Friday 30 November 2007

Does this help?

If the Armed Forces are feeling unappreciated – and indeed anecdotal evidence supports this – one wonders quite what is being achieved by the media stories that continue to filter through the system.

The latest comes from The Daily Telegraph announcing: "Armed Forces row over £1bn shortfall", whence we are informed that a "fresh row" over Armed Forces funding has broken out "after it emerged that defence chiefs are having to find an extra £1 billion for cost overruns on major projects."

This is on the back of the latest NAO major projects report, an annual production which charts the progress of the 20 most expensive MoD procurement projects.

Generally, however, the report is favourable, stating that, "Overall the Department is in a similar position to the Major Projects Report 2006 for forecast cost and performance," although it adds, "there continue to be time delays". These, as one might expect, are largely down to legacy projects, which started before the current procurement system was in place.

The main point of contention seems to be the transfer of parts of budgets from different projects into other categories, the details of which are abstruse, and could be construed as normal – or "creative" depending on your point of view – but nothing in the report would seem to warrant the government being "condemned by the Tories", as the Telegraph reports.

Nevertheless, we have Gerald Howarth, a Tory defence spokesman (pictured), saying: "This report provides further evidence of Labour's incompetence in supplying our forces with equipment, a failure which is potentially placing lives at unnecessary risk".

Included in that category is FRES and, we are told, "Ministers were also accused of seeking to disguise the fact that the £10 billion project for a "battle-field taxi" armoured vehicle - known as the Future Rapid Effect (sic) System - was slipping further behind schedule."

All of this could, of course, just be treated as part of the knockabout element of British party politics. Government performance should be open to scrutiny and should invite robust comment from the opposition.

However, none of the projects under consideration by the NAO, with the exception of the Nimrod MR4 project are directly related to the conduct of operations in either Iraq and Afghanistan, in such a way that there could be any serious arguments that lives were being put at risk.

And, of the Nimrod project, that programme was initiated in 1992 as the Replacement Maritime Patrol Aircraft (RMPA) procurement programme, and contracts were awarded in December 1996 – both events under the Conservative watch.

Furthermore, it really is the case that major defence projects are problematical, not only in this country – under every administration – but in countries as far afield as the United States, India and Australia. It is thus something of a cheap shot to complain that the current delays and overspend provide "further evidence of Labour's incompetence" – especially as, by common accord, the efforts of Lord Drayson have been successful in reigning in the excesses.

In respect of FRES, however, the criticism is especially unwarranted. From the outset, this was an over-ambitious project, based on the flawed assumption that medium-weight, air-portable armoured vehicles could be deployed safely in the modern battlefield. Had the project forged ahead, without taking into account experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would now be committed to building a range of extremely expensive and (even more) inadequate vehicles.

Even now, with much of the technology on which the FRES concept will rely being immature, there is a good argument to be made as to whether FRES should go ahead at all and whether the money earmarked for this project should be better spent elsewhere.

There is, for example, a good case for the purchase of light helicopters to enable increased air-mobility of tactical units, there is an argument for light aircraft to be used for close air support, for the greater use of a range of MRAP-type vehicles, for the development of a fixed-wing gunship on the lines of the AC-130, and many more issues which have been debated on this blog.

What one would expect of an opposition, in the context of holding government to account, is constantly to be probing the government on alternatives, on better ways of achieving a result, on cheaper ways of doing things, and of weaknesses in the systems which can readily be improved.

Defence is too important an issue for "biff-bam!" politics – morale is too fragile a beast to allow it to be used as a political football. The public should be able to judge the opposition not by the stridency of its criticisms of the government, but by its constructive (and realistic) comments and by its range of ideas which could improve the performance and conditions of our Armed Forces.

By this means, of course, the opposition could demonstrate to the public at large that defence would indeed be better in the hands of a new government, without having to rely on a diet of scare stories that the "government" was putting lives needlessly at risk.


FRES decision delayed

It seems like stories on FRES are like buses. You wait ages when nothing comes and then three turn up at the same time. But this one tells us that the final choice of the FRES utility vehicle – expected yesterday - is to be delayed.

However, according to the official press release, it is not the choice which has been delayed, but the announcement. A "technical recommendation has been produced" and there will now be "a brief period of work to clarify the commercial implications of the proposals". Following that, "one vehicle will be announced as the preferred design to continue through to the next stage of the FRES programme."

The Times, though, is not buying this, reporting: "Army forced into retreat over upgrade to ageing armoured vehicle fleet," with the news that, "The Army's biggest equipment procurement programme … is going back to the drawing board after disappointing field trials."

This is the defence correspondent Michael Evans and he claims that there remained a number of unexpected problems and it was not yet possible to choose any of the three vehicles on offer. This does not tie in with the earlier report suggesting that the Boxer had been knocked out and the Piranha and VBCI were still in the running.

The Daily Telegraph also has a go at reporting events, but its story is left to the business section. It frames the report with speculation that the delay might have something to do with Lord Drayson's recent resignation, suggesting that the delay is the result of Treasury pressure to drive down the price.

From this source, we also learn that the Treasury wants the MoD to look again at the bids, and there is talk within the Ministry that the final contract may be for only 700 to 1,500 vehicles instead of the expected 3,000.

It is thus left to Defense News to offer the most detailed account, but it too speculates about Drayson's resignation, linking it to the choice of vehicle. And it suggests that the delay in the final announcement of FRES may be as long as three months.

But the really interesting information comes from "industry sources" which seem to confirm that MoD "appears to be considering buying fewer vehicles", with as few as 700 utility vehicles being bought, instead of 2,000. Programme costs, as a result, are also likely to be reduced.

This, by any account – and especially in the context of the recent controversy about defence spending – is important news. If confirmed, it will represent a considerable scaling down of what threatened to be a huge white elephant, hampering attempts to get the Army equipped for its priority functions of fighting insurgencies.

Although it will be presented as more evidence of Labour "cuts", as long as it is balanced with the flow of MRAP-type vehicles, the Army will gain rather than lose capacity, especially as the Mastiff is turning out to be a far more potent vehicle than was originally planned.


Thursday 29 November 2007

A lack of imagination

The day after our post pointing out the extraordinary cost of Apache attack helicopters, it is rather ironic that Bernard Jenkin should publish a report on defence policy arguing for the Army to be equipped with more Apache helicopters.

Thus writes Jenkin:

The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan discouraged the deployment of Challenger 2s, and the Army have been much more dependent upon the Apache attack helicopter. When first ordered, many questioned the possible utility of Apache. Despite some teething problems, and their expense, the Apache has proved its worth in Helmand in the fight against the Taliban but there simply have not been enough of them. There is good reason to think that a larger number than the sixty-seven we presently have should be provided to the Army Air Corps although support helicopters are a much more urgent priority.
Now, it is possible to make too much of this, as this is one short paragraph in a 60-page publication, but sometimes small things can betray a mindset, an evaluation of which can permit drawing general conclusions.

With that in mind, if we explore the Apache issue, there is no dispute that this is an extraordinarily expensive machine to buy. With a total acquisition cost, including the training package, in the order of £4.1 billion, this works out in excess of £60 million per machine, almost equivalent in price to the Eurofighter (depending on which estimate you use). Interestingly, it is also similar in price to the AC-130 Hercules gunship, which has proved such a potent weapon.

Another thing about which there is no dispute is that the Apache is primarily an anti-tank weapon, designed for operations in Northern Europe against the massed forces of the Warsaw Pact, where its ability to fly low and slow, using the abundant cover in the region, is an essential part of the survival package.

In using this machine in Afghanistan, therefore, one has to recognise that it is not being used for its original purpose, and that many of the conditions which make it suitable for Europe do not apply in Afghanistan. Given the expense (to say nothing of the extremely high maintenance burden it imposes), there is thus an arguable case for exploring cheaper alternatives that could achieve the same or better effect.

