Friday, 20 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 6

In this part six, we look at the vexed question of under-resourcing. Throughout the Iraqi campaign, the mantras of "underfunding" and "over-stretch" were frequently in the media and came easily from the lips of opposition politicians. More "boots on the ground" and more money were the answers to all ills. However, as always, there are more to these issues than meets the eye.


In August 2007, L/Sgt Chris Casey, and L/Cpl Kirk Redpath were getting murdered. They were pointless and unnecessary deaths. They had been "top covers" in a Snatch escorting a convoy of large trucks out from Kuwait and had been hit by an IED. Two other soldiers were seriously injured. The insurgents had seen the vehicles going down and were waiting for their return.

After all this time, when the Army had been losing Bulldogs, Warriors and even Challengers to IEDs, it was still sending men to die in Snatches. Mastiffs were in theatre and the soldiers' platoon commander had asked for one. Despite Mr Blair's assurances that the armed forces were "extremely well equipped," none had been available. And, for all these soldiers' sacrifice, neither had many "hearts and minds" been won on the six-lane motorway out of Kuwait where the "size and profile" of the Snatch had so obviously and desperately been needed.

A day later, Col Bob Stewart - "former UN commander of British troops in Bosnia" – was on the Today programme. He ventured that the Army was taking the casualties because: "we cannot dominate the ground". The options, he said, were to "retake and dominate the ground, or abandon it."

However, Liam Fox, shadow defence secretary, said the Army was paying for the Government's mistake of not investing enough men, equipment or money into reconstruction at the time of the invasion. "It's tragic that our Armed Forces are paying the price of a lack of political care and planning," he said.

Six months later, L/Cpl Redpath's girlfriend, Sharon Hawkes, echoed this theme: "It was underfunding by the Government that killed him," she said. But she had been pre-empted by Lord Rees-Mogg, who observed:

Throughout the Iraq war, our Forces have been short of suitable armoured vehicles. For years, the Basra palace run had to be performed in vulnerable Snatch vehicles; these have only recently been replaced by the Warrior, which is itself vulnerable to roadside bombs. Unlike American vehicles, the Warrior is not air-conditioned and can get unbearably hot in the sun.
These problems, Rees-Mogg – together with hundreds of the commentariat - attributed to "underfunding", thus illustrating the shallowness of the public debate. The Army had been turning down immediate funding in order to pursue the Eldorado of its £16 billion fleet of medium-weight armoured vehicles, an issue that had almost completely escaped attention.

Even at a more prosaic level, Rees-Mogg was out of touch. Warriors had been available since before the occupation and the use of the Snatch had been a policy issue. There had been no funding issues. Not least, the cost of operating Warriors was £250 per track mile, in normal peacetime use.

Aside from the far better protection afforded by the Mastiff – which was also fitted with powerful and highly effective air conditioning – this vehicle was far cheaper to run. The operational savings alone would have justified their use. And, compared with buying a basic FRES utility vehicle at £8 million each, the Mastiff – and Ridgeback – comes out at less than one eighth the cost, with far more durability and real-world capability.

Significant savings had been demonstrated by US forces, primarily through reduced long-term medical care, rehabilitation, and death benefit payments arising from the lower casualty rate. Additionally, many damaged MRAPs could be repaired and returned to service while conventional vehicles would often have to be written off.

Vehicles with add-on armour were also suffering reduced servicability and shorter lives. MRAPs lasted considerably longer. These factors, together with the decrease in force replacement costs due to casualties and improvements in operational effectiveness, made the MRAP significantly less costly than legacy vehicles.

It would have been cheaper to have bought L/Sgt Casey and L/Cpl Redpath their own personal Mastiff and kept them alive. But the Generals wanted their toys.

Light aviation

The funding problem, of course, was far more complex than either politicians or media allowed for. Take, for instance, the need for airborne surveillance – for tasks as diverse as intelligence gathering and providing "top cover" for routine convoys.

One obvious answer, as part of a mixed package of capabilities, would have been the use of light aircraft. However, the British had no such capability. The Iraqi Air Force did – militarised two-seater, single-engined club trainers called the Sama 2000. Purchased for £363,000 each, their surveillance equipment was capable of detecting a man-sized target at two miles range from 2,000ft – or a hidden bomb.

They were occasionally used to support British forces in Maysan. Although the aircraft were limited in their capabilities, they carried exactly the same optical equipment as the giant, four-engined Nimrod MR4 maritime surveillance aircraft, one of which was so tragically to crash while on a mission in Afghanistan in September 2006.

A fleet of Nimrods was being operated out of Oman, flying up the Gulf and deep inland to provide support for ground operations. Costing £30,000 an hour to operate and flying sorties of twelve hours duration – more with air-to-air refuelling – three days-worth of flying set back the military budget £1 million. The Samas provided a “good enough” solution to the problem of providing low-level airborne surveillance.

But that was not the British way. While "good enough" was entirely acceptable as a military solution to Iraq, when it came to equipment, hugely expensive adapted maritime aircraft or £14 million Future Lynx helicopters delivered in 2014 or sometime never – with very similar camera equipment – were the preferred option. As so very often in British military thinking, the best was the enemy of the good.

This lack of flexibility and the determination to opt for the "best" long-term solution – even though it would not be available for many years - was to deprive the Army of crucial air support. Through the Second World War, it had enjoyed its own light reconnaissance capability with the single-engined Auster – another adapted club aircraft.

Operating in far more dangerous environments than Iraq, its losses were remarkably low. The type was used in Aden and Oman, supplemented by the more powerful DHC Beaver, which also provided welcome support in Northern Ireland where it was the Army’s primary surveillance platform.

