Monday 30 July 2007

Own goals galore

It was very nearly two years ago that we wrote a long piece about the importance of avoiding collateral damage from air strikes.

This was followed by several more pieces, most recently this one, in which we drew attention to a report published on 18 February 2004 which set out the case for more discrimination in the use of air power, noting that civilian casualties were an important tool in the propaganda war.

And here we are again, with The Financial Times and others reporting Nato plans to use "smaller bombs" in Afghanistan as part of a change in tactics aimed at stemming a rise in civilian casualties that threatens to undermine support in the fight against the Taliban.

Mounting civilian casualties have been causing considerable concern in this theatre occasioned in part by the reliance by Nato forces on air power to make up for shortages of troops on the ground, and lack of suitable armour.

Another major factor has been a change in tactics used by the Taliban, who have been deliberately increasing civilian casualties by hiding among Afghan villagers and sometimes holding them in their bases against their will.

The result, according to aid agencies, has been the death of at least 230 Afghan civilians, killed by western troops this year – and the rate has been increasing. In 2006 the number of civilians killed by both sides was 700-1,000, the highest figure since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Needless to say, the figures themselves are not agreed, but the very fact that a considerable number of civilian deaths have been caused by Nato air strikes is ammunition enough for the Taliban propaganda machine, to be seized upon by their fellow travellers and anti-war activists.

What is troubling though is that, even without the change in Taliban tactics, collateral damage (i.e., killing civilians) has always been an issue yet, only now, does there seem to be a serious effort to do something about it.

In the first piece we published on this issue, we wrote a rather glowing (and perhaps over-optimistic) account of how technology was being developed to enable more precise targeting which, with the use of smaller warheads, could allow combatants to be killed without harming those in the vicinity.

Yet, from the current reports on the issue, we are reminded that the most frequently used ordnance are 1000lb bombs (pictured), the effect of which is illustrated in the photograph above (from an MoD publicity still of exercises in Poland). The explosion is from a single 1000lb bomb, delivered by a Harrier, exactly analogous to the situation in Afghanistan.

With that size of explosion, it is no wonder that collateral damage is being caused but, even with this, Nato is only talking about using 500lb bombs which, although better, are still fearsome weapons to be used in areas where civilians might be present.

However, it is easy for this blog to pontificate about what Nato should or should not be doing in Afghanistan, except that we were raising this issue two years ago, and others – with greater authority – were doing it much earlier.

When one takes on board also the failure of our own MoD to minimise avoidable deaths amongst our own troops, you really do wonder about the competence of our own government and the military in prosecuting this war.

Time and time again, we have written about the powerful, debilitating effect of propaganda on the ability of western powers to fight low-level wars, the thesis we are promoting being common sense and well known. Despite this, our people continue to score what amount to "own goals", with what appear to be very little (or tardy) understanding of the issues involved.

As I wrote in that other piece, "this, we cannot afford". And indeed we cannot. Our government and the military, needs to raise its game.


Saturday 28 July 2007

The Saturday "toy"

A Lynx Mk8, one of the Royal Navy display pair, taken at Teeside Airport this afternoon. The aircraft was returning from Sunderland where it had been performing at the beachside airshow.


That's the way to do it

Courtesy of Defencetalk this little snippet comes our way:

In Iraq, an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle observed insurgents fire two mortar rounds then load the tube into the trunk of their vehicle before striking the target. The Predator then launched a Hellfire missile at the mortar team in the vehicle. The missile impacted the front of the car and it was destroyed.
The success of this missile strike highlights an issue we have been "banging on" about for some time, with miltiple posts (and here) written on and around this issue.

With technology such as the Predator available, there is very little excuse for tolerating the daily routine indirect fire attacks on British bases yet, recently, we have lost four servicemen to such attacks, one killed at Basra Palace and the other three at Basra Air Station.

