Sunday 31 August 2008

Low grade misrepresentation

One of the many things which makes commenting on defence policy so very difficult these days is the absence of any balanced – or sensible – commentary in the media. Defence, as an issue, has become just another "stick" with which to beat an unpopular Labour government, fuel for the ongoing soap opera which now dominates political discourse.

A classic example of that dynamic comes today in a short piece in The Sunday Times, accusing the government of having "squandered" almost £500m by leasing RAF C-17 transport aircraft that could have bought outright for less money.

This is Mick Smith writing and, in principle, he is right. If the figures cited are accurate, the MoD paid a total of £769m to lease the aircraft and then – as Smith puts it – "had to buy them anyway for an additional £220m." The final payment was made last month, putting the total price over eight years at £989m, when they could have been bought originally for £520m.

According to the Smith legend, the MoD wanted to buy the four Boeing C17 Globemasters, but "was told by Gordon Brown, then the chancellor, to lease them because it would be cheaper". But that is just another of those distortions that hides the real – and more interesting - story.

In fact, the story goes back to the Strategic Defence Review in 1998 and the Short-Term Strategic Airlift (STSA) competition, which started in September of that year.

As set out by the Defence Procurement Agency (DPA) to the Defence Committee, the longer term needs were being addressed by the Future Transport Aircraft but, in the interim, there was a short-term gap which needed filling.

Thus, an invitation to tender was issued on 30 September 1998 to eight potential bidders, with a deadline for tenders of 29 January 1999, coinciding with the deadline for a four-nation collaborative competition which would identify the solution for the Future Transport Aircraft (A400M), requirement.

The two competitions were linked and were to be assessed in parallel, both to consider the most cost-effective solution overall and to ensure that the solution chosen for STSA did not prejudice the FTA competition.

In January 1999 five bids were received from Boeing/BAe (C-17), Air Foyle (Antonov An 124-210), IBP (Antonov An 124-100), Airbus Transport International (a mix of Beluga and A300 freighters) and Rolls-Royce offering a fleet management service of MoD acquired assets.

None of the bids offered an acceptable combination of capability and cost and the competition was abandoned. Options were then limited to a C-17 solution with support provided by USAF and the charter of Russian An 124-100 aircraft.

By 16 May 2000, the MoD has decided that the best solution to meet the short-term strategic airlift requirement was to lease four C-17A Globemaster III aircraft, while the Airbus A400M was selected to meet the longer-term requirement. On 2 September 2000, a contract with the Boeing Company was signed for the lease of four C-17 aircraft for a period of seven years, with the option of extending for up to a further two years,

At the time, the C-17s were leased to meet a short-term requirement, pending the introduction of the A400M, which was then expected to come into service in 2009. At the end of the lease period, the intention was to hand the aircraft back to Boeing. There was a purchase option in the contract but, as the DPA affirmed, there were no plans to retain the C-17 aircraft once A400M was in service.

It has to be said that, at the time, no objections were raised by the Conservative opposition and, in a subsequent NAO report, the arrangements were commended as "significant innovations" which illustrated "the scope for innovation and well managed risk-taking encouraged by Smart Acquisition."

Of course, following the lease, we had 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and then Iraq, when the airlift capabilities of the RAF were stretched. Then, as delays mounted to the A400M project, two things became clear. Firstly, A400M was not going to be in service early enough to provide for the ongoing airbridge requirements and, secondly, the C-17 provided a capability which would not in any event be satisfactorily performed by the A400M.

Under those circumstances, it made absolute sense to convert the leases into firm purchases, which the MoD did, in addition acquiring two more machines at the cost of £130m each.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better to have bought all the aircraft outright, and we would have preferred the MoD to have bought a fleet mix of C-130Js and C-17s, rather than the A400M. If there was a mistake, therefore, it was in selecting the A400M – from which the STSA requirement stemmed. Yet, when it comes to that "mistake", the Conservatives were silent.

Thus, to accuse the government of "squandering" money is simply not a fair or reasonable interpretation of events. It is simply cheap journalism.

Neither is it right to condemn the lease deal as "an absolute shocking waste of public money when our troops are going without the equipment they need", as does Gerald Howarth, the Conservative defence spokesman - courtesy of Smith's piece. That requires a re-write of history and a complete misrepresentation of the original situation.

