Saturday 30 June 2007

The Saturday "toy"

This half of EU Referendum went AWOL today, exhibiting the fine judgement for which this blog is famous by going to an air show at RAF Waddington - in the pouring rain.

Nevertheless, we managed to get a good shot of an RAF Chinook HC2 doing a wheely down the main runway. Made a change from blogging.

Enjoy (click the pic to enlarge - copyright waived, if anyone wants to nick it).


Monday 25 June 2007

Are they insane?

Just when you thought this site had become a "toy" free zone and it was safe to come back – wham! A "toy" post with a vengeance.

There is, however, no levity here. Once again, on a day when we are also reading reports of another roadside bomb in Afghanistan, killing and maiming solders in a Snatch Land Rover, we have to record the utter stupidity of the MoD, which seems determined to put troops in harm's way, with inadequate protection.

The proximate cause of our ire is a report in yesterday's Mail on Sunday headlined, "The 80mph 'Mad Max' monster targeting the Taliban".

This, in the usual gushing, uncritical style of idiot journos, talks up a "four-ton monster truck" which is supposed to be "the British Army's new weapon designed to take on insurgents on the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan."

It is, we are told, the British-made, the Supacat Weapons Mounted Installation Kit (now renamed the Jackal - ed) which "boasts awesome firepower which will be unleashed early next year," adding, "British and other Nato troops are being targeted by roadside bombs and daily firefights."

Yet, although we are told that, "Infantry soldiers have complained existing Land Rovers provide insufficient protection from the bombers," the one thing that struck commenters on both the Mail site and the Army forum was the lack of protection.

Inspection of the photograph does suggest that there could be a modicum of mine protection, in that the front wheel arches do seem to have angled armour, but the position of the gunner is still extremely exposed – dangerously so – yet 130 of these contraptions are to be sent to Afghanistan, where mines are a serious problem.

Yet again, as with the Pinzgauer Vector and the Duro we see this insane obsession with putting drivers and crew over the front wheels, in the centre of the cone of destruction, where they are at their most vulnerable. As the picture shows, of an ordinary Land Rover which survived a mine strike, the crew would be better off in that type of vehicle

Just when we thought we were getting through to the MoD, with its purchase of the Mastiffs, which are turning out to be highly popular with the troops, we then get this regression to type.

One wonders whether these fools have ever seen vehicles which have taken mine or IED strikes (above) and, if so, why they are so willing, it seems, to send troops to their certain deaths.


Thursday 21 June 2007

"Little Europe" told to think again

For those that are interested, one of the premier international air shows is under way, the Paris Air Show. For those that aren't, this is a venue where all sorts of interesting announcements and statements are made.

Not least is one, reported by The Financial Times by Bob Stevens, chief executive of Lockheed Martin, the world's biggest military contractor. Warning against the attempt by European governments to build a joint defence industrial base to counter US dominance, he told them their ambitions were "unaffordable" and that they encouraged "more protectionist elements".

He added that it made sense for European countries to harmonise military equipment needs, but warned that attempts to establish an industry with a distinct European identity were a "step backwards".

This was in response to a drive by the member states of the EU, through the European Defence Agency, to set up a strategy for a European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (DTIB), which was announced by the EDA in May of this year. It was described at the time as "a fundamental underpinning of Europe's security and defence policy", setting in train "a series of practical steps to achieve their vision of a more integrated and competitive future."

Emphasising the political framework of the venture, Javier Solana, the Head of the EDA – and putative EU foreign minister – told the launch press conference that, "We must have a shared view of which are the priority capabilities, which are the key technologies for our future and which are the vital industrial capacities we must develop and retain in Europe."

Stevens, at this week's Air Show, said he welcomed such moves but was troubled by some of the language in the EDA strategy, including arguments for "lessening Europe's dependence on so-called non-European sources for key technologies", a statement aimed directly at the US. "We need a global industrial base and a global supply chain to make sure we have access to the best technology," he said.

