Wednesday 30 January 2008

A new realism

You can sympathise sometimes with journalists who have to work to extremely short deadlines, yet have to digest and then summarise lengthy reports in order to produce something newsworthy. We have been told by some of them how they envy the freedom of the blogs to publish what they want in their own timescale, without editorial input or space restrictions.

An example of that comes with the Defence Committee Report on the MoD’s annual report and accounts for 2006–07. In the media, on the day, the common theme, expressed by The Guardian and others was that, "Ministers will have to make large cuts in the defence programme at a time when the armed forces are already coming under unacceptable pressure because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."

This was a sentiment repeated by the authoritative Janes Defence Review, which noted that the defence select committee had warned of impending defence cuts and was "deeply concerned" that continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were eroding the UK armed forces' ability to react to any new contingent operations.

Also of very great interest was the news that costs for two of the major procurement projects, the Astute nuclear submarine and Type 45 destroyer had increased dramatically, "which could have an impact on future procurement." The four Astute submarines will now cost £3.79 billion against an initial budget of £2.58 billion, a 47 percent increase and the six Daring-class destroyers (HMS Daring pictured) will cost £6.46 billion compared with an initial estimate of £5.47 billion, an increase of 18 percent.

That, incidentally, brings the Type 45s back into the billion pound class, something which was forecast way back in August 2005.

With our more leisured perspective, and the benefit of reading the cuts, however, we can see writ large is the very issue about which we have been writing for some time, the tension between the demands for funding "current operations" and the "future war".

That cuts are on their way has been very evident for some time now so, in fact, the defence committee is saying nothing new.

Nevertheless, the coverage has continued, culminating in a piece today in The Daily Telegraph telling us that the MoD was "living in cloud-cuckoo-land" in believing it could achieve all its major procurement projects. This was from the chairman of the defence committee, who had declared that the military was forced to concede it "did not know" whether cash would be available for major projects.

Defence analysts, we were told, believe the MoD is facing a £3 billion shortfall out of £19 billion in funding for hardware vital to ensuring Britain's global position at the "top table".

This, in fact, represents a rearguard action of the "futurists" in a debate, of which we remarked nearly four months ago, that MPs seemed to be completely unaware.

Interestingly, with our more leisured perspective – giving time to read the whole of the current select committee report instead of just the press handouts, we see a remarkable confirmation that the "futurists" are indeed on the back foot, and that a new realism is gripping the MoD.

That confirmation came from Bill Jeffrey, the permanent under secretary of state for the MoD who told the committee that the MoD was looking at the whole spending programme and "identifying both areas where either it will be inevitable that we spend more or would like to spend more… we are identifying, if there were to be cuts… what might the options be for doing so."

But what leapt from the page was Jeffrey's comments on the specific issue of the equipment programme, when he told the committee that:

…our ministers would very much like a programme which is, if anything, more focused on the kinds of equipment requirements that come out of current operations like protected vehicles, helicopters et cetera. It would be extremely surprising if the process we are going through did not lead to a consideration of that.
Asked then whether the advice to ministers would specify which equipment programmes should be cut, Jeffrey said that, "my guess is that we will have to make some quite difficult decisions".

In due course those "difficult decisions" will be made and there will be the ritual hue and cry over them, especially from the Opposition benches. But there will be little weeping from this blog. A tighter focus on current operations and less emphasis on spending for a "future war", can only be applauded.


A calling to account

Delays in the Parliamentary process on what might be called "routine" business inevitably mean that there is a time lag between an event and the response to it, calling to account the government's performance.

A good example of this is a Westminster Hall debate called by Ann Winterton yesterday, to address the lamentable performance of the MoD’s PR machine – with specific reference to the operation in Musa Qala in early December.

It was then that British and US forces, in concert with the Afghan National Army, launched the biggest operation in Helmund since the arrival of British forces. And it was also then, as readers will recall, that the MoD publicity operation shut down, retreating behind a wall of "operational security", even as the international media were beginning to report events.

Thus did Ann Winterton start her speech noting that we have heard much comment in the media over the past few months about how the military and its tremendous achievements in both Iraq and Afghanistan need to be appreciated by people in the United Kingdom.

She, on the other hand, questioned whether the military itself does enough to encourage that situation. The purpose of the debate was to highlight the fact that it could do more and do it better.

The point, of course, is that while – in the past – the military could perhaps rely on fairly constant and reasonably accurate coverage (but by no means always), the world has changed considerably. The shots are now called by a media which – as we know to our cost over a wide range of fields - do not necessarily give a fair and accurate summary of what is happening in the field. Furthermore, competing priorities and competition from other news stories can drive accurate reporting of operations off the front pages and television.

It was against this broader background that Ann Winterton chose to use the Musa Qala operation as the basis for her debate, noting that the only competition for news during that period was the missing person presumed dead for five years following a canoeing incident on the north-east coast—someone who was subsequently discovered to be very much alive.

A great opportunity, she asserted, had been lost by the military to capture the imagination of the public. It had been lost under the camouflage of NATO, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), the Afghan army and operational security. Although media information would have had to have been shared with those organisations, none of them had any interest in, or responsibility for, the reaction of the British people to the battle of Musa Qala.

Therein did lie much of the problem as the coalition forces had decided (quite rightly) to promote the role of the Afghan national army and the Afghan Government and, while one can accept that as a worthy objective, Ann's assertion was that the MoD should have had its own domestic priority – that of keeping the British public informed, not least because it is important for the recruitment and retention of personnel in our armed services.

Furthermore, the families of serving personnel in Afghanistan had an obvious interest in developments, and we had the bizarre situation where they had to resort to foreign media and even to the Taliban for progress reports during the operation. The only information on the MOD website was an 82-word news article published on Friday 7 December 2007, which was replaced by another short article of 139 words the following day.

Throughout the operation, it was left to newspapers to provide adequate coverage, something they did patchily without ever really projecting the importance of events unfolding, which could well prove to be the turning point in the whole Afghanistan war.

The issue is that there was a long build-up to the operation and anyone watching the progression of British forces up the Sangin valley could see the evidence that it was simply a matter of time before the assault on Musa Qala was going to happen. The signals had been apparent since the month before. Certainly, the Taleban were expecting an assault and had prepared their response well in advance.

Thus, there were no good operational reasons why, after the operation had commenced, the MoD should not have offered a running commentary, especially as it was quickly evident that the Taleban were not going to stand and fight. As Ann told the House, when the important flow of news is deliberately hidden behind the excuse of operational security, the Army pays a high price in the loss of good public relations.

Sensibly handled news, she added - which would also have been picked up by the Taliban - could have been used to the advantage of the allies as it has so often been before. Just as the military operation for Musa Qaleh had been meticulously planned and executed, so should have been the public relations exercise. In her view:

The news of the steady push up the Sangin valley by British and Afghan forces could have been fed to the media, together with appropriate photographs, rather than the few outdated ones that were used. The purpose of the operation, the importance of the strategy, the breaking of the Taliban’s hold on the drugs trade and the sheer intensity of the battle, which took place over the weekend of 7, 8 and 9 December 2007 could have been explained.

The flow of good material, backed by photographs and video footage, could have dominated the British media for several days, sending out a very clear message about the achievements of the military. Instead, we had a complete public relations disaster insofar as a valuable opportunity was lost, very little material was available, and virtually an information vacuum followed.

We now know that British forces are still harrying the Taliban, holding and rebuilding positions that have been taken in order to make it more difficult for the insurgents to re-group in the spring. This is back to the humdrum routine when, normally, the only real news coming out of theatre is the occasional casualty. The complete lack of sympathetic coverage, when the opportunity arose, is not the way for the military to gain the enthusiastic backing of the British people.
Sharing very much the sentiment of this blog, Ann Winterton sought to pre-empt the minister by stating that if "…the reason for the void is operational security, I shall feel like screaming, because I do not accept it." The situation, she said, was caused by a total failure of the military and the MoD to understand the power and importance of good public relations in informing the public about what was happening.

It is as important to take the British people along with us, as it is to win the battle on the ground, because if that is not achieved, the calls for withdrawing from military action could escalate, with the result that recruitment and retention become ever more difficult.

Ann then offers some advice as to how the publicity effort should be improved, not least a thorough overhaul of the chain of command, to decide how best material can be released. There are, she suspects, - as in all large organisations – "blockages". The Ministry should be at the forefront of the release of news material; it should not lag days behind, or be dictated to and led by other media sources.

The crucial thing though is that it is no good the military moaning about a lack of public support when it does not go out of its way to inform the public. It has material in abundance, and not just about war-fighting, which it could provide to the news media. It cannot blame anyone but itself for the failure to get the message over to the nation as a whole. To be effective, one has to update it continually, be ahead of the game and understand and promote the flow of stories.

Ann then concluded that the purpose of insurgency, which the UK is trying to counter, with great difficulty, particularly in Afghanistan, is not only to take control of an area but to undermine those who oppose it and to destroy support for foreign troops in their home territory. The calls for withdrawal then intensify, but the best way to counter them is to have established an excellent narrative and communication with the British people, who support the armed services for their professional and unselfish service on behalf of our country and its people.

