Scene of the abortive rescue attempt of a Royal Marine in January 2007 by troops carried on the outside of Apache attack helicopters, after a failed attack a Taliban fort in Jugroom, Gamsir province is now the centre of a massive operation by US Marines.
According to Reuters, in a dawn attack yesterday, the Marines stormed the provincial capital, which goes by the same name of Gamsir (sometimes spelt "Garmser"). A substantial force was deployed, estimated by The Times at about 2,400. The action started on Tuesday, with the troops securing routes into the town in the south of Helmand province, the world's biggest opium producing region and a hotbed of insurgent activity.
This is the US Marines' first large operation in Afghanistan since arriving to reinforce NATO troops last month although they were said by The Daily Telegraph to have been supported by British forces
The Guardian has it that the Marines landed before dawn yesterday, some trundling in on Humvee trucks and others arriving by helicopter. Within a few hours, insurgents armed with guns and rocket launchers poured out of a local madrasa, sparking fighting that lasted several hours.
The Taleban - who claimed to have hundreds of fighters in the area, entrenched in a series of pre-prepared defence - responded with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. They failed to inflict any casualties. The combat, says the paper, petered out by late morning after US helicopter gunships pounded suspected Taliban positions with rockets. Casualty figures were unknown.
The Guardian also says the operation was coordinated with the British military, which has a fortified base in the town and several outposts in surrounding areas. Scottish infantrymen, it tells us, provided covering fire as the Marines passed through their lines, while British commanders coordinated surveillance of Taliban movements.
According to US Marine spokeswoman Captain Kelly Frushour, the Marines are now in control of the town centre.
The news of this success, which has eluded British forces, comes a day after The Daily Telegraph published details of a downbeat confidential Foreign and Commonwealth Office paper, which listed “a catalogue of problems and weaknesses in Western attempts to stabilise the country.”
In a list of "critical areas to fill", the paper claimed that Nato still needed three infantry battalions, more helicopters, more aircraft and more training teams to help the Afghan army. Intriguingly, it also raises concerns about the situation after November, when the US Marines currently engaged in the Garmsir operation are to be withdrawn from the south.
That latter concern is presumably now less pressing. The presumption had been – without any evidence to support it – that the assault on Garmsir would have been held over until 16 Air Assault Brigade was fully in place, to give the publicity-hungry Paras a chance of the glory, of which they had been deprived by the capture of Musa Qala by 52 Infantry Brigade last December.
With the US Marines declining to wait, they now have the opportunity to pacify the region and, it is anticipated, to push the Taleban back to the Pakistan border in Helmand, assisting the control of Taleban infiltration at the border.
Nevertheless, this being a US success – albeit in the British sector – it has received considerably less coverage from the British media than the abortive attempt on the Jugroom fort in January 2007. It has been largely overshadowed by news of Prince William’s flying visit to Afghanistan, a visit that has been dismissed as a publicity stunt.
However, the action is another defeat for the Taleban, which is losing its grip over Helmand province and is now failing to prevail in any direct military confrontations with Nato forces. And now the hard work or reconstruction begins.
By coincidence, Defence Questions yesterday had Richard Benyon, Conservative MP for Newbury (pictured), ask a pointed question of the defence secretary, Des Browne, in relation to the growing toll from IEDs in Afghanistan.
"Given that a large proportion of the injuries suffered by members of our armed forces in Afghanistan are from roadside bombs and similar improvised explosive devices," said Benyon, "why are we still deploying troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan in so-called snatch Land Rovers, when we know that such vehicles offer little or no protection against such devices?"
Browne's response is worth recording in full:
The hon. Gentleman and the House will know, because I have gone to some lengths to keep the House up to date, that we have been increasingly providing our troops with vehicles that offer the highest level of protection. Indeed, through Mastiff and Ridgback (sic), on which we hope to make significant progress over the coming months, we will be providing a total of 400 new vehicles that will offer that level of protection. The hon. Gentleman will know also, because it is reported back here regularly, that Mastiff has proved enormously popular with the troops in saving lives.The coincidence, as it happens, was a BBC report on the children's news programme Newsbeat, accessible through the website, that report headed: "I survived a bomb attack". It offers an interview with Lance Corporal Jamie Dougal who was on a routine patrol in Helmand Province when the vehicle he was in set off an IED. Dougal was in the top cover position and sustained minor injuries and is now back on duty.
My obligation as the Secretary of State is to provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles. Our experience in Afghanistan shows us that the issue is not just a need for protected vehicles, in the sense of protected against such explosions; rather, we also need vehicles that give our troops both the necessary flexibility and movement, and a presence on the ground that is specific to the communities in which they are working. I fulfil that obligation. We provide a range of vehicles to the commanders. I do not intend to dictate to our commanders, with a long screwdriver from London, which of those vehicles they should use, but I am conscious of the need continually to develop and to deploy more protected vehicles, subject to that requirement.
That, as Dougal makes clear, is entirely due to the fact that he was riding in a Mastiff. He tells the BBC: "Considering how bad the explosion was and considering the small amount of injuries I got, I'd definitely say that if it wasn't for the Mastiff I wouldn't be here today. "It definitely saved my life."
The BBC report tells us:
The Mastiff is the vehicle of choice in Afghanistan. The main threat from the Taleban are IEDs, but even they are struggling to get to grips with this incredibly tough piece of kit. At a cost of around £1m it's not cheap, but it's saving lives on a daily basis.That report also tells us that, "Amazingly no-one inside Jamie's Mastiff was hurt …", something of no surprise to this blog. It adds to the growing body of anecdotal evidence which attests to the value of these vehicles.
They test it out by driving it over mines. It has six wheels so it can keep going if some of them get blown off. The armour is designed to take the force of an explosion away from the vehicle, and it's covered in cameras so the troops inside can see 360 degrees around them.
However, Browne's comments about not intending "to dictate to our commanders, with a long screwdriver from London …" perhaps hints at the underlying and continuing tension between the politicians and the military over the value of protected vehicles, with the MoD still pushing its Jackal "weapons platform", with an inordinate number of "puffs" on the MoD website, the latest here.
