Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 4

The earlier parts deal with the emergence of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) and the Army's response to it – how this led to a "major restructuring" of the Army which took precedence over the war in Iraq, condemning troops to using second-hand equipment while the General dreamed of their powerful new "toys".

We also saw how, as the strategic situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, the fantasy collided with reality and Gen Dannatt was forced to concede that the Army would have to be equipped to fight the real war. In this part, we have a look at the "fantasy Army" as might have been, and find it still casts a long shadow over the operational capabilities of the Army.

FRES and counter-insurgency

Had FRES, as originally conceived, ever been put to the test in a counter-insurgency environment, it would have been a disaster. Based on detecting the enemy before it could get close enough to do any damage, the concept was dangerously wrong.

Insurgents, as is generally known, are not always obliging enough to wear uniforms and drive around in hardware conveniently painted in military colours. Indistinguishable from the civilian population in which they operate, they rely on cheap weapons, immune to the high-tech sensors and the billion-pound weapons systems.

A man with an RPG bought in the local arms bazaar for a few dollars or with two 152mm artillery shells taped together which he can bury by the roadside can get inside the "sensor loop". He can destroy equipment worth tens of millions of pounds, kill and injure soldiers and civilians and make the "battlefield" untenable.

As to the Army structure required for FRES, this was also antithesis of that needed to conduct a successful counter-insurgency. With Gen Jackson's Future Army Structure, the requirement was for highly specialised mechanised infantry, endowed with a very high level of technical skills and capable of operating sophisticated electronic equipment and advanced weapons systems.

Crucially, proficiency required an equally high level of training, plus constant rehearsals and exercises, all to keep skills current and maintain unit cohesion – especially given the relatively high churn rate in the infantry and the low skill base of recruits.

Breaking the Army

In such an Army, training is a full-time job and one which cannot be neglected. So specialised is the task that training and deployment for entirely different counter-insurgency tasks, in two different theatres, could not help but impose enormous strains on a relatively small Army. It was this, more than anything to which Dannatt was referring when he complained of Iraq plus Afghanistan breaking his Army.

It was not the operations themselves which caused the problem. Maintaining what amounted to two reinforced brigades in the field, even with manpower levels under 100,000, should have presented no insuperable difficulties. It was operations, plus the pressing need to maintain the "normal" training cycle – to maintain his "balanced force", as Dannatt liked to call it – which caused the problem.

That problem had been considerably exacerbated by the current roulement system, where complete units are rotated into theatre for six months, before being returned. With gaps between each operational deployment of two years under the so-called "harmony guidelines", this created a planning nightmare.

But the greater problem was the six months needed for the specialist pre-deployment training that each unit needed, and the period of "deprogramming" required afterwards. Cramming in the "proper" training, for the FRES/balanced force capability, and then having to rebuild the skill sets and currency after they have been lost during operational deployments and their training cycles were extremely problematical.

Depending on the view taken, either this requirement was breaking the back of the Army, or the operational load was doing the damage. Dannatt believed it was the latter.

In that sense, FRES – and the commitment to the ERRF – cast a long shadow. It overstressed an Army that could perhaps have performed one function well, but could not cope with two entirely different and mutually incompatible tempos. There lay a further element to the defeat in Iraq.

Forced to choose between losing the war and, in his terms, irrevocably damaging his Army – not that it was put in such blunt terms – Dannatt made what appeared to be a soldier's choice. His Army came first. In fact, it was a bureaucrat's choice. The Army as an object had become more important than the tasks it was to perform. There is even a name for this – it is called self-maintenance.

Dannatt's precious Piranhas

As to the FRES vehicles, Dannatt's precious Piranhas, clearly they would have provided better protection than Snatch Land Rovers. But they would probably have been no greater a success than the Warriors they would have replaced – i.e., less effective than dedicated MRAP vehicles. Here, it is possible to gain some first-hand indications as to how they would actually have performed for, while the British abandoned the FFLAV idea, the Canadian forces did not.

They introduced the earlier version of the Piranha as the LAV (light armoured vehicle) which – in its numerous variants - forms the backbone of their armoured formations. And with the Canadian deployment to Afghanistan also went their LAVs.

There is no reliable information on casualty rates relative to specific vehicles. The Canadians adopted as a formal policy that which exists informally in the British Army, that of declining to identify the vehicles involved in incidents, fatal or otherwise. However, before information dried up, it was evident that a considerable and distressing number of LAVs had been involved in attacks in which one or more crew members had died.

What also appeared to be the case was that the bulk – if not all – of the casualties occurred on roads, where the vehicles were either in transit to or from operations, or on escort duties. In most cases, they were travelling with their armoured hatches open, either to improve visibility (and ventilation) or – in accordance with standing orders – to relieve overpressure in the event of a hull breach from a mine or IED.

This can be more dangerous in the confines of an armoured vehicle than direct blast effects. For whatever reason, most of the casualties involved either drivers or vehicle commanders, these being in the most exposed positions. Although more heavily armoured, there is no reason to suppose that the crews of later mark Piranhas would not suffer the same fate. They are not mine-protected to anything like the same extent as a dedicated MRAPs and do not provide all-round, enclosed protection.

There are also the experimental Stryker Brigades deployed by the US Army in Iraq, these too being based on the Piranha platform. These are perhaps closer to the model which the British vehicles would have followed, as the Brigades were set up to develop the Future Combat System (FCS), the closest parallel to FRES. Their performance is a matter of considerable debate – and dispute. The consensus, if there is one, lies in the view that the "jury is still out".

However, there have been reports of considerable losses. A single infantry company in Diyala province lost five Strykers in less than a week. In one of the biggest hits, six American soldiers and a journalist were killed when a huge bomb exploded beneath their Stryker on 6 May 2007. It was the biggest one-day loss for the battalion in more than two years.

It is perhaps significant that Gen Petraeus did not seek to expand the Stryker force when implementing the surge, and that MRAP vehicles now perform many of the functions previously carried out by Strykers. On that basis, the experience does not provide a comforting assurance that British deployment of Piranhas would have been successful.

The ultimate irony though is that FRES had been killed off by the very insurgency it was never meant to fight. Recognising the inherent vulnerability of FRES vehicles, designers had sought to bolt more and more armour on them, and added more systems, in a vain attempt to proof them against IEDs. They are now so heavy that they cannot be carried by standard military transport aircraft. The concept is no longer viable – not that it ever was.