There are, of course, arguments on both sides of the debate – although this blog tends to take the view that a light, fixed-wing turbo-prop attack aircraft could provide a better and far cheaper alternative. In fact, there are good arguments that suggest that light, fixed-wing aircraft will always provide a better alternative to attack helicopters, the latter owing its existence more to inter-service politics than operational imperatives.

This stems from the US Key West agreement (with a similar agreement in the UK), whereby the Army was prohibited from operating fixed-wing attack aircraft and therefore invested in attack helicopters as a way of circumventing what would otherwise be an air force monopoly in providing air support.

The relative merits of different types of aircraft, however, is not a debate that is going to be resolved here, in this post. But the essential point is that there should be a debate, that the different arguments should be rehearsed fully and that, eventually – the sooner the better – an informed decision should be made, on the basis of the issues brought out by the debate.

In Mr Jenkin's paper, however, there is no sign of that debate – no recognition even that there is a debate, or any acknowledgement that there might be substantially cheaper and better ways of doing things. Instead, Jenkin opts for the orthodoxy of pouring more money into a system.

Interestingly, the thrust of his argument is that defence spending needs to be increased by £3 billion a year for the next five years but, if part of Mr Jenkin's strategy is to furnish the Army with more attack helicopters at over £60 million each, even that amount of money will have little impact – on top of all the other things which he wants to acquire.

Something else Mr Jenkin presumably wants is the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) which, rather alarmingly for someone who is on the defence committee, he calls the Forward Rapid Effects System. He complains that the service date "is slipping back and back" and is "rapidly getting heavier in response to threats encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan."

This leads Jenkin to conclude that "FRES is a bad advertisement for the present system of procurement" because, he avers, "it took so long to formalise a clear procurement strategy for the programme." He then suggests that the FRES programme "may become a victim of the squeeze resulting from the 2007 CSR (Comprehensive Spending Review.)"

Again this post is not the place to rehearse all the issues surrounding the FRES project. Suffice to say that there is an intense debate raging as to whether the original (or any) such concept is valid or even achievable, especially in view of the Army's determination to procure a multi-purpose vehicle which is suitable both for high intensity warfare and counter-insurgency operations.

Again this blog has a view, the essence being that the counter-insurgency roles would be better served by specialist – and far cheaper - vehicles such as the Mastiff, while high-intensity warfare (if we ever find ourselves fighting such a war) could be served by using upgraded Warriors, introducing net-centric capabilities incrementally, as the technology matures.

Here, Jenkin has some useful observations about the nature of future operations, writing:

Internationally, most recent crises, whether in the Balkans or the Middle East, have left the UK’s Armed Forces seeking to suppress an insurgency. Moreover, the main purpose of operations in Afghanistan is to counter al-Qaeda. Although we should never lose sight of the fact that the geo-political climate can change very quickly, the likelihood is that we will see a continued movement away from the kind of major war fought in World War II and planned for during the Cold War. As far as we can tell, the wars of the twenty-first century are likely to be "Fourth Generation" wars against smaller states or non-state actors. Our enemies lack the technology and resources to engage on an equal footing and so resort to "asymmetric" warfare, as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thus he concedes that we are most likely to be committed in the future to "Fourth Generation" wars, for which FRES is likely to be unsuitable and overly expensive.

Once more, this is not a debate that is going to be resolved here, in this post. But, exactly as we wrote above, the essential point is that there should be a debate, that the different arguments should be rehearsed fully and that, eventually – the sooner the better – an informed decision should be made, on the basis of the issues brought out by the debate.

Yet again, in Mr Jenkin's paper, there is no sign of that debate – no recognition even that there is a debate, or any acknowledgement that there might be substantially cheaper and better ways of doing things.

The penalty of such a superficial approach, however, is substantial. Given that FRES is expected to cost – at the very least - £16 billion, and Mr Jenkin is looking for £15 billion over the next five years, the answer to his problem is staring him in the face. Make a case for cancelling FRES and he has all the money he needs without increasing the defence budget.

One more point we have to raise – before this post gets too long – is Mr Jenkin's call for more support helicopters. Apart from the fact that the six Merlins and eight Chinooks are on their way, he also takes no note of the arguments for meeting urgent requirements with civilian contractors. It is not that he dismisses the arguments. He does not even – as before – seem to be aware that there is even a debate going on.

So it is that we draw our overall impression of the paper – tired, staid, unimaginative and conventional, drawing the same wearily predictable conclusions that the answer to all problems in our Armed Forces is simply to pump more money into them. Yet, as a Conservative – and supposedly a right-winger – Jenkin of all people should know, with the experience of the flood of money pumped into the health service and education, throwing money at public services does not necessarily yield proportional (or even any) improvement.

Somehow though – like so many of his colleagues – he seems unable to make that leap of imagination and conclude that the same dictum might apply to the Armed Forces which, despite its special role, is still a public service. And there, in a nutshell, is the central malaise in the Conservative Party and, in my view, the main reason why it has not (and will not) capture the imagination of the voting public.


Wednesday 28 November 2007

Pictures galore

Official photographs from the 40 Commando photographer in Helmund. No captions necessary - just enjoy (click the pics to enlarge).

Bernard Jenkin on Today

Sarah Montague: The former Conservative defence spokesman Bernard Jenkin and the former chief of the defence staff, Lord Guthrie, say defence spending needs to be increased by £3 billion a year for the next five years. Bernard Jenkin who is also on the Commons defence committee joins us here now and in Westminster is a Labour counterpart of his form the same committee, Kevin Jones …

Bernard Jenkin, why's this money needed?

Bernard Jenkin: Well, we’re reaching a crunch point. The latest spending round is underfunding the Ministry of Defence again and its widely understood that they're going to have to find a billion out of the next three year's spending and there's going to be crunch over the next few months as they throttle back on equipment programmes, squeeze manning further and this has been going on for some considerable time

And the choice we really have to face - and all parties have to face and we have to face as a nation - is whether we're prepared to pay what it takes to give the military a global role, which is certainly what the foreign policy has demanded over the last ten years, or whether we’re going to throttle back and opt out of that global role. That's the choice.

Sara Montague: But the £15 billion, £3 billion a year for five years, is just to maintain present capabilities?

Bernard Jenkin: Pretty well just to maintain present capabilities. And I thought this was going to be pushing the boat out but earlier this week Lord Robertson, the former Labour secretary of state for defence said we needed an extra £25 billion spent on defence

Sara Montague: Kevin Jones, what do you reckon?

Kevin Jones: Well, I think if look that if you look at the document that Bernard's launching today, I mean it's a little bit like what a lot of youngsters will be writing in the next few weeks, their Christmas list to Santa. It's full of aspirations with no realisation how you would pay for it, or actually what you should get out of this kit, for example an increase of all Services back to Strategic Defence levels; all the submarine fleet, increasing the surface fleet ships to 30 destroyers and frigates; more Apache helicopters, more tactical airlift and strategic lift. And it says in an all-encompassing paragraph, all commitments for the covenant met, including military dedicated hospitals. This is just a wish list which can't be afforded.

Sara Montague: That's right, isn't it Bernard Jenkin. I can quote to you your own leader, David Cameron when he was asked about Armed Forces: He says: "No magic pot of money we can dip into to spend a lot more on our armed services, much as we would like to."

Bernard Jenkin: Well, I mean that's the choice we've got to face as a nation isn't it. Em..

Sarah Montague: But there is no money.

Bernard Jenkin: Well, there have been very, very large increases for other programmes over the last ten years – eighty percent for health, forty-five percent for education. This is recommending no more than the increase in spending that we’ve had on transport we've had under this government and, er, we really have to decide what our priorities are. If we want to carry on projecting a global role and being able to intervene around the world, then we need these capabilities, which the SDR seemed to remove any doubt that these capabilities were the government's policy.

Sarah Montague: Kevin Jones, would you give up the capabilities that Bernard Jenkin is talking about so that you could spend the money on health and education and transport?

