Wednesday 24 December 2008

The Christmas "toy"

An SH-60F Seahawk helicopter assigned to the "Tridents" of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 3 carries supplies to USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) while under way in the Gulf of Oman 18 December 2008, during a replenishment at sea with USNS Supply (TAO-E 6). (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Antwjuan Richards-Jamison, U.S. Navy/Released).

Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.


Tuesday 23 December 2008

Sooner kill than cure

There is something particularly loathesome about the cheap journalism in which The Sun indulges, exploiting as it has done the latest death of a soldier in Afghanistan by turning it into a soap opera tragedy. This is the death of Marine Corporal Rob Deering, who was named yesterday after he had been killed on Sunday morning by an explosive device.

As this paper would have it, under the banner headline "Brave Marine killed in dash to save pals", "Courageous Corporal Rob Deering was killed when he rushed to help wounded pals in Afghanistan."

We are thus told that, "A booby trap exploded as the Royal Marine dashed to a personnel carrier wrecked by a bomb moments earlier. His three comrades inside their armoured Viking all survived the attack in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, on Sunday."

The bulk of the other media reports are little more informative, most relying on an edited version of the MoD press release, doing their usual, lazy cut-and-paste job, filling space and going through the motions.

For once though, the details are there in the MoD release, there for anyone with wits enough to read between the lines, and do a bit of research.

Yet, the only journalist to have done an intelligent piece of writing on this tragedy is Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph, pointing out a worrying and potentially dangerous development in the way Corporal Deering was killed.

It very much appears that the Taleban used a tactic often employed by the Provisional IRA - a "come on" device in which two bombs are placed in the same spot.

Thus when, on Sunday morning the Viking armoured personnel carrier was caught in an explosion outside the town of Lashkar Gah injuring three and disabling the vehicle, Cpl Deering dismounted from his own Viking and approached the stricken vehicle to assess the damage. A second device went off killing him instantly.

The tactic, writes Harding, shows that the Taliban are now capable of not only defeating the armour of the Vikings but are also aware of the British tactics in dealing with disabled vehicles. It appears that the second device was deliberately planted to target troops who would have to deal with the damaged vehicle.

This is the first time we have seen in the public domain any record of the Taleban using such sophisticated tactics. With their ability, almost at will, to take out an increasing range of our vehicles - this is the sixth soldier to be killed as a result of enemy action against Vikings – this makes for a very serious situation.

At the heart of the problem, of course, is the dangerous vulnerability of the Viking – something which should have been obvious at the time it was considered for deployment. Whatever advantages offered in terms of tactical mobility, through the superb off-road performance of this machine, is lost as a result of its pitifully inadequate protection from mines and IEDs.

The pictures show a Viking which has suffered an IED/mine hit in Afghanistan and, as you can see, the explosion has punched a hole clean through the base and wrecked the vehicle. We have no further details, but it does not seem possible that all the crew survived.

Yet, our military geniuses – and the defence contractors who are only too keen to sell their highly priced mobile coffins – seem incapable of predicting the obvious, and are content to let men die wholly unnecessarily rather than provide them with the vehicles they need to protect them.

In January of this year, I wrote a piece pointing out that there was a serious gap in the market, with the absence of a mine-protected tracked vehicle for Afghanistan.

I also pointed out that the 50s vintage M48 US tank embodied the elements of mine protection, with a v-shaped hull design, built after the recent experience of WWII when the mine had been a major killer of men. But, so far has military science progressed that our current batch of geniuses believe they can ignore the lessons of the past, optimising vehicle designs for ballistic protection and low profile, the latter ensuring the current fashion in vehicle design is for sleek, flat hull bases.

Inconveniently, the insurgents of Iraq and now Afghanistan have not been impressed with our designers' ideas of what constitute ideal armoured vehicles and have been unsporting enough to exploit their weaknesses.

Harding noted that commanders are attempting rapidly to get a more robust vehicle into service. This is the Warthog (pictured), much lauded by the MoD, just as they puffed the Viking when it was introduced, telling us how it was "saving lives".

Now that the Viking is to be withdrawn as dangerous, relegated to training duties, you might have thought that our military geniuses might have actually learned something from the experience of killing so many men. But no! This is the British Army and the MoD we are talking about. They know everything, so they do not need to learn lessons.

Thus, in the Warthog, they have bought … a bigger version of what amounts to a Viking. Built in Singapore rather than by BAE systems, it still has the flat hull base profile. The bigger machine, with more power, however, allows it to carry more weight, so these geniuses have done exactly what they are doing with the Snatch – bolting on more armour.

But, as we said with the Jackal – which also has a flat hull base – a hog with lipstick is still a hog. For sure, extra armour adds a little protection, but very little indeed as the Army found recently with the up-armoured Warrior.

The worst of it is that, even if there is no hull breach, when hit by an explosive, the force can turn the vehicle over, which can be as lethal as the blast effect. Furthermore, the blast effect alone, in imparting massive g-forces, can also be lethal.

Either which way, the Warthog is not great improvement and represents another lost opportunity. Sadly, we gave away the protection technology to the US and now buy wheeled vehicles back from them, in the form of the Mastiff and the Ridgeback. Yet there must be significant commercial market for a mine protected tracked military vehicle.

A sensible MoD would by now be commissioning designs for such a vehicle, which would give us a tactical and commercial edge which could earn our hard-pressed defence industry billions.

As it is, when the Army and the MoD have allowed a few more men to die and are casting around for a replacement for the Bronco, we can only hope that Force Protection, which produces our current range of mine protected vehicles, will have been able to design a tracked vehicle which will keep our men safe.

Of one thing we can be sure though. Our geniuses will not do it. It appears they would rather see men die than use their brains. They would sooner kill than cure.


Sunday 21 December 2008

Getting in first

One has to suppress a wry smile and at least admire the speed with which General Sir Mike Jackson has got his knife in first, before the many knives are directed at his broad but inadequate back.

The man is writing in The Sunday Telegraph today about the impending departure of British forces from Iraq, telling us the withdrawal "represents a most significant achievement after what will have been a very difficult and challenging six years."

He thus tells us that Britain’s Armed Forces "will leave Iraq with heads held high" and that they "should be proud of their efforts".

That is fair enough, applied on an individual and unit level, where the courage, tenacity, skill, dedication – and suffering – of our troops (and airmen and sailors) is to be applauded, unreservedly. They did what they could, and many did more than we had any right to expect of them.

However, we – and they – should not run away with the idea that the campaign was a success. At best, we could describe it as an "heroic failure". Our armed forces were under-resourced, undermanned and ill-equipped from the very start, given a job that they could not hope to achieve. And thus, predictably – but with no reflection on those at the cutting edge – they failed.

In the end, after abandoning the outer provinces, with their ignominious retreat from al Ahamrah, forced on them by the pitifully inadequate resources allocated to the Maysan Battle Groups – they were driven out of all but one of their bases in Basra, until they were hunkered down in the former Basra airport, out of the game.

It took Iraqi troops, with the support of the US – including its massive air power – to recover Basra from the Mahdi Army and it was not until June that they did likewise with al Amarah.

These points we have made before, but you will not hear Mike Jackson make them. To him, in his piece today, anything that went wrong was the fault of the Americans, or anyone else but Mike Jackson.

Initially, it was all the fault of the Iraqis, whose "expectations of immediate economic improvement were understandably but unrealistically high." Their frustration at not seeing this realised quickly turned to anger with the Coalition forces.

Then, this volatile situation was "much exacerbated by the security vacuum created by Washington's appalling decisions to disband the Iraqi security forces and to de-Baathify the public administration to a very low level; the latter marginalised the very people who were best placed to help."

