Tuesday 27 May 2008

Rather missing the point

The MoD site records today the name of the Royal Marine who was killed last Sunday in Afghanistan, after what is now suspected to have been a mine explosion under his vehicle.

Marine Dale Gostick, of 3 Troop Armoured Support Company, Royal Marines, was driving a Viking armoured personnel carrier (we assume, as he is described as an "operator") when he was killed at the Sangin crossing of the Helmand River, southern Helmand province, Afghanistan. His troop, we are informed, was returning to their Forward Operating Base, after providing essential support to 2 PARA Battle Group.

One cannot help but comment here on the verdict by assistant coroner Andrew Walker who, earlier this month complained – in respect of the death of Marine Richard Watson – that, had be been equipped with a Viking APC instead of the unarmoured Pinzgauer utility truck in which he was riding, he might have survived the Taleban ambush in which his unit have been caught, and would not have been shot.

In entirely different circumstances now, we have a Marine killed in a Viking, which – as we have pointed out several times – is armoured but not mine protected. This is a vehicle about which we have been less than enthusiastic, even though it is popular with troops and is claimed to have saved many lives through it ability to reach spots inaccessible to other vehicles and deliver timely aid.

Will Mr Andrew Walker's successor now be condemning the Viking, or will he simply ignore the issue?

However, this latest fatality does follow something of a pattern, where troops seem to suffer relatively light casualties on actual operations, but suffer their casualties when travelling to and from operations, ambushed either by IEDs or mines.

In these instances, the problem seems to me as much a lack of capabilities in terms of route clearance and the lack of dedicated equipment for that purpose.

If mine protected vehicles cannot be provided – or are deemed operationally inappropriate – then some effort should be made to make safe the routes to and from operations, where most of our casualties seem to be occurring. It seems that the British Army has yet to learn the lessons that have guided both the Canadian and US forces, lessons which were first learned by the Army in its operations in Bosnia and elsewhere.

It is perhaps unfortunate, therefore, that The Daily Telegraph should choose to enlist the death of Marine Gostick in an attack on the government, labelled: "Failing the troops in Afghanistan".

There is nothing wrong that attacking the government, of course – that is what it is there for – but, as always, the attack is unfocused. Referring to Marine Gostic, the paper says, "While fatalities are inevitable in war, there are increasing concerns about unnecessary losses caused by substandard equipment and about the lack of clarity in the Government's Afghanistan strategy."

The linkage is indeed unfortunate. By no means can the Viking – in isolation – be regarded as "substandard" and neither, for that matter, at over £500,000 each, is it cheap.

However, in drive-by fashion, the paper quickly moves on to Andrew Walker's call for the entire RAF Nimrod fleet to be grounded, then linking that to the secretary of state for defence "shamefully" attempting in the High Court to restrict what coroners are permitted to say.

Rather than taking meaningful action to protect troops, The Telegraph then concludes, "the Government prefers to deny failings or silence critics. British soldiers, risking their lives on behalf of their country, deserve better."

Then, bizarrely, the paper then complains that the government seems to be lacking a long-term strategy for Afghanistan, complaining about a lack of commitment to a strategic defence review, "which could re-evaluate the resources needed by the MoD." Clearly, it has not understood the significance of the recently announced non-review.

Next in the litany of complaints is the government's "pitiable call last month for Nato allies to pay into a helicopter trust fund". This, it says, "is symptomatic of the repeated failure of this Government to back up military action with the resources needed for success."

That brings us to the grand conclusion where we are told that, "If counterproductive penny-pinching prolongs this operation (in Afghanistan), victory could end up costing us more in men and money in the long run," but it has not made the case.

Here, one will recall that this newspaper – like the others – has not sought to report on the latest developments on FRES. This means – presumably – that the paper is content that the Army is set to spend upwards of £6 billion on a fleet of armoured vehicles that has little relevance to the operations in Afghanistan.

Further, as to the helicopters, where one might ask, are the six Merlin helicopters, originally set to cost a massive £19 million and now working out at approximately £30 million each – which have yet to see service.

Equally, how is one to equate the Nimrod incident with "penny pinching" when the replacement project – the MR4A – originally budgeted at £2.8 billion for 21 aircraft is now set to cost £3.5 billion for only twelve? Whatever this is, it is not "penny pinching".

Once again, therefore, we see the same old mantras, but no targeted criticism. Clearly, as the death of Marine Gostick indicates, we have problems with military equipment. To narrow these down to the issue of "penny pinching" seems rather to be missing the point.


Saturday 24 May 2008

The absolutism of the British media

Just supposing, as assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker recommends, the entire fleet of Nimrods is grounded. What then?

In this blog's view, the Nimrod MR2 – a should never have been used for battlefield surveillance and radio relay duties in landlocked Afghanistan. There should have been other assets available, not least effective, long-range UAVs and light reconnaissance aircraft.

But the fact is that such assets were and are not currently available in sufficient (or any) quantities – and, in any case, it is argued that the Nimrod performs roles that could not readily be undertaken by other assets. For better or worse, therefore, the Nimrod performs an essential role and, whether or not alternative equipment could be found, these aircraft cannot be replaced in the short-term.

On that basis, the lack of these assets would have a significant adverse effect on operations in this theatre. One effect might be the curtailment of some activities but, at worst, their absence from the battlefield could put ground forces at risk, leading to significant casualties which could otherwise have been avoided.

What price then Walker's recommendation? Presented with an inquest into the deaths of a number of soldiers who had died, a contributory factor being the lack of battlefield surveillance, would he then be prepared to accept some of the responsibility?

But, if once again we have a grandstanding coroner, where does that leave the media?

As so often, Walker provides them with easy copy. Leader of the pack – and not for the first time - is The Daily Telegraph which has Con Coughlin launching into attack mode.

