Sunday 28 October 2007

Can we have a sensible debate?

Today, the Sunday Times magazine carries a story on "The faces of the fallen" resorting to that cheapest of journalistic tricks of publishing a photo-montage of the 250 service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, the front page of the magazine, pushing the story, has a graphic illustration (see left) of a burnt-out armoured vehicle, with a line of poppies in the form of a "river of blood", representing the "thick red line" – the blood spilled by those who have "paid the price on the war on terror".

Now, it may be a small point, but when you take a look at the armoured vehicle, you find it is a Russian-built Iraqi MT-LB multi-purpose armoured vehicle (see below right). Taken at face value, therefore, the graphic representation of the spilt blood signifies not British but Iraqi blood.

You would think that, with all the hours that must have been lavished on the graphic manipulation, someone in the organisation would have queried the original picture but, perhaps, the choice of an Iraqi military vehicle is symbolic. It illustrates the appalling ignorance of things military in the modern media.

But, if that is but a small, if symbolic, example, the greater ignorance can be found in The Sunday Telegraph under the headline, "£1bn defence shortfall 'will cripple MoD'".

This claims – citing unnamed "defence experts" - that "Troops will be left short of crucial weapons and equipment by a £1 billion black hole in the defence budget." This "shortfall", we are told, "will leave servicemen without Apache gunships, Land Rovers and Chinook transport helicopters", the piece breathlessly adding: "Future weapons projects, including the new generation of Astute nuclear submarines and even the Eurofighter, are also at risk."

Whether this is true or not, we shall leave to one side for the moment: what counts in the context of this piece is the evidence offered as to why there is a shortfall.

For that, we get a "rent-a-quote" from everybody's favourite military commentator, Tory MP Patrick Mercer. He is allowed to say that: "In peace time the new defence settlement would actually look generous. Now, it's starting to become clear that it is horrendously inadequate at a time when Britain is fighting a war on two fronts."

This is backed up by "military experts" who say the new defence budget is inadequate because it "fails to take account of how much more expensive it is to feed, water and arm troops while they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan compared with when they are based in the UK" and because of the "soaring prices of military hardware". We are thus told that, "The cost of machine gun bullets, grenades and flares has risen particularly sharply in recent years."

The problem here is that Mercer and the unnamed "experts" are talking rubbish. As has been made abundantly clear, on innumerable occasions, not least to the Defence Committee, the expenditure on the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, "… is funded from the Treasury Reserve. In other words, it is money that is new to MoD: the cost of operations is funded by the Treasury." It does not come from the Defence budget.

Further evidence that the newspaper is flying by the seat of its pants comes when it tries to support its thesis of a budget shortfall with the extraordinary assertion that, "Just 16 out of 96 new armoured vehicles needed by the British soldiers in Helmund arrived last summer."

This undoubtedly refers to the Mastiff protected patrol vehicles which, as we know, were purchased from the Treasury Reserve and thus the cost did not fall on the Defence budget. Furthermore, the reason why Afghanistan only got 16 is because the bulk of the order went to Iraq where, it was judged, the need was greater.

From this, and other points raised, it is clear that the evidence adduced by the paper does not support its own claim. One further give away is the mention of projects such as the Eurofighter being "at risk". This is the so-called Tranche 3 ground attack version and, if the MoD were able to cancel this order, it would be a blessing. Thus do we see our old friend "special pleading" at work, using the gullible media to keep the funds flowing, mainly for the benefit of defence contractors rather than the Armed Forces.

That is not to say, of course, that there are not funding issues with the MoD. There always are. But here we turn to another story, this one by Mike Smith, picking up the reports on the Nimrod fuel leaks, carried in many of yesterday's papers.

But, while Smith has been extraordinarily diligent in covering this story, what he has consistently failed to do is see the bigger picture, the germ of which is contained in his latest report. Writes Smith:

… pressure to deploy the aircraft, one of only six capable of sending real-time video to commanders, was so intense that it was immediately sent out to Oman, where Nimrods flying over Afghanistan are based. The need to fix the seven remaining leaks was put off until January 2007, by which time the aircraft would have finished its tour.

Jimmy Jones, a former RAF engineer who worked on the original Nimrod trials in the 1960s, said there had been time for only one "shakedown" flight to check for faults before the plane was deployed.

"They said, 'We need this aircraft out there', pushed it through and deferred those leaks until after XV230's tour was over," said Jones. "Here's an aircraft staggering out of servicing and they pushed it out straight away. They were desperate to get this aircraft flying and they just pushed it out with those defects."
The singular question, in this context, that Smith does not ask, is why it was necessary to use these huge, expensive machines to field exactly the same equipment that can be carried by a single-engined club trainer (pictured: see the black globe behind the nosewheel - an Iraqi Air Force Sama 2000).

In fact, the role carried out by the Nimrods could just as easily have been done by BN Defenders or, perhaps even better, by Super Tucanos (each of which can be or are fitted with the MX-15) - at a fraction of the cost. When it comes to funding issues, therefore, compare and contrast the huge expense of maintaining six Nimrods, operating out of distant Oman, compared with, say, a squadron of Super Tucanos or locally-based Defenders.

However, this is not just an issue of funding, but of capability. Back with The Sunday Telegraph, we see a long piece headed, "Basra fight pointless, says British commander", an admission from the Army that they have lost the battle in southern Iraq.

This is no more or less than what we were writing in August and in September (and here), but what is particularly revealing (about the state of the media) is a throw-away comment in the follow-up leader. It blandly states of our troops that, "They are risking their lives in the searing heat, badly paid and often kitted out with inadequate equipment."

It is the reference there to "often kitted out with inadequate equipment," which is the telling point – the fact that this is just thrown in as an incidental detail. In fact, what we have seen throughout the campaign in Iraq is an army – largely equipped for a conventional armoured battle - thrown in at the deep end to fight a vicious insurgency, for which it was wholly ill-equipped. Far from being incidental, the "inadequate equipment" - such as "Snatch" Land Rovers (but much else) - has been central to the failure of the Army to prevail in the region.

Here we come to our central point, one which we have seen so many times before, the disconnect between procurement and other military issues – whether it be costs, funding or performance.

And, in today’s coverage of the issues, we see not one whit of understanding about how these issues interconnect. Each story is treated as a separate, distinct report with no common thread, right down to the Sunday Times shedding crocodile tears over "over 250 British military personnel" having lost their lives, then illustrating their plight with a blown-up Iraqi vehicle.

Clearly, if we are ever to get a better understanding of military issues, it is not going to come from the media.


Saturday 27 October 2007

An event cascade

Several newspapers, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, give an airing today to the "fresh evidence" which has emerged concerning the cause of the loss of Nimrod XV230, which exploded in mid air September year last, close to Kandahar, after a catastrophic fuel leak.

The gist of the evidence, obtained by Graham Knight, the father of 25-year-old Sergeant Ben Knight - one of the 14 servicemen killed in the crash – was that fuel leaks were a common problem in the Nimrod fleet and that "RAF officials kept flying the doomed Nimrod … despite knowing of leak problems". The RAF, in fact, had been repeatedly warned about potentially serious problems with ageing Nimrod aircraft.

