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We have stumbled on a remarkable collection of photographs of British Forces activities in Afghanistan, including a very high proportion of military vehicles (mostly Land Rovers) in various situations. This is the sort of high quality material that should be seen much more widely, posted by an anonymous "Mick". He is to be congratulated for making the material accessible, putting the MoD to shame.

A sample of the collection is shown above. For those who have any interest at all in the activities of our Forces, this is a must. You can see the whole collection of 340 photographs here.

The way Basra and the activities of British forces in southern Iraq have disappeared from the media agenda should be remarkable, but it is not. That is the way the media work. When a subject is "on diary", the media crawl over it and then, when it is all done, the caravan packs its bags and moves on, deserting the issue which so preoccupied it, as if it had never existed.

We must be grateful, therefore, to The Observer yesterday, for giving us an insight into what is going on in what, for journalists (as well as British troops) is still a very dangerous place.

Not least, Reuters reports that the head of Iraq's national journalists' union was seriously wounded when gunmen opened fire on his car on Saturday, relatives and colleagues said. Shihab al-Tamimi, 74 (pictured), was shot in the face, chest and shoulder in the Baghdad attack.

What The Observer is telling us – under a headline: "Hopes of UK troop cuts in Basra dashed," is that plans to reduce the level British forces in Iraq still further have been shelved as security forces fear final showdown. A final all-out battle for Basra, we are told, is seen as 'inevitable' as persistent violence looks set to keep British troops mired in southern Iraq longer than was expected.

We already knew that the situation was unstable and the paper reminds us that an uneasy truce has been maintained between Iraqi security forces and Shia militia groups since Britain handed over control last December. We are also reminded that Gordon Brown announced that the number of troops in Iraq would be cut from 4,700 to 2,500 by spring. But, says the paper, "that timetable appears increasingly optimistic."

Certainly, we get the odd whiff that the violence is continuing. Last week, four British soldiers were injured, one seriously, by a roadside bomb during a night patrol – something about which the MoD have been somewhat less than forthcoming.

We also learn that three contractors, two Indian and one Sri Lankan, died on the British base after it was hit by 19 rockets in 24 hours. Two private security company staff were injured after a visit to the Basra Children's Hospital. And negotiations for the release of a kidnapped British photojournalist continue without a breakthrough.

It is, of course, a measure of the parochialism of the British press that, had the three dead been British, it would have been all over the papers, but since they were Indian and Sri Lankan, that does not merit a separate story – merely a passing reference in a longer piece. But, that the base is under continued – and what seem to be escalating – attack is significant.

The Observer offers "an unusually frank analysis", from Colonel Richard Iron, military mentor to the Iraqi commander General Mohan al-Furayji. Iron says:

There's an uneasy peace between the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF] on the one hand and the militias on the other. There is a sense in the ISF that confrontation is inevitable. They are training and preparing for the battle ahead. General Mohan says that the US won the battle for Baghdad, the US is going win the battle for Mosul, but Iraqis will have to win the battle for Basra.
Asked who runs the city now, Iron, who has been in Basra since December, says: "There's no one in charge. The unwritten rules of the game are there are areas where the army can and can't go and areas where JAM can and can't take weapons."

He added that General Mohan was keen to maintain the British presence. "Mohan's view is that having this force here - the tanks, helicopters, aircraft and so on - gives him power downtown. If there were no coalition forces here, his political power would be hugely damaged. If he is going to fight or face down JAM, he needs this back-up."

We also get a picture (which the MoD has not supplied) of how far the Basra base is being developed and fortified. Far from being dismantled, the 15 square mile base is getting a £12m military hospital and five rocket-proof dining facilities are under construction. A £4m barrier dubbed the "Great Wall of Basra", made of 13ft high concrete blocks each weighing 6 ton, will soon stretch five miles around the base.

What the paper calls a "siege mentality" is underlined by accommodation where beds are shoehorned between sandbags and 7.5-inch thick concrete blocks. Body armour and helmets are worn or within reach at all times.

One gets the sense – how accurate, it is impossible to tell – that Basra is a tinderkeg, ready to explode at any moment, although there will no doubt be some local signs of a building crisis.

Given our media's reluctance to keep us informed, we will be the last to know but, if the situation deteriorates badly and British troops are called upon to intervene, the government may find itself having to bring in reinforcements in a hurry. Perhaps also it will find that our troops sustain a casualty rate which brings the Iraqi war sharply back into focus.

Taken in the round, this surely must have an effect on our deployments in Afghanistan. Several media reports over the weekend suggested British troop levels there were to rise to 8,000, with suggestions that the Taleban were to be pursued into the hills, where they are finding temporary refuge.

What is not reported clearly is the increasing engagement of US forces in the British Helmand sector. The taking of Musa Qala in December was only achieved with the intervention of heli-borne troops from the élite US 82nd Airborne Division. Now we learn that 2,200 US Marines being deployed to southern Afghanistan next month, where they will fight alongside British forces.

The primary target is reported as Garmsir, the scene in January 2007 of what we dubbed an "heroic failure" when British troops failed to recover the southernmost regional centre of the Taleban.

What is going to be interesting, therefore, is the interplay between the Iraqi and Afghani theatres, especially later in the spring when it is possible that British forces could find themselves heavily engaged simultaneously, with little in the way of reserves. From the current situation where media reports are thin on the ground, we may find an altogether different scenario.

COMMENT THREAD

"Money is squandered on equipment that is useless in either Iraq or Afghanistan - or in any foreseeable theatre," writes Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times today, under the heading, "Lovely new aircraft carrier, sir, but we're fighting in the desert".

For such heresy, he gets a good kicking on the unofficial army forum, not least as some of the posters are able to pick him up on points of detail which dilute the effect of his comments.

For instance, they say, in the early days of the Afghan conflict when the infrastructure to support large numbers of land-base combat aircraft did not exist, troops relied for their close air support on US carriers out in the Indian Ocean. Even today, US Navy and Marine carrier-based airpower continue to provide support in Afghanistan, with a little help from the USAF which suppliers the air tankers.

Where all these critics go wrong, however, is that, in picking on the details, they miss the main point of Jenkins's piece – that money is indeed being squandered. Here, Jenkins has a certain amount of insider information, which he shares with us. He writes:

What is clear is that this government made a colossal error on coming to power in 1997-8. In the Strategic Defence Review (on whose lay committee I served), George Robertson, the then defence secretary, and John Reid and John Gilbert, his junior ministers, flatly refused an open discussion. Having been told to "think the unthinkable", the review's authors were told that the three biggest and most contentious procurement items inherited from the Tories were sacred.

They were the Eurofighter project (£15-£20 billion), the new aircraft carriers (£4 billion) and their frigate escorts, and a replacement for the Trident missile and its submarines (£20 billion). These pet projects of the Royal Navy and RAF were protected so new Labour would not appear soft on defence. There was no consideration given to the equipment needs of Tony Blair's more interventionist foreign policy. The government decided, in effect, to pretend that it was still fighting the Russians (and possibly the Germans).