Under the banner, "Nimrod exposes contempt for Armed Forces," he writes that Walker's verdict, "has added another dark stain to this Government's already tainted record of negligence towards our Armed Forces." In like vein, he continues:

Only a Government that has the most callous disregard for the safety of our Service personnel would have put the RAF in a position where it was obliged to fly sensitive "spy" missions over some of the world's most hostile terrain in an aircraft that, in the words of Andrew Walker, the assistant deputy coroner for Oxfordshire, "was never airworthy".
That the aircraft had an inherent flaw, which combined with its age and the operational pressures, as well as other failures, brought this tragedy about, causing the premature death of 14 servicemen, is undisputed. And nor is there any dispute about liability. Almost without precedent, the secretary of state has not only apologised, but also accepted responsibility for the failings.

Furthermore, the RAF has instigated changes to the Nimrod and to the maintenance routines – and well as discontinuing air-to-air refuelling – which rule out a repetition of this accident. This has been attested by no less a person than "the RAF's most senior engineer", Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, who confirms that the serious design failures highlighted by Walker have now been eradicated.

Walker does, of course, have a something of a point when he declares that the aircraft "was never airworthy from the first release to service in 1969," in that the fault which brought down XV230 was present in the original design. But whether that supports a claim that the type was never "airworthy" is a value judgement which is not for us to argue.

What is relevant though is that the MoD has appointed Charles Haddon-Cave QC to lead a review into the crash and the safety of the aircraft, examining a range of issues beyond the scope of the original RAF Board of Inquiry which identified most of the issues on which Walker is commenting. This review, we are told, and will determine who is ultimately to blame for what have been a succession of failures

Considering then that there have been a succession of failures over nearly forty years, the particular blame – or, at least, the totality - can hardly be laid at the door of the current secretary of state, Des Browne. Given what he has already done and that the experts in the RAF are prepared to put their names to the safety of the aircraft, it is hard to see what more could be done.

This, however, is not good enough for Coughlin of The Telegraph. He cannot resist the cheap jibe that the secretary of state is "seemingly so underemployed at the Ministry of Defence that he also finds time to be Scottish Secretary", and asserts that he "has done little to rectify the situation."

On that basis, Coughlin decides that Browne, "should hang his head in shame," it never occurring to the journalist that his level of argument should invite a similar action.

As one might expect though, Coughlin is not on his own. His brand of "cut and paste" condemnation is shared by Michael Evans, defence editor of The Times. He writes in a commentary headed: "Ground the Nimrod fleet now":

… above all, the MoD needs to give reassurance for the sake of the 14 who died, and their families, that everything possible is going to be done to make the remaining 15 Nimrods safe to fly. If not, they should be grounded whatever implications that might have for the British troops in Afghanistan.
The last sentence betrays all. This is the absolutism of the British media, writ large. Neglecting the fact that the MoD seems to have done precisely what Evans asks, in making the Nimrods safe to fly, everything is black and white. There is no sense of "balance of risks". Evans would condemn our troops, for the sake of absolute assurances that can never be given in respect of any aircraft.

However, behind all this are more fundamental issues, which strike at systemic failures across the board. For a start, the very fact that the MR2s were and are still flying stems from the decision to replace them by MR4s – an upgrade of existing airframes – rather than purchasing entirely new aircraft. In retrospect, this latter option would have been cheaper.

These, and other issues, we will explore in another post.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

It's what isn't said that matters

The much expected and somewhat overdue announcement on the go-ahead for the Navy's two "super" carriers was made today.

According to The Times the £3.9 billion contract will not be signed until June, the delay being to allow the formal establishment of a joint venture company which will build the 65,000 ton ships.

This is the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, which include BAE Systems, VT Group, Thales UK, and Babcock International, which runs Rosyth dockyard. We are told that the carriers are to be constructed in sections in shipyards at Portsmouth, Barrow-in-Furness, Glasgow and Rosyth, with final assembly at Rosyth.

What we are not told, however, is anything about the final design of the ships, any detail about its intended capabilities or – crucially – the types of aircraft that will be operated. It is assumed that the F-35 short take-off vertical landing version is still the preferred option, although there has been no confirmation at all on this.

Details of the design would, of course, give some clues as to whether the F-35 is to be chosen, but as long as they are not revealed, the government can keep its options open.

There thus remains a possibility that the government could be considering dumping the F-35 (formerly called the Joint Strike Fighter) and buying in the French-built Rafale.

If The Sunday Times is any guide, that could be a very serious option. Nicola Smith and Michael Smith, writing for the paper, claim, "Royal Navy may share new carriers with France", telling us that the Royal Navy and the French navy "began talks last week aimed at sharing their aircraft carriers."

With the French thinking of cancelling its new-build carrier, the two Smiths assert that Sarkozy and Brown will build on the "bilateral carrier group interoperability initiative", proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, at his summit meeting with Brown in London in March.

The outcome of this could be an arrangement whereby either navy could borrow an aircraft carrier from the other if their own was unavailable as a result of a breakdown or refit. "If we have no carrier to do a mission then the only way currently is to try and form a coalition ... and to ask a country if it will do the mission," said Captain Jérôme Erulin, the French naval spokesman.

So far, MoD officials have dismissed the talks between the two navies as "aspirational" and insisted there were "no current plans" to share carriers with the French. But, if the aspirations have any chance of being realised, then choice of aircraft will be crucial. A carrier rigged for the F-35 would be of no value to the French, as it would not be able to operated its Rafales from it.

Thus, as always, we are being kept in the dark, the more important part of today's announcement being the things which have not been said.


Saturday 17 May 2008

Ceci n'est pas une revue

If The Sun has got it right – and it looks like it might – the MoD has managed to extract some more money out of the Treasury. And, if that is the case, the £200 million which the paper headlined yesterday – to be allocated over two years - will be genuinely "new" money, and not simply a recycled announcement.

The rest of the paper's story need not detain us. Just about all of it is either wrong, or self-serving – although the claim that it is an "exclusive" has some merit – it was the first paper to break the "£200 million" news.

The Financial Times, however, has the substantive story, and had it first. Its line is that Gordon Brown has agreed to let the MoD "free up hundreds of millions of pounds" by breaking one of its main accounting rules.

These are somewhat arcane changes, but of great importance which will have an immediate practical implications. Firstly, the ministry will be allowed to move some funds between the three years of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Secondly, it can use money allocated for annual capital spending for resource spending.

