Tuesday, 19 February 2008

A lack of focus

It was last Friday when we learned of the results of the inquest of Captain James Philippson yet, on that same day, there was also another inquest result –almost totally swamped by the media focus on Philippson.

Barely reported in The Daily Telegraph and given scant coverage elsewhere, this second inquest dealt with the deaths of Lance Sergeant Casey and Lance Corporal Redpath who died when their "Snatch" Land Rover was hit north of the Rumaylah oilfields last August.

In what was a devastating indictment of MoD procurement strategies, this inquest heard that the platoon commander had asked for Mastiff vehicles to be used that day but they were all being used elsewhere. Thus, the two soldiers were condemned to their untimely deaths, by being forced to ride in a "Snatch" which offered them no protection from the blast. As we pointed out at the time:

There can, after all this time, be absolutely no excuse for sending troops out in highly vulnerable vehicles when a suitable alternative exists. But, of course, with the delays, lethargy, bureaucracy and everything else that typifies the MoD and the upper echelons of the Army, there are not enough Mastiffs to go round.
The scandal here is not only that these deaths were undoubtedly preventable and arose directly from a lack of suitable equipment, but that the media also chose to focus on the Philippson incident, where the equipment issue was marginal at best, and stemmed more from military incompetence than anything else – something which the media chose to ignore.

The lack of focus on the shortage of protected vehicles is more than an academic issue as, while incompetence will always be with us, deaths arising from lack of protection are eminently preventable, and by no means enough is being done to ensure that the right equipment is made available.

Even now, we still are waiting to hear when a formal order will be lodged with Force Protection for the 140 Mastiffs promised in October. Five months down the line, these could have been delivered by now and, once the modifications had been completed in the UK, could have been on their way to theatre.

Equally, we have heard nothing more about the Ridgebacks, announced personally by Gordon Brown in December. In the absence of further news, and the lack of progress on the Mastiff front, we can only fear the worst.

These are issues which, of course, the media could influence and, to that extent, as much as the failings in procurement policy are costing lives, so is the indifference and lack of focus in the media.

Today, for instance, we get the almost ritual article, this time from The Daily Telegraph, reporting about "defence cuts", the "news" being that "defence chiefs are facing a £3 billion hole in their budget with officials having to reduce major projects to save money."

As so often, space is given to rent-a-mouth Patrick Mercer, who is allowed to say that the budgetary problems showed "a complete lack of long-term co-ordination" between the MoD and its political masters. But it is left to a small voice in the letters column, a Mr Sandy King, to point out that:

It is easy to blame the Government for the shocking state of affairs in the Armed Forces and there can be little doubt that the defence budget has, in real terms, been steadily eroded. However, a proportion of the blame should also be taken by the chiefs of staff, who have mismanaged the defence budget over many years.

A schoolboy-style rivalry between the three Services, and the determination of each to protect its own image and resources, has resulted in millions of pounds being squandered, money that should have been spent on the front line.

More than 20 years ago, the late Wing Commander Tim Gauvain wrote a paper for the forward planning and policy division of the MoD, in which he said that it was time for the generals, admirals and air marshals to "put their sacred cows into the market place". It is tragic that his words were not heeded.
The level of sophistication in that argument is clearly beyond the media, which is locked into the narrative that the Armed Forces are perpetually short of cash and cannot see beyond their own narrow, self-imposed frame of reference.

But, as we have pointed out ad nauseum on this blog, many of the problems relating to defence spending arise from buying unnecessarily expensive or simply unnecessary equipment, much of it bought as a result of rivalry between the different branches of the Services.

What Mr King could also have pointed out, though, was that there remains as much rivalry within each of the Services, and it is the conflict within the Army – specifically as to whether to proceed with FRES or invest in protected vehicles more suitable for COIN operations.

But, if such details evade the media, they are also beyond the comprehension of some MPs, even if the demands for more money are getting short-shrift from shadow defence secretary Liam Fox who has repeatedly refused to commit a future Conservative government to more defence spending.

In one sense, he is right to do so as, without dealing with the structural problems in the Armed Forces, more money could possibly do more harm than good, especially if it means buying more expensive "toys", the upkeep of which then drained future budgets. Buying the equipment is often only the down payment. Through-life costs are often a factor of several times the initial purchase price.

However, what is needed from Fox is some idea that he in any way understands the problems facing the MoD and our forces, of which there is no more sign than there is from the media.

Thus, while lack of focus fails to identify any of the key issues – and fails equally to bring the MoD to account on the things that really matter – men like Lance Sergeant Casey and Lance Corporal Redpath will continue to die needlessly. And, if they are very lucky, their passing might merit a brief passing not in our increasingly ill-informed media.