Sunday 23 December 2007

All because the generals prefer their shiny toys

It was a coincidence that The Sunday Telegraph should have featured in its news pages the sad account of the aftermath of the death of Corporal Alex Hawkins, late of the 1st Bn Royal Anglian Regiment.

For it is he that was the first (that we know of) soldiers who was killed by a roadside bomb in the scandalously unprotected Pinzgauer Vector, featured in the same edition of the paper in the Booker column.

The news piece, headed, "A season muted by loss for soldiers, families", by Sean Rayment and Jasper Copping, in intended to bring home the human cost of war. It also features Colour Sargeant Keith Nieves who escaped death, but nonetheless suffered serious injuries, after his Viking armoured personnel carrier struck a Taliban landmine.

Booker, however, is pointing out that so many of the deaths and injuries have been unnecessary, and rails against "one of the most chilling blunders made by our senior generals in Iraq and Afghanistan" – the decision to send our troops into insurgency wars equipped with patrol vehicles that give no protection against mines and roadside bombs.

In so doing, he freely quotes this blog and, while both of us fully appreciate that, death and injury is an inescapable consequence of war, both of us are of a of a mind that all possible measures should be taken to reduce the toll.

We had therefore, both of us, previously focused on the Snatch Land Rovers and latterly the WIMIK, but the column this time concentrates on the "equally unprotected Pinzgauer Vectors, ordered by the Army's top brass for use in Afghanistan."

What is particularly chilling about this vehicle is that, before it had even been introduced into theatre, it was obvious that – in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world – Vectors were going to be a killer of men, so much so that in June last year we were calling them "coffins on wheels".

But, far from the MoD responding to this obvious and unnecessary weakness, Booker was subject to protracted complaints from the manufacturers, who referred his column to the Press Complaints Commission.

Since then, in July, October and again this month, we know of three British soldiers have been killed in Vectors (and many more seriously injured), by explosions that would have left them unharmed in mine-protected vehicles (here, here and here).

Cumulatively, over both theatres – Iraq and Afghanistan – if we take the absurdly ill-protected "Snatch" Land Rovers (and some ordinary Land Rovers), plus the WIMIKs, the Vikings, the Vectors and sundry other vehicles, we can estimate that perhaps as many as fifty soliders have been unnecessarily killed by mine strikes and IEDs, who would have survived had they been provided with more suitable equipment.

And to that one must add the untold numbers who have been seriously injured – many losing their legs – a toll that the MoD consistently refuses to reveal.

Fortunately, as Booker notes, the MoD has seen sense and has at last overruled the generals by supplying our soldiers with properly mine-protected Mastiffs, which have already saved many lives, including several more reported from Basra last Friday.

But, as we move to the new year, high up on the list of the Army's priorities is the purchase of the absurdly expensive medium-weight FRES armoured vehicles, none of which will be able to deliver the degree of protection afforded by the current range of mine protected vehicles which the MoD is now buying – at a fraction of the cost.

The point about FRES, of course, is that it is being procured to fight a mythical "future war", the nature of which, its location and even the identity of the enemy, no one can even begin to describe.

But it is that "future war" which has dominated military thinking and planning, to the exclusion of dealing with the actual wars that our Services are actually having to fight. And, to justify the extraordinary expense, Service chiefs are still maintaining that these vehicles are dual-purpose, being equally suitable for fighting "high-end" wars as well as counterinsurgency.

Yet, as we have discussed for often on this blog, not only is there little overlap between the two types of equipment required, the design principles on which "high end" and counter-insugency vehicles are based are mutally incompatible. If the design is right, however – as our sequence of photographs show, illustrating a mine-protected Buffalo (and an RG-31, bottom right) – the vehicles can take extraordinary large explosions and still protect their crews. (The first of the Buffalo pictures, incidentally, shows the countermeasures used against passive infra-red triggered IEDs - extreme left of picture - the like of which we have not seen on British vehicles).

What is emerging from vibrant discussion and debate in the US, therefore, is that counter-insurgency is not simply a "big war" scaled down, but an entirely different form of warfare, with its own special and specific needs and doctrines, entirely distinct from the "high end" wars which our Army would prefer to fight.

As yet, there is not real evidence that our military are engaging in this debate – or, at least, not in the public domain – which suggests that there is still no fundamental thinking as to what sort of equipment is required. Thus, while we are seeing more appropriate equipment dribbling into theatre, this seems to represent more of a "stop-gap" mentality rather than evidence of fundamental rethinking of requirements.

And so it is that, in the coming year, we are likely to see more unnecessary deaths and terrible injuries, all because the generals prefer their shiny toys.


Saturday 22 December 2007

What a difference a year makes

A report from Associated Press gives news of a "UK troop carrier hit by Iraq bomb". Television footage (and picture, see left) showed the vehicle on fire, with thick, black smoke billowing from it. British troops could be seen securing the site, east of Basra Airport. UK military spokesman Captain Finn Aldrich said there were no injuries.

The midday ITN news report referred to the vehicle as a Mastiff – the only specific reference to the vehicle type. From what we can see in the picture – although it is indistinct – it could well be.

Only a year ago after a horrendous year of death and injury of soldiers riding in Snatch Land Rovers (as well as Warriors), the good news now is that a "bomb in Basra" is virtually no news at all.

Given the impressive performance of the Mastiff, to have set it on fire in the way depicted (if it was a Mastiff) suggests it must have been hit by a huge bomb. Had it been a Snatch, there would almost certainly have been coffins going home for Christmas.

However, this should be a warning to the Army. As reported by The Sun today – and confirmed by the the MoD, the Taliban in Afghanistan are now using six stacked land mines in an attempt to take these vehicles out.

This is very predictable – the response of insurgents to heavier armour is always to use bigger bombs and, if they keep trying, one day they will get lucky. Heavier armour, therefore, is only part of the raft of measures which are needed to defeat the scourge of the mine and roadside bomb.

As we have seen with the Canadians, they are successfully employing mine detection equipment as part of their additional protection. Similar equipment has not been observed in British use, and the MoD needs to be acting on this if a tragedy is to be prevented.

As I wrote in that earlier post (link above), we really cannot afford another "Snatch" Land Rover situation, where the Army and the MoD react after the event – and then slowly – to a hazard which is both predictable and avoidable.


Sunday 16 December 2007

How we got it wrong

Predictably, the heavyweight Sundays have devoted considerable space to the hand over today of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces, making the formal acknowledgement of our retreat from Basra and the failure of our military adventure there.

That it is a failure is itself disputed but anyone reading the constant flow of reports coming out of Basra can reach no other conclusion. Not least, there is the testimony from the incredibly brave Marie Colvin, the first unembedded reporter to visit Basra for two years, writing today in The Sunday Times.

Her report – and many others – can leave us in no doubt that we have walked away from providing security in the southern Iraqi province, leaving ill-prepared and largely inadequate Iraqi security forces – themselves riddled with militias – to deal with a situation which Colvin describes as "a new terror".

Where the water gets muddied though – and invites a defensive reaction from the military – is that the failure cannot be attributed to the actions of the soldiers in the field. By common accord, they acted bravely, professionally and did all that could have been expected of them, and much more. The failure, therefore, was at the strategic level – which created a situation which was beyond the means of the Army to deal with.

