The British administration is to purchase for the RAF another Boeing C-17 strategic transport aircraft (pictured above), bringing the total to eight – two less than the Indian Air Force fleet.
This £200 million purchase is reported in The Independent, having been announced by no lesser a personage than David Cameron himself at PMQs. Such grand issues of state, such as the purchase of one transport aircraft, can no longer, it seems, be left to the defence secretary.
The announcement came after a challenge over today's Defence Select Committee report which warned that Britain could struggle to mount an operation on the scale of the Libya mission in the future, such has been the scale of recent defence cuts.
Unchallenged, however, Cameron is allowed to propagandise freely, telling the Commons that, "Because the Ministry of Defence's finances are better run and better managed, and because we have found savings, we will be able to purchase an additional C-17 for the RAF". "This aircraft is becoming an absolutely brilliant workhorse for the RAF in terms of bringing men and material into a war zone like Afghanistan, but also evacuating civilians in times of need", he says.
What is not said, of course, is that the real reason for the purchase is to a desperate attempt to fill the huge gap left by the failure of the £2.7 billion Airbus A-400M programme, which was supposed to have delivered 25 of their shiny new military transports to the RAF by 2006, with an in-service date of 2007.
When the programme hit multiple snags – some of which have yet to be resolved – the delivery date was moved to 2011, and the RAF's ageing fleet of C-130Ks was given a refit at the cost of £15.3 million, in order to fill the gap.
However, still further problems with the A-400M mean that we will be lucky to see deliveries of the A-400M (now down to 22) by 2014, with an expected (if optimistic) in-service date by 2015. Meanwhile, wing fatigue have required four of the remaining 14-strong C-130K fleet to be retired last year, with the rest due to be scrapped this year.
Furthermore, some of the newer 24-strong C-130J fleet have been hammered so badly, from service in Afghanistan, that they are showing signs of premature ageing and will require wing replacement work, starting this year and taking an unspecified number of machines out of service.
All of this means that, as the National Audit Office reported last year, the RAF would be "unlikely to be able to sustain the current tactical capability". In less measured language, the RAF is now dangerously short of airlift capacity.
So bad is the situation that, this January, an announcement was sneaked out that the MoD was to buy two second-hand BAe 146s to supplement its air transport activities in Afghanistan – the possibility of which we reported in 2009, when 47 were available for purchase.
The addition of one C-17 still hardly scratches the surface, and is hardly a proper occasion for a triumphal announcement by a prime minister – affordable only because of the "savings" arising from the run-down of the transport fleet and the delay in buying the A-400Ms.
At the heart of this, though, is the political decision by the previous (John Major's) administration to take part in the European programme, and Blair's decision in May 2000 formally to order the machines. But never let it be said that we get the whole story from the MSM or the MoD. By their silence, a procurement disaster of the past becomes today's triumph.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Overlord, Max Hasting's book about the 1944 Normandy landings, is the way he interweaves the narrative with short dissertations about the equipment used in the campaign, including analyses of the many shortcomings.
There, I though, was a man who understood (to a degree) the relationship between the fighting performance of armies, and the equipment with which the were provided – issues especially relevant in Normandy where the Allies had failed to produce a tank which could match German armour or deal with the much-feared 88mm flak/anti-tank gun.
But if the man had then (in 1984) the glimmerings of understanding, any lessons he learned during the writing of his book, he seems to have unlearned as old-age, pomposity and grandeur have overtaken intellect.
This is evident from his latest piece in The Daily Mail, where he deplores the encroachment in the Army of what he calls the "elf'n'safety and a busybody culture" which, he asserts, is making babies of us all.
Hastings's cri de coeur rests in turn on Gen Peter Wall, the current CGS, who last week "hit out" at the "zero-risk culture" which, he said, had "fuelled unrealistic demands that no British blood should be shed on battlefields".
Human rights lawyers, Wall asserted, were among those who had created an "expectation" that troops should not come to harm in war zones. The spotlight shone on the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had exposed "a variety of awkward ethical, legal, human rights and equipment issues".
But, he added: "There will be an expectation in some circles in society that the sort of zero-risk culture that is understandably sought in many other walks of life ought to be achievable on the battlefield".