The extent of the mountain that has to be climbed to get it through to the military that their existing equipment is dangerously (and unnecessarily) vulnerable comes in the 2008 90th Anniversary edition of the RAF Yearbook. Page 8 and 9 – about the RAF Regiment - make sombre reading. Page eight reads:
The Regiment has recently received the latest Pinzgauer Vector armoured vehicles, and updated Wolf, WMIK Landrovers to bolster its daily patrols covering the AOR of over 480sq kms.On page nine, it then states:
The RAF Regiment squadron provides a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and also undertakes regular long-range patrols over the area, for extended periods making themselves known to the local village elders and population … Equipped with the latest Wolf Land Rover, armed WMIK Land Rover and recently arrived Pingzgauer Vector armoured vehicle, the squadron has a broad remit and flexibility to conduct a range of patrols in order to achieve their missions…The article, according to one of our correspondents, gives the impression that the Regiment beleives it has been issued the "Mutts Nuts" of armoured vehicles. Given recent casualties in mobile patrols (here and here), their enthusiasm is somewhat misplaced.
The dangers of conducting "regular" patrols" and "making themselves known to local village elders" (and Taliban) while using Vectors and WIMIKs does not seem to have dawned on these particular military geniuses, who seem to need more protection from themselves than the Taleban. As our correspondent writes: "Words fail me".
In the protection stakes, an unconfirmed report in a French defence journal - apparently based on a report in DefenseNews - has it that the UK intends to order upwards of 24 Australian-made Bushmaster MRAPs (pictured above) – each equipped with a Kongsberg 12.7 mm remote weapon station. They are, it appears, to be used for "electronic warfare".
This, if confirmed, would be an interesting development and perhaps indicates that the Browne message that we need "continually to develop and to deploy more protected vehicles…" is slowly getting through.
A propos the report by Sean Rayment which we examined in our previous post, The Times today offers an account of life in the newly liberated Basra, written by a female British journalist – on the spot in Basra.
That, in itself, is a measure of the success of the Iraqi Army operation. For a long time now, Basra has been off-limits to Western journalists and we have become used to reports by-lined from Baghdad, 340 miles away, relying on local stringers, telephone conversations and official press releases.
The journalist in question, Deborah Haynes (with additional reporting by Ali Hamdani), writes under the headline, "The men in black vanish and Basra comes to life", telling us that she is, "The first Western journalist to enter the city since Operation Charge of the Knights was launched a month ago".
She reports that young women are daring to wear jeans, soldiers listen to pop music on their mobile phones and bands are performing at wedding parties again. All across Iraq's second city life is improving, a month after Iraqi troops began a surprise crackdown on the black-clad gangs who were allowed to flourish under the British military. The gunmen's reign had enforced a strict set of religious codes.
This reinforces and builds on an AP story datelined 18 April which pictured (above left) women walking through the park in Basra. CD shops, we were told, sell love songs again, women hesitantly emerge from their homes without veils, and alcohol sellers are creeping out of hiding in this southern city where religious vigilantes have long enforced strict Islamic laws.
The changes in recent weeks, said the report, are signs that an Iraqi military crackdown against militiamen, particularly the Mahdi Army loyal to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has succeeded despite the troubles that plagued the offensive launched last month.
Separately, the MoD website recounts how British bomb disposal teams have been helping their Iraqi counterparts destroy hundreds of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and other munitions recovered from Basra City during the recent Iraqi led surge into the city.
Once again, this is supported by media reports (and pictures – right: note the Dzik in the background) which attest to the extraordinary amount of material which was seized by Iraqi forces.
Too much good evidence is now coming through to suggest otherwise that there has been a significant advance in this troubled city, with British and US officials tentatively acknowledging that a "turning point" has been reached.
In a separate, later piece, The Times also reports that, today, Moqtada al-Sadr - who has not seen in public for almost a year – has ordered his followers to refrain from fighting the Iraqi security forces.
The message, delivered on his behalf at a Baghdad mosque during Friday prayers, must be considered a humiliating climb down, especially after the contemptuous response from Condoleezza Rice to Sadr's threat to launch an "open war" against the Iraqi government.
Sadr is now claiming that his threat had been directed at US and British troops alone, adding that "there will be no war between Sadrists and Iraqi brothers from any groups."
Meanwhile, as US and Iraqi forces pushed on with operations to combat rogue elements of the Maedi Army and other armed gangs in the Shia stronghold of Sadr City in east Baghdad, operations are continuing in Basra, but Iraqi soldiers and police, The Times says, "are no longer facing much resistance."
Mr Rayment, if he had any integrity, might like to revisit his copy this coming Sunday.
UPDATE: The Sadr "climb down" was covered on the main BBC television news this evening - about 20 seconds, before the programme went on to air a long report about German TV taking the Allo-Allo comedy series. We are so lucky to have such a concerned, responsible public service broadcaster.
It is relatively rare for the MoD, first on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and then on its own website, directly – or even indirectly – to contradict media reports on operations in southern Iraq.
However, it was precisely that exercise which the MoD undertook yesterday, its website piece headed, "People of Basra 'optimistic' as Iraqi Army take control in the city".
Centre stage was Major Tom Holloway from the Headquarters Multi-National Division South East, the UK military spokesman in southern Iraq. He was speaking about "the mood of optimism" he believed was growing in Basra following operations carried out by the Iraqi Security Forces in the city, "with help from UK and other coalition troops, in recent days."
Without stating it explicitly, Holloway was addressing an apparently devastating article in the The Sunday Telegraph by defence correspondent Sean Rayment claiming that the battle (by Iraqi forces) to retake Basra had been a "complete disaster".
Normally, one is loath to take anything the MoD offers at face value, but the same injunction also applies to the MSM, different media sources having their own agendas. In the case of the conservative-leaning Sunday Telegraph - along with its sister daily newspaper, The Daily Telegraph - this is most definitely to talk down any strategic successes in Iraq, loath as it is to acknowledge that any good can come out of "Blair's war".
Thus, one tends to steer a middle course, or seek – as far as one can – additional information to give some clues as to what is really happening, a process that is often difficult owing to the paucity of reporting and the inevitable confusion that surrounds complex events.