Kevin Jones: Well no, if you look at what he is actually proposing, £1.5 billion a year extra will not even meet what is actually being put forward in this document. And it's not the status quo what is being put forward. It's an increase in entire areas. And if you look at ...

Sarah Montague: Let's just address .. if you want - an argument was put forward … forget the document, but just to maintain current capabilities you need this extra money, and it's one and a half billion a year on top of what the government is already promising …

Kevin Jones: No but, I think you want to read the document. That’s not what its saying. It's actually saying we have to increase a whole host of areas including, for example just take one, military dedicated hospitals. Bernard and I are currently doing an investigation on the Committee into Armed Forces medical services. There's one thing that all clinicians say that we do not want is that. And these have got huge price tags to them. This is not a costed document.

Sarah Montague: On the pricing, at the moment..

Bernard Jenkin: I wouldn't pretend this is a detailed costed document.

Kevin Jones: Far from it.

Bernard Jenkins: What I’ve set out are a range of capabilities which would certainly be desirable and many of which we actually need if we’re going to be able to project our global role.

Sarah Montague: OK, but just [indistinct] talk roughly … At the moment the government is planning a yearly increase of £1.5 billion a year.

Bernard Jenkins: No, no 1½ percent.

Sarah Montague: OK, how much more is needed a year just to maintain current capabilities?

Bernard Jenkins: Well, this is crucial because the rate of defence cost inflation is much, much higher than the rate of inflation. It’s between six or eight percent. Equipment costs, technology and of course salaries go up much faster than inflation. So, barely giving more than inflation means there are going to have to be more mothballed ships, more delayed equipment programmes, more cuts in manpower. Em, if we carry on like this with very, very minimal increases in defence, it means more cuts.

Sarah Montague: What do you cut back then? Do you cut health, do you cut education, do you cut transport?

Bernard Jenkins: Well, the government has managed to increase other programmes very substantially indeed and it's a question of balancing the increases of these programmes. Over the next few years, the economy is expected to still grow. I'm quite certain that we'll be able to increase what we spend on defence alongside other programmes as well as being able to reduce taxation in the long term. It's called sharing the proceeds of economic growth and its consistent policy.

Sarah Montague: Bernard Jenkin, Kevin Jones, thank you very much.

Kevin Jones: Fantasy world!

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Money down the drain!

In response to questions raised by the redoubtable Ann Winterton MP, on the costs of operating military aircraft, we have received from the MoD figures which are truly mind-blowing.

Lady Winterton asked for the hourly operating cost including crew time of the Nimrod MR2, the Chinook, the Apache attack helicopter (operated by the Army Air Corps) and the Tornado GR4 aircraft. (Link to follow).

The reply from defence minister Bob Ainsworth, was that the total cost per funded flying hour for the Nimrod was £30,000 per hour, the Tornado £33,000 and the Chinook a relatively modest (by comparison) £24,000. But the absolute mind-blowing figure is the Apache which costs out at a staggering £46,000 per hour.

I had to do a double-take on this: £46,000 per hour. Fly 20 hours and that is the best part of a million blown out of the window.

And yeah, yeah, it is a valuable theatre asset, providing essential air support for out troops, etc, etc. But £46,000 per hour! For that price, you could have nine, yes NINE Super Tucano ground attack aircraft in operation – pilots included. Nobody, but nobody is going to convince me that one Apache is worth nine Tucanos.

At the costs involved in using Apaches, instead of spraying bullets at the Taliban from this overpriced piece of kit (I was going to use another word, which rhymes) it would be cheaper to shovel out bundles of fivers from the back of a Land Rover – with probably greater effect.

Of course, we have already bought and paid for the Apaches, and the cost of purchase factors hugely in the hourly operating costs, but this is still real money. Flying these helicopters uses them up and, once worn out, they are not available for other purposes.

The primary purpose of the Apache is a high-tech tank killer – not rooting out an enemy with assets valued at less that the price of the bullets used, much less the Hellfire missiles at God knows how much. It would be cheaper to put the damn things in mothballs and save them for the tasks for which they were intended, and use low-cost platforms for Afghanistan.

Therein, we have the heart of the defence spending problem – massive amounts of over-priced hi-tech toys, bleeding the Army of resources when assets at a fraction of the price could do a cheaper and often better job. And that brings me to the Nimrod, but that will have to wait for another post.


Monday 26 November 2007

Fix the system first

As a labourer in the same vineyard, you would have thought that we would have a great deal in common with former RN officer, Lewis Page, the man who brought us the book Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs - which is not always the case.

Although he is a savage critic of the MoD and its lamentable record on procurement, his grasp of detail is sometimes lacking and, as you might expect with a former naval person, his understanding of green "toys" seems rather limited.

However, last Saturday – in an interview with John Humphrys, which has been totally ignored by the media – he was tasked alongside Colonel Bob Stewart with arguing the case for more defence spending. Whatever Page's limitations might be, on this occasion he acquitted himself with honour, putting exactly the points which we might have raised, including his admirably succinct closing line, "Fix the system first, then give it some more money."

So closely in line is this with our own sentiments that we thought is worthwhile publishing the entire transcript of the proceedings:

John Humphrys: When all those retired military chiefs stood up in the House of Lords this week to tell us why the Government has been getting it so wrong with the armed forces and how much more money they needed, everyone seemed to snap to attention. It was a big story. But isn’t that what old servicemen always do – complain that the armed forces aren’t being given enough? Lewis Page, former naval officer himself, now works at the Royal United Services Institute, and he's with me. So is Colonel Bob Stewart, who commanded the UN forces in Bosnia. Lewis Page, you're not persuaded?

Lewis Page, RUSI: No, not really. You can make an excellent case for the idea that the armed forces need more money and that they don't get very much in Government terms, but I suspect if you gave them more money right now to the tune of something politically achievable, some billions of pounds, it would vanish and very little would be achieved.

Humphrys: Fair enough, Bob Stewart?

Colonel Bob Stewart: Well, Lewis is right. We're talking about procurement, fundamentally. Procurement has always been a disaster area ...

Humphrys: ... As in buying new equipment?

Stewart: Yes and it seems to be just a black hole and great minds have spent huge amounts of their time and effort trying to sort out procurement. But procurement seems to have a real problem. It’s easy to take a cut when there’s a problem of liquidity in the Ministry of Defence, so actually I understand and accept the argument that sometimes things like equipment costs are huge and get ... [indistinct]. For example, something like the Nimrod, which was – the new Nimrod MRA4 – twenty one were ordered, they were meant to be delivered by 2005, the budget was something like £2.1 billion. Actually they're not going to be delivered until 2010, there's only going to be twelve of them maybe, and it's going to be much more expensive. Don't quote me on those figures, but in rough terms that's, that's what happens to equipment. There, there are excuses of course. The excuses are, when they want an easy cut, they say, "push the equipment further down the time line", and of course for industry that causes havoc because they've got to employ people.

Page: Well, a point of order there in that, when they want an easy cut, what they normally do is shut down combat units actually. You know ...

Stewart: ... Well, I'm not going to disagree with that either ...

Page: ... [indistinct] .. You know, there's almost zero political cost to that because young soldiers don’t vote. Even if they did, they'd probably be scattered in postal voting across dozens of constituencies ..

Humprhys: ... Bit of a cynical approach this?

Page: Well, it's what, it's what we've seen, it's what's been happening. And it's not cynicism, it's realism, I'm sorry to say.

Humphrys: So, you're both agreeing then that the armed forces actually don't need very much more money?

Stewart: I'm not agreeing with that.

Humphrys: You're not?

Stewart: No, no.

Humphrys: You're saying they should have more money?

Stewart: Of course they should have more resources and ...

Humphrys: ... Resources means money, yeah?

Stewart: Yes, absolutely. I mean, fundamentally, there are huge things wrong, John. I agree, I take the point that some things in procurement terms ...

Humphrys: ... Alright, if you had another five billion tomorrow, what would you spend it on?

Stewart: For a start, accommodation for the soldiers returning, looking after people, giving them the right second and third line ammunition, for example, which is in extremely short supply. The Apache helicopters, apparently, have almost run out of ammunition in Helmand province.

