Sunday 28 September 2008

Getting it wrong

From the very start, when they were introduced with great fanfare into Afghanistan just under two years ago, we had our doubts about the Viking.

We were quick to point out that like the Pinzgauer Vector, it had very little in the way of mine protection, in what is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

Of course, that did not stop newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Sunday Telegraph falling in with the MoD and giving these killer machines high-profile "puffs", heedless of their vulnerabilities.

We kept banging on about this machine, while the MoD kept up its spin, imbibed uncritically by the media while parliament slept.

Despite this, we continued pointing out the dangers of this vehicle, again and again, despite the continued spin from the MoD. "Viking vehicles are saving lives in Afghanistan," it told us.

We kept pointing it out, as the casualties mounted, still banging on about its deficiencies.

But hey! We're only a little blog. What do we know, compared with those great military brains in the Army and the MoD, and the all-knowing clever-clogs of the media?

Well, nearly two years down the line, we get The Times picking up on the new equipment story. And what do we see?

The sense of urgency about providing better protection for troops was underlined yesterday when it was confirmed that 100 of the extra 600 vehicles will replace the armoured Viking tracked vehicles which only came into service in 2006 with the Royal Marines and have been deployed across Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

Hailed as one of the most advanced armoured land vehicles when the Ministry of Defence ordered 108 of them for £60 million in 2001, the Vikings have proven to be vulnerable to landmines.

About a dozen Viking drivers from the Royal Marines and the Queen's Royal Lancers have been killed or seriously wounded from mine strikes, and steps had to be taken to thicken the armour under the driver's position. Now, under the new proposal, the Vikings will be replaced by 100 better-protected "high-mobility tracked patrol vehicles".
Then, of course, we get the band-wagon jumpers like General Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, former Chief of the Defence Staff and now a patron of the United Kingdom National Defence Association.

Although we have not heard a word from the Noble Lord about Vikings, we are told his organisation "campaigns for better conditions for the Armed Forces." He is thus allowed to say: "Defence has been under-funded and risks have been taken with security and the size and equipping of our Armed Forces for many years." He then adds:

The Government has now been forced by events in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to urgently find additional funding, but it is too little and too late. Despite repeated warnings our services are neglected and under-resourced. This has cost lives.
That is the quality of the debate and the care the media take. The whole point about the Viking was and is that it is not cheap. This is not a matter of underfunding – more a matter of the wrong vehicle being used.

Then, having got it so consistently wrong for so long, it is far too much to expect that the media should get it right now.


Men of Iron

Amid all the doom and gloom, some glad tidings come from The News of the World today, under the heading "Men of Iron".

Despite not being noted for being an authoritative voice on military matters, the paper credibly reports that British troops are "FINALLY" getting 600 "bomb-proof" new vehicles, "to cut the grim death toll of Our Boys in Afghanistan."

The paper is talking about the new fleet of heavily armoured vehicles costing £500 million, the print copy showing pictures of a Ridgeback, Mastiff, Bulldog and Jackal. The piece describes the "hi-tech package" as including 100 logistics trucks based on the dependable Mastiff, 100 weapons-mounted Jackal 4x4s, 100 high-mobility patrol vehicles and "300 light support trucks with souped-up mine protection".

A defence source is cited as saying, "This investment will allow commanders to scale back the use of light Snatch Land Rovers," adding, "Defence Secretary Des Browne was determined to ensure soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan have proper armoured protection. During next year's fighting season that will finally happen."

Some of this fleet, clearly, has been planned for some time but there is some genuinely new kit here, including the "100 logistics trucks based on the dependable Mastiff". This is extremely good news, not least because it relieves the burden on infantry formations, who otherwise have to commit considerable resources to defending thin-skinned vehicles.

The exact cost of the package is uncertain. Although the figure of £500 million is mentioned, not all of that will be "new" money, but some undoubtedly is – when or if it is approved by the Treasury.

Crucially, though, it seems some of the kit must be being processed through the UOR system as the intention is to get it in theatre for the next fighting season. Too often, the Army focus is on kit for years ahead, which is of very little value to current operations (did anybody mention FRES?)

Even the new Jackals are not entirely to be sneezed at. Although we have been highly disparaging about this vehicle, it seems as if the added armour – which was never originally intended to be fitted - is doing a job. Crews have survived several hits when they might have been more severely wounded or even killed in the less well-protected WIMIK (pictured).

More kit it seems, is in the pipeline, with announcements to come once Parliament reconvenes, with some not altogether unwelcome news about helicopters.

All this, however, may be too little, too late. But then again it may not be. The armoured fleet so far deployed has been instrumental in boosting morale and vastly improving mobility, adding considerable effectiveness to ground troops.

While there have been siren calls for more troops in Afghanistan, better equipment itself is a "force magnifier" and, for once, the right choices are being made.