These decisions, asserts Jackson, "may well have doubled the time it has taken to get to where we are now." Then there was the Iranian backing for Shi'a "militants", which was a further difficult complication. And there was also "the lack of a coherent reconstruction plan and the failure in Coalition capitals to understand fully the complexity of the situation."

All this may be true, and no one will disagree that the Americans made some appalling mistakes. But so did the British. Immediately after the invasion, they failed to recognise that a Shi'a insurgency was building up round them, initially attributing attacks to Saddam loyalists and the remnants of his forces. Instead of taking on the militias, they gave ground to them, made deals with them, and then eventually handed southern Iraq to them on a plate.

Much of that was entirely the responsibility of the politicians, and Tony Blair in particular, who lacked the courage, in the face of the growing unpopularity of the war, to commit the resources and the men to do the job properly. Instead, his "spin" machine went into high gear, painting a wholly false picture of a "success" that was belied by the fact that the security situation was getting worse, and worse and worse.

Writes Jackson, "the campaign became a long haul – we had to have the strategic endurance to see it through." But we didn't. We did not have the "strategic endurance", nor the political endurance, nor the political will. So it was fudged.

But nowhere do I see any evidence at all that Mike Jackson, who was professional head of the Army until August 2006, had a grip on the campaign, knew what was needed or sought to ensure that the Army was properly equipped for the campaign. It was, after all, Jackson who authorised the sending of Snatch Land Rovers to Iraq and it was he who kept them there, long after it was abundantly clear that they could not do the job required of them.

Thus, while the Americans may have made all the mistakes in the book, they learned from their experiences, adapted and then prevailed. That the British Army came out of the campaign with much the same equipment with which it started, and recognisably similar tactics, says a great deal. Despite the courage and dedication at the cutting face, the high command failed to adapt, failed to meld the Army into an effective counter-insurgency force, and failed ultimately to provide the leadership that the Army needed.

Interestingly, Jackson observes that the period in Iraq has "been a long, hard and controversial campaign, but I believe it has largely succeeded." He is right in all respects, but the success is not his, or that of the British Army. Our forces rose to the challenge, writes the man, but the leadership – both military and political – did not.

And even to the end, like his former political master, Jackson is "spinning". He writes of "the announcement that Britain is largely to close down its military role in Iraq by May 31, 2009," not acknowledging that the date is not one of our choice. It has been set not by Mr Brown, but the Iraqis. They have kicked us out.

Even then, that date might not be the final word. When Gordon Brown so confidently announced this last week, he forgot to tell the world that this was a provisional agreement, subject to ratification by the Iraqi parliament. Without its agreement, our mandate ceases at midnight on 31 December, after which we are required to leave.

But the Iraqi parliament has not agreed. Yesterday, it threw out the draft law which would have permitted the extension of our stay to 31 May – by a massive 80 votes to 68.

Another vote is due next week but there is a strong caucus in the parliament which want to see the back of the British. Not least is Nasser al-Issawi, an MP loyal to Muqtada Sadr. He has hailed the rejection of the draft as a "great national achievement", and said he hoped the foreign troops would be forced to leave when the UN mandate ends.

If the parliament finally rejects the law, it will be up to Nouri Maliki to save our blushes by exercising his executive powers and signing individual agreements directly with each of the foreign states with troops remaining, giving them – and us - a legal basis to remain. This would be a messy solution, but rather appropriate for a messy war.

Soon enough, much of that mess – or the reasons for it – will emerge. And General Mike Jackson will not come out so well from its evaluation. It was just as well he got in first. He needed to.


Thursday 18 December 2008

"Same old failings"

The starting point of this piece is the assertion that we will never get sensible military procurement until or unless MPs and the media start to take the subject seriously.

Only then, do we assume that they will make the effort to understand the issues and put the pieces together. And, if they do so, they will be able to target their criticisms accurately and fairly. But they must also come up with clear ideas of what should be done. There is no point whatsoever relying on the MoD – or the military. Time and time again, it has become demonstrably clear that they have very little idea of what they are doing.

The illustration of this broader thesis comes with today's media coverage of the annual National Audit Office (NAO) report on MoD project management, which has featured, amongst other things, the problems in bringing "Terrier" battlefield engineer vehicle into service – a project slated at £300 million, each vehicle costing £5 million.

The focus on this machine in the report has prompted three media articles dedicated specifically to the subject of the Terrier.

In no particular order, there is a piece by Chris Irvine, in The Daily Telegraph, another in the same paper (online both) by Thomas Harding and a piece in The Daily Mail by Matthew Hickley. Then, in each case there is comment by an MP, Edward Leigh, the Conservative chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

To understand the scale of the problem, we first have to look at each article individually. Then we need to look at the bigger picture, Leigh's response to the newspapers and the role of the NAO.

Taking Hickley's Mail piece first, the headline (which would not have been written by the author) proclaims: "Army forced to buy JCBs and paint them in camouflage colours to clear warzones." The message, however, accurately reflects the copy, which tells us:

Plans for new armoured bulldozers to help British troops to clear obstacles in warzones have been hit by such long delays that the Army has had to buy JCB diggers instead and paint them in camouflage colours.

This assertion is then reinforced by the picture (above), which shows a line of ordinary, commercial JCBs.

Taking that one point (we will return to the others) – that the Army is, in effect, using ordinary JCB diggers, with a new paint job - this is a cheap shot, and wholly wrong. The vehicles being bought are the state-of-the-art JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE) - pictured below, right.

They were purpose-designed, initially for the US Army and are custom-built military machines. Furthermore, the version to be fielded is armoured, which adds to the differences – although we have reservations about this, as these machines are not mine protected. Nevertheless, they bear no more relation to the civilian machine than does an Army truck to a Tesco delivery vehicle.

Moving on to Chris Irvine's Telegraph piece, he also writes in similar terms that "The Army had to buy JCB diggers and paint them to camouflage them after plans for new armoured bulldozers to clear warzones were met by long delays."

The issue we need to address here is the inference that the Army bought the HMEE because of the delays in procuring the "new armoured bulldozers" – the Terriers (picture, below left) to which the NAO report refers.

Once again the assertion is wrong. Although ostensibly based on the NAO report, that is not what the NAO actually says. The passage is here:

2.17 Terrier will replace the Combat Engineer Tractor that was withdrawn from service in March 2008 because of concerns about the safe integration and operation of the Bowman communications system, reliability and obsolescence problems. The delays to Terrier will extend this capability gap; but users have been willing to accept that the vehicles will not be available to support operations until 2012 rather than risk a lower level of reliability. The Department does not believe that the delays will have an operational impact in the short term because of Urgent Operational Requirement action to purchase alternative engineering vehicles for current operations, including the JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators.
The most relevant sentence here is the last, where the MoD argues that the delays in the Terrier procurement will not affect operations because, inter alia the HMEE has been bought. From this, it is a long way to go to assume that the HMEE was bought because of the delays in the Terrier programme. And, in fact, that was not the case,

Those that have followed this issue will know that the HMEE is to be purchased as part of the £96 million Talisman package, devised as a "specialist route clearance system", which "will provide a new high-tech way of dealing with the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat."

In this role, the HMEE brings to the table capabilities which the Terrier cannot supply. Specifically, the HMEE is a development of the JCB Fastrac, a machine which is optimised for (relatively) high-speed road use. It is thus capable of travelling long distances at convoy speed, keeping up with other vehicles without the need for specialist transportation. It can also operate freely on a wide variety of roads.

Strangely enough, when the concept was first announced in 2005, it was much lauded, not least by Sean Rayment in The Sunday Telegraph as the US Army's "latest secret weapon in the war against terror". How times change. But it is a pity that Telegraph writers do not read the Sunday version of their own newspaper.

