Monday 30 April 2007

The MoD strikes (not) again

Given that the MoD has been savagely attacked, not least on this blog (most recently here, for its failure to adopt in both Iraq and Afghanistan the widespread use of what the US are now calling the Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAP), you would think that it would be quick to make a public announcement when it responded to the criticisms and actually did something that could be applauded.

But this is the MoD we are talking about here, so it is to the European Defence Agency Website that we must go to find that the Ministry is planning to order 180 of what it terms the "Medium Protected Patrol Vehicle" (MPPV).

With a contract value of between £20-100 million, it is specifying wheeled vehicles for likely delivery into service in early 2009 with an approximate gross vehicle weight of 14 ton, capable of carrying up to seven crew members. It should provided protected mobility and offer very high levels of protection against a number of known and emerging threats of a varied nature including Ballistic, Blast, Mine and Fragmentation.

Says the MoD, MPPVs are principally required for a wide range of patrol tasks and are normally expected to operate on roads and rough tracks in urban, semi-urban and rural environments; however they need to be sufficiently agile to provide a degree of cross country mobility.

Furthermore, the requirement is considered to be "Warlike" in nature and hence the contract will not be subject to the normal EU procurement directives. And, although the programme is currently unfunded, the initial stages of selection have the necessary financial authorisation and the programme is expected to be formalised under normal procurement procedures.

This is actually seriously good news, bringing into the inventory a vehicle of the size and range of the RG-31, Bushmaster or Dingo II types. The betting is, however, that it is more likely to be the four-wheel version of the Cougar (pictured) – the six-wheel version forming the basis for the Mastiff – in order to ensure commonality and to simplify maintenance.

Furthermore, this is not the only good news. An otherwise unpublished announcement from the Defence Procurement Agency asks for bids for what it terms "Indirect Fire Locator, Alarm and Intercept System" (IFLAIS) equipment, for delivery to Basra, Iraq, at a total cost of £9 million.

This sounds like, by another name, C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) equipment, the guns based on the naval Phalanx system, which can shoot down incoming mortar bombs, thus substantially enhancing base protection. At that price, it looks like possibly three systems are on order. At last, troops in Basra are going to get the protection they deserve.

There is, of course, a security element to the ordering of this equipment but the information on both orders is in the public domain, with the information on the MPPVs now published Defense-aerospace website.

Why the MoD should not thus publish the same the same details on their website is, frankly, incomprehensible.


Losing the war

In entirely good faith, yesterday, we published a commentary on the US activities in the Helmand province of Afghanistan – an area under British responsibility - suggesting that our own High Command is blighted by a lack of aggressive spirit.

Today, however, we learn that more than 2,000 NATO and Afghan troops began an operation before dawn "to drive Taliban fighters from another swath of their opium-producing heartland in southern Afghanistan".

It turns out that this is a British-led operation, code-named "Silicon" involving some 1,100 British troops, 600 U.S. soldiers and more from Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia. More than 1,000 Afghan government troops are also taking part.

We also learn that the troops are targeting Helmand's Sangin Valley, an area near Afghanistan's strategic ring road that has "for too long been under the semi-control of the Taliban." This latter statement is a quote from Lt.-Col. Stuart Carver, "a British commander", who then says: "It is all part of a longer-term plan to restore the whole of Helmand to government control."

But, incredibly, we learn this not from the MoD website but from the Associated Press via the Canadian Globe and Mail.

The latest item from the MoD is the unfortunate death of a soldier from 2nd Battalion The Rifles but, before that, the last two entries, both on 27 April, are about – respectively – "An Armed Forces Muslim Community Conference and an Armed Forces Buddhist Community Conference" and a firefighting simulator. On the front page, there is not even a link to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is simply not good enough. At one level, it is grossly unfair to our troops who are putting their lives on the line. What price morale when their own MoD cannot even recognise their efforts and post details of what they are doing on the web site?

At an equally important level, this represents a complete failure to understand the nature of the war we are waging. As we have written so often on this blog (most recently in relation to the Israelis), there are, in fact, two wars: the shooting war and the propaganda war. We have to win both, which means that we must show our own people and the world that our forces are making progress and securing real gains.

Not least of the problems is that, in the absence of real information about the activities of our Armed Forces, the MoD website ends up dangerously unbalanced. By far the predominance in the coverage is on casualties, which reinforces the Independent newspaper's agenda – that we are taking pain for no gain.

Inevitably, too much "gung ho – derring do" on the site would lead to charges of propaganda, but there is a balance to be struck. No coverage at all – or a very little, very late – is not an option. The site must reflect properly what we are doing in these vital areas.

On the other hand, the MoD cannot complain about the venality of the media if it, itself, cannot publish, sober, well-written (and illustrated) accounts of our own forces' achievements. And neither can we, who broadly support the government's aims, act as a counter to the incessant triviality of the media if we ourselves are unable to obtain information from authoritative sources.

After the debacle of the handling of the Iran hostages, this is yet another example of how the MoD media operation is letting down our armed forces and the nation. As a matter of urgency, it must up its game. We are losing the propaganda war and it is a war we cannot afford to lose.


Sunday 29 April 2007

A game worth the playing

"Killing people and breaking things". That, as one Army officer engagingly put it, is the primary role of the armed forces. Everything else is secondary.

It is those functions which the current opposition defence spokesman cannot seem to get his head round which is why his speeches on defence seem to convey the impression that he regards the MoD as a cross between a branch of the NHS and a social services department – a fully paid-up component of the welfare state. Never once has he got to grips with the efficiency of the forces in their primary role, or asked how that efficiency might be improved.

The piece in The Sunday Telegraph today, therefore, comes as a salutary reminder of that role, at which it seems, US Apache crews are excelling in Afghanistan.

Written by Gethin Chamberlain - and for once a good piece of journalism – the title certainly conveys the flavour of what is going on: "US aircrews show Taliban no mercy", the story telling us how a Taliban ambush team had been caught in the open by a pair of Apache gunships and systematically exterminated. And, to prove the point about "breaking things", in another action when the helicopters had finished with the men, they went about destroying the equipment the fighters had been using.

This more aggressive stance is almost certainly the work of General Dan McNeill, who recently assumed command of Nato forces in Afghanistan, taking over from Gen David Richards, the British officer who – notoriously – saw the way forward as making local peace deals with tribal elders, to keep the Taliban out.

This much is affirmed in another piece by Gethin Chamberlain, who has the American forces claiming they have blocked the Taliban's planned spring offensive by overriding British deals with the insurgents and launching an aggressive air and land campaign.

We are told that American officers have said they could no longer stand by and watch as the Taliban picked off British soldiers who had been left "isolated" in their bases in Helmand province. Chamberlain thus cites Lt Andrea Anthony, the intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne Division's Task Force Corsair - which includes the Apache helicopter gunship force – who says that American commanders had adopted a more aggressive approach, out of concern for what was happening on the ground. Writes Chamberlain, citing the officer:

"It was difficult for the Brits to have the support they needed," she said. "The ground elements in Helmand were so isolated that they would get shot at and mortared.

"That has changed now. It was a case of having friendly guys there, and we needed to go out and take care of them. You can only lose so many guys before you say, 'This is ridiculous, we are going to do something about it'."
What also comes over from the first piece is the high morale of the US aircrew. Although they have lost 50 helicopters since the start of the war in Iraq, they are not losing any sleep over it. Says one pilot, Lt Jack Denton "When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it's, 'You die, you die, you die' … The odds are on our side. I really enjoy it. I told my wife, if I could come home every night then this would be the perfect job."

The Americans at least have come to terms with the objectives of fighting an insurgency. You do not negotiate with your enemies. You kill them.

