Friday 30 June 2006

The great debate

The Viscount BrookeboroughAnd so it came to pass that their Noble Lords had their debate on defence yesterday and, in the nature of things, widely ignored it was by the media and the great unwashed.

It was in many senses a messy affair, covering too wide a range of subjects – from the nuclear deterrent to housing for the armed forces and all points in between.

One contribution which did stand out though was from the Viscount Brookeborough which, especially in the context of my earlier post, seems to make enormous sense. In the interests of fuelling our own debate, therefore, I am publishing the full text here:

While in Basra recently, I was struck by the similarity of certain operations to those that we carried out in Northern Ireland. But what really made an impression was the obviously low numbers of helicopters—less than half the maximum of 72 that we had in Northern Ireland. I have been involved in anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland for the past 30 years or so, and I saw some interesting parallels.

In Basra, in the multinational force area, insurgents are not normally suicidal. However, they have taken IRA technology—which is what it was—directly off the shelf. Suffice it to say, it is a device that noble Lords may have seen in the newspapers last week. It is called a PIR RC IED—a passive infrared radio-controlled improvised explosive device. It is almost certainly manufactured in Iran. It is not improvised—the device has been made by machines in a factory. The system of initiation enables extreme accuracy. That is why soldiers are being killed in Snatch vehicles. It is also capable of disabling tracked vehicles.

I am aware that we are developing counter measures. However, like Northern Ireland terrorists, the insurgents are most certainly developing the next generation of weapons to get round our counter measures. By the nature of things, we will always be slightly behind, so the problem cannot just be shuffled away, with the hope that there is a counter measure.

We were told by the Minister in May in answer to a Written Question that our service helicopter fleet was only 59 percent operational. That is seriously bad news; it is a disgrace within a modern Army. We were also told that there were 28 helicopters in Iraq, of which an average of 22 percent were not serviceable. Therefore, there are, on average, 20 serviceable aircraft in Iraq. This does not differentiate between the various capabilities. We were told that we had two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx. I read a report about more Sea Kings going to Iraq, but I am not sure whether they are the right aircraft and whether we are not plugging a hole with the wrong nail.

If these helicopters are defined, rather vaguely, into "support/heavier lift" and "tactical/patrol deployment" categories, that would result in the Chinooks, Sea Kings and Merlins being in the support and heavy lift category, the Pumas being dual purpose and the six Lynx being the patrolling aircraft. This does not take into account the fact that seven may be unserviceable, spread over all types, or in extremes, all from one category. That is a possibility, but we hope it does not occur.

My observations are as follows. The 17 aircraft in the larger category and the Pumas in the second category are almost entirely used moving personnel and equipment between bases in the multinational force area in southern Iraq. That also includes providing aircraft to go to Baghdad occasionally. These tasks include administrative resupply, changeover of units, servicemen travelling to and from R&R and hospital visits. These tasks are important—in fact, they are essential. They have become a vital priority in maintaining our deployment, so they are not for giving up, day by day, in preference to something else.

That leaves the Lynx and sometimes some of the Pumas for all the other tasks, including operational patrolling, surveillance and general taxi work. Surveillance is important because our modern surveillance system—the successor to P3—fills up the back of a Puma. You cannot land it on the ground and pick up eight soldiers. That helicopter is operational for surveillance only.

At the very best, it would be difficult to ring-fence the use of more than eight choppers for eagle patrolling and tactical operations by troops on the ground throughout the whole of our area. Where the use of single aircraft is at high risk, it will have to be done in pairs, thereby reducing separate operations that may be supported by choppers at any one time.

In practical terms, regardless of the theory, if anyone suffers a reduction in heli hours due to serviceability, it is the soldiers deploying on routine operations—they may be routine, but they are highly dangerous in Iraq—and not the vital admin resupply and support. It is therefore true that an overall increase in helis, and therefore heli hours, by, for example, 25 per cent, would be seven aircraft. That could result in a 100 per cent increase in availability of choppers for supporting patrolling on the ground. That is not great and I do not understand why we are not doing it.

We have lost personnel increasingly while on mobile patrol. We had a very similar problem in Northern Ireland, and we had to put large areas completely out of bounds to mobile patrols. Where I live, across the main road, it did not matter what happened—you were not allowed to take a mobile patrol. We used covert patrol vehicles, but I accept that that is not an option for Iraq. We also used helis, but we had 72 before taking serviceability into account. They often had to operate in pairs. We must ask ourselves questions about the patrols, especially mobile patrols. Is a given patrol really necessary? What is the threat and why is the IED beside the road? Could the patrol be done on foot? If we have the heli hours, could we use helis to patrol at virtually no risk? Are the helis at risk?

There was a range of conclusions, which included the following. Obviously many mobile patrols are vital to achieve the mission, but occasionally, if you ask the questions carefully, it is found that the answer is that they are "not really vital". So why are we doing it? If the threat to a mobile patrol is an IED, then why did the opposition set it up? To protect something, or purely because the patrol would pass it? If the latter is correct, then there is no need to be there, and that is why the IED is there. That is a very simple but important argument.

If the patrol is on foot, it is easier, through tactics developed in Northern Ireland and now in Iraq, to protect themselves and control the environment around them. I shall not go into detail, but that is what occurs. If there are heli hours, eagle patrolling reduces the risk immediately. If helis are at risk, the use of helis in pairs enhances safety yet again. One helicopter operates while the other one watches. Two helis in the air can virtually freeze terrorist movement in a 2 kilometre-square area. The second one can react to any unusual activity. There are more ARFs—air reaction forces—in the air, day by day, which can react to other things occurring in the area.

In Northern Ireland, the threat to helis virtually disappeared when there was more than one of them in the air. There were occasions in County Fermanagh, where I live, when a patrol or OP was hit and there was not vital necessity for it to be there. There would have been no attack if it had not been on the ground at the time. If it was not in an ambush position, what was it doing providing a target? That is what some mobiles are doing.

While in Iraq, I asked a very senior person how the Iraqis will patrol when we leave and remove our technology, which is going to happen. I was told that the Iraqi mobile patrols did not seem to be targeted in the same way. We seem to be providing ourselves as a target, especially if an Iraqi patrol can do it. That is fact—it is what I was told.

If you ask a senior officer, "Are you coping with accomplishing your mission?", the answer will be yes. If he gave the wrong answer, you would probably remove him. However, if you were to ask, "If you were provided with substantially more helis, would it change your tactics and make it safer?", the answer would be a resounding yes and you would have a very happy officer. Incidentally, an increase in helicopters to Northern Ireland levels would increase those provided to soldiers by 600 per cent.

In a discussion on research for new vehicles in the other place on 26 June, the Secretary of State said:

"There are medium and long-term plans relating to vehicles, and I shall be considering what we can do to respond to the situation in the short term".

The review should already be under way. We are in an operational situation. How come we have just decided to do it today? The terrorists, or the insurgents, are already reviewing what we are trying to counter, and we are about to set up the review. I suppose that it is something. What are the Government doing when they say that they,
"shall be considering what we can do to respond ... in the short term"?

The "short term" is tomorrow. Something should already have been done. That debate was on 26 June. It is amazing.

Later, the Secretary of State said:

"Decisions on which vehicles to use on operations are for the commanders on the ground". [Official Report, Commons, 26/6/06; cols. 4-5.]

The commander can use only what he's got. It is a lovely turn of phrase, but if he had the helis, he wouldn't be in the wagon.

A number of those in another place and some commentators have asked about bigger or stronger vehicles, but I do not think that that is the right line to go down. We do, however, need a patrolling vehicle, because the type of IEDs being used will disable tracked armoured vehicles. What are you left with after such an incident? You are left with a marooned armoured vehicle. How do you get it out? If you cannot, you may have a riot situation. Or perhaps we do not need to worry about it because, after they have stopped killing people in the tracked vehicle, the crowd will ensure that the situation is sufficiently in hand to petrol-bomb the living daylights out of it. These vehicles are difficult to recover. All I will say is that these reviews are a bit late in the day, and we ought to get some of the 41 percent of choppers which are non-operational into the air pretty quickly.
I shall have more to add on this and other contributions to the debate, when I have been able to study it in more detail. I will post the forum link with the general debate on "Snatch" Land Rovers.