This "freedom", says the FT will allow officials more easily to delay, cancel or reconfigure commitments – giving the MoD a much needed flexibility which hitherto has been denied to it. But – and it is a huge, 24-carat, diamond-studded "but" – there are strings attached. In return the MoD has been "forced" to order a no-holds-barred "examination" of the defence equipment programme.

This – note the terminology – is not a "review", much less a strategic review, but an "examination". Furthermore, it will be a "short and sharp" process. Crucially, the aim is to "prioritise frontline needs and squeeze savings from industry".

In other words, in the ongoing internal battle in the defence establishment between the "future war" advocates and the "current operations" supporters, the latter have taken a significant step forward.

This is very much in line with what Ann Winterton asked of Des Browne earlier this month, when she did not get an answer. Now, it looks as if she has.

In this context, it looks as if the (relatively) small amount of new money on offer is – to use that indelicate word - a "bribe" which, together with the leverage afforded by the new budgetary flexibility, has pushed the military to focus more on winning the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than investing in still more shiny new toys.

Needless to say, the "non-review" will be expected to deliver results, the FT telling us that the Treasury is insisting the MoD use the process to address the estimated £2 billion budget shortfall.

That means that some of the treasured "big-ticket" defence contracts are due for the chop. Amongst this slated for the treatment is the "Future Lynx" programme, as well as orders for more Astute submarines and Type 45 destroyers - and the tranche 3 Eurofighter, if the "colleagues" will play ball on cancellation costs.

What is then expected is that, and surplus generated, over and above that needed to clear the budget deficit, will be used to "rebalance" the procurement portfolio, giving it very a different shape. The clue here comes from an MoD spokesman, who says the ministry is determined to prioritise spending plans "to do more to support our people here and on the frontline".

One survivor, however, looks to be the carrier programme. This is effectively confirmed in a second piece in the Financial Times which asserts that the contract – although not publicly announced – was approved last Wednesday. The formal announcement is expected in the next ten days.

It says something of the FT though that they do not seem to understand the full significance of their own story, its heading declaring: Defence review looks to shorter term”. Interestingly, it could not keep up the legend on the "examination" so the "non-review" gets its real title.

The agenda is most certainly there, the paper telling us in this second article that:

Driving the move is a recognition within the department that it "needs to take stock" and reprioritise. It has to move away from purchasing equipment for the long term – equipment that could already be out of date by the time it comes into service – and concentrate on supporting its troops in the near to medium term.

Historically, the MoD has planned its equipment procurement programme over 10 to 20 years but the continued strain on Britain's troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has focused ministerial minds on more immediate needs.
The MoD is then cited in more detail, saying:

We are determined to do more to support our people here and on the front line. To do that, we need to better prioritise our spending plans. The examination of the equipment programme will focus on two issues above all: bearing down on cost increases to the equipment programmes; and rebalancing the equipment programme to better support the front line.
But, as you might expect, the paper concentrates on the implications for defence contractors, the body text reverting to describing the word "examination", suggesting that it "will raise fears among executives that they may face further delays and cuts to big procurement schemes".

For industry, the FT says, the potential impact cannot be underestimated. Defence sources insist that overall, the MoD will not be spending any less on equipment. It will simply be spending it differently. Instead of buying more Eurofighters, a programme that was first begun more than 20 years ago, for example, it may decide to spend its money buying more armoured vehicles.

Despite this, we can expect some ritual squawking from the lobbyists, the former defence chiefs – where there is a difference – and, possibly, the Conservative Party. The announcement of the carrier programme, however, will do much to mute the protests and, given the lacklustre coverage of serious defence issues by the media, there should be little that is politically damaging.

Strangely, though, despite the depth of the FT story, it gets very little coverage elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph does a "cut and paste" job, synthesising the main points of the FT and The Sun stories, without adding anything.

For political reaction, we get an Associated Press report which gets the central details wrong, claiming a "move to free up £200 million of defence spending to help secure two new aircraft carriers and equipment for troops".

This is then dubbed a "panic" measure by shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox. He is cited as saying: "This announcement is not driven by any rational examination of military equipment needs but by the gaping hole in the Treasury left by Gordon Brown's economic mismanagement." He adds:

Long term planning has been abandoned in a panic attempt to plug the gaping hole in the defence budget. This effectively signals the end of the Defence Industrial Strategy and will add further uncertainty to the defence industry at a time when unemployment is already rising.
This, of course, is moonshine. Having closely read the runes for a prolonged period, the one thing that is self-evident is that yesterday's announcement is the result of months of finely-drawn negotiation and that the outcome is one which has been carefully and deliberately crafted.

Fox's response, therefore, leads one to the inevitable conclusion that, either he does not have the first idea of what is going on, or he is making political mischief – or both. No one, with any political acumen, who understood the dynamics behind what has been announced could even begin to think in terms of "panic", and nor would it be advantageous – other than in the very short-term – to project that idea.

As a measure of the fundamental superficiality of the media, however, the AP report has proliferated like a virus and has been copied out in (at last count) some ninety media outlets, the wording in each identical (see illustration). Repetition, though, does not make it accurate but, as long as so much of the media has not even spotted the fact that fundamental changes are afoot, the MoD will not even have to resort to the classic denial: "Ceci n'est pas une revue".


Thursday 15 May 2008

The "underfunded" MoD strikes again

A £14 million fleet of 25 armoured "mine clearance vehicles" – desperately needed by British troops plagued by mines in Afghanistan – is being sold unused as "army surplus", at a knockdown price of less than £4.5 million – a loss to the taxpayer of nearly £10 million.

The vehicles are Caterpillar DV104 "Armoured Heavy Wheeled Tractors". They are based on the commercial Caterpillar 972G wheeled loader (spool down to page 9), which currently retails at $279,000 in the United States (about £150,000). But, by the time they had been armoured for the MoD by the specialist military contractor Penman Engineering and further modified by Caterpillar UK, they ended up costing the British taxpayer a cool £560,000 each.

Delivered to the Army in the Spring of 2001, they have remained unused and are now being sold by the MoD's preferred vehicle dealer, Witham specialist vehicles and other army surplus specialists (pictured below right).

