Wednesday 28 February 2007

Layered defences

Following our piece on the protection afforded to our troops from mortar attacks, I was sent a series of photographs taken by a serving soldier, of accommodation in the Shaiba logistics base, just outside Basra.

The top picture shows the basic 12-man tents, and the "protection" of a low, block wall around each tent. No more than three feet high, and not even cement bonded, this was the main "defence" against mortar attack.

The second photograph shows the scene inside one of the tents. When the mortar attack siren goes (after the first bomb has hit, without warning), soldiers on the top bunks are supposed to climb down and hide under the lower bunk. This is what you call "layered defence".

Virtually every day, British bases come under attack and, once our troops retreat to the one base at Basra Air Station, no one is under any illusions about what that will do to the intensity of attacks – they will increase. Of the current situation, one soldier said, "Going to bed was a lottery – you never knew if you would wake up". This is a lottery you do not want to win, but the odds are "improving" all the time.

That is the reality of service in Iraq. The use of the Hesco barriers provides only the illusion of protection as, in their final flight path, mortar bombs descend nearly vertically. All that lies between soldiers and death or disfigurement are thin layers of canvas and the thickness of a mattress.

As we observed earlier, 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.

Yet these self-same MPs - and their staffs - who ritually applaud the bravery of our troops, skulk behind their barriers and armed guards while – with a few honourable exceptions – they permit without comment our soldiers to be exposed to quite unnecessary risks. And the secretary of state hides behind honeyed generalities and vague assurances, while the media sleeps.

This is moral cowardice. It simply is not good enough.


Tuesday 27 February 2007

Action this day

Defence questions yielded considerable treasure yesterday, and it keeps coming. One such was interesting enough for the Daily Mail to pick up, heading its piece, "Basra tent troops 'sitting targets' warns MP".

Actually, they have been siting targets for months, if not years, but it is nice to have an additional warning from Labour's Chris Bryant, who recently visited tented accommodation for troops at the Basra Air Station (pictured top left). In Parliament, this is what he asked:

Four weeks ago, four hon. Members were in Basra with British troops as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We saw the tented accommodation at the Shatt al-Arab hotel, which British forces were in until Christmas. It has been heavily bombed, and that is where several British troops have died. We also saw the new accommodation that the troops are now in, in the more secure circumstances inside the Shatt al-Arab hotel, but they will now all be withdrawn from the hotel to the British airbase. Does the Secretary of State worry that British troops will now effectively be a sitting target for insurgents? What is to be done to ensure that we have better ISTAR — intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance — support and that we have more secure accommodation, not just tented accommodation, for British troops?
This, of course, is something we have raised many times - and we did not even have to go to Basra at the taxpayers' expense to find out - such as here and here. The issue was also raised last month by Ann Winterton, and she has not been to Basra either. This time, however, The Mail followed it, not that Bryant got anything from the secretary of state that we had not already heard:

Des Browne: All the issues that my hon. Friend identifies are being actively pursued as we speak. The military advice that I have received is that, as we concentrate our forces back into the Basra air stations, it will easier, and we will be better placed, to defend our troops. There are a number of reasons why that is the case. I do not want to go into them in detail. I am constantly torn when it comes to giving details in the House of the steps that we take to protect our troops, because I do not want to undermine their security.

I make my hon. Friend the same offer that I have made to other hon. Members: if he wants a private briefing in relation to this matter, I would be happy to give it to him. I am not prepared to discuss in public the steps that we are taking, but he can rest assured that all the observations that he makes I have made myself on my visits. My top priority for our troops is their safety. Daily, I am involved with the chiefs of staff and others to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to enhance the troops' protection.
From what we can see, all that is being done is limited protection using Hesco barriers as blast containment walls, to limit the casualties in the event of a mortar bomb hitting a tent or building. The second photograph shows a "welfare village" opened only in January at Basra Air Station, and the principle can be seen clearly there. The building itself is unprotected, but the Hesco prevents shrapnel from mortars or rockets spreading.

Nowhere do we see the layered measures that would constitute effective protection so, on the face of it, this is very far from "doing everything that we can to enhance the troops' protection".

Browne has been personally warned, in Parliament, three times now, - if one includes Gerald Howarth - so he cannot hide behind his generals and say he did not know. If it were Churchill at the helm, I am sure we would be seeing an "action this day" memorandum. Churchill, Browne clearly is not, but he is going to have to do a great deal more if he is to avoid having blood on his hands.


The black hole at the heart of our defence policy

It is no coincidence that, at Defence Questions yesterday, a line was developed trying further to elucidate where and on what grounds decisions are made concerning the purchase of equipment for our armed forces.

This time it was light assault helicopters, an issue we have been pursuing for some time on this blog and which re-emerged with a vengeance after the use of Apaches in Afghanistan to recover the body of a dead Marine.

It was following that incident that one of the better debates took place on the unofficial Army forum about the provision of "organic" close air support. On balance, it seemed, sentiment was in favour of such a provision, and a number of Parliamentary questions were framed, pursuing the matter.

