kit – and that the funding must come from the mainstream equipment budget.

This in turn represents a hard battle fought and won within the defence establishment about the relative importance of the "future army" and a reigning-in of the "futuritis" which afflicts defence planning. Hence the yesterday's announcement is far more significant than the casual observer could even being to appreciate.

But the strange thing is that, for all the fluff, indignation and politicking that we saw in yesterday's debate, barely a single MP in the House even realised that the battle had been fought, much less won. The MPs are not so much "above the debate" as unaware even that it is happening.

However, if this is a victory, it is only one battle in a long war. To fight is the issue of helicopters, and not only as "airborne trucks", which is – with the exception of the Apaches - largely the British military establishment's view of them. There is a doctrinal battle to be fought and won on the tactical use of small helicopters, pioneered in what emerged as the Rhodesian "Fire Force" model, which still stands as a shining example of how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.

Then there is the issue of providing the right aircraft for close air support, something that has yet to receive the attention it deserves, in which the Army is dealing with an enemy far deadlier than the Taliban … the might of the vested interests of the Royal Air Force. If they can be overcome, then bringing peace to Afghanistan will, by contrast, be relatively easy.

Thus, a battle we might have won, but there remains a war to fight.