Saturday 26 July 2008

The Saturday "toy"

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Yes, it is the real thing, the Airbus A400M, and not a computer-generated graphic. It was actually rolled out on 26 June, to deadly silence from the popular media and very little note elsewhere. Of course, it has not flown yet and there is no firm schedule for the maiden flight. They are still flight-testing the engine, strapped onto a converted C-130 ... rather ironic really. But, at least we have a real pic of the beast. You might as well enjoy it.


Thursday 24 July 2008

The good news on Basra

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On the MoD website is a remarkably well-written and upbeat piece attributed to Major General Barney White-Spunner, the UK's most senior officer in southern Iraq and the man in charge of multi-national troops in the region.

A city we were once writing off as a basket case is undergoing a resurgence, as peace and prosperity returns, with house prices doubling and even trebling in the smarter suburbs.

First published in The Times, the piece makes a happy contrast to the doom and gloom we so often read, the MoD reprint also enlivened by a picture of a trio of Mastiffs on patrol (above - looks like a new ECM device on the front).


Another Vector

Although initial media reports, based on MoD information, made no reference to the vehicle type, we must commend the MoD website report on the untimely death of Corporal Jason Stuart Barnes from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), which does name the vehicle involved.

The incident happened on the late evening of 22 July when, according to the official account, Kajaki Company of 2 Para had deployed forward from their base to counter the Taleban's attempts to influence the local population in nearby villages, and prevent them from firing mortars and rockets at the base and the Kajaki Dam.

Cpl Barnes was an armourer and part of 2 PARA's REME Light Aid Detachment. His job was to maintain the company's weapons in the base, but often took a turn driving the Vector ambulance vehicle in support of the company's operations.

When another member of the company was seriously injured in an explosion the ambulance was needed, and after a successful evacuation of the seriously injured soldier by helicopter Cpl Barnes was driving the ambulance back towards the base when it was struck by an explosive device.

Given the lack of detail of the strength and positioning of the IED, one cannot positively affirm that another, better protected vehicle such as the Mastiff, would necessarily have protected Cpl Barnes. But, given the known vulnerability of the Vector, and the success of the Mastiff in saving troops from mine and IED explosions, the presumption must be that the outcome might have been very different had a Mastiff been used.

Of course, that also presumes that the heavier Mastiff could have reached the area accessed by the lighter Vector, which might not have been the case. That leaves the question open as to whether things could have been done any differently.

However, as we know, there are lighter MRAPs than the Mastiff, and it was the MOD's choice in the first instance to go for one of the heavier types, when alternatives were available.

Even the Ridgeback, currently on order and due in theatre soon, is still a heavy vehicle and there is no assurance that it could be a complete replacement for the Vector, nor even the Bushmaster, which is on order for the Special Forces.

We do accept deaths as a tragic consequence of the deployment of troops in Afghanistan and we are profoundly grateful to the young men and women who so bravely risk their lives on our behalf. Nevertheless, the continued toll of casualties and the complete absence of reports of deaths amongst those fortunate enough to be tasked with riding in Mastiffs, does raise serious questions as to the continued deployment of the Vector.

This is the fifth death that we know of in Vectors, and there have been other deaths in unarmoured Pinzgauers.

We do not accept that there should be these unnecessary deaths – those which, with a modicum of care and the right equipment, could have been avoided. Subject to the caveats we have expressed, the death of Cpl Barnes seems to come into that category. Should it be the case that a better-protected vehicle would have saved his life, his death will indeed have been unnecessary, making this incident all the more tragic.

The MoD, and particularly the Army, must think seriously as to whether this vehicle remains in theatre.


Monday 21 July 2008

No excuse now!

It was Sir Nicholas Winterton's turn at defence questions today (link to follow) when he took up the theme of helicopter availability in Afghanistan.

After his anodyne opener (as is the tradition) with a stock answer from secretary of state Des Browne, he got to the meat, asking whether the MoD had "indicated to any of our armed services its willingness to procure light helicopters on their behalf? If so, what response has it had?"

The question was, shall we say, not ill-informed, the rumour machine suggesting that the military had been offered light assault helicopters – and indeed leased Mi-17s – but had turned them down.

Perhaps conscious of this, Browne volunteered an unexpectedly full answer, telling us:

For completeness, the House should know that to support operations in Afghanistan, the Canadians — I spoke to their Defence Minister recently — have bought six additional Chinooks and eight Griffin helicopters. In the interim, while fitting out those Chinooks for deployment, they are leasing eight Mi-17s. Therefore, the number of frames, and consequently the hours available, will be subject to a significant uplift in Afghanistan.
It appears that the Chinook helicopters are second-hand, purchased earlier this year and due in service, after refurbishment, in 2009. But what is particularly fascinating is the acquisition of the other two types.

The Griffin (sometimes called Griffon) – better known as the Bell 412 – is an upgraded version of the venerable Huey of Vietnam vintage, massively upgraded with two engines and a four-bladed rotor. More powerful than the US Marine Corps UH1N, it is more than adequate for the rigours of Afghanistan.

Interestingly, after announcing these titbits, Browne went on to add:

Gentleman is right that light helicopters play an important operational role, particularly for surveillance purposes, although they can be used for other purposes. The helicopter that we currently use is known as the Lynx helicopter, and he will know that that does not perform most efficiently in the environment of Afghanistan. We look to our allies for such support, but for that surveillance role we also use the heavier Sea King helicopter, which, when rebladed, performs well in that environment.
So, we have an unusually frank admission that the Lynx is not adequate and that, for what should be the role of a light helicopter, we have 10-ton Sea Kings in service.