The contrast with the Terrier, to anyone who thinks about it, is obvious. A tracked vehicle, if it is to travel any distance, has to be transported on a low loader. Furthermore, it is not by any means ideal for working on metalled roads – tracks tending to tear up the tarmac. It may have a limited role in Afghanistan, its design use being to carry out engineering works in the "indirect fire zone". But it is not an equivalent to the HMEE (and vice versa).

At best, the two machine types have overlapping capabilities, which is probably what the MoD was getting at when it argued that there would be no "operational impact" from the delay in the Terrier. Most of the jobs the Terrier would have been called upon to do, the HMEE can also do. But the HMEE can perform tasks for which the Terrier would be wholly inappropriate.

With that, we now come to the next point, majored on by Thomas Harding, his article headed: "Mine clearing vehicle that could save lives of British troops delayed for two years." Unfortunately, he has been misled both by the MoD and the NAO, which position the Terrier as a "mine clearance vehicle", which is actually only a secondary role.

Harding thus writes: "The armoured vehicle can clear minefields and make routes safe for following armour and is likely to have proved a significant asset in Afghanistan where dozens of soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs." He then goes on to say, "As a result of the hold-up the MoD has been forced to buy 10 off-the-shelf Buffalo route clearance vehicles as part of an urgent £96 million project."

The juxtaposition of these two issues is not altogether a happy one. In the mine clearance role, the Terrier is mainly what is known as a "breach" vehicle. Usually, to clear mines, it tows a bit of kit called Viper minefield breaching system (now replaced by the Python) which it uses literally to blast a way through a known minefield, paving the way for armour.

In insurgency warfare, the mine is used as an ambush weapon and, therefore, a different approach is used, needing equipment to investigate suspect locations, to determine whether there is an explosive package hidden there. Once one is detected, it is then identified and dealt with.

Thus, the distinction is between "breach" and "clearance". The Terrier is used for the first, the Buffalo for the second - as one of a suite of vehicles, providing part of the detection capability. There is no comparison. The Terrier can be used for the one (as an ancillary function) but cannot perform the role of the Buffalo. There can be no question, therefore, of being "forced" to buy Buffaloes because of delays in the Terrier programme. The two are completely different animals, used for different jobs.

However, as between the Terrier and the HMEE, there can be an overlap. Both vehicles can be fitted with mine clearance rollers (pictured right). But this kit is also currently fitted to Mastiffs and can be fitted to virtually any other armoured vehicle (in Oman, rollers were fitted to Saracens), so one hardly needs a £5 million, specialist engineering vehicle for the purpose, especially as the Terrier is not mine protected. Futhermore, this equipment - unlike the Husky detector gear - will only deal with pressure-plate activated devices, and not those triggered by command wire or other remote actuation mechanisms.

This brings us to the problem of the "bigger picture". The limitation of the NAO is that it looks at individual projects, mainly from a cost perspective. It does not look at projects in context (how they relate as part of a system, with other equipment), nor does it consider whether they are necessary or whether an alternative would be more appropriate. It simply looks at the situation "as is".

The trouble is that no one else is looking at the bigger picture either. Perhaps the Defence Select Committee should be doing this, but it does not. And neither does the media. As we see with this story, it dissects the information served up to it on a plate and goes no further. But, if you examine the "system" as a whole, a different and altogether more disturbing picture emerges.

Looking specifically at the HMEE, the question has to be asked, what is it for? An excavator, with or without armour, cannot be used to look for mines or other explosives. That is the job of the Husky (see left) in combination with the Buffalo. You would not expect an excavator to dig up a mine or explosive device once found. For a start, the HMEE armour (and design) is not up to that, which would make it far too dangerous. Explosive devices, invariably, are hand-cleared or blown up in situ. The only role one can think of, for which the HMEE is particularly suited is filling in the craters after a device has been blown up.

The question that devolves is why, in the £96 million Talisman project, the Army is buying HMEEs - 13 of them at a cost of £6.2 million – when it is not buying Huskies, an essential component of any route clearance operation? Another question is why the Army is spending £6.2 million on buying HMEEs at all, when it has already has a fleet of 25 armoured mine clearance vehicles, which it is now trying to sell off, unused, at the knockdown price of less than £4.5 million.

If the NAO is interested in value for money – which is its purpose in life – then it needs to look a bit closer at the Talisman project. Tucked into that, as Ann Winterton discovered, are some additional Mastiffs. Their role will be to function as armoured bomb disposal vehicles.

Only last year though, the MoD replaced its entire overseas fleet of bomb disposal vehicles, spending £7.5 million on 18 Swiss-built Bucher Duro vehicles, called the "Tellar" (pictured right). As we pointed out at the time, these unarmoured vehicles are totally unfit for purpose and now, surreptitiously – disguised by another project – these are being replaced.

Thus, we find ourselves in a position where, after the waste of nearly £20 million, we are going to end up with route clearance teams which still lack the essential Huskies to make them truly effective. But the NAO has no comment about that, and the media – entirely heedless of what is going on – is chasing after hares, making false points about JCBs, missing the real story.

That leaves Edward Leigh, who comments on the NAO findings. He complains of the "same old failings", which threaten to leave British troops poorly prepared for frontline action. He condemns what he calls "a lack of realism" and then declares: "This is about more than money. This kit will sooner or later be operated, perhaps in anger, by our men and women in the forces."

That latter sentiment is one with which we would agree. But, instead of offering any more detailed critical evaluation or himself looking at the bigger picture, Leigh is mouthing sound bites in response to an agenda dictated by the NAO. We are indeed – to use his words – dealing with the "same old failings", but there are far more failings than those identified by the NAO. As an MP, and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, it is his job to root them out.

Instead, from our parliamentary representatives, we also get the "same old failings", which means that money will continue to be wasted and "our men and women in the forces" still won't get the right kit.

They – and we, the taxpayers – deserve something better.


Tuesday 16 December 2008

The Army has spoken

Picked up early by The Daily Telegraph today was a statement to be delivered by defence secretary John Hutton on the continued use of the Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan.

Correctly forecast – and now retailed by the BBC - Hutton was to say in a written statement to MPs that "The clear advice to me from military operational commanders, unanimously endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, is that Snatch remains essential to the success for our operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In the text of the statement, he declares that, "In the light of this authoritative assessment, I have decided that it would be inappropriate and unnecessary to conduct an inquiry." Justifying this decision, he adds: "These are matters on which I must rely on the considered judgement of military commanders who have experience of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and access to specialised military engineering expertise."

Hutton then said that the Snatch was to be rapidly replaced by, as The Daily Telegraph puts it, "the allegedly more robust Snatch Vixen" (pictured top) of which he claims, there is "no better vehicle in the world" to fulfil the light protected patrol vehicle requirement. The Snatch 2A - the current model - will be reduced in numbers "until it is used only in our camps".

A rationale for the continued use of the Snatch is offered in terms of the military tasks in Afghanistan being "largely ones of counter-insurgency". To achieve their aims, British forces "need to win the support and confidence of local people". This, we are told, "can only be done by face-to-face interaction, demonstrating to the local people that we are working in their interests".

Hutton thus argues that, "Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven that better armoured vehicles, which tend by definition to be larger and heavier, are viewed by the local population as aggressive and intimidating. Their size and weight means too that they can cause serious damage to roads, buildings, irrigation channels and drainage systems".