One of the questions was from Nick Harvey, the Lib-Dem defence spokesman. He asked whether the Secretary of State for Defence had made an assessment of the potential for the use of small light assault helicopters in Afghanistan and other combat zones. This was the reply:
Mr. Ingram: We continually review our helicopter requirements to ensure that we have sufficient helicopter support to meet current and anticipated tasks. While we do not use the term "small light assault helicopters", our helicopters in Afghanistan and other combat zones include those suited to heavy-lift tasks, such as Chinook and Merlin; utility helicopters, such as Lynx, Puma and Sea King; and attack helicopters, such as Apache. No capability gap has been identified for small light assault helicopters.
Thus it was yesterday that Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, asked the Secretary of State who had identified that there was no capability gap? "Was it politicians, the civil service or the armed forces, and on what basis was that judgment made?" His effort elicited this reply:
Des Browne: A judgment would be made only on the basis of advice from the military and on no other grounds at all. I have no expertise to make such an assessment and I would depend entirely on military commanders to make an assessment for me. I have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman — I do not believe that there is a shortage of attack helicopters in Afghanistan. Those Apaches that we deployed, despite the fact that many people said that they were a bad purchase in the first place, have turned out to be much more capable than anybody thought they would be.
If Browne can be applauded for his candour, he can also be condemned for his naïvity. Firstly, he has confused the concepts of the attack helicopter, with the different "assault" machine, a (usually) armed helicopter that brings troops into battle.

More seriously though – as we know – there has already been the debate within the MoD as to whether some of these machines should be acquired – and the decision was "no". So, Browne has gone to the very organisation that has made a negative decision, for reasons we know why not, and got a negative answer. But, given the aura of negativity within the department, the reasons could well have been ill-founded.

Browne should not have relied on that tiny little clique of officials (some in uniform) to tell him what to do. He should have widened the debate, listened to more voices and, if necessary, commissioned independent studies. He has no business outsourcing policy to his officials. There lies the black hole at the heart of our defence policy.

And the odd thing is that, despite its crucial importance in hampering the war effort, neither the "official" opposition nor the media are even aware of it. As always, the real debate goes on without them.


Thursday 22 February 2007

War is too important to be left to the generals

Famously said by the French politician and former prime minister Georges Clemenceau, this is becoming an issue in the prosecution of the war in Iraq – and war it is – as evidence begins to emerge that much of the current British strategy is increasingly being dictated by the military, with insufficient political input.

One of the many clues to this lies in an article in last week's Sunday Telegraph, which pointed out that the current Labour government front bench are "total strangers to front line".

The piece was by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who pointed out that every prime minister from 1940 to 1963 had served as an infantry officer in the Great War. Even Winston Churchill, after he had resigned from the government in 1915, commanded a battalion in the trenches for several months. Attlee and Macmillan were badly wounded, one at Gallipoli, the other on the Western Front. Eden won an MC for rescuing his sergeant under fire.

By contrast, in the present cabinet, there is not a single member of the Government who has ever worn uniform, let alone heard the proverbial shot fired in anger. Tony Blair did not even serve in the cadet force at Fettes and, with the exception of "the preposterous Major Eric Joyce", there is no Labour MP with any military experience.

Wheatcroft, however, sees this in terms of "military virgins" who wage war now that they are too old to serve. "Never has there been such a gulf between the forces and politicians," he writes, "few of whom know any soldiers or sailors even socially. Never has there been such a breakdown of true responsibility."

What this conveys is an impression that the political novices are imposing on the military, dedicated professionals who are suffering the ministrations of the amateurs, and suffering as a result.

However, there are different ways of looking at this. In his book, "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime", published in 2002, just before the second Gulf War, Eliot A. Cohen – described as the (American) nation's leading scholar of military-civilian relations – argued for more not less civilian interference. In the history of warfare, all the great civilian war statesmen interfered in things military.

This, Cohen says, was unavoidable:

The goals of the military - the definitions of victory - are ultimately political questions; as Churchill wrote in 1923, "The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one." Not even military professionals have real practice employing military tactics: They spend most of their careers not fighting. "It is quite true that conventional war can hardly be made by complete amateurs," Cohen concludes, "yet neither can it be handed over to the professionals."
Cohen then cites examples of great civilian statesmanship: Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War; Georges Clemenceau in World War I; Winston Churchill in World War II; and David Ben Gurion in Israel's war for independence, demonstrating the need for a hands-on approach to military affairs. He thus challenges the long-held view that military strategy should be a sphere wholly apart from civilian leadership, disagreeing that military strategy is a matter of technical expertise, which must inevitably be degraded by civilian, and does not accept that the political role is merely to set the goal and leave the military to decide how to get there.

Another clue emerges from a remarkable interview for Australian television of Dr Rosemary Hollis from Chatham House. She claims that the current British strategy is "one driven to a large extent by the advice of concerned military leaders in Iraq who have warned that British troops may be doing more harm than good in the country."