Those decisions locked the procurement budget for more than a decade. Above all they shut out the army, on which British defence activity has depended ever since. The army’s unglamorous but urgent need for battlefield helicopters and armoured personnel carriers was ignored. So, too, were supplies of such things as grenade launchers, field radios, body armour and night-vision equipment. This year the Eurofighter, carrier and Trident projects all came on stream at £5 billion annually between them and the defence budget has hit the predictable wall.
This historical perspective raises interesting questions, as to whether in 1997 the newly appointed Labour government had really thought about defence, other than in terms of avoiding criticism from entrenched lobbies and side-stepping a protected political fight.

However, Jenkins does rather seem to neglect the effect of the St. Malo agreement in December 1998, when Blair – amongst other things committed to ensuring that, between them, the French and British governments would have one battle-ready aircraft carrier group at sea at all times.

With the parallel commitment to the ERRF, primarily dedicated to expeditionary warfare, this – as much as anything – set in stone many of the expensive procurement projects which are currently dragging down the defence budget.

Although Jenkins avers: "There was no consideration given to the equipment needs of Tony Blair's more interventionist foreign policy," at that early stage there is no sign that Blair had then formulated what was to become the defining policy of his tenure. In fact, it was his "European" policy, as well as the carry-over of Conservative-initiated policies, that is creating many of the current problems.

Whatever their genesis, however, Jenkins is undoubtedly right when he states that, whenever "cuts" are in prospect, "The first to howl are the chiefs of staff." Thus, he tells us:

It is customary at such times for them to stand as one, arms linked like Roman legions in a square. Yet they will never adjudicate on priorities. An admiral will not doubt (in public) the RAF's need for more jet fighters. A general will never question the need for carriers. An air marshal will cast no aspersions on Trident. All they will do is sing in unison, "No defence cuts".
For some time now, it has been apparent that the equipment plans for the armed forces were unsustainable. Now that the forces are committed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of what is on order or is coming though is indeed "useless" for either theatre.

There were, therefore, two options to bring the procurement budget back into balance. One was to make deep cuts, cancelling one of more of the major projects, thus eliminating the overspend and making money available for operations. The other was to make cuts across the board, downsizing all or most of the projects and/or delaying their timetables in order to spread the financial burden over more years.

Although the first option would have been preferable, Jenkins indicates (as does his colleague in the business section) that ministers have taken the second route. "Every cut is across the board," Jenkins writes, adding:

Gordon Brown has let it be known that there must be no talk of cancellations, only postponements. Carriers may be delayed, Astute-class submarines may be reduced from eight to four and Type 45 destroyers from 12 to six. The number of Eurofighter Typhoons on order may be slashed. Strategy can go to the wall but not politics…
From there, Jenkins addresses much detail. Some of his assertions are questionable and others debatable, but his net conclusion is on the right tracks: "Money is squandered on equipment that is useless in either theatre - or in any foreseeable one. For want of that money, equipment vital to victory is forgone."

"In a sane world," he argues, "this might be cause for a revision of priorities within the defence establishment. Instead, the brass hats continue to squabble to protect their precious toys and politicians lack the guts to bang their heads together."

Thus, without any serious or intelligent debate, dominated by demands for "no cuts" and "more money", it seems the worst of all possible decisions has either been made, or is in the process of being made – effectively a determination to spread the misery equally, to avoid major confrontations.

That would mean that the defence budget continues to be saddled with useless projects, while there will be no pool of the cash that is needed to re-equip and restructure operational forces to meet the very special needs of counter-insurgency operations.

This is the worst of all possible worlds.

COMMENT THREAD

In a classic example of how opinion, rather than facts, drive the media agenda, just over two weeks – on 6 February - a Derby coroner's court held an inquest into the death of Drummer Thomas Wright, from the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters.

He had died in Helmand province on 22 June 2007 when his "Snatch" Land Rover had been caught in the blast from a roadside bomb while escorting a military team surveying the site for a new road project linking several Afghan villages in the Babaji area.

At the conclusion of the inquest, Wright's mother gave a statement saying "We are confident that everything possible was done for Tom and the only people we blame for the death are those who planted and detonated the roadside device."

Coroner Robert Hunter was equally measured, confining his remarks to the Taleban, whom he said, "blatantly disregarded human rights". The bombing of the convoy in which Pte Wright was travelling was a "wicked and despicable act", he added.


With such comments, the story made the local news on the BBC, with the local website offering the headline, "Soldier's mother blames no one". It then got reported by a gaggle of local press (such as here) but it went no further.

Compare and contrast this with the two coroners' inquiries ten days later, one dealing with the death of Captain Philippson and the other with the deaths of Lance Sergeant Casey and Lance Corporal Redpath, who had died in a "Snatch" Land Rover, because a better protected Mastiff had not been available.


The difference here was that, in both these cases, the coroners were prepared to make specific charges against the MoD, in terms of inadequate equipment, and there were grieving relatives who were prepared to back up the charges with their own statements.

It can be no coincidence that these stories went nation-wide, featured as the lead item on the BBC and on the front pages of many national newspapers, then to be quoted widely by diverse columnists and bloggers, all uncritically following the "line" set for them by initial reports.

In the Philippson incident, however, the absence of equipment played, at best, a marginal role in the Captain's death yet, with a grandstanding coroner prepared to elevate it to the primary cause, using lurid terms such as "betrayal", this got the lion's share of the media attention.

Perversely, where the equipment issue was absolutely clear-cut, as it was in the case of Lance Sergeant Casey and Lance Corporal Redpath, the publicity was considerably less, often no more than down-pages references attached to the Philippson reports.

Yet, between this latter incident and the death of Drummer Thomas Wright, there were huge and very obvious parallels. In both incidents, the deaths arose in "Snatch" Land Rovers and, in both incidents, Mastiffs were in theatre but there had not been enough to go round.

In terms of the technical details, Drummer Wright's "Snatch" succumbed to a 10Kg roadside bomb, a level of explosive that the Mastiff is well equipped to deal with. Thus, it is fair to speculate that, had he been riding in a Mastiff, he would most certainly have survived – especially as he was in the "top cover" position and his fatal injuries were occasioned by the force of the explosion turning the vehicle over, crushing the unfortunate soldier to death.

What differed in this latter case, therefore, was not the facts but the coroner's and the mother's reactions to them, those making sure the national media ignored the story. The legend, "Soldier's mother blames no one", effectively killed it, with not a single journalist prepared to look beyond the headline at the actual issues.

This dynamic, of course, is not new – but it is a salutary reminder to those who slavishly follow the news agenda that the media is less concerned with facts than with those who have opinions on them. So it is that perceptions are shaped by those whom the media select to convey their narratives.

COMMENT THREAD

It appears that, after the inexplicable delay, the MoD has finally awarded the long-awaited contract to Force Protection for new mine protected vehicles – presumably definitely for Mastiffs.

The order is for 174 vehicles (34 more than originally announced), at a fixed price of $115,167,467 – roughly £335,000 each – which includes "associated test sets, spares and support services." In contrast to the exceptional speed with which the first batch were delivered, however, work is not due to be completed until July 2009 – only three months short of two years since the commitment to buy was announced by the MoD.

Presumably, some will arrive earlier, but all will have to be fitted with additional armour and equipment in the UK, before they are finally despatched to theatre – anything up to six months after delivery from Force Protection.