In and amongst the reports today, it is the Sunday Times defence correspondent, Mick Smith, who attempts to explore the reasons for the failure. He put it down to the "failure to provide enough troops", pointing to the "classic error" of allowing political pressure at home to shape operations.

However, to give him due credit, Smith does not confine his criticism to the politicians. Using an unnamed "senior officer" who served in Iraq in 2003, he tells us, "At the top end our own chiefs failed to press home the need for more troops to remain in southern Iraq after the battle".

Undoubtedly, Smith and his military source are right – or, at least, partially so. Even with all the technology in the world, counter-insurgency comes down to "boots on the ground" – men with rifles and light weapons mixing it with the insurgents, taking the war to the enemy and dominating the ground.

That said, it is the contention of this blog that more troops alone would not have made any difference and, in the grander scheme of things, might have made matters worse. More troops, with more presence on the ground would, without other changes, simply have provided more targets and more casualties. And, in the casualty averse climate of the time, greater losses would have intensified the pressure for troops withdrawals.

On the other hand, with judicious changes, we would argue that the military could have dominated the ground and, in their dealings with the insurgents, could have improved their productivity (or "effects" as it is known in the military jargon) to the extent that the actual need for troops would have been less than is imagined.

Understanding why this should be is not easy and it is therefore no surprise that the media have not addressed the issues and that even the Army got it wrong. Not only that, the Army is still getting it wrong to this day.

To develop this theme, though, we must turn not to the past and Iraq but to recent events in that other theatre – Afghanistan – and a singular event in the run-up to the operation to retake Musa Qala. That event was the death of Sergeant Lee "Jono" Johnson (and the injury of two other soldiers) from a mine explosion – of which we get one crucial detail only today in The Sunday Times.

That detail – the importance of which was entirely missed by the journalist who reported on the event – was that "Jonno and three others were travelling in a Vector, a new six-wheeled armoured vehicle" (pictured - lead vehicle).

Now, this has to be examined at several different levels, the first of which is simply that, had Sergeant Johnson been riding in a properly protected vehicle, he would almost certainly still be alive. Furthermore this is the third Vector fatality that we know about, the others being Major Alexis Roberts and the other a soldier from 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment.

That, by any measure, its three wholly avoidable deaths and a number of injuries, the latter unknown. The MoD does not publish any details of incidents where only injuries – however serious – are caused, but we have had a number of reports where soldiers have lost their legs while riding in these "coffins on wheels".

The first of the broader points to emerge from this, though, is that the Pinzgauer Vector was the Army choice of "protected" patrol vehicle. There was no political intervention here. The Army was allowed to make its own choice as to the vehicle it wanted and this is what it came up with. The officers and officials involved, and the experts who advised them, got it wrong.

From this emerges an even broader point, which relates not only to Afghanistan but Iraq, and must be closely argued as it brings in other considerations.

The Vector debacle actually signifies the wider failure of the Army to understand the effects of, and take the necessary precautions against what turned out to be one the insurgents' weapons of choice – the IED. Thus, in Iraq, where the Vector was not deployed, troops were being equipped with the "Snatch" Land Rover (pictured), an equally ill-protected vehicle.

The effect of this, in terms of the number of casualties, is well recorded, but there was also another important effect – the restriction on tactical mobility. Commanders on the ground regarded vehicle patrols as an essential part of their armoury, to which effect they has basically three options – the Snatch, the Warrior and the Challenger Main Battle Tank. Clearly, the workhorse was the Snatch but, once – as appears to be the case – the insurgents started targeting this vehicle – it changed the tactical dimensions.

One of the responses was to provide Warrior escorts for the Snatches, tying up equipment and manpower simply to get the patrols to the area where they could carry out their tasks. Then, as the attacks intensified and casualties mounted, the vehicles were withdrawn altogether, limiting the options of commanders and severely restricting their ability to commit forces where needed.

In other words, through the lack of an effective protected vehicle, the Army found it need more men to do the same job (routine patrols) and, in addition, was less able to dominate the ground as the mobility of its patrols was hindered.

This, as one would expect, had knock-on effects. One of the main purposes of sending out patrols was to deter and, where possible, interdict the indirect fire attacks on the Army's bases, no more so than in al Amarah where the volume of fire eventually led to the camp at Abu Naji being abandoned. In other words, by using IEDs against vulnerable vehicles, the insurgents scored an easy tactical victory in their own campaign of harassing Army bases – a tactic which was to spread to Basra as the bases there also came under fire.

However, it was not only the lack of suitable vehicles which limited the Army responses. As we pointed out many times, there was also a lack of UAVs to maintain persistent surveillance and a similar lack of helicopters to launch quick response teams to act against indirect fire attacks. Nor was there persistent air cover or even armed UAVs which could have been used in its absence.

In effect, therefore, the Army was lacking the essential equipment which could have allowed it to take the war to the enemy.

These issues, of course, we have rehearsed many times on this blog, yet in terms of a wider recognition of the military's failings we are not much further forward than we were when we started pointing them out.

For sure, the Army has at last begun to recognise the value of properly protected vehicles – with the introduction of the Mastiff into theatre, and the promise of 4x4 protected vehicles, to be called the Ridgeback – but it was political intervention that forced this issue rather than any Damascene conversion on the part of the Army. Only now is it being admitted, grudgingly, how much of a lifesaver the Mastiffs really are.

But there is still no recognition of the need for persistent air cover (rather than the "visiting fireman" provision currently available through short-endurance fast-jets) or any understanding of the tactical role of light helicopters, so effectively honed in the "fire force" concept devised by the Rhodesians.

Overall though, the other central failing in the Army is its total inability to understand that, in the campaigns in which it is involved, the main currency is the bodies of dead soldiers. Not only have we three soldiers killed quite unnecessarily in Vectors, but there is a continual haemorrhage of casualties in WIMIK Land Rovers and other lightly protected vehicles. Add all these up and the number of avoidable (and thus unnecessary) deaths probably exceed fifty – a very substantial proportion of the total.

So far, the media have not picked up on the Vector – with the exception of Booker – in the way that they were eventually led to take note of the death toll from the "Snatch" Land Rover, but, as the Taliban are progressively defeated in open combat, they are expected to resort increasingly to asymmetric tactics (as indeed they have been), including the wider use of IEDs.

With 170 or so Vectors on the Army inventory (less those which have been destroyed), there are still plenty of opportunities for the Taliban to strike and, if the casualties start mounting once again, the Army will be forced into withdrawing them, leaving a gaping hole in its capabilities.

To that extent, the Army seems incapable of learning all the lessons that it should. And when it does react, it often does so too slowly, without acknowledging its original errors or taking measures to resolve the problems of its own making. And if this seems harsh, the criticism can nevertheless be justified. Looking at the picture of the Vector shown above, we see this highly vulnerable vehicle leading a convoy, which includes a WIMIK and several Vikings. Yet, it was the British Army's own experience in Bosnia and elsewhere that led it to the conclusion that routes must be checked by mine-protected vehicles (a process known as "proving") before unprotected traffic is allowed through.

It was that very experience which led the Canadians to purchase their Nyala vehicles, shown here doing exactly what they had learned from the British, leading a convoy of less protected Merecedes G-wagons. Thus, the very lesson learned by our own Army, it ignores.