Replying was the minister for the armed forces, Bob Ainsworth, and it was never going to be the case that he was going to give a full or candid response. This never happens and it would be naïve to expect it.

However, we did get a statement that he agreed with some of what she said, but not all. We got ritual protestations about operational security and very little evidence that there was any understanding about how this had been and is being misused.

Attending the debate though was Patrick Mercer – all credit to him for so doing. But he charged that Brigadier Andy Mackay (pictured below left) had been let down badly at MOD level, and wanted to know why there was no single service chief in charge of public relations, as there used to be.

From where Mercer got his information we do not know, but our impression is that the blockage occurred in theatre and the London end of the MoD operation was as much in the dark as we were, finding out about the situation from the same press conferences in Kabul, from which the national media drew information.

Anyhow, we need not detain ourselves much longer with Ainsworth, although it is worth noting that Mercer did intervene again asking for an assurance that all the lessons that were learned from the aggressive handling of public relations in Northern Ireland are now thoroughly understood in relation to current operations.

He has a point there. By common accord, the Army did get its act together in Ulster, and had a slick operation. But, as seem so often, the skills so hard won seem to have atrophied and the new intake are having to learn the lessons all over again.

Certainly, Ainsworth seem to agree there, stating that he could not affirm that every lesson that was learned over 30 years of complex, dangerous operations in Northern Ireland has been learned and remembered by the individuals in the MOD. "We have to stay on top of that," said Ainsworth.

The Government, he concluded, know that public support and understanding of the activities of the armed forces are important to their long-term success. To that end, we have a duty to share as much information as we can about their work.

It was as much as we could expect, and the point has been made. We will have to watch for evidence of improvement and, while we have no doubt that there are people in the MoD and elsewhere determined to make things better, we are also conscious of the fact that there is a huge mountain to climb. To this day, we have not seen on the MoD website a full account of the Musa Qala operation.


Monday 28 January 2008

Off the beaten track

click the pic to enlargeThis blog has published many photographs of so-called MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, most of which have been in urban settings.

Here, however, we have a remarkable photograph, showing vehicles from Company B, 391st Combat Engineer Battalion, on a route clearance patrol over rugged terrain near Naka, Afghanistan, in support of Task Force Fury, 2006.

In the photograph, a Husky mine detection vehicle is in the lead, as it is in all patrols, followed by an RG-31 – which has the capability to survive any mines that the Husky misses. Only then do we see a HUMVEE. Strapped on the back, incidentally, is a spare mine sensor for the Husky.

No one is going to pretend that this sort of rig is going to prevent all mine incidents, but the photograph does illustrate a useful off-road capability for mine detection teams, and again suggests that US forces are taking the mine threat seriously.

On the other hand, in the absence of any such capability observed in the British Army, we remain to be convinced that the threat is being taken seriously by the British.

Here, we see the continued emphasis on "speed and mobility", with WIMIKs and Pinzgauers very much in favour. Of course, even that fails sometimes, witness the second photographm showing a French P4 light utility vehicle – hopelessly bogged down.

This does not prove anything in particular, other than the fact that even light vehicles can get stuck in very muddy terrain. But it does serve to illustrate that all equipment has its limitations. The other limitation of the light vehicle is that it is highly vulnerable to mine strikes.

At the one level, a bogged-down vehicle can be towed out, or abandoned, with no one hurt. But when a mine strikes, people die. It seems strange that the Army seems to be able to deal with the former, but not the latter.


Billions more down the drain?

Already one of the most expensive procurement projects in British history, the Eurofighter, we are told, is set to cost hard-pressed taxpayers even more.

According to a report in the German magazine Focus, the bill in about to increase by €10 billion. For the countries involved in developing the Eurofighter, Britain will have to spend an additional €5.8 billion (£4.3 billion), Italy €2.16 billion (£1.62 billion), Germany €1.97 billion (£1.5 billion) and Spain €820 million (£615 million).

Focus cites as its source a letter from Eurofighter-GmbH, the German branch of the consortium, addressed to Germany's defence ministry stating that the cost of developing the military jet had increased due to certain "systems" and other modernisation.

Quite what that means is anyone's guess but, with several nations already itching to cancel tranche 3 - which will cost the MoD £5 billion if it goes ahead – the future of this aircraft must again be under careful scrutiny.


Sunday 27 January 2008

A huge gap in capability

In his column today, Booker picks up on our story on the latest death in a Pinzgauer in Afghanistan, one which was also covered in The Daily Telegraph.

This is adding to the steady pressure on the MoD to replace these "coffins on wheels" and a further reminder that the main threat in Afghanistan in is fact the ambush, with the Taleban using mines or IEDs against coalition forces as their primary tactical weapon.

Significantly, the much-respected and ever-informative Defense Industry Daily also alludes to this, remarking on the transfer of Pinzgauer production to OMC in South Africa. Commenting on the BAE Systems press release, DID notes, as do we, that OMC's speciality is mine-resistant vehicles. This shift, DID adds:

…could certainly be seen as a tacit admission that mine protection has become a basic requirement for viable armored troop carrier offerings in the global marketplace. Admitting this outright would cast the UK Ministry of Defence's Pinzgauer 1 buy in a very bad light, however.
By the same token, development of the Pinzgauer Mantis is also a tacit admission that the original vehicles were simply not adequate for the theatres in which they are being deployed, reinforcing the view that, in their choice of vehicle, the Army got it wrong.

In fact, this may point to a deeper malaise – a more fundamental failure of the Army to take the mine threat in Afghanistan at all seriously. That this should be the case is brought into high profile by a parliamentary question from the redoubtable Ann Winterton who recently asked the secretary of state for defence what pre-deployment training was provided for mine detection and personnel extraction from minefields.

Almost comically, defence minister Bob Ainsworth replied that all personnel undertake "extensive training" in mine awareness and minefield immediate action drills. But, this "extensive training" amounts to a 45 minute lecture on the threat of mines, specific to the theatre they are deploying to and "a 60 minute practical lesson (demonstration and practice) at identifying mines or potentially mined areas and how to extract themselves and their team from a minefield or mined area."

One can now begin to see why there was such a disastrous response to the mine incident we reported earlier, where seven soldiers ended up being seriously injured in one minefield, one later to die.

But, it seems, this blind spot does not end there. Elsewhere, we have reported that the Canadians have introduced to theatre sophisticated mine detection/clearance vehicle sets – based on the Husky - in order to deal with the threat. But, as we remarked, the British Army is behind the curve, not having acquired or deployed similar equipment in Afghanistan.

However, we now learn from one of our expert readers that, when operating as part of IFOR in Bosnia, the British Army purchased three Husky sets, known then as the Chubby system (based on NATO evaluation), presumably in late 1995/early 1996, after the Dayton Accord. Such was the urgency that the first two sets were despatched directly from the manufacturer via Johannesburg International Airport.

There is no record of this equipment having been deployed anywhere else by the British Army and nor is it certain that it has been retained on the inventory. But its use in Bosnia, together with the Mamba (pictured) for "route proving" and the development and purchase of the Tempest underlines the fact that, in the mid-late 1990s, the Army took the mine threat very seriously indeed.

And, while the Husky, with its full trailer rig is manifestly unsuitable for tactical deployment in the contested areas of Afghanistan, where reconnaissance patrols roam freely, it should be remembered that the Husky was developed from the Rhodesian Pookie, which was deployed tactically by Rhodesian forces.

Even today, this remarkable machine is still in use and, while it has obvious limitations which might make it difficult to use in Afghanistan, its design provides an obvious model for the development of a more suitable vehicle.

Given the speed with which the Army reacted in Bosnia – basically writing the manual on dealing with mine threats, which other Armies were to copy – the absence of any response from the Army of today seems all the more incomprehensible.

It is as if the Army, having acquired the expertise, has turned its back on it and forgotten everything it ever knew – pointing to a huge gap in capability that is now being translated into the totally needless deaths and injuries of our troops.


Saturday 26 January 2008

Progress, but not good enough

We're a bit behind the curve on this one, but we get there in the end – even if BAE Systems do not. Back in September last year, the company announced a new version of its Pinzgauer, imaginatively labelled the Pinzgauer II (pictured).

But, what caught our attention was a comment by one of our forum members who told us that the press notice referred to a "Mantis" option with the bonnet forward to improve mine resistance.

Curious, we checked this out and indeed, the press notice does announce a "new bonnet-out-front design called 'Mantis' which complements the more traditional cab-forward design." The new Mantis, we are told, "offers additional mine blast protection capability on top of the other new enhancements in the Pinzgauer II."

That it offers "additional" mine protection is an outrageous claim – which trading standards ought to investigate, instead of harassing market traders over non-metric scales, given that the existing range has no protection at all.

