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?