The MoD is extremely reluctant to talk about force protection measures – except when it suits it - and while we accept that counter-measures are improving and will continue to improve, whatever is being done is not enough or fast enough.

Force protection is not an academic issue but central to the successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency operations. We remarked on this recently: the MoD and Army must begin to understand that the currency of counter-insurgency is soldiers' deaths. As we noted, "The more the casualty rate builds, the harder it is to sustain operations in the face of mounting public opposition."

These indirect fire deaths come firmly in the category of "avoidable deaths" – and neither is the mounting toll of injuries (many of them serious) at all acceptable. If Brown (and Browne) have any hopes of maintaining even the vestige of support for their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they must focus on this issue and deal with it. And Mr Predator shows the way.


Thursday 26 July 2007

An avoidable death?

We are not going to say, "told you so", because we do not have enough details. But this report is disturbing.

It recounts that, yesterday a British soldier was killed and two others injured by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, while riding in a Pinzgauer Vector. The soldier, from the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, died after an attack on a patrol in the outskirts of Sangin in Helmand province early in the morning.

This dangerously inadequate vehicle has been the subject of many posts on this blog, for instance, here and here. The question must be asked, therefore, as to whether a better vehicle, such as the Mastiff or RG-31 (or even a Bushmaster: this Dutch example, pictured below, was hit by an IED last week - none of the crew were harmed), could have prevented this death and injuries.

Of course, if we asked the question officially, the MoD would not give us any answers, hiding behind "operational security" as it always does on such occasions. But, if the answer is "yes" (and it is not necessarily so - see here), then I hope the people involved in manufacturing and procuring this vehicle have trouble sleeping. At least they will be alive and whole.

It seems too much to hope for however, that the MoD and the Army will begin to understand that the currency of counter-insurgency is soldiers' deaths. The more the casualty rate builds, the harder it is to sustain operations in the face of mounting public opposition. Inevitably, some deaths are unavoidable but the emphasis should be on preventing avoidable deaths. Given that this vehicle is so ill-protected, the presumption must be that this was an avoidable death.

This, we cannot afford.


Wednesday 25 July 2007

Comprehensive Spending Review

Boring title, but this is what all the posturing has been about, and why Dannatt has been spitting out his dummy.

Announced by Brown in Parliament today, with a comment on the MoD website, Defence is to be awarded an additional £7.7bn by 2011, equating to 1.5 percent average annual real growth (after deduction of the "modernisation fund" allowance in the previous CSR).

This breaks down into an annual budget of £34bn in 2008/9, £35.3bn in 2009/10 and £36.9bn in 2010/11 and is separate from the additional cost of operations. These are funded directly by the Treasury. Since 2001, says the MoD, £6.6bn has been in supporting the front line.

In immediate terms, this paves the way for the purchase of two new aircraft carriers, although these have not yet been ordered, and over half a billion is going into improving service accommodation.

However, behind the scenes there is a major rethink going on. While the carriers have survived, there is a fundamental review in progress, examining the costs of major projects, together with a substantial drive to reduce overheads. The latter is aiming at a five percent year-on-year saving in MoD's administrative overhead over the next three years and a 25 percent reduction in costs to the MoD's head office. These are in addition to the £2.8bn in "efficiencies" delivered over the previous spending review period.

On the major projects, one is looking for an acknowledgement that the defence budget is not the plaything of defence contractors, who are grabbing a larger and larger share of the cash, but to fund operations.

It is there that the "creative tension" is bringing the likes of Dannatt to the fore, a man who so much wants to protect his big spending items and his fully-equipped conventional army that he is prepared to see a reduced operational tempo to pay for it.

Interestingly, the debate about where the split should occur between "core army" and counter-insurgency operations is one which is taking place behind closed doors, mainly because the media seems to have no idea what is going on (and perhaps cares less - the BBC has not even reported the announcement), while the Conservative opposition has simply failed to engage.

