Thursday 26 February 2009

Play time

One senses a "spoiler" here, a high-tech extravaganza by the MoD, timed just after the Defence Committee report on equipment. It's certainly getting more publicity than the report, which tells you something about the media.

So, we have an Army driving around in 35-year-old light tanks – older than most of their crews – and 17-year-old Snatch Land Rovers – while unable to find a suitable protected patrol vehicle. This is the same Army that has taken 20 years and spent over £300 million on not buying a medium-weight armoured vehicle.

But, rather than address real-world issues, the MoD is prattling on about "the front line in the wars of the future." This, we are told, "will be machines":

A massive, unmanned air force will scour the skies over a city, while robots will patrol the streets, quickly discriminating between an enemy carrying a gun and a civilian carrying a child. Only then will human beings arrive, protected by fast armoured vehicles that are half the weight of today's tanks but just as strong and ground troops who will have robot mules carrying their equipment for them…
And so it drivels on. Amazingly, we are told, the MoD hopes to have working versions of these ideas in the next 5 to 10 years.

It would be nice to think that the MoD could summons up enough energy and brainpower to find a replacement for the Snatch Land Rover in the next 5 to 10 years. Obviously, though, that is far too difficult. It is much easier to indulge in these cosy little fantasies.


Idiot abroad

Ultimately, in a parliamentary democracy, the buck stops … in parliament. However powerful a government might think itself to be, it lives and dies by permission of parliament, which can bring it down with one vote of confidence.

Short of that nuclear option, the day-to-day work of scrutinising government is – or should be – carried out by the select committees. They are the bodies that really get down to detail, call the witnesses and examine the documents, producing at great expense detailed reports which, themselves often provide the basis of debates on the floor of the House. That is how the system works … or should do. Except it doesn't – not, at least when it comes to the Defence Committee.

One should not resort to ad hominem attacks when making a case, but the character of a select committee is most often determined by its chairman. With a strong, intelligent head, a committee can be a powerful force. Unfortunately, the opposite applies, so the effectiveness of a committee is very much a matter of personalities. Perhaps that should not be the case, but it is.

And in the chairmanship of the defence committee, we are singularly ill-served by having in the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot a irredeemable idiot – a man who, given an open goal and a ball five feet from it, would punt it in the wrong direction and look for applause.

Therefore, in reviewing "his" 206-page report on "Defence Equipment 2009" – and it is very much a personal production – there is no need to go into any very great detail. The man does not know what he is talking about, has not bothered to find out and has thus spouted reams of drivel that is of little importance and, in the longer term, will have no impact at all.

That is actually the tragedy. There is very much wrong with defence procurement – which is at the heart of this report – and a great deal needs to be said. There is much which needs to be made good. This is what the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot should be addressing. Instead, he has kicked the ball in the wrong direction, and is now appealing to the crowd for applause.

Such that has come his way – and it is very limited, with only two newspapers having really bothered to dissect his work – has focused mainly on his comments on FRES. This is unsurprising given Mr Arbuthnot's choice of phrasing. With an eye to the headlines, he labels it a "fiasco", complaining that "some seven months after announcing General Dynamics UK as the provisional preferred bidder for the FRES Utility Vehicle, the MoD has announced that priority is now to be given to the FRES Scout Vehicle."

Expanding on that, Mr Arbuthnot then tells us:
Whilst we recognise that the MoD's equipment requirements need to reflect changing threats, that is no excuse for the MoD's behaviour in the FRES programme; they have wasted their and industry's time and money. The FRES Utility Vehicle programme was, from the outset, poorly conceived and managed.
We do not need to rehearse in detail the history of the FRES programme, as we have done it recently in three linked pieces here, here and here. All we need to say is that it was – and is – an intensely political project, aimed at equipping the British Army for its role in the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF), stemming from the 2003 Defence White Paper.

It always was a fantasy project, wrong in conception, ill-defined from the very start and impossible to achieve. As a result, the MoD has been saddled with something which, from the outset it, it never had a chance of delivering. And, finally, through a long series of steps, it has bowed to the inevitable and cancelled the project.

The direct loss, so we are told, is £130 million, to which we must add at least another £200 million (but probably a great deal more) in cancellation costs for previous projects which stretch back to 1987, when the idea of a wheeled utility vehicle was first seriously mooted.

By that reckoning, well over £300 million has been spent on not acquiring something that the Army does not need, and should not even have attempted to buy. Inasmuch as the MoD has now, once again, recognised this, it something, although it has cost us dear.

That it is now focusing on buying a much-needed replacement for the 35-year-old CVR(T)s is also something. The likelihood is that we will have to buy something off-the-shelf, which is what we should have done years ago, at considerably less cost than we will have to face now.

The trouble is that, without confronting the political background to FRES, and without looking at the project in the round, it is impossible to make sense of it. Thus, Mr Arbuthnot does not make sense of it. He looks as a small segment of the recent history, on the basis of limited and highly selective evidence, and then pontificates.

This is the very worst of the select committee system in practice. Dominated by a man who is incapable of understanding what is going on, and seems determine to avoid looking at the real needs of the Armed Forces, he condemns the MoD for wasting their and industry's time and money.

What he has actually done is waste our time and money, in failing even to begin to address the real issues, a task for which he is handsomely paid yet does not deliver. Perhaps one should think about cancelling Mr Arbuthnot.


A profound abuse

Details coming in of the deaths of three soldiers from 1Bn The Rifles point to the continued misuse of resources and equipment in the Army, leading once more to unnecessary deaths.

According to The Daily Telegraph, the three were killed while riding in an open-topped Wimik Land Rover, when they were hit by an IED just east of the town of Gereshk in Helmand province.

What is particularly relevant here is that the vehicle was being used as part of the escort for a supply convoy, making it highly vulnerable to attack, while negating any of the claimed advantages for this type of vehicle.

The essence of a Land Rover Wimik is that it is a lightweight, highly manoeuvrable gun-platform. The emphasis is on mobility, therefore, rather than armoured protection, the theory being that the vehicle is not tied to roads or any specific routes. The crew can choose unpredictable routes, and avoid potential ambush points, by which means the mobility afforded is judged to offer as much or greater protection than conferred by armour.