Thursday 29 June 2006

Mean streets 2

Lynx over Basra
While hunting for photographs for my previous post, I came across this remarkable shot of a Lynx flying over Basra, which I couldn't resist. Disregarding the superb view of the "toy" and looking beyond that, what immediately strikes one is the narrow, cluttered streets (not). Bearing in mind our previous exercise, it really is getting very hard to take Lord Drayson seriously. One has to ask, what is that man for?

A back street in BasraAlso emerged is another shot of Basra, this co-incidentally taken at the time of the recent, tragic Lynx crash in Basra - reported to have been taken out by an RPG. It shows a dismounted patrol, but the location is interesting - clearly a back-street scenario. Once again, what is striking is the width of the lane, clearly more than sufficient to allow an RG-31 passage, or even something more substantial.

And, a propos my previous post, a thought occurred. The Second World War lasted six years, whence we went in with biplane fighters and emerged with jet aircraft. Now, it is taking eight years bring an updated version of an existing helicopter into operational service - two years longer than the entire length of the Second World War.

It is a good job Drayson wasn't around at the time, in charge of the Spitfire programme.


Jam tomorrow...

A Lynx helicopter on patrol in Basra - an increasingly rare sightA critical shortage of battlefield helicopters reported last year is to remain, year while the MoD commits to a long-term £1 billion project to buy 70 helicopters – averaging £14.2 million each – which will not be in service until 2014. This is at a time when the Army is down to six Lynx multi-role tactical helicopters in the whole of Iraq and desperately needs more capability.

The Americans, on the other hand, are paying in the order of £3.6 million each for their OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopters, which are providing invaluable service in supporting US troops in Iraqi counter-insurgency operations.

Their value has been graphically recorded by the award-winning free-lance war correspondent, Michael Yon, who writes of his first-hand experience as an embedded reporter in some of the "hottest" areas of Iraq. Of the Kiowa, in the battle for Mosul, he wrote:

A US Army Kiowa - Sometimes, they fly so low they are practically lawnmowers
Intelligence warned that another car bomb was looking for us, so the soldiers decided to go hunting for it. American helicopters were helping with the search and a Kiowa flew so low that we could literally have hit it with a rock at times. By flying so low they can spot threats to us, but the danger to the pilots is severe: for instance, a Kiowa was just shot down near Baquba, killing two Americans. One of the helicopters with us started taking fire. I heard a pilot on the radio asking if we needed him, he wanted to land, check for holes quickly and get back in the air. A soldier said to me, "I love those guys".
More generally, he posted another account where he describes how soldiers on the ground hold their helicopter pilots in extreme regard, writing, "I've never heard a real combat soldier calling pilots 'fly boys' or anything disrespectful." "Sometimes," he adds, "they fly so low they are practically lawnmowers. One Kiowa pilot came so low that I could read the time on his watch in the photograph. I was not using a telephoto lens. Just a 50mm prime."

This is highly relevant to the current controversy about the inadequacies of Snatch Land Rovers as even the most ardent advocate of better armour protection for our troops will agree that any effective strategy for defeating the insurgents is multi-tiered. And there are few better weapons than light tactical helicopters which can escort patrols and convoys, scouting ahead to warn of potential ambushes and to attack insurgents when they break cover.

A Kiowa watching over a Stryker APCWhen the shortage of helicopters was again raised in the House of Lords by Viscount Brookeborough in May this year, he noted that, at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, we had 72 helicopters in operation in the province.

Lord Drayson – none other than he – denied that there was a shortage of helicopters, only then revealing that the total number of helicopters in Iraq was two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx, 28 in total, with all but six being transport helicopters.

However, what we once again see with this MoD contract is "jam tomorrow" and nothing today. The new helicopters will be a central component of the EU's fantasy European Rapid Reaction Force and, in good European style, will be built by the Italian owned Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland. But when it comes to the real army, currently engaged in combat, the troops must go begging.

Kiowa photographs stolen from Michael Yon, for which theft he will undoubtedly sue me.


The mean streets of Basra

Today, there is a defence debate in the Lords. It will be the first opportunity for Lord Astor, the Conservative defence spokesman, to challenge Lord Drayson over his egregious lie about the British Army having used RG-31s before, and to question him on his claim that, "The RG-31 cannot access areas that Snatch Land Rovers can get to."

The relative size of the two vehicles has been something of a preoccupation with some contributors to the unofficial Army forum , where an extremely robust discussion has developed over the utility of the "Snatch" Land Rovers.

Given that the Land Rover weighs in at just under six feet and the RG-31 at just over eight, we were keen to know how many of the mean streets of Basra were actually so narrow that only a Land Rover could squeeze down them. Visiting the area, obviously, is out of the question – and even Lord Astor has not been permitted to go – but, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we have been able to take a "virtual tour" of the city and are able to present the results here.

That said, the first picture (top left), although it came up in a search for Basra, clearly is not a view of that city. The troops are obviously American and the vehicles in the background look very much like Strykers. The picture has a value though in that it shows the aftermath of a car bomb, with the crater in the foreground and the wreckage of the car in the near distance. It demonstrates that the terrorists by no means confine their activities to the narrow side-streets.

The next picture (right) most definitely is Basra though and the vehicle in the centre ground is a Saxon APC (now withdrawn from Basra). At just under an inch wider than the RG-31, you can see what a tight squeeze the RG-31 would have, hence the difficulty the "suicide donkey" (presumably) is having overtaking the vehicle.

Getting narrower is the next street (left) but, easily able to accommodate two cars with plenty of room to spare, it would no doubt permit passage of a Land Rover. In what looks like a one-way street (but you never know), we think that an RG-31 might just be able to squeeze by, which seems to put Lord Drayson's claim rather to the test once more. The parking of the car on the left, incidentally, does not seem too brilliant.

About this cityscape (right) I am not certain it is Basra – it looks a bit like Baghdad to me. No doubt someone will correct me. In the foreground is what looks somewhat like a bomb crater, but it could be just disrepair. Again though, the Land Rover would have no difficulty traversing the road but it would be also very hard to imagine that the RG-31 could have a problem. We cannot vouch for the side streets though, as the views of them are not clear.

In this road scene (left), some sense of scale is given by the massive six-wheeler truck, giving the road-width – at a rough estimate – of something three times the width of the truck. Even allowing for the bicycle, we assume, therefore, that a Land Rover could squeeze past, but is this yet another of those "narrow" roads where an RG-31 would have difficulty getting down? Note again the parking technique – this does not seem to be the Iraqis' forte.

Here, we do not have to guess about the Land Rover (right) – a "Snatch" is parked centre picture, with its door open. This is the Coldstream Guards on patrol, doing their "hearts and minds" bit, and very good at it they seem, to judge from the crowd of children around and in front of it. The truck to one side and the car to the other (badly parked), and the spacing, however, does seem to suggest that an RG-31 could just about squeeze past. Whether the motorcyclist would have such an easy passage is anyone's guess.

This (left) is the best I can do for a view of a side-street. If there was an IED around, it could well be embedded in the trash-filled gutter – a favourite hiding place for the terrorists and totally invisible to any passing patrol. The street itself does look narrow but, in the distance, you can see what appears to be a parked car, giving some sense of scale. From the look of the approach, a Land Rover would have no problem. An RG-31 might have difficulty squeezing past the car, but would any mounted patrol really want to go down this road where there could so easily be an ambush?

The right-hand scene is for real, where a bomb has gone off. The van to the right has been caught in the blast and has been burnt out. The structure, however, looks relatively intact so a passing "Snatch" Land Rover might just have survived the blast. In an RG-31, however, that survival would have been more certain and, from the look of the spacing, it would have been able to have driven down the road without too much difficulty.

