The MoD website is currently sporting one of its routine PR "puffs" to highlight its glorious activities in defence of this country.
This time it is the turn of the 3,463 chaps and chapesses from Defence Science and Technology (Dstl), with a combined salary bill of £141.7 million (enough to buy 300 Mastiffs). And, as the site tells us, "There's rarely a dull day for defence scientists as the latest annual report shows." We are soooo happy for them.
In gushing prose, the site informs us that the annual report and accounts, "highlights the importance of its scientists work to the UK Armed Forces and to national security. It also details some astonishing areas of Dstl's research."
Be prepared to be astonished. In terms of "supporting front-line activities", we are told that this "remains at the heart of Dstl's work." Would you know that:
Dstl's deployed scientists play a vital role on the front line, solving urgent operational problems and providing commanders with access to key decision-support tools. Dstl scientists have been asked to provide collateral damage advice through their unique computer modelling techniques to give front line troops options on how to reduce debris from explosions.Well, tell that to the RAF Regiment gunner, whose death we reported yesterday and the other soldiers who have been killed by "explosions" while riding in WIMIK Land Rovers. We are sure that they would have been mightily pleased to learn "how to reduce debris from explosions".
But, if the chaps and chapesses at the Dstl can tear themselves away from self-congratulation, maybe they could just apply their brilliant brains to designing an open-topped patrol vehicle, which the Army seems so much to want, that is also mine and blast proof.
And if they need any guidance, they could just have a look at the RBY Mk 1 Armoured Car (pictured). It is airmobile while designed specifically to maximise mine protection. Furthermore, the vehicle can be armed with four pintle mounted machine guns – two more than the WIMIK.
The interesting thing is that it was developed by RAMTA, a subsidiary of IAI, in 1975 – over 30 years ago. Although only 25 were built, they are still in IDF service. And if you take a closer look at the underside (pictured) you will see … the now classic v-shaped profile which is necessary to protect occupants from mine strikes.
Around the same time, under huge constraints from sanctions, the Rhodesian forces were developing their own mine protected vehicles, this one (pictured) being an example. Based on a Land Rover chassis, this vehicle was designed specifically for airfield defence, exactly the task the troops from 51 Squadron RAF Regiment were undertaking when one of their vehicles was blown up by a mine, killing one of their number and an interpreter.
Again, although more primitive in construction, you will see the classic v-shaped profile that is now seen on the Mastiff – the British Army's derivant of the US Cougar mine protected vehicle. And, by some strange irony, this vehicle too is called the Cougar. What comes round goes round.
The point, of course, is that vehicle mine protection technology has been around now for thirty years, and is well proven. That it is not used, therefore, is not for want of understanding, but simply that there is no will to introduce it in current vehicles. Keeping soldiers alive in mine-infested country is simply not a priority.
That, at least, is our attempt to rationalise the situation. On the other hand, when you see what the MoD has produced by way of a (limited) successor to the Land Rover WIMIK – the Supacat (now called the Jackal) – you do begin to wonder. When we first saw a picture of it, we called it "insane". Criminal stupidity might be a better description.
Whether insanity or criminal stupidity, though, it has to stop. The MoD has had plenty of warning that the Taliban were going to use mines to murder British troops. It is now time they got off their backsides and instructed Dstl to do something useful.
I do not shed tears easily, but all of a sudden it gets too close.
The news today, from the MoD website is of a British Serviceman from 51 Squadron RAF Regiment killed, along with a civilian interpreter in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Two other Servicemen received minor injuries.
As always, the initial announcement is sparse in detail, this one stating that the dead solider was a gunner from 51 Squadron, RAF Regiment. Shortly after midnight local time, says the release, personnel from the Squadron were conducting a routine security patrol around Kandahar Airfield when one of their vehicles was caught in an explosion.
For reasons which will emerge from this piece, however, we happen to know that this was a mine strike. We also know that the crew were riding in a lightly armoured WIMIK Land Rover, just as was Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson last year, when he sustained his terrible injuries, and Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes who was killed in June.
What makes this tragedy so desperately poignant, however, is a series of recent events – the details of which are too convoluted to go into here – which culminated in my being sent an as yet unpublished feature story, recently written by free-lance journalist Nigel Green. And, by a ghastly coincidence, it was about the RAF Regiment's 51 Squadron, usually based at Lossiemouth, which has been in Kandahar since April.
Carrying detailed interviews of the men of the Squadron, the men spoke of the difficulties and dangers they encountered on patrol, but also spoke of the good they were doing and how morale was "pretty good". Concluding the piece, one soldier was quoted as saying:
Attacks on the base have tailed off because of the good work we've done. We have four weeks of the tour left and the last thing we want to do is to lose focus now. That's when it can go horribly wrong. The threat is real and we have to stay focussed right up to the end.One of the soldiers who so freely gave of their thoughts, hopes and aspirations to Nigel Green is now dead. Dead - that final word, and with him an interpreter, whom the soldiers regarded as an indispensable part of the team.
It all went "horribly wrong".
However, not only did Nigel send me his story, generously he sent three high resolution photographs (two reproduced here) of one of 51 Squadron's patrols, showing clearly the WIMIK Land Rover, in which the two personnel have since died.
Last night, in the wee small hours, having read his feature story, I studied the photographs, thinking that tracks on which they were driving were ideal ground on which to place an anti-tank mine – where it would be impossible to detect visually any disturbance.
It also occurred to me that the reported recent reduction in attacks was no guide, as the Canadians found to their cost when, last June, they lost three men riding in an unarmoured, M-Gator multi-purpose vehicle (pictured). But what was both chilling and prescient about this incident was the report of Canadian journalist Paul Workman, who wrote:
…commanders obviously thought the area was safe enough to use such an exposed vehicle on a resupply mission. It seems likely that Taliban fighters were watching the Canadians and saw an easy target - an open vehicle with no armour and soldiers who were more or less defenceless against a hidden roadside bomb.As I mulled over these issues, I recall thinking – only those few hours ago – that the soldiers had been very lucky and that it was only a matter of time before there was a tragedy. And, given the time difference, even as I was mulling over their prospects, those men must have already been dead.
The significance of that, when the news broke today, was almost unbearable. If I could see it, from my desk in a private house in West Yorkshire, what on earth were the local commanders doing sending their men out in these conditions, without the protection they need and deserve?
And here we go again. Within the last two days, I have written a piece about the US experience with Cougars – contrasted with the dangerously vulnerable WIMIK – and then about the life-saving Mastiff, which has protected soldiers from otherwise certain death from mine strikes. In this case, the obvious vehicle to have used would have been the RG-31 (pictured) or, perhaps the Bushmaster.