It is those failures, in the final analysis, that explains how we got it wrong in Iraq, and how we are continuing to get it wrong in Afghanistan.


Friday 14 December 2007

"Not a whitewash"

Bringing the long-running saga of the capture by Iran and the taking of hostages of a boarding party from HMS Cornwall to some sort of closure, today sees the publication of the Defence Committee report on the incident.

In many ways, the report is highly frustrating in that the Fulton Report on which much of the committee's evaluation was based was kept confidential, and the committee itself held its inquiry in secret. Only the general conclusions have been published.

However, given that operational matters were under examination, and real issues of security were thus involved, the findings, as we remarked earlier, were always going to be a matter of trust. On this occasion, therefore, we are going to have to accept the word of our elected representatives that matters are in hand, and that the conduct of the MoD has been properly scrutinised.

In that context, the committee has unequivocally stated that the Fulton Report was not a "whitewash". Knowing something of the reputation of the man, we are prepared to accept that, and it is unlikely that the committee would have been so confident in its assertion it the situation was otherwise than what it had found.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the committee affirms that the event was "not the result of equipment or resource issues". With than, from our own examination of the incident, we would concur. Despite the fashionable cries to the contrary at the time, this from a very early stage looked like a multi-level operational failure - which was the essence of Fulton's findings. Not, it seems, despite our suspicions to that effect, were there any "rules of engagement" issues.

Although there was no Board of Inquiry or Courts Martial, the committee notes that "administrative action" has been taken against a number of the players – which means that a number of careers will go no further. However, the committee does bemoan the fact that no action was taken against any individuals involved in the media handling operation, and the selling of the sailors' stories. That it was most probably inspired at a very high level probably explains why this is the case – the guilty men wearing very large quantities of gold braid.

As to the media on the current report, the response has been somewhat muted, although this has not stopped the opposition defence spokesman, Liam Fox, making a cheap jibe at Des Brown, declaring that, "Labour's part-time defence secretary" had made "monumental mistakes" in allowing the selling of stories.

There is much more to this issue than this, not least the ongoing weaknesses in the MoD media handling operation, which could do with some serious political focus, but it seems too much to ask that Liam Fox should be able to offer constructive opposition, based on an understanding of the issues.


Read this ...

... and react accordingly. Charity begins at home.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Questions in the House

click the pic to enlarge
With the Afghan flag flying over Musa Qala (above) and the MoD website coming alive, Tory MP Ann Winterton managed to place an oral question at Prime Minister’s Questions. The exchange was as follows:

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating our superb military on driving the Taliban out of Musa Qala after a fiercely fought operation? But does he realise that a great opportunity to win hearts and minds was lost because families and friends had to learn of details of that major and critical engagement from the media, with minimal input from the Ministry of Defence? Will he ensure that this regrettable omission does not recur in future, and that the MOD drives the publicity in future?

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: It is for the Ministry of Defence, but particularly for the commanders on the ground, to decide what is right in the particular instance of an operation that is being carried out. I understand that a lot of the information was being provided by the Taliban, who were trying to make a propaganda gain out of what was happening. I am satisfied that our commanders on the ground were doing exactly the right things by our own people, and I am only sorry that families heard about it in a roundabout way rather than directly from the reports of success.
That is as good as it gets – we did not really expect a straight answer in the bear garden on the Commons during PMQs. But a marker has been put down, and there will be a return to the subject.


More toys!

Announced by Gordon Brown in a Commons statement today, and clothed in more detail by an MoD press release, the MOD plans to order 150 additional specialist, protected vehicles, specifically for Afghanistan.

The new vehicles will be called Ridgeback and, says the statement, will represent a further spend of over £150M on protection for our forces, fully funded from the Treasury Reserve.

We are told that work is currently ongoing to identify the vehicle type. "A number of solutions have been looked at, including off-the-shelf products," is all the MoD will say. However, this seems to be the smaller (than the Mastiff) MRAP vehicle, something in the range of the 4x4 Cougar (pictured), Bushmaster and Golan category. The 4x4 Cougar, in particular, has already been deployed in Afghanistan by US forces (pictured).

We are also told that the UK will be sending additional Sea King helicopters to Afghanistan, expected to deploy in the spring. However, these are not standard versions. They have been fitted with new, advanced composite rotor blades (the so-called "Carson" blades - pictured left) which substantially improve "hot and high" performance, also giving additional payload, speed and range on the same fuel capacity. The machines, therefore, will bring much needed and welcome additional capacity.

Also, Gordon Brown revealed that, through Nato, moves are being made to acquire helicopters from private contractors, to give back-up logistic support, and negotiations are continuing on this. One hopes it they will not get bogged down in the endless bureaucracy for which Nato is notorious.

Altogether though, this is good news for the Armed Forces and, in that the inventory of protected vehicles is being enlarged, a sign that the Army has finally realised that mine and ambush protection are a vital part of the armoury of any modern counter-insurgency force.


Tuesday 11 December 2007

That other war

To all intents and purposes, the media regard the battle for Musa Qala as over – even if "mopping up" continues as troops search for and disarm the inevitable IEDs.

However, that is boring detail and is already being given minimal attention. Even Brown's declaration that the military would be committed to Afghanistan for at least the next decade got only marginally more coverage than the story of a man who was locked in a lavatory for four days.

In a few days time, news of military operations in Afghanistan will have dropped completely out of sight, as far as the MSM is concerned – unless, of course a soldier is killed, in which case there will be a brief flurry of publicity once more.

While it is easy to complain about the media for its lack of attention, however, the military itself cannot escape responsibility. Having retreated behind the fortress of "operational security" early in the Musa Qala operation, more details were at times forthcoming from the Taliban than they were from the British.

What is now evident is that, while there may have been good preparation for the shooting war, there was very little thought given (and next to no resources) to the other "war" – the campaign to secure the "home front", upon which the success of any counter-insurgency campaign depends.

The importance of this simply cannot be stressed enough for, without domestic support for foreign adventures, eventually the public and politicians tire of the drain of blood and treasure and when – as inevitably happens – there are reverses (or even lack of discernible progress) the clarion call for troop withdrawal becomes ever-more attractive.

Irrespective of military successes in the field, the overall campaign may be lost simply because the maintenance of the forces becomes politically unsustainable.

In the past – going perhaps to the Second World War – the mainstream media could be relied upon to tell the story of a military campaign, with regular, contextualised, balanced and knowledgeable reports - often from a single, enduring correspondent - that over time built a comprehensive picture of what was happening.

For various reasons, however – not least that, in peacetime, news of military operations must compete with other stories - the good faith of the media can no longer be relied on. It thus falls to the MoD to attempt to provide its own narratives, through its own channels. Not least of these is the MoD website which, with over 17 million "hits" annually, is a major and recognised resource, and an obvious channel through which to feed information.

What should be happening in the first instance, therefore, is that the MoD should be treating the war on the home front as seriously as they deal with their shooting operations, making publicity an integral part of the operation, affording it the same degree of planning. It should then maximise the use of its own resources (such as the website) to channel information, rather than rely in the media to do the job for them.