Other sources, of a diverse nature seem to confirm this, pointing out that, far from taking a hand-on approach to the day-to-day management of the war, the Tony Blair and his ministers, handicapped by their lack of military experience, are leaving too much to the generals. They are too willing to defer to their judgement, even when the outcome has profound political implications.

For sure, as even today another group of experts pointed out, the armed forces are undergoing a cash crisis, but this is largely long-term and related to the strategic objectives of the forces.

As far as the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned, the money is not actually drawn down from the defence budget, but found from contingency reserves, funded directly from the central budget.

One thing which has puzzled us is the continual refrain that that the armed forces are short of key items of equipment – ranging from armoured vehicles to more helicopters – all of any of which can be obtained through what are known as the "Urgent Operational Requirement" (UOR) process. Yet, we are constantly assured by ministers – who could so easily be contradicted on this, if they were not telling the truth – that all UORs, which have been approved by the chain of command, have been sanctioned by ministers.

Ministers themselves do not have the knowledge to generate orders for equipment, and neither does the system work that way. The armed forces have to trigger the process by asking for what the need. And, from this we must conclude, some of the reason why specific equipment is missing from the field is simply because it has not been requested.

That actually seems to have been the case with issue of armoured vehicles to supplement the "Snatch" Land Rovers, with the reasons why they were adequate coming, in the first instance, not from ministers but from the higher echelons of the military, who have been opposed to the idea of taking on new equipment.

We have explored what might be some of the reasons for this in an earlier post and sufficient emerges from that, and other posts (such as here and here), to confirm that the military has a far greater role in the running of its own affairs – and the current war strategy - than is popularly imagined.

Thus, while we see a growing legend, as expressed in one blog, that the, "Soldiers have done a sterling job under impossible political conditions…" the top brass, as well as the politicians, seem to have some of the responsibility for the current situations.

That is not in any way to exculpate the present government – ministers bear the ultimate responsibility for any failures (in theory at least). But, unfashionable though such a view might be, this post simply serves to offer a corrective suggestion. Simply, if we are going to be locked into that oft quoted paradigm of "lions led by donkeys", it is as well to remember that, when that phrasing emerged, many of the "donkeys" were in uniform. And that might apply with some force in this current situation.


Wednesday 21 February 2007

An important turning point

At the heart of the dishonest and inadequate Defence Committee report on "The Army's Requirement for Armoured Vehicles: the FRES programme" lies a failure of the Committee to explain what FRES actually is. That, most likely, stems from the fact that the MPs themselves do not understand what it is.

Although I have done this before (not least, here, here and here), let me attempt to summarise it in this post for, without that basic understanding, you cannot even begin to appreciate the issues involved.

Essentially, this is a child of the post Cold War period, when the US and European government started to confront the idea that dealing with the world's hotspots required highly mobile, air-portable forces which could be shipped out at very short notice to deal with trouble as it arose, rather than letting the situation deteriorate to the point where larger ground forces would be required.

The concept crystallised in 1998 when the MoD decided that the UK Army required a fleet of armoured vehicles to fulfil what was termed the "expeditionary role", which was envisaged in the Strategic Defence Review, and then formalised as the "rapid reaction force", aimed at serving both the EU and Nato requirements.

Now, the trouble was and is that the basics of armoured warfare were incompatible with the requirements of air-portable rapid reaction forces. In the former, this had evolved to spawn two main vehicles, the Main Battle Tank (MBT) and the Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicle (MICV), the first providing the direct firepower, the second providing the infantry support.

In the MBT had evolved the optimum balance of three requirements: speed and manoeuvrability, armoured protection and firepower, emerging in its current form as the Challenger II (pictured) in the British armoury (and the Abrams in the US armoury), weighing in at around 65 tons.

To enable the maximum number of vehicles to be delivered, however, it was necessary to restrict weight to that which could be carried by the most common military airlifter, the C-130 Hercules, dictating a maximum weight of between 18-22 tons. This meant that military planners had to develop an armoured vehicle which could afford the same overall protection and performance of the MBT but came in at less than a third of the overall weight. (Pictured below is the "SEP" prototype platform, being considered for FRES: various versions will be produced, including an APC and a "direct fire" MBT equivalent.)

Ostensibly, this would have been impossible, except for the emergence of new technologies, enabling vehicles to shed weight, in the form of less armour, in exchange for three attributes: "situational awareness", "network capability" and high-precision stand-off weapons.

Using an elaborate system of high-tech sensors and reconnaissance systems, the new forces could detect the enemy earlier and at greater distances than before. With advanced electronic networks, that information could then be shared in real time, so that all mobile assets would be immediately informed of the presence of threats that could harm them, long before they came into range. Then, with those threats located, a whole range of weapons could be employed to destroy them, without their ever posing any danger to the lightweight vehicles.

That was the theory which drove what became known as the Future Rapid Effect System. But, by late 2003, the shooting phase of the Iraqi invasion had passed and the war had moved into an insurgency. There, the enemy's weapons of choice became the roadside bomb (IED) and the RPG fired by insurgents in civilian clothes who would not declare their identities until the moments they fired.