This gets all the more interesting when one learns that the Canadians are acquiring their Griffins to carry out the armed surveillance and convoy escort roles, fitted with the latest version of the Wescam MX-15 surveillance turret and – we think – door mounted machineguns.

Whatever the limitations of the machine – and there are a few – it is reasoned that, in this role it will carry only a crew of four, against its notional capacity of 12, which gives it ample reserve power to cope with all but the most extreme conditions. And, to resolve the logistic support problem, they are to be maintained under contract by the original manufacturers, Textron.

As to the Mi-17s, we have long argued that these would be a valuable asset in theatre and, while again, there are obvious limitations to their deployment, we remain to be convinced that, with suitable defence equipment, they could not perform a valuable service, taking some of the pressure off the hard-pressed Chinooks.

On this, the debate was assisted by Nicholas Soames, who asked the secretary of state whether he had given any thought to the substitution of civilian helicopters to carry out conventional logistics tasks, so that more military helicopters could be freed up to go to Afghanistan.

The answer, again, was helpful:

I have done just that. As I believe the hon. Gentleman knows, we have entered into a contract in Afghanistan with a civilian supplier. As a result we are on track to move some 300 metric tons of supplies around Afghanistan, thus freeing up Chinook time, and time for the necessary deployment of attack helicopters to support the Chinooks. The arrangement has been very successful, and I am sure that we can build on it.
The last sentence holds a promise of more to come, and the revelation that the Canadians are using the Mi-17s (aka Mi-8 MTV) plus the Griffins can only strengthen the arm of those who argue that our own military should be similarly equipped.

Whatever difficulties there might be in deploying these types, the fact now that they are in – or about to be – in theatre, working under very similar conditions to which are own forces are exposed, suggests that there is now really no excuse for us not to follow suit.

All the indications are that the political will is there and the Canadians are demonstrating that there is both a role and that technical difficulties can be overcome. It is now down to the military to exhibit some of their famous "can do" attitude and seriously address the helicopter shortage without calling for the best solutions every time. The best must not be allowed to become the enemy of the good.


Sunday 20 July 2008

Holding to ransom

On the face of it, the story is pretty damning. Michael Smith in The Sunday Times is telling us that the Treasury is blocking the Army's attempts to replace its lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers with safer vehicles.

This Smith has gleaned from his usual anonymous "senior defence sources". But he is picking up a briefing from one partisan camp in the battlefield that is the MoD where rival factions brief their favourite correspondents in the hope of gaining a tactical advantage. Would that they expended as much energy on defeating the Taleban.

Anyhow, the Smith legend has it that "no extra funding for the vehicles will be provided by the Treasury," leaving the Ministry of Defence (MoD) "struggling to fund the vehicles from its overstretched budget." In fact, the truth – as always – is a little more complex.

Smith does actually quote his "defence sources" saying the Treasury had indicated it was not prepared to foot the £100m bill, but this might have been better framed as having the Treasury saying it was not prepared to foot the entire £100m bill.

The MoD has a significant budget for new vehicles – not least having pencilled in upwards of £16 billion for its FRES programme. But, determined to preserve existing spending plans unchanged, its is attempting to hold the Treasury to ransom, demanding that spending on protected vehicles should be financed wholly from "new" money.

However, while the Treasury is prepared to release some additional funding, it is expecting the MoD to chip in a matching contribution, drawn from its current vehicle budget.

This very much mirrors the earlier battle of the purchase of the first tranche of the Mastiffs, when the Army resisted their introduction until it had received assurances that they would be funded entirely from the Treasury account, through the Urgent Operational Requirement system.

Additionally – as a condition of its agreement - it managed to squeeze funding for an additional supply of the utterly useless Pinzgauer Vectors, the Army's preferred protected vehicle.

Coincidentally, the MoD has been working on up-armouring the Snatch, adopting some of the technology used for the production of the e-WIMIK (the "e" standing for "enhanced"). In view of the internecine battles within the MoD, an announcement on this has been brought forward to tomorrow (when there will be Defence questions in the House). Additionally, procurement minister Baroness Taylor will be briefing MPs on Tuesday.

The "enhanced" Snatch is to be known as the Vixen and, while the whole concept of up-armouring existing vehicles is fraught – the US experience with their Humvees being a case in point – none but the most diehard will argue that there is no role (albeit limited) for the Snatch in theatre. The crucial issue is that commanders in the field should have a choice of vehicles, and not be forced to rely on the Snatch simply for lack of a better armoured alternative.

Smith, however, links the two issues, reporting that plans to announce a new protected vehicle "have had to be put on hold", although he concedes that officials are saying that "details of the new improved vehicle were not finalised in time." They also deny that additional funding for the vehicle had been refused.

That latter assertion is indeed the case and when the warring factions have finally finished playing their games, we can perhaps get down to buying these vehicles and bringing them into service.


Problems and solutions

For every solution, there is a problem – an aphorism which applies as much to the famed mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles as anything else.

Predictably, therefore, as the use of MRAPs becomes more common in Iraq and Afghanistan, the limitations of the vehicles are becoming more apparent, leading to a rash of articles bringing these to the fore.

