Monday 31 March 2008

Particularly cruel

Troops from 40 Commando, Royal Marines, went out to Afghanistan last September and, with their six-month tour all but complete, they were due to return home over the next few days and weeks.

In what must have been very nearly if not actually one of their last active patrols, it was particularly cruel for two members of the Commando to have been killed by "what is thought to be a roadside bomb".

On the BBC website report, a spokesman for Helmand task force is cited, saying they were investigating the cause of the blast, which could not be established last night. But it is considered likely to have been a mine or an improvised explosive device, which could have been detonated remotely or by a pressure plate.

The oral report, delivered by the BBC's Alisdair Liethead, the mine reference only came in the later versions of his reports, which suggests possibly that this may well have been a mine. As to the vehicle, as always this is not specified. As far as we know, 40 Commando operate WIMIK Land Rovers, Pinzgauer Vectors and Vikings. Numerically, the odds point to a WIMIK.

Liethead's report also refers to roadside and suicide bombs having been used increasingly in Afghanistan. This is something which has been long predicted, not least by Ann Winterton on Thursday 22 June 2006, when she asked, "what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?"

Nearly two years on, it seems the answer is the same as it was then – most likely WIMIKs or Vectors – with the "promise" of the Supacat M-WIMIK some time in the future, but possibly – although we know not when – the Ridgeback.

About these vehicles, we have made all the points before. We can add few more words to a case that has been made, again and again for better protected vehicles. It is an old problem, as these WWII pictures of Universal Carriers show – each destroyed by a mine. Over 60 years later, our troops are as badly protected.

We have made that point as well – but it is a point that will have to be made again, and again, and again, for as long as men continue to be blown apart by weapons which could and should so easily be countered.


Maybe things ain't what they seem

At noon yesterday (Iraq time), Shi'ite militia were reported to be storming a state TV facility in Basra, forcing Iraqi military guards surrounding the building to flee and setting armoured vehicles on fire.

Nothing seemed better to illustrate the degree to which Maliki's troops had lost the initiative yet, hours later, Muqtada al-Sadr seemed to be throwing in the towel, calling on his Mehdi Army to cease their attacks on Iraqi security forces.

If this development surprised most people (including us), Reuters is claiming that it even caught Sadr's own followers off guard especially – or so it seems - as Maliki is offering no concessions and has pledged to continue his military operations in Basra.

The immediate response seems to have been a lull in the fighting, according to local sources, although attacks are not expected to cease completely. Some even suggest that the "truce" may not stick.

However, a local blog Talismangate disputes the media "take" on events and in particular the NYT claim that most of Basra had been under Mehdi Army control. According to this source, this is a complete fabrication. He continues:

As of last night, the Iraqi Army began a systematic cleansing of downtown Basra and its southern suburbs, meeting minimal resistance. The criminal cartels struck at police stations in the northern portion of the city that the Army has decided not to contest for the time being as they roll up the gangsters in the more economically sensitive areas of the city.
To sum up, he writes:

…the trend has been diminishing resistance when faced with Iraqi military units who have performed exceedingly well. More and more areas that witnessed flare-ups are calming down as Mahdi Army loyalists run out of supplies and escape into hiding. Maliki is growing more defiant and confident and this sentiment in running down the chain of command.

All political attempts to broker a ceasefire by involving Ayotallah Sistani's office have been rebuffed by Maliki and by Sistani himself from the looks of it. In two weeks, the dust will settle and this episode will be remembered as a major victory for Maliki and the Iraqi state. But no journalists will be fired, no self-described "experts" will be publicly ridiculed; no one will be held accountable for all these distortions. But the distorters will know, deep down inside, that they are frauds and this realization will slowly eat away at them. And that's the silver lining.
Other interesting observations come from an earlier post, explaining the reason why the media is so "negative" ... nobody really knows what's going on:

To start with, the Americans don't know Basra all that well having had subcontracted handling things down there to the feckless Brits. It isn't surprising that the British media, influenced as they are by how British diplomats, officers and spooks gauge things, are writing-up Basra's news with such overblown gloom. Those same British officials have their careers on the line since it was their pathetic shortcomings that led to the miserable condition that Basra is in, and it’s in their interest to present the situation as intractable.

If Maliki succeeds, then there should be follow-up investigation as to why the British failed in so lucrative an economic prize as Basra and Amara - the two provinces they were tasked with - so those folks who've got their reputations on the line want to make darn sure that no one walks away with the impression that Basra is salvageable.

For now, the Brits are hunkered down in Basra Airport, far away from the action, where they've been taking attacks - both of the explosive variety in addition to random pilfering and looting - by whatever bunch of bored Basrawi teenagers decide to pick on them on any given day. No wonder they are dismissed by both officials and townspeople in Basra as "wimps" and "sissies". So one can safely assume that the British are as clueless as the Americans when it comes to Basra.
Interestingly, Longwar Journal seems to support the upbeat assessment, calculating that the Mahdi Army has taken significant casualties, while Time Magazine reports that there has been "a large-scale retreat" of the Mahdi Army because of low morale and because ammunition is low due to the closure of the Iranian border.

Yet, there is clearly a media narrative which is almost consistent through contemporary reports, the latest bulletin from The Daily Telegraph, for instance, referring to the "struggling Iraqi army and police operation in Basra."

Purely on their own internal logic, however, the negative reports have to be inconsistent. If the Mahdi Army was being so successful and the Iraqi Army in such disarray, then one would hardly have expected Moqtada al-Sadr to have ordered his fighters to stand down.

Clearly, there is far more going on here than we are being told and reports on which one should be able to rely must be treated with the greatest caution. Thus, while the NYT writes of street clashes persisting in Basra and other cities, things could be far better than has been indicated.

On the face of it, this is good news for Gordon Brown as the need for a full-scale British intervention could be less likely than has been indicated, and might suggest that British forces could soon be returning home. However, with no statement forthcoming from the prime minister after six days of fighting, we are none the wiser as to what his appreciation of the situation is and what his intentions are.

It really is quite unacceptable that, where major events such as these are afoot, where the vital interests of the UK are involved, our prime minister cannot even be bothered to keep us informed.


Saturday 29 March 2008

Where do you want me to stick my head?

"Questioning is good," writes one of our forum members - "but might you not dilute the value of your posts by so consistently going above and beyond?"

He goes on to say:

I do not think anyone would disagree with your general argument that there have been occasions when the troops have been ill-equipped for specific missions during this campaign. However, this is not news to anyone in the Army and our general philosophy is that you make the most of what you have. What is more, officers and NCOs these days are quite able to speak up and object to an order if they think it is a tad daft and will do so.
Now, fast-forward to the latest coroner's report, this one on the death of Lance Corporal Sean Tansey. He was crushed to death when an eight-ton Spartan armoured vehicle collapsed on his head while he was carrying out repairs.

According to the BBC report, Tansey would have survived had proper wooden supports been placed under the vehicle. The inquest in Oxford was told that the only cushioning support available was old bits of pallet wood. The jack used could lift a Ford Cortina, but not a Spartan.

The inquest was told that cushioning planks, known as "skidding", would have saved the soldier's life while L/Cpl Edward Sampson, who was helping to repair the tank's broken torsion bar, said the team had no proper wooden planks. He told the court: "There was a big clunk. The vehicle pitched forwards and Sean's head was underneath it."

The tools Tansey needed were at his base in Helmand, so he was told to ignore engineers' advice and fix it. But, he could only obey his orders by going against Army guidelines and crawling under the vehicle, which fell on his head. When the coroner asked if soldiers could refuse to do repair work on health and safety grounds, L/Cpl Sampson answered: "That's not the way the Army works. If you are told to do something you do it."

