Thursday 31 May 2007

A purely imaginary world

One thing that struck me in the article by Chris Dillow in yesterday's Times - which was one of the reasons I reviewed it - was his comment, "The larger and more authoritarian the organisation, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds."

If we take that to mean that top decision-makers have completely lost touch with reality, then I am absolutely at one with Dillow, certainly as regards the performance of the officials at the MoD's "Specialist and Utility Vehicles Integrated Project Team".

At a time when the infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan is being equipped, as fast as is humanly possible with up-armoured vehicles – including the famed Mastiff (pictured) – in order to protect against the increasing threat from IEDs – what else can explain their bizarre decision to spend around £415,000 each (a cool £7.5 million) on 18 Swiss-built Bucher Duro Disposal and Search Explosives Ordnance Disposal vehicles for deployment in these theatres?

Called "Tellar" by the Army (pictured above), the type was recently described in a gushing puff on the MoD website as, "a state-of-the-art vehicle to help munitions disposal personnel move around safely on operations". They are anything but.

These vehicles are supposed to be designed to attend sites where suspected IEDs have been detected, or where there have been explosions and secondaries are suspected, for which purpose you would expect the very best available protection, especially as bomb disposal officers are often specifically targeted by insurgents.

But not a bit of it. Not only does the vehicle share with the Pinzguaer Vector, the positioning of the driver over the front wheel – in an optimum position to ensure maximum vulnerability in the event of a mine strike or explosion by a buried IED - the vehicles are devoid of any effective armour, being fitted only with "a level of riot protection".

By contrast, the USMC and the US Army provide their bomb disposal teams with the Force Protection Joint Explosive Ordnance Disposal Rapid Response Vehicle (JERRV), otherwise known as the Cougar, on which the Mastiff is based.

Not only is this vehicle actually cheaper than the Tellar (at about £250,000), it is designed specifically to afford protection from IEDs, in testament of which, Cougars have now taken over 2,000 IED hits, with no deaths amongst their crews.

Unfortunately, the "Tellar" is not the Specialist and Utility Vehicles Integrated Project Team's only venture into fantasy. Its input also gave us the Pinzgauer Vector (aka "coffin on wheels") and the absurdly expensive Panther - which is too unsafe to use in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Worryingly, this is the same team that is going to have a key part in selecting the vehicles for the FRES project. On current form, the design/selection team is unlikely to have learned the lessons that the current campaigns have yielded and, if its thinking on the "Tellar" is any guide, this is a group which is actually incapable of learning lessons.

And it is not as if their choices do not kill people – they do. Apart from the debacle with the "Snatch" Land Rovers, it is germane to note that the soldier whose death was so graphically recounted by Telegraph yesterday, was riding in a Viking APC when it was hit by a mine (or buried IED).

Yet this was the vehicle that was deployed in a blaze of publicity last year and then given sustained publicity by the MoD.

Although we were expressing our reservations about lack of mine protection, the media followed the MoD line with their own gushing puffs about the new kit (as they always do). Now, a man is dead because – as was self evident at the time of its introduction – the vehicle had wholly inadequate mine protection.

Returning to Chris Dillow's article, one can thus only agree with his thesis and remark that the officials who are entrusted with supplying our soldiers with kit are indeed living in one of his purely imaginary worlds. It is perhaps appropriate that their main energies should be devoted to FRES, a purely fantasy project.


Wednesday 30 May 2007

How to lose the war

Imagine the effect on morale if, instead of the headline (shown left) proclaiming the invasion of France on 6 June 1944 – and many more like it – the newspapers had run with: "Thousands dead in Northern France – troops slaughtered on the beaches".

Then imagine the newspapers running pictures of the dead, like the one below, zealously totting up the count for every following day – with absolutely no news on how the campaign was going. And how long do you think support for the war would have lasted?

Yet, is not that exactly what our media are doing, with a particularly egregious example in The Daily Telegraph today – straight out of The Independent school of journalism? The paper prints a picture of every single one of the 50 soldiers killed as a result of service in Afghanistan (including those killed in accidents) and then, on the front page, gives a graphic account of how one soldier met his untimely death.

Then the paper has the absolute gall to print a commentary (down page of course) from Con Coughlin, headed, "Now we must stiffen our resolve" - stunning in its platitudinous banality.

"The latest British military fatality in Afghanistan," writes Coughlin, "the 50th since Britain committed its forces to the country's troubled Helmand province a year ago, will inevitably raise questions about the value of persisting with this seemingly intractable mission." Too right it will – the paper made absolutely sure of that, lovingly recounting the deaths of those individuals.

As we remarked in an earlier piece, this is not journalism. It is war tourism, a grotesque example of voyeurism, exploiting the deaths of brave men, simply to fill the space in a rag which still has the temerity to call itself a newspaper.

And the irony of that title is right there in the front page piece, when the paper reports: "There was also frustration that the conflict in Afghanistan registers little with the public." Its author, Thomas Harding then cites a soldier from 1st Bn Royal Anglian Regiment, saying: "This is a war, a proper war but no one back in the UK wants to know."

I have news for that soldier – we do want to know. But the media doesn't. It wants to fill its pages with tat and trivia, in the guise of news, paying attention to the war only when it has bad news to report, indulging its own morbid fascination with death and destruction.

But, if the media stands accused, an even worse offender is the MoD website, which gives reports of soldiers' deaths absolute priority, topping the page with initial reports and then obituaries.

Balanced only occasionally by reports of the activities of our Armed Forces, and their increasing successes, often badly written in the style of a second-rate PR release, the site takes on the aspect of a vast, official obituary column.

One can only observe that, if the media and the MoD between them want to lose the war on the home front, these cretins are going the right way about it.


Sunday 27 May 2007

Occupying the high ground

Not a week goes by now without some media speculation that Gordon Brown is poised to withdraw British forces from Iraq. First it was The Times, then – last week – it was The Sunday Telegraph and, this week, it is the turn of the Sunday Times defence correspondent, Mick Smith.

He is retailing the fears of unnamed (as usual) "senior army officers" that Gordon Brown is going to cut the number of troops in Iraq to such a low level that their effectiveness is jeopardised and lives are endangered. They say, or so Smith tells us, it is clear Brown is preparing to speed up the pull-out to draw a symbolic line under the Blair era.

Against such speculation, however, there are consistent denials from "sources close to Brown", but that would only be expected even if the intention to withdraw was firm policy.

On the other hand, what might be a more reliable pointer to Brown's intentions is the report from DefenseNews that the Army is about to take delivery of a "small number" of US-built fixed-wing surveillance aircraft.

These are King Air 350ER special mission aircraft (pictured), superbly well-equipped with electro-optical surveillance equipment, ground monitoring radar and a highly sophisticated communications package. They will replace the Army Air Corps Defender aircraft and, at an estimated £14 million each, represent a massive enhancement to Army aviation capabilities.

The point here, of course, is that these aircraft are primarily intended for deployment in (relatively) benign airspace, which means they are tools specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations. It stands to reason, therefore, that Brown – as chancellor – would hardly be authorising such expenditure if he intended to cut short Britain's deployment in Iraq.

