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.