Nevertheless, he said, the public must be prepared for lives to be lost in future conflicts. Despite the equipment lessons learned in Afghanistan, the "operating risks" would be greater on a future mission where the UK was forced to put "boots on the ground" in an unknown theatre of war.
Picking up on that theme, Hastings tells us that Wall's dismay "is widely shared in the armed forces, and among senior veterans". Name dropping in the way that he so grandly does, he then tells us he heard Gen Michael Rose, who commanded the SAS in the Falklands, "deplore the new ethic created by coroners, human rights cases and media pressure, which he believes to be gravely damaging the Army as a fighting service".
Now, there are few people who will disagree with the general premise, that war is dangerous and soldiering entails risk. Further, it comes as no surprise that, when soldiers make a career out of going to strange, foreign places in order to kill people, there is always a chance that they are going to come back with bits missing, or in a body bag.
However, on the basis of what he is told by Army worthies, Hastings decides that we, the public, are expecting too much. Although the Army has had to fight its recent campaigns amid a deplorable shortage of helicopters, he says, we should ignore much of the claptrap about alleged equipment failures: our soldiers in Afghanistan are the best-equipped Army Britain has ever put into the field.
If their kit is not perfect, he informs us, it is because nothing ever is. If commanders sometimes make mistakes which cost lives, and earn magisterial rebukes from ignorant coroners, this is because young men do make mistakes, and in war the price is paid in blood.
And that is the word from Hastings. If we are to take him at face value, concerns about the Snatch Land Rover, the pathetically inadequate Vector, and the stupidity of the Jackal, are misplaced. Pointing out their deficiencies is "claptrap", and commanders (many of whom – and especially those making decisions on equipment - are not that young) are entitled to make mistakes.
The tragedy of this mindset – and that it clearly is – is that it neglects two important issues.
Firstly, it fails to allow for that fact that people are reasonably tolerant of military casualties, although that tolerance reduces in what might be termed an "unpopular" war. What primarily they are concerned with is what are perceived to be unnecessary casualties, caused by avoidable errors, or inadequacies in equipment.
Secondly, it neglects the very essence of counter-insurgency warfare, where the objective is not the capture of territory but the "hearts and minds" of the indigenous population in the area of operations. In thus type of battle, though, the enemy is also fighting for the same objective, but that includes the "hearts and minds" of the home population, from which their opposing troops are drawn.
Thus do insurgents, as a matter of course, target soldiers specifically to cause casualties, the purpose not to achieve any direct military objective but to influence public opinion and reduce support for the war. As with Viet Nam, they know full well that wars are won on the home front, when "permission" to fight is withdrawn and the war becomes politically unsustainable.
In such circumstances, it is incumbent on military commanders to make "force protection" a major theatre priority. If soldiers' lives are the currency of war, where every death is a victory for the enemy, keeping deaths to an unavoidable minimum is a necessary military objective.
Above that though, no commander can afford the luxury or taking casualties that are perceived to be preventable – and that really is the issue. No one, surely, can argue that the deployment of inadequate vehicles to Iraq and then Afghanistan was anything other than a mistake, and that lives were lost unnecessarily.
There is, however, a third and perhaps even more important element. In the context of both Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy tactics involved the extensive use of IEDs. The effect of this on the counter-insurgency forces is to reduce tactical mobility, and to force local commanders to limit the scale of operations to keep casualties to within "acceptable" bounds.
In this context, force protection is not an optional extra, an add-on luxury to be supplied once other operational needs have been satisfied. It is a sine qua non of modern, discretionary operations.
There, I have no truck with this "lessons learned" culture, which seems to be the military (and official) response to the supposed "elf'n'safety and busybody culture". Any number of mistakes are permissible, it seems, as long as the lessons are duly learned, and the mistakes are not repeated … until the next time, when lessons have to be learned all over again.
By any measure, sending Snatch Land Rovers into Iraq was a bad decision. Keeping them there, and taking so long to provide mine/ambush protected vehicles, was criminal folly. Deploying both the Snatch and its replacement, the Vector, to Afghanistan, was the height of stupidity.