Witham - which have been disposing of the machines for two years now - advertise their current stock of six machines as "Ex Reserve unissued and totally unused". They come complete with rear-view camera and air conditioning, at the knockdown price of "from £175,000" each - although they will have paid the MoD considerably less.

According to Janes, the vehicles were developed specifically to keep RAF airfields open during wartime. Their job was to act as pathfinders, clearing debris from runways and filling in bomb craters. The major threat to the drivers was unexploded bomblets on the runways, so the vehicles were fully protected.

However, these 20-ton armoured machines are also ideal for ordinary earthmoving in hostile areas (such as road-building in Taleban infested areas), barricade clearance, and for clearing routes of mines. On the Penman website, the same vehicle is shown with the bucket removed, fitted with a mine detonation roller. Other mine clearance tools can also be fitted and the rig is actually sold as a "mine clearance vehicle".

This is also the use for which Witham recommends the vehicles, describing them as: "Ideal for Mine clearance or Armoured Engineer applications".

With operations in Afghanistan, where troops are constantly exposed to mines, these vehicles could prove lifesavers. Alternatively, where millions of old Russian mines are constantly causing civilian casualties, they could by used by the Afghan government or mine-clearance charities, which could make good use of such equipment.

This is by no means the first time the MoD has disposed of potentially lifesaving equipment. In 2006, while British troops were being forced to use lightly armoured Land Rovers in Iraq, it was reported that the Army had disposed of 14 mine protected Mamba vehicles, bought for £4.5 million and sold for a mere £44,000.

These same vehicles are now used by the US contractor, Blackwater, to ferry VIPs from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone, and have successfully warded off several bomb attacks. They are also used by the Estonian Army in Afghanistan alongside British troops, who lack similar protection.

Can we now expect the Caterpillar machines to appear in Afghanistan, in the colours of a different army, while "our boys" benefit from the rather different gear currently issued to them?

But, with such generosity when it comes to taxpayers' money, MoD "underfunding" takes on a slightly different complexion.


Wednesday 14 May 2008

The mother of all speeches

It was perhaps best summed up by Reuters which paraphrases Defence Secretary Robert Gates, saying: "The US military should focus more on winning in Iraq and preparing to fight other insurgencies and less on possible big wars with other countries".

The trouble is, as Gates rightly observes, that this is not always the main priority of the military. "I have noticed," he says, "too much of a tendency toward what might be called 'next-war-itis' - the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favour of what might be needed in a future conflict."

He goes on to say: "It is true that we would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time,” but then asks the killer question: "…but where would we sensibly do that?"

These were all extracts from a speech given yesterday under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation at Colorado Springs, Denver. Important enough in their own right, these comments are even more so when they are applied to the British military.

Unlike the US, we do not have sufficient capacity or funding to be able to fund current operations and the a "future war" yet "next-war-itis" is a massive driver of UK defence expenditure, and clearly dominates the thinking of the top brass.

It is perhaps indicative, therefore, that while the Gates' speech gets good coverage in the US media and the agencies, it is ignored by the British MSM. All we get from the likes of The Daily Telegraph is ritual whingeing as it tells us that, "Nearly half of all Armed Forces units are suffering from 'serious or critical weaknesses' as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan."

This, itself, is instructive, indirectly illustrating precisely the point Gates is making. By and large, the Armed Forces – and especially the Army as a corporate body – regards the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as an irritation; necessary but tiresome interruptions in the tempo of training and preparation for the "next war".

This "next war" is the war the military would prefer to fight, and for which they devote the bulk of its spending, equipment and for which the Services are structured – irrespective of the needs of the actual operations it they are conducting. Hence, the shortages and stresses of which the Forces so volubly complain arise as much from the determination, effectively, to keep two separate establishments and to put so much energy and resource into the non-operational tasks.

The point here is that the "next war" in the minds of the military, is nothing like the wars they are actually fighting. One suspects they hanker after the wide open plains of nothern Germany, amassing their ranks of shiny toys against the hoards of Soviet tanks about to thunder through the Fulda Gap.

Alternatively, in the pursuit of their mythical "rapid reaction force", they must imagine thundering out of their gleaming new airlifters, in streamlined, eight-wheeler killing machines, ready to do battle at a moment's notice in a country a long way away. The nature of the enemy, they know not; the enemy they cannot identify and the location is never revealed. Simply, it is not here, but there.

Gates has the answer to that: "…in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities," he cautions, "it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military."

It is, he says, hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. On the other hand, the record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Thus, he says, smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

At this point, one must note the theme to which Gates was speaking. The conference was entitled: "The Military Beyond Iraq," the expectation being that he would sketch out the shape of the forces of the future. His response, therefore, puts the thinking in focus. Overall, he says, "the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today."

Again, this has a huge resonance for the British. Barring the Falklands War, and the early stages of the two Iraqi campaigns, ever since Korea the British have been engaged in a series of "irregular" wars. From Malaysia, to Kenya, to Oman (where we were not officially engaged), Aden, and the Balkans – not forgetting Northern Ireland - and now Iraq and Afghanistan, that is where the bulk of our effort has been devoted.

Yet, as we have observed on this blog, lessons learned in fighting these and other campaigns seem to have been forgotten – it seems as if the Forces have lost their corporate memories.

Gates himself is clearly aware of this dynamic. "What we must guard against," he tells his audience, "is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes it course, these kinds of capabilities – that is counter-insurgency – tend to wither on the vine." He then recounts:

There is a history here. During the 1980s, a Princeton graduate student noted in his dissertation that, about a decade after the fall of Saigon, the Army’s 10-month staff college assigned 30 hours – about four days – for what is now called low-intensity conflict. This was about the same as what the Air Force was teaching at the time. That grad student was then-Army Major David Petraeus.
And so to the future shape of the Armed Forces. Here, Gates makes two crucial points, points which will be found writ through this blog. First, he says, any major weapons programme, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that are most likely to engage America's military in the coming decades.

