Tuesday, 15 January 2008

A failure of planning?

Played big-time by The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend (and also covered in The Sunday Times) was the tragic incident when a "British war hero who bled to death after being injured in an Afghan minefield".

Under the title of, "Army hero left to die by failings at MoD", the paper's defence correspondent, Sean Rayment, charges that the soldier, Cpl Mark Wright, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross, "died because of a catalogue of failures, incompetence and equipment shortages." The charge itself is based on the findings of a Board of Inquiry (BoI), which the Telegraph had seen.

We were reluctant to add to or comment on this story being wary of what some term "Monday morning quarter-backing", particularly with regard to an incident at which we were not present, and of which we have no first-hand knowledge.

However, even at the time, some of the details of the BoI report did not ring true and following an exchange with an experienced ex-service helicopter pilot – with casevac experience – and from our own researches, we felt there were issues here that need further discussion.

Firstly, as to the details of the incident, this was covered in a separate report in the paper, which has the tragedy unfolding in the late morning of September 6 2006, in the mountainous terrain surrounding the Kajaki hydroelectric dam, in northern Helmand.

However, it is also covered in the MoD website. In this account, the incident starts when the leader of a sniper patrol was heading down the steep slope when "he initiated a mine and sustained severe injuries." The account continues:

Corporal Mark Wright gathered a number of men and rushed down the slope to assist. Realising that the casualty was likely to die before a full mine clearance could be effected, Corporal Wright unhesitatingly led his men into the minefield.

Exercising effective and decisive command, he directed medical orderlies to the injured soldier, ordered all unnecessary personnel to safety, and then began organising the casualty evacuation. He called for a helicopter, and ordered a route to be cleared through the minefield to a landing site. Unfortunately the leader of this task, while moving back across the route he believed he had cleared, stepped on another mine and suffered a traumatic amputation.

Corporal Wright, again at enormous personal risk, immediately moved to the new casualty and began rendering life-saving assistance until one of the medical orderlies could take over.

Calmly, Corporal Wright ordered all non-essential personnel to stay out of the minefield and continued to move around and control the incident. He sent accurate situation reports to his headquarters and ensured that additional medical items were obtained. Shortly afterwards a helicopter landed nearby, but as Corporal Wright stood up he initiated a third mine, which seriously injured him and one of the orderlies. The remaining medical orderly began treating Corporal Wright, but was himself wounded by another mine blast which caused further injury to both Corporal Wright and others.

There were now seven casualties still in the minefield, three of whom had lost limbs…
According to the Telegraph account, however, within an hour, an RAF Chinook helicopter had arrived, but the hilly terrain made it impossible for the aircraft to land. Crucially, says this report, the helicopter was not fitted with a winch to lift the stricken soldiers from the minefield. The pilot had little choice but to withdraw and as it did another mine was detonated, severely injuring Cpl Wright. A few minutes later another soldier had his leg blown off when he, too, stepped on a mine.

It was a horrific scene. Three soldiers had lost legs, four others had sustained serious injuries and Cpl Wright, with blast wounds to his arm, neck and chest, was fighting for his life. Despite his injuries, he took command of the situation and administered first aid to others less seriously injured than himself.

The soldiers, we are told, were eventually rescued five hours later by a US Knighthawk helicopter, which was fitted with a winch. But it was too late for Cpl Wright, who died during the journey back to the British base in Camp Bastion. He was later awarded a posthumous George Cross - Britain's second highest bravery award.

Now, as to the substantive "charges", the MoD has always maintained that Cpl Wright's death was the result of a tragic and unavoidable series of events. But the Board of Inquiry, reveals for the first time that the entire incident was avoidable.

The fundamental failing identified by the inquiry was the decision to withdraw all three Chinook winches and hoists from Afghanistan after a fault was discovered during routine maintenance. Although some winches were available, the report states that UK search and rescue helicopters were given priority over the RAF Chinooks in Afghanistan.

The report states: "If an air frame with hoist capability had been available immediately, the casualty count may well have been less and the need to continue to move in the vicinity of the incident would have been significantly reduced."

We also learn that Maj Gen Andrew Farquhar, the general officer commanding 5 Division, under whose authority the inquiry took place, writes in a summary to the report: "I find it disturbing that, in an area of operations where there is such a marked mine threat, there are no UK-equipped, rotary wing air frames that can provide guaranteed availability and an immediate casualty extraction capability."

There are other aspects to this report, but the issue we need to address is the claim that Cpl. Wright could have survived if a properly equipped helicopter had been available, this resting on the fact that the Chinook was not fitted with a winch and that it took a US helicopter so equipped, five hours later, to make the extraction.

The point here, affirmed by the pilot we spoke to, is that a winch is not necessary for a helicopter to make a "vertical extraction". In fact, since the late sixties, in the VietNam war, equipment has been developed for such purposes, one being the McGuire rig (illustrated). This was as 15 x 3 ft nylon strap fashioned into a loop large enough for a man to sit in and with a smaller wrist loop sewn into the strap to prevent the wounded or unconscious from falling out. The top of the strap was tied to the outside (running) end of a 120ft nylon rope stowed in the helicopter.

Alternatively, there was the STABO rig, a harness similar to a parachute harness, worn in the field as normal webbing. To the harness was attached a carabiner which could be linked to a rope, likewise fitted with a carabiner, dropped from a helicopter. A similar system was fitted to Rhodesian helicopters in the seventies, and routinely used to extract men, even under fire.