This, by definition, requires an element of preparation, defining what can be said, at what stage, and what supporting material – such as photographs – will be required. In the run-up to an operation, it is a relatively simple task to commission photographs of preparations which can then be approved and placed both with the media and MoD publicity branches, for release once the official announcement has been made that an operation has started.

For obvious reasons, operational security must be protected, but the military in particular is going to have to come to terms with the fact that, in this modern communication age, it is impossible to keep operations secret for very long. And, if the military does not provide the information, then journalists will obtain it elsewhere (or make it up).

So it was at Musa Qala, where the military seemed unaware of the invention of a device known as a mobile telephone, which enabled first hand reports to be gathered from both residents and the Taliban, making them the prime source of information about the progress of the operation. Such access allowed the Taliban to put their own "spin" on events, turning a crushing military defeat into a humanitarian concession, when they claimed they had vacated Musa Qala to prevent civilian (and their own) casualties.

What, in this context needs to be done is to assess information not on the basis of its notional security implications, but on the basis of what the enemy already knows or what it could easily deduce and, crucially, what is already in the public domain – otherwise we get the bizarre situation where the enemy is telling us more about our own operations that we are getting from our own side.

The great benefit of leading on the publicity front, of course, it that it enables operations to be put in context. Anyone following the campaign closely would have known that Musa Qala was next on the list for intervention. An early and detailed announcement of the operation would have given the opportunity to rehearse the recent history, to represent the continuing progression in a positive light and to state in clear and unambiguous terms the short-term and longer term objectives.

It is here that there is the most obvious deficiency in coverage, both from the media and the MoD – the lack of narrative. With the paucity of coverage, occasional notable operations are reported, but little if anything in between. Thus, we see sporadic reports of apparently unrelated events, with no narrative and no sense of continuum. And, with no likelihood of the media filling the gaps, this is where the MoD can paint a picture of a coherent progression, making some sense out of otherwise random events.

More than anything, it is that sense of "narrative" which is most important and so obviously missing. Following the war through just one (or a very few) media sources (as most people will do) is rather like watching the occasional episode of the Coronation Street soap opera, and then trying to make sense of the plot(s). And, of course, it is the very presence of a narrative thread which makes the soap opera such an enduring genre – one which drives watchers to the television set, just to find out what is going to happen next.

In this, we see another failure of the MoD. Although the media has reported the success of the operation, long after this had become public knowledge, the MoD website was still offering a day-old announcement that steady progress was being made.

Only latterly did we get a new post on the website, even then trailing behind events rather than offering real news – also relying on a stock photograph of a Warrior in the vicinity of a military base.

Staying in soap opera territory, what that post lacked was any idea of what comes next in the wider campaign. It takes little intelligence to work out that the Army chose now to attack, in the late autumn, in order to turf the Taliban out of comfortable winter quarters. If the Taliban have retreated to the mountains, then the next step must be to harry them, to prevent them regrouping and resting, and to thus diminish their capability to mount operations in the spring – when the traditional fighting season resumes.

If it is that easy to work out – and there cannot be any harm in the Taliban knowing they are going to be harried all through the winter – then the MoD should be saying so, just to keep the sense of narrative going.

But, the work should not stop there. Many people took part in the operation and, while public recognition in the national media is impossible, there are thousands of local papers who would welcome pictures and a short news item on their local "boys" – the heros of Musa Qala. And, while, individually, the reach of any one local paper is small, collectively they outsell the nationals.

Not only is this good publicity for the Armed Forces, local readers are more likely to relate to local figures, and to see lads in the local newspaper cannot help but be an inspiration to others from the same school and towns, when it comes to joining up. Local, rather than national publicity, is the main driver of recruitment.

Then, throughout all this is the central duty owed by the military to keep Service families informed. It is all very well reading about an operation in the media, but they want confirmation, reliable information from a trusted source, and reassurance. That is not the job of the media. It is the job of the MoD.

The most important and immediate job, though, is for the military to apply its mind to the simple thesis that publicity is not an optional extra, to be switched on and off when convenient, but an essential and integral part of a campaign – a weapon of war that must be wielded as skilfully and effectively as any other. Montgomery knew this and the second battle of el Alamein was as much a publicity victory as it was a feat of arms. The MoD must re-learn his lessons.

In the final analysis, if the military cannot be bothered to tell us what they are doing – or only when it suits them – they cannot complain that we do not understand what they have been through, or what they are doing.


Monday 10 December 2007

There has been some confusion …

Media reports on Musa Qala state that the town has been retaken, although the MoD website is more cautious. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Eaton, the UK military spokesman in southern Afghanistan, says:

There has been some confusion surrounding Musa Qaleh today … A news release went out in Kabul which I think was confused in some translation between Pashtu and English but it stated we had retaken Musa Qaleh and we were reported as being in the middle of Musa Qaleh. That's not actually the case, we are in the outskirts of Musa Qaleh but the battle to take Musa Qaleh is still going on.
The situation could, however, change rapidly and AP was reporting – as of late afternoon (GMT) that Afghan and international forces had retaken the town, although foreign fighters - possibly members of al-Qaida - were continuing to attack invading troops.

The official position of ISAF is that theirs and Afghan troops had entered the outskirts of the main part of Musa Qala but would now proceed cautiously into the town centre because of improvised explosive devices. With darkness having fallen and in poor weather conditions, it seems that troops are leaving it until morning to secure their gains and consolidate their position.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown "dropped in" to Camp Bastion to tell troops that operations against the Taliban were "one of the most important of missions" and would "give strength" to Afghanistan's new democracy. Brown also praised British troops for their "huge bravery in very difficult circumstances".

And, despite the apparent difficulty in releasing photographs of troops actually engaged in operations, it seems that no expense (or bandwidth) has been spared to beam photographs of the prime minister to London, for the MoD website (pictured top left).

So, why the iconic picture of el Alamain (right)? Well, as the story went, this photograph was entirely staged, prior to the battle. To get the dramatic effect, the Aussies blew up their own cookhouse and then advanced into the smoke, the photographer Len Chetwyn recording the epic action for prosperity.

But, at least, this meant that, when news of the battle broke – way back in 1942, the press were able to print action photographs to illustrate their pieces. More than fifty years later, it seems that the MoD could not take some shots of the preparations, against unidentifiable backgrounds (thereby protecting operational security), which could have been used by the media, ravenous for pictures.

Even now, the MoD is having to use a photograph dating from September, in a desperate attempt to illustrate its own site.

With the only recent photograph showing but a picture of the prime minister, no doubt some wag in Whitehall will, even now, be working on a teeshirt slogan which complains, "We went all the way to Afghanistan and all we got was this lousy picture of Gordon Brown".


Musa Qala taken?

Early reports on the Agency wires are relaying Afghan government claims that Afghan and international forces have retaken Musa Qala. A Taliban spokesman is cited saying that their forces fled to avoid civilian and Taliban casualties.

Afghan defence ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi is saying that Afghan, British and U.S. forces have "completely captured" the town although fighting continues on the outskirts.

A resident of Musa Qala, Haji Mohammad Rauf, tells of Taliban fighters leaving the town in trucks and motorbikes around noon. Two hours later hundreds of Afghan soldiers streamed into town and establish security checkpoints, he said. "I was standing on my roof and saw hundreds of Afghan soldiers drive into town," Rauf said.