Demanding that troops are better equipped to deal with predictable threats, before they go into theatre is not "claptrap". Nor is demanding emerging threats to be quickly recognised, with countermeasures rapidly supplied, unreasonable. It is common and military sense.
Hastings does us and the military no favours by taking his current line. He should know from his previous writings how important it is to supply the correct equipment to our armed forces. He is going backwards, a case here of lessons unlearned.
In the foreword to Overlord, he cited Basil Liddel Hart, who had suggested that the Allies had been strangely reluctant to reflect upon their own superiority in Normandy and draw some appropriate conclusions about their own performance. "There has been too much glorification of the campaign and too little objective investigation".
When it came to the lamentable performance of British armour, Hastings observed that "the British Authorities were at pains to stifle any public debate about the shortcomings of their tanks, although these were well known throughout the British Army".
In the House of Commons, the government was constantly challenged by Labour MP Richard Stokes, only to have his entirely justified complaints dismissed with the assurance that "public discussion of this issue was not in the public interest". Field Marshall Montgomery himself quashed a succession of complaints and open expressions of concern, writing at the time of such reports being "likely to cause a lowering of morale and lack of confidence among the troops".
Hastings then reports that, "The government lied systematically, until the very end of the war, about the Allies' tragic failure to produce tanks capable of matching those of the Germans".
It seems to me that Hastings needs to re-read his own book.
As an antidote to Sandy Gall, in the current edition of The Week, we have Crispin Black on "The terrible truth about our wasted sacrifice in Afghanistan". His piece makes for sombre reading. Here are some excerpts:
Not only did we lose in the province for which we were responsible, Helmand. We lost because our generals have no idea how to deploy our troops to best effect.Then he concludes:
One of the reasons the top brass were so keen to get involved in Afghanistan was to restore the army's reputation after its defeat in Iraq at the hands of Shia militiamen in Basra. They reckoned they could handle things in Afghanistan.
Senior British commanders in Afghanistan in 2006, backed by their bosses in London … deliberately and recklessly disregarded an eternal military axiom: never split your forces …
And then the shooting war which we had just about mastered changed. The dastardly Taliban switched tactics and started to blow up our soldiers on patrol with roadside bombs or Improvised Explosive Devices, in the jargon.
An army which had spent a generation facing just such threats in Northern Ireland was taken by surprise without the bomb disposal equipment or protective vehicles to cope. Soldiers on resupply runs in Belfast in the 1980s travelled in vehicles with heavier armour than their counterparts on the frontline in Afghanistan 20 years later.
There is one overarching truth about the contemporary British Army that they and the rest of us are reluctant to face up to. Yes, soldiers in today's army are more experienced than their predecessors. They are better trained and equipped and more decorated. We have all been inspired by their example and their fortitude in adversity.And that is why get the likes of Dannatt and Richards creating a veritable blizzard of diversionary pieces – anything to throw the MSM off the scent, and salvage their reputations.
But in the end they have failed in their only purpose - they don't win their wars.
COMMENT: "WORSE THAN I THOUGHT" THREAD
I complained at the time that we seemed to be in "he says – she says" territory, where the current idea of writing history is to gather a collection of interviews of leading players and stitch them together to make a narrative.
Having now obtained the book, and read part of it, it strikes me that the volume is even worse than I at first thought. Chapter 15, which purports to tell us of the background to the role of Brown and Blair in the early stages of the war, is a case in point – and only one.
Consulting the references, after having read the chapter, one finds that the narrative is not so much "he says, she says", as "he says". Almost the entire chapter is based on Gen. Dannatt's book, Leading from the front, with 19 separate references. The bulk of the rest is his testimony to the Chilcot inquiry and a few press articles, followed by just over two pages largely based on an interview with Gen Jackson.
Thus, a highly contentious and important part of our history relies primarily, in Sandy Gall's hands, on the testimony of one witness, with a few comments from another. There is not attempt whatsoever to triangulate, to seek the views of other witnesses, or to refer to documentation.
