Wednesday 31 January 2007

A collective failure

In 2003, Sgt Steve Roberts gets shot in a "friendly fire" incident in Iraq. Having handing in his body armour, he dies as a result. There is a six-day hearing and, on 18 December last year, Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, says: "To send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those in Government."

This unleashes a torrent of media comment. The BBC has the verdict as its lead item on its national televised news. Every major newspaper covered it and the Independent gave over the whole of its front page. Google News recorded over 1,300 separate media reports.

However, tragic though the death was, this was one soldier. Since the incident, the MoD has issued high-tech, state-of-the-art body armour to all troops in the field and, barring the odd case, all soldiers at risk are equipped with it.

On the other hand, yesterday, there was an inquest into the deaths of three soldiers - Pte Phillip Hewett (pictured), 2nd Lt Richard Shearer and Pte Leon Spicer. These were the three soldiers from the Staffordshire Regiment who were killed in Al Amarah, Iraq on 16 July 2005 by a roadside bomb while riding in a lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rover.

Oxford coroner, Selena Lynch, returns a verdict of "unlawful killing" but says she can make no recommendation to the Ministry of Defence about the use of the Land Rovers because it is beyond her jurisdiction.

However, in addition to these three deaths, there have been at least 20 more soldiers who have died, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while riding in lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers. Many more have been injured, some very seriously indeed.

Furthermore, although the MoD promised that there would be an "effective capacity" of the Mastiff mine and blast-protected vehicle in Iraq by the end of last year. So far, only four have so far arrived and it will be next month before there are just 20 in place.

In Afghanistan, the situation is even worse. Troops are having to patrol (and fight) in unarmoured "WMIK" Land Rovers and the promised Pinzgauer Vector replacement is, if anything, more dangerous than the vehicles it replaces.

Nevertheless, by the early evening there had been only one media report on the verdict, on the BBC's Stoke and Staffordshire local television news. The national television and radio news did not even mention it and, in the national dailies, it got one brief "meanwhile…" in the Daily Mirror attached to the tail end of another inquest report on the "friendly fire" incident involving A-10s.

All we got from the national BBC television was the News 24 programme with an amazingly superficial "puff" for the up-armoured "Bulldog" FV432 armoured personnel carrier, embellished somewhat on the national website. With a picture of the Pinzgauer Vector and the heading, "troops get new armoured vehicles", it could almost have been written by the MoD – and will certainly trouble it not.

This dire performance was only partially remedied by a BBC Radio File on 4 documentary – co-incidentally broadcast yesterday evening. But, in the whole 40-minute programme, only the death of Pte. Hewett was discussed, along with the deaths of two other soldiers in unrelated incidents, one from heat stroke and the other from a training accident on a firing range.

Better in some respects than the appalling programme in in October, featuring the dreadful Allan Urry, this one – with Jenny Cuffe - still failed to give the equipment issue the depth of coverage it needed.

We have, of course, covered the vulnerability of the "Snatch" Land Rovers extensively on this blog. Then, immediately prior to the Coroner's finding, there were two media reports, one in The Telegraph, yesterday morning, and one at the weekend in the Observer.

From both we got Sue Smith, Pte Hewett's mother, charging that the three soldiers would still be alive today if the MoD had purchased adequately protected vehicles. But there was no attempt to widen the issue and neither newspaper even began to address the current defects in the system. Both uncritically reported on the purchase of the Pinzgauers, failing to pick up the delays in supplying the Mastiffs.

Thus have soliders been completely let down by the fourth estate. At the time of the Roberts' inquiry, we warned of the danger of focusing on the one issue of the body armour - which had actually been sorted. We wanted the journalists, who were then so full of themselves, to note that Sgt Roberts's widow, Samantha, was already saying that the body armour issue had been resolved. "This is Steve's legacy," she had said, adding: "we must ensure that these failures are not repeated with other basic kit."

But her words have gone unheeded and will continue to do so by journalists and editors alike. Our trivial, venal media is fundamentally incapable of doing its job. They can bleat and blether when it no longer matters but, when they could make the difference, they are silent. All they have to offer is their own collective failure. And so dismally ignorant are they that they do not even have enough knowledge to appreciate that they have failed. That is their legacy.

* * * *

The top photograph is of a "Snatch" Land Rover, this one operated by the support company, Welsh Guards, who are providing security for the Royal Military Police. It is pictured in Al Amarah by a smoking chimney from the local brickworks. The picture is from the "Smugmug" gallery posted by
S D C Carter, one of the finest collection of photographs of contemporary British military operations in Iraq that I have seen. Mouse-click on the face of the picture to enlarge.


Thursday 25 January 2007

Taliban planning new tactics

The Financial Times is reporting that Taliban minelaying tactics are worrying Nato. Forces are equipping themselves with more mine detectors amid fears that the Taliban are laying mines as a tactic to demoralise troops.

The MoD has placed orders in recent weeks with SDS Group, a UK company specialising in security training and equipment, while British officers warn that the Taliban are planning a variety of tactics aimed at maximising casualties to put new pressure on the UK-led Nato forces.

Mines stockpiled in the civil war and the Taliban era are being laid to target British troops operating in Helmand province and against Canadian forces deployed in the Taliban hotbeds of Panjwai, Zhare and Maiwand west of Kandahar city.

Of course, in addition to mine detection kit, the Canadians also have their RG-31 mine protected vehicles, while the Dutch and the Australians have their Bushmasters – pictured above. The composite shows the "V-shaped" hull during the manufacturing stage, the assembly being tested with explosives and a surviving hull after a mine test.