By any impassionate reckoning though, Rayment's account must be considered flawed - even without triangulation. His thesis, based on disclosures from unnamed "British commanders" avers that the British-trained Iraqi Army's attempt to retake Basra from militiamen was an "unmitigated disaster at every level".
Senior (again unnamed) sources, he writes, "have said that the mission was undermined by incompetent officers and untrained troops who were sent into battle with inadequate supplies of food, water and ammunition." These sources then add that the failure had delayed the British withdrawal by "many months".
The immediate problem with these assertions is their unequivocal nature. Very few things in life can be considered an "unmitigated disaster at every level". And while it is eminently possible to accept that the Iraqi operations were not carried out with the same skill and precision that might have typified British operations (in their commanders' dreams), there is absolutely no independent evidence to support any claim that they were a "disaster".
In fact, having followed events extremely closely (possibly far more closely than Mr Rayment – we certainly wrote a great deal more, see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here), we eventually concluded that the operations had achieved a considerable measure of success (both militarily and politically), a view shared not only by UK defence secretary Des Browne but also the Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee, James Arbuthnot.
Why Rayment’s account should have been so skewed (and we take the view that it was) might also be partly explained by the fact that he is ex-military (formerly a junior Para officer) and shows a natural but sometimes overly close affinity to his former colleagues and soul-mates.
In this event, he is most probably reflecting a certain sensitivity in the British forces at having been charged with "skulking in Basra Air Station" while the Iraqi forces took on and suppressed the Mehdi Army. This was something which they had manifestly failed to do, attracting criticism from both Americans and Iraqis for what many believe to be premature withdrawals from their other bases in southern Iraq.
To that extent, Rayment seems to have been conveying a certain amount of self-serving justification, from the Army in particular, with the aim of soothing its injured pride, most noticeable when he recounts that UK and US forces are now directly supporting the Iraqi Army and that, "British troops are once again patrolling the city's streets".
In that context, we would tend to rely more on the current MoD account of the situation. Amongst other things, it shows that a British strategy has emerged which seems to be working and that, although unglamorous and less exciting, the roles of training, mentoring and logistic support are yielding dividends.
But there are other sources. Apart from the superb narrative on Long War Journal we have the LA Times and the BBC – neither known for their sympathetic outlook towards the Iraqi operation. They also seem to accept that progress has been made.
In particular, the LA Times takes on what appears to be an empty threat made at the weekend by Muqtada Sadr – just as Rayment was writing that segments of the Iraqi Army were a "busted flush". Sadr, whose forces are under considerable pressure and taking heavy losses, announced that he would end his (somewhat defunct and irrelevant) Mehdi Army cease-fire if the Iraqi government did not freeze its operations, backed by US forces, against his militia in Baghdad and Basra.
Having already threatened an "open war" against the Iraqi government, this drew a delicious response from US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who mocked him as a man who asks his followers to fight to the death while he resides in safety in Iran. If anyone is looking like a "busted flush", it is Sadr, who is described by US Ambassador Ryan Crocker as running "a weakened military organisation".
From the BBC, we get news of more casualties taken by the Mehdi Army in Baghdad and of "fierce fighting" in Basra where the Iraqi Army commander General Mohan Furaiji is claiming that his forces are in "almost complete control" of the port city. Yet this is a man who, according to Rayment, is described by a senior (unnamed) "British staff officer" as a "dangerous lunatic" who "ignored" advice.
With the BBC correspondent in Baghdad also retailing that there are signs that the militias' hold on Basra is weakening, with reports of women dressing less conservatively, couples walking arm-in-arm and live music being played at weddings - all things that would have been impossible a few weeks ago – we have no reason to change our view that things in southern Iraq seem to be improving.
This is Robert Gates, US defence secretary, observing how difficult it is to get the USAF "old guard" to change its ways, and address the realities of fighting counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know how he feels.
Reported by Reuters and others, he was addressing officers at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, telling them that the US military needed more UAVs and equipment to collect intelligence and conduct surveillance in Iraq despite a big boost in those capabilities since 2001.
But, he said, he had hit resistance from inside the Pentagon, bumping up against the pilots' mafia (not his words). What he did say was that the Air Force's desire to use pilots for its missions has kept the Defence Department from employing more effective and lower cost unmanned aircraft.
"I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theatre," Gates complained, but … "Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth. While we've doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough."
The defence secretary had last week formed a task force in an attempt more quickly to find new ways to get those capabilities to Iraq and Afghanistan. Already, his group's findings, he says, may force the Air Force to replace pilots with unmanned aircraft on some missions.
Interestingly, he added that it may also force the Air Force to reconsider the type of aircraft it needs. "All this may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not," he told the group. He went on:
For those missions that still require manned missions, we have to think hard about whether we have the right platforms, whether for example low-cost, low-tech alternatives exist to do basic reconnaissance and close air support in an environment where we have total control of the skies.The "low-cost, low-tech alternatives exist to do … close air support" was given less prominence in the various media reports but, with the US already funding the purchase of Super Tucanos for the Iraqi Air Force, one wonders if he has these – or something like it – in mind for the USAF.
What does come over though is that Gates (or his task force) is doing some sky blue thinking. He compares his new task force to the one that studied the military's need for more bomb-resistant vehicles, which led to the Pentagon's $20 billion program to speed mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles to Iraq last year.
On this, while no one can argue that the military is not staffed by a high proportion of skilled, dedicated and highly courageous personnel, there is always room for fresh thinking, especially as – almost by definition – the military hierarchy tends to be somewhat conservative.
That Gates is pushing new thinking can only be good, and his support for additional UAVs (and low-cost platforms) could lead to some welcome changes. As the man says, "Today we now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001 … But in my view we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt."
Very often, immersed in service politics, chiefs are more concerned with the standing and ambitions of their own particular services, rather than the specific needs to the personnel engaged in operations. It can thus take an outsider – like a politician – to remind them that the job comes first. Gates may have done just that.
Can we please see something similar this side of the pond?