Page: Well, I submit if you ... let us say that you were there at the MoD and five billion pounds turned up in a suitcase or something, you wouldn't get to spend it on those things. It would turn out that it was vitally important that ... [indistinct] .. needed a particular factory that made a certain kind of thing and new factories would spring up. And you would be told that you needed to do this in order to sustain the supply base here in the UK.

Humphrys: So, who in that case, who is controlling it? If that is the case, if you're right. I mean, you would agree with each other to the extent that what Bob is saying – Bob, Bob Stewart is saying – is that the money ought to go on soldiers effectively ... [indistinct] ... and you're agreeing with that, I think, but you're saying actually it wouldn't end up being spent on that ...

Page: ... It wouldn't happen ...

Humphrys: ... So, whose fault is that?

Page: Well, this, this is the problem. This is why it can't be easily fixed because you can't easily point to the faulty part ...

Humphrys: ... Well, somebody must take these decisions ...

Page: ... Well, people in the MoD will often say, "Oh well, you know, we're fighting for capability and soldiers and so on, but politicians tell us behind closed doors 'no you will not allow that factory full of UK defence workers to be shut down, you will save that nine hundred jobs, and you won’t talk about it.'"

Humphrys: So, who ...

Stewart: There's huge politicisation of defence and that's also another problem. You can't actually shut down a factory because that's jobs going ...

Humphrys: ... But, I mean, who took the initial decision, say for Eurofighter? Everybody I talk to says, "You know, I find it terrible, what a waste of billions and billions of pounds, nobody wants it, but somebody ordered it."

Stewart: Well, it was done within the Ministry of Defence a long time ago and the people in charge of procurement, the long tradition of them – starting with people like Heseltine, but going back beyond that – they've always said, "We're going to get this right, we're going to sort this out, it's going to be a new way of doing the job", but in fact ...

Humphrys: ... It never is.

Stewart: It never is. And that implies that it's almost impossible to fix and I, I take that point. But equally it's quite clear now we need more soldiers to do the job. Each battalion in the infantry, for example, is about seventy under strength. Now, how we fix that, I'm not quite sure, but probably providing more incentive and looking after them.

Humphrys: But in a phrase, Lewis, do you .. Page, you're saying actually, what, because of the decision-making process?

Page: Exactly. Fix the system first, then give it some more money.
What is especially interesting is Page's comments about the "system" and his observations about the difficulty of fixing it, "… because you can’t easily point to the faulty part."

In our own limited and inadequate fashion, one of our own main preoccupations has been trying to explore precisely this issue, with its layers of complexities and subtleties. And, while Page has clearly reached the same conclusion as us – that simply throwing money at the problem is no solution – we are still back in the dark ages where most commentators and the media are concerned. They have not only learnt nothing but have remembered nothing.

Until the debate can move on from this pathetically limited agenda, we will get nowhere at all.


Cui bono?

In a piece on the front page of The Sunday Times, Mick Smith writes of an "unprecedented exodus of more than 1,300 officers from the Armed Forces in the past six months …", reinforcing the sense of crisis currently pervading the Armed Forces, about which we have written so much recently.

However, so intense has this issue become that the "crisis" seems to be taking on the characteristics of an archetypal "scare" – with Smith's piece fitting the classic mould.

The way it is done is quite remarkable – the neutral quote offered above, for instance, does not come on its own. It is framed by Smith with the addition of "… amid anger about government cost-cutting and equipment shortages."

Then we are told that, "The number quitting is more than double the rate in the previous 12 months and will add to pressure on Gordon Brown about the way his government is funding the armed services," with the further information that, "Many of those who have resigned their commissions are from frontline units. Most are captains or majors with invaluable experience of battle."

So on it goes, with some choice quotes from serving officers which leaves the readers in no doubt that this is a major crisis and that it is due entirely to the government’s mismanagement of defence.

However, as always, things are never quite what they seem. The British Army is not alone in suffering a retention "crisis" amongst its officers and, recently, the Rand Corporation published a report of their study on the phenomenon in the US. And, although their findings were equivocal in some respects, they found there was no correlation between operational intensity and officers leaving the Service. In fact, in many cases, there was the opposite effect – that the leaving rate was lower amongst officers who were heavily engaged in operations.

Preliminary research in this country, yet to be published, seems to indicate the same thing. But there is another factor, of which we have some anecdotal evidence, to the effect that young officers with battle experience are leaving because they are not being posted on operations.

The point is here that young men join the Army for the adventure and challenge. On operations, they experience precisely what they joined up for. But, after an operation, returning to peace-time Britain, there is a certain flatness, an anti-climax even – especially when the civilian population is unaware of their efforts and, in many cases, unappreciative of them.

For officers, there is a particular problem. As they climb up the ranks, there are fewer opportunities for operational deployment: there is great need for Lieutenants, less for Captains and less still for Majors, and so on.

Looking at the prospect of a two-year posting in Germany or Catterick, with the dreary routine of garrison life but all the disruption of training exercises, courses and other activities that take them away from their homes and families, many officers decide at this stage that Army life is no longer for them.

Of course, there are disaffected officers, and some find the ardours of operations not to their liking. Others are totally frustrated with the growing burden of bureaucracy, which is affecting the Army much as it is the Police. And there are many other social factors, such as wives and partners less willing to subsume their careers to the exigencies of Service life.

Add to that, the torrent of publicity which is telling soldiers their Army is "broken" and that they are suffering from low morale, and some of that rubs off, adding to inherent stresses and dissatisfactions – enough to make the difference in some cases.

If then a passing journalist asks enough officers why they are leaving, they will get enough to express their feelings in the "right" way, sufficient to merit publication to support the narrative. Those who say other things can, of course, be left out.

Nevertheless, that is not to say that there is not a problem. There most certainly is, but some of the factors are not as they are stated by the media and other commentators. Others are entirely outside the control of the Army. But, as social attitudes and pressure change, the Army has to adapt, simply to keep its personnel. Often it does so slowly, but it has a good record of so doing. Moves are afoot to address the specific problems so far identified.

But the fact of there being problems does not make for a crisis – not unless you are a journalist, a politician or an ex-defence chief with an agenda. And when a "scare" is up and running, it is very difficult to counter the narrative.

In analysing any "scare" though, the best advice is to follow the money and ask, cui bono?. Here, journalists are obvious beneficiaries but, quite obviously, there are enormous vested interests in seeing greater defence spending.

Of those whose interests stand to gain significantly is one of those ex-chiefs who spoke so passionately about the Armed Forces in the Lords, none other than Lord Boyce. His declaration of interest shows him to have financial ties with four defence related companies, including WS Atkins plc, which is the system integrator for FRES.

Others of their noble Lords also have financial interests in the defence industries, including Charles Guthrie, yet none of them thought to declare those interests when they made their speeches, as is usually the case in the Lords.

Somehow, therefore, one suspects that there is more to what we are being told than is immediately apparent. But, while this "scare" is running, we are likely to see more heat than light.


Sunday 25 November 2007

They really don't get it

Aside from the torrent of defence related "news" and comment in the Sunday newspapers today, tucked into the business section of The Sunday Times (spotted by a gimlet-eyed reader) is a short piece on FRES.

As one would expect, this is presented in an entirely negative fashion, the headline reading, "Army hit by MoD delaying tactics" as the story records that the MoD is this week "expected to fudge a long-awaited decision on a new generation of fighting vehicles for the British Army."

We thus learn that, although and announcement had been expected on the choice of the FRES utility vehicle, the evaluation period had been extended instead. It is rumoured that two contenders, the Piranha and the French VBCI, will be taken forward, with the Boxer being dropped.

The delay is put down to a dispute between the now departed Lord Drayson, who was "understood to be eager to buy the French vehicle" and the military who wanted the Piranha.

However, while that may be the case in the short-term, the fact of the delay is very convenient for a government which is strongly rumoured to be considering cutting one or other of the major procurement projects in the pipeline, with FRES a possible candidate for the chop.