This leaves the Army still reliant on the Pinzgauer Vector, as its main "protected" patrol vehicle. Reports on this vehicle, though, indicate the Army may not be able to wait too long.

Apart from now showing a disturbing tendency to shed wheels, there are problems with engine overheating when the vehicle is under full load, and it is proving dangerously top-heavy. Further, troops are finding seat restraints for passengers are ill-fitting, creating difficulties when they need to exit the vehicle in a hurry.

Meanwhile, it seems the Italians are also buying mine protected vehicles from Force Protection. They have ordered ten, at a price of $8,353,715, again including associated support services and parts. The order comprises six 6x6 Cougars and four Buffalo mine clearance vehicles, scheduled for completion by July 2008 - a year before the British contract is due for completion.

COMMENT THREAD

It really is quite incredible how otherwise sound commentators of the political scene fall apart when they venture into the realm of defence spending, and end up joining the pack to spout the same mindless drivel.

Thus do we get Iain Martin, normally one of the better columnists, holding forth in The Daily Telegraph under a catch-all heading of "Britain's defence spending is a disgrace".

Employing the usual "cut and paste" journalism technique, he relies on the ritualistic complaint of the government's failure to ensure "an adequate supply of body armour or night vision equipment", notwithstanding that, whatever problems there might have been, there are none in this department now. Whatever complaints troops might have had about equipment, it is readily acknowledged by expert commentators that they are basically satisfied with their personal kit.

Nevertheless, Martin employs this and then goes on to offer the usual mantra of "overstretch", then adding that our troops are "underequipped", all to build his case that Britain "spends too little on defence". He then adds that "none of the nation's parties is yet prepared to do much about it."

There is no point further in pursuing Martin's case as it culminates in a series of rhetorical flourishes which, effectively all amount to the same thing – that the answer to the malaise is more money.

Hence, we are back in the same territory that all such commentators find themselves in – suggesting more money, with absolutely no ideas about how that money should be spent, and entirely heedless of the experience of the NHS and other public services, which demonstrate beyond peradventure that simply throwing money at a problem is not always – or ever – a rational solution.

The trouble is, basically, that none of the commentators are prepared to do their homework, to develop their understanding or address any of the real issues in the Armed Forces. Therefore, they are unable to focus criticisms and then ensure that the money that is made available is well spent, and that the machinery exists for ensuring future funds are also properly used.

What evades them, therefore, is the thesis that we have so often offered on this blog that, to throw more money at the Armed Forces is akin to bankrolling a drunk because he has spent all his money on booze. If the MoD is misspending much of its funding, giving it more money will simply allow it to misspend on a larger scale.

The evidence of this is to an extent illustrated by our previous post where the expenditure of £166 million has yielded an overly expensive vehicle, the Panther FCLV which offers sub-standard protection and which, after nearly five years, is yet to go into service. Notably, the original order was for 401 vehicles, with an option to buy 400 more.

As it stands, the MoD has intimated that it will not take up its option – presumably for financial reasons. If the MoD was to be given more money and thus was able to buy those additional 400 Panthers, would the Army be better served?

This inadequacy of thinking is equally evident in the Telegraph news section, where the headline has it that "Spending cuts 'will put national security at risk'". Yet, this is nothing more than a pre-emptive strike from the Society of British Aerospace Companies, who are warning about the economic impact of any "cuts".

Here, their particular concern is that "economic stability and manufacturing jobs" would be jeopardised if military projects are cut, which is a fair enough point. But it should also go without saying though that the purpose of military procurement is to provide the fighting forces with the equipment they need, not to keep defence contractors in work. Only if there is a conjunction in those interests should the contractors' concerns have any weight. Whether there is such a conjunction in this current round of "cuts", though, is very dubious.

In a linked piece, The Telegraph tells us what projects are most at risk and these include the Joint Strike Fighter, where numbers ordered may be cut, the Type 45, where the seventh and eighth destroyers may not be ordered, and FRES.

Revealing the disconnect between the actual operational need and the aspirations of the contractors (as well as the Army chiefs), we are told that this latter programme, "is the most vulnerable to be cut but is probably the most needed."

Yet, only at the very end of its news piece does the paper convey the MoD view, that. "It is important that the MoD prioritises its resources to ensure that we are able to meet our current commitments as well as those that may arise in the future." And therein lies the crux of the debate, which the paper does not even recognise. FRES, for instance, far from being the "most needed", is the single project which is doing most damage to the Army's current capabilities.

Interestingly, it is the Financial Times which makes to effort to engage in that debate, having Sir Michael Quinlan, permanent undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Defence, 1988-92, declaring that, "We must question the case for aircraft carriers". He acknowledges that the defence budget is in trouble but also notes that the Treasury will not come to the rescue. "Nettles have to be grasped," he warns.

For Quinlan, it is the carrier programme that stands out, observing that, "If the case for these has been rigorously tested in Whitehall, little has emerged to outside view." He also notes that. "The Commons defence committee, though keenly interested in the procurement arrangements, has scarcely attempted deeper scrutiny. There has been no public debate as there was over the Trident force."

The broader point Quinlan is making here is important. There has been no public debate on the carriers. Nor, incidentally, has there been a public debate on FRES. The requirement has simply "emerged" into the public domain, with MPs and the media now taking it as read that it is what is needed.

It is the lack of "deeper scrutiny" that was the focus of the recent RUSI paper, mis-reported and mis-understood in The Telegraph and elsewhere. Under the title, "Risk, Threat and Security”, the authors main proposition was the formation of a "new structure of committees", within government and within parliament, to take the "widest view" of defence and security.

Without doubt, that "widest view" is what is lacking from the debate. It is entirely absent from the public discourse entertained by the media, which is ignoring complex and important issues and instead relying on its simplistic mantras.

Without that "widest view", the debate – such that it is - is thus ill-informed and largely sterile, contributing nothing to the security of the nation or the capabilities of our Armed Forces. The media - and indeed the politicians who so often rush to endorse the media line – are no better than the archetypal "man in pub".

Yet, writes Quinlan, "Britain cannot afford everything that might conceivably come in handy one day. Defence planning has to make choices that limit what we can do." Screaming and shouting for everything to be kept is the easy option, and that is what the media is doing. But we cannot afford to buy shiny new "toys", like FRES, simply because the generals say we must have them.

With a "final decision" on what cuts to make are – according to The Times, "some weeks or months away", there is still a window in which an informed debate could be conducted, but as long as we stick to the sterile narrative of "underspending" and "overstretch", we are going nowhere. Grown-up choices have to be made, and spending more is not one of them.

COMMENT THREAD

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This previously unpublished photograph shows an Iveco Panther (or what is left of it) after a mine strike in Afghanistan. Clearly seen is the extensive damage to the front end, but the vehicle has also lost a rear wheel. More disturbingly, from the intense blackening of the interior, the glazing of the off-side armoured glass (seen in the picture below right) and the absence of the supposedly "mine-resistant" door, the blast has penetrated the so-called "safety cell".

click the pic to enlargeWe have no information as to the fate of the crew but, from the evidence of these photographs, it is highly unlikely that they escaped without injury. And, although the makers of the vehicle claim that no one has (yet) been killed in a Panther (or LMV, as they call it) – this incident could have been so recent that deaths cannot be ruled out.