One of the first of the recent batch found its way into the Army Times magazine in early July following the unfortunate death of three Green Berets who drowned when their RG-31 MRAP vehicle rolled into a river in Afghanistan.

The deaths, reported Army Times "come amid growing concerns about the threat of catastrophic rollovers in the military's silver bullet solution to improvised explosive devices.

The magazine thus refers to two military reports issued in June which indicate growing problems associated with the MRAPs' potential for rollover - as well as electrocution, when the vehicle snags low-hanging power lines - and "an emerging threat from the vehicle's glass dissolving into a cancer-causing powder when struck with explosively formed projectiles."

On the other hand, it concedes that the move to a heavily fortified personnel carrier has been credited with saving scores of American lives, but it then notes that the vehicles have also prompted a series of reports highlighting potential shortcomings with the MRAP, including its potential for roll-overs

For instance, a report published on 13 June by the Marine Corps Centre for Lessons Learned, written by Col. Monte Dunard, indicates concerns about the bulky, top-heavy vehicle rolling over in combat zones. Of 38 MRAP accidents between 7 November and 8 June, only four did not involve a roll-over. Many of the incidents ended with troops suffering injuries, and on 23 April roll-over led to the drowning death of two soldiers.

The report suggests that conditions leading to the 23 April incident appear to be common. The weight of the MRAP, up to 30 tons depending on the model and equipment upgrades, prompted the road to collapse and the MRAP to roll over into a canal.

"Road shoulders in the Middle East," it says, "do not meet U.S. standards and may collapse under the weight of the MRAP, especially when the road is above grade and can fall to lower ground (ditches and canals) … Nearly 75 percent of all rollover crashes occur in rural areas."

What this report does not do, however, is put the problem in context. Roll-overs are not uncommon with a wide range of military vehicles, and in the British Army, incidents have been reported with Land Rovers, Pinzgauers and even Warriors. And nor are these incidents confined to combat areas. A news report of today's date recounts how a Royal Marine has died and another was seriously injured after their Land Rover overturned during a training exercise at Lulworth Firing Range, near Weymouth, Dorset.

Not a few of the MRAP incidents – as with other vehicles – are due to carelessness or lack of experience of their drivers, hence the Marine Corps report offering practical advice for avoiding MRAP rollovers. It advises drivers to "reduce speeds when negotiating turns. Avoid sudden vehicle maneuvers, overcorrecting or excessive steering that can result in loss of control that may cause a maneuver initiated rollover."

However, roll-overs are not the only problem and the 13 June report also highlights problems associated with the vehicles' height, which can reach up to 16 feet when including antennae. Power lines, sometimes hung as low as 11 feet off the ground, can snag on a MRAP and may lead to electrocution. "There have been … instances of electric shock when the vehicle's height causes them to be close enough to power lines to create an electric arc."

Not only is it dangerous due to the potential for rollover or electrical shock, but counterproductive to the effort to win over hearts and minds with local residents when the vehicle accidentally pulls down power lines. Its massive size often is often seen as menacing, further straining attempts to establish and maintain good relationships.

Here, again, this is not a problem confined to MRAPs, with even HUMVEEs reporting problems with low hanging wires. Military heavy goods vehicles, shipping standard containers, have also experienced difficulties navigating streets with low hanging cables. Interestingly, this problem too is not confined to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Outside combat areas, however, there is a certain element of disconnect here. If the roads are not capable of taking MRAP vehicles safely, or bridges cannot support their weight, there is an obvious answer: rebuild or improve the roads and bridges. As we have noted previously, the road rehabilitation programme is being dangerously neglected. The same goes for the electricity system.

However, another complaint is well made - many troops in Iraq observing that MRAPs were not well-suited to the terrain or mission. They cite the vehicle's size as too big for operations in the narrow confines of Iraqi cities and too heavy for the narrow and crumbling roads. And, what applies in Iraq applies even more so to Afghanistan.

In their own "can do" approach to problems, though, the Pentagon is already responding to this problem, specifying the lighter RG-31s and are looking at lighter, shorter vehicles with a better turn radius. Are we to see the Cheetah being taken seriously?

The other issues are also being raised, from toxic residues when the vehicles are hit by an EFP, to injuries arising from the lack of passenger restraint, are far from being insoluble.

And, as one sergeant in the 101st Airborne in the region south of Baghdad remarked, "I'd rather get hit by an IED in an MRAP than a Humvee any day." Problems there are but, on balance, the MRAPs are solving more than they are creating.


Saturday 19 July 2008

The Saturday "toy"

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The official caption reads: "A landing craft, air cushion delivers equipment to the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) while in port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, July 9, 2008, during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. RIMPAC is a biannual exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Fleet that brings together military forces from Australia, Canada, Chile, Peru, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kirk Worley, US Navy. (Released)".

Our caption reads: "Nice toy!"


Thursday 17 July 2008

Ahead of the game?

It would be entertaining to take a sarcastic view of the much-trailed speech to be given by General Sir Richard Dannatt this evening on the importance of reconstruction in the armoury of the modern soldier.

We could so easily offer the jibe, "nice of you to catch up", remarking that we have been banging this drum for some little time, the work based on the gradual realisation that the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost not by the force of arms but by the success of the reconstruction effort.