He makes a special reference to FCS (the equivalent of FRES), which he says – being somewhat diplomatic – must "continue" to demonstrate its value for the types of irregular challenges we will face, as well as for full-spectrum warfare. Secondly, he says that the perennial procurement cycle "of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end."

Without a fundamental change in this dynamic, he warns, it will be difficult to sustain support for these kinds of weapons programs in the future. And much the same must apply to the UK – we simply cannot afford the expenditure on more and more expensive platforms, only to have fewer of them – exactly what has happened with the Type 45.

As to preferred platforms, Gates singles out the MRAPs, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. He confronts the complaints that more than $20 billion is being spent for a vehicle "that many people see as not having much use beyond Iraq", and the fact that they "may have been seen as competing with the funding for future weapons programs with strong constituencies inside and outside the Pentagon."

But, he says, "there is a strong case to be made that IEDs and suicide bombings have become the weapon of choice for America's most dangerous and likely adversaries – and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won't go away."

Even if that weren't the case, he adds, if sending thousands of MRAPs halfway across the world can save the lives and limbs of young Americans, and can demonstrate to those troops, their families, and to the country that everything is being done to protect our servicemen on the front lines – then I think this money is more than well spent.

Then, we get a stunning piece of information which should give everyone cause to stop and think – especially those gainsayers who argued against the introduction of MRAPs into the British Army. Of the new batch of vehicles in the MRAP programme, there have been 150-plus attacks so far and all but six soldiers have survived . The casualty rate is one-third that of a[n armoured] Humvee, less than half that of an Abrams tank. "These vehicles are saving lives," Gates declares.

That latter statistic tells us a great deal: you have more than twice the chance of walking away uninjured from a MRAP hit by an IED than you do a main battle tank.

And, even in this mother of all speeches, Gates is still not finished. Another thing he points out is that, at West Point last month, he told the cadets that the most important assignment in their careers may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations.

That, our troops are doing – and all credit to them – but the Royal Air Force needs to catch up. For too long, they (and the US forces) have had a monopoly of offensive air, but it is not until they bring the Afghani Air force into the fight, as an effective force, can there be any hope of scaling down operations.

Much else does the man say, and it is impossible to do this speech full justice in a review, so it is worth reading the full text. And it does not lose pace. Gates' closing paragraph needs quoting in full:

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater – to that institution, as well as to our country – if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.
This is something our own Army could have taken to heart before it bugged out of al Amarah, and before it retreated into its bunkers at Basra Air Station. Moreover, the same applies to Afghanistan. The Army is there to fight and win a war, the war it is fighting and not some mythical "next war" that exists only in the minds of the brass and the defence contractors who will so willingly give the retired chiefs jobs when they retire.

The Army may just get away with its defeat in Iraq. It will not survive a similar humiliation in Afghanistan. Yet, according to some recently back from theatre (with whom we have had long discussions), the way it is going about the task, it will lose. Gates, thou should be speaking here.


Tuesday 13 May 2008

Bushmasters for the Army

Picked up from a French defence website via a reader, we learned of a rumour last month that the British Army was poised to buy 24 Australian-made Bushmaster MRAPs.

As far as we can be certain now – in the complete absence of any statement from a British minister or the MoD - this is no longer a rumour. According to The Australian, the British High Commission in Canberra has confirmed that the vehicles have been bought, the paper's headline declaring that they are "for use in Iraq and Afghanistan".

A spokesman adds, "As I understand, the vehicles have been loaded and are on their way for use straight away," with the paper adding that it is understood most of the British Bushmasters have been earmarked for operations in Iraq – leaving the possibility open that some are headed for Afghanistan (or held back for training?).

This is extremely good news, providing a lighter, more manoeuvrable alternative to the 25 ton Mastiff. Weighing in at 12 tons, this nevertheless shares the blast-resistant v-shape hull design with the larger vehicle and, as kitted out by the Australian Army – which has ordered 600 - it is capable of carrying nine fully equipped soldiers. Its deployment in theatre should keep David Axe happy and reduce the whingeing about the size of the Mastiff.

The vehicles can be fitted with a variety of weapons ranging from light machine guns, a 40mm grenade launcher or a remotely operated 12.7mm heavy machine gun, and have a good reputation with the Australian and Dutch troops who are using them.

So far, no soldier has been killed in this type, or even seriously injured, although a number of Australian troops (mainly drivers) have been killed in their version of the Piranha, the ASLAV, the type chosen for the British FRES utility vehicle. A Dutch operated Bushmaster recently survived a potentially lethal IED attack in Afghanistan (pictured), the crew escaping without injury.

Without wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, there are certain reservations about the plethora of vehicle types now being procured, and the apparent similarity with the Ridgeback recently ordered. With the logistics and maintenance efforts already stretched, it seems rather odd that yet another type is being purchased - especially as the precise role has not been specified.

One must also express some concern that we should learn of this deal from an Australian newspaper, rather than from the MoD. But then, this is rather typical of the contempt with which this ministry occasionally treats those who actually pay its bills, so it should not be too surprised if we reciprocate – occasionally.


Thursday 8 May 2008

The Generals get their toys

When the history of the British Army covering this period comes to be written, it will be of a small, poorly equipped force fighting simultaneously on two fronts – in Iraq and Afghanistan – with its High Command obsessed with buying shiny new toys which have absolutely no relevance to the tasks at hand.

That is the effect of the MoD announcement today, Baroness Ann Taylor, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, telling the world that the General Dynamics Piranha V (pictured) has been selected as the preferred design for the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) Utility Vehicle. This, we learn, is the first of the Army's programme for a new force of battlefield armoured vehicles.

We have rehearsed the arguments on FRES endlessly, but most notably here which – uniquely for a blog – drew a direct response from the then procurement minister, Lord Drayson. We responded here and in more detail here, but have published many posts subsequently which touch on FRES and the utility of vehicles designed for "high-end" warfare in counter-insurgency operations.

In one of those, we rehearsed specifically the idea of using a dual-purpose vehicle being designed for both high-end warfare and COIN operations, and concluded that the requirements for each were so diametrically opposed that a compromise means a sub-optimal design for both.