Nevertheless, we get Graeme Rumbol, who heads up BAE Systems Land Systems' Pinzgauer operations, claiming: "From the outset, the Pinzgauer II range has been designed with protection in mind. All variants can be supplied with a basic 'fitted-for' architecture which can then be customised with enhancements designed to defeat a range of threats. These include cover blast, ballistic and fragment specifications."

That also is outrageous. The basic Pinzgauer II range still has the driver positioned over the wheel arch – putting him in a highly vulnerable position – but we have managed to find a (rather poor) picture of the Mantis. And indeed, the "bonnet-out-front" design does put the driver well clear of the front wheels, giving him a chance of survival if the vehicle runs over a mine.

However, this does not give protection to any crew in the rear from delayed initiation mines or those with double or multiple impulse settings, rigged to explode under the second or subsequent wheel which passes over the mine.

Thus Graeme Rumbol's design with "protection in mind" extends only to drivers and front seat passengers, but not to gunners or crew in the rear. This is progress of a sort, but not good enough.


Friday 25 January 2008

Per ardua ad exitum

A report carried by Defence Talk tells us that the Afghan army air corps is going through rapid growth, but it will take eight years for the force to be self-sustaining and independent.

This is from Brig Gen Jay H Lindell, commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Kabul, who told reporters via video-teleconference that the air corps has doubled its capability since October and that he expects it to double again in the next six months.

He has 133 US military personnel helping the Afghan National Army establish the air corps. Ultimately, he says, the force will have 112 aircraft and 7,400 members. It now has 1,950 members, about 180 of them pilots.

This is the good news, but the bad news is that the priority is being given to building the “air mobility aspect” of the air corps, concentrating on acquiring and integrating Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters (strangely because these are "Hind" attack helicopters), Antonov transports and C-27A Spartan transport aircraft. There is no mention and apparently no intention of developing an offensive capability, such as the provision of aircraft capable of close air support for ground operations, which is currently the domain of coalition forces.

In a recent paper produced from a seminar held by the (US) Air Force University, however (frustratingly, we can no longer find the link), the role of "host nations" in counter-insurgency was explored. The conclusion was that the quickest way for the USAF (and the United States in general) to extract itself from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan was to build up host nation air power, so that indigenous air forces could take the load from the foreign powers.

Recognising that the high-tech fast jets currently used by developed nations for CAS were too complex for host nation air forces to operate, the authors went on to suggest that the USAF should operate low-tech (relatively) CAS squadrons for use in COIN. These could encourage the host nations to acquire a similar capability, they would provide a reservoir of expertise in the USAF which could be passed on, and would provide a training resource into which the host nations could tap.

This line of reasoning makes such eminent sense that we can only wonder why it has not been articulated before (redolent as it is of the US "Vietnamisation" policy during the VietNam conflict). It is also the best possible argument for coalition air forces acquiring fixed wing aircraft such as the Super Tucano, which are already on order for the Iraqi Air Force.

Putting this in the national perspective, although the Harrier squadron in Afghanistan is undoubtedly doing sterling work – soon to be augmented by a Eurofighter detachment – the RAF offensive effort is doing very little to develop the Afghan national capabilities, unlike the Army which is not only providing mentors for ANA forces but also integrating its formations into their own.

It does add "legs" to the argument for Super Tucanos, therefore, if it is suggested that the RAF should operate a squadron of these machines, into which Afghan pilots could be integrated, thus acquiring experience under controlled conditions, before moving over to form their own independent squadrons which could gradually take the load off the coalition forces.

If it is going to take eight years for the Afghan army air corps just to develop its "air mobility" capability, and the USAF thinkers are right that we will never be able to leave until the Afghanis have developed their own offensive forces, then we are going to be there an awful long time unless we do start thinking how to speed up the process. Per ardua ad exitum, as they say.


Lessons to learn

The Canadians have taken another hit in Kandahar province, losing yet another soldier to an IED, once again the casualty riding in an Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV - pictured) – the same basic vehicle type as the Coyote, three of which have also been involved in fatal bomb/mine incidents.

The incident happened in western Panjwaii, a district which, only six months ago, one senior Canadian officer had described as one of the "safer areas" of Kandahar province. The district had been taken from Taliban insurgents in September 2006 during Operation Medusa but, since then, the Taleban have re-established a strong presence in parts of the district.

Furthermore, their insurgency activities seem to be focused on mounting ambushes, using mines and IEDs, rather than direct military confrontation, inflicting at least one casualty every week since 30 December.

Tragically, the LAV in this latest incident was part of a road clearance team which would, therefore – one presumes – have included Cougars, a Buffalo and a Husky mine detection/detonation vehicle. These latter vehicles being more resistant to attack, the incident invites speculation as to whether the LAV was specifically targeted as the most vulnerable vehicle in the group.

Either way, the Canadian experience offers lessons for the British in the neighbouring Helmand province who, as we recorded recently, have also been victims of mine/IED attacks on vehicles, the last three deaths having been sustained through this type of attack.

It also underlines, once again, the fragility of the LAV, and raises questions as to the survivability of the FRES vehicles, one of which – the Piranha – is very similar to the LAV and shortlisted as a candidate for the utility vehicle role.

The indications are that the Canadians are getting more attention from the Taleban than are British forces. But, as our troops establish themselves around Musa Qala and extend further south – perhaps in the new campaigning season, when 3rd Para take over from the Yorkshire Regiment - they will come under renewed attack. Then, the Paras will be equipped with the Supacat M-WIMIK (pictured - now called the Jackal), which will make them highly vulnerable to the Taleban ambush tactics.

One recommendation of a commission studying the deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is the provision of more transport helicopters – of which they have pitifully few – to move troops between locations, to reduce unnecessary exposure to attack.

In that context, we learn that the Nato bureaucracy has heaved mightily and brought forward a tiny mouse, in the form of one transport helicopter on lease from civilian contractors. With an option for one more – this covering the whole of southern Afghanistan - this is barely enough to make a dent in the pressing need for more helicopter lift.

That notwithstanding, there will always be a need for considerable ground movement and, while the Canadians have responded to the mine/IED threat with the procurement of dedicated mine detection/clearance vehicles, there is no sign that the British are even beginning to respond adequately.

In fact, far from that, in the wake of the recent Board of Inquiry report on the incident when a soldier bled to death in a minefield while awaiting rescue, the MoD seems to have resorted to the time-honoured strategy of posting a propaganda puff on its website.

Thus we see a post headed, "EOD team clear the way for Helmand patrols", claiming that, "First on the ground to clear the dangerous path of landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices for British patrols throughout Helmand are the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group, based at Camp Bastion."

Clearly, that was not the case when a soldier spent five hours in a minefield bleeding to death, and nor was it the case the last three times a soldier has been killed in a vehicle, respectively two Pinzgauers and a WIMIK.

Furthermore, far from being reassuring, the post actually shows up just how ridiculously poorly equipped our people are, one photograph showing the absurdly ill-protected "Tellar" bomb disposal vehicle (above left), recently purchased at great expense for overseas deployment.

Herein lies another story, as this photograph (right) taken in Iraq shows. Notoriously a target for insurgents when they are called out to incidents (sometime with decoy bombs for just that purpose), EODs are especially at risk. So ill-protected are these unarmed vehicles that they use that they require massive infantry support just to escort them to a scene.

Thus, the scene shows of mixed convoy of Snatch Land Rovers and a Warrior MICV, the whole convoy (part unseen) comprising possibly as many as fifty troops just to escort two Tellars – trying up scarce resources wholly unnecessarily. What was that about "overstretch"?

By contrast, this picture (right) shows a US IED detection/disposal convoy. The difference is immediately evident. Leading the convoy are two RG-31s, followed by a Husky and a Buffalo, an armoured Humvee and a Cougar JERRV – the latter performing the same duties as the Tellar. The photograph, incidentally, is taken from the cab of a second Cougar, bringing up the rear of the convoy.

The point, of course, is that the vehicles are armoured and armed, a self-sustaining force with the capability to fight its way out of an ambush (and less likely to be damaged by one). Not only does the convoy need no escort, the personnel are all combat engineers, thus relieving the pressure on hard-pressed infantry.

The particular issue relevant to Afghanistan is that, as British troops recover territory from the Taleban – like Musa Qala – they revert to the routine patrols and "reassurance" missions, where their movements are known and their routes more predictable. Currently, they operate with WIMIKs and Pinzgauer 710 4x4 trucks, equipment which has been equated to the Chrysler light trucks of the LRDG and the armed jeeps of the SAS in the North African desert during World War II.

Then, and now, it is argued that the speed and mobility of these vehicles provided the necessary protection. But, in the case of the LRDG, they relied on concealment and stealth so that the Germans and Italians were unaware of their presence.

In the case of the SAS, their task was to mount raids, in which case surprise was their greatest asset. But, in both cases, their roles were analogous to guerrilla warfare against the more numerous Axis forces. In current operations, the Taleban are the "guerrillas" fighting the British who, in the security phase of the campaign, lack either stealth or surprise. They are set up as targets for the ambush which has become the main tactical weapon of the Taleban.