This makes such a contrast with the defeatist whingeing from Private Paul Barton, to whom most of the daily newspapers have given space, after he telephoned his local newspaper, the Tamworth Herald to give vent to his feelings.

Interestingly, none of the newspapers picked up the fact that Barton was by no means the first soldier to have aired his woes to a local newspaper. Back in December last, Lance Corporal James Larsen, recently returned from Basra after serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, gave his account to the North West Evening Mail.

Having, like Pte Barton, been based at the Shatt al Arab Hotel, his account was eerily similar to that of Barton’s, he claiming that he had survived more than 1,000 bomb attacks on his base and had been just 70 metres from a colleague who was killed by a mortar bomb. He added:

My friends have been thrown on top of me and I have been mortared from 25 metres away when the tent got hit. We had breeze blocks going round our beds. I would roll off the bed and go under it next to the breeze blocks. I soon stopped sleeping on the bed and just lay with the breeze blocks.
Perhaps the seminal difference between Lt Denton and the Barton/Larsen duo is that Denton was dishing it out while the British soldiers were on the receiving end without, it appears, any (or much) opportunity to hit back.

That is possibly the greatest indictment of the British Army High Command to date - the way they neglected force protection while allowing insurgents to take risk-free pot-shots at our troops.

Frankly, anyone who really knows soldiers, and has talked to them at length, will understand that this lies at the root of the problem in Basra. It is not the danger they fear – there is no lack of serving soldiers volunteering for action, wanting to get "stuck in". Barton put his finger on it when he said: "We were just sitting ducks". Being sniped and bombed when out on patrol and mortared and rocketed when back at base – by an enemy whom they are told to treat with kid gloves - is not what any soldier signs up for.

Effectively, it seems that the High Command of the British Armed forces (with some notable exceptions) is blighted by a lack of aggressive spirit.

That much seems evident in the treatment of the Prince Harry, where there is much beating of breasts over the young man being put at risk or, variously, putting the troops around him at risk as he becomes targeted by insurgents.

Rather than his high profile presenting a problem, however, a more robust – dare one say masculine – society (of which the Army is a part) might look upon this as an opportunity.

Much of the difficulties in dealing with insurgencies is that the enemy is hidden. In order to prevail against it, it must be brought to battle. And, if Prince Harry is up for it, his presence in theatre would be an ideal bait, drawing out the enemy whence it can be systematically slaughtered, much in the manner in which Lt Denton so enjoyed doing.

Therein, however, lies the real problem. With its current array of equipment and tactics, the Armed Forces are probably not capable of baiting a trap and ensuring that the tethered goat is not consumed by the tiger before a shot is fired.

Not least of those problems is the absurd equipment – the Scimitar light tank - which Price Harry is expected to operate. Long obsolescent, its thin armour is proof only against heavy machine gun fire (and then only just), while its ballistic profile renders it highly vulnerable to IEDs. It is hardly a surprise that, on 19 April, a Scimitar was blown up by a roadside bomb, killing two more soldiers and seriously injuring a third. Under current conditions, the Army could not guarantee that Harry would not suffer the same fate.

Here, we are seeing an element of (procurement) chickens coming home to roost.

Introduced in 1971, the Scimitar - or Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) as it is known – was long due for replacement by a more capable vehicle through the TRACER programme, only for that to be cancelled and then, in part, replaced by the utterly useless Panther Command/Liaison Vehicle.

In the absence of any other suitable alternative (although the US Army uses modified Bradleys – equivalent to our Warriors - for the role) this equipment (literally) soldiers on, despite its manifest unsuitability for its current (or any) role and its obvious vulnerability.

Then there are the other inadequacies, not least the lack of airborne surveillance and the lack of assault helicopters. If the Army got its BN Defenders back up in the air, leased a dozen Bell 212 "Hueys" and then started using techniques like environmental exception mapping to detect IEDs and – if need be – drafted a squadron of Challengers into the area, together with a company of Warrior-borne armoured infantry, then we would have the makings of a game plan.

For sure, there are risks. For the Prince to be killed or captured would be a tremendous blow – but there is also the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the insurgents, which would reflect hugely on the prestige of our Armed Forces and our nation. If our High Command could take a little time out from writing up their risk assessment manuals, they might actually see that there is a game afoot, worth the winning.


Saturday 28 April 2007

The Saturday "toy"

Did I say I was bored with pics of rubber boats?

I lied.

But then, there are rubber boats, and there are rubber boats - this one is from the Greek Navy. Doncha just love that colour scheme! Eat your heart out, Mr Bean.


Friday 27 April 2007

A lost battle?

Long gone are the days when the routine fare of this blog was a diet of edited agency reports and rehashed newspaper stories. We have tried to set our own agenda with our own particular "take" on the world and, where we do deal with current news stories, we try to add value, through offering either more comprehensive coverage or analysis – or both.

The process of writing in this matter, with the discipline of running a daily blog, ends up being an enormously educative experience and, if our readers benefit from our work, we as authors possibly benefit even more. On a whole raft of issues we can count ourselves better informed, arising purely from the process of having to research and write for the blog.

That said, the accumulation of knowledge and information (if these two things are different) does not make the process of writing any easier. If anything, as we follow some issues, more of the underlying complexities become apparent and matters which, initially, looked black and while, assume degrees of ambiguity which make analysis and understanding more difficult as time goes on.

Such is the situation in Basra and the continued presence of British troops, holding the line against what seem – to some at least – overwhelming odds in a futile attempt to bring peace and stability to that corner of a benighted country.

That would certainly be the impression if one was to take at face value the report in The Independent today, which retails the thoughts and experiences of a serving British soldier recently returned from Iraq who, according to the newspaper, "exposes horror of war in 'crazy' Basra".

This is 27-year-old Private Paul Barton of 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, who paints a picture of troops under siege, "sitting ducks" to an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. "Basra is lost, they (the militias) are in control now. It's a full-scale riot and the Government are just trying to save face," he says.

What immediately suggests caution, however, are two things. The first is, rather uncompromisingly, that if you were to seek a strategic overview of the situation in Basra, it would be unwise to rely on the testimony of a single soldier, much less a 27-year-old Private. Then, secondly, the account is carried by a newspaper which is totally opposed to our presence in Iraq and is pushing an avowedly withdrawalist agenda.

This notwithstanding, some of the unvarnished details offered by Barton are disturbing. He recounts how, during his recent tour in Iraq, his regiment lost one soldier, Pte Johnathon Wysoczan, 21, but 33 more were injured. "I was the first one to get to one of the tents after it was hit, where one of my mates was in bed," he says. "The top of his head and his hand was blown off. He is now brain damaged."

He then adds: "We were losing people and didn't have enough to replace them. You hear about the fatalities but not the injuries. We have had four who got shot in the arm, a bloke got blown up twice by roadside bombs and shot in the neck and survived." Most, he said, endured at least one "lucky escape" during their tour. "I had a grenade chucked at me by practically a five-year-old kid. I had a mortar land a couple of metres from me."

The regiment was based in the Shatt al-Arab hotel base, which was handed over to the Iraqi army on 8 April. Of the 40 tents in the base, just five remained unscathed by the end of the tour, he said. "We were just sitting ducks ... On the last tour we were not mortared very often. This tour, it was two to three times a day. Fifteen mortars and three rockets were fired at us in the first hour we were there."

He added: "Towards the end of January to March, it was like a siege mentality. We were getting mortared every hour of the day. We were constantly being fired at. We basically didn't sleep for six months. You couldn't rest. Psychologically, it wore you down. Every patrol we went on we were either shot at or blown up by roadside bombs. It was crazy."