Only last Saturday, however, this vehicle was given a laudatory write-up by The Daily Telegraph motoring correspondent, Andrew English. "The Iveco LMV," he wrote, "could be the ultimate Chelsea Tractor, but the British Army needs it more than you do."

Concluding his long piece, English told us that Iveco had now delivered 120 LMVs to the MoD and "officially there is still no word as to whether they will be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan". He had, however, been given to understand that they might be used in Iraq soon and he thus suggested that "soon is not really soon enough".

English also tells us that the LMV is already in action with Italian, Belgian, Norwegian and Croatian forces in Afghanistan and the Lebanon. "This is a vehicle for putting yourself directly into harm's way", he adds, writing glowingly, "… and then spitting in its eye", before reflecting that, "it's hard not to dwell upon the bravery of the men and women who will doing exactly that in a corner of some foreign field."

click the pic to enlargeWell, the crew of the vehicle illustrated put themselves "directly in harm's way" in a corner of some foreign field. They were exposed to what appears - from information given to us and the crater (illustrated) - to be a single mine. Clearly, the primary point of impact was the front wheel – a relatively modest challenge and one which even a "Wolf" Land Rover can survive, as we have illustrated in several previous posts (for instance, here). Yet, evidently, this vehicle failed the test.

Not for nothing did we label Andrew English's well-meaning work, a "dangerous puff". It praises a vehicle which, although affording some protection to the troops, is still dangerously vulnerable and, quite simply, not up to the job.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this is more than adequately demonstrated by this picture (right) of a USMC RG-31. When we first saw it in June 2006, we were certainly convinced of the value of a dedicated mine-protected vehicle, and this vehicle in particular.

Not only did we publish the picture on our blog (originally on EU Referendum), but also, simultaneously, Christopher Booker published it in his column, effectively kicking off our high-profile campaign against the ill-protected "Snatch" Land Rover. This was to culminate only a few months later in the MoD ordering 108 mine protected Mastiffs, which have since saved many lives.

Although we have no complaints about the Mastiff, the value of the RG-31 was evident from the above photograph, from the technical specifications (which certified it as proof against two stacked 7Kg anti-tank mines under any wheel) and from other photographs and reports. It is no surprise, therefore, that we favoured this proven vehicle.

What makes the contrast so piquant is the rather murky history of the Panther procurement. When it was ordered in 2003 by the MoD, as we subsequently reported (and here), it had been chosen through which even English acknowledged was "a highly imperfect competition", one which we found more than a little suspicious.

Crucially, the Panther – then only a prototype – had been entered at the specific request of the MoD, after the short-list had closed, competing against other vehicles which included the RG-31. Yet, despite the RG-31 being cheaper, better protected and more capacious (the Panther offering limited space), the MoD chose the very vehicle that it had entered into the competition, in breach of its own procurement rules.

Sadly, had the RG-31 been chosen then, as a proven design already in production, it could have been in service certainly by the end of 2004, and could readily have been pressed into service to replace the desperately vulnerable "Snatch" and WIMIK Land Rovers.

In US and Canadian service, the RG-31 has already saved many lives, so much so that the US Army recently announced that it was preparing to send another 500 to Afghanistan to protect its troops there.

For sure, the RG-31 is not perfect, and there have been some deaths amongst the crews riding them. For better protection, we would need the Cougar which – as the above illustration shows – shrugs off the sort of impact that has totalled the LMV shown. In the incident where this Cougar was damaged, the crew were uninjured and they were able to drive it out of the killing zone. The vehicle was back on the road a few days later.

Instead of these, however, we have ordered 401 Panthers for the price of £166 million and, five years after they had been ordered – longer than the entire active phase of the European campaign in the Second World War - only 120 have been delivered. And still, the in-service date is not until November this year.

Mr English, therefore, might be impressed with the vehicle, believing that "the price is not unreasonable given the protection it provides", but we have never been convinced – and have said so many times (for instance, here, here and here).

In fact, the true price of the Panther is more than just money. In being chosen above the more capable RG-31 or Cougar, it has already cost many lives and - if the photographs we have published today are any guide – putting it into service in either Iraq or Afghanistan will cost many more.

COMMENT THREAD

This time, the inquest is into the deaths Second Lieutenant Joanna Dyer, Corporal Kris O'Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz, and Kingsman Adam James Smith. Last April, they were travelling in a Warrior in Basra, when a huge explosion from a buried IED ripped through the lightly protected base, killing all four of them.

It is not only protection from IEDs that our troops need, however, but also ignorant coroners. This one, David Masters, is now recommending to the MoD that the Warriors should have additional armour to the undersides, in an attempt to give the troops better protection.

Commenting on the "missing armour", Alan Hepper, an armour "expert" is cited by the BBC as saying, said: "It's a big issue. We have been told to treat it as an urgent operational requirement. It is being pushed through with great pressure from the Ministry of Defence."

Masters' response to that was, "It is encouraging - if any encouragement can be gained from something like this - that there is a very high-profile programme in place to research and develop new armour for the undersides of vehicles like this operating in Iraq and Afghanistan."

He is to meet Armed Forces Minster Bob Ainsworth later this week to recommend the armour issue was dealt with speedily. He said he would "seek confirmation from the top that something was being done".

The stupidity of this is that, no matter how much armour you bolt on to the underside of a Warrior, it still has a flat-bottomed hull. Without penetration, the force of an explosion of the size which killed these four would overturn the vehicle. If the huge acceleration imparted doesn't kill, the impact of the vehicle coming back to earth will.

This is exactly that which happened to a US Bradley MICV in May last year, where a buried IED flipped over the 30-ton vehicle, killing six soldiers and a civilian interpreter.

In counter insurgency operations, where the favoured weapon is the IED, the Warrior is grossly unsuitable for urban operations where it is confined to known or predicted routes, and can be ambushed in such a devastating fashion. The only effective defence is the v-shaped hull MRAP vehicle, of which the Cougar/Mastiff is the classic example. It has shown itself well capable of protecting its crews under circumstances in which these four soldiers died.

Ironically, it was David Masters who presided over the inquest of Lance Sergeant Casey and Lance Corporal Redpath who, as we reported died because they were forced to use a "Snatch" instead of a Mastiff.

The use of Warriors, with such tragic results, is yet another example of the failure to provide enough Mastiffs. It is a great pity that Masters could not make the connection. And, needless to say, the media will not, so perpetuating the ignorance and the neglect.

COMMENT THREAD

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.

COMMENT THREAD

In the typical self-important way of the MSM, the Sunday Mirror yesterday claimed an "exclusive" story declaring: "Army need more helicopters or will lose in Helmand".

The essence of the story is that the eight Chinooks that are in the process of being back-modified from HCMk3 standard to Mk2 are not going to be ready for operational use until 2009.

So much of an "exclusive" is this story, however, that it is also carried by The Sunday Telegraph which headlines its version, "Troops will fight Taliban without vital Chinooks".

Here, Sean Rayment, the paper's defence correspondent tells us that "The Sunday Telegraph has learnt" that British troops serving in southern Afghanistan have been warned that no extra Chinook helicopters will be made available for at least 12 months. The delay, writes Rayment, has frustrated Army commanders and could undermine operations against the Taliban, who are expected to launch a full-scale spring offensive against British and Nato forces.