On the left, we have another Coldstream Guard patrol. You can see the "Snatch" on the left, behind the parked car, with the "top cover" – the Americans call them "sky guards" – aiming his weapon up the street, giving cover to the soldier on foot, the so-called "dismount".

Once again, the vehicles give a sense of scale, the road measuring at least four car-widths, but probably wider. Clearly, the Land Rover had no problems navigating the road and, once again it is very hard to see how an RG-31 would have had any difficulty. And, as for "profile", the contact with the population is made by the foot patrols. The task of the vehicle is to get the troops to their destination safely. So what is Lord Drayson's problem here?

The photograph on the right, taken over the top of a parked car, shows a group of British soldiers, so this is obviously – at the time, at least – a patrolled area. There is no sign of a patrol vehicle, but the centre strip shows the road to be a dual carriageway. The truck parked off-road to the right suggests that large vehicles can navigate the road with relative ease. One senses, therefore, that an RG-31, which is not as big as the many commercial trucks plying Iraqi street, might not have too much difficulty.

I think I recognise the road (left) from scenes on television, and recall seeing a film of a convoy of "Snatch" Land Rovers led by a Warrior hammering down this road. Not in your wildest imagination could you argue that an RG-31 would have difficulty here, so this is yet another bit of road where Drayson's preference for Land Rovers does not seem to stand up. Down here, you could line up half the Army's complement of tank transporters and still have room to spare - yet this is typical of downtown Basra, where wide streets are the norm, and where the bomb threat is ever-present.

And, on the right – if this really is Basra and not Heathrow airport or somewhere else - we could land a Jumbo Jet, or even an Airbus A380, and have room to spare. No doubt, someone will tell me if this is not Basra, but even then it is difficult to see where the "nasties" might hide an IED. But not even Drayson, I imagine, would try arguing that an RG-31 would have difficulties travelling down this road.

Another day, another patrol (left) – a convoy of "Snatch" Land Rovers, with a "dismount" in front and another "top guard" covering him. This is yet another dual carriageway and you can see from the way that the Land Rovers are staggered, rather than directly in line, that there is plenty of room on the road. Once again, therefore, we have a patrol area where an RG-31 would have little problem and if, as appears from the picture, there is a car tucked in between the Land Rovers, a potential suicide bomber, the troops would definitely be safer in the better-protected vehicle.

Another one, "for real" (right). This is another bomb explosion in a busy thoroughfare, with considerable damage evident to vehicles. One again these are civilian vehicles and the one on the left is not totally destroyed, again suggesting that the blast would have been survivable at that distance, more so in an RG-31 than a "Snatch". Despite the crowds of people, the width of the road is clearly evident and the snaking hoses suggest a fire engine in the near vicinity. An RG-31 would not have had any difficulties passing down this road.

We've used this photograph before (left) - an offical MoD photograph, showing "Snatch" Land Rovers on patrol. Clearly this is a main road and the volume of truck traffic, and the spacing between the Land Rovers and the trucks easily demonstrates that an RG-31 would have absolutely no problem navigating this road, without dominating the street scene or causing difficulties for other traffic - yet another route knocked off Lord Drayson's list.

And finally... (right) this is the scene of the famous Basra riot, where the graphic scenes were flashed across the world of British soldiers spilling from a burning Warrior with their bodies wreathed in flames. You can see a "Snatch" to the left of the picture and a Warrior centre-right of picture. And, where a Warrior can go, an RG-31 at less than half the width, can easily follow. Note also, the youths are attacking the Warrior - the more aggressive-looking vehicle - and ignoring the "Snatch". Would they have attacked a convoy of RG-31s?

Anyhow, this is the best I could do with my "vitual tour". No doubt there are streets in Basra down which an RG-31 could not pass, but then would you want to drive a Land Rover down a potentially dangerous road where you have only one foot clearance down each side? But that apart, if there are such roads where only Land Rovers can travel, clearly there are many routes which are accessible to the larger vehicle. It would be absurd to suggest that, because some roads might be inaccessible, then only Land Rovers should be used for all of them. But that, effectively, seems to be what the Minister is saying.


Wednesday 28 June 2006

The wickedness of the Beeb

An open-topped Land Rover in downtown Kabul - a balance of protection, mobility and riskThere is no doubt that the "Snatch" Land Rover issue is hotting up, especially with the regrettable deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday. The Guardian, in particular, noted:

The soldiers from the Special Boat Service were returning from a night patrol when insurgents hit their armoured "snatch" Land Rover with a rocket-propelled grenade. The soldiers left the vehicle and two died in the ensuing battle. The injuries to the third were described last night as serious but not life-threatening.
It is too early to say whether a better-protected vehicle would have changed the outcome for, as we pointed out yesterday, the RPG 7 is a different order of threat. The anti-mine measures embodied in vehicles like the RG-31 would not necessarily have saved the troops in this particular firefight.

Nevertheless, this did not stop the Guardian noting that the casualties "may stoke the controversy surrounding British troops' use of open-topped Land Rovers, which offer limited protection." The paper cites Captain Gibson who observes that: "It's a balance of protection, mobility and risk … If you drive around in fully armoured vehicles you can't talk to the local population."

A Land Rover after an attack - a balance of protection, mobility and riskBut the Guardian, rather confusing the issue between the open-topped patrol vehicles and the "snatch" versions, goes on to say:

The vehicles have been criticised as a soft target after the roadside bombs which have killed some 18 British soldiers in Iraq. Des Browne, defence secretary, told MPs on Monday that the issue was being reviewed. Defence sources said possible alternatives include the RG-31 mine-protected armoured vehicle made by a BAE Systems subsidiary in South Africa and used by US forces in Iraq.
It seems also that the matter has been raised directly by journalists at one of the daily briefings at No. 10., when the prime minister’s official spokesman said: "Let us be clear that the very sad deaths today were down to those who attacked British troops. We shouldn't make it any more complicated than it is. Our thoughts are with their families."

Enter, therefore, the BBC to put its "impartial" analysis on its website to inform general readers about the issues. Headed, "Q&A: Army Land Rover row," it tells us that:

The use of Snatch Land Rovers by the British Army has become controversial after several high-profile roadside bomb attacks in Iraq. Now a Snatch in Afghanistan has been attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, leaving two soldiers dead.
What is then remarkable is that the Beeb – usually no friend of the MoD and definitely of an anti-war persuasion - not only trots out the establishment line but adds a few embellishments of its own.

It starts by quoting an MoD spokesman to explain that tanks are often too big and too slow, cumbersome and likely to annoy civilian populations. "You can't exactly go downtown Basra in a battle-tank," says our man helpfully. What he doesn't say though is that the security situation in Basra has deteriorated to the extent that the Snatches are no longer allowed out on their own, so patrols are escorted front and rear by (tracked) Warrior MICVs – a procession that is hardly likely to be much less annoying to the civilian population.

What he might also have mentioned is that the Warrior fleet in Basra and surrounds is doing such high mileage that the vehicles are being worn out very rapidly and the maintenance problems are stacking up. They are being used at an unsustainable rate – for a purpose for which they were never intended – and something soon will have to give.

Nevertheless, the Beeb continues in its role of MoD platform, allowing the spokesman to add, "The Land Rovers are fortified with armour to offer the troops protection against explosions and ballistics … They also have electronic counter-measures (ECMs) - designed to detect roadside bombs before they explode."

Note the use of the word "fortified", which is not the one I would have chosen – "lightly armoured" would be a neutral description. As for "protection against explosions and ballistics", last night we heard it from the horse's mouth when Sky News interviewed a soldier on patrol in Basra. His view, simply put was, "These Land Rovers are no use to anyone".

The ECM is, of course, useful, but only against bombs detonated by radio or mobile 'phone. Against pressure plate activation, command wire detonation or infra-red triggers, it offers no defence.

