Thursday 28 September 2006

Medals galore

The news that almost 180 British soldiers have been recommended for gallantry awards for their efforts in Afghanistan, including "several" Victoria Crosses, brings to mind the last days of the siege of Stalingrad, when Junkers 52s from Hitler's Luftwaffe were despatched to airdrop container-loads of Iron Crosses to the beleaguered troops of the 6th Army.

That is not in any way to disparage the bravery of our troops but, as The Daily Telegraph remarks, the scale of the awards suggests a conflict out of all proportion to the security operation first outlined by the government when Britain committed forces to southern Afghanistan in January. John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, expressed the hope that the troops might be able to get in and out of Helmand without firing a shot.

While it is right and proper that the troops' endeavours should be properly recognised, it also has to be said that the government is getting a good deal, relying on the skill and sheer bravery of our men to make up for the pitiful inadequacies in troop numbers and equipment. Handing out medals is considerably cheaper than buying the armoured vehicles and helicopters which the Army so desperately needs.

And, if handing out medals is a cheap way of keeping troop morale high, what are we to make of the report conveyed by the BBC that Brigadier Ed Butler, the outgoing ground forces commander, is claiming that a "secret deal" has brought a halt to violence in Musa Qala, a district which had seen intense fighting.

According to the BBC's Alastair Leithead, the peace deal was struck with the elders of Musa Qala, following a "secret meeting" in the desert, since when there have been fewer number of clashes in recent days. This, Butler believes – or so we are told – is a sign that the Taleban was tactically defeated ahead of the winter. "I think we have won, we may not be quite there yet this year," he says.

This, however, simply does not match up with other reports that Taliban attacks against American forces in eastern Afghanistan have tripled since a truce was signed between the Pakistan government and pro-Taliban tribesmen in Pakistan's tribal areas, suggesting (as we indicated earlier), that the Taliban has easy access to reinforcemements.

Furthermore, the recent slacking of hostilities may have something to do with the start of Ramadan, rather than any effect British troops may have had on their enemy, which might explain why ground troops "have questioned" whether the dip in fighting is merely a sign that the Taleban is regrouping. If that is the case, the British government had better start minting some more medals.

On the other hand, if the situation is – albeit temporarily – slackening off in Afghanistan, it seems that, after months of inactivity in Iraq, action is underway by 3,000 British troops in Basra, aimed at curbing the widespread lawlessness in the province.

However, as in Al Amarah, when the British have taken a robust line, retaliation has quickly followed in the form of roadside bombing and, given that the Army has yet to receive any of the promised armoured vehicles, they are just as vulnerable to this tactic now as they have been. There is a possibility, therefore, that a hiatus in the Afghan casualty count may be replaced by an upsurge in Iraqi losses, in which case, the medal makers are going to be busy, as there is no sign that the government is preparing substantially to increase the support and equipment to these troops.

Ironically though, even if things got to breaking point, the RAF does not have sufficient airlift capacity to emulate the Luftwaffe and air drop the medals.


Tuesday 26 September 2006

Bloggers - which is it to be?

Having dealt in a little detail with the Afghan situation on Sunday, what is particularly remarkable about the piece to follow is that it cites the European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, who not only seems to make a great deal of sense but also seems to corroborate the source we used in our Sunday piece.

The details we picked up not from the UK media but off a Texan online news service with a shorter version of the same report from the Chinese news service Xinhua.

Now, before dealing with the reports and other information, the summation of which has worrying implications – a personal note.

Frankly, I am getting more than a little tired of the self-obsessed indulgence the media is currently displaying with the Tony and Gordon show in Manchester at the Labour Party conference. But that irritation also extends to the British political bloggers who seem quite content to follow in the wake of the MSM and prattle endlessly about exactly the same issues.

Often the humour and analysis is about the level one would expect of the 4th form of a second-rate boys boarding school and I have heard more intelligent comment from college students in fifth and sixth forms in the lectures I have been given to schools recently.

In a nutshell, the Tony and Gordon show is fluff – nothing is going to be decided immediately and much water is going to pass under the bridge before things come to a head. Meanwhile, we are a nation at war, we do have troops committed to a dangerous foreign venture and, if the material we have accumulated in this and our previous reports is at all representative of the situation, there is the potential for the situation to go seriously belly-up. In that case, over the winter, we could be seeing soldiers coming home in coffins in very large numbers.

And, if the MSM does not have the maturity to lead the way, it is for the bloggers to take over and demand a serious debate on a situation which is becoming ever-more unsettling. As bloggers, you can indulge in your idle tittering and puerile humour or you can act as grown ups. The choice is yours and your readers will be your judges.

Returning to the substantive issues, the details we have seen echo the report by Canadian journalist Graeme Smith, which we reviewed on Sunday, Vendrell – who lives in Kabul – says that the West must "find out more" about the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan before it can defeat it.

Standing aside from the fact that we actually have an EU official who seems to be talking sense, we will take our information from where we can get it. Apparently he was speaking to journalists in Brussels – and event, as we indicated, entirely unreported by the British MSM, when he suggested that NATO and other Western institutions did not have a sufficiently clear idea of who they were fighting. He told journalists that:

We do need to seriously look at how the Taliban is composed, what goes by the name of Taliban, who are the people that we label Taliban …Are they all part of a single group under the command of Mullah Omar? Or are they autonomous groups who perhaps do not have the kind of national or Islamist agenda that the Taliban are known for, but perhaps have specific grievances regarding certain provinces in the country? We need to find out more about that.