Even that theory is arguable. On the one hand, the Taleban have become adept at ambushing vehicles when they are travelling to and from operations, when they are tied to fixed routes and lose the advantages of off-road mobility. Then, crucially, it makes a false distinction between mobility and protection, as if they were mutually incompatible, which they are not.

Where a vehicle is involved in escort duty, however, even the theoretical advantages disappear. Supply convoys in that region are often laboriously slow, with typical average speeds of 5mph. Their routes are predictable and their slow progress gives the Taleban plenty of opportunities to get ahead and prepare ambushes.

While it is possible – and standard practice – to carry out explosives searches at "pinch points", these are carried out by the British Army with dismounted troops using hand-held mine detectors (pictured left) and dog teams. They are laborious and slow, with checks often having to be cut short or omitted to avoid delaying the convoys – where hold-ups in vulnerable positions carry their own risks of ambush.

Under such circumstances, Wimiks and the like should never be used as escorts. Even within the frame of reference dictated by the Army, they are patrol vehicles and light gun platforms. They were never designed for convoy duties and are not safe for that purpose.

Nor should any convoy be required to travel through hostile territory without route clearance and proving. Dismounted techniques, being too slow – and dangerous for the clearance teams, who are themselves prone to ambush - purpose-built vehicles are essential.

Such use was, of course, pioneered by the British and, as we have often observed on this blog, copied by US forces and the Canadians, where such route clearance is routinely carried out in Afghanistan. Now, belatedly - having sold off its own vehicles ans sat on its hands for six years - the MoD is at last buying replacement vehicles, the so-called "Talisman" package. Unfortunately, this is not due to start coming on-stream until next year.

Belatedly, also, the MoD has just issued a "contract notice" inviting expressions of interest from manufacturers prepared to supply "up to 400 Light Protected Patrol Vehicles (LPPV)".

The LPPV, we are told, will be a wheeled vehicle with an estimated gross vehicle weight of around 6 to 7 tons, capable of carrying up to 6 crew (2+4), integrated with a range of communication and electronic equipment providing protected mobility. This, we are also told, will replace in-service light legacy platforms based on the Land Rover based SNATCH vehicle. Additionally, the platform may be used as the basis for the replacement to Land Rover WMIK.

Interestingly – tragically – the tiny Irish Army has already resolved this issue, having at the end of last month ordered 27 mine-resistant patrol vehicles (LPPVs by any other name).

These are the BAE Sytems/OMC RG-32Ms (pictured right), the smaller version of the RG-31. This is a vehicle the MoD tested in 2002/3 and rejected in favour of the less-protected Iveco Panther, which is still not in service.

However, the Irish, slow though they might be, do have an advantage. They do not have to contend with the MoD. This is the MoD's second attempt at buying an LPPV, the first being the ill-fated Pinzgauer Vector (pictured below left). And it is worth noting that, in June 2006, when the Army ordered its first batch of 80 Vectors, at a cost of £35 million, the intention – or so it was claimed – had been "to counter the threat posed by suicide bombers."

We were then told that it had been adapted for use in "high-risk" environments and would thus "protect troops from automatic fire, landmines and fragmentation bombs."

At the time, it was reported that senior officers believed the greatest threat to British troops would come from suicide bombers and insurgents "armed with the same improvised explosive devices that have been used against lightly-armoured vehicles in Iraq." Nothing has changed.

Nevertheless, as early as June 2008, less than a year after the vehicles had been deployed, there were hints of a problem. This came in a published list of "expected out-of-service dates" for a range of vehicles. The Vector was given a date of 2015.

In an Army that routinely keeps vehicles for 30 years or more, a mere seven-year service life was unprecedented. Then, by the end of the year, the Army had conceded that the vehicle was not up to the job, having proved inadequate, and unable to cope with the threat from roadside bombs - the very purpose for which it had been bought.

In December 2008, however, we had General Sir Kevin O'Donoghue, without so much as a blush, airily telling the Commons defence select committee, "You produce a solution for the requirement of the time; the requirement changes as the threat changes, as the security architecture changes and you need to produce something else." It hadn't changed - they got it wrong.

Now, more than three years after the Pinzgauer contract was first mooted, we see a "contract notice" inviting expressions of interest for a vehicle which will probably end up being something like the RG-32M or another vehicle that has been available for many years.

So, while the Army gets it wrong again and again - pouring money down the drain in the process - men have to die, again and again. And the MPs, who are supposed to monitor such things, have asked what?


Tuesday 24 February 2009

The ring of truth

December last, we started seeing a disturbing increase in the number of casualty reports – at a time when, traditionally, the campaign season should have been winding down.

Only later, in typical MoD style – well after the event – did we learn that there had been a major operation in progress, codenamed Sond Chara – Red Dagger.

Needless to say, according to Commander Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Gordon Messenger Royal Marines:

This was a very successful operation that demonstrated the ability of the Task Force to surprise, overmatch, manoeuvre and influence over a huge area. Whilst our efforts have made a significant contribution to the overall Nad E'Ali security plan, it has not been without sacrifice, and we will forever remember the contribution of those who died.
Such is the low stock of the MoD publicity machine – and the public pronouncements of the Army - that one would fully expect the operation to be described as a "success", even if it had been a catastrophic failure. And here there would be good reason to have one's suspicions, not least because the operation was in an area or northern Helmand, called Nad Ali, which was supposed to have been pacified.

Thus is was of more than some interest that we saw yesterday an article in the Western Morning News by correspondent Lyn Barton, embedded with British forces in Afghanistan.

In a piece headed, "We're a laughing stock," she retails how "disillusioned" Royal Marine Commandos serving on the front line have claimed high profile military gains are being squandered through lack of manpower. They are questioning the point of the conflict and have slated "antiquated equipment" they claim makes Britain a laughing stock.

The Commandos are commenting about Operation Red Dagger, which was designed to push the Taliban lines back in their stronghold of Nad Ali, one which we have already noted has been claimed a "success", but – we are told - the area is in danger of being gradually conceded. Having been pushed out, the enemy is already starting to move back in.