Taking a dispassionate view of this, one does not have to be an expert – much less a military genius – to realise that you do not stick your head under an eight-ton vehicle, supported only by a lightweight jack and some pallets. This is not so much an arcane technical issue as a basic survival strategy.

After all, we have all been there (or most of us). Having to do basic vehicle maintenance, the one thing you do not even think of doing is climbing under a jacked-up vehicle without proper support.

But hey! This is not some fly-by-night, cowboy outfit. This is yer actual Army – dedicated, committed professionals, staffed with NCOs who, "are quite able to speak up and object to an order if they think it is a tad daft".

So – here's the scenario: "Lance Corporal, stick your head under this badly supported vehicle, and fix the old gubbins!" And, says the L/Cpl: "Certainly Sir!"

Unfortunately, the reporting coroner here is our old friend Andrew Walker, and he chooses to pin the blame on the MoD and focus the "serious failure" on "equipment shortages".

But this is not about equipment – it is about mindset, about adopting safe systems of work and levels of supervision at unit level, which ensure that basic safety procedures are adopted. And, before anyone asks, yes – that is a qualified view. In a previous career, I was a health and safety enforcement officer, carrying out routine inspections of workplaces to ensure compliance with health and safety law.

Had this incident been in civilian jurisdiction, there would not just be a coroner's inquiry. On the face of it, there are good indications that a criminal prosecution would be warranted, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. As it is, an MoD spokesman says: "We note the coroner's comments and will ensure that lessons are learnt from this tragic incident."

That is not good enough. There is prima facie evidence of a criminal offence and, if civilian supervisors would be exposed to prosecution, why is the Army any different? Ah, we are told, in the Forces, "you are taught that you make the best possible decisions with the available facts and do not crucify yourself in hindsight." Obviously, no need for a prosecution then.

Nor, it would seem, is there any need to "crucify yourself in hindsight" with the "best possible decision" – for example – to field Pinzgauer trucks in mine-infested country, the drivers so positioned as to take the full force of mine blasts, with no protection at all. So – here's the scenario: "Lance Corporal, stick your bum on that unarmoured wheel-arch and drive down that road where there might be a buried mine!" And, says the L/Cpl: "Certainly Sir!"

Never mind, the people involved at the tactical level are "intelligent and committed types" who "might really have to live with the fact that a death occurred as a result of their bad decisions."

So that's alright! Where do you want me to stick my head?


Friday 28 March 2008


After an incident in February 2006 when a Norwegian Mercedes Gelendevagen was torched by an angry Afghani mob, the military authorities took fright and placed a rush order for 72 Iveco MLVs – the Panthers of British fame.

Now, with these vehicles deployed in theatre, Norway Post is conveying a report from the newspaper Dagsavisen that they are "too often plagued by engine breakdowns."

The engines of the Iveco armoured troop carriers do not stand up in the tough conditions in Afghanistan, the paper writes, and the modern engines are "too complicated for the soldiers to be able to fix the problems out in the field on their own."

This means, we are told, the troops are often left unprotected on the road while waiting for maintenance, and many Norwegian soldiers often drive about in cars that are not armoured.

I hate to say, "I told you so", but … I told you so! Or, as the ludicrously poor machine translation of the original Dagsavisen article says: "Jeepene at they Norwegian soldier in Afghanistan am mighty bad preserved against veibomber".

Meanwhile, the Czech authorities, having also bought Iveco MLVs for their operations in Afghanistan, are buying some more protected vehicles. This time, however, they are buying German-made Dingo 2s.

I wonder why.


Thursday 27 March 2008

Everybody's wrong but us!

Emerging from the ongoing debate about the deployment of the Supacat M-WIMIKs to Afghanistan, one undisputed fact is that the original vehicle was developed specifically for special forces, replacing the "Pink Panther" Land Rover.

A completely unarmoured vehicle, it is held, is entirely justified on the basis that, above all else, special forces require speed and manoeuvrability, and rely on that, plus firepower and tactics to confer a degree of protection.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, that US special forces have just placed an order for their own vehicles and, despite the Supacat licenses being held by Lockheed Martin, that vehicle was not in the frame.

Instead, it is reported, that the vehicles to be procured are 350 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected RG33s. The order, worth $234 million (or a unit price of something like a third of what the British are paying for their Ridgebacks), covers three special forces command vehicles, 51 ambulance variants and 393 RG33 Category II 6x6 MRAP variants.

With the US ground forces also procuring 500 RG-31s specifically for Afghanistan, it would now appear that, unlike British forces, most US soldiers will be travelling (and fighting) in armoured vehicles.

To a very great extent, this points up the doctrinal differences between the British Army and the US, except that the Germans, the Australians, Dutch and Canadians – to say nothing of the Estonians – all employ armoured (mine protected) vehicles. Only the British, it seems, are so determined to rely on unarmoured "high mobility" vehicles for a substantial part of their activities.

Revisiting the genesis of this doctrine, this of course goes back to 1943 and SAS operations in the North African desert. There, the use of heavily armed jeeps (above right) was pioneered, very little different - in principle - from the Land Rover WIMIK currently deployed.

Interestingly though, although that doctrine was pioneered 65 years ago, it did not actually survive the Second World War. By 1944, when the SAS was deployed in Northern Europe, Jeeps were progressively being armoured – this version here fitted with armoured glass and a front armoured panel.

And, although the RAF Regiment is currently using the same Land Rover WIMIKs as their Army counterparts, with which to carry out patrols, during the latter part of the Second World War – and beyond – they were not to be seen in unarmoured Jeeps, SAS-style.

For their mobile patrols, RAF Regiment personnel were issued with Canadian-built Otter armoured scout cars (pictured), which did service right through Northern Europe.

Far from being a well-tried and tested doctrine, therefore, the use of unarmoured jeep-like vehicles seems to have been a transitory phase during one phase of the desert war, not to be repeated in other theatres.

Furthermore, as this photograph shows (below left), the Long Range Desert Group, which operated alongside the SAS, developed a highly sophisticated resupply regime, using two light, American-built aircraft – a Waco YKC and a Waco ZGC-7 – which they managed to "acquire".

Readers will recall us extolling the virtues of the Pilatus Porter for just this type of operation, and it is of more than some interest that, those 65 years ago, a similar idea was not only mooted but actually implemented.

It is a matter of some puzzlement, therefore, why the British Army cannot adopt techniques and equipment that seemed to have worked effectively, yet are so enthusiastic about cherry-picking doctrines which have limited utility and which are shared by no other forces.

Still, as the British Army is so adequately demonstrating in Basra, its grasp of counter-insurgency techniques is beyond comparison, suggesting that what the British Army does must always be right and everybody else – including their predecessors (and this blog) – is wrong.


The beginnings of a debate?

click the pic to enlarge
One would like to think that – given the torrent of publicity on the inadequacies of the equipment procured for our Armed Force – the media could afford a little more space for the Defence Equipment report produced today by the House of Commons Defence Committee.

In its 116 pages – including a transcript of the oral evidence – there emerges something of the debate for which we have been calling with, inter alia the committee suggesting that we should reconsider whether to continue with the carrier programme and whether we should cut our losses with the Nimrod MR4 programme.

One immediate response to the views of the committee on the carriers could be "better late than never", although it is perhaps a bit late to be considering the fate of a major programme such as this, only days before the final deadline for construction contracts to be issued. It would have been better had there been a full and open debate as to the need for such carriers before the project had got so far.

