Thursday, 1 November 2007

Military incompetence?

A short passage from a recent conference on IEDs, held at College Park Maryland, screams off the page, so apposite is it to the general conduct of counter-insurgency operations and, in particular, the response to the continuing threat of improvised explosive devices.

The words uttered came from Robin L. Keesee, deputy director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, who noted that, in dealing with the IED threat:

Speed is critical in an environment where insurgents, unrestricted by any formal hierarchy, are able to quickly alter their tactics, techniques and procedures … They are watching what works and doesn't in a neighborhood and are adapting on that basis.
This sentiment is so self-evidently true (and borne out by experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan) that one could almost suggest that it should form the core of any vade mecum in dealing with insurgents. Any military organisation (and others) must be wedded to rapid change in a deadly game of measure, and counter-measure, as each side adapts to the tactics and equipment of the other.

If indeed that premise is accepted, then in assessing the performance of any counter-insurgency campaign, one crucial measure would be the ability of the military to adapt rapidly. Another measure might be its ability to pre-empt tactics which might be adopted by the enemy, in response counter-measures, and the ability to adjust before, rather than after, the event.

Turning this round, one could posit that failure to adapt quickly (or pre-empt changes in tactics) might constitute military failure and even, at its most extreme, military incompetence.

This question arises, most notably, in the context of the apparent failure by the British (and to a very great extent) the American Armies to provide adequate armoured vehicles for their troops in the Iraqi campaign, and their continued failure so to do in Afghanistan.

In addressing this issue – which has been something of a preoccupation of this blog – we are informed by the continued probing of Sue Smith, the mother of Phillip Hewett. He (pictured), as we will recall, was one of the soldiers who was killed by an IED while driving a "Snatch" Land Rover, in al Amarah in July 2005.

As more information becomes available, we see that the Army was well aware that this vehicle provided inadequate protection from an IED attack and thus that troops so equipped were extremely vulnerable. Further, it was readily acknowledged by the Army that the town of al Amarah was a "high-risk environment" and that the intensity of hostile activity in the early months of 2005 had been increasing.

On that basis alone, it could be judged that the troops should have been issued with better armour, or that the fleet of better armoured Warrior MICVs – which we know were available – should have been used.

However, there were other factors which the Army had to consider, which were articulated by Major General Peter Wall, giving evidence last year to the Coroner’s inquest into Phillip Hewett's death. He told the Coroner:

...if we … had decided that we were going to put the armour protection of specific vehicles as our highest priority and we had conducted all of our patrolling in Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles in urban areas where there is quite a lot of support and sympathy for our presence, it was our expectation that this would have generated a wholesale adverse reaction, which would have greatly increased the span of threats to our presence in southern Iraq.
This is an issue which we have rehearsed on this blog – a difficult issue for the military engaged in counter-insurgency operations – where the use of better protection can distance troops from the population, to the extent that alienation is increased, thereby leading to a drying up of the intelligence needed to fight insurgents, and to an increase in support for the insurgents.

Thus it was that we have learned that, while Warriors were available, local commanders had decided to deploy "Snatch" Land Rovers for routine patrols in the centre of al Amarah, to avoid disturbing the inhabitants – and thereby alienating them – with the noisier and larger MICVs.

If that was all there was to the equation, however, it would be difficult to argue with the choice, when all that was available to commanders was the small Land Rover and the highly intrusive tracked vehicle. This would have been a matter of judgement, the correctness of which would be impossible to prove and one, in any event, best left to the men (and women) on the spot.

Needless to say, though, this is not the whole extent of the matter. From more recent (unpublished) documents and witness statements, we are able to piece together a more comprehensive picture which adds other dimensions to the incident.

Firstly, we now know that there had been a number of bomb attacks (one fatal) on Land Rovers – which the insurgents had been particularly targeting – on their way from the camp Abu Naji outside the town, on the road into the centre. As a result, the practice had been adopted of providing Warriors to escort Land Rover patrols to the edge of town, where the escorts would remain, ready to shepherd the Land Rovers back to the camp on completion of their patrols.

A second factor which also emerges is that, immediately prior to the fatal attack on Private Hewett's vehicle, while they were carrying out their patrol, there was an explosion in the distance, which his patrol was ordered to investigate. And it was as they were on their way that the second "more powerful bomb" exploded, killing three of the crew of the Land Rover.

In deconstructing these events, we must turn back to the words of Keesee, cited at the beginning of this piece. Of the insurgents, he said: "They are watching what works and doesn't in a neighborhood and are adapting on that basis".

On that basis, if previous attacks on Land Rover patrols had been outside the town limits, and the Army had responded by providing escorts, then one can reasonably surmise that the next attack would be inside the limits, where the patrols were vulnerable. And, indeed, that was the case.

Then, as to the first bomb, this was subsequently deemed to have been a "decoy", detonated specifically to draw in the patrols to investigate. With patrols taking known routes, and with no choice as to the route to take rapidly to investigate an explosion, they had been set up for an ambush.

The point here is that the technique used is hardly new. The Army met decoy bombs in Northern Ireland and their use has been a standard tactic for terrorists throughout the world (and indeed conventional forces). Thus, the detonation of a bomb, in the context of a counter-insurgency patrol should, almost automatically, signal a highly elevated threat and the possibility of an ambush.

Putting this all together, arguably, we have three main elements. Firstly, there is the use of vehicles known to be vulnerable, deployed in preference to other, better-protected vehicles into a high-risk environment. Secondly, there is an apparent failure to recognise and pre-empt the likelihood that the enemy would adapt their tactics to overcome counter-measures. Thirdly, there was an apparent failure to appreciate that a quite predictable ambush situation was in the making, to deal with which the vehicles involved were completely unsuitable.

In putting together these elements, we have to note that they were not brought up in the Coroner's inquest, and neither was there a Board of Inquiry. At a very early stage after the incident, the Army unilaterally decided this was an "accident" that could not have been prevented.

As a penultimate word, therefore, I refer to the admirable book by Norman Dixon, first published in 1976, called: "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence". It was there, some years ago, that I first came across this passage, which I marked at the time:

It is a sad feature of authoritarian organisations that their nature inevitably militates against the possibility of learning from experience through the apportioning of blame. The reason is not hard to find. Since authoritarianism is itself the product of psychological defences, authoritarian organisations are past masters at deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalisation, by making scapegoats, or by some mixture of the three. However it is achieved, the net result is no real admission of failure or incompetence is made by those who are really responsible; hence nothing can be done about preventing a recurrence.
Strangely, while the actual events of this incident are capable of interpretation, what seems to point to the distinct possibility of incompetence is the very fact that the Army seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid examining coherently the facts which were known to them, but are only now emerging, that might possibly attach some blame to the organisation.

The tragedy of this is not only personal. As Dixon points out, if there is no real admission of failure or incompetence, "nothing can be done about preventing a recurrence".