This was precisely the issue addressed by Smith who reported that many of the “insurgents” killed in the just completed Operation Medusa were not in fact Taliban but aggrieved local tribesmen, rebelling against corrupt and violent government forces and police.

We also reported on Captain Leo Docherty warning that, "Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse," but Vendrell seems to be contradicting this by calling for "quick" military strikes against insurgents. But then, like other commentators, including Docherty, he says these must then be followed by reconstruction efforts to deny the Taliban new recruits.

Both Vendrell and Docherty agree on the need to avoid civilian casualties, which Vendrell says "come at a political price." As to the follow-up, he wants the area of governance by the central government extended progressively from the areas which have been taken over, coupled with immediate improvement in governance and improvement in reconstruction."

The reference to "improvement in governance" perhaps hints that all is not well with the current situation, but while Vendrell does not elaborate, he does say that the reconstruction effort must become much more visible, and that Western aid must shift from humanitarian assistance to support for the overall economic rehabilitation of the country. This Vendrell says is necessary to undermine support for the militants.

"At the end of the day," he argues, "the reason why the Taliban are able to recruit so many people is less due to ideological grounds, [and] more because the Taliban is able to pay better than the police and the army pay their own [people]."

I am not entirely sure about this last comment as Graeme Smith indicated that the police were being recruited from specific tribal groups, which was partly the cause of the problem, but it might also be the case that this tribal group is not being recruited by the Taliban. Neverthless, if government servants are not being paid enough, their loyalty certainly cannot be assured.

However, as one might expect, Vendrell supports the request of NATO commanders for more troops, and he also takes issue with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, disputing that the deals Musharraf has agreed with tribal elders in Pakistan's Pashtun region of Waziristan provide a guarantee that Taliban infiltration will stop. He notes that after the first such agreement with Southern Waziristan, infiltration from Pakistan into the neighboring Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost had, in fact, increased.

Putting this together so far, it is common ground that we do not have anything like enough troops in theatre and that they are seriously – if not dangerously – under-equipped. Contrary to some reports, it seems unlikely that there will be any respite for out troops this winter and, if the Vendrell report is correct, Taliban reinforcements are flooding over the Pakistan border.

To counter this, Nato troops should be holding the ground they currently occupy and extending their grip, while also pushing ahead with major development projects, which also require security.

But, from The Independent this weekend, we learn that that British forces in Afghanistan are restructuring their operations. The policy of setting up "advanced platoon houses" will be quietly abandoned and British troops will instead be concentrated in more easily defended bases near the towns of Lashkargar, Grishk, Sangin and Musa Qala, as well as their main base, Camp Bastion. The outposts in the Sangin Valley are still being manned by British troops, but they are due to be handed over to the Afghan army, and no new ones are likely to be established.

In other words, there is to be no holding of ground or accelerated development. Instead, rather as in Iraq, the British contingent is retreating to barracks for the winter, leaving the field to the Taliban, and the population at the mercy of the murderous and wholly inadequate government forces who are parties to a vicious tribal feud.

Even if the Taliban do not step up attacks over the winter – and the most likely outcome is that they will - in the Spring if not sooner, the Army will face a re-invigorated Taliban, reinforced by recruits from over the border and from local citizens who will have been, effectively deserted by Nato forces and have thus turned fighters, siding with the Taliban.

Even the Independent asserts that, "most worryingly, there appears to be no shortage of Islamist fighters coming across the porous Pakistani border to replace the killed and wounded", so the body counts of which we have been hearing so much recently are of very little significance.

The paper cites an officer saying, "We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, locally or from across the border. We have used B1 bombers, Harriers and Mirage 2000s. We have dropped 500lb, 1,000lb and 2,000lb bombs. At one point our Apaches [helicopter gunships] ran out of missiles, they have fired so many."

During the winter, air cover will be harder to maintain and re-supply will be more difficult. One does not have to be alarmist to assert that there is a potential disaster in the making. The signs are all there for anyone who wants to see.

Basically, as I see it, we have two options. We either heavily reinforce the Nato contingent and urgently upgrade its equipment and logistic capability or we pull out. Anything else is to invite slaughter.

That analysis might, of course, be wrong. But I haven't seen any better and people in a position to know better than me do not disagree with it. If it is halfway right, something has to be done – soon. Not in the spring or sometime never but now. Given a grown-up opposition, this would be a main issue in the Conservative Party Conference next week, but I somehow doubt it will be.

That does, as I say, leave the bloggers. You – collectively – can continue to play your little games. Or you can show up the media and the politicians and make the running. Which is it to be?


Sunday 24 September 2006

This does not look good

It must have been a slow news day yesterday because Sir Richard Dannatt, the Army's new Chief of the General Staff, stayed on most of the day's television news bulletins, springing to the defence of the RAF after Friday's attack on it.

Oddly though, Dannatt did not even hint that the Major who made his complaints about the RAF may have been mistaken – and been complaining about the wrong air force. And it is doubly odd that not one single news station (or newspaper) which reported on the affair has mentioned this. Clearly, the Major's complaints supports the media narrative that "our boys" are ill equipped and under-strength, so to cast doubt on the man would have reduced the authority of his report.

But this superficiality is getting serious. When it comes to news on Afghanistan, we as a nation are dangerously ill-informed, in two key areas – firstly, the general strategic position and, secondly, over the possible course of events during the winter.