The main point made by the committee, however, does not seem to be based on strategic grounds, but simply the need for the MoD to rein in expenditure "which will lead to a realistic and affordable Equipment Programme." Thus, the committee is thinking in terms of "cutting whole equipment programmes", rather than just delaying orders or making cuts to the number of platforms ordered across a range of equipment programmes.

This is something that has most definitely been mooted within the MoD and it is here that the battle lines are drawn. But the danger is that, without any strategic overview, of precisely what we want of our Armed Forces – contentious cuts will be made without any clear ideas on how this affects our overall capabilities.

It was this need which Prof. Hew Strachen articulated, on which we reported yesterday, without which defence expenditure becomes a matter of bookkeeping rather than an exercise in delivering stategic choices.

Needless to say, the media approaches the committee report on a one-dimensional level, The Scotsman for instance, homing on the implications for local jobs if the projects are scrapped.

The Times is not much better, reporting on the factual, headline elements of the report, focusing specifically on the possibility of scrapping the MR4.

As to the carriers, with so much focus on the ships, less attention is being given to the provision of the aircraft – the overall cost of which is perhaps three or four times the cost of providing the platforms. And here we see an article in The Financial Times plus an interesting post on this blog which sheds some light on the delays and problems on the JSF programme – to say nothing of the spiralling costs.

Almost certainly, should the carrier programme go ahead on schedule, the ships will sail without their complement of new aircraft which means they will be operating – if at all – with Harrier GR9s.

An interesting thought occurs that, if the aircraft programme is delayed and we need an interim replacement for our existing carriers, then the USS John F. Kennedy (pictured) has just been decommissioned by the US Navy. If asked nicely, I am sure the US government could be prevailed upon to sell the ship to us, and our MoD could happily lose a few billion in upgrading it, while we think about whether we really need it.

Just a thought.


Wednesday 26 March 2008

Which is it to be?

Britain has now reached the point at which it had to make a serious choice about its future. Either it had "an adequately resourced" Armed Forces that could fight major wars, or one that could only conduct counter-insurgency and peace-keeping operations.

Given the "nature of current operations" in Iraq and Afghanistan and the "size of resources", it would be impossible to fight a major war.

That is the view of Oxford University's Prof Hew Strachan, as recorded by Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph.

Strachan had been giving evidence to the Defence Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into recruitment and retention in the Armed Forces, in which context the Prof. believes that, until Britain answers the question of what size and type of Armed Forces it wanted, recruiting and retaining troops was "operating in a vacuum".

This is such eminent good sense that we trust the Defence Committee takes it to heart – although this cannot be guaranteed.

The constant theme throughout this blog is the tension between resourcing current operations and preparation for a "future war" and it is good to have some one of the status of Prof. Strachan state the obvious.

Many of the budgetary problems encountered in defence arise from trying to satisfy these conflicting demands, with the result that we are able neither to resource a "future army" nor adequately maintain an effective counter-insurgency capability.

The problem is that making a choice – short of massively increasing the defence budget, which is not going to happen – is a major political decision which should be taken only after a prolonged and open debate. Simply trying to ignore it - throwing money at the Services to keep individual projects going without any coherent framework – is not a sensible option.

If MPs – and particularly the Opposition - are at all genuine in their desire to increase their relevance to voters, this is an area where they could lead the debate, starting with the Defence Committee.


Tuesday 25 March 2008

And so it begins

Exactly as predicted, parts of Basra have erupted in fighting as reports come in that Iraqi troops have taken on the Shiia militias. The action is reported to be concentrated in six northern districts where the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is known to have a strong presence.

Amongst the many offering early accounts is The Times which has it that thousands of Iraqi troops "have launched their first major military strike against Shia insurgents in Basra since British troops withdrew from the city centre, in a critical test for the newly-trained army."

The paper reports that "fierce clashes" are taking place between security forces and militants loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr after a dawn military offensive. Four civilians are claimed to have been killed, with 16 injured. Police have confirmed the start of the operation, dubbed Saulat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights) which came after a 10:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew was slapped on the entire Basra province late on Monday.

Indicating its importance, Iraq prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has travelled down to Basra to overseeing the operation. He is pictured (above) at the Contingency Operating Base at Basra airport.

So far – we are told – British forces have not been involved (directly), but US aircraft are said to be carrying out surveillance missions – along with Iraqi helicopters (pictured).

The Guardian adds some more detail – relying on Reuters repots. It tells us that fierce street battles have erupted and that "heavy resistance" has been encountered as fighting broke out with gunmen from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

Quoted is Major-General Ali Zaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces in the operation, who states that: The target is to wipe out all the outlaws …There were clashes, and many outlaws have been killed." TV footage is said to show smoke from explosions rising over the city and Iraqi soldiers exchanging gunfire with militia fighters. "There are clashes in the streets," a Basra resident has told Reuters. "Bullets are coming from everywhere, and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions. This has been going on since dawn."

In this volatile mix are three factions - the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Mahdi Army and the small Fadhila party - all fighting for power in Basra. The Mahdi Army warned that tensions in Basra would escalate if its members were targeted by the authorities. They have demanded the release of supporters rounded up in recent weeks after the cleric told his followers they were free to defend themselves against attacks.

The news agency AFP adds that fighting involving mortars, machine guns and assault weapons erupted soon after the security forces entered the Al-Tamiyah neighbourhood, a bastion of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, at around 5:00 am local time (0200 GMT). The fighting quickly spread to five other Mahdi Army neighbourhoods.

Witnesses are saying that the streets were empty aside from the security forces, emergency vehicles and people in cars fleeing the fighting. Shops and markets were closed. Vehicle access to Basra has been temporarily closed from neighbouring provinces due to the curfew while teaching at schools and universities had been suspended.

As to the immediate prospects for the operation, Reuters quotes Joost Hiltermann, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think-tank. He believes, "It will be very difficult for the central government to regain control," adding, "You have many armed groups that are looking to keep hold of their share of the oil wealth. The central government is clearly upset about this because they want to assert control."

Ironically, still topping the MoD website is a "puff" from the CDS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who – commemorating the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq - tells us that, "More and more people in Basra are turning from violence on the streets to politics."

Equally ill-timed is the initiative today by the Conservative Party which is holding an opposition day debate in the Commons on Iraq and is planning to force a vote on whether there should be an inquiry into the lead-up to the war. With the whole of southern Iraq in the melting pot, upon which the fate of the whole of the country could depend, now is not the time when government (and military) effort should be directed to raking over the coals of the past.

Leading the debate is shadow foreign secretary William Hague, who claims that, "…the huge problems of how to administer Iraq after the invasion - the study of that may lead to lessons which have direct applicability to the situation in Afghanistan, so again it's important these lessons are learned."

It comes to something when this maladroit move draws one into agreement with justice secretary Jack Straw who says, "What is more important even than an inquiry is that the troops who are on the ground - there are still 4,100 British troops in harm's way in Iraq - should not themselves be distracted by what would inevitably and understandably be a very significant argument about whether it is right or wrong for them to be present."

One would have hoped that minds would indeed be focused on the present - on what could be the defining moment, as to whether Basra finally begins to emerge from the blight of factional infighting.


Sunday 23 March 2008

The showdown cometh

We picked it up in February last and noted worrying signs earlier this month.

Now, the Kuwaiti newspaper Awan is reported as having been told by an anonymous source that security forces in Basra are preparing to launch a major military campaign. This is aimed at "cleansing" the city of criminals and illegal weapons.

Basra police chief, Hatem Khalaf, has told his officers in Basra that "our patience is running out, it is the time to clean the city from criminals, evil doers and weapons caches in the city," warning them to prepare for the decisive battle to demilitarise Basra.

