Sunday 31 December 2006

Getting away with it

Even by the standards of our idle media, it would have been news: two soldiers killed in Land Rovers on consecutive days, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. But it was not to be and what could possibly be a major story goes begging.

It starts on Thursday, when we get a report from the MoD that a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, after his vehicle is involved in an explosion. There are no pictures and few details and only later does it emerge that the "explosion" was caused by a landmine. And although the MoD must have known the vehicle type involved, very carefully it does not identify the type. Most likely, though, it is a Land Rover, and quite possibly a "Snatch".

On the Friday, however, The Times, to its credit, questions the type of vehicle, establishing that it is unarmoured. But the rest of the media dutifully copies and pastes the MoD press handout in what passes for news coverage.

The same day we read The Times, we get a report of the death (as we are later told) of Sergeant Graham Hesketh, from a roadside bomb while he is on patrol in Basra. But, in the eyes of the media, there can be no link with the Afghanistan incident. The MoD report makes it quite clear (untypically clear) that the Sergeant Hesketh is riding in a Warrior MICV.

Also, atypically, there are no agency photographs. This is very unusual. Of virtually every bombing incident involving the death of a UK soldier, there are one or more images recording the aftermath. And in this case, as the MoD helpfully informs us that Sergeant Hesketh's patrol "was travelling towards the Old State Building, a British Army Base in the centre of the City, when the device activated."

This is not in some remote part of Iraq so, if not of the actual bombed vehicle, at the very least, one would expect to see agency shots of British troops "securing the scene" - such as the one here after another recent incident. Instead, what we actually get is pictures of an apparently unrelated incident showing two burning "Snatch" Land Rovers after – as we are led to believe – another bomb incident.

These initial reports make no reference to casualties but we then get Reuters yesterday quoting a Captain Olly Pile claiming that "one British soldier was slightly injured", only to be followed by an AFP report today (see below), which states that a roadside bomb hit the patrol, "killing an unidentified soldier".

Already, we have the MoD website offering a picture of Sergeant Hesketh, sitting atop a Warrior, and it makes the direct claim that he was "commanding a Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle on a routine security patrol." But, strangely, the report also includes a tribute from Sgt Hesketh's father, Kevin, who writes: "Graham was killed in action while patrolling in Iraq by a kerbside bomb exploding under his Jeep...".

To have two bomb attacks on British vehicles on the same day is very rare - to the point of being unprecedented. Are we therefore being misled (one assumes deliberately) by the MoD about Sergeant Hesketh's death? Was there one incident, not two and was the Sergeant patrolling not in a Warrior but in a "Snatch" Land Rover, which his father describes as a "jeep"?

The question is, would the MoD lie about such a thing? Surely it would be found out? Well, after the bomb attack on the boat on the Shatt al-Arab on 12 November, killing four service personnel, it claimed on the day and then two days later that it was "an attack on a Multi-National Forces boat patrol".

But, as we observed, it never was a patrol. This was an attack on a "water taxi", a routine movement of personnel between Basra Palace and Shatt al-Arab Hotel. And, it transpired, there had been 16 previously recorded attacks, clearly indicating that the use of unprotected boats was highly risky.

Yet, despite there being plenty of questions, the media let the issue ride and the MoD got away with it - for the time being. Clearly, the media prefer to be spoon-fed, so where you get a coroner's report, and the criticism is nicely packaged and "safe", they will go to town on it - nice cheap journalism.

Once again the MoD looks like getting away with it. And it has a lot to hide. Not only are troops still being killed in vulnerable and inadequate Land Rovers, the Minister promised of the Mastiff armoured vehicles that there would be an "effective capability in place in Iraq by the end of the year."

Of course, we fully understand that the media have far more important things to write about. And today, it is this. Gerald Howarth has finally got his name in the papers.


Thursday 28 December 2006

What does it matter?

According to the MoD, another soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. So far unnamed, he was on a reconnaissance mission in the desert to the south of Garmsir, when his vehicle was involved in an explosion. As well as one fatality, there was one serious injury and two minor injuries.

At this stage, says the MoD, it is too early to say what caused the explosion but there were no Taliban in the vicinity and there was no follow-on contact. The thinking is that it could possibly have been a "legacy mine" left over from one of the earlier wars, which the troops were unfortunate enough to have hit. Lieutenant Colonel Andy Price, of the Royal Marines, suggested that a deliberate attack was unlikely, as the explosion "was in the middle of the desert."

No details have been given by the MoD of the type of vehicle involved. But, with that number of troops involved, it was most likely either a Land Rover or a Pinzgauer (pictured right).