To get some insight into the strategic position, one has to turn to a piece in the Canadian Globe and Mail and an account of the recent "Operation Medusa", another Nato operation which has been coming to a "successful" conclusion, this one in the neighbouring Kandahar province.

Headed, "Inspiring tale of triumph over Taliban not all it seems," the piece is written by Graeme Smith and it does not make for happy reading. Officially, the operation has been declared a success. A thousand Taliban have been killed, others have been routed and villagers are welcoming the return of government rule. Military officials say the operation may have destroyed up to one third of the insurgency's hardcore ranks.

But, writes Smith, interviews with tribal elders, farmers and senior officials in the city of Kandahar suggest a version of events that is more complicated, and less reassuring. The revolt, it seems, has been fuelled by tribal feuds, government corruption and police violence – all of which has been exploited by the Taliban, protecting local inhabitants from the police and government. Thus,

…many of fighters killed - perhaps half of them, by one estimate - were not Taliban stalwarts, but local farmers who reportedly revolted against corrupt policing and tribal persecution. It appears the Taliban did not choose the Panjwai district as a battleground merely because the irrigation trenches and dry canals provided good hiding places, but because many villagers were willing to give them food, shelter - even sons for the fight - in exchange for freedom from the local authorities.
And, although the government has regained control of the district, there are troubling signs that the area may be sliding back toward the same conditions that sparked the violent revolt. Smith tells us:

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Taliban fighters continue to lurk around the district, and that police in the area have resumed the abusive tactics that originally ignited local anger. Farmers say gangs of policemen, often their tribal rivals, have swept into Panjwai behind the Canadian troops to search for valuables. They have been described ransacking homes, burning shops and conducting shakedowns at checkpoints.
This will come as no surprise to anyone with even the glimmering of understanding of Afghan politics and history. This current situation always had to be much more complex than a simple "biff-bam" punch-up between Nato "goodies" Taliban "baddies", to be reduced to "Boys Own" style comic strips by a supposedly serious newspaper like The Sunday Times (below).

In this context, while we hear from the likes of defence secretary Des Browne and now from General Dannatt that the "Taliban" is proving to be a more difficult adversary for British troops in Afghanistan than expected, no one in the British media has sought to offer an explanation as to why the resistance is so strong.

We can, however, glean something of the same dynamic, as described by Smith from the piece earlier this month about the resignation of Captain Leo Docherty.

A former aide-de-camp to the commander of the British taskforce in southern Afghanistan, he has described the campaign in Helmand province as "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency". His view is that, "Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse." He adds:

All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British … It's a pretty clear equation - if people are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly would.
Docherty also observes that Nato lacks the capability to carry out development work and this can only reinforce what seems to be the growing impression that Nato troops are simply another version of the Soviet invaders, an occupying military force supporting a corrupt, murderous regime.

As to the second issue, we have heard from a number of media and other commentators that, with the onset of winter, hostilities will slacken off, given Nato forces – and especially the British – time to re-group and rest.

However, as numerous accounts of the Soviet invasion show, this is a myth (see here, here, here and, especially here).

In the south – unlike the north – temperatures do not fall precipitously but the weather generally does make flying more difficult and dangerous, especially for helicopters. Effectively, for sophisticated armies, logistics become much more difficult and the balance of tactical advantage shifts to the insurgents.

Far from diminishing over the winter, therefore, Nato forces can expect attacks to intensify and, given the extreme difficulty the British already have in supplying their forces, we could see a major disasters just at a time when we are schooled by the media to expect it least.

Putting the two together, it would seem that – far from entering the region to spread peace and democracy, our troops are blundering into tribal wars, where government forces themselves are tribal protagonists. By supporting the government, far from defeating the Taliban, we are creating allies which, over winter may take advantage of an improved tactical situation to strike back with a vengeance.

Whichever way you play this, it does not look good and the media, as always, has lost the plot.


Wednesday 20 September 2006

Winds of change?

HMS Victorious - one of the submarines to receive an upgraded sonarAs with Kremlinology, you look for clues where you can find them – and they are beginning to suggest that there has been a sea change in British foreign policy, away from Euro-enthusiasm and genuinely pro-US. All that just at a time when the British public seems to be turning the other way.

It is not just what Blair says - words are cheap, especially when they are uttered by our prime minister. And he tends to be one of those Walter Mitty characters who seems to agree with the last person he met.

No, the key pointers are the concrete indicators and none are more so than defence purchasing – this being one of the most active areas of European integration. It was thus the predominance of major projects purchased by the MoD that alerted us to this hidden policy of Europeanisation, which seemed to run contrary to the over Atlanticism of the Blair government.

With the row about the Joint Strike Fighter the retreat of BAE Systems from the British defence market, which we noted in April, and other signs, it seemed as if we were moving to the end game.

One of those signs was the sale of Britain's last naval sonar system manufacturer to the French company Thales and the purchase from that company by the Royal Navy of the Sonar 2087 equipment for its Type 23 Frigates. That seemed to set the seal on the Europeanisation programme.

But now, via DefenseNews comes news which seems to turn the perception on its head. In a tightly fought contest, the MoD has awarded a £30 million contract for a new sonar system for its ballistic missile submarine fleet not to Thales or another European producer but to the Maritime Systems and Sensors division of the US defence giant Lockheed Martin.