He goes on to say that the helicopter shortage will force more troops to travel by armoured vehicle, rendering them vulnerable to attack with bombs and mines, which have been responsible for many deaths in the past 18 months.

In order make his point, Rayment tells us that the force in Afghanistan is currently supported by eight Chinooks, which can carry up to 40 passengers each, and four Royal Navy Sea Kings, which can carry up to 10 people. He adds that four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters are also based in Helmand, but these cannot fly between 11am and 11pm during the summer. The force is also supported by Apache attack helicopters, but they do not carry passengers.

Here, he rather under-rates the Sea Kings, which can actually carry 27 troops, but what – completely dishonestly – he does not tell us is that the force this year will receive six new Merlin helicopters and six enhanced Sea Kings fitted with the high-technology Carson blades.

The simple arithmetic thus tells you that the force is to receive 12 support helicopters in the next few months, effectively doubling the number available, on top of which the British have use of the Nato-chartered helicopter for freight transport, with the option of one more.

For sure, it would be extremely helpful to have the eight Chinooks but the delay is hardly the catastrophe that both the Mirror and the Telegraph make out, given that capacity is going to be significantly strengthened for the next campaigning season.

As regards the "Carson" Sea Kings, we remarked at the time that the MoD announced the project, that it had been ignored by the MSM. "This", we wrote, "is a small but important good news story and one that shows that the news is not always bad."

To be fair to the Sunday Mirror, it did at least report an MoD statement saying that, as well as converting the Chinooks, extra Sea Kings and six new Merlin helicopters will be deployed, although it made nothing of this.

The essence of both newspapers' reports, therefore, was to paint as bleak a picture as possible, so bleak in fact that it bears no relation to the facts. Furthermore, the trend is now so wearily predictable that it pervades the totality of the media coverage of defence issues.

Another classic example of this is the offering in The Sunday Times from Mick Smith. Under the headline, “MoD fury as Brown wields axe”, it is clear that he has been listening to his mischief-making pals in the MoD – a department that has as many tribes as North America, but all at war with each other – enabling him to come up with the statement, "a senior defence official has warned that the armed forces are heading for a 'train crash' because the government is starving them of funds for vital equipment."

Such lurid phrasing attracts no less that 56 comments, mainly knee-jerk comments agreeing with the proposition – matched by a number of blogs and other commentators who have all followed the given line. But, as readers to this blog will know, the discussions over defence spending have been going on for some time and the particular problem is that much of the budget is devoted to equipment which is far from "vital".

Of course, there are major problems with defence spending but not least of those is the absence of sensible debate about the issue, reinforced by this diet of unremitting negativity. Far from being helpful, this is damaging the reputation and morale of our armed forces and prevents better understanding of the real problems which urgently need addressing.

Defence is far too important to become a plaything of the media in this way. If time permits, I will address this issue in another post later this week.

COMMENT THREAD

Not a few of our readers brought to our attention the long piece by Andrew English in the motoring section of The Daily Telegraph yesterday, about the Panther FCLV – badged as the Iveco LMV. With so much time taken with analysing the Philippson incident, however, we did not have enough time to review it until today.

Andrew English is an experienced journalist, an expert in road-testing cars and, in a past career, was directly involved in developing Army off-road vehicles. Furthermore, he has quoted myself, Defence of the Realm and Christopher Booker – as well as Ann Winterton – so we cannot be too rude about him.

Inasmuch as he has also supplied a great deal of information about the Panther, which we did not know, English has also done us a service. And he is not entirely unsympathetic to our view of this machine although, unfortunately, his overall view of the machine is positive, making it something of a dangerous "puff" for Iveco.

Strangely though, the main area in which he shares our view is criticising it for insufficient payload and seating capacity. Nominally a five-seater, English tells us, the Panther will have four, or even three, seats depending on their role. This restricted seating and the relatively low payload of 2,866lb/1,300kg is pretty meagre, he writes. Indeed it is pretty meagre for a vehicle weighing in at over seven tons.

But, while lauding the protection the vehicle gives, English does not make the connection when he writes that "the special shape of the chassis means a 1,322lb (600kg) V-shaped mine plate can be fitted underneath to protect the occupants, without seriously affecting the off-road capability."

But it is one of the pictures (right) accompanying the piece that demonstrate how the Panther design is fundamentally flawed – accounting for much of the weight. In that picture, we see a more or less conventional ladder-frame chassis, on which is mounted a "safety cell", and under which is bolted the 600kg or armour.

In a more advanced design – such as that adopted by the RG-31 and the Cougar – however, a monocoque structure is adopted, the v-shaped armoured shell also serving as the load-bearing structure to which the transmission and running gear are fixed.

It is this design which gives the exception strength and protection afforded by these vehicles, while offering huge weight-savings, and enables the RG-31 to come in at a similar weight to the Panther while offering better protection and more carrying capacity.

English makes much of the off-road performance of the vehicle, and its ability to climb a concrete ramp in the dry, with a nicely roughened surface (below, left), allowing him to declare that, "what is unassailable, in our view, is that the LMV is a thoroughly modern vehicle that will go to places even Land Rovers would be hard pressed to reach while protecting its passengers during a modern insurgent war."

In the protection stakes, English recounts how the Panther is tested against a standard Russian anti-tank mine, a video of which he is shown:

The LMV rears up in the air like stricken horse, its bumper rising about 10 feet and pointing skywards at an angle of 45 degrees. It twists to one side and lands with a shocking crash as pieces of scenery and vehicle continue to cascade down like hail some five seconds after the detonation. Although the wheels are still attached, the plastic bonnet has disappeared and wires and pipes hang out of the engine bay like the entrails of a dead animal, but the passenger safety cell is undamaged.
However, that is one mine, while the Taleban have been known to use two or more stacked mines, or have augmented the explosive power with the addition of a couple of mortar rounds – a technique widely used in Rhodesia. What is shocking is the description of the vehicle rearing up so high, demonstrating that little in the way of deflection technology has been used. Nor, with the wheels still attached, does it suggest that the most has been made of using sacrificial components which can be blown off by an explosion, thus absorbing energy.

The test itself, while impressing English, though, suggests that the Panther is at its limit being challenged with a single mine and has no potential to resist more – as against the RG-31 which can resist two stacked mines under any wheel without injury to the crew, and the Cougar which successfully resisted a 300 lb IED, from which all the crew walked away with superficial injuries. Yet Iveco talk about their vehicle's ability to resist a 50kg IED, as if that was something very special.

Nevertheless, English suggests that the vehicle – with 120 delivered so far to the British Army – should be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan as soon as possible, although he evades the question as to the use to which it should be put.

Armed with only a 7.62mm GPMG on an "Enforcer" unstabilised remote weapon station mount – which cannot deliver accurate fire while the vehicle is on the move - it cannot replace the Land Rover WIMIK, with its .50 cal M2 machine gun as well as the GPMG. Nor, with a seating capacity of three, can it be used as an adequate substitute for the "Snatch" which, in its patrol/personnel role can carry up to six troops.