This blog is in a very small minority, having been less than enthusiastic about the Viking tracked armoured vehicle and its deployment in Afghanistan.
Despite receiving laudatory puffs from the MoD - and despite its undoubted cross-country performance – it is not a mine protected vehicle and crews are highly vulnerable to this form of attack.
That much, sadly, is borne out by the latest MoD casualty report, amplified by a much more detailed report in The Guardian, which records the death of Trooper Robert Pearson from the Queen's Royal Lancers, killed when his Viking was hit by a "suspected mine". A second soldier was injured in the blast.
The Guardian observes in passing that five British soldiers have been killed in south Afghanistan in the past three weeks, all by roadside bombs or mines, noting – as have we – that the Taleban are shifting their tactics from open confrontation and gunfights with British and other Nato troops.
That the Taleban are resorting to mines and bombs is, in a sense, good news, it being evidence that they are losing the tactical battle with Nato forces. This is further evidenced by comments retailed by The Guardian that the Taleban's command and control in Helmand province had been "fractured" by their losing the town of Musa Qala. British commanders thus describe the Taleban as on the "back foot"
However, the fact remains that the British Army remains poorly equipped to deal with the change in Taleban tactics, which – we never tire of pointing out – was predictable and predicted nearly two years ago.
For sure, we await the deliveries of additional Mastiffs and the new Ridgeback, but there is more needed, including more and better UAVs and active mine detection and route clearance, using Husky sets and other equipment.
With the limited equipment available to the Army to deal with the mine threat, we continue to maintain our stance that it is not being properly addressed, and this latest incident would appear to offer some confirmation of that view.
If there is muted discussion about the viability of the Royal Navy's "super carrier" project, not so in France, it seems.
French defence minister Herve Morin yesterday dropped a bombshell, casting doubt over plans for a second French aircraft carrier, citing a cash crunch, and said a decision would be taken soon.
"It is clear that the budgetary situation concerning the equipment of our forces makes the construction of a second aircraft carrier difficult," the minister told Europe 1 radio and the TV5 Monde television channel. "It's a decision that we will have to take in the coming weeks," he said, adding: "The president of the republic will decide."
Quite where that leaves the UK is anyone's guess, since the French have committed to a joint design, and possibly sharing construction with the British, driving down costs by producing three hulls instead of two.
That the French are even thinking of cancellation, however, rather reinforces our view that European defence integration is something of a paper tiger. When it comes to putting up the money, the Euros are simply nowhere to be seen.
After all, it was as recently as the summit at le Touquet in 2003 that Tony Blair and Chirac reaffirmed their St. Malo commitment to be able to maintain one battle-ready aircraft carrier group at sea at all times.
This was supposed to be in place by 2008 and with France currently operating just one carrier, the Charles de Gaulle (pictured), it looks the grandiose plans hatched by Blair and Chirac could be coming to naught. As always, when it comes to defence and European support, it will be ourselves alone.
When it happened, on 4 September 2006, we called it criminal incompetence, sending troops out in lightly-armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers to a certain death if they were attacked by IEDs.
That is precisely what had happened to Gunners Stephen Wright and Samuela Vanua of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery. They were in a three-vehicle patrol comprising "Snatch" Land Rovers, passing through a built-up area near the town of Ad Dayr, 22 miles north of Basra City, escorting a Danish reconstruction team, when they were attacked. Both soldiers died.
Nor had they been the first. On 15 April 2006, Lieutenant Richard Palmer of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had been killed in the same area in the "Snatch" Land Rover he had commanded, hit by an IED while on a joint patrol with the Iraqi Army.
Furthermore, by the time the gunners were killed, The Guardian estimated that 23 troops had been killed in attacks involving "Snatch" Land Rovers, although the figure was probably higher.
On the deaths of Gunners Stephen Wright and Samuela Vanua, however, Oxford deputy assistant coroner Andrew Walker has now ruled that, had their patrol been issued with Warrior MICVs, they may well have survived the bomb, cementing in this blog's view that the "Snatch" Land Rover was wholly inappropriate for the level of threat to which troops were then exposed.
But, in so ruling, Walker was not entirely in tune with his fellow Oxford coroner, Selena Lynch. She held the inquest on the deaths of Pte Phillip Hewett, 2nd Lt Richard Shearer and Pte Leon Spicer who were also killed by a bomb attack on their "Snatch", on 16 July 2005 in al Amarah but then determined that she could make no recommendation to the MoD about the use of the "Snatches" because it was "beyond her jurisdiction".
Nevertheless, the case has been made in the al Amarah incident that the use of Warriors similarly would have saved the soldiers' lives, "Snatches" in this instance having been selected so as to minimise the antagonism to the local population.
Reported by The Daily Telegraph, the Army in this case argued that, while the patrol had requested the armoured vehicles, they were "needed elsewhere". Additionally, it was maintained that it would have been "impractical" for the tracked vehicles to constantly make the journey from the barracks at Shaibah, where the soldiers had been based, to their area of operations.
The Guardian gives more detail here, citing the soldiers' commanding officer, Major Marcus Tivey. He told the coroner that they "weren't really practical for the task" because of the distances involved, and kept breaking down. However, he also said that if the vehicles were available, because of the security they provided they would have been used.
Warrant Officer James Howitt, who was on the vehicle struck by the bomb, told the inquest that the Warrior "would have been perfect for that stretch of road", but considering the whole of the mission he would have used Land Rovers. He said officers constantly put in requests for Warriors, but superior officers were "very unminded" to give them the vehicles.
According to The Guardian the MoD said later: "The soldiers were in an appropriate vehicle for the task they were conducting and that's what their commanders and colleagues said at the inquest."
As to the "impractical" nature of the Warriors, the Army may have a point. At a rough estimate, it is over 30 miles from Shaibah to Ad Dayr – a round trip of perhaps 70 miles.
In an aggressive environment for which these vehicles simply were not designed, breakdowns were common and maintenance crews were heavily stretched. Using them for relatively long-distance trips like this, for which also they were not designed, could only have further reduced the availability of the fleet.
