Monday 3 November 2008

The ugly face of politics

UPDATED (with adds): Today, at defence questions, on the basis of "information received", I had expected to see the unedifying sight of Mr Gerard Howarth leaping to his feet in the House of Commons, attempting (Speaker permitting) to wax indignant about the fate of the four British soldiers killed in a "Snatch" Land Rover last June.

Now that the media are again paying attention to the fact that these dangerously vulnerable vehicles are still in service, and there was a prospect of a favourable mention in the press, Mr Howarth, I suggested, would be milking the issue for every last drop of political advantage he could gain from it.

In the event, he was upstaged by his boss, the shadow secretary of state for defence, Liam Fox, who with sundry other members of the Tory tribe - including Patrick Mercer - sought to extract what they could from the perceived embarrassment of the government over this affair.

But, when it comes to doing anything about SAS soldiers having to deploy in these vehicles, Mr Fox and his Conservative friends are too late – far too late. In April and then again in May we picked up the news that the MoD was to buy 24 Australian-made Bushmaster Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles (pictured below).

The fact that this was not formally announced – in the context that the MoD usually extracts as much publicity from equipment purchases as it can – indicated only one thing. The Bushmasters were intended for the Special Forces. The government never announces equipment procured for them. The obvious and wholly sound inference is that these, in due course, are intended to replace the "Snatch" Land Rovers which had to be used with such disastrous consequences last June.

If there is a complaint – and there are in fact many – it is that the MoD, having recognised the need for protected vehicles, did not make arrangements to get some to theatre immediately, leaving troops to continue to using vehicles which they knew to be dangerously vulnerable.

That, if anything, is the substantive point to emerge from this affair - where the government could and should rightly be held to account - rather than over some imagined slight to an Army officer - but it is one which the Conservatives did not attempt to address. Nor, in truth, are they probably capable of so doing.

On this, one has to state that, when purchasing military vehicles, the time between the order and delivery can be fairly prolonged, especially if – as is so often the case - the buyers insist on "customising" the vehicles to their own specific requirements, adding all the "bells and whistles". But this was exactly the situation that the Dutch confronted in Afghanistan in 2006 when they realised that protected vehicles were needed for their troops.

It was then that they ordered 25 Bushmasters from Australia but, in view of the urgency of the situation, they did two things. Firstly, in the interim, they borrowed five Nyala (RG-31) protected vehicles from the Canadians, to cover them for their more hazardous patrols. Secondly, they negotiated to draw Bushmasters from existing Australian Army stocks rather than wait for a new-build, the Australian inventory then being topped-up when the manufacturers had built what amounted to replacement vehicles.

By this means the Dutch had Bushmasters in place by October 2006. By similar means, the British Army could have had protected vehicles in place by June, to cover the expedition that ended in tragedy. That these vehicles were not in place is a genuine cause for concern, the reasons for which should be established.

This is especially the case as, from the report of the incident - where it appears the Land Rover was hit by two stacked mines - the attack would have been eminently survivable, that weight of explosive being well within the capacity of protected vehicles to withstand. By any account that we know, these deaths were needless - good lives of good men and one woman horribly wasted.

As it stands, had someone at high level in the chain of command had the balls - and the initiative - and sought the political support, the moment that order for the Bushmasters had been signed, actions could have been taken which could have culminated, within days, of those vehicles being put on a freight aircraft to Afghanistan.

And, I bet, there are any number of people prepared to tell me that there were a hundred reasons why this could not have been done. But there was one reason - which trumps them all - why it could have been done: those vehicles were needed in theatre, without which people were going to die - as indeed they did.

But - as one has come to expect from this dire crew which calls itself the Conservative Party - instead of there being calls for the substantive issues to be investigated, the affair has degenerated into an unseemly squabble over who precisely was responsible for the deployment of "Snatch" Land Rovers that June, with the bickering devolving over whether it was a field officer or the result of equipment inadequacies.

Thus we are told, newly-appointed defence equipment minister, Quentin Davies, has "angrily rejected" claims that his department was responsible for the lack of equipment, suggesting that the deaths could have been the result of commanders on the ground sending out their troops in the wrong vehicles with the wrong equipment. He declares:

Obviously there may be occasions when in retrospect a commander chose the wrong piece of equipment, the wrong vehicle, for the particular threat that the patrol or whatever it was encountered and we had some casualties as a result.
Needless to say, the tail-end Charlies like Cdr John Muxworthy, of the UK National Defence Association (UKNDA), are piling in to attack Davies, Muxworthy declaring that, "The replacement to Snatch vehicles should have been procured years ago but they were not and as a result British lives were lost."

This, I actually find offensive. When the UKNDA was set up, I communicated with Muxworthy about the toll of deaths arising from Land Rovers, inviting him on behalf of his association to take an active part in the campaign to secure their replacement. The Association, however – as a matter of policy – decided to avoid dealing with such contentious "political" matters, choosing instead to focus on non-partisan "welfare" issues such as the treatment of injured soldiers (a "line" that was also followed by the Conservatives).

My cry that we should give at least some attention to preventing soldiers getting injured (and killed) in the first place went unheeded. But now we see Muxworthy and his pals crawling out of the woodwork, ready with their sound bites and their easy condemnation, in exchange for cheap publicity in whatever media source that will give them a hearing.

Even then Muxworthy, in proclaiming that the "Snatch" replacement "should have been procured years ago" is missing the point. It should never have been deployed in the first place, not in Iraq where it arrived in October 2003 and certainly not in Afghanistan where it was deployed in combat operations in mid-2006. General Jackson has a lot to answer for.

The real point is made (partly) by Nicholas Carter of Blaina, Gwent, in the letter column of today's Daily Telegraph, who observes that:

When I was a soldier serving in Oman in the 1950s, most of our casualties were caused by Land Rovers being blown up by mines. That was 50 years ago and still the Government neither learns nor cares.
By 1966, however, the Army was buying factory-modified Bedford trucks, specially fitted with mine protection plates (right), which we specifically discussed in a post in December 2006 (and again in March 2008) with the broader theme of mine protection broached in June 2006 (and here). Even water tankers and fire engines (the latter pictured below in Cyprus, where the mine threat was considerable) were protected.

Where Nicholas Carter goes slightly wrong, therefore, is in complaining that it is "the Government" that "neither learns nor cares". The fact is that the Army and successive governments – Conservative and Labour - took their eyes off the ball. But, in particular, the Army is at fault, having never taken the mine threat in warfare seriously, leaving huge gaps in capacity.

Thus, despite the experience of the Second World War – where mines were the cause of significant vehicle losses in Northern Europe – the reaction in Oman and then Aden was tardy.

Furthermore, each time lessons have been learned, they have been forgotten as quickly. Even more recently, in Bosnia – where British mine protection procedures and equipment were so much admired that they were copied by US forces and the Canadian – the Army disposed of its equipment, dispensed with its hard-earned expertise and went into Iraq almost completely shorn of protection.

Gradually, over the bodies of its dead, it is re-learning the same lessons. Thus, more than forty years after it first bought armoured, mine protected trucks, the Army is again buying armoured, mine protected trucks (pictured) - having, incidentally, recently invested in a massive new fleet of unarmoured trucks.

The tragedy of all this is that, while the storm of protest is centred around the now "fashionable" cause of the "Snatch" Land Rover, there are other equally deadly vehicles still in service, supported by Mr Gerald Howarth.

Thus, we have one vehicle that has become a "political football", to be used by the opposition for scoring cheap points against the government, while the real lessons are not learned and the broader issues are ignored. That is the scourge of modern politics, and what an ugly picture it paints.