One Marine from 42 Commando declares: "We are just marking time and losing blokes," adding that, "All we can do is hold ground. We can clear an area of Taliban, put in Afghan police checkpoints but when we go the Taliban come back and it slowly goes back to what it was before." The fighting now is "as bad as before Operation Red Dagger."

Another Marine agrees, saying that, "Red Dagger achieved its aim, it was successful," but "It's just that we cannot dominate the ground as we should do because we do not have enough guys."

Although these comments are echoed by many in 42 Commando, Lt Col Doug Chalmers says they fail to take account of the bigger picture. The operation was used to create a triangle of control in a region insurgents were keen to maintain. He said the operation had pushed back enemy lines, but the area is crucial to the Taliban and they wanted it back. There was no question, he claims, of it being ceded.

Chalmers thus argues that Red Dagger was, "an overmatch and the enemy faded away. They have come back and they are testing us. There is no doubt about it."

One hesitates to point out that experienced guerrillas usually do precisely that … straight out of the "Little Red Book": when the enemy advances, we retreat. This goes on to say: "The enemy camps, we harass. The enemy tires, we attack. The enemy retreats, we pursue…" Perhaps Chalmers ought to read it some time. It looks as if the Taleban have.

Nevertheless, we are confidently informed that the operation blocked a north-south transit route for the enemy and dealt a blow to their finances by cutting off from large swathes of valuable poppy crops. "That is why they are putting more men into the fight," says Chalmers.

We already looked at the claim about the effect on the Taleban's finances and find it distinctly less than credible. Thaqt rather puts the rest of Chalmers's claims in the same context. "I wouldn't risk lives if I didn't think we are achieving anything," he says.

Putting that into context, we also get the Commandos criticising the continuing use of the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers. "Equipment is broken down. One day it took four hours to get out on patrol because of repairs," said one man. "The Snatch Land Rovers are from the 60s and 70s. You show it to the Yanks and they are laughing at us."

However, Major Reggie Turner, Officer in Charge of J Company 42 Royal Marine Commandos, says they were an extremely useful tool used during routine patrols. "Around a built-up area we use it for basic mobility. It is all we have got so it is what we use," he says.

Turner adds that their versatility and manoeuvrability provides crucial "situational awareness" which would be lost in bigger vehicles. "Sometimes your best protection is situational awareness," he claims. Shades of Mandy Rice-Davies here.

Interestingly, Thomas Harding picks up the story, also noting that, with limited numbers of British journalists allowed onto the front line in Afghanistan the reports contrast with recent Ministry of Defence press releases announcing successes against the Taliban.

Indeed they do, and one is surprised that Lyn Barton's report ever saw the light of day. The MoD have many ways of visiting their displeasure on embedded journalists and are, by this means, tightly controlling the output from Afghanistan, relying on the simple premise that, without Army facilities, journalists can get no stories at all.

Many have to make the agonising decision of whether to go along with the military, in order to get some information out of theatre, in the knowledge that, if they are too candid, their access is completely cut off.

The big problem is that, for all we know, the military may be doing a superb job in Afghanistan and everything may be going swimmingly. But given the control freakery exercised by the MoD, and its well proven tendency to gloss over the nasty bit, it would be a fool that took the Ministry at its word.

Even with the best will in the world, they are wont to make a common mistake – that of using activity as a measure of success, and of imposing their own interpretations on outcomes, which do not necessarily accord with those of the enemy who, in guerrilla warfare, tend to have the initiative.

Earlier, we suggested that neither this government nor the MoD can be trusted to tell the truth. And nor, we added, can the media be relied upon to ferret it out. That many not be the case with Lyn Barton, whose report has the ring of truth. If it comes closer to what, in any case, will be a confused picture, then we have problems.

In this, there is only one certainty. If we do, we will hear it last from the MoD, who will still be tellling of its "successes" long after the Taleban have taken over Kabul.


Sunday 22 February 2009

The wages of neglect

One gets exceedingly weary of the hole-in-the-corner way the MoD is "playing" the war in Afghanistan. Its strategy is to keep us largely uninformed as to what is really going on, while devoting its resources to a steady trickle of propaganda which serves to obscure rather than reveal the truth.

It played exactly the same game in Iraq, feeding us with glowing "puffs" about the "derring do" of "Our Boys", and happy little "touchy-feely" pieces about how our caring-sharing troops were engaging with those nice Iraqis and how things were getting better all the time – when the whole campaign was going down the pan.

We saw the propaganda technique in full swing last week when, out of the blue, we get a graphic account of an operation in the Upper Sangin Valley "which has struck severely at the narcotics industry in Helmand".

"Waves of helicopter-borne troops caught the Taliban by surprise," we were told, "in a meticulously planned assault which helps finance the Taliban's insurgency." And then we got the political pay-off from defence secretary John Hutton, who happily twitters:

Our dedicated and professional forces have once again taken the fight to the enemy. Their bravery, coupled with the size and sophistication of our firepower, has cleared the enemy from large areas of Helmand bringing security and governance to more of the province. The seizure of £50 million worth of narcotics will starve the Taliban of crucial funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror on the UK's streets.
It is funny how military operations are always "meticulously planned", and no doubt this one was – like all the rest, although one suspects the MoD would not be publicising it otherwise. They leave those to their Boards of Inquiry and then keep schtum about the results.

Putting this operation in perspective, the local value of the Afghani heroin trade is in the order of £3 billion (as export income). By the time the drugs get on the streets at their destinations, they are worth ten times that – and sometimes more. Hutton's £50 million is in fact worth about £5 million as export value in the form of heroin. As crude opium in situ it is probably worth one tenth of that – about £500,000. That is not even chump change compared with the total value of production.

Even then, the figure is meaningless. The "industry" in Afghanistan is vastly over-producing. It is thus keeping back considerable stocks in reserve, to keep the price buoyant. It will simply replace this amount from stock and won't even miss it. That is one of the more sinister activities of the Taleban, they way they are manipulating the market. Thus, the loss of this small quantity of drugs will have no impact on the overall income and cause very little more than a minor, local inconvenience. It will certainly have no effect on the amount of heroin reaching the UK.