This statement, of course, can be dismissed as the action of a US defence conglomerate trying to defend his own turf. However, also announced at the Paris Air Show was a decision by the French government to equip its Hélicoptère d'Appui Destruction (HAD) Tiger attack helicopter fleet with the Hellfire II missile system, built by Lockheed Martin.

This is in preference to the European collaborative project, the Trigat LR which was initiated in 1988 between France, Germany and the UK, specifically to develop a missile to equip the Tiger helicopter. Belgium and the Netherlands joined the consortium as associate members 1989 but, in July 2000, the UK was forced to withdraw from the programme, after the missile failed to perform. It lost £205 million in the process. The UK was followed in the September by the Netherlands.

The French decision to buy the Hellfire, therefore, amply illustrates Bob Stevens's warning. Consistently, in the high-technology defence stakes, European defence industries have failed to deliver, while the US is spearheading multiple new technologies (and developments of existing technologies) which are leaving the Europeans floundering.

The dangers of the "little Europeans" pulling up the drawbridge on "fortress Europe" and reinventing the wheel with a European label, therefore, is one to which Stevens is right to draw attention.


Monday 18 June 2007

Why we need helicopters

Now boarding at...

A Mi-8 helicopter from Skytech Helicopters, making a routine pick-up in Afghanistan. £2,500 an hour, for the same load-carrying capability as an RAF Merlin helicopter, which costs £34,000 an hour. (Click the pic to enlarge.)

More next door.


Saturday 16 June 2007

Going for the cheap shot

The Daily Telegraph has a very short memory, to judge by its leader today, which proclaims: "Soldiers in Afghanistan need more helicopters".

While no-one will dispute this, the very journalist who wrote the piece to which the leader refers – the paper's defence correspondent, Thomas Harding – also wrote another piece in October last.

That, as some of our readers may recall, we ourselves featured in a post, much later in May this year, pointing out that it was this story – and the negative connotations it raised – which was instrumental in killing a deal that could have ensured that the Army was given as many helicopters as it needed, flown by senior, experienced ex-military pilots.

We are, of course, referring to the Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters, some of which to this day are still standing idle on the concrete at Charleroi Airport outside Brussels, helicopters which are available – as we reported - at a fraction of what it costs to run the current military transport aircraft.

It was not, of course, only the Telegraph that killed the deal – nor even the unhelpful interjection of the Tories, in the same article – but also institutional inertia within the MoD, plus active blockage by both Army and RAF brass, who regard the war as their own private fiefdom and resist to the last fibre of their being any outside agency which might threaten to show up their own inadequacies.

Thus, while Harding is absolutely right to report that there is still a chronic shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan (and Iraq, for that matter), the paper is wholly wrong to frame it in the simplistic terms presented in its leader. In fact, it is down right irresponsible.

The framing is, as those who have read the leader already know, wholly political, putting the onus on prime minister Tony Blair, who "promised last year that the Army would be furnished with whatever equipment it needed." Given that he took the decision to deploy British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is rather shocking, says the paper, that such a promise even had to be made. "And it is outrageous that it has not been kept."

But, as we have recorded elsewhere everything the Army has formally requested, through the official mechanism of the Urgent Operational Requirement, it has been given. Even, in some instances, the Army has been given kit it has not asked for.

The problem is – and is well known to those in the business – that there are blockages in the system. The MoD is not a homogenous entity; like every big organisation it is riddled with factions and in-fighting, and different branches have their own agendas.

Much the same goes for the military and, in this context, there is a long-standing lack of enthusiasm on the part of the RAF towards Army support. At one, there is no champion in the RAF for helicopters yet, on the other hand – dog-in-the-manger style – the RAF refuses absolutely to hand over heavy rotary wing assets to the Army Air Corps.

These are real issues. They are long-standing (going back to the Second World War and before) and have a real impact on the operational efficiency of our forces. Thus, if instead of taking the easy route, and making cheap political shots, The Telegraph got off its pompous backside and invested in some real journalism, we might all be better off.