However, to do so would not only be unfair, but facile. As one of the pieces which trails the speech – this one in The Daily Telegraph - points out, there has already been some "friction" between the military and civilian reconstruction teams, and there is and has been a genuine concern in the corridors of power about the lack of progress in this department – an issue we highlighted yesterday.

Thus, Dannatt intends to propose "a shake-up of the way the Army trains its personnel and runs its operations, to put more focus on reconstruction and development work." And The Telegraph tells us that his suggestion "comes amid concern in Whitehall about the way the British military mission in Afghanistan is fitting into the wider Western effort to develop that country's government and economy."

British generals, the paper says, insist they are making progress in the military battle against the Taleban, but doubts remain about how effective Western development work is. Only a fraction of the billions of pounds spent on development in Afghanistan ever reaches local projects.

Far from "catching up", therefore, Dannatt is articulating the growing concern which has been troubling for some time the many thinkers within the military, political and civil service establishments, as they struggle to work out a vade mecum which will deliver the real progress that is so desperately needed and has yet to be apparent.

Interestingly, what Dannatt is doing is building on the tradition of the "soldier administrator" which formed the bedrock of Empire, where young men – often our best and brightest – were sent to the far-flung corners of Empire to take up enormous powers and responsibilities as "district commissioners" and the like, exercising military and civil control over vast regions, bringing peace, stability and, very often, prosperity.

Thus, Dannatt is calling for the armed forces to consider creating a permanent body of "stabilisation specialists" who spend their careers working to rebuild countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, he is due to say this evening, soldiers are finding that they have to add civilian skills - from town hall administration to banking - to their traditional combat capabilities.

So important are these skills that the forces should now look at the feasibility of developing "permanent cadres of stabilisation specialists" who would specialise in training and mentoring the local military in former conflict zones.

Officers in such a body could typically spend "a tour with indigenous forces, followed perhaps by an attachment to DfID (Department for International Development) overseas, or a local council at home, or a police force in Africa or elsewhere."

This is good stuff and, if translated into policy, represents an important shift in thinking. Much of the Army training still concentrates on training for "grand manoeuvre" attuned to the needs of protecting Europe from a Russian invasion in the event that the Cold War turned "hot".

Recently, Ann Winterton asked a Parliamentary Question on how much training time for future officers at Sandhurst comprises counter-insurgency tactics and operations, to be given the answer that, "Approximately 17 percent. of the 44 weeks of instruction an officer cadet receives at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is devoted to counter-insurgency tactics and operations."

These, we are told, "are known as stabilisation operations at Sandhurst. The teaching is conducted in a variety of ways including theory, demonstrations, practice periods and two field exercises."

Thus, although many officers coming though the system will spend one hundred percent of their active careers on "stabilisation operations", a mere 17 percent of their training is devoted to this activity.

However, while we can thus applaud Dannatt (rare enough for this blog), without wishing to damn him with faint praise, we would also aver that he is either not going far enough or missing the point. In our own analysis, we have stressed the need for hard-edged infrastructure works, in particular roads, as the fundamental core of nation-building.

Interestingly, as part of our general background research, we happened on a piece published in the New York Times dated 4 December 2005 – a feature on the building in India of the major new highway from New Delhi to Agra. Apart from the intrinsic value of the work, the piece tells us: "Nationalists also hope the highway will further unite a country that is home to 22 official languages, the world's major religions, a host of separatist movements, and 35 union territories and states, many more populous than European nations." It continues:

On the highway from New Delhi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal floats over a grimy city, homelier but no less enduring relics line the route. Kos minars - massive pillars that once served as markers - invoke India's last great road-building effort. It was five centuries ago.

The Moguls, whose empire stretched into central Asia, understood the importance of transport links for solidifying empire. Most famously, Sher Shah Suri, who ruled in the 16th century, commissioned the Grand Trunk Road along ancient trade routes.

The British who began colonizing India a century later also understood that imperial rule required physical connection, not least for moving the raw materials, like cotton, that made empire profitable. But they cemented their rule in the age of the steam engine, laying railways rather than roads across the subcontinent.
Elsewhere, however, my co-editor stresses the need for "soft" development projects such as schools, and I would not disagree. But it is a matter of priorities.

There is no point, in my view, in building schools in villages where there is no electricity to light the rooms or power the equipment, where the communities cannot afford the books and equipment, cannot afford to hire the teachers on living salaries, and then cannot finance the maintenance of the buildings that have been so generously provided.

Something of that dynamic came across in The Times yesterday, where Anthony Lloyd reported of Musa Qala. The electricity supply, he wrote, though improved over the past month, is still worse than it was under the Taleban. Locals say that it now generates between three and five hours of power every four days, as opposed to the one day off, one day on supply they had during Taleban rule. He then adds:

The health clinic, yet another British project (£115,000), provokes similar comment among locals. The Afghan head of the Health Department has not been able to approve the clinic for use, despite three visits, as there is no running water and no electricity, few doors are in place and the plasterwork crumbles. The contractor, who was due to be dismissed two days ago unless he had rectified the problem, had allegedly multiplied material prices threefold between what he actually paid and what he charged.
This is not "redevelopment". It is madness, a collective madness born of wishful thinking, good intentions and poor execution. And it does more harm than good.

That said, although we have emphasised the role of roads, there are three major infrastructure priorities: roads, electricity and telecommunications – the three pillars on which any modern society is based and upon which it entirely depends.