Without in any way downplaying what our troops achieved – they put their lives on the line for this operation - this is typical MoD spin. They talk up every "success" while never giving us the overall picture.

We saw them doing exactly the same in Iraq, talking up weapons cache seizures, which were minuscule compared to what was actually in circulation. On the other hand, they kept very quiet about major losses of equipment and wounded soldiers when, for instance, supply convoys got bounced - which was happening very frequently indeed.

The very great danger in hyping this up is that the MoD actually begins to believe its own propaganda, and starts to think it is achieving anything substantive. That again harps back to Iraq, when the Army mounted a huge programme of raids to capture weapons and bomb-making materials. When it paraded the seized material, one definitely got the sense that the MoD believed it was achieving something. But the raids made absolutely no difference to the rate of bombing and attacks.

Yet, when the US Army and Iraqis closed down the bomb-making factories in al Amarah and Maysan province, within a month, combat engineers doing mine clearance noted a sharp fall off in the number of bombs being laid. The MoD was deceiving itself that its activities were having any effect at all.

What we don't get is any sense of a balance sheet – what we are gaining in overall terms, and what it is costing us. For sure, we know that troops are killed – we know that because the MoD is obliged to tell us when a soldier dies, but it does not tell us of the injured.

What little information we get is statistically meaningless, because we can't relate to anything. The most detail we get is in "puffs" about heroic recoveries of British soldiers, who defy all the odds to overcome their injuries. This is in no way to denigrate these admirable people. It is to attack the MoD for the way it exploits their efforts as a tool of propaganda, giving a one-sided view without the bigger picture.

A little of that emerges in The Sunday Times today which publishes an article headed: "MoD hides rising injury toll of Taliban bombs". There, we are told that more than 100 British soldiers have suffered amputations and other debilitating injuries in the past year in Afghanistan, "according to previously suppressed Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures that reveal the true toll of the Taliban's roadside bombing campaign."

The number of troops losing limbs or eyes, suffering serious burns or permanent brain damage has increased dramatically since August 2007 when the Taliban intensified their efforts. During the past 18 months, 37 of the 71 British troops killed are known to have been the victims of roadside bombs or mines, but the number of troops disabled in the attacks has never been fully disclosed.

Figures now obtained by The Sunday Times show that 37 soldiers suffered "life-changing injuries" between April 2006, when they first deployed to southern Afghanistan, and the end of that year. There were 55 such injuries during the whole of 2007. Last year the figures more than doubled to 114 and there have been 12 cases this year.

Yet this is only one glimpse of the downside. We still don't get any details of how these troops were injured, under what circumstances, and whether – of crucial importance – they could be prevented.

One tantalising piece of information is that, while the MoD has bought better armoured vehicles in an attempt to counter the Taliban offensive, insurgents using such large amounts of explosives there is a limit on the protection afforded even by new Mastiff armoured vehicles. There have, we are told, been cases of soldiers in Mastiffs who were protected from a blast but who lost their legs below the knee as a result of the shock wave inside the vehicle.

We also learn that such is the scarcity of helicopters – which would provide a safer mode of transportation - that last week a British operation against the drug barons financing the Taliban had to use aircraft provided by the US marines. That, incidentally, is a detail curiously missing from the MoD "puff" on the operation.

Campaigners, says The Sunday Times claim the MoD is deliberately keeping the human cost of the war out of the public eye. All the MoD will admit is that 23 soldiers underwent amputations between December 2007 and November 2008, but said is was "unable to provide a breakdown of other serious injuries."

If that is what it is saying, that is a barefaced lie. The most comprehensive details of all injuries in theatre are kept, on a single computer database in Selly Oak, with complete details of all incidents. They are instantly accessible and can provide breakdowns of all the details needed.

Since the MoD is so sparse with its information, perforce, the only real way of measuring progress on the battlefield has been the death rate. This detail has traditionally been used by military historians and, of late, it has been the main metric (sometimes the only metric) on which the media rely. It there is a high number of deaths, the media get interested. If there is a period without casualties, the media goes to sleep.

The problem is that even this metric is now becoming heavily distorted. We saw recently a report in The Daily Telegraph on the extraordinary measures taken to airlift a dozen wounded servicemen out of Helmand province "in the largest and most complex medical evacuation since the conflict in Afghanistan began".

From that piece, we also learn that more than 20 troops a week are being evacuated by air from Camp Bastion and that the number of aeromedical evacuations has more than tripled since the first British forces entered Helmand in 2006 with 800 troops flown home in the past year.

Last year, we also saw a piece which reported that British battlefield casualties had been almost halved by radical new changes implemented by medics, bringing down the death rate on the front line in Afghanistan from almost a quarter dying from their wounds to one in eight.

The massive improvement in survival rates has been put down to "miracle bandages", a new tourniquet and the use of trauma consultants on board evacuation helicopters.

Significantly, the use of large Chinook and Merlin helicopters carrying an anaesthetist or emergency medical consultant plus four medics are the key factor. With most journeys in Helmand involving a two-hour round trip, the doctors can effectively set up a trauma station in the back of the helicopter keeping the patient alive until they reach the field hospital in Camp Bastion.

All this is being done for admirable reasons, and it is far too cynical even to suggest that the enormous effort made to prevent troops dying suits the MoD rather well. The fact is though, that with fewer troops being killed – when even quite recently they would have died – the war in Afghanistan is getting far less scrutiny than it might otherwise have done.

With 58 troops having died this year and last, and a ratio one death in eight applying when previously it would have been one in four, we might have seen 132 deaths but for the changes. Those extra 74 deaths would have brought the total from the current 126 to exactly 200.

These are, of course, rough calculations, but the point is made. With there having been 178 deaths in Iraq, a recorded death toll well in excess of that in Afghanistan would have drastically altered the media dynamics. There would have been far more reporting, much more comment, considerably more criticism and a great deal more political intervention.

