Lead headline on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph today is, "Labour's secret plans to slash the Navy".

The deadly duo, Melissa Kite and Patrick Hennessy, thus report that Ministers have drawn up confidential proposals to slash the number of ships in the Royal Navy, accompanied by the inevitable, self-referential puff: "The Sunday Telegraph can disclose."

We are told by way of substance that the MoD "has produced a plan to decommission five warships from next April, which would reduce the Navy's capability to the level where it could carry out only 'one small-scale operation'".

Furthermore, separate documentation from inside the department suggests that the total number of ships in the Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary could fall from the present level of 103 to 76 in 2017 and only 50 in 2027 — a reduction of more than half.

The source of the Telegraph's information is an email "from a whistleblowing official inside the MoD", who, we are told, "has given details of a row between senior officials in the department and Andy Burnham, the Treasury Chief Secretary, over the allocation of money to the MoD over the next three years."

This – as the paper points out – is all about the Comprehensive Spending Review and while it would be easy to get worked into a lather about the Telegraph’s piece, the leak almost certainly represents part of the continued inter-service in-fighting that occasionally spills over into the public domain. We saw something of this in February when the First Sea Lord, Admiral Band, complained that the "cuts" threatened to put the Royal Navy on a par with Belgium.

Dominating the defence settlement, however, is the enormous sum allocated to the Navy's wet dream, the two new carriers, cited at £4 billion. This means, according to the "leak" that savings have to be found elsewhere if the MoD were to meet its "operational commitments." Thus, in order to maintain the commitment to two carriers, "decommissioning of five ships (frigates and destroyers) from April next year has been considered."

And, in a "worst-case" scenario, with no further commissioning of ships, total numbers of what the MoD terms "platforms" is slated to fall steadily from 103 to 50 within 20 years. The number of submarines would be cut from 13 to 11 in 2007-08 while there would be two aircraft carriers rather than the present three. Frigates would be cut from 17 to nine, while the number of destroyers would go up, from six to eight, but only because more have already been commissioned. There would be no minesweepers or patrol ships, while the number of landing vessels would be cut from eight to six.

So much for the detail – such that it is – which brought a standard denial from an "MoD spokesman", who said: "No decisions have been taken to make changes to force structures. As ever, we continually review the defence programme."

Inevitably, though, we get the "renta-quote" from the opposition spokesman, in this case Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary. He delivers to spec, declaring for the benefit of the paper, "Any reduction in our forces' size at present would be insane, given our unsafe world and the level of our current deployments. No wonder there are suggestions Gordon Brown is considering a complete withdrawal from Iraq. His own cuts to our Armed Forces may leave him with no option."

What comes over here is the ritual nature of the protest. There are all sorts of issues here, but not everything so straightforward. To take but one detail, we read that "the number of landing vessels would be cut from eight to six," which, on the face of it, looks like a serious reduction in capacity.

However, the new Bay Class Large Amphibious Landing Ships (example pictured above) have twice the capacity of their predecessors and, in terms of communications and equipment, are far more advanced. With improved reliability, better all-weather performance and "hot-crewing" (changing over crews while the ship is still on station, instead of it coming back to port), the "cut" actually represents a significant enhancement in capability.

Furthermore, in terms of the asymmetric warfare that we are conducting, and such tasks as drugs interception patrols, there is a blurring of roles between what might have been carried out by a traditional warship such as a frigate, and other ships. Thus, we not only see the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean carrying out drugs patrols, but also the Royal Fleet Auxiliary fast fleet tanker Wave Ruler. Embarking a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter, it has had considerable success in this role (illustrated).

Thus, simple "head counts" of the numbers and types of vessels on charge is no indication of either capability or suitability. We need a far more adult debate about what we want the Royal Navy to do, and what ships and other capabilities it needs to discharge its functions.

Yet, when it comes to a debate, the last time we heard anything serious from Liam Fox was in May last year, with nothing of the serious analysis that our own readers pointed out was necessary. Not is it for want of opportunity. In the run-up to the Conservative Party conference, the Sunday Telegraph gives generous space to an interview with shadow defence spokesman Liam Fox. And the one thing he does not mention in his entire interview?

You guessed it. Defence.

COMMENT THREAD

click the pic to enlarge
A mystery donor sent staff at RAF Halton an envelope full of pristine World War Two photographs of diverse subjects including the Dambuster attacks and Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery. The pictures were received by Squadron Leader Colin Baker, who is Halton House's Historian. He was approached by a gentleman in his 80's at the recent Halton House Heritage Day.

Some have been displayed on the MoD website, including this one here, of a WWII Beaufighter carrying a torpedo.

Although eclipsed by the much more famous Mosquito, I have always had a soft spot for this machine, which had a fine war record and was warmly regarded by its pilots, 70 of whom became Aces while flying the machine. (Click the pic to enlarge.)

COMMENT THREAD

We flagged it up in May and yesterday, four months later, the MoD website officially announced it – the arrival of the Hermes 450 Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) in Iraq.

Unheralded and unrecognised by the popular madia - which is only in the market for bad news - equipment shortfalls and the like - the utility of this equipment is well proven. And, after the MoD's disastrous excursions into UAV design and development, this represents a welcome turn-round. It is a very significant enhancement in the force protection capability for our troops in Basra Air Station – equipped as it is with superb monitoring equipment (pictured below right).

The arrival of these machine is one of several things the MoD have got right – and have been getting right. Their rapid deployment is a testament to the ability of the MoD to move quickly when it is pushed.

Furthermore, not least from conversations with soldier turned journalist Vaughan Smith – recently returned from Afghanistan – (of which more later) we learn that, in the main, soldiers' personal kit is good, their personal weapons work effectively and there are few real complaints at small unit level.

That is not to say that everything is fine – not by a very long way – everyone complains about shortage of helicopters and the state of the vehicles.

But this more balanced reporting is clearly at odds with the picture of unremitting gloom painted by the media, and most recently by The Daily Telegraph in its campaign for welcoming parades for returning troops.

The gloom continued yesterday however, with an authored piece in The Telegraph by Allan Mallinson, author, military historian and soldier for 35 years.

Under the title, "This silence on the Army speaks volumes," he retails a picture of underfunding and political indifference, and even pins on the current administration the "infantry reorganisation" which he complains has been carried out "in the middle of two bloody campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan".

Yet it was that change which was pioneered by former CGS Mike Jackson, with, as he told Newsnight, the unanimous agreement of the Army Board – and a precursor to introducing FRES, something the media have never understood and have never reported. Of all the things that could be visited on this Labour government, this is not one of them.