Another of the US concepts being investigated as a replacement for the HumveeNever let it be said that the BBC does not try though. Posing the question as to why the Land Rovers are "controversial" – not "deadly" mind you – we are told that "a number of incidents in Iraq have thrown the spotlight" on them. We are not told that "number", only that "Insurgents have begun to use roadside bombs against British forces - killing several soldiers", with the Beeb continuing, "Families of dead soldiers have complained that the Land Rovers do not provide enough protection."

Then, putting the best possible gloss on this, the Beeb tells us that "Defence Secretary Des Browne responded by promising to review the use of the vehicles in Iraq," quite forgetting to say that this was only after a serious campaign had started.

A US RG-31 out on the prowl - a balance of protection, mobility and riskThen we come to the really serious spin. Reviewing the alternatives, we are told that "critics of the Army" say the vehicles are an outdated, cheap alternative to the more modern equipment used by the US and South Africa. No Beeb, we are not criticising the Army. We are criticising the government, and Blair in particular, for sending troops in without adequate protection.

As for the US forces, well, the Beeb says, they use "Humvee vehicles", again forgetting to tell us that they are also introducing RG-31s, Cougars and Buffalos, and are actively looking for a replacement (see above left). No, all we get is, "these (Humvees) come in for similar criticism to the Land Rovers and are thought to be susceptible to roadside bombs and grenades."

It's a Mamba stupid! ...  introduced into Bosnia in August 1996 for use by 21 Field Squadron (EOD) Royal Engineers at the Headquarters of the Multi National Division South West in Banja LukaNow we arrive at the meat: "Others have suggested that vehicles used by the South African army - RG31s - should have been bought to replace Land Rovers." Again, there are some key missing facts, like the US is using them in Iraq and the Canadians are using them in Afghanistan – and have just ordered another 25. Instead, we get:

But RG31s are designed to protect against landmines, not the kind of explosives the Army deals with in Iraq. The Army used RG31s in Bosnia, but took them out of commission due to maintenance problems.
This, of course, we have rebutted thoroughly on this blog, here and here, but the lie is now in the system and the Beeb is at the forefront of perpetuating it.

And, to conclude this "impartial" analysis, Lord Drayson, the procurement minister, is given the last quote: The "size and profile" of the RG31s did not match the Army's requirements, and they could not access urban areas the Land Rovers could. We are then left with this:

Other armoured vehicles that the Army already uses, such as the Warrior, have been suggested. But these are much bigger and less mobile than the Snatch Land Rover. The MoD has argued that their Land Rovers have enough counter-measures to make them safe for peacekeeping patrols. They say that the equipment they use is under constant review, along with the tactics and electronic counter-measures.
The Armoured Pinzgauer - a balance of protection, mobility and riskSo, everything is fine with the world of the BBC and MoD. Except, we learn from Monday's defence questions, after an intervention from Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, the government has "agreed to supplement Snatch with a new patrol vehicle, Vector, which will come into service in 2007."

The "Vector", it turns out, is the Armoured Pinzgauer, which we have already dubbed coffins on wheels. The thing has already had a glowing review from the Sunday Telegraph's Sean Rayment and is now attracting its defenders on the unofficial Army forum.

The odd thing is that the 80 armoured vehicles, at a cost of £35 million, were supposed to be going to Afghanistan, yet the question Pritchard posed was in relation to Iraq. Are we on the verge of a fudge here, with the MoD diverting these dangerous vehicles to Iraq as a public relations measure?

No doubt, if this happens, the Beeb will be on the case, and first in line with criticism when soldiers are slaughtered, despite having done nothing to prevent it. That is the wickedness of the BBC.

See also this update on the Pinzgauer


Tuesday 27 June 2006

We've been there before

The aftermath of a mine attack in RhodesiaYesterday, Parliament finally woke up to the scandal of the inadequately armoured Land Rovers used by our troops in Iraq. In defence questions, the Conservatives mounted a spirited attack on dismal Desmond, the current secretary of state for defence.

It is a measure of the inability of the clever-dicks to understand the issues involved, though, that all we got in the print media was a tiresome little piece from The Times. That was in the form of a parliamentary sketch by Ann Treneman, which did not even begin to do justice to the subject.

As I research this issue more fully – rather in the manner of peeling an onion – the stakes, which were always high – now seem stratospheric. The real issue, when you think about it hard enough, is whether we take the current campaign in Iraq to be representative of further campaigns, or whether it is an aberration and in no way typifies the tasks that will confront our Army in the future.

An early Rhodesian mine protected patrol vehicle - the 'Cougar'Trying to answer that question is not easy but all the signs are that Iraq does represent the future. And, if that is the case, then we have to confront the stark reality that our armed forces have the wrong structures, the wrong equipment, and the wrong tactics.

To gain some insight into this, I have been revisiting the "liberation" struggle in Rhodesia where, like the insurgents in Iraq, the guerrillas' weapon of choice was the landmine and the IED. It has, in fact, been speculated by some that more vehicles in then Rhodesia struck landmines during the seven year war than by all the Allied forces in Europe in WWII from D-Day until June 1945.

The figures are stark. Between December 1972 and January 1980, 2405 vehicles struck landmines, 632 people were killed and 4,410 were injured. By the end of the war, things had escalated to such a degree that between 5-6 vehicles were hitting landmines every day.

The Stryker armoured patrol vehicle showing the anti-RPG slatted armourThis is set out in a remarkable narrative, which offers some fascinating photographs of the types of countermeasures which were developed (an examples of which is shown above), the basis of which are currently being applied by US forces in Iraq but, significantly, not by the British. An extract from a technical manual also shows how the scientific principles are well understood, further reinforcing how ill-equipped British forces are.

But, if mines and IEDs are the greatest threat to our forces, they are not the only one. We learnt today of an attack on British forces in Afghanistan, in which two British soldiers were killed after a rocket-propelled grenade – no doubt the ubiquitous RPG7 - destroyed their vehicle.

The Kiowa light tactical helicopterThis weapon itself is derived from the German Panzerfaust of World War II vintage, which was a deadly killer of tanks. But, even then, Russian troops had devised their own home-made remedy, one which caused some surprise as victorious T-34s rolled into Berlin in 1945 bedecked with spring mattresses, looted from German houses. It had been found that the coiled springs prematurely triggered the shaped charge of the Panzerfaust, disrupting the projectile and causing it to expend itself against the tank armour.

This has found its modern format in "slatted armour" which can be seen on American Strykers (pictured above left) and British Warriors but, inevitably, cannot be applied to lightly armoured vehicles. Countermeasures here, therefore, remain a major technical challenge for military vehicle designers.

Part of the answer, though, is not in passive protection but the use of UAV escorts for convoys and patrols and also by using light tactical helicopters as escorts to warn of impending ambushes. The both, and particularly the latter, can also intervene in firefights, the US using, amongst other things, the light Kiowa helicopter (a militarised version of the Bell Jet Ranger - pictured above right) to such effect that troops have declared their pilots "honorary infantrymen" because they fly so low as they "mix it" with insurgents at close range.

Humvee air-defence trucks converted to use as 'gun trucks'Against RPG7 ambushes and the ever-present threat of suicide bombs, drivers of explosive-laden vehicles ramming trucks in a convoy, the US have also revisited the Vietnam war where, to counter convoy ambushes, they devised "gun trucks" able to lay down high rates of accurate fire against attackers. And only this week, we learnt that an updated version of this idea was becoming available, an air-defence Humvee converted to the "gun truck" role (pictured above left).

It is by contrasting the US measures with the British that illustrates quite how reluctant the British government is to invest in the Iraqi war and the safety of our own troops, but increasing political and media pressure may change that. But, in order to do the job properly, the government is going to have to recognise that it can no longer afford its grandiose schemes of equipping a rapid reaction force and divert that funding to the here and now requirements of counter-insurgency.

And strangely, if it does, it will be adopting many of the weapons and tactics pioneered by colonial settlers in Rhodesia who learned the lessons the hard way. We could do no better than to recognise their skills and apply them in the current theatre of operations, not least because, if Iraq is the way of the future, we will need them again.