Even if it was an unarmoured Land Rover, though, a mine strike is survivable – evidenced by the remarkable photograph of a Land Rover Wolf (above left), after being hit by an anti-tank mine just north of Basra, in June 2004. In a Pinzgauer, however, the chances of the driver and/or front seat passenger surviving are significantly reduced as they are seated immediately over the wheels and, therefore, take the full brunt of the blast.

In this incident, it seems that the blast caused a loss of control, whence the vehicle crashed, that being responsible for the death. On that basis, the vehicle involved may well have been a Land Rover, possibly a "Snatch", which often carries a crew of four.

To guarantee survival, though, the troops would have to be equipped with a mine protected vehicle, such as this Cougar (now deployed by the US in Afghanistan), from which the crew emerged unscathed. And which vehicles are being supplied to British troops in Afghanistan, to replace the Land Rovers?

Given that we are talking about the MoD, the answer should be obvious. They are sending out lightly armoured Pinzgauer Vectors. But then, does it really matter if a few more soldiers are killed? Gerald Howarth thinks Pinzgauers are "superb".


Wednesday 27 December 2006

The "Snatch" revisited

You can see why the troops who used them in Northern Ireland - where they were first issued in 1992 - had to give them a short name. Officially, the "Snatch" Land Rover - in true Army style - is designated the "Truck utility medium (TUM) hardtop with vehicle protection kit (VPK) Land Rover 110". The current version runs to the 2A, costing the British taxpayers about £60,000 each (not including radios and electronic counter-measures).

We broached the subject of how these vehicles were dangerously vulnerable - leading directly to the death of our soliders in Iraq - formally on this blog on 18 June, having held off to tie in with the Booker column which was published the same day. We had, however, already sent full details to the opposition defence team and it was Lord Astor of Hever on 12 June who raised the issue in Parliament, asking the defence procurement minister Lord Drayson whether the "Snatch" was adequate or whether the RG-31 had a greater resilience to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Drayson (pictured here on one of his visits to the troops), replied:

My Lords, I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
He then went on to say:

We have looked at the RG-31 alongside a number of alternatives for our current fleet and concluded that the size and profile did not meet our needs. Size is important in the urban environment. The RG-31 cannot access areas that Snatch Land Rovers can get to.
That the RG-31 had "a greater resilience" to IEDs was unarguable, purely in terms of the basic specifications. but the difference was illustrated graphically by both myself and Booker - respectively in the blog and The Sunday Telegraph with the now famous picture of a USMC RG-31 after it had been hit by an IED. In this instance, the crew walked away uninjured and it was clearly evident that, had this been a "Snatch" Land Rover, the crew - at the very least - would have been badly injured.

On the face of it, therefore, the issue was about "mobility" - the fact that the Land Rover could travel down the supposedly narrow streets of Basra meant that it could provide a level of protection in circumstances where the very much larger RG-31 simply could not travel. But there was also the "hearts" and minds" issue. The more aggressive-looking RG-31 would, it was felt, make it more difficult for toops to interact with the local communities. And these arguments gained support from Times defence editor Mick Smith who, in a particularly pompous and ill-informed entry on his blog agreed with the MoD that the RG-31's profile was wrong and that it was also simply "too big for Basra".

There had been some validity in the "hearts and minds" argument but it had long ceased to be the case that British troops could don soft hats and mingle easily with the crowds. So dangerous had it become that "Snatch" Land Rovers, once used as escorts, had to be escorted front and rear by tracked Warrior MICVs, themselves bigger and far more aggressive-looking than RG-31s. The two arguments simply did not stand up.

But there was a third issue - the emergence of a new and supposedly lethal form of IED, the so-called "explosively formed projectile" (EFP). This was featured by defence correspondent Sean Rayment in The Sunday Telegraph on 25 June, complete with a fanciful graphic showing the device mounted on a launch tripod. And it was Rayment's thesis, proclaimed in his headline, "The precision-made mine that has 'killed 17 British troops'" that it was this new weapon rather than the inadequate Land Rovers per se which was the cause of the problem. So deadly was this supposed to be that it could penetrate four inches of armour. We were told by an anonymous source: "If you are travelling in an armoured Land Rover which is attacked by one of these things, you are in trouble. You have a better chance of surviving if you are in a tank or an armoured vehicle but it will 'kill' the tank."

That seemed totally to contradict the line taken by Booker in the same newspaper, who argued that our troops had been put at risk by the MoD's decision in 2004 to buy a new generation of vehicles suitable for armoured patrolling. On the shortlist had been the RG-31 but, instead of buying this machine, the MoD insisted instead, as part of its "Europe-first" procurement policy, on buying 401 Italian-made Panthers, vehicles which cost nearly twice as much yet provided only a fraction of the protection.

