Sunday 2 September 2007

A waste of space

The Sunday Telegraph has returned to the Afghanistan friendly fire incident, revisiting the ground trampled over by its sister paper The Daily Telegraph.

The arguments are spurious, ill-informed and wholly misleading – at several levels.

At the most basic level, the paper is homing in on the government's "failure" to invest in projects “to prevent incidents such as the deaths of three British soldiers in Afghanistan in an attack by a US fighter jet 10 days ago," - including the so-called "battlefield target identification system" - which, the paper complains, remain on the drawing board years after they were to have been introduced.

Against this, we are told that the MoD claims it has allocated £3.8 billion for projects "to prevent incidents such as the deaths of three British soldiers in Afghanistan in an attack by a US fighter jet 10 days ago". Then we are also informed that "one major project, a system that lets aircraft identify targets on the ground from a distance, has been cancelled."

All this paves the way for a comment from shadow defence secretary Liam Fox, who accuses the MoD of exaggerating the amount of money it had spent in a cynical attempt to deflect criticism. "Even when it comes to the deaths of our servicemen and women, New Labour can't stop the spin and lies," he says, "Any idea that Brown would be any different from Blair has been utterly exposed by events in recent weeks."

It is impossible to deconstruct this adequately, as part of the claimed expenditure, according to the newspaper, is the £2 billion Bowman radio system. To knock that down, the paper cites "manufacturers and defence experts" to say that this system was "not designed to identify friendly forces on the battlefield."

Actually, that is not quite true as the current systems do embed GPS positioning and, as Bowman is developed, it will allow for positional information to be accessed remotely via what is called a user data terminal (UDT). These data are passed automatically to all command levels for situational awareness (Pictured above are the user terminals).

Then, according to an authoritative defence website, the intention is to fit the system to battlefield attack and support helicopters, as well as C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. This, we are told, "will allow integration of air and ground operations, and the increased situational awareness characteristics of the system will reduce the risk of fratricide" – precisely the functions which The Sunday Telegraph complains it will not do.

In other words, the basic premise offered by the newspaper simply is not true.

Secondly, The Sunday Telegraph complains that the equipment is not compatible with that equipment used by Britain's allies, notably the Americans. And, while that is true to an extent, the MoD is quoted on this. We are told that it "insisted" (the code word to flag up an argument the paper does not accept) "that it was unrealistic for all the equipment to be compatible with that used by the US."

The MoD spokesperson goes on to say: "It is something of a red herring to say that each piece of equipment has to be interoperable … It is not a requirement for each piece of equipment to be able to talk to each piece of equipment. Information overload can be counterproductive."

That is indeed the case and, when it comes to interoperability, the USMC, US Army and USAF are having just as much difficulty getting their equipments to "talk" to each other.

But the issues are more profound and strike at the heart of the whole problem of friendly fire and close air support (CAS). And the point here is that, even if the equipment was fully functional and compatible, it would not make any difference. Neither a pilot nor a weapons systems operator (the man in the back seat) could or should be expected to read the "battle plot" off a tiny screen in the cockpit (pictured) and decide where to release his weapon.

Crucially, though, even that misses the point. In CAS, aircraft crews are under the direct control of Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and take their directions from them (a USMC FAC team is pictured below). All the crews need or want are accurate co-ordinates and clearance to attack. Therefore, it is up to the ground controller to determine the position of hostile and friendly forces.

Now, while a battlefield identification system might help an FAC in some circumstances, even with the best technology in the world, it is never wholly accurate or reliable, for all sorts of technical reasons.

But the more important problem is precisely as the MoD puts it – information overload. As was the case in this friendly fire incident, the FAC was dealing with dismounted troops, in a fighting patrol of a hundred men. If every single soldier was transmitting positional information – and moving around rapidly – than the tiny screen he is looking at is a blur of symbols, creating confusion rather than clarity.

For that reason, battlefield identification systems work at vehicle and unit level, rather than aiming to locate individuals. And, if all individuals are not located, then this still leaves open the possibility of error.

The most important safeguard, therefore, is the use of suitably equipped aircraft which are slow enough to allow crews to make a final visual confirmation of the target, to ensure (as far as is possible) that friendlies are not being targeted.

That, of course, is a wholly different argument to the one advanced by the Sunday Telegraph and Liam Fox. What they are calling for will cost a great deal of money and will not solve the problem. Thus, in pushing for an unrealistic solution, they divert time and attention from the real issues, which are not being debated outside the specialist journals and websites.

The article is, by that measure, a waste of space. It would better have not been printed at all.