We have also noted that the design on which the current Piranha V is based is in current use in Iraq by US forces, under the guise of the Stryker. And while the tactic of using a fast response wheeled armoured vehicle has met with some success, it has not been without its losses.

Similarly, the Canadian Army in Afghanistan also uses a version of the Piranha, and it too has suffered considerable loss, so much so that the Army has acquired additional route clearance equipment to safeguard this vulnerable vehicle.

Nevertheless, such is the obsession that the Army is prepared to mortgage the present for what DefenseNews suggests will be 2,000 vehicles, at a reported cost of £6 billion – with up to £30 billion for through-life costs.

This points up the real issue. The Armed Forces are chronically short of money and, as we wrote in a recent piece, are desperately short of transport aircraft, helicopters, mine clearance equipment, MRAPs and other vital kit. What is spent on FRES cannot be spent on other things, so the real cost of this obsession is in the equipment that will not be purchased.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that with deliveries due to commence in 2012, the likelihood is that the Conservatives will then be in office – following a general election in 2010. So it will be they, rather than the current administration, which will have to foot the bill.

By then, the odds are that the equipment state in then current operations will be even more parlous, which – short of the Conservatives finding considerably more money for defence – will leave them having to explain why they too are "underfunding" the Armed Forces. It will be too late then to explain that the money has run out because it has all been spent on buying shiny – but ultimately useless - new toys for the generals.


Tuesday 6 May 2008

Inquest fatigue?

Held in reverse chronological order to a similar incident on 4 September 2006, when Gunners Stephen Wright and Samuela Vanua of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery were blown up in a "Snatch" Land Rover near the town of Ad Dayr, we now have the outcome of the inquest of Lieutenant Richard Palmer, late of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

He had also been riding in a "Snatch" Land Rover in the Ad Dayr area - but on 15 April 2006, five months earlier than the Gunners - leading a joint patrol with the Iraqi Army when his vehicle had been caught in an explosion.

We are told, in the only media report so far available – on a regional BBC website - that Lt Palmer's platoon had been warned about heightened tensions in the area as a result of anger among some Muslims following the appearance of cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper the previous year.

Lt Palmer had also been warned about a possible bomb in the area the day before his fateful patrol and, in the day he had been killed, had taken a "Snatch" to investigate the reports. Nothing had been found and, presumably, he had been killed on the way back.

Once again, evidence was given that – in this case – by Warrant Officer Michael Halewood, of the Royal Logistics Corp, who had investigated the blast - a Warrior "tank" could have saved the dead man and his colleagues who were injured. But the court also heard from Major Angus Benson-Blair that a bridge to the area of the patrol was passable only by Land Rover.

This is precisely the issue we were confronting in June 2006 at the height of our campaign against the “Snatch”, when ministers and other commentators were arguing that alternatives were simply “too big for Basra”. Later, free-lance journalist David Axe was to rehearse the specific issue of bridge strength, arguing that the 22-ton Mastiff was too heavy for some of the structures in Iraq.

What we don't get to hear though is whether the lightest of the MRAP series – the early marks of the RG-31 - would have been able to cross the bridge which necessitated Lt. Palmer using a "Snatch" – and that we will never know.

Here, the silence of the coroner is puzzling. Never before reluctant to recommend the purchase of extra equipment to avoid the loss of life, this time Andrew Walker seems to have accepted Major Benson-Blair’s explanation.

While he could have asked whether vehicles other than the Warrior could have been procured, in this case there is no record of him making any critical comments. Nor is there any record of him suggesting that there had been deficiencies which could have been remedied by additional equipment not then on the Army inventory.

Instead, Walker simply praised: "The unhesitating courage and unstinting grit of our troops," which, he said, "is a credit to them."

Perhaps it is this lack of controversy that explains the lack of media interest. We saw this dynamic after the inquest of Drummer Thomas Wright. Clearly, no one could expect the media to be interested in the "unhesitating courage and unstinting grit of our troops" for its own sake.


Monday 5 May 2008

Not taking it seriously

Almost a year to the day, we reported the Canadian decision to purchase five Husky mine detection sets, with supporting vehicles, to deal with the rash of IED/mine attacks which were causing so many casualties in Afghanistan.

The "sets" comprising the Husky, a Buffalo and a 6x6 Cougar – which acts as a command vehicle - sweep roadways before the arrival of combat or supply convoys, thereby seeking to ensure safer passage by vehicles which are not mine protected.

The utility of these specialist vehicles quickly became apparent and we were able report with approval that at least the Canadian military seemed capable of learning lessons born of combat experience.

And indeed, they are continuing to learn those lessons. Reported by the Canadian Press, the Commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan is set to ask his government's approval to purchase another ten sets – known by their acronym EROC, standing for "Expedient Route Opening Capability" system.

What is particularly revealing about this report though are comments from unnamed "defence sources in Ottawa" who, "acknowledge the vehicles in theatre have been beaten up, but are continuing to prove their worth every day." One adds: "They've taken a pounding, but they're designed to go out and take a pounding and clear routes and not have the LAV targeted - or so other less protected vehicles."

Here, it is the reference to the LAV which is interesting – this being the armoured personnel carrier which forms the basis of Canadian Army formations. Although armoured, it is not mine protected and it has proved dangerously vulnerable to mine/IED ambushes.

Thus, before this type of vehicle is allowed to sally forth, the way is cleared for it. What a contrast this is with the British way of doing things, which resulted in the death of Trooper Ratu Babakobau, when his Spartan ACP – armoured but not mine protected – was blown apart by a mine.

Nevertheless, the strategy adopted by Canada is by no means entirely optimal. The military would prefer to transport more men and materials by the ultimate mine protected vehicle, the helicopter – but has been hampered by a chronic shortage of these aircraft.

Yet, while the same shortage of helicopters reportedly affects British forces, and despite the Husky sets being a relatively cheap option (the ten new sets estimated at $60-million – less than the price of one new transport helicopter), there are no signs of the British Army following suit. Instead, we see this ludicrous puff on the MoD website, as the Army unveils its latest weapon in the war against mines – hand-held mine detectors.