In other Armies, light fixed-wing aviation also had a long history, with the Australian Army in the Vietnam War operating Pilatus Porter for reconnaissance, liaison and for communications relay, the latter function carried out in Iraq by the Nimrod.

The Porter was an interesting aircraft. With exceptional short-field performance, it is still in production and with an airframe cost of around £2 million and low operating costs (under £2,000 an hour), it or something similar could have provided a useful stopgap. However, a fixed-wing option was never considered. In the early 70s, the Army Air Corps had converted to an all-helicopter fleet, with a few exceptions.

Techology galore - but not yet

One of those exceptions, though, was the two-engined Britten Norman Defender surveillance aircraft. Four of these were purchased in 2003, at a cost of £4.5 million each. Some were deployed to Iraq but, despite extensive inquiries, no reports of their performance were ever released.

They cannot have been overly successful because in May 2007 the MoD announced the order of four highly sophisticated Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft - designated the Shadow R - as replacements, costed at £14 million each. Not intended for service until 2010, these were far too late for Iraq.

Meanwhile, the RAF had been waiting for five R1 Sentinel surveillance aircraft. Ordered in 1999 at a cost of just over £1 billion, it was equipped with high performance radar based on the equipment used in the U-2 "spy-plane" of Cold War fame.

It could – without any trace of exaggeration – detect footprints in the desert sand from an altitude of 20,000 feet. Originally intended to be operational by 2005, the date was deferred to 2007 because of development problems, then to 2008 and finally to 2010, once again far too late for Iraq.

This was a disease affecting the whole military establishment. With no end of high-performance kit just over the horizon, the money had been committed yet the capabilities were not available. However, their very existence as projects blocked – both financially and intellectually – consideration of cheap stopgap solutions that were "good enough" to solve immediate problems.

Boots on the ground

In May 2007, "senior army officers" were worried that Gordon Brown – soon to become prime minister - was going to cut the number of troops in Iraq to such a low level that their effectiveness would be jeopardised and lives endangered.

One officer complained: "We are sitting ducks and have very little in the way of resources to react. If we mount an operation to deter a mortar attack it takes an entire battle group and ties up all our people." Any further reductions in numbers, said the officer, would leave British troops "hanging onto Basra by our finger tips".

This was the limit of the argument and the public perception. More attacks required more troops for defence or, at least, the retention of existing manpower, with an officer openly stating that it took a complete battle group – some 500 men – to "deter a mortar attack".

Between May and July, as efforts to counter the increasing mortar fire had failed, with attacks intensifying by the day, five men were killed by indirect fire and two on the fruitless task of deterring mortar attacks. Many more were injured. Thousands of man hours had been expended, and dozens of operations launched, to no avail.

Yet, in early July, USAF operators of a Predator UAV had observed insurgents fire two mortar bombs then load the tube into the trunk of their vehicle. They had launched a Hellfire from the Predator, hitting the front of the car and destroying it. This was the job for which the British needed an entire battle group.

The task that the British were attempting could have been accomplished by a small fleet of Predators UAV armed with Hellfire missiles. This would have required no more than a few dozen men who would never have been exposed to any personal risk. By contrast, the profligate use of manpower – and money - did not achieve results. It was not the only example, by any means.

A waste of resource

In May 2007 the MoD bought new fleet of "munitions disposal vehicles" replacing its existing fleet of very similar vehicles. At a cost of £415,000 each – a cool £7.5 million – these were 18 Swiss-built trucks called the "Tellar".

They were unarmoured vans. Like the Vector, they had a "cab forward" design, making them extremely vulnerable to IED attack. There was only concession to the fact that they going into war zones: they had "a level of riot protection" - mesh screens on the windows.

However, "Felix wagons", as they are called by troops, are always prime targets for insurgents. One common tactic is to set up decoy explosions and then mine the area where an vehicle might be expected to park when it arrived with its crew to investigate. Another was simply to ambush the vehicles en route.

The lack of protection had very significant manning implications. While the US was equipping its disposal officers with MRAPs – armoured, armed and self-supporting, with small groups of men - the British, forever complaining about "overstretch", had to keep available large numbers of mounted infantrymen to escort the unarmoured and unarmed bomb disposal vehicles. No wonder they were short of men.

Not the issues

Underfunding was not the issue. Waste was, and the obsession with buying absurdly expensive "toys" certainly was. Underfunding was too easy an excuse – as indeed was the manning issue.

Many will argue that, without more troops, the campaign could never have succeeded. Allan Mallinson, former soldier, writer and military historian, argues thus. He may be right. But he also argues that the strategy must be right. "Without a coherent strategy," he says, "even the best tactics are futile: casualties just mount." He then adds: "But there is no getting round it: strategy needs troops on the ground."

One can agree with that, but also suggest that the troops did not have to be British. In the successful operations to recover Basra and then al Amara, the bulk of the troops were Iraqi.

They had strong American support but the US Army committed just 2,500 troops to southern Iraq – less than the British fielded throughout the occupation. The fault lies in handing over to the Iraqis before they were ready – and indeed before Maliki had secured his political base and could commit them to the battle with the Mahdi Army.

The real answers

The real causes of failure ran much deeper but even now few understand or want to address them. To deal with the tactical situation, the British could not "dominate the ground" as Col Stewart counselled because, every time they left their bases, they were brought down by IEDs and the constant attacks. When they stayed in their bases, the insurgents killed troops there as well. When the British left their bases in an attempt to track down and destroy their attackers, they were also killed.

It had become a vicious circle, one that could have been broken had the Army applied its mind to the problem, but it chose not to. Better use of the cash available, better use of technology, better politics and more use of brainpower were the real answers. But it was easier to complain.