But what is really illuminating is the comment from rival bidder, Devonport-based DML that, according to the UK's recently announced Defence Industry Strategy, "sonar systems are viewed as an essential sovereign capability".

That has not in the past prevented the MoD from buying European but for this contract to go an American company does seem to signal a significant shift in British policy. That may also have been influenced by the reluctance of the "colleagues" to pull their weight in Afghanistan, demonstrating to Blair that, when the chips are down, his European "allies" are not to be trusted.

Straws in the wind, maybe but these could also be the winds of change.


Tuesday 12 September 2006

The challenge of reality

Basil Liddell HartIf one were to try and guess what either or both Basil Liddell Hart (left) and JFC Fuller were thinking at this moment – presumably as they perched on their lofty celestial clouds (or perhaps not in the case of Fuller) - it is difficult to decide whether they would be laughing or crying.

Both of them armoured warfare theorists in the inter-war period and strong advocates of the tank, they might perhaps be amused – in an ironic sort of way - by the news that the Canadian government has ordered its armed forces to prepare 120 troops and 15 Leopard tanks to send to Afghanistan as early as next week.

This is the government which used has 66 of these machines but was in the process of trimming the fleet to about 44 vehicles, judging them costly and less useful than in the Cold War era, having succumbed to the current military fashion for medium-weight wheeled armoured vehicles.

What has the hallmarks of a sudden decision follows changes in Taliban tactics in southwestern Afghanistan, where the 2,200 Canadian forces contingent is heavily committed in Operation Medusa to clearing out the Taliban from Kandahar province.

A Canadian Leopard II MBTAccording to Canadian deputy commander Colonel Fred Lewis, the Taliban appear to be concentrating forces and digging in defences - moving to what he called "semi-conventional" combat, compared to guerrilla-style tactics employed before. In this scenario, the tanks would provide well-protected firepower to blast away and plough over such defences.

Interestingly, at 42 tons, the Leopards are considerably lighter than the US Abrams tank – weighing in at 65 tons – are more lightly armed with a 105mm gun as opposed to the Abram’s 120mm, but they are also faster. They may prove a better weapon against lightly armed irregulars, providing the Canadian all-arms co-operation is good enough to protect them from the ubiquitous RPG-7s.

But the crucial issue here is that, yet again, another army is turning to heavier armour. This follows in the wake of the US and Israeli armies, who have found that there is no substitute for thick steel when protection is needed, reversing the thinking of recent decades where the tank has been considered redundant on the modern battlefield.

The news comes little more than a week after the new British Chief of the General Staff (the professional head of the British Army), Sir Richard Dannatt , has called for a debate on defence spending, questioning whether the five percent of public spending (about £30bn) on defence was sufficient.

A similar line was taken by The Times but it must surely be getting to the point where there must be a similar debate on what equipment is needed by our forces, who are committed to so-called "asymmetric" conflicts for the foreseeable future. Not least, the big-spending projects like the £14 billion FRES project must be reconsidered, now that the former CGS, General Sir Mike Jackson – and champion of the project – has departed.

The problem is, of course, that – nominally – the UK government is still committed to Chirac's dream of a European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF), of which the FRES concept is an integral part. Will Blair have the courage to tell L’Escroc that he needs to ditch the dream or will we have to wait for his successor – presumably Gordon Brown – to break the bad news to Chirac's successor?

Therein, however, lies danger. So laboriously has the ERRF deal been stitched up that unravelling it and its component parts, like the European Capabilities Action Plan and establishing the EU Battlegroups (with plans only finalised in 2005), would open up a such a can of worms that the "colleagues" might resist any review. They could instead put pressure on member state signatories to honour their commitments and maintain their European fantasy.

Thus, while most of the forces which are actually in contact with the enemy are having to revise their thinking – and their equipment programmes – to deal with the realities on the ground, the British government may find itself under pressure to stick to the programme agreed with the "colleagues".

Whether a new prime minister will rise to the challenge – the challenge of reality versus dogma – and resist the pressure, will be an important test. Many lives will depend on the result.


Sunday 10 September 2006

What is wrong with these gormless hacks?

Under the heading, "They deserve more", The Sunday Telegraph today is launching a campaign to "get the Government to reward our soldiers properly".

Central to this campaign is the argument that the government now pays a newly qualified teacher £52.49 per day whereas a private "dodging bullets, bombs and missiles in Afghanistan is paid £39.24p a day for the privilege".

Illustrating just how lame this argument is, the paper is referring to the lowest level of wage, which would be paid to an 18-year-old soldier after 20 weeks of (free) training, a young man who may have no qualifications or experience.

By the time a soldier reaches the age of 21 – the age at which a newly qualified teacher might start – he will be on £54.60 a day (with no student loan repayments), unless of course he has been promoted, whence as a lance-corporal he will be earning £57.10 or, as a Corporal, a minimum of £64.48p. And, of course, certain specialists (such as parachutists) receive additional special pay, currently £4.85 per day.

Add to that a non-contributory pension – which can be carried over to other careers – plus tax-free lump sum after completing 18 years service, and the last problem soldiers have is their pay-scale. It is certainly not, as The Sunday Telegraph claims, a "pathetically inadequate level of pay", and far from being an "outrage".

What is an outrage though is their pathetic level of equipment, which Booker addresses in his column. He writes:

When Cpl Mark Wright of 3 Para was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, attempting to rescue six comrades who had been badly injured when their patrol vehicle was hit by a mine, this brought to 35 the number of our Armed Forces killed since their new deployment in Helmand. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been at pains to conceal the vehicle's identity, but the evidence suggests that yet again it was a Snatch Land Rover.