To conclude his account, Barton then offers his view that the insurgents appeared to be considerably better trained, funded and equipped than had been the case during their first tour of duty. "Last tour, I never fired my rifle once. This time, I fired 127 rounds on five different occasions. And, in my role [providing medical support], I shouldn't have to fire." He added: "We have overstayed our welcome now. We should speed up the withdrawal. It's a lost battle. We should pull out and call it quits."

What we are to make of this is anyone's guess. One could take with a pinch of salt the Private's view that the battle is lost and that we should pull out, but what does come over clear – and seems reliable – is his account of the "siege mentality". As we have remarked so many times on this blog (for instance here), base protection seems woefully inadequate and has been putting our troops seriously at risk – with the inevitable consequences on morale.

However, Private Barton's former base at Shatt al Arab Hotel has now been handed over to the Iraqis and, while Basra Palace is also taking a hammering, that too will be gone by June. That will leave Basra Air Station, and base protection measures there may be substantially better than have been provided elsewhere.

Whether troops based so far out of town, with limited (and therefore vulnerable) access roads to trouble spots, will perform any useful function remains to be seen but, harrowing though Barton's experience was, it is no longer strictly relevant to the strategic picture. But what exactly that picture is, we could not even begin to say. And that is also disturbing.


Thursday 26 April 2007

Counter-insurgency in the House

From the defence debate today, Ann Winterton speaking (albeit to a somewhat less than packed House):

I came across a quotation the other day that seemed especially apt for this debate on the UK's defence. In his "The Art of War", Sun Tzu wrote:

"And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions."

That succinctly describes the dilemma facing those charged with the procurement of arms, vehicles and systems for our armed services on active duty on behalf of the UK.

In order to plan comprehensively for the defence of the UK, one has to predict future difficulties and conflicts that could threaten, directly or indirectly, our nation and its interests. It would seem that the present counter-insurgency challenges facing our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan—part of the war on terrorism—have not been accurately predicted by the military or by politicians. The Home Secretary recently talked about splitting the responsibilities of the Home Office to improve prospects in the war on terror. Perhaps the MOD needs to give a higher priority to counter-insurgency work, and to the necessary procurement for it, because the war on terror will most certainly not go away.

I am often reminded of the phrase "boys and toys" when I hear about the huge expenditure on procurement in the UK's defence budget, not least because I have always believed that it is not what we spend but how we spend it that is more important. For example, the RAF's budget is haemorrhaging because of the Eurofighter—that fantastically expensive creation of European integration—and if we enter into tranche 3, which will provide for ground attack, the aircraft will be too fast to be of any use as close air support in counter-insurgency work.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is besotted with the idea of its two future aircraft carriers, which inevitably absorb most of its funding. However, should not we ask whether those vessels will fit the requirements of the future? They will certainly be of limited value in counter-insurgency work, where the requirement is often as simple as inshore patrol vessels. The Army has been painfully restructured to fulfil the original concept of FRES—the future rapid effect system—to wage war against a conventional army at a distance, as part of the European rapid reaction force, double-hatted with NATO; yet that unattainable pipe dream seems to have been downgraded to the provision of medium-armoured vehicles.

The three examples I have briefly described, with the extra parts bolted on to form the complete packages, are very large funding projects indeed. During the Westminster Hall debate I secured on FRES, the Minister announced that its cost had risen, almost overnight, from £6 billion to £14 billion and I believe that it has now gone up to £16 billion in only a short time. Once again, the question has to be posed: can the UK afford such expensive procurement without compromising lesser but equally important projects with immediate needs, such as those to provide maximum protection and support for our troops on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan? The final question is the $64,000 one: will a future British Government be prepared to continue funding those expensive projects?

The MOD is making great strides in base protection from indirect fire, which includes the introduction of counter rocket, artillery and mortar—C-RAM—about which I asked an oral question on 22 January, following a tragic incident at Basra palace camp. Improved body armour has been supplied. The VIPIR thermal imager is excellent. Mastiff and Bulldog vehicles have been introduced and there are improved electronic counter-measures against improvised explosive devices. As has been said, there are additional medium-lift helicopters: eight mark 3 Chinooks, which are to be downgraded to mark 2s, to ensure that they actually work, and six Merlins from Denmark, which are exceptionally expensive aircraft. In addition, among other items, we now have the underslung grenade launcher and better communication kit.

Where we might be going wrong, however, is that the military, or perhaps even politicians, seem to want advanced technical toys that cover 100 per cent. of all possible requirements. I have already mentioned tranche 3 of the Eurofighter, but there is also the joint strike fighter, the Merlin helicopter and electric armour on new vehicles. Then, on cost only rather than technology grounds, there are the two carriers, Astute submarines, A400M transport aircraft, air-to-air refuelling replacement and the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—programme to replace all the Navy’s ageing supply ships. They are all incredibly expensive, and often need massive logistical back-up, yet we simply do not have the manpower to service them without taking personnel from other duties. Nor could we contemplate their potential loss, because we have insufficient financial resources to replace them, even if they could be procured at short notice, which is nigh on impossible.

Over the past three years, I have consistently pursued the issue of counter-insurgency, where the enemy is unknown and is indistinguishable from the local population. That was the main reason I was so sceptical about the original concept of FRES. It is essential for counter-insurgency work to have aerial surveillance, yet I am not entirely convinced of the reliability of unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not come cheap by any means, especially when the Iraqi air force has at least 12 SAMA CH2000 small aircraft fitted with XM15 electro-optical surveillance turrets for less than the price of one Lynx helicopter. However, the Minister will be relieved to hear that it is pleasing that the Army Air Corps now has four Britten Norman Defender 4S AL Mk1 aircraft, which I trust are still in Iraq. I recently tabled a written question on that point. They operate at a fraction of the hourly cost of other aircraft and are no doubt doing a superb job.

With the correct surveillance equipment, an expensive platform is not necessary to deliver results. With the contraction of UK forces in Iraq to Basra air base, for example, the limited routes into Basra should be under aerial surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as should those routes going south to protect the supply lines from Kuwait. That should not be too expensive, but I wonder if the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps would work together and co-operate on such a project.

Moreover, insurgents are upping the ante, as it were, by taking out Warriors and Challengers, but it takes them considerably longer to lay the much larger charges needed than to lay an IED—improvised explosive device—against a Snatch Land Rover. That provides the golden opportunity, if there is adequate surveillance, to catch and deal with the insurgents.

There should not be a shortage of helicopters, as there are plenty of Bell helicopters—commonly known in the American slang as "Hueys"—which can be leased at a 10th of the hourly cost of a Lynx. They can also operate well in the heat of Afghanistan and fly when conditions ground the Lynx.

At present, many of the requirements in the field of defence arise from dealing with insurgents resisting democracy and the UK simply cannot afford to fight that kind of a war by using the most expensive equipment, which is not always the best for the conditions. We can succeed, however, by using practical, cost-effective means such as the electro-optical surveillance turret within a simple platform. We can build vehicles with a balance between protection, speed and manoeuvrability, although it has to be said that reports about the Panther Command and Liaison vehicle have not been all that encouraging. As it seems that many, if not most, future conflicts will have to deal with insurgency, Britain needs a force that is both equipped and trained for insurgency work, which can be achieved at a fraction of the defence budget.

I end my brief contribution by saying that I believe the Secretary of State acted properly and appropriately in announcing an inquiry into the incident involving the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines on 23 March. I trust that the inquiry will have a beneficial long-term effect on counter-insurgency work and that the UK will be better equipped in future to deal with these extremely difficult situations.
I don't know where she gets her information from, but this MP seems remarkably knowledgeable.


Wednesday 25 April 2007

Then there were two

Now it is the turn of massive Shaibah logistics base, south of Basra, to see the Union Jack lowered for the last time. It was handed over in a ceremony to the Iraqi Army yesterday, for use as a training base.