A British military spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, has so far been unable to confirm the reports but says he is unsurprised by them. "This is what happens. We have had a number of operations in the past where once the Taliban realize they are overmatched they tend to leave," Eaton said. "I wouldn't be surprised if that is the case here. Ultimately our aim is to take Musa Qala and if we take Musa Qala without a big fight, that's fantastic."

This is very much of a trend, where the Taliban are fully aware that, when they seek combat on equal terms with coalition forces, they are always defeated. The danger is – as we have seen – is that they revert to asymmetric warfare – the mine, IED and suicide bomb – augmented with hit-and-run ambushes, a type of warfare which is more difficult to counter and for which our forces are less well-equipped.

But, while we can rejoice in the success of this part of the battle – with mercifully few casualties (and those, it seems arising from that lack of mine protected vehicles) - it must be noted that the publicity battle has been a disaster.

With the MoD (as a corporate body) retreating behind a screen of "operational security", it has missed a massive opportunity to showcase the Armed Forces and demonstrate the power and professionalism of our military. Even now, (online) newspaper reports are relying on pictures of Taliban forces (above), in the complete absence of any recent official (or any) photographs of British forces directly involved in the operation.

Can you imagine a situation where, during the Normandy campaign in 1944, that the only photographs released were of Nazi forces parading prior to the battle? Yet, despite half a century of massively improved communications, that is a direct equivalent.

No doubt, in the fullness of time, material will become available, but the moment has been lost - it is old news and the media will have moved on. One hopes that there will be the fullest of inquiries into the reasons for this failure – which need not lie in London, but may have more fundamental causes.


Sunday 9 December 2007

The farce continues

As news continues to flood in of the operation to recover Musa Qala, the stance of the MoD looks even more pathetically inadequate, its website adorned by the same uninformative statement, pleading "operational security" as its excuse for offering no further details of events.

We hear from the BBC that defence secretary Des Browne is in Afghanistan – and astute move given the importance of the operation – and has affirmed the "iconic" importance of Musa Qala. After meeting British troops in the region and holding talks in Kabul, he flew to the western city of Herat to get a "wider perspective on Afghanistan". Laughably, the MoD offers no report of this visit, just in case – one assumes – the Taliban get to know. And so the farce continues.

With the MoD out of the game, we thus turn to the media for news of what is going on, the latest report (of nearly 1,000 now) coming from The Times (online edition) which tells us that British troops were tonight "poised to smash through Taleban defences" after surrounding the town of Musa Qala and pushing up almost to its outskirts.

The paper and many other sources also report that two senior Taleban commanders were captured today as troops advanced to within a mile of the town, and hundreds of rebel fighters in the area have been reported killed in air strikes and probing attacks.

A NATO spokesman is then cited, telling us that Afghan National Army soldiers are now ready to occupy the town. It is expected to fall in the next day or two after British soldiers have finished "kicking in the door".

In the report, there is a revised estimate of Taliban strength, it now being considered that there are closer to 300 fighters in the town, rather than the 2,000 or so claimed by the Taliban, and the view is being expressed that they will melt away before the final stages of the attack. There is some fear, though, that foreign jihadis may stay and fight to the death.

Reports are of the attacking force's progress being slow – as one might expect - because many landmines and booby traps are believed to have been laid. There is no point in rushing things, if that leads to unnecessary casualties.

So much for the Times take on the action. The AFP Agency cites the Afghan defence ministry, saying that Afghan and British troops are winning the battle, and is calling on "rebels" to surrender. We also learn that soldiers have exchanged fire with the Taliban a mile from the centre of the town, with the defence ministry adding that "The enemy has lost their morale and our troops are advancing with success."

However, a Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, claims that fighting has now stopped, confirming a telephone report from a town resident. And the AP agency adds to that, quoting Lt. Col. Richard Eaton in his role as British military spokesman – still apparently at large. He says that the assault will take "a day or two to unfold," adding that Afghan forces would then pour into the town and hold it from the Taliban.

Much the same detail comes from the BBC, but it reports Taliban claims that they have pulled back to the centre of the town "in order to avoid civilian casualties". But it also relays claims from Afghan defence ministry spokesman, Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi, who says that "most of the enemy personnel have laid down their weapons and are leaving the area in civilian clothes."

Strangely, the BBC tells us that the defence ministry's claims "could not be independently confirmed", but says nothing about the Taliban's claims – relying on photographs of the Taliban, in the absence of any recent pictures of British troops.

Earlier in the day, The Sunday Times ran a detailed feature on the operations in Afghanistan, albeit with the lurid headline, "Terror on road to Taliban stronghold", on page 24. It starts off with an account of how a British vehicle encountered a mine, killing the driver and injuring two others. No details of the vehicle type are given, but one gets the impression it was a Viking.

We do get details, though of American forces "advancing all week" towards Musa Qala, and we learn that the British and Afghans advanced from the south and, on Friday night, the US 82nd Air-borne Division landed with troops to attack from the north. Yesterday, we are told, the US soldiers were closing in on the suburbs of the town, backed by Apache attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolt jets.

The report has it that British forces were concentrated on the southern side. Warrior armoured vehicles of the Scots Guards, backed by A-10 air strikes, attacked the village of Deh Zohr-e-Sofia, southwest of Musa Qala - just one engagement in what officers have described as one of the biggest British military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And, as the pieces come together, we find that the preliminary manoeuvres of this assault actually began on on Tuesday at first light when Royal Marine commandos stormed across the Helmand river in amphibious vehicles near the town of Sangin, and engaged the enemy.

And. although not new, The Sunday Times reminds us that British forces had been encouraged in the days before their assault by the public defection to the government side of Mullah Abdul Salaam, a key Taliban commander. He brought with him up to one-third of the fighters who had been defending Musa Qala.

On Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai, who had encouraged Salaam's defection by pushing for negotiations, sent several dozen militia to the area to help protect the mullah from reprisals. Bizarrely, they arrived at the British lines in school buses that had brought them from Kabul, the capital.

Then. To the west, near the town of Now Zad, a company of Estonians backed by Royal Marines came under sustained attack. American special forces were also involved. One heavy Taliban attack was driven back only after a bomb had been dropped on their position from an American B1 aircraft.

RAF helicopter pilots flew two rescue missions, despite heavy rocket fire, to recover two wounded Taliban fighters. "We had British and Estonian lives risked to save the life of two enemy," said Major Alex Murray.

Danish forces under UK command (who are now equipped with a platoon of Leopard 2 tanks - pictured above) were attacked in the town of Gereshk; and intelligence suggested the Taliban were trying to move two large explosive devices south to be used for suicide bombs in British-controlled towns. On Thursday, a big Afghan army column began an advance, backed by British and American special forces, while diversionary attacks were launched on Taliban positions in other parts of Helmand.

All of this, of course, must be a terrible breach of operational security, so are we to expect immediate action from the MoD to silence these sources who clearly must be putting British lives at risk? Or is the MoD's claim simply bullshit, to excuse its idleness and lack of ability, coherently to explain what is happening in Afghanistan.

No doubt, when they get back from their relaxing weekend breaks, the Civil Service can regale us with yet more stories about how the Christmas mail has been sorted, with another action picture of a Chinook helicopter (above) delivering the Santa's parcels.


