Friday 31 October 2008

"Cavalier at best, criminal at worst"

That is the verdict of Major Sebastian Morley, commander of D Squadron, 23 SAS on the use of "Snatch" Land Rovers, who claims that Whitehall officials and military commanders repeatedly ignored his warnings that people would be killed if they continued to allow troops to be transported in this vulnerable vehicle.

This is retailed by Thomas Harding in The Daily Telegraph, Morely angrily saying that Cpl Sarah Bryant – the first female soldier to die in Afghanistan – and three male colleagues, the SAS soldiers, Cpl Sean Reeve, L/Cpl Richard Larkin and Paul Stout - killed in a "Snatch" last June - were killed needlessly.

This, we said at the time. Under a post headed, "Stupid, malign fools", we pointed out that there was:

… no excuse, no excuse at all. For two years (well over, in fact), the MoD and the Army have known that "Snatch" Land Rovers are entirely unsuitable for counterinsurgency operations, and they have had two years warning that the Taleban were going to adopt ambush tactics using bombs and mines.
We had said it many times before – and since – over 70 posts referring in one way or another to this vehicle.

Now, a soldier who served with Major Morley says: "We highlighted this issue saying people are going to die and now they have died … Our commanding officer and RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) tried everything in their power to stop us using Snatch. The point of failure here lies squarely with the MoD ... The boys nicknamed Snatch the mobile coffin."

Politicians and senior officers were told of the SAS fears over the lack of equipment but still nothing was done, officers allege. When the SAS squadron learnt of the deaths of Cpl Bryant and her three colleagues on 17 June there was immense anger.

There still is immense anger. There was "immense anger" in June 2006 when I wrote my first substantive post on the issue. More than 70 posts later, too many good men and women have died – unnecessarily.

Forget the "cavalier". Criminal it was then, criminal it is now. If the MoD was a private company, it would be prosecuted. But that is the way of government – the guilty men will walk away, Scot free, pensions and reputations intact – and the dead cannot speak.

There are, those, however, who will, and must be heard. We owe the dead that much.


It tells you something ...

… about the modern media when yesterday's report of an announcement of a £700 million package of new armoured vehicles for the Army gets about a quarter of the space in The Daily Telegraph than a story today about "the launch of a cookery book endorsed by Gordon Ramsay which encourages the Forces to use their rations more imaginatively".

And yes, it does matter. In its own coverage of the equipment issue, The Daily Mail caustically noted: "MoD forced to shell out extra £700million on tougher fighting vehicles after just two years." It then goes on to report that:

The Armed Forces are having to spend a massive £700million on tougher armoured vehicles for troops in Afghanistan - while withdrawing an entire fleet of state-of-the art battlefield vehicles after barely two years of use.

The £1 million Viking amphibious combat vehicle was hailed as a triumph when it first arrived in Helmand Province in 2006, offering unprecedented agility as it swam across rivers and charged over the most rugged terrain, even clambering over ditches and walls.

But in a sign of the increasing ferocity of the fighting against the Taliban, the Viking's armour has proved unable to protect soldiers and Marines from roadside bombs and buried mines, and at least six drivers are understood to have been killed in explosions.
Lacking as it does any institutional memory, however, it will have escaped the Mail's notice that its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday was in October 2006 uncritically applauding the arrival of the Viking in Afghanistan, as indeed did many other newspapers. This we noted in one of our recent posts.

This post, however, is not about defence issues per se. It simply uses this example to point out – once again - that the role of the media is vital to the proper functioning of our democracy, and the maintenance of good governance.

As we pointed out in that earlier post – not without a certain wry bitterness - we had seen right from the start that the Viking was dangerously unsuitable for the theatre to which it had been committed. If we could see it, then the media – with its "experts" and greater resources, to say nothing of its specialist correspondents – should have seen it as well (Some of these, actually, would have written about it but they were not given the space).

Had newspapers reported critically at the time, and then picked up on the growing toll of deaths – now estimated at least six drivers and an unknown number of personnel seriously injured, the MoD may well have sought a replacement much faster than it has. Furthermore, knowing that its choices of equipment were subject to critical – and where the need arose – hostile coverage, it might be more careful in future about the decisions it makes.