Futhermore, there was another part to this scandal. On June 12, Drayson had tried to disparage the RG-31, claiming that the Army had used them in Bosnia and found them wanting. But photographic evidence had shown that this was not true. The vehicles used in Bosnia were not RG31s but an earlier and much less capable vehicle, the Mamba. Later, we were to find that these had been sold off, cut-price. Some were being used by the US security firm Blackwater, to convey US diplomats and other VIPs from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone, and had survived at least two IED strikes.

The same day that Booker and Rayment were battling it out in the Telegraph, however, The Sunday Times pitched into the fray with a front page story, an editorial and a long "Focus" investigation. And, for this newspaper, there was no argument. Its theme was: "pay up and save lives".

It was an unfortunate coincidence that, in its focus piece, the Times chose to feature former Metropolitan police officer, Roger Bacon, whose son Matthew, 34 - then an army intelligence officer - had been killed in a "Snatch" (pictured). At 11.13am on 11 September 2005, he had been travelling from Basra Palace to Basra air base to catch a flight when an explosively formed projectile had detonated. He was killed instantly. Sitting with his back to the blast, he stood no chance as a copper projectile sliced through the vehicle and went through his chest. Three other occupants of the vehicle were seriously injured.

The image of the vehicle shows a single, clean puncture, although this may have been the exit. If this is the case, Matthew was doubly unfortunate. No only should he not have been there (he was travelling in the "Snatch" because a helicopter which was to convey him to the air base had fallen unserviceable and there was no replacement) but the projectile seems to have functioned in the manner intended. Other images (such as the one above) show more fragmentation and less penetration - suggesting that the weapon is not as potent as Rayment indicated.

In fact, we now know that to be the case. Not only does the bomb come in a wide range of sizes, the machining quality also seems to vary significantly - suggesting anything but a "precision" weapon. Performance will vary widely and may be less than theoretically possible, so much so that the Israelis - who had encountered it in Lebanon and Gaza - reported it as relatively ineffective against armoured vehicles, although "heavier versions" had caused catastrophic results in softer or lightly armoured vehicles.

Nevertheless, the prospect of this "killer weapon" overcoming all armour was enough to spark a lively (and at times ill-tempered) debate on the unofficial Army forum. A strongly argued strand was that, given the ability of the weapon to pentrate all known armour, it would be better to rely on training and tactics than to invest in new armour. But the reality was, as the Sunday Times pointed out, that the "Snatches" were highly vulnerable to attack and the terrorists had started to target them for that very reason.

Fortunately, the subtle (and not so subtle) arguments about the merits of additional armour passed by the politicians and, for once, the political process worked, forcing Des Browne first to announce a review and then the purchase of new armoured vehicles for Iraq and Afghanisan. But they were not to be RG-31s. Formally announced on 24 July, 100 heavily modified US-built Cougars were to be ordered, for deliveries to theatre to start by the end of the year. The new vehicles were to be called the Mastiff (alongside up-armoured FV-432s, which were to be called "Bulldogs"). In some respects, these were better than the RG-31s although it is arguable as to whether all the modifications improved the vehicle

Unfortunately for the troops in Afghanistan, they were not to get this equipment. Instead, it was planned to send them the Pinzgauer Vector, with little more armour than the "Snatch" Land Rover and actually less protection from mines and IEDs. Yet, this is at a time when the Taliban are stepping up attacks on road vehicles, having already destroyed three Land Rovers using suicide bombs, two of the attacks (both on "Snatch" Land Rovers) with lethal results.

That will leave British forces in Afghanistan the least well equipped of all the major contingents. The Australians have their Bushmasters, which have also been sold to the Dutch, the Canadians have RG-31s, the French have VAB armoured personnel carriers and the Germans have their Dingo IIs. And, just before Christmas, the vehicle pictured turned up in US colours - a Cougar - hitherto used for ordnance disposal officers - equipped as a patrol vehicle.

Despite the promises from Mr Browne, the Mastiffs have still not arrived in Iraq and, for want of suitable armour, soldiers are still patrolling - and dying - in "Snatch" Land Rovers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if it is the politicians who are ultimately responsible for the deaths of many fine young men (and women), that they were palmed off with second-hand Land Rovers in the first place was because General Jackson allowed it.


Sunday 24 December 2006

Me like...

If this report is true, and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani is really dead, then it is a good day for Afghanistan, Nato and the UK.

Interestingly, it is said to be a Nimrod R1 which picked up a signal from the man's satellite phone, which enabled a US aircraft to launch a bombing strike. The R1 is a specific variant of the Nimrod MR2 maritime surveillance aircraft, fitted with a suite of highly sensitive electronic detectors. The main visual difference is, rather appropriately, the absence of the MAD boom.