For sure, it can be used as a command vehicle, replacing either the WIMIK or the Snatch (or even the Pinzgauer) when used on that specific role, but that raises the spectre of commanders riding in a better protected vehicle than the troops they will be commanding.

Conversely, should a Panther be used to accompany Mastiffs, the reverse will apply, the commander potentially being driven in the least protected vehicle in a convoy, and flagged up as an obviously high value target at the same time.

Another issue of concern, which English himself flags up, is the basic instability of the vehicle, with several "roll-overs" having been reported while in the hands of expert Army testers. Given that, with the Land Rover in the hands of inexperienced, testosterone-driven soldiers, there have been a distressing number of roll-overs, the incidence with this vehicle, if widely introduced, might well increase.

In a way, though, it was inevitable that English should have written his piece in the way that he did. He is, after all – despite his background – a motoring correspondent, and was there to write up the test as he found it. He could not reasonably be asked to carry out comparative analyses or assess the limitations of the vehicle in its projected roles.

What he does point out though is that it was ordered in 2003 and is still not yet in service. Had an alternative like the RG-31 been bought, it could have been in service now for several years, saving lives rather than keeping Iveco in business selling a fundamentally flawed and overpriced vehicle with very little real tactical value.

COMMENT THREAD

One instinctively distrusts Andrew Walker, the Oxford coroner widely quoted in today's media in connection with his verdict on the tragic death of Captain James Philippson during the evening of 11 June 2006 in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

This coroner has a history of grandstanding, and seems to revel in his reputation as the scourge of the MoD – his florid use of language out of keeping with the dignity of his office.

Thus do we get from Walker the accusation that the MoD betrayed soldiers' trust by sending troops to Afghanistan without basic equipment. He is widely cited as saying that, "totally inadequate" resources led to them being "outgunned by a bunch of renegades".

"The soldiers were defeated not by the terrorists but by the lack of basic equipment," Walker says. "To send soldiers into a combat zone without basic equipment is unforgivable, inexcusable and a breach of trust between the soldiers and those who govern them."

Unsurprisingly, the media have leapt upon these quotes with relish, but one wonders how many of the journalists and the many commentators, adding their penny-worth, had actually read the Board of Inquiry (BOI) report into the incident.

To set the scene, Phillippson had been part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) which had volunteered to come to the aid of a patrol which had been ordered to investigate a report that an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle had crashed in the vicinity of its base. The patrol had not found the UAV and, on its journey back to its base, had been ambushed by the Taleban.

As to Phillippson’s death, this was occasioned by a gunshot wound to the head from an AK-47 but the BOI came to the conclusion that he had been killed:

…as a result of poor tactical decision-making, a lack of SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) and lack of equipment.
The Board further concludes that the decision to retrieve the downed UAV might be question, "given its relatively low value, low security classification and the late hour at which the initial patrol deployed", had the patrol not been ordered to recover the UAV, "it is unlikely that the incident would have occurred".

From behind these stark findings, clear even from the measured tones of the BOI report and its caveats about "hindsight", emerges a story that can best be described as a "shambles".

In the first instance, the QRF was a composite force, comprised of 30 British Army personnel from 13 different Arms, who had never worked as a fighting team, plus four US personnel. As support, they had a detachment of Afghani soldiers who had not completed their training. Although a "formed infantry unit" would have been preferable, this was not available as ministers had put a cap on the number of troops which could be deployed to Afghanistan and the infantry units were deployed elsewhere.

To that extent, there attaches some political blame for the decision initially to send so few but, that aside, all soldiers are trained to fight and must expect to do so on occasions.

Where the rot started, though, was that despite the disparate nature of the force, its commanding officer – Major Jonathon Bristow – issued no SOPs, carried out no rehearsals for the various contingencies that might arise and, when the contact report came in on the fateful day, did not brief his patrol on the proposed route or any tactical procedures to be adopted. By his own admission, Major Bristow "had little idea about how he was going to conduct the link-up" and some members of the patrol deployed out of the base "without any idea where they were going".

In fact, the preparations had been so rushed that the patrol, nominally of nine vehicles, left the base six minutes after the contact report, leaving behind vital Bowman radios and two of its number, as the drivers could not find their ignition keys. These were in the pocket of an occupant of another of the patrol vehicles, that vehicle getting snarled up in barbed wire on its departure from the base. After some delay, it returned and the remainder of the vehicles followed on, meaning that the QRF had been split into two components.

As to the speed of response, the Board found that, to be ready in six minutes "represents either a very well rehearsed drill or an ill-prepared rush". Given that "no rehearsals had been conducted previously for this or any other contingency", the Board concluded it was "the latter".

Once on the road, without any clear idea of the route it was going to take, the first part of the QRF found itself on a narrow track which became too narrow to pass with the vehicles. Major Bristow, therefore, ordered the troops to dismount and proceed on foot. By so doing, the Board observed, he "significantly reduced the firepower at his disposal".

Crucially, without Bowman radios, the commanders was not in touch with his base. Had they been so equipped, the Board found, they would have been informed that the patrol he was seeking to "rescue" was no longer in contact with the enemy and "might have decided to abandon the foot patrol" and get back to the base.

Fatefully, though, the patrol continued. It was as the dismounted soldiers were well into the patrol that they came into contact with "between 12 and 15 people … with what looked like small-arms weapons" that there was an exchange of fire and Captain Philippson received his fatal gunshot wound.

Here, the lack of night vision goggles may have been as the 20 or so men in the patrol had been equipped only with three sets. The relevance comes when the armed men were first detected, when Major Bristow, leading the patrol, first spotted the enemy. He was equipped with night vision equipment, and shouted a warning to the rest of the patrol. However, his equipment was not mounted on his helmet which meant he could not observe and fire his rifle concurrently.

The narratives are confused, but one account has it that, after a short pause, Bristow fired "two or three rounds" in the enemy's direction, whence the Taleban returned fire, one of their shots killing Captain Philippson. The Board observed that, "if there was a lull between Major Bristow shouting the warning and then firing 2-3 rounds (occasioned by the type of night sight he was using) then it may have given the enemy enough time to react aggressively".

On the other hand, though, the Board also observes that Bristow should not have been leading the patrol as point, and was thus not in the best position to command his troops or deal with the tactical action that followed. "At the very least", it stated, he should have been behind his patrol sergeant who did have a rifle fitted with a night sight, and had observed the Taleban "moments before" the Major.

On such slender grounds does the coroner allege "betrayal" and the media makes much of the fact that he also asked Major Bristow if his troops could have matched their attackers if they been supplied with Minimi machine guns and under-slung grenade launchers. Bristow told the court: "It would have made a hell of a difference. We lost the initiative through a lack of firepower and thus the Taliban had a greater weight of firepower."

The Board agrees that the patrol did lose the initiative, but only after the death of Captain Philippson. Then, for five minutes, there was widespread confusion – but the Board also concludes that the firepower available "was sufficient for dealing with the enemy action".

The patrol, in fact, did, have one General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) detached from one of the WIMIKs in the mounted force. Had the QRF not become split, there would have been two such weapons available. But more firepower – whether Minimi machine guns or GPMGs - says the Board, would only "have allowed a swifter extraction from the killing area".