Further, it is not as if either of his witnesses could be considered impartial, or even reliable. And even if they were, the reliance on so few sources can hardly be regarded as a sound approach to writing history. However, what Dannatt and Jackson do have, as does Sandy Gall, is prestige. That, it seems, allows you to get away with writing crap – and get glowing reviews in the Failygraph for it.
I have a feeling I shall return to this theme.
A series of leaks on the progress of the war, and then a report on what appear to be plans for an expedited US withdrawal, have had the media abuzz with stories and analysis, but with no real consensus – a question of heat but very little light.
The first trigger was a Nato report leaked to the BBC, which suggested the Taliban in Afghanistan are being directly helped by the Pakistani security service (ISI), only to be followed by a predictable denial, with the Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, dismissing the report as, "old wine in an even older bottle".
As to the US plans, the trigger here was a suggestion by US defence secretary Leon Panetta suggesting that US combat missions in Afghanistan would end in 2013. That, though, was quickly clarified when Panetta said that the US would keep fighting alongside Afghan troops, but would cede the lead role in combat operations.
Thus, US troops would remain "combat-ready" as the United States wound down its longest war, but the troops would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces took responsibility for security before an end-2014 deadline for full Afghan control.
By the time Panetta came up with this reassurance, however, the damage had already been done, with widespread reports, culled from the original leaked report, that the Taliban, "backed by Pakistan", expected to retake Afghanistan when coalition forces leave.
However, despite the flurry of media activity, one is tempted to say "what's new?". I don't think anyone who knows the region and its politics is under any illusions that the Pakistanis work, and have been working with Pashtun and other tribal factions, with Arab support and money, specifically but not exclusively the Haqqani network.
Nor is there anything particularly new about the US military planning gradually to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces, then easing themselves out of the picture. And nor is there any secret that the Taliban expect to have a free run at taking over the country, once the infidels have departed. What else is there to say?
Well, the Canadian National Post has a stab at offering something different, noting that the problem is that ordinary Afghan villagers subscribe to local codes of politics and morality that are profoundly alien and offensive to Western ways.
It tells us that gender equality, religious pluralism, due process - all of these notions are meaningless gibberish to a society made up largely of illiterate goat herders and farmers, who view women and children as property, and non-Muslims as hated infidels. In this world, the real business of public life begins and ends at the local mosque or village council.
Thus we are informed that, if outsiders in Kabul and Washington have money and guns to give, they will take them. They might even permit a school or highway to be built in their district, and appear in a photo-op. But that's where it ends.
Closer to home, we have a superbly robust commentary from Simon Jenkins but, other than to project the view that the UK – alongside the US – might be positioning for a war against Iran, having learnt nothing from the failure of Afghanistan, he really does not have that much new to say.
Matt Cavanagh also has a go, in The Spectator, but he ends up reiterating sentiments expressed in earlier articles, and in particular his piece last November. His conclusion this time is that we now have an opportunity "to move towards a more honest and realistic debate about the Afghan campaign and its prospects of success, in public as well as private".
Considering that we have yet to have an honest and realistic debate about the Iraq war, it is perhaps a little rash to expect anything different of Afghanistan, especially as the view of the UK administration on the conduct of the war seems to be locked in aspic.
This we saw recently from Lord Astor of Hever, defence spokesman in the Lords, who told the upper house that military means alone would not bring about a more secure country, then saying:
We have always supported an Afghan-led political process to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, and we continue to encourage all parties to take forward reconciliation. We will continue to engage with our US colleagues on these important matters.We are not going to get a clearer definition of the UK stance, and while there is nothing new here either, it is useful to note the acknowledgement that a political process is required "to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan", and that the military alone cannot close the deal.
In assessing current progress, as Cavanagh would have us do, it is useful to refer to the one of the great authorities on the nature of war, Carl von Clausewitz, and one of the most famous miss-quotations of all time: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means".
This is, in fact, an abbreviated heading in Book One of his famous treatise on the nature of war, whereas the text states something different, and different in an important respect. War, he writes, is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.