Is this a joke?

Following a deafening silence on what is turning out to be the biggest British operation of the current Afghanistan campaign, the MoD finally put a short, uninformative piece on its website, hours after the news had broken in the popular media.

This has since been replaced with the newer piece, telling us that, "This is an Afghan-led operation, and Afghan authorities are taking the lead in explaining the rationale for the operation, and events as they unfold, to the local population."

It then deigns to tell us that the operation began on 7 December 2007 and is expected to continue for a few days, adding, "We cannot give futher (sic) details for reasons of operational security" – or "OPSEC" as it is called in the jargon of the trade.

Meanwhile (at the time of writing) there are 737 articles recorded on Google News, packed with detail on the operation, the latest being a long piece in The Sunday Telegraph informing us: "Thousands of UK troops in Afghan assault".

The piece is by Sean Rayment, the paper's defence correspondent and Tom Coghlan, with a by-line of Kabul. Neither are on the spot, therefore, and are picking up the detail from sources official and unofficial.

It is from this that we learn that British troops are involved in "a major offensive" aimed at recapturing the Taliban's "most heavily defended and strategically important stronghold," and we also learn that the operation on Saturday night, "using thousands of soldiers and described as the biggest ever undertaken by British troops in Afghanistan, has so far left two Britons dead and several wounded."

Clearly, neither author has ever hear of OPSEC, because they go on to tell us that British forces conducted probing attacks against the Taleban positions to gather intelligence on the insurgent forces and that attack helicopters and combat jets have spent the past few days pummelling Taleban defensive positions surrounding Musa Qala in preparation for the final assault.

Adding to the detail that the MoD could not tell us, we find that early on Saturday, coalition forces, which include the British Army's 52 Brigade, the Afghan National Army and America's Task Force Fury, successfully surrounded the Taliban stronghold, where insurgent commanders claim up to 2,000 of their fighters are based.

We also find that the Taliban responded with a series of small-scale but bitter exchanges with the coalition forces which resulted in a number of British and Afghan army casualties. A member of the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment died.

Then, throwing OPSEC to the wind, the fearless Telegraph duo tell us that latest phase of the operation began at dusk on Friday when hundreds of airborne troops from Task Force Fury launched an assault by helicopter on an area north of the town, a complex of high-walled compounds and narrow, dusty alleyways which armoured vehicles find difficult to penetrate.

More detail pours out, including the "understanding" that the Taliban have spent months laying anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields, preparing bunkers and digging trenches in preparation for the attack, and that the battle for Musa Qala has been codenamed Operation Mar Kardad - meaning snake pit.

Now, there's a state secret for you – the codename for an operation which, as the Telegraph also calmly informs us, "began secretly on November 2, when British forces pushed north from the town of Sangin in an attempt to test Taliban defences in the area." That action was finally acknowledged on 14 November, nearly two days after the story had been run by The Daily Telegraph.

With even less concern for OPSEC, Rayment and Coghlan are now relealing that, in the past week, the British have conducted probing attacks against the Taliban positions to gather intelligence on the opposing insurgent forces and the types of weapons with which they are equipped.

And then we learn something else which the MoD could bring itself to tell us, that: "More British troops are being thrown into this action than any previous assault in Afghanistan: up to 3,000 of the total force of 7,000 in the country." Military sources, we are told, have described the Taleban's resistance as "sporadic but determined" and some of the fighting is understood to have taken place at close quarters.

And just in case the Taliban didn't know, we get to find out that British troops from Royal Marines 40 Commando, 2nd Btn the Yorkshire Regiment and 1st Bn the Scots Guards, supported by light tanks from the Household Cavalry, are currently fighting what the Army calls the "break-in battle".

Another thing that the Taliban cannot possibly know is that, "Road links, bridges and river crossings have been blocked and all access points into and out of the town are now reported to be in the hands of the coalition," while they clearly do not know that, "In the next phase, expected to begin within two days, hundreds of soldiers from the Afghan National Army will be sent to clear the town of any remaining Taleban fighters."

And, we then obviously have a senior military officer who has never heard of OPSEC. This is Lt Col Richard Eaton, the spokesman for the Helmand Task Force. He obviously hasn't heard that the Afghanis are running the PR, because he tells the Telegraph that, "The aim of this operation is to win over the people of Helmand. The support of the people is the prize. They have a choice of living under a free and democratic government, or under the tyranny of the Taliban."

We would of course never have guessed that and one now presumes that, being responsible for such an egregious breach of security, Lt-Col Richard Eaton will immediately be suspended and court marshalled.

But there again, on the other hand, the MoD could just be betraying the usual combination of ineptness, bloody stupidity and bureaucratic inertia which ensures that our Armed Forces are so poorly represented. Even the excuse is inept for, if MoD staff are so desperate to have an uninterrupted weekend that they could not be bothered to post any detail on the site, they could have least have come up with something more plausible.

Fortunately, we have troops who seem to know what they are doing – which is more than can be said for the operation in Whitehall.

The photographs, incidentally, are from the US Department of Defence – showing Afghan troops in action. The only pic the MoD has put up is a four week old photograph of a Lynx helicopter operating out of Sangin. No pictures of British troops involved in the operation have been released - those, one presumes, are also state secrets.


Friday 7 December 2007

Deafening silence

If The Sun is to be believed, the long-expected battle for Musa Qala has started, with the newspaper reporting, "The epic battle for a Taliban stronghold erupted yesterday as British troops engaged the enemy." It adds that, "The fight to topple fanatics who have had ten months to dig in at the fortress at Musa Qala is expected to be one of the fiercest battles of the Afghan campaign."

AFP is more cautious, its latest report simply retailing, "Tensions rise in Taliban-held town", telling us that, "Residents of Musa Qala … said Friday they were bracing for military action to wrest it back from Taliban militants, but officials were cagey about what was happening."

In fact, all we are getting from the military, via the ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carlos Branco, is that "No kinetic operation has started in Musa Qala." And from Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, we learn that, "We have launched a massive multi-purpose operation in the north of Helmand province... (but) we have not launched an actual operation in Musa Qala." He adds, "Whenever we get to start actual operations in Musa Qala, we will announce it."

Certainly, the indications are that there are what might be described as significant preparatory operations, with one resident of Musa Qala telling AFP by telephone that troops had fought with Taliban about six kilometres from the town, early today. This was Mohammad Nasir, who said, "The foreign forces are always driving up and down in armoured military vehicles around the town and helicopters are flying over head. We are scared about what is going to happen."

Needless to say, the MoD website is totally silent on whatever operations are being conducted, reflecting no doubt the tension between the need to maintain operational security and the equally pressing need to keep people informed. As usual, though, the Ministry is erring on the side of excessive caution, which means that it is out of the publicity game for the time being, leaving the running to the media – which is largely ignoring the developments.

However, in many ways, a successful push on Musa Qala could be the turning point of the Afghanistan campaign and is one, therefore, that has considerable importance. And since the Taliban clearly have some idea of what is going on, and what fate lies in store for them – as indeed do the inhabitants of Musa Qala – one might have thought the MoD could at least share with us what is already in the public domain.