When Canadian and German patrols were also hit by explosive devices, their occupants escaped largely unscathed because their vehicles, an RG-31 and a Dingo, are designed to be "mine protected". This underlined the MoD's scarcely believable folly in sending our troops into action in Afghanistan and Iraq in unprotected vehicles, with the wholly predictable result that more than 30 have now died.

The MoD seeks to reassure us that it will soon be sending 100 Pinzgauer patrol vehicles to Afghanistan, costing £487,000 each. What they do not admit is that these "coffins on wheels", as they are known, offer less mine protection than the £60,000 Land Rovers. Meanwhile the RG-31s used by our allies, costing just £320,000, have saved scores of lives. Not the least forgivable aspect is how the MoD uses spin and deceit to conceal its incompetence.
Put it to the average soldier to whether they would prefer a wage rise, or decent kit that might keep them alive, and I have no doubt where their choice would lie.

So what is it with these gormless hacks that they so consistently grab the wrong end of the stick?


Thursday 7 September 2006

When is it going to stop?

A German Dingo mine protected vehicleVia The Times, agencies and others, we learn with great regret that the Army lost three more soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday, with 11 other troops injured.

Particularly distressing was the death of one of the soldiers after his vehicle hit a land mine, with five other troops also seriously injured. Another soldier received minor injuries.

The incident took place in the north of Helmand province, and occurred after the soldiers' patrol strayed into an unmarked minefield. There was no contact with the Taleban.

Very few news reports mention a vehicle, however, and the MoD have not disclosed the type. The likelihood is that it was a "Snatch" Land Rover. From the number involved and the fact this vehicle is the most widely-used patrol vehicle, the odds point very much towards this.

Another soldier of the three who died today one of the crew who was ambushed by a suicide bomber last Friday – an attack that had already left one soldier dead.

Yet, German forces have recently been subject to an attack by a suicide bomber while one of their patrols also hit a mine. Riding in mine-protected Dingos, however, both crews survived with only very minor injuries.

In May, a Canadian vehicle also ran over a mine after it had been sent to aid a resupply convoy that experienced a breakdown of one of its vehicles.

A Canadian RG-31 NyalaFortunately, the vehicle was an RG-31 Nyala. Although the crew was briefly hospitalised after the incident, Brig. Gen. David Fraser, commander of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, was reported to be smiling as he left the hospital after visiting the soldiers.

For the British yesterday, there were no smiles. Yet the tragedy of the mine and suicide bomb incidents is that the deaths and serious injuries were almost certainly preventable. Unlike the other nations providing major force numbers in Afghanistan, though, British soldiers have no mine protected vehicles for carrying out patrols. Had they been German or Canadian, their odds of survival would have been that much higher.

And the only thing on the horizon for the troops are lightly armoured Pinzgauer trucks, which provide no mine protection either.

When the hell is the MoD going to do something about these unnecessary deaths?


Wednesday 6 September 2006

Dying of ignorance

A crop of letters in the Telegraph today (double-click to enlarge), under the heading, "Armed Forces deaths are the result of a lack of equipment", attests to the fact that the this blog is by no means alone in its view of the MoD's procurement performance – not that we ever thought we were.

But a recurrent theme in the debate is the issue of "underfunding". For instance, Telegraph correspondent James Heitz Jackson of London sees a direct correlation between the overstretch and underfunding imposed on our armed forces and the deaths of service personnel.

This is a charge made by former soldier Michael Moriarty in the "comment is free" section of the Guardian last week. Moriarty actually claims that soldiers are paying with their lives for the MoD’s incompetence, declaring that, "escalating commitments, budget squeezes and big equipment programmes have left Britain's forces fatally overstretched". He argues that:

Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching our forces - the army in particular - beyond the limits of the assumptions on which their funding is based. This situation has arisen through a combination of the government's enthusiasm for use of the armed forces to support its foreign-policy aims and the failure of defence chiefs to adequately highlight the limitations of military force and to demand that the government properly resource its military ambitions. There is a real risk that the armed forces could fail in their politically appointed tasks, with terrible long-term consequences for both them and Britain's world standing.
Des Browne, defence secretaryThis has had defence secretary Des Browne rushing to the ramparts with what he thinks is a rebuttal, denying that British troops are ill-equipped and that the defence budget is insufficient.

At the heart of Bowne's rebuttal is his claim that the Afghan operation is fully funded from the Special Reserve and, therefore, the defence budget is not threatened by operational costs. Furthermore, he claims, the annual defence budget has risen by five billion pounds over the last five years - well in excess of inflation.

One has to say that this sort of charge and counter-charge gets us nowhere. It is little more that the "yah-boo-sucks" type of exchange that you can get any day in any school playground, lacking as it does any detail upon which to chew.

The Eurofighter - white elephant extraordinaireActually, both are wrong and both are right – and neither has got to the key point. Yes, the defence budget has increased, and yes British forces are underfunded. And the reason both are right is that the money is going on useless projects like the Eurofighter, the Type 45 Destroyers and the Storm Shadow (the million pound bomb) – none of which are any use to the troops committed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

But there is another all-important issue which neither of the proponents seem to have recognised. That is the value for money issue, which must also be assessed with regard to the tactical need.