All these factors, we are told, "can inflame local opinion against UK troops – working in favour of our enemy and actually increasing the threat levels to our people". Thus:

It is for these reasons that military commanders require a range of vehicles, from which the can choose the best one suited to the required task – and in this context there remains a critical requirement for a Light Protected Patrol Vehicle (LPPV) such as the Snatch Land Rover. Small, mobile and agile, it is ideal for allowing engagement with the local population, often in areas which would be inaccessible to heavier vehicles.
As a small but important point, the secretary of state concedes that "37 servicemen have died in these vehicles or as a result of injuries sustained in them". We had the figure as 38, but that includes Sgt Hickey, who was not actually in a Snatch at the time he was killed. We regard his death as "Snatch-related" but it would not come within the MoD definition. Removal of that puts our figure completely in agreement with the MoD's. We got that one right.

Turning to the substantive issues in the Hutton statement, there are four. Firstly, there is the "hearts and minds" issue, the need for a vehicle which allows "face-to-face" interaction. Secondly, there is the related issue of minimising the military "footprint", reducing damage to roads and infrastructure, and the need for a light agile vehicle to access areas which are closed to heavier vehicles.

Ostensibly, both these are persuasive arguments, but they are also disingenuous. In many of the episodes where we have recorded deaths and injuries, "hearts and minds" were not a factor.

We have seen Snatches being used for such diverse task as convoy escort, and for "fighting patrols" in wide open spaces, where there is no interaction intended, and no likelihood of a heavier vehicle causing either nuisance or damage. In effect, the Snatch has been misused as an armoured fighting vehicle – performing the role that would in past campaigns have been fulfilled by an armoured car. To that extent, the "hearts and minds" requirement is overstated.

But what we have also seen – and this is very much the case in Afghanistan – is that many of the attacks are mounted when units are transiting too, and most often from their area of operations. The most common of these assaults occurs when the unit is on its way back to base, and often when it is not very far from it.

The great danger, therefore is when units are in transit, and it is there that the protection is most often needed. What the military are saying, therefore, is that troops must be put at risk while moving from place to place in order that, when they arrive, they can carry out their duties.

Of the third issue, this is the claim in relation to the Snatch Vixen that there is "no better vehicle in the world" for the light PPV role. Frankly, this is delusional and reflects the classic Army response to a problem vehicle. Given that the Snatch is horribly vulnerable, they have simply bolted more armour on (pictured above right). This is very little different from what they were doing over 40 years ago ... bolting steel plate on the underside of Land Rovers to protect against mines (see above left). In this case, they have also beefed up the vehicle so that it can carry the extra weight. And that is the best the MoD can offer.

What these "experts" – the same experts that gave us the Jackal - do not seem to be able to understand is that if you take a basically inadequate design, simply adding bits of armour does not confer any significant additional protection.

This was precisely what the Rhodesians found so that, when they converted a Land Rover into a mine protected vehicle, it became the Kudu (pictured left) and looked very different from the Snatch. The Vixen will thus be better than the basic Snatch, but it is a long way from being the "best in the world", and nowhere near the standard of protection the Rhodesians were delivering over thirty years ago.

That brings us to the fourth issue – the inquiry. This had been requested formally by Sue Smith's solicitor and its rejection marks a determination of the MoD to keep some very suspect decisions under wraps.

In the Iraqi campaign particularly, it must have been known by late 2003 that the Snatches could not do the job intended. By the end of 2004, that was abundantly clear and by mid-2006 there can have been no question at all. Yet the Army persevered with this vehicle, also taking it to Afghanistan, where more soldiers died unnecessarily.

We needed an inquiry to find out something of the decision-making process – why the vehicles were introduced in the first place, why the Army persevered with them for so long, after they had been proved dangerously inadequate, and why then it took (and is taking) so long to find a more suitable replacement.

These are issues the Army clearly does not want to discuss in public, which means that it has not yet come to terms with a failure that could well continue and which we are already seeing in the wholly inadequate design of the Jackal, another death in which was seen last week.

Hutton may feel he is entitled to rely on the "considered judgement of military commanders who have experience of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and access to specialised military engineering expertise." But if Des Browne had relied on these geniuses, we would not have bought Mastiffs and the Army would have put Pinzgauer Vectors in to Iraq and Afghanistan to replace the Snatch, as originally intended.

These are the "experts" that got it wrong, and are continuing to get it wrong. And even in the final throes of the Hutton statement they still get it wrong. They tell us that they are "looking to the future" and "anticipating new threats", to which effect they "have begun a programme to develop the next generation of LPPV which will in due course take the place of Snatch Vixen".

But that "next generation" vehicle is already here. It is called the Cheetah (above right), made by the same company which produced the base vehicles for the Mastiff and Ridgeback. Yet the Army which looked at the RG-31 as a replacement for the Snatch and decided it was "too big for Basra" - and then went on to buy the Mastiff which was even bigger - has decided that the Cheetah is "simply too small in terms of capacity".

This is a vehicle that is actually bigger than the Snatch – 14 inches wider and 20 inches longer - yet the Army is saying it is "too small". Never mind that it is designed specifically for urban patrolling or that, with independent suspension, it has been optimised for off-road performance. The Army has spoken.

And that is why we still need an inquiry.


An Atlantic rift?

While the UK is cosying up to the EU, with its support for the EU navy, it seems to be getting less support from the Americans for its efforts in Afghanistan.

That is certainly the case, according to the Times this morning, which has it that the US is accusing Britain "over [its] military failings in Afghanistan."

The source of the accusations (plural) is identified as Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, a man who has some good knowledge of counter-insurgency operations and who has had some impressive things to say about his own military. Furthermore, he must have something going for him as he was appointed by Bush and has been asked to remain in his job under Barack Obama.

Anyhow, it is Gates who is "understood" to have expressed strong reservations about counterinsurgency operations in British-controlled Helmand province.

One of his concerns seems to be that, since a total of 132 British soldiers have now died in Afghanistan since 2001, the government is worried about public opinion turning against the campaign. It is thus, as it was in Iraq, overly risk averse, with strategy being dictated by the need to avoid casualties rather than by operational requirements.

This is coming to a head with US plans to mount a "surge", contrasted with the British reluctance to commit large numbers of extra troops. British officials are thus concerned that the US may take over control of Helmand – if the British fail to step up to the plate.

The willingness of the US to intervene in the British zone has been a recent feature of the Afghani campaign. Unlike Iraq, where the management of the southern zone was left entirely to the British – even when it was obvious that it was going belly up – US forces have already contributed considerable forces to operations in the British area, providing US airborne troops for the re-capture of Musa Qala last year and US Marines for operations in Garmsir earlier this year.

That the Americans have had to intervene may be behind what we are told are "grievances" over Britain's lack of equipment, including helicopters, the latter having left troops unable to perform the same tasks as US counterparts and led to more cautious tactics.

That was certainly the case in Musa Qala, where troops from the elite 82nd airborne spearheaded the assault, being flown in by helicopter to the northern outskirts of the town. In that one operation, the US deployed more helicopters than the entire contingent fielded by the UK in Afghanistan.

There is also grumbling, we are told, about the regularity with which US airstrikes are called to rescue British troops – the US providing about 90 percent of the air support across the entire theatre. Much valued though the British air contribution is, there are simply not enough aircraft to cover the entire range of UK ground operations.

But something which is almost certainly a legacy of Iraq is reported "tension and resentment" over the air of superiority adopted by British commanders such as Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster. He, according to The Times has suggested that his American counterparts needed to take lessons from Britain's experience in Northern Ireland and Malaya.

The paper also tells us that David Kilcullen, an adviser to the US State Department, told a recent seminar that there had been "lots of fairly snide criticism" from the British whose attitude had been: "Look at us, we're on the street in our soft caps and everyone loves us."

The repost, not without justice, is that such claims have been undercut by the performance since then. "It would be fair to say that in 2006 the British Army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq," says Kilcullen.

At the same semiar, Daniel Marston, an American consultant who until recently was a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and has been embedded with troops in Afghanistan, said that Britain was being forced to learn some humility after being "embarrassed by their performance".