First it was The Old State Building and then, following in short order was Shatt al Arab Hotel and now Shaibah. That leaves two bases in southern Iraq under British control, the Basra Palace complex – under almost daily attack – and Basra Air Station (BAS), formerly Basra International Airport.

Shaibah is the base the Americans did not want the British to relinquish. From here, patrols were mounted to protect the road from Kuwait to Baghdad, the vital artery through which the bulk of US (and British) supplies flow. Basra Palace is in no position to supply patrols and troops in BAS are the wrong side of town – vulnerable to attack as there are few roads which can be used.

However, the deed is done. The Danish contingent also joins the exodus, having acquitted itself well (although getting little recognition in the British press), leaving Iraqi troops to celebrate. One hopes that, unlike Abu Naji in Al Amarah, they can keep hold of it. Many millions of British taxpayer's funds have been invested in the infrastructure.

Needless to say, this is not a retreat. It is a tactical repositioning – or so it is claimed. Time will tell whether it is also a dreadful mistake. Certainly, the Pizza Hut staff will be regretting the move.


Tuesday 24 April 2007

Where sheep may safely graze

I cannot leave the saga of the bomb attack on the Challenger tank, reported two weeks ago by Michael Yon without noting that every single national newspaper covers the story today, many at some length.

Almost to a man, they quote Professor Michael Clarke from King's College's Defence Studies Centre, with the Daily Mail picking out the phrase describing the tank's armour as, "usually inviolable" – entirely unconscious of the simple grammatical issue that "inviolable" is an absolute. It either is or it isn't. "Usually inviolable" means it isn't.

The idea that a tank is "inviolable" - or "invincible" as some newspapers put it - is, in any event, laughable, straight out of the comic books. The life-expectation of an MBT in Northern Europe, had the balloon gone up and the Soviets invaded, was 15 minutes from reaching the start line.

Most of the newspapers run a picture of a Challenger, but most are old stock photographs. One of them is, recognisably, from the invasion of Basra in 2003. None of them can be bothered to print an up-to-date picture of the beast, heavily modified with skirts and slatted armour.

Rarely do we get such a graphic example of the sheep mentality of the MSM, and their utter idleness. In folk memory, we all have the impression of fiercely independent newspapers, all diligently searching out news, each striving to be the first with a breaking story.

In fact, we have corporate drones, feeding off a diet of press releases and official statements, all lifting each other's quotes – without the faintest idea of what they mean - slapping in meaningless stock photographs to fill up the space.

On the other hand, such is their arrogance that nothing is "news" until they have printed or broadcast it, but they will not run the story until they have the comfort blanket of an official confirmation, and the safety of the flock around them, knowing they are all grazing in the same paddock.

That, dear readers, is the MSM for you. Space filling it is – journalism it ain't.


Sunday 22 April 2007

The economics of war

It is a given that Reagan "won" the Cold War by outspending the Soviet Union, forcing it to compete in the arms race and thus driving it into bankruptcy, this precipitating its collapse.

Inevitably, things were more complex than that, and some might argue that the economic effects of the arms race were an unintended, if beneficial effect of a the "Star Wars" policy, in which Reagan actually believed.

Nevertheless, the idea is enough of a "hook" to remind us that there is always a significant economic aspect to most wars, and to assert that, as Reagan used the economic weapon against the USSR, so too – even if unwittingly – insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are using the same weapon against us.

This is brought home by Booker, today, in his column who picks up on our piece about the relative costs of Army helicopters.

At least now, a much larger number of people will be aware that the Army Lynx helicopter, designed for use in northern Europe and hopelessly unsuited to hot conditions, is costing £23,000 an hour while the upgraded Vietnam-era Hueys - known as the Bell 212s (pictured top left) – are much better suited to hot conditions and able to carry a bigger payload, and cost a mere (by comparison) £2,000 an hour.

The issue here, however, is far wider that just cost of individual pieces of kit. At stake here is capacity – the ability to deploy enough resources in counter-insurgency operations to have a decisive effect, without breaking the bank.

Short of total war, as in the Second World War, where military spending takes priority over everything, the military will always have to compete for funds against other public spending priorities. And, where there are other more popular (or potentially vote-winning causes) there will always tend to be a shortage of funds.

Shortfalls, therefore, are a fact of life and, while lobbying can have an effect, it will not always be successful. Therefore, if it is to prevail in operational theatres, the military has to find ways of maintaining or improving its capabilities at less cost.

The use of cheaper Hueys is a good example of how this can be done, and we are talking about real money. Although we have already bought the Lynx helicopters (example pictured right), the Army (and Royal Marines) only have 86 Mk7s (less now after losses) on its inventory and they have to last a long time – until at least 2012.

Each aircraft consumes spares and has only so many airframe hours. Once they are used up, the aircraft must be scrapped or very expensively re-built. And, while the Army is heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, it still has many other commitments, and much continue to train for conventional warfighting. It cannot afford to use up its entire fleet simply on its counter-insurgency operations.

What applies to helicopters, though, also applies to other kit. Already, we established the huge cost of operating Warrior MICVs, at £250 per mile.

While we have been unable to establish the costs of running vehicles like the Mastiff, it is likely to be around the quarter of the cost per mile of running tracked equipment. Furthermore, even Thomas Harding of The Telegraph are prepared to concede that the Mastiff armoured trucks are "more resilient against mines". Their utility is easily confirmed by the US Marine Corps which recently reported that, in more than 300 attacks since last year, no Marines have died while riding in what are now termed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP).

But where some of the really big bucks are spent is not by the Army, but by the RAF in providing air support. In addition to the figures on helicopter operations, therefore, Tory MP Ann Winterton also obtained data on some of the RAF's costs.

In particular, she asked for the costs of the primary (and only) close air support aircraft provided by the RAF in Afghanistan, the £14 million Harrier. The results again are staggering. According to defence minister Adam Ingram, the cost per hour averaged over the six GR7 and two GR9 Harrier aircraft operating is no less than £37,000. This includes forward and depth servicing, fuel, the cost of one Flight Lieutenant pilot, training support costs and the cost of capital charge and depreciation. It does not include, however, the cost of the ordnance. Bombs are extra.

One issue here is that, in Afghanistan, the targets are very often of low economic value, either small clusters of Taliban armed with cheap weapons, or converted civilian vehicles, often worth considerably less than the cost of the bomb used to target them, much less the cost of delivery.

This problem can confronted by the United States in Vietnam, and was one of the reasons why the famous piston-engined Skyraider was returned to service. Other reasons were its ability to fly slowly and thus deliver ordnance with greater precision than fast jets, and its considerable endurance, enabling it to loiter over the battlefield and deliver ordnance within minutes of a target being identified.

It modern terms we already have an aircraft on the register that could do an equivalent job. This is the Short Tucano, operated as a basic trainer by the RAF. Already, however, a ground attack version has been developed. Notionally, it can only carry a third of the Harrier's load (although the Harrier usually has to carry underwing fuel, reducing its carrying capacity) but that still amounts to five Paveway 540lb bombs.

Unlike the Harrier, which has such pitifully short endurance that it can only be despatched, once a target has been positively identified, the Tucano has a massive 6 hours 30 minutes endurance.

As to the costs, the RAF paid just over £1 million for its aircraft and the total cost per hour is £5,411. For every Harrier hour, you could fly six Tucanos and still have change. That would allow you to have aircraft continually orbiting the battlefield, ready to deliver ordnance in the style of the WWII "taxicab" Typhoons, as and when needed. For sure, that would erode your cost advantage, but the capability enhancement would be significant.

The thing is, such ideas are not new. We applied them in WWII, in the Korean War and the US in Vietnam. Every time the shooting dies down, however, the military forgets the lessons and goes back to buying expensive new toys.

