Thursday, 4 September 2008

A helpful intervention?

In another of his visits to Afghanistan, opposition leader David Cameron used the opportunity to speak out the "staggering" government failure to provide more helicopters in Afghanistan. It was "risking troops' lives", forcing them to brave improvised explosive devices and road mines.

That much was conveyed by The Sun newspaper which recorded Cameron saying that he had been to Afghanistan three times. "Three times I've heard the same thing," he said. "We need more helicopters."

Cameron, however, accepted the government was "trying to resolve the situation", but insisted they had not done enough. And, although his own Party had refused to pledge extra money for defence, the opposition leader's view – according to The Sun was a question of "political will", not cash.

They could, he said, prioritise existing budgets and get other Nato members to supply more.

A slightly lower-key version of this denunciation found its way on to the Conservative website, with Cameron declaring that ministers "must make sorting this out this their over-riding, round the clock priority." This is a NATO mission, he said. "NATO has hundreds of helicopters nominally at its disposal. We need to put more pressure on our allies to free up helicopters that are sitting in Europe to help in Afghanistan."

However, Cameron clearly did accuse ministers of lack of will, his comments also being retailed by ITN's News at Ten, charging that "a lack of ministerial will was putting soldiers' lives at risk."

We would find it hard to disagree with Cameron's basic thesis – the shortage of helicopters in theatre and, heaven knows, we have raised this on this blog enough times.

But, through direct contact with specialists and through the forum, time and again, all sort of complications have been raised, from the provision of the all-important defence aid suites, to the difficulty in obtaining new machines from manufacturers with full order books and no spare capacity.

What has come over most, however, is that there is what is best described as "creative tension" between the politicians, who want the problem solved, and the military who are taking what many feel to be an over-cautious view of what can or cannot be done.

In the final analysis though, on such issues, ministers must be guided by their military advisors and, the truth is that there is no consensus amongst the Staff as to the best way forward.

As we reported, the MoD recently held a "helicopter summit" chaired by defence secretary Des Browne, which itself was inconclusive – although an announcement is expected some time in the autumn when Parliament is back in session.

Frustrating it is, but we have an MoD system which grinds exceedingly slow, with many suggestions that it is not really attuned to the needs of the fast-moving campaign in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, to put this down to a lack of "political will" is probably neither accurate nor fair.

More to the point, it is probably not good politics. If, as expected, Cameron assumes office in the not too distant future, he will find that his secretary of state faces similar problems and obstacles – some of them genuine – and will be thus be embarrassed by a similar failure to deliver results.

On the other hand, it is fair game for an opposition politician to capitalise on any government's discomfort, but we sense that Cameron's comments fail to reflect an understanding of the realities of equipping the military for modern wars – with all the constraints they entail.

Carving a way through the thicket is more than a matter of "political will" and one would like to think that the opposition has some original ideas of what is needed – taking into account the difficulties involved. What we have heard does not suggest that there is any new thinking, which is rather worrying. When (or if) the new ministers take over, they will be learning from scratch and, for some years, we could be back where we started.