Taking the second point first, outside a very narrow group of military specialists, there is very little debate as to what precisely is the right type and mix of equipment needed for counter-insurgency operations. Yet this issue is too important to be left to the specialists and – especially – the military establishment, which has a glorious and virtually unbroken record for getting it wrong.

Red coats and muskets - left to the military establishment, one somethimes thinks, these would still be frontline equipmentWhether it was the introduction of the rifle in the Napoleonic wars – which was strenuously resisted – the change from red tunics to khaki in the Boer War, and the tardy issue of machine guns, or failure to develop a suitable tank (or armoured personnel carrier) during the Second World War, the record is dismal.

One of the current, most vibrant arguments at the moment is the role of armour in counter-insurgency, one that came to the fore in the battle for Fallujah (see here and here), which has had the US military reappraising the role of Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and committing to a major programme of upgrading their Abrams fleet to improve its survivability in urban warfare.

Similar thinking is influencing the Israeli military. Before the Lebanon war, it was a given that the IDF would halt production of the latest mark of its Merkava MBT.

A Merkava Mk 3The view now – according to DefenseNews - is that the tank acquitted itself well in the recent fighting, not only in its primary role but in support missions such as escorting infantry, delivering supplies and even extracting battlefield casualties. The tank, therefore, is expected to evolve into a multi-purpose vehicle and its continued production looks assured.

Not only is the tank version undergoing a transformation, however, the Israelis are funding a project to develop the Merkava chassis into a dedicated armoured personnel carrier, called the Namera, building on their experiences with the Puma and its limitations.

All this is happening though at a time when the British Army is undergoing a major transformation, cutting back on its heavy armour and planning to replace much of its capability with medium-weight, wheeled armour, under the aegis of the £14 billion FRES programme, all to fit in with the EU concept of the European Rapid Reaction Force.

One can only marvel at the thought that the two armies which are most actively engaged at the sharp end with so-called "asymmetric warfare", in deadly counter-insurgency campaigns are opting for more and heavier armour while the British military establishment, imbued with the ethos of European integration, is going the other way.

A Namera APCBut, if the choice of equipment is suspect, what about the costs? One of the main disadvantages of the Israeli Namera, we are told, is the cost – at a cool $750,000 each. But that, in sterling, is £398,631 (at current exchange rates) yet this compares with £437,000 each for lightly armoured Pinzgauer trucks.

No one is saying that the Namera would be the most appropriate equipment for the British Army in Afghanistan – although I suspect that some commanders would not turn them away if they were offered them – but surely the MoD can do better than spend nearly half a million for a truck that offers little if any better protection than that afforded by a "Snatch" Land Rover.

Then, as we have reported before, while there is a crying need for tactical helicopters in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the MoD is committed to buying the " future Lynx" at an average cost of £14.2 million each, which means that they cannot be brought into service until 2014. Yet, the US Army is quite content with the well-proven Kiowa variant, at less than £2.3 million each.

The 'Panther' - at £417,000, more expensive than the NameraAll this and much more (such as the near £200 million on 400 useless Panthers – which cannot be used in Iraq - see also here) suggests that, not only is the MoD buying the wrong equipment, it is also paying far too much for what it does buy – the worst of all possible worlds. It also suggests that the problem is much more complex than the simple issue of "underfunding".

On the one hand, we have committed far too much on equipment that is of no use for the current campaigns and, on the other, much of what we do buy for the respective theatres is either overly expensive, under-performing or too late – or any combination of the three.

Echoing Booker's lament in his column last week: "Oh, for a properly clued-up media and an Opposition worthy of the name," we urgently need a properly informed debate both in Parliament and in the media.

Steve Bell in The GuardianWe have no great hopes of the former and, as for the latter, even if there were journalists around who were capable of understanding the issues, the likelihood is that they would not be allowed to write even half-way detailed stories (as we found to our cost here). Their editors, wedded to their dumbed-down diet of political soap operas and Diana-esq, human interest stories, can rise to the occasional cheap quickie - after the event – (or the occasional cartoon) but would judge detailed analyis too "boring" for their precious readers.

Thus is the public condemned to ignorance and, as we keep pointing out, the consequences are all too evident. Ironically, during the early '80s, when the killer disease AIDS made its appearance, the Department of Health advertising slogan – to increase awareness – was "don't die of ignorance". Decades later, this looks to be the fate of many of our soldiers. The horrible reality, though, is that it will not be their ignorance which does for them – but ours.


Tuesday 5 September 2006

Gone Awol

It really is quite bizarre but, now that the reality has been acknowledged, it is safe for the media – in this case The Daily Telegraph - to jump on the bandwagon.

Thus it is that Richard Westmacott's story on the loss of a soldier in Afghanistan, ambushed by a suicide bomber while riding in a "Snatch" Land Rover (illustrated), is headed: "Bombers target our soldiers on patrol in lightly armoured Land Rovers".

With the death yesterday of two more soldiers in Iraq, also riding in "Snatch" Land Rovers, this invites another story from the Telegraph, written by Oliver Poole with a dateline of Basra. And the headline here is: "The vulnerability of troops on roads".

All of a sudden, therefore, the fact that the "Snatch" Land Rovers are inadequate is the perceived wisdom - hence so many starting to write about it. Poole's story thus starts: "The two British soldiers killed in southern Iraq yesterday were patrolling in a lightly armoured Land Rover."