Those lessons, it seems, must again be re-learnt. War, as much as anything, is an economic enterprise and the military (and its political masters) might do well to devote more time and energy to getting more bangs for our bucks.


Confusion reigns

There is an extraordinarily silly piece by Leo McKinstry in today's Sunday Telegraph. He compares the behaviour of former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher, who resigned after the lacklustre performance of the English team, with that of defence secretary Des Browne over the Iran hostages affair.

Part of the McKinstry thesis is that "a national humiliation should be followed by resignation," which is fair enough. But he wants Browne to fall on his sword and, because he does, his argument fails, even in its own terms. He is simply not comparing like with like.

While there might be parallels, the relationship between the English team and Fletcher is roughly that as between the Cornwall's boarding party and the Captain of HMS Cornwall or, perhaps, Commodore Nick Lambert.

On the other hand, the relationship of Des Browne to HMS Cornwall is closer to that of David Collier, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, with the English team. Thus, only if McKinstry wants to keep Fletcher in place, and howl after the blood of Collier, does his argument stand.

A similar, although almost certainly unintended confusion exists in the Sunday Times piece by Mick Smith on the Nimrod, which we flagged up earlier.

The story is a sound piece of journalism, reporting that the fleet of Nimrod surveillance aircraft currently undergoing major upgrades to MR4 standard will contain the same ageing and leaking fuel systems that caused last year's disaster in which 14 crew died.

As with McKinstry, though, the confusion arises with allocating the responsibility. The headline (written by the subs) reads, "MoD accused of cost-cutting on crash plane," while Smith's piece starts: "The defence secretary, Des Browne, is facing accusations that the government has put cost-cutting before the welfare of the services by failing to remedy safety faults…".

Smith points out that the fuel pipes that leaked in the disastrous Nimrod crash last year are single skin, and they are being retained in the upgraded aircraft. Yet modern versions are double skin. Keeping the single skin pipes "to save money" is described by an anonymous pilot as "totally reckless.

Raising such an issue is perfectly responsible journalism and it is right and proper that Smith should have written his story in this way. But there are limits to what you can get in and the issues are far more complex than can be allowed for in one piece.

Firstly, the Nimrod upgrade project is already in trouble. In 2004, the MoD was heavily criticised because it was then £400 million over budget and 71 months late. Retro-fitting new fuel systems would add to the costs and delays, forcing the existing MR2 models to be kept in service even longer than their now much-extended phase-out date of 2010. That, of course, would create its own problems.

Secondly, double skinning is not a panacea. An outer skin can make inspection of the inner pipework more difficult, concealing corrosion or stress fractures. Then, differential stresses between the two skins (and their fixings) can actually induce fractures that would not have occurred in a single pipe. The combination of this phenomenon and inspection difficulties could lead to precisely the sort of catastrophic failure that double-skinning is designed to prevent.

In a new aircraft, these issues would be considered very carefully, and the design team would eliminate any such problems. But the Nimrod is not a new aircraft and introducing a new system in an old airframe is a laborious and expensive exercise that carries no absolute certainty of success. All or any combination of strengthening the pipe material (or making sections more flexible), changing the design of fixings and/or couplings, increasing inspection access (and inspection frequency) and reducing design life, may be a valid option.

Keeping the single skin, therefore, may be "totally reckless", but it may not. It may not even be motivated, in whole or part, by the need to save money. Delay and the consequences of delay on operations may be an equal or greater consideration.

Either way, Des Browne is neither competent nor qualified to make the decision, which will have rested on detailed and complex technical evaluations, conveyed to him by his advisors. That is the nature of so much modern government. On issues such as these, the minister has to trust his "experts".

It would help if we had an independent technical capability – say through the House of Commons Select Committee system – to second-guess these decisions, but as it stands, we have to rely on the technical competence of the contractors, the RAF and the MoD. And mistakes do happen. But to pin them solely, or at all, on a politician – a layman in engineering terms – does not seem to be the complete answer.

Herein lies a fascinating conundrum which goes to the heart of the nature modern government – as to whether the systems of accountability developed in the 18th Century and before are still adequate.

Looking at the Nimrod project as a whole, this, as we pointed out on Thursday, was commissioned in 1996 - by a Conservative defence secretary, Michael Portillo. The original proposal had been for a brand-new (American-built) airframe but the prime contractor, BAE Systems, played the "jobs" card and an unpopular Tory government caved in and bought British.

Anyone looking dispassionately at the project could have seen problems. A new-build was always a better option. So, at the heart of Browne's current travails is a poor, politically motivated decision by the Tories. But it could have been overturned in 1997 by the incoming Labour government, when the new defence secretary, George Robertson, took over.

Two other defence secretaries, Geoff Hoon and John Reid have since been involved in the project and only now is Browne in the hot seat. If the current incumbent is to be held responsible, this is the equivalent of the party game, "pass the parcel". The last one holding the post gets the blame. Who, under those circumstances, would be willing to take on a portfolio?

On the other hand, what more usually happens is that, with so many people sharing the responsibility, the blame is diluted and no heads roll. Not least, because the decision was originally made by a government which is now in opposition, the politicians are compromised and criticism is thus muted.

In these circumstances, therefore, how we manage the process of government, minimise failure and hold people to account when they do fail, are serious issues and need answers. They are ones, though, that newspapers can hardly handle – although the occasional, thoughtful op-ed would not go amiss. Think-tanks might make a contribution, but nothing seems forthcoming, and you cannot expect anything currently from an opposition which is more interested in political point-scoring than serious politics.

That leaves the blogs. We at least are free from editorial constraints – which frustrate serious defence correspondents – and, if some writers could get past "tee-hee" political gossip and "pub talk", the blogsphere could make a contribution to a debate that we badly need to have.

Such ruminations, however, do not have a big market. Smith's piece will be read by, perhaps, a million people. McKinstry's stupidity will get an audience of several hundred thousand. This piece will get no more than two or three thousand readers. It may be enough – quality rather than quantity - but, although unlikely, it would be nice to see a broader debate.

Saturday 21 April 2007

The Saturday "toy"

No idea where this pic came from, but it comes from a time when men were men, arms deals were as crooked as the day is long (nothing changes there) and no one would dream of putting ladies into rubber boats and sending them off to war.

They are, of course, Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. Spanish markings? Nah, mucky Italian, possibly. But hey! Who cares? Nice pic.


Friday 20 April 2007

Millions wasted on "junk" helicopters

Millions of pounds are being frittered away on operating inadequate helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, when more capable helicopters are available at a fraction of the cost. The Army is paying £2.3 million per hundred hours of flying operations, on one helicopter type, when it could be paying £200,000.

This has emerged from a series of Parliamentary questions asked by Tory MP, Ann Winterton, who tabled questions on the operating costs of Army Lynx tactical helicopters compared with Bell 212 (Huey) helicopters, which are also operated by the Army.

According to defence minister Adam Ingram, the baseline costs per hour of operating Lynx Mk7s are a staggering £23,000. This includes both fixed and marginal costs incurred in using the aircraft, comprising servicing costs, fuel costs, crew capitation and training costs, support costs and charges for capital and depreciation.

In addition to that, costs are incurred as a result of the operational use and particular climatic conditions experienced in theatre. These costs cover additional wear and tear, additional spares and additional equipment and are paid for by the Conflict Prevention Fund. A total of £11 million has been claimed against the fund in financial year 2006-07 for additional operating and capital costs for Lynx Mk7's operating in Iraq, of which six are believed to be in service.

By contrast, the cost per hour of operating the Bell 212 helicopter (pictured below), which the Army uses in Belize and Brunei, is a mere £2,000. Furthermore, this is the total cost, as the machines are provided through lease contracts and are not owned by the MoD.