It is not our contention, however, that this equipment should necessarily have been available (or the updated version currently in use by US forces, known as The Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) system). Simply, it serves to demonstrate that rope extraction by a helicopter not fitted with a winch is feasible and one which has a long history of use in combat situations.

There are, it appears, difficulties with the McGuire rig when it comes to casualty extraction, but the techniques for lifting unconscious people are well established. At its most primitive, a "strop" or loop with a slip knot, placed over the head and under the armpits, with the knot in front of the chest and then tightened, can be used to lift an unconscious casualty.

Here, we rely on our pilot who tells us that, during his combat experience, "it is inconceivable" that any of his crews "would have left any of our soldiers bleeding in the field, no matter what the circumstances". He adds that, "there would have been courts martial and heads rolling at all levels if this had occurred. I cannot believe there was no attempt at jury-rigging some method of lifting them out." In one case, a helicopter pilot even dangled a weighted cargo net to soldiers who needed emergency evacuation (net illustrated, lifted by a Chinook).

With a rope lowered to the victims from the Chinook, fashioned as a strop, they could each have been lifted out and moved to a safe area, where the helicopter could then land and load them on board.

In the specific circumstances of this incident, we note that the Chinooks has previously been fitted with winches, but these had been removed after the discovery of a technical fault, and returned to the UK for checking. One can only surmise, but the natural presumption is that, when the winches were removed, some thought should have been given to an alternative, in the event that the helicopters were called to do an extraction where landing was not possible.

Raising these points after the event, of course, is hindsight but, before the event, there is also a name for it. It is called "contingency planning", a task which is supposed to be a particular military skill and one for which many highly paid staff officers are employed. In one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world, where the likelihood of a mine-strike was hardly an academic possibility, and where helicopter extraction is a standard and rehearsed routine, it can hardly be unreasonable to expect some forward planning, to cover the absence of the winches.

With that forward planning, there are also other devices that could have helped out. Simple and cheap devices such as mine shoes are widely available and used throughout the world (illustrated). They are special padded foam shoes that disperse their weight over a wide area. Thus fitted, a soldier weighing 160 lbs will exert no more than four ounces of pressure per square inch, enabling safe movement through a minefield with no risk of detonating a mine.

Would it have been too much to ask that every helicopter in theatre kept a few packs of these lightweight aids, ready for any rescue team called to extract stricken colleagues? And, if a crudely-fashioned strop would be considered too extreme for an injured person – especially as Cpl. Wright had lost an arm - the rescue catalogues have ample kit, such as rope-suspended litters, which could be used for this purpose.

Every which way – bearing in mind that the casualties were eventually lifted out by helicopter – the circumstances indicate that a modicum of forethought and, even without that, an element of field improvisation, could have saved Cpl. Wright. And, if the Board of Inquiry states that he could have been extracted earlier by a helicopter fitted with a winch, then all the indications are that he could have been lifted out by an improvised rope.

This brings us to another important point. As is the fashion these days, blame is pinned on the MoD. Thus is Sean Rayment's story framed in terms of "failings at MoD". But any rescue would have required minimal equipment – we are not talking here of projects needing millions of pounds, but items which the military could procure on its own authority, without intervention from the MoD.

And, in any event, had the MoD needed to be involved, would it have refused a few hundred pounds of expenditure – or even a thousand or so – had it been asked?

We are, therefore, most probably looking not at the failure of the amorphous "MoD", but a failure of field staff – military staff – people who should have done a job but who did not, right down to the Chinook crew which, according to people who know what is involved (my pilot consulted many of his experienced colleagues) could have improvised instead of standing idly by while a brave soldier bled to death.

Maybe, though, there are mitigating circumstances – some details of which we are wholly unaware – which would have prevented action by the Chinook pilots, and which the military staff could not possibly have foreseen. But it is hard to think what they might have been. One would have thought that a journalist for a prestigious national paper might have sought to find out – and perhaps written this into his story – answering the many questions raised.

But, in a sickening display of cheap journalism, instead Rayment goes to Liam Fox, the Tory shadow defence secretary, who is cited as describing the findings of the BoI as "an appalling indictment of Labour defence policy". Even had Fox been able to rule out military failings, however, they were no such thing. Operational failures at various levels there might have been, but this was not a policy failure. Fox, as an opposition spokesman could and should seek these out but he too was more concerned to make the cheap shot.

However, there was one area where Fox, rightly, could have criticised the MoD. As we have written many times (for instance, here, here and here) the Ministry has been offered many times the availability of leased helicopters to make up for the current shortage. These aircraft are fitted with winches and have ex-military crews, many of whom have decorations for both battlefield and casevac-under-fire operations.

They were – and still are - available to fill the gap whilst the long-term procurement process progresses but there has been no movement in getting them into theatre. Now that Nato is involved, the whole process of acquiring them seems to be drifting into a bureaucratic and inter-nation political football.

As for Rayment, he writes glibly that the real tragedy is that many within the MoD are more concerned about the negative media impact such stories have on their political and military masters rather than ensuring that such incidents are never allowed to happen again. But, having gone for the easy option of attacking the MoD, instead of attempting to get to the root of the incident, has he really done anything to prevent a repetition?