And, in order to meet this threat, our own soldiers are also to be provided with an armoured vehicle – the Pinzgauer Vector. Alan Stanley, the managing director of Guildford-based Pizgauer Ltd, is confident that the new vehicle "will provide greater protection, mobility and payload than those currently offered by other in-service patrol vehicles" - despite its flat base and driver position over the wheel.

Oddly enough though, we cannot find any photographs of a Pinzgauer having been tested against a mine threat, and Mr Stanley is somewhat reticent about revealing the precise level of protection afforded by his vehicles.

However, we did find one picture of a British Army Pinzgauer having just completed its service in Iraq (above). We suspect that after the Vector is introduced early next year, it will not be long before we will be seeing similar scenes.

It is so nice to see the British prepared.


Tuesday 23 January 2007

And now it's official

Airbus chief executive Christian Streiff was warning in October that there might be delays, and there were strong hints in December.

Now it's official. Airbus, in the form of its executive vice president, Tom Williams, has formally warned customers of a "potential" three-month delay on its 20 billion euro ($26 billion) A400M military transport aircraft programme.

One again, therefore, a symbolic European programme is crumbling into the dust, demonstrating the inability of the "colleagues" even to get a fairly straightforward project like a military transport off the ground. This is more than fifty years after the US introduced the iconic C-130 Hercules into squadron service.

Under pressure from L’Escroc, Britain has ordered 25 of these machines at an expected cost of £2.4 billion, to replace its fleet of 51 US-built C-130 Hercules transports. For some long time it has been suffering a marked shortage of airlift capacity as it waits for Airbus to bring the A400M into production.

In December last, so critical had the situation become that the government was mooting buying another three Boeing C-17 Globemasters for a mere $660 million (about £337 million).

The trouble is that the bulk of the orders for the C-17 have been for the USAF and the orders, barring a few, are largely complete, leading Boeing to close down the production line. Although the Canadians are also interested in buying C-17s, their orders are not sufficient to keep the line open and, therefore, there is some doubt about whether the order could be fulfilled.

But, if this is problematic for the RAF, the Luftwaffe, which is struggling with a fleet of clapped-out Transalls which, even in pristine condition, do not have the range adequately to service German requirements.

More devastated will be the "colleagues" though. As with the troubled A-380, the A400M was always more than an aeroplane. It was a symbol of integration, in this case forming the nucleus of a joint Franco-German military air transport command, a precursor to a European airforce.

I am minded – showing my age somewhat - of the glorious "Telegoons" where Neddy (I am sure it was he), lacking a firearm, conspired to hold up a bank with a colour photograph of a gun. It looks as is the nearest the "colleagues" are going to get to their transport command in the foreseeable future is a colour photograph of an A400M - in the production of which Airbus seems to excel - which, presumably, they can frame and hang over their mantleshelves.


Monday 22 January 2007

A glimmer of hope

The picture shows tent fabric after being exposed to a mortar bomb explosion in Basra. The damage doesn't look much but each hole has been made by a red-hot jagged fragment of steel, big enough to do serious harm to anyone the other side. And, in Iraq, tent fabric is all that stands between many of our soldiers and death or injury, soldiers who are exposed to a barrage of rocket and mortar fire every single day.

The nature of the damage is more obvious here, on the steel cover of an air-conditioning unit which has been "splashed" by mortar fragments. The photograph was taken on a British base last year. So common is this type of damage that soldiers scarcely take any notice of it, although the bombs remain just as deadly, their frequency is increasing and the accuracy of the insurgents is improving.

As of now, virtually every building on some of the bases is pock-marked with mortar damage. Steel and concrete however, are more forgiving than flesh - both deaths and injuries are mounting and, at the present rate it is only a matter of time before there is a major incident.

Yesterday was a light day with the Shatt Al-Arab Hotel exposed early in the morning to an attack by five mortar bombs, while the Basra Palace was attacked by six Katyusha rockets.

Fortunately, there were no injuries, but that was not the case last Thursday when six British soldiers were wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp. We asked, "Now will they do something?" after the camp had come under fire the three times from a mixture of mortars, rockets and small arms. One soldier was said to have been seriously injured and five others received lesser injuries.

Yesterday though was also the MP's turn to ask questions. Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, was able to challenge the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne. Having already asked him last December if he would consider providing the anti-mortar equipment, C-RAM, she asked him whether:

In the light of the tragic incident at Basra palace camp last Thursday in which six soldiers were injured, one seriously, will the Secretary of State reconsider evaluation of the C-RAM anti-mortar system and counter battery radar, in order to give our bases in Iraq considerably better protection and a retaliatory response, given that existing, so-called "layered" protection methods are clearly not working?
Browne, who had been batting away questions from a variety of Conservative MPs, was surprisingly emollient. "I give the hon. Lady my reassurance," he said, "that we keep everything under review." He then added:

I know that the commanding officer in Basra keeps the issue of force protection constantly under review, and I will specifically ask him to advise me again on the capability that she asks about. However, I do not want to leave the House with the impression that there is no capability to counteract the indirect fire threat. There is indeed a very specific capability…
He would, he said, ensure that he was given a view on that in the light of the event that she mentioned, and would write to her.

Someone who did not fare as well was shadow defence secretary Liam Fox who, as we feared, relied on the substance of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph story for his attack, where Sean Rayment alleged that troops in Afghanistan had been denied essential equipment on cost grounds.