The Weekly Ahram has picked up the same vibes, noting also that some factions of the Mahdi Army have relinquished their commitment to the ceasefire.

This is born out by the answer to a question asked by Nick Harvey which records that the rocket attack on the Contingency Operating Base (COB) in Basra have increased recently. From 12 in 2004, the number dropped to eight in 2005, rising to 75 in 2006 and then a stupendous 400 in 2007. After a quiet start to this year, however, 37 attacks have now been recorded.

Some of this is reported today by The Mail on Sunday which is telling us that the pull-out of British troops in Basra is "on hold" after the dramatic surge in rocket attacks.

The force was due to have been cut from 4,100 to 2,500 by the end of April, but this will no longer happen and the indications are that numbers may be held at their present levels.

The Sunday Mirror is also on the case, suggesting that "American military chiefs" are to urge Britain to carry out a US-style "surge" in Iraq to stem spiralling levels of violence and killings in Basra.

Commanders, says the paper, are growing increasingly "uneasy" that Iraq's second city is descending into anarchy after British forces pulled out. And such is their concern that the US is even considering offering thousands of US Marines to assist the British in what could be "a gruelling six-month operation".

Quoted is a "senior US military source" who says, "Three big militias are currently engaged in a particularly bloody battle in southern Iraq. US and Iraqi forces are involved in a huge operation to attack an al-Qaeda stronghold in Mosul. But after that the plan is to turn the Coalition's attention onto Basra and we will be urging the British to surge into the city. If they do not have enough troops then they will be offered US Marines to help out."

The feeling is that if southern Iraq is hugely unstable, it will affect the success of the surge in the north and destabilise the whole country, hence the need for action.

Inevitably, senior Whitehall defence sources are "highly reluctant" for British troops to go back into Basra due to the huge political pressure to withdraw troops. The hope is that there will be enough trained Iraqi Army recruits in the next year to cope with the violence.

The longest report, however, comes from The Independent which declares that the plan to reduce British forces has been put off "indefinitely", noting that Iraqi troops are preparing to take on militias.

This paper confirms that Major General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi military commander, is planning a major operation this summer against the Shia militias. It reminds us that, under its agreement with the Iraqi government, Britain is obliged to provide support for what the general is calling "the final battle for Basra".

We are also told that the airport base "once again reverberates almost daily to sirens warning of incoming rocket fire and to the roar of Phalanx (C-RAM) anti-missile guns." New alarm systems have been installed, and soldiers now sleep in "Stonehenges", beds semi-encased in concrete and sandbags, defences which are said to have kept down the number of casualties. Soldiers have escaped serious injury, despite rockets landing inside accommodation blocks.

But we also hear that previously British troops would go into Basra city to counter the source of attacks. Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Harry McLeman is then cited, saying: "In the past we would go out there and dominate the ground. We can't do that now under the rules, and that does lead to a bit of frustration." The British authorities insist that going back into the city would only provoke the militias, and the current rate of rocket and mortar strikes continues to be lower than when the Basra Palace base was still manned.

Whether we can then rely on Major General Barney White-Spunner, the British commander in Basra, is moot. He offers the line that the situation inside the city is getting better. "No one is saying it is ideal," he adds. "But the indications are that the militias are losing some of their influence, and there are divisions appearing among them."

Invariably, British military commanders will play down the situation and they must all be hoping that the Iraqi forces can hold the line. Otherwise, with another 600 troops expected to be sent to Afghanistan, the Army is going to be hard put to fulfil a fighting commitment. And, if British troops are again committed to direct confrontation with the militias, we can see an unwelcome leap in the casualty rate.

The greater fear, though, must surely be that the Americans are forced to take over the combat role, demonstrating for once and for all that the claimed "tactical repositioning" of British troops was nothing of the sort, unless of course it is spelt r-e-t-r-e-a-t.


It needed to be said

Ever unfashionable – until sometimes years later the media wake up to the story and publish what he had already written about (usually without acknowledgement, even though we can sometimes see the exact same phrases used) - Booker takes on the self-aggrandising Mr Andrew Walker in his column today.

This man, as readers will recall, is a deputy assistant coroner for Oxfordshire who, for the last few years has created a major industry in providing lurid headlines for the media, on the backs of soldiers who have died in Iraq and elsewhere.

Having tried the patience of the Ministry of Defence beyond endurance, he has finally been taken to the High Court in an attempt to get him to obey the law by which he is bound, the man has been hailed as a "hero" by the media, the MoD action being characterised as an attempt to "gag" a man who has spoken up "powerfully" for the welfare of British troops in Iraq and elsewhere.

In our view, however, the man is a parasite, feeding off the notoriety that comes with giving a "drive-by media" exactly the headlines it wants, failing entirely to address issues which he could rightly have identified. Thus, far from protecting the welfare of our troops, he is part of the reason why, still, major failings in equipment and procedures continue unchecked.

It would be wrong, however, to single out Walker. Without the ignorance and laziness of the media, his voice would have little of its power. A critical, well informed press would not have taken his effluvia at face value and would have looked beyond the shallow, self-serving vanity of the man. In so doing, it would have perhaps realised that, rather than getting to the core of the cases he has dealt with, his high-profile denunciations tend to obscure rather than illuminate.

Behind this, though, is the more insidious and corrosive tendency of the media to reduce everything into a one-dimensional, "biff-bam" soap opera. Rather than make any attempt to understand the complexity of a department such as the MoD, with its hierarchical structures, its Byzantine procedures and the diffusion of responsibilities, it chooses then to personalise failures, attributing them to the single man nominally in charge, the current secretary of state for defence, Des Browne.

There is no more egregious a practitioner of this tendency than Steven Glover who, in his recent Daily Mail column, pins the blame for all ills on "a cowardly, weak, incompetent Secretary of State for Defence who should hang his head in shame."

Such talk is cheap, especially from the comfort of a desk, shrouded in the warm glow of smug self-rightousness. But it not only misses the point. It is an abnegation of the very core principles of journalism which, in a liberal democracy, plays a vital role in holding the executive to account. But, to be effective, it must be accurate, timely, and focus precisely on those issues which need addressing, pinpointing where possible, exactly where blame lies. Glover's criticism does none of those things. And neither, until Booker published his corrective, does the rest of the media.

Ironically, today The Sunday Times revisits the Thalidomide case, scenes of past glories for that newspaper when it established a global reputation for the tenacity of its investigative journalism.

So far have the mighty fallen though that it and its fellow travellers - in what used to be called "Fleet Street" - now rely on the handouts from a vainglorious provincial lawyer and call this news.

The pity of it all it that, like sheep, the bulk of the population follow. One only has to look at the comments on the various on-line articles lauding Mr Walker – and the few blogs that have recorded his mouthings. From that, it is possible to conclude that the media is very much a mirror. It is simply reflecting the prejudices and superficiality of many of its readers who – when all is said and done – are no more interested in the welfare of our troops than is Mr Walker.


Saturday 22 March 2008

An Army in denial

Given only a brief mention on the MoD website last July, The Daily Telegraph today gives fascinating insight into the less-publicised activities of the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

The paper's report recounts how a 16-man team Special Forces conducting a "snatch operation" to capture four Taliban leaders near Sangin were ambushed by a 70-strong force of Taleban as they attempted to extract from the area in their vehicles. They lost two of their number, Capt David Patten and Sgt Paul Bartlett, and another man was injured.

The Taleban destroyed one of the team's vehicles in the ambush, forcing the team then to flee the remaining vehicles, whence they became pinned down in an irrigation ditch. Capt David Patten was killed as the team tried to escape across the fields and the leader of the patrol was badly wounded by a bullet that went through his forearm. Sgt Paul Bartlett was shot dead as dawn broke, when he had made an attempt to get back to the vehicles.