Furthermore, the expenditure does not stop there. Rather than wait for the completion of the Watchkeeper UAV programme, not scheduled to begin deliveries until 2010, replacing the disastrous Phoenix UAV, the Army is deploying a new fleet of Elbit Systems' Hermes 450 tactical UAVs, purchased as an urgent operational requirement.

With the reported extension of the MPPV programme and other as yet unannounced equipment programmes, the indications are that the British government has been re-framing its procurement priorities and is showing a new commitment to fighting (and winning) its counter-insurgency campaigns.

Clearly unaware of this, The Times's Mick Smith records the woes of (another) unnamed officer, who complains that, "We are sitting ducks and have very little in the way of resources to react … If we mount an operation to deter a mortar attack it takes an entire battle group and ties up all our people … Any further reductions in numbers would leave British troops hanging onto Basra by our finger tips".

Smith believes that this danger has been illustrated this weekend by continuing battles between British forces and fighters from the Mahdi army militia. These follow reports that British and Iraqi forces killed the Basra commander of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army on Friday, after al-Sadr made a re-appearance in Iraq the same day.

But our man neglects two things. Firstly, the initial action was carried out jointly between British and Iraqi forces – with the British acting as "advisors". This would seem to confirm the growing confidence and capability of the Iraqi 10th Division, reducing the need for the direct involvement of large numbers of British troops.

Secondly, while, in the past, it has been necessary to field full battle groups to carry out even quite minor operations - such as the extraordinary operation last December, where tanks, armoured vehicles and 1000 men were deployed to capture five "terrorist leaders", these operations have been conducted without the high-tech capability that is now becoming available.

With better real-time intelligence and the other equipment that is coming on stream, and the support of the 10th Division, such mass raids – never desirable for the message they send out – will be less necessary than they were. The Army will, at last, have acquired the capability to fight "smarter".

From a political stance, this is going to have even more interesting implications. The Conservatives, to date, have relied entirely on their mantras, "overstretch" and "under-resourcing", to focus their attack on the government. But, with none of the current programmes officially announced, Brown, on assuming office as prime minister, is going to be able to unveil a significant increase in defence spending – all of it off-budget, representing real money – and a significant enhancement in capabilities.

Unless they are more astute than they have so far been, it looks as if the Opposition is going to be wrong-footed, leaving Brown occupying the political high ground on an issue which has, traditionally, been occupied by the Conservatives.


Thursday 24 May 2007


According to the Conservative Home blog, 65 percent of the 1,519 Conservative Party members who took part in the April survey of ConservativeHome readers said that defence was deserving of a higher proportion of public spending.

This is exactly the same blog which, last year – reflecting Tory policy - complained of inadequate resourcing of British forces in Afghanistan.

Now, cut to yesterday's (22 May) written answers to defence questions, in which Tory MP Ann Winterton asked for the acquisition costs of the RAF operated Merlin Mk 3 transport helicopter, and the hourly operating costs.

It turns out that the acquisition cost is around £19 million and the total operating cost per hour is approximately £34,000. This figure include both fixed and marginal costs, comprising servicing costs, fuel costs, crew capitation and training costs, support costs and charges for capital and depreciation.

On the other hand, there is Russian-built Mi-8MTV – the high altitude version with more powerful engines for improved "hot-and-high" operation – with westernised avionics and systems (pictured). It is available for hire, off the shelf, complete with experienced, ex-military crews, for an all-in price of £2,500 an hour. It has exactly the same load carrying capacity as the Merlin (4 tons or 26 troops).

If you need something bigger, there is the Mi-26, the largest production helicopter ever built, capable of carrying 20 tons or 80 troops. It is also available for hire, again complete with experienced ex-military aircrews, for an all-in price of £6,000 per hour.

Both helicopters are famed for their rugged construction and their ease of servicing, actually making them more suitable for the punishing environment of Afghanistan (for which the Mi-8MTV was specifically designed) than the highly sophisticated Western helicopters.

So, do we spend £34,000 an hour to operate each Merlin helicopter (which are so expensive that they are restricted from operating in high risk environments) or do we spend the same amount of money operating 13 Mi-8s (with change) or five Mi26s? And if we use the Merlins, can we really complain that the military is under-resourced?


Wednesday 23 May 2007

Of donkeys in uniform

If the news coming from defence correspondent Thomas Harding in Lashkah Gah, via The Daily Telegraph, is at all accurate – and there is no reason to believe it is not – then we may have turned the corner in Afghanistan.

That much was hinted at by Anthony Loyd in The Times last March, about which we were duly sceptical. But what Harding is telling us is that the Taliban's much-vaunted spring offensive has stalled. This is apparently due to lack of organisation after dozens of middle-ranking commanders were killed by British troops in the past year.

After suffering more than 1,000 dead in battles with the Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines in the last year, the Taliban retired to regroup and re-equip last winter. A spring offensive was ordered by the Taliban leadership based in Quetta, Pakistan, and was meant to be launched in late March – but since has not materialised.

Says a "military source", a lack of mid-level commanders has meant that there has been little co-ordination to bring about the offensive: "They are getting strategic guidance from Quetta but this is not translating on the ground." Says the same source, "It's a bit premature to discuss the Taliban as a spent force. I believe that they are struggling but still maintain a capability to carry out attacks on a daily basis. But I would suggest in the long term the Taliban may just peter out."

But if British Forces are experiencing a welcome success, then it seems it is in the main due to the much derided "platoon house", policy of placing small detachments of troops in remote locations, acting as a magnet for insurgents, who subjected them to continuous attacks.

At the time, there were complaints that the policy was driven by political imperatives rather than military strategy. The platoon houses had been occupied only as a result of requests from President Karzai and Governor Daoud, who wanted British forces to hold north Helmand," endorsed by the British government. Yet, as Brig Ed Butler was later to admit, going into the platoon houses had the "unintended consequence" of defeating the Taliban, tactically, in north Helmand.

However, contemporary reports indicate - it was a close run thing and, for a time, it looked like we might be losing.

It was at that time that stories of equipment shortages in Afghanistan had been dominating concerns, with tales of the enormous difficulties in resupplying the isolated platoon houses, primarily because of the shortage of helicopters.

It was largely this that led to the "platoon house" policy being brought precipitately to a halt at the end of last September, when British commanders sought a truce in Musa Qala and a withdrawal of our troops, only to have the area reoccupied by the Taliban.

On this blog, we have tended to focus our criticism on the equipment front, although, here, we ventured into a critique of tactics, and were highly dubious about this retreat, seeing it as another example of the lack of aggression on the part of the Army.

Amongst those who applauded this move, though, was Times defence correspondent Mick Smith who wrote at the time, in September 2006 that "the whole policy of putting troops into remote outposts in the north … have provided graphic evidence as to why politicians should not interfere in the business of soldiering."

But, by February of this year, then Nato commander, British Army General David Richards, was forced to admit 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."

What is now emerging is that this defeat was achieved largely in spite of, not because of, the efforts of senior Army commanders who had opposed the "platoon house" policy from the start. Thus, rather than enthusiastically committing their forces and – crucially – calling for more back-up, they were refusing to transmit requests for more troops and equipment up the chain of command and, moreover, refusing offers of external assistance.