Mr Knight is cited as claiming: "It was definitely a fuel leak that led to the crash … It is quite obvious that an aircraft would not suddenly burst into a ball of flames," adding, "I think the major failures have been down to communication problems. There were people higher up who knew there were problems with this aircraft but there was pressure to get it out to theatre as soon as possible."

The fuel leakage problems have, in fact, been followed assiduously by Mick Smith in the Sunday Times (and here, for example) and, pending the now delayed publication of the Board of Inquiry report, it would seem that the most probable cause of the disaster was indeed a major fuel leak, combined with one or more failures which gave rise to the ignition of the escaping fuel.

However, if it was a fuel leak which gave rise to the disaster, this would have been only the proximate cause, the last in a long chain of events which combined to give rise to the fateful explosion. This, we have come to call the "event cascade".

Starting at the beginning, it is highly germane to note that this aircraft was carrying out a reconnaissance mission, monitoring a NATO offensive against Taliban insurgents west of Kandahar. To that effect, it was providing real-time video imagery from an MX-15 electro-optical turret to ground stations and commanders, to assist ground operations.

Therein lies, possibly, the root of the problem. Famously, the Nimrod is a maritime surveillance aircraft, and not designed for land battle surveillance. The fact that a Nimrod was having to be used for this role is therefore, in itself, an issue. Had there been more appropriate aircraft – or other equipment – then the Nimrod would not have been there at all, and the disaster would never have happened.

This is an issue we partially explored in our immediate response to the Nimrod crash, pointing out that the tasks being carried out by the aircraft could just as easily have been carried out by Predator UAVs.

As we also pointed out, though, the British tactical UAV programme has been an unmitigated (and expensive) disaster, which means that such assets were not available in the theatre.

UAVs apart, there are other aircraft which can carry the MX-15 electro-optical turret, and therefore could have offered the surveillance capability provided by the Nimrod. These include the BN Defenders, currently flown by the Army Air Corps. Other examples are the Iraqi-operated Sama 2000 and the Super Tucano strike aircraft.

That begs the question as to why alternative – and considerably more economic - aircraft were not used. Here, there are two factors. Firstly, through the years, there has been considerable neglect of battlefield surveillance capabilities, by an RAF indifferent to the needs of the Army yet so jealous of its status that it consistently bars the Army from acquiring its own fixed-wing assets.

Secondly, in the post Cold War era, the Nimrod squadrons were under-employed, no longer having Soviet submarines to shadow. Fearing even more cuts in the surveillance capability, the RAF was keen to see the aircraft employed on other duties. Therefore, the RAF actively lobbied for the deployment of Nimrods to Afghanistan, even though they were far from being the optimal aircraft.

This, to an extent, could explain Mr Knight's comment that, "There were people higher up who knew there were problems with this aircraft but there was pressure to get it out to theatre as soon as possible." The pressure came from the Air Force itself which, in pursuit of its own partisan interests, put in equipment which was not up to the job. When they were told of problems, they did not want to know.

Gradually, now, the situation is improving. It seems unlikely that the deployment of German surveillance Tornadoes, in the wake of the disaster, was entirely a coincidence, while there are now two upgraded Predators (Reapers) in theatre, the JSTAR Sentinel is shortly to be deployed, and the Army is acquiring Beechcraft RC-12 electronic surveillance aircraft (above left).

The Sentinel apart, these assets have been acquired in response to direct operational needs, but they are needs which could and should have been predicted. That they were not says a great deal for the problems of inter-service rivalry and the lack of foresight in the procurement process.

And it is here, in the procurement process that, perhaps, the greatest fault lies. Throughout this blog, we have constantly attempted to make the link between procurement decisions and operational decisions, the latter conditioned by the former but often made years after the original event.

Arguably, therefore, to look to the roots of the Nimrod disaster, one must look back over the years to a myriad of bad decisions, and decisions not made, all of which, cumulatively led to Nimrod XV230 falling out of the sky on that fateful September day - an "event cascade" that went back decades.


Friday 26 October 2007

A dubious relationship

"So we have an undeclared, under-the-counter payment to a peer to introduce a lobbyist pimping on behalf of arms dealers to the Minister, Lord Drayson, in charge of buying arms …" writes Guido Fawkes.

He is referring to the piece on the front page of The Guardian today, which reports that former Labour frontbencher Lord Hoyle - previously Doug Hoyle, an ex-government whip and former MP for Warrington – was paid cash by a lobbyist for an introduction to Lord Drayson, the defence procurement minister.

The lobbyist in question was Michael (Mike) Wood, who trades as Whitehall Advisers, a former RAF officer who works for BAE and other smaller arms companies to help get them contracts. And, says The Guardian, he has free run of the palace of Westminster because he has a security pass as a "research assistant" to another MP.

Only down-page, however, do we find that his parliamentary pass as a "research assistant" comes from Gerald Howarth, the Conservative shadow defence minister responsible for procurement.

This somewhat dubious relationship between Mike Wood and Howarth was in fact reported by the Independent on Sunday on 10 October 2004 – over three years ago – when the paper noted that Wood’s clients included BAE, Airbus and MBDA, together responsible for UK defence contracts worth billions of pounds.

Also noted by the paper was that the arrangement, "which allows Mr Wood to enter the House of Commons at will", runs counter to the voluntary code of conduct that regulates political consultants.

Despite the "outing", Howarth was evidently unrepentant in continuing his close relationship with Wood, even to the extent of sharing a table with him at the annual SBAC dinner at Farnborough Air show last year.

Wood’s company, however, is quite explicit about its activities. On a company website, it is described in this fashion:

Whitehall Advisers Ltd was formed in 1997 to offer specialist advice to companies operating in the aerospace industry and specifically to those with interests in the UK Defence sector. The Company possesses an unusual blend of military and commercial expertise and has been involved in the complete spectrum of the equipment procurement cycle both in the MOD and in Industry.

On the industrial and political fronts, the team has played a key role in several major UK equipment procurement campaigns, totalling around £10 billion. This involved responsibility for the bidding process, formulation of marketing strategies and detailed plans, government relations and the role of political lobbying, public relations, the industrial dimension and teaming issues, and finally contract negotiations - in short, the whole spectrum of a successful campaign. The team can offer either a "one-stop shop" service covering all elements of a campaign or assist an "in-country" team with specialist advice.
That Howarth is so close to a self-declared arms lobbyist does make one wonder. As this blog has frequently noted – he has a habit of pulling his punches when it comes to attacking equipment purchases, and has also been rather quick to endorse some rather suspect equipment.

Thus, while Lord Hoyle may be in error taking money from Wood to arrange a meeting with Drayson, can there be any less concern that there is such a close relationship between Wood and Howarth? After all, Gerald Howarth's brief also includes procurement and it is he who should be the major critic of the government's poor procurement record. Can he really do that job effectively while also cosying up to a lobbyist?


Thursday 25 October 2007

"Dammit, I spilled my water bottle"

That was comment from the Canadian driver of a Husky demining vehicle (pictured above) after it had been hit by a huge bomb on a road in Afghanistan.

As the South African built vehicle, one of a pair, was making its way along Route Foster - a narrow, winding highway that runs west of Forward Operating Base Masum Ghar in Kandahar province – there was a loud bang, the acrid smell of explosives and a blinding cloud of dust. The front end of the Husky was nowhere to be seen and, where the road had been, there was a crater six feet wide by three feet deep.