On that basis, when it comes to projecting the role of the Armed Forces, the MoD is once again failing to do its bit. With a website that seems more concerned with corporate PR than giving out real information, once again it is letting the side down. And, if it can't at least keep us informed, how can it possibly complain about the media?


Thursday 6 December 2007

Recovering lost ground

The signs have been evident for some time now that the next target of coalition forces in Helmand province is the recovery of the town of Musa Qala. This was the town abandoned by British forces last year and taken over by the Taliban, to become a major centre of operations.

That an operation is imminent – if not actually underway – is confirmed by The Daily Telegraph today, and by several other sources, including The Scotsman. The latter relies on a statement from Assadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand, who said the operation had started, while The Telegraph notes that the Taliban are claiming that the coalition forces are "dropping leaflets from the air calling on the people to leave their homes as the area will be bombed…".

The one place from which you will not get any information, however, is the MoD, which has refused to confirm or deny that the operation has in fact started. All a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will say is that, "The Afghan National Army and ISAF troops are going to go back in there, we're just not going to say when."

There is, of course, every sense in keeping the enemy guessing as to when precisely you are going to strike. And since reconnaissance elements have been operating in the area since early November – at one time coming within a mile-and-a-half of the town centre - it does not pay to give any information which might help the Taliban distinguish between what might be a feint and the real thing.

Even if strategic surprise has been lost – and there was never any chance of it being achieved, since Musa Qala was so obviously the next target – it is still important to maintain tactical surprise and keep the enemy guessing as to whether the main thrust has started, or any action is a preliminary manoeuvre.

Whenever the coalition forces do push on the town - and we are being told that they are being led by elements of the Afghan National Army (ANA) – they will have their work cut out. An estimated 2,000 fighters are in the town and they have had ten months of occupation to fortify their positions, Furthermore, Taliban commanders claim to have mined routes to the town and to have ZSU anti-aircraft guns in place to attack the helicopters.

However, they do not rule out the possibility of a withdrawal into the Taliban-held mountains to the north, to save the town from destruction, once a "screen" of his fighters to the south of the town was breached by British forces.

Interestingly, though, one local tribal leader is cited as saying that: "Everyone knows that the town can be taken, but to keep power there is the key thing. "It depends on the skill of the government to make the people trust them. If they are not skilful, then the people will turn to the Taliban."

That indeed will be the acid test. Dedicated to the point of fanaticism that they are, the lightly armed Taliban are no match for the firepower of the British Army and their air support, but we have seen all too often territory taken over, only to be handed back to the Taliban at some point later.

The trouble is that post-conflict occupation can soak up more troops than are engaged in initial operations, blunting the "spear" of the fighting arms and limiting their ability to mount fresh challenges. Whether the British forces this time can square the circle and keep the Taliban at bay remains to be seen. But first, they have to capture the town. And, if a miracle happens, when they do, the MoD might even tell us.


Wednesday 5 December 2007

Two steps forward and one step back

It is interesting that, despite Mick Smith's attempt to pin the blame on No 10, and the Today programme's attempt to broaden the issue out to encompass the wider defence spending "crisis", the media focus on yesterday's Board of Inquiry Report on last year's Nimrod crash has been more on the MoD and the RAF.

Thus we see the BBC headlining, "Pilot's wife blames MoD for crash" while the Press Association via The Guardian retails, "Father calls for RAF chief to quit". Says Graham Knight, the father of one of 14 servicemen killed, the findings from the MoD's board of inquiry proved the RAF "betrayed" his son.

However, it is The Times which takes possibly the most political line, reporting the defence secretary apologising to the families of 14 servicemen who died, calling it an extraordinarily contrite statement.

This, we are told, brought a Conservative response – from Gerald Howarth - that the fact that the 37-year-old aircraft were still likely to be flown for at least another four years was "nothing short of a scandal". Strangely enough, later, on BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight he put much of the blame on BAE systems, for the technical delays in building the replacement MRA4 - perhaps a tacit recognition that the aircraft was ordered by the Conservatives in the first place.

The Telegraph largely confines itself to the findings of the report, but adds the expected "spin" with, "Nimrod report blames ageing aircraft for crash". It notes that the inquiry had found the age of the aircraft and its lack of fire-fighting equipment were "factors" leading to the crash.

Predictably, therefore, the paper adds that the report has put the Government under intense pressure over defence spending "by highlighting the deteriorating condition of the ageing spy planes."

However, the BOI actually considers that the "probable cause" of the accident was fuel venting from the aircraft's number one fuel tank (or possibly leaking) and "coming into contact with an exposed hot air pipe in the No 7 tank dry bay towards the rear of its starboard wing."

Crucially, as highlighted by Flight International, the RAF "confirms" that this risk had been identified during flight testing of the cancelled Nimrod AEW3 airborne early warning aircraft in the mid-1980s. No corrective action was taken on the MR2 fleet, something which the BOI describes as "particularly disturbing".

What is perhaps most significant here is that this is at least as important as any problems associated with ageing (which are cited only as contributory factors). The suggestion here, if I have read it right, is that the primary cause of the explosion was a pre-existing design fault.

From a political perspective, if there was an opportunity to correct that fault, it was when it was first detected, and that was on the Conservative watch.

Ministers, though, cannot reasonably be expected to keep an oversight of technical issues relating to the airworthiness of aircraft – that is what the MoD employs experts for – and no politician could be expected to second-guess technical decisions made by experts. But those who wish to make political capital out of this incident need perhaps to be aware that overall responsibility for this crash possibly spans both the Conservative and Labour periods of office.

Nevertheless, that does not stop people like Robert Fox in the Guardian's Comment is free, airily declaring that "the crash that killed 14 RAF personnel was a preventable tragedy," adding that, "What aircrews know is that the Nimrod is so aged as to be scarcely airworthy".

Well, that is the legend. That is what some people want to believe and that is what they will take out of the report, no matter what else it says.

But what again, predictably, no one addresses is that issue which we have raised in so many earlier posts – why Nimrods were being used for a function that could so easily be provided by other aircraft or assets like UAVs.

There, the issues are complex and, although I take an assertive stance on them, they are not always black and white. But they are issues which need to be discussed: unless we somehow curtail the rampant inflation in military costs, low-tech enemies like the Taliban can force us into a spiral of spending that eventually makes war too expensive to fight.

Here, at least, beyond the speculation about the cause of the crash – much of it wrong – there was an opportunity to discuss these wider issues. But, once again, to no one's surprise, the media has gone for the easy shots, and left the greater debate hanging. And if over the next few days, the issue simply fuels the simplistic mantras of "overspend" and "under-resourcing", we will have taken one step forwards and two steps back.


Tuesday 4 December 2007

John Nichol on the Today Programme

Introducing an item on the expected Nimrod Board of Inquiry report today, James Naughtie on the Today Programme this morning told us that: "The results are certainly going to feed into the debate about defence spending."

He then interviewed Graham Knight, father of Ben Knight – one of the crewmen who died in the crash - before moving on to John Nichol, the ex-RAF Tornado navigator who was shot down in the First Gulf War. This is what Nichol had to say:

James Naughtie: What's the most important thing here from the point of view of future policy and resourcing of the armed services?

