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.