Such equipment as is required – beyond that normally acquired through the standard procurement process – is obtained though a procedure called the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR). With that in mind, Liam Fox asked:

Can the Secretary of State tell us how many urgent operational requirements have been made of the Ministry of Defence in the past year from Afghanistan, and how many have been turned down?
Here, Browne was adamant. "All urgent operational requirements that have been approved by the chain of command have been acceded to," he said:

That is entirely as it should be, and the process of urgent operational requirements has been approved and commented upon favourably by independent investigations on a number of occasions. Contrary to media speculation over the weekend, no such requirements have been turned down on financial grounds. Indeed, over the past couple of years more than half a billion pounds have been invested in urgent operational requirements in relation to supporting our troops in both theatres. It is part of the nature of urgent operational requirements that they continually come forward and are approved.
One thing the Fox did do, though was refer to the Apache "rescue" and (rightly) point out that the Army needed a smaller helicopter. Browne's answer was odd. An alternative helicopter was available, he said, and could have been made available, but a tactical decision was made by the commandos to deploy the Apache in this particular way. This simply does not compute and, I suspect, we will be returning to this issue.

As to helicopters in general though, Browne referred to Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan who had stated: "I have not asked for additional helicopters and the supply system is working well, with no soldiers or marines running out of supplies." After a brief homily about the difficulty in buying these machines, he then delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce, staring down Fox with the words:

Let me also say to him that there is no truth in the suggestion that urgent operational requirements in relation to night-vision goggles were turned down for financial reasons, as was reported in the press.
Although the helicopter question was good, Fox is going to need to know more about why the top brass are so reluctant to demand more machines before he is able to dent Browne. And dent Browne, he was unable to do. Relying on flawed information, he left himself wide open to attack, with no comeback. As expected, Browne exploited the opening and the game was over.

However, at least, through Ann Winterton, Browne is looking seriously at force protection. He now knows his card is marked in that, if there is a disaster in the future, he can be held directly and personally responsible. In that, there is a glimmer of hope that we might save some lives. It is only a glimmer, mind you. And imagine how quickly action would be taken if the Houses of Parliament were being mortared each day and the MPs had to sleep in unprotected tents in Palace Yard.


Sunday 21 January 2007

An heroic failure


What was intended to be my last word on last Monday's attempted rescue using Apache helicopters is posted here, complete with pics of one of the actual helicopters used.

It is a testament to how the story is developing, however, that the BBC has now obtained from the MoD video coverage of the flight of one of the Apaches, which has been run on BBC News 24, with the recording available on the BBC website

Despite the stupid graphic (what is it about commissioning editors?), we actually get a sensible comment from Paul Adams, saying:

This episode raises questions. The military lacks the sort of light helicopters that would normally be used for this sort of work. It'll be another seven years before something suitable is available.
The message is gradually beginning to filter out and, with luck, we might be seeing some detail emerge. It is odd, though, how it should be the BBC which picks up the thread, when all the newspapers seem to have missed it.

Read more here.


Friday 19 January 2007

Now will they do something?

Six British soldiers have been wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp (pictured), which came under fire last night three times from a mixture of mortars, rockets and small arms. One soldier was said to have been seriously injured in the attacks last night. Five others received lesser injuries.

This is according to The Times and agencies . It comes nearly three months after the Foreign Office was forced to take the humiliating step of evacuating civilian staff from the Consulate, reflecting the inability of the Army to defend a site that includes its main headquarters in southern Iraq.

Progressively, from 2003 when the Army took over the site, all they have done is add to the fortifications, giving the impression of a base under siege - which is precisely what it is, sending a signal to the insugents and the people of Basra that the British and coalition forces are not in control.

As a result, the passive defences have done absolutely nothing to stop the continued barrage of attacks which are reported to be occurring daily with, we are told, increasing accuracy.

This blog has questioned, again and again, the reluctance of the Army to take adequate counter-measures against rocket and mortar attacks and, in December, Tory back-bencher Ann Winterton asked the secretary of state for defence whether his Department had evaluated the existing Counter Battery Radar to be adapted to provide targeting data for the Phalanx C-RAM Anti Mortar system – one of the key defence weapons systems (pictured).

Minister of state Adam Ingram offered a typically complacent response, saying:

Initial assessments of the Phalanx C-RAM Anti Mortar system indicate that it is not appropriate for our current requirements, but we keep the operational situation under review. We have not therefore considered the adaptation of the Counter Battery Radar to provide targeting data for this system. We provide layered protection for British bases in Iraq and Afghanistan through a range of force protection methods.
So, unlike US and now Canadian bases, which are protected by this technology, it is "not appropriate" for British bases. We have "layered protection". We can hide under the beds, under the tables, in the bunkers…

With six troops having been injured, however, this should be a wake-up call for the British government. Not a few expert commentators have been warning that, as the date for a British retreat withdrawal comes closer, insurgent activity could well increase. It is also feared that, as the additional troops in the US sector begin to exert their effect in president Bush's "surge", hostile action may be displaced into the less protected British sector.

It may be only a matter of time, therefore, before a mortar bomb or rocket finds a really vulnerable target, like a mess hall where troops are gathering for a meal, or one of the dormitory tents which house 20 or more troops. There are no excuses and further delay is intolerable. The technology exists to safeguard our troops and only the lack of political will can prevent the necessary safeguards being put in place.

And it would, of course, help if the Conservatives had a policy on this issue. Where art thou Gerald?


Wednesday 17 January 2007

C'est magnifique…

Four British Royal Marines, we are told by agencies and others, have staged a dramatic rescue attempt in Afghanistan, strapped to the wings of Apache attack helicopters.

This followed the death on Monday of Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Ford, who was shot when more than 200 British troops attacked a Taliban fort in Jugroom in the southern Helmand province.

At the time, Ford's fate was unknown to his comrades who discovered him missing. A rescue was planned using Viking carriers but, when the Apaches became available, they decided the fast attack helicopters provided the best opportunity to rescue him.