This is then explained by Carter Malkesian, an expert at the Centre of Naval Analysis. He says: "Among those in the Department of Defence who are paying attention to these operations, Britain's reputation has probably fallen. But they still recognise that the British Army, among all the allies, are those that fight the most and fight the best."

Needless to say, a "senior British defence source" counters these points by saying: "We are punching above our weight in Afghanistan and are the second biggest contributor of all the Nato allies, so for anyone to single us out for criticism is plainly wrong and unfair."

However, whether the British find criticism hard to take, or not, there is no question that the reputation of the British Army has been considerably tarnished by its performance in Iraq. And, whatever might be the skillset of the British military in Afghanistan, they are no longer in a position to lecture the Americans about how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.

However, if the British are not disposed to listen to their allies, they might perhaps be more inclined to take note of one of their former adversaries, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. "The Americans," he said, "it is fair to say, profited far more than the British from their experience in Africa, thus confirming that education is easier than re-education."

Often the greatest barrier to learning is the conviction that the subject is already known, and that there is nothing new to learn – especially if the source of that learning is believed to be inferior. The Americans may have – and indeed have – got things wrong, but they have also shown that they are capable of learning from their mistakes. That same ability is not always evident in the British ranks.

In this, perhaps, the British would be better off with the EU. Being rude about the French and Italians comes much more naturally.


Monday 15 December 2008

The final humiliation

Carried in The Independent yesterday and reinforced in The Times today is the final template for the final withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.

The Independent puts is bluntly, telling us that the departure is enforced, with Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, taking his revenge for what he regards as the British surrender of Basra to hardline Shia Muslim militias. By this means, British forces in Iraq are facing a humiliating end to their six-year mission in the country.

What brings this about is the expiry of the current UN mandate on 31 December, leaving Britain without a legal framework for its continued presence after that date. The Independent had it that "frantic diplomatic efforts" were under way to secure an extension.

The situation was described as "extremely serious" and it is this which is behind the government's announced last week that Britain's 4,100 troops in Iraq would begin withdrawing in March, and leave completely by the end of June - apart from 400 troops in training and mentoring roles.

At the time this story was published, the situation had not been clarified with a senior figure saying that it was "quite possible" that no agreement past the end of December would be ratified, in which case British troops would have to start pulling out immediately as they would have no legal basis for remaining.

In The Times, however, there is added detail. Still heralding Britain facing a "humiliating Iraq withdrawal", the story is there that British forces are now to be required to leave by the end of next July.

The worst of it is that Britain has been lumped in with five smaller contingents, including those of Romania, El Salvador and Estonia, and included in a "mini-agreement for the six entities", separate from the main agreement which has US forces leaving within three years. The other "entities" have been given until May to cease duties and then a period of two months’ grace to get out by July 31.

Britain had hoped for a separate deal, along the lines negotiated with the US but Fawzi Hariri, the Iraqi Industry Minister, says: "There was no way we could have done a security agreement to the same level of detail that we had with the Americans in such a short period." Thus we have been lumped in with Estonia and the rest.

The Times also rehearses the background, telling us that the Iraqi Prime Minister's discontent boiled over last spring. Having done a deal with armed groups to leave Basra Palace, their last sizeable outpost within Iraq's second city, in the summer of 2007, British forces remained largely confined to the airport.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, argued that Britain's troops were the main target of attacks, and that their withdrawal had led to a reduction in violence, but in the Iraqi Prime Minister's view, Basra was simply abandoned to warring militias. He launched a successful Iraqi military operation, supported by US forces and dubbed "Charge of the Knights", to seize the city in March, with British troops taking only a small and belated part.

The senior source said a bilateral agreement on the future status of British forces had "supposedly ... been about to happen for months and months", adding: "We should not forget how angry – and mistrustful of the British – Maliki is for allowing the Shia militias to take over in Basra. He regards the British as having entirely sold the pass. It is true that it suits him, for domestic political reasons, to be seen to be giving the British a hard time, but it happens to be something he feels very cross about."

In truth, Maliki has every right to be "cross". The British retreat actually started right at the beginning in May 2003 when the government decided to opt out of running a southern Iraq devoid of government, and progressively handed over the running of the region to the militias.

The turning point came in August 2006 when the Army quit al Amarah, leaving it to the Mahdi Army, under which control it has remained until last June, becoming the weapons "depot" which supplied the rest of the Shi'a insurgency in Iraq. It was only in June that 20,000 Iraqi troops, backed by 2,500 elite US troops, finally moved back in to impose, for the first time since the invasion, the writ of the Baghdad government.

The full story has yet to be told (although it is in the process of being written) but this final humiliating chapter sets the seal on what has in reality been a comprehensive defeat for the British Army. The blame, however, lies mainly with the government, from Blair through to Brown. Nevertheless, the Army brass does not exactly come out of this with any glory.

So far, though, the government has sought to "spin" this defeat as a victory – and its has partially got away with it, relying on the Army to support it, in the knowledge that it too will not want to walk away from Iraq admitting its own failures.

Too many people though know exactly what went on and this is too big even for New Labour to "spin". The truth will out, and it is not pretty. But it typifies the utter incompetence of a government more concerned with "spin" than soldier's lives or the welfare of the people whose land it had invaded.

As our troops finally march away, to their ships and aircraft, this will indeed be the final humiliation. This government must not be allowed to get away with pretending otherwise. But the Army also needs to come to terms with its own failures for, without learning the lessons that come with that, it is setting itself up for another, more serious failure in Afghanistan.

As Thomas Harding writes in a superb piece published a few days ago, "if we are to win out in the far more challenging arena of Afghanistan, then the Army had better change, and change soon."


Monday 8 December 2008

A plea for help

Regular readers will have noticed that the volume of posts on this blog has declined somewhat over the past few weeks. The explanation is simple – with Booker, I am currently engaged in writing another book on "global warming" adding, this time, a detailed analysis of the coming energy crisis.

As if this was not enough, I am also writing solo a book on the Snatch Land Rover and its role in the Iraq and Afghani campaigns. This is more than just a book about a vehicle though. The Snatch, in its own way, was an icon which symbolised the lack of preparedness for a messy and dangerous series of counter-insurgency operations.

Thus, the book is turning out to be a comprehensive account of the Iraqi insurgency in the British sector, whence I will move on – perhaps – to Afghanistan. It is possible though that the experiences in Iraq alone will take up the whole of this account.

Inevitably, this self-imposed burden means that I have less time to devote to the blog, which had developed almost to the extent that it had become a full-time job in its own right. This is more the case as, when researching for a book, I obey the classical precepts of letting the facts tell the story.

Thus, unlike much of contemporary so-called science, where the researcher decides on the outcome in advance and then selects the facts to prove the a priori hypothesis, I am trawling through contemporary sources and assembling a narrative, from which I will then draw my conclusions.

As such, the writing is a journey of discovery (the outcome of which I cannot as yet predict – although the shape becomes clearer as I progress) the detail of which is already staggering. I am ashamed of my own ignorance.

In making this journey, I am applying the same techniques which I learned when at the age of 40 I undertook the arduous process of studying for my PhD. Initially, I recall, my view was that writing a thesis was simplicity itself. I was already a published author and long pieces of writing were no sweat – or so I thought.

In a matter of a few months – of what was supposed to be a five-year (part-time) course - I dashed off some 40,000 words and proudly presented the document to my supervisor. His response was to rip it to shreds, clinically dissecting its failings in such a masterful fashion that, defensive though I was, I could not help but agree. I tore up my work and started to learn.

I have to admit that completing the thesis, which eventually ran to 80,000 words, nearly broke me. After four years and some more, despite the investment, the sheer labour and the rigorous discipline had me prepared to walk away from the whole thing, with only the conclusion section to complete. I have since spoken to other PhD students and many went though the same trauma.