Last year, in July, I was writing in respect of the Pinzgauer Vector and its dangerous vulnerability, describing its selection as corporate manslaughter. But, what applies to Pinzgauers also applies to WIMIK Land Rovers. With their known vulnerabilities, in December 2006, I was writing that it was time to call a halt on deploying unarmoured vehicles, especially as it was then already known that the Taliban were planning to increase their use of mines, to demoralise troops (See also here).
For sure, that good men are now dead is primarily the responsibility of the insurgents. But there is no shred of doubt that, had they been properly protected, they would still be alive. Their protection is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Des Browne, the Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Drayson, the Professional Head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, and the many others who regard the WIMIK as "world class equipment". These are guilty men – guilty of corporate manslaughter.
And how many more good men are they going to allow to die?
Anyone unfortunate enough to listen to the intolerably smug Eddie Mair on the PM programme yesterday, when he interviewed the forces minister Bob Ainsworth, may have recognised a common BBC technique.
Ostensibly, the interview was about the unfortunate Ben Parkinson. He had suffered terrible injuries when the WIMIK Land Rover in which he had been riding had been hit by a mine, and had since been awarded what was described as "paltry damages".
But, from the way Mair conducted his line of questioning of the minister, it was easy to discern that he wanted one thing – a personal admission from the minister that he thought the level of compensation awarded was "inadequate" – the game here to capture a damaging sound bite that could then be used on subsequent news bulletins, and perhaps be picked up by the print media.
So obsessed with his little game was Mair that he failed to pick up an outrageous assertion made by Ainsworth. The minister had it that the reason soldiers like Ben Parkinson were surviving was "better armoured vehicles", which allowed them to survive when, previously, they would have been killed.
Yet, as even the Daily Mail story made clear, Parkinson was riding in an "unprotected Land Rover". Ainsworth's point, which has some general validity, was wholly untrue in this incident. Had the soldier been riding in a properly protected vehicle, he would have been uninjured, and would still be serving in the Army.
That we can make such an assertion with such confidence stems from a remarkable report in The Northern Echo> which features three soldiers (pictured above) who, "owe their lives to a new £500,000 vehicle". They were all in Mastiff armoured personnel carriers when they hit landmines or were attacked by Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
One solider, Private Stephen Mac-Lauchlan, from York, survived four RPGs hitting his vehicle. One struck the windscreen and exploded, but failed to penetrate the toughened 6in glass. Another hit armour on the side of the vehicle and exploded harmlessly, while the other two hit the fuel tank, but only left it badly dented. Said Pte MacLauchlan, "If I had been in any other armoured personnel carrier, I would almost certainly be dead now."
Pte Lee Ashton, on the other hand, was on a mission to supply food and water to frontline troops, when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine. He said: "It blew the front tyre off and the wheel arch, but it kept driving. It just felt like we had hit a huge pothole. I only realised we had hit a mine when I saw the tyre was off. A big cloud of dust came in through the vents into the cab. The man on top-cover then shouted that we had hit a mine. "It was a big anti-tank mine and if I had been in any other vehicle, I would probably be dead."
Then there was Pte Lee Jones, 24, from Penrith, Cumbria. He was also in a Mastiff when it hit an anti-tank mine. He said: "There was big explosion and a lot of dust. It lifted the vehicle between seven and 8ft. It was like a car crash. It blew the front wheels off, but this vehicle is brilliant. It saved my life. It has saved a lot of lives."
Even without these accounts, though, we already had good evidence of the life-saving role of these vehicles. Thus armed, I placed a post on the PM blog. It says everything about the BBC that, with now 47 comments posted on the blog, the comment that went against the narrative and pointed out that Mair had failed to task the minister with an obvious untruth, did not get published. Thou shalt not criticise the BBC.
Therein lies the true dereliction of the BBC. Mair had an opportunity to point out that life-saving technology was available and was not used, but squandered it in his attempt to score a cheap point against the minister. Then his dire organisation covers up for him and hides criticism from the public gaze.
Unfortunately, it is not only the Beeb which so singularly fails to hit the mark. A few days ago, the noble Rees Mogg held forth in The Times on the theme," Blood on a budget: our soldiers betrayed". Amongst his priceless observations was this:
Throughout the Iraq war, our Forces have been short of suitable armoured vehicles. For years, the Basra Palace run had to be performed in vulnerable Snatch vehicles; these have only recently been replaced by the Warrior, which is itself vulnerable to roadside bombs. Unlike American vehicles, the Warrior is not air-conditioned and can get unbearably hot in the sun.The noble Lord is, or course, misinformed. The "Snatch" Land Rovers were not replaced by Warriors but by Mastiffs (which are, incidentally, air-conditioned). The trouble is that there are not enough of them, or their equivalents, so soldiers are still riding and dying in Snatches. Meanwhile, men are also dying or being horribly injured in less protected WIMIK Land Rovers in Afghanistan, and in the equally useless Pinzgauer Vector.
Furthermore, while the noble Lord complains that, "Treasury parsimony can cost lives," somewhere in England there are now stored 401 entirely useless Italian-built Panther Command and Liaison Vehicles. Ordered in November 2003, in preference to the RG-31, this batch was priced at £166 million - equating to £413,000 for each vehicle – a sum that would have bought anther 300 Mastiffs or a greater number of RG-31s. It is by no means only Treasury parsimony that is the problem.
Nevertheless, this does not inhibit Rees Mogg from intoning that, "Soldiers do not object to being sent to war as such. They do object to having to fight without the best equipment and support…". He is partly right, but soldiers also need the support of the media – an informed media.
To be fair, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph did play their part in bringing the current batch of Mastiffs to theatre. Because of that, three young men who, by their own estimation, should be dead, are now alive. But, if the smug little Eddie Mair's of this world - and the pompous Rees Moggs – did their jobs properly and also supported our troops, there would be more men alive today and even more uninjured.
So it is that this blog, which should be spending its time fighting for an EU referendum, is devoting time and space to this issue. Perforce, we will continue to do so, until this matter is resolved.
Troop photograph copyright: Nigel Green Media. Supplied FOC to this blog, with many thanks.
So writes one of our readers who has sent us a remarkable sequence of photographs (see also more here) of a USMC Cougar mine resistant and ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle after it had been hit by a very substantial IED in Iraq. The crew escaped with only minor injuries and no one was killed, even though the blast ripped the engine from its armoured bay and hurled it over 100 yards (see below).
Sadly, we do not need to imagine what would have happened if the soldiers had been riding in a Land Rover. Today, the Daily Mail records the horrific injuries sustained by Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson. He was riding in a Land Rover - not a "Snatch", but an even more vulnerable "WIMIK" - in Afghanistan when it was blown up by a landmine in September last year near Musa Qaleh in Helmand Province, while serving with the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.