Two marines each were strapped to the wings of two Apache helicopters, with a third Apache and several ground units providing covering fire. After landing at the site of the earlier battle, the four soldiers found Ford dead, but were able to recover his body.

According to UK military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce, this is believed to be the first time British forces have ever tried this type of rescue mission. "It was an extraordinary tale of heroism and bravery of our airmen, soldiers and marines who were all prepared to put themselves back into the line of fire to rescue a fallen comrade," Bruce said.

That is as may be or, to put it slightly different, c'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. This was an extraordinarily risky venture as the two troop-carrying Apaches would have had their mobility heavily restricted and would, therefore, have been extremely vulnerable during the whole operation. And this would not just have been a question of lives at risk. Apache helicopters are extremely expensive - ours costing £60 million apiece - and any loss would have been a propaganda coup for the Taliban.

Without in any way denigrating the bravery and determination of our troops, however, this points up the dangerous lack of equipment available to our soldiers in Afghanistan, especially helicopters.

But here, we are not talking about Chinook-type transports that the media and the bandwagon-jumping Tories have been calling for. The shortage here, as we have pointed out again and again, is in light tactical helicopters (example pictured above). The nearest thing we have is the highly unsatisfactory Lynx of which, apparently, we have only four in theatre.

To an extent, we have been able to get by because our allies have been stepping in with support, and the Americans have been particularly generous with air support and the loan of helicopters (another example of which is illustrated – this one showing Lt Gen Graeme Lamb departing a US Black Hawk helicopter in which he has just hitched a ride) so much so that the British forces have acquired the title "the borrowers".

On this one occasion though, it seems the Americans were not there to bail us out so we had to rely on the amazing bravery of our soldiers and airmen. This should not be happening. We should not have to rely on this simply to make up for deficiencies in basic equipment. The time is long overdue for Blair to turn his rhetoric into action.


Sunday 14 January 2007

And so to Gerald…

I promised to respond to Gerald Howarth's e-mail, which we published on the blog yesterday. The exercise is useful and valid, not least because Gerald, as shadow minister for defence, is a senior Tory politician and his views give a remarkable insight into the mindset. So, here goes.

From the outset, it must be said of the man that it must take a real in-depth understanding of the political process in order to send an e-mail in which you have insulted the co-editor of one of the leading British political blogs, and then give the recipient carte blanche to circulate it. Not that I have any problem about being insulted in such a way as clearly, in Gerald, we have a master at work, and we can only stand back and admire his political skills.

Actually, that is a bullshit, clever-dick response which is not true. I wrote it in the first draft of this piece, but I have left it up as an example of the line I could have taken – jokey and sardonic. But I mind very much indeed being slagged off by this low-grade example of a politician who cannot even be bothered to get his facts right.

Yes, we know he launched my pamphlet on Galileo at the House of Commons, as he is prone to tell everyone at every opportunity, and we acknowledged this fulsomely. From July 2004, when he hosted the launch, through to November of that year, we mentioned Gerald no less than five times on the blog, each time in glowing terms. During that period, he also enjoyed two favourable mentions in the Booker Column.

But, declares Gerald, "Richard North has some good ideas but gives no credit to anything anyone else does". Well, we gave him ample credit for his action on Galileo and much else. In all, this blog has made 32 mentions of Gerald Howarth (not including this one), most of them favourable, right up to May 2006 when, in a general commentary about defence issues and MPs' involvement, we noted:

It has been left largely to the likes of shadow procurement minister Gerald Howarth and back-bencher Ann Winterton to make the running. Admirable though their efforts have been, they have not been enough, without the support of the wider House.
However, there was another aspect to the way the blog treated Gerald. We have been known, on occasions, to be pretty vicious about some of our subjects, but until recently, Gerald got off exceptionally lightly. For instance, we found it extremely difficult to keep quiet in April 2005 when the government announced an order for over £1 billion-worth of MAN-Nutzfahrzeuge trucks for the Army. This was an order which went to the German firm despite the trucks not meeting "defence planning assumptions" and the home-built vehicles being better, but did Gerald Howarth complain? Well, not exactly. He complained that the MoD had not bought enough of them.

I really had to bite my tongue on that one – this was and remains a betrayal of the Army, dumping substandard equipment on it, for what were evidently political reasons. And Gerald dropped the ball.

Perhaps he might have been more on the ball if he concentrated on his two jobs – the one as constituency MP and the other running his portfolio as defence procurement shadow. But a man who, by his own admission, is far too busy to read EU Referendum, manages to find time to do other day jobs, including having worked in the role of "consultant" for a brace of executive jet charter brokers, Aircraft Zone and European Business Jets Ltd.

Still, if he really was that busy, he could always have asked his assistant Mike Wood to brief him on the essentials - which would have been one way to get publicity - from The Independent on Sunday, at least.

Anyhow, the fact that the Tory group has been so bad at projecting it agenda has not stopped Gerald laying the charge that I have "little understanding of the - often extremely frustrating - political process, or of the power of the Opposition to get the media to focus on the issues we are tackling." Leaving aside his observations about my understanding of the political process for the moment, I readily concede that I have not (recently) got myself on the front page of the Independent on Sunday but who was it that got "Snatch" Land Rovers on the front page of The Sunday Times, to say nothing of several mentions in the Booker Column?

And so to the substantive part of Gerald's critique.

He starts by claiming that "the Opposition has been doing precisely that - opposing." He adds, "Not mindlessly, but intelligently where we believe the Government is wrong." And right here, we fall out with the man. Even in their Parliamentary tactics, we see them fail but, even more fundamentally, they fail on any number of key issues.