So, the truth of this matter was that this patrol was ill-prepared, badly led and disorganised to the point almost of being shambolic. Had any number of events been different – not least the ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to recover the UAV - the tragic outcome could have avoided. And in this toxic mix, the role of equipment – and any inadequacies in its supply – were marginal and of lesser importance. In truth, an "ill-prepared rush" led to a gallant soldier being killed.

To be fair to the troops involved and their commanders, the BOI concludes that the patrol "was being ordered ... to conduct independent manoeuvre operations beyond its capability and capacity at that time". It adds that, in future, the mission should be given to a "formed infantry unit" well rehearsed in the procedures relevant to "conducting full-spectrum operations within a counter-insurgency context".

That, if anything, was where the fundamental failure lay but, once again, the media – with the aid of a grandstanding coroner - have distorted the truth.

COMMENT THREAD

BAE Systems and the Indian armoured vehicle producer Mahindra Defence Systems and have announced talks on developing an Indian mine-protected vehicle based on BAE Systems' highly successful RG-31 mine-protected vehicle.

This is by no means India's first acquaintance with MPVs. BAE Systems has previously supplied 165 refurbished Casspir mine-protected vehicles to the Indian Army and, more recently, the Medak Ordnance Factory has produced an indigenous version known as the Aditya (pictured). So far 300 have been ordered and the Army has a projected requirement for 1,400 to provide increased protection to troops engaged in counter-terrorism operations.

The vehicle was developed with assistance from Israel and, so successful has it been that, we are told, the US defence department expressed some considerable interest in it. Meanwhile the Indians are showing interest in acquiring rights to produce the RAM 2000.

India's interest in the RG-31 and other types is, therefore, a further recognition of the role of mine protected vehicles – which are used widely in Kashmir and other locations. Its determination to build them locally indicates that the country recognises the strategic importance of local suppliers.

The irony of this is more than evident. Nominally, BAE systems is a British-owned firm which owns the RG-31 manufacturer, OMC. Previously, it was owned by Vickers and, before that, Alvis – one of the premier armoured vehicle manufacturers in the world.

It was this company, Alvis which was instrumental in developing the RG-31 and, indirectly, the Tempest MPV (pictured), on which the Force Protection Cougar was based. This in turn provided the basis for the Mastiff.

Yet, it is to American firms that the British Army is forced to turn for its supply of protected vehicles, waiting in turn behind the US Marine Corps and the US Army, to obtain supplies – or looking further afield, not least to Israel, where interest has been expressed in the Golan.

Even now, though, the MoD is extolling the virtues of the Mastiff but, having announced an intention to purchase an additional 140 of these vehicles, has still not placed a firm order for them. And, of the new "Ridgeback" – rumoured to be a 4x4 version of the Force Protection Cougar – nothing has been heard since the initial announcement by Gordon Brown in December. The indications are that the UK is having to negotiate an early place in the queue, ahead of the massive orders from the US military which are under pressure to re-equip their own forces.

Given British expertise in the field, and the now pressing need for these vehicles – and the likelihood that even more will be needed – it would seem entirely logical that we could emulate India and find domestic manufacturers which could build – even if under license – suitable vehicles in the UK. Have we really got to the stage where we no longer need to produce our own armoured vehicles?

COMMENT THREAD

click the pic to enlarge
Today's picture is a reproduction of a painting (lithograph available here) of a Boeing RC-135 "Rivet Joint" electronic surveillance aircraft. In the picture, it is seen flying over the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan.

The aircraft itself assumes topicality from a report in this week's Times by defence correspondent Michael Smith, who reveals that the RAF is to lease two of these aircraft. They will bear RAF markings and be operated jointly by RAF and USAF crews.

The deal has been concluded, we are told, to replace the currently operated Nimrod R1 electronic surveillance aircraft (pictured below), which have been doing good work on deployment in Afghanistan.

The move, writes Smith, has been forced by a MoD cash crisis that rules out the money for a replacement aircraft for the R1, and has, he adds, "provoked outrage among RAF air crew who say it will mean a major loss of capability."

However, it seems the MoD has said that a final decision had not yet been taken, although Air Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, chief of the air staff, briefed air crew during a visit to the Middle-East just before Christmas. Then, according to an unnamed source, "He told the R1 crew that he had brought them an early Christmas present."

But when he described the plan to use the RC135 Rivet Joint spy planes the response was blunt. It was so unenthusiastic and blunt that several RAF officers were subsequently hauled up before their commander for a dressing-down, the source said.

This is elaborated on by another "insider" who says, "I am incandescent with rage that we are even considering ditching what is a world-class, 'gold standard', war-winning capability in the name of economy and the dubious claimed benefits of greater interoperability with the USAF."

The R1, we are told by Smith, is far more capable than the RC-135, which concentrates on communications signals and has only a limited capability against radars – although this may or may not be true, as the RC-135 has undergone extensive upgrades.

Smith then claims that RAF chiefs were to replace the Nimrod R1 with a different aircraft which could be fitted with a brand new top-secret signals intercept system called Helix, which is currently under development. This is not actually the case as Project Helix is an upgrade programme for the R1, valued at £400 million, intended to keep the aircraft in service until 2025.

The final decision on the programme is due to be made in June 2009. It is not clear, therefore, whether Project Helix has been abandoned or whether the lease of the RC-135s is simple a stop-gap measure to enable the R1s to be withdrawn for refitting and upgrading. Smith seems to think it is a long-term solution – one which appeals to RAF chiefs "who are under pressure to find cuts to ease a £1bn black hole in the MoD’s finances."

As always, therefore, we do not have the whole story yet and will have to wait, until there are some official announcements for a little more clarity. Meanwhile, enjoy the picture of the latest addition to the RAF's inventory.

COMMENT THREAD

"There was no mistaking the loud blast Tuesday afternoon just outside Zangabad village, a known Taleban haunt in Kandahar. It was another improvised explosive device." So starts a piece from the Canadian National Post, but the good news is in the headline: "Three Canadian soldiers survive IED blast".

"No one was killed this time," the piece continues, "but it was the worst way possible for three Canadians soldiers from an explosives ordnance unit to find the IED." They hit the device while moving towards Zangabad in their Cougar – one of five acquired recently by the Canadian Army.

The explosives, we learn, were apparently tucked underneath a culvert, just 400 yards or so from an Afghan National Police substation. The Cougar was tossed sideways and the culvert partially destroyed. No one was seriously hurt. Two of the soldiers received minor injuries but all three were able to walk away from the incident. "The vehicle did its job," said spokeswoman Capt. Josee Bilodeau.

Compare and contrast with the experience of the British Army, most notably the incident reported on 21 January which, at the time, we thought might have been a Pinzgauer Vector – yet another example of this death-trap which failed to protect its crew.

As it turns out – from a devastatingly sad piece in The Sunday Mirror - the vehicle was definitely a Pinzgauer but not the armoured Vector version – not that the armour would have made any difference.

The information came not from the MoD but from Rupert Hamer, the Sunday Mirror’s defence correspondent, describing the circumstances of the death of Corporal Darryl Gardiner.

What had confused us initially was the report that there had been one death and five injuries, six all told in the incident. Since the standard 710 model 4x4 Pinzgauer truck normally carries a crew of three on patrol, it seemed more likely that a Vector, used as personnel transport, might be involved.