This, Clausewitz expands upon in the rarely quoted Book Eight where, under the heading, "War is an instrument of policy", he tells us:
It is, of course, well-known that the only source of war is politics – the intercourse of governments and peoples; but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own.Clausewitz then goes on to repeat his earlier aphorism, subtly improved, declaring: "We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means". He then adds:
We deliberately use this phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.Changing the "by" into "with" completely changes the meaning of Clausewitz's aphorism, making war an overall part of the political process, and not something separate from it.
That, it seems, to me, the Taliban understand – and so do the Pakistanis and other regional players. It is something the colonial British understood, but not their successors or the Americans. While both play lip-service to a political solution, they do tend to treat the military activity as something different and distinct from the political process.
And thereby we find Lord Astor reiterating the reasons why the coalition efforts must fail. On the one hand, the separation of military and political efforts defies sense, failing as it does to recognise the Clausewitz teaching. But, worse still, the flaw is in seeking an "Afghan-led political process", which is still further separated from the military effort.
In the scheme of things, Afghan politics are not played out within the actual borders that none of the players actually recognise, but on a far wider tableau, which takes in the ambitions and aspirations of all the neighbouring states, the former state of Baluchistan (now absorbed into Pakistan and Iran), and of course, the great regional elephant in the room, India.
And that also is nothing particularly new – not on this blog. Unfortunately, the coalition got it wrong from the very start, and it is too late to fix it now.
The official announcement on the MoD Website makes the ostensible agenda interesting enough, telling us that the "Government" has set out its plans to prioritise investment in Science and Technology, "in order to ensure the UK's Armed Forces continue to have state-of-the-art technology, equipment and support, in a White Paper published today".
Apart from the Financial Times, however (and a small, down-page item in the business section of The Times), the MSM apparently no longer feels the need to comment on such matters – possibly because there is no opportunity any longer to make party political mischief and get a "biff-bam" slanging match going.
As to the Financial Times, it picks on one issue, which is also the focus of much of the specialist press, headlining: "MoD will no longer favour UK companies". The Ministry of Defence, it tells us:
… will no longer give UK companies priority over their foreign competitors when buying equipment and weapons for the armed forces. The only exceptions will be cases where buying British is essential to maintaining national security, Peter Luff, the defence procurement minister, said in an interview. He made clear the MoD would not consider wider employment or industrial economic factors when it assessed whether a piece of equipment offered value for money.Nevertheless, if the dailies largely ignore that issue, The Spectator gives a spot to Matt Cavanagh, who calls the White Paper the waste of another opportunity. We need clear and unapologetic government backing for a sector which, as the White Paper notes, employs 300,000 people and is a major player in a global market valued at £260 billion, says Cavanagh, adding:
In that respect, the timing of the White Paper could hardly have been worse. Yesterday brought the bad news that India has awarded preferred bidder status for its $10 billion-plus fighter contract to France's Rafale, in preference to the Eurofighter Typhoon in which Britain's BAE has a major stake. The White Paper makes the usual noises about ministers "doing their utmost" to support exports, but privately many in the industry are disappointed by the lack of help — especially given ministerial rhetoric in 2010 around reshaping our foreign policy around trade.But what Matt – and everybody else for that matter – is ignoring is not so much the elephant in the room, as a virtual stampede of elephants. These come in the guise of EU Directive 2009/81/EC "on the coordination of procedures for the award of certain works contracts, supply contracts and service contracts by contracting authorities or entities in the fields of defence and security, and amending Directives 2004/17/EC and 2004/18/EC".
This long-awaited White Paper was a second chance for the government to demonstrate its seriousness about tackling the real problems in defence procurement. Instead we got feeble commitments of support and simplistic rhetoric about "buying off the shelf" in a hypothetical "open market" which, in relation to large defence equipment programmes, simply doesn't exist. Another opportunity wasted — for Defence, and for one of our better prospects for export-led growth.
To get a taste of what this is requiring, all we have to do is look at the recitals – two, three and four will suffice:
(2) The gradual establishment of a European defence equipment market is essential for strengthening the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base and developing the military capabilities required to implement the European Security and Defence Policy.Helpfully, albeit in an obscure footnote, the White Paper tells us that this Directive was brought into UK law as the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations on 21 August 2011. And thus, let's play "spot the difference". In that self-same White Paper, we learn that:
(3) Member States agree on the need to foster, develop and sustain a European Defence Technological and Industrial Base that is capability driven, competent and competitive. In order to achieve this objective, Member States may use different tools, in conformity with Community law, aiming at a truly European defence equipment market and a level playing field at both European and global levels.
They should also contribute to the in-depth development of the diversity of the European defence-related supplier base, in particular by supporting the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and non-traditional suppliers in the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base, fostering industrial cooperation and promoting efficient and responsive lower tier suppliers. In this context, they should take into account the Commission’s Interpretative Communication of 7 December 2006 on the application of Article 296 of the Treaty in the field of defence procurement and the Commission Communication of 5 December 2007 on a Strategy for a stronger and more competitive European defence industry.
(4) One prerequisite for the creation of a European defence equipment market is the establishment of an appropriate legislative framework. In the field of procurement, this involves the coordination of procedures for the award of contracts to meet the security requirements of Member States and the obligations arising from the Treaty.
We are focused on ensuring best value-for-money and delivering the best equipment for the Armed Forces and the security services. That is why this paper sets out how we will use competition as our default position and why we will look at the domestic and global defence and security market for products that are proven, that are reliable, and that meet our current needs. This principle is, though, qualified by the need to take action to protect our technological advantage where essential for national security.And so we get:
We believe that the best way for the UK defence and security industries to remain strong, with some of the most high-tech and advanced manufacturing facilities in the world, is to be competitive. That is why this Government will continue to support responsible defence and security exports; why we are helping to create the right conditions for companies in these sectors to invest in the UK, and why we will take significant steps to ensure small and medium sized companies can continue to deliver the innovation and flexibility we need. There was strong support for these actions in the consultation responses.
Wherever possible, we will seek to fulfil the UK's defence and security requirements through open competition in the domestic and global market, buying off-the-shelf where appropriate… we will also take action to protect the UK's operational advantages and freedom of action, but only where this is essential for our national security.This is remarked upon by a trade journal, which remarks that the presumption is to buy on the basis of competition and best value, which may often mean "off the shelf", even if it's from manufacturers in France, the US, Argentina, Israel. Now, the journal observes:
… many procurement people would welcome this focus on value for money rather than preserving British jobs or capability, but it will be interesting to see whether this holds up the first time a UK manufacturer loses out and screams blue murder about jobs, national interest and so on. Look at the fuss about the Bombardier/Siemens train procurement, and that didn't have the emotive aspects that defence always carries.But of course, it will hold up. British ministers are implementing EU law, and they are always going to obey their masters. And in this White Paper, they are providing an ex post facto explanation of how the procurement system is to be adapted in order to ensure absolute obedience.
This in governmental terms, is not a "wasted opportunity" as Cavanagh would aver. It is simply a statement of compliance, the sub-text, "we shall obey".
France's Rafale has emerged as preferred bidder in a $11 billion contest to supply India with 126 fighters, says Reuters. They have undercut the rival Eurofighter and boosted French hopes of a long-awaited first export contract for its premier combat jet.
bribes aid we've given them hasn't worked out. But why on earth are we giving £1.4 billion in aid to a country that can afford to equip its air force to the tune of $11 billion, and isn't even buying British?
It gets even murkier when one realises that India itself is giving $5 billion in aid to African countries, aimed at expanding trade relations. The Indians are sensible enough to use their aid to get economic leverage … we just dole out money we haven't got, and get nothing in return – except Rajendra Pachauri.
And how droll it is that after Sarkozy sneered at Britain, claiming that "the UK has no industry left", we see a British prime minister claim today that "Britain actually has a higher percentage of industry than France does".
But, says The Boy, "we think that we need to rebalance even further; we want to see a growth in manufacturing, technology and aerospace … ". Sadly, it rather looks as if Sazkozy is doing the rebalancing.
And it was such a pity about The Boy's trade drive. It didn't seem to work too well, did it? The "partner of choice" seems to have moved over to the other side of the Channel - at least as far as the IAF is concerned.
(I don't know why, incidentally, that the video shows Mirage jets as well, but there you go ... it's Euronews.)