Take for instance, the issue of the shortage of helicopters, about which the "Opposition" has been voluble. Yet, although the shortage is here and now, in June last we got a government announcement about the Future Lynx committing the government to a long-term £1 billion project to buy 70 helicopters – averaging £14.2 million each. But, incredibly, they will not be in service until 2014. This was at a time when the Army was down to six Lynx multi-role tactical helicopters in the whole of Iraq and desperately needed (and still needs) more capability.

We had therefore, a situation where the Army was having to wait nearly eight years (longer than the Second World War) for new helicopters. And, while the US Army was paying £3.6 million each for their OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, we were to pay four times as much. And did we get any complaints from the Opposition? Not a murmur.

The British Army policy on helicopters (largely enforced by a dog-in-the-manger RAF) is insane - the insistence on a single, multi-role aircraft type with the airframe shared with the Navy (combined with an industrial policy of home design and build) means you end up with a camel of an aircraft that is really too expensive for some jobs, too big and heavy for others and not big enough for other roles. In the final analysis, this means you end up with a £14.2 million Rupert taxi which is not big enough to carry a fully-equipped section.

If ever there was something which cried out for full political examination and debate it is this - and this is directly Gerald's responsibility. Yet, as far as I know, he has not asked a single question on the validity of the Future Lynx (even though he hopes it will be his party in government when it comes to paying for the machines). In my view, in addition to a sustained questioning campaign, he should have been pressurising for a Select Committee investigation, forcing the (Conservative) chairman to get off his backside.

Then there was the episode of the Vipir thermal imagers, the lack of which was causing serious complaints amongst our troops in Afghanistan. Did we get any complaints from the Opposition? Well, the Lib-Dems intervened. But we heard nothing at all from Gerald Howarth, or any other Conservative.

Take the appalling episode of the four service personnel killed by a bomb while being transported in an unprotected water taxi, subsequent to which it was established that the passengers were highly vulnerable, not least because there had been 16 previous attacks. But did Gerald or any other Conservative complain? Once again, silence.

We raised the issue of the unarmoured WMIK Land Rovers in Afghanistan, leaving our soldiers dangerously exposed, while other national contingents benefited from armoured vehicles, even the Estonians. Did we hear anything from the Conservatives? Not a thing.

Yet this here is not our only litany of complaint. We set out one here, remarking on Conservative silence on FRES, on their silence on the government's disastrous record on unmanned aerial vehicles, on Gerald's lacklustre performance over the "Snatch" issue and his promotion of the dangerously inadequate Pinzgauer Vectors.

There was also the continuing issue of the Army's inability to deal with hit-and-run mortar raids. Howarth was more than informed. He was invited to supply this blog with a 1000 word piece setting out the Conservative policy on this and allied issues – with a promise that it would gain a reference in the Booker column. Promise there was but response there was none.

Against all this, and much, much more, Gerald tells us that Liam Fox held a press conference on Tuesday which was extremely well-attended, including by George Jones of the Telegraph. He then complains that "very little coverage followed, the Telegraph running not a single column inch."

Yet I set out in this piece how you, as a minority party, set about getting publicity. The one thing I would not do is waste my time with a press conference. Except on very rare and special occasions, they almost never yield results. Despite that, according to the great Gerald Howarth, I am the one that "has little understanding of the … power of the Opposition to get the media to focus on the issues we are tackling."

If I had been handling the publicity for the Conservatives, over Christmas I would have published a wish list. If it had been issued in the name of the Party, instead of this blog, the media would still be talking about it and it would be dominating the agenda.

So, we are supposed to be impressed that Liam spelled out forcefully in a series of PowerPoint displays the extent to which the Armed Forces have been betrayed by this Government? Big deal. Where was Liam months ago – where was he on the detail?

And so far out of touch with the debate is Gerald that he asks us to approve of Fox, when asked if he would increase defence resources if he were Secretary of State today, replying emphatically "yes", thus pre-empting the Prime Minister's remarks. Yet, read The Sunday Telegraph today. Remarkably, Rayment has managed to write something halfway intelligent (it happens occasionally), citing both Maj Gen Julian Thompson, and Col Tim Collins, both agreeing that money must be found from somewhere to upgrade the Armed Forces. But Collins argues that that doesn't mean there is not enough money in defence. “It is just not being spent properly," he says.

We would tend to agree with that. When you have a defence establishment spending £14.2 million each on light attack helicopters, when you can actually buy them – if you are really pushed – for less than £1 million. Throwing money at defence is not the answer. First we have to look at the waste, and the gross overspending.

That sort of makes the rest of Liam's little homilies rather flat and redundant, and it is not surprising that he got little publicity on them. From the sound of it, he had very little of interest to say. But, on other things said during the press conference, it looks like Liam made a bit of a fool of himself, so much so that he got himself in a spot of bother.

However, Gerald feels he could "go on and on" giving examples of what we – the team - have been doing, but confined himself to let me give you just three specifics.

He claims he was the first to raise the issue of armoured vehicles. This he did on his return from Iraq in September 2005. He told John Reid privately that he had to do something to get better protection for the troops facing roadside bombs (privately because he represents a garrison town and knows how careless politicians can cause increased anxiety). According to Gerald, Reid said they (the MoD) were aware of the problem and actively seeking solutions, but would not be specific. Since then, he claims, "we have raised the matter repeatedly."

It is true that once pushed, the Conservative team did have an effect, but it took some pushing, without which, doubtless, the Conservatives would have achieved nothing. That apart, Gerald cannot resist a snide little dig about my expertise, on the comparison between the RG-31 and the Mastiff (actually, the Mastiff is far superior in protection afforded) and he preens himself about establishing that only four have been delivered.