All ended well, after a fashion, after the action of an unnamed member of the Special Boat Patrol who took charge and led the men in holding off the Taleban, manoeuvring himself into a position from where he could throw a grenade into the main enemy position. The thirteen fit men not only managed to hold off the Taleban until a Gurkha platoon arrived but killed dozens of the Taliban.

What is of remarkable about this incidents, from the view-point of this blog, is its similarity with the account recorded in The Sunday Times on 6 March. Then, a 50-man convoy had been ambushed and, once again, the modus operandi seems to have been similar, the Taleban destroying the lead vehicle and forcing the remainder (eventually) to flee their vehicles.

In both cases, the patrols were saved by the gallantry of one man – both, coincidentally who were awarded the Military Cross. But, as we remarked at the time, while this is wholly admirable, any Army which has to rely on such heroism is one that is seriously deficient.

The point, of course, is that in larger of the two incidents, the patrol was equipped with the desperately vulnerable WIMIKs and while the vehicle types in the second incident are not specified, most likely they were WIMIKs too, or even perhaps the "boy racer" M-WIMIKs, about which there has been some dialogue on the forum, particularly about the vulnerability of these vehicles to the Taleban ambush tactics.

With one poster arguing that:

WMIKs are used in the fire support group role, they do not even enter the villages, they remain on the outside, usually in positions which afford them a high vantage point so they can bring heavy weapons in support of troops on the ground …
We have coincidentally a picture accompanying another story in The Telegraph (above left) which is of a WIMIK. No doubt unwittingly, it show the vehicle on a narrow track, bounded on one side by an irrigation ditch and the other by what we can infer to be soft, tilled soil (evidenced by the state of the vehicle's tyres). Effectively, the WIMIK is confined to the track and thus potentially exposed to a buried mine.

Now, it may be that this is an old, stock photograph – not least the vehicle lacks the Kevlar strap-on armour seen in contemporary shots – but the other two photographs shown here are not.

Clearly, there are issues here about the vulnerability of the vehicles our Armed Forces choose to use especially as 16 Air Assault Brigade are poised to take over in Afghanistan for the forthcoming campaigning season, bringing with them a batch of M-WIMIKs. Things are not going to get better as long as the Army remains in denial about the consequences of its choices.


Thursday 20 March 2008

Thus are we so ill-served

One really does despair at the media and (with a few honourable exceptions) their journalists – but then you knew that.

The latest cause for despair is the effluvia produced by political editor Andrew Porter in The Daily Telegraph as he steps into defence territory under the headline, "Defence projects threatened by cash crisis".

Porter is reporting that, "a review of Britain's defence capabilities has begun amid a budget squeeze that could lead to major defence projects being shelved or delayed" and he then adds that, "A £1 billion programme for Lynx helicopters - vital for missions in Afghanistan - could be shelved. If the aircraft carrier project is delayed it would put at risk up to 1,400 jobs at Clyde, Rosyth and Portsmouth."

The "review" in fact has been going on for some months now but we can put that aside. Mere political editors would not know that.

Nor, it seems, does Porter know anything about the joint Army/Navy “Future Lynx” programme. If he did, he cannot possibly have asserted that the helicopters were “vital for missions in Afghanistan”.

These machines, at best, will not enter operational service with the Army until 2014 – some six years away – which makes their immediate impact on current operations rather irrelevant. In six year's time, anything could have happened, especially as the need is here and now.

Nor, really is Porter focusing on operational needs when he tells us that the "Future Lynx" project was signed with Agusta­Westland three years ago and was hailed for securing jobs in the company's Somerset plant. The plan, he writes, was to build 70 helicopters at the Anglo-Italian firm's Yeovil factory, which employs 3,000 staff – all of which suggests that he has been the subject of special pleading, either from within the MoD or from the contractors.

What completely escapes him is the price which, as we pointed out when the contract was actually announced in June 2006, works out at an average of £14.2 million each.

For sure the Army helicopter will cost less than this but the MoD is being extremely coy about the actual unit price but, compared with the cost of the US Army's Black Hawk helicopter at $5.9 million (£3 million), it is bound to be steep.

Therein lies the paradox. With the media screaming about shortage of cash for the MoD, this is a classic "pork barrel" project, aimed more at keeping jobs going in the Augusta Westland factory at Yeovil than it is providing our Armed Forces with the equipment they need.

And nor is the Lynx precisely what the Army needs. The airframe size is optimised for Royal Navy antisubmarine warfare operations from small frigates, which means it cannot carry a fully-equipped section yet is unnecessarily large and expensive for battlefield reconnaissance. The choice of a common airframe has been made primarily to enable the Navy to keep the costs down for their dedicated antisubmarine helicopter – and to keep the last British helicopter manufacturer in business.

By any measure, the cancellation of the "Future Lynx" would be good news for the Army, as long as it then meant that cheaper, off-the-shelf helicopters could be purchased and brought into use quickly – which is actually the intention.

The current Lynx helicopters have been an expensive disaster and, as we have pointed out, many times, the Army is urgently in need of a more capable replacement.

Equally, although the carrier project seems to be going ahead, a delay of a few years probably would do no great harm. The short take-off/vertical landing Joint Strike Fighter, which will equip the new carriers (maybe) are undergoing delays and cost over-runs which could, in the longer term call into question the carrier design itself. If an alternative aircraft has to be sought, then a major redesign will be needed.

Nevertheless, from this political editor, all we get is, "Military leaders have told the Prime Minister that the Treasury-driven cuts could handicap the fighting ability of the Armed Forces and they insisted that major projects be preserved."

The one good bit of good news, however, is that Porter tells us that, "Whitehall sources said that in order to make such major savings they could not simply 'salami slice' existing projects." With 80 projects being examined, this is a much more optimistic picture than we were painting a few weeks ago, and should be the cause of some relief, if the defence budget is to be rebalanced.

But, as always, The Daily Telegraph has its own narrative and is clearly incapable of sensible reporting or analysis. Thus are we so ill-served.


Wednesday 19 March 2008

Shooting the messenger?

The Daily Mail chooses to wax indignant today at the MoD's attempts in the High Court to trim the sails of assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker.

This was widely reported in yesterday's media, not least in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The BBC, the Daily Mail and, of course, The Sun.

Needless to say, the media have couched the action in terms of the MoD attempting to "gag" this coroner, all the stories following a similar theme, to the effect that the Ministry is seeking to prevent details of soldiers’ deaths getting into the public domain.

Hence today does the Mail develop precisely that theme, asking: "Why does the MoD shoot the messenger?" Casting Walker as the "good guy" - and thus secretary of state for defence Des Browne as the man in the black hat – the paper tells us that, "Nobody has spoken up more powerfully than Oxfordshire coroner Andrew Walker for the welfare of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Again and again at his inquests, we are told, "he has refused to pull punches when he believes soldiers have died because of inadequate equipment or avoidable mistakes."

Having been cast as the villain, Des Browne is then painted as having been "stirred into action". Remarks the Mail:

So has he issued orders that henceforth no British soldier will be sent into battle without the right kit? … In a move that will anger and dismay millions, Mr Browne is seeking a High Court order to ban coroners from making critical comments about the MoD. How utterly, disgracefully typical of New Labour ministers: when they don't like the message, they try to shoot the messenger.
All the families want is for somebody to uncover the facts about their loved ones' deaths - a duty Mr Walker performs supremely well, the paper adds. "Does Mr Browne want lessons to be learnt from soldiers' deaths? Or is he interested only in protecting his own increasingly shabby reputation."