Monday 26 June 2006

Coffins on wheels

A Canadian RG-31 on patrolAn energetic discussion on the issue of force protection for our troops in Iraq is being conducted on the unofficial Army forum, together with our own forum and a particularly pompous intervention from Mick Smith on his Times blog.

The Smith piece is worth noting as it is a classic example of "clever-dickery", combining establishment thinking with know-it-all superiority, a condescending attitude and a basic lack of fundamental research, all with a complete failure to put the story in its broader political context.

Of course, the RG-31s are 'too big for Basra', where only Land Rovers can goHeaded, "too big for Basra" it takes on the themes which finally emerged in The Sunday Times yesterday, with the opening declaration that, "No-one should suggest or suspect that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown wants British soldiers to die needlessly." Smith then adds, "The senior British Army officers who are trying desperately to find a solution to the problem certainly do not want soldiers to die needlessly."

That is the establishment line but, as has been rehearsed on our forum, the deaths arise in part as the consequences of decisions made by Tony Blair (and, one presumes, Gordon Brown). Whether they want soldiers "to die needlessly" is not the point. The fact is that some are and the reason is that money which should have been put urgently into devising counter-measures for IEDs is being spent on equipping a fantasy army for the European Rapid Reaction Force.

Similarly, although we can accept that "senior British Army officers" are "trying desperately to find a solution" – and we can certainly accept that they do not want soldiers to die needlessly – that again is not the point. Those senior officers, first and foremost, have to work within the budgetary constraints set by the MoD so their "desperation" is heavily qualified by the amount of money they have available.

Thus, when Smith then moves on to ask, rhetorically, "So why three years after the problems with IEDs first surfaced in Iraq are our troops still dying?", he has already conditioned the debate to exclude the main reasons for the situation.

Instead, we get a knowing but unsubstantiated assertion, combined with heroic name-dropping, with Smith recruiting Brigadier Bill Moore, Director Equipment Capability (Ground Manoeuvre), to his cause.

Moore is "in charge of the programme to get a new vehicle", and says the MoD had done "a significant amount" to improve the situation and “was continuing to try to do so”. I love that word, "significant" and use it all the time. It is the King of weasel-words because it implies "an awful lot" but is in fact meaningless. In fact, it actually means "not an awful lot", otherwise one calls a spade a spade, and says, "a great deal". But then, we know a great deal has not been done because troops are still patrolling in lightly armoured Land Rovers.

Nevertheless, the Warrior, at three times the width of the Land Rover, is idealThen comes the spin. The "use of heavy armour had to be balanced with the need for soldiers to interact with local communities," says Moore. Yup… we agree. And if "Snatch" Land Rovers are too dangerous to use so you end up patrolling in Warriors and Challengers, for want of an intermediate vehicle like the RG-31, what price interacting with local communities, Mr Moore?

But that question is neither posed nor answered. Instead, Brig. Moore argues that protection from threats (such as IEDs) is 30 percent equipment, 60 percent tactics, techniques and procedures and 10 percent luck. Again, this is more weasel words. For sure, avoidance of IEDs requires that mix – although the precise mix ratios can be argued over – but when all that has been accounted for, and an IED goes off next to a vehicle, whether the occupants survive is 100 percent equipment.

Nevertheless, Moore claims that, "We work constantly to ensure that our tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment meet the demands of the operational environment. We have done a significant amount to enhance existing equipment and continue to do so."

But that is a matter of opinion, and Moore does not substantiate his claims. As I point out on the Unofficial Army forum, a successful counterinsurgency strategy is more than a question of improved armour for patrol vehicles. Looking at the measures available, I argue that the vital role of humint (human intelligence) could be enhanced. We know that the Army has cut down on language courses for troops being deployed to Iraq, but we definitely need more native language speakers. There could be more funding for informers and rewards and even such incentives as offering British citizenship and an emigration package to those informers who put themselves in harms way to assist HMG.

The Buffalo - IED hunter extraordinaireIn terms of terms of technical countermeasures, we need greater use of UAVs – which are very limited in the British sector, but which the US are exploiting with great success. On the horizon are techniques like "environmental exception mapping", using computer-aided analysis to compare "before and after" video films taken by UAVs, to pick up things like disturbed soil by the side of a road, which might indicate that a bomb has been hidden there. Then there is an urgent need for more light helicopters, the current fleet of Lynxes being described as "knackered" and far too few in number. Then we could certainly employ vehicles such as the Buffalo and Cougar to hunt out IEDs.

Yet, as far as we know – and we know a great deal – nothing like this is happening in the British occupied sectors.

But finally, Mick Smith down get down to money, but in a mealy-mouthed way. We have an RAF Chief of Defence Staff, he writes:

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup is a good man but I wonder how he would defend the cost of the RAF’s expensive Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft, large numbers of which we don’t need, alongside the amount of money allocated to Moore to try to sort out the problem of the inadequate armour protection on the Snatch Land Rover.
But then comes yet more spin. "The simple truth," adds Smith:

…is that putting a large amount of armour on a small vehicle is extremely difficult. The British Army looked at a number of different options, including the Nyala RG-31, a South African mine-protected vehicle produced by BAE Systems. Ministers say that – at just 50 cms wider than the Snatch Land Rover - it is not manoeuverable enough to be used in the streets of Basra, has then wrong profile for peacekeeping and that an earlier version was used before by the British Army in Bosnia where it proved to have maintenance problems.

The army used it in Bosnia for "route-proving", quite literally going out in front of a convoy and using the safety of its protective armour to ensure that there were no landmines on the route. The "maintenance problems" were in fact caused solely by attempts to put heavier armour on it. The engine and suspension couldn't cope with the extra weight.
The "route proving" bit is wrong, and so is the comment about "maintenance problems", but never mind.

Smith then remarks that the Canadians have bought the RG-31 for use in Afghanistan but, strangely, does not mention that the US has bought 148 for use in Iraq for protection against IEDs. "Ministers still defend the decision not to go for the RG-31," he then tells us, "It might have proven effective against land mines. It might be good enough for the Canadians. You might even be able to get it on the ground very quickly. But its profile is all wrong and it's just that bit too big for Basra."

That is the impression we are left with… "it's just that bit too big for Basra." But, of course, the Warriors and Challengers are not – and they really do have the right profile, don't they.

Now, as we reported quickly, earlier today, the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne has stated that he has asked for a review of the Land Rover question. For once, Tory MPs have done their stuff, Roger Gale MP having demanded in defence questions to know what vehicles are being considered to replace them.

With success possibly on the horizon though, now is the time to step up the pressure, not least to make sure the right decision is made. As Smith points out in his piece:

Earlier this year, as the British prepared to deploy to Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, the Taliban began copying the insurgents in Iraq using the same sort of IEDs. The need for a vehicle that had improved armour protection above that afforded by the Snatch Land Rover became increasingly urgent and ministers agreed to pay £35m for 80 armoured Pinzgauer Vectors as part of an "Urgent Operational Requirement".
The Pinzgauer - a 'coffin on wheels'?This is where Smith displays his ignorance and lack of research. The Pinzgauer is not a patrol vehicle but a 14-seat troop transport.

Furthermore, the level of protection is no greater than the "Snatch" and, with its slab sides and flat floor, it is not a mine protected vehicle. It is described as being designed "to withstand two NATO L2A2 hand grenades detonating simultaneously only 150mm below the floor pan. These grenades would normally carry a lethality radius of 5 metres." Compare and contrast the RG-31 specification, which can withstand the equivalent of two anti-tank mines exploding simultaneously under any wheel – 14Kg of TNT - or 7Kg under the cabin.

In March of this year, 14 US Marines and a civilian interpreter were killed when their amphibious assault vehicle struck an IED about a mile south of Haditha, Iraq. The "Amtrak", as it is known, affords a level of protection similar to the armoured Pinzgauer. And one feature of these lightly protected vehicles is that an IED may penetrate one wall but not have the force to break through the second, the armoured enclosure thus containing the blast with fatal consequences to all the occupants.