That said, there is a hint of understanding in the same leader we criticise, where it is noted:

There is, it is true, a long tradition of British troops on the ground putting up with inadequate resources rather than whingeing. That reflects credit on them. The same cannot be said, however, of some service chiefs, who have appeared reluctant to bring bad news to an image-obsessed Prime Minister.
There is a grain of truth in that second sentence. It is well known now that some careerist generals have deliberately not asked for kit, where they have felt that "sticking their neck out" might not be a career-enhancing move. It is those generals who, as much as anything, are part of the problem.

On other issues, Harding nevertheless makes some good points. Despite even recent enthusiasm, he is starting to question the wisdom of using Viking APCs, noting that, "there have been dozens of mine strikes in the last month, including one that killed Cpl Darren Bonner in the back of a Viking." Commanders, Harding writes, "are critical that not enough effort has been put in to counter the threat."

But this again is down to the MoD, and the Army between them. Military equipment is not specified by politicians but by the technical branches and the Service chiefs. And we can see now the mess they are making of the FRES programme – they have been making similar messes all along.

However, where has the media been – to say nothing of the opposition parties? Even the Financial Times picked up the mine threat last November and this blog had been "banging on" about it for so long that we can scarce remember when we started (although we gave it a thorough airing here).

So on it goes. We can't take the whole Harding piece apart (it is too long) but we note his complaint that only 14 Warriors are being sent to Afghanistan. If he is half the journalist I think he is, he will take the time out to find out precisely why so few are to be delivered to theatre, who precisely tried to stop those being deployed and who, in the final analysis, insisted that they were sent. If he gets to the bottom of that, he has an award-winning scoop.

Equally, we note his comments on combat engineers being forced to drive in a lightly armoured trucks carrying a heavy load of high explosive, highly vulnerable to even a single RPG round. Yet, since the Telegraph thinks this so important now, why wasn't it interested in those MoD cretins who specified unarmoured vans (and extremely expensive ones at that) for bomb disposal officers?

What all this points to is that there are very serious problems in the MoD and in the military generally, which need addressing. But what the Telegraph has done is go for the cheap shot and, while what Harding writes is true, it is disjointed and taken out of context. The impression given is that the whole system is in chaos, and that troops are very seriously at risk.

That is not the case. There is good and bad, and although the MoD is its own worst enemy when it comes to PR, it is actually sustaining an effort in Afghanistan that is delivering results. On that basis, if it came to a choice as to whether the MoD or The Telegraph were doing their jobs better, with enormous reluctance, I would be inclined to go for the MoD.


The Saturday "toy"

Any which way you cut it, the MoD has problems, not least as this Saturday's "toy" is the Ministry's idea of "world class equipment" – the WIMIK Land Rover. We beg to differ.

Nevertheless, that is the photograph it offers on its website in a piece headed: "Equipment and logistics vital to Afghan mission", with the caption as follows:

Tough, manouevrable (sic) and bristling with firepower; Lance Corporal Ali Procter drives the WMIK with Private Robin Prins on Grenade Machine gun providing top cover and Lance Corporal John King on heavy machine gun [Picture: Andrew Linnett]
The lame bastards can't even spell manoeuvrable and, as for the "grenade machine gun", it is a Automatic Lightweight Grenade Launcher, while the "heavy machine gun" is a GPMG - very much a medium machine gun. As for the WIMIK being manoeuvrable, that also is debatable.

Despite this low grade drivel, the opening passage of the piece tells us that, "World-class equipment and top-rate logistics are playing a vital part in helping British troops bring stability to some of the most hostile parts of Afghanistan."

What is really terrifying, though, is the thought that the cretins whose bright idea it was to put such a lame, self-serving propaganda piece on the MoD site actually believe what they have posted or – perhaps even more terrifying – they think people reading it might be taken in by it.

No doubt, these same cretins have read this morning's Daily Telegraph over their decaffinated coffee and croissants, from the comfort of their Surbiton semi-detached residences, and are already constructing a polished rebuttal for the website.