In this incident, it appears that no one was killed, although it was only through heroic medical intervention that Lance Bombadier Parkinson's life was saved. Nevertheless, he lost both his legs and sustained grievous damage to his spine, skull, pelvis, hands, spleen and ribcage, leaving him in a coma for months. But, with no death, the incident was not reported by the MoD. All we know from MoD Sources is that, in that month, ten soldiers were seriously injured, of which seven came into the "very serious" category.
That the Land Rovers have proved dangerously fragile is evidenced by a piece we wrote in May of this year when we recorded that the Army has been losing an average of one per week of the lightly armoured WIMIK Land Rovers in Helmand and, in April, the Marines of 42 Commando lost four vehicles in a single day during an advance on Sangin. All were the victims of mine strikes. In that month of May, 38 soldiers were recorded as being wounded in action, of which 14 were "seriously injured".
Then, in June, we recorded the death of Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes, in Afghanistan. He was riding in a WIMIK Land Rover when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Four other soldiers were injured in the incident.
Only ten days ago, courtesy of The Yorkshire Post, we were recording how soldiers were fixing makeshift armour plates to the sides of their vehicles in a bid to gain extra protection.
Despite the deployment of a small number of Mastiff protected patrol vehicles (based on the Cougar), troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq are still being killed and horribly injured in military Land Rovers, and even in the poorly protected Pinzgauer Vector.
In Afghanistan, we have twice spotted the US deployment of Cougar vehicles (here and here), demonstrating their utility in theatre but, while other coalition forces continue to equip their forces with protected vehicles, only the British seem to believe that riding around in lightly armoured Land Rovers is a good idea.
It should be noted that the thrust of the Daily Mail story is about the paltry compensation Ben Parkinson has been offered for his ruined life, a mere £152,150, less than a third of the £484,000 doled out to an RAF typist who claimed she had suffered repetitive strain injury to her thumb. Rightly, the paper is bringing this to public attention and it is also right that there have been strong crusades about the treatment of our injured personnel.
I just wish, however, that a little more attention and effort was given to preventing our personnel from getting injured and killed.
Click each pic to enlarge.
Something I've been watching since yesterday, in the hope of clarification, is the situation in the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre (PJCC) in Basra, which British Forces evacuated on Saturday evening.
Not exactly a base, this is a centre manned by Iraqi police, at which the Army has maintained a contingent of 50-60 troops. Neither has the presence been entirely without trauma. It was here in June that Major Paul Harding was killed as a result of an "indirect fire attack".
Anyhow, according to the MoD, the forces have been "moved" from the PJCC "in the framework of the plan for the handover of the Basra Palace to Iraqi control." And, according to The Independent the "retreat" descended into chaos when, as soon as the British left, Shia militia occupied the centre.
This paper's report, apparently based on AP copy – also retailed by IHT - has it that the remaining Iraqi police left when the Shia fighters arrived and began emptying the facility. "According to witnesses," we are told, "they made off with generators, computers, furniture and even cars, saying it was war booty - and were still in the centre yesterday evening."
With the centre previously having come under attack by the militias, the withdrawal is being seen as yet another victory for Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been claiming credit for driving British out of Basra. Certainly, The Independent is quick to claim that the militia occupation, "further undermines Britain's hopes of a smooth transfer and gives the impression of a rout."
However, while The Scotsman is also reporting a militia take-over, the MoD is denying this claim. And, in this, it seems to be supported by Reuters which is stating that Iraqi police thwarted the attempt at a take-over.
The agency cites Basra police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Abdul-Kareem al-Zaidi, who says that militiamen had tried to invade the centre, "possibly to ransack it" but that the situation was resolved peacefully after a delegation from the militia held talks with officials.
We also get a spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr saying that a group of Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Sadr had gathered in front of the PJCC and chanted victory slogans before withdrawing peacefully.
Now, from a the BBC website we read of "confused reports" about who now controls the police headquarters. British spokesman Major Michael Shearer claims that officers from the Multi-National Force spoke to the local Iraqi Army commander who "assured us that the PJCC is under his control and being efficiently run by the Iraqi Army." He is also said to have stated that, "all the equipment remains within the PJCC".
An MoD spokesman also says there was a green Shia flag flying on the building, but not the black flag associated with the Mahdi Army.
So, as to what precisely is going on, we do not really know. But what comes over is that neither does the British Army, which is reliant on reports from third parties which may or may not be true. Whatever else, that does seem to indicate that there is yet another residual area of Basra over which it has lost control.
Meanwhile, with the
retreat withdrawal from Basra Palace imminent, the Christian Science Monitor is claiming that British commanders have struck a deal with leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr's 17,000-strong Mahdi Army to ensure their safe departure. It appears that this included the release of more than two dozen Mahdi Army prisoners.
One of those released is Sajad Abu Aya, the head of the Mahdi Army in Basra province, who, when he was captured in July last year in a major raid, "was strongly suspected of involvement in planning and directing terrorist attacks on civilians in Basra, executions, and attacks on coalition forces." His arrest last year was hailed as a coup by British forces during their offensive against militias in the city as part of Operation Sinbad.
As Sajad revels in his freedom and the British prepare to depart to their last redoubt at Basra Air Station, it is increasingly difficult to accept this final stage of our occupation of Basra as anything other than a continuation of the retreat started in al Amarah last year.
When, like this blog, we are so often far out on a limb, discussing ideas that no one else seems to be looking at – with critics lining up to pick holes in the arguments or tell us we've simply got it wrong (as they did when we advocated better armoured vehicles for our troops in Iraq), the sheer weight of contrary opinion, combined with the isolation, does make you seriously question your own arguments (and even your own sanity).
Readers' comments on the forum and the steady flow of supportive e-mails, therefore, do give us an important boost and help us keep going. And, in this case, several have sent me a link from the excellent military site, Strategy Page, headed: "Blackwater Buys Brazilian Bombers". It is fairly short, so I reproduce it here in full:
Security company Blackwater USA. is buying several Super Tucano light combat aircraft from the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer. These five ton, single engine, single seat aircraft are built for pilot training, but also perform quite well for counter-insurgency work.One of our readers noted that this was private enterprise scoring again, and indeed it is. The company has a major operation in Iraq and consistently leaves the traditional military flat-footed, trailing in its wake when it comes to innovation, flexibility and economy.
The Super Tucano is basically a prop driven trainer that is equipped for combat missions. The aircraft can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons, including 12.7mm machine-guns, bombs and missiles. The aircraft cruises at about 300 knots and can stay in the air for about 6.5 hours per sortie. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing.