Osmani, an associate of Osama Bin Laden, was the Taliban treasurer and has been the most senior member of the group's leadership to die in the war on terror, according to US officials. A Taliban spokesman, however, claims he is still alive and we have not seen any confirmation, as with Zarqawi's death.

We would prefer that the kill had been achieved without putting British lives at risk in antiquated aircraft, but now is not the time to be churlish. Congratulations appear to be due for a job well done.


Tuesday 19 December 2006

All I want for Christmas...

Any credible foreign policy for a mid-ranking, internationalist power like the United Kingdom relies on effective military forces to back it up. However, while our forces are undoubtedly first-rate, they are equipped primarily to deal with a Soviet-era threat. Yet the greatest demand in the post 9-11 scenario is for counter-insurgency forces, which need different types of equipment, issued on a different scale.

Very little of the equipment needed is actually new in concept. What in many cases makes (or should make) the difference is the scale of issue. A counter-insurgency force, for instance, will need far more light attack helicopters than a conventional armoured formation. There also needs to be a strong emphasis on force protection, focused on base defences and patrol/convoy survivability.

These are areas where the British Army is heavily deficient and to redress the inadequacies and the imbalances, we have produced our own Christmas list for Santa. It might as well be addressed to Santa for the chances of our own politicians (much less the media) paying any attention to it are pretty remote - although discussion of the list would make a fascinating feature in a Sunday newspaper. Anyhow, here goes:

Number one on our list is dedicated to base defence. This is the US-developed lightweight counter-mortar radar, in this case mounted on a USMC Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) which itself is equipped with an advanced 120mm mortar for counter-battery fire. The combination is a potent weapon for base and tactical commanders having to deal with hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks on their positions - whether they be large, established bases like the Shatt al-Arab Hotel in Basra or temporary positions such as those occupied by 3rd Para in Afghanistan.

Option number two is for large, static bases - the C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) gun based on the naval Phalanx system. This can be used to shoot down incoming mortar bombs and rockets, with an 80 percent success rate. The guns have the added advantage that the automatic firing provides audible warning of an attack, giving time for those at risk to run for cover.

The third piece of kit we desperately need is a medium tactical, high endurance UAV - or to be more specific, a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) - the distinction being that this can carry weapons. The vehicle illustrated is the Hunter and, although there are other UAVs with similar performance, this has been fully developed to deliver low-yield precision guided missiles.

The Hunter can either be used for reconnaissance - locating enemy forces and relaying their positions to commanders, who can task other assets to deal with them - or it can be used as an attack weapon in its own right, firing missiles to take out small groups of the enemy (such as a rocket or mortar teams).

And this is the missile of choice - the Viper Strike. Originally designed as an anti-tank missile, it has been adapted to function in an anti-personnel role, with a capability also to take out light vehicles. Where so much fighting is carried out in urban environments with civilians present, the urgent need is for a weapon which minimises collateral damage. This missile has the ability to kill the occupants of one vehicle in a line, without damaging the others. Another characteristic of the weapon is its very steep attack profile - contrasting with the shallow flight-path of the typical missile - which makes it ideal for urban canyons.

Number five on our list is a light tactical helicopter, of which many are needed. Smaller than the Lynx, they can either be one of the Eurocopter versions, an MD Enforcer or similar. They should be able to carry 4-5 troops as a rapid response force, stretchers for casevac, light weapons (including rocket pods) in the light attack role, and/or surveillance equipment for the search and observation roles. The crucial issue is the price, with their relative cheapness enabling the military to buy larger numbers of machines than at presently planned with the Future Lynx.

And, giving our commanders yet another option is the AC-130. With its array of gatling guns, cannon and its 105mm howitzer, its sensors and all-weather target acquisition capability, the "Spooky" as it is known, is a powerful - if expensive - addition to any armoury. It is capable both of laying down saturation fire to break up attacks and precision fire to take out specific targets. These formidable machines should be available in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

And alongside the "Spooky" we also need high-endurance, long range UAV/UCAVs such as the Predator or the more advanced MQ-9 Reaper. Although the government is currently acquiring three of these machines for Afghanistan, this seems a question of "too little - too late". We need enough to have at least one flying over every area of operation, with an organic UCAV capability. Reading just a fragment of the spec demonstrates why the MQ-9 comes into the "must have" category: it will be able to deploy the GBU-12 and EGBU-12 bombs and 500lb GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). Flight trials have also taken place with the General Atomics Lynx SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) payload. Lynx also features ground moving target indicator technology...