Watch this space … we are seriously pissed off.


Friday 15 June 2007

What is that vehicle for?

In this second of our two part piece, answering the Lord Drayson's response to our posting on FRES, we address some of the issues he raises.

Diving in at the deep end, we find common cause with the child who pointed at Lord Randolph Churchill when he was campaigning for election and said, "Dearest Mama, pray tell me what is that man for?" In like manner, to Lord Drayson, when he writes, "I am sure you agree that it would make no sense to invent a new vehicle from scratch," we would say, that rather depends on a similar question: "what is that vehicle for?"

To answer that question, however, begs an even bigger question: "What is the Army for?" Military equipment is nothing if not functional, designed very specifically for its designated functions, so the suitability of the vehicles he has selected for evaluation as the potential FRES utility vehicle can only be assessed once we know what we want the Army to do.

The possibilities, in fact, we have already rehearsed, ranging from high-end warfighting to policing activities not very different from those carried out by civilian forces.

Assessing what the Lord Drayson has in mind, though, is not easy – he does not tell us directly and offers few clues. But he does tell us that the new vehicle must be deployable by the A400M and the larger C-17.

That actually tells us that he does not intend it to be used for high-end warfighting. Such a role requires, above all else, Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) working together with the types of vehicles he has in mind. The tanks are not air-portable and to have one component transported by air, while the other goes by sea, simply does not make sense.

On the other hand, such expensive and sophisticated vehicles would hardly be procured simply for low-level policing so, by the process of elimination, he must have a function between the two extremes in mind. But what?

An obvious use is the sort of counter-insurgency roles at present undertaken by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan – or in future campaigns like it. To that effect, Drayson argued that the idea that FRES will be less well protected than patrol vehicles such as the Mastiff – specifically designed for counter-insurgency - is wrong, on which basis we can assume he intends a counter-insurgency role.

Here, what the noble Lord claims is distinctly arguable. One of the major threats in Iraq (which will, no doubt also materialise in Afghanistan) is the large, buried IED. Protection against this weapon is not just a matter of the strength of armour, as design.

Without penetrating the armour, a large bomb can impart huge g-forces on the occupants of a vehicle, which can snap their necks and thus kill them instantly. Protection is gained by employing the v-shaped hull, which deflects the blast and minimises the forces, making this an essential element of any vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations.

None of the three vehicles he has chosen for the FRES evaluation embody this feature, and two – the VBCI and the Piranha – definitely do not offer any significant protection from underside attack.

For the Boxer, however, significant claims are made for enhanced protection, the hull being described as being "designed to beat blast mine attack by shaping blast away." Additionally, we are told, a double-lined hull soaks up critical blast deformation.

That said, no quantitative data is offered to support claims made and, therefore, no judgement can be made as to the protection offered relative to vehicles like the Mastiff. Against that proven design, and the fact that the MoD lauds the protection offered by the Pinzgauer Vector – which is minimal – any claims made of equivalence must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Given that the Boxer might at least offer some protection from underside attack, Drayson nevertheless does not take on board my observation that what he has chosen are basically fighting vehicles. They do not offer the visibility and ride comfort of a vehicle needed for long duration patrols, or convoy escort which is the core of counter-insurgency work.

Turning now to what is a main theme of the noble Lord, he takes to task my claim that "the three candidate vehicle designs the MoD has selected have already been rejected by the Army as 'lacking development potential'". That, asserts Drayson, is simply not true:

We have always been clear that a current Off-The-Shelf vehicle would not meet out needs. But the vehicles we have chosen are not Off-The-Shelf vehicles. They are designs which are currently in development to provide new models within existing families of vehicles.
He then goes on to say that "the trials this summer take proven vehicles, and evolve them to the next level to have the capacity, mobility, ability to upgrade through life, and, above all, the level of protection the Army need." In other words, they are "Off-The Shelf" vehicles, but the MoD is considering customising any finalist so that, by the time it is issued to the Army, it will no longer be an "off-the-shelf" version. Readers can form their own view of the noble Lord's argument.