These Pinzgauers, far from making troops safer, could end up being "coffins on wheels". When it comes to new patrol vehicles for Iraq, therefore, the MoD cannot be trusted to make the right decision. The battle must continue.

Tip of the iceberg

The heart of enemy territory - the MoD building in LondonThis weekend, I had dinner with a very senior politician – one who had had direct and prolonged experience of the innermost workings of the Ministry of Defence and close working contacts with prime ministers.

Amongst other things, my politician confirmed that which we have worked out for ourselves , that there is, and has been for many years – before even the Blair regime – a "Europe first" defence procurement policy. However, I heard details of how this extends right through the procurement process to a degree which is quite staggering. Quite deliberately, at times, inferior, old fashioned and more expensive European equipment is bought, even where the more modern and effective equipment from the United States is actually cheaper.

What confuses the outside observer, though, is that the MoD is riven with factional infighting between competing tribes and not a few purchasing officers have found ways of circumventing the policy and breaking the "Europe first" rule. This allows gainsayers to leap triumphantly on the few exceptions and dispute its existence, even though it is well established and supported at the very highest level.

But what also emerged was confirmation of the thesis that we ourselves on this blog have been struggling to put together – that there are two separate and distinct defence policies being conducted by this government. The one – to which all the resources are being devoted is the "European" defence policy while the poor relative is the "trans-Atlantic" policy which is at its most visible in our support for the US-led coalition in Iraq.

When this is put together with the flurry of media coverage over the weekend about equipment inadequacies, we are able to draw the incontrovertible conclusion that the government is simply not prepared to finance the war effort in Iraq. Further, so poor is the equipment and so lacking in numbers are our troops, that we are able to draw down increasing evidence from the public domain that, into order to minimise politically embarrassing casualties, the Army has ceased to play any effective role in the policing of Southern Iraq.

Many areas of Basra and Al-Amarah have thus become "no go" areas to British patrols because they are simply too dangerous, leaving our presence confined to the safer and less populated areas in what is now a token operation. This is spelt out in some detail in the Independent on Sunday yesterday, which reports that British forces are facing rising violence among Shia Muslim factions in southern Iraq, but are powerless to contain it.

The paper also adds that both British and Iraqi authorities were seeking to play down the situation – each for their own reasons. For the British government, it is keen to project a charade that the Iraqi authorities are gaining in strength and competence so that it can hand over to them and declare "mission accomplished", bring the troops back in "triumph".

The reason for the inadequacy of the British forces is, as we continue to report, primarily due to the priority given to equipping the European Rapid Reaction Force. The essential problem is that the equipment required to take on and defeat the counterinsurgency is so specialised that it has no place in the EU's air-portable rapid reaction force structure. Set on withdrawing from Iraq at the first possible opportunity, the government is simply not prepared to invest in specialist equipment which will get limited use and will then not be suitable for the EU force.

We have seen already how this is putting our soldiers lives at risk, through the MoD insistence on keeping wholly inadequate Land Rovers in place, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

This is brought to the fore by that stupid and ignorant piece in The Sunday Telegraph where correspondent Sean Rayment is quivering with excitement over the emergence in theatre of something entirely new to him, "the armour-piercing 'explosively formed projectile' or EFP, also known as a shaped charge." This, the excited Rayment tells us, "fires directly into an armoured vehicle, inflicting death or terrible injuries on troops inside."

And what particularly gets Rayment worked up is his "discovery" that, "Government scientists have established that the mines are precision-made weapons which have been turned on a lathe by craftsmen trained in the manufacture of munitions," probably originating from Iran. He tells us that, "a source from the American military, who has been working closely with British scientists, said that the insurgents have perfected the design of the weapon and know exactly where to place it to ensure maximum damage to coalition vehicles."

A TMRP-6 'shaped charge' mineThe ignorance manifest in this piece is simply demonstrated by the fact that these weapons are not at all new. As we have reported before, they appeared in Bosnia in the early 90s, in the form of the TMRP-6 mine.

The fact that it is called a "mine", however, should not be allowed to confuse the situation. The Serbs not only buried these devices, but became adept at fixing them to the walls of buildings alongside roads or hanging them from telegraph poles. Ready to be triggered by passing vehicles. In other words, these devices were being used in exactly the same way as Rayment's "explosively formed projectile" (which is exactly what they were), with like effect.

Nor indeed are these the most deadly devices in the Iraqi theatre. Not least of these is the standard BK-29 HEAT-MP round, a 125mm Russian shell used by the T 72 tank. In dumps and caches all over Iraq, there are estimated hundreds of thousands of these shells, already in the hand of insurgents. One of these shells, suitably positioned, and detonated by a remote device, can easily take out an Abrams or Challenger Main Battle Tank and, indeed, several Abrams have been lost to these and similar devices - one only last month.

Further, given that only an estimated 20 of the devices have been brought in, compared with 11,000 roadside bombings in Iraq last year (compared with 5,607 in 2004), this is by no means the devastating problem that Rayment makes it out to be.

It can be no accident, though, that Rayment believes this type of device to be "new" as other journalists are reporting the same thing, which suggests that are buying government "spin" on this. Together with what appears to be government-inspired propaganda that there is somehow no defence against it, this "spin" is particularly wicked.

So well known is this type of threat that, in April 1999, the then under-secretary of state for defence, John Spellar, actually hosted a press briefing on it. And, as we know, by then, successful counter-measures had already been developed.

But, by allowing ignorant and gullible journalists to run away with the idea that this is somehow a new and different threat, the government absolves itself from any failure to protect our troops from it and, by implying that there is no defence against, calls for introduction of counter-measures are sidestepped.

Once again, we are back where we started. Introducing counter-measures in theatre would be expensive and the money is already spoken-for. In order to pursue European defence integration, therefore, it is more expedient to let troops die, especially – as my political informant told me – the MoD is confident that it can always rely on an ignorant and indifferent media not to report the facts.


Sunday 25 June 2006

The greatest enemy

A UAV picture of roadside bomb ambush in Iraq
So far this week, we've run an unprecedented five stories on a single topic, the unnecessary deaths of British soldiers from roadside bombs in Iraq, due to the inadequacies of their equipment. We started with this one, with follow-ups here, here, here and here, pointing out that, had the MoD provided our troops with armoured RG-31 patrol vehicles, some of our soldiers, like the more fortunate Americans pictured below, could have survived.

Today, the Sunday Times takes on the issue with an editorial headed: "Pay up and save lives", which we reproduce in full here:

It is of course a hugely sad matter that the toll of British soldiers killed in Iraq has been growing steadily to reach its current total of 113. Every military death is a blow for the country and a tragedy for the family and friends of those who fall victim. So it is reasonable to assume that the Ministry of Defence will do all it can to prevent the deaths or injuries of our troops. including providing them with the best weapons and armour to do such a dangerous job.

Now we learn that British soldiers have been patrolling the streets of Iraq in Land Rovers that offer almost no protection against lethal roadside bombs. Nearly a quarter of British soldiers so far killed in hostile action have been the victims of roadside bombs and were patrolling in these so-called "Snatch" Land Rovers. The vehicles, some up to 20 years old, were shipped to Iraq from Northern Ireland, where they were used to police a very different and much less bloody conflict. Their bodywork and floors offer only thin protection against the improvised explosive devices used by the insurgents. Aware of this, the terrorists have started to target the Land Rovers and the risks of more fatalities are increasing every day.

We would naturally expect the ministry to do something about this. Far from it. The bureaucrats are digging in. It is not as if there is no alternative. The RG-31, an armoured Land Rover built by BAE Systems, is being used by the Americans and the United Nations. Some deaths from roadside bombs can never be prevented but other countries’ soldiers seem better protected.

Complaints about inadequate equipment have dogged the British mission from the start. When Sergeant Steve Roberts was shot two years ago it emerged that the protective vest he should have been wearing was not available. The six military policemen killed by a mob three years ago had antiquated radios and inadequate ammunition. The scandal over Land Rovers not fit for their purpose is just the latest sorry example of Whitehall warriors sending our fighting men badly protected into the field.
This is in a week when the Tory Diary blog has been discussing such vital issues as a new logo for the Conservative Party and an interview between the Boy King and Jonathan Ross.

