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.