The tragic aspect of this incident, though, was that within weeks of the deaths, dozens of Mastiff and Bulldog armoured vehicles arrived in Iraq. The gunners had been due to receive ten of the mine-protected Mastiffs but they had arrived only after the regiment had left Iraq.
Therein lies the charge we made of criminal incompetence. As we recounted earlier, the Army had plenty of warning that the security situation in southern Iraq was deteriorating and had known for at least two years that the "Snatches" were not up to the job.
Yet, not only did the Army delay obtaining better-protected replacements, it actively resisted introduction of the Mastiffs into theatre. And this was despite the fact that, as a wheeled vehicle based on a commercial chassis as they are, they would have been well able to cope with the distances involved and would have been ideal in all other respects.
This issue, then, has not been resolved by coroner Andrew Walker. However, it does not end there. As recorded by Christopher Booker last week, Private Hewett's mother, Sue Smith, is set to sue the MoD for sending her son to his death in a "Snatch" Land Rover.
Booker, though, was also reporting that Sue had been frustrated by the Legal Aid Board, which was demanding from her a £5,000 contribution to the case, money which she simply did not have. Through the generosity of Sunday Telegraph readers, however, the money has been found, and the MoD – and through it, the Army - will be brought to account.
We will see then whether the arguments offered by the military stand up or whether, as we believe, the use of "Snatches" was indeed an example of criminal incompetence.
At the end of August, we reported the loss of an RAF Regiment WIMIK, with the death of one soldier and a civilian interpreter. Two others were injured.
This was the result of a mine/IED strike while they were patrolling the perimeter of Kandahar Airfield and now it looks like the Regiment has just suffered another loss under very similar circumstances.
Reported on the MoD site and in The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, two RAF soldiers have been killed by "a roadside bomb" while on a routine patrol near Kandahar Airfield. All four men were treated at the scene and then evacuated to a nearby field hospital, but two did not survive.
The standard equipment of these patrols is the Land Rover WIMIK and there is no reason to believe that this patrol was equipped any differently. Pending confirmation of the vehicle type, we are minded to refer to our previous comments, the last time an RAF WIMIK was lost.
In Iraq, the RAF patrols are carried out in Mastiffs, where troops have survived similar attacks. That tells its own story.
In what seems almost to be an application of the law of unintended consequences, we learn today – from The Daily Telegraph and many others – that failure to equip soldiers adequately while on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may be in breach of their human rights.
This decision, handed down by Mr Justice Collins sitting at the High Court in London, represents "a landmark legal defeat for the Ministry of Defence" which has previously argued that the Human Rights Act does not apply to soldiers on active service outside their bases.
Collins has decided that British servicemen and women were entitled to a measure of legal protection of their human rights "wherever they may be", adding that: "There is a degree of artificiality in saying that a soldier is protected in a base or in a military hospital but is not protected if he steps outside that base… It is difficult to see the rationale behind that so far as his protection is concerned."
The finding, which is subject to appeal and may yet find its way to the House of Lords, arose in the course of the hearing of an MoD application to clarify the role of coroners, after it had objected to the use by assistant coroner Andrew Walker of phrases such as "serious failure" when recording verdicts on soldiers who had died on active service.
We are told that the judge rejected this attempt "to gag coroners", although it is not entirely clear from press accounts what exactly has been decided. The Guardian reports an MoD spokesman saying, "The ministry of defence sought - and has now received - clarification on a point of law."
Quite what that clarification is will have to wait for further er… clarification, although we understand that Justice Collins has rejected the MoD's request that coroners should be prevented from using phrases such as "serious failure".
On what has turned out to be the more substantive point, The Guardian is saying that the human rights judgement raises the possibility that families of soldiers killed on active service could sue the government for compensation.
This paper, The Times and others also add a further ruling that, in such cases families should be entitled to legal aid and as full access as possible to military documents put before inquest hearings.
In immediate practical terms, the broader ruling by Collins on human rights will have no effect and will not until it has been tested in the Court of Appeal and possibly in the House of Lords. But, if it is confirmed, it will kick-start a number of cases on "Snatch" Land Rovers which are waiting in the wings, where relatives of killed and injured soldiers are considering legal action over the MoD's decision to send them out in these highly vulnerable vehicles.
Amongst those is Sue Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewett (pictured) who, with two others, was killed in a "Snatch" Land Rover after being attacked by an IED in the Iraqi town of al Amarah in July 2005.
More will be written about this by Booker, in The Sunday Telegraph this weekend. I will try to post a link although, by then, we will both be in Washington for the US launch of our book, Scared to Death. We'll do more analysis when I get back.
After what seem interminable delays – with the announcement having made in Parliament in December – a formal notification has been made to Congress that the UK is looking to buy 157 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles with associated equipment and services. The total value, if all options are exercised, could be as high as $125 million.
These are the Force Protection 4x4 Cougars which, in British service, will be named "Ridgebacks" and, although the order has not been formally placed with Force Protection, this is the final stage of clearance before a sale can go ahead. It would seem reasonable now to assume that we will shortly be hearing the final details of a contract with the British government.
This will not, of course, be the end of it. As with the Mastiff, the basic vehicle will be heavily modified in the UK, with the possibility of additional armour, plus the fitting of ECM and communications equipment. Additionally, as far as we know, each vehicle will be fitted with a stabilised, remote weapons system, allowing the gunner to engage targets from within the protected vehicle cell, with – as far as we understand – a very high level of accuracy and a high probability of first round kill, even at extreme ranges.
Thus, the arrival of the Ridgebacks in Afghanistan will represent more than just a new batch of vehicles on the inventory. The type represents a major doctrinal shift from the current philosophy, represented by the Land Rover Wimik and now the Supacat Jackal.
These latter vehicles – in theory at least – optimise off road performance, speed and manoeuvrability, but at the expense of protection. The Ridgeback, on the other hand, is specifically designed with protection in mind, offering a more limited off-road performance and slower speed. In terms of armament, it lacks the second machine gun, although the remote weapon station has the advantage of accuracy, range and protection, not offered by the crew-served weapons of the Jackal.