Colombia is using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work (there are over 20,000 armed rebels and drug gang gunmen in the country). The aircraft is also used for border patrol. The U.S. Air Force is watching that quite closely. The Super Tucano costs $9 million each, and come in one or two seat versions. The bubble canopy provides excellent visibility. This, coupled with its slow speed (versus jets), makes it an excellent ground attack aircraft.
Blackwater already has a force of armed helicopters in Iraq, and apparently wants something a little faster, and more heavily armed, to fulfil its security contracts overseas.
While the British Army was still pratting about equipping its troops with desperately vulnerable "Snatch" Land Rovers, Blackwater was equipping its people with the highly protected Mamba mine protected vehicles – ironically purchased second-hand, for a song, from the British Army after it had failed to see their potential for high-risk tasks in Southern Iraq.
The vehicles operated by Blackwater sustained several IED hits, their occupants escaping without injury, an experience which indicates that, had the
Similarly, while the Army is messing about with limited numbers of useless Lynx helicopters (useless because they cannot fly in the heat of the Iraqi summer) - and are proposing to buy the obscenely expensive Future Lynx at an average cost of £14 million - Blackwater have been successfully operating a version of the MD 500 helicopter, for convoy escort duties and as a light, tactical gunship.
In the latter role, compared with the Army's Apache assault helicopters – more than a quarter of which are currently grounded through lack of spares – the Apache cost £60 million each, while MD 500s, brand new, cost less than £1 million. For sure, the Apache is vastly superior to the MD 500 (when they can get it flying), but pound for pound, which would provide more protection for our troops – one Apache (most likely sitting in the repair shop) or 60 MD 500s?
Clearly, Blackwater did their sums, as they have done with the Tucano. At a cost of less than £5 million (and an operating cost in the order of £5000 an hour) it will be doing a job that we are gearing up to use the £80 million Eurofighter (and are currently using Harriers at £37,000 an hour). Which would be better value – one Eurofighter (most likely sitting in the repair shop) or 16 Tucanos?
Yet, despite rehearsing these issues again and again, as a blog, we are still largely out on our own. Thus, with the aid of our readers, we have occasionally to remind ourselves: we are not wrong. I will say it again.
We are not wrong.
One cannot help but feel that there is an agenda running in certain sections of the media, viz the "shock-horror-probe" front page story in The Telegraph today, under the headline, "British Armed Forces staff shortage crisis".
The report tells us that, "The Armed Forces are missing thousands of specialised soldiers, sailors and airmen crucial to continuing the fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan," a message which is reinforced in the leader , which broadens the attack, informing us that, "shortages of equipment and personnel are becoming endemic across the Services".
Is it then a co-incidence, one wonders, that Rees-Mogg in The Times devotes his column to exactly the same theme, his column headed, "Blood on a budget: our soldiers betrayed", asking, "Where is the surge in funding?"
Ostensibly, the papers are pushing a Tory agenda and, sure enough, Liam Fox is quoted in The Telegraph piece, accusing the government of increasingly using the Forces without expanding resources. "For all Gordon Brown's warm words on the military, the small print is clear: Labour's failure to cut waste and get resources to the front line is putting lives at risk," he is cited as saying.
However, there is something of a disconnect here in that David Cameron’s Conservatives have made no commitment to increase defence spending. Furthermore, there is nothing in what any of the Tory defence team have previously uttered that in any way indicates that they are focused on "waste" in the Armed Forces. Neither have they expressed with clarity, their ideas of what resources are needed in our operational theatres, other than ritual demands for better medical services and "more helicopters".
Nor, in fact, can it really be said that the picture conveyed in the newspapers - of Services starved of resources – is entirely accurate. Just a quick glance at the MoD web site reveals a torrent spending commitments and new equipment projects, in just the last 30 days.
For instance, we have the £30 million refit for HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy's assault carrier, the first deliveries of the £1.3 billion new truck programme for the Army, the sea trials of the new £1 billion Destroyer, HMS Daring, the delivery of the first multi-role Eurofighters, the arrival of the first of six Merlin battlefield helicopters, the purchase of a new Boeing C-17 Globemaster, the next phase in the FRES project and, of course, the announcement on the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers.
What strikes of this list, however, is how little of this torrent of expenditure is actually directed at current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus, if there is any serious criticism to be made, it must surely be that. But neither the newspapers nor the Conservative Party are making that point. In fact, all these schemes have been largely applauded and, if there is any criticism from the Tories, it is that there has not been enough spending on these schemes.
In fact, one high-profile cri de coeur of the Tories has been the limited number of the obscenely expensive and supremely inadequate Type 45 Destroyers ordered, of which HMS Daring is the first (pictured).
Another example of this "disconnect" came in the Tory response to last week's "friendly fire" incident, with shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth complaining of the lack of a £400 million "battlefield identification system". Notwithstanding that the lack of such a system was irrelevant to the incident (and would not have prevented it) he would have us spend that money.
But he neglected to point out an embarrassing little fact, to which the Telegraph drew attention:
In April 2003, after British Servicemen were killed in friendly fire episodes, Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said billions of pounds which should have been spent on battlefield recognition technology had instead been diverted to developing weapons such as the Storm Shadow missile.This weapon, in effect a 1000lb guided bomb, on which over £1 billion was spent - with each bomb costing over £1 million each – is utterly useless for current operations. And it was ordered by? Ah! The Tories.
Thus, if one was to take the current Conservative line, in the absence of any commitment from Cameron to increase defence spending, it would lead to less, not more resources being devoted to the front lines. Surely, that issue should be central to the debate?
An American colleague of mine wrote to me today to remind me of the incident in December 2001 where a newly arrived air force controller in Afghanistan mistakenly signalled a high-flying B-52 bomber to drop a two-thousand-pound bomb on his own GPS coordinates. Three US special forces soldiers were killed, plus at least twenty-five Afghan fighters, with another 50 wounded.
One report which mentions this incident wryly observes: "No amount of sophisticated computer gear could prevent a stupid mistake on the part of its operators." In another report, weapons expert John Pike noted that, "if you put the wrong street address into your GPS car system, it will go straight to the wrong house," He added: "Likewise, if troops program a bomb incorrectly, you can very precisely hit the wrong target."
It is, of course, GPS-guided bombs which are used for close air support in Afghanistan, their laser-guided counterparts being less useful in the dust and smoke of an infantry battle, where it can often be impossible to get a laser lock.
Thus, the 2001 incident does raise the devastating possibility that the soldiers who were tragically killed in the recent "friendly fire" incident – or their forward air controller who relayed the GPS co-ordinates to the attacking aircraft – were authors of their own fate.