These circumstances strongly dictate the use of protected vehicles, and a more proactive mine detection and clearance programme. This demands far more and better equipment than is available – not lest mine protected vehicles to carry out route proving to clear the way for unarmoured vehicles like the Pinzgauer.

Ironically, we now find that BAE Systems, having acquired Pinzgauer as part of its purchase of Armor Holdings, are to relocate the manufacturing operation from Guildford to South Africa, where it will become part of OMC, the company which manufactures the RG-31.

Perhaps when the South Africans are confronted with the Pinzgauer's vulnerabilities, they will refuse to manufacture a machine which could not be better designed to kill soldiers, and prevail upon the British government to purchase their RG-31s – or other of their mine protected products. For our soldiers, this could not be a better development as South Africa (with the former Rhodesia) is the home of mine protection technology. If the British government will not learn the lessons from the Canadians, they might at least listen to the South Africans.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

"Death trap failed to protect soldier …"

In a piece written by Thomas Harding, The Daily Telegraph offers the headline, "'Death trap' failed to protect soldier from mine". The piece notes that a "defence expert has called for the removal of Pinzgauer vehicles from Afghanistan after a sixth soldier was killed in one of the armoured vehicles within a year." The story continues:

With six deaths from Pinzgauers (Thomas Harding includes two "accidental" deaths) since last August, military observers are questioning their value. Dr Richard North, editor of the Defence of the Realm blog, said the vehicles were "death traps" that should be replaced by mine-resistant Mastiff trucks. "These things offer very little protection against the mines we are seeing in Afghanistan."

"The troops would even be better off in Snatch Land Rovers," he added, referring to the vehicles much derided in Iraq for offering little protection against roadside bombs. The MoD has bought hundreds of Pinzgauers. They have excellent off-road capabilities but offer little protection against the bombs that the Taliban use.
That is the bizarre thing. With the driver in the Pinzgauer actually sitting over the front wheel, while the driver of a Land Rover has the engine compartment in front of him, under certain circumstances, soldiers are safer in a Land Rover (see pic: a "Wolf" Land Rover - the crew survived).

One problem, though, is that many Russian anti-tank mines have variable "impact" settings, which means that a mine can be set explode on the second or subsequent wheel impact. Thus, the Taleban can set the mine to go off the second time a wheel passes over it (with up to six delays), causing it to explode under the rear of a vehicle rather than the front. This might account for why we seem to be losing so many WIMIK gunners, where the rear compartment has less protection than the front.

But it really does come to something when a "Snatch" (or a WIMIK for that matter) can be safer than the vehicle the Army have used to replace it.


Monday 21 January 2008

"No less informed …"

Defence questions in the House today brought Conservative MP Ann Winterton face-to-face with Defence Secretary Des Browne this afternoon as she asked if he would make a statement on the future availability of the Mastiff vehicle. This, of course, is the "patsy" question, which goes on the order book so the secretary of state has advance notice and has a reply prepared by his faithful civil servants. Nevertheless, the response was not without interest. Browne told the House:

Procurement of the Mastiff protected patrol vehicle has been a huge success. Just 23 weeks after the decision to procure was taken, Mastiff had been built, upgraded, tested and shipped out to theatre, along with a developed support package. It has proven itself in the field as highly capable and is hugely popular with troops on the ground, providing vital protection with effective mobility.

With respect to the hon. Lady, I am withholding further information on vehicle availability, as the disclosure of this information would or would be likely to prejudice the security and operational effectiveness of our armed forces, but I extend to her the offer that I have made to her regularly; if she wants to know the detail of that information, I am happy to provide it on a confidential basis in a personal briefing.
The "killer" blow, however, comes with the single supplementary that an MP is allowed, of which the secretary of state has no knowledge. The civil servants try to guess what might be coming, and offer a range of possible questions and answers, so the game is to try to outguess the guessers, and come up with something completely unpredictable, if you are so minded. Ann Winterton opted for this:

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He is aware that one of the reasons why the Mastiff vehicle is so popular with our troops and has proved such a success is that enhanced security was designed into the vehicle from the outset in its V-shaped hull. It is built from commercial components, so that if it is, by any chance, hit by a mine, replacements can be easily bolted back on to the vehicle, to ensure that it returns to action in double-quick time. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the future rapid effect system vehicle will exhibit those admirable attributes, which save the lives of British servicemen day by day?
Whether that was truly unpredictable is a moot point, but we were not at all unhappy with the answer:

The hon. Lady is consistent in her questioning and in her interest. She has substantial knowledge of the capabilities of protected vehicles, and I commend her for being so consistent and well informed in that regard. I assure her that she is no less informed in relation to these matters than those who have to make the decision about FRES, not least senior officers in the Army.
That we were "not unhappy" is perhaps the tiniest of understatements. "No less informed …" than "… senior officers in the Army". My guess is that FRES, in its current form at least, is toast.


Another Vector?

News came in this morning of another mine strike killing a British soldier in Afghanistan, with another five injured. The dead soldier, who has not yet been named, was from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), attached to 5 Regiment Royal Artillery.

According to the MoD, the vehicle in which the troops were travelling was hit by the mine approximately two miles north east of Musa Qala.

As is commonly the case, the MoD have not identified the vehicle, and are unlikely to do so. Informed sources are suggesting, however, that this was a Pinzgauer and possibly a Vector. Certainly, with the number of troops killed and injured, it seems unlikely to have been a WIMIK or a "Snatch" Land Rover.

If this was a Vector, it will have been the fourth of the type to have been involved in a fatal incident attributed either to a mine or roadside bomb (see here, here and here, in addition to which an unspecified number of troops have been seriously injured while riding in these vehicles.

The worst of it is that deaths were going to occur as a result of the dangerous vulnerability of the Vector was entirely predictable, it being obvious before even these vehicles were deployed that they were completely unsuitable for Afghanistan.

The MoD should never even have considered using them in what is often cited as the most heavily mined country in the world and one in which the Taleban, unable to confront British troops in an open fight and prevail, are increasingly resorting to ambush tactics (again a predictable development).

The problem for the MoD now is that, in the context of a theatre-wide shortage of patrol vehicles, it has no ready replacement. Since the announcement on 12 December of the purchase of 150 "Ridgeback" protected vehicles, nothing more has been heard.

Once again, therefore, troops are dying and destined to die simply because decisions taken in the past have led to the wrong vehicles being purchased, decisions which, at the time, have rarely been challenged. This blog is probably alone in questioning the purchase of the Vector.

That, in itself, underlines both the lack of attention to procurement issues and their vital importance. Decisions made so easily in the past cannot always be undone in the present. The Army cannot afford to get them so wrong.


Sunday 20 January 2008

Time to go back to basics

The big defence news of yesterday was the dire tale of the theft of a laptop holding the personal details of some 600,000 people who had expressed an interest in joining the Armed Forces.

The laptop had, apparently, been stolen from the car of a Royal Navy officer, who had left the machine in the car overnight. The MoD is taking some heat: the loss is claimed to present a security risk as the data were not encrypted. That apart, it can surely only be someone with cloth for brains that leaves such valuable property in a car overnight. These people are responsible for our defence?

In addition to that story though, the Telegraph found space for a story headed, "Kit shortages put troops' lives at risk". It tells us that thousands of troops had their lives endangered when they were sent to Afghanistan without essential equipment.

This, we are also told, was due to "government dithering", a claim relying on a document which forms part of the Board of Inquiry report into the death of paratrooper Captain James Philippson of 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery.

He was the first soldier to be killed in southern Afghanistan and the circumstances of his death were briefly carried in The Times on 14 June 2006, its story headed, "British soldier died as he saved comrade in Taleban ambush".

As part of a quick-reaction force, Philippson had gone to the rescue of British troops who had been ambushed while on patrol in the Sangin district. The force arrived, we are told, in armoured Land Rovers to find a convoy of British vehicles pinned down by Taleban fighters who were firing from nearby buildings.

Philippson and his men jumped from their vehicles, firing their SA80 rifles as they ran to protect the convoy and to reach the wounded soldier. The injured man was successfully removed under fire, but while he was being pulled to safety a burst of Taleban gunfire hit Philippson and the other member of the quick-reaction force, killing the Captain and severely wounded the other soldier.

Returning to the Board of Inquiry document, the inference offered by The Telegraph seems to be that in some way Philippson’s death was in part attributable to the shortage of "vital kit" such as body armour, heavy machine guns, night vision goggles and ballistic matting for Land Rovers. One would like to see more of this report but, since Philippson seems to have been dismounted when he was hit, it may (or may not) be a lack of body armour that was partly responsible for his death.

This will, no doubt, come out in the inquest so we must reserve judgement and, for now, simply lament the death of a brave soldier. However, the combination of the Times account, which tells us that Land Rovers were being used, and the current Telegraph story, which reports a shortage of "ballistic matting", highlights a completely different issue.