In many respects though, the Ridgeback and the Jackal will do the same jobs – or, if not exactly the same, there is bound to be some overlap. Both, for instance, can provide fire support, both can carry out long range patrols and both can provide convoy escorts.
There is now, therefore, an interesting opportunity to test two rival doctrines in the field. Operational requirements will, perforce, show up the limitations and the advantages of each approach and, after a period of parallel operations, it should be possible to come to a better view on their respective merits and roles.
If the MoD is at all honest (there is a first time for everything), it will in the fullness of time publish a comparative evaluation, not least to assist policy-makers and others in making the right choices
For this blog, a horrendous dilemma arises with a recent article on Canada.com, where we find that we might be agreeing with something said by former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
In an essay published this week, he is saying that he believes that the EU is losing the will to go to war. Europe's leaders reluctance to risk soldiers' lives in Afghanistan, he adds, is rooted in the emergence of the European Union and the decline of nationalism and patriotism.
"The nations of Europe," he writes, "having been drained by two World Wars, have agreed to transfer significant aspects of their sovereignties to the European Union." However, he adds, "Political loyalties associated with the nation-state have proved not to be automatically transferable".
Thus does Kissinger argue that Europe is in a transition period, with nation-states weakening, even though the Brussels-based EU still lacks the authority or stature within Europe to emerge as a powerful international actor prepared to send troops to danger zones. "The capacity of most European governments to ask their people for sacrifices has diminished dramatically," he believes.
As far as Nato is concerned, this is evolving into an a la carte alliance in which only certain NATO members are prepared to carry heavy burdens, amplifying an argument he rehearsed in a recent Der Spiegel interview, saying:
The major events in European history were conducted by nation-states which developed over several hundred years. There was never a question in the mind of European populations that the state was authorised to ask for sacrifices and that the citizens had a duty to carry it out.That "Europe" is in a transitional stage is not entirely at odds with concerns expressed about the effect of the
Now, the structure of the nation-state has been given up to some considerable extent in Europe. And the capacity of governments to ask for sacrifices has diminished correspondingly.
EU integrationists, he writes, have slowly been constructing institutions to build an EU defence identity by duplicating Nato institutions - planning cells, an EU military staff, a European Defence Agency (concerned with issues such as procurement), the European Rapid Reaction Force and then the Battlegroup concept. The European Security and Defence Identity became the European Security and Defence Policy - a telling change of name.
None of these, writes Fox, have expanded European military capability, led to increased military spending or given the EU more "teeth" when it comes to executing policy decisions.
That much is indeed true, but the facts of EU defence integration are that they were never intended to. Kissinger has it right in that he avers that the EU is losing its will to make war – but only partially so. As an entity, the European Union never really had the will. It knows it can never lay claim to the affections of EU "citizens" to the extent that any one of them would ever be prepared to lay down their lives for "Europe". The EU is interested in a military "identity" only as yet another mechanism for achieving political integration.
Thus did we see in a recent Reuter's analysis the observation that, "When something blows up in the world, the Americans get together and ask 'What are we going to do?', while the Europeans get together and ask 'What are we going to say?'"
The European Union is more concerned to develop institutions and structures than it is capacity – pursuing its "soft power" doctrine of "jaw-jaw" rather than "war-war". The military structures are seen merely as giving the EU leverage which will enable it to make itself heard on a wider world state, rather than an instrument for exercising power in its own right.
As for the member states, many of them are not particularly interested in military power at all. They see in EU defence "co-operation" not greater power but a means of spending even less money and devoting even fewer resources to defence than they already are.
Currently, each of the 27 member states are maintaining their own armed forces, each duplicating – to a greater or lesser extent – command structures and the full range of capabilities that are required to field balanced, independent forces.
Under the EU "defence umbrella", however, some of the smaller countries like Austria can chose simply to offer limited components of a larger force without having to go to the expense and trouble of funding a coherent military force which can operate in its own right. Others, like cash-strapped Italy and Spain, which do not have the funding to field credible military forces, can keep up a pretence of maintaining a military capability when they can no longer afford the price tag.
Here, France is probably out on its own. Unlike most of its partners, it does see in the European defence "identity" a means of improving capability, although – as always – it sees this through the prism of national self-interest. Any EU defence structure, in its own eyes, will be harnessed to promoting French interests, by which means an EU Army will be a way of getting other member states to pay for its own ambitions, effectively a re-run of the Common Agricultural Policy. As such, this makes France the strongest and most powerful driver of European defence integration, as long as by "European" you accept the word "French" which, in the French political vocabulary, mean the same thing.
Germany, on the other hand, is a special case. Punching below its weight on the international stage, it would like to pursue a more robust foreign policy but, even sixty years and more down the line, it is still haunted by its Nazi past. As in 1950, therefore, when it originally supported the idea of a European Army, its motivation is to reassure its European partners (and especially the French) of its benign intentions by wrapping its own military efforts in the European flag and accepting continued French leadership.
This puts the UK is an anomalous position. Politically committed to European political integration, it nonetheless is also committed to fielding a military force that actually works and is capable of operating independently or, as need be, with allies outside the European fold, including and especially the United States.
Thus, while the British government sees economic and operational advantages in closer defence co-operation with EU member states, it is not actually interested in subordinating its entire military effort to the European Union, much less the French.
Unfortunately for Sarkozy, therefore, while he might have ambitions of his own, and is looking to extend the St Malo dream of greater British involvement, he is going to find that the UK is too pre-occupied with current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for it to pander to his ambitions for a more powerful French aka "European" defence identity. The UK is engaged in the exercise of "hard power" and has neither the time nor inclination to play games with the super-soft Europeans.
Nevertheless, to pander to the Foreign Office and the integrationalist tendencies within the British establishment, the UK government will go through the motions of agreeing with Sarkozy, offering token support for his "New European Security Strategy".
The reality, though, is that our armed forces are fighting alongside the Americans and our MoD – after a brief flirtation with a common European procurement strategy – is back to buying more American equipment. Furthermore, our forces are working closer with US forces than they have been for a long time, and are developing common doctrines and systems which are strengthening practical bonds. We will "talk the talk" with the Europeans, but our path leads in a different direction.