On the face of it, this paper – and the others which make the same points, directly or indirectly – might seem to have a reasonable argument. But then, they are far from impartial observers. For years now, they have fed off Mr Walker, faithfully transcribing his more lurid condemnations of the MoD into banner headlines.

But, when we first met Mr Walker, we viewed his verdict as "dishonest", remarking that what struck us was "the utter dishonesty and lack of partiality of the coroner". We were to meet Walker again, again, again and again, and what emerges is a pattern which amounts to a very specific narrative.

Mr Walker is entirely happy to find fault with the MoD (or the Americans) – especially where he believes there have been equipment shortages - and expresses himself in lurid language. But he seems to take great care to avoid getting to the bottom of issues, finding out what really went on, and where the problems lie.

However, despite this enthusiasm, he and his fellow professionals show a marked reluctance to come to grips with the "Snatch" Land Rover saga, evading the central issue as to why these notoriously vulnerable vehicles have been deployed – and are still in use in areas where they are manifestly unsuitable.

Here, far from being a man who "performs supremely well", therefore, Walker – and his colleagues have failed in their duty as set out in the Coroners' Courts Rules. The Rule 43 states, under the title: "Prevention of similar fatalities":

A coroner who believes that action should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities similar to that in respect of which the inquest is being held may announce at the inquest that he is reporting the matter in writing to the person or authority who may have power to take such action and he may report the matter accordingly.
But, while they must also ascertain how, when and where the deceased came by his death (Rule 36), they are specifically barred from expressing "any opinion on any other matters". Rule 42 then tells them that: "No verdict shall be framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person, or civil liability."

Here, Walker – seemingly concerned more with playing to the media gallery - has too often crossed the line. It is the job of the High Court to determine liability – not that of a coroner. The MoD is right to seek to restrain him from his excesses. Unfortunately, there is no similar remedy which can require him to do his job properly.


Sunday 16 March 2008

The Jeremy Clarkson syndrome

click the pic to enlarge
All it lacks are "go-faster" stripes down the sides but, short of that, it is every boy-racer's dream - a "Mad Max" monster machine that can tear around the countryside at the taxpayers' expense, all without a moment's thought about what it is supposed to achieve.

No matter that the thing is so dangerously vulnerable that the Taleban can probably scarce believe their luck. Simply give the supposedly hard-bitten hacks a chance to play with the new "toy" and their brains go gurgling out of their backsides. Instead, they are seized by an advanced attack of the Jeremy Clarkson syndrome, gibbering with delight at the thrills and spills.

No less than two such hacks have fallen prey to this syndrome this weekend, Rupert Hamer, defence correspondent for the Sunday Mirror and Sean Rayment, his counterpart on The Sunday Telegraph.

Interestingly, both claim "exclusives", obviously heedless of the fact that they have been recruited by the Army to deliver shameless "puffs" for its latest insanity, justifying a decision which beggars belief in its arrant stupidity.

Thus do we get Hamer burbling with child-like glee at "the British Army's latest lethal weapon - four tons of pure killing machine, capable of climbing mountains and swimming across rivers to hunt down Taliban fighters in Afghanistan." Sitting in the front passenger seat, he tells us, with unrestrained joy: "The Supercat (sic), dubbed 'Mad Max' and a 'Land Rover on steroids' by troops, lurches down a steep hill and smashes into a water-filled ditch…".

click the pic to enlargeRayment, for The Sunday Telegraph is similarly afflicted. With his story illustrated by a lurid graphic, he tells us that the object of his childhood fantasies is, "Fast, powerful and with a fearsome array of weaponry …". "It has already been named 'Pitbull' by the soldiers who will drive it deep behind enemy lines," he burbles.

Citing entirely uncritically, unnamed "senior officers", he allows them to say, "the vehicle will greatly enhance the fighting capability of their soldiers, and will save lives", adding that: "The vehicle and crew are protected against mines by reinforced armour plating but the military says its best defence is its manoeuvrability and speed."

The vehicles – as we know - are not protected against mines at all. Thus the value of this exercise (for the Army) is that when the body bags start coming home - which we know they must, the journalists will have been totally compromised. They will utter not a word of criticism of the vehicle when the death toll mounts.

This we have seen before with the Pinzgauer Vector, with Sean Rayment offering an apologia for the machine, so bland in its description that no ordinary person would begin to realise that something was badly amiss.

click the pic to enlarge
Interestingly – and very telling – we can recall none of these burbling boy racers offering similar eulogies for the Mastiff, or even querying the delays over the introduction of the Ridgeback. Yet, for all the glamour and excitement of the new "toy", the unsung Mastiff is proving itself perfectly adequate for many of the tasks which the Army require – as the above picture demonstrates. Extreme off-road performance is not always at a premium, nor even necessary on many occasions.

Going back to basics, this Supacat M-WMIK (now renamed Jackal - ed) was originally intended as a replacement for the "Pink Panther", the mobility platform for Special Forces. It was never intended a replacement for the WIMIK Land Rover, which itself is an unsatisfactory stop-gap, pressed into service to make up for the failure of the Army to get its act together and procure an updated armoured car.

Yet the one thing useful Rayment does is confirm our worst fears that this "four tons of pure killing machine" will replace "the ageing Land Rover WIMIKs." In this role though, it will indeed be a "killing machine" but it will be our own troops who do the dying.

There is something very wrong with a media which so lacks critical faculties that it falls so easily for Army "spin".


Friday 14 March 2008

Pursuing their narratives

Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, has done it again. Recording a verdict on the unfortunate death of Captain Daniel Wright, he concluded that the officer "would not have died if he had been equipped with a radio".

Wright, who had exited from a Skyvan aircraft over Weston Green in only his second ever training jump, had suffered a rare malfunction to his main canopy. But, instead of "cutting it away" after four seconds, as the drill demanded, he made the fatal mistake of struggled to clear it, leaving it too late to deploy his reserve chute.

Had be been equipped with a two-way radio, the coroner held, ground instructors could have warned him to take the corrective action earlier, saving his life. Delivering his verdict, Walker's precise words were: "Captain Wright, on the balance of probability, would not have died had an operator on the ground at the drop zone been able to communicate with him using a radio."

What gives this verdict "legs" is that during the course of the evidence, it had been revealed that the CO of the jump school had requested radios for his students, some nine months before the incident, and had apparently been refused the equipment – costed at £50 per unit – "as funding was only available for essential items."

The story – before even the Coroner had delivered his verdict – had already been picked over by the media, The Daily Telegraph claiming that, "Captain Wright's death is one in a long line of fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan (sic) which have been blamed on equipment failures and shortages."

It was The Sun, however, which has made the biggest issue of the death, claiming, "Hero Dan and other troops might be alive today — if only they had been given the right KIT."

Predictably, the media now pick up on the verdict, the Press Association picking up on a quote from Wright's mother, Carol Wright, who claims that her son's death was due to, "MoD's penny-pinching".

Cited speaking outside the court, she said: "For the sake of a flipping radio they have lost a potential star among their ranks. We ask the MoD to accept their penny-pinching has resulted in a far greater use of public funds - for example, the cost of this court case."

Now, The Times has published the stroy, cementing it is as yet another case of MoD neglect, adding to the litany of failings attributed to this organisation.

However, for once, there is no agreement on the unofficial Army forum, the consensus of opinion being that training, not technology, is the most effective way of mitigating risk. One commentator argued that, " had to take responsibility for your own emergency drills - being second-guessed by radio would have diluted that vital sense of self-preservation."