When a newspaper, however, gives more coverage to a celebrity cookery book than it does life and death issues, such as the equipment that will keep troops alive (or not), then you know there is something seriously amiss.

This is another aspect of, "Britain's infantile and degenerate political and moral culture," about which Bruno Waterfield wrote so volubly yesterday. He was referring to the Ross Brand affair but, in virtually every walk of life, the trivia, the tat and the superficial takes precedence over more serious and important issues.

Nothing, of course, should be all serious – and there is not only room but need for the lightweight and entertaining, if only as an antidote to the diet of unremitting gloom. But when this overtakes and drives out virtually all our serious news, there is genuine cause for concern.


Thursday 30 October 2008

Is this a coincidence?

Yesterday we get an announcement by John Hutton on the new package of armoured vehicles for the Army (set up by his predecessor, Des Browne).

Names are given, but few details, especially the "Husky: TSV (Medium)" and the "Coyote: TSV (Light)." The former, we are told is are "Medium armoured support trucks - carrying out the support roles in lower threat areas and where heavy vehicles, like Mastiff, cannot be used." The latter are "Light armoured support vehicles - supporting Jackals across the harsh terrain of Afghanistan."

Then, today, we get an announcement from Force Protection in Ladson, South Carolina – makers of the Mastiff and the Ridgeback, ordered by the British Army, and the Buffalo, which has also been ordered.

This was to introduce the new version of their "lightweight" MRAP, the Cheetah (pictured), weighing in at a mere 8 tons. With the current version of the RG-31 (Mark 6) now having inflated to an obese 11.6 tons – from the original seven, the Cheetah is currently the lightest MRAP available, yet its manufacturers claim for it similar protection levels to those of the heavier Cougar.

Is this a coincidence?

Looking at the photograph, the ECM dome on top of the cab looks suspiciously … er … British. Are we looking at a Husky or a Coyote, perhaps?


Wednesday 29 October 2008

A failure of opposition

An answer to a routine parliamentary question from Lord Lee of Trafford on 16 October of this year was hardly calculated to excite any great interest. The outcome, however, turned out to be more than unusually interesting and - despite (or because of) the picture illustrated above - has significant lessons for the Conservative Party.

Lord Lee, himself a former Conservative MP, defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2001 and was made a life peer in 2006. He was performing his task as Lib-Dem defence spokesman in the Lords, in which capacity he had asked how much the government expected to spend on urgent operational requirements (UORs) for equipment this year and how much would be spent on each of the 10 largest UORs (the mechanism for rapidly purchasing much needed equipment and bringing it into service).

The answer conveyed very little we did not already know, and gave little indication of how politically significant it would become. The clue – but difficult to fathom - was in item number two on the "top ten" list, described as "Talisman" on which £96 million was to be spent. The only project of that name publicly associated with the MoD, however, was a Royal Navy mine countermeasures project – of not very great interest and of no immediate political importance.

It was therefore not until yesterday that the specialist magazine DefenseNews put two and two together and identified "Talisman" as an entirely new project. That was interesting.

It appeared, said the magazine, to be the MoD intended to buy the Buffalo mine clearance vehicle, so successfully used by US and Canadian forces, in whose hands it had saved many lives. That is "Talisman" and the fact that the MoD is to introduce this life-saving kit is important.

An unknown number of these 40-ton giants, we were told, were to be "rushed into service with the British military in Afghanistan next year," one of "several urgent vehicle purchases intended to increase protection for troops in the increasingly bloody conflict with the Taliban."

By way of detail, we were also told that Britain's Defence Equipment and Support Organisation was in the final stages of negotiating a deal with South Carolina-based Force Protection. An MoD spokeswoman had confirmed talks were under way but had declined to give further details.

The DefenceNews story was then confirmed today by defence secretary John Hutton confirming that the "Talisman" package would include the Buffalo mine-protected vehicle and the Engineer Excavator.

This is extremely welcome news and, if it had come about from successful and intensive lobbying, it would represent something of a victory for its advocates.