For dealing with this situation, any idea of relying on "situational awareness" and stand-off weapons, which underpinned the whole concept of FRES, became totally unrealistic.

Meanwhile, to deal with the insurgency, as we recorded, our then CGS Mike Jackson was trying to make do with "Snatch" Land Rovers. But, as the wider lesson of the insurgency were learned, planners were left to look at ways of improving the protection of FRES vehicles.

The task was effectively trying to square the circle, which they attempted by using additional sensors and self-defence equipment, plus increasingly esoteric forms of armour. Each added to the weight, eventually making the proposed vehicles too heavy for the C-130 and, possibly, too heavy for the A400M, should these ever be acquired.

Thus, at the heart of the conundrum is a conflict – which the Defence Committee acknowledges - where "the MoD", it says, "wants a vehicle which has sufficient armour to protect soldiers from IEDs and RPGs but which it also light enough to be transportable by air."

Now we come to the nub. The Committee says that seeking a perfect solution is "unrealistic" and that it is high time the MoD decided where its priorities lay. And that is where the dishonesty lies. The underlying decision is not one for the MoD but one for the politicians.

Essentially, what we are talking about are two different things – FRES-type vehicles for conventional warfighting, and completely different vehicles for counter-insurgency operations. It was never the case that "dithering" over the final shape of FRES cost any lives. The demands of the two types of warfare are so different that it is impossible to combine the requirements for both in a single platform. We need two completely different ranges of vehicles and the lives were lost because of the failure to provide suitable, non-FRES vehicles.

Currently, we still need the decision as to whether we are going to undertake "warfighting" or counter-insurgency operations – or both. And that, as we say, is a decision which must be made by the politicians.

Where the MoD has gone wrong, if it has, is in not making that abundantly clear to the Defence Committee - not that the MoD was actually asked. Now, it is left to Lord Drayson to explain the facts of life to the MPs. The FRES programme, he says:

…should not be confused with the recent urgent operational requirements to procure additional protected patrol vehicles to complement Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recent and very rapid procurement of vehicles such as Mastiff, Vector and Bulldog, is not related to the FRES requirement. These patrol vehicles are important additions to the capabilities at the disposal of commanders, but are separate from the FRES programme.
But, in fact, it is not the MoD informing the Committee. It is the Army brass. They, collectively, want FRES. They want an army equipped for high-tech "warfighting" and do not want to buy counter-insurgency equipment that will affect their plans for acquiring their shiny new toys. Nor indeed do they want an Army which is primarily equipped for counter-insurgency.

That much was the real message CGS Richard Dannatt was giving last October, effectively a plea to pull out of Iraq, thereby saving FRES and keeping the Army in the shape the generals wanted.

For the political glitterati (aka clever-dicks), of course, all this will pass them by without disturbing so much as a hair on their carefully coiffured little heads. Yet, at those different levels, political and technical, the Defence Committee report marks an important turning point in the decline of this nation.

Future historians will see in it evidence of the total failure of the parliamentary system, a victory of the Army over the politicians and a retreat from any attempt by this nation to recognise what is needed to deal with the growing threat of militant Islam. For, what the report does is fail to recognise that the Army needs to equip to deal with the Islamic counter-insurgency, wherever it occurs, and that FRES is not the answer. More importantly, it fails to understand that role of the Army brass in sabotaging attempts to ensure that our armed forces are properly equipped to deal with the job at hand.

Thus, the MPs have let the Army brass get away with it. Meanwhile, as ill-equipped troops are pulled out of Iraq in an ignominious retreat, the national interest – to say nothing of the interests of our troops in the field and those of the Iraqi people - has been put on the back-burner.


Saturday 17 February 2007

Situational awareness

This picture, taken by USAF Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall, records "US Army Soldiers from the personal security detachment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team" and they are providing "security for team commander Col. David Sutherland at an Iraqi army compound in Baqubah, Iraq, Jan. 31, 2007."

The vehicle in the centre of the frame is more than usually interesting as it is a Turkish-built Otokar Armored Personnel Carrier, a conversion based on the Land Rover Defender 110 chassis.

Overall, it is probably no better protected that the "Snatch" Land Rover (I do not have the technical specs) although the "top guard" undoubtedly is, with an armoured turret rather than a hole in the roof provided for our troops.

There is another feature of this vehicle which, in comparison with the "Snatch" tells you a great deal about the British Army – this vehicle has side windows and gun ports for the passengers, so that you can observe and fight from the vehicle.

The superior British do it a different way. A feature of all their tactical personnel transports is that they do not have side windows and, as demonstrated by their conversion of the Cougar to the Mastiff, we go to great lengths to cover them up, even when provided in the original vehicle (the pictures show the "before and after").

This actually is not a trivial point – it reveals something of the character of the British and the British military. It seems that the brass do not like ordinary soldiers knowing where they are or what is happening around them – so called "situational awareness". Instead, they like them to be kept in the dark (quite literally), relying on them to respond to their training when they are ejected from their vehicles, blinking into the light to face the enemy.