This may the real reason for Sarkozy's new-found enthusiasm for membership of Nato – and his willingness to deploy an additional battalion into Afghanistan. To cultivate the affections and further involvement of the British, he must – like a suitor who takes the trouble to discover the interests of the object of his affections – cultivate a common cause with the British.
If the UK is embedded with Nato in Afghanistan and working closely with the Americans, he too must do likewise. In other words, in order to wean the UK off its Atlanticist relationship, France must first become – at least overtly – more Atlanticist itself. Since the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must come to the mountain.
What Sarkozy must calculate is that, by working closer with the UK under the aegis of Nato, as and when operations in Afghanistan wind down and the US withdraws its forces – albeit that this might be decades into the future – the working relationship built up between the French and British will provide the foundation for closer European integration.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy is already developing his own template for that eventuality, employing the neo-Gaullist deputy Pierre Lellouche, former President of the NATO's Parliamentary Assembly, Elysée counsellor and the UMP delegate for defence.
The core of this template is what is known as the eight "Lellouche proposals", which start with reinforced cooperation among the largest European Nations: a kind of military G6 composed of France, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland, with smaller nations able to join at any time.
Secondly, the strategy aims to set a standard military budget which will have to be equivalent to two percent of the GDP of each of the six countries. The third proposal concerns the creation of a common market for the defence industry, through the European Defence Agency which, with the Lisbon treaty, becomes an EU institution.
Fourthly, Lellouche builds on the St. Malo plans for a European Rapid Reaction Force, controlled by a single command and consisting of 60,000 effectives (10,000 from each country). This is linked to the fifth proposal, which aims to do the same with each nation's military bases abroad, each becoming multi-national (i.e., European) rather than exclusively national bases.
The sixth proposal concerns the launch of infrastructural development projects in strategic fields such as space collaboration – not least Galileo, intelligence and communication satellites - and anti-missile defence. The seventh involves a common protection plan for the civil population in the event of terrorist attacks waged with non-conventional weapons and the final proposal relates to the definition of a common European policy on nuclear disarmament and armament control.
Sarkozy has already discussed these proposals with Gordon Brown, which he did during the French-British summit on 26-27 March, but will be careful to pursue them under the cover of a commitment to Nato, to avoid the appearance of competition with the US agenda. Perversely, however, he must also be careful not to appear too Atlanticist, for fear of alienating his other European partners,
And then, also, he must square his relationship with whoever replaces Bush in the White House, a man (or woman) who may have an entirely different agenda.
So much for the plans of mice and men. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, behind his high-flown ambitions does lie that singular truth identified by Kissinger – that European nations have developed an antipathy towards military adventures which largely rule them out as serious military powers, either independently or under the European umbrella.
For the time being, the UK still retains some enthusiasm for robust military action – although that too is waning – which means that there is a major chasm between the European and British approach.
In all this, therefore, the new Lisbon treaty is going to have little direct influence on events. Further European military integration, with British involvement, is going to require a convergence of attitudes between the French and the British, the former becoming more Atlanticist in the short term in order to convince the latter that it should become less so, until the UK can be peeled away entirely.
Events, though, are not in Sarkozy's favour. To be a convincing Atlanticist, he is going to have to put troops in harm's way and make a real rather than token contribution to the "war on terror". For that, he has no domestic support or mandate, and neither do his troops have the equipment or experience to make a worthwhile contribution. They may be expert at beating up ex-colonial Africans, but they are unversed in the realities of modern counter-insurgency operations. This means that, in the final analysis, Sarkozy cannot deliver. And it will take more than fine words and gesture politics to detach the UK from its alliance with the United States.
After the invasion of Iraq – which effectively scuppered St Malo - by a strange accident of history, Afghanistan may prove to be the final wheel on which the French ambitions of European defence integration founder.
There is something quite bizarre about the MoD website's attempt to talk up the Army's boy racer Supacat M-WMIK, telling us in gushing terms redolent of a Boys' Own comic that: "Awesome firepower and agility puts Jackal in class of its own".
Never mind actually that the weapons fit is very similar to that found on a WWII SAS jeep – right down to the .50 calibre M2 machine gun – and is no different from the Land Rover WIMIK that this vehicle replaces. What is really staggering is the comment by Major Tom Wood, "part of the team that produced the vehicle", who says:
I don't think we, as an Army, have ever bought such an incredible piece of kit before. It packs as much power as some of our tanks!If this represented the state of the knowledge of the Army, we would be truly worried. The Army currently has two tank types, the Challenger 2 which, apart from its two machine guns, fields a 120 mm main gun, and the Scimitar which is also equipped with two machine guns, plus a 30 mm Rarden cannon. Not even in their wildest dreams can the Army compare the armament of the M-WMIK with a tank. "Awesome" it is not.
Nevertheless, we can just about accept that the vehicle - which we must now learn to call the "Jackal" – "will mark a significant improvement on the capabilities of the current weapons platform" – in so far as it has enhanced speed, off-road performance and load-carrying capabilities. But what sticks in the craw is the fanciful description of "weapons platform". A truck is no longer a truck, it seems, when it is a "weapons platform".
However much this is dressed up though, the "Jackal" is a truck – specifically a Supacat HMT 400 series high mobility truck. It has been stripped of its cab, fitted with roll bars and a machine-gun ring, plus an additional machine-gun mount, but it is still a truck.
In its original format, when it was introduced to a incredulous world last June, it lacked even basic armour, leaving driver and gunners completely exposed, far more so than they were in the Land Rover. It left one wondering how the Army could even contemplate fielding such a vulnerable vehicle.
Without any announcement to that effect, however, the Army has clearly had second thoughts about deploying a truck with less protection than a golf buggy. We see in the latest pictures the addition of sheets of armour which offer limited protection to the crew.
Thus, we now have a truck which has been stripped of its cab, fitted with roll bars and a machine-gun ring, and an additional machine-gun mount – plus bolt-on armour. But it is still a truck.
Furthermore, its empty weight has now increased from its original 4,700 Kg to 6,650 Kg, a hefty 41 percent increase – so it is now an over-weight truck. And, miraculously, according to the MoD, its performance is unaffected – with no mention of what nearly two tons of armour must do to its centre of gravity and stability.