But what makes this whole affair reek of Party politics is the activities of shadow defence minister, Gerald Howarth. Although his major responsibility is defence procurement, his own silence on Army equipment speaks volumes, when there is a quick publicity opportunity to be had, up he pops with a story about he and a local councillor have managed to get the local council to put up welcoming banners – in the Army town of Aldershot.

His and the Conservative Party's concern would have been all the more convincing had they been at all voluble in the campaign for better kit, and Malinson's thesis – which rests on pouring more money into defence – would be that more credible if he was also pushing for better spending decisions. But there is nothing in their style of "debate" which indicates that they have anything other than the most superficial of ideas about how our Services should be managed.

Concern, it seems, is just another commodity, one which can be turned on when there is political advantage to be gained.

COMMENT THREAD

It was just over two years ago that we pick up a report on how president Bush had issued a decree changing US national disclosure policy, upgrading Australia to the highest rank of intelligence partner that the US has in the world.

This unprecedented move brought Australia's status into line with Britain, hitherto the only other country to have such a privileged relationship with the US, and vastly expanded the quantity and quality of US intelligence Australian agencies received.

Now, there is a indication of how that relationship is maturing and developing, with an announcement recorded by Reuters (via Defence Talk) that Australia is considering whether to join the advanced US military WGS communications satellite network.

The news came originally from an executive of Boeing Co., who said that the Australian government was prepared to foot part of the bill for expanding the system of five satellites. The constellation is due to be fully operational by 2012 and, with Australia helping to fund a sixth satellite in the system, it would get full access to the whole of the network, enhancing two-way wartime communications with the United States and increasing the system's coverage and capacity world-wide.

Furthermore, Australia would be the only non-US partner in the network, giving it even better access to the US communications system than is currently enjoyed by the UK.

This makes an interesting contrast to Britain, which has gone it alone with the development of its Skynet 5 network of three satellites, a PFI deal fronted by Paradigm, a subsidiary of European aerospace company EADS Astrium.

And, while that deal was originally slated at £2.5 billion – with the contract running to 2018 – it has now increased to £3.6 billion after the MoD was "ripped off" to the tune of £822 million by Paradigm. The Australians, on the other hand, are looking only to a share of the less than £1 billion ($1.8 billion) cost of a sixth satellite.

Much has been made of the weakening of the special relationship on this blog (and the partial realignment of British defence policy with Europe) and the fact that Britain went it alone, but with a European commercial partner, on the Skynet project cannot be construed as strengthening it.

However, such independence – as opposed to Blair's "poodle" stance with president Bush – is often seen as a sign of strength. One does wonder though. We end up with a less capable system, costing more and running into obsolescence earlier, and lose the advantages of a closer partnership with the greatest military power on earth.

There have to be other reasons for the choice – things are never that simple – but on the face of it the Australians, in opting for the Anglosphere, do seem to have got the better deal.

COMMENT THREAD

It was last Friday that Gen. Dannatt asked how many local authorities had considered planning "welcome home" parades for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, it has taken this long for The Daily Telegraph to contact "more than a dozen" councils (those containing large Army bases, such as Surrey, Wiltshire and Yorkshire) and find that none have arranged parades.

This, the paper makes a meal of, publishing a front page piece headed, "Parade snub for Britain's returning soldiers", also giving a full page to several pieces inside the book and a leader sporting the title, "Giving Tommy his due".

Something of a bellwether of soldiers' opinion, however, is the unofficial Army forum, ARRSE. Members are often quick to post on subjects such as this and the threads often attract thousands of visitors and hundreds of contributions.

Strangely, though, there seems to be no thread on the Telegraph's initiative and, furthermore, the comment on the paper's own site is muted. And two of such are far from enthusiastic. One declares that, "While a homecoming parade is a good idea I suspect that soldiers would prefer to be properly equipped, paid and housed and to have their human needs properly catered for before money is spent on parades." Another, from a retired Major, states:

Fortunately, I have not been asked to go to either of the two most recent conflicts; but if I had, I don't think I would have particularly enjoyed the extra hassle on my return of getting my kit ready for a public parade. So long as soldiers are awarded their medals promptly after a tour, I suspect most don't really mind what their local mayor thinks of their return; and especially those who own their own houses are probably as keen as anyone to keep council tax down.
Intuitively, the Major's comments seem to have the ring of truth, and soundings by this blog seem to confirm that sentiment. Properly to organise a parade requires sorting kit, drill practice and rehearsals, for troops who are tired and anxious to get away on leave after their debriefings. After a return, time is precious and delay is not popular.

Nevertheless, the Telegraph manages to recruit Gerald Howarth, a shadow defence minister and MP for Aldershot, and Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, to the cause. Says Fox, the absence of any significant homecoming events "was a damning indictment of the gulf between the British public and the country's Servicemen and women."

But, actually, no it is not. This has all the hallmarks of an "engineered" outrage. It has no substance and, if anything, suggests that its promoters are out of touch – or have their own agendas. And, when the silence of the Tory defence team on substantive equipment issues is noted, it is difficult to avoid thinking that the "outrage" is merely headline chasing.

If that is the case, our troops are worth a good deal more than that.

COMMENT THREAD

Whether it is from sniper fire or an IED, it is often the top gunner of a patrol vehicle who is most vulnerable and is most often a casualty when insurgents attack.

The US Air Force – no stranger to spending other peoples' money – is therefore investing in a new "high-technology weapons system" currently being used during outside-the-wire patrols in Iraq.

This is "CROWS", a stabilized, computer-controlled, all-weather firing platform, which is being mounted over the turret-gunner's station of an up-armored Humvee. It provides a 360-degree long-range precision engagement capability to a patrol crew while keeping the gunner safely protected inside the vehicle.

The weapon station is capable of mounting a variety of armament, such as the MK-19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher or an M2 .50-cal. heavy machine gun, and is guided by a laser rangefinder and ballistic computer pre-programmed with the flight characteristics of every ammunition type.

The result is an incredibly accurate firing solution, even when the vehicle is on the move. A gunner only needs to put the crosshairs on target, tag it with the laser rangefinder, accept the firing solution and the computer adjusts the aim point automatically.

Accordingly, it is claimed to have "first shot on target" accuracy well before a team is close enough to be in danger. One crew in Iraq says they used a .50 cal M2 to kill an insurgent with just a single shot taken at 1.4 miles. They hit him in the head with the first round.

As well as increasing the safety of the gunner, the system provides a stabilized high magnification camera system and thermal imager. Using a 13-inch colour screen, the gunner is able to safely survey a much larger area with extremely high resolution, all while providing high weapon accuracy at a moment's notice.