To that effect, British soldiers are taught a limited number of drills, which are repeated again and again until, with all the fidelity of trained seals, they can perform them flawlessly. But the one thing soldiers are not taught to do – and in fact are actively discouraged from doing – is thinking for themselves.

This was characteristically a feature of the Armies of the Second World War, where, typically, even junior NCOs in the German Army were included in the tactical briefings, while British NCOs were not. In the event of the loss of their officers, German NCOs were expected to take command, whereas the standing instructions to German troops, fighting against the British, was to target the officers, whence their attacks would often stall.

For the future, this is going to become more and more of a problem for the British Army, as equipment of greater sophistication and complexity is introduced into theatre. Not only is the educational attainment of the average solider such that they are going to have difficulties exploiting it fully, but the culture of the British Army is such that, as it stands, it does not want and cannot cope with educated soldiers, who can think for themselves.

Perhaps though, when we see British Army vehicles with windows in the sides, we will know that times are changing.


Turning into Belgium

The First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathan Band has, according to The BBC, claimed that Britain faces a choice between remaining as a first division sea-going nation or "turning into Belgium".

This was at a press briefing where he told the assembled journalists that his price tag for avoiding this horrible fate was "another £1bn" to safeguard future capabilities - and the delivery of extra two aircraft carriers.

"The navy is a very special asset, and if you want to use it, it doesn't come for nothing," he is said to have told the journalists, adding, "We're at a scale now that requires a certain amount of investment to maintain … You can't do deterrence unless you are a really professional outfit."

He summarised his position to journalists: "Give me two carriers and just less than a billion and I will be off your back, a happy boy".

No sooner was the news out, however, than Sir Jonathan was backtracking faster than a French tank in reverse. Up on the MoD website went a statement declaring:

I do not think, and have not said, that the Royal Navy needs a £1bn-a-year extra to do its job or to keep ships at sea. Today's Royal Navy is funded to do what is asked of it – not least thanks to a current investment programme of £14bn, and the delivery of 28 new ships in the last decade alone.
And this is a day after the House of Commons Defence Select Committee warned that the Royal Navy could be left without working aircraft carriers because of continuing delays and doubts surrounding the MoD's management of the £3.6 billion project to buy new vessels.

The Scotsman, being the only newspaper to carry the item, cited the Committee as saying that the whole future of the navy as a fighting force was uncertain and hung on decisions ministers will take in the next few months. The biggest of those concerned the formal placing of the order to build two new aircraft carriers, which was by no means assured.

Anyhow, the next day, Sir Jonathan up and socks it to 'em, and then backs off immediately. You really have to admire the intestinal fortitude of the chap, don't you.


Wednesday 7 February 2007

Media tarts

While the British media are obsessed with the A-10 "friendly fire" incident, it is left to Radio Netherlands to tell us that NATO is soon expected to launch an offensive aimed at clearing Taliban fighters out of Musa Qala.

However, despite the confident tone, the task may be less than straightforward. When the town was first taken over by coalition forces in August last, it took more than 500 troops from 3 Para Battle Group, and Afghan forces, to achieve the objective.

Recalling also that the British attempt to recover Jugroom Fort in Garmsir, with 200 Royal Marines last month, was a failure, we now learn that, three weeks later, the force has grown to 350 yet, despite heavy fighting by the Marines and soldiers of the Light Dragoons, the Taleban has yet to be evicted from Jugroom Fort.

Furthermore, so parlous is the situation there that the RAF had to carry out one of its biggest air drops of recent times to provide food, ammunition and fuel for the soldiers fighting in the town.

These developments, you might have thought, would have been reported by the MoD – but this is not an organisation that dwells on its own failures. Instead, on its website, we get a detailed account of how the Royal Marines have cleared a Taliban base, consisting of 25 compounds, near the Kajaki hydroelectric dam.

Now, we have no problem with the MoD indulging in a spot of propaganda to boost its own morale, and we would not in any way wish the play down the achievements of the Marines in this operation, codenamed "Volcano". The problem comes when the media, instead of reporting the wider situation, takes the easy option and follows the MoD line.

Stepping up to the plate on this one is our old friend the Daily Telegraph. Offered the free use of some action-packed photos, it rolled over and printed the MoD "puff", ignoring the serious developments in Helmund province.

Only too well does the MoD understand the "media tarts". Give them some pictures and a Boys Own tale of derring do and they will roll over and have their tummies tickled. Not for them serious reporting. That costs money and, more to the point, might upset the provider of the free goodies that do so much to fill up space.

Occasionally though, it would be nice to have some decent analysis instead of having to work it out for ourselves.


Tuesday 6 February 2007

Our fundamentally unserious media

Whatever the underlying issues relating to the US "friendly fire" on British forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the glee with which The Sun today published the A-10 cockpit video and transcript is evident.

It is a worrying demonstration of the nascent anti-Americanism in the British media, as is the highly tendentious article by Sun "defence editor" Tom Newton Dunn, purporting to offer an analysis of the video.