Certainly, we have written about it, the first time almost exactly three years ago, when we extolled its virtues and suggested that this was precisely the equipment the British Army needed to buy – which it then showed no signs of doing.

By then, it was already in action in US hands in Iraq and had been introduced to Afghanistan in July 2003. It obviously did good service in Afghanistan as, by March 2008, an article, featuring this and other mine-clearance vehicles, was reporting:

There is no calculating the damage or loss of life mitigated by the removal of the hundreds of mines and IEDs that EROC teams have already discovered in Afghanistan, but they are proud of their work and their contribution to soldiers returning home safely.
As significantly, when in May 2007 the Canadian Army took over a sector which had previously been occupied by the US Army, where it had deployed Buffalo and other specialist vehicles, one of the first things the Canadian command did was order replacement vehicles - including Buffaloes. These arrived the following year and, as we were later to report, were used to very great effect.

Arguably, therefore, with such a glaring gap in the British order of battle, the acquisition of this equipment could have been a prime target for political attention. Its lack could have formed the focus – albeit one of many – on which the Conservative Party could have attacked the government. This, one would have thought, was and is the very meat and drink of the party political system.

Clearly, the Conservatives would have been justified in so doing. The Buffalo is an important weapon in the counterinsurgency campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only is it used by the Americans and the Canadians, it has also been purchased by the French and latterly the Italian Armies. That the British were entirely lacking in such life-saving equipment - while suffering significant casualties from mines and IEDs, against which this vehicle was (and is) intended to protect – did have the makings of a strong political campaign.

Had such a campaign been effective, this equipment maybe would have been procured earlier, possibly saving some lives. In any event, the MoD now having decided to buy it, had the Conservatives earlier demanded precisely that, they could have claimed a moral victory, illustrating their effectiveness as an opposition.

Certainly, this blog and our partner Defence of the Realm had been convinced of the value of the Buffalo. We highlighted it again in June 2006, in December of that year and many times thereafter – some 19 times in all. For the record, copies of some of our posts were sent to the Conservative Party defence team.

When it came to calling for such equipment to be provided, however, the first mention of the "USA Buffalo armoured vehicle" in Parliament came from backbencher Ann Winterton, acting in a "freelance" capacity. She asked in November 2005 whether the department planned to introduce it "for work against roadside explosive devices". The MoD told us that it had "carried out a broad assessment" of the "Buffalo Mine Protected Clearance Vehicle" but had "no current plans" to procure it.

Three months later we got an intervention from an official Conservative spokesman, Gerald Howarth, in February 2006. He asked what assessment the MoD had made of the requirement for "South African manufactured Buffalo" for use in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, from the context and the answer – which referred to the "Buffel" (pictured) – it was evident that he was asking about a completely different vehicle.

In September 2006, Owen Paterson had a go, asking specifically about the Force Protection Buffalo. This was shortly after the announcement on the purchase of Mastiffs and the minister missed the point of the question. He declared that the Cougar (which was to become the Mastiff) was "the vehicle best able to meet our requirements". There was no comparison between the two.

Then, however, we got a most extraordinary intervention from Conservative backbencher Mark Lancaster. Not only an MP, this man is a Major in the Territorial Army. In the summer of 2006, he had been on detachment in Afghanistan. Thus enlightened, on 10 October 2006, he tackled the MoD during a session of the defence committee – of which he was then a member – on the role of the "urgent operational requirement".

Lancaster's concern was that the UOR process could lead to the wrong equipment being bought. The example he chose was:

… the route clearance package, which is a combination of vehicles, American vehicles, Buffalo and Huskies, and they go and clear IEDs off the road. It has come in because the threat is changing in Afghanistan, but when you actually go and talk to the American soldiers using this equipment you discover that one piece of equipment (because this package was designed for Iraq for the nice Tarmaced roads there) is completely unsuitable for Afghanistan …
The route clearing package, he thought, was then subject to a UOR and his information as to its lack of suitability came, apparently, from "the first sergeant who is using this equipment in Kandahar."