As far as the Pinzgauer Vector is concerned, Gerald is more than a little disingenuous. The vehicle is potentially a killer and has no redeeming features. Yet, while he has given the marque a puff, at no time has he raised the dangerous vulnerability of this machine with the minister, or at all in parliament.

Gerald's second claim to fame is the problem of troop air transport. The RAF is operating clapped-out 40 year old VC-10s and 35 year old Tristars half of
which, he says, we have just established (through Parliamentary Questions, our principal means of trying to get information) are not fit for purpose. That is as maybe but, in raising the issue with the Telegraph, he got it wrong.

We can give him the third issue – the procurement failure of the Landing Ships Docks project, and the appalling management by the MoD. But, in terms of the immediate concerns for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue is an irrelevance. One commends the work, but not the sense of priorities.

However, says Gerald, the brutal truth is that we are not in power and not responsible for today's calamitous defence policy. But there he is also being more than a little disingenuous. Which government ordered the Eurofighter? Which government ordered the Storm Shadow – the "million pound bomb"? Which government ordered the EH 101, now called the Merlin, and under whose watch was the disaster that is the Type 45 Destroyer first set in train? Much of the current procurement budget, you will find, is dominated by decisions which were made by previous Conservative governments.

Thus while, say, one would like the opposition to oppose the continued purchase of the Eurofighter, Gerald is not only in favour of it, he is also hopelessly compromised and, therefore, silent. Not from him, therefore, would you get calls for the purchase of, say, a number of AC-130s. In fact, not ever can I recall any Conservative politician coming up with ideas for new kit that had not already been suggested by someone else. And not ever has Gerald pointed out the amount of money wasted on European projects. He simply does not agree that our defence priorities have been distorted by pursuing a European agenda.

Therefore, he tries to ignore the issue and, instead, tells us that the Tories understand the challenges which face our Armed forces and are incomparably best placed to meet them. He claims 14 MPs and Lords with military experience of one sort or another. But, what have they done? The list of the things they have not addressed is endless.

So, coming to a conclusion, Gerald tells us that the team will not always get it right and must be subject to criticism if we get it wrong. But, when he gets criticism, he either ignores it or, as in this case, rejects it outright – not conceding one single element of error. Where, from the torrent of material produced by this blog, has Gerald actually admitted – even once, on one issue, that his fabulous team got it wrong or could have done better?

Yet goodwill he wants. But where is the reciprocation Gerald, the famous quid pro quo? You actually had a great deal of support from us – more than you deserved. You frittered it away, you ignored us, behind the scenes you briefed against us and now, publicly you deride and insult me. And you want goodwill to support and encourage you?

Thus you tell us that the most disastrous outcome would be for the UK to have inflicted on it a Labour Government led by a dour Scottish redistributive socialist who has consistently starved the Armed Forces of the resources they need to do the job and who until recently has distinguished himself by his complete lack of interest in our servicemen and women. That outcome, you say, will be assured unless people get behind the Tory party and rally to our flag.

We have answered you on that. But the odds are, you will not read our answer and, in the unlikely event that you do, you will not accept what we say and act on it. And because of that, Gerald Howarth MP, Member of Parliament for Aldershot & Shadow Defence Minister, you will be a loser.


Saturday 13 January 2007

The shadow minister responds

My latest piece on defence was forwarded by a reader to shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth, to which he responded with some alacrity. We publish this, in its entirety (barring one tiny edit), below:

Richard North (whose pamphlet on Galileo I launched at the House of Commons) has some good ideas but gives no credit to anything anyone else does and has little understanding of the - often extremely frustrating - political process, or of the power of the Opposition to get the media to focus on the issues we are tackling. Let me make a few observations which you are entirely free to circulate:

The Opposition has been doing precisely that - opposing. Not mindlessly, but intelligently where we believe the Government is wrong. You are probably not aware, but Liam Fox held a press conference on Tuesday which was extremely well-attended, including by George Jones of the Telegraph. However, very little coverage followed, the Telegraph running not a single column inch. At the press conference not only did Liam spell out forcefully in a series of PowerPoint displays the extent to which the Armed Forces have been betrayed by this Government, but when asked if he would increase defence resources if he were Secretary of State today, he replied emphatically 'yes', thus pre-empting the Prime Minister's remarks yesterday. He also said he saw no reason at all to close either of the South Coast dockyards, currently under threat from Labour. And he was honest enough to acknowledge that the last Conservative government's cuts in defence went too far, although of course not as far as Labour, let alone the Liberals, wanted at the time.

We are constantly pointing out that Brown has betrayed the Armed Forces by failing to fund the endless military operations undertaken at
Blair's behest and it was nauseating yesterday to see the Prime Minister promising increased defence spending when we know that every aspect of military activity is currently under threat and having to make cuts in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review now underway across government.

I could go on and on giving examples of what we have been doing, but let me give you just three specifics: I think I was the first to raise the issue of armoured vehicles which I did on my return from Iraq in September 2005. I told John Reid privately that he had to do something to get better protection for the troops facing roadside bombs (privately because I represent a garrison town and know how careless politicians can cause increased anxiety). He told me that they were aware of the problem and actively seeking solutions, but would not be specific. Since then, we have raised the matter repeatedly (see my website, which carries my views on the issue), as have many fellow MPs. As North suggests, the RG-31 (on which I was briefed at the Farnborough Air Show in July) is one of the most robust, but the Government has rejected this solution and gone for the US Cougar, known in the UK as the Mastiff, which I understand (I am not an expert in this field, nor I suspect is North) is similar in performance. In July the Government announced it would acquire 108 Mastiffs which would be 'fully operational' by the end of the year. It is we, the Opposition, who have established that this has not happened, only 4 being delivered into theatre. We told the press about this latest failure this week, and I gather The Sun carried the story prominently on page 2 yesterday, but it was downgraded in the final edition.