Friday 5 September 2008

A parting gift

In the dying days of the Bush administration, defence secretary Robert Gates still has enough "reach" to put into practice his thinking on the conduct of modern counterinsurgency operations – and with remarkable speed.

So it was that in April he was addressing officers at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, telling them that the US military needed more UAVs and equipment to collect intelligence and conduct surveillance.

Now, less than six months later, we hear via Reuters that the DoD is planning to spend – in what amounts to a parting gift from Gates - $2.2 billion on additions to its fleet of electronic surveillance aircraft and UAVs.

In particular, it plans to buy another 51 RC-12 Guardrail aircraft, based on the Beechcraft King Air airframe, but equipped with a formidable array of electronic and optical sensors.

These we have met before when, in May 2007 we learnt that the UK was to buy a "small number" of these aircraft for its own use – about which we have heard nothing since (and nor are we likely to – for very good reasons the deployment and movement of these assets is kept under wraps).

However, whether in UK or US hands, these aircraft represent a formidable asset in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations, able to provide high-grade real-time intelligence on Taleban movements, allowing rapid interdiction of groups using assets such as the Reaper, or the vectoring of other air assets or ground forces to take appropriate action.

Once the aircraft slated for order are deployed, their capabilities will be such that there will be very few areas of Afghanistan that will escape continuous surveillance and, with commonality with the British – albeit smaller – fleet, it is not unreasonable to expect a degree of overlap and joint operations.

Reuters suggests that the continuous air surveillance patrols in both Iraq and Afghanistan are to be stepped up with 30 such due to be operating by October, up from 12 when Gates arrived at the Pentagon.

This can only be good news for the coalition forces and very bad news for the Taleban – which can only get worse.


Thursday 4 September 2008

A helpful intervention?

In another of his visits to Afghanistan, opposition leader David Cameron used the opportunity to speak out the "staggering" government failure to provide more helicopters in Afghanistan. It was "risking troops' lives", forcing them to brave improvised explosive devices and road mines.

That much was conveyed by The Sun newspaper which recorded Cameron saying that he had been to Afghanistan three times. "Three times I've heard the same thing," he said. "We need more helicopters."

Cameron, however, accepted the government was "trying to resolve the situation", but insisted they had not done enough. And, although his own Party had refused to pledge extra money for defence, the opposition leader's view – according to The Sun was a question of "political will", not cash.

They could, he said, prioritise existing budgets and get other Nato members to supply more.

A slightly lower-key version of this denunciation found its way on to the Conservative website, with Cameron declaring that ministers "must make sorting this out this their over-riding, round the clock priority." This is a NATO mission, he said. "NATO has hundreds of helicopters nominally at its disposal. We need to put more pressure on our allies to free up helicopters that are sitting in Europe to help in Afghanistan."

However, Cameron clearly did accuse ministers of lack of will, his comments also being retailed by ITN's News at Ten, charging that "a lack of ministerial will was putting soldiers' lives at risk."

We would find it hard to disagree with Cameron's basic thesis – the shortage of helicopters in theatre and, heaven knows, we have raised this on this blog enough times.

But, through direct contact with specialists and through the forum, time and again, all sort of complications have been raised, from the provision of the all-important defence aid suites, to the difficulty in obtaining new machines from manufacturers with full order books and no spare capacity.

What has come over most, however, is that there is what is best described as "creative tension" between the politicians, who want the problem solved, and the military who are taking what many feel to be an over-cautious view of what can or cannot be done.

In the final analysis though, on such issues, ministers must be guided by their military advisors and, the truth is that there is no consensus amongst the Staff as to the best way forward.

As we reported, the MoD recently held a "helicopter summit" chaired by defence secretary Des Browne, which itself was inconclusive – although an announcement is expected some time in the autumn when Parliament is back in session.

Frustrating it is, but we have an MoD system which grinds exceedingly slow, with many suggestions that it is not really attuned to the needs of the fast-moving campaign in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, to put this down to a lack of "political will" is probably neither accurate nor fair.

More to the point, it is probably not good politics. If, as expected, Cameron assumes office in the not too distant future, he will find that his secretary of state faces similar problems and obstacles – some of them genuine – and will be thus be embarrassed by a similar failure to deliver results.

On the other hand, it is fair game for an opposition politician to capitalise on any government's discomfort, but we sense that Cameron's comments fail to reflect an understanding of the realities of equipping the military for modern wars – with all the constraints they entail.

Carving a way through the thicket is more than a matter of "political will" and one would like to think that the opposition has some original ideas of what is needed – taking into account the difficulties involved. What we have heard does not suggest that there is any new thinking, which is rather worrying. When (or if) the new ministers take over, they will be learning from scratch and, for some years, we could be back where we started.