Ed Butler, for instance, had been offered the services of experienced ex-military pilots flying giant Russian-built Mi-26 "Halo" helicopters (pictured above) which could have completely resolved his supply problems, releasing military helicopters for operations. But so lacking in enthusiasm was he about the idea that he did not endorse it. When the news of the offer was then broken by the Telegraph and other media, it was presented in such a negative way that, without the endorsement of key senior military officers, it was never progressed.

Fortunately, by the time Butler and Richards got their way and the retreat from Musa Qala had been brokered, the damage to the Taliban had already been done – the extent of which was then unknown. Yet, while Nato forces have subsequently been able to exploit this situation, the herd memory of the period is one of stumbling and incompetence on the part of a government that was not in control of events and letting down our troops.

The full story on this has yet to emerge but we were getting hints of obstruction and inertia by factions within the military by last February when we wrote a piece indicating that things were not entirely as they seemed. As that time, we wrote that, 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, as more details come available, this seems more true now than when we wrote it.


Tuesday 22 May 2007

War tourism

A startling picture leaps out from the front page of The Guardian today, showing an inverted Bradley MICV, in the aftermath of what is evidently a massive IED strike. In a ghastly incident which parallels the loss of a British Warrior in early April, six US soldiers and an interpreter died in the blast which was of such force that it was able to flip the 30-ton vehicle on its back.

One cannot help but feel, though, that the Guardian's front page story owes its position more to the accident of photographer Sean Smith being on hand at the time of this incident, than it does to the intrinsic merits of the story. If that is the case, we are effectively seeing a grotesque example of voyeurism, "war tourism" at its very worst. Furthermore, the newspaper is exploiting the deaths of these soldiers and their interpreter, to make political capital, reinforcing its anti-war stance by publishing graphic images.

If there was a story that warranted the use of the picture (and the others published on the website, it is a very different one that the newspaper sought to tell. It is one only hinted at in Sean Smith’s account of the ambush, where in one sentence where he writes: "You can't patrol that area with Humvees - it's too dangerous. So the troops enter in heavy vehicles and then do foot patrols, visiting houses."

What we are effectively seeing in this picture – where the real story lies – is the result of the long-term failure of US procurement policy (and military thinking) where the response to IED attacks was initially to up-armour their kit and then to use heavier armoured vehicles like Bradleys. The result was entirely predictable and is only now being addressed with the urgent implementation of the so-called MRAP programme. And, as the sequence we used in an earlier piece shows, these vehicles are extraordinarily resistant to even huge blasts from roadside bombs.

The fact that the British forces are making exactly the same mistakes is something that should concern our media, but it is something it has never addressed, with left-wing newspapers like The Guardian more concerned with taking a pop at the Americans, while the right wing press largely ignores the war unless it affords an opportunity to score political points against Blair.

Because there is no shortage of criticism of the Americans, we on this blog have not felt inclined to add to the volume. But the failure of the coalition forces to equip their troops properly for this type of war is something which is of more general interest and should be of widespread concern.

However, of equal concern is another dimension, of which we have also hinted, a disturbing failure to use the resources available in theatre, or their uncoordinated use, which means that they are not having the effect that they should.

What brings this to the fore is my absence from the blog yesterday, a day spent in London interviewing a remarkable man, soldier and aviator who has spent much of his long life fighting in small wars and who currently acts as a consultant to those who will listen – including the CIA – and will pay his fees.

This man, incidentally, has spent much time in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and some of the information he volunteered was indeed disturbing. In his travels throughout the region, he saw many occasions of equipment being available to deal with insurgent actions, which was not used, or used wrongly simply because the soldiers on the ground did not understand its use or the correct tactical deployment.

One specific example – of many – serves to illustrate the point. He saw, for instance, the huge power of the Apache gunship fleet being used for routine patrols of vulnerable areas, even though contact with the insurgents was rarely made. On the other hand, when their base was mortared, as it was quite frequently, the ships either stood idle or, if they were deployed, a 20-minute response time was considered to be a rapid reaction.

The point, he told me – self-evident to anyone who gave it half a thought – was that the insurgents would never strike while there was a gunship in the air, in their vicinity. They could not win against such raw firepower and so would stay concealed until the aircraft had long departed, and then strike. And, in the event of a 20-minute "rapid" response to a strike, they had long gone.

Yet, thirty years ago, he had personally confronted exactly the same tactics in the African bush, when forward bases were routinely targeted by hit-and-run mortar teams. Fail to respond, he said, and the problem gets worse, so the policy was to respond to every strike.

To do so, they had flights of four aircraft at permanent readiness, not the super technological Apache gunships, but six-seater French-built Alouette III light helicopters, each carrying a stick of four troops, and its own gunner manning a machine gun. Their response time – Battle of Britain style – from the start of an attack to being airborne, was two minutes, fast enough to catch the insurgents in the act and deal with them.

As to the IED problem, they too had to deal with this threat and, by the end of their campaign – despite the insurgents using heavier and heavier ordnance, he said it was very rare for a military patrol to suffer casualties in a strike. This we pointed out in an earlier post and it is the techniques and equipment which were pioneered then which are only just now being introduced into the Iraqi theatre.

Turning to the destruction of the Bradley, which The Guardian so graphically recounts, it has to be said that such incidents are preventable with existing technology and effective tactics.

Measures start with satellite monitoring, high altitude electronic surveillance from aircraft platforms, and low level monitoring by UAVs and light surveillance aircraft. On the ground, you have such equipment as the Meerkat mobile electronic mine detector, which we discussed here, the Buffalo mine clearance vehicle, which is used to such great effect, and the back-up EOD patrols in their superbly designed JERRV Cougars, complete with bomb disposal robots.

Now, there may have been good tactical reasons why this particular Bradley was sent into what ended up a fatal ambush – and, indeed, why our Warrior met with a similar fate. This we do not know, but we do know that the essence of ground warfare doctrine is that you never send your forces blind into unreconnoitred ground. And we also know that both British and US forces have to means available to carry out highly effective sweeps (or would be given it, if they asked for it), to protect our troops from ambush.

Thus, while we do not have the knowledge of the incidents to be able to second guess or criticise local decisions - and nor could we – we are entitled to ask questions, even if we don't always get answers. More to the point, if we had a sensible and responsible media, they would be asking the sort of questions we have been asking, and they might come up with the same disturbing picture we are getting.

But that would take so much more work and thought. It is much easier to get a quick, cheap thrill out of publishing a picture of a destroyed armoured vehicle, in which good men died, in an incident which, for all we know, could have been prevented.


Sunday 20 May 2007

Leave it to the experts?

It was on 30 April when we reported that the MoD had expressed an interest in ordering a further 180 of what it termed the "Medium Protected Patrol Vehicle" (MPPV) – the specification very similar to that of the Force Protection Cougar, deployed by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on which is based the British Mastiff.

Although the favourite seems to be the Cougar, with a contract value of between £20-100 million, however – and the prospect of repeat sales - it was only a matter of time before other military builders started sniffing around in the hope of securing the order.