As far as the Pinzgauer is concerned, this (now) US-owned British company makes - in Guildford - an all-terrain troop carrier widely in service with the Army. I have indeed driven it at Long Valley in my constituency and it seems to me an excellent vehicle. However, it has no armour and therefore suffers from the same limitations as the Land Rover. In his July announcement the Defence Secretary also said they were ordering 'uparmoured' Pinzgauers, to be called Vector. This is a brand new vehicle but it does not pretend to have the armour of the Mastiff. It is my view that a range of armoured vehicles is required and that where the Government is guilty of betrayal is in failing to order off-the-shelf available heavily armoured equipment, such as the RG-31.

Secondly, there is the problem of troop air transport. The RAF is operating clapped-out 40 year old VC-10s and 35 year old Tristars half of which we have just established (through Parliamentary Questions, our principal means of trying to get information) are not fit for purpose. We have repeatedly raised the issue in Parliament and tried to get the press interested. In fact, The Telegraph did eventually run a story last week, so after 9 months of bashing away we obtained some coverage.

Thirdly, on procurement failures, it was we who were responsible for exposing the abject failure on the Landing Ships Docks project, praised by Blair yesterday, where the cost of the 4 ships has doubled thanks to appalling management by the MoD who awarded the principal contract to Swan Hunter. We ran a high profile campaign together with the Daily Telegraph. Last year, I asked the National Audit Office to investigate which they agreed to do and they will be reporting later in the spring.

The brutal truth is that we are not in power and not responsible for today's calamitous defence policy. Nor can we spell out today how much we will spend on coming to power in 2009 - 10, not least because we do not know what Labour will have bequeathed us in terms of commitments or the state of the public finances. All I can say is that the entire Tory Defence Team, led vigorously and determinedly by Liam Fox, are resolute that we shall not ask our magnificent soldiers, sailors and airmen to undertake tasks for which we are not prepared to give them the kit, the manpower and the training.

I know UKIP are trying to appeal to disaffected Tories, but they are not going to form the next Government. I hope that we are because I do believe that we understand the challenges which face our Armed forces and are incomparably best placed to meet them. On our benches we have MPs who have served recently (Andrew Robathan, formerly of the SAS, Hugh Robertson, Mike Penning, Tobias Elwood, Patrick Mercer (former CO of the Sherwood Foresters) and Adam Holloway, not to mention IDS. Others, like Desmond Swayne (PPS to David Cameron) and Mark Lancaster, who are TA officers, and Dr Andrew Murrison, former RN surgeon, have all served in Iraq and Afghanistan whilst being MPs. Lord Astor (who leads for us in the Lords) served for 4 years in the Life Guards, Julian Lewis MP (who leads on the Royal Navy and is the foremost exponent of the need for the nuclear deterrent) served for 3 years in the RNR, I was commissioned in the RAFVR and lead on the RAF, and of course Liam Fox spent 10 years as a civilian Medical Officer to the Army. Compare that record to the other parties!

We will not always get it right and must be subject to criticism if we get it wrong. However, I do ask that all those of goodwill will seek to encourage and support us. The most disastrous outcome would be for the UK to have inflicted on it a Labour Government led by a dour Scottish redistributive socialist who has consistently starved the Armed Forces of the resources they need to do the job and who until recently has distinguished himself by his complete lack of interest in our servicemen and women. That outcome will be assured unless people get behind the Tory party and rally to our flag.

Yours, Gerald
Gerald Howarth MP
Member of Parliament for Aldershot & Shadow Defence Minister

We have, as always, opened up a forum thread and tomorrow we will post our own response, building in the best of the comments posted.


Wednesday 10 January 2007

The "spin" machine

We are at serious risk of losing in Afghanistan said Sir John Stanley yesterday. In the days when Conservative MPs had some standing, the views of the Hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling might have had an impact, uttered as they were during a debate in Westminster Hall.

But all Sir John got was a short squib in The Daily Mail and the BBC website, the latter retailing foreign office minister Geoff Hoon’s response, he claiming to the incredulity of the few who were listening, that the mission in Afghanistan "is going as planned".

Nevertheless, just because he is a Tory MP – and largely ignored in the wider world - does not necessarily mean he is wrong, especially as he used to be Minister of State for the Armed Forces. And said Sir John:

The essence of the security problem for us was shown very well in the Dispatches programme on Channel 4 last night. Although I noted that the Government sought to dismiss the programme as being based on out-of-date film, I thought that it brought home extremely vividly, and with absolute accuracy, the essence of the security problem, which is that NATO forces are too thinly spread in the areas of Afghanistan where combat intensity is highest. That presents our forces with real operational problems. It makes them constantly vulnerable to the possibility of finding themselves significantly outnumbered. It makes them dependent on calling in air strikes, which carry with them the attendant risk of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilians’ homes, with all the political damage that that does to our long-term objectives of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The fact that we are so thinly stretched in the southern part of the country tends to make many Afghan civilians there significantly more alarmed and open to coercion by the Taliban than are reassured by our very limited presence.
He went on to add:

The fundamental duty of any British Government is to ensure that our forces are adequately equipped for the task that they are being asked to undertake. Patently, that has not been the case and still is not the case in Afghanistan, and certainly is not in Iraq. We all know that casualties have been incurred, and lives lost, as a result of insufficient body armour. We know of deep concerns among our servicemen and women about the adequacy of their armoured vehicles. We also know—it was borne out graphically in the film on television last night—about the serious inadequacy in the amount of helicopter support available in Afghanistan.
Sir John was very much backed up by Tobias Ellwood, who reminded us all that he had been calling for some time for Warrior vehicles to be sent.