From the sublime to the ridiculous. The aircraft shown is the Argentinian-built Pucara, a twin turbo-prop ground attack aircraft used during the Falklands war. Not for one moment would I suggest that we have some of these but the picture is used to illustrate the concept of a light, cheap ground attack aircraft. At a time when the trend is towards greater sophistication, complexity and cost, against a relatively unsophisticated enemy, the "cheap and cheerful" concept ensures that there is always some capacity, as opposed to none at all - which is so often the case at the moment.

For the next item, we have the Force Protection Buffalo - equipped for mine and IED clearance. This machine is currently in service in Iraq where it provides invaluable service in detecting IEDs that would otherwise kill and main. So far, with the Cougars, which are used by bomb disposal officers, these vehicles have received over 1,000 hits from IEDs, without a single fatality. The British forces rely on a man walking in front of a vehicle (surprisingly they do not give him a red flag) and the bomb disposal officers have unarmoured "Duro" trucks. Neither is acceptable.

Then we need a mine/blast protected patrol and convoy escort vehicle, to replace the "Snatch" and "Wimik" Land Rovers. The 6x6 versions of the Cougar being bought by the MoD (and re-named the Mastiff) are too big and cumbersome to be used. The vehicle illustrated is the RG-31. It has proved its worth time and time again in Canadian and US hands, saving many lives in circumstances where Land Rover crews would have been killed. Nevertheless, the Australian Bushmaster would be just as acceptable as would - at a pinch - the German Dingo II.

This picture shows a US Stryker wheeled armoured personnel carrier. Operations by the US in Iraq and by the Canadians in Afghanistan with their Bisons, have demonstrated the value of wheeled carriers. They are faster, quieter, more comfortable and cheaper to run - also requiring less maintenance. For sure, they do not have the cross-country performance of tracked carriers, but no one is suggesting that our Warriors should be dispensed with. Alongside tracks, though, there is a role for wheels. We need some.

And finally... we need a new tank. The British Challenger II MBT (and the US Abrams) were built for taking out Soviet T82s at long range under all conditions. They were not built for counter-insurgency. Pictured is an Israeli-built Merkava MBT. It is not perfect but, with a personnel and stores carrying capability, it is better than other Western tanks. They performed well in Lebanon and provide a good model on which to base new designs. Not for this Christmas then, but in years to come, we want a new MBT from Santa.

As for the price tag - well, no one asks the price of Santa's gifts. If really pushed, one would have to concede that a decent number of the toys illustrated would set Gordon back several billions - perhaps as much as £5 billion. But since he is paying £15 billion a year to the EU, there is one very obvious place where he could get the money - and have some change. That would enable us to buy some more Hercules C-130J airlifters and some CH-47 Chinooks, which we also need, leaving £5 million to spend on more Vipir thermal imagers.

However, this is only my idea for a list. What would yours be? And what would the Conservatives suggest?


Monday 18 December 2006

Reflected glory

With the coroner's report on Sergeant Steve Roberts's death just out, for a brief moment, lack of Army equipment is in the news. Roberts was the soldier who, for want of body armour, was killed in a "friendly fire" incident on 24 March 2003, as he manned a checkpoint outside the southern Iraqi city of Az Zubayr.

But this issue has been smouldering in the background for a long time, largely ignored by the politicians and the media. The former seem more interested in exploiting the military for their "photo opportunities" while the latter seem to treat military affairs as a source of cheap copy. Neither seem to be devoting any time or energy to ensuring that our armed forces are properly equipped.

In this context, the "real" war - i.e., the one the politicians are most interested in - is the battle for the photo-op. For instance, when David Cameron visited the troops in Basra, the government made sure there were no photographs of him addressing soldiers. The few that were published, well after the event, in the main showed the Tory leader talking to (or at) senior officers.

On the other hand, within hours of the great leader Tony's flying visit to Basra Air Station yesterday, we had dozens of photographs to chose from, ranging from the formal address, to the casual and informal, and the "touching", with Blair writing a good luck message on a Warrior MICV.

This cannot, just cannot be a coincidence. I have absolutely no doubt that private polling by the political parties (which produce the detailed results, the like of which we do not see) show that politicians who are seen associating with the military score well in the polls. Hence the succession of Labour ministers making their pilgrimages to both Afghanistan and Iraq, the ready accessibility of the photographs taken and the lengths to which the government goes to ensure that Conservative politicians do not have the same facility.

What we may be seeing – and in my view almost certainly are seeing – is an attempt to capitalise on reflected glory - and, in the context of continued and massive shortages of equipment - doing it on the cheap. For sure, political sophisticates can see through this, but adverse comment has a limited circulation and a short shelf-life. The subliminal message conveyed by a picture of Blair surrounded by "admiring" troops has, I would suggest, a more widespread and lasting effect, which drowns out the cynicism. And, if Balir can get this without coughing up the money for the kit, what should he change?