However, the rest of the vehicle was intact, including the driver, Cpl. Pierre Brule, in his cockpit. Said Brule, after complaining about his water bottle, "It was too quick to be scared anyway. The vehicle just dropped to the ground so it was pretty cool."

The Husky, pictured above, is one of the most recent acquisitions of the Canadian Armed Forces, part of what is known technically as "The Expedient Route Opening Capability" (EROC) systems. These, pioneered by US Forces, comprise the Husky, the Buffalo mine detection vehicle and the Cougar 6x6 mine protected vehicle.

The Husky goes first, attempting to detect or explode buried explosives. The Buffalo, with its extendable hydraulic arm, investigates suspicious objects and the Cougars follow up, carrying the bomb disposal officers and their equipment, to deal with confirmed devices.

This team is changing the tempo of operations in the Canadian sector, moving from passive defence with armoured vehicles, to searching actively for buried improvised explosive devices.

And these answer the quite legitimate concerns of some British military commentators, who argued that the introduction of better protected vehicles would simply lead to the use by the terrorists of bigger bombs. This is indeed what they are doing but that necessarily means there are fewer of them and, being bigger, they are easier to find.

click to enlargeThe Canadians themselves ordered the equipment in May last year and received deliveries in September of this year, convinced they would save lives, and they have been doing just that. Unsurprisingly, they describe it as, "the best piece of kit there is".

The British, who have been slow even to introduce protected vehicles, are catching up on this front, but they are still behind the curve – having none of this equipment. As the Taliban react to their improved vehicles, crews – even with better armour – will still be at risk. It is, therefore, imperative that serious consideration is given rapidly to acquiring the capabilities which first the Americans and now the Canadians have so ably demonstrated as life-saving.

We really cannot afford another "Snatch" Land Rover situation, where the Army and the MoD react after the event – and then slowly – to a hazard which is both predictable and avoidable.


Hands off – it's our war!

Some insight into the back-biting and dog-in-the-manger attitude of (some of) the military comes in an intriguing article by Tom Coghlan in The Daily Telegraph today on the plans by Nato to hire 20 helicopters from civilian contractors to support troops in Afghanistan.

This is something this blog has campaigned for vigorously, not only because it is a quick answer to the chronic shortage of helicopters, but also because it is a cheaper option and brings to the theatre equipment which is often better suited to the conditions. Furthermore, it makes available a cadre of highly experienced – mostly ex-military – pilots and crews, whose expertise could be a valuable asset in a difficult campaign.

But rather than applaud this imaginative and welcome development, Coghlan is distinctly downbeat, writing under a headline, "British troops 'to depend on rented helicopters'", as if this was an inferior option.

Opening his piece by telling us that "British troops in Afghanistan could soon be relying for their resupply on rented civilian helicopters," Coughlan tells us that the new plan is to rent 20 large transport helicopters from civilian contractors. They would be used in the south of the country, including Helmand province, to meet the needs of Britain, Canada and Holland who have troops engaged in heavy fighting.

However, in what is clearly a sign of the military briefing against the proposal, Coughlan then goes on to write:

Military sources in southern Afghanistan questioned whether helicopters rented from private security companies would meet the standards required to transport British forces. Britain and other European countries fly helicopters that are equipped with complex defensive equipment to detect and defeat heat-seeking missiles. Pilots are also trained to perform difficult low-level evasive flying to throw the aim of Taliban ground fire.
He adds that 18 military helicopters have been lost in Afghanistan since 2001 with the loss of 110 soldiers and airmen. The last was a US Chinook transport helicopter in May. Seven people died, including a British soldier.

This wholly negative picture is a travesty. As we have pointed out before, the helicopters under consideration are piloted in the main by ex-military pilots, many of whom are instructors who taught the current generation of military pilots their trade. Others are ex-special forces and some of them are already in theatre, working with US special forces, and thus have acquired considerable experience of the conditions and operational demands.

As to the "complex defensive equipment", fitting this to the civilian helicopters is no big deal – a complete suite can be fitted in a few days, and the pilots are well used to operating it.

The real story, therefore, is the reluctance of the military to see civilian contractors encroach on "their" war. Some of this is fuelled by a fear of the competition, with the civilians able to operate more flexibly, sometimes in conditions where military aircraft like the Lynx simply cannot fly.

And since they are vastly cheaper, they provide an unfavourable comparison, which might have the politicians asking why they are funding expensive military operations when they can get much more for their money by using contractors.

In effect, what we have, therefore, is the military crying "hands off, it's our war" – an exercise in protecting their own interests rather than going for what is needed.

Furthermore, the need for more helicopters is real. As Coughlan writes, in concluding his piece, "The need for helicopters has become more acute in response to the growing threat from roadside bombs, increasingly acquired via Iran." This dog-in-the-manger attitude costs lives. It is a pity that this is not recognised by The Telegraph.


Wednesday 24 October 2007

Vanity in the driving seat

Coming on the back of the announcement of further delays to the Airbus A400M programme, as it did, it seems a tad unfortunate that the European Defence Agency should yesterday have called for EU nations to enter another joint aircraft development programme – this one the joint Franco-German heavy-lift helicopter.

It should have occurred by now, even to the image-besotted Europeans that these multinational programmes do not work. The only way is for one company to take design and production leadership and to sell the product to other nations on its merits.

Cost and efficiency, however, are not uppermost in the EDA's mind, however – witness the statement by the Agency's new head, Alexander Weis, who says that cooperation on this project "would fill important gaps in Europe's military hardware and allow the EU to build up armaments technology so it could better compete with the United States". He added that He said the long-term build up of such home grown projects would allow Europe to "cooperate" on a more equal footing with the United States.

In this, Weis is also talking about a European satellite observation system, to replace existing French-led system when it comes up for renewal around 2015. There too, he is looking for a modernised system jointly built by the Europeans, again to reduce dependence on US space-based intelligence, while sharing development costs.

The Franco-German project has been around for some time, since at least 2003, aimed at replacing the German Sikorsky CH-53s (pictured) and the Chinooks operated by other nations.

The problem is that the two partners only need about 60 aircraft and the estimated €2 billion (US$2.9 billion) development costs for such a limited number of units makes the project uneconomic – hence the need to rope in other partners.

Of course, the traditional way has been to build US designed helicopters under license – as has been the case with Sikorsky machines for many decades – but this is not good enough for the Europeans. They must now have their own designs, not matter what the costs or difficulties.

One other option would be to go into partnership with the Russians and develop the Mi-26 heavy lift helicopter (pictured right), bringing it up to western standards. Something like that has been done with the workhorse Mi-8 helicopter, although Defense Industry Daily seems to think that this would be a more expensive option than buying a US machine – albeit less than the cost of an entirely new development.

Nevertheless, the "big negative" for either option is that the resultant machine would not be "European". This, it seems, vanity is once again in the driving seat. Please, do not let it be that the British government is stupid enough to take part in this venture.


Tuesday 23 October 2007

We really should not gloat

First it was this, then this, this and this. And now we get this - Airbus is now formally admitting that delivery of its A400M military airlifter will be delayed "at least six months", possibly even longer, at an extra cost estimated by Goldman Sachs at €900 million.

