Friday 17 August 2007

Now it can be revealed

Of the more objectionable traits of the media is their self-important habit of prefacing many of their stories with the like of, "the BBC can reveal …" or "The Daily Telegraph has learned…".

Well, if you cannot beat them, join them so, today, this blog is revealing how we, with our allies (and not a little help from the blogosphere) have saved the lives of British troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – and will continue to do so. This is the story of how it came about, so settle down – it is a long one. But it is a story about how blogs can make a difference.

By a strange coincidence, part of the story was told recently, when the admirable American Thinker ran a piece by James Lewis, headed "Why the Brits are losing Basra". It relied heavily on our work and particularly on the Army's failure to provide blast-resistant military vehicles.

By another strange coincidence, that latter theme was taken up The Huntsman blog in a thoughtful and innovative fashion.

In the manner of what is termed "nettiquette", since both pieces linked to us, I was thinking about framing an appropriate response which would embed reciprocal links (which I have now done). But what then shaped this piece were two further events.

The first was a combination: the Financial Times report on the government monitoring blogs and Iain Dale's facile response, which brought from us the comment that the MoD already monitored our blog. This is part of the story because, if it had not, there would be troops today who would be dead instead of alive.

The second event was a report on this yesterday evening's BBC radio news which, unexpectedly, launched into a paean of praise about the Army's new Mastiff mine and blast-protected truck (pictured above and on page 1), which is now saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Therein does lie our story – how that happy situation came about. But what finally pushed me into writing it was the offhand way in which the BBC made its report, ending in a complaint that, with only 100 Mastiffs bought, there were not enough of these life-saving vehicles to go round. How easily it forgets, but the BBC itself was one of the obstacles to getting these vehicles in service. At the very least, I felt, I had to point this out. How it did so emerges later in this story.

To tell the story, I checked first on the internet to see if the BBC had put its report on its website, to reproduce here. It was not up then (although it has now been posted), but I did find this story from The Scotsman published last week which, with a report on the MoD website, sets the framework for this tale.

The Scotsman story essentially conveys the same factual material which found its way into the BBC report and, because it is so illustrative, I am taking the unusual step of reproducing it in full. Headed, "new armed vehicles saved our lives, say soldiers," by John Bingham, it runs as follows:

British soldiers in Afghanistan told yesterday how they emerged unhurt after driving over landmines in new heavily armoured vehicles. Since arriving in Helmand province earlier this year the first of the fleet of Mastiffs have been through four mine strikes and 10 rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks with no casualties.

The Mastiff - built in the US with extra armour added in Coventry - is one of three new types of vehicle bought by the army to give extra protection from insurgent devices. The move followed criticism of the protection provided by earlier vehicles. The Mastiffs, operated by the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Tank Regiment, have been in action daily across Helmand since their arrival in March.

Coated with layers of steel, the underside is designed in a V-shape to deflect the impact of any mine strike upwards and away from the vehicle. It played a key role in launching a push against the Taleban in the Gereshk Valley by driving through a hail of fire to deposit troops safely at a bridge.

Corporal Ben Roder, of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, told how he had been in command of a Mastiff carrying a three-strong crew plus six infantry troops when they drove over a mine. "We just heard a loud explosion, it echoed around inside, the vehicle jumped a little bit in the rear," Cpl Roder, 25, from Essex, said.

Up above, Trooper Leslie Wareham, 23, from Kent, was providing top cover when the blast went off. "At first I heard an explosion... then all the dust came up in front of me. I was thrown up a little and fell into the turret," he said. "My ears were ringing, all the dismounts [infantry] were asking if I was all right. I just shook myself and said I was good to go."

Cpl Roder added: "If we had hit an anti-tank mine like that in a Scimitar you would have had three extra coffins back in the UK."
And now for the story proper, which starts not during these wars but during the Falklands campaign. In the fate of the servicemen fighting there, I had a very personal interest as my brother-in-law was the engineer on board HMS Yarmouth, a ship which did gallant service – much of it unrecorded. It was the first on the scene after HMS Sheffield had been hit by a French-built Exocet missile. It could so easily have been Yarmouth that had been hit and it was brought home to our family how close we had come to losing someone very dear to us.

Largely unpolitical at the time, I nevertheless recall writing some very pointed letters to the MoD demanding – as seemed appropriate – that our ships should be equipped with Phalanx close in weapons systems, to protect them against these missiles. To be fair to the MoD, the replies I got were measured and reassuring. In the fullness of time, our ships were equipped with these guns.

The experience had two effects on me: firstly, it taught me how personal war really was – the prospect of real loss and intolerable grieving: something I would not wish on anyone.