Interestingly, AP published a photograph of an "armoured vehicle" patrolling the perimeter of Camp Bastion. It is difficult to say precisely what it is but it looks suspiciously like an up-armoured FV432, the so-called "Bulldog".* Not exactly a Warrior, that would nevertheless be a distinct improvement on an unarmoured WIMIK Land Rover.

Strangely, the MoD makes no mention of this but, with such indictments of the government, it cannot have been entirely a coincidence that the MoD "spin machine" was at full stretch yesterday, one early victim being The Scotsman.

Instead of reporting the debate, it published an outrageous "puff" for the Royal Marines' BVs10 Viking, under the headline, "'Supervehicle' saves Marines' lives". Unable to see past the MoD spin, the paper even cites an unnamed "British forces hardware expert" who tells us "considerably more" troops would have died if it had not been for the new vehicle.” How so very comforting for the MoD.

It is easy to understand why some MPs are disillusioned about their calling, but one really does wonder why the media have to be so crap at doing their jobs.

*Subsequent analysis shows it to be a Dutch M-113.


Neither here nor there

I had intended to do a long piece on Somalia – which will have to wait until later today. I simply could not miss the opportunity of noting a huge irony – one that, without our intervention, would probably have escaped any comment at all.

The irony stems initially from our seeing on television the ultimate ignominy of the Estonian Army turning up for a firefight in Afghanistan alongside the British Army – and better equipped, having purchased the Mambas which the MoD so carelessly and cheaply discarded.

But today, the irony is complete. With 148 already delivered to the US military in 2005, another 94 having been ordered last year, we learn that the US Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) has just announced a $76.5 million order to General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada to provide another 169 RG-31 Mk5 Mine Protected Vehicles, with an option for nine additional vehicles - bringing the total to well over 400.

These vehicles will be built in the British-owned OMC Land Systems factory in South Africa and finished in Canada's GD factory for delivery commencing June of this year.

But this is far more than just another "toy" story. With the expected announcement today by president Bush of a massive "surge" in the number of troops deployed in Iraq – and the start of a delicious political battle between the president and the newly emboldened Democrats over whether he has to power to do so – this order for RG-31 is a (belated) recognition by the US military of the tactical realities of the Iraqi and the Afghanistan theatres.

And what it also does, of course, is reinforce the very point made by the appearance of the Estonian Mambas – that the British Ministry of Defence and the Army hierarchy are still wedded to tactical doctrines which bear no relationship to the demands of the modern, non-linear battlefield.

On that modern battlefield, soldiers can be fighting for their lives in a largely conventional battle one moment, be pursuing a "hearts and minds" agenda the next, handing sweets to children and the like, and seconds later be the target of suicide or roadside bombing.

The British hierarchy, however, seems to be relying on the so-called "WIMIK" Land Rovers as fighting vehicles, equipment which has a linear and spiritual relationship with the jeeps operated by David Stirling's SAS in the western deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. (In the picture, the jeep even mounts the same machine gun - the M2 .50 cal.)

That the equipment is, on balance, unfit for purpose, is demonstrated by the two sets of pictures we have assembled – the RG-31 "before and after" (top) and the same for the Land Rover (below). In both, the damaged vehicles had been targeted by car-borne suicide bombers but only in the RG-31 did the crew escape uninjured.

Why the British Ministry and senior officer class seems to have such great difficulty dealing with reality is one of those great mysteries. However, one could venture that, for an Army that brought us the Battle of Isandlwana, William Elphinstone's retreat from Kabul in 1842, Galipoli and the fall of Singapore - to say nothing of Market Garden - the slaughter of a few Toms in unarmoured Land Rovers is neither here nor there.

Nevertheless, when even the Iraqi Army, which has up to press been patrolling in light pick-up trucks, realises that this is not a war-winning strategy, you do begin to wonder about the British.

The Iraqi government has acquired 400 Polish-made Dzik-3 armoured personnel carriers. Dzik is Polish for "wild boar" and the vehicle is described as being "equipped with all-around armour, bullet proof windows, puncture-proof tyres and smoke launchers".

However, the MoD will no doubt say the Iraqis can be dismissed - they are only foreigners after all, and we British have soooo much more experience in fighting insurgencies, don't you know. So they can go on using unarmoured Land Rovers. Far better that, than the High Command and the politicos having to admit they got it wrong.


Tuesday 9 January 2007

Before and after

I just could not resist the temptation of putting this up - the Mamba in British Army colours before being flogged off and snapped up by the Estonians - only to re-appear in Afghanistan alongside British Army unarmoured Land Rovers.

You really could not make it up.

But, since truth is evidently stranger than fiction, perhaps the MoD could sell off its unarmoured "boy racer" WIMIK Land Rovers (above left), with which it is currently equipping the Army in Afghanistan, and provide some M3A1 Half-tracks. Don't worry that these are actually World War Two vintage - they would be a significant improvement over what we have in Afghanistan right now.

I suppose we could go the whole hog here. With the addition of WWII Daimler Armoured Cars and Sherman Tanks, we would see a massive leap in our armed forces capability. All we have to do is raid the museums and we're home and dry... perhaps unrealistic, but it does illustrate the point that the Army in 1944 was better equipped than it is currently in Afghanistan.