However, with the headline increases just announced, it will be more difficult to push their "underspend" mantra, when funds are increasing in real terms and Cameron has yet to sanction any increased spending on the forces. Until he does that, and the Tories come up with some sensible ideas of how they would spend it, the debate will go on without them.

It now appears, though, that that would be the least worst option. Leaks from Cameron's "national and international security" commission, chaired by Dame Pauline Neville Jones, is to recommend complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. That, at least, would absolve the Boy from finding more money and resolve the "creative tensions". Dannatt could have his new toys and he need not get them dirty, fighting those grubby little insurgents.


Sunday 8 July 2007

Have you noticed ...

… that news of British activities in Iraq and Afghanistan has all but dried up since Gordon Brown became prime minister? "Blair's wars", it seems, are no longer of interest, as they cannot be used with the same effect in attacking the current administration.

That is not to say, of course, that nothing is happening in either theatre, although today's report of a major operation in Basra, involving 1,000 troops, undoubtedly hit the media only because a British soldier died after his Warrior had been hit by an IED – the third such fatal attack in so many weeks.

Equally, the tempo of operations in Afghanistan is not slackening – the MoD website reports continuing operations near Sangin as the Royal Anglians, working alongside Afghan, Danish and Estonian soldiers, keep up the pressure on the Taliban.

But the most significant news of the week – not that we got anything more than perfunctory reports of it from the British media - was the death of six Canadian soldiers and their Afghan interpreter in their RG-31 mine-protected vehicle after being hit by an IED which left a crater 10 feet wide and three feet deep.

This is not the first time an RG-31 has been completely destroyed (see video grab above, taken from an Iraqi insurgents' training film - click to enlarge) but this is the first time it has happened in Afghanistan. Thus, the event, widely reported in the Canadian press (as you would expect) is of some considerable concern to British forces as it signals several important developments. Firstly, it points up a long-heralded shift in Taliban tactics, from outright confrontation with NATO forces to the hit-and-run attacks favoured by Iraqi insurgents.

Secondly, it marks the debut of large IEDs – which have been used to such deadly effect against British Warriors in Iraq – planted specifically to take out well-armoured vehicles like the RG-31, suggesting a transfer of tactical information from one theatre to the other.

Thirdly, it suggests that we have witnessed the end of the "honeymoon" for mine-protected vehicles, which have been credited with saving many lives, having so far proved resistant to the ordnance deployed by the Taliban – just at a time when the British Army is introducing mine-protected Mastiffs (example pictured, right) into theatre.

All of this re-opens a debate which has been rehearsed extensively on this blog and the accompanying forum, the latter having hosted numerous serious and well-argued posts and two interventions from the current minister for defence procurement, the Lord Drayson.

Central to the debate has been the type and quantity of armoured vehicles that should be supplied to the Army, but we have always argued that armour itself is only one of the measures needed in the battle against IEDs. It was always the case that, as better protection was made available, the insurgents would simply use bigger bombs – as has proved to be the case.

As Brigadier-General Tim Grant said in response to the Canadian incident, "Every time you build a shield that is stronger, someone will come up with a spear that is better or longer. It's the old Roman principle."

The most puzzling thing about the whole episode, though, was that the RG-31, travelling as part of a small convoy, was driving over a gravel road which was used frequently by NATO forces and by local Afghans. While there had been IEDs found in the past, none had been discovered in recent months.

That points to one (or a combination) of several things. It could be that the forces using the road had become complacent in the absence of a recent threat, or it could be that route surveillance has been insufficient or, simply, that detection techniques were not adequate.

But, on the principle that armour on its own will never be sufficient, it is here that one needs to look to minimise the risk. The technique of route clearance and subsequent proving, so effectively demonstrated by British Forces in Bosnia, needs to be fully implemented, using the best possible equipment and tactics, some of which we sketched out in a recent post.