Secondly, it triggered in me a determination that I should do what I could – however slight – to ensure that such loss was not visited on anyone if it could be avoided. Then and since – while realistic about the nature of war – I harboured a rooted objection to our service personnel being killed for want of adequate equipment.

This brings me to the second strand of the story, which is also not directly related to the issue at hand, but is an important part of it. The strand here concerns the MoD's selection of the Panther Future Command and Liaison Vehicle (FCLV), the full details of which need not trouble us here but, for those who need to refresh their memories, can be traced through this compendium of links.

One outcome, however, is directly relevant in that it demonstrated that the MoD was buying the wrong vehicle - and an extremely expensive one at that - for the wrong reasons, breaking its own rules in so doing in a procedure that was almost certainly corrupt.

Another outcome, which is also directly relevant, is that it introduced me to one of the better and cheaper alternatives – one which had been rejected by MoD in the procurement competition. This was the RG-31 which would have been – and still is – ideal for both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was then just being introduced by the US Marine Corps into Iraq and was being used by the Canadians in Afghanistan (pictured).

Now, at this point, some readers might (rightly) question my certainty that the Army had made the wrong decision, and my qualifications for making that assertion.

Here, I find myself empathising with the fictional hero of the film (and book), The Flight of the Pheonix - the aircraft designer who so successfully converted the wrecked C-119 "Flying Boxcar" into a single engined monoplane which flew the pilot and passengers to safety. In one of the supercharged scenes in the original 1965 film, which starred James Stewart as the pilot, the designer was forced to reveal that his skill was in designing model (not toy!) aircraft.

So it is with me. From a very young age, with two long-standing friends, I played war games, using scale model vehicles of increasing accuracy and sophistication. By the time we had finished, we were building exact replicas of WWII armoured brigades, down to the very last detail. With them, we re-enacted former campaigns, which we had studied in depth - devouring every book, manual and film we could get on the subject – having discussed them endlessly.

Such was our devotion that, as the owner of the German component, I needed a number of Sd. Kfz. 251/1 Hanomag half-track APCs. As there were no commercially available models, I spent time in the Imperial War Museum consulting the original manufacturers' blueprints, (manually) scaling them down to provide templates. With these, I then scratch-built my own models from sheet plastic, producing a fleet to equip my "army".

With that and a prolonged period in the cadet force, by the time of my exams, if there had been an A-level in armoured vehicles, I would have got an A triple-star. With my own military service, an abiding interest in things military, with constant reading reinforced by scouring the battlefields of Northern Europe and the Middle East, and frequenting military museums, I think I can claim more than a passing knowledge of modern military affairs. I certainly know my HVFSDS from my HEAT and my HESH, their effect on armour, and many other allied issues. I know a great deal more than some soldiers who would dismiss me as a "gobshite civilian" and, whatever they might call me, I will not have them die as long as there is something I can do to keep them alive.

Anyhow, this brings us to June of last year. Although I had touched on the subject before, by then I was noting a steady flow of deaths from what we had come to know as IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) with one thing in common. All the casualties had been riding in lightly-armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers. Although vehicles designed for public order duties in Northern Ireland, they had been pressed into service in November 2003, a decision approved by the then CGS Mike Jackson despite their being entirely unsuitable for the much more demanding and dangerous environment of Iraq.

If the media had noticed, it certainly was not writing about it and, while there was some discussion in Parliament, the idea of buying new vehicles had been dismissed by the minister. Thus, on 18 June I posted the first of what turned out to be a torrent of pieces, this one called "How Blair is killing our soldiers".

The ministers (and especially Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister - pictured with troops in Afghanistan) relied for their main argument on the claim that vehicles like the RG-31 were simply too big for the urban environment of Basra. To counter that, we launched into a sustained campaign exploring alternatives, debunking the minister's claims and looking more and more at the detail of the issue.

Here, some fascinating political issues come to the fore. Iain Dale might think it is objectionable that the "government" monitors blogs but they were most certainly doing this with ours by then. And, what makes him think that the communication is one-way? Directly and indirectly, the "conversation" developed into a two-way process.

What I did not know then, but was later told, was that ministers were – as is so often the case – speaking to the briefs prepared for them by their civil servants and, crucially, by senior military officers. What also emerged was that these people, advising the ministers, were implacably hostile to the whole idea of protected vehicles such as the RG-31. Despite the growing toll of wrecked Land Rovers and broken bodies, they were feeding the "line" that that alternatives would be wholly inappropriate for the theatre.

At that time, however, I had joined a discussion on the unofficial Army forum ARRSE, a thread that eventually ran to 21 pages. As the discussion develops, you can see something of that hostility, as I argued the case for new protected vehicles. More and more posters piled in to oppose the idea, some of them incredibly aggressively.