What has escaped comment from those who have recently reported on the efforts made to keep injured troops alive is the apparently disproportionate effort being expended. From our extremely limited fleet of Merlins and Chinooks, no expense is spared when it comes to using them as flying trauma stations, but that leaves us even shorter of helicopters for operations, so we have to borrow from the Americans or send troops out in less safe forms of transportation.

Not for the first time do we observe that it would be gratifying if the MoD – as well as the media and politicians – devoted as much energy and resources to keeping troops alive and uninjured as they did to treating them and trying to keep them alive after they have been wounded.

That they could do more is indicated by a piece from Thomas Harding last week, in which he records an interview with Canada's defence minister who tells us that British forces in Afghanistan could "learn lessons" on how to properly equip troops on the front line.

This is an issue we have covered many times on this blog, noting how the Canadians are far more advanced in their force protection techniques, using equipment that we are only now thinking of buying, while still having considerable capability gaps.

With the death rate being contained by "artificial" means rather than by improved fighting equipment and tactics, the fear is that these words will fall on deaf ears. It has been difficult enough getting the MoD to focus on force protection and without constant pressure, there is great danger that we will see backsliding and a renewal of the complacency which has blighted the whole campaign.

As important, with the statistics being skewed – even if for the best of reasons – we are no longer getting any measure of what is going on, beyond the propaganda "puffs" from the MoD. Deprived of signals, we can only speculate, with suspicion that it is far worse than is painted and deteriorating rapidly.

Neither this government nor the MoD can be trusted to tell the truth, and nor can the media be relied upon to ferret it out. We can, under these circumstances, only fear the worst. We are now, in many senses, paying the wages of neglect.


Saturday 21 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 7

In this final part, where we have explored the reasons for the British failure in Iraq, we turn the tables and speculate on whether they, despite the handicaps, could have succeeded. Reviewing what actually did happen after the British had retreated to their final base at Basra airport, we believe they could.

That is the ultimate tragedy. Instead of attracting the contempt of the Iraqis and the disdain of the Americans – who will never really trust us again – we could truly have walked out of Iraq with our heads held high, without having to pretend we had achieved success. It was that close – and that far.

Could it have been different?

At the start of the occupation in May 2003, the decision to cut back troops levels to 11,000 was disastrous, but not fatal. However, with that, Blair's decision to throw his lot in with the Europeans - compensating, many believe, for his failure to deliver the UK into the embrace of the single currency - seriously hampered the ability of the Army to deal with the insurgency.

And, having pledged the nation's armed forces to the Europeans and Iraq, he offered troops to reinforce the campaign in Afghanistan. That made a tight situation worse.

Even then, defeat was not inevitable. Looking at the campaign in the round, the single most egregious failure was the decision to abandon al Amarah, walking out on a half-trained and poorly equipped 10th Division. That was a major strategic error. Yet that decision itself was not initiated by the politicians but by the military.

Strangely, at the time, there had been very little discussion or debate. Equally, there was virtually no evaluation of the strategic consequences. Then, the "retreat" was an administrative decision. The "road map" had already been revealed by Gen Houghton in March, over three months earlier.

But "repositioning" in order to concentrate on Basra was wrong. Al Amarah was the Mahdi Army's major armoury and it would have made more strategic sense to have cut off the supply of arms at source before dealing with the problem of Basra. It was a "downstream" solution, akin to mopping up a floor after the bath had flooded, without first turning off the taps.

Dealing with the indirect fire

Of course, to have maintained forces at Abu Naji would have required dealing with the indirect fire – one of the main reasons why the base was vacated. Here, the main problems were the lack of suitable equipment, in particular UAVs, helicopters and MRAPs, plus C-RAM for base defence. All three could have been provided. Most were eventually provided, but too late. This was not a problem of money. It was about timing – and commitment.

Even in 2006, at a very late hour, had Gen Dannatt been able to break free of the Army’s obsession with FRES, he could have negotiated a major MRAP package. In exchange for scrapping FRES or putting it on the back-burner, substantially larger numbers of Mastiffs could have been bought, together with other, smaller MRAP vehicles. When this happened anyway in October 2008, it was too late for Iraq – and may be too late for Afghanistan.

As to helicopters, the Army was again partly the author of its own misfortune. Many times, cheaper options than the Future Lynx were offered, and rejected. Had the Army been intent on acquiring tactical helicopters rapidly, it could have had them. It was occasionally able to borrow US Blackhawks and the Americans also provided medivac helicopters, but this was not a reliable foundation on which to carry out planning.

The Army was actually offered a new fleet of Blackhawks off-the-shelf. It turned them down. As for UAVs, the MoD already had in place a replacement programme for the Phoenix, called Watchkeeper, modified Israeli Hermes 450s – with deliveries scheduled for 2010. The modifications, incidentally, were part of the FRES programme. They included fitting extra communications systems fit in with the proposed "network" that was at the heart of the system.

Because of the urgency of providing the Army with a UAV capability, in May 2007 the programme was brought forward with the purchase of the basic Hermes system off-the-shelf, direct from Israel. What was done then could have been done earlier, but for the determination to incorporate FRES modifications. Similarly, with C-RAM being ordered by the MoD in 2007, and temporary measures taken to ensure its early deployment, it is not untoward to argue that this equipment too could have been procured earlier.

With suitable equipment, holding the base at Abu Naji could have been tenable, buying time further to train and equip the Iraqi Army 10th Division. That perhaps could have allowed the Army, with existing resources, to back the Iraqis in recovering the city that much earlier, possibly as early as February/March 2008.

A fatal error

Instead of holding the line in al Amarah, the Army committed its main strength to Basra. And there it made a fatal mistake. In September 2006, it launched Operation Sinbad – a last-ditch operation to recover the city. It was well-planned and executed, but the timing was wrong.

Very much later, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Jock Stirrup, complained that the action had been "watered down" and lacked support from the Iraqi politicians, particularly Maliki. That was always going to be the case.

The British had misread the political situation in Iraq and had acted prematurely. Maliki was still in the grip of Muqtada's party and to have openly confronted the Mahdi at that time would have been political suicide. He had not by then secured his political base, weakening the political grip of Muqtada and could not take the same robust line that he took in 2008. The British would have been well advised to have husbanded their resources until a more propitious moment.