But why you just know that Poole, like his colleagues, is simply trotting out a mantra – with no semblance of understanding – is the stock paragraph which is appearing in various guises in virtually every newspaper where "lightly armoured" Land Rovers are mentioned. This goes as follows:

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, has announced that 300 tougher armoured vehicles, mainly designed (sic) Pinzgauers, and US Cougars, will be purchased for use in Iraq and Afghanistan but they will not be available to the end of the year.
The point, of course, is that even Des Browne has admitted that the Pinzgauers are no better armoured than the "Snatch" Land Rover and, by virtue of their flawed design, probably offer less in the way on mine protection.

But that does not trouble the likes of Oliver Poole. It has entered the collective brain of the media establishment that Pinzgauers are "tougher" armoured vehicles, and that is the way they will be described – even though they are coffins on wheels.

Just at a time when a responsible, knowledgeable media should be putting the boot in to the government, in an attempt to stop the dangerous machines being sent to Afghanistan – when serious numbers of troops will be killed if they are used – all we get in a new conventional wisdom.

When – and I do mean when – we see troops slaughtered unnecessarily in these dangerous machines, the media will no doubt then apply the descriptor "lightly armoured" to Pinzgauers as well. After the event will this become the even newer conventional wisdom. But, at a time when it really matters and lives could be saved, the media has gone AWOL, along with what passes for its brains.


Monday 4 September 2006

Criminal incompetence

Not on the scale of the loss of the Nimrod over the weekend, another sad event occurred today with the death of two British troops in Iraq, and the serious injury of another, following a roadside bomb attack on their "Snatch" Land Rover, just north of Basra. A fourth soldier was lightly wounded.

A report from Middle East online describes how "insurgents" attacked a British army unit escorting a reconstruction team. They were tasked to escort a reconstruction unit to assist with the rebuilding of the area north of Basra.

The "Snatch" Land Rover was badly damaged, with the wreckage of the vehicle standing upright by the side of the road, part of the rear cabin ripped open by the force of the explosion.

This brings the total number of UK soldiers killed in operations in Iraq since the 2003 conflict to 117 and, by our reckoning, the number killed while patrolling or travelling in lightly armoured or unarmoured Land Rovers to 25 – the largest single group of casualties in the Iraq theatre.

This follows the story in the Scotland on Sunday last week, which revealed that the MoD had sold off 14 Mamba armoured vehicles for a fraction of their original cost.

That story was picked up yesterday by the Mail on Sunday and again by the Scotland on Sunday, based in information supplied by this blog.

Today, however, prime minister Tony Blair described the deaths as a "terrible tragedy". He should, perhaps, have a quiet chat with his defence procurement minister, Lord Drayson, who consistently maintained that the "Snatch" Land Rovers "provide us with the mobility and level of protection that we need".

It was only after a sustained campaign by this blog, backed by Conservative shadow ministers, Booker in The Sunday Telegraph, and then the Sunday Times, that Drayson eventually conceded that new armoured vehicles should be bought.

But, since these cannot be delivered to theatre until the end of this year, our troops must continue to ride – and die – in inadequately protected Land Rovers, and Blair has the nerve to call these deaths a "terrible tragedy". Criminal incompetence by his own government would be a better description.


Sunday 3 September 2006

Squandered lives

A Nimrod MR2It was with a genuine sense of shock that we learned yesterday of the loss of a Nimrod MR2 over Afghanistan, with the death of its entire crew of 14. We can only add to the expressions of sympathy to the relatives, friends and colleagues of the deceased.

The shock came in part because one does not expect to lose this type of aircraft, even in combat theatres. One presumes – as has been stated in a number of reports – that it would have been at an altitude safe from any anti-aircraft missiles that the Taliban could deploy. And, for a mature airframe, one does not expect a "mechanical defect" – the current MoD explanation – to have such a catastrophic effect.

Already though, the pundits are suggesting that it could have been a missile attack, discounting the MoD denials. They pointed out that the Hercules crash in Iraq in January last year was initially put down to "metal fatigue" when, in fact, it turned out to have been downed by a missile.

However, even if it had been a missile which downed the Nimrod, you would not expect the MoD to admit it immediately – and rightly so. It is simply not good sense to give the enemy, gratis, an after-action report, confirming his success.

A different line is taken by Colonel Tim Collins in The Sunday Telegraph today, who writes, "Government must find more funds or pull out". This is a line we ourselves have taken so we would not altogether disagree with Collins when he says:

If the 14 British servicemen killed in Afghanistan died because of the mechanical failure of their Nimrod plane, then it confirms what I have been saying for months — that the UK's aircraft and helicopters are old and absolutely worn out.
But, if The Sunday Times report is correct, and the aircraft was "co-ordinating special forces operations against the Taliban, intercepting their communications and providing real time video surveillance of what was going on on the ground", then there is an another problem which is quite as serious – if not more so – amounting to a major scandal.

A Predator UAVThe fact is that, if the Nimrod was providing coordination and carrying out electronic communications intercepts and video surveillance (and it is really hard to think what else it could do – as a marine reconnaissance aircraft, it radars would have been next to useless) then it should not have been there at all. These functions do not require a manned aircraft and, in fact, are better (and more safely) carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Predator deployed by US forces and – to and extent, by UK forces.

Thus, the announcement last week that the UK government was to buy two Predators from the US, for use in Afghanistan, might not be entirely coincidental. Not only does it confirm that UAVs are needed for this theatre (as we have long argued) but it also suggests that the Nimrod was being used as a stop-gap, to make up for the lack of capability.