The ballistic matting is the armour used to protect Land Rover crews from small arms fire and some would aver that it is more important to soldiers' safety than mine protection, the fire from the Teleban being regarded as the greater threat. The issue then is why Land Rovers are being used as fighting vehicles which are so unprotected that they need the addition of ballistic matting in order to improve safety.

Here, it is instructive take a historical perspective on the use of armoured vehicles in combat, which goes back over 100 years. In fact, the French lay claim to have built the first ever production armoured car - in 1905 - called the Charron (pictured top left). As with many of the designs which were to follow, it was a normal commercial vehicle to which armour had been added. With the additional of a machine gun, this made for a package which is still in use with armies to this day.

The British were relatively late on the scene, producing the Rolls Royce armoured car in 1914, a design which, with modifications, was still in use in the North African desert in 1940 (pictured left). By then, though, the concept of the armoured car had been well proven and the wartime Army was equipped with a succession of purpose-built vehicles, most notably the Humber and Daimler armoured cars, which continued in use after the war.

The Daimler (pictured right) and others were replaced in the 1950s – although the Daimler continued in use in Territorial units until the 1960s - by the heavier Saladin, equipped with a 76mm gun, and the lighter Ferret (below left). These two were then replaced by the Fox, introduced in 1973, a machine equipped with the potent 30mm Rarden cannon and a co-axial 7.62mm machine gun. It continued in service until 1993 in Territorial units.

Since then, the Army has not had a purpose designed armoured car. The roles which the armoured car fulfilled, however, remain and, to fill the gaps, the Land Rover Defender has been used. This is a light/medium utility truck which itself derives from a 1946 design but, to equip it specifically for the fighting role, a special derivant of the Defender 110 series was produced. This is known as the Weapons Mount Installation Kit (WIMIK) Land Rover.

The WIMIK has some armour on the engine bulkhead and under the floor, and is fitted with roll bars, additional stowage and mounts for a 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) and a .50 calibre M-2 heavy machine gun. To give added protection against small arms, the front compartment and the gunner's bay in the rear are now fitted with Kevlar ballistic matting.

It is a testament to the original design of the basic Land Rover, which weighs about two tons and would normally carry a payload of two tons, that – in its latest form known as the E-WIMIK ("e" for "enhanced") – it now weighs five and a half tons fully loaded. As such, it is heavier than the four-ton Ferret armoured car it replaces, with considerably less power, and only a ton and a half short of the much better armed Fox.

The central point, though, is that we seem to have gone full circle. From 1905 when armoured cars were produced by adding armour and weapons to existing commercial vehicles, we moved on to produce purpose-built vehicles and now, over a hundred years later, the British Army is back in the same territory. It is adding armour and weapons to a production vehicle to produce an armoured car in all but name.

Quite why the purpose-built armoured car should have fallen out of favour is surely a story that needs to be told, although it is now returning in a different form, called by the UK a "protected patrol vehicle" and by the Americans a "mine resistant ambush protected" (MRAP) vehicle.

What the larger of these vehicles lack, though is the essential mobility and flexibility of the vehicles like the Ferret, which has advocates of the WIMIK arguing for its superiority. Its small size allows it to be driven down the narrow streets and alleys of the Afghan villages, while its larger, better protected cousins are stranded on the outside.

Even the Americans have begun to realise this. With an extra 3,200 troops about to be sent to Afghanistan, they are to be accompanied by some 500 MRAPs. But, rather than sending the over-large Cougars, which form the basis of the British Mastiff, the US government has ordered 500 RG-31 models, cited as the lightest MRAP on the US inventory, recognising the need for more manoeuvrability.

However, press reports cite this vehicle as weighing 11.6 tons, while the current manufacturers specifications state a basic weight of seven. The mystery is explained by the latest development, the RG-31 Mark 6 (pictured right). An already large vehicle has morphed into an even larger armoured truck, adding four tons in the process. Although fitted with a turret and machine gun mount, it is very different from the armoured cars of history.

The military mind, it seems, cannot resist the temptation to take a basic concept and add weight to it, with more capability and protection. But, in so doing, they seem to lose sight of the original need for speed and manoeuvrability, resulting, bizarrely, in troops riding around in WIMIKs, less protected than any time since before the Second World War.

It is time, it seems, to go back to basics.


Wednesday 16 January 2008

Is this the answer?

While the MoD is still dickering about buying the next batch of mine protected vehicles, the United States is forging ahead with the second generation of what it calls Mine Resistant and Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

This promises to be a huge defence contract, with a potential order for some 20,500 units. With testing, spare parts and logistics support, this could turn out to be one of the largest land contracts of a generation.

One of the front runners in the competition is our very own BAE Systems which is only one of two contractors selected to develop and produce prototypes for the next generation vehicle, with the award of a $5.7 million contract.

Within the contract are two categories of vehicle. One is the so-called Category I, which will support operations in urban environments and other restricted/confined spaces, including mounted patrols, reconnaissance, communications, and command and control. The other is the Category II vehicle, which provide a "reconfigurable vehicle that can support multi-mission operations such as convoy lead, troop transport, explosive ordnance disposal, ambulance, and route clearance."

The Category I test vehicles will be based on the BAE System's Caiman 6x6 design, morphed into a 4x4 design (pictured above), while the Category II will be based on the company's RG-33 6x6 vehicle (right), itself a development of the ground-breaking RG-31.

In view of the controversy over the British WIMIK Land Rover, versus the Mastiff, the Cat I vehicle is of special interest. Its intended role most closely approximates that of the WIMIK, offering – in the words of the manufacturer – "the right balance of payload capability, automotive performance, and blast protection", complete with all-important "mobility upgrades". It also has the advantage of being based on the well-proven Stewart and Stevenson FMTV in widespread use in the US Army, with 85 percent parts commonality.

In the protection department, the Caiman certainly presses all the buttons. It has the classic v-shaped hull and a conformation which gives it a central armoured cell, with the front and rear axles outside the cell, offering maximum protection against mine strikes. But, at 14 tons, a very high profile and car-type doors which do not permit rapid dismount under fire, it is hard to see that this would be accepted as a WIMIK replacement in the British Army.

While Defense Update discusses the broader issues, however, we learn that another Canadian LAV has succumbed to a mine blast in Afghanistan, this one the Coyote - the reconnaissance version of the wheeled APCs chosen by the Canadian Army – with the death of a soldier.

This is the third Coyote to have been involved in a fatal incident (illustrated: see here), on top of several other LAVs, compared with only two (to our knowledge) RG-31s, underlining the vulnerability of conventional armoured vehicles in asymmetric warfare. It also raises further questions about FRES, as the LAV is based on the Piranha, one of the types submitted for the FRES competition.

Against this background, we see US defence secretary Gates argue in the LA Times that most of the European Nato forces in Afghanistan are not trained in counterinsurgency. "They were trained for the Fulda Gap," he said, referring to the German region where a Soviet invasion of Western Europe had been deemed most likely.

Training apart, their armies are certainly equipped for the Fulda Gap, and they are going to have to look hard at the MRAP II project to see is this can deliver vehicles more suitable to the needs of Afghanistan. But, from the look of the Caiman, it would seem we are a long way from seeing a light, armoured tactical vehicle which would fit British requirements.


Tuesday 15 January 2008

A failure of planning?

Played big-time by The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend (and also covered in The Sunday Times) was the tragic incident when a "British war hero who bled to death after being injured in an Afghan minefield".

Under the title of, "Army hero left to die by failings at MoD", the paper's defence correspondent, Sean Rayment, charges that the soldier, Cpl Mark Wright, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross, "died because of a catalogue of failures, incompetence and equipment shortages." The charge itself is based on the findings of a Board of Inquiry (BoI), which the Telegraph had seen.

We were reluctant to add to or comment on this story being wary of what some term "Monday morning quarter-backing", particularly with regard to an incident at which we were not present, and of which we have no first-hand knowledge.

However, even at the time, some of the details of the BoI report did not ring true and following an exchange with an experienced ex-service helicopter pilot – with casevac experience – and from our own researches, we felt there were issues here that need further discussion.

Firstly, as to the details of the incident, this was covered in a separate report in the paper, which has the tragedy unfolding in the late morning of September 6 2006, in the mountainous terrain surrounding the Kajaki hydroelectric dam, in northern Helmand.

However, it is also covered in the MoD website. In this account, the incident starts when the leader of a sniper patrol was heading down the steep slope when "he initiated a mine and sustained severe injuries." The account continues:

Corporal Mark Wright gathered a number of men and rushed down the slope to assist. Realising that the casualty was likely to die before a full mine clearance could be effected, Corporal Wright unhesitatingly led his men into the minefield.

Exercising effective and decisive command, he directed medical orderlies to the injured soldier, ordered all unnecessary personnel to safety, and then began organising the casualty evacuation. He called for a helicopter, and ordered a route to be cleared through the minefield to a landing site. Unfortunately the leader of this task, while moving back across the route he believed he had cleared, stepped on another mine and suffered a traumatic amputation.