Rather than now follow a line-by-line analytical approach, it might be more profitable to look at a recent article in DefenseNews which records Dannatt warning "industry and others" that the Army will not tolerate further delays to the introduction of FRES. He is cited as thinking at one with Drayson, both wanting a decision on a winning vehicle by 30 November, with fielding by 2012. "We'll take the best [vehicle] we can get" in that timetable, Dannatt is reported as having said.

This puts a somewhat different complexion on the competition announced, suggesting that the driver is no longer the search of the optimum equipment, but an impatience to get a vehicle – any vehicle – into service as fast as possible. This does not suggest a considered procurement programme, nor even a Service that knows what it wants. The Army might as well buy these (right).

DefenseNews also offered the intriguing morsel that Dannatt considered FRES needed a rebranding and a new name, this being interpreted as an oblique reference to the fact that "the Army might be adjusting its thinking regarding the effectiveness of rapid effects in today's expeditionary environment." Whatever FRES once was, it seems it is no longer, having morphed into something different, the nature of which we know not.

Where that actually leaves us is impossible to say. As we see it, the Army – via the Lord Drayson – is embarking on the purchase of extremely expensive vehicles of unknown performance, for as yet undeclared roles, to meet vague threats, all against a specification that seems to be changing with greater rapidity than the "effects" they are supposed to be delivering.

Thus we finish as we start. We do need a serious debate on FRES, recognising its importance to the future of the Army. But that debate should be shaped by an answer to the simple question, "what is it for?" And good place to give that answer would be during a full debate in Parliament, dedicated to the subject of FRES.


Thursday 14 June 2007

The blogosphere comes of age

In what is a first for this blog, and probably a first for the British blogosphere, a serving minister has directed his department to make a formal response to a blog posting. This can be seen on our forum and is also posted on the MoD website.

The minister is Lord Drayson, defence procurement minister (centre of the picture), and the subject is our posting on FRES, which we published on 8 June in response to the announcement by the minister on the selection of three contenders for the FRES utility vehicle.

Such considered intervention deserves an equally considered response, the first part of which is here. I will deal with the specific, technical and related issues in a second post.

Firstly, then, on this day, the 25th anniversary of the Argentinean forces surrender to Major-General Jeremy Moore on the Falklands Islands, effectively ending the Falklands War, it is important to put this exchange in perspective.

Imagine, if you will, that when news of the Argentinean invasion had reached London, the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had turned to her Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals and been told, unequivocally, that the military had neither the resources nor the capabilities to retake the islands.

That the military was able to launch a task force and eventually prevail – albeit on a wing and a prayer – was, in the final analysis, entirely due to thousands of decisions (good and bad) made by a myriad of serving officers and officials, approved by ministers and sanctioned by Parliament, all under the generic title of "defence procurement".

Without at least the basic kit, no amount of bravery, skill, commitment and dedication would have made the difference. We could not have recovered the Falklands. Think how that would have changed the history of this nation of ours.

A crucial point here was that most of the procurement decisions (and mistakes) were made years in advance of the event, in the absence of any definite prior knowledge of the specific threat, aimed in general at providing the Armed Forces with capabilities that would enable them to deal with the unknown.

So it is now. In the post-Soviet era, when hitherto the bulk of the our ground forces were committed to northern Germany in support of Nato, equipped and organised to deal with the threat of a Soviet land invasion, the Amy has to meet new, known and unknown threats, which may not materialise for ten, fifteen or even twenty years. And it is the decisions which are being made now, in terms of procurement and structure – the two being intimately linked – which will determine whether the Army will be able to meet those threats.

Here, we should be under no illusions. If today's decision-makers get it wrong, there could come a time in the future when a prime minister does turn to the military for a solution, only to be told that the capability does not exist – that the equipment provided all those years ago is simply not up to the job. Troops committed to the field would be either ineffective or, at worse, slaughtered.