The point is that there are plenty of things over which this government can be justly criticised but to rely on such low grade misrepresentation merely trivialises the defence debate and demeans those who indulge in it.


Tuesday 26 August 2008

A dose of reality?

Considering the speed and severity with which he took Gordon Brown to task on his blog last June for the heinous "crime" of referring to the "Second Parachute Regiment", you would think that Sean Rayment would take special care to ensure the accuracy of his own work.

However, in a largely sympathetic piece about Sue Smith and her self-imposed "mission" of suing the MoD over the death of her son Pte. Phillip Hewett, Rayment makes the singular mistake of writing that Hewett and the two other soldiers who died with him "were the first of 34 who were to die on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while on patrol in 'Snatch' Land Rovers."

This is slightly more than the slip of the tongue for which Gordon Brown is condemned. The whole point of Sue Smith's campaign – in alleging "negligence" on the part of the MoD – is that her son's death was by no means the first in a "Snatch".

The first, as far as we know, was on 28 June 2004 when Fusilier Gordon Gentle died after an IED explosion in Basra. There were then two more incidents in al Amarah, where Pte. Hewett was stationed. The first was on 2 May 2005 when Guardsman Anthony John Wakefield was killed. The second occurred on 29 May 2005 when Lance Corporal Alan Brackenbury was killed.

Since Pte. Hewett was killed on 16th July 2005, more than a year had elapsed between his death and the first incident, giving the MoD more than adequate warning of the fatal vulnerability of the "Snatch". Further, when on 29 May 2005, L/Cpl Brackenbury was killed, he had fallen victim to a "new" type of bomb, the infra-red triggered explosively formed projectile (EFP)

Then, on 6 June in al Amarah, Captain Simon Bratcher, an Ammunition Technical Officer, identified and disarmed and infra-red triggered EFP cluster which was then retained for examination and evaluation.

By early June, therefore, the armed forces in Iraq were well aware of the nature of the EFP threat and had full knowledge of its lethal effect on the crews of lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers. They also knew that the electronic counter-measures employed were wholly ineffective against this threat.

Had the situation been as Rayment wrote – that Hewett was the first to succumb in a "Snatch" – there might have been some small excuse for the Army deploying this vehicle but, against what actually happened, Rayment does Sue Smith no justice at all. Unwittingly, perhaps, he misrepresents her case.

If Rayment makes a mistake, however, not so Maureen Messent writing for the Birmingham Mail under the title, "Facing up to the realities of conflict".

Messent seeks to position Sue Smith as a bereaved mother affected by "crippling grief" who feels "she must do something – anything to assuage her pain and blame all circumstances surrounding the death of her soldier son in Iraq in 2005."

Clearly, she has neither met nor talked to Sue or this thesis would never have seen the light of day. From an Army family background, Sue is realistic about the hazards faced by soldiers on operations and has come to terms with the death of her son. But, as she became aware of the circumstances surrounding his death, she could not fail to note how unprotected he was, and how unprepared to deal with the threat the Army had been.

Since the "Snatch" is still in use, and the Army continues to field other vehicles of equal or greater vulnerability, Sue is also conscious that others could so easily share the fate of her son – and many have. Thus, she is determined that no others should have to die in the same way, and that their parents, wives and loved ones should not suffer the pain and grief that has been her lot. Her battle is for the living, not the dead.

Nevertheless, Messent refers to Sue's "belief" being that "Snatch" Land Rovers "provide little or no protection against improvised explosive devices," – without conceding that the MoD itself agrees – but then opines that: "This mother seeks to make sense of a heartbreaking incident, but she must not prevail."

"Wars," writes Messent, "cannot be fought with the general public deciding what vehicles are suited to the conflict and terrain, and which aren't. This is civilian meddling."

This point actually reflects the response of some serving soldiers, who resent input from what they term "gob-shite civilians". But what they and Messent fail to realise or understand is that, while wars might be fought in the field by soldiers (airmen and sailors), they are ultimately controlled by civilian politicians. That is the tradition in our society.

In this, Sue Smith's lawyers make the case most succinctly, Jocelyn Cockburn, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, saying: "The use of Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq was not something decided on the battlefield on the day. It was decided as a matter of policy back in Britain."

