Thursday 6 September 2007

A deliberate and brutal decision

There is sometimes a cruel irony in coincidence, where events combine to tell a shocking story. Here, that combination is the latest report of two soldiers killed in a vehicle "explosion" in Afghanistan, and the announcement of the MoD's purchase of grotesquely vulnerable vehicles for the theatre.

The deaths of the two soldiers was reported earlier today, and occurred while they were taking part in "a routine patrol" in Helmand province. A third soldier and a civilian interpreter were injured.

At this early stage, all we know is that the vehicle "was hit by an explosion". This could be a mine or an IED and, while the vehicle could have been a "Snatch", a Vector or even a Viking, the "three plus one" crew configuration strongly suggests a WIMIK Land Rover.

If indeed it was, this is the second within a week. And, given that most incidents go unreported because there are no fatalities, these deaths, and the others reported, in Pinzgauer Vectors, and from IEDs and landmines are, therefore, the tip of a gruesome iceberg.

Under such circumstances, and rational person might think that the MoD and Army would be putting a premium on protected vehicles. But, in an announcement which makes for the cruel irony, the MoD today confirmed the purchase of 130 Supacat WIMIKs (now re-named the Jackal - ed), described when the intended purchase was announced, like a Land Rover on steroids and by us as insane.

At £30 million, this confirms the cost price at roughly £250,000 each yet, despite this extraordinary price, the press release has procurement minister Lord Drayson burbling: "These vehicles are well armed, swift, and agile," adding that, "They will boost our capability with some serious firepower." But, of course, the one thing he does not mention is protection from either gunfire, IEDs or mines.

The reason for that is very simple: there is no protection. The vehicle is completely unarmoured. And, by design, with the driver and crewman alongside the front wheel arches, they are terribly vulnerable to mine strikes while the open aspect gives no protection from gunfire.

Furthermore, the MoD knows the vehicle is vulnerable and, if its casualty figures were not already telling it, it knows the nature of the threat. What is more, it knows we know. But the MoD and the Army have made a brutal choice between mobility and protection, and have come down firmly on the side of mobility – irrespective of the consequences.

To an extent, this reflects, if not indifference, an acceptance of the reality of war, articulated recently by former CGS Mike Jackson, who told The Daily Telegraph:

There is no such thing as a casualty-free military campaign … Perhaps we understand that better now. The harsh reality is that there is risk, sooner or later tragically personified in soldiers being killed and wounded.
The same realism was evident in the current CGS, Richard Dannatt, recorded again by The Telegraph, on his visit to Afghanistan, as saying that, "the mounting death toll in the country should not overshadow the success forces were having on the ground." The troops, he said, "are winning the tactical battle".

But, what both comments also represent is a lack of comprehension - bordering blind stupidity – of the political and social dimensions of a counter-insurgency campaign. As we have remarked so often, not least here, casualties are the currency of the insurgents, who go out of their way deliberately to inflict death and injury, in order to weaken the political resolve of the combatant nations.

In this context, with a largely hostile media, and a generation which has grown up distant from the horrors of total war, there is a massive intolerance to casualties, which can undermine political resolve and force the withdrawal of troops.

This was the case in VietNam, we are seeing the pressures all too clearly in Iraq and it was a significant factor in the cessation of open warfare in Lebanon last year. The Taliban are aware of this, and are exploiting the dynamic, but our Army generals are blind to it. Thus, Dannatt's troops may be winning the "tactical battle", but he is losing the strategic war.

Then, on the social front, as the MoD is all too aware, recruitment in a volunteer Army is a serious concern. We have an Army which is leaching experienced personnel, and "overstretch" is only one factor.

The troops see the injured as they are evacuated on the same aircraft in which they return on leave and at the end of their deployments. And they see the coffins of the dead lifted out of their transports, all too frequently, as the ceremonies are given wide coverage on the television, in the newspapers and on the internet. No matter what the attractions of Army life, they are not worth the loss of your legs, or the risk of sudden death, simply because the Army is not prepared to invest in protected vehicles.

The same goes for new recruitment, It was Maj Gen Andrew Ritchie, the retiring commandant of Sandhurst, who last year described the "mum factor", saying that they were concerned that their youngsters would be exposed to real risk and danger. "And mums are hugely influential in boys and girls joining the Army," he warned. Those "mums", who see and read of troops being killed in inadequately protected vehicles are even less likely to want their sons and daughters to join the Army.

Aside from this, the decision to buy the Supacat represents quite astonishing technical ignorance – which I have noted quite commonly in senior Army officers. In making the choice between mobility and protection, they seem completely unaware that the two are not incompatible – as witness the Israeli RAM 2000 (pictured), based on the 1975 RBY Mk 1 Armoured Car, which we featured in an earlier post.

Finally, to this mix must be added an overweaning arrogance. With almost all the other coalition forces acquiring mine-protected vehicles, only the British Army is going out of its way to add more unprotected vehicles to its fleet. Uniquely, therefore, our Army considers it safe to operate in mine-infested territories with no or little armour.

It is this huge spectrum of ignorance, encompassing political, social and technical issues, combined with that arrogance which makes one despair.

But the MoD and the Army have made their choice. It is a very bad one. They – and especially the Army – will pay the price, as indeed will the nation. But most of all, it will be the individual soldiers who will pay the greatest price, in deaths and shattered bodies.

Yet, this is a decision made by the Army, enthusiastically endorsed by Drayson and, in the manner of thing, approved by defence secretary Des Browne.

One trusts now, he will instruct the message which currently accompanies every announcement of a fatality to be changed. At the moment, it starts off, "It is with deep sorrow that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death(s) …".

As we remarked earlier, being "sorry" is not good enough. Collectively, the MoD has decided that soldiers should die for want of protection. Being sorry after the event, permitting avoidable deaths, is merely offensive.