However, the circumstances were more tragic and heroic than we imagined. Corporal Gardiner had died saving the life of a badly-wounded soldier, just over a mile from the town of Musa Qala.

Another vehicle – which we understand to have been a WIMIK Land Rover - from the same unit, the Brigade Recce Force, had been hit by a mine and Cpl. Gardiner had driven to the troops' rescue. He had then picked up a badly-wounded soldier and was ferrying him towards a waiting helicopter. About 100 yards short of the helicopter, the mine went off, killing him instantly.

Thus, there were two vehicles involved, not one, both suffering mine strikes, the Pinzgauer, presumably, having been carrying the survivors from the first, when it too was hit.

The day before, Trooper Jack Sadler had also been killed in a mine strike, while acting as a gunner in a WIMIK. Earlier in his tour, Gardiner had been involved in the suicide bomb incident on his convoy, from which all the crews had survived.

While the advocates of unarmoured, high-mobility patrol vehicles will argue that mines (and IEDs) are an unavoidable hazard, it is hard to believe that the crew of the Canadian Cougar would agree, and that – for want of the protection that the types such as the Cougar can offer – the death of Cpl Gardiner and the injury of five others, was anything other than avoidable.

COMMENT THREAD

Alright, it is the Torygraph and that paper is pushing the Conservative agenda, that our troops are hard pressed, the favoured word these days being "overstretch".

Thus, we cannot be surprised when the paper splashes on its front page the headline, "Sickness thins the ranks of troops on front line".

The text (from this and 52 other versions, as recorded by Google news) tells us that almost 7,000 infantrymen are unfit to fight, leaving front-line troops "dangerously exposed." One in 14 soldiers is sick or injured at a time when every regiment of 600 faces a shortfall of 100 men because of problems with recruitment and the numbers leaving the Army.

Troop shortages, the piece continues, are so acute that at least six battalions are being sent to do the job of four battalions when the next brigade deploys to Afghanistan this spring.

Then we get Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, pushing the Tory line, saying that the Government had overstretched the Armed Forces to the point where it produced "some very real consequences on our abilities to fight on the front line". The shortages could "endanger the safety of personnel" and indicated a "retention crisis" in the military, he said.

The base information, it turns out, was obtained by the Tory MP Patrick Mercer, via a series of Parliamentary Questions, most recently this one, giving the "former infantry commander" licence to say that, "This is an albatross that hangs over commanding officers' heads." Mercer then adds, "In times of peace it is fine but in war it is a complete and utter liability," declaring that under-manning was "crippling the Army" and the situation had to be addressed immediately.

Only at the end of the piece do we get the standard MoD rebuttal, an undoubtedly weary Army spokesman saying that: "The forces pride themselves on their fitness and are well known for it but there will always be a small element suffering from sickness or injury and not fit to deploy to an operational theatre."

He also says that the use of elements from a number of battalions was "not new" and battle casualty replacements were "provided as and when required by the Chain of Command".

Of course, the Army would say that, so the statement has all the status of a ritual denial that carries little weight. But, the fact is that the situation is not new and, furthermore, Mercer knew that to be the case.

If you cast your mind back to March 2002, that was when then defence secretary announced that Britain was to send a 1,700-strong commando force to Afghanistan to help American troops root out remnants of al-Qa'eda and the Taliban. It was to be the biggest deployment for combat operations since the Gulf war, then eleven years previously, and Hoon warned MPs to expect casualties.

"We will be asking them to risk their lives," he said. "Their missions will be conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy." Hoon particularly emphasised the troops' fighting role, compared with the peacekeeping duties of the 1,800 British troops operating around the Afghan capital, Kabul.

A month later, Mercer was on his feet in Parliament, contributing to a defence debate, having just returned from Afghanistan, where he had spent some time with the British troops deployed there.

By-the-bye, he tells us he was due to have lunch with the commanding officer of an infantry battalion but had been informed by his adjutant that the man was "he's too busy to lunch with you because he's lobbying to get his battalion to Afghanistan." Added, Mercer, "The Royal Welch Fusiliers are dying to go to Afghanistan" – a rather unfortunate choice of phrasing.

Anyhow, on the substantive point, Mercer recalls that, when he and a colleague went on patrol with soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment, they were surrounded not just by the khaki berets of the Royal Anglians, but by the plum-coloured berets of the King's Royal Hussars - cavalry men who were forming part of an infantry patrol. He continued:

The 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment is well recruited in a difficult part of the country for infantry recruiting. Fortunately, my constituency lies in Nottinghamshire, on the edge of Royal Anglian country. It is interesting to see how those two battalions approach the problem of recruitment. Despite the fact that the 1st Battalion is only marginally under strength, it has had difficulties deploying to Afghanistan and finding the manpower that it needs.

The commanding officer - strangely enough, quite well known to me - pointed out that he had to leave almost 40 men behind in Pirbright because they were sick. They could not be deployed on operations not because of temporary illness, but because of chronic difficulties for which medical discharges could not be procured. The soldiers were capable of sedentary duties, but there are not many sedentary duties to perform in an infantry regiment. So the regiment called on soldiers from its battle group - men of the King's Royal Hussars - to help them with the problem.
So there it is, nearly six years ago, Mercer is noting that, to overcome the problems raised by the long-term sick in battalions, commanding officers call in troops from other regiments to make up the numbers. This is on the eve of major operations in Afghanistan and, interestingly, a fact that Mercer finds quite unremarkable. Equally, he is well aware that each formation comprises a number of longer-term sick, which again he finds unremarkable. And, having delivered the information without comments, he goes on to say:

The commanding officer also pointed out a fascinating fact … The battalion spent two years serving in Londonderry, which made it less than enthusiastic for other tasks. The deployment was gruelling, not very exciting and numbers had fallen. Yet as soon as the news spread through the battalion that it was to deploy to Afghanistan, and 1 Royal Anglian realised that it was going to be allowed to do a task that had been reserved for the units of 16 Air Assault Brigade and that the two-tier Army was being put on the back burner, a dozen men withdrew their notice to sign off, became good, loyal and motivated soldiers again, and were slavering for operations.

It was clear to the officer that part of the retention problem, at least as far as he was concerned, turned on the tasks that the battalion was being given. The men understood two years in Londonderry, but - by golly - they preferred a good, exciting tour in Afghanistan.
This latter information is fascinating and gels very much with the findings we reported in November last. Soldiers (of all ranks) are heavily influenced by the tasks they are allotted, and the experience is that they are as likely to leave the Army because they are not being deployed, as leaving because of the tempo of operations.

Speaking recently to a journalist who had just returned from Iraq, he told me that another major problem was the high pay offered by security "consultants" – so generous that the Army was haemorrhaging men, who found it more rewarding financially to work for them.

The point, of course, is that the issues raised by Mercer in today's Telegraph are ones that existed six (and more years ago). They were unremarkable then and are of no more importance now. That they assume prominence on the front page of a daily newspaper, with 52 other journals rushing into print with the same story, is a reflection not of the gravity of the situation but merely because it fits the current political narrative. This, no more and no less, is mischief-making.

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