And that is largely the issue. The fact that, on the day, there were no better protected vehicles available to commanders in the field was the result of a policy decision, if not made then certainly endorsed by the most senior politicians in the UK. Thus Sue's claim centres on the "unacceptable delay" in buying heavier armoured vehicles for use on patrol, and a "failure to recognise that 'Snatch' Land Rovers were unsuitable for the extremely dangerous conditions in Iraq".

Nevertheless, Messent attempts to bolster her case by asking what would have happened in the last war if bereaved relatives had mounted cases against the War Ministry on the grounds that the "little ships" flotillas, which lifted soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches, were unsuited to conditions in the Channel?

She also writes that when the Nazis moved into Poland, thus bringing about the last World War, the Poles tried to withstand the German war machine on horseback. A forlorn act, indeed, she notes, but nobody thought of complaining to the vanquished Polish top brass after hostilities ended.

In the latter event, there would have not been much point, but recriminations there were aplenty. This, in any case, is not comparable with the "little ships" at Dunkirk. They were used on a "one off" rescue mission, rather than forming part of the "core" equipment of the armed forces.

A more appropriate comparison might have been the deployment during the 1944-5 campaign in Northern Europe of the dangerously vulnerable Churchill and Sherman tanks, and the failure by the government to field a type which was the match of German armour or anti-tank guns.

Here, Messent does not know her history. As Max Hastings writes in his book, Overlord, throughout the (Second World) War, "the British Authorities were at pains to stifle any public debate about the shortcomings of their tanks, although these were well known throughout the British Army."

In the House of Commons, the government was constantly challenged by Labour MP Richard Stokes, only to have his entirely justified complaints dismissed with the assurance that "public discussion of this issue was not in the public interest." Field Marshall Montgomery himself quashed a succession of complaints and open expressions of concern, writing at the time of such reports being "likely to cause a lowering of morale and lack of confidence among the troops."

Hastings observes in his book that, "The government lied systematically, until the very end of the war, about the Allies' tragic failure to produce tanks capable of matching those of the Germans". It is also fair to say that, when the "Snatch" issue became live in the Commons in June 2006, the government repeated history, again lying systematically.

Now there is a Sue Smith to challenge the government but, had there been such a person during the Second World War, the government could (and undoubtedly would) have relied on the 1351 Treason Act. Criticisms of equipment could be regarded as "giving to [the King's enemies in his realm] aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere".

Alternatively, there was the common law offence of sedition by exciting disaffection against the government or the constitution, a provision that was also used at the time to suppress "defeatist" talk.

Either way, any Sue Smith of that day, had she pursued her campaign, would have been locked up. Would Maureen Messent return to those times?

Without thinking about such issues, though, Messent launches her own second front, arguing from the particular to the general, noting that "Mrs Smith isn't alone in her quest," and that, "Her lawyers say their firm is advising several other families."

Thus she finds that, "this case underlines how far the British have progressed along that path that finds real life situations unpalatable," then offering:

We have allowed ourselves to be cocooned into the belief that good ultimately wins. Television churns out that mantra. We are repeatedly shown happy ever after. Reality becomes blurred and therefore unexpected. In this social climate, the deaths of young soldiers are tragic and unbelievable: somebody must be blamed because heroes shouldn't end up dead.

It's a common enough mindset among the mourning, this need to find a whipping boy: Psychiatrists all know the syndrome well. When death occurs, violent and unexpected death, attributing blame brings relief to the grieving, gives them the belief they are somehow still honouring the lost.
Amazingly, Messent then tells us that, "…in an age of mass communications, it is now comparatively easy to tackle organisations like the Ministry of Defence," adding, "We all have the right to do this haven't we?" But, had she taken the trouble to follow the case - recounted recently by Booker where, but for the generosity of Sunday Telegraph readers, the case would have fallen – this woman would know that it is anything but easy taking on the MoD.

Then, with an already slender grasp of reality, the woman departs from it completely, intoning: "We have personal responsibilities too, like our duty to the knowledge that, in a hell-hole like the Al Amarah region of Iraq where Phillip Hewett was killed, there will always be arguments over equipment." And with that profound piece of wisdom, she tells us:

This is the nature of war. Split-second decisions can have shocking results if they prove wrong, armaments and vehicles are not always up to scratch but the best available at a certain crucial time.
And it is there her case falls apart, on the very issue that Rayment got so wrong. This was not a "split second decision". It was the result of a considered policy, with decisions taken probably two years previously and not reviewed, putting the troops and their commanders in invidious positions.