We consulted our own expert on this, veteran of hundreds of jumps, who told us the following:

You are trained and trained and trained to count to four and then check your canopy is open. This is deeply ingrained. On one of my early malfunctions (the one that nearly killed me), I had the pilot chute wrapped around my ankle, I had a sleeve deployment, but that's where it stopped. I thought the lump of white I could see was OK, until I realised that the ground was still getting too close, too fast. It was a round canopy, so I didn't need to eject the main (with a square you have to or they wrap around one another), and luckily pulled my reserve at about 400 feet.

Any later, it would have been too late; a little earlier and the reserve would have been breathing (releasing the excess pressure from the initial opening) and I would still have hit the ground too fast to survive. The whole experience is so totally overwhelming that frankly I think a radio would have been a total waste of time.

Besides, I've seen a couple of friends "ride it all the way in"; the last at (deleted) where my friend (deleted) - a very experienced- jumper was jumping unfamiliar kit that he hadn't practised enough on and spent the last seconds fighting with the ejection system he thought he had (on his own kit) but wasn't there (on this borrowed kit). We watched him struggling, but with the best will in the world, the ground crew's a long way away and there's nothing meaningful they can say from that distance and even if they could. Time is so desperately short.

At that point, your window is only a couple of seconds (depending of course on what type of malfunction it is). With all respect to the pundits, and I'll be happy to be proved wrong, it sounds like an unfortunate student who f****d up and a radio would not have made the blindest bit of difference.
He then goes on to say:

Having been here, I can assure you that you are by then in a blind panic. The g forces are tremendous, the wind is still rushing past, the ground is spinning extremely fast ... the only thing that will save you is training.
It is very hard to say to a grieving mother that her son was the victim of an unfortunate accident, but it also has to be said that parachuting is an intrinsically dangerous occupation – especially for the novice.

Here, though, there is an issue which the coroner did not address, and that was the current practice of training special forces directly on high performance "square" parachutes.

Many experts would prefer students first to go through the basic parachute course, jumping with a conventional round parachute from a static line. This, it is held, allows students to experience in relative safety the "sensory overload" that occurs in the first few jumps, better equipping them to handle the more complex and demanding parachutes.

If there has been "penny pinching", perhaps it is in this direction that MoD critics should look, as there does seem to have been an element of trimming. And it is this that possibly led to the original request for two-way radios. Having accepted unduly truncated training, it is speculated that course managers were "covering their backs" by asking for extra kit.

Looking at this in the round, the coroner could possibly have provided a real service by exploring whether Captain Wright had been put in a position where he had been inadequately trained to deal with the emergency that confronted him, on what was only his second jump.

That, though, was not to be. Walker did, however, recommend that an automatically-deployed reserve parachute should be used in future for novice military parachutists – a provision that many experts would not agree with. He also suggests that they should jump from a higher altitude, like civilians. That may or may not have helped in this case, but it seems sensible – as would perhaps be a reserve static line (RSL), although that was not discussed.

What we have here, therefore, is coroner Andrew Walker offering a foil to the media without getting to the bottom of a problem – if it exists. In the pursuit of improved safety, the clinical analyses of reasons for failure are a vital to determining what precise measures should be taken to prevent recurrences. In this case, neither the coroner nor the media seem to have assisted in this process.

Instead, each seems to have pursued their own narratives, to the detriment of the people who deserve better of them.


Thursday 13 March 2008

More coffins for the troops

What looked like it could have been an extra £2 billion for defence, announced yesterday in the budget, has turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Instead, it is an initial indication for the costs of military operations in the coming financial year. Since these costs normally come from the Treasury reserve and, last year cost £3.297bn, the figure announced can only be as advertised – an "indication".

However, within that is an element of "real" money, £900 million which, according to the MoD "will be used to ensure that the UKs Armed Forces have the best possible equipment and protection while they are on operations."

Nevertheless, the apparent paucity of the sum has yielded a ritual condemnation from the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA) which claims that the £2bn is a "sticking plaster" and "is not enough to plug gaps left by years of chronic under-funding".

The Association is calling for an increase in the core defence budget - arguing for a 40 percent increase to bring spending on the armed forces up to three percent of GDP - an objective it shares with the likes of Conservative Home.

The intensity of calls for greater funding though has not been matched by any detail on how money should be spent on extra equipment. That absence provoked a comment from this blogger on the Conservative Home site:

What you have to realise is that the Armed Forces have an unlimited capacity for buying the wrong or overly expensive equipment. But the really important thing is that the through-life cost of equipment is very much higher than its procurement cost. Thus, the wrong equipment continues to exert a drag on the budget throughout its life (to say nothing of the opportunity costs).

If the Conservatives are to be credible on defence policy, therefore, they cannot just keep repeating the sterile mantra of "more expenditure" when the NHS provides the definitive evidence that more money does not necessarily mean better capability.

They must start identifying the very specific shortcomings in equipment and expenditure wastage and come up with sensible alternatives.
Perversely, what looks to be a classic example of this comes in the very announcement which the UKNDA has so roundly condemned. The MoD, we learn, intends to order additional M-WMIK vehicles (now called the Jackal - ed) for Afghanistan and this is included in the "indicated" operational spend.

This is in addition to the original 130 ordered last June when the vehicle was described in gushing terms as a Land Rover on steroids.

click the pic to enlargeFrom The Sun we learn that another 72 of what it describes as the "new Mad Max-style troop carriers" will be ordered, at a cost of £40 million. That makes them over half a million each, nearly double the original cost of £230,000 per unit.

This completely passes by The Sun which "…told yesterday how an SAS officer died in a parachute jump because he did not have a £50 radio". Now it is "campaigning for ministers to ensure all UK forces have the kit they need." A newspaper which is making such issue of the death of an Army Captain through what it alleges is "penny pinching" is thus heedless of the fact that this vehicle is dangerously vulnerable both to mines and IEDs and to gunfire.

We have made our views abundantly clear on the dangers of these vehicles, not only here and here but particularly here, where we were able to illustrate the vulnerabilities.

The issue was extensively debated on the unofficial Army site, with a wide range of views expressed. If the case for the advocates of the vehicle can be summed up though, it is that the enhanced off-road performance gives it the ability to skirt danger areas, where mines might be laid, while its speed, manoeuvrability and firepower offers greater protection than can be achieved from a slower, armoured vehicle.

There seems to be some agreement in this context that the vehicle is fine for Special Forces and Special Forces Support Groups. These are often working in areas where they have the advantage of surprise and where there is some validity in providing high mobility to the exclusion of any protection.

However, the problem is that with the original purchase of 130 and now another 72, they look set to become a partial WIMIK Land Rover replacement, for "routine patrols" and other purposes for which they are entirely unsuited. As one poster to the Army forum put it, "…if it does get used for urban patrols or gets misused for other roles, then a lot of squaddies will not be coming home."

We have already seen a steady toll crews of Land Rover WIMIKs, Pinzgauers and even the occasional "Snatch", and there are many occasions where mobility affords little protection. A vehicle offering even less protection than the Land Rovers – which they seem set to replace – means we are indeed going to be seeing more body bags coming home.

Yet, as they pull the bodies from the wrecks of these vehicles – currently slated at over half-a-million each - not even The Sun will be able to complain of "penny pinching". And, if the Army was given yet more money, what then would it buy?


Wednesday 12 March 2008

They didn't have to die

For anyone wishing to explore the substantive issues on defence, and maintain a sensible debate, the last few weeks have been dreadful.

No sooner are we through the hystérie du jour on Prince Harry then the media goes overboard on the wearing of military uniforms in public. The only thing we felt, under the circumstances, was to walk away for a short while, lest utter frustration get the better of us.