Complete it I did, however, and I applied the hard-won skills to the research I conducted for The Great Deception, written by Booker on the basis of the briefs I provided him. After the two years that that took, I vowed to myself "never again", such was the labour and the gruelling intellectual effort. Yet, here I am, doing exactly the same thing, albeit on a completely different subject.

This, though, is a book that must be written, and so far in the long journey I have got up to December 2004, starting from May 2003, having written 25,000 words.

It occurred to me however, as with the exploration of the Qana incident in July 2006, that I could enlist the power of the blogosphere and make this a co-operative effort, as we did the final report.

For those that are interested and prepared to help, what I am after is media, agency and other reports of events – factual accounts, not opinion – from as wide a range a sources as possible, in the British occupied sector of Iraq, currently for the first six months of the year 2005, with special reference to al Amarah and Basra.

As our forum so often illustrates, many of our readers have quite remarkable internet search skills and, if anyone is prepared so to do, I would appreciate them posting links to stories for the relevant period on the thread I have opened up.

In the meantime, for the time it is going to take me to complete the work, I will keep the blog going as best I can, and plough on with the writing. My thanks to you all for visiting the site and bearing with me.

I will shortly post there, the next chapter of the work in progress.


Thursday 4 December 2008

Changing the dinosaur

Having finally obtained a copy of "Changing the Dinosaur's Spots" to which I referred in the previous post, one smiles wanly at the "puff" on the back cover, from Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, former deputy chief of the defence staff (equipment capability) MoD, who describes it as a "gripping read".

The book itself is written by Bill Kincaid, himself an "insider" who spent 18 years in the MoD, finally ending up as director of land systems operational requirements. He left in 1995 to start a "successful consultancy business". On his watch, therefore, Kincaid must have been involved in the production of the "Snatch" Land Rover – introduced in 1992 – an example of which he uses on the front cover of his book. Interestingly, he does not cite the vehicle as one of his personal successes.

As to the book, it took until page six to wonder whether Kincaid, who expends his energies on offering solutions to the reform of UK defence acquisition, is not part of the problem which he aims to solve. That thought is triggered by his early discussion of the propensity of the MoD to "save" money by deferring big projects, only to have them costs more later as a result of the delays. "This is relevant," writes Kincaid …

… to the UK's 30-year effort to deliver the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), the replacement for the FV430 and the CVR(T) armoured vehicles – if we had not so repeatedly deferred them, they would have come so much cheaper in the early 1990s, when we had three thriving armoured vehicle manufacturers in the UK, and they would have been available for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan with no need for the buys of interim vehicles.
There are so many things wrong with these statements that it is difficult to know where to start, not least in Kincaid’s suggestion that the FRES (or any) programme stretches back 30 years.

No doubt something must have been under discussion that far back, but the first formal declaration of interest in a new fleet of armoured vehicles to replace the existing inventory came in 1989. That project was not FRES. It was the Future Family of Light Armoured Vehicles (FFLAV) project, which had been revealed as an aspiration in 1987.

Neither was the in-service date specified for the "early 1990s" – the first vehicles then being expected for the mid 1990s, an objective which, even then, was highly optimistic.

With such a relatively short developmental time scale, it would even then have been highly unlikely that a completely new design could have been produced. The favourite, in fact, was the Piranha family – the same now being considered for FRES – to which effect, in 1990, the British armoured vehicle manufacturer, GKN teamed up with Mowag of Switzerland in anticipation of producing this vehicle for the British Army.

Had Bill Kincaid actually got his wish, and the Piranha had been introduced by the mid-1990s, indeed they would have been available for Iraq and Afghanistan. But that would have meant the British Army being saddled with vehicles very similar to the Canadian LAV, which has been far from an unqualified success.

Even a later version, in the form of the Stryker used by the US Forces in Iraq, has been less than successful. As a result, we have argued strongly that this type of vehicle is entirely inappropriate for low-level counter-insurgency operations, as indeed the Spanish have been finding.

What is particularly disturbing about Kincaid's comments, however, is assertion that, had these vehicles been bought, there would have been "no need for the buys of interim vehicles." By these "interim vehicles", he no doubt means the Mastiff and the Ridgeback, and the rest of the recently announced package.

The point here is that these are specifically designed for the MRAP role. They are not the equivalent of the FFLAV/FRES. That the US and Canadians have LAVs on their inventories has not stopped them re-equipping with MRAP vehicles. In fact, the US, with the largest inventory of LAVs, is well ahead of the UK in its MRAP programme.

Kincaid, though, is very much a player in the procurement debate. He works closely with the Royal United Services Institute – the "leading forum in the UK for national and international Defence and Security" – which has published his book. If his views are representative of more general thinking – and there is every reason to believe it is - then we are in serious trouble. Even at a superficial level, anyone who sees and equivalence between FRES and the MRAP programme simply has not absorbed the lessons of the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reading on into the book, this very much confirms Kincaid's lack of grasp of the essentials of military procurement. He writes at great length about the MoD being an "intelligent customer", and offers a huge trance of text about downstream processes. Where he is totally deficient – and I do mean totally – is in any evaluation about how this "intelligent customer" decides what is needed.

Yet, the heart of the procurement failure stems entirely from the armed forces being kitted out with the wrong or inadequate equipment, primarily – or so it seems – because neither the military nor the defence establishment have any clarity as to what is needed. But neither, it seems, has Kincaid.

Thus, as he himself remarks, we end up relying on a UOR system which delivers the equipment to fill the gaps – as it did with the Mastiff. Kincaid might well complain that we also have a huge, inefficient establishment, but the trouble is that it expends its energy and money on generating its own ideas on what is needed, instead of finding out what is actually necessary to prosecute the wars we are actually fighting.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the procurement system ends up delivering the wrong kit at far greater expense than need be, but Kincaid has not even begun to work out why that might be the case. He may, therefore, want to change the dinosaur – but he too is a dinosaur.


Wednesday 26 November 2008

Informed comment?

The above is from the Sky website.

The television station is reviewing a book called, "Changing The Dinosaur's Spots - The Battle To Reform UK Defence Acquisition." Written by Bill Kincaid, a retired brigadier who until recently was in charge of operational requirements for the MoD, it claims that the rising UK military death toll in Helmand is partly caused by waste and delay in providing better equipment.

Lives are lost in poorly-protected vehicles like the Snatch Land Rover - over which an SAS commander recently resigned - because money to replace them is squandered elsewhere, says Kincaid, who warns it may take a major defeat on the battlefield before the problem is put right.

Kincaid, of course, is blowing smoke. We have already suffered a "major defeat on the battlefield" – it's called Iraq. Look to the story of al Amarah, about which we hope to publish today. Any which way you cut it, this was a major defeat for the British Army - through no fault of the men on the gound, who performed heroically. The response was simply to "spin" the defeat as a victory – with the media rolling over and buying the line.

But, if you expect any sensible or informed comment from the media, look at the pic posted by Sky and then the caption. That is as good as it gets. The problem is that this sort of superficial, lacklustre coverage typifies the media in general, right across the board. Nothing you read can be relied upon and nothing they say can be trusted. This is the world of "newspeak".


Saturday 22 November 2008

Would you send used Land Rovers into this?

I have been working on an idea for a book on the "Snatch" Land Rover. If anyone is interested, the draft of the second chapter is posted here.

This deals with the four months from the end of May 2003, when hostilities officially ended, to the beginning of September when the situation had clearly deteriorated and the decision have been made to send in "Snatch" Land Rovers to assist the troops. Given that the vehicle was intended for patrolling in low risk environment, the question is asked whether they should have been sent at all.