This possibility also puts a different perspective on the front page coverage of The Daily Telegraph today, as it chooses to use the deaths of the British soldiers as an opportunity to attack the MoD. The criticism starts early, under the headline, "Outcry as 'friendly fire' kills three UK soldiers," with the paper telling us that:
The Ministry of Defence has faced heavy criticism for failing to provide troops with technology that could help prevent "friendly fire" incidents after three soldiers died when an American jet dropped a bomb on them.To distil the paper's argument to its very essence, it is complaining of the MoD's failure to invest in a combat identification system to protect British forces from accidental attacks by allies, in support of which it calls in aid the shadow defence team, Liam Fox and Gerald Howarth, plus a select committee which, in May, criticised the MoD for lack of progress on preventing friendly fire incidents.
We also have a comment from Geraldine McCool, a solicitor who represented Matty Hull's widow at the inquest into his death during the 2003 Iraq invasion. She makes a completely different point that, "advances in technology providing visual communication between pilots and forward controllers on the ground should ensure such incidents could not happen." This links to a reference later in the article to a previous shortage of "Rover Terminals" – equipment that allows the forward air controller to see precisely what the pilot is looking at on his targeting devices.
Thus does the paper aim to convey the impression that, once again, the MoD has failed to support "our boys" with the correct equipment.
The worrying thing is though, that while criticisms of the failure to develop combat identification systems may be merited, they are not relevant to this incident. The Telegraph, Liam Fox and Gerald Howarth are barking up the wrong tree.
For sure, such systems are an essential safeguard where, as in the Matty Hull incident, a convoy of "friendly" vehicles comes to the notice of marauding A-10s looking for targets of opportunity – not withstanding that those systems were available, had the British chosen to use them.
However, in a close air support situation, where troops are engaged with the enemy, such systems are of very little value. The pilots of attacking aircraft are not reliant on information from them. Instead, they are directly under the command of the forward air controllers who guide them to a target, the detail of which the pilots themselves cannot actually see.
It is solicitor Geraldine McCool who is actually closer to the mark in her in reference to technology "providing visual communication between pilots and forward controllers," but even then she is not entirely there. The real advance in technology is electro-optical targeting equipment which allows the pilot (or his weapons systems operator), via high resolution video cameras and infra-red sensors, to see the designated target on a screen in the cockpit. The crew can thus (in theory) make a decision based on visual identification of the target as to whether to release a weapon.
The technology also allows the crew to send that same information to a ground station, the so-called "Rover Terminal", which allows the ground troops to see what the pilot is seeing. ("Rover" is an acronym for Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver.)
Currently, electro-optical targeting equipment is used, with a system known as the Sniper targeting pod fitted to F-15E Strike Eagles (which made the strike of the British position) and, more recently, to British Harriers (shown fitted to an F-16). Its performance is in many ways impressive, so much so that Telegraph defence correspondent Thomas Harding makes great play of it in a separate article in which he describes witnessing an F-15 strike when he was in Afghanistan.
Since the F-15E is fitted with the highly advanced Sniper targeting pod, Harding believes, "it should be very difficult to make a mistake." Then, alluding to that equipment, he speculates as to the possible causes of failure and states that, "If it was American kit, then relations that are currently being strained by Iraq can only come under further stress."
Here is where the "toy" issue now becomes overtly political (which it was all along). Barring a mistake made on the ground, a simple equipment failure could have important political repercussions. The linkage, which we have sought to make in so many of our posts, is absolute.
However, a review of the technical specifications (this and links above) of the Sniper pod – and related issues – suggests that Harding's faith might be misplaced. The equipment itself is described as a long range targeting pod, enabling aircrew flying at high altitude to see targets at some distance – 15 to 20 miles - in extraordinary detail.
In those circumstances, the fact that the pod is fixed, pointing in the direction of travel with a field of vision of only four degrees, is hardly a handicap. But now imagine an F-15E at (relatively) low level, in a hostile, high-threat environment, approaching a target. It will not take a straight approach from high level, descending gently to its release point. Rather, it will take evasive action, an indirect line, turning in at only the last possible moment to line up on its target before releasing the weapon. At the speed they are flying, the target will be visible via the targeting equipment for seconds – not long enough for a positive ID, even to troops viewing the pictures on a Rover Terminal. In fact, therefore, the F-15 crew are entirely reliant on the GPS co-ordinates given to them by the FAC.
Now, if you are still with me, consider an alternative piece of equipment, the MX-15 electro-optical turret. We have discussed this equipment before. It is fitted to the Nimrod R1 surveillance aircraft, to the Royal Navy's Merlin helicopters, to the Army's BN Defenders, to the Iraqi Air Force Sama 2000s and will be fitted to the Future Lynx. It is used for surveillance by hundreds of Police helicopters and, of course, it is fitted to the Super Tucano.
At 5,000ft, an operator can read the headlines of a newspaper on the ground and, with a 360 degree field of vision (180 degrees in the vertical plane - shown here mounted on a police helicopter) the crew of an aircraft so fitted can orbit above a target, identify it at leisure and then, with the equipment "locked on" can dive into an attack, with continuous observation of the target all the way to the release point and beyond. If the pictures are also beamed continuously to the FAC, there is every opportunity for positive identification and plenty of scope for ordering an "abort" if there is any doubt.
Needless to say, this equipment is far cheaper than the Sniper pod – its one disadvantage is that it cannot be fitted to fast jets and, as far as the single-seaters like the Eurofighter go, it would not be suitable anyway as it needs a separate, full-time operator.
Thus, having gone round the houses, with a robust discussion on our forum, we are back to our original thesis: fast jets are not suitable for close air support.
Here we get some support from The Telegraph in an article from Major Bob Thomson, who served in The Parachute Regiment until 2003 and was trained as a forward air controller. He writes:
Approaching the target, probably at low level, means the pilot has a high workload, not only in terms of aircraft management but also in relating to the ground situation. Under severe physical pressure the pilot must ensure he survives to the target area, acquires the target with his weapon control system and then engages it accurately.With the current equipment, this simply cannot be done, consistently and safely. As long as fast jets continue to be used, fatal mistakes will continue to happen. In close air support, we must have equipment and systems which restore executive control to aircraft crews, allowing them to make the final decisions as to whether to release weapons on the basis of accurate target identification.
To conclude, though, we come to The Telegraph leader. This newspaper, it says, has commented before on the way in which the MoD budget is often spent in the interests of our defence contractors rather than our Servicemen. We don't intend to rehearse those arguments again today, it adds. Neither do we.
But it is interesting how on the front page of the paper, shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth's solution to the problem is to give millions more to his favoured defence contractors.