The price is based on firm monthly charges which are inclusive of all costs (less fuel) associated with the provision of serviceable helicopters. The monthly charge payable by the MoD includes leasing and operating costs. Approximately one third of this monthly charge is attributable to operating costs.

As to performance, although the Bell 412 is based on the Vietnam era Huey, it has been substantially upgraded and was selected specifically by the Army because of its - according to the Army Air Corps's own website - "unique abilities include flying in hot and often humid conditions whilst also being able to carry considerable loads." That includes the ability to lift up to 13 troops.

By contrast, the Lynx is an aircraft optimised for high speed anti-tank operations in temperate Northern Europe. While it once held the world speed record for helicopters, it performs poorly in hot and high conditions – either or both of which are found in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both theatres, there are times when it has been unable to operate between dawn and dusk, leaving troops without air cover. Additionally, as opposed to the 13 troops that the Bell 212 can carry, the Lynx is limited to nine.

Overall, the cost differentials are staggering. For a typical flying profile of 100 hours per month for Lynx Mk7s, the Army is paying £2,300,000 for each machine, when it could be paying £200,000 to operate a Bell 212. Annualised, this works out at £27.6 million for each Lynx, equating to £25 million more than operating a Bell 212. With a fleet of six Lynx helicopters in theatre, this works out £150 million in unnecessary costs, on top of which there is the £11 million Conflict Prevention Fund payment for the Iraqi fleet alone. Potentially, the Army could save over £160 million a year by leasing Bell 212s in Iraq or, more importantly, could operate 100 of these aircraft and still have change.

As we pointed out as recently as yesterday complaints of "underfunding" have been a constant refrain in the defence debate. And, while we would not disagree that there are serious shortages of funds in some areas, the answers to these questions reinforce our argument that we are not always getting value for money.

In the continuous pursuit of more complex machines, we actually end up getting less capability at considerably greater cost. We need, therefore, to reframe the debate and look in more detail at what we are actually getting for our money.


A matter of trust

Lt General Rob Fulton - former Commandant of the Royal Marines – came very highly recommended, and those who have seen his full report on the Iran hostages incident retain their opinion of him.

His report concludes that the events of 23 March were the result not of a single failure or any particular individual's human error, but rather of an unfortunate accumulation of factors - many relatively small when viewed in isolation - but which together placed our personnel in a position that could be exploited through a deliberate act by an unpredictable foreign state.

The Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, adds to that, saying of the report:

…it does identify a number of weaknesses, including the coherence of strategic and operational direction within the coalition environment, the handling of intelligence, the development of doctrine and the conduct of training.
As a result, we (the taxpayers) lost £350,000-worth of kit and suffered national humiliation. There is also a case to be made that the loss of "face" put other service personnel in the theatre at risk. Somebody must be responsible – heads must roll, etc., etc. And we have been up front in making those demands.

The inclination, therefore, is to dismiss Fulton's report because it does not tell us what we want to hear – that it does not support our prejudices, our hunches and our quite natural wish to see someone held responsible.

But it was Fulton who listened to the evidence, it was Fulton who conducted the inquiry and it was Fulton who wrote the report. And we were very happy to see him appointed. Thus, whatever unease we may harbour, we must accept his findings.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a matter of trust. Here we have a man who is hugely respected amongst his peers, who has a reputation for taking no nonsense and yet is regarded as being scrupulously fair. Thus, while cynicism and mistrust has its necessary place in politics, in this case, trust has to prevail.

Further, while there is no disciplinary action planned, the Navy has its own way of doing things. Men (and women) who cannot be sanctioned for their individual failings – only because it would be invidious to pick on them and not others – will find their careers less than glittering. They will be driving desks or handing out stores for the rest of their (short) careers.

In other words, there are many ways of skinning a cat, and we do not always have to shoot our admirals to make a point: Voltaire is not the only sage in town.


Thursday 19 April 2007

It's all too complicated

There are two good readers' letters in The Daily Telegraph which, in more innocent times, would have us storming the barricades, exuding righteous indignation at the way our troops are being let down.

The first letter, on the face of it, is straightforward enough, from the father of a senior NCO serving in Afghanistan in an infantry unit. He – the NCO, that is – complains about a continuing shortfall of equipment. This is not the expensive equipment like helicopters but Land-Rovers, heavy machine-guns and radio equipment, all basic stuff.

This has come by way of a letter from the soldier himself, he being cited as writing: "You do not deploy on the ground unless you have the right kit and enough of it, but it does mean that, instead of three patrols going out, only two can, because they have had to rob/borrow equipment from the third patrol, which then becomes undeployable."

And from this, the soldier's father – a Mr Edward Trinder from Plymouth – concludes, of the MoD: "Only a grossly incompetent and underfunded government department could expect well trained and loyal soldiers to carry out their duties effectively under such circumstances."

Undoubtedly, the problems identified exist, but simply to put shortages down to "underfunding", much less "incompetence", may be over-simplistic – and even grossly inaccurate.

In the first instance, we do not know whether these are local shortages, or more widespread, indicative of major, structural inadequacies. And if they are widespread, we also know – not least from a much more open (and adult) Canadian media that military equipment in Afghanistan is taking a battering, suffering far more wear and tear than was anticipated, in the exceptionally rigorous conditions in which the troops have to operate.

Even the fabled RG-31 Nyalas have had their share of problems and, at one stage, more than a quarter of the fleet was in the shop with maintenance problems.

On top of this, we know from diverse sources that the Army is having trouble recruiting and keeping trained vehicle mechanics. As a result, field repair facilities are constantly stretched, with units suffering backlogs and excessive delays in getting their vehicles serviced and repaired. One could say, here that this is an Army problem except that, if you talk to major civilian fleet servicing operations in the UK, they will also tell you they have considerable difficulties recruiting and keeping staff.

As to the machine guns, there have also been serviceability problems here, in part due to the heavier rate of use than was originally anticipated.

When it comes to radio equipment, we are talking Bowman here – something of a procurement disaster, although there are other factors. Part of the problem is the speed of technological development and the continually changing demands on such equipment, with the result that, throughout its development, the Bowman project has been plagued with constantly changing specifications.

This is not to say that the MoD is not incompetent, or that there is no underfunding, although it would be hard to sustain a claim that Bowman has been kept short of cash. The project is grossly over-spent. What it does say is that there is often more to an issue than can be explained by a few simple buzz-words. The reality is often much more complex, and the solutions equally so.

Cue, therefore, the second letter, this one from Dan Lewis, Research Director of the Economic Research Council in London. He writes:

It's just not enough to say we need to spend more on defence. We have to get value for money, too. This won't happen until the MoD scraps the civil service's indifference to the costs of procurement in the face of political-industrial pressures. Otherwise, Britain will continue to obtain the wrong equipment, at inflated prices and a terrible cost in service lives.
This was more or less one of the points that Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Tory MP for Bridgwater, tried to make in a Westminster Hall debate last Tuesday, picking up on the upgrade programme for the RAF's Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft – heavily delayed and massively over budget.

Liddle-Grainger questioned why the Comet airframe had been retained, an aircraft they stopped flying commercially, he said, "when I was in short trousers". But the minister, Adam Ingram, had an easy answer. The contract was placed in 1996, he said. "That is something for which I do not have responsibility," he noted, then adding for further emphasis, "I am referring to 1996, a date before the present Government came into office."

That points up another major complication – that procurement processes are now so long that, quite often, they transcend the normal electoral cycle. New administrations have to take on commitments agreed by their predecessors, and then make commitments that have to be fulfilled by their successors. Opposition spokesmen are often compromised because, in office, their parties have been involved in the decisions of which they would wish to complain.

All of this makes military procurement one of the most difficult subjects both governments and oppositions have to deal with, and one of the most difficult to follow from outside the loop.