Tragically, the Canadians had anticipated this need, having ordered five Buffalo, and five Cougar 6x6 vehicles for Afghanistan – all to deal with mines and IEDs. Additionally, they have ordered six Husky mine detection systems, a system which would undoubtedly have found the buried IED that destroyed the RG-31, had it been available and used.

We have also argued for satellite monitoring, high altitude electronic surveillance from aircraft platforms, and low level monitoring by UAVs and light surveillance aircraft, and have made the case many times for the purchase of light tactical helicopters. With a judicious mixture of assets, it should be possible to keep key routes under 24/7 surveillance. And, given that the primary aim of the insurgent is to maximise the death toll of the security forces, what is possible should be done. Already, we have seen Canadian politicians questioning the validity of the war, with the recent death of two British soldiers in Afghanistan(one from an IED) also triggering ritual wailing from The Independent. Allowing the continual attrition of deaths from IEDs is simply not a war-winning option. Every death is a propaganda victory for the insurgents.

In the realms of the possible now come systems which, even a few years ago, lay in the realms of science fiction. One such is Automatic Change Detection, using UAV platforms now in service as the Buckeye system. Described in detail here, with more here and here, the bones of the system are a frame camera with an electro-optical sensor, and software for processing the imagery.

Typically mounted on a UAV, Buckeye takes pictures of a given territory to produce 3-D images. The UAV then later flies over the same territory to allow the system to take pictures again. These are then compared, pixel to pixel, see what kind of changes have occurred during the intervening time. If an IED is suspected, the location can be inspected in order to confirm the presence of one.

The deployment of the full range of anti-IED assets, however, requires considerable investment, a large number of specialist personnel and, as importantly, creates a completely different force structure. US forces, for instance, tend to mount IED patrols comprising one or two Meerkats, RG-31s, a Buffalo and Cougars, all working as independent units which are able to fight their way out of ambushes without calling for routine escorts. Thus, many of the patrols are not the infantry units which the British use, but specialist units discharging specialist functions.

This is actually what is at the heart of the FRES debate. It is not really about which type of armoured vehicle that should be chosen, but about the force structures needed, respectively, for high-end warfighting and counter-insurgency operations. While the former will major on infantry, with conventional support arms, the counter-insurgency force will rely more on specialist units and major on units dedicated to surveillance and intelligence gathering. It is not simply a matter of procuring a few new, better-protected vehicles and inserting them into the existing force structures, but a completely different way of fighting, requiring a wholly different approach.

On that basis, the idea that a force designed (and structured) primarily for high-end warfighting can then, with a few modifications, be used for counter-insurgency operations – as the Lord Drayson clearly intends - is a dangerous fallacy. And, given that the MoD intends to invest much of its land forces procurement budget in the FRES project (which is, of course, primarily designed for high-end warfighting) it is very hard to accept that there will be the funds necessary for effective counter-insurgency operations – especially as there are no signs that the MoD is even considering funding all the necessary technologies and equipment.

Furthermore, the blinkered thinking that pervades the MoD and the British military establishment seems to prevail elsewhere, not least in the US. Even there, rather than treat counter-insurgency as a very specialist form of warfare, with its own unique requirements, there is a tendency to employ assets designed for another form of warfare, simply because they are available.

This phenomenon comes over with some clarity in a commentary on an LA Times story about the high level of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan. Under the heading, "Counterproductive Counterinsurgency", Philip Carter writes:

To be sure, the Air Force brings something to the fight. But we can't just use the Air Force because we have it, or try to apply its overly kinetic forms of firepower to the sensitive problems of counterinsurgency, just because we've paid billions of dollars for these airframes and bombs. If the choice comes down to sidelining the Air Force or winning the war, we better damn well choose the latter.

Letting force structure, procurement considerations or service parochialism drive operations is flat-out stupid. That is the point of this Los Angeles Times article is to remind us that there are limits to the utility of the American Way of War, and that we should be wary of solutions for this kind of war which emphasize firepower or technology.