That is the context of FRES – the Future Rapid Effects System. This is much, much more than a simple re-equipment programme. It embodies a complete restructuring of the bulk of the Army's fighting force, a redefinition of its tasks and the evolution of entirely new tactical doctrines. It is as General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said (quoted on the MoD website): "at the heart of the future Army."

Now to the beef. While decisions related to FRES must, of course, be taken with the full involvement of the Army and the many technical services, they are too important and too far-reaching to be left solely to them, and the defence ministers directly involved. They are essentially political decisions and should be made only after the fullest debate, by politicians in both Houses of Parliament and in the public domain, the latter requiring the wholehearted engagement of the media, as only it can marshal a public debate.

There lies one of the most abject failures of both the political system and the media. Despite the importance of the issue, neither the government nor official opposition benches have thought to give time to debate this issue specifically. It has been left to one back-bencher, Lady Ann Winterton, to hold a Westminster Hall debate, attended only by herself, a hapless minister and the usual coterie of paid officials.

For sure, there has been a Defence Committee investigation – but one which did not look at the principles on underlying concept of FRES and which thus failed abysmally to perform its function.

When it comes to the media, the dereliction is equally evident. Quick to leap on real and imagined deficiencies of existing equipment in current use, the media has shown no serious interest in this major equipment programme. Its specialist defence correspondents (the few that remain) have been silent and the media in general has stood on the sidelines.

Yet, in years to come, politicians and media pundits will be among the first to criticise any deficiencies in equipment that might be deployed in some future field of conflict – full of hindsight and wisdom after the event. Of them, however, one might then ask, where were you when it mattered?

Thus it is that it has been left to this blog, and the staunch support of Christopher Booker in his Sunday Telegraph column – a newspaper within a newspaper – to raise the debate. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Drayson that he has responded to it. He too must share the frustration that vital issues of national security are given such short shrift.

And, as you might expect, we agree with some of the points he has raised. With others, we profoundly disagree. We will deal with these in Part II.


Monday 11 June 2007

Another unnecessary death?

It should not pass without comment that the latest soldier to die in Afghanistan, Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, was riding in a WIMIK Land Rover. His vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.

Four other soldiers were injured, although it is not clear whether these sustained their injuries as a result of the blast, or from the subsequent exchange of fire with the Taliban.

It is not the function of this blog to second-guess the cause of death of every British solider killed either in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it is a matter of sad inevitability that, when soldiers are engaged in combat operations, some of them will be killed.

But we would be remiss if we did not remind readers that we have remarked before on the fragility of these lightly-armoured Land Rovers (plus here and here), and that the Canadians, Dutch, Estonians, Americans and Germans (to say nothing of the French and Italians) have armoured patrol vehicles capable of resisting roadside bombs.

Unless the MoD is going to tell us that there had been no possible alternative to the WIMIK in the particular circumstances of Guardsman Downes's death, then there is a case to be made that this is yet another sad, unnecessary fatality, occasioned by the inability of the Army to equip its troops properly.


Saturday 9 June 2007

Not fit for purpose

The three vehicle types shortlisted today by defence procurement minister Lord Drayson for the £16 billion FRES project have already been rejected by the Army. They were condemned as "lacking development potential".

Two of these, the Piranha (top left) and the VBCI (below right), were flagged up as possibles last year while the third, the Boxer (below left), is the result of a joint German, Dutch and British project, from which the British pulled out in order to pursue FRES, losing its stake money of £48 million into the bargain.

The Piranha – which, if successful, would be built under license by the US-owned General Dynamics – is a Swiss design dating from 1990. A variant is in use by the US Army as the Stryker, but is regarded only as an "interim solution" for the US equivalent of FRES (the Future Combat System) – a test bed for new ideas pending the development of its own new generation of armoured vehicles.

The third of the vehicles on the shortlist, the French-built (Renault) VBCI, stems from a French Army contract issued in November 2000, with first deliveries in 2008. If it entered British service by the earliest projected in-service date for FRES of 2012, it would be a 12 year-old design, with the origins of the concept stretching back into the 80s.