John Nichol: Well, it will be the lessons learned and of course the military always says this – it will always talk about the lessons learned. But … many of those lessons were learned before this tragic crash and the loss of 14 lives upon that Nimrod. And of course he talked about Sir Glen Torpy, the chief of the Air Staff, a very respected officer, talking about he believes the aircraft is safe. But the reality is that when these officers say that the safety of crew is important, what they actually mean is that that the safety of crew is important balanced against the need for ongoing military operations, and that's the risk that our men and women are asked, in my view asked too often, to take every single day.

James Naughtie: Do you think they are being asked without enough attention being given to the equipment they use?

John Nichol: Well, I think that if you look at all of the recent commentators, from military chiefs talking about the military covenant being broken, to talk about the lack of resources, most people would say that the military is trying to do far too much with far too little, and they're trying to it too often. Most people say that the military covenant is already broken and some people say that the military system is near collapse and I think that's the reality of the situation. Our men and women in many ways, they're their own worst enemies, the men and women of our Armed Forces, because they continue to operate under incredibly difficult adverse conditions and they do it with, most of the time with equipment that's not the best that's available. And of course the politicians and military leaders rely on that dedication to duty but at some point they're going to have to stop relying on it and give the men and women the equipment that they need to carry out the job to the best of their abilities.

James Naughtie: And this will be an important report because of the importance of the Nimrod and the fact that it's an ageing plane …

John Nichol: Look, the Nimrod is 40 years old and until recently it wasn't the oldest aircraft in the Air Force and old aircraft continue to fly. But the reality is that the Nimrod is absolutely crucial to operations, especially in Afghanistan. There's no doubt about that. The reality is that the Nimrod should have been grounded – everybody says that until these problems were actually solved - but you can't ground the Nimrod because then you leave the Army on the ground unprotected and without the intelligence that it needs. And that's the whole of this Catch 22 situation.

James Naughtie: There's another question here … the difference between failures, faults and design faults, something that's built in that is weak, rather than something that just goes wrong and is not maintained properly.

John Nichol: Well look, I'm not going to speak for the Air Force but they would say that the Nimrod's got an incredibly good safety record over 40 years. For the families of those 14 that were killed, that means absolutely nothing. But, as I said at the beginning, the safety of the crew is not paramount, despite what any senior officer says. The safety of the crew is paramount when balanced with the need for ongoing operations, and that means that the men and the women of our Air Force that are flying Nimrods and some other aircraft are asked to put their lives on the line to continue military operations. And I don't just mean in the face of enemy action and that is something that somebody has got to deal with in the not too distant future or there will no more men and women of our Armed Forces to continue those military operations.

James Naughtie: John Nichol, thanks.


The heart of the issue

It started last weekend, with Mick Smith of The Sunday Times authoring an article on the Nimrod crash last year – the Board of Inquiry report of which is due out later today. And, already, you can see which way the media "spin" is going to go, with the headline: "Nimrod crash puts No 10 on spot".

According to Smith, the report is "likely to raise new doubts over Gordon Brown's support for the armed services," with him telling us that, "The aircraft, which dates from the 1960s, was flying only because its replacement was delayed until 2010 to save money and a number of warnings about the risks were ignored."

To be fair to The Telegraph Thomas Harding offers a more measured report, putting the Ministry of Defence in the frame and retailing the bereaved families' belief that the crash was the result of "incompetence and lack of funding". But he adds that senior RAF officers are also implicated, because the danger was known and could have been remedied at no cost.

Largely, though, when the report comes out, the certainty is that we will see another orgy of "government bashing", with very little by way of understanding of the issues and nothing that takes us any further forward.

What can almost be guaranteed, tough, is that the answer to Ann Winterton's recent question on the operating costs of the Nimrod will largely totally ignored. Yet, at £30,000 an hour, with missions often lasting 12 hours, three days operational flying will cost slightly over £1 million.

Considering that the primary function of this aircraft is to provide real time video for ground commanders (with a secondary role as a radio relay station, not one of the commentators will ask whether these tasks could be carried out more economically, and perhaps even better, by other assets.

It is not disputed, in this context, that the primary function could be carried out by UAVs, but it has also been argued elsewhere that the Nimrod, with its high transit speed, can cover several operational areas in one mission, whereas a UAV would not be able to provide that coverage.

However, against this is the argument that cheaper assets allow more to be bought, which means there is no need to dash from area to area. Full-time surveillance can be provided simultaneously in many different areas, providing the "persistence" which the Nimrod cannot offer.

There is also the argument, though, that the £30,000 per hour quoted is not "real" money in that a large proportion includes the overhead, which would have to be borne even if the aircraft was not flying on operations – an argument not without some validity.

In order to refine the argument, therefore, we sought from the MoD information on the additional costs incurred by deploying the Nimrods overseas and by subjecting them to more intensive use – including, incidentally, the not insubstantial costs of air-to-air refuelling. Needless to say, the MoD could not (or would not) supply that information, claiming "disproportionate cost" – rather ironic under the circumstances.

Cost comparisons between different assets, therefore, are problematical, but it must be conceded that even if just the direct costs are taken into account, we are still looking at substantial sums. On the other hand, the use of UAVs is not the whole answer as they are not – as configured – able to provide radio-relay services. Thus the costs of other assets might also have to be factored into the equation.

Despite this, there is a way out of this morass, by looking at alternatives that offer such good value – and performance – that they cannot be ignored. And we have found just the thing, the Pilatus Porter (pictures above).

At a unit cost of around $3 million (call it £2 million each, by the time it is equipped for military use), operating costs – even at inflated military prices – are likely to be less than £2,000 an hour. But if we take actual costs without loading on any significant overhead, as these costs are mainly borne by the existing fleet, actual operating costs – in "real" money that actually has to be paid out - are likely to be considerably less.

For that, you get the most remarkable short take-off and landing performance, and genuine rough field capability. The aircraft can land almost anywhere and could be supported in the field without difficulty. And if you want to see just how good it is, watch the movie.

Interestingly, the basic design is 45 years old - although it has been continually updated – and it was used by the Australian Army in Vietnam, where it was not only used for surveillance but also provided … radio relay services. It was later fitted with rocket pods to mark targets for close air support, acting as a platform for forward air controllers. Fitted with wing tanks, the modern version has an endurance of up to seven hours and, as far as "hot and high" performance goes, Royal Nepal Airlines routinely use it for fields above 12,000 feet.

The aircraft obviously has additional roles as a light utility/transport aircraft, and for casevac, and there was even a version produced which carried a door-mounted minigun (pictured), allowing it to operate as a gunship. With a speed the same as an Apache helicopter and equipped with a defensive aid suite and basic armour, it should be no more vulnerable to ground fire and considerably less so than the Chinooks which are routinely used to fly in and out of "hot" landing zones.

As such, what should be at the heart of today's discussion is why the Nimrods were there in the first place, and why something cheaper and more suitable was not used. On paper at least, you could operate perhaps 15-20 Porters for the price of one Nimrod and perhaps dispense with some of the Apaches which, as we now know, are costing £46,000 an hour.

Sadly, though, we are going to see all the same, tired mantras rolled out and, wherever the blame finally rests, no one will point to the role of the RAF in insisting that the Nimrods were used, simply to increase its profile in the region, rather than out of operational necessity.

Until and unless we start getting grown-up discussions, however, we are going to get nowhere.