Therein lies the scandal. When you look at the MoD performance in seeking to equip British forces with UAVs, you are looking at a tale of incompetence which beggars belief and a colossal waste of money. So much has been wasted in fact, that we could have had the capacity already, for a fraction of the cost. There would be no wreckage of a fine aircraft and 14 men might still be alive.

A British Phoenix UAVThe story actually starts with the Phoenix UAV, developed originally for the Army for artillery spotting and then – as the MoD so often does – given a role extension to take in battlefield surveillance, for which purpose it was entirely unsuited. The story is spelt out here and makes for sorry reading.

But where the real scandal lies was elicited by Tory MP Andrew Rosindell in a Parliamentary question, answered in July 2006. This revealed that the "Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle system" had cost approximately £345 million since inception. Ignored by the media, this was for a system that was introduced in 1998 with a minimum 15-year in-service life, which had never functioned effectively – or at all- and could not be used in either Iraq or Afghanistan where it is most needed.

Now, the point is that the deficiencies of this abysmal machine were well known – and certainly to the MoD – by the year 2000, when the system failed to perform in Kosovo. It was certainly abundantly clear in 2002 when a reported upgrade to allow it to operate in hot weather was "put off to save money".

In fact, the "upgrade" was more likely cancelled because no amount of money would improve a basically inadequate design but, whatever the reason, this meant that the British Army went into Iraq without what is universally regarded as vital equipment.

We do now know that the MoD partly made up for this deficiency by leasing time on Predators in Iraq, but this, we also know, has proved unsatisfactory. The UAVs have been treated as "theatre assets" and have not always been available to British forces.

The proposed Watchkeeper UAVInstead of doing the sensible – and vitally necessary – thing, however, and buying more Predators from the US, not least to provide surveillance in other theatres such as Afghanistan, the MoD decided to launch on another programme of UAV development. And, with the speed of a glacier, that took until last October to finalise, with the government committing another £317 million to build 99 Israeli-designed Elbit Systems WK-450s, known as the Watchkeeper, the total contract running to £700 million.

But the worst of this was that, while the government was so eagerly committing troops to Afghanistan, the system was not due to come into service until 2010 – at the very earliest. Even then, its capabilities will fall far short of the Predator, which is already up and flying, proving its worth in both Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Thus, having so far committed the best part of £1 billion to providing UAVs for the armed forces – with no prospect of them seeing any capability until 2010, the MoD last week decided to spend yet another £30 million on two Predators for Afghanistan, to tide them over and provide at least some of the much needed support that these machines can give.

In the meantime, Nimrod aircraft, it seems, have been filling the gap and, if our contention is correct, that is why there is why 14 men now lie dead in Afghanistan.

Nor, indeed, does the story end there. Predators are not line-of-sight vehicles – i.e., they operate out of sight of their controllers – which means you need satellites to convey the communications and control signals and to receive the data they produce. Furthermore, as the US has found out, UAVs chew up band-width to such an extent that this has proved a factor limiting their deployment, not least because other services compete for air time.

A Skynet 5 communications satelliteTo operate these Predators, the British government will need satellite capability and there has been no announcement on how this will be provided – or at what cost.

We do know, however, that the MoD is seriously short of capacity and is relying on its new communications satellite system, Skynet 5, which will not be fully operational until 2008. This could explain why only two Predators or being bought – for an area four times the size of Wales. It is quite possible that there is no capacity to operate more.

In any event, this whole sorry saga is yet another example of inefficiency, waste and mismanagement. As always, the taxpayer pays the monetary price, getting less for more, while those at the sharp end pay with their lives.

And, if the media has noticed something is wrong, it has not even begun to understand why.


They catch up … eventually

We did it on 3 July, barring a key bit of information that we had to tease out of the MoD through a Parliamentary question. This the Scotland on Sunday picked last week and we followed through last Friday.

Now, today – two months after we broke the original story - the Mail on Sunday has finally run it. Yet, at the end of the same month that we first ran it, little Shane Richmond, Telegraph web news editor, was happily pushing out an inane comment from Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New Yorker journalist, that blogs are "derivative".

Yet again this illustrates that sections of the MSM are so far up their own backsides that they haven't even begun to realise that, increasingly, blogs are running the agenda on certain issues. They are ahead of the curve.

As for the MoS, typically, it has gone for the cheap, sensationalist angle and has missed key parts of the story. That makes it just another space-filler rather than a contribution to the debate about the inadequacies of the MoD, which would have moved the issue forward.

Not least, it parrots uncritically the MoD line that the Mambas were "too heavy", without stating why - and that they "were not designed as a patrol vehicle". Yet, that is precisely what they were designed for, a task - even as we write - at which, in the form of the RG-31, they are excelling in Canadian hands in Afghanistan.

It then mentions that, last month, the MoD "revealed" that the Army is to get 300 new, "tougher" armoured vehicles for use in Iraq and Afghanistan - failing, of course, to note that 100-plus of these are the useless Pinzgauer coffins on wheels. This, incidentally, is from Whitehall correspondent, Jason Lewis, who should have been aware of what was happening. When the butcher's bill comes in, you can bet the MSM will be waxing indignant but now, when there is an opportunity to do something and actually save lives - they are silent.

And, although all the information for the MoS piece came directly from the exertions of this blog – they even used the same photographs – was there any mention of EU Referendum? I'll give you three guesses.