There were, though, the dangerous and debilitating attacks on the bases in Basra, but what held for al Amarah could equally have applied to them – with the probability that, without Abu Naji having been abandoned, the pressure on Basra would not have been as strong. Nor indeed would the insurgency in Sadr City been as troublesome, possibly liberating US resources for the fray.

A change in approach

One there had been a change in the balance of political power in Baghdad, things were possible which had previously been impossible. Then, had the British maintained their presence in al Amarah, a joint British/Iraqi move could have been made on the city, cleaning it out as happened with Operation Promise of Peace. This would have made dealing with Basra an easier proposition.

Arguably, with a British presence remaining in Basra, and the indirect fire being dealt with by technology instead of the wasteful use of manpower, the situation would not have deteriorated so far.

Instead of Basra becoming the battlefield in Charge of the Knights and al Amarah being taken without a shot fired, the situation might have been reversed. The battle would have been at al Amarah.

By June 2008, Muqtada was a busted flush and with British support, again using existing resources, the 10th/14th Iraqi Divisions could have walked into the Sadr strongholds in Basra without a shot being fired. The British, instead of skulking in their base in Basra airport, would have been central to the action, with a wholly different outcome to the one that has come to pass.

The tragedy is that this could have been done with existing manpower resources. Through the recovery of first Basra and then al Amarah, the US did not commit more than 2,500 troops – less than the British had available. What they had and the British did not, was the right equipment – and the right mental attitude.

A lack of commitment

To have won would have required the same degree of commitment injected by President Bush, Robert Gates and Gen David Petraeus. Yet, the Army - Dannatt in particular and Jackson before him - was not prepared to sanction what was required to fight a war that he and the rest of the Army no longer believed was winnable.

That was the real problem. Wars are won and lost in the minds of men. Even without the political drag, this war would have been lost because the Army had decided it was not worth winning. More to the point, it had decided that the price it would have to pay in order to win was unacceptable.

In Iraq, therefore, the Army was defeated by its own leaders. Indisputably, the major fault lay with the politicians, in particular, one man – Tony Blair. But the Army was not without fault. Its equipment was wrong, its tactics were wrong and, in the final analysis, it lost faith in its mission and gave up.

Whether Service chiefs could have made a difference lies in the realm of speculation. The indications are that they did not try. They accepted defeat and, in so doing, made it inevitable.


Friday 20 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 6

In this part six, we look at the vexed question of under-resourcing. Throughout the Iraqi campaign, the mantras of "underfunding" and "over-stretch" were frequently in the media and came easily from the lips of opposition politicians. More "boots on the ground" and more money were the answers to all ills. However, as always, there are more to these issues than meets the eye.


In August 2007, L/Sgt Chris Casey, and L/Cpl Kirk Redpath were getting murdered. They were pointless and unnecessary deaths. They had been "top covers" in a Snatch escorting a convoy of large trucks out from Kuwait and had been hit by an IED. Two other soldiers were seriously injured. The insurgents had seen the vehicles going down and were waiting for their return.

After all this time, when the Army had been losing Bulldogs, Warriors and even Challengers to IEDs, it was still sending men to die in Snatches. Mastiffs were in theatre and the soldiers' platoon commander had asked for one. Despite Mr Blair's assurances that the armed forces were "extremely well equipped," none had been available. And, for all these soldiers' sacrifice, neither had many "hearts and minds" been won on the six-lane motorway out of Kuwait where the "size and profile" of the Snatch had so obviously and desperately been needed.

A day later, Col Bob Stewart - "former UN commander of British troops in Bosnia" – was on the Today programme. He ventured that the Army was taking the casualties because: "we cannot dominate the ground". The options, he said, were to "retake and dominate the ground, or abandon it."

However, Liam Fox, shadow defence secretary, said the Army was paying for the Government's mistake of not investing enough men, equipment or money into reconstruction at the time of the invasion. "It's tragic that our Armed Forces are paying the price of a lack of political care and planning," he said.

Six months later, L/Cpl Redpath's girlfriend, Sharon Hawkes, echoed this theme: "It was underfunding by the Government that killed him," she said. But she had been pre-empted by Lord Rees-Mogg, who observed:

Throughout the Iraq war, our Forces have been short of suitable armoured vehicles. For years, the Basra palace run had to be performed in vulnerable Snatch vehicles; these have only recently been replaced by the Warrior, which is itself vulnerable to roadside bombs. Unlike American vehicles, the Warrior is not air-conditioned and can get unbearably hot in the sun.
These problems, Rees-Mogg – together with hundreds of the commentariat - attributed to "underfunding", thus illustrating the shallowness of the public debate. The Army had been turning down immediate funding in order to pursue the Eldorado of its £16 billion fleet of medium-weight armoured vehicles, an issue that had almost completely escaped attention.

Even at a more prosaic level, Rees-Mogg was out of touch. Warriors had been available since before the occupation and the use of the Snatch had been a policy issue. There had been no funding issues. Not least, the cost of operating Warriors was £250 per track mile, in normal peacetime use.

Aside from the far better protection afforded by the Mastiff – which was also fitted with powerful and highly effective air conditioning – this vehicle was far cheaper to run. The operational savings alone would have justified their use. And, compared with buying a basic FRES utility vehicle at £8 million each, the Mastiff – and Ridgeback – comes out at less than one eighth the cost, with far more durability and real-world capability.

Significant savings had been demonstrated by US forces, primarily through reduced long-term medical care, rehabilitation, and death benefit payments arising from the lower casualty rate. Additionally, many damaged MRAPs could be repaired and returned to service while conventional vehicles would often have to be written off.

Vehicles with add-on armour were also suffering reduced servicability and shorter lives. MRAPs lasted considerably longer. These factors, together with the decrease in force replacement costs due to casualties and improvements in operational effectiveness, made the MRAP significantly less costly than legacy vehicles.

It would have been cheaper to have bought L/Sgt Casey and L/Cpl Redpath their own personal Mastiff and kept them alive. But the Generals wanted their toys.