However, the bottom line is the cost. At $250,000 for each station, this is approximately twice the cost of a British Army "Snatch" Land Rover. And, being mounted in up-armoured Humvees, the vehicle itself is still highly vulnerable to IEDs, from which the whole crew are at risk – not just the gunner.

Then, the concept itself invites concerns. With the crew totally ensconced in their armoured shell, the gunner viewing the world through a TV screen, it must surely add to the sense of detachment, as the vehicle sweeps by. With no human image visible and a robotic gun and camera panning the vista, this cannot contribute significantly to any "hearts and minds" campaign.

Therein, lies a dilemma that faces military planners. To what extent must troops be protected from hostile acts and to what extent does that prove counter-productive, in detaching the troops from the environment they are policing?

And, at $250,000 a shout, can the military afford this sort of expenditure, even if it does save the occasional life – especially if the end result is to increase alienation which, in the longer term might cost more lives?

As technology more and more dominates the battlefield – which is so often the urban street of the counter-insurgency campaign – these are the sort of question that need to be asked, and the issues debated. Gen. Dannatt made a start, but the debate needs a wider audience.

COMMENT THREAD

Gen. Dannatt may bemoan the indifference shown to the Armed Forces, fighting in far away places but, if he wants more interest shown, he might look to his own MoD website.

We pick up from there recently, news of an offensive code-named "Palk wahel" or "Sledgehammer Hit", conducted in the Upper Gereshk Valley region. It was undertaken by a 2,500-strong task force, including elements of 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles and was characterised by the first major deployment of Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicles, crewed by 1st Battalion the Scots Guards.

The news of the Warrior deployment is itself significant, and follows the report from Vaughan Smith, earlier this month – a deployment we thoroughly applauded as being long overdue.

British troops seem to have been engaged in this area for a great length of time and last July we were getting reports of action, under yet another code name, this time "Chakush" or "Hammer", this one in the area between Heyderabad and Mirmandab, north east of Gereshk.


Between then and now, there is no really coherent thread. From the perspective of the "home front", all we are getting is a series of disjointed reports, with little or no follow-up and thus no real idea of what progress is being made. There are, for instance, no annotated maps, no "phase lines" and no real descriptions of objectives and achievements.

This much was recorded by The Independent, which notes that there have been eight operations along the upper reaches of the Helmand river this year, the main one being Achilles, in March, followed by several sub-operations and smaller offensives. But, is says, few details tend to emerge afterwards, apart from the circumstances in which service personnel have been killed.

What we do learn, but only from that paper, is that the current operation was vital to break Taliban resistance in a key area of southern Afghanistan and, from all accounts, it was extraordinarily successful. Amongst other things, the multi-national force found a network of well-established bunkers at a former Taleban stronghold, "solidly built with overhead protection and sandbag walls" – positions which suggested the Taliban "thought they were in the district to stay".

However, the extent of the success – as with other operations - is hard to measure, owing to the paucity of reports. But one does wonder if these were significant gains and whether the Warriors were a decisive factor. It is not untoward to speculate that the arrival of "real" armour would have such an effect.

Here, the MoD might be a victim of its own propaganda, having puffed up the clearly inadequate Vikings, it can hardly praise too highly the Warriors as that might invite questions as to why they were not these sooner and why there are not more of them.

Therein lies Dannatt's problem. If he wants our support, he is going to have to give us a little bit more information and a little less propaganda.

COMMENT THREAD

After the idiotic letter from Paddy Keenan last week in The Sunday Telegraph (still no link) – claiming that a Tucano with a bomb load "would not get much further than the end of the runway", we have no less than four letters in the print edition of the paper today – occupying the lead slot (no link).

The first is from Group Captain (Ret) Hastings, who commanded the Sultan of Oman's tactical air force in Dhofar Province in the latter stages of the war which, he writes, "had similarities with the current Afghan operations". He adds: "Air strikes were flown against a ruthless and determined enemy equipped with surface-to-air-missiles, heavy machine guns and AK47s."

Hastings continues:

Significantly, the slower aircraft (Strikemaster jets) performed extremely well with guns, rockets and bombs and did not suffer in comparison with the faster jets (Hunters). Moreover Strikemasters were extremely precise because of a longer target acquisition time in the attack dive and excellent manoeuvrability – much valued at low level over rugged terrain. Once a Strikemaster put down effective suppression fire against the enemy only feet away from our ground forces.

Slower aircraft cost probably three to four times less than modern, faster types, and are cheaper to maintain and repair. Maybe Ann Winterton has a point: particularly as the losses to enemy SAMs were no worse with slower aircraft.
Interestingly, we referred to Strikemasters in this context in December last year, and again in March of this. It is no coincidence that this aircraft was based on the then RAF's basic trainer – the Jet Provost – as is the Super Tucano based on the RAF's current basic trainer.

With a letter from this author (here) and another supportive letter which attests to the Tucano's manoeuvrability, the final offering recalls the Argentine twin-engined Pucara ground attack aircraft, used in the Falklands. This is from Peter Davey of Bournemouth, who adds:

Something like that would seem well suited to current operations in Afghanistan, with the benefit of new materials and techniques and 30 years' more experience, to turn a losing weapon into a winning one. I trust that we are not too proud to learn from our old enemies, in order to deal with our new ones.
Great minds clearly think alike as we also noted this aircraft in December, to illustrate the concept of "a light, cheap ground attack aircraft."

Altogether, these letters make a significant contribution to the debate and, once again, it is notable that the debate is going on in the letters pages, rather than in the main newspaper. Although covered by specialist websites, once again the MSM has excluded itself from important defence issues.

On one point though, Group Captain Hastings is a little out of date – costings. With a Eurofighter at £60 million (at least) and a Super Tucano in the order of £4 million, the cost ratio can be as high as 15:1. Then, there is the cost of operations and weapons.

Even with its inflated overhead, it only costs the RAF £5,000 an hour to operate a Tucano, while the Eurofighter is estimated at £40,000 an hour.

Then, one would expect the Tucano, with accurate, low-level delivery. to be able to use "dumb" bombs. On the other hand, to overcome the limitations of fast jets, we are seeing increasingly sophisticated munitions being used, the latest development being the focused lethality munition (FLM).

What we did not discuss in our piece on this weapon was the cost. Currently, it is expected to work out at £15,000 per bomb and, giving its confined effect, one could argue that more would be needed to achieve the same result that the Tucano could get, using two "dumb" bombs.

For the sake of argument, therefore, we could posit a Tucano completing a mission for under £10,000 (including the price of the ordnance) while a Eurofighter, using four FLMs, would come in at £100,000 – ten times the cost.