Like their predecessors with their Shermans, the troops in al Amarah at the time knew full well of the vulnerability of the "Snatch". Perceiving – not unreasonably - the drivers to be most at risk, soldiers were going home on leave and deliberately setting out to be caught "drunk driving" so that they would lose their licenses and not have to drive the vehicles back in Iraq. NCOs were close to mutiny when ordered to take patrols out in "Snatch" Land Rovers, and from direct testimony at the time, we know of officers in tears when confronted with orders to despatch patrols in these "death traps".

Mz Messent does not know the half of it.

So, imbued with her ignorance, she argues that, "When a proud mother waves her son off to war, it is surely in the knowledge that he will face all the hazards surrounding conflict, that he runs a greater chance of losing his life than he would were he to be a factory worker, say, or a council employee."

What she does not seem to recognise is that, when mothers, wives or husbands do "wave off" their loved ones to war, they do so – and did so – appreciating the risks but in the expectation that the Army (and the MoD) will do its reasonable best to mitigate those risks. Sending soldiers out in dangerously vulnerable Land Rovers, with no protection against known threats, was never part of the deal.

There is not, therefore, as Messent avers, "…a huge gulf among the British, between reality and make-believe." Those who mourn the war dead have not, as she also claims, "apparently forgotten their lost and loved ones' choice to take the risks of their way of life." They simply require, as do we all, that the Army should not waste their lives.

Messent, though, makes the contrast with the "gallant old ex-service people" of past wars. "Ask any of these old stagers was their equipment up to the job and they'll tell you they had to make the best of what was provided," she writes. "They understand the nature of war, they lived through it, grew daily to accept their fate and saw comrades-in-arms dying." She adds, by way of conclusion:

They, and men and women who served in the Northern Irish troubles and in the Falklands, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, are perhaps the last of the realists. These families seeking to point the finger at the Ministry of Defence should meet these former military men and hear a dose of reality.
What she does not perhaps realise – and almost certainly never took the time to find out – is that amongst Sue Smith's greatest supporters are many of those who fought in past wars. They know full well the limitations of much of the kit with which they were equipped; many of them have seen needless death and mourn the loss all the more for it. Many have realised that so many of the deaths they saw were entirely avoidable.

That is their reality and it is also Sue Smith's. The risk of death is one thing – being sent out, quite deliberately, to die with no chance of survival is quite another.


Saturday 23 August 2008

The Saturday "toy"

You don't see this very often: two French F2 Rafales in formation with two US Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and one F/A-18C Hornet.

They are flying over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) while under way in the Atlantic Ocean last July. The Carrier Group was participating in Operation Brimstone, a joint task force exercise, which takes place off the Atlantic coast, includes participants from France, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States.

DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sheldon Rowley, US Navy.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

This was not supposed to happen

The well-planned attack (by all accounts) by the Taleban on French troops, which started shortly after midday on Monday, seemingly breaks the trend in a campaign which supposedly has moved into an asymmetric phase.

What further marks this out is the ferocity of the attack which had nine soldiers dead within the first minutes of contact, another dying the following morning when his armoured vehicle overturned Tuesday as the forces were leaving the scene. A further 21 soldiers were injured in the engagement.

That the fighting also lasted so long, despite the intervention of US Air Force assets and the arrival of reinforcements, was another apparent departure from current Taleban tactics. In the main, Taleban fighters usually disengage on the arrival of air power and are now rarely seen to stand and fight.

One other unusual factor was the proximity to Kabul – just over 30 miles – in a region which, by and large, has been considered pacified and which has not seen major Taleban incursions in the current phase of the campaign.

Details are as yet sketchy but, according to the IHT, the troops were on a reconnaissance mission in the mountains of Surobi, a militant redoubt 30 miles east of the Afghan capital, Kabul, when they were ambushed. There is no clear indication as to whether they comprised a foot patrol or were mounted.

The French daily l'Express identifies the troops as from the élite 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment but the Christian Science Monitor also reports that they were from a battalion that took control of Kabul only two weeks ago.