Similarly, I remain suspicious of the torrent of medals being awarded to troops in the field, something to which I drew attention in an earlier piece, noting the parallel between this government the last days of the siege of Stalingrad, when Junkers 52s from Hitler's Luftwaffe were dispatched to airdrop container-loads of Iron Crosses to the beleaguered troops of the 6th Army.

That, as I wrote at the time, is not in any way to disparage the bravery of our troops, and particularly the likes of Cpl. Bryan Budd, VC, about whom Joe Katzman wrote a moving tribute on his Winds of Change blog.

But, to this old cynic, to find his story recounted in detail on the MoD site - the output of an intensely political government ministry – somehow jars. How convenient it is to have such tales of derring-do which cannot help but invoke positive feelings – with some of the glory inescapably rubbing off on the Ministry. And how much cheaper it is to buy off the troops with medals rather than equip them properly.

It is the same with the tragic deaths of service personnel in theatre - often the result of equipment shortages or inadequacies. Note, for instance, the careful attention to detail following the deaths arising from the bomb on the Shatt al-Arab, the emotive personal pictures and the carefully staged photographs of the repatriation of their bodies.

All right and proper you might say and you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the details. But, as we recorded on this blog, how selective were those details. And, even to this day, further details have to be dragged out of the MoD, viz the answer to another written parliamentary question from the dogged Mike Hancock MP, who has asked how many incidents of British service personnel coming under attack on the Shatt al-Arab waterway took place before the 12 November bombing.

The answer came again from bully-boy Ingram, which stated: "Centrally held records show that between 15 June 2003 and 23 November 2006 there have been 16 attacks on British forces transiting the Shatt al-Arab waterway". Note the use of "centrally held records", which means there were almost certainly more than 16 attacks which suggests that – as we have indicated – that there was an extremely high risk of a fatal incident.

You will, of course, note no reference to this question on the MoD website, nor will you see any of the information conveyed on that website. And such selectivity suggests that the MoD is exploiting the courage and suffering of its "employees" while being highly economical about the circumstances in which they occurred.

By that measure, perhaps personal details relating to service personnel should not appear on the MoD site but on the respective sites maintained by each service, with a degree of detachment from the MoD.

The trouble is though that you will not get support from the media for such a quest. Journalists appreciate the quickness and convenience of the one-stop-shop and are, in any case, in the exploitative business themselves, capitalising on what is actually cheap copy. Thus you get the saturation coverage in the Telegraph and in the manner of this newspaper, which is so quick to defend its own intellectual property, there is not a whisper of a suggestion that its source was MoD press handouts, its coverage being merely edits of the free copy provided.

But a particularly odious player in the exploitation game is Mike Smith of The Times, who uses the courage (and the death) of Corporal Bryan Budd (pictured) as a foil to make a series of points in his own blog, the post headed – with the lack of imagination for which the man is famous – "Lions Led By Whitehall Donkeys".

He writes (again without acknowledging his sources) of the failure of the RAF to deliver supplies to the troops holed up in Sangin, due in part to the unserviceability of the Hercules tasked to support them and then to a drop missing its target, supplies falling into the centre of the town in a mosque controlled by the Taliban.

He describes how the US stepped in with their helicopters, to deliver rations and how further supplies were delivered by a Canadian relief convoy, "making a mockery of government claims that the British had enough troops and resources of their own." And then, as 3rd Para soldiers repulsed the Taliban again and again, Smith writes:

By now the Taliban were reluctant to make direct attacks and concentrated on rocket and mortar attacks, one of which killed L/Cpl Luke McCulloch of the Royal Irish Regiment, a week into the deployment. He was the eighth British soldier to die in Sangin.
What makes the difference between this and, say, the purely descriptive pieces in the Telegraph and the measured piece by Katzman it that Smith uses the detail to snipe at the government – but he does not use his power to fight for better equipment.

In fact, this is the man who swallowed the MoD propaganda on "Snatch" Land Rovers, and buys in uncritically to the idea of armoured Pinzgauers.

Inevitably, therefore, as he writes about L/Cpl Luke McCulloch being killed in one of the many rocket and mortar attacks, he does not think to ask why the British Army in this day and age is so vulnerable to such primitive weapons, why it is not taking countermeasures and why technology which has been available for decades is not being used.

This is where editorialising over the unfortunate death of Sergeant Steve Roberts can actually be harmful.

It is all very well tut-tutting about the lack of kit in 2003, but the MoD has since made heroic efforts to ensure that all troops in operation areas are equipped with the very latest in body armour. This, therefore, is no longer an issue and, in the final analysis, it was only (partially) responsible for the death of one man. Many more have been killed through inadequate vehicles and through failing to deal with the mortar menace.