We would like to think that that was what Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt had in mind in his recent speech (which we said was far more profound than the media indicated). On equipment, he offered the following observations:

We also need to radically rethink the way that we think about our equipment. We need to start from the bottom by looking at equipping the man first and building the system around him. Too often we have been seduced by high technology, sometimes without really understanding what it can deliver or how it can improve our effectiveness.
If Dannatt cares to turn his mind to the cost and effectiveness of CAS, then he might find a useful ally in Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup. In the earlier stages of his career, Sir Jock flew Strikemasters in Oman, on the very missions for which Group Captain Hastings thought them so suitable.

COMMENT THREAD

It was inevitable that the media would pick out the "human interest" issues from the speech given to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London yesterday by Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt.

That much, in fact, was pre-ordained when the MoD itself gave it that "spin", having Dannatt speaking about "a growing gulf between the Army and the Nation".

Thus, we got from The Times, the headline, "Our soldiers 'deserve US-style parades'", from The Independent, "No sympathy for Army, says chief", and from The Daily Mail, "Honour troops with 'welcome home parades' to boost morale says Army chief".

The essence of Dannatt's speech, therefore – as far as the public is concerned – was effectively summed up as. "soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were dismayed to find the public could be 'dismissive or indifferent' to their experiences," triggering earnest debates on the BBC and other broadcast media about how to address this problem.

In fact, when it comes to parades, these do happen, as here in Chelmsford last year (pictured) but frankly, unlike the posturing Europeans, that is not the British way. We do not go in for this sort of exhibitionism that is so common on the Continent.

More to the point, the "indifference" of which Dannatt complains is hardly a new phenomenon, witness the Fourteenth Army in Burma at the end of the Second World War, which labelled itself the "Forgotten Army" because its operations were overlooked by the contemporary press, and remained more obscure than those of the corresponding formations in Europe for long after the war.

Equally, troops fighting the murderous war in Korea – many of them conscripts – themselves remarked about how their contemporaries back home so often seemed totally unaware that there was even a war going on, and the media was equally remiss about the close reporting of events. Even now, public consciousness of that war is limited and, compared with the much more public war in the Falklands thirty years later, the number of books written about the events in that Asian peninsular is tiny.

However, now that the full text of Gen. Dannatt's speech is available on the MoD website, we can actually see that his comments on what was styled as "the covenant between the Army and the nation as a whole" were but a small part of a wide-ranging and, at times, profound dissertation.

What, actually, Dannatt was doing was – in his own words – outlining "the context" in which he saw the British Army "operating, now and in the future", explaining where he would like to see the Army going in the long term. And, in so doing, he acknowledged that the "direction of travel" was inevitably constrained and conditioned by "what we are doing in the short, and perhaps the medium, term."

If a lazy media had read and analysed the speech, rather than the press handouts, they might thus have written much more interesting and informative pieces – although that was never going to happen. And therein, actually, lies the story – one which Dannatt dare not broach. That is the almost complete inability of the media to report defence issues seriously, a deficiency on which we have reported many times (for instance, see here, here and here.

For a taster of what Dannatt said, we see him reflecting on the Army that went into Iraq in 2003 – an Army still largely equipped and shaped by the legacy of the Cold War, developed for the Northern German Plain and adapted latterly, and not without difficulty, for the deserts of the Middle East. But, he asserts:

…the Army that crossed the Line of Departure on that morning in March 2003 has gone. We have adapted and reformed at an incredible pace in only four years and we are only at the start of a journey into the future that has been catapulted into focus by our current campaigns.
The equipment and capabilities being used by our troops now, he claims, represent "a quantum leap ahead and are what is needed".

If that is a highly tendentious statement, the next betrays the thinking we have seen before. Dannatt thus declares:

Our future transformation is an issue for now, not for some far off point on a planner's wall – FRES – our medium weight vehicle programme - is a perfect example. It is not now a system that is just required for a future intervention, but it is a capability that we need in this extended campaign as soon as possible.
In that short section, therefore, we see encapsulated the tension between current operations and the "future army". Furthermore, in Dannatt's comments we a determination (possibly suicidal) to employ FRES equipment for counter-insurgency operations, something we have argued is distinctly unwise.

Over these issues, there is a vibrant debate going on – both sides of the Atlantic. But it is not a debate of which you will see any sign in the popular media, which does not seem to have noticed it is going on, in common with the political classes.

So it is that the media would have our returning troops parading triumphantly outside their local town halls but, when it comes to understanding and commenting intelligently on the shape of the Army and its equipment, it has long gone before even the echoes of the bugles have faded. Perhaps someone in authority, somewhere, will eventually have the courage to state this salient fact – that the media are a crucial part of the problem.

COMMENT THREAD

We saw the news a while back that France was considering rejoining Nato as a full member.

This was a development hinted at by Nicolas Sarkozy who, in a foreign policy speech last month, said he would shortly take "very strong" initiatives to build up European defence and renew the NATO military alliance. We wanted France to resume "its full place" in the organisation, insisting Nato was no rival to France's ambition of a robust European defence capability.

As one might expect (or not?) Pravda was more than a little bit "sniffy" about the whole idea, suggesting that Sarkozy was simply bidding "to win Tony Blair's place to become Bush's poodle" but, in today's Daily Telegraph former Europe Minister Denis MacShane (and currently UK delegate to the Nato parliamentary assembly) puts a different spin on it.

Writing under the heading, "The West needs France to rejoin Nato" he offers the thesis that, since General de Gaulle quit the military structure of Nato in 1966, French-alone geopolitics have not helped advance French national interests or made the world safer. Inside Nato, all that could change.

The background to this thesis is that, while in the 1960s, America was the supreme military power outside the communist bloc, today, it is a "wounded beast". On the other hand, while Europe has been the leading advocate of "soft power", harder power is needed as well.

Nato with France reintegrated could shape a European dimension to a new security policy aimed at helping the elected governments of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in due course, Pakistan - even Iraq - to defeat their external enemies.

Then, however, we get the real message: "France outside Nato makes the concept of a common European defence policy difficult - if not impossible. France in Nato can take the lead, with Britain, in the long overdue rationalisation of Europe's military policy, profile and procurement." MacShane then continues:

The fear that France in Nato means subordination to Washington is unfounded. Proud Nato nations such as Germany, Italy and Spain have all had no compunction in refusing to heed Washington's call for armed support. Nato is based on a democratic alliance of the willing, not the obedient.

But as British soldiers die in Afghanistan, surely even the most die-hard Eurosceptic might accept that forging a European military identity and self-confidence makes sense?

No European nation can alone exercise effective military puissance. A new Nato and a new integrated military unity in Europe would send the enemies of democracy a clear message that they will not win.
There, you actually have the underlying agenda, writ large. This is not so much France rejoining Nato but a case of assuming leadership in place of an increasingly detached United States which, in the fullness of time is expected to withdraw completely. Nato thus becomes the very embodiment of the "common European defence policy difficult", disguised by keeping the trappings of the existing organisation - a classic EU ploy.