Whether inexperience was a factor in their selection as a Taleban target can only be speculation, but this can hardly have been an issue in the second attack mounted by the Taleban on the Tuesday. This was a mass suicide attack on Camp Salerno, the American base that serves as the logistics hub for the war's eastern front. It began just after midnight, when a team of attackers dressed in military fatigues were spotted on the horizon.

Afghan and US forces confronted the attackers some 1,000 yards from the base entrance, while fighter aircraft attacked the insurgent. Once surrounded, three suicide bombers detonated themselves, and three more were shot to death. A seventh was also killed.

However, rare though these overt attacks have become, last month saw a similar incident, when an estimated 200 Taleban stormed a small American "combat outpost" in the Dara-I-Pech district of Kunar province.

Nine US soldiers were killed, plus 15 US soldiers and four Afghan soldiers were injured. It was also claimed that the Taleban had sustained "very heavy losses". The fighting had started at 4.30am and US forces deployed mortars, artillery, Apache helicopters and fast jets. But, as with Monday's Kabul incident, the Taleban attack persisted, the fighting – according to contemporary reports - lasting well into the day.

For the Americans, this was their largest single loss since the fighting in Afghanistan in 2001 and, for the French – who have only lost 13 troops in the Afghan deployment – it is their largest in theatre and the biggest loss in combat for the French army since clashes in Bouake, Ivory Coast in 2004.

The high number of casualties prompted French president Nicolas Sarkozy immediately to board a plane for Afghanistan. In a statement before departure, he declared that, "In its fight against terrorism, France has just been struck severely," adding, "My determination remains intact."

Well he might say that as France is sending 700 more troops to Afghanistan this month, announced in April, during the NATO summit in Bucharest. The deaths could heighten domestic opposition to that plan – and to the continued French deployment.

So far, French media reaction to the deaths has been mixed. An online news article from Le Monde brought comment by one reader that the attack by 100 Taliban could be "foreseen" and asked, "When will we have a debate in Parliament on this?" An editorial in the “outspoken and independent” Rue 89 suggested that the "meaning" of the Afghan war has been lost to many French, and called for negotiations with the Taliban in a war that seems "endlessly protracted."

Should this current Taleban activity be part of yet another shift in tactics, that siren call could easily spread. One needs little effort to imagine the furore had ten British troops been killed in similar circumstances, and the media would undoubtedly be to the fore in calling for a withdrawal.

Already, this year has seen the deaths of 178 coalition forces, including about 96 US troops, there are predictions that the overall toll will surpass the record 222 troop deaths in 2007. With the BBC reporting that the Taleban are growing "more brazen" – words used in a number of media reports – and The Guardian warning that this incident will, "almost certainly shake resolve within an already nerve-racked Nato alliance," it is easy to see which way the narrative is going.

Despite confident pronouncements from the British military about winning the shooting war, therefore, we may be entering a new phase of the campaign which has the opposition from the home front stoked up to the extent where continued engagement becomes untenable.

A weak, unpopular government is going to have a hard time convincing the British population that it should expect still more casualties.


Tuesday 19 August 2008

A question of negligence

On the day one more soldier is reported killed in Afghanistan, another stage was reached in the tortuous path which is hoped will eventually bring the MoD to account for the death of Pte Phillip Hewett in al Amarah, Iraq in July 2005 – now over three years ago.

This happened yesterday when Phillip's mother, Sue Smith (pictured), served her High Court claim on the MoD. She is seeking damages against the military under human rights legislation for alleged duty of care failures in allowing troops to patrol in one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq in poorly protected "Snatch" Land Rovers.

This is a case we have rehearsed previously and Sue Smith has written about it on her own blog.

The claim is brought under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998, alleging that the MoD failed to avoid a real and immediate risk to life which it had or ought to have had knowledge of, and in negligence. The case relies on the High Court ruling in April when Catherine Smith took a case to the High Court over the death in Iraq of her son Pte Jason Smith from heatstroke. At that hearing, Mr Justice Collins ruled that troops in combat zones have a "right to life" at all times under the HRA.

Covered by The Daily Telegraph, this paper notes that thirty-four soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last five years while driving in Snatch vehicles with the MoD only in the last month bringing in a robust replacement called the Ridgeback.

The Sun and the Daily Mail also run the story.