As is often the case, one of the commenters, noting that the pilots twice got confirmation from the forward air controllers that there were "no friendlies" in the area where the attack was made.

For once, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox, interviewed on BBC Radio 4's PM programme today, got it right. "It is easy for us to pontificate," he said (demonstrated more than adequately by The Times) "… there was confusing information on the ground and in the air … it wasn't as if there was an intent to harm British servicemen."

Listening to the radio exchanges between the pilots and their controllers, and watching the video, one can only conclude that this was one of those tragic mistakes that happen in war. In hindsight, it could have been prevented, but these things do happen.

But what is even more worrying is the evident strain of anti-Americanism within the British military that is brought to the fore by incidents such at these. At the time of the incident in April 2003, The Telegraph gave a platform to L/Cpl of Horse Steven Gerrard, the commander of one of the Scimitar vehicles attacked. He said, of the A-10 pilot who attacked the convoy: "He had absolutely no regard for human life. I believe he was a cowboy."

Speaking from his hospital bed on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus in the Gulf, he had added: "There were four or five aircraft that I noticed and this one broke off and was on his own when he attacked us. He had just gone out on a jolly."

Then today, we get from Sky News Online the views of a friend of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull, the soldier who was killed by the American pilot.

He told Sky News Online: "They murdered a very good friend of mine and should be made to pay a price." Identified only as Tom, he added: "I'm not surprised the Americans are trying to worm their way out of this… The US admit nothing because they live in their own world and don't care about anyone but themselves."

This, as we have pointed out recently (here and here) can so easily translate into an entirely unrealistic sense of superiority about our own forces, and an unhealthy refusal to accept that our allies have anything to teach us.

On a darker note, there is some speculation as to who precisely released the A-10 cockpit video to The Sun, with suggestions that the hand of the MoD is detectable.

That may or may not be a slur but, as the Coroner's inquest into the death of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull descends into a lurid soap opera and the media move into the all too familiar feeding-frenzy mode, this has completely diverted attention of the earlier inquest into the deaths of Pte Phillip Hewett and his colleagues in a "Snatch" Land Rover.

Whether intentional or not, this is highly convenient for the MoD and the people who made the decision to palm our troops off with sub-standard equipment. The excessive interest in the A-10 tragedy, therefore, is simply another indictment of our fundamentally unserious media. But then, given the choice between soap opera with an anti-American tinge and some serious reporting, we can expect nothing more than the dross on offer.


Sunday 4 February 2007

Realism 2

As the command of Nato forces in Afghanistan passes from British Army General David Richards to his American successor, General Dan McNeil, you can take your pick of what to believe as to how the campaign is going.

According to Christina Lamb writing in The Sunday Times, the message from the outgoing British commander is very much "mission accomplished". Richards has been telling anyone who will listen that, "In many respects I think we've been more successful than I anticipated … Not only has Nato unequivocally proved it can fight but actually, militarily, it has defeated the Taliban."

Nevertheless, the loss of Musa Qala is regarded as something of a dampener but it is only this very recent incident that is allowed to cast a shadow.

Even then, the ISAF press office would prefer you to focus on its more recent success, the air strike which has killed a Taliban leader named Mullah Abdul Gafoor, and some of his associates, while they were riding in a truck through a small village just outside Musa Qala. He is said to have led the attack on Musa Qala, which wrested it from the control of the elders.

"Through this precision air strike, we have shown superior capability and we will continue to execute our plans at the time and place that is most advantageous to the Government of Afghanistan and to the peace and security of the Afghan people," says ISAF spokesman Squadron Leader Dave Marsh.

By contrast, memories are conveniently short when it comes to the recent attack on Jugroom Fort where the two Apache helicopters were pressed into service to recover the body of a L/Cpl Ford. Yet, as we pointed out, the attack was a failure. British forces were repulsed by a numerically inferior force of Taliban and, from the silence about the fate of the Fort, we must assume that it has yet to be recovered.

Thus, while, according to Christina Lamb, Nato headquarters in Kabul is saying of Musa Qala that, "We will take it back but in a manner and timing of our choosing … It's a question of if, not when," one conscious of certain uncomfortable facts. At Jugroom, some 30 Taliban saw off 200 of our élite Marines, while in Musa Qala we are told there are 200 Taliban.

Inevitably though, much of what comes from ISAF, the MoD and the British government will be propaganda, and obviously so. While we struggle to assess the current situation, the main preoccupation of the official information providers will be to hold the line. Thus we get the MoD website jibbering about the news that two Harrier GR9s (the latest version) have arrived in Afghanistan. Says the MoD:

The Harrier is part of an agile and adaptable Air Force that, person for person, is second to none. It is able to provide a winning air power contribution to joint operations in support of the UK Defence Mission.
Other than to say wearily, "Oh! P-leeze!" at such misguided jingoism, one does not wish to spend too much time and effort on this, except that the MoD then elaborates on "the strengths of the Harrier". One of these is its "versatility", demonstrated recently, it says, when an aircraft delivered 1,000 lb bombs released from ultra low level in poor conditions, in support of ground forces.