Meanwhile, the none too subtle strategy of undermining Nato as it stands continues apace. Only within the last few days did we learn of complaints that Nato's "flagship" rapid reaction force had fallen below full strength less than a year after its launch. According to "Nato sources" over-stretched allies have withdrawn pledges of military assets – or so we are told. Yet, the European Rapid Reaction Force – which relies on the same assets, most of which are "double hatted" and thus available for either – proceeds apace.

Then there is the vexed question of support for the Nato operation in Afghanistan where, complaints continue about lack of resources and the unwillingness of Nato members to provide troops and equipment.

What is utterly perplexing, therefore, is MacShane's assertion that "even the most die-hard Eurosceptic might accept that forging a European military identity and self-confidence makes sense". If that means – as it undoubtedly does – Nato minus the United States, with France taking over the driving seat, then it is a very poor deal indeed.

COMMENT THREAD

Such is the language of war: a new term has entered the vocabulary, brutal in its technical bluntness but one which, on the face of it, represents an enlightened concept. It is one that could have far-reaching implications for counter-insurgency operations, but it also has some disturbing implication.

The term itself refers to the "Focused Lethality Munition" (FLM), the second successful test flight of which was announced recently. Translated, it means a small bomb with what is described as an "enhanced blast, ultra-low collateral damage warhead and pinpoint accuracy". It is specially designed for use in sensitive areas in order to minimise the risk to nearby personnel or structures, thus reducing "friendly fire", the killing and injury of civilians and damage to buildings.

To achieve its effect, the bomb itself is small (250lbs as opposed to the more usual 500-1000lb) and the normal steel warhead casing is replaced with a carbon fibre composite. Enhanced blast explosives are then used, the overall effect being to eliminate warhead fragments and increase power. Instead of that power being expended on fragmenting the steel casing – often with a lethal effect at distance as shrapnel is ejected – it creates a smaller, contained but deadly blast area. Combined with high accuracy guidance, this means that the weapon can be used for close air support and on targets where civilians might be in the vicinity.

This particular variant is the latest in a range of such weapons in a long-running and expensive project – now costing the US taxpayers in excess of $1 billion – which is particularly favoured by the USAF as it enables warplanes to carry four times the number of weapons normally carried on a fast jet like the F-15E.

We first wrote about this concept two years ago, with some approval, and again more recently, when we were concerned at the growing toll of civilians killed by airstrikes in Afghanistan.

However, while the "focused lethality munition" – as a technological development – is to be welcomed as a genuine attempt to reduce collateral damage, there are disturbing aspects to it which makes one wonder about its true value.

The weapon itself has a standoff capability and, from high altitude can be delivered from a range of more than 40 (some quote 60) nautical miles. This, in a sense, reinforces the detachment of the aircraft pilot from the land battle, raising a spectre of a aircraft orbiting at high level distant from the action, the pilot punching in GPS co-ordinates (or the bomb even receiving them automatically). This relegates the pilot to the status of a high-tech delivery driver.

In a way, of course, this is not different from artillery or other long-range indirect fire. In fact, if aircraft are fitted with with "Sniper" (or similar) targeting pods and are able to beam down pictures to FACs equipped with "Rover" terminals, the pilots are more closely involved in the decision-making. With positive identification of targets, the risk of "friendly fire" is that much reduced.

Nevertheless, there is much more to close air support (CAS) than "visiting firemen" in super-fast jets delivering ordnance at the behest of forward air controllers.

In his book on the A-10 and the CAS debate, author (and former A-10 pilot) Douglas N. Campbell wrote of the loiter capability of the aircraft – its ability to fly over the battlefield for extended periods of time. This, itself, had a significant effect on the behaviour of enemy forces in the first Gulf War, to such effect that they were deterred from mounting attacks in case they attracted the attention of the aircraft.

Also, we hear from diverse sources that, in Afghanistan where fast jets (and even helicopters) may take 20 minutes or more to reach a battle area after being summoned, the Taliban have learned to hit coalition forces fast and then clear the area before the support arrives.

Thus, CAS aircraft which are able to loiter over the area act as a deterrent to attack and, should a firefight develop, they are on the spot, able to "read" the battle and intervene quicker – often, as a result, more effectively. As Campbell writes, citing Vietnam Skyraider pilots:

…if you want very fast time response … you can't get it with speed, because you're always too far away. If you're on the ground it's too late … you can have an airplane go Mach 3 and it's still too late. The only way to get a super quick response time is to be in the air loitering, and checked in with a FAC … you need three to five minutes response time … come any later and you might as well have not come.
Interestingly, an earlier and less potent version of this bomb was first deployed in Afghanistan this year by an F-15E from a squadron that had previously been equipped with A-10s – dedicated ground attack aircraft.

One senses, therefore, that we are in political territory. The A-10 has had a battle to survive in an Air Force which has always resisted the idea of a dedicated CAS aircraft. In the small diameter bomb, it has found a technological "fix" that will – in theory – overcome some of the limitations of its favoured fast jets and permit them better to carry out ground support missions, thus enabling it to dispense with CAS aircraft.

No amount of technology, though, is going to overcome the inherent limitations on range and endurance of these fast jets (other than maintaining equally expensive and wasteful fleets of air tankers) and, while they may be able to deliver ordnance with increasing precision and capability, they will never be truly part of the land battle.

The irony is that a slower, dedicated CAS aircraft can not only be part of the battle but can fly lower. They are thus able to deliver small – and vastly cheaper - "dumb" bombs with a precision that still cannot be matched by the current generation of guided bombs. As we know, A-1 Skyraiders in Vietnam were able to put down bombs on enemy soldiers 50 feet from "friendlies".

Ostensibly a good idea, therefore, these small diameter bombs may actually distort the politics of CAS and ensure that ground forces are not given the equipment they actually need, supporting as they do, the air force obsession with fast jets. Those may be delivering "focused lethality" but the lethality may be more directed at dedicated CAS aircraft.

COMMENT THREAD

It was none other than Lord Malloch-Brown, junior foreign office minister, who yesterday was holding forth on the BBC Radio 4 programme The World Tonight about the need for European "force multipliers" to support the United Nations troops in Dafur.

In particular, he spoke of the need for helicopters. Otherwise, he said, the 26,000 troop detachment had no chance of covering the territory. Restricted to vehicles, they could take days to reach a trouble spot, too late to intervene and tying down forces in unproductive travel.