Both papers convey the essence of the issue, the Mailremarking that the "landmark" case marks a crucial test of the MoD's traditional legal defence of "Combat Immunity", used to block any court challenges arising from events on foreign battlefields. Recent court rulings, this paper adds, have undermined that principle and the latest case, if successful, could spark dozens more claims from families of dead servicemen blaming their deaths on inadequate or missing equipment.

However, the MoD is already launching a pre-emptive strike, have decided to appeal the Jason Smith ruling, with a hearing expected later this year. Lawyers for the MoD argue that it is impossible to give soldiers in combat situations the benefits of the Human Rights Act.

An MoD spokesman told Jane’s Defence journal that, "We do not accept you can have a sufficient degree of control in war zones, in foreign places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in the early stages [of conflict]."

He added that the MoD considers that the judgement is inconsistent with other decisions made in the House of Lords and believes that it is important to establish legal certainty for commanding officers on operations overseas. "The MoD contends that Mr Justice Collins was wrong in holding that a member of the armed forces operating abroad remains within the jurisdiction of the UK for the purpose of deriving rights under the ECHR," he said.

Chris Payling, a solicitor at Walker Morris and former RAF officer, said the ruling could also affect how equipment is tested, perhaps by increasing the benchmark from "safe to operate" to a higher level such as "fit for purpose". A soldier "must have reasonable equipment to enable him to do the job he's been tasked to do. If not, it's breached his right to life", he said. This could have consequences for the defence industry, he added, if defective equipment was found to be the reason why a soldier died.

The MoD spokesman said: "The MoD plans to have the capability required to meet the known and expected operational environment and threats, but the uncertainty of the operational environment means that it is not always possible to predict sudden changes to the threat. The MoD does have mechanisms that allow us to address quickly urgent operational requirements when they arise. While all reasonable steps are taken to minimise risk, it cannot be removed entirely given that the nature of operations is inherently risky."

That, then, is the battlefield on which the MoD has chosen to fight, although the claim lodged by Sue Smith goes far wider than just the issue of the vulnerability of the "Snatch" and challenges many aspects of the conduct of operations in al Amarah in 2005. If her claim ever gets to court, it will precipitate a very necessary and wide-ranging review of those operations and, perhaps, shed some light on decisions which, on the face of it, look highly suspect.

Although some would wish these matters to be kept out of the Courts, a parody of a Coroner's inquiry and the absence of an Army Board of Inquiry has left Sue Smith very little choice but to take this action. In forcing the issue, her tenacity will at least push the Army and the MoD into reassessing their own responsibilities, to which effect, Sue is doing us all a great service.


Saturday 16 August 2008

Plus ça change

Good news this week was the delivery of the first of the batch of 157 Ridgeback MRAPs to Brize Norton, a month ahead of schedule. They will be fitted here with weapons, additional armour, plus radios, ECM and other theatre equipment before being despatched to Afghanistan.

That five were airfreighted to the UK by a chartered Antonov signals that a small battle has been won – the argument as to whether the whole batch of vehicles should be assembled before deployment, or whether they should be fed into theatre piecemeal, as and when they come off the production lines and have been kitted out.

So far, it looks as if the latter "school" has prevailed, and the vehicles will be rushed out as soon as they are available.

It is just as well that a sense of urgency is at last being impressed on the MoD for, last week saw another fatal attack on a British convoy, causing the death of Signaller Wayne Bland, from 16 Signal Regiment. Two other soldiers were also injured as their vehicle was targeted by a car-borne suicide bomber (pictured) while the troops were carrying out a route familiarisation patrol in Kabul.

According to The Sun - the only newspaper to have identified the vehicle type – Signaller Bland was riding top cover in a Saxon, one of three in the convoy when the bomber hit. Although the Saxon is probably less vulnerable than the "Snatch" Land Rover (in certain respects), this additional death underscores the vital need for better protection.

There is no "hearts and minds" issue here, as the unit to which Bland was attached was the Motor Transport Troop, responsible for force protection and movement of personnel and vital stores around Kabul. As the vehicles are largely confined to the main supply routes, neither is size an issue – as indicated by the use of the Saxon which has similar dimensions to the Ridgeback.

Another dimension to this is that, while Kabul has been relatively quite until recently, it seems as if the Taliban are escalating their campaign in the area, specifically targeting supply convoys – a tactic which includes picking off vehicles all the way along the route into Pakistan.