Roberts's widow Samantha herself noted that the body armour issue had been resolved. "This is Steve's legacy," she said. Referring to MoD supply failures, she added, "but we must ensure that these failures are not repeated with other basic kit."

Just focusing on body armour, therefore, will simply allow the MoD to wriggle off the hook, evading scrutiny for the serious shortage of kit, which is now current, such as the Vipir thermal imager, UAV's, light helicopters and much else.

Typically though one can see the media going for the cheap and easy option, exploiting others' grief and misfortune, but not seeking to prevent more of it. Then, in giving the impression of "supporting our boys", it is also going for the reflected glory. In that way, the media are as bad as the politicians.

What we actually need from both the media and the politicians is clear, clinical detail on what our troops need and then active campaigns to ensure that they get it. This is where the opposition should be up front and making itself heard. Moralising and pontificating about issues long past - or merely uttering generalised waffle - is not good enough.

All we are hearing from Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox is the view that: "To send soldiers into combat without the appropriate equipment is utterly inexcusable and in a more honourable government it would have resulted in resignations. The story of this government's defence policy is too little, too late."

He adds that, "We still hear stories which reinforce the point that Tony Blair's government is all too willing to commit our forces to battle without committing the appropriate resources to our armed forces."

That certainly is not good enough. What is he going to do about it?

Wednesday 13 December 2006

A very poor job

You can almost taste the frustration as you read the single statement that effectively negates the whole of the report. It starts:

We strongly regret the MoD's refusal to supply us even with a classified summary of the information against which it assesses the success of its military operations. This makes it impossible for us to assure the House of the validity of its assessment.
We are, or course, referring to the Defence select committee Annual Performance Report on the Ministry of Defence, published today. And here we have the MPs admitting (as well as deploring) that fact that the MoD is not even supplying them with the basic information that they need to do their job.

Amazingly though, what should be headline news is ignored by the media, which makes you wonder whether any of the journalists actually read the report.

Instead, they concentrate by and large on this statement in the conclusions:

The Armed Forces are operating in challenging conditions and without all the equipment they need. The current level of commitments is impacting on training. With problems of undermanning continuing, there is a clear danger that the Armed Forces will not be capable of maintaining current commitments over the medium-term.
This allows The Sun to proclaims: "Military is in meltdown" but it certainly says something of the spinmeisters of the MoD that, from the same report, they are able to headline on their website: "MOD's Overall Performance 'Satisfactory' Say MPs".

Looking at the thrust of the media coverage, however, the "troops and equipment" story has it. The Telegraph, for instance, tells you: "Armed forces are 'undermanned and ill-equipped'", the story attributed to Tim Hall and "agencies", although why agencies should be needed or credited when this is a story about a report, heaven (and the Telegraph management) only knows.

The Scotsman carries a similar line with. "Military shortages 'pose danger'", based on a Reuters report, while Monsters and Critics runs "British troops 'ill equipped'".

All of this, from these and many other media outlets, looks pretty damning until you actually look at the select committee report for the damning evidence on the lack of equipment. And what do we see?

Well, there are references to the shortage of battlefield helicopters and to the lack of airlift capability. That is it. The MPs have swallowed, hook line and sinker, the MoD claim to have solved the "Snatch" Land Rover problem, with no one questioning whether the huge Mastiff is really suitable as a patrol vehicle, or whether the Pinzgauer Vector is at all safe.

But the really depressing thing is how the MPs are so reactive, chained to the MoD for their information and their agenda. Thus, there is no "out of the box" thinking. There is no questioning about the need for light reconnaissance and attack helicopters; nothing about tactical UAVs and UCAVs. Nothing is asked about base defences using the Phalanx C-RAM systems, or the availability of counter-battery mortar or low yield precision guided missiles like Viper Strike. Nor, indeed, is anything asked of the availability of thermal imagers that are apparently so desperately needed in Afghanistan.

They could of course got all of that information from this blog, free of charge but these people are MPs. With very few exceptions, both they and their researchers are far too grand to soil their eyes on such material. Of course, the select committees do have their own research capabilities (albeit limited), but each of the MPs - with their average of £131,000 in expenses (up from £118,000 in 2004) - can also finance their own research to see what equipment is needed.

Most of all, however - and this tells who that the MPs are not at all serious in their work - the select committees can call for written evidence and, in their hearings, call any witnesses who could help them in their inquiries.