An RG-31 after a roadside bomb attackThe contrast perhaps speaks volumes for contemporary politics when even a defence debate in the Commons goes unnoticed by the chattering classes. Fortunately, the Sunday Times did not share the values of the "modern compassionate" Conservatives. In addition to its editorial, it has published the Land Rover story on its front page and also devoted a full-page to a focus analysis. The story cites a certain Richard North, "an author and internet blogger" who has been campaigning over the failure to invest in heavily armoured vehicles. He says:

It was an incredibly crass decision to reject the RG-31 and shows yet again the MoD's knack of creating a disaster of every procurement decision. The looked at whether to stick with cheap, second-hand Land Rovers that were not safe to use in Iraq at that time, or buy a vehicle that would save lives. What did they do? They stuck with the Land Rovers.
The crew escape unhurt - the caption to the photo is 'Thank you RG-31'The Times story follows in the wake of The Sunday Telegraph, with Christopher Booker continuing the story he started last week. Moreover, this is clearly an issue with which the public clearly empathise, the two lead letters in the Telegraph supporting the calls for better equipment.

That does not, incidentally, stop the Telegraph's dim excuse for a defence correspondent, Sean Rayment, pursuing his own line that "the policy of using Land Rovers" is due to the lack of Warrior MICVs. This, he admits, is a claim the Ministry of Defence denies, a denial that has substance as no knowleageable person will argue that the Warrior is a suitable patrol vehicle. And, at three times the width of the Land Rover, it most certainly cannot gain access to many areas in urban environments.

Nevertheless, for those who want to understand more about the real enemy which is threatening our democracy, this is a good starting point. Clever Dicks and Tory politicians, it seems (with some notable exceptions) need not bother.


Saturday 24 June 2006

The ministers must lie

The Alvis 8 in Bosnia - claimed by Drayson to be an RG-31
Not that you would have known it from the MSM but, on Thursday there was a debate in the House of Commons on defence policy. You would have thought that a switched-on opposition could have made considerable political capital from the issue raised on this blog about the inadequate protection for our troops against roadside bombs, but there was not a squeak from the Conservative front benches.

It was left to a Tory back-bencher, therefore, to raise the issue. This was Lee Scott, MP for Ilford, North, who noted that:

The American soldiers and marines in Iraq have access to RG-31 Nyala mine-protected vehicles which enable the crew to survive the blast of an improvised explosive device. Canadian troops deployed in Afghanistan also use RG-31s. British soldiers and Royal Marines need to make do with lightly protected Land Rovers. That is not acceptable.
Traditionally, the minister responds to such points at the end of the debate but, before he could do so, Ann Winterton, another Tory back-bencher intervened. Addressing Adam Ingram, the minister of state directly, she posed a question "about equipment connected with Afghanistan":

As our forces appear to be winning the firefights in Afghanistan, does he expect those who oppose our troops there and in other theatres to revert to the use of improvised explosive devices? If so, what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?
Because it was an "intervention", Ingram answered immediately and, from this you can see the way questions do not get answered. His response is a classic example of evasion - pure extruded verbal material:

We have been very effective in Afghanistan. We have a potent force in the Apache attack helicopters. We are up against intelligent and capable enemies, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we know that they will continue to look for ways to attack land-based vehicles or air-based platforms. We have a lot of measures in place. The hon. Lady will understand that it is not appropriate to discuss all the detail, but where we identify a threat - be it a new or technological threat - we identify a quick way to deal with it. Sometimes that takes time as we come to understand the threat before developing the technical response. Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel, whether it involves fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, land-based systems or maritime systems.
So, don't you worry your pretty little head, dear. "Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel".

At the end of the debate came the summing up by the parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence – there's glory for you - none other than Mr Tom Watson. He had an opportunity to deal with the Land Rover issue but chose to ignore it. Instead, what we got was:

Firstly, we need to ensure that our people, who do a magnificent job, are properly looked after. Secondly, we need to ensure that they have the equipment that they need to do the difficult and dangerous things that we ask of them. Our success depends above all else on our personnel…
And then…

They are making a unique and valuable contribution to help to bring peace and security to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world. I know that our debate will have reassured them that we have their best interests at heart and are all working to ensure that they have the finest support from the British Parliament.
I am not sure that our personnel will be that reassured, but I suspect not. According to the latest edition of Private Eye, British troops in Basra were distinctly underwhelmed by defence secretary Des Browne on his inaugural visit last month "Smug, sleek and fat - and every inch a New Labour apparatchick" one of them informed the magazine.

The hero of the hour, however, was a young squaddie who, while Browne was meeting and greeting, asked what he knew of the military. "Not much," the minister admitted, "but what do you know about politics?" "Well," said the soldier, "I can lie well".

Clearly, that is an essential attribute for a defence minister. Our picture above is further confirmation of the lie uttered by Lord Drayson on 12 June during the House of Lords debate. "We had 14 RG-31s in Bosnia, which we took out of service some time ago due to difficulties with maintenance." This is an official MoD photograph and the caption reads:

SFOR, Bosnia, April 1997: Alvis 8 Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) of the Royal Engineers.
The Alvis 8 is the Mamba, an early version of the design from which the RG-31 was developed, and further developed, the current version being the Mk III. To imply, on the basis of a different vehicle, in service nearly ten years previously, that a current type is unsuitable is clearly dishonest.

Furthermore, we are unable to get any confirmation for the minister's claim about "maintenance difficulties". We have in fact been contacted by a soldier who was serving in Bosnia who actually drove the short-wheel-base version. His comments were:

…it was a pretty old fashioned vehicle with a 4 speed manual gear box, a huge delay on the steering, nightmarish brakes that really struggled to get the thing to stop (air brakes but the poorest I've ever come across). All in all it was a real challenge to drive, I got to love it in the end, but it put off many a driver during its time. It had its good points, the separately fuelled heater (easily coped with the Balkans winter), the sound of it, and of course it carried as much kudos as any vehicle in Bosnia!
Separately, we learn that decisions to use "Snatch" Land Rovers in Iraq have caused officers "untold anguish and mental suffering" because they knew "how vulnerable they were". One source told us that, "I have seen very senior commanders cry because of the decisions that have had to be made."

Being Army, they have no choice but to use the equipment with which they are provided, and to carry out the tasks assigned. Ministers, therefore, have a special responsibility "to ensure that our people… are properly looked after". But, they are not doing so. All they are doing is uttering cheap platitudes.

But, if they admitted the real reasons why troops were being ordered to use equipment that their officers knew was dangerously vulnerable, there would be a public outcry. Thus, the ministers must lie.


Thursday 22 June 2006

"Mobility and protection"

Continuing with our theme of how Blair is killing our soldiers, with this follow up, and this, we have found some remarkable MoD photographs of the despatch from Belfast of the "Snatch" Land Rovers and their arrival in Umm Qasar on October 2003 (double-click to enlarge), with the original MoD captions:

Snatch Land Rovers on the dock in BelfastDateline 11 September 2003: A row of armoured Land Rovers line up in preparation to board a merchant vessel in Belfast Harbour, on the first leg of their journey to Iraq. Bound for Iraq 178 armoured Land Rovers shall be leaving Belfast bound for Iraq. The Land Rovers, all drawn from reserve stock or currently surplus to requirement in Northern Ireland, will give much needed and potentially life-saving protection to army patrols in southern Iraq.

The Land Rovers on arrival in IraqDateline 4 October 2003: 180 armoured Land Rovers arrive at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasar. The wagons were delivered on Dart 10, a chartered roll-on roll-off ship. British peacekeeping troops will use the new batch of armoured Land Rovers alongside the dozens of civilian all-terrain vehicles already in use. Some of the vehicles await collection after being offloaded from the Dart 10 ship.