Anyone can throw money at a problem but, as we have argued, that is not the answer here. We actually need less money, better spent. And, since the US is providing the bulk of our close air support, that would seem to apply to the Americans as well. Above all else, we have to break the cycle of spending more and more on increasingly expensive technology, only then to spend even more when it does not work as it should.
It was a ghastly little BBC hackette speaking from Washington who smugly intoned last night that the dreadful "friendly fire" incident, which we reported yesterday, was "a public relations disaster for the US".
That is, of course, how the BBC would like the incident to be viewed, but much of today's crop of newspapers seems to think otherwise.
Perhaps the most encouraging response is a passage in The Daily Mail, retailing the views of "one Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm officer who has been closely involved in similar missions in Afghanistan". He says:
This certainly doesn't sound like a case of blundering pilots attacking for no good reason. Close Air Support in Afghanistan has been immensely difficult at times. It's dreadful that this has happened but don't forget a lot of Coalition lives have been saved through similar missions. The Taliban have learned that if they can get close enough to our troops it makes it very hard for pilots overhead to target them.The Royal Navy officer then adds:
I've known of cases where our forward air controllers on the ground have told pilots to drop almost on top of their own position, and then had to hunker down and pray that the blast kills the enemy and not them.Even The Sun, which might have been expected to launch into a rampant anti-American mode, was relatively restrained. It noted that, although seven British servicemen have died in so-called 'blue-on-blue' incidents in Iraq since 2003, "this is only the second such incident in Afghanistan," adding:
Military insiders believe that record is almost miraculous, considering how many times British and U.S. jets have dropped bombs dangerously near to friendly ground troops who are in danger of being over-run by the enemy.It then offered the views of General Sir Antony Walker, who said that the Americans "must come clean in their investigation," but then stressed that, "we must NOT engage in ritual Yank-bashing".
It was The Times, therefore – almost on its own, that led the way in precisely that, "ritual Yank-bashing", offering an online piece headed: "'They fire first and think later,' say British soldiers", by Tim Albone in Kabul. However, the paper seems to have thought better and the report does not appear in the print edition. The print coverage is fairly measured, albeit under a somewhat lurid headline.
Needless to say, The Guardian sticks the knife in and delights in twisting it, with a report headed: "Mounting toll of 'blue on blue' errors", launching its coverage with, "US forces have repeatedly been criticised for friendly fire incidents and for killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan and elsewhere."
A similar and entirely predictable line is taken by The Independent which will have you believe that "Tensions (between American and British forces) rise after three British soldiers killed in US airstrike".
But by far the most interesting coverage is from The Daily Telegraph, which offers a number of reports and a leader, covering a wide spectrum of issues – so much so that we need to look at them in a separate post (later today).
On balance, however, the media seem to be reporting this incident for what it was – an unfortunate, tragic accident. Nevertheless, the issues raised (political and military) are profound, and we will be examining them further.
Stand by for an orgy of recriminations and barely-disguised anti-Americanism as the news sinks in that, yet again, British troops have been killed by US air power in a friendly fire incident.
At this point, details are sketchy, but we do know that three soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment were killed, and two seriously injured – one very seriously – after being hit by a bomb delivered by a US Air Force F-15 (pictured above) acting in close support.
All of the soldiers, we are told by the MoD, were taking part in a fighting patrol to disrupt Taliban activity and reassure the local population north west of Kajaki, Helmand Province, when the incident occurred at approximately 6.30pm local time.
Their patrol was attacked by Taliban insurgents and during the intense engagement that ensued, close air support was called in from two US F15 aircraft to repel the enemy. One bomb was dropped and it is believed the explosion killed the three soldiers.
To the predictable claim that, once again, British soldiers are being slaughtered by "gung-ho" or "trigger happy" Americans, the response is straightforward.
Firstly, although there is an RAF presence in Afghanistan, by far the overwhelming preponderance of firepower is provided by the USAF and US Navy. Therefore, on the basis that they supply most of the support, statistically, it is more likely that their aircraft will be most frequently involved in "friendly fire" incidents.
Secondly, whichever way you look at it, close air support, as it is called, (often abbreviated to CAS) is inherently dangerous.
As in this case, you are asking aircraft to intervene at short notice in a free-flowing firefight, where troop positions are not always clearly defined and where the ground situation can be highly fluid. Under such circumstances, tragic mistakes are inevitable and the rationale is that, on balance, air power saves far more friendly lives than it destroys.
That said, there are underlying issues here, which you can be assured the media will not address. One of those, gleaned from the many battle reports to come out of the theatre and from discussions with people who have actually been out there, is that we are overly reliant on air power.
In part, perversely, this reflects a strategy to avoid casualties. Often, in set-piece attacks, there is a choice between a classic infantry assault or standing back and calling in air power to neutralise a target before the troops move in. Since coalition forces – rightly – are casualty averse, the air power is usually the preferred option, when it is available.
But another reason why air power is so often used is that UK forces lack suitable armour to carry out their duties. And we are not referring here to protected vehicles, but to basic military tools such as Warrior MICVs and main battle tanks.
While the Canadians have both their LAVs (albeit that these have certain vulnerabilities) and Leopard tanks, British forces are reliant mainly on light Viking APCs, Mastiffs and a few Scorpion light tanks. These are not up to the job, which means that air power is called in to make up for the deficiencies in ground force equipment.
However, not only is air power being over-used – the wrong sort of aircraft are being employed. Cue now all sorts of interjections, on how sophisticated targeting equipment has become, and how precise ordnance delivery is. I am unimpressed.
I have actually flown jets at low level, albeit trainers. Everything moves too fast, the workload is too high and everything happens too quickly for mistakes to be eliminated. You have your work cut out just flying the aircraft and keeping yourself alive. It takes almost superhuman skill to fight the machine as well.
Here, we have the fast jet syndrome. The F-15 was originally designed as an air superiority fighter and is in its second career as a ground support aircraft. For CAS, it is too damn fast to do the job safely. The reason it is used, of course, is the same reason we are using Harriers and will, probably, use Eurofighters – because we have them. In this, the US and British militaries are as bad as each other.
We have, of course, rehearsed this issue before, arguing for the introduction in theatre of low speed turboprop aircraft such as the Super Tucano, which can deliver smaller munitions, more precisely, avoiding the collateral damage and civilian casualties that have become a distressing feature of this campaign. Even this should not be discounted.
Neither is it just a matter of speed. The Tucano-type aircraft have modern targeting equipment but they also have two crew, who can share the workload that can defeat a fast jet pilot. As importantly, the aircaft have a long endurance – up to six hours on station – so that they can orbit above an area of operation, allowing the pilots to become fully integrated into the battle plot, acquiring situational awareness far superior to that of a "visiting fireman" in a fast jet.