With that possibility extant, one might have thought that any defence correspondent worth his salt would have homed in on this snippet and made something of it. As usual though, FRES seems to be a complete blind spot and news of the project is confined to the business pages of a single newspaper.

This is all the more bizarre in the context of the current controversy over defence spending, where abandoning this project altogether would be of significant assistance in helping the MoD balance its books.

Instead of sniping at the MoD for the delay – as The Times report does – correspondents should be asking whether the project is really necessary. With the Mastiff proving an unexpected success in Afghanistan, being used successfully as an armoured personnel carrier in the assault role, and with over 700 Warriors still on the Army’s books – with an upgrade in progress, it would seem that the last thing the Army needs at the moment is a new armoured personnel carrier (APC).

If there is a gap in the order of battle, it is for a light reconnaissance and patrol vehicle to replace the ageing Scorpion and replace the dangerously vulnerable WIMIK Land Rover. Not since the 1920s has the Army been without a light armoured car, with the roles of the Ferret and then the Fox currently shared between Land Rovers and Scorpions.

Yet, although a new reconnaissance vehicle is part of the FRES package, it is taking second place to the "utility" vehicle – the APC.

The only possible rationale for the utility vehicle – which would not provide as much protection as the Mastiff yet cost a great deal more – is to provide the rapid reaction component for our contribution to the ERRF – neither the Mastiff nor the Warrior being air-portable.

Here again though, there are questions, as the projected weight of any vehicle chosen is likely to prevent it being transported by the Hercules fleet, requiring the introduction of the Airbus A400M to provide sufficient airlift capacity. Even then, this may not prove possible as there are indications that the Airbus may not be able to meet its design specification.

But, possibly, an even bigger threat are the major problems being experienced by Airbus industries with the strength of the dollar. With this savagely eroding the company's profits, there is some question as to whether it could even afford to build the A400M without sustaining massive losses on the fixed-price contract.

The spectre exists, therefore, of the Army acquiring an air-portable (just) vehicle without the RAF having the capacity to fly it anywhere, rather negating its utility – if it had any to start with.

All this amounts to a powerful argument for walking away from the FRES project – investing some of the funds liberated in more MRAP-type vehicles, which seems to be happening anyway.

But, while that may be the most sensible option, you can bet that any announcement of a FRES cancellation will be greeted with a storm of outraged protest, not least from the defence correspondents who will, once again, be demonstrating that they really don't get it.


A humourless post

Some readers may have noticed that we don't do "lightweight tat" on this site, and such humour as accidentally finds its way into our posts is largely of the dry, sardonic variety. Mostly, though, we tend to write serious, heavy stuff which is not to everyone's taste.

But, if our (and certainly my) posts are weighty and lack humour, it is because – and here I'd better speak for myself – I find very little amusement in the current dire state of politics. And, as there is much that is neglected by an increasingly frivolous and inconsequential media, I felt it needed a corrective, which is why we set up the blog in the first place. There is plenty of lightweight, humorous tat in the marketplace already and I saw no point in replicating it, even if it was the route to easy popularity.

No more so was – and is - this needed in the defence field, where a fundamentally unserious media has consistently failed to take an adult interest in the issues, or spent even a fraction of its resources on exploring where the real stresses and problems lie in our Armed Forces.

But, from sporadic and ill-informed commentary, over the last weeks and months, building to a crescendo over the last couple of days, we have seen an intensity of criticism of defence policy, the thrust of the complaints directed at the mantras of "overstretch" and "underspending". And, in the vanguard is former CDS Charles Guthrie, yesterday given space in The Daily Telegraph to peddle his creed.

Nowhere in his pronouncements, however – nor anywhere in the torrent of media coverage – does he or any other commentator descend into the detail of spending arrangements in the Armed Forces and tell us why it is that defence is underfunded and where, particularly, the alleged shortages lie. Yet, it is the appreciation of the detail that the argument must stand or fall.

Now, to turn to just one small detail – which we will go on to explore for its wider implications – at the end of last month we reported the remarkable escape of a Canadian soldier whose Husky vehicle was hit by a massive buried bomb as he patrolled a route in Afghanistan – with no more inconvenience than a spilled water bottle. Now, courtesy of the Canadian Guardian we have a picture of the damaged vehicle, from which the soldier emerged (above left).

At this point, we descend into "toy" territory and the lofty political bloggers, to say nothing of the oh-so-grand political commentators depart the scene. They occupy the high ground, and such detail is of absolutely no interest to them. The Armed Forces are underfunded and soldiers are dying as a result. Charles Guthrie and four of his mates say so, and that is all they need to know.

But, in that small picture lies one of the central issues in the whole debate, and perhaps the key to what is going on.

First, looking at the vehicle (an intact example is shown right) one can see several design principles at play. The front wheels have been blown off completely – which is exactly as intended. They are "sacrificial" parts, which can easily and cheaply be replaced.

Then, you will see the lengthy engine compartment, in front of the driver, distancing the man from the expected point of explosion, improving his survivability. Add to that, the v-shaped profile of the hull, which deflects blast away from the driver, and the armoured cell which forms the cab, and you have a protection package which enables personnel to walk away from all but the largest of explosions.

The crucial points for the general argument though are that these attributes are achieved by design. They cannot be bolted on to an existing vehicle to achieve the same effect. Secondly, they give the vehicle a profile which is entirely unsuitable for what is known as "high end" conventional warfighting, where low profile to aid concealment is at a premium. Thirdly, this technology is relatively cheap, this type of vehicle costing a fraction of the more sophisticated "high end" war machine that, in these types of circumstances, actually offer less protection.

With these points in mind – be they ever so boring or not – let us now turn our gaze to the "bigger picture" so beloved of the grand polemicists – starting with the proximate cause of the Army's current problems.

In fact, the rot started with in St. Malo in 1998, with Tony Blair's historic agreement with Jacques Chirac to dedicate the bulk of our Armed Forces to what was to become the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF).

Despite constant denials, this led to a Europeanisation of defence policy which, by our calculations, added at least £8.8 billion to our procurement costs to date. As we wrote at the time we did the calculations, that would buy a ridiculous 35,000 RG-31 mine protected vehicles or 350 Chinook helicopters – additions to our forces which would transform the situation.

However, when it comes to Charles Guthrie, who now complains so volubly about "underspending", it was he as Chief of the Defence Staff, together with then secretary of state Geoff Hoon, and the Chief of the General Staff Mike Jackson who drove the Euro Army agenda, re-shaping the British Army to fit in with the ERRF concept.

An essential component of ERRF was, of course, FRES – this being the only way armour could be air-portable and thus become part of a "rapid reaction" force.

The triumvirate was so protective of the plan that this was indeed the reason why new equipment which did not fit the scheme was actively blocked. The trio was looking over at the US and its equivalent Future Combat System (FCS) programme, noting that funds were being siphoned off to pay for the war in Iraq.

Guthrie, Hoon and Jackson thus reasoned that if theatre-specific equipment was bought for Iraq, then FRES would suffer. This, we aver, was one of the main reasons Jackson put "Snatch" Land Rovers into Iraq, rather than dedicated MRAPs. This was also the reason why the Army (now under Richard Dannatt – also a firm proponent of FRES) initially resisted the purchase of Mastiff protected vehicles, until it received assurances that the cost would be borne from the Reserve and not met from the Army budget.

Until recently, the status quo held but, in October, the MoD ordered a further 140 Mastiff protected vehicles (with a promise of 250 more MRAP-type vehicles), this time the funding coming from the Army's agreed equipment budget.

This, we noted, signalled a new realism in the MoD, that the current operations had to be supplied with theatre-specific equipment and not rely – as they had been doing – on existing inventories.

On the other hand, this must have sounded alarm bells with Guthrie and his fellow travellers, which must have intensified when rumours of cuts in one or more of the major spending programmes began to emerge, on top of indications that Gordon Brown was unenthusiastic about pursuing Blair's ambitions for greater European defence cooperation, and was pulling back from the project.