As it turned out, Mr Lancaster was mistaken in more than one way. From a formal MoD response on 28 November 2006, we learned that there was then "no formal UOR for the procurement of either Buffalo or Husky" (the latter pictured). The requirement for a route clearance capability to support current operations was being assessed by the Equipment Capability Manager and, we were told, "this may lead to a UOR in the future if required."

On the substantive point, given that the equipment was in use and continued to be in use with evident success, neither could there be any validity in Mr Lancaster's claim that the equipment was "completely unsuitable for Afghanistan", and especially now that the MoD has committed to buying it.

For sure, we know that MRAP vehicles present problems, demonstrating – as with all things – that there is rarely a perfect, single answer to all eventualities, but we also know equipment such as the Husky has a significant off-road capability.

But, in terms of an "official", or at least semi-official Conservative intervention – as opposed to the "freelance" actions of Ann Winterton and Owen Paterson - Mr Lancaster's offering was the totality of the effort. No official Conservative spokesman ever called for the equipment or questioned its absence, which means that the nearest thing to a Conservative "line", albeit semi-official, was to speak against it.

To say that the Conservative Party "missed a trick" is to put it mildly. With the announcement today of an urgent operation requirement, and DefenceNews writing of the equipment being rushed into service, this speaks volumes for the pressing need for this equipment in theatre.

Yet it was raised formally, in Parliament by Ann Winterton nearly three years ago and we know it was being assessed in November 2006 by the MoD – for how long we do not know. Given the now urgent need – which was no different two and three years ago – for "off-the-shelf" equipment that has been in service with the US forces for over five years, why has it taken so scandalously long for the MoD to procure these machines?

Had the Conservatives been on the ball, they could have made a real issue of it. Given the inexplicable delays in bringing the Buffalo in service, they should have made a real issue of it. Had they done so, now that the equipment is to be introduced, they would have gained the political kudos of having "forced" the government's hand.

Instead, their front-bench team was silent while Mr Lancaster, now a Conservative whip, branded it as "completely unsuitable". So much, incidentally, for "expert" Army officers, doubling as MPs.

As much as is this a measure of the government's failure quickly to bring vital equipment into service, therefore, this is also a failure of the Conservative opposition to recognise the need for it and to press the government for its speedy introduction.

That is but one small example of where the Conservatives so consistently fail as an opposition – to their own disadvantage. They could have been trumpeting a "success". Instead, they have nothing to say. Until they re-learn the art of opposition, there can be little confidence that they are fit for the greater and more demanding task of government.


Tuesday 28 October 2008

The last post

Ever since I saw it in The Sunday Times, I knew I would have to write about it. I have been putting it off, but the moment has come.

The subject, of course, is the bizarre statement by our new secretary of state for defence John Hutton who, according to the paper, has "become the first defence secretary to back a French plan for a European army, branding those who dismiss it as 'pathetic'".

Well, Mr Hutton, if that is your definition of "pathetic", then I'm pathetic, and so is most of the nation. And you will learn, my friend, that is no way to talk to the voters – not that you and your pals really give a damn.

Nile Gardiner has taken Hutton apart in Centre Right and The Daily Telegraph leader has done a pretty good job as well. There is nothing much I can add to either – just simply endorse much of what they say.

It seems we have another Hoon on our hands, who with "good old boy" General Sir Mike Jackson, did more damage to the Army and armed forces in general that can possibly be imagined. But, after thinking that the European fantasy had worked its way through the system, we seem to be back where we started – St Malo all over again, that awful sense of déja vu.

But, actually, we are not quite back where we started. Operations in Iraq are winding down and it now only a matter of time before the bulk of British forces are able to slide gracelessly out of the theatre, relieving the pressure of servicing two active theatres.

That will leave some additional resources for Afghanistan, where the military are keen to have more forces in theatre. We cannot show any enthusiasm for such a venture. Having spent a great deal of time and effort evaluating the available literature and sentiment on the conduct of the war there, we offered a detailed, if over-long and impenetrably dense analysis of how the war could be won.