Germany, meanwhile, with its order of 60 A400Ms on hold, is having to make do with clapped out old Transalls, is going to have to struggle on with its old aircraft, possibly borrowing a few C-130s as well, to keep it going. It is hard, therefore, not to feel a little bit sorry for German economics minister, Michael Glos. He has confided that the delay was "painful" and urged EADS to "do everything to avoid further damage" in the matter.

The French Air Force is being equally inconvenienced, receiving its first A400Ms in April 2010 instead of October 2009, but it could be as late as October 2010.

According to DefenseNews, EADS are saying that the rescheduling of the programme is driven by the slow progress in engine development. However, we are also told that the engine-makers are said to be angry for being blamed for holding up the program. They argue that Airbus changed the specifications for a heavier airframe, calling for greater engine thrust, making for a heavier engine and a stronger wing to carry the powerplant.

Either which way, we are still no further forward in knowing when the RAF will finally get its batch of 25 A400Ms although, it is a fair bet that, had we ordered C-130Js, they would be operational by now.

Of course, the A400M is more capable than the C-130, although the situation is not much different than between the EU's Galileo system and the US Navstar. The one is better, in theory, than the other, but then the former isn't flying and the latter is.


Sunday 21 October 2007

Little boxes

It seems bizarre now, even to be thinking about UK defence – much less running a blog called "Defence of the Realm" when, on Friday last our prime minister went to Lisbon to hand over a huge tranche of powers to the European Union to such an extent that what little independence left to this country is even more eroded.

In the short-term, however, nothing changes – it never does immediately – although, in the fullness of time, this blog will most probably have to change its name to "Defence of the Union", any idea of the UK mounting its own, independent defence policy being one of those sad little remnants of the past.

For the time being, therefore, life goes on and we return to last Tuesday and our report the following day on the defence policy debate in the House of Commons, our reporting so far having been confined to a commentary on the absence of Tory defence policy.

In any event, running as it did to 96 A4 pages and 56,000 words – the length of a short novel - the debate, without a single theme or plot, is impossible to summarise succinctly. Thus, all we can hope to do is pick out points of interest and highlights, in an attempt to give a flavour of what went on.

One of those highlights – from our partisan point of view – was a speech given by Ann Winterton (spool down nearly to the end) where she, in typical style, concentrated most of her efforts on Armed Forces equipment.

She could, of course, have delivered that same speech a week earlier in the procurement debate but back-benchers cannot rely on “catching the Speaker’s eye” and, had she spoken earlier, she might not have been called for this debate. And this, on policy, was the more important of the two.

Ann Winterton's thesis, itself, was one not unfamiliar to readers of this blog, and one she has rehearsed before. Its essence was that the three armed services are financially bogged down with high costs projects such as the Eurofighter, the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers and the Army's future rapid effects system (FRES). Everything, she said, was geared towards providing a high-tech expeditionary rapid reaction force, but no one had asked why that should be so, or has asked what has been omitted in the meantime.

And while those at the top of the military seem to have become obsessed with high-tech, high-priced, overcomplicated new equipment, in the real world, we are engaged in ongoing operations in difficult counter-insurgency situations.

We will return to the detail of this thesis shortly, but what was especially interesting was the response to it, first from the Conservative shadow minister, Andrew Murrison, who summed up the debate for the opposition, and then the armed forces minister, Bob Ainsworth, who did likewise for the government. Murrison simply noted that Ann Winterton had "discussed defence equipment in her inimitable, robust and highly thoughtful fashion," while, in a similar fashion, Ainsworth remarked that she had "talked mainly about procurement."

On first watching and hearing the speeches, and then reading them afterwards, it suddenly occurred that both men had indeed thought that Ann Winterton's comments had been directed to that issue and, more to the point, that was all she was talking about.

Yet, taking her to task for being "concerned" that the Royal Navy is going to be dominated by the carriers, Ainsworth then demonstrated precisely the relationship between procurement and defence policy, which Ann Winterton was seeking to highlight. "Yes," said Ainsworth,

…the carriers are going to be somewhat dominating features of the Royal Navy. If we want our Navy to have worldwide reach and the ability to project force around the world wherever we want it - be it air power or assault capability - the carriers and the protection force are the single most important way in which we will do that. That is why the carriers are so important.
Turning this round the other way, in the few decades (or less) that Her Majesty’s Government actually has a foreign policy, it takes the view that an essential part of that is to "project force around the world". That being the case, it is also taking the view that an effective mechanism for so doing is the aircraft carrier, for which purpose it is intending to commission two such vessels.

Hence does Ainsworth affirm the link between policy and procurement. In this case, the policy comes first, and the equipment – which enables that policy to be implemented – follows naturally.

But it works the other way round as well. A defining characteristic of military equipment is its functionality – it is designed for very specific purposes and only very rarely can equipment designed for one purpose be entirely suitable for others. Thus, if we wish to implement policies successfully, we must have the equipment that enables us to do so.

That is what Ann Winterton was getting at – our policy, ostensibly, is to fight the "war on terror" on Iraq and Afghanistan, yet we seem to be equipping our forces for some mythical, unspecified war in the future.

Thus did she observe that, "the real needs of the present have been overlooked, and the hard-learned lessons of the past appear to have been forgotten." So many people, she said, "thought that Iraq would be another Northern Ireland, where the use of Snatch Land Rovers was appropriate, but they were completely wrong, and many people have lost their lives or been maimed as a result."

Specifically, it was in the larger equipment that the procurement process was going wrong, and she therefore explored the choices of vehicles made by the Army. There was the Panther command and liaison vehicle is a very expensive runabout, not to be used on operations. The inadequately protected Tellar bomb disposal vehicle, the Pinzgauer Vector - an excellent off-road vehicle, "but any engineer knows that a mine blast turns it into a death-trap."

Then there was the so-called Supacat mobility weapon-mounted installation kit, "super for the special forces, but why have 130 of them, when they are a liability for normal patrols and convoys, as an infantryman can take them out with one bullet?"

On that basis, asked Ann Winterton, "Who is to say that the first round of FRES for the utility vehicle will be any better? Given the recent track record, we can have little confidence in getting that right. The vehicles can be transported, one at a time, only by the A400Ms—an aircraft that we might never get. What sort of a rapid reaction force will that be?"

And so she went on, observing that:

The military seem to be obsessed with fast jets, yet history has proved that small and slow is far superior for close air support. For the price of one Eurofighter we could have a squadron of Super Tucanos. They can carry the same ordnance as a Harrier, with its loud bang, but unlike the Harrier, which can be over the battlefield for no more than 20 minutes, Tucanos can loiter overhead for hours on end, ready for use in a ground attack at a moment's notice. We also tend to go in for expensive and complicated helicopters, which soak up manpower, like all complicated equipment. There appears to be little understanding of how light helicopters can be used effectively for ground attack.
In particular, she then referred to the exploits of the Rhodesian Light Infantry and their use their limited helicopter resources to devastating effect. And the need for total air surveillance on all key routes as a means of dealing with the IED threat.