It was shortly afterwards that the screaming started in earnest and it cannot have been a coincidence that it did. The Euro-army supporters, with Guthrie at their head, must have realised that FRES was the most likely candidate for any cuts in the equipment programme, and with its demise went any prospect of the Army playing a leading role in the ERRF.

So it is that Guthrie's campaign is not about the welfare of the Armed Forces, or its current capabilities, but an attempt to preserve plans to develop future capabilities within the framework of the ERRF. Yet, so opaque is his agenda, and so lacking in knowledge and understanding is the commentariat that his claims are taken at face value.

It would be misleading, however, to position Guthrie's campaign solely in terms of the European agenda. There is within the MoD and defence planning circles, creative tension over the balancing resources between current operations and the need to prepare to the "future war".

Inasmuch as the Europeans are not significantly committed to current operations, their thinking is also focused on the future war scenario. The future war proponents in the UK, therefore, have a common interest with the Europeans and thereby have formed a natural alliance with them, even though their overall ambitions may not be the same.

Thus, Guthrie is able to attract a far more powerful lobby under his tent than merely his Europhile "colleagues" could muster.

This, in a roundabout way brings us back to the Canadian soldier and his remarkable escape. To prosecute their "future war" the advocates want their FRES vehicles (example pictured above) which are set to cost – most likely – in excess of £10 million each. Being custom-built and extremely complex, they will also cost a small fortune to maintain.

Yet the optimal equivalent vehicle to fight the current campaigns is the state of the art, superbly equipped Mastiff protected vehicle, based on exactly the same design philosophy as the Husky. And, despite being specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations, it costs a relatively modest £600,000. Based on a commercial truck chassis, it is supremely reliable and durable and, using commercial parts, maintenance is cheap and simple.

This is a microcosm of the general situation. Single engined Super Tucanos (below), used for ground attack, cost less than £5 million apiece, but the RAF spurns them in favour of Tranche 3 Eurofighters, at £80 million each - not because the Tucano cannot to the job (it can, better than the Eurofighter) but because it cannot operate in "high intensity warfare" of the nature projected for the "future war".

What this boils down to is that, if the need to finance the "future war" is removed (or modified), the budgetary problems disappear. In that context, we are actually faced with two modest (in military terms) overseas operations (not even a division in each theatre) which absorbs less than ten percent of the manpower of the Armed Forces. Where else could there be a situation where any other organisation can scream "overstretch" and "lack of resources" when it has less than ten percent of its strength committed to doing the job for which it is paid?

The problem, therefore, is not operations, per se, but the enormous resource put to other tasks - the main one of which is preparing and training for the "future war". This is akin to a situation in World War II of holding back the bulk of the forces to train for the next war, while also devoting the bulk of the budget to equipping for that war.

This, though, is only one part of the phenomenon we are seeing. When it comes to defence issues, one of the many things that drags the debate down is the inability to discriminate between the various factions within the overarching organisation of the MoD, and to separate political from military influence.

One of the simplistic fictions of modern politics is the belief that the Secretary of State is actually in charge of his department and thereby has absolute powers to control it.

This is hardly the case and less so in the MoD, where there is an uneasy "alliance" (conflict would be a better word) between the politicians and their advisors, the officials and then the three separate services (with huge meddling by defence contractors), all overlaid by dealings with the common enemy (the Treasury) and the even more dangerous enemy, the Foreign Office. Furthermore, there is not only bitter inter-service rivalry, there is also intra-service rivalry (gunners versus tanker versus infantry, etc), which makes for a turbulent, foetid broth of intrigue and back-stabbing.

Add to that the length of the procurement cycle (procurement taking 40 percent of the budget) where decisions are made which have a direct financial impact decades after they are taken (the Eurofighter was agreed over 25 years ago but only now is the MoD having to find the bulk of funds for it) and the secretary of state's freedom of action is massively circumscribed. He is at best a referee, with a rule book that is constantly changing (without him being told), with his decisions being overruled off-field, all in the context that he cannot see (or control) most of the players (or even the ball).

Looking at the bigger picture, the military has an infinite capacity for spending money and, as a general rule, the more they are given, the more they will spend - but much of it will be spent unwisely and wasted. Throwing money at public services is not the answer to improved efficiency, if there are underlying structural problems. That applies to the military as much as any other service. Give more money to a wasteful organisation and it will simply waste more money.

What is troubling, though, is all it takes is a few military men to stand up and scream that their men are dying for want of funds (rather than from military incompetence) and otherwise sensible people put their critical faculties on hold and believe everything they are told.

So, I will continue banging on in my own humourless way, leaving others to do the funnies, in the hope that wiser counsels will prevail.


Saturday 24 November 2007

Of fools and angels

Rushing into the increasingly complex debate on defence is something that is ill-advised for the unprepared. The subject is populated with endless experts, many quick to tell the unwary that they do not know what they are talking about, often spraying their discourse with impenetrable acronyms which makes ordinary English look like a foreign language.

For those who do not wish to spend the time on preparation, and embarking on the slow, laborious process of trying to understand at least some of the issues, it is much easier simply to absorb one's opinions pre-digested from the "real" experts, those with the authority that comes from rank and experience.

In that context, there can be no better comfort blanket than the serried ranks of no less than five former defence chiefs who yesterday lined up in the Lords to give their considered opinion on the state of the Armed Forces. With that amount of Brass behind the argument, regurgitating their views has to be a sure-fire winner.

Thus it is that, after a slow start (when there were only three references to their Lordships last night), the accounts of their Lordships' views has grown to 281 on Google News (at the time of writing), all uncritically retailing the tales of despair and despondency that point to the Armed Forces in a state of terminal decay.

Those who have followed this lowly blog, however, will have gained a slightly different view of the current situation. We have presented the view that there are major and varied problems within the Armed Forces, many of which we have discussed, but which, by no means support the assertion of Lord Guthrie that the Armed Forces are "at the end of their tether".

Taking a broad sweep, the essence of our assessment is that the Army, in particular, is stressed by having, on the one hand, to fight the two campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the other, by the requirement to train and prepare for an unspecified "future war".

Central to that "future war" capability is, of course, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) the project that dare not speak its name (the three competitors for the "utility" vehicle are illustrated above). Yet, at £16 billion, this remains the most expensive single procurement project ever undertaken by the Army and is so revolutionary in concept that it requires a complete reorganisation and restructuring of the main "teeth" elements of the Army - and was the reason for the abolition of the traditional regiments.

Despite being almost totally ignored by the media and politicians, this project has been embraced by successive Chiefs of the General Staff, Mike Jackson and then Richard Dannatt. It is our thesis that, in order to protect it, they have resisted purchasing new equipment specifically designed for the current operations.

So it is that the Army, engaged in two wars, has been required – by and large -to fight their wars with their existing inventories, using equipment which was not designed for the theatres in which it is being deployed. This, we would hold, is at the heart of many of the difficulties the Army has been experiencing.

That much, we have deduced but it is essentially confirmed by Jackson in his recent interview and, while we have ceased expecting the media even to begin to understand the issues, one would have thought that the combined forces of the five ex-defence chiefs would have had some idea of what was going on.

So, looking to yesterday's debate, we would thus expect to see FRES being given fairly high ranking in their Lordships' concerns. However, you have to get to Lord Bramall - nearly a third of the way into the debate - for the first mention, when he declares, almost as an afterthought:

The Army will also need as soon as possible an all-purpose fighting vehicle, known as FRES, which will have strategic - that is, air portable - and tactical mobility, as well as proper protection against modern munitions. FRES's original delivery date of 2005 has already been postponed well into the future.
This is one of our fabled former defence chiefs speaking yet, in that short paragraph he displays not his knowledge and wisdom but a most profound ignorance

The next mention comes from another speaker, Lord Marlesford, who refers to the recent resignation of Lord Drayson, the erstwhile procurement minister, and speculates that the cause was "a dispute with the Treasury over the very large and important procurement programme for the future rapid effect system vehicles, known as FRES."