Yet, such is its amazing capacity for self-deception, that the MoD wants us to believe that this "Jackal" was originally designed as a "purpose-built weapons platform." It wasn't. The record shows that it was designed as a truck. It is a truck, with roll-bars, machine-gun mounts, and bolt-on armour. Who are they trying to kid?
Amazingly, the Army seems to be trying to kid itself. This truck with bolt-on armour, it tells us, incorporates "a fully-integrated protection system and reinforced armour plating," although it also tells us that the "Jackal's main defences are its mobility and agility." This makes the Jackal, we are told, "perfectly suited to the operational terrain of southern Afghanistan, where speed and manoeuvrability are essential."
Crucially though, the one thing its "fully-integrated protection system" does not include is any degree of mine or IED protection - against which "speed and manoeuvrability" is of rather limited utility.
And it is here, that the Taleban are directing their resources. Rather than confront the "awesome" firepower of the boy racers, Nato reports that their use of IEDs in Afghanistan has spiked dramatically in recent years - a staggering 2,615 roadside bombs were either detonated or discovered in 2007, up from 1,931 the previous year and just 844 in 2005.
No doubt the MoD will be quick to inform us of the effects of this awesome firepower on their new "fully-integrated protection system", when the Taleban prove to be somewhat less than impressed by MoD spin.
A reader has sent us a link to a narrative on the experiences of an Army Air Corps pilot flying a Beaver in Aden in the 1960s.
Nothing is ever directly comparable, but there are certain parallels between his experience and the situation in Afghanistan – more than sufficient to support our contention that fixed-wing Army aviation would have a role in the current operation.
Even if fixed wing aircraft could only do a fraction of the jobs carried out by Army helicopters (which would be highly pessimistic, bearing in mind that, in the height of the summer, Lynx helicopters cannot fly during daylight hours), their cheapness, reliability and robustness means that they could undoubtedly provide a valuable support function.
Elsewhere on our forum, there is an interesting discussion being conducted about the role of Naval aviation, but perhaps there should also be some discussion as to why fixed-wing assets have been almost completely removed from the Army inventory.
The decision that the Army should rely almost entirely on helicopters has to be one of the most perverse in the history of military aviation.
A written question submitted by Ann Winterton to the defence secretary has yielded an important and revealing admission.
Answered on 31 March by Bob Ainsworth, the question asked the secretary of state what plans he had "for procuring additional armoured cars." Said Ainsworth:
I am assuming "armoured cars" to mean lightweight armoured wheeled scout vehicles. We provide our forces with a range of vehicles spanning a wide spectrum of protection levels, mobility, profile and armament, depending on their tasks. Vehicles like the CVR(T), WMIK and Panther undertake the sort of tasks that armoured cars might have undertaken. We have no current plans to procure a light, armoured, wheeled scout vehicle.The crucial part of the answer here – which was exactly why the question was asked – is the admission that the WIMIK Land Rover is one of the vehicles which currently undertakes "the sort of tasks that armoured cars might have undertaken."
In other words, tasks which successive generations of the military have allocated to dedicated armoured cars – and have done since 1914 – are now undertaken by a medium utility truck, fitted with two machine guns and protected by bolt-on armour, augmented by strap-on Kevlar pads.
We always knew it was the case that the WIMIK was performing the function of an armoured car, but it is useful to have the official confirmation.
As to the next stage, it does not take a genius – even a military genius - to work out that if there is a valid role for a light, wheeled armoured vehicle, then it would be best fulfilled by a vehicle designed specifically for the purpose. By any measure, that has to be better than using a converted truck.
For sure, military minds may work on a higher plane than those of us mere mortals. Who, for instance, could possibly begin to understand the pure brilliance of the logic of using vehicles like the Pinzgauer, where – in mine infested country – the driver position is set to maximise the risk of death or injury in the event of a mine strike.
But, since we are pathetic little creatures who so obviously lack the insights that enable us to discard nearly a hundred years of military wisdom, we really would like to know why, when there is still, self-evidently, a military role for the armoured car, the British Army insists on fulfilling it with a medium utility truck. Also of some considerable interest is why, when the converted trucks currently used are wearing out and need replacement, the British Army is replacing them with, er … more converted trucks.
The MoD has released the names of the two Royal Marines killed in Afghanistan on Sunday. They are Lieutenant John Thornton and Marine David Marsh, both of 40 Commando.
Although the MoD website does not identify the vehicle involved, it does publish a photograph of Lt. Thornton standing in front of a WIMIK Land Rover. Separately, The Guardian and The Sun refer to the vehicle as a “Land Rover”, the latter paper showing a stock photograph of a WIMIK. The Guardian notes that the Land Rover, "with stripped-down sides and a machine gun," hit a roadside bomb or a mine three miles south of Kajaki. That paper continues:
There are many unexploded mines in Afghanistan, left over from previous conflicts. However, if, as expected, the two marines were killed by an improvised explosive device, it is the latest evidence that the Taliban are resorting to "asymmetric" tactics. Instead of continuing to mount conventional - and usually unsuccessful - attacks with rifles or rockets from vulnerable fixed positions, they are switching to roadside explosive devices or suicide bombers. "The Taliban have been having a terrible time, they are absolutely whacked," a senior British defence source said. That was why they were adopting new tactics.Ironically, Lt. Thornton is on record giving an interview to the Dorset Echo about his experiences in Iraq in 2006. Then, in command of eight platoon of C Company, The Devon and Dorsets, he was extolling the virtues of "soft hat" patrolling, remarking: "If you walk around wearing a helmet it looks very aggressive, which is also part of the reason why we patrol in Snatch Land Rovers and not Warriors."
"Warriors have better protection, but again Snatches are less aggressive. People come up to you and say hello and are generally much more approachable," he said.
This is the classic Army line, no doubt drummed into every officer before he is allowed to speak to the media. And no doubt, the Taleban were highly appreciative that the WIMIKs too are "less aggressive" than properly protected vehicles. The trouble is that they had something more in mind than simply saying "hello".