And there, in Musa Qala, eight months down the line, the development agencies are as yet unable to guarantee an uninterrupted electricity supply, making a mockery of any pretensions of bringing long-term benefits to the town. Are we really saying that, over eight months, installing a reliable electricity supply is beyond our capabilities? That is certainly the message we are giving to the residents.

Thus, on top of Dannatt's "soldier administrators", we need engineers, more engineers and even more engineers – road engineers, power engineers and telecommunications engineers.

That they need to be in uniform is a compliment to our Armed Forces. Of all our government institutions, they are perhaps the most capable, the most task-orientated and the least corrupt. It is fruitless relying on the fabric and infrastructure of a failed nation like Afghanistan to provide the wherewithal to kick-start its own reconstruction, relying on corrupt and inefficient contractors. Instead, we need the likes of Lieutenant John Chard, of No. 5 Field Company, Royal Engineers, who arrived at the soon to become famous location of Rorke's Drift to repair the pontoons across the river and stayed to lead the epic defence of the station.

The Army, therefore, needs to take a direct hand. It can employ local labour, of course – as it did in days of Empire – but it must plan, execute and defend the primary phase of reconstruction. Then you can build your schools, your clinics, your outreach centres and all the rest, confident that the occupants can reach their new buildings and that, when they turn on their newly fitted switches, the lights go on.

That, surely must be Dannatt's priority and, if all he has in mind is his "stabilisation specialists", then we still have a long, long way to go.


Wednesday 16 July 2008

We cannot afford this

Anything published in the MSM has to be treated with a great deal of caution but, health warnings aside, the latest piece in The Times on Musa Qala makes an interesting contrast with an earlier report on the MoD website.

The MoD report, published three months after the successful military operation to re-take the town from the Taleban paints an unashamedly optimistic picture of the reconstruction process. It tells us that, "the process of returning the town to a bustling centre of commerce is well underway". Musa Qala, it says:

…is gradually beginning to return to some sense of normality, the reconstruction and development works a testament to the comprehensive joint efforts of the local government headed by Governor Mullah Salam and supported by elements of the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and other elements of the British military.
Eight months down the line, however, The Times offers a very different "take". Its piece is headed, "Bungs and bungling in Musa Qala: British dreams of building utopia crumble", written by Anthony Loyd from the town, the title very much conveying the tenor of the report.

Loyd reminds us that, following its recapture, the British were "keen to capitalise on their first tangible victory in 18 months," and announced "a series of projects to rebuild the town, while the Afghan Government vowed to reverse years of neglect."

Framing the piece, Loyd quotes David Slinn, the Foreign Office chief in Helmand shortly after British troops entered the town, stating: "If we can't get it right in Musa Qala then we can't get it right anywhere."

From there, it is all downhill. In the baking July heat, with temperatures soaring to 52C (125F) in the shade, the sun burns down on a rather diminished reality, writes Lloyd: "Stalled development projects, misappropriated funds, corruption, intimidation: the British stabilisation strategy has encountered a sobering set of obstacles in Musa Qala that have left it well short of the utopian state imagined in winter."

Adding colour to that assertion, we learn of a challenge from one elder during last week's shurah meeting between the town leaders and British officers. The man says, "It is the eighth month of government here. ISAF, the Afghan Army, the Afghan police - can they show the work they have done in this district? … You must show your work here. Civilians need to understand that you are working for them."

Thus the theme develops as we find that:

From the start, the British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) - the joint civilian and military organisation based in the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah - was powerless to prevent Afghan subcontractors from carving up British-funded projects among themselves.

The ensuing bungs, bribes and embezzlement ensured that much of the money disappeared long before it could be spent on reconstruction projects, some of which are now falling apart as a result of inferior materials and shoddy construction.
It falls to the hapless Justin Holt - the Royal Marine colonel sent to Musa Qala last month as stabilisation adviser – to explain to the shurah: "I am very aware that when a contractor is given a contract, he subcontracts it many, many times before the building starts … I agree with members of the shurah that in eight months there hasn't been much visible progress. But we've learnt some valuable lessons."

Much featured by the earlier MoD report was the main bazaar road in Musa Qala, 500 yards long and funded by the British to a tune of £100,000 – and this "is one such lesson"? Though only three months old, it is already the target of Afghan ire:

"The contractors made it out of poor-quality cement and gravel and now it is ruined," Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Governor of Musa Qala, said. "No one in the bazaar is happy with the project. The contractors didn't spend all the money they were given by the PRT."
The health clinic, we are told - yet another British project (£115,000) - provokes similar comment among locals. The Afghan head of the Health Department has not been able to approve the clinic for use, despite three visits, as there is no running water and no electricity, few doors are in place and the plasterwork crumbles. The contractor, who was due to be dismissed two days ago unless he had rectified the problem, had allegedly multiplied material prices threefold between what he actually paid and what he charged.

To add to these woes, we then learn that the town mosque, central to local concerns since it was destroyed by the British during fighting two years ago - listed as the prime Afghan-funded reconstruction project - is still in ruins. Residents have demanded a bigger mosque than the one offered, while the donor Afghan Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development is accused of short-changing the contractor, who cannot move materials overland anyway, as the Taleban prevent road access.

It gets worse:

The Governor of Helmand attempted to lay a foundation stone at the site in May but aborted the plan when his helicopter was hit by a rocket as it was about to land. Nothing has happened since.