Corporal Wright, again at enormous personal risk, immediately moved to the new casualty and began rendering life-saving assistance until one of the medical orderlies could take over.

Calmly, Corporal Wright ordered all non-essential personnel to stay out of the minefield and continued to move around and control the incident. He sent accurate situation reports to his headquarters and ensured that additional medical items were obtained. Shortly afterwards a helicopter landed nearby, but as Corporal Wright stood up he initiated a third mine, which seriously injured him and one of the orderlies. The remaining medical orderly began treating Corporal Wright, but was himself wounded by another mine blast which caused further injury to both Corporal Wright and others.

There were now seven casualties still in the minefield, three of whom had lost limbs…
According to the Telegraph account, however, within an hour, an RAF Chinook helicopter had arrived, but the hilly terrain made it impossible for the aircraft to land. Crucially, says this report, the helicopter was not fitted with a winch to lift the stricken soldiers from the minefield. The pilot had little choice but to withdraw and as it did another mine was detonated, severely injuring Cpl Wright. A few minutes later another soldier had his leg blown off when he, too, stepped on a mine.

It was a horrific scene. Three soldiers had lost legs, four others had sustained serious injuries and Cpl Wright, with blast wounds to his arm, neck and chest, was fighting for his life. Despite his injuries, he took command of the situation and administered first aid to others less seriously injured than himself.

The soldiers, we are told, were eventually rescued five hours later by a US Knighthawk helicopter, which was fitted with a winch. But it was too late for Cpl Wright, who died during the journey back to the British base in Camp Bastion. He was later awarded a posthumous George Cross - Britain's second highest bravery award.

Now, as to the substantive "charges", the MoD has always maintained that Cpl Wright's death was the result of a tragic and unavoidable series of events. But the Board of Inquiry, reveals for the first time that the entire incident was avoidable.

The fundamental failing identified by the inquiry was the decision to withdraw all three Chinook winches and hoists from Afghanistan after a fault was discovered during routine maintenance. Although some winches were available, the report states that UK search and rescue helicopters were given priority over the RAF Chinooks in Afghanistan.

The report states: "If an air frame with hoist capability had been available immediately, the casualty count may well have been less and the need to continue to move in the vicinity of the incident would have been significantly reduced."

We also learn that Maj Gen Andrew Farquhar, the general officer commanding 5 Division, under whose authority the inquiry took place, writes in a summary to the report: "I find it disturbing that, in an area of operations where there is such a marked mine threat, there are no UK-equipped, rotary wing air frames that can provide guaranteed availability and an immediate casualty extraction capability."

There are other aspects to this report, but the issue we need to address is the claim that Cpl. Wright could have survived if a properly equipped helicopter had been available, this resting on the fact that the Chinook was not fitted with a winch and that it took a US helicopter so equipped, five hours later, to make the extraction.

The point here, affirmed by the pilot we spoke to, is that a winch is not necessary for a helicopter to make a "vertical extraction". In fact, since the late sixties, in the VietNam war, equipment has been developed for such purposes, one being the McGuire rig (illustrated). This was as 15 x 3 ft nylon strap fashioned into a loop large enough for a man to sit in and with a smaller wrist loop sewn into the strap to prevent the wounded or unconscious from falling out. The top of the strap was tied to the outside (running) end of a 120ft nylon rope stowed in the helicopter.

Alternatively, there was the STABO rig, a harness similar to a parachute harness, worn in the field as normal webbing. To the harness was attached a carabiner which could be linked to a rope, likewise fitted with a carabiner, dropped from a helicopter. A similar system was fitted to Rhodesian helicopters in the seventies, and routinely used to extract men, even under fire.

It is not our contention, however, that this equipment should necessarily have been available (or the updated version currently in use by US forces, known as The Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) system). Simply, it serves to demonstrate that rope extraction by a helicopter not fitted with a winch is feasible and one which has a long history of use in combat situations.

There are, it appears, difficulties with the McGuire rig when it comes to casualty extraction, but the techniques for lifting unconscious people are well established. At its most primitive, a "strop" or loop with a slip knot, placed over the head and under the armpits, with the knot in front of the chest and then tightened, can be used to lift an unconscious casualty.

Here, we rely on our pilot who tells us that, during his combat experience, "it is inconceivable" that any of his crews "would have left any of our soldiers bleeding in the field, no matter what the circumstances". He adds that, "there would have been courts martial and heads rolling at all levels if this had occurred. I cannot believe there was no attempt at jury-rigging some method of lifting them out." In one case, a helicopter pilot even dangled a weighted cargo net to soldiers who needed emergency evacuation (net illustrated, lifted by a Chinook).

With a rope lowered to the victims from the Chinook, fashioned as a strop, they could each have been lifted out and moved to a safe area, where the helicopter could then land and load them on board.

In the specific circumstances of this incident, we note that the Chinooks has previously been fitted with winches, but these had been removed after the discovery of a technical fault, and returned to the UK for checking. One can only surmise, but the natural presumption is that, when the winches were removed, some thought should have been given to an alternative, in the event that the helicopters were called to do an extraction where landing was not possible.

Raising these points after the event, of course, is hindsight but, before the event, there is also a name for it. It is called "contingency planning", a task which is supposed to be a particular military skill and one for which many highly paid staff officers are employed. In one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world, where the likelihood of a mine-strike was hardly an academic possibility, and where helicopter extraction is a standard and rehearsed routine, it can hardly be unreasonable to expect some forward planning, to cover the absence of the winches.

With that forward planning, there are also other devices that could have helped out. Simple and cheap devices such as mine shoes are widely available and used throughout the world (illustrated). They are special padded foam shoes that disperse their weight over a wide area. Thus fitted, a soldier weighing 160 lbs will exert no more than four ounces of pressure per square inch, enabling safe movement through a minefield with no risk of detonating a mine.

Would it have been too much to ask that every helicopter in theatre kept a few packs of these lightweight aids, ready for any rescue team called to extract stricken colleagues? And, if a crudely-fashioned strop would be considered too extreme for an injured person – especially as Cpl. Wright had lost an arm - the rescue catalogues have ample kit, such as rope-suspended litters, which could be used for this purpose.

Every which way – bearing in mind that the casualties were eventually lifted out by helicopter – the circumstances indicate that a modicum of forethought and, even without that, an element of field improvisation, could have saved Cpl. Wright. And, if the Board of Inquiry states that he could have been extracted earlier by a helicopter fitted with a winch, then all the indications are that he could have been lifted out by an improvised rope.

This brings us to another important point. As is the fashion these days, blame is pinned on the MoD. Thus is Sean Rayment's story framed in terms of "failings at MoD". But any rescue would have required minimal equipment – we are not talking here of projects needing millions of pounds, but items which the military could procure on its own authority, without intervention from the MoD.

And, in any event, had the MoD needed to be involved, would it have refused a few hundred pounds of expenditure – or even a thousand or so – had it been asked?

We are, therefore, most probably looking not at the failure of the amorphous "MoD", but a failure of field staff – military staff – people who should have done a job but who did not, right down to the Chinook crew which, according to people who know what is involved (my pilot consulted many of his experienced colleagues) could have improvised instead of standing idly by while a brave soldier bled to death.

Maybe, though, there are mitigating circumstances – some details of which we are wholly unaware – which would have prevented action by the Chinook pilots, and which the military staff could not possibly have foreseen. But it is hard to think what they might have been. One would have thought that a journalist for a prestigious national paper might have sought to find out – and perhaps written this into his story – answering the many questions raised.

But, in a sickening display of cheap journalism, instead Rayment goes to Liam Fox, the Tory shadow defence secretary, who is cited as describing the findings of the BoI as "an appalling indictment of Labour defence policy". Even had Fox been able to rule out military failings, however, they were no such thing. Operational failures at various levels there might have been, but this was not a policy failure. Fox, as an opposition spokesman could and should seek these out but he too was more concerned to make the cheap shot.

However, there was one area where Fox, rightly, could have criticised the MoD. As we have written many times (for instance, here, here and here) the Ministry has been offered many times the availability of leased helicopters to make up for the current shortage. These aircraft are fitted with winches and have ex-military crews, many of whom have decorations for both battlefield and casevac-under-fire operations.

They were – and still are - available to fill the gap whilst the long-term procurement process progresses but there has been no movement in getting them into theatre. Now that Nato is involved, the whole process of acquiring them seems to be drifting into a bureaucratic and inter-nation political football.

As for Rayment, he writes glibly that the real tragedy is that many within the MoD are more concerned about the negative media impact such stories have on their political and military masters rather than ensuring that such incidents are never allowed to happen again. But, having gone for the easy option of attacking the MoD, instead of attempting to get to the root of the incident, has he really done anything to prevent a repetition?


Sunday 13 January 2008

The spectator sees more of the game

In what may be part of a co-ordinated fight against being forced to acquire protected vehicles, David Axe, freelance journalist extraordinaire, has been given a license by the Army to take a pop at the Mastiff in an article written for World Politics Review. In it, he argues that, "for British forces in Iraq, protection means loss of effectiveness".