Bruising though it was, I also attracted some heavyweight support. Serving men and officers contacted me privately, telling me quite appalling stories of their experiences. I soon had enough to go to long-standing contacts in the media and, on 25 June, had managed to place a long article in The Sunday Times (complete with a front page "teaser" and a lead article). Only grudgingly did the story refer to its primary source, way down page:

Richard North, an author and internet blogger who has been campaigning over the failure to invest in heavily armoured vehicles, said: "It was an incredibly crass decision to reject the RG-31 and shows yet again the MoD's knack of creating a disaster of every procurement decision."

"They looked at whether to stick with cheap, second-hand Land Rovers that were not safe for use in Iraq at that time, or buy a vehicle that would save lives. What did they do? They stuck with the Land Rovers."
Nevertheless, with Booker having already written some superb pieces in his column, the media profile had been considerably enhanced.

This, it now transpires, had the politicians "wobbling", although not the civil servants or the Army. They continued to brief against our preferred replacement vehicle, finding a home in the BBC and Mick Smith's blog in The Times. "It might be good enough for the Canadians," Smith wrote. "You might even be able to get it on the ground very quickly. But its profile is all wrong and it's just that bit too big for Basra."

The following day, though, I was picking up another potential disaster, the Pinzgauer Vector, which I dubbed the coffin on wheels. With little more protection than the "Snatch" and some hugely dangerous design features, this was actually the Army's choice of protected patrol vehicle.

For once, though, with considerable behind-the-scenes pressure - not least a blizard of Parliamentary questions - the opposition parties in Parliament got their act together picking up on the Sunday Times article and mounting a spirited attack on the newly appointed defence secretary, Des Browne. With no help from the BBC, we extended the Parliamentary campaign into the Lords, and started a systematic attack on the claims that a replacement vehicle would be "too big for Basra".

Their Lordships mounted their own powerful attack and, with more powerful evidence, by two weeks into a relentless campaign, we had made the case.

Still evidence mounted up and, by 23 July - after Des Browne had announced a review of armoured protection - we were getting news that the MoD was to buy a hundred protected vehicles. These, however, turned out to be another 100 Pinzgauer Vectors, a move we called corporate manslaughter. But we also got an announcement that Des Browne was also ordering what was later to be called the Mastiff - perversely, much bigger than the RG-31 we had been promoting.

Despite his earlier attempt at trashing the RG-31, Mick Smith did his best to claim credit for The Sunday Times (with no mention of this blog, of course) and the rest, as they say, is history. Except that the history is still being made. The purchase of the Mastiff was a political decision, imposed in the teeth of opposition from the Army, which preferred the highly vulnerable Pinzgauer Vector. Soon enough, the Army reverted to type, with the purchase of an insane vehicle, the Supacat WIMIK, that proved they had learnt nothing at all.

The thinking reflects the Army's obsession with cross-country performance, which drives the design of its vehicles. Thus, in the choice of design, it first looks to optimise that performance and then, as a secondary objective, it seeks to protect the vehicle, literally bolting-on protection. But, as the Rhodesians and South Africans had found decades before, appliqué solutions simply do not work. Protection must be designed in. The design strategy, therefore, must be to create a suitable shape, and then add cross-country performance - a simple concept that the Army seems incapable of grasping.

And so we come almost to the present day. At the beginning of this account, we had The Scotsman retailing how troops in a Mastiff had survived uninjured from a mine strike. Yet, two weeks ago, we saw a Vector attacked, with one dead and two injured. Despite the attempt at a cover-up, I am more than ever convinced that, had these troops been riding in a Mastiff, they would have survived uninjured.

And that is at the heart of the continuing battle. The well-protected Mastiff was a political choice and the Pinzgauer Vector was the choice of Army "experts". The troops have expressed their views on the Mastiff – the graveyards will cast their own verdict on the Vector.

So far, though, we can aver that this blog did play a pivotal role in the procurement of the Mastiffs and, if the BBC is now complaining that not enough have been bought, it did nothing to get any of them into theatre and is doing nothing to ensure that more are obtained.

Furthermore, for all the self-important prattling of the so-called "political" blogs – which lifted not a finger in support of the campaign for better vehicles - our blog, in mobilising the media, parliamentarians and allies showed what a blog can do. It was not enough and we do not lay claim to having done this all ourselves. It was truly a team effort, where the media and parliamentarians (and service personnel and their relatives) played key roles. But we are proud of what we did, even if we bear a savage hatred for those fools and knaves who still put our troops unnecessarily at risk – and for those who are indifferent to their fate.