The electricity supply, though improved over the past month, is still worse than it was under the Taleban. Locals say that it now generates between three and five hours of power every four days, as opposed to the one day off, one day on supply they had during Taleban rule.

Only one Afghan ministry has an office in the town despite assurances in January of full government presence in Musa Qala. Meanwhile, the British-funded cash-for-work scheme, under which locals were paid $8 (£4) a day for casual labour, had its labour force cut by 75 per cent at the weekend after a deadline had expired for the Afghan managing the scheme to present his accounts - adding about 200 men to the list of unemployed.
"There was a lot of destruction here during the fighting with the British," Mullah Salaam said. "There has not been the same amount of reconstruction."

The picture thus painted is unremittingly black, although Loyd does offer a counterpoint, conveying "some notable successes". Local commerce is thriving in a hugely improved security environment. A six-strong military stabilisation team has made progress in establishing local governance and an Afghan civil secretariat, an executive and judicial shurah have been formed to work in conjunction with Mullah Salaam (the current Governor and a former Taleban commander, was appointed after British forces retook the town last year), a crucial step in empowering Afghans to take control of their affairs.

In the security domain, British troops have done their best to mould local militias into a police force that, while far from exemplary, is an improvement on what it was before despite the dubious past of the individuals concerned. In its defence, the PRT insists that the creation of local governance is a more vital strand in the "Helmand Road Map" than reconstruction.

Nevertheless, given the totemic role of Musa Qala in British efforts to stabilise Helmand, adds Loyd, it is surprising that it has taken seven months for the PRT to send a permanent stabilisation adviser to join British soldiers in the town. Further PRT advisers are due to arrive later this summer, part of an enhanced deployment throughout Helmand.

He concludes that, If their entry allays the concerns expressed by the Musa Qala shurah, it may yet have some way to go in recapturing confidence in the British troops - and the soldiers' confidence in the administrators. "They wouldn't know how to pour p*** from a boot if the instructions were on the heel," one soldier remarked. "That's the PRT."

On the back of this report, we also get a narrative from Times columnist Magnus Linklater, who remarks that Musa Qala "is where the battle for the Afghan soul will be won or lost." Linklater too speaks to Justin Holt, who "has a clear view of his role":

He aims to introduce workable systems, such as a structure for wages, a proper legal process, adult literacy courses, accountability through the local shurah or council, respect for the Afghan national police - all within a society which he describes as "like 13th-century England with mobile phones."

This means working with men such as the governor, Mullah Salaam, who is widely distrusted, both by British officers and local people. It means accepting - for the time being - the opium money that funds the local economy. It means dispensing a primitive form of justice that would be incomprehensible in Britain. It means, in effect, going native while crawling towards democracy - the beard that Holt has grown to gain respect in the shura is the visible symbol of his determination to work with the grain of local tradition, not against it.

No one could claim that Musa Qala is safe or stable enough yet to count as a positive gain for the coalition forces. If that is ever achieved, it will be done not by force of arms but by the dull, unsexy but vital symbols of a civil society at work - accounts, spreadsheets and the competent use of public money. If that sounds familiar, well it is the way that we once built an empire.
All of this is what is called in official jargon, "The Comprehensive Approach". The MoD report we have cited enlists the PRT's Stabilisation Advisor, Richard Jones to tell us that it:

… is really all about ensuring that all the elements of government necessary to rebuild and stabilise an area like Musa Qala fall into place … It is really a reflection of the complexity of conflict nowadays that you have to have the involvement of not just the military but also the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.
About this, though, we wonder. Linklater, in his report, talks to Louise Perrotta, the "stabilisation adviser" in Garmsir. She thinks it important to get "inside the heads" of villagers, and to try to understand things from their point of view. Their thought processes do not always conform to Western concepts, she says. They are more "elliptical".

One has to admire the optimism of Mz Perrotta, if at the same time we also suggest that she is somewhat misguided. While she and, undoubtedly, her colleagues in Musa Qala are indulging themselves in getting "inside the heads" of villagers, the town of Musa Qala is a troubled island, surrounded by hostile elements where a local contractor cannot move materials overland as the Taleban prevent road access.

Linklater suggests that what is needed "is a proper civilian structure, manned by trained experts, not soldiers," adding that, "So far, however, it has proved too dangerous for non-military staff," then failing to see the inherent contradiction in his own statement, sharing the lack of clarity which seems to afflict the "stabilisation" advisors.

Essentially, with the current security situation, the civilian staff cannot deliver – something which we have seen from another worker in Helmand. But, without reconstruction, there will be no lasting security. Thus, if the civilians cannot deliver, the only logical conclusion is that reconstruction – at least in the early stages - must be a military function.

Time and again we see Afghanis, not unreasonably, asking for results and, time and again, as in Musa Qala, we see the coalition forces and their supporting agencies promise much and deliver little.

In the very nature of human relationships, this is a recipe for failure. He who delivers more than he promised very often gets more kudos than someone who delivers even more but promised the moon and fell short. Once again, we have to refer to Petreus and his injunction about managing expectations.

Holt may warble about having "learnt some valuable lessons" but he and his employers need perhaps to come to terms with the idea that Afghani reconstruction is not an exercise in on-the-job training for British officials. Rather than "learning valuable lessons", a more rigorous approach guided by a different ethos, under the title "right first time", might be more productive.