No one can deny that the man has had first hand experience, having been embedded with British troops in Iraq – or that he writes well and makes an arguable case. But he is still wrong. Like so many of his ilk – including Michael Yon – he is perhaps too close to the ground and cannot see the bigger picture. A truism it may be, but the spectator sees more of the game.

To lead us into his thesis, Axe acquaints us with a Royal Air Force security troops patrolling the outskirts of Basra air station in southern Iraq on 17 December. The soldiers leap out of their new Mastiff armoured trucks in order to scout out a bridge before the lumbering blast-proof vehicles crossed. One of the soldiers notices something he didn't recall seeing before: a crack in the concrete near the far side of the bridge.

He points this out to his commander, Flight Lt. Edward Cripps, who eyes the idling Mastiffs, their drivers waiting for the all clear. This is what happens, Cripps muses aloud, when you repeatedly drive 30-ton trucks over a bridge designed for much lighter vehicles. "We'll have to keep an eye on this," he says. But for now the bridge was sound, and the officer gestures for the Mastiffs to cross.

This, Axe now develops, noting that, although this may be "a small thing", the over-burdened bridge is "just one consequence of the changing nature of British military operations in southern Iraq." Two years ago, he continues:

… nimble, lightly-equipped British forces pursued a counterinsurgency strategy grounded in decades of operational experience - and with unusual effectiveness. So much so that heavy, aggressive US forces adopted British methods when they launched their much-vaunted "surge" campaign to retake Baghdad from insurgents.

Today, the British counterinsurgency operation has ended - some say prematurely - and the units slated to remain in Iraq as an "overwatch" force have adopted heavier, less agile weapons systems, such as the Mastiffs, and fortified themselves at the air station.

In doing so, they become less effective against low-intensity threats and, ironically, more vulnerable overall. British forces, say some military experts, in essence are making the same mistake their American counterparts did in the first three years of the Iraq war: they have confused "force protection" with effectiveness.
Now working from the particular to the general, Axe uses US military historian Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2005, to bolster his case, with a direct quote from the piece:

Successful counterinsurgency operations require troops to go out among the people, gathering intelligence and building goodwill. But few Iraqis are allowed on these bases, and few Americans are allowed out - and then only in forbidding armored convoys.
We then learn, according to Boot's contention, that troops concentrated at large fortified bases surrendered intelligence-gathering and initiative - that is, the ability to act first and compel your enemy to react - in a bid to minimise soldiers' exposure to attack. And when they did sortie from their castle-like compounds, they were so ignorant of what qualifies for normal in Iraq that they were prone to respond to the most innocuous activity with gunfire.

Before going too far with this, however, it is useful to step back and examine Axe's first premise, that the heavyweight Mastiff is causing damage, something he refers to later in his article, adding that they tear down city power and telephone lines, damage buildings and parked cars and over-stress dilapidated Iraqi bridges.

Staying with this, we have to examine the very specific use to which the Mastiff is being put, in the very specific context from which Axe draws his inspiration. That use, in fact, is airfield security – one of the main roles of the RAF Regiment – for which purpose they had previously used the WIMIK Land Rover (pictured right).

Yet, it was precisely that vehicle, in precisely that role, which led to the death last August of a British soldier from 51 Squadron RAF Regiment along with a civilian interpreter in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, with two other soldiers receiving minor injuries.

Had these personnel been riding in a Mastiff, it is undoubtedly the case that the whole crew would have escaped uninjured, as indeed did the crew of the Mastiff which was attacked outside Basra Air Base on 22 December, only days after the bridge incident.

Thus do we see a very selective use of evidence from Axe. He offers the downside of the Mastiff, but what message would he have to the parents and relatives of the deceased from the Kandahar incident? And what message would he have for the troops who escaped injury in Basra? Would he tell them that they should have died to protect city power and telephone lines, buildings, parked cars and dilapidated Iraqi bridges?

In fact though, Axe does have a point – although he does not make it. When you compare the Mastiff with the WIMIK, the size of the former highlights the obvious huge disparity in size. It is exactly that which became one of the points of contention when we started our campaign on the Snatch Land Rover - simply that protected vehicles were too big for Basra.

At that time, we were arguing for the RG-31, a very much smaller vehicle and one which, demonstrably, was capable of protecting crews. But the MoD in its wisdom decided upon the Mastiff, bigger than anything we envisaged. Indeed, it is too big for some roles and certainly, as Axe argues, too heavy for some applications.

However, as readers of this blog will be very well aware, the Mastiff is by no means the only protected vehicle available and indeed we have already mentioned the smaller RG-31 which weighs in at just over seven tons. For mine protection (as in Kandahar) probably the RAM 2000 would provide more than adequate protection, which weighs 4.5 tons, a vehicle based on the RBY Mk 1. There is also the RG-32M, with a combat weight of about seven tons, which would be ideal for airfield security.

It is also interesting to note that when the Rhodesians needed a mine-protected vehicle for airfield patrols, they managed with a converted Land Rover, which they called the Cougar.

On this basis, addressing Axe's very specific complaints about the Mastiff, the problem is not protection per se, but the wrong type of protection. We have a situation where the MoD currently only provides one type of vehicle – basically an armoured personnel carrier. It was never designed nor intended for airfield perimeter patrolling and is thus being misused. In due course, we will see lighter vehicles – presumably the 4x4 Cougar (to be named the Ridgeback) – although that in itself is the same height and width as the Mastiff, and is no great improvement.

Nevertheless, weight – and size - is not Axe's only complaint. Quoting General Petraeus' philosophy, he wants troops to get out of their armoured vehicles, move around on foot and engage with the local populace - all concepts, he says, the British had championed since the beginning of the occupation in 2003.

This, we will address later in this piece but even Axe acknowledges that troops will be using vehicles. Here he calls in aid Lieutenant Colonel Labouchere who abandoned the Abu Naji base at al Amarah in 2006, taking to the Maysan desert in lightly armoured WIMIK Land Rovers. The sprightly Land Rovers, writes Axe,

…which are smaller than the standard US Humvee - were vital to Labouchere's desert adventure and even allowed British forces to navigate teeming downtown markets. But for combat operations Land Rovers are being replaced by the new Mastiffs: six-wheeled vehicles that are too tall, too wide and too sluggish to even enter cities. In addition, the soldiers riding inside them are virtually blind: there are only four small windows thickly paned with armored glass.
It is this latter comment that is particularly telling, highlighting an issue we too have addressed, technically known as situational awareness. This is perennially brought up by advocates of light, highly mobile vehicles and currently championed in the latest round of the debate on the suitability of the WIMIK.

Such is the limited breadth of the argument, however, that the champions of the WIMIK cannot seem to grasp that protection and situational awareness – or high mobility, for that matter – are not mutually incompatible. In an earlier post, we illustrated the Dingo armoured scout car (left) and the RBY Mk1, both of which offer situational awareness easily comparable with the WIMIK. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to produce a mine protected vehicle with an open top, to perform the role of a WIMIK.

Thus far, but unfortunately at much greater length, we are able to deal with Axe's arguments on size and weight and on situational awareness but, although he does not labour it, his use of the word "sprightly" implies mobility. This is translated by other advocates as speed and off-road performance, which are at a premium in Afghanistan and which the WIMIK is deemed to offer.

Here, critics of protected vehicles may have a point in that armour does add weight – although not necessarily as much as some think. All things being equal, an unarmoured vehicle is going to be more mobile than its protected counterpart.

However, while some argue that the WIMIK is an unarmoured vehicle, it has some (very limited) armour. But, so vulnerable is it to attack that troops have been applying their own armour in theatre (pictured) and the latest version (the so-called E-WIMIK) has still more. It is now so heavily laden that its mobility is restricted while still affording less protection than a specifically-designed vehicle. And, with all that weight, it is dangerously top-heavy, making it difficult and dangerous to drive. Perversely, this "light gun platform" is now considerably heavier than a Ferret armoured car which weighed less than four tons.

Nevertheless, we still hear that good off-road performance can confer as much or greater protection as armour, simply by allowing more tactical flexibility. It can, for instance, permit drivers to avoid established tracks, where mines and IEDs might be laid. It is better to take a chance with mines than to be weighed down with armour and lose that tactical flexibility, or so it is held.

At several levels, though, this argument is flawed. Firstly, the topography of Afghanistan is such that, while there are the wide open spaces, on many routes to and from operations – and generally – there are so-called "choke points". At these, the terrain naturally channels traffic and there is no alternative but to follow narrow, defined routes, no matter how good the off-road performance.

Three such scenarios are illustrated here, one of the classics being while crossing wadis (dried up river beds) – the first of the sequence (above) showing a wadi crossing. And that, it is understood, is how Jack Sadler died. His patrol was seeking a route out of a wadi, and used a track they had passed over the day before. Only, that time, a mine had been laid by a Taleban which keeps British forces under constant observation.