Such clarity from Malloch-Brown, however, might also have been directed at the Ministry of Defence. If we are to believe The Sunday Telegraph defence correspondent, Sean Rayment, (and there is no reason why we should not) then, to support something like 7,200 British troops in Afghanistan, we are able to field a mere ten support helicopters, eight Chinooks and two smaller Lynx. Furthermore, the Lynx cannot fly during daylight hours because of the high temperatures.

And it is not only a question of force multipliers. "Support helicopters," writes Rayment, "are vital to operations because of the dangers of moving troops, fuel, ammunition, rations and water by road."

Those dangers were highlighted last May when the MoD posted an account of a convoy operation which was delivering fuel and ammunition – plus other supplies – to troops in the Sangin valley.

The MoD quoted convoy commander Captain Andy Rouse recounting that there were "mines to negotiate in certain areas, left behind by Russian forces in the late 1980s", him saying that, "It is not uncommon for vehicles to be struck by them". He continued:

Although there is the threat of attack from insurgent forces along any part of our route, one of our main concerns are hitting land mines, so map reading is key during any convoy operation.
This could have been the reason for the death of a soldier, reported today by the MoD. He was killed and another injured when in the same general area of Captain Rouse’s convoy, "an army dump truck was hit by an explosion whilst taking part in a routine logistics convoy".

There is, of course, the possibility of an IED or a deliberate mine attack. The Taliban are known to re-use mines and have even been reported to have paid children to harvest them for that purpose.

Unfortunately for the troops who must so often run the gauntlet, not only do they not have Lord Malloch-Brown as their advocate, senior military officers are under strict orders not to make public demands for more helicopters because the RAF has no more to send. It will be next year before the first of the new Merlin helicopters arrive.

All this once again reinforces the need for additional heavy-lift helicopters, right now, an issue we have raised several times. And, at £6,000 an hour compared with the £34,000 an hour it costs to run a Merlin, the Russian-built Mi-26 helicopters could not only provide better value, they could as the photograph below shows (and here) even carry heavy vehicles like the dump truck (illustrated below right: a Volvo FL-12 at 10 tons unladen weight - half the maximum load of a Mi-26) in which the unfortunate soldier was so recently killed.

What is also of great importance is the arithmetic of the convoy operation. In the MoD article referred to above, Captain Rouse's convoy comprises 40 vehicles and takes three days to travel the 150 miles to its destination and return. Inspection of the multiple photographs supplied (two shown) suggest that at least half the vehicles were escorts (WIMIKs and others) and with each of the cargo trucks carrying at least two men (driver and "top gunner"), there cannot be less than 100 men in the convoy – effectively a Company equivalent.

Estimating the carrying capacity from the types of vehicle shown, the total supplies delivered cannot exceed 200 tons, taking up 300 man days, plus considerable wear and tear – plus on this most recent occasion, the loss of an expensive vehicle, the death of one man and the injury of another.

On the other hand, a Mi-26 could deliver 200 tons to the same location in less than 30 flying hours - easily achievable over three days - with the direct employment of 2-3 men, less than one-thirtieth of the manpower the Army used.

Nor indeed does it stop here. In other of its routine propaganda "puffs", the MoD extols the virtues of its 35-year-old "robust and effective" Scimitar light tanks and Spartan APCs (pictured) in operations in Afghanistan. In one operation, it describes tactical operations thus:

In Helmand it's impossible to avoid the attention of the Taliban's own reconnaissance network; motorcycles trailed the multinational patrol from a distance, reporting their approach throughout. The deliberate crossing of the kilometre wide and 100 metre deep natural obstacle of the wadi and the final 45 kilometre approach of the patrol was therefore completed at high speed in just five hours, with the patrol changing direction every kilometre to keep Taliban ambush teams en route guessing as to its ultimate destination.
The imaginative tactical manoeuvring is admirable but the long distances and hard pounding is wearing out these ancient machines and creating considerable maintenance burdens. It should, therefore, be noted that a Mi-26 can carry a Scimitar tank and, in the five hours over the distance, could have delivered ten such vehicles. The tactical advantages are only too apparent and the savings on wear and tear would be substantial.

Once again putting all this together, we have an option which is cheaper, safer, needs substantially less man hours, saves on troop numbers and is a proven "force multiplier".

Yet, despite months of lobbying and an unanswerable case, still the MoD does nothing.

COMMENT THREAD

One could almost hear the glee in the voice of the BBC newsreader as she announced what appears to be the demise of Blackwater, the private "security consultants" who provide the protection for – amongst others – US State Department officials in Iraq.

The firm has, according to the BBC, lost its licence to operate in Iraq after being involved in a "gunfight" last Sunday in which eight civilians are said to have died, with 13 others wounded. It is claimed that one of the dead was a policeman.

The Iraqi interior ministry is cited saying that Blackwater was now banned from operating in Iraq. All the company's personnel, we are informed, have been told to leave Iraq immediately, with the exception of the men involved in the incident on Sunday. They will have to remain in the country and stand trial, the ministry said.

However, we get a very different slant from Time magazine, which reports that the interior ministry has "suspended" Blackwater's license and then talks of the problems that would arise if the suspension is made permanent.

Blackwater has more than 1,000 personnel in Iraq, most of whom are engaged in protecting senior State Department personnel and others carrying out sensitive work in the country, without which US government would find it very difficult to operate. Nor could US troops be used as the State Department needs maintain a certain degree of separation from the military, in conducting its diplomatic and administrative functions.

Despite the huge contribution contractors make to security in Iraq – with an estimated 20,000 present in the country, the left-wing media detest them with a vengeance – and some operators (Blackwater included) have certainly acquired a reputation for being trigger-happy.

And, in the wake of this incident, House Oversight Committee Chairman Democrat Henry Waxman has announced that he will launch an investigation into the incident, calling it "an unfortunate demonstration of the perils of excessive reliance on private security contractors."

From a staunch "liberal" this can only mean trouble, but it would be a service to western nations if there was a properly-founded and far reaching examination of contractors in military and security roles. Not least, firms like Blackwater have shown themselves to be more innovative than the established military and, in certain instances, better equipped.

Furthermore, in the context of spiralling defence costs, contractors can often operate more cheaply and, if politicians can desist from interfering, they could achieve results that conventional forces cannot.

In the surge of righteous indignation over the activities of Blackwater, therefore, it would be as well to take a more considered view of contractors' activities, especially when, in this increasingly anti-militaristic society, there seems to be limited support for maintaining large and costly standing armies, and even more resistance to deploying them.

If there is too much indignation, we might run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

COMMENT THREAD

In the print edition of The Sunday Telegraph (but not yet on-line) we are offered an extraordinarily ill-informed letter from a Mr Paddy Keenan, who disputes the claim made by Tory MP Ann Winterton last week that the slower, propeller-driven ground attack versions of the Tucano would help reduce "friendly fire" mistakes.