In was in this context that she raised the issue of money and manpower. "We constantly hear about not having enough money and that our forces are overstretched almost to breaking point," she said, referring again to the Rhodesian forces. "They had little money and equipment, due to sanctions, and very small numbers of men, yet they succeeded beyond all expectations. They used what they had wisely, implementing ideas from the bottom up."

Thus she concluded:

British defence policy is caught in a vacuum, created in part by the military taking their eye off the ball while planning the longer term in procurement and reorganisation. In the meantime, we have been ill prepared to fight wars on two fronts - in Iraq and Afghanistan - and we have forgotten the lessons of the past in terms of counter-insurgency.
Almost three years to the day, I posted a piece remarking on how you could look at military equipment and divine from it the tactical doctrines of the armies that operated it. The equipment is defined by the purpose, I wrote, and the purpose is defined by the thinking.

The absence of any significant amount of specialist equipment dedicated to fighting – and winning – counter-insurgency operations, combined with the obsession for high-tech kit, tells you a great deal about the thinking that is going on in the military. And, as that thinking reflects the policy, it is the policy that is at fault.

But the point escaped the House on the day that Ann Winterton spoke. Policy is policy and procurement is something else. They are thinking in little boxes.


Saturday 20 October 2007

The Saturday "toy"

The Vulcan flies again. One of the cold war bombers, it left RAF service in 1984 but yesterday, XH558B, based at Bruntingthorpe Airfield near Leicester, made a spectacular 40 minute flight before returning home with a textbook landing. The restoration, by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VST), was completed in the 25th anniversary year of the Falklands Conflict. Rejoice!

Wednesday 17 October 2007

An absence of policy

You would not have known it from the media, but there was a debate on defence policy in the House of Commons yesterday – not just any old debate, but one of only four in the year on this subject, this one being regarded as the main event. To that effect, over six hours were devoted to it, occupying most of the day's session, with no time restrictions imposed on MPs who wished to speak.

As so often, however, it was thinly attended by MPs – we counted only eight opposition MPs in the chamber and, at times, the number was down to two. But, even at their lowest ebb, the MPs must have outnumbered the journalists, as not one single report in today's media can be found of the event. Thus, whenever the media tell you how important defence is to the nation, and how we should care for the welfare of our troops, their statements might be measured by their own performance.

So it is, though, that the MPs should be judged. Those many who blather about the need to support our troops were voluble by their absence. And, by and large, most of the few that did speak were ill-prepared, offering formulaic speeches that added little to the fount of human knowledge.

Furthermore, it was an ill-natured debate, characterised by acrimonious exchanges between the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne (pictured right), and his "shadow", Liam Fox (below left), from the Conservative benches.

But what really highlighted the divide was an intervention from Bernard Jenkin – the Conservative MP for North Essex and a member of the defence committee. He challenged Des Browne on the level of defence spending, complaining that we were falling "far behind" so many of our international comparators. This brought the following response from Browne, in which he starts off by saying:

The first point that I make to the hon. Gentleman - and others in his party who constantly look for comparators to justify, in their terms, the allegation of cuts in UK defence spending, which they have thankfully moved away from - is that our real-terms growth in defence spending contrasts significantly with what happened during the last years of the Government whom he supported. They cut defence spending by £0.5 billion a year in real terms.
But this is just an oeuvre. Warming to his theme, Browne then continues:

The challenge for him and his Front-Bench spokesmen is not whether they can compare spending in the UK, in its particular circumstances, with spending in any other country that they might identify. I could identify many countries where the comparison goes the other way.

The challenge for his party is to match the level of spending to which we have committed in the spending review and to say whether it intends to spend more on defence—and, if so, to say what it would spend that money on and which public services it would cut in order to spend it. If the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench spokesmen are not prepared to engage in that debate, they cannot be allowed to seek solace in comparisons that they have drawn out of the air.
And that really does set out the terms of the debate. In his own speech, Liam Fox aired the familiar litany of complaints, but also ventured that his Party supported all of the current major spending projects – including the Eurofighter, the two carriers and FRES.

On the basis of that, his concern about overstretch, his demands for better housing, medical facilities, pay and allowances – to say nothing of compensation for injured personnel – all imply significant spending increases yet, despite constant challenges, Fox refused in any way to affirm that there was any commitment to increased defence funding.

It was then Labour MP Don Touhig, himself a former defence minister, who observed that Fox should "take a lead from his leader" – David Cameron - who had said in a webcast interview recently, "There is no magic pot of money we can dip into to spend...on our armed forces." There we have it, said Touhig, "if the Tories were in power, there would be no more for the armed forces."

Fox later tried to dismiss this attack as a "red herring" but he cannot gloss over what is a huge lacuna in the whole Conservative approach to defence. Unless the Tories are prepared to engage in the funding debate, they do not have a serious (or any) defence policy.


Monday 15 October 2007

The right kit for the job

Regular readers of this blog might get the impression that we think less than highly of the MoD, the Army and the military in general. That is not the case – many of the things they do are right, but it is not our (self-appointed) role to hand out plaudits.

However, even our diet of criticism should be leavened occasionally, when something is properly done, and this is one of those occasions.

This is a report on the MoD website which records the impact of the recently arrived Warrior MICVs in Afghanistan, and the dramatic effect they are having on the tactical situation, something that was touched upon in an earlier MoD report.

Now, however, we get the "full frontal", with a report headed, "Warriors give Taliban 'a pasting'". We are told that the area around Forward Operating Base (FOB) Arnhem has seen continual fighting over the last 12 months and until recently was a Taliban stronghold. That was, says the report, until a new type of Warrior arrived in the neighbourhood, and one that is giving local villagers the confidence to come home.

There are the Warriors from Right Flank, 1st Battalion, Scots Guards provide overwatch on the edge of the Green Zone. The Guards have been at FOB Arnhem, the front line of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) operations against the Taliban in southern Helmand province, since early September. But, we learn:

The base was built in August and overlooks an agricultural area several kilometres wide known as the 'green zone'. Arnhem has unfettered views into the area within which the Taliban had been operating at will.

But the Taliban have left the area after initial incursions by ISAF into the zone were followed up time and time again, culminating in Op PALK WAHEL which saw the Taliban squeezed between 2 battle groups and forced out. Right Flank played a major part providing mobility and fire support to both battle groups.
There is much more to the report, which is for once not too badly written, and includes a pithy comment from Guardsman Brown, who summarised the effect of the Warrior. "Basically," he says, "since we arrived the Warriors have given the Taliban a pasting. We haven't seen much of them since."

There is also some of the usual PR "pap" but this is partially excused by the publication of a superb shot of a Warrior (above). It would be good to see more of this type of shot, but it would be even better if we saw them in the media, with an acknowledgement that, in deploying Warriors, the Army has got it right.

It would be churlish to observe that they should have done it earlier, and that there should be more there. So we will not. But this does underline the importance of having the right kit for the job.


Sunday 14 October 2007

We need some more answers

Rightly, The Sunday Telegraph is devoting considerable space today to the results of its investigation into the number of Service personnel who have sustained serious injuries as a result of enemy action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has discovered that 47 Service personnel have had limbs amputated, lost the use of arms or legs or lost eyes since 2003. Of those, 30 servicemen have lost legs, four of whom suffered double amputations, five have had arms amputated, two soldiers have lost the use of limbs and 10 have also lost eyes.