One such, according to Jane's (subscription only) is the British specialist vehicle contractor MacNeillie, which has rolled out the prototype of its new Military Armoured Carrier System (MACS). The company has confirmed that it will enter this vehicle for the British Army requirement for the MPPV (pictured).

The vehicle is based on the German Mercedes-Benz Unimog 4 x 4 cross-country chassis (as is the German Dingo II) and, although the company is new to military vehicles, it claims considerable experience in protecting vehicles, having developed the armoured body for 60 Pinzgauer 6x6 protected vehicles supplied to the Royal New Zealand Army several years ago.

Looking at the photograph (above left) provided by the company, however, it is immediately apparent how vulnerable the vehicle would be to mines and IEDs. To protect against these, however, the company offers additional V-shaped armour panels to fit under the belly.

What the company does not seem to appreciate, though, is the nature and severity of the challenge confronting vehicles in Iraq, shown by this extraordinary sequence of video-grabs from a training film made by Iraqi insurgents, designed to familiarise their fighters with the US fleet (see 4.34 minutes into the film).

The sequence shows a 6x6 Cougar driving along a street in an unnamed location, whence what is clearly a huge bomb is detonated alongside it, lifting the front of this 22 ton vehicle clear of the ground. The "grabs" cannot do justice to the shock of such a huge explosion, which completely envelopes the vehicle in flame, the brightness of which momentarily blanks out the video.

However, as the flame subsides, we see the Cougar emerge, seemingly intact – at which point the film is cut and sequence repeated. The impression the insurgents wish to convey is that their bomb has destroyed the vehicle, but we are not allowed to see the aftermath. This is a typical insurgent ploy, the same film showing several protected vehicles hit by bombs, with the films being cut just after the detonation.

On the basis of the most recent information from the manufacturers, though, none of the crew were killed. The company claims that, with their vehicles collectively having served over 100,000 days in Iraq and Afghanistan – taking over 2,000 IED hits - no-one has been killed in a Cougar. So far, only three soldiers have died in a Force Protection vehicle. This was in a Buffalo, last December, after a strike from an explosively formed projectile.

This does rather justify the Army's decision to add side armour to the Mastiff (about which we were more than a little sniffy). But it should also make purchase of the MacNeillie vehicle wholly unacceptable, as indeed should have been the purchase of the highly vulnerable Pinzgauer Vector.

The ultimate irony about this whole business though, is that, as readers will recall, when it comes to the Cougar, the British were there first, have purchased in 2001, eight "Tempest" Mine Protected Vehicles, on which the Cougar design was based.

We are reminded of this by the discovery of an article in Stars and Stripes, dated 1 September 2004, announcing the order of new vehicles to protect US Marines. This was the first order of the Cougar.

But what compounds the irony is the photograph accompanying the article (shown right), to illustrate the type of vehicle being bought. But this is not a Cougar, and nor is it American. It is, in fact, a Tempest, in British Army colours, based in Iraq. But, although available from 2003 onwards, the vehicles were never used for the purposes to which the Americans subsequently put them, with such great success, and they were eventually returned to the UK (where one was seen in 2005), from where some have been redeployed to Afghanistan.

When it comes to force protection, therefore, it seems a tad unwise to leave every aspect of the safety of our troops to such outfits as MacNeillie and Pinzgauer, or even the MoD – a timely reminder that the "experts" do not always get it right.


Monday 14 May 2007

Defence questions

And so the fortnightly Monday ritual came around again in the House of Commons today, that of Defence Questions, where MPs have the opportunity to question ministers on topical issues relating to – you guessed it – defence.

Today, as always, was a mixed bag, but there were some interesting questions on the security situation in Iraq, which are worth a separate post. We'll do that, probably tomorrow. But there was also an interesting procurement question from the energetic Tory MP, Ann Winterton, about the Army's light helicopter fleet. She asked:

What plans does he (the minister) have to replace the current Gazelle fleet, and will he consider the purchase of light assault helicopters to fill the capability gap, bearing it in mind that the 40 Future Lynx aircraft that are due to come into service in 2014 will replace more than 200 aircraft from the current Gazelle and Lynx fleets? Does he acknowledge that there will be a huge future shortage of capacity, and what will the Government do to fill that?
It was the minister of state who answered this one, Adam Ingram, who – predictably, gave a less than complete answer. But then that is to be expected. The oral question game is as much about putting things on the record and registering an interest of concern, as it is trying to elicit answers. Anyhow, Ingram answered thus:

Clearly, we must define what that future shortage is; it must be well defined. We then have to define what the procurement strategy should be to fill that gap and make sure that that which we procure has durability and utility over the longer period. The reason why I am giving that answer is because procurement is not simply about saying, "Let's take it off the shelf and stick it out into theatre." I know that the hon. Lady understands that. I will provide her with a written response to the detailed points she has raised so that she can have the best understanding of how these matters are progressing.
Behind this simple, and cordial enough exchange, there is a major issue brewing. Much of the attention on military helicopters has been focused on lift capability, and the shortage of troop and store-carrying helicopters such as Chinooks and Merlins. But light assault, or more specifically, light utility helicopters (LUH) are a different animal entirely, and we are running into serious trouble in this respect.

Firstly, though – the type itself. Light utility helicopters – typically carrying 4-6 passengers (sometimes more) – are an important part of Army aviation. They perform diverse roles, from observation, forward air control and reconnaissance, to light attack (armed with machine guns, unguided rockets, and even guided anti-tank missiles). In a counter-insurgency role they are invaluable for escorting convoys and over-watch on patrols.

They can insert small numbers of troops into the battlefield – and extract them – and can then support them with observation and direct fire, and have a vital casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) function. They can carry out limited supply missions and also perform a useful air-taxi role, transporting personnel when roads are not safe, or routinely – especially VIPs. They can be, and often are, used as trainers.

Now, the current machine in Army Air Corps service is the Gazelle. This is a French-designed helicopter, created by the company Sud Aviation, which later became AĆ©rospatiale and later still Eurocopter (a Franco-German-Spanish group which is now a Division of EADS). It originated in a French Army requirement for a light utility helicopter and the design was adopted by the British. A total of 292 were built by Westland Helicopters, in a deal signed in February 1967, the aircraft coming into service in 1973. In other words, the type has been around for 34 years. By 2005 (the latest figures we have available) there were 127 machines in the inventory.

In British service, the aircraft have been used in combat in the Falklands, in Kuwait, Kosovo and in Iraq (Gulf War I). It was also used for air patrols in Northern Ireland. British Gazelles were only armed when used in the Falklands, where they were fitted with machine guns and rocket pods, but these were not used.

They are not currently used in either Iraq or Afghanistan and are unsuitable for operations in hostile theatres. Although their performance is good, especially in hot and high condition, they are extremely vulnerable to ground fire (even small-arms) and do not lend themselves to armouring. Crash survivability is poor – certainly not up to modern standards – and the avionics and communications equipment is now substandard.

As such, the Gazelle fleet is in the process of being phased out and disposals have already taken place. The final phase out is scheduled for 2018.