Writes Mr Keenan, "Put bombs under the wings of a two-seater Tucano, plus all the necessary equipment, and the plane would not get much further than the end of the runway."

In another section of the newspaper, however, there is Booker who is picking up the BBC Radio 4 Today programme for getting some easily verifiable facts wrong, prompting him to ask, "does Today have no researchers who can use the internet?".

Booker then goes on to call the programme a "Cathedral of ignorance", which could just as well apply here. Checking on the internet – using Google – I entered a search string comprising two words, "Tucano" and "bomb" and, on the first page, came up with three sites (here, here and here), discussing in detail the merits of the Tucano as a COIN bomber.

On the third site, there were numerous, high-definition photographs showing the aircraft in its ground attack role. The one shown at the top of this page is a display by the Columbian Air Force, demonstrating the type of ordnance that can be carried.

Other shots show in detail the 500lb standard "dumb" bomb, yet another shows a "Paveway" guided bomb and still another shows the advanced, electro-optical surveillance/targeting turret which we discussed in an earlier post.

A close look at the aircraft reveals two wing-mounted .50 cal machine guns and another photograph shows the Tucano in action firing 70mm rockets. Another shot shows the extremely sophisticated electronics fit in the aircraft.

The package as a whole adequately demonstrates that this is a mature, highly capable warplane.

The point, of course, is that the letters editor of the Sunday Telegraph is not simply a cipher, charged with cutting and pasting any letter than happens to be sent to him. His role, for a major national newspaper, is to apply his critical faculties to the contributions offered by readers, and to publish those which take the debate forward, or add to human knowledge.

What purpose is served, one might ask, by publishing something which is not only wrong, but so easily verifiable as wrong?

COMMENT THREAD

One approaches this subject with a degree of trepidation, not on the basis of expert knowledge but with political antennae twitching at the scent of something not quite right.

The subject is the so-called "super-bomb", more prosaically known as an "explosively formed projectile" (EFP), a weapon that has made an appearance in Iraq and been used with deadly effect against coalition forces.

Dealing briefly with the technical issues before developing the substantive argument, the basis of the bomb (illustrated) is actually very simple. It is made from a steel cylinder (often a sawn-off pipe), sealed at one end and filled with explosive. Into the open end is fixed a shallow dish, usually made of copper. When the bomb is detonated, it blows out the dish, the force of the explosion inverting it and converting it into a high-speed slug of metal which – in theory at least – can penetrate several inches of armoured steel.

Over term, it has acquired a fearsome reputation as an "unstoppable" weapon, against which there is no protection.

That EFPs exist, that they have been used to devastating effect and that they can penetrate varying thicknesses of armour is no myth – the photograph (right) shows the hole made by an EFP, having penetrated a US Bradley MICV.

What gets the antennae twitching though is the suspicion that these devices are a good deal less effective than is made out, and that they are being hyped up for a variety of political purposes.

On the one hand, the alleged complexity of these bombs is being used to support claims of Iranian involvement in the insurgency in Iraq, the basis being that they are too complex for local manufacture and therefore, must be made in sophisticated arms factories, which could only be found in Iran.

This has been the subject of multiple allegations by the British and American military and by politicians of both nations (viz the example pictured of a slide taken from a US press briefing on EFPs) – and treated with some scepticism as being part of a strategy to ramp up pressure against Iran.

Whatever the truth, the fact is that simple inspection of a range of photographs shows them to be of relatively crude construction, well within the capability of any smithy and a machine shop equipped with a simple lathe to produce.

Where there seems to be the confusion, therefore, is between construction and design. It is in this latter aspect that the complexity comes in as, although the construction is straightforward, the physics behind these devices borders on the limits of science. Thus, to design a successful weapon requires facilities of tremendous sophistication, involving enormous cost. That suggests a possible alternative scenario – that the bombs were designed in Iran but produced locally in Iraq.

But, if it is politically convenient to blame Iran for the manufacture of these weapons, there is also another, possibly more sinister motivation for over-hyping them. This, we discussed in a post in June last year. It was then that we observed - in the wake of the first public report about this weapon in The Sunday Telegraph - that:

…by allowing ignorant and gullible journalists to run away with the idea that this is somehow a new and different threat, the government absolves itself from any failure to protect our troops from it and, by implying that there is no defence against, calls for introduction of counter-measures are sidestepped.
It struck me at the time, when the campaign against the "Snatch" Land Rover was at its height, that the release of the details of the EFP might not be a coincidence. The real reasons might have been on the one hand to absolve the Army and the MoD from any blame for not providing better protected vehicles and, on the other, to reduce pressure for those vehicles, on the basis that more armour would not make any difference.

Certainly, during the inquest of some of the soldiers who had died after what was claimed to be an EFP attack on a "Snatch" Land Rover, an MoD witness was at pains to put this argument.

Furthermore, at the end of the inquest, when the Coroner made her judgement – and refused to comment on the adequacy or otherwise of "Snatch" Land Rovers, as "outside her jurisdiction" – that same witness was seen to punch the air and let out an exultant, "Yessss!".

Now, as to the substantive thesis - that there might be a degree of hype behind the growing reputation of this weapon - one strand of evidence to that effect came out at this self-same inquest.

Although the three soldiers who were killed were riding a lightly-armoured "Snatch" Land Rover, it appears that the main projectile – if it was indeed an EFP – did not penetrate the armour but came through the (unarmoured) window. And, despite thus encountering minimal resistance on the way in, there were no exit holes in the vehicle. The force of the projectile appears to have been spent.

This less than impressive penetrative power seems to gel with the experience of the Israelis, who met the weapon in Lebanon (see above) and reported that the initial types had been relatively ineffective against armoured vehicles, but the heavier versions have caused catastrophic results in softer or lightly armoured vehicles (my emphasis).

Further, while there are diverse reports of vehicles being hit by EFPs, there is a remarkable video report (grab illustrated) where a contractor's lightly armoured SUV took the full force of an EFP yet the crew survived uninjured – the driver, in fact, standing behind his damaged vehicle to demonstrate the point. All of this supports a contention that the weapon is not always as potent as it is made out to be.

However, that has not stopped the media – and in particular The Daily Telegraph - talking up the threat. Even yesterday, the newspaper was offering a bleak assessment, claiming that EFPs "have penetrated the very best of British armour and regularly kill and injure soldiers".

Despite this, there is very good reason to be suspicious of the reports in which claims are made for EFP involvement. There was, for instance, the attack on the Warrior MICV in Basra in April, with the tragic outcome of two women soldiers being killed, two other also dying. Although contemporary reports spoke of a "colossal bomb" – with agency pictures of the resultant crater being published (below right) - The Telegraph claimed it to be an "explosively formed projectile".