The segement is long (8,500 words), but comments and any additional information would be appreciated.


Thursday 20 November 2008

Let loose the dogs of chores

So far, reported only by one obscure (to me, anyway) online business site, the MoD has at last given some more details of its new £700 million armoured vehicle package announced by John Hutton last month.

This is the Tactical Support Vehicle (TSV) range – all given names from the canine genus, as has become customary in British Army armoured vehicle nomenclature. These, though, are to be the workhorses, doing the fetching and carrying and other chores, rather than fighting.

At the heavy end – very much as expected – we see the Force Protection Inc nominated at the preferred bidder with the Cougar flatbed. The MoD offers a photograph (above), which includes the vehicle being dressed up with the characteristic Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System (MCS) which we see adorning the Snatch Land Rovers and Vectors, so one might think that this is the final form, without bar or additional side armour.

However, once the wonks back home get at it, we could see it come out in a very different form. The MoD is, in fact, saying that it will be "up-armoured and integrated with UK specific equipment such as communications systems and protection measures in a similar way to Mastiff."

Less impressive is the nomination for the Husky – the "medium" vehicle. The preferred bidder is Navistar Defence with a vehicle based on the International MXT-MVA (pictured). As a cargo truck, it will have a four-man cab and a cargo capacity in excess of 1.5 tons. It will, however, come as three variants: utility, ambulance and command post.

This vehicle does not come with rave reviews. It is not a proper MRAP, with the classic v-shaped hull, but is a conversion built on an International MXT 4x4 pick-up chassis, with appliqué armour.

The last thing the Army needs is yet another truck type on its inventory. An alternative is the cargo version of the Bushmaster called the Copperhead. With the Bushmaster about to enter service with the special forces, there would be some commonality but, it appears, this is not to be.

The third and least satisfactory of them all is the Coyote TSV (Light) which is to be a 6x6 derivative of the Jackal designed by Supacat Ltd. We are told that it will also have a cargo capacity in excess of 1.5 tons and a four-man crew.

The MoD does not offer a photograph of this, but it may well be similar to the Supacat "Extenda" seen in Paris earlier this year (pictured). There are no indications, as yet, as to whether this will be armoured in the same way as the Jackal but, if it is not, soldiers would be better protected going to war on bicycles.

The best thing that can be said of this vehicle is that it will share the same degree of vulnerability as its smaller cousin. Frankly, if the extreme mobility for which this vehicle is famed is really needed in the supply role, then the best option would not be a ground vehicle at all, but a helicopter or even – as was adopted by the LRDG in World War II - light aircraft (spool down to fifth picture).

Of this new package, John Hutton tells us the vehicles "will give the troops in Afghanistan the additional bite they need in the fight against the enemy. They do a formidable job and deserve nothing but the best." Despite these fine words, it is by no means clear that they (the troops) are about to get what they deserve.


Tuesday 18 November 2008

That's politics for you

One of the most bizarre aspects of the war in Afghanistan is that, despite almost universal agreement that more helicopters are needed in theatre, the British government seems entirely unable to fill this urgent capacity shortfall.

Not so the Canadian government which, faced with a similar shortfall, is doing something about the problem, as with other aspects of its procurement policy – purchasing RG-31s when the British were patrolling in lightly armoured WIMIKs and "Snatch" Land Rovers and providing mine clearance sets, including the Husky and Buffalo, when the British were investing in hand-held mine detectors.

Their response was actually announced in July by our own defence secretary, the details recorded on this blog, including – as was then stated – purchasing six additional Chinooks and eight Griffin helicopters. In the interim, we were told, while fitting out those Chinooks for deployment, the Canadians were to lease eight Mi-17s (aka Mi-8MTV).

There were some queries about the details and it seems that the Griffins, far from being newly purchased, were to be upgraded from the existing military inventory. And neither, it seems, is the Canadian government to lease eight Mi-17s. But, if that is the bad news, the good news is that it is still leasing Mi-17s, although the number is to be six.

This we glean from the Canadian Press website, its story headed, "Canadians to use civilian helicopters in Afghanistan in stopgap measure".

Until they get their own helicopters next year, the report reads, Canadian troops in Afghanistan will have access to six civilian choppers to lessen the risk of coming under insurgent attack while moving along the country's notoriously dangerous roads. The Mi-8 helicopters are being contracted from Toronto-based SkyLink as a stopgap measure. The first flight of the aircraft took place at Kandahar Airfield on Monday.

Says Col. Christopher Coates, air wing commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan: "As a task force, it allows us to transport with the Mi-8's cargo and with the Chinook's personnel, with a view to try and get Canadians off the roads here in Afghanistan where they are exposed to all the dangers of this country - ambushes and IEDs and the other things that all Canadians are aware of."

The decision to contract the Mi-8s, which will be flown by civilian pilots, is the result of a recommendation from the Manley report last spring, officially entitled the "Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan". This recommended that Canada should have some air capabilities for its operations in Afghanistan. In particular, during its investigations, it heard that:

… the safety and effectiveness of Canadian Forces in Kandahar would be markedly increased by the acquisition and deployment of new equipment. In particular, added helicopter airlift capacity and advanced unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles are needed now. No equipment can perfectly protect Canadian soldiers against improvised explosive devices. But helicopters can save lives by reducing reliance on transporting troops by road, and aerial surveillance can more effectively track insurgent movements.
So seriously did the Panel take this evidence that, in its report, it also recommended that, "if the necessary equipment is not procured, the Government should give appropriate notice to the Afghan and allied governments of its intention to transfer responsibility for security in Kandahar."

In other words, it was saying to the government, either pull the troops out of Afghanistan or provide more helicopters. It was as blunt as that and, in the face of strong public pressure to withdraw, the government knew it had to do one or the other. It chose the latter.

The British government could, of course, have done the same and the option of leasing Mi-8 aircraft has been available since before British troops first deployed in Afghanistan, at a fraction of the cost of operating military helicopters.

This we have rehearsed many times on this blog, for instance, here, here and here. But, to be fair to the government, while it has in certain quarters energetically pursued this idea, it has been totally frustrated by a total lack of enthusiasm from the military, a wall of indifference verging on hostility from the media, and the overt opposition from the Conservative defence team.

The biggest concern is the possibility of the loss of one of these helicopters packed with troops. Indeed, one SkyLink Mi-8 was shot down in Afghanistan in 21 April 2005, with the loss of 11 lives, so the fear is very real. The bigger political problem, though, would be the ensuing outcry from the media – and opposition – charging that "Our Boys" had been palmed off with "substandard" Russian helicopters, which had led to their death. You can just imagine The Sun in full flow on this, complete with "outraged" comments from the Tory defence team.

However, instead of sitting on their backsides whining about the lack of helicopters, the ever resourceful Canadians have come up with a solution to this problem.

They are going to pool these helicopters under the Joint Task Force Afghanistan command. Thus, when they need to move troops, they will be able to call upon fully equipped British Chinooks, in return for which they will transport British cargo which would otherwise have been moved by the RAF aircraft.

Given that the British forces have a massive requirement for moving cargo – and sometimes we see precious Chinooks used just for delivering the mail – there was and never has been any reason why we could not have acquired Mi-8s for cargo moving. Not only is this option safer, it acts as a force multiplier reducing the need for expensive and manpower intensive resupply convoys.

Of course, this issue is not about politics, in the minds of the chatterati except when it suits them to complain about under-resourcing but, in fact, this is the very meat and drink of politics.

Had the opposition put its weight behind this issue, I have very good reasons for believing that we would have been seeing Mi-8s in the British sector some long time ago, saving money and possibly lives, as well as significantly enhancing our capabilities.