The crucial issue thus is that, unless a replacement is sought, pretty quickly given the time military procurement takes, there will be a serious capability gap. In fact, because of the unsuitability of the Gazelle, that gap already exists, because it is not being used in active theatres.

However, the only proposals from the government so far, to fulfil that gap, is a project known as the Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH). As far as is known, though, this project is intended only to replace the Lynx - and there appears to be no specific (or any) replacement scheduled for the Gazelle.

Furthermore, according to a Written Answer on 16 October 2001 by Lewis Mooney, BLUH was "planned to enter service from the middle of this decade and to have replaced the current Lynx by the early years of the next." This is the "Future Lynx" programme, but that only amounts to 40 helicopters for the Army, and initial deliveries are not due to start until 2011. The type will not enter operational service until 2014 with the British Army, and will replace (currently) over 100 Lynx Mk7/9s.

Thus, effectively, the only forward plans so far declared by the British government amount to replacing over 200 machines (Gazelles and Lynx) with a mere 40. Clearly, we are stacking up for a huge shortage of capacity. Furthermore, at an average £14 million each, the future Lynx is an enormously expensive machine, whereas a LUH, typically, can cost a "mere" £3-4 million.

Possible Gazelle replacements are the MD 900 Explorer and the Eurocopter UH-145 (which has actually been ordered by the US Army as the winner of its light utility helicopter competition). The US-built Eurocopters, however, are not intended for the battlefield – rather, they are to be used in "permissive" environments, primarily to take the pressure off the Blackhawks, which are designed for combat use and can thus be redeployed.

However, with added armour kits and defensive equipment, the UH-145s (and indeed the MD 900s) can be modified for battlefield use, and would prove a valuable asset from our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for which we have been arguing for some time.

Everything takes such a long time in politics, but at last the issue is on the agenda.


Warfare state to welfare state

"We grumpy people, perpetually outraged by the stupidity and deceit of our rotten rulers have (whisper it gently) had rather a good 60 years."

So writes the "brilliant" Andrew Marr in an extract from his book, given a prominent puff in The Daily Telegraph today, one sentence in a wodge of otherwise unreadable prose under the heading, "The myth of our decline".

From this we are, one presumes, supposed to deduce that, not only can things only get better, but that they have got better. For this we must be eternally grateful, although not, as Marr will aver, to our leaders.

Actually, there is no doubt that things have got better in some respects, not least in our standard of living and creature comforts, but it is the human condition to take all that for granted. Instead, we focus on our discontents and, invariably, harp back to some golden age when things were so much better.

In that, the preoccupation (one, at least) of this blog is the deterioration of the media, its descent into venality, its concentration on the trivia and its neglect of a vast swathe of issues which we consider important.

Nevertheless, it was almost certainly ever thus. When researching newspaper coverage of the sixties and seventies, for instance, one was struck by how little reporting there was of the events which led to the emergence of what is now the European Union. And, fascinated as I was by the US struggle in Vietnam during the same period, I recall to this day being frustrated not by how much but by how little sensible, routine coverage of events there really was.

A golden age, therefore, there never was and, in terms of the availability of information, if the past is to be measured against the present, it is in the here and now that we have never had it so good. Not only do we have 24-hour news channels and all the main newspapers online, we have access to the agency reports (on which most of the media rely) and a vast range of current and archival material, all available at the click of a mouse (or touchpad, if you prefer)

However, there is one issue where the deterioration is real, and measurable – not just some figment of the imagination – and that is in defence. More specifically, defence procurement, the purchase of the machines of war on which, in times of armed conflict, we rely for our very survival.

In coming to this conclusion, we can actually turn to evidence, unclouded by rose-coloured spectacles, not least from a remarkable academic in Manchester's UMIST university, a man who has made his speciality the study of the history of technology. In his book, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970 and an online essay (145 pages) England and the Aeroplane, which addresses some of the same themes, he recounts how procurement decisions for some key weapon systems, both before and in the decades immediately after the Second World War, were a central part of the mainstream political debate.

Certainly, this is not the case now. From what Edgerton calls a "Warfare State", we have now shrivelled into an inwards-looking welfare state, unconcerned with those issues on which our longer-term survival may well depend.

In this context, the capabilities of our Armed Forces rest entirely on the equipment they are given and, in turn, foreign policy and many other options that we can exercise, depend on those capabilities. Therefore, defence procurement, as our forebears were well aware, is no dry, academic subject, but a vibrant, massively important issue which will shape our futures – and one which we neglect at our peril.

That is why we have followed so closely the serpentine twists and turns of the biggest ever Army procurement project in living memory, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), about which recently we have posted two pieces. The importance of this project cannot be over-emphasised. Not only is it hugely expensive, having increased over a mere two years from £6 to now £16 billion, but it will shape the bulk of our future Army and, thereby, define its capabilities.

Those with longer memories, however, will recall a piece we posted in May last year when it was being mooted that one of three existing platforms might be suitable as the basis of the FRES vehicles.

Although it has since been decided that there is no suitable off-the-shelf platform, the existing vehicles lacking development potential, there is every indication that the basic design parameters for our vehicles will not be dissimilar. This is of very great significance as one of those existing platforms is the Piranha, on which is based the US Stryker armoured personnel carrier, itself being used as a model for the future warfare for which FRES is intended.

About the Stryker, though, there has been recent and disturbing news which might give the FRES planners cause for considerable thought. As reported a AP, a string of heavy losses from powerful roadside bombs has raised new questions about the vulnerability of this vehicle.

We are told that, since the Strykers went into action in violent Diyala province north of Baghdad two months ago, losses of the vehicles have been rising steadily. A single infantry company in Diyala lost five Strykers this month, in less than a week. In one of the biggest hits, six American soldiers and a journalist were killed when a huge bomb exploded beneath their Stryker on 6 May. It was the biggest one-day loss for the battalion in more than two years.

The Stryker's vulnerabilities, says AP, have become increasingly apparent since a battalion of about 700 soldiers and nearly 100 Stryker vehicles from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division was sent to Diyala province in March to bolster an infantry brigade struggling to restore order there.

Trouble started as soon as the Strykers arrived in Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala. US commanders ordered the vehicles into Baqouba's streets at dawn the day after they arrived. The hope was that the large, menacing vehicles would intimidate insurgents and reassure local residents.

Instead, insurgents hammered the Strykers with automatic weapons fire, rocket-propelled grenades and a network of roadside bombs. By the end of that first day, one American soldier was dead, 12 were wounded and two Strykers had been destroyed.

Losses have since mounted. A few days before the attack that killed the six soldiers and a Russian journalist, troops scrambled out of another damaged Stryker and took cover in a house while they watched the vehicle burn. Several of them were injured but none seriously.

Lt. Col. Bruce Antonio, who commands a Stryker battalion in Diyala, says some insurgents had found "the right mix of explosives and IED positioning to inflict severe damage on the vehicle." He also noted that tanks had proved vulnerable.

The insurgents also apparently are becoming better at hiding the devices — the IED that killed the six soldiers and the journalist was believed hidden in a sewer. To add potency, insurgents surrounded the device with cement to channel the blast force up into the vehicle.