We do not claim any special knowledge or insight on this. Simply, we looked at the basic principles of fighting insurgencies, the views of knowledgeable people on the ground and the conduct of operations. What we offered, however, is so far different from what is actually happening – and can happen – that we can only conclude that there is no chance whatsoever of the coalition forces prevailing in Afghanistan.

With the economy of Pakistan in the process of collapse, and the rapid political destabilisation that is occurring, we have also lost – or will lose – an essential ally in the war against the Taleban. Add to that the deteriorating economic situation, and the attraction of foreign adventures becomes even less than it is now.

One can see a situation where the coalition forces – principally the US and the UK – will go through the motions of making "one last push" in the manner of the Iraqi "surge", suppressing the insurgency sufficiently to be able to claim victory. This will be expressed in terms of our confidence in the Afghan national forces to be able to hold the ring without direct military support. That declaration will legitimise a swift coalition withdrawal, and enable homebound forces to claim a "job well done".

Of course, this will not be the case but here, as elsewhere, it will be appearances that matter. As long as the withdrawal looks credible, it will not matter what the "voices off" will say – a victory it will be. That the situation then rapidly deteriorates will be scarce reported – there is little enough reporting already – and when the Taleban, or its differently named successor, takes over, this will be nothing to do with us.

So, what has that got to do with Hutton's announcement?

Well, as we argued here and in more detail here, the European defence ambitions have nothing to do with mounting a credible defence. The European defence forces are a hollow joke, inadequate, disorganised, demoralised and useless.

What this is all about is keeping up the appearance of military might, while actually spending less on defence. And, with the economy in tatters, Mr Brown - originally lukewarm on the prospect of European defence integration - can now see the merit of it. He is heartily sick of the military anyway, and their constant whinging for more money and attention.

This way he will be able to pay less. That he will get less does not matter. European defence integration will enable him to keep up appearances, thus concealing the gradual and possibly terminal degradation of our military as an independent or even effective fighting force.

Thus, looking at the bigger picture, after the withdrawal from Iraq, we can see a brief upsurge in activity in Afghanistan. That will achieve nothing apart from getting some good men killed, and expending a great deal of munitions and wearing out equipment. The rump of our depleted forces will then be required to turn inwards, to our European partners, to maintain some façade of potency.

We will co-operate in a number of high profile but ultimately useless and ineffective military adventures alongside our European military "allies", the "successes" of which will be hyped up, way above and beyond any realistic appraisal of their value. Thus will the military settle down into some sort of half-life which will somehow justify their reduced roles and capabilities.

But, as long as the guard continues to change at Buckingham Palace on time, and our troops are not seen in public with the "ring of stars" on their uniforms, everything will seem normal enough for the media to go back to sleep and the politicians to continue their pursuit of tat and trivia.

That, with a heavy heart, is how I see the future of our once-proud military. It seems pointless, under the circumstances, to write about it – as I have done so so relentlessly on this blog - other than to record occasionally the steps in its demise.

In truth, the writing has been on the wall for a long time, and I have been deluding myself in thinking it could be otherwise. To maintain independent Armed Forces, you need an independent nation. We have long ceased to be that, which has made our military an anomaly which had to be rectified. Iraq and Afghanistan were "throwbacks". Mr Hutton will sort all that out for us.

In charting the progressive decline of our forces, the Conservatives will huff and puff and make all the right noises. But they will do nothing about the decay. You can see the way the Tory Boys are playing it. It doesn't matter how much we shout and scream at them. They know which side their bread is buttered. And that is how Cameron (or his successor) will play it – lots of noise and indignation, but no action.

We could, of course, fight the fight – continuing the losing battle. But, soon enough, we will all be fighting a different fight, one for our own personal survivals. Brown, and Major before him, with a lot of help from their tranzie friends, have not only wrecked our economy but the global economy as well. Food, shelter and basic security from the looters and thieves will become our main preoccupations.

So, when the troops come home after their victorious battles, we can go along with the charade, watch their parades and pat them on their backs for a job well done. They can hang their Regimental flags up in their museums and let the bugles play. But it's over. It was fun while it lasted. All that is left is to chart the decline. We will do that on EU Referendum.