However, it is not only supply convoys which are at risk. Ranger David Pepper of the Royal Irish Regiment was among six soldiers wounded when an IED hit their "Snatch" Land Rover last month, when they were on patrol in Sangin. His mother, Jacqueline Pepper, said their lives had been saved by an "act of God" after the vehicle had "split in two". Pepper was driving the vehicle and, reportedly, the gearbox below him took the blast.

In a separate incident, also last month, a Territorial Army sergeant with the 3rd battalion of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment suffered multiple injuries when his WIMIK was hit by a mine "on the way out of enemy territory" in southern Helmand Province three weeks ago.

July also saw the death of Australian soldier Sean McCarthy killed in a six-wheel Long Range Patrol Vehicle (LRPV), based on the Land Rover Defender Series – not dissimilar to the WIMIK. McCarthy was the second Australian soldier to die in a LRPV. In February 2002, SAS Sgt Andrew Russell was riding in his LRPV when it hit an old Russian anti-tank mine.

Now, perversely, with 24 Australian Bushmasters being supplied to the British SAS - and the Dutch Army having ordered another 13, with another European Army (believed to be Spain) expressing interest in acquiring some - their Australian equivalents are buying 30 six-wheel versions of the Jackal, to be named the "Nary". It is said to be unarmoured, a move that has not met with universal approval. One ex-SAS officer complained, "Wherever you go in Afghanistan you are seen and people can blow you up. How can so little have changed in six years?"

What clearly has not changed – or not enough – is the military attitude to MRAPs. Although the US is in the throes of complete conversion to protected vehicles, the number being bought by the UK is still insufficient – and late. On the other hand, some in both the British and Australian forces, in their advocacy of the Jackal, still believe that protection comes from mobility, speed, greater off-road capability, lower profile and an ability to fight.

No one, though, seems to have told the Taleban this.


Saturday 9 August 2008

The Saturday "toy"

The guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70) fires an AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile while under way in the Pacific Ocean July 11, 2008, during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. RIMPAC, we are told, is a biannual exercise hosted by the US 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 courtesy of the US Navy (Click pic to enlarge).

Interesting how the matelots are lining the firing platform to watch. They must be pretty confident the missile won't misfire.

Friday 8 August 2008

More targets?

It is not at all surprising that we could get little insight into the plans of the MoD to augment the UK helicopter fleet in Afghanistan. According to Janes (no link, subscription only), nothing firm came out of the recent "helicopter summit" held in the MoD.

Instead, it seems, defence secretary Des Browne ordered a study team to fly to Afghanistan "to come up with new options to increase the number of helicopters available". Options, as always, include the rapid purchase of new helicopters, leasing and upgrade plans for existing fleets.

We are told that one senior ministry official involved in helicopter procurement "expressed disappointment" that the summit had not produced concrete results. "Browne's ability to launch a major new helicopter procurement is seriously constrained by the problems with the [MoD] budget," this official said.

Not least, Janes asserts that, although an equipment review was launched in April in an attempt to prioritise procurement plans, the prime minister has yet to endorse its conclusions. This leaves – or so we are told – the MoD in some difficulty, unable to make longer-term decisions.

The only sustantive change we have, therefore (which was agreed prior to the summit), is that the RAF is to move 24 helicopter pilots and aircrew from the service's home-based search-and-rescue (SAR) force to reinforce battlefield-support helicopter units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The transferred personnel are to be retrained to fly Merlins and Chinooks.

Meanwhile, some newspapers are reporting that Des Browne is considering an increase in the British contingent in Afghanistan, with "top military leaders" believed to be to wanting an increase to 14,000 from the current 8,200.

This has been on the agenda for some time, but there has been some relectance within the higher reaches of the MoD simply to commit troops without the supporting infrastructures and assets. Without more helicopters and armoured vehicles, tactical mobility is limited, which in turn limits the utility of additional troops and risks an increase in the casualty rate.

Whether significant numbers of troops are committed, therefore, will – or should – depend on whether additional assets can be procured. In this, as there is talk of scaling down the Iraqi operation, some of the helicopters currently flying in Iraq can perhaps be redeployed to Afghanistan and, after all, the six additional Merlins may find their way to that theatre.

Certainly, without addressing this issue, additional troops could, unfortunately, just mean more targets for the Taleban.