But now for the good news. Although it has been evident for some time, we now learn that the Conservative opposition, under the Boy Cameron, has set its face against tackling any hard-edged defence issues. Its spokesmen have been instructed to concentrate on the "soft" issues like service family housing, medical facilities and the like. We need no longer be troubled with debates and question on matters like procurement. It's all too complicated for the likes of the Boy.


Wednesday 18 April 2007


Even against the appalling news in Baghdad today, the formal hand-over of Maysan province from British to Iraqi responsibility is still regarded as a landmark.

Although largely symbolic at this stage, with the British presence unchanged, patrolling the border region, it could be taken either way – evidence of a premature retreat by the British, or a reflection of the growing confidence of the Iraqi security forces and, in particular, the Iraqi Army's 10th Division.

Do we know which way it will go? Hardly, but then, does anybody? But, when you see ranks of Iraqi soldiers marching in step, all gripping their flag-staffs the same, regulation way (pictured), it is clear that some progress has been made.

Even (or especially) in this highly technical age, discipline counts for a great deal. The outward manifestations of that are good drill and military bearing – something the Captain of HMS Cornwall might like to reflect upon.

And if you want to argue with that, have a word with the Brigade of Guards.


Tuesday 17 April 2007

Just one little niggle…

We can take a break from the Iran hostages issue, I wrote yesterday. Well, we could, but we won't, not yet. There is just one little niggle …

In his statement yesterday, defence secretary Des Browne offered us some new details relating to the ill-fated boarding party. The relevant (to this post) part of the narrative went as follows:

At 07.53 Cornwall launched two boats, with a Lynx helicopter in support, with the intention to board MV Tarawa, a merchant vessel that had evaded a boarding the day before. En route, the Lynx flew over a different vessel, MV al-Hanin, and reported a suspect cargo. A decision was made to board the al-Hanin. The position was well inside Iraqi waters.

The boarding team boarded the vessel and, at 08.46, the Royal Marine boarding officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to Cornwall. By 09.00 the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes' notice to fly.
Now, the impression gained to date is that the Cornwall boarding party initially set off to inspect the al-Hanin, from which it was then to be seized. But, as we now see, it was actually tasked to look at another one first. From the narrative, therefore, it seems the first time that the MV al-Hanin came to the notice of the Royal Navy was after the boarding party had departed. There would have been no earlier opportunity to film it.

However, on the evening of the 23 March, after the boarding party had been seized, the BBC ran a clip – which was also posted on the website - showing aerial photographs of the MV al-Hanin, obviously taken from a helicopter.

The clip, possibly, could have been taken by the Lynx's on-board equipment, except that the specification for the Lynx Mk8 does not include video surveillance equipment. Nor does the clip look as if it originated from military equipment – you would normally expect to see embedded graticule markings, time stamps and other coding. It looks to be normal commercial video.

From this, of course, stem the questions of when the clip was taken and by whom. Here, we know that there was a BBC camera crew on the Cornwall on the fateful day. We also know that the BBC showed the clip but we originally thought this might be stock footage taken a day or so previously. But, we now think it must have been taken on the day of shooting, by the BBC crew from the Cornwall's Lynx.

As to when it was taken, it seems inconceivable that, after the boarding party had been seized, a BBC crew would have been allowed to travel on the Lynx. In that case the inference is that the film must have been taken before that event. Necessarily, we are led to conclude that there must have been a BBC film crew on board Cornwall's Lynx when it accompanied the boarding crew on 23 March.

That raises some more interesting questions, one of which is that, if the helicopter was carrying a film crew, could it also have been carrying a machine gun?

The most important question though would seem to be whether the presence of the BBC crew was the reason the Lynx turned back to the ship. The BBC correspondent, Ian Pannell, it seems, was due to interview Commodore Lambert that morning, in which case that does suggest a reason for the helicopter's return. The camera crew was needed for the interview.

Looking at the broader issues, we now know that HMS Cornwall was on an extended PR mission for the Royal Navy and the presence of the BBC crew was part of that effort. This raises the possibility that the boarding exercise on the morning of the 23 March was, in fact, set up for the cameras - with LS Turney being included in the party for that very reason.

How horribly ironic it would be if this whole drama arose from a misconceived PR exercise that went badly wrong, especially if, as we are led to believe, Channel 5 might have alerted the Iranians to the Cornwall's presence in the first place.



Three weeks and days, and this blog has been banging on since it happened. Now we have the inquiries, which will be six weeks in reporting, we can take a break from the Iran hostages issue. But, before moving on, we felt we had earned the small indulgence of reflecting on recent events.

There can be no doubt about it – the abduction of British sailors and marines was a major humiliation. It was not, though, a military catastrophe in the manner of the fall of Singapore, when a whole Army surrendered virtually intact to the Japanese, to be led off into slavery, many soldiers never to return. But there are parallels.

As did defeat by the numerically inferior Japanese show up the rot at the heart of the Army – its complacency, poor leadership, bad tactics, inadequate materiel – so too have a clutch of Iranian Revolutionary Guards exposed the rot in the once proud and still powerful – for all the cuts – Royal Navy. We can count our blessings this time that we did not have to suffer the slaughter of thousands of innocents to find out how deep it had gone.

What had the makings of a disaster, however, were the early indications that the Navy was going to set its face against examining its own failures, as a precursor to putting them right. Instead of setting up a formal Board of Inquiry – the minimum necessary to put this in train – it opted for the softer, amorphous "lessons learned" inquiry, which was never going to come up with anything but the most anodyne conclusions.

It says something of the political system in this country that this ploy was seen for precisely what it was, and multiple voices were raised in protest.

What gave rise to the utmost gloom, however, was the "cash for stories" debacle. Right from the very start, it had the potential to drown out the growing clamour for a thorough inquiry on the substantive issue, of why the boarding party from HMS Cornwall had been so easily captured.

It was entirely predictable that the media would be distracted by the soap opera – its venality comes as no surprise. But, while we feared that the opposition parties might also climb aboard this bandwagon in the hope of extracting party political advantage, this was not a foregone conclusion.

A Conservative Party of old – the Party of Margaret Thatcher - would have looked first to the national interest, and put country before party. It was that very guiding instinct which made it so great and so powerful, the natural party of government.

But this is the New Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, a party which he says eschews Punch and Judy politics – and then indulges in them at the first and every opportunity. This is the party that could not see (or did not care) that the Royal Navy was in crisis – and that its fate affected the prestige and the security of our very nation.

It saw in the media-induced clamour attending the "cash for stories" an opportunity for political point-scoring, stoking it up by demanding the resignation of the defence secretary.

Building up what they imagined to be a "perfect storm" in the media over the weekend – but one actually lacking depth, breadth or intensity – these New Conservatives plotted their strategy, in the expectation of walking away from Parliament yesterday with a political scalp hanging from their belts.

It was never going to be – the idea of such an easy victory existed only in their foetid minds, trapped in the Westminster "bubble", long divorced from anything even approaching reality.

Their play collapsed before it had even started, on sight of an advance copy of the secretary's statement. The inquiries proposed were better than we expected and more than we dared hope. The choice of Lt. General Rob Fulton for chairman of the operations inquiry was inspired – rumoured to be the personal choice of the Chief of the General Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, a man who has grown in stature throughout this affair.

Unlike the Iranians, Fulton – a former Commandant General of the Royal Marines and once Deputy Chief of Staff – does not take prisoners. Nor would you utter the word "whitewash" to his face – not if you want to live. He is one of the few men with the seniority, experience and credibility to conduct such an inquiry, yet totally beyond the reach of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band.

The commitment by Browne to deliver the report, unexpurgated, to the House of Commons Defence Committee was precisely the right thing to do, a clear signal that he accepted that it is Parliament to which he is ultimately accountable.

