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.