While this situation is bad enough, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) – for which these vehicles are being shortlisted – is no mere armoured vehicle replacement programme. Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt puts it "at the heart of the future Army".

It is a project which will shape the future of the British Army and, to that extent, the future of this nation. As current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan amply demonstrate, the fighting capabilities of our Army on the ground have a massive influence on our national prestige and the perception we have of ourselves.

Many of the problems in those theatres – and with them the perception that British troops have been struggling – arise from the nature of the equipment provided. The bulk of it was designed to deal with a Warsaw Pact land invasion across the plains of northern Germany. It was augmented with some equipment developed to deal with civil unrest in Northern Ireland and, only recently, has the Army taken delivery of a small number of vehicles adapted to deal with the specific threats with which it has to deal.

Now, there is a once in a generation opportunity to re-equip a major part of the Army. This makes the FRES project so crucial, not just for the Army but for the nation as a whole. And the key question is what precisely the Army needs.

To be fair, in making that decision, military planners have a tough time. Given the snail-like progress of defence procurement, they must think ahead ten or twenty years, and the equipment they supply may well still be in service 50 years hence. By any measure, therefore, theirs is a difficult task, verging on the impossible. Whatever they decide, they are open to charges of getting it wrong.

That said, planners were and are able to work within a framework, the demarcations set by what has emerged as a series of graduations in military action. At the one end, there is what is known now as "high-end" warfare – the classic, conventional warfare involving all the paraphernalia of armies, from heavy tanks - known in the trade as Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) – through armed and armoured troop carriers known as Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicles (MICVs) to heavy artillery and the rest.

At the other end of the spectrum is what is loosely termed peace-keeping, although this has developed various graduations of its own, the lowest level being post-conflict reconstruction, the latter stages of which differ little from civilian policing.

In between, however, is an amorphous, ill-defined role known as counter-insurgency which has some characteristics of high-end warfare and some which are more akin to post-conflict reconstruction. Perplexingly, troops often find themselves having to switch from one to the other, in an instant – and they must be equipped for both.

Alongside these graduations, however, there is another strategic imperative – air portability. Away from the comfort zone of northern Europe, it is now appreciated that the British Army may have to fight anywhere in the world and, given the pace of political developments, might have to do so at very short notice (not that this has ever been any different).

With the development and increasing availability of military heavy-lift aircraft, there has been the prospect of creating army equipment which is capable of engaging in high-end warfare yet is light enough to be air-transportable. From this has emerged the idea of rapid reaction forces, able to respond to crises at short notice, being transported anywhere in the world by a fleet of military aircraft, ready for action when they arrive.

It is this concept that gave rise to FRES – the Future Rapid Effects System – a range of medium weight armoured vehicles, choice of the first type of which Drayson has set in motion today with the nomination of the shortlist. Whatever else, this equipment is primarily intended for high-end warfighting.

Common to all three vehicles is that they are all lightly armoured eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers. None are capable of withstanding hits from the ubiquitous RPGs without additional armour. With that armour, none are air portable in a standard C-130 transport, with difficulty in an A400M, if at all, and in only small numbers in the larger C-17s. The defining characteristic of FRES, therefore, has effectively been abandoned. The airlift capacity to move a realistic number of these vehicles, their supplies and support elements, will simply not be available.

This, however, is the least of the problems. As with the Challenger MBTs and Warrior MICVs which are currently engaged in Iraq, British Army equipment will most likely be expected to perform a multiplicity of roles. There is neither enough money nor manpower to maintain separate Armies for different tasks. Inevitably, therefore, in the course of its life, FRES will almost certainly be deployed on any counter-insurgency operations for which the Army is tasked. Here, the most intractable problem will arise.

Crucially, since all the vehicles on the shortlist are old designs, they were conceived before the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan brought into play the high level of mine and blast protection manifest as the RG-31, the Cougar, Mastiff, Bushmaster and the Dingo II.