Nor, indeed, are helicopters the only option. Reported recently by Popular Mechanics (a surprisingly good source of reliable military information) is a new technique introduced by the US forces in Afghanistan. This is the GPS-guided or "smart" parachute – known as the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS).

It can be used by high-flying transport aircraft to make precision drops of supplied to isolated outposts, reducing the need to use ambush-prone vehicle convoys and avoiding the hazards involved in helicopter re-supply. So successful has been the technique that the USAF delivered 313,824 pounds of supplies between August 2006, when the programme began, to September 2007 – keeping an estimated 500+ convoys off the roads.

In July 2007, the RAF acquired this technology, the first air force outside the US so to do, but the latest news of reduced C-130 capacity cannot assist in ensuring that maximum advantage is gained from its availability.

As a final option, the Army could, of course, ensure that troops were provided with mine-protected personnel carriers. After the first Canadian deaths attributed to IEDs, occurring outside Kabul on 2 October 2003 when a lightly protected Iltis jeep rolled over a mine, the Canadian Army procured RG-31s to protect their troops – with very great effect.

However, while belatedly the MoD is supplying mine-protected vehicles, the Army still content to send its soldiers out in ill-protected vehicles - despite more than adequate warning about Taleban intentions.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that British forces in Afghanistan still suffer from a huge capability gap. At the very least, we need mine detection vehicles, more helicopters, more transport aircraft and more mine-protected vehicles. But hey! Never mind! Harry got his medal for not being blown up in his Spartan. He was lucky not to get a state funeral.

What makes you think the government is not taking this war seriously?


Sunday 4 May 2008

Would things have been different?

The words, "according to documents leaked to The Sunday Telegraph…" always make the heart sink, but – if the documents have not been misread, quoted out of context, or over-egged – we have problems.

According to the paper's article, up to five RAF C-130 Hercules transports – more than a 10th of the fleet – have developed a "potentially dangerous defect", namely, "a number of wing cracks…".

The RAF is playing this down, as you might expect, its spokesman saying that, "All aircraft will have cracks due to such things as fatigue damage: the C130 is no exception." He adds: "There is a comprehensive inspection regime in place and all aircraft are maintained according to approved military airworthiness regulations to ensure that no crack becomes critical for the continued safe operation of the aircraft."

From all indications, this problem is not affecting operations but it appears that it is having an effect on training schedules, especially as five of the older C130s are being retired from service this summer. Thus, the report is cited as stating that the future for military training exercises is "bleak".

Taking the worst possible complexion, the RAF is going to be up to ten aircraft short in its medium-haul fleet and, having lost three C-130s on operations, will be struggling to meet its commitments (although the occasional Antonov charter and the additional C-17 will, presumably, ensure that the "air-bridge" to Iraq and Afghanistan will be maintained).

Nevertheless, it is pertinent to ask what has happened to the C-130 replacement, the fabled Airbus A400M, which was not due into RAF service until 2010 and is running late, with a year or possibly more delay.

When last we heard, engine problems were an "issue" and the latest report confirms that this remains so. Furthermore, costs related to the programme have risen by €1.4 billion which is creating difficulties for the manufacturer, saddled as it is with a fixed-price contract.

Peter Scoffham, head of defence capability marketing of Airbus Military, is still claiming that the delayed first test flight will be "by the summer", the picture (top) showing a somewhat incomplete aircraft being rolled out of its hanger in Seville last January. Presumably it will have some engines by then.

For the RAF to have been told that it would have to rely on this aircraft to replace its ageing C-130s, with a delivery schedule starting in 2010, was bad enough but, with the news of the current problems, A440M production delays look set to create even more difficulties for the service.

One cannot help but wonder whether things might have been any different, if Tony Blair had not fallen for the blandishments of Chirac and ordered the C-130J instead.


Then there were six …

Yesterday brought news of the death of Trooper Ratu Babakobau, 29, from Fiji, late of the Household Cavalry Regiment. He was killed while on patrol in the Nowzad area of northern Helmand on Friday when the Spartan APC (pictured) in which he was travelling hit a mine. Three others, including an Afghani interpreter, were injured.

Trooper Babakobau's death brings the total number of British military fatalities in Afghanistan to 95 since the start of operations in November 2001. Of the last 14 soldiers to have been killed in Afghanistan, thirteen have been killed by either an IED or mine. Babakobau is the sixth soldier, this year.

That total also includes two Royal Marines in a Land Rover Wimik, two RAF Regiment soldiers in a Land Rover Wolf and a soldier in a Viking, which was hit by a "suspected mine".

What makes Trooper Babakobau's death different – or, at least, gives it greater media profile – is that the 28-year old soldier had served with Prince William in the Household Cavalry last year, the same Regiment in which Prince Harry (pictured below) had also served while in Afghanistan earlier this year.

But there was another link: Trooper Babakobau was killed in a Spartan light, tracked armoured personnel carrier, exactly the same type of vehicle commanded by Harry while he was on operations. It takes little extrapolation to posit that the younger brother of the heir to the throne could have been killed.

Predictably, much is made of the first link, but nothing of the other. Yet, in many respects, this is another unnecessary death, brought about by an inadequately armoured vehicle.

For sure, like the Viking, the Spartan is an armoured, tracked vehicle. Both will protect crews from rocket propelled grenades and rifle fire, they offer little, if any, protection against anti-tank mines or powerful IEDs. Some have undergone mine strikes where the crews have survived but, since neither are specifically designed as mine protected vehicles - unlike the Mastiff - crews will always be vulnerable.

Furthermore, the predominance of mine/IED strikes is now clearly signalling a change of tactics on the part of the Teleban. This is something that the BBC noted on its main evening news bulletins yesterday, when it reported the death of Trooper Babakobau, and is picked up by The Sunday Telegraph today.

The paper cites Gen Sir David Richards, the Commander-in-Chief of Britain's Land Forces and who commanded Nato forces in Southern Afghanistan in 2006. He confirms that the conflict is becoming more "asymmetric", noting that "…the conflict in Helmand is broadly is going the same as Iraq."