So, with a nation at war, casualties mounting and predictions of woe coming from all quarters, how many evidential sessions do you think they held? Well, one is the number. With Mr James Arbuthnot (pictured), in the chair, they took evidence from er… Mr Bill Jeffrey CB, Permanent Under Secretary of State, and Mr Trevor Woolley, Finance Director, Ministry of Defence. For their written evidence, they relied on one main and one supplementary memorandum from – you guessed it – the Ministry of Defence.

Now, rightly, we expect a great of our armed forces and we are critical of them when they mess up. Only very recently were we hearing about an inquiry into the actions of some Royal Marines after a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar. But, the other half of the bargain is that we look after our troops.

From the evidence of this superficial, inadequate report, we can say that the bargain is not being honoured. In fact, if our troops did their jobs as badly as these overpaid idlers, we would be in deep trouble and the nation would be clamouring for heads to roll.

Of course, if the media was doing its job properly, then these charlatans would be exposed for what they really are – but then that really is asking too much.


Monday 11 December 2006

Riding for the fall

We've been speculating that the UK might drop it since last January, but the "source code" issue has been going on for years. We first mentioned it on this blog in June 2004.

But now the mighty Times has picked up the issue and has Tony Baldwin from Washington telling us that the project is at risk again, with Lord Drayson on his way over to the capital "in an attempt to save a collaborative deal with the Americans".

This, of course – as you can see from the pic – is yet again the Joint Strike Fighter – described by The Times as "the most expensive military programme in history" at £140 billion. And Britain, we are told, has once again threatened to pull out of its £10 billion purchase "if the US refused to share secret computer technology needed to maintain operational sovereignty over the Armed Forces" – the so-called "source codes" which enable the computer systems to operate.

This was supposed to have been settled in June of this year at the Blair-Bush summit - sort of. But then it went very quiet – never a good sign – and now we are back, it seems, where we started.

However, the deadline of 31 December is looming – when the UK must either sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), committing it to going ahead with the deal or it must pull out altogether. But British officials, we are informed, are telling The Times that, following the Blair-Bush summit, there has been "no breakthrough — or even any sign of one — because the Americans have been preoccupied by Iraq and the mid-term elections".

Complicating the analysis is the delay in the carrier programme and the knowledge that chancellor Brown is seriously short of money, giving rise to rumours that he is set on cancelling a big defence project. Should he be "forced" to pull out of the JSF, that would open the way to a cheaper deal with the French, buying the Rafale, or to cancelling the project altogether.

There is, therefore, a distinct possibility that the UK would be happy that any negotiations should fail. The posturing of "British officials" might simply be attempts to create an alibi, transferring the blame onto the Americans.

As it stands, though, the US does have good reason for not trusting the British completely and, in that context, the situation has not changed dramatically since we reported on it in February of this year.

There is one change though, which could prove significant. The government has not – as I suspected it might – joined the French "Neuron" advanced UCAV programme and has instead funded BAE Systems to begin development of a British system.

That might reassure the Americans that there is less likelihood of there being technology leakage to the French and onwards, although we are still far too close to the French on a number of other projects, where onwards leakage to the Chinese and or the Russians is a distinct possibility.

However, such subtleties are way beyond the capability of the MSM to understand, so you can expect plenty of ill-informed prattle on the issue.

Already, The Times is referring back to its shoddy piece of work on the Europhile Kendall Myers and one now wonders whether his lecture – and the apparently spontaneous appearance of correspondents from two national dailies - wasn't a set-up, aimed specifically at setting the scene for a failure of the JSF negotiations.

How convenient it is to have a low ranking academic working for a Europhile organisation - yet still described as "a senior analyst at the US State Department" - describing our special relationship as "totally one-sided" with no "payback" for Britain at all. When the alternative to the JSF deal is for Britain to go down either the French or the European route (or both), the idea of a Europhile stitch-up, postulated at the time, begins to look highly plausible.

The Times is also quoting an unnamed Ministry of Defence source, saying that, "If we can’t trust the Americans to provide this, then you would have to ask what else we should be doing with them in defence terms." He is cited as saying that a failure on the JSF would also raise questions over the deal under which Britain needs US help to replace its Trident nuclear missile system.

While this might be as reliable as an AP story based on information from Capt. Jamil Hussein, we have the House of Commons Defence committee bleating on the issue, as well as shadow defence spokesman Gerald Howarth (he of Pinzgauer fame - pictured) also demanding unconditional release of the source codes. Thus the government might feel fairly secure about pushing the Americans into a rejection and then walking away with minimal political fallout.

The best bet is – in an issue which is Byzantine in its complexity – that our own government, for its own reasons, is setting up the US. Furthermore, it has been doing so for some time, simply to escape from commitments it cannot afford, without having to admit that this is the case. In other words, quite deliberately, it may be riding for the fall.