Such detail reveals a great deal: one of the acute restrictions on the operation of the Harrier fleet is the limited types of weapons available, not least the 1,000 lb bomb which requires such a substantial safety margin that it often cannot be used for close air support. Our armed forces desperately need smaller bombs, so that the Harriers can work closer to troops under attack.

With the MoD making a virtue of a deficiency, we can reliably assert that any information from - or authorised by - an official source is suspect. And even then, Richards's protestations of success are undermined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who said of the outgoing commander, "He's tried hard and the situation is much better. But I don't think we can declare victory."

This brings us back to the issue of air power for, such success as Richards has achieved has been heavily dependent on close air support. This is from a general who, before taking command, had criticised the American forces for being "too kinetic", yet he ordered more than 650 air strikes in September alone.

Karzai is known to be unhappy about the level of bombing and the number of innocent people being killed. Yet, without air support, there are not enough troops with the right kind of equipment to hold even the ground they occupy, much less prevail against Taliban strongholds.

Even now, according to The Observer today, Richards admits that his crucial battle at Panjway, close to Kandahar, against the Taliban last autumn was "a damned near-run thing". The Taliban came close to forcing heavily outnumbered Nato forces to give up their attack.

One official admits that Nato planners are trying to make up for a lack of people on the ground with air power. But, he says, "that can only go on for so long."

Now, as the snows begin to melt in the mountains and passes of Afghanistan, the Taliban is promising a bloody spring offensive in what is likely to be a decisive year in the battle for this country. We are 80 percent prepared and "are about to start war," says Taliban leader Mullah Hayatullah Khan. He warns that: "This will be a bloodiest year for foreign troops", adding: "Now there is great enthusiasm for suicide attacks among the Taliban and these attacks will increase in future."

Putting all this together and adding some of our own analysis, we see a situation where troops are ill-equipped for offensive operations and are not even holding their own in defensive operations. Yet they are about to face a resurgent Taliban, which seems far from being cowed, while we – the public – are forced to rely on obviously skewed propaganda in order to judge how they are faring.

What is especially disturbing here is that British tactics seem best to be summed up as a policy of "running away". We saw this in Iraq at Al Amarah. After some extremely violent fighting and incessant attacks on the base at Abu Naji, the British response was to abandon the base and take up a nomadic existence out in the desert of Maysan province, avoiding any serious contact with enemy forces.

In Afghanistan - described in detail by Pak Tribune - after pulling out from the platoon house at Musa Qala, British forces changed tactics in an uncanny parallel with the activities in Maysan province.

Instead of holding territory, they started operating out of small armoured vehicles, bedding down in the desert under the stars. Their units are called MOGs, "manoeuvre outreach groups", and the marines and soldiers say they are MOGging - living for weeks on end in the desolate moonscape that Baluchi tribes named the Desert of Death.

The paper cites Major Ben Warwick, commander of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons, whose light armoured reconnaissance vehicles were brought to Afghanistan last October. "What these mobile assets bring to the operation is the ability to appear in one place and then disappear into the desert and appear again somewhere else," he says.

That sounds terribly familiar. These are the type of tactics adopted by the then newly-born SAS in the Western Desert by its founder David Stirling - in the Second World War. But his were small, special forces operating against a conventional enemy, mainly attacking airfields where there were large numbers of vulnerable aircraft.

In guerrilla warfare – as in counter-insurgency operations - the security services have the problem of finding an elusive "hit and run" enemy. The common complaint of operations in VietNam was that the enemy was invisible and could never be brought to battle. Yet, in Afghanistan, the enemy made themselves known – and vulnerable – by attacking fixed points occupied by the British, losing large numbers of their fighters. Had we been able to sustain the "platoon house" strategy, the Taliban would have lost even more.

So, in what seems an optimal scenario for the security forces – in this case the British – what did they do? Well, they disengaged and drove off into the deserts to play at MOGging, no doubt to the strains of the theme tune to Lawrence of Arabia.

Cynical that may be but, in the context where the official organs are spinning like mad, the media is offering incomplete and partisan accounts - with analyses of such stunning triviality that many are not worth reading - we need to rely on basic principles. And these, in major respects, seem to have been ignored and continue to be ignored.

This might be acceptable if we had the "best armed forces in the world", which would mean that they would also have to have the best equipment, the best logistics and the best leadership. Then an element of innovation might be welcome. But, as we argued in our earlier piece, some of our personnel and units might be world class. Overall, however, our armed forces are seriously deficient in all manner of things – not least, it would seem, in their tactics.

That, in the face of a ruthless enemy on its own ground, seems to be a recipe for failure. Thus, once again we find ourselves warning that of the need to break out of the mould. Instead of complacently applauding ourselves for having the "best armed forces in the world", we do need a little bit a realism. In short, we need to be worrying that, in the next few, crucial months of the Afghan campaign, we could very well have an unacceptable number of dead armed forces.


