Friday 30 March 2007

Holding to account

I had not intended to return so quickly to the Iran hostage situation, but two contrasting news pieces demand attention, one in The Daily Mail (no link) and one in the The Daily Telegraph.

The Mail headlines: "'Complacent' Navy faces inquiry", while the Telegraph - Thomas Harding again – has it that, "Vulnerable Royal Navy boats 'like sitting ducks'".

Interestingly, in the Harding story, we are told that "questions over why two lightly armed Royal Navy tenders were allowed so close to Iranian waters largely unprotected will be raised if and when the crisis is resolved," while the Mail tells us that an inquiry is already under way. "Senior commanders" say this paper, "want to know how they (the sailors and marines) could be captured so close to the frigate Cornwall…".

Very much echoing the theme of this blog, the Mail then goes on to say that, "Military sources last night claimed the incident had exposed 'lax procedures'". One "insider" is cited, saying: "We've been doing these boarding operations for months and it looks as though that has bred complacency".

Inevitably, we get a ritual denial from the MoD but, intriguingly, we also get an admission that "the Iranians had played games of cat and mouse with the Navy in the Gulf for months without any serious incident".

So much for the Mail but then we get the specialist correspondent Harding. He tells us that which we already knew, that the Lynx helicopter which escorted the Cornwall's boats in the boarding phase then returned to the frigate. Incredibly though, the reason given was that "...the situation was not deemed dangerous".

We are also told that the Cornwall was stationed between four and eight miles from a suspicious Indian merchant vessel, "because the water was too shallow".

But now Harding the apologist, looking after his chums, kicks in. "Radar operators on board," he writes, "would have been able to spot the green dots of the Iranian boats but they would have remained meaningless among the dozens of dhows in the area until they reached 25 knots," adding:

But with just three minutes travel to the boarding party, the radar would have picked them up too late. It was also too late for the Lynx to get back on station. Launching a helicopter off the back of a warship is not straightforward as the pilot has to judge the precise moment for lift-off.
He then informs us that the ship's 4.5-inch gun would also have been ineffective against the Iranian boats, which can travel up to 40 knots (even though the Cornwall's 4.5, with its highly sophisticated fire control, would have blown the Iranian launches out of the water) and that:

The servicemen were also caught unawares as they were disembarking with some already in the boats, some on the rails and others on the Indian vessel. The Iranians also appeared friendly at first.
Once again, therefore – we get no hint of criticism – an interesting reflection on a newspaper which is quite happy to give politicians, businesses and the rest a hard time. How curious it is that it then gives the armed forces such an easy ride, no matter how lamentably they perform.

And the more one looks at this, the more lamentable the performance of the Royal Navy does seem to have been. In the first instance, local commanders seem to have lacked any notion that the operation on which they were sending their personnel was highly dangerous, in a zone where Iranian action was always a possibility.

Then, as to the Cornwall standing off "four to eight miles" because the water was "too shallow", this beggars belief. Try this one for size: "…we are sending you chaps into action but the road is too narrow for our tank so we're parking it eight miles down the road to back you up".

As we have remarked on the forum, the Royal Navy does have two minesweepers in theatre, HMS Ramsey and HMS Blythe. These are shallow draught, so they could get in close. Furthermore, they are armed with 30mm Bofors Oerlikon guns (circled), which are more than adequate for taking on Iranian speedboats. If the frigate could not do the job, therefore, a more suitable craft should have been deployed - such as one of these minesweepers. The first rule has to be: chose the right tool for the job.

As for the Lynx helicopter, we have remarked on the forum, its best function would have been to provide an overwatch, warning of the approach of the Iranian vessels – although such helicopters are routinely fitted with door-mounted machine guns.

However, as we also pointed out, monitoring the movements of sea vessels is not something that has to be confined to rotary wing aircraft. In fact, the task could be carried out far more economically (and just as effectively) by fixed wing aircraft, in a task exactly analogous with fisheries protection. And, as these pictures illustrate (above), there are any number of small twins which can be used, the illustrations respectively showing Scottish, Irish, Australian and Canadian surveillance aircraft.

Finally, turning to the actual conduct of the boarding, we do not seem to have any footage of the actual capture but film shown by Iranian television does show the team on a dhow (possibly taken earlier by Cornwall personnel) – "grab" illustrated.

What is apparent is the lack of any tactical discipline. The boat crews are focused on picking up the team from the ship, there is no one obviously on lookout, or with weapons at the ready, facing any potential threat. In all, it has the air more of a school outing than a military operation in disputed waters, where there is a risk of capture and death.

In the past months, we have heard a great deal about the "covenant" between the nation and the military, and the obligation of the politicians to ensure that our service personnel are properly equipped and have the resources they need. But this also works the other way. We have a right to expect professional conduct from our armed forces and, on the face of it, there are indications that this was not delivered.

This does not only affect the conduct of operations. On issues such as equipment, it is up to the senior officers to specify what they need – which does not always seem to have been the case – and even with the contentious matter of the Rules of Engagement, field commanders and their superiors must ensure that our armed forces are not put in danger by overly restrictive rules.

We complain that our politicians have no military experience but the corollary of that is that they take advice from their military commanders, and will rarely contradict it. To that extent, our military actually have had a freer hand than they may have had in the past, but it puts a special responsibility on them to get their advice right. One seriously wonders whether that has been the case.

What must happen, therefore, is that the media must get over its infatuation with the military and take a more critical view of its actions and conduct. It could start by looking at the performance of the force commander, Commodore Nick Lambert (above). There seems enough now to be asking whether this man should be court martialled, and whether his superiors also should be held to account.