What brings us back is the headline in The Sun yesterday, which we reproduce above – in which the newspaper belatedly visits an issue which this blog has been pursuing doggedly for nearly two years.

Its topical hook for a thesis that 35 soldiers "might be alive today - if only they had been given the right KIT" - was the death of an SAS soldier, killed when his parachute failed to open during training, the inquest for whom has just started.

Also picked up by The Daily Telegraph and others, as well as more coverage from the Sun, this refers to Captain Daniel Wright of the Queen's Gurkha Signal Corps. He died at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire after plummeting 2,500ft on 17 November 2005 and The Sun has obtained documents "that reveal Captain Wright is the latest victim of shocking penny-pinching."

According to The Sun's sources, the 25-year-old plummeted 3,000ft to his death - after pleas for a vital two-way radio were ignored to save £50. Apparently, his main parachute failed to open and he delayed opening his reserve – through inexperience, we are told – but might have acted quicker had he been equipped with a two-way radio enabling instructors on the ground at the parachute school to talk him out of trouble.

The MoD is reserving comment on this until the inquest verdict had been given, so we too must do likewise. But the broader significance of the paper's original piece was that it uses Captain Wright's death to assert that it brings to THIRTY-FIVE (the paper's emphasis) the number of "brave soldiers whose deaths are blamed on not being given proper equipment."

Amongst that number, it included ten personnel killed in January 2005 when a Hercules transport was shot down near Baghdad, the lack of a fire suppressant system in the fuel tanks being a contributory factor in the tragedy.

Also included was the death of Major Matthew Bacon, killed in a "Snatch" Land-Rover after the Lynx helicopter due to fly him from base to base broke down. The paper then adds Lt Tom Mildinhall, Lance Corporal Paul Farrelly and Corporal Gordon Pritchard, also killed on 11 June 2006 in a Land Rover, Captain Jim Philippson, "shot dead in Afghanistan after being sent into battle without crucial night vision goggles, grenade launchers or machine guns" and the 14 deaths arising from the crash of the Nimrod in November 2006.

Also listed is Corporal Mark Wright, who "bled to death because rescue helicopters had no winches" and, finally, the paper cites the deaths of Sergeant Chris Casey and Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, killed in a "Snatch" Land Rover by a roadside bomb in Iraq, "because of a shortage of Mastiff armoured trucks".

There are several points here, not least that to attribute some all the deaths cited to lack of proper equipment is tendentious, not least the demise of Captain Philippson and Corporal Mark Wright.

However, the substantive point is the reference to 35 deaths attributable to the failure to provide the right kit. Yet, when we first addressed the Land Rover issue in June 2006, we identified 23 deaths which could be attributed – in part – to the lack of suitable armoured protection.

Nearly two years on, if we take in deaths arising in WIMIK Land Rovers (example pictured), Pinzgauers and the additional toll from "Snatch" Land Rovers – including that in Afghanistan - the number dead from inadequate protection in vehicles is closer to 50. Add to that the Hercules and Nimrod incidents, which The Sun points up, and that brings the actual casualties attributable to lack of the right kit to 74, more than double the number cited by the paper.

This brings us back into the area we explored last month, where we complained that our increasingly ill-informed media lacked focus in its criticism of military issues.

Here, we have to say that we do not and cannot object to The Sun or any other newspaper taking up cudgels on behalf of our troops. Simply, the ill-focused criticism in many cases hinders rather than assists the cause, diverting attention from the substantive issues and enabling those responsible to escape scrutiny.

Thus, in the case of The Sun, while we would agree entirely with the paper's central thesis that troops are being killed through lack of suitable kit, not only does it understate the problem but it is so general in the nature of its complaint that its political impact is slight. Real continuing issues, like the weaknesses of the Pinzgauer and the WIMIK go unaddressed.

In this context, think how long Pinzgauer Vectors would survive in theatre if the The Sun mounted a full-bodied campaign against these "coffins on wheels". That is the measure of the inadequacy of the newspaper – it is not so much what it does, but what it does not do.

That criticism could (and should) also be levied at other newspapers, and a more subtle example of this failure can be seen in last weekend's Sunday Times.

This paper's focus was on the story of a "British soldier awarded the Military Cross for fighting off 150 Taliban", written by defence correspondent Michael Smith. It is about the heroism of Fusilier Damien Hields who used a "grenade machinegun" mounted on his WIMIK Land Rover to destroy seven Taliban positions before himself being wounded.

At one level, the story is entirely commendable – and there is every reason why the heroism of Fusilier Damien Hields should be celebrated. But The Sunday Times is supposedly a serious newspaper, with a reputation for campaigning, yet it deals with the events in a breathless Boys' Own style, complete with graphics (illustrated) which are so amateurish as to be laughable.

It is in fact worth noting these graphics. The author of the piece, Mike Smith, will have had no control over them but they nevertheless are part of the piece. They represent the output of the Sunday Times and convey a message about the gravitas and accuracy of the corporate body.

click the pic to enlarge
The pictorial narrative offered (see above) is of a WIMIK Land Rover (although it is not identified as a WIMIK) leading a fifty-man convoy being blown up by a mine and flipped over. In loving detail, the windscreen of the vehicle is shown, complete with finely-drawn windscreen wipers. The only problem is the WIMIK does not have a windscreen – but it does have a GMPG in the front passenger position, which is not shown.

The second frame is even more laughable, purporting to show a Taleban fighter firing a rocket propelled grenade yet actually shows what looks uncannily like a Stinger anti-aircraft missile launcher (pictured).

Pedantry this might be – but was there no one on the entire editorial staff who had enough knowledge to recognise such obvious visual howlers? What does it say about a newspaper that lets them through?

Anyhow, back to the narrative which recounts how Fusilier Hields bravely assisting the convoy in fighting off a force far larger, as it was stalled behind the blown-up, inverted WIMIK. The obvious point which occurs, however, is that had the vehicle been effectively mine-protected, not only would it not have been overturned, but it could – like other such vehicles – have been able to drive clear of the "killing zone" (below), thereby avoiding the uneven match.

Further, given the size of the force – 150 or so – could it not have been detected before the convoy arrived, had there been effective aerial reconnaissance, perhaps by a UAV running ahead to look out for traps?

And then, with the 50 beleaguered British troops fighting for their lives, where was the air support? With such a large investment in men and materiel, could not the Army have ensured it was better protected by insisting that it had air cover?

There may, of course, be adequate answers to these questions – but they are not asked by The Sunday Times. If explored, they could have painted a completely different picture, one of a large number of troops to a very great extent rescued from disaster by the conspicuous heroism of one man.

Wholly admirable that may be but any Army which has to rely on such heroism is one that is seriously deficient. The next time there is a disaster, the hero might not be to hand. Or he might not be so lucky and be killed in the opening moments of the fight.

Returning briefly to the Sun's story, we see the tail end of the piece with an almost obligatory quote from an opposition spokesman, this time "Tory defence spokesman Gerald Howarth" who brands the "skimping" on equipment "a true scandal". He is allowed to say: "I intend to take this further in the House of Commons."

That phrasing gives the perhaps unfortunate impression that Howarth has just woken up to the problem – which is not exactly true. But it is worth looking at his record and working out how many of the 942 questions he has tabled actually deal specifically with equipment issues. Compare and contrast those with the careful probing of Ann Winterton and you might come away with the impression that The Sun's quote from its choice of spokesman is a ritualistic filler.

Be that as it may, when it comes to looking in detail at where equipment inadequacies lie, the media are not even beginning to get to grip with the subject. They are picking up only those issues presented to them on a plate. This is cheap, derivative journalism that exploits rather than serves our Armed Forces – it is playing with peoples' lives.