Secondly, the need for vehicle mobility is very much overstated. Axe, as a fan of Labouchere, offers us two video reports (here and here) eulogising his hero, the latter sequence showing one of his "sprightly Land Rovers" trying to negotiate truly impossible terrain, getting totally bogged down and very nearly overturning. "Sprightly" that vehicle was not. In such terrain, even superb performers are slow, noisy and vulnerable, and therefore of limited value. Commanders need to recognise that there are other ways of doing things.

Where reconnaissance is involved, much of what is carried out by ground forces can be as well done – if not better – by airborne assets, either helicopters, fixed wing aircraft or UAVs, more so if working in very close co-operation with ground forces. And, under certain circumstances – if they are available – vehicles can be lifted by helicopters to be inserted and extracted when needed, by-passing difficult or dangerous terrain. When it comes to cross-country performance, there is nothing better than an aircraft.

As to the role of "air", we can cite our own expert, Maj Gen Charles J. Dunlap Jr., USAF, who argues cogently that the Army does not understand and is thus not able to exploit the full potential of airpower in counter-insurgency operations. Thus, in many respects, the Army makes its own grief.

Then, in terms of mobility, there are the other uses to which these vehicles are put, not least convoy escorts, urban patrols and, in the case of the "Snatch", personnel transport. In these roles, the scope for enhanced mobility is very limited. And where mobility cannot be relied on to ensure safety, other means of protection are essential.

The third point, however, brings in the bigger picture. Axe glibly quotes Dakota Wood from the US-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, using him to tell us that the deployment of "highly protected but operationally dubious armored trucks such as Mastiff" is the result of "an emotional debate" over casualties.

While indeed, there are emotional overtones to that debate - witness the piece is today's Sunday Mirror - these are underwritten by cold, hard, political calculations, again on several levels. The most immediate concern is for troop morale.

While soldiers are realistic about the hazards of their trade, they are more sanguine about being killed in a "fair" fight involving direct combat. But the seeming randomness, unpredictability, and persistence of IED and mine attacks – especially with their potential to maim as well as kill – are feared and detested. If troops do not feel they have protection against them, their morale suffers. And, as well as affecting operational efficiency, this has an influence on recruitment and retention rates, and on the perception of operations on the "home front".

It is at this "home front" level though that the political calculations are most acute. While the Army may see its objective as winning engagements, the Taleban are fighting the "attrition" phase of a long-term guerrilla war. Their objective is not to win the military battle but to kill soldiers in an attempt to erode the political will of the nations who send them.

Guerrilla war does not allow the simplistic military reckoning of "exchange rates". That much, VietNam taught us. Each death or serious injury is a victory for the Taleban - a step closer to undermining the home front, leading eventually to the withdrawal of troops who have not been defeated militarily. Thus, whatever willingness there might be of the Army, collectively or individually, to take risks and accept losses, this is not their choice to make. To win the war, they must do everything realistically possible to minimise their own casualties - especially when so many deaths and injuries are avoidable. The politicians realise this, but it is not clear that the military – and certainly not David Axe – fully understand it.

Now, so far, we have only addressed part of Axe's thesis. Starting with his slender argument that we should not be using protected vehicles, he relies heavily on Labouchere's "strategy" as an alternative. However, this amounted to abandoning the Abu Naji base in al Amarah under fire in order to spearhead "a drive to make British troops lighter, faster and closer to the local populace."

Writes Axe, after a particularly intensive mortar attack on his base, Labouchere persuaded his bosses to let him shutter the base completely, jettison his heavy weapons and armor and take to the desert with just his soldiers, his interpreters and a handful of reconnaissance vehicles and Land Rovers. Axe goes on:

The Maysan battle group moved constantly, zipping across the desert province on a mission to intercept criminals and militia fighters. Labouchere said that with his "lighter is better" approach, he was trying to prevent what he called the "self-licking lollipop" effect. That is, he wanted to avoid the heavily armored equipment - and associated logistical requirements - that can quickly distract a military unit from its actual mission.
What this narrative neglects, however, is the earlier history of the campaign and subsequent events and thus how Labouchere's retreat from Abu Naji set the seal on what this blog – and many others - regards as the British failure in southern Iraq.

A more rounded account would take in the relative calm in the southern sector immediately after the invasion in 2003, but then noted the Mehdi uprising in August 2003, which effectively marked the start of a full-blown Shia insurgency. As we recall in one of our posts, the situation rapidly deteriorated to the point that, by November of that year, the Army was being forced to patrol in protected (but still dangerously vulnerable) "Snatch" Land Rovers.

The following year saw what amounted to all-out war with the siege of Cimic House starting on 5th of August 2004 in the centre of al Amarah and lasting 23 days. And, while the situation was stabilised, British forces were later pulled out of Cimic House and troops were concentrated in Abu Naji base outside the town, from which patrols were mounted into the town.

After multiple attacks, ranging from street gunfights and RPG ambushes, to IED ambushes, by September 2005 it was no longer safe to use "Snatch" Land Rovers on the streets of al Amarah. For want of protected vehicles, patrolling was being conducted with tracked Warrior MICVs and Challenger II main battle tanks. At the same time, the base had come under sustained assault from rockets and mortars, against which the troops were powerless, partly because there were unable to police the areas from which they were being fired.

And that surely is the point. While the advocates of light vehicles talk so freely about "mobility", commanders in al Amarah were given the choice of "Snatch" Land Rovers, Warriors at 35 tons or Challengers at 60 tons plus, both of the latter being tracked vehicles. When the Land Rovers proved too vulnerable to use, they had no option but to resort to vehicles far heavier than the Mastiffs of which Axe so volubly complains.

Nevertheless, it was in that context that, in the following year, Labouchere evacuated the base, whereupon it was handled to the Iraqi Army but immediately taken over by Mehdi supporters and ransacked. The leader of the militias, Moqtada al-Sadr, declared this a great victory and claimed to have driven the British "occupiers" out of town. All Labouchere had done was send out a signal that, if the British were attacked heavily and often enough, they would run away.

Predictably, therefore, far from quelling the insurgency, Labouchere's action fuelled it. The action moved to Basra, where bases started coming under increasingly heavy attack. And, in each case, the Army responded not by seeking out and destroying the attackers but by repeating the Labouchere strategy of "running away". Progressively, the bases at the Old State Building, the Shaat al Arab Hotel, the Joint Provincial Coordination Centre and Shaiba were vacated, leaving only the outpost at Basra Palace and the air base outside the city.

It cannot therefore have been a surprise that Basra Palace then came under sustained siege, with resupply missions becoming more and more hazardous. Without the wherewithal to deal with the attacks, the British forces conceded defeat and evacuated their last base in the city.

It is thus fair to say that, far from a failure to get "closer to the local populace", this strategy of progressive retreat under fire represented a sustained failure to deal with the attacks on the bases. As to the Mastiffs, the real problem was that they arrived too late and in insufficent numbers to affect the outcome. There was a desperate need to restore mobility to the streets, allowing the troops to get to various locations (then to patrol on foot) without unsustainable casualty levels.

That is where Axe has it so wrong. He argues that American leaders abandoned the firepower-heavy approach for time-honoured counterinsurgency tactics adopted by the British. He claims that was the basis for General David Petraeus' "surge" campaign which has significantly reduced sectarian violence in Baghdad since January 2007. But he fails to understand that the surge itself was underwritten by the restoration of mobility, brought about by the rapid programme of introducing protected vehicles. Protection is not about firepower – it is about stopping troops getting killed by insurgents in order that they can then do their work.

This is also where Michael Yon goes wrong. Totally reliable on the detail of the conduct of day-to-day operations – and much respected for his accounts - he accepts the current Army narrative that a retreat from Basra was the best option as the Army had now become part of the problem.

Last August, though, before the retreat, Colonel Bob Stewart - styled as "former UN commander of British troops in Bosnia" - was interviewed by the BBC. Paraphrased, his view was that the reason why we were taking the casualties – which eventually forced our evacuation – was because we "cannot dominate the ground". The options, he said, were to retake and dominate the ground, or abandon it.

In the final analysis, we could not do the former without sustaining unacceptable casualties - a chicken and egg sitation - so we had to do the latter. But it was not a "victory" or even a success.

While it is all very well, therefore, for Axe to pontificate about the shortcomings of protected vehicles now that we have finally retreated from Basra Palace (pictured) and hunkered down in the last bastion at Basra Air Station, one of the reasons why we could not dominate the ground was because our troops had not been issued with vehicles like the Mastiff, in which they could move around safely. Contrary to Axe's assertions, it was the absence of protected vehicles early in the campaign, rather then their limited presence now, that has been instrumental in the defeat of the British Army.

And, although Axe was confining his remarks to Iraq, much of what applied (or should have applied) to Iraq also applies to Afghanistan. There, at least, the Army has not made all the mistakes that it so egregiously made in the Iraqi campaign, but its continued used of the WIMIK and the equally vulnerable Pinzgauers (both the unarmoured versions and the Vector), suggests it still has a great deal to learn.