Such subtleties have been lost on the media and, it seems, are totally beyond the comprehension of the former family doctor turned politician, Dr Liam Fox, the man who would be defence secretary. Even now, as he and his tribe drag what comfort they can from partial and partisan press reports, they do not realise quite how completely they have been outflanked by a man they would so sneeringly dismiss as the provincial Scottish solicitor he once was.

In a world dominated by spin, we should at least be grateful that, for once, the system worked. From the tatters of the reputation of a ship of the line, HMS Cornwall, we may yet see something good come. The world is still far from being right. There is much pain and tragedy, even today dominating the news. And there is much to do, with no certainty at all of success.

But yesterday, at least, in one tiny corner of the world, it was a good day.


Monday 16 April 2007

The Browne statement

It all started here on 23 March when HMS Cornwall, known as the "ice-cream frigate" from its F99 pennant number, despatched a mixed Royal Navy and Royal Marine boarding party in two Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boats (RIBs), escorted by a Lynx helicopter. Its task was to inspect an Indian-registered freighter moored in the shallow waters of the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG), not far from the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway, between 8 and 11 miles distant from the Cornwall. It was not to return.

Today, the first available opportunity for him to do so, the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne, made a statement to the House of Commons on the event, and the issues relating to it. If we were to believe the hype, largely whipped up by a Conservative Party opposition looking for political scalps, Browne's job was on the line, wholly dependent on his performance on the day. It was not to be.

"Let me be clear with the House, I made a mistake ... something I profoundly regret," said Browne.

Getting stuck in, he told the House that payments must not happen again. On the capture, the Governor General of Gibraltar, Major General Rob Fulton, Royal Marines - former Commmander of the Royal Marines - is to head an inquiry. It will take six weeks and will be presented to the Parliamentary Select Committee in full. Browne is also asking a small team to look at the media handling, led by an independent figure with wide media experience.

Fox responded, asking some operational questions but, as expected, spent most of his time asking about the media handling. But, he bottled out of asking for Browne's resignation. His position was "becoming untenable", was the best he could manage, suggesting but not demanding a resignation. This was to be Fox's "big moment" but it was empty rhetoric. Browne apologised but the opposition wanted more - it wanted the "S" word. They wanted it, they got it. Browne said he was "sorry". The Fox was shot.

Nick Narvey, for the Lib-Dems, formerly the "opportunist party" came in behind Browne, declaring that the central issue was why the boarding party had been captured - the statesman that Fox wasn't. That was the real issue, he said, not the payment for the stories.

Malcome Rifkind questioned the conduct of the captives and asked whether the Browne was taking action to discover whether the personnel had been given adequate training. Browne responded by stating that all but one of them had been given the appropriate training. But, the view of experts in interrogation was that the captives behaved "well within the appropriate bounds". There was no legitimate criticism to be made of these young people and the way they were opportunisticly exploited by the Iranians, said Browne.

Robert Key stated the real losers of this are the men and women of the Royal Navy, who are hanging their heads in shame. He wanted Browne to confirm whether the Second Sea Lord had tendered his resignation. The answer, which Browne used several times, was: this does not help my accountability to this House.

The view is that Browne has handled the statement well and the opposition have scarcely laid a glove on him. Appointing Fulton was a master-stroke, a man who commands immense respect. No one will be able to complain of a cover-up, and the commitment to give the full report to the Select Committee was precisely right. Parliament is seen to be at the helm.

The full statement is now up on the MoD website. There can be no complaints about the scope of the operational inquiry. It will cover all operational aspects, including risk and threat assessment, strategic and operational planning, tactical decisions, rules of engagement, training, equipment, and resources. On Wednesday, during prime minister's questions, Cameron has nowhere to go.


Unfit for government

Some of our more frequent American visitors must wonder whether they are intruding on private grief, as the thrust of the posts on the Iran hostages drama moves from operational aspects to narrow UK party political issues.

However should the politicians currently masquerading as Conservatives – the Party of Margaret Thatcher – actually achieve power in the next general election, it will be them upon whom the US will rely for its continuing support in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Party that is making the political running over the hostages issue may, therefore, determine the shape of the future alliance.

Why that might concern both US and British citizens is that, as we get to know the Party as it is led by the Boy King, David Cameron, it looks increasingly to be wholly unfit for government – not that we had any doubts right from the start. "New Conservatives – New Nightmare", might be an appropriate slogan.

In this post, therefore, we offer another example of why the Conservatives are unfit – an apparently minor issue but one which is potent in its symbolism and profound in its implications.

The example itself appeared in yesterday's Mail on Sunday claiming that three former minesweepers, converted into patrol boats, were currently mothballed in Portsmouth Harbour. Had they been available in the Gulf, the paper claims, they could have prevented HMS Cornwall's boarding party from being abducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

If the story sounds familiar, that's because it is. We ran it on 3 April after it had been raised in a letter to The Daily Telegraph on the same day. So much for the MSM being on the ball.

The points made, however - in the letter and in the Mail article are spurious. There is no need for three, rather ancient patrol boats – which would need substantial upgrading before they were suitable for operations in the Gulf – when there were already 12 warships in the area, including two British minehunters and the Cyclone-class fast patrol boats.

What is particularly relevant here, though, is that the Mail article cited Tory shadow defence minister Dr Julian Lewis, in support of the point it was trying to make.

Now, Lewis could have said that shortage of patrol vessels was not an issue. Precisely the point we have made above, HMS Cornwall was part of a coalition task force, under the command of a British officer, and there had been – on the face of it – no shortage of vessels. They crucial question appears to be one of how they were (or were not) deployed.

Instead, Lewis used the opportunity to promote the party political line, saying: "The main problem is the massively reduced number of vessels in the fleet as a result of its dogma that numbers do not matter in the age of powerful ships. But numbers do matter, and Gordon Brown's defence cuts mean we do not have significant vessels for duties like this."

Lewis does have a point, of course. It is one which we rehearsed on this blog last June, commenting on information sent to us by a reader on a (then) recent conference. "It is all very well," we wrote

…having the hugely sophisticated and expensive Type 45s, geared to knocking advanced fighters and bombers out of the sky, or massively costly aircraft carriers to support the European Rapid Reaction Force, but much of the Navy's work is in low intensity tasks such MIOPS (maritime interdiction operations – i.e., challenge, board and search potential smugglers) or deterring piracy and other forms of maritime crime. For this, we are told, there is an urgent need for a number of fast, armed patrol vessels.
Those comments look rather prescient now, except that, in May 2005, the prestigious Naval Review published a paper (no link) in which the author deplored the lack of definition of the role for inshore patrol vessels (IPVs). And this was hardly surprising. Then, and now, there were no IPVs on the Royal Navy's inventory. The Jamaica Defence Force is better equipped than we are (the picture shows, ironically, the JDF inshore patrol vessel HMJS Cornwall).

But, while defence spokesman Liam Fox set out his thinking for the strategic role of the Royal Navy in June last year , this was not an issue he mentioned specifically (or at all) and we are not aware of Dr Julian Lewis having mentioned it before either. But the need is there. We cannot always rely on coalition forces.

Yet, the likelihood is that neither of them did because, to remedy a major gap in the Royal Navy's capability, would require a spending commitment – and that is the one thing that Boy Cameron's team is not allowed to do.

Thus we have the familiar Tory opportunism, but possibly ignorance as well – and either would be worrying. But if Lewis did not know the background to the operations in the Gulf, then he is not fit to be the opposition spokesman. And, if he is not fit for opposition, he is not fit for government. Nor is the defence team under the tutelage of Dr Fox, if it cannot commit itself to remedying capability shortfalls in the Royal Navy.