Counterinsurgency is, at its core, a human endeavor. It requires careful discrimination, targeting and calibration in the use of force. In Afghanistan, we have started down a dangerous path of error towards losing the support of the people. These airstrikes may succeed in killing a few suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters. But 'twould be a shame to see these strikes result in us losing the war.
Even today, service rivalry in the US UAV programme is rampant, indicative of a more general problem. The forces employed in both Iraq and Afghanistan are, without doubt, dictated to a very great extent by considerations of force structure, procurement and service parochialism, instead of being designed, ground up, for the tasks in hand.

Yet, vital though it is to our national interest that we should prosecute the campaigns successfully, nothing at all of the ongoing debate about how it should be done reaches the MSM. Once again, it is being left to the blogs and the forums to make the running. The MSM might not have noticed what is going on – but we have.


Sunday 1 July 2007

Let's be done with it

As numerous defence issues have stacked up while we have turned our attention to the European Council "mandate" agreement – which much of the media insists on calling a treaty agreement - I was minded to write one long "catch-up" post this weekend, to cover as many of the outstanding subjects as I could.

There is part of me, however, that says, "why bother?" It is increasingly hard to focus on some of the technical aspects of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan – in the hope of enhancing the performance of our troops (and their safety) and thus winning the wars – if the game is being given away at a higher level.

In a nutshell, one must ask whether there is any point in our devoting blood and treasure in the pursuit of establishing democracy and independent governance in either of the troubled regions in which we are engaged if, on the other hand, our own leaders are intent on giving away ours - to the European Union, while also permitting the steady march of unrestricted immigration, which is changing the fundamental nature of our society. What is the point of fighting for democracy in foreign fields, and the integrity of their societies, when we are at risk of losing both ourselves?

Perhaps this affliction of doubt comes from reading the crop of today's newspapers when, try as I might, I could not see any relationship in the storm of political comment and the real world – or the world as I perceive it. Never before has the world of politics seemed so unreal or so detached that, reading about it seems almost like intruding into the secret rites of the inhabitants of a distant planet.

Another troubling thought comes from a long conversation I had with a serving RAF officer yesterday who affirmed what I had heard so many times before, on the structure and equipment of the armed forces. I got from him what I have heard so often elsewhere, that the Services cannot afford to focus on the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as that would leave them unprepared to fight future wars. The effort in our current theatres must, therefore, be tempered by the need to maintain balanced forces, capable of dealing with future (unknown) commitments.

I have likened this to a military planning committee deciding in 1943 to withhold forces from the invasion of Normandy and the defeat of Hitler for fear of being unprepared to fight a war in the 1950s.

The point that emerges here is that the military – no less than the nation in general (each for their own different reasons) – is not committed to the current wars. As we listened to the RAF commentator coo and gasp at the performance of the Eurofighter, delivering a torrent of propaganda in favour of the new "toy" as it went though its paces (admittedly impressive), one's impression was somewhat reinforced that fighting wars in distant fields were regarded as an irrelevance at best, a distraction from the real business of constructing that mythical beast, the "balanced force".

Frankly, if neither the military nor the population – to say nothing of the media and the political establishment – are committed to winning our current wars then (no matter how vital it is that we do win them) we have no business sending our troops there, some of them to die and many more to suffer horrific injuries. We might just as well bring them home to play with their "balanced" force and forget all about the untidiness and inconveniences of real fighting.

The military can then parade and posture with their gleaming new "toys" at airshows and the like, fighting mock battles – as they do now (see top pic) – from the safety of British RAF airfields. Then they need not be troubled by the thought that there is a real enemy out there who not only shoots back, but doesn't obey the rules.

In other words, there is little point any longer, it seems to me, in our fighting a battle to ensure that our troops are properly equipped to fight real wars. Our hearts are not in it. Let's be done with it. Bring them home, to where the fight for our own sovereignty is the task we must now face.