Light aviation

The funding problem, of course, was far more complex than either politicians or media allowed for. Take, for instance, the need for airborne surveillance – for tasks as diverse as intelligence gathering and providing "top cover" for routine convoys.

One obvious answer, as part of a mixed package of capabilities, would have been the use of light aircraft. However, the British had no such capability. The Iraqi Air Force did – militarised two-seater, single-engined club trainers called the Sama 2000. Purchased for £363,000 each, their surveillance equipment was capable of detecting a man-sized target at two miles range from 2,000ft – or a hidden bomb.

They were occasionally used to support British forces in Maysan. Although the aircraft were limited in their capabilities, they carried exactly the same optical equipment as the giant, four-engined Nimrod MR4 maritime surveillance aircraft, one of which was so tragically to crash while on a mission in Afghanistan in September 2006.

A fleet of Nimrods was being operated out of Oman, flying up the Gulf and deep inland to provide support for ground operations. Costing £30,000 an hour to operate and flying sorties of twelve hours duration – more with air-to-air refuelling – three days-worth of flying set back the military budget £1 million. The Samas provided a “good enough” solution to the problem of providing low-level airborne surveillance.

But that was not the British way. While "good enough" was entirely acceptable as a military solution to Iraq, when it came to equipment, hugely expensive adapted maritime aircraft or £14 million Future Lynx helicopters delivered in 2014 or sometime never – with very similar camera equipment – were the preferred option. As so very often in British military thinking, the best was the enemy of the good.

This lack of flexibility and the determination to opt for the "best" long-term solution – even though it would not be available for many years - was to deprive the Army of crucial air support. Through the Second World War, it had enjoyed its own light reconnaissance capability with the single-engined Auster – another adapted club aircraft.

Operating in far more dangerous environments than Iraq, its losses were remarkably low. The type was used in Aden and Oman, supplemented by the more powerful DHC Beaver, which also provided welcome support in Northern Ireland where it was the Army’s primary surveillance platform.

In other Armies, light fixed-wing aviation also had a long history, with the Australian Army in the Vietnam War operating Pilatus Porter for reconnaissance, liaison and for communications relay, the latter function carried out in Iraq by the Nimrod.

The Porter was an interesting aircraft. With exceptional short-field performance, it is still in production and with an airframe cost of around £2 million and low operating costs (under £2,000 an hour), it or something similar could have provided a useful stopgap. However, a fixed-wing option was never considered. In the early 70s, the Army Air Corps had converted to an all-helicopter fleet, with a few exceptions.

Techology galore - but not yet

One of those exceptions, though, was the two-engined Britten Norman Defender surveillance aircraft. Four of these were purchased in 2003, at a cost of £4.5 million each. Some were deployed to Iraq but, despite extensive inquiries, no reports of their performance were ever released.

They cannot have been overly successful because in May 2007 the MoD announced the order of four highly sophisticated Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft - designated the Shadow R - as replacements, costed at £14 million each. Not intended for service until 2010, these were far too late for Iraq.

Meanwhile, the RAF had been waiting for five R1 Sentinel surveillance aircraft. Ordered in 1999 at a cost of just over £1 billion, it was equipped with high performance radar based on the equipment used in the U-2 "spy-plane" of Cold War fame.

It could – without any trace of exaggeration – detect footprints in the desert sand from an altitude of 20,000 feet. Originally intended to be operational by 2005, the date was deferred to 2007 because of development problems, then to 2008 and finally to 2010, once again far too late for Iraq.

This was a disease affecting the whole military establishment. With no end of high-performance kit just over the horizon, the money had been committed yet the capabilities were not available. However, their very existence as projects blocked – both financially and intellectually – consideration of cheap stopgap solutions that were "good enough" to solve immediate problems.

Boots on the ground

In May 2007, "senior army officers" were worried that Gordon Brown – soon to become prime minister - was going to cut the number of troops in Iraq to such a low level that their effectiveness would be jeopardised and lives endangered.

One officer complained: "We are sitting ducks and have very little in the way of resources to react. If we mount an operation to deter a mortar attack it takes an entire battle group and ties up all our people." Any further reductions in numbers, said the officer, would leave British troops "hanging onto Basra by our finger tips".

This was the limit of the argument and the public perception. More attacks required more troops for defence or, at least, the retention of existing manpower, with an officer openly stating that it took a complete battle group – some 500 men – to "deter a mortar attack".

Between May and July, as efforts to counter the increasing mortar fire had failed, with attacks intensifying by the day, five men were killed by indirect fire and two on the fruitless task of deterring mortar attacks. Many more were injured. Thousands of man hours had been expended, and dozens of operations launched, to no avail.

Yet, in early July, USAF operators of a Predator UAV had observed insurgents fire two mortar bombs then load the tube into the trunk of their vehicle. They had launched a Hellfire from the Predator, hitting the front of the car and destroying it. This was the job for which the British needed an entire battle group.

The task that the British were attempting could have been accomplished by a small fleet of Predators UAV armed with Hellfire missiles. This would have required no more than a few dozen men who would never have been exposed to any personal risk. By contrast, the profligate use of manpower – and money - did not achieve results. It was not the only example, by any means.

A waste of resource

In May 2007 the MoD bought new fleet of "munitions disposal vehicles" replacing its existing fleet of very similar vehicles. At a cost of £415,000 each – a cool £7.5 million – these were 18 Swiss-built trucks called the "Tellar".

They were unarmoured vans. Like the Vector, they had a "cab forward" design, making them extremely vulnerable to IED attack. There was only concession to the fact that they going into war zones: they had "a level of riot protection" - mesh screens on the windows.

However, "Felix wagons", as they are called by troops, are always prime targets for insurgents. One common tactic is to set up decoy explosions and then mine the area where an vehicle might be expected to park when it arrived with its crew to investigate. Another was simply to ambush the vehicles en route.

The lack of protection had very significant manning implications. While the US was equipping its disposal officers with MRAPs – armoured, armed and self-supporting, with small groups of men - the British, forever complaining about "overstretch", had to keep available large numbers of mounted infantrymen to escort the unarmoured and unarmed bomb disposal vehicles. No wonder they were short of men.