Now, returning to the politics of this issue, the exact the point we were raising in our most recent piece was whether the type of (very expensive) equipment we are considering - as represented by the Stryker - is at all suitable for counter-insurgency operations.

Before going any further with the FRES project, therefore, there should be a very frank and open discussion about what sort of operations we intend the Army to handle in the foreseeable future. If the focus (and the main thrust) of operations is to be counter-insurgency, then the equipment we need to buy will be very different from that which will we need for conventional, high intensity warfighting and that which seems to be under consideration for the FRES project.

Unless we are going to decide that we will be fully equipped for both roles – which will require a considerable increase in defence spending – we must start making very serious and important choices.

This is where, of course, we do need media engagement and where, in this very specific instance, things have not got better, and show no signs of so doing.


Sunday 13 May 2007

Run out of town?

Even if he has missed the much bigger story, one must, at least, compliment the The Sunday Telegraph’s Sean Rayment on his "scoop" today, reporting on what appears to the first successful use by Iraq insurgents of the Russian-made RPG-29 anti-tank weapon (pictured) against a British Challenger 2 tank, in August last year.

The weapon breached the armour of the Challenger, deployed in al-Amarah, and blew off part of the foot of the driver, Trooper Sean Chance. It also injured two other crew, although not seriously, it appears.

Reyment, however, couches his story in terms of, "MoD kept failure of best tank quiet," and his story focuses on "failings with the tank's armour".

To that effect, he gives space to Trooper Chance's mother, telling the newspaper that her son had been told that the Challenger was the best in the world and essentially impenetrable to any weapons the insurgents possessed. She is cited as saying that: "Sean often told me he felt totally safe because he was in the best tank in the world. But we now know that is not the case. The government has covered it up."

Indeed, the government may have been covering up, but on a much more serious issue than simply the damage to one tank.

The clue is in the timing. That time last year, the presence of the RPG-29 in theatre had long been rumoured. We ourselves reported on it in April last year, four months before this incident occurred, when we stated, "there is every possibility that it could also be used against British troops, who have no effective defence measures against the weapon."

And, in August 2006, there were a number of discussions on the internet about the weapon, not least here, while we were also pointing out that tanks were far from safe in counter-insurgency operations.

Rayment makes great play of the fact that the weapon may have penetrated the Challenger's explosive reactive armour (ERA) yet, as many technical sites will attest, that is precisely what the RPG-29 was designed to do. For instance, the effectiveness is demonstrated here, and here we read:

The RPG-29 grenade launcher has been adopted by Soviet army in 1989, and it is intended to defeat most modern tanks, fitted with ERA protection… The PG-29 HEAT grenade has a tandem warhead and a rocket booster with eight folding stabiliztator fins at the rear. With this design, the smaller front warhead is intended to set off the ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) block from the safe range, and then second larger warhead strikes the hull of the tank…
However, from his very first paragraph, Rayment's first aim is to make a case that the MoD is misleading us, by referring to the more recent event when a Challenger was damaged by an IED. In this context, he writes:

The Ministry of Defence had claimed that an attack last month that breached a tank's armour was the first of its kind in four years of war in Iraq. But another Challenger 2 was pierced by a powerful rocket-propelled grenade.
But, that that IED attack was "the first of its kind" was indeed that case – the first time a Challenger had been breached by an IED, as opposed to an RPG. Furthermore, when the media finally woke up to the incident, that was, in the main, how it was reported.

The Independent, for instance, wrote: "It was the first time a Challenger has been damaged by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) during British operations in Iraq," while The Guardian wrote: "It is the first time a Challenger has been damaged by an improvised explosive device in this way."

Only the The Daily Telegraph had it different, citing an MoD spokesman saying: "This was the first successful attack on a Challenger 2, it's the first bomb to have damaged it."

And there, in his narrow-minded pursuit of the well-worn theme of "equipment failures", Rayment misses the much bigger story - the much bigger failure. Here, we know that, when the attack occurred last August, al Amarah had acquired the reputation of the "badlands", and British troops were under constant, heavy attack.

It was also at the time of the height of the "Snatch" Land Rover controversy, and a number had been lost in al Amarah. In June of that year we had reported on an account of operations in la Amarah from the Regimental Journal of the King's Royal Hussars. Based on this account, we wrote:

From this emerges that the current tactics adopted – unwittingly – are brutal and primitive. Quite simply, the troops are told to patrol their areas in lightly armoured Land Rovers until one or more of them are blown up. Then the Land Rovers are withdrawn and replaced by Warriors and Challenger tanks, until it is deemed safe to resume patrolling in Land Rovers again.
Thus, by earlier that year, there was a situation where it was only safe to patrol in Warriors and heavily armoured Challengers and then, in August, a Challenger gets hit by an RPG-29. Had news of that incident leaked out at the time, it is safe to assume that the media would have gone into a frenzy: not only were "lightly armoured Land Rovers" not safe, even our most powerful tanks were at risk.

Instead, the MoD kept quiet and, later that same month, in what seemed at the time, considerable haste, the British Army quit its base in al Amarah, leaving it to the mercy of the militias.

So, rather than the wholly unconvincing explanation to date (more here), was the appearance of the RPG-29 in al Amarah the real reason the British quit? Was the British Army so spooked by the appearance of this more powerful weapon - and was the MoD was fearful of the media reaction - that it cut and ran? Thus, did the insurgents run us out of town, simply by deploying an advanced anti-tank weapon?

I think we should be told.


Friday 11 May 2007

FRES is dead – long live … er?

Now there is a headline you'll never see in The Sun - a line guaranteed to have your reader move on to pastures new, and especially our "toy-phobic" constituency.

But, back in the real world – the one where our government spends increasing amounts of money for very little return – the MoD has published its response to the Defence Committee's report on FRES, provoking a press release from the Committee which, sadly, has about as much hope of getting space in the nation media as a weather report from Outer Mongolia.

With not a little justification, the Committee feels it is vindicated by the response to its main charge, that there have been delays in delivering the Army's new armoured vehicles. Not least, the MoD has not sought to deny that we are looking at 2017 before we see the first tranche of vehicles in service.

But the real show-stopper, buried in the MoD report is an admission, for the first time, that keeping the weight of the new vehicles down is not the main priority, in order to allow air-portability, and that protection has the higher priority. Thus says the MoD:

The question of the relative priority of force protection in theatre and air deployability has been resolved. Whilst both are important, protection in theatre is a higher priority than air deployability by A400M/C17.
Initially, the weight limit was set as 22 tons, allowing transport by the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules, then it was upped, with the proviso that vehicles could still be transported by the Airbus A400M, which is expected to form the backbone of the RAF's tactical transport fleet. But now, the MoD is conceding that not only is transport by the A400M not a priority, it is even prepared to rule out the possibility of transport by the bigger C-17 Globemaster transports, which are capable of carrying 65-ton main battle tanks.

All this is brought about by the operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Warriors and even Challenger tanks have succumbed to the theatre scourge – the IED, and where protection from the RPG is also at a premium. And, to counter both weapons, the MoD is conceding the need for increased levels of protection.