Yet, the whole point (and effect) of the EFP is that it is a "directed energy" weapon, rather than a blast bomb and, rather than being buried in the ground – so as to form a crater of that magnitude – the devices must be positioned to the side of the carriageway, above ground level, to achieve their effect. Almost certainly, this was not an EFP.

The previous year, in August, the Telegraph had also reported on the "incredible escape" of five TA soldiers when the front section of their "Snatch" Land Rover had been blown off, the chassis set ablaze and the engine block catapulted more than 80 yards away. According to one of the soldiers in the vehicle, the Land Rover had been doing 30mph and the bomb went off about 20 yards in front it. "There was a massive explosion," he said, "and the Land Rover skidded across the road."

From the many eye-witness accounts (and terrorist videos) of EFP detonations, however, the single thing that emerges is the confined nature of the initial "propellant" detonation and the limited nature of the damage to target vehicles. When the weapon works as intended, the body of the target vehicle suffers one or more punctures, with very little additional damage apart from a certain amount of "peppering" if the projectile fragments - as opposed to the multiple penetrations seen here (pictured).

The account offered by the paper, therefore, is incompatible with other reports of EFP attacks.

That soldiers and others might misreport the nature of attacks on them is by no means an unusual phenomenon. During the 1944 Normandy campaign, many described German attacks on their positions as being supported by the fearsome "Tiger" tanks. In fact, they most often were more numerous Mk IV Panzer. So pervasive in the British Army was so-called "Tiger fever" that I recall my father, who was with the BEF at Dunkirk in 1940, gravely telling me that his unit was attacked by these tanks – which first made an appearance in North Africa in late 1942.

One can imagine, therefore, with so much emphasis being given to these "super-bombs", that every IED becomes an EFP.

There remains, however, the puzzle as to why the EFP does not always appear to be the potent weapon that, in theory, it should be. Therein is perhaps a clue which suggests that it is indeed a locally produced weapon. Many pictures of damaged vehicles do show that high degree of fragmentation whereas, if the device works correctly, it is supposed to project a single slug of metal. Typically, therefor, it should show just one clear puncture (pictured) - with the rest of the vehicle relatively undamaged. It is that which gives it its power. That it is so often breaking up possibly suggests that either the design is less than optimal or that flaws in manufacture and/or assembly means that the weapon is under-performing.

This could explain why the insurgents, in many recent attacks, seem to have been resorting to the "colossal bombs" rather that the potentially just as lethal EFP.

That much, though – as with the rest of this analysis – is surmise. But when there are clear military and political advantages in talking up a threat, it is as well to be aware that these imperatives can colour media reports, to the extent that they do not wholly convey the reality of the situation on the ground.

Thus, the purpose of this post is to raise questions and to sound a note of caution - that the lurid headlines may be pursuing more of a political agenda than is immediately apparent. There could be more "super-hype" than "super-bomb".

COMMENT THREAD

This week has seen the launch of a political campaign by the Services charity, the British Legion called "Honouring the Covenant", demanding better medical care, swifter holding of coroner's inquests into the deaths of those killed in action, and more generous compensation.

It coincides with a with a report from the House of Commons Defence Committee on Service accommodation standards, which claims that "troops are housed better in wartorn Afghanistan than at some barracks back home".

That message might have carried more conviction on one newspaper had the photograph accompanying the piece shown British rather than American troops – but there you go … nobody is perfect.

Both issues have been given an amount of publicity today, not least by The Daily Telegraph and the Independent, both these and other newspapers citing the case of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson received only £152,150 in compensation after receiving terrible injuries after being blown up in his WIMIK Land Rover in Afghanistan, after it had hit a mine.

What got no publicity at all – and neither could have it been expected – was an industry "puff" released by BAE Systems, announcing the "trials success" of the Panther Command and Liaison Vehicle. However, while this might appear completely unconnected to the concerns of the British Legion and substandard accommodation, there are threads common to them all.

On the one hand, there is the failure of the Army to provide adequately protected vehicles, which would have prevented soldiers like Ben Parkinson getting injured in the first place and the second is the continued waste of money on equipment procurement, money which could be better spent elsewhere – not only on better equipment but on pressing needs such as better accommodation.

Turning to the Panther, this typifies the rot that afflicts the procurement process, with £166 million having been spent on 410 armoured vehicles which are essentially useless – certainly as far as current operations are concerned and even for the roles for which they were purchased.

The detail of the purchase has been rehearsed in numerous posts on this blog so suffice to say that, in the procurement competition where a selection was being made, the Panther was added after the short-list had been closed, in breach of the MoD's own rules and then chosen against better and cheaper competition.

The process was then defended by a Mr Andrew Simpson of Bath, who claimed to be the MoD desk officer who initiated the programme, which resulted in the procurement of the Panther vehicle and was "the only person to have been intimately involved in this programme from initiation to contract award." Mr Simpson then went on to forge a lucrative arrangement with the vehicle builder, Iveco, as a consultant.

Now, with the shortlist having been drawn up on 15 June 2001 and the contract having been signed in November 2003 for a vehicle which was then already in service in the Italian Army (pictured, left), it has taken until this month for BAE systems to announce that it has "successfully passed its UK MOD reliability qualification trials". From June 2001 to now, that is, incidentally, a period longer that the entire Second World War.

The reason why, of course, that the vehicle is effectively useless is that it is primarily designated as a command and liaison vehicle, which means that – by definition – it will most often be carrying officers and high-value assets like command radios. Given its distinctive appearance, akin to an SUV, in asymmetric warfare where there are no front lines, it will almost certainly be specifically targeted by insurgents if it is deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Furthermore, although nominally a five-seater, by the time the radios and other equipment are fitted, the vehicle is down to three seats, which means it is too small to carry out its function. And herein lies a bizarre twist to the tale.

As originally specified by the Italian Army, for which it was designed, the key parameter which determined its overall size was that it should fit inside a Chinook helicopter. However, in the hand of the MoD, the vehicle is permanently fitted with a roof-mounted, remote controlled machine gun, which means it can no longer fit inside a Chinook helicopter. As we keep saying, you couldn't make it up.

What all this points to is that the MoD is a seriously dysfunctional organisation, one which a simple campaign by the British Legion and a report by the Defence Committee will hardly begin to address. But, in terms of priorities – as we also keep saying – worthy as these efforts are, we also need much more emphasis on keeping our troops alive and uninjured.

The tale of the Panther illustrates just how high a mountain we have to climb.

COMMENT THREAD

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