But then, they have some many other important things to do, like trying to get the ridiculously expensive and generally inadequate Future Lynx in service earlier, pushing complaints about “delays” into the media. It ain’t going to happen but, despite assertions by a certain MP, there are other games in town which will help resolve – albeit less than satisfactorily – the tactical helicopter shortage in Afghanistan.

The solution will be found, but without the intervention of the opposition. But, if we can't get rid – in the longer term – of this overpriced white elephant – at least, it seems, FRES is going to be allowed to wither on the vine. What a tale there is to tell there – the battle of FRES, that the chatterati didn't even realise was happening.

Funny that - the most interesting stories never appear in the papers. And that, dear reader, is politics for you!


Monday 17 November 2008

History repeats itself

The news which emerged yesterday of the second Gurkha soldier to be killed within a month in Afghanistan has disturbing implications. Unlike his comrade-in-arms, Rifleman Yubraj Rai who died of a gunshot wound after a firefight south of Musa Qala on 4 November, this as yet unnamed Gurkha was riding in a Warrior MICV (pictured).

According to The Daily Mail (online edition) – which was the first to identify the vehicle involved - the Gurkha was killed "after a massive roadside bomb tore through his 25-ton Warrior fighting vehicle." A number of other soldiers onboard were, according to its report, "seriously injured".

It is the first time, says the paper, a soldier has been killed inside a Warrior in Afghanistan, "and proof that the Taliban are turning to bigger and deadlier bombs targeted at British troops."

The paper adds that, until recently the Warriors were largely considered "mine proof" but then it tells us that at least three Warriors have been damaged "beyond repair" in the last eight months "as the Taleban bomb makers set ever bigger charges in British soldiers' paths." In addition, there was an early attack in February of this year.

When the Warriors arrived in Afghanistan in mid-August 2007 (see this video report), we applauded the deployment of these fighting vehicles which, very quickly had a decisive effect on the conduct of ongoing operations.

But, in this current instance, the Warrior was not being used for the purpose for which it had been designed – as an armoured assault vehicle. Instead, as part of a company of Warriors, it had been based outside Musa Qala, in Forward Operating Base Edinburgh. Together with Mastiffs, the Daily Mail reports, the vehicles have been used "to ferry soldiers to and from the outposts, which ring the volatile town." As The Independent puts it, "they are often used as armoured buses to move soldiers to and from outposts … because they used to be considered 'mine-proof'".

Any such assumption is entirely unjustified. The Warrior is not and never has been "mine-proof". The Army, therefore, is misusing these vehicles (whether to are forced to, or not because of kit shortages is another matter), for a job for which they are not designed and for which the Mastiffs, working alongside them, are superb.

In all, there have now been 22 deaths of British soldiers in Warrior-related incidents in both Iraq and Afghanistan since the formal end of hostilities in May 2003. By no means all of these resulted from IED attacks but many did, including the horrific incident on 5 April 2007 outside Basra, which resulted in the death of Second Lieutenant Joanna Dyer, and three of her comrades.

As remarked at the time, the underbelly of the Warrior is relatively lightly armoured and, even though they have been fitted with enhanced armour (pictured), their flat-bottomed profile makes them difficult to protect and limits their resistance to IEDs.

What may be happening here, though – in a manner similar to the way the Jackal has been treated - is that the Taleban have been "trying out" the Warrior and, having already written off a number of these vehicles, have evidently worked out a way to destroy them.

We saw something of what appears to be a similar dynamic in Iraq. Initially, the insurgents concentrated their fire on the more vulnerable "Snatch" Land Rovers, firstly in al Amarah and, when the "Snatches" were taken off the streets there and replaced by Warriors, the attacks moved to Basra where these vehicles were still being used for routine patrols.

When the use there of "Snatches" was limited – and many of the patrols were conducted by Mastiffs, which were arriving in ever-greater numbers - we saw attention focusing on the more vulnerable Warriors. In the latter stages of 2006 and in early 2007 there were a number of serious attacks, details of which were suppressed because of the Army's concern for morale and the effect of a public (and Parliamentary) hue and cry.

Thus, when Sergeant Graham Hesketh was killed on 28 December 2006 as a result of an IED attack on a Warrior, followed by the death of Private Michael Tench in January of the following year, these were seen as isolated incidents and not for what they were – part of a sustained assault by the insurgents on this vehicle type.

It was not until April of that year with the death of Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer that the Warrior came to public notice but even then, the incident was seen largely in isolation, with the media focus largely on the deaths of two women soldiers.

Even after that, the deaths from IED attacks on Warriors were to continue, the last known fatal attack recorded on 31 July 2007 when Corporal Steve Edwards was killed.

By that time, however, Mastiffs (pictured left) were being fielded in some numbers replacing both "Snatch" and Warrior and successfully resisting attacks on them. The Army pulled out of the last but one peripheral base, the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre (PJCC) in Basra, and – as rumour had it, only subsequently to be confirmed - British commanders struck a deal with leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr's 17,000-strong Mahdi Army to ensure the safe departure of troops from Basra Palace.

By early September the Army had retreated from Basra Palace and hunkered down in its new increasingly fortified base at the former Basra International Airport, leaving perimeter security largely to the Iraqi Army.

The limited sallies outside the wire were increasingly made in Mastiffs, which continued to resist attacks and, with no more Warrior deaths being reported, another publicity storm over inadequate equipment had been averted.

As for the situation in Afghanistan, the imminent arrival of additional Mastiffs and the Ridgeback may save the Army's bacon yet again, allowing the Warriors to be redeployed for their proper role – infantry assault. They will be safe enough in that role providing their routes to and from the battlefield are cleared by dedicated mine-clearance equipment. This the Canadians have found it necessary to do before their conventional armoured vehicles are allowed out of base. They have learnt the hard way exactly the lesson which the British forces seem intent on experiencing again in Afghanistan.

But still, the shadow of Army lethargy and MoD procurement delays hangs over the battlefield. Apart from the delay in buying the appropriate route clearing equipment such as the Buffalo - which will not be in theatre until at least 2010, when on 24 July 2006, Des Browne announced the order of 100 protected vehicles, which later turned out to be Mastiffs, he also announced the purchase of 100 additional Pinzgauer Vector vehicles (pictured right) for Afghanistan.

This, as we revealed later, had been forced on him by the Army, which had been lukewarm about the Mastiff and had effectively made its approval of the purchase conditional on the procurement of the additional Vectors. Thus, the bulk of the Mastiffs went to Iraq, while the Vectors provided the mainstay of additional "protected" vehicles for Afghanistan.

With these machines now so heavily compromised that the Army dare not use them in high-risk situations, this means that money spent on them has largely been wasted. Totalling nearly £50 million, that would have bought some 50 or so extra Mastiffs which could so easily have been ordered in July 2006.

For want of these extra machines, the Army on the ground has been forced to use the Warrior for a purpose for which it is entirely unsuited, with the result we have seen reported today. And still it seems, there are those who have not understood the lessons – a response which entirely typifies a certain cadre within the Army. History will have to repeat itself once more, before these dinosaurs are finally driven to extinction.

The problem is though that papers like The Sun, apparently lacking any corporate or institutional memory, are also reporting on this incident in terms of a "safe" tank, suggesting that the Warrior was "once thought bomb proof" – forgetting entirely the experience in Iraq.

Then we get The Guardian citing an unnamed "defence source" commenting that these latest attacks suggest the Taleban's bombs are more powerful and more sophisticated. "If a bomb is big enough, it will go through anything," this source is quoted as saying.

This will add sustenance the dinosaurs who claim that, since a "tank" can be blown up by the Taleban, it is impossible to protect lighter vehicles. In some quarters, therefore, this experience will be used as an argument against, rather than for more MRAP-type vehicles. There too, history repeats itself.