Then we get a brief reference from the Conservative front bench defence spokesman, Lord Astor of Hever, who notes Lord Marlesford's mention of FRES and asks for assurances from the minister "on this vital piece of equipment".

This, though, is the very final reference, which does not actually get a response from the minister.

Sadly, from David Cameron, all we get is a letter complaining that the defence secretary Des Brown is also Scottish secretary and the lead Conservative political blog simply parrots the "extra resources" mantra.

Commenting on this, we note that it is interesting to see how, now that defence spending is high profile, all the world is suddenly an "expert", including five superannuated defence chiefs, whose word is taken as gospel.

Referring to Bramall's speech, and his references to "FRES" – I ask how many commentators even know what that is, arguing that, if you are to understand defence spending at all, you have to look for Dannatt's references to the project (and Jackson before him) and see how important it is to them. Yet there are grave doubts as the viability of the project, and the enormous expense, compared with alternatives which are a fraction of the cost.

Now if you look at Jackson's recent statements, he effectively admits that the funding crisis stem from having to fund current operations AND what we have to do in the future. Therefore, it is the "future war" scenario - centred on FRES - which is creating the funding problems. Take that away and there is no funding crisis.

Therefore, if anyone wants to engage in the defence debate, beyond the mantra of "more money", look to what the Army actually wants to do with the money. Then, and only then, if you are able to come to a decision about the validity of those plans, are you in a position to judge whether more money is needed.

Short of that, all we have is fools rushing in where angels fear to tread.


Friday 23 November 2007

Playing with fire

For once, the BBC is ahead of the game. It is the only media outlet so far (at the time of writing) to recognise the political importance of the "unprecedented attack" on Gordon Brown by no less than five former defence chiefs in the House of Lords yesterday.

Featuring it as its lead item on the ten o'clock news, the BBC had Admiral Lord Boyce mount a personal attack on the prime minister, attacking his decision to give Des Browne the combined role of defence secretary and Scottish secretary.

"It is seen as an insult by our sailors, our soldiers and our airmen on the front line," he said, adding: "And I know because I have reason to speak to them a lot. And it is certainly a demonstration of the disinterest and some might say contempt that the prime minister and his government has for our armed forces.”

This was followed by another former defence chief, General Lord Guthrie, who said Brown had been "unsympathetic" to the military, and accused him of being the “only senior Cabinet minister who avoided coming to the Ministry of Defence to be briefed by our staff on our problems."

All of this took place while Brown was out of the country, en route to the Commonwealth summit in Uganda, giving rise to accusations that the timing of the attack was deliberate, aimed at bouncing the prime minister into agreeing to a substantial increase in defence spending.

However, as we pointed out recently on Defence of the Realm, despite outwards appearances, this now concerted campaign is not about funding our Armed Forces for their campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are adequately funded and thus, contrary to assertions made by the "fighting five", troops are not going to be dying for lack of funding to buy equipment.

The reality of this campaign is that it is aimed at protecting the full spectrum of "big ticket" equipment programmes, in the face of the anticipated cuts. These have been affected by spiralling inflation of defence costs and the exponential increases in the costs of high-tech platforms, which means that not all of them are affordable from the current budget. Furthermore, many are seen as irrelevant to the needs of the current Armed Forces engaged as they are in fighting low-tech enemies.

In addition, whatever else might be motivating the former defence chiefs, it should not escape attention that much of the projected "big ticket" spending is devoted to fulfilling Blair's undertaking to equip the Armed Forces as a fully-fledged "expeditionary force", ready to take a full part in the European Rapid Reaction Force. Even though no one talks about this, the ERRF is still there, and British commitments stand.

The fact that arch Europhile General Lord Guthrie is playing what appears to be a lead role in the current campaign for more spending may not, therefore, be a coincidence (and is it then a coincidence that the BBC is so interested?).

We have already speculated that protecting the EU dimension of British defence policy may be his primary motivation, his actions triggered by signs that Brown lacks enthusiasm for promoting EU military ambitions.

There may, of course, be other motivations but, while the media are slow to see the underlying agendas behind the up-front demands for money, a lot more is going on than is showing on the surface. But, in that the campaign is being focused on financing current operations, the "five" are in fact exploiting concerns about the safety of our troops, and their conditions of service, for reasons they have not fully (or at all) declared.

Politicising defence needs in this way - in effect, using the Armed Forces as a political football - is a very dangerous game. These retired military men are playing with fire, which could rebound on them and damage seriously the standing and capabilities of our forces. They need to think very carefully about the wisdom of what they are doing.


Thursday 22 November 2007

Double standards?

In November last year, we immediately covered the tragic death of four Army personnel in a bomb incident on the Shatt al Arab pontoon bridge in Iraq, while they were travelling by boat between Basra Palace and their base at Shatt al Arab hotel. We have, however, delayed our own response to the Coroner's inquest report on the incident, to allow time for some thought and reflection.

The need to do so comes in part from a review of our own coverage in November 2006, when the incident happened, where I was quick to pin the blame on the then (and current) secretary of state for defence, Des Brown, for failure to equip personnel with protected vehicles, which might well have saved their lives.

To hurl accusations against politicians is easy - and, to an extent, that is what they are there for – but to retract accusations is not. But, in this instance, conscience dictates that I admit that my criticism was misplaced. I was wrong.

The reason why I can be – and need to be – so unequivocal is that the finding of the Coroner's Inquiry itself was unequivocal, as indeed was the father of one of the deceased, James Nowak, a former Royal Navy serviceman, who labelled the incident "a cock up".

This made into the headline The Daily Telegraph, the report of which recounted how the stricken boat had not been equipped with electronic counter-measures (ECMs) which could have stopped the detonation. This was despite the fact that there was enough equipment in theatre at the time, but it was not fitted to the boat.

What also emerged from the Inquest was the view that the bridge, under which the bomb had been placed, should have been searched and cleared before the boat passed underneath it - but it was not. Coroner Andrew Walker said this amounted to a "serious failure to follow basic practice". Major Ed Pope, of the Royal Logistics Corps, agreed with the bleak assessment.

This was recorded in an earlier report, recounting evidence that river travel had been considered the safest method of transport between the bases but on this occasion other units did not have any spare men to ensure the bridge - a known danger spot - was secure before the boat passed under it, even though the waterway was used all the time to transport military staff.

However, after the incident, resources were made available to ensure that the bridge was properly searched and cleared, and kept under guard.

At three levels, therefore, there were significant and demonstrable failings by the Army – the failure to anticipate that the narrow gap at the pontoon bridge was a possible danger spot, the failure to fit EMC and the failure then to guard and clear the bridge. No secretary of state for defence could be held responsible for those failings, especially as the Coroner branded that latter error "a serious failure in basic operational procedures".

The level at which we initially approached this incident, however, was on the basis that a highly vulnerable boat should not have been used, with personnel transported by protected vehicle. That, despite the controversy surrounding it, the Blackwater security company have been able to convey thousands of personnel down the deadly route from Baghdad Airport to the "green zone" in the centre of Baghdad without a single passenger being killed is adequate testimony to that thesis.

At that time, in November, there were no such vehicles in the British sector – with Blackwater using the Mamba protected vehicles (above right) that had previously been disposed of by the Army. But, the sale was initiated by the Army and, having been appointed only in May 2006, Browne had decided to acquire Mastiffs in August. He could hardly be held responsible for the lack of armour in theatre when the four personnel were killed in their boat, that November.

In a very real sense, therefore, the Army – as a corporate body – was partially responsible for the death of these personnel. The Coroner in fact stated that the killing had been "avoidable", a view that was highlighted in The Times report.

That report also listed other, what it termed, "military failings", including the death of Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, in 2004, the killing of Philip Hewett and two other soldiers when a bomb destroyed their Land Rover, "which did not have an electronic countermeasure device" and six Military Police who were killed in 2003 when a mob besieged a police station. An inquiry found command relationships to be "confused" and communications poor.