What spoils the whole exercise, however, is that we do not get any indications of how those servicemen actually sustained their injuries. The focus, as always, is on the care and rehabilitation of those injured (and their compensation). This is worthy and necessary but it leaves that huge and vitally important gap – the pressing need to prevent soldiers sustaining such injuries.

As we have so often before articulated, it is absolutely essential that some effort be directed to that end. Care and compassion for the injured is fine but we would much rather have soldiers fit and healthy than receiving the best care in the world for injuries that were wholly avoidable.

But so far divorced from this imperative is The Telegraph that it has not even begun to addressing this issue. Instead, it is actively – if unwittingly – misleading its readers. In its editorial backing up its investigation, it refers to the now celebrated Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson who, says the paper, lost both legs and suffered brain damage from stepping on a mine in Afghanistan.

We know this to be untrue. Parkinson was the rear gunner in a WIMIK Land Rover when he sustained his terrible injuries which, we aver, could have been prevented had he been crewing a better-protected vehicle.

This points up the comment made by Liam Fox in last week's procurement debate, in which he complained of the many "who make a false distinction between procurement and welfare issues."

"Procurement is a welfare issue," he said. "For our servicemen and women and their families, there are few issues as important as whether they have the equipment to maximise their safety and ensure the success of the tasks that they undertake in our name."

One MP who has been attempting to track down the link between WIMIK Land Rovers and the mounting toll of injury is Owen Paterson who, during the Summer recess, put a number of pointed questions to the Defence Secretary on the issue. In particular, he asked:

…how many WIMIK Land Rovers issued to British forces in Afghanistan were written off in each of the last three years; how many were written off as a result of (a) accidental damage or mechanical failure and (b) enemy action; and how many written off as a result of enemy action were the subject of mine or improvised explosive device strikes.
This was the answer from Armed Forces minister Bob Ainsworth:

Since the deployment of weapons-mounted installation kit Land Rover vehicles in summer 2006 to Afghanistan, a total of 19 have been lost as a result of operational use. Those losses have occurred either as a result of direct enemy action or denial operations by UK forces where vehicles have been extensively damaged (either through enemy action or accidents) and cannot be recovered.
Paterson then asked how many personnel in Afghanistan had been seriously injured or killed while crewing WIMIKs, and especially through mine/IED strikes.

Again the answer was fielded by Ainsworth, who replied that as of 10 September 2007, five personnel have been killed from "an explosion due to enemy action." However, he then went on to say:

The number of service personnel injured in incidents involving WMIK Land Rovers is not recorded centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.
This latter assertion is outrageous. If the Army is not collecting injury figures by cause and type – to assess potency of the enemy actions, the efficacy of force protection measures, and to determine whether any enhancements are needed – then it is being criminally negligent. And, of course, if the data are being collected, then the minister is lying.

However, putting the Telegraph and the data from the questions together, we can have a stab at assessing the bigger picture. We have 19 WIMIKs lost from "operational use" – each with a crew of three (but sometimes carrying four). Five have been killed in the incidents where loss occurred, of a minimum "at risk" group of 57. But how many of the 52 "not killed" were badly injured?

Well, we know Ben Parkinson was one and we know of an incident in September where two were killed in one vehicle. It seems highly unlikely that the third crew member escaped with light injuries – to say nothing of the interpreter who was also in the vehicle.

Then there was the Kandahar incident, also in September, with one soldier and an interpreter killed. The other two soldiers were injured – but how badly?

Another one we know of is the incident in July, which killed Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes. Four others were injured in the incident – which also involved an "exchange of fire" with the Taliban. How many were seriously injured?

One other, of which we know, happened in December 2006, where one Royal Marine was described as "seriously injured", yet here the vehicle may not even have been written off.

These, however, are just WIMIK incidents. To those we must add Pinzgauer Vectors and "Snatch" Land Rover losses - the latter exceeding the WIMIK number. Tenuous though it may be, therefore, it does not seem untoward to suggest that of the 47 Service personnel which the Telegraph reports to have had "limbs amputated, lost the use of arms or legs or lost eyes", the largest single proportion of that figure arose from crews of inadequately protected vehicles.

Of course, if the MoD came clean about quite how many soldiers had been injured in these vehicles, and the extent of their injuries, we would not have to be guessing. Small wonder that the MoD does not want to release the figures, but all the more reason why the media – and Mr Fox – should be pressing for some more answers.


Thursday 11 October 2007

Mining for nuggets - 1

In our previous post, we promised that we would continue exploring the procurement debate of earlier this week, "mining for nuggets" as it were, to bring you the more interesting and important parts of the discussion.

One such was a point was made Nicholas Soames, himself a former Armed Forces Minister and one time officer in the 11th Hussars. Not that we hold any brief for the man: it was once said of him and his Army career that he was so stupid that even his brother officers noticed – and for the Hussars, that is saying something.

Anyhow, Soames, in his own speech, addresses the minister thus:

…will the Minister see what he can do to try to improve on the Ministry of Defence’s dismal performance in respect of telling the story of the astonishing achievements and activities of British troops on operations? The continual bleating about nobody knowing what the Army is doing on operations is entirely the fault of the structures to promote such stories. There is no reason on earth why well informed, well told stories that give away nothing, but enable people here to get some comprehension of the astonishing challenges and remarkable achievements of our troops, should not be told. It is incumbent on Ministers to review the situation and see what they can do to drive it forward. At the Ministry of Defence, in both military and civilian bureaucracies, there is a sort of leaden resolve to say no to everything. I urge the Minister to improve on that.
It is left to Derek Twigg at the end of the debate to respond, echoing the "important point" made, "…the fact that what our armed forces are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is not getting wider recognition in the press and elsewhere."

That, in fact, was not the point made by Soames, who had complained of the Ministry of Defence's "dismal performance". However, Twigg continues:

General Dannatt has also recently raised this issue, and we share those frustrations. Reporters are embedded in both theatres and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, there are opportunities to talk to our armed forces personnel. They could also go to Headley Court, where on two or three occasions I have spoken to them. There are plenty of opportunities to do more and plenty of information exists. A number of documentaries have been made and there have been TV involvements, but I agree that more should be done, and I urge those in the media to do more to publicise the fantastic bravery of our armed forces. My hon. Friends and I will continue to do as much as we can to ensure that the message about the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces gets across, but we cannot force people to print something or to show something.
One cannot call Twigg stupid – we do not know enough of him to applaud him thus - but he certainly seems to typify both MPs and many in the corporate world who see the media as the primary source of publicity. What they do not see – or do not understand – is that the world of mass communication is changing with incredible rapidity, and that the key medium is now the Internet.

Here, as we have oft noted, the MoD has at its disposal funds of which we could only imagine, and a web site with a domain name to kill for. Further, almost every Regiment and branch of the Services has its own web site, the culmination of which gives the MoD every opportunity to put out its story.

Not only does the MoD not need the media but, if the sites under their control were imaginatively used, they would provide an ongoing resource for journalists (and bloggers) who would be only too happy to lift material from the site (the difference being that bloggers tend to acknowledge their sources while the "professionals" are more likely to pass off the work as their own).