This is precisely the conclusion the US forces have drawn and defence secretary Gates is seeking to expedite the delivery of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, now aiming to phase out the entire armoured Humvee fleet. In the meantime, their own FRES equivalent, the Future Combat System (FCS), while not actually cancelled, has been quietly put on the back burner.

As for FRES, although the name remains, the concept is effectively dead. The original idea was to trade weight for high-tech surveillance and communication systems which would allow the enemy to be detected before it got into range. This would allow it to be taken out by long-range, stand-off weapons, dispensing with the need for heavy armour.

Now, the armour takes priority and we are effectively to get a new series of medium/heavy-weight vehicles which will amount to little more than an upgrade of existing vehicles like the Warrior.

The original concept, though, was vital for the emerging rapid reaction forces, enabling military forces to be flown rapidly to trouble spots, complete with its equipment, without having to wait for sea lift or overland transport. Effectively, therefore, the whole idea of airborne rapid reaction forces is also under threat. In time, we may even be able to say goodbye to the European Rapid Reaction Force.

The political implications of this are, to say the least, interesting.


Tuesday 8 May 2007

Ignore the good news…

Written with all the vibrancy and excitement of drying paint, the MoD have at least posted a report of a successful raid in Basra, on the day it actually happened – complete with a video.

One of the most notable successes, says the report, was the capture of a criminal gang leader who has been involved in the extortion, kidnap and intimidation of the local Iraqi population. His capture was secured by the Yorkshire Battle Group, comprising of soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment and 38 Battery, 40 Regiment Royal Artillery. This particular gang leader has also been linked with IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks on MNF vehicles transiting along the main supply route throughout the south-eastern area of Basra from Kuwait.

That itself is interesting as it suggests that insurgents who are targeting British troops are also involved in other criminal activities, directed at the Iraqi population. There has been much made of the fact that, in Basra, much of the violence is directed at the Army, with the suggestion that, if it withdrew, the violence would subside. More likely, it would seem, it would simply be redirected at the civilian population.

Notable in the video, albeit scarcely recognisable when viewed through night vision equipment, is the Mastiff protected patrol vehicle. This vehicle formally started operations on 1st March in Iraq, and it is good to see it in use – in perhaps a context where, either Snatch Land Rovers, or Warriors, might have been used.

Speaking of Mastiffs, there has been much excitement, albeit in the business press, about the £2.25 billion bid by BAE Systems for Armor Holdings in the United States.

This company, which makes body armour for US forces and armour kits for the Humvee, also manufactures armoured cabs for the range of tactical vehicles manufactured by Stewart and Stevenson, a company BAE Systems bought last year.

It was always the case that BAE Systems, having dumped its shares in Airbus, was going to be looking for another acquisition in the US defence sector, and Armor Holdings is seen as a prime catch, potentially increasing BAE's America's share of sales to 42 percent.

However, what the press have missed is that this is something of a consolation prize as it was known that BAE was also sniffing round Force Protection Inc, which makes the British Mastiff and the Buffalo and Cougar vehicles used by US forces. However, this company seems to have resisted BAE's blandishments.

More to the point, with an active programme of Humvee replacement, by these armoured vehicles, some of the cash that might have come Armor Holdings' way will now go to companies like Force Protection. In some senses, BAE Systems is buying into a declining business.

As if to demonstrate the popularity of Force Protection products, Canada is to buy five Buffalo, and five Cougar 6x6 vehicles for Afghanistan – all to deal with mines and IEDs. According to Defense Industry Daily, there are reports that a request for more vehicles was blocked by the USMC due to the priority of its own re-equipment programme.

Interestingly, the Canadians are also buying six Husky mine detection systems (details here and here), a system which is led by the extraordinary-looking Meerkat.

This itself is a linear development of the remarkable Pookie produced by the Rhodesians in the 1970s to deal with mines laid in the liberation struggle. It is also the type of equipment which could be used to detect buried IEDs of the type that so recently wrecked a Warrior and killed five of its occupants, and damaged a Challenger tank, badly injuring its driver.

Acting together, the Meerkat/Husky, the Cougars and the Buffalos have proved a potent counter-measure against buried explosive weapons and one wonders why the UK has not also considered purchasing this equipment.

Anyhow, none of all this need trouble the media, or the opposition politicians who (with honourable exceptions) can ignore the good news and avoid mentioning anything that would make our troops' lives easier and safer.


What if we won, and nobody noticed?

There comes a point when there is so much to write about that inertia takes over. Unable to prioritise, the moment you start one piece, the mind nags that you should be writing on something else, and so on, until you end up writing nothing.

Such is nearly the fate of this blog – with so many issues to cover and so little time – we are conscious that we give little coverage to many areas which, we would be the first to agree, are of great importance.

The great antidote to inertia, however, is obsession, and it is that which drives this piece, building on the ruminations posted yesterday about the treatment of defence issues in this nation of ours.

What struck home of all the comments (both on the forum and sent privately) was the observation that very few British blogs had linked to or commented on the Michael Yon post, even though it had featured, in a very favourable light, British troops.

This is in marked contrast to the US blogs, which (rightly) regard Yon as something of a folk hero, but it also points up a glaring contrast between US and UK politics.

In the US, you have the Global War on Terror (GWOT) being prosecuted by a right wing Republican administration, and opposed by the left wing Democrats. Thus, the fault line falls naturally between left and right.

In the UK, however, the war is being prosecuted by a left wing (ish) government, whose natural supporters are temperamentally ill-disposed towards the war and, in fact, form the basis of the anti-war movement. On the other hand, the right wing, as (supposedly) represented by the Conservative Party, should be the natural supporters of military action.

However, since it is being prosecuted by Tony Blair, and any success in either the Iraqi or Afghanistan campaigns would reflect well on him – and, by default his Party – they are not so much opposed to the war as not wanting to see success.

We therefore have a situation where nowhere in the spectrum of British politics is there any champion of the current military actions. Both sides (as well as the Lib-Dems) want to see the actions fail, the left wing so as to support their demands for withdrawal, the right for the political advantage it would bring.

It is this commonality of interest which is being reflected in the media, but with subtle differences. The left wing press is openly anti-war, pro-withdrawal, while the right wing simply presents the actions as a growing mess, talking up the "quagmire" and equipment failings. Although primarily directed at the government, it nevertheless ends up with both left and right singing from the same hymn sheet.

This, of course, explains why the Michael Yon piece would get no attention from the right wing blogs. Because it shows British troops in a good light, being successful, it does not fit the narrative. The blogs will highlight the failures (perceived or otherwise) – as indeed does the right-wing media – while ignoring any successes or good news, thereby presenting an unremittingly negative picture (with a secondary narrative of "Our Boys" struggling gallantly against all the odds, and the neglect of their political masters).