But, in a sentiment that seems to suggest a certain complacency or lack of realism, he adds, "… that does not mean we can't succeed. As professional soldiers we don't weep over these things, we find ways of getting around them."

Without the right equipment, however, there is very little soldiers – professional or otherwise – can do to protect themselves against the hidden threat of mines and IEDs, indicating that we are to see more such casualties and will continue to do so for as long as the military continues to field inadequate vehicles.

That theme, coincidentally, was also picked up by our favourite coroner, Andrew Walker, whose latest inquiry verdict was also widely reported yesterday, not least in The Sun and The Daily Telegraph.

Walker's complaint this time concerned the death of Marine Richard Watson who had been shot dead last December, after his patrol had been ambushed by the Taleban.

The circumstances are redolent of other incidents we have reported but, in this case, Marine Watson was riding in an unarmoured Pinzgauer utility truck (pictured).

A request had been made for a Viking but none had been available and Mr Walker ruled that, had one been provided, Watson – who had returned to his vehicle when the firing broke out - would have survived.

Of course, the Viking – as noted above – does offer protection against gunfire but does not resolve the mine/IED threat. One other vehicle – apart from the Mastiff - that goes a long way towards doing that is the Cougar/Ridgeback and it is perhaps appropriate that, at long last, the British government formally placed the long-awaited order for 157 of them last week.

Too little, perhaps, and – if not too late – certainly a lot slower than should have been the case, these will save lives when they finally arrive in theatre. But more than a few men are going to die unnecessarily before they do.


Friday 2 May 2008

Breaking the logjam

It must be marvellous to be "above the line", one of my colleagues observed, à propos the offering from Allan Mallinson, "author, military historian and soldier for 35 years", writing in yesterday's edition of the The Daily Telegraph.

When we could last be bothered with him, he was again writing in The Daily Telegraph, then bitterly complaining – amongst other things – about the lack of funding for defence.

Now, without even a hint of a blush, he has decided that the real problem is that the defence budget … "has been, and still is, committed to longer-term and ruinously expensive projects."

Gordon Brown, he writes, is not honestly, let alone adequately, funding the forces and, "If he will not find the money, he must at least be bold and choose which of the alternatives to make his main effort". Thus, asks the great man, "do we risk losing the war we are engaged in, or the distant war whose nature we can barely discern?"

At this point, we can but say hallelujah! At last, the man has recognised the underlying tension between the need to equip and fund our military for current operations, and the more grandiose and expensive plans for the "future war", something this lowly blog has been banging on about for some little time.

Mallinson even half-recognises where the problems lie, noting that, "Senior officers have not always been ready to make bold choices either." Each service, he tells us, "has its cherished equipment programmes, often harking back to simpler certainties and more direct ways of fighting."

The Royal Navy, he opines, still dreams of command of all the oceans, the RAF defends the skies as if every airfield on the Continent has fallen into enemy hands … and, "Even the Army, struggling to fight battles as primitive as a century ago, can still hanker for sweeping armoured manoeuvre in some empty space."

Close though he might be, Mallinson has not even begun to understand – or at least articulate details of – the bitter in-fighting that has been going on, as the services have sought to defend their precious "big ticket" programmes – not least the Army, its current champion Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. He has staked his reputation on the white elephant FRES project, variously estimated at £16 billion, which is still dominating equipment plans.

Nor does Mallinson seem to have any idea of how the procurement was fatally distorted by Tony Blair's dalliance with European defence integration, and his commitment to the St. Malo inspired European Rapid Reaction Force, which is still creating a drag on the defence budget.

Instead, he grandly declares that, "Gordon Brown must switch the priority to the needs of the war we are actually in …". Then, he says, "…all the service chiefs can then trust to is an incoming Tory government brave enough to make an overall adjustment to public spending, thus finding the extra money to reinstate the long-term projects."

What he fails thereby to appreciate is that the Army – in particular – has been dragged kicking and screaming into addressing the needs of counter-insurgency warfare. It is still resisting pressure, coming mainly from the politicians (but with some intelligent allies in the military) for restructuring to deal with the specific needs of such campaigns, and to acquire the equipment necessary to fight irregular forces.

Another problem that is emerging, however – which will intensify with the local election results. This is hinted at by Mallinson when he refers to an incoming Tory government "… finding the extra money to reinstate the long-term projects," although the scenario he posits is again wide of the mark.

A weakened government, losing electoral support - as we see from yesterday's local election results - also loses "moral authority" and has difficulty driving though its agenda. Thus, while the service chiefs know full well that there are not going to extract any additional funds from the Tories, they can obstruct or delay attempts to divert long-term spending to operational needs, in the hope that any new Tory government will then be able to restore the cherished "big ticket" items.

That, to an extent, is already what is happening, which is made worse by the genuine difficulty in deciding how best to deal with the current operations – and to balance the budget to accommodate strategic requirements.

As numerous postings on our forum indicate, there are a wide range of ideas and opinions on what is needed, presenting a degree of uncertainty which politicians abhor. By contrast, the advocates of existing programmes can offer apparent clarity and a sense of purpose which an untried, incoming government might find attractive.

Enter Ann Winterton who in defence questions last Monday asked Des Browne if he was aware of the recent statement by Robert Gates, the United States Defence Secretary, referring to our recent involvement in various theatres, a part of which she quoted:

For those missions that still require manned missions, we have to think hard about whether we have the right platforms, whether for example, low cost, low tech alternatives exist to do basic reconnaissance and close air support... where we have total control of the skies?
Crucially, she concluded by telling the secretary of state that the US defence secretary was to set up a task force. Would Browne do the same?

There is a lot of sense in this suggestion. While the Conservatives are rooting for a full-scale strategic defence review, the pressing need is to look at individual functions such as the provision of armoured vehicles, the nature of close air support and the supply of tactical helicopters. With "Snatches" still in use in Afghanistan (pictured), Gates-style task forces would be a much better and faster option.

Unfortunately, Browne did not respond to that part of the question, which leaves it hanging. Yet a properly conducted series of reviews would do much to break the grip of an obstructive military and bring issues out into the open, enabling important decisions to be made that much faster. And time is not on our side.