But, turning to the main "resource", the MoD website (illustrated above), what do we see?

Currently - at the time of writing - the three headline stories were the increased compensation to injured troops (covered widely by the media), Prince William (covered obsessively by the media) and a story on the deployment of 52 Brigade to Helmund.

Following that third link, which is the only one on the site specific to troop operations in Afghanistan, and we learn from Royal Anglian Regiment commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Birrell - in the dreadful, leaden prose of corporate PR - that "We have undergone a comprehensive training package to get us to this point, and now we are here we are keen to get started."

Hold the front page: British troops "have undergone a comprehensive training package". You can see The Sun simply flying out of the newsagents, when that news leaks out.

Turning to the specific page on Afghanistan (illustrated), however, this is no better. The page is dominated by the picture of Major Alexis Roberts and the eulogies devoted to him – dated 7 October. The next story, is dated 2 October and the one under that the 27 September. Are we really to believe that in now 15 days, there have only been three Afghanistan-related stories worth publishing – one of which is "Browne meets Kiwi VC hero"?

Still, at least one can follow the link to the "photo gallery", to see the pictures of our brave troops in action in Afghanistan? Er … no. The latest postings date from 4 September and show Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth visiting a defence manufacturer in Coventry.

This is not so much neglect, as criminal negligence. As we have written so often – most recently my colleague – "If we do not win the propaganda war we may as well not bother with the shooting one." We are not the first to observe that the Internet is part of the battlefield yet, here is the MoD with a potentially powerful and effective weapon in that theatre, and it is conceding the ground to the enemy.

Earlier, we noted Stirrup's complaints about poor communication - with us suggesting that he could exert his influence on the MoD website – and we have also complained about the general paucity of information and the tendency to use the website for propaganda rather than information – addressing our comments that time to Dannatt.

Whether Dannatt, Strirrup or Twigg, though, this issue must be sorted. Good information in counter-insurgency operations (or any war) is not an optional extra. It is a central part of the campaign - in this case every bit as important as new Mastiffs for our troops - and the MoD is performing very, very badly indeed.


Wednesday 10 October 2007

What are they for?

The primary purpose of a general debate in the House of Commons (in theory, at least) is to afford MPs the chance to discuss issues of concern and, in particular, to bring the responsible minister to the House for questioning. It is thus a vital tool by which our government is held to account.

On an issue as vital as defence procurement, this process of scrutiny - holding to account - is sorely necessary, not least because of the dismal record of this government (like its predecessors) on the issue, but also because of the vast sums of money involved (some £16 billion a year) and because the entire efficacy of our Armed Forces depends on the right decisions being made.

There is also the equally important matter of the safety of our Service personnel for, as we have demonstrated so often in this blog, the wrong decisions can and do cost lives.

So it was that yesterday we had an adjournment debate on defence procurement, giving MPs precisely the opportunity of questioning the newly promoted Minister for the Armed Forces, Bob Ainsworth (pictured, top).

For those unfamiliar with the procedure, this type of debate is open-ended. There is no "motion" as such – merely that "the House do adjourn", discussed, typically, in a near-empty chamber.

Traditionally, the senior minister opens with a speech, he (or she) is answered (and questioned by a senior opposition spokesman - in this case, Liam Fox for the Tories), then by spokesmen for the lesser parties, following which the debate is opened to the "floor". At its conclusion, the debate is then summed up by shadow spokesman – this time it was Gerald Howarth, shadow defence minister – and then there is a response from a junior government minister. On this day, that duty fell to Derek Twigg.

The problem – and indeed it is a problem – is that such general debates are too general. Serious minded MPs might like to press the minister on major issue – like better equipment for troops on operations – but this is also an opportunity for any passing MP to "intervene" on the minister and air a particular hobby horse.

Thus it was that Ainsworth, not minutes into his speech, was interrupted by Bill Wiggin, the Conservative MP for Leominster, who persists to the degree that the minister is forced to give way.

But Wiggin is not concerned with matters such as would normally find their way into this particular blog. He wanted to know what discussions the minister had with DEFRA about increasing from just three percent of the amount of British lamb that our forces are allowed to eat. Introducing more British lamb through the procurement process, says Wiggin, would be good for the taxpayer, good for the farmers on whose land our troops train and, most of all, good for our troops, because British lamb is so delicious.

Shortly afterwards, we get another intervention – this from Ian Davidson Labour MP for Glasgow, South-West. He tells the minister how grateful he and his constituency are for the award of the aircraft carrier, and then wants clarification on whether the MARS - military afloat reach and sustainability -contract will be offered for award outside the United Kingdom through the Official Journal of the European Union.

This is an issue which we raised over a year ago and it deserves a debate in its own right. Davidson wants the minister "to reverse Government policy" on the matter – as if he could. If the project comes under the EU procurement directives, then he has no choice but to open the contract out to EU competition. But Ainsworth simply bats the question away with the uninformative statement that, "the MARS project is still in the development stage."

But before he can get back into his stride, the Labour MP for Chorley, Lindsay Hoyle, chips in with a comment about the BAE yard at Barrow getting a share of the carrier building work. And, no sooner has that been dealt with than the Lib-Dem MP for Yeovil, David Laws, raises a point about "the first partnering agreement for the Future Lynx helicopter".

Such "interventions" are the daily fare of Commons debates, but it is worth referring to them here as it illustrates the general incoherence of the discourse and also the difficulty in reporting such events. Many minutes into the debate, the minister has said nothing very much and we have been all over the place.

In fact, the minister says nothing very much at all – they never do. His speech is a bland tour de table of the current procurement situation, heavily politicised, self-congratulatory and uninformative. Ann Winterton intervenes at one point, asking about the order for medium protected patrol vehicles. The answer is also bland, but reassuring, and on it goes.

Frankly, at this point, interest wanes. The real "fireworks" are supposed to come later, when the opposition spokesman pitches in, so we move forward to Liam Fox, with Ainsworth, en route telling us that, "Our armed forces are among the most capable in the world…".

Come Fox's speech, however, starting 36 minutes into the debate, any idea of a thread or specific theme has long been lost. And the opposition spokesman immediately turns to his personal hobby horse, complaining about those "who make a false distinction between procurement and welfare issues." He adds for good measure, "Procurement is a welfare issue… For our servicemen and women and their families, there are few issues as important as whether they have the equipment to maximise their safety and ensure the success of the tasks that they undertake in our name."

We could not disagree here, but his speech is then a litany of complaints about falling defence expenditure, about cuts, cuts and more cuts, inadequate resources, overspending and again – a quote he used at his Party conference – the words of the Oxford coroner at the inquest of Sergeant Roberts in Iraq: send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable, and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those who govern them.
At this point, we do walk away. Had I been a journalist tasked with covering the debate (not that there were any), I would have been moving towards the door, to the bar, the toilet, the office, or even home – anywhere but this debating chamber, with tired mantras flying, vying for attention with stale clichés.

There are nuggets later in the debate, and we will mine them, refine them and refer to them in other posts, but the spoil heap is huge and should not trouble our readers. Debates in Parliament are not for the faint-hearted. Nor are they for seekers after truth or even simple-minded souls who want answers to questions.