That the aircraft are constantly overhead will almost certainly act as a deterrent to attack – especially as the pilots can provide extra, highly capable eyes, and warn of potential ambushes. But there is another factor. Because the aircraft can remain on station for long periods, often – despite their slower speed – they can intervene faster, whereas it can take twenty minutes or longer to wait for fast jets to arrive. Delivered earlier, the lighter ordnance of the turbo-jet can prevail before the tactical situation deteriorates.
There are, of course, alternatives. One such is organic helicopter support – light gunships such as the Kiowa or even the MD500 series, attached to every patrol. However, the British Army has never been able to get its brain round this idea, despite the obvious and proven tactical advantages.
Another alternative is the AC-130 gunship. Based on the Hercules transport aircraft, it too can remain on station for extended periods and can deliver a variety of ordnance with incredible precision and devastating effect, using its highly sophisticated targeting equipment.
These aircraft, however, are expensive - almost as costly as a Eurofighter – but between the flashy fast-jets and a lumbering AC-130, I know which I would prefer to have on station.
Unfortunately, that is not the way air forces think. CAS is always (and always has been) a poor relation, with the fly-boys obsessed with their shiny toys in which they can do their "steely eyed killer" routines as they roar around the skies.
Once again, therefore, we are in familiar territory – the never-ending friction between obtaining the "toys" which keep the chaps happy and acquiring the equipment that we need to fight the wars in which we are actually engaged.
Unfortunately, all too often, the "boys and their toys" mentality prevails. For all their skill and outward gravitas, show your average military man a shiny new toy and his brains will dribble out of his backside as he goos and gurgles in delight at the prospect of playing with it.
Meanwhile, men die.
On the basis of a front-page story retailing how retired Gen Jack Keane (pictured) is complaining that the withdrawal of British troops is creating a security crisis in the south of Iraq, The Daily Telegraph is holding forth in its leader.
Headed, "The Battle of Basra," the paper does at least acknowledge General Keane's remarks that Britain has never had enough manpower to protect the civilian population in its sector adequately but points out that Britain's military overstretch is now so severe that the sending (British) reinforcements to southern Iraq - as Keane would like - is preposterous.
Beyond that, the paper sees Keane's criticism as purely political, suggesting that:
…as America's involvement in Iraq limps towards its inevitable, ignominious conclusion, how very convenient it will be for Washington to be able to put some of the blame on the Brits for not pulling their weight in Basra.What is entirely missing from this piece is any recognition that Gen. Keane may be partly right – that the Brits have not been pulling their weight in Basra.
Nor indeed has it begun to realise that the failure is not entirely (or at all) due to shortage of manpower. It may owe more to the lack of political direction, the lack of military leadership and intelligence, the absence of suitable equipment, and the failure to develop effective tactics – these being inherently dependent on the availability of equipment with which to execute them.
It is not our intention to rehearse, yet again, those failures, but it is germane to note a few salient points which have been left out of the debate.
Firstly, in the grander scheme of things, it was never the intention – nor was it ever possible – that British occupation forces should protect the civilian population. Their function, in part, was to restore and train the Iraqi security forces (police and army) to undertake that role.
In parallel, the task was to take on the hard core of what have come to be termed the "irreconcilables". These were the Shi'ite militias who were intent on challenging the authority, by force of arms, of the occupational forces and the central government, making it impossible for the Iraqi security forces to perform their roles.
It is there that the British Army failed, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that the failure is recent (or in any way attributable to the lack of courage and skill of the ground forces on the spot). The failure was almost certainly at a strategic level and of long-standing. And, while undoubtedly political in inception, it would be wrong to walk away without also examining the role of the MoD and the Army higher command.
Here, we did do some exploration late last year, on the occasion of the landmark speech by former CGS Mike Jackson. It was then that we concluded that, in August 2003, after the shortest of honeymoons, the situation was beginning to unravel.
In the subsequent months, we then observed that, instead of reacting decisively, the Army was slow to respond. When it finally appreciated that it had a live insurgency on its hands, it palmed off the ground troops with second-hand obsolete equipment, most notably the "Snatch" Land Rover, culled from military stores in Northern Ireland.
Small wonder that troops on the ground could not react aggressively or decisively. In equipment that was both vulnerable and inadequate, they did not have the wherewithal to achieve an effect.
Similarly, one must deal with the issue of overstretch – the constant refrain that we needed "more boots on the ground". If some intelligent thought is applied to this matter, it is self-evident that improvements in productivity apply to military operations as they do to industry.
Looking back to the First World War, a trench-borne infantry platoon of 30 men could perhaps dominate a hundred square yards. In the Second World War – with more powerful weapons and support, a platoon could perhaps dominate several square miles.
Currently, a "brick" of four men carries more firepower than a WWII platoon and can call in support of unimaginable intensity. Relying on advanced electronic intelligence and using helicopters for transport, small teams, skillfully used, can dominate hundreds of square miles – as indeed did the Rhodesians back in the 70s.
On a more prosaic level, last year, we pointed out that, as the security situation deteriorated, routine patrols which hitherto had been conducted by three lightly armoured vehicles – carrying 12 men – became a Company operation, involving upwards of a hundred men. Yet, better armoured vehicles – of the MRAP style now being introduced – with helicopter-borne reinforcements on standby if needed, could have allowed the more economic use of troops.
Above all, though, the Army had to maintain a moral ascendancy and it was, in our view, the policy of continual retreat under fire that sent a message to the Militias that the British could be beaten.
Now that our forces have retreated to Basra, and are poised to hunker down in their last redoubt at Basra Air Station, it is too late. Arguably, in 2003 and the years afterwards, the troops we had available – had they been properly equipped - could have made the difference.
Up to last year, prior to our humiliating and precipitate retreat from al Amarah, they could perhaps have prevailed. Now that the situation is clearly out of control, it would probably need ten times the 5,000 troops we have currently in theatre to regain lost ground. And that, as the Telegraph rightly observes, is preposterous.
Thus, it was only two weeks ago that Colonel Bob Stewart - styled as "former UN commander of British troops in Bosnia" - was interviewed in the Today programme offered two options for Basra. These, he said, were to retake and dominate the ground, or abandon it.
Those are still the only options available and, since we cannot do the former, we have to consider the latter. Simply protesting that the Americans have the temerity to point this out, as does the Telegraph today, is dishonest. We should acknowledge our own failures and take responsibility for them.
Moqtada al-Sadr is claiming credit for the imminent British pullout from Basra Palace, declaring it a victory for his militia "resistance".
That is the story from AFP and no one who has been attempting to follow the progress of the British occupation of southern Iraq is in the least surprised. That much was predictable and, indeed, predicted.