Although the Stryker version of the Piranha is deployed in Iraq by the US, as we recently pointed out, it has suffered a string of losses which suggest that the insurgents have learned how to deal with it, raising questions about the vulnerability of this vehicle. And what applies to the Stryker to a greater or lesser extent applies to both the VBCI and the Boxer. They may have a high degree of protection and some mine resistance, but none are designed specifically to deal with the threats they might meet in a counter-insurgency campaign.

Even if they were sufficiently armoured in themselves, the fact that they are warfighting machines renders their design less than optimal for counter-insurgency. This became apparent from another incident we reported, where two Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, riding in a Bison APC, were killed by a suicide bomber.

The Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) that they were riding is another variant of the Piranha and, as a "conventional" wheeled armoured vehicle, designed primarily for high-end warfare it has a fatal weakness. In common with most vehicles of the type, it is not designed to be operated in a fully closed down condition for long periods of time. Visibility is restricted and crew comfort (especially when it is hot) suffers. By any measure, this equipment is far from ideal for use as convoy escorts or for patrols, which are the routine fare of counter-insurgency operations.

Whichever way you cut it, therefore, the vehicles Drayson has shortlisted cannot be considered suitable for counter-insurgency operations. At best, they would have been marginally acceptable at the start of the campaign in Iraq but – as we reported above – the Army itself has decided that neither the Stryker nor any other off-the-shelf solution is a suitable platform. Evidence given was that the Army unanimously said that it did not want to go for one of those products.

If these were the only issues affecting Drayson's choice, they would be sufficient to indicate that he had made a very bad call. But there is even more. In addition to the FRES, the Army is keeping some of its heavy Challengers and Warriors, which will have to be upgraded if they are to continue in use.

With the retention of the Warriors, especially, there is now developing an anomalous situation. While FRES was supposed to be a "medium" option, increases in the amour applied to the vehicles means they are now equivalent in weight to the so-called "heavy", tracked Warriors. In effect, the project has come down to replacing tracks with wheels. And, while wheeled vehicles have advantages in some theatres, in high-end warfighting, in terms of cross-country performance, manoeuvrability and protection, there is no substitute for tracks.

Drawing various elements of this decision together, therefore, what Drayson is effectively doing is announcing a wheeled (partial) replacement for the Warrior - choosing a platform that the Army has already said it does not want – which in certain theatres will be less capable than the vehicle it is replacing and which will be entirely unsuitable for counter-insurgency operations. In many respects, a better and cheaper solution could be reached by upgrading Warriors and Challengers, and equipping them with much of the sophisticated communications and other equipment which is intended for FRES.

The killer fact, however, is that these new vehicles are so expensive that very little will be left in the Army's share of the procurement budget to upgrade the existing "high-end" fleet or to buy the next generation of vehicles that are being developed for counter-insurgency operations. Instead, the Army is getting a new fleet which is neither optimal for high-end warfare nor suitable for counter-insurgency operations, and will not even be capable of rapid deployment – which was the whole purpose of the FRES project in the first place. The new vehicles – whichever are chosen – will not be fit for purpose.

We are on the way, it seems to making another blunder of Eurofighter proportions, and it is no comfort at all that the Dannatt is so enthusiastic about a choice of vehicles that his experts have already rejected.


Friday 8 June 2007

The latest betrayal

So, at last, the MoD – courtesy of the noble Lord Drayson, defence procurement minister – has finally delivered of his labours and brought forth a mighty mouse … the shortlist for the FRES contenders.

The one thing, of course, you can guarantee is that this important development in the largest single Army procurement programme in living memory – now inflated to a staggering £16 billion – will be ignored by the MSM. In so doing, it will show up its faux concern for "our boys", as it allows the Labour government to play out its latest betrayal of the Army, buying the wrong equipment for the wrong wars, at massively inflated prices in a programme that will either see the Army emasculated, or its soldiers killed – or both.

On the back of our recent discussion of this project, we will be posting a detailed analysis of Drayson's dire criminally stupid decision on this blog as soon as it is finished.