The report also included the death of Sergeant Steve Roberts, who was shot at a checkpoint in 2003. He had been ordered to give up some of his body armour because it was in short supply. His pistol jammed as he tried to defend himself and he had been shot by a gunner from his own tank.

But that last incident, during the inquest in January of this year, had led to calls for then defence secretary Geoff Hoon to resign and provoked an excoriating commentary from the very same Coroner, Andrew Walker, who declared, "To 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 in Government."

That commentary, at the time, was picked up widely by the media, with no end of trenchant leaders about the failures of government – over the death of one soldier, who had in fact been killed by one of his own men in a "friendly fire" incident.

But, by contrast, where Army negligence - in what could also have been called a "breach of trust" - resulted in the death of not one but four personnel, Walker's comments appear curiously muted. As for the media, editorials condemning Army negligence, there were none.

Yet, when you add up those listed by The Times, the deaths arising from Snatch Land Rover incidents, those soldiers killed in WIMIK Land Rovers and in Pizgauer Vectors – the Army's choice of vehicles, the number of troops killed in which Army decisions were a contributory factor must be quite substantial, perhaps 60 or even more "avoidable" deaths.

Here then lies a rather glaring contrast. Where there is perceived to be – rightly or wrongly – a political liability for the death of a soldier, criticism knows no bounds. When justified, this is as it should be. But when, it seems, the Army bears equivalent or greater responsibility for the deaths of its own, through its failings, there is very little adverse reaction.

Are we seeing double standards here?


Getting to the heart of the matter (not)

In an increasingly fraught political environment, it is perhaps significant that the transcript of Tuesday's Jackson interview posted on the unofficial Army forum elicited comments not about the substance of his comments but on his incidental remarks about Army morale.

Yet, the core of Jackson's responses, which he himself flagged up as "important", was far more profound than even the interviewer, John Humphrys, seemed to realise. In fact, without him realising it, Jackson was sketching out the reasons why the Armed Forces are under stress and why there are such problems with "underfunding".

To that effect, the essence of Jackson's thesis was that there is not enough money "to give the Armed Services proper conditions of service and to also look forward into the equipment programme", the latter "to make sure we're paying the right sort of premium into our national insurance policy on defence."

Jackson then elaborated on this by telling Humphrys that the money "may not be enough to do the things which we do now and the things which we may have to do in the future," cementing in the issue which we have identified on the blog – the focus on the "future war" scenario.

It was there that Humphrys lost it. Responding with the question, "are we trying to do too much?" he failed to establish first what it was that we "may have to do in the future" – the assumptions on which the "equipment programme" was based.

Yet again, though, Jackson gave him a cue, referring to the need to take into account, "strategic circumstances", further elaborating with the "important point":

…that the analysis must start in logic, from what it is that the United Kingdom thinks it's part to play in a very uncertain and difficult world. You’ve got to get that analysis right because from that then flows the tools you need, and they’re not all military tools either, but the tools you need to pursue the strategy which you have decided to adopt. That's the right way round.
The only response Humphrys could offer was a "hypothetical", and "ludicrous" notion – an invasion of North Korea – as an example of what we could not afford, completely failing to ask what we could afford, or what we are actually planning to do in the "affordable" bracket.

Yet again Jackson offered another lead, telling Humphrys that you could not "decide what you wish to afford until you've done that strategic analysis." Then, said the former Chief of General Staff, "you start to make some judgements." But Humphrys could not get the point and abandoned the field, leaving the issues hanging, entirely unexplored.

But the point was – and is – that the military (and, presumably, the politicians) must have done their "strategic analysis". Whether they have come to the same conclusions is moot but, on the basis of their joint or separate analyses, they must have some ideas as to the equipment required and the costs involved. And Jackson, at the very least, has concluded that we cannot afford this and maintain the current operations, and support all the other commitments (including improving conditions of service), out of the current budget.

From this we can conclude that – tentatively at least – the current operations and some if not all of the other commitments would be affordable if we did not have the future to worry about. And from that, we can infer that the essential problems of "overstretch" and all the rest stem from the need to fight (or prepare for) not two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – but three, the third being the "future war".

As to what that "future war" might be, we have no way of knowing. But, as pointed out in an American military manual:

... we must face one absolute certainty: any projection will prove faulty. Despite our best intellectual efforts, the future will remain unknowable. Between now and the focus of this study, the year 2010, humankind's innumerable decisions will interact to form a future far beyond our powers to predict. It would reveal the greatest hubris to claim absolute insights on such a dynamic, multidependent future.
The manual then goes on to say:

This limitation is especially true concerning war. Any projection of future war must contain implicit assumptions of time, enemy, location and purpose. We must know when the war occurs in order to project what kinds of technologies might be available. We must know the purpose of the war in order to forecast what level of effort the Nation will dedicate. We must know the enemy in order to build the most appropriate strategic campaign, addressing both offensive and defensive centers of gravity. Finally, we must know the location of the war in order to define the types and numbers of operational targets. All four factors will interact to define the nature and conduct of any future war. However, because none of the factors are knowable in advance, any vision of future war will be severely limited.
The point, however, is that not only do we not know the unknowable, we do not know what assumptions are being made, or by whom, whether there is general agreement or, if not, what the boundaries of the disagreements are. In effect, therefore, we are being told – by Jackson and many others – that we need more money for an equipment programme to fight a war in an unspecified location (or locations), at some indeterminate time in the future, against an unknown enemy or enemies, with undefined capabilities, all for a purpose that has not been stated.

Sympathetic though we might be to the broad proposition that we must prepare for the future – especially as the lead times for the procurement of new weapons is so long – to accept the lack of detail on offer is simply to agree a blank cheque, drawn on the taxpayer, with no upper limit.

Not is it any use relying on past and even the most recent defence reviews – any assumptions on which they were based have long since been invalidated. But neither is it possible to glean any coherent view from such limited debate that does occasionally percolate into the public domain.

Central to current thinking, we know, is the need to develop an expeditionary capability – but that still begs the question of who are we like to fight and where, with all the other imponderables. We hear also demands for a "balanced force" without any real idea of what such a force might be – with hugely varying opinions as to what constitutes "balance".

Then, within the recesses of the defence establishment, we also hear articulated the idea that the Armed Forces must maintain a ability to deal with a "technologically equivalent" enemy, usually but not necessarily within the context of (unspecified) coalition operations. Yet no one, it seems, is able to offer a credible scenario as to where in the foreseeable future we might meet this enemy, and in what possible circumstances, and with which coalition partners. And whether our partners are working within the framework of Nato, the EU, US-led forces or some other grouping will have a considerable influence on our equipment programme.

On the other hand, our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – each of them different but with some common characteristics – apparently require entirely different force structures, equipment and tactics from the "future war" scenario for which such a huge resources is apparently required.

If we accept, however, the premise that the "future war" will be different from current wars, then we need that separate capability. But if the premise is wrong, and the future is a series of counter-insurgency operations, more or less similar to the current campaigns, then we may be preparing for the wrong war and wasting our money. In that latter scenario, there is considerably less pressure of the defence budget than is made out.

So much is guesswork, and always will be. But what is also guesswork – and should not be – is our estimation of what strategic analyses have been conducted, and the nature of the assumptions that have been made on the basis of those analyses.

Only with that knowledge can we ourselves judge whether we, as a democracy, are prepared to find those assumptions, or disagree with them and demand a different direction.

A possible counter to that is that war is so complex that it must be left to the military and experts to decide but, as the manual cited above states, "As we look to the future of war we must face one absolute certainty: any projection will prove faulty."

Faulty or not, in a democracy we are entitled to know in vastly more detail what projections are made in our name and have the opportunity through genuine debate to accept or reject them. Humphrys could have pursued that debate, but so uncomprehending of the issues was he that Jackson's comments went straight over his head. Getting to the heart of the matter we are not.