Saturday 3 February 2007

A little bit of realism is needed

Reporting on the lightning capture of the town of Musa Qala by the Taliban on Friday morning, the online news magazine First Post argued that the British Army's Afghan strategy was "in tatters".

Even the somewhat tarnished authority of the Telegraph conceded that the capture was a "setback".

The town of Musa Qala was, of course, the scene of a controversial deal, approved by Lieutenant-General David Richards, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, and agreed on 17 October 2006.

When British troops had first been sent to Afghanistan it was hoped they would help kick-start the country's reconstruction. But under pressure from President Hamid Karzai they were detached to defend Afghan government "district centres" at Musa Qala, Sangin, Nowzad and Kajaki.

This was the so-called "Platoon House" concept, with critics complaining that planting small numbers of troops in the centres was an open invitation to the Taleban. The move - opposed by General Richards - turned the bases into what he called "magnets" for the Taliban.

By late summer there was real fear that one of the platoon house fortresses would be overrun altogether and their garrisons massacred. At Musa Qala and Sangin, mortars and heavy machine guns were fired at point-blank range. In Now Zad, a Gurkha platoon fought a long night battle, throwing grenades at an enemy only ten feet away. And, as these intense and bloody battles developed, 16 British troops were killed in action.

At that point, the British had only 1,000 or so fighting soldiers in Afghanistan, and they lacked sufficient helicopter resources to bring in reinforcements to relieve the siege. They had a maximum of seven Chinook heavy lift helicopters, and eight Apache attack helicopters to escort them.

In early September, however, the local tribal elders of Musa Qala approached Governor Daud of Helmand province with a proposal for a new start within the district. The proposal looked for a form of self-policing, with a locally-raised Militia trained and equipped by the Government of Afghanistan. Then, on 12 September, the elders instigated a form of ceasefire and prevented the Taliban from attacking the district centre.

After the personal involvement of Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, a deal was struck whereby the tribal elders would guarantee the security, stability and governance of the district. British troops would pull out and so would the Taliban.

The American military were said to be "absolutely furious" at what they saw as a pullout by their principal partners, complaining that it left Musa Qala under Taleban control. A persistent critic was US General Dan McNeill, who currently is about to take over as commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan. He called the deal, "a tactical mistake - and a strategic disaster."

Events seemed to prove him right. In December, Danish and British troops came under a large-scale Taliban attack near the Musa Qala, fighting a four-hour battle before a series of airstrikes killed 80 Taliban fighters. The suspicion was that Musa Qala was being used as a safe haven by the Taliban.

There was then another major incident at the end of December when a number of high ranking Taliban leaders were killed in an airstrike in the Musa Qala district.

Back in Musa Qala itself, it is reported that there has been fighting and tension in the town for more than a week. The elders had demanded that a known Taliban commander, Mullah Gaffur, leave the town. Nato aircraft then carried out a precision strike on his house, but he left a few minutes before they bombed. Surveillance aircraft then tracked his car, and last sighted it abandoned in a ditch. The elders put a price on his head and told the Taliban around the town to surrender weapons.

Their response was to move into the town and take over the police station. Nato surveillance aircraft have reported Taliban marauding through the town burning and looting compounds. Witnesses said most of the elders had fled.

General McNeill, it is reported has now declared that he is ready to order US troops into the town, to restore Nato control – arguably cleaning up the mess left by the British.

At the time of the October deal though, Mick Smith of The Times completely approved of the move. "So far so good," he wrote:

…the whole policy of putting troops into remote outposts in the north - and the tragedy of 16 British soldiers who have died as a direct result - have provided graphic evidence as to why politicians should not interfere in the business of soldiering. Is it too much to hope that British commanders will now be allowed to get on with their job?
Even with the reinforcements announced by the government last week, however, the British have insufficient resources to take on the Taliban throughout Helmand. "We just cannot carry out a pacification campaign," said a senior British officer. "That's not what this is about."

They are further hampered by the government's claimed refusal to provide adequate helicopter support, armour and other resources. Thus, we are told, a stunned British command in Helmand was holding a series of emergency meetings today. "We need to work out what to do next and there are going to be no quick and easy answers", said a spokesman.

Whatever solution is decided upon, it will not be entirely British. Yet, defence minister Adam Ingram still describes our forces as "the best in the world". It is also rather ironic that Dr. Julian Lewis should believe that the achievements of our armed forces in counter-insurgency campaigns in the past "feature lessons that can usefully be learned by our allies". There is no doubt that he was thinking of the US forces – and Lewis is not entirely sure that they are always prepared to listen and take those lessons on board.

Yet, whatever solution emerges to the situation at Musa Qala, it will rely heavily on the Americans. On our part, therefore, we are not entirely sure that we can go on claiming that our armed forces are the best – or indeed that the Americans have any lessons to learn from us. It seems that our claims are coming from the same well as the "NHS is the envy of the world" mantra. There, as with the status of our armed forces, it seems that a little bit of realism is needed.