Snatch Land Rovers on patrol in BasraWith a daub of sand-coloured paint, the vehicles were soon put into use patrolling the streets of Basra and in other British occupied areas in what was to become known as "occupation-lite". But, if the Brits thought they knew counterinsurgency better, this year the light-touch was seen to go badly wrong as violence erupted in the streets and the militias ran riot. But, as lightly-armoured Land Rovers proved to be inadequate for the task, the MoD was not to be moved, hence:

Dateline 12 June 2006: Lord Drayson. 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.
Yet, having dumped second-hand and distinctly battered "reserve stock" vehicles, and those "currently surplus to requirement in Northern Ireland" into the middle of a shooting war in Iraq, nothing was too much for our gallant lads who were set to joint the European Rapid Reaction Force. For them, the very best in Italian-built chic:

The Iveco Panther Command Liaison Vehicle
Dateline 6 November 2003: Lord Bach. We are pleased to announce that the Ministry of Defence has today signed a contract worth £166 million (including VAT) with Alvis Vickers Ltd, for the manufacture of the Future Command and Liaison Vehicle (FCLV).

The FCLV will perform the command and liaison role and replace the ageing and disparate vehicle fleet within the manoeuvre support brigades comprising elements of the 430 Series, Saxon, Land Rover and Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) fleets. From its planned in-service date of 2006, the FCLV will provide levels of crew protection and mobility commensurate with their roles in an increasingly extended ground manoeuvre area. It will offer protection against small arms, blast and anti-personnel mines.
There we have it – at £413,000 apiece, these are the Rolls-Royce of military SUVs, the very latest in fashion accessories for the image-conscious commander. Meanwhile, the peace-loving Swedes had different ideas:

The Swedish RG32M - called the Galten
Dateline 19 May 2005: South Africa's leading armoured and peacekeeping vehicle manufacturer BAE Systems Land Systems OMC has scored another export success with FMV, the Swedish Procurement Agency, confirming a production order for 102 specialist RG-32M patrol vehicles valued at close to ZAR 180 million.
At a mere £152,000 each, the Swedes are well-chuffed to have acquired the latest in mine-protected vehicles for their peacekeeping forces. The picture shows the vehicle being put through its paces by a Swedish motoring journalist, who declared himself "impressed". But such luxuries are not for our troops in Iraq. According to Lord Drayson, "The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need."


Wednesday 21 June 2006

Canaries down the mine

The British version of the Cougar - aka 'Tempest'According to the Rt Hon Adam Ingram MP, minister of state for defence, "we take all measures possible to ensure the safety and security of our troops deployed in Iraq". This is in response to an MP who had passed on a constituent's letter (a former serving soldier) expressing concern about "the safety of so-called armoured Land Rovers".

On the face of it, Ingram's statement is an out-and-out lie, except that in the weasel words that flow so easily from the civil service, to be signed off by their ministers, there is an important qualifier, in the use of the word "possible".

To the ordinary person, that word might encompass every measure known to man, certainly anything technically feasible, but in the dark halls of Whitehall, it would also include the issue of "affordability". Straight out of "Yes Minister", you can almost hear their honeyed words: "There is nothing allocated in the budget, Minister, so acquiring enhanced protection for our troops is not possible".

From there it is an easy step to write to the public, grieving relatives, worried parents, MPs and the rest, telling them: "…we take all measures possible". In strict terms, it is not a lie – but then it is not the truth either.

However, as we research this issue more deeply, inevitably the labyrinthine complexity emerges and what seems at first sight a straightforward black-and-white question of providing better armoured vehicles for our troops merges into complicated arguments about tactics, procedures, training and capabilities.

It is in this grey area that ministers are able to operate, obfuscating the issues and confusing readers of their letters, in which manner does Ingram soothingly declare, "mitigation measures are not just about equipment – all our forces undergo a comprehensive package of pre-deployment training to ensure that they are as prepared as possible for the specific operational environment they will encounter".

The sub-text, of course, is that it is not just about spending more money. In fact, implies the minister, our superb training, etc., etc., will prevail. Carefully does he avoid telling us, however, how any amount of training will protect a soldier in a lightly armoured vehicle from the blast of a concealed IED, triggered by an unseen operator.

It is here, therefore, that we pick up on the emerging story, broached in our two previous posts, here and here, which – on the basis of what we have so far found out - seem to show up the British at their very best and their very, very worst.

The Buffalo mine clearing vehicleBy way of background, we need to explore what is currently happening in the US-occupied areas of Iraq, where the scourge of the IED accounts for a full 68 percent of the battle casualties. To counter this threat, the Americans have been, since 2004 and now in increasing numbers, deploying new equipment, the Buffalo mine clearance vehicle (right) and the Cougar HEV/JERRV series (below left), together with the RG-31 series.

Bear with me briefly on the technicalities, but the basic strategy is, acting as a team, these vehicles are sent out onto the roads of Iraq to hunt out mines and IEDs and to destroy them. Then, as a final stage before the any particular road is cleared to allow ordinary patrols down them, the Cougar travels down it in a process known as "route proving" – on the basis that, if there is anything there, the mine protected vehicle will take the hit and the crew will survive.

Now, the thing is that this technique seems to have been pioneered not by the Americans but by the British in Bosnia, as early as 1999-2000. This is why the Mambas were purchased. But, even more intriguingly, it was there that the greater threat of the "penetrator mines" emerged, which led the development of British-funded counter-measures and the order of eight Cougar mine protected vehicles, in what is known as the Tempest project.

This, incidentally was in December 2001, in what appears to be the very first order for such vehicles, more than three years before the US forces placed their orders. Furthermore, the vehicles were upgraded to protect against the new mine threat. In other words, in a pioneering piece of research and development, we emerged with world-beating techniques and equipment, years before our more technically advanced cousins.

However, while the Americans have so far bought 122 Cougars - and have over a thousand more on order - we bought eight. I do not know yet whether they were deployed in Bosnia, but they do appear to have been sent to the Gulf, although I can find absolutely no reports of their having been used. According to one report, however, the vehicles are back in the UK being refurbished, prior to their despatch to Afghanistan where, it is claimed, the mine hazard is greater.

At a point, therefore, when the IED threat in the British occupied sector of Iraq is probably at its highest, the life-saving equipment pioneered by the British has been withdrawn, while the Americans are introducing it en masse, adopting precisely the tactics which our own Royal Engineers developed. You really could not make this up.

A Land Rover patrol in BasraIn the meantime, I have been sent an extract from the Regimental Journal of the King's Royal Hussars, which gives a graphic account of their recent deployment to Iraq. From this emerges that the current tactics adopted – unwittingly – are brutal and primitive. Quite simply, the troops are told to patrol their areas in lightly armoured Land Rovers until one or more of them are blown up. Then the Land Rovers are withdrawn and replaced by Warriors and Challenger tanks, until it is deemed safe to resume patrolling in Land Rovers again.

In effect – although they do so uncomplainingly – our soldiers are being used a "canaries down the mine" in a tactic redolent of the Red Army, in which punishment battalions were sent into minefields to clear the way for the assault troops.

Challengers and Warriors on patrol in Al-AmarahFrom a more strategic point of view, this means that the Army can no longer function effectively. While Warriors and Challengers do provide additional protection, as the King's Royal Hussars report testified, their use "caused a major change in the way the Squadron operated, limiting the distances we could cover and the routes we could use." At one point, movement in "Snatch" Land Rovers was "deemed too dangerous" in Al-Amarah and helicopters had to be used to lift fully crewed Land Rovers out to the Iranian border where the Squadron was responsible for conducting patrols.

Returning, therefore, to Mr Ingram's claim that "we take all measures possible to ensure the safety and security of our troops deployed in Iraq", clearly this is not the case. The equipment and techniques do exist and, since the US forces introduced them, their casualty rate from IEDs has halved.

The problem is that Mr Ingram does not have the money. The government is happy to commit £14 billion to the FRES programme, and billions more on other equipment to provide our component of the European Rapid Reaction Force but that leaves nothing extra for the forces in Iraq. To spend a few million on new kit for them is simply not "possible".