Getting it right is not rocket science – and building 500 yards of substandard road through the town centre is not it. Spending a little less time getting "inside the heads" of villagers and building a road to reconnect Musa Qala with the rest of the world might be a good start.


Tuesday 15 July 2008

Crossing the Rubicon

click to enlargeThis Sunday saw Sean Rayment, defence correspondent of The Sunday Telegraph, do what he does best, reporting on the ground, the first of his two pieces bearing the entirely predictable headline: "Afghanistan: British troops face huge rise in Taleban bombs".

So widely has this been predicted and expected (see left - click to enlarge), though, that it could hardly qualify as news.

It is, however, useful to have the quotation from Major David Ashman, who commands the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group. This is the group which is responsible for defusing IEDs and unexploded bombs, and he conforms that IEDs were now "the main killers" of British troops. He says: "The reality is, the Taleban have switched tactics. They simply were losing too many people in conventional fighting. IEDs allow them to attack us from a distance and in relative safety."

Such is the scale of the change that, between April and last month, British troops encountered 150 IEDs, compared with 90 in the previous six months. The rate of attacks has risen fivefold, from 15 a month to 75.

Clearly, even with minimal equipment, British forces have developed considerable expertise in dealing with this threat, the casualty rate fortunately not reflecting the level of attacks.

But, while one would expect the Taleban to target coalition forces, they are also attacking economic targets – as indeed was the Indian Embassy in Kabul (pictured, right), which last week took a major hit from a suicide bomber, killing 41 people and injuring more than 140.

Even though the Indians do not even field any troops in the region, they are major players, having pledged US$750 million to Afghanistan's reconstruction since 2002. Today they are the fifth-largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan after the United States, Britain, Japan and Germany.

The amount of aid they have offered, and the effectiveness of the activity – which includes substantial private investment - makes them an important target. Their contribution to the stability and prosperity of the country runs entirely contrary to the objectives of the insurgents - and their sponsors.

What also comes over from recent events is the scale of "conventional" fighting, something of which emerged from the report of a friendly-fire incident, when nine Paras in close contact with the Taleban were wounded by a misdirected attack from an Army Air Corps Apache helicopter during a firefight.

Much further north, the US forces were also attacked, with nine killed in what is slated as "one of the deadliest against US forces in Afghanistan since the military campaign was launched in 2001."

Even before this, Captain's Journal blog was commenting on the "escalation". It cited the Washington Post in this context, which noted that:

Each year since 2002, the number of US and allied troops in Afghanistan has grown. And each year, during the "fighting season" of spring and summer, the number of attacks by the Taliban has also increased, prompting commanders to conclude that still more troops are needed.
Captain's Journal definitely buys into the idea that more troops are needed and, after the successful recovery of Musa Qala and Garmsir – with substantial assistance from US formations, it is hard to argue that there is a "critical mass" needed if territory is to be wrested from the Taleban and the coalition forces are to maintain a presence on the ground. That, it would appear, looks set to happen.

On the other hand, it is becoming clear from the scale of fighting that continues in the environs of Musa Qala that the are is far from pacified. Coalition forces face the nightmare of expending huge resources merely holding the ground – as Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup puts it – "for a few years".

In the growing asymmetric phase of this campaign, however, this positions coalition forces as "targets", exposed to the steady toll of attrition for which our modern democracies are ill-suited to resist. Soon enough, without any obvious signs of progress and no clear-cut victories, the pressure to scale down the military and then to withdraw will become very difficult to resist.

What is particularly depressing, therefore, is a long piece in the weekend Herald which recounts the, "Battle to break the grip of Taliban terror in Musa Qala," centred on the battle for "hearts and minds" which we cannot win and should not even attempt.

Not least, there is the never-ending spectre of collateral damage, the latest episode being recorded last week when a US air strike killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were travelling to a wedding in the village of Kacu in the eastern Nuristan province of Afghanistan.

Another piece of depressing news, garnered via a Parliamentary Question from Ann Winterton is that in the last two years, UK Royal Engineers have repaired, reconstructed or constructed only 25 miles of road in Helmand province, carried out by project managing locally employed contractors.

This really does reinforce our view that too little attention is being given to fighting the peace without which, in our estimation, we cannot win the campaign.

Thus, while more troops will undoubtedly be welcome, in many senses, they will be the wrong sort. Rather than more over-extended infantry formations, we need to see combat engineers, capable of holding their own against Taleban attacks, while able to focus on infrastructure projects such as the sadly neglected road-building programme.

Here, the scale of the problem is beginning to emerge. While the donor nations make pronouncements about the amount of work done, claiming that over 2,500 miles of road have been repaired or refurbished, the length of the road network in Afghanistan extends to just over 25,000 miles. The actual work completed therefore amounts to little more than ten percent.

Furthermore, owing to the poor standards of some construction, major disrepair is being suffered on some routes (for instance, the road from Sar-e Paul province and Shiberghan, the capital of Jawzjan province). This raises the prospect of roads deteriorating faster than they can be rebuilt or repaired, especially as the annual road maintenance budget is estimated as $116.7 million, much of which is unfunded.

Coincidentally, on our sister blog, we give two examples of the vital role of infrastructure works in developing countries, in Zambia and the Congo. What applies here must apply with just as much force to Afghanistan.