Tuesday 5 August 2008

How many more times?

After a somewhat prolonged absence from this blog, we return with a report, trailed in The Daily Telegraph about UAVs – not that the readers of this esteemed newspaper can possibly be exposed to such a fearsome combination of initials. They have to be told of "drones".

Anyhow, the legend according to this newspaper, not without justice, is that the MoD has been "slow to appreciate' potential of drone aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan", to which we would say, in a voice laden with irony, "You don't say!" We might also add the question, "what took you so long to notice?"

This "discovery" however comes not from the newspaper – which could never have worked this out for itself, but from the House of Commons Defence Committee, which has just published a 149-page report entitled, "The contribution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to ISTAR capability".

As might be surmised from the title (and the length) this deals with much more than the tardiness of the MoD but, as to that singular conclusion, had the Committee made its observations in June 2006 when we – from our lowly, amateur position – first started writing seriously about the subject, it might have been of some use.

As it is, when UAVs could have made a difference, and especially in Iraq, they were not available, the Army still then relying on the useless and ruinously expensive Phoenix, another of those MoD procurement disasters, the full extent of which has never been properly explored and probably never will – at least, not by the Defence Committee.

Now, with the addition of three Reapers to the inventory (one of which has since crashed) and the addition of the Hermes 450 as a stop-gap, until Watchkeeper arrives, the problems of availability (but not entirely) are largely solved. Thus, the Committee's comment is essentially history, so much so that The Telegraph is one of the few newspapers that can even be bothered to write about it.

And, although defence correspondent Thomas Harding makes a decent stab at the story, the detail is relegated to the online edition, the print version summarising even that and placing it in a "news in brief" section.

The story would have had more impact if the Committee had sought to explore the consequences of the failures of the MoD to introduce this technology into theatre earlier, and its current failure to exploit the technology as fully as it might. For, as we discussed in earlier pieces, while the Army was sending soldiers to their deaths in lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers, on fruitless anti-mortar patrols, the most appropriate technology was the UAV, which could have been used, had it been available.

Even now, when we see foot patrols in Afghanistan ambushed or bombed, with the inevitable casualties, we wonder whether some of that patrolling could not have been better done with UAVs and thus whether troops are being exposed to needless danger.

Equally – with special relevance to the recent death of Lance Corporal Ken Rowe and his dog - again one wonders if all the available technology is being used.

L/Cpl Rowe, it will be recalled, was a dog handler, accompanying foot patrols with a specially-trained sniffer dog, tasked with detecting bombs and weapons caches. It is of more than some importance, therefore, to know whether the use of technology such as the UAV-borne Automatic Change Detection System, currently operated by US forces as the "Buckeye" could have been of value in reducing the need for such vulnerable assets.

Needless to say, the Committee does not even begin to explore this issue – preferring instead to regurgitate material spoon-fed to it by its carefully selected MoD witnesses. Not one of the Committee members have had the sense to look elsewhere for their information.

A similar deficiency exists in the Committee examining UAVs only in the context of their specialist role as Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets. It does not look at the broader picture of how they could best be integrated into the battle plot.

Invaluable for being able to produce real-time video imagery from a huge area, UAV intelligence is of limited value unless our forces are able to respond to it. For instance, the detection of groups of Taleban on the move is of little immediate use unless air assets or ground forces can be employed to deal with them.

In that context, the piece we linked above in turn links to a narrative offered by Michael Yon, where he describes the combined actions of a UAV and light helicopters in tracking and then intercepting an insurgent mortar team.

In the wide open spaces of Afghanistan, that combination would be a powerful asset against often fleeting targets, an idea we have rehearsed only recently. Nothing of this, of course, impinges on the brains of the Defence Committee members.

There was some hope, incidentally, that the issue of helicopter provision was going to be aired fully, with reports of an MoD helicopter summit in the MoD last week, but if anything substantive came out of it, we have yet to hear what it is.

There was some brief hope that the experience of the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Selous Scouts in the 1970s, with their pioneering use of Alouette III light helicopters (pictured), might have percolated into the consciousness of the MoD strategists. But recent optimism might have been misplaced.

In the round, therefore, we are not much further forward. Things are moving behind the scenes, but all so desperately slowly. We were writing about the need for light helicopters in November 2006 and so many times since that we have lost count. How many more times can we write the same thing?