In this context, it is interesting to read a trans-Atlantic perspective from Victor Davis Hanson in Pajamas Media today. He argues that, despite the political fluff:

…we are left in the end with the verdict of the battlefield. The war will be won or lost, like it or not, fairly or unjustly, in the next six months in Baghdad. Either Gen. Petraeus quells the violence to a level that even the media cannot exaggerate, or the enterprise fails, and we withdraw. For all the acrimony and hysteria at home, that in the end is what we face — the verdict of all wars that ultimately are decided by the soldiers, and then either supported or opposed by the majority at home with no views or ideology other than its desire to conform to the narrative from the front: support our winners, oppose our losers. In the end, that is what this entire hysterical four years are about.
He may be right, but that may also only apply to the US, where at least the nation is aware that it is at war, and the military actions – for better or worse – are fully reported.

But, in the UK, such is the grip of the left-right consensus, that reporting is minimal and, as we observed, unremittingly negative. This side of the pond, therefore, we could actually find ourselves winning the war, and no one would actually know. The hold of the MSM, with the support of the politicians and their groupies in the blogosphere would simply fail to report it, or "spin" it in such a manner that victory – Tet Offensive style – becomes a defeat.

The worst of this, though, is that it is an abnegation of the national interest – and the duties of the opposition. Whether you agree with the invasion of Iraq or not, we are there and we have responsibilities to the Iraqi people for a mess which we were instrumental in creating. It is also vital to the national interest that, when we do withdraw – which is what we all want – we do so with honour, leaving a stable nation behind.

In that context, the role of the opposition – as indeed we have observed before – is to harry and provoke the government in doing a better job, a strategy which, in more normal times, would reap its own political rewards.

But this is not what Cameron has in mind. The strategy is to present the government sinking into an ever-deepening mess in the hope that it gets such a bad name (not that it actually needs much help) that even the previously unattractive Conservatives look electable. Power is the name of the game. If that means abandoning the people of Iraq, the good name of our Armed Forces and the national interest, so be it.


Monday 7 May 2007

Taking the war to the enemy

Michael Yon has written another superb piece on the activities of British troops in Basra (and promises another) – this one on an operation against IED layers.

What comes over are several things. Firstly, the British troops are still suffering an unacceptable level of indirect fire on their bases; secondly, there is clearly a more aggressive policy in place in Basra, with the Army more willing to root out and attack bomb layers; thirdly, the use of air cover providing real-time surveillance and the use of (newly delivered) artillery.

In the long piece, what comes over most, though, is the skill and professionalism of our troops. This is something to be proud of – and it clearly indicates that, given the right tools and the political back-up (there are some indications that rules of engagement have been changed) then we can take on the terrorists and win.

This is an essential read - if the MoD had any sense, it would put a link up to Michael's site on their own website.


We're still asking

Thank goodness for my co-editor who provides a diet of stories which balance this blog, without which it would end up looking too much like a defence blog – which it is not.

With our name, EU Referendum, however, the emphasis on defence issues, looks at first sight, anomalous, except that there are valid reasons for it.

Firstly, in the annals of European integration, defence – together with foreign policy – has always been one of the key policy areas through which the "colleagues" have sought to progress from economic integration to a "political Europe", on the way to becoming the United States of Europe. Defence, therefore, is and always has been at the forefront of the battle for integration and needs close attention. (It is a measure, incidentally, of the failure of the Eurosceptic movement that it has failed to understand this.)

Secondly, we are looking to our wider brief, which we took on board after the French and Dutch referendums – "To discuss issues related to the UK's position in Europe and the world".

In this context – although you would scarcely know it from the broader political discourse in this country – we are a nation at war, battling on two overseas fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only does the perception of Britain, by our international friends, allies and foes alike, rest a great deal on how we perform in these wars, but – in the longer term – so does our own perception of ourselves.

While there is a great deal of domestic agitation about early withdrawal – from Iraq, at least – with burgeoning anti-war movements, few people, it seems, have given much thought to the effect of an early withdrawal on our domestic situation, where such withdrawal can be characterised, rightly or wrongly, as a defeat by the forces of militant Islam.

Apart from the hurt to our national psyche, which rightly holds our Armed Forces in great esteem, it would give a massive boost to the morale of the forces of evil within our own society, and quite possibly embolden those many people in the UK who are thinking about committing terrorist acts. Arguably, therefore, in order to prevail on the domestic front, we must win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That said, one of the most insidious aspects of this society of ours is its failure to acknowledge that we are a nation at war. Whether the politicians at Westminster, the media, or the population at large, all are, in the main, continuing in the "business as usual" mode, with the life and death actions of our Armed Forces in their respective theatres consigned to the margins.

Particularly loathsome in this context is the media (we have almost given up on the Westminster politicians), which seems to treat the conduct of the war as a sideshow, affording the opportunity to paste in copy recounting the "derring do" exploits of "Our Boys", very much in the style of the "Boys' Own" comic of yore.

On the other hand, the manifest – and frequent – failings of the MoD allow the media to treat it as a whipping boy, or as a political football, giving the opportunity to score points off the opposition and generate cheap knocking copy.

In that context, one must turn, briefly, to the Mick Smith article in The Sunday Times yesterday, an analysis of which we posted on the same day. Unusually, the MoD posted a rebuttal on its website and, for once, it was right to do so. The Smith article was a classic example of the cheap shot, and typifies much that is wrong with modern defence journalism (and journalism in general).

In the report to which Smith referred, was in fact an example of the Army actually doing quite well with a difficult situation, one faced by all the Western Armies engaged in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one to which there are no easy solutions.

More than anything though, the story represented the tendency of the media to go for the "quickie" story, based on one document, or whatever, without any depth, research or analysis. What Smith could have drawn from the document was that the Army is faced with a massive problem of maintaining equipment in aggressive and hostile environments, in what has turned out to be long, drawn-out campaigns.

That, in turn, could have led to a series of articles on whether the Army, and the Armed Forces in general, have the right equipment, and what equipment is needed for these campaigns. But no, Smith had to go for the quick and easy, cheap shot, distorting the context of the report to get his story.

What that points up in turn is the lack of strategic thinking and the lack of intelligent debate in the newspapers – we see more of that in the letters columns. Yet, that is where the media, and especially the defence correspondents, could lead, as did Liddell Hart in the period leading up to the Second World War.

For want of any sensible comment from this source, this blog, for better or worse, has emerged as one of the leading public forums of debate on defence issues - which is seriously worrying. We are by no means experts on the issues involved, yet we seem to be outguessing the experts and raising issues which defence establishments have failed to address.

What this short essay does, therefore - written on a lazy Bank Holiday afternoon when nothing much is happening - is raise several pleas. To our own audience: bear with us. In our view, defence is one of the central political issues of the new millennium and needs all the attention we can give it.

Secondly – a plea to a wider audience that will not be heard – we are at war which, in the longer term, is vital for our survival. It is, as we wrote earlier, far too important to be left to the generals and, unless there is a wider debate as to the nature and conduct of that war, there is a good chance we will not prevail.

Thus, way back in October 2004, we were asking: "Where is the debate?" We're still asking.

The pic, incidentally, courtesy of MoD, shows Bulldog Mk3s in convoy in Iraq. This is one of the particularly inventive improvisations commissioned by the MoD, to deal with the growing intensity of the conflict in Iraq. It is one largely unrecorded by the Media.