In emphasising this, we have, to an extent, crossed the Rubicon. Having devoted the time and energy to looking at the bigger picture, somehow the details of specific equipment – very much the standard fare of this blog – begin to look less important. In fact, rather than specific military kit, we tend to take the view that we need more bulldozers (armoured or otherwise) and road graders than we do tanks, Mastiffs and other weapons of war.

More than even that, though, it seems we need a change of attitude, the fundamentals of which we set out in our piece on Zambia, recognising that the battle will be fought and won not by military prowess but by delivering on the lasting peace and prosperity than can only come when a properly devised reconstruction programme is fully integrated with the military effort.

And, despite the best intentions of our troops in the field, this we see no signs of materialising.

Monday 7 July 2008

Winning the war

What started off as a response to the torrent of analytical media articles in the wake of the death of the 100th British soldier in Afghanistan - and the several deaths that followed in short order - has become a major piece of work in its own right, running to twelve parts.

The work is now complete and this post is the index, with links to each part, set out below:

Part I: The wrong solutions?
Part II: Identifying the problems
Part III: Defining the need
Part IV: The seeds of destruction
Part V: The military role
Part VI: Fighting the peace
Part VII: The only priority?
Part VIII: Hearts and mines
Part IX: Reality check
Part X: Outsourcing the war
Part XI: Vacuum at the centre
Part XII: Putting it all together

We will shortly prepare a unified .pdf file comprising the whole work, which we will upload onto our server, with a link here.

The posts are consecutive rather than chronological order (ignore the dates - I'm "fiddling" those to keep the posts in the right order) and, whether you want to read the whole thing, "dip" or go straight to the latest addition, you can use the links above.


Saturday 5 July 2008

Waddington 2008

The Vulcan winding up its engines prior to take off.

The Patrulla Aguila - Spanish Air Force Display Team – flying the CASA C-101EB Aviojet.

Hawker Hurricane Mk II from the Battle of Britain Memorial Team.

An ex-RAF De Haviland Vampire T-11 in one of the many static parks.

An Army Air Corps Apache strutting its stuff.

Just to upstage the Vulcan, the Yanks turned up with a B-52 - although it didn't fly

The BBM Lancaster doing its solo run - it later flew with the Vulcan.

An Army Air Corps Auster AOP9 - now sadly an historic exhibit.

Lynx Mk 3 and 8 from the Royal Navy "Black Cats" display team.

An RAF E3D Sentry AWACS - one for MM.

An ex-RAF WWII Harvard trainer - in post war colours.

CASA C-101EB Aviojet from the Patrulla Aguila.

A French Air Force Mirage 2000 "resting" after a barnstorming display.

The BBMF trio - Lancaster, Hurricane MkII and Spitfire MkXIX.

A Eurofighter touches down after its display, to close the show.


Friday 4 July 2008

A distinct improvement

The MoD website has started up a news blog, described as the "Official News Blog from the Headquarters of the Multi-National Division South East, Basra, Southern Iraq".

It lacks the personal touch, but reads well enough and contains useful and interesting information – all pulled together, so there is something of a sense of a narrative. Although it lacks the "comments" facility, this is a distinct improvement.


Thursday 3 July 2008

Those carriers

To absolutely no one's surprise, the government has gone ahead with the order for two aircraft carriers, formally announced today at a cost that seems to vary according to source between £3 and £4 billion.

The ships, to be named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will be the biggest and most powerful ever constructed for the Royal Navy. Each will displace 65,000 tons – roughly the same weight as the QEII cruise ship - and carry 1,450 crew with up to 40 aircraft.

Defence secretary Des Browne calls it "an historic day for everyone in defence … Today's contract signing seals the future for thousands of jobs, and ensures that we will have a Royal Navy fit for the 21st century." The contract was signed on board HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth.

As expected, the ships will be constructed by a consortium that includes BAE Systems and the VT Group. Other members include Babcock International Group and France's Thales, which were involved in the design. Work will take place at shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness, Glasgow, Portsmouth and Rosyth and – given there are no delays – the ships will enter service in 2014 and 2016.

Needless to say, the order has reactivated the ongoing debate about defence spending priorities – the BBC hosted such a discussion on its lunchtime Radio 4 news programme, part of which has been repeated here. The obvious point was made, to the effect that this huge expenditure could hardly be justified when the Army was struggling to meet its equipment requirements.

No doubt, we will continue to rehearse these issues on this blog and our forum, but it would help focus minds if more realistic figures were used. At the moment, the ship construction costs are being cited, but it seems to have escaped attention that these are aircraft carriers, which means that these also have to be bought and paid-for.

Currently, the Joint Strike Fighter order, to equip these ships, is cited at around £10 billion. If you add the infrastructure costs (upgrading a Naval Air Station and also providing new dry dock facilities) and add in the permanent fleet escorts that will be required, the total cost of this project is in the order of £20 billion.

Arguments made for the project costed at £4 billion may or may not stand up, but they take on a different dimension when £20 billion is being considered – not including the running costs. In terms of force projection, one needs to ask what else could be bought for the money, and whether that would have the same "reach" or more as two large ships, their escorts and aircraft.

This is, I suspect, a debate which will be fuelled more by heat than light. But once again, the political dimension seems to be lacking. Given a change in government at the 2010 general election, it will be the Conservative administration which will have to find the bulk of the money to fund this project. What price Cameron refusing to make funding commitments when this government is making them for him?