Not the issues

Underfunding was not the issue. Waste was, and the obsession with buying absurdly expensive "toys" certainly was. Underfunding was too easy an excuse – as indeed was the manning issue.

Many will argue that, without more troops, the campaign could never have succeeded. Allan Mallinson, former soldier, writer and military historian, argues thus. He may be right. But he also argues that the strategy must be right. "Without a coherent strategy," he says, "even the best tactics are futile: casualties just mount." He then adds: "But there is no getting round it: strategy needs troops on the ground."

One can agree with that, but also suggest that the troops did not have to be British. In the successful operations to recover Basra and then al Amara, the bulk of the troops were Iraqi.

They had strong American support but the US Army committed just 2,500 troops to southern Iraq – less than the British fielded throughout the occupation. The fault lies in handing over to the Iraqis before they were ready – and indeed before Maliki had secured his political base and could commit them to the battle with the Mahdi Army.

The real answers

The real causes of failure ran much deeper but even now few understand or want to address them. To deal with the tactical situation, the British could not "dominate the ground" as Col Stewart counselled because, every time they left their bases, they were brought down by IEDs and the constant attacks. When they stayed in their bases, the insurgents killed troops there as well. When the British left their bases in an attempt to track down and destroy their attackers, they were also killed.

It had become a vicious circle, one that could have been broken had the Army applied its mind to the problem, but it chose not to. Better use of the cash available, better use of technology, better politics and more use of brainpower were the real answers. But it was easier to complain.


Thursday 19 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 5

Having looked at the effects of policy on the conduct of the campaign in Iraq, in this fifth part, we look at the Army's response to criticisms, and its broader response to its own failures, reflecting on the nature of the problems which affect the Army high command.

Armchair critics

Faced with criticisms of the Iraqi operation, Gen Dannatt has been quick to round on "armchair critics". He is not the only one. At the height of the Iranian hostages affair in April 2007, there had been much speculation about the apparent willingness of the boarding team to surrender without a shot being fired. Des Browne had sprung to the team's defence, castigating the "armchair pundits". "We ought to be very careful about commenting from the comparative comfort of wherever we are, when we are not out there on operations, about decisions that operational commanders and other people make," he said.

It is perhaps a little unkind to point out that, when it came to armchairs, the MoD was better equipped than most. To complement the £2.3 billion refurbishment of its headquarters in Whitehall, it had purchased over three thousand Herman Miller Aeron chairs, described as "the most comfortable office chairs in the world" - at a list price of over £1,000 each.

An Army incapable of learning

Despite its rejection of "armchair critics", we have an Army which seems incapable of learning for itself. For instance, with troops deployed in Afghanistan, albeit in small numbers before 2006, as had happened in Iraq, routine patrols in the capital Kabul had been carried out in Wolf Land Rovers.

Sure enough, on 28 January 2004, a patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing Pte Jonathan Kitulagoda and destroying the Land Rover. As in Iraq, the Army replaced these vehicles with Snatches. Sure enough, on 4 September 2006, a patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing Pte Craig O'Donnell. Four Afghani civilians were also killed and another soldier was very seriously injured.

Just over a month later, on 19 October, Marine Gary Wright, 45 Commando Royal Marines, was killed in a Snatch as it left the police station in Lashkar Gah, the regional capital of Helmand Province. A suicide bomber had been waiting for his convoy. The Snatch was destroyed, one other Royal Marine was seriously injured and two children bystanders were killed.

In all, up to the end of 2008, at least ten soldiers died in Snatches in Afghanistan, culminating in an infamous incident on 16 June 2008. Then, four soldiers were killed in a Snatch, three from the SAS and one female soldier, Sarah Bryant. Another soldier was badly injured.

The use of the Snatch was roundly condemned as "cavalier at best, criminal at worst," by Major Sebastian Morley, the soldiers' CO. Having tendered his resignation, he claimed that Whitehall officials and military commanders had repeatedly ignored his warnings. Troops would be killed if they continued to allow them to be transported in this vulnerable vehicle, he had protested. He had not been alone. "We highlighted this issue saying people are going to die and now they have died," said a soldier who served with Major Morley, referring to a vehicle which the troops were calling "mobile coffins".

Defence of the Snatch

Far from being contrite, the MoD robustly defended the Snatch. In the immediate aftermath of the June incident, Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth had in the Commons insisted that "commanders on the ground" were telling him they still needed Land Rover-based platforms "... and they will do for the foreseeable future." Weathering aggressive oral questions on 3 November and even a question to the Prime Minister two days later, the MoD maintained its fightback.

This culminated in briefings to MPs and media on 16 December from none other than Lt Gen Nick Houghton, now Chief of Joint Operations. Patronising in tone and simplistic in content, Houghton's dissertation amounted to an admission that, as long as there was a tactical need for a light protected vehicle, the Snatch would have to remain in service. There was no other option. "You may have heard of alternatives," he said, "but at present no acceptable alternative vehicle exists though they are being actively sought."

The Vector – a "coffin on wheels"

What he admitted to journalists after his formal presentation, though, was that there had been an alternative. But it had "proved inadequate, unable to cope with the threat from roadside bombs." This was the Pinzgauer Vector, about which the Army had been so enthusiastic in July 2006. Then, it had prevailed upon Des Browne to buy more - its price for accepting the Mastiff which it had not wanted. A clear record of the Army's intent had been delivered in March 2007 – by Houghton himself. He then told the House of Commons Defence Committee that once the Vector had been deployed fully, "the more vulnerable Snatch would be withdrawn from service in Afghanistan".

There were hints of a problem in June 2008, in a published list of "expected out-of-service dates" for a range of vehicles. The Vector was given a date of 2015. In an Army that routinely kept vehicles for 30 years or more, a mere seven-year service life was unprecedented. Therein lay a tale which raises serious questions about the competence and good faith of those involved in the procurement of Army vehicles.

In June 2006, when the Army had first announced its intention to buy Vectors, this "armchair general" expressed alarm at these "coffins of wheels". This was based on the manufacturer's specifications, which claimed a protection rating against "two NATO L2A2 hand grenades detonating simultaneously only 150mm below the floor pan" