Tuesday 18 October 2005

Collateral damage

Bush-haters and opponents of the Iraqi war will undoubtedly be delighted to learn that they share common cause with that great democrat Robert Mugabe who, in a diversion from his scripted speech at yesterday's World Food Day event organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, called Tony Blair and George W Bush "the unholy alliance of the millennium".

According to the Telegraph report today, he then went on to compare the two world leaders to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and accused them of interfering in the domestic affairs of countries such as his own. To applause from the delegates, he then blamed Britain and the United States for his country's economic collapse.

It is perhaps entirely predictable that Mugabe should use such a public opportunity to attack Bush and Blair in such a despicable fashion, but it is still slightly shocking that he should receive a round of applause for so doing.

Thank goodness, therefore, that we have the inestimable Mark Steyn in the Telegraph today to provide an antidote.

In his column, headed: "Sometimes it is worth going to war", he provides a commentary on the rightness of the Iraqi war and, intriguingly picks up on the recent advert produced by Unicef for Belgian TV, featuring an air-strike on the village of the cartoon Smuf figures. In the final scene, only Baby Smurf is left, weeping alone surrounded by wall-to-wall Smurf corpses. "It's the first Smurf snurf movie," writes Steyn.

What Steyn then goes on to write is quite illuminating and, when I first saw the reports of the advert, I hadn't thought of it – which is why, no doubt, Steyn has a highly-paid job and we languish in the obscurity of EU Referendum. In real conflict, he writes, like in Rwanda, Sudan and a big chunk of west Africa, air strikes are few and far between. Instead, millions get hacked to death by machetes. Even on the very borders of Eutopia, hundreds of thousands died in the Balkans in mostly low-tech, non-state-of-the-art ways.

Why, he then asks, would Unicef show such an implausible form of Smurficide ? Well, whether intentionally or not, they are evoking the war that most of their audience - in Belgium and beyond - is opposed to: the Iraq war, where the invader had an air force. That's how the average Western "progressive" still conceives of warfare, as something the big bullying Pentagon does to weak victims.

By coincidence, in today’s paper we have a report about a strike by American fighter jets and combat helicopters in Ramadi yesterday, in which about 70 people are reported killed.

The report comes with ritual claims that women and children, and "innocent civilians" have been killed, very much reinforcing the perception that those stupid, "trigger-happy Yanks" have blundered again. However, writes the Telegraph in a grudging attempt to be even-handed, American officials like to emphasise the precision of their strikes and talk of the training troops take to control aggression in order to target only those threatening them and not nearby civilians.

It goes on to state that "the reality is often very different." In the confusion of a firefight soldiers often shoot wildly at a number of targets, while the difficulty of gathering intelligence of what is happening on the ground means mistakes are made in interpretation.

Nevertheless, the paper does concede that anti-American groups invent or exaggerate civilian deaths to reinforce the belief among many Iraqis - particularly Sunnis who dominate Anbar province of which Ramadi is the capital - that Americans do not care who they kill and regularly slaughter civilians.

The black propaganda art of faking news scenes is well known to the readers of this Blog and the Telegraph does not even begin to do justice to the American determination to avoid civilian casualties . Nor indeed does Steyn, although this is not precisely the focus of his piece.

What has not percolated the media is that, again, there is another technological revolution going on. Far from seeking bigger and more destructive ordnance, US technology is focusing on smaller, more accurate weapons, increasing precision and targeting systems which reduce the possibility of error, all to avoid what is known in the jargon as "collateral damage".

Already, ground controllers calling up air strikes routinely take digital photographs of designated targets and e-mail the pictures to attack aircraft, so that pilots can make visual confirmation of target identities before launching their weapons.

The latest generation of cruise missiles is even more sophisticated. The missiles have optical recognition computers and software, linked to video cameras. Before a target is attacked, video pictures of it will be taken by a drone or manned aircraft, downlinked for command authorisation and then uplinked to the missile. It will then video its designated target and compare the images with the information it has received and abort if they do not match.

Fruits of this technology are emerging in the form of the "Viper Strike" missile. Based on an anti-tank missile, it is now being developed to carry a 7lb explosive warhead, with an attack profile that makes it ideal for urban warfare.

Recently, to demonstrate its precision-attack capability in an urban environment, a stationary pickup truck was parked between construction trailers simulating buildings. The missile’s TV camera acquired the target, and the laser rangefinder designated the truck. The Viper Strike destroyed the truck with minimal damage to the trailers.

Interestingly, the missile can be launched from unmanned drones and it may be used to equip the fearsome AC-130 Spectre, the "gunship" version of the Hercules transport aircraft. This mounts a range of formidable weapons, including a 105mm howitzer, linked to precision targeting systems. Discussing the latest version with one of its pilots, he told me that they use old cars on the range for target practice and, so accurate had the system become that they no longer designated just the car they would hit, but could tell you the window through which they would put the round.

Elsewhere, enormous expense is being devoted to what is known as the "small diameter bomb" project, with $20 million already expended on research, for a 250lb bomb which will deliver with extreme precision a warhead of a mere 50lb, all in order to avoid the collateral damage often experienced with larger bombs.

All this is a far cry from Unicef's "Smurficide" film, which shows a cluster of large bombs raining down on the village. In so far as it is possible for war to be "humane", the United States is doing everything it can to make it so, expending huge amounts of treasure in pursuit of that objective. That is all the more reason why Mugabe's slur is so utterly despicable and why this snide anti-American carping is so malign.


Sunday 16 October 2005

Boys' own

In the week that there was some serious news about the march of defence integration, much of which has been covered in this blog, I see the Sunday Telegraph's "defence correspondent", Sean Rayment, has swung into action.

But anyone who expected any intelligence from Sarah Sand's dumbed-down rag is going to be sadly disappointed. Rayment is offering us a really penetrating story about the US Army's decision to purchase high-speed backhoe loaders from JCB.

In an excitable story, complete with a graphic which would not be out of place in a "Boys' Own" comic (above), Rayment tells us that the United States Army, "the world's most powerful military organisation," has unveiled its latest secret weapon in the war against terror - a JCB digger that can travel at 60 miles an hour.

"Camouflaged to protect it from enemy fire (...er?) and equipped with machine-guns, armour, bullet-proof glass and smoke dispensers," he gushes, "this latest vehicle is the biggest, fastest and most expensive digger ever to go into production…. It is also equipped with 'run-flat' tyres, which will allow it to escape from ambushes even if the wheels are damaged by small arms fire, and is fitted with a second seat that will enable another soldier to ride 'shotgun'."

Oh, p-leaze. Seekers after the truth can quickly find out from JCB's own website that the company has been awarded the contract, expected to be worth up to $140 million, for what is termed the "High Mobility Engineer Excavator" (HMEE) vehicle. The company helpfully publishes a photograph (right), which of course looks nothing like the Telegraph graphic, lacking for instance the fanciful "bull bar" and light clusters, which would actually be ripped off the moment the machine was used.

It has been designed, says JCB, to meet the requirements specified by US Army TACOM for a backhoe loader capable of speeds up to 57 mph. The objective of the HMEE concept, it adds, is to have a machine capable of travelling at military convoy speed without the need for transportation by a truck and low-loader trailer. And, in a far cry from Rayment's puerile commentary, it tells us that "a fully armoured version is under discussion," itself nothing unusual. Armoured construction vehicles were around in the Second World War and are in daily use in hotspots such as Israel.

Oddly enough, there is a serious story tucked underneath Rayment's drivel, by the same man, headed "Half the Army's combat vehicles 'unfit for war'." And from where does Rayment get this information? Ah! It actually emerged in response to Parliamentary questions from back-bencher Ann Winterton, the Tory MP for Congleton, Cheshire, to Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister.

The information is part of a wider story that is being left to Tory back-benchers to pursue, in the absence of any activity from the Tory front bench. It reflects how the MoD is cutting back in hundreds of different and damaging ways in order to afford its profligate spending on re-equipping the Army to form part of the European Rapid Reaction Force.

Fortunately, to tell us something about this, we have the paper's real defence correspondent, Christopher Booker writing in his column - in what has become, effectively, a paper within a paper. There is also a certain Richard North writing in The Business about how the government's "Europe first" policy is undermining Britain's defences.

Those are the adult bits, leaving the "real" papers to do the "Boys' Own" stuff, which is about all they are fit for.


Thursday 13 October 2005

A succession of failures

For anyone who wants an example of how a combination of useless MPs and the gross amateurism of the media can given a totally distorted view of a subject, go no further. Today's report from the Public Accounts Committee on "defence overspending" – mentioned in my earlier posting – would be very hard to beat.

The report itself, available here is entitled, "Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2004". To produce it, the committee – headed by Edward Leigh - examined the cost, time and technical performance in the year ended 31 March 2004 for the 20 largest MoD procurement projects where the main investment decision had been taken. It also examined the ten largest projects in the assessment phase.

For the 20 largest projects, the MoD forecast the costs at £50 billion, an increase of £1.7 billion in the last year (compared to £3.1 billion in the previous year), bringing them to £5.9 billion over the target cost set at approval (or 13% of the total forecast set at approval). The 20 projects have also had further delays, totalling 62 months, to their expected delivery dates, bringing the cumulative delay to 206 months.

Cumulatively, said the committee, these in-year cost increases and delays place additional pressures on an already-stretched defence budget and mean that the Armed Forces will not be getting the most effective capability at the right time. There will be further cuts or cancellations in equipment, and the Armed Forces will have to operate older, less-capable, less efficient equipment for longer.

At face value, all of that looks good, critical stuff and what is said is not inaccurate. But it is childishly superficial.

Firstly, the MPs took the MoD at its own face value, coming to its conclusions after taking written evidence solely from the MoD and oral evidence from two MoD officials. They did not look outside the loop, and seek wider views of the failures of the Department.

Secondly, a failing shared with the Defence Select Committee, the MPs only looked at the situation "as is". In other words, they looked at the projects which the MoD was implementing and assessed its performance in dealing with them, in order to gauge whether money was being wasted. What it did not do was attempt to second-guess whether those projects should have been undertaken in the first place - whether they made the right choice of equipment and, if not, why not.

This is especially significant in that the most expensive of the projects the committee looked at was the Type 45 Destroyer (pictured above) contract, which is costed out at £5 billion for six ships, despite the MoD's website stating that they cost £1 billion each.

This is a contract we have looked at very closely on this blog and our conclusion is that the UK should never have attempted a unique, national design for such a small number of highly complex ships. That is the option the Australians chose, selecting a more capable US design, building the ships in their own yards at 60 percent of the UK costs.

If that assertion is debatable, then at least it should be debated, and that represents the ultimate failure of the MPs – that willingness to take each decision "as is" without looking beyond it. But even following its own limited framework, the committee fails in its task. It is not always clear, it says:

…whether changes to the scope of projects are the result of cost increases or changes to requirements or both. For example, it was originally planned to purchase 12 Type 45 destroyers when the project was approved in 2000. The Department is now planning to acquire only eight ships. The reduction in numbers was not attributable to any one factor but to a combination of getting greater capability from each destroyer; the need to contain costs after increases in parts of the project (mainly on the Principal Air-to-Air Missiles to be fitted to the destroyers); and the reduced threat from enemy aircraft and missiles.
Leaping out from this verbiage is that crucial phrasing: "…the need to contain costs after increases in parts of the project", mainly on the Principal Air-to-Air Missiles (PAAM). Nowhere is this mentioned that this is a French designed and built missile, which is late, with the costs spiralling out of control. It was the insistence of the MoD that we kept PAAM that forced us to resort to a unique design in the first place, but there is no mention of that. But what it does remark is that:

The Department aims to match appropriate procurement strategies to individual projects on a case-by-case basis. The different strategies employed include Private Finance Initiative / Public Private Partnerships, leasing, multi-nation collaborative programmes, partnering, and Alliancing. The decision to adopt a particular strategy will be affected by factors such as affordability, technological risk, and the possibilities of sharing technology, risks or rewards with industry or other nations. But different strategies carry different risks. The multi-nation collaborative route, for example, has often led to delays while other partner nations reach agreement on the Memorandum of Understanding or the contract.
This, says the committee, has happened on the Eurofighter, the Meteor missile and the A400M heavy lift aircraft in each case resulting in significant time and cost overruns. But it also happened with the Type 45, which the committee does not include in its list.

Putting this all together, some of the projects are indeed down to mismanagement, but much of the waste identified by the committee stems directly from the choice of European equipment. This is not "mismanagement" per se, but the effects of selecting the wrong suppliers or the wrong equipment in the first place. And this applies to other equipment, the procurement of which in the committee's terms, was not "mismanaged", but still cost more than it ought to, or was simply the wrong choice.

Yet, when it comes to the media, they all report roughly the same thing. The Guardian picks up the theme of "overspending" and then follows the committee line that:

The cost increases and delays will lead to "further cuts or cancellations in equipment, and the armed forces will have to operate older, less capable, less efficient equipment for longer", the Commons public accounts committee warns.
Exactly the same line is taken by the BBC, which reports the MPs saying: "the armed forces may be left without vital equipment because of the Ministry of Defence's 'woeful' management of major procurement projects."

And then there is the Telegraph which reports on "the woeful performance of the Department in procuring defence equipment and its inability even to follow its own broadly sensible procurement rules."

This is not journalism – it is copy editing. The mindless hacks have simply edited the committee press release. Some have embellished it with a couple of quotes, and then they all have regurgitated the script and called it a news story.

The point of course, is that the select committee have done a bad job in scrutinising the government. But, in a working democracy, the check on the poor performance of MPs is the media, which should have savaged the report. They have not, and therefore, as a result of this succession of failures, the government gets off the hook. No wonder it performs so badly.