Nor is there any surprise that British commanders are insisting they are not being forced out, claiming that this is all part of the orderly transition of power to the Iraqi government, with the hand over of the base to the Iraqi security forces.
Therefore, that our military is claiming that the radical Shia cleric and his followers are trying to "create the false impression that they were driving us out" is only to be expected.
For a detached observer to try and make sense of these competing claims requires further information and it is here that the emergence of US views – the latest of which were retailed in this weekend's Sunday Telegraph - are of some significance. These add to the growing view that the British have lost control of Basra and that Moqtada al-Sadr is right.
That impression is further reinforced by the news yesterday that our soon-to-be last remaining redoubt, Basra Air Station, is coming under sustained attack from militia forces. According to the Telegraph's defence correspondent, rocket attacks on the base have "ramped up considerably" with more than 450 raining down in the last three months.
We are also told that the 4,000 service personnel and thousands of civilian employees are becoming increasingly anxious at the upsurge in attacks, with one officer cited as saying that, "in tented accommodation all people can do is put on their body armour and helmets and pray they are not hit."
It is these two issues, the US criticism and the barrage of attacks on Basra Air Station, that Con Coughlin addresses in the op-ed in today's Telegraph and, of the two, Coughlin sees the criticism as more damaging.
"It's not the constant barrage of rockets raining down on their heavily fortified compound in Basra that is sapping the morale of British troops," he writes. "It is the seemingly endless salvos of invective that are being directed at them on an almost daily basis from across the Atlantic by America's top brass."
Immediately, however – without going any further - from the contrast with Harding's piece, one gets the certain view that Coughlin is living in a fantasy world of his own making. As Harding points out, most of the 4,000 personnel at the base are living in tented accommodation. Far from being a "heavily fortified compound", Basra Air Base is horribly vulnerable to indirect fire and the people there are sitting ducks.
And it is that, as much as anything, which has provoked the US criticism. From the very first riots in November 2003, instead of dealing aggressively with militia attacks, the British policy has been one of "softly-softly" in the misguided belief that the tactics developed and honed in Northern Ireland could be transposed to Southern Iraq.
Linked with the failure to provide suitable equipment, the result has been that the British had steadily conceded ground to the militias, starting with Camp Naji in al Amarah, last August, culminating in the evacuation of the Old State Building, the Shatt al Arab base and Shaiba logistics base. And, as each base has been evacuated, Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers have claimed a victory, and intensified attacks on the remaining bases, with Basra Palace (pictured) currently being compared with an old-style US fort surrounded by Indians.
Thus, while Coughlin maintains that "the ugly spat" between the British and US forces "does not bode well for the wider campaign against Islamic terrorism," his response is to call for unity, asserting that:
If the two most important allies in the war on terror cannot agree among themselves over tactics, the long-term chances of the military campaign achieving its ultimate objectives get slimmer by the day.Yet, even in this assertion lies the heart of the problem – the tactics adopted by the different forces. And, while it is undoubtedly possible to criticise the US tactics, when all said and done, the British tactics have been lamentable.
In our asserting this, we ourselves can hardly be criticised for rushing to a quick judgement. When the Telegraph published its piece on the rocket attacks on Basra yesterday, 20 August, that marked the anniversary of our first substantive piece on the indirect fire threat to British bases.
Since that piece, we have written innumerable others, each in their own way either highlighting the threat, pointing out the strategic importance of the threat or, crucially, drawing attention to the fact that the technology and equipment was available to defeat it, yet was not being used. Not least, we drew attention to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, so graphically described by Michael Yon as an example of what could be done - which the MoD was wasting hundreds of millions on its own programmes, getting nowhere.
From the time when the British departed from al Amarah, to the indirect fire attack on the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel base, killing a solider from the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the humiliating partial evacuation of Basra Palace in late October, in addition to the wider issues of UAVs, we have argued for the use of tactical assault helicopters and other equipment - such as counter-battery radar (pictured), and railed against the media for failing to take this problem seriously. It was then, back in November after an account by Harding of the attacks on Basra Palace, that I was writing:
The puzzle is: where is the clamour? Where is the media – the likes of Thomas Harding? Where are the Parliamentarians – the likes of Boris Johnson? And where, for that matter, is the blogosphere? On this substantive issue, all we hear is silence.Shortly afterwards, on 19 November, I wrote a piece, expanding on the technology available to meet the threat which, with this piece identified the full range of equipment and tactics which could be deployed.
It was in that November piece, however, that I wrote:
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?I wrote many, many more pieces on the subject, such as here, here, here, here and here, as well as an angry piece in January, demanding, "now will they do something?", after six British soldiers had been wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp.
On the current evidence, it looks like our troops are going to be running.
Unlike the "Snatch" Land Rover campaign, however, this failed to capture the imagination of the media. Despite the intervention by MP Ann Winterton in an attempt to raise the profile of the issue in Parliament and other MPs taking a hand, the problem continued unabated. Thus, in February, I was writing:
Virtually every day, British bases come under attack and, once our troops retreat to the one base at Basra Air Station, no one is under any illusions about what that will do to the intensity of attacks – they will increase. Of the current situation, one soldier said, "Going to bed was a lottery – you never knew if you would wake up". This is a lottery you do not want to win, but the odds are "improving" all the time.In near despair, I added a comment about the MPs and their staffs:
…who ritually applaud the bravery of our troops, skulk behind their barriers and armed guards while – with a few honourable exceptions – they permit without comment our soldiers to be exposed to quite unnecessary risks. And the secretary of state hides behind honeyed generalities and vague assurances, while the media sleeps.concluding:
This is moral cowardice. It simply is not good enough.In the end, we did see some action from the MoD, including the installation of C-RAM but, in the light of events, this has proved too little, too late. Even in July, we lost three RAF Regiment soldiers, while resting between patrols at Basra Air Station and a REME technician at Basra Palace, the former to a missile and the latter to a mortar bomb.
Thus, I cannot improve on my comment written last November, that, "Nothing less than our prestige as a nation rests on the willingness of our government to provide the tools needed to do the job." Our government failed to provide those tools and, through the mouths of Moqtada al-Sadr and "America's top brass" do we see our national prestige crumbling, and with it the reputation of our Armed Forces.
Possibly because the media has remained aloof from the detail, it does not begin to understand what has gone on, which culminates that that ill-informed piece from Coughlin today that completely misses the point. We have lost Basra. The Americans are right to criticise our tactics, born of totally inadequate support from our own government, our media and, indeed, the population at large. Having sown the wind, we are reaping the whirlwind.
And all I can say now is, with as much savagery as I can muster: I told you so!