One might, therefore, ask our own question about these debates, such as "what are they for?" The question is easy. Answers are a little more difficult.


Thank you Gerald

There was a defence procurement debate in the House yesterday, with enough material (74 densely-packed A4 pages on my printout) to keep journalists and commentators busy for weeks, if they were at all interested.

Therein lies a tale. You will search in vain for any account of the debate in a media which professes to be soooo concerned about the welfare and equipment of our troops.

However, pending a review of the debate on this blog, one part of the speech from Gerald Howarth, shadow defence minister, caught our eye. Says Gerard:

The Supacat vehicle, which is a superb vehicle, was on display at the defence systems and equipment international exhibition. It is made by an excellent company called Supacat down in Devon. Its managing director is my secretary’s nephew and I have visited it a couple of times. I give it a plug because it is a jolly good company. It is a small British company doing a splendid job, and it is not just the big boys that we need to be concerned about.
It is so good to have a shadow minister who is really on the ball. But then, this was the man who also thought the Pinzgauer was "superb", allowing himself to be photographed in the cab of the vehicle, which the company used for promotional purposes.

One wonders what be might now say to the widow of Major Alexis Roberts?


Tuesday 9 October 2007

A battle won … but a war to fight

Overshadowed as it was by the news of troop cuts in Iraq, it was inevitable and entirely predictable that the media should have all but ignored Gordon Brown's announcement yesterday of the purchase of 140 Mastiff protected patrol vehicles (designated MRAPs by the US forces).

The only specific pieces that show up in a Google search are one from Reuters and another from a Polish news agency, which simply rehashes a UK government release.

Thomas Harding, however, did offer the not unreasonable comment, in a more general analytical piece, that:

The MoD can be applauded for buying an extra 140 Mastiff vehicles for Iraq and Afghanistan as they have proven resilient to mines and roadside bombs. But it is unfortunate that the Mastiffs are deploying on operations as we leave Iraq after years of controversy over the Snatch armoured Land Rovers in which more than a score of troops died.
In a sense, however, the hacks were only taking their lead from the MPs, the only one of which he responded to Brown’s announcement in the debate that followed was the redoubtable Ann Winterton, who sought clarification on whether the cost would be borne by the Treasury or the Army budget.

Clarification we got and, contrary to our earlier assertion, it appears that the funding is to come out of the Army settlement. This, in itself, is a highly significant development, of which more shortly.

Ann Winterton also asked about medium protected patrol vehicles – which we flagged as a possible Cheetah purchase – when she got a response from Brown that "we are looking into those smaller vehicles…". We understand that these may not necessarily be Cheetahs - a completely different vehicle could even be on the cards - but we should be able to expect an announcement within 2-3 weeks and very rapid action thereafter.

Returning to the issue of funding, followers of this blog will know that the original order for Mastiffs was imposed over the heads of the Army brass. They were totally opposed to buying in equipment for what they saw was a short-term need, in case it prejudiced funding for their "future army" plans, and in particular, FRES. Then, it was only on the understanding that the purchase was funded through an Urgent Operational Requirement – and thus paid-for by the Treasury – that they were prepared to accept the vehicles.

That the Army is now prepared to fund the new batch itself thus reflects a new realism that current operations must be properly equipped - with dedicated rather than general-purpose kit – and that the funding must come from the mainstream equipment budget.

This in turn represents a hard battle fought and won within the defence establishment about the relative importance of the "future army" and a reigning-in of the "futuritis" which afflicts defence planning. Hence the yesterday's announcement is far more significant than the casual observer could even being to appreciate.

But the strange thing is that, for all the fluff, indignation and politicking that we saw in yesterday's debate, barely a single MP in the House even realised that the battle had been fought, much less won. The MPs are not so much "above the debate" as unaware even that it is happening.

However, if this is a victory, it is only one battle in a long war. To fight is the issue of helicopters, and not only as "airborne trucks", which is – with the exception of the Apaches - largely the British military establishment's view of them. There is a doctrinal battle to be fought and won on the tactical use of small helicopters, pioneered in what emerged as the Rhodesian "Fire Force" model, which still stands as a shining example of how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.

Then there is the issue of providing the right aircraft for close air support, something that has yet to receive the attention it deserves, in which the Army is dealing with an enemy far deadlier than the Taliban … the might of the vested interests of the Royal Air Force. If they can be overcome, then bringing peace to Afghanistan will, by contrast, be relatively easy.

Thus, a battle we might have won, but there remains a war to fight.


Monday 8 October 2007

I don't think we have communicated it very well

In a candid and important admission to The Times, published this morning, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, said that the "government as a whole" had failed to set out the strategic prospects for southern Iraq, further adding that, "we have not done as well as we should have done at thinking strategically".

"The key question", he said, was, "are we gaining strategic advantage in return for the price they (our troops) are paying?” To that, his answer is "yes". "If I thought we weren't, my recommendation would be to end it," he said. "But it's a difficult message to get across to the public, and I don’t think we have communicated it very well."

The piece offered by the newspaper goes under the heading, "Government 'gave public false hopes' on achieving Iraq goals", focusing on another admission from Stirrup, that the government gave the public "false and inflated expectations" of what could be achieved by British troops in Iraq.

We are told that Sir Jock decided to speak out because of his "growing concern" that the public are failing to appreciate what the British troops have been doing. "All they get are snapshots, which are sometimes really good and sometimes really bad," he says. "In my view, and contrary to what many people may think, the British military in the south of Iraq, against some quite daunting odds, has been successful, and the nonsense about the British having failed in Basra is completely misjudged."

However, he added: "Of course, it does depend upon recognising what the mission was in the first place, and I'm afraid we did allow some false and inflated expectations to arise. But the mission for the military was to get the place and the people to the state where the Iraqis could run that bit of their country if they chose to."

For this blog, which has been struggling to make sense of the events in the British occupied sector, we would be the first to say that the task has been tremendously difficult.

Even now, we get highly conflicting reports, for example one recently talking of growing stablity while another, in the same newspaper, claims that, so desperate is the situation that Iraqi army officers in Basra are preparing to make a desperate plea for the return of British troops to patrolling the city to stem rising sectarian killings and political violence.

That Sir Jock is prepared to admit to a poor communication strategy, therefore, is a good start, but it would be interesting to learn what he intends to do about it. One place, of course, where he could exert his influence, is on the MoD website, where he could insist on the publication of daily communiqués from both Iraq and Afghanistan, appraising us of what is going on.

No doubt many will quote the fabled "operational security" as a reason for not being more forthcoming. Out experience, however, is that the enemy is very often much better informed that is realised, while the main reason for OPSEC – in our jaundiced eyes – seems to be to keep information from the "home front".

That apart, one warms to Sir Jock who is reported to be "sceptical" about Dannatt's call for homecoming parades for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "I think a lot of units wouldn't want parades," says Sir Jock.

He is dead right and, despite the Telegraph's attempt to whip up a storm, aided and abetted by the Conservative's defence team, according to the Daily Mail, recent events have not been completely successful.

Dannatt's interventions, as a whole, have given the media plenty of copy but we rather feel they have been less than helpful in helping us understand what is going on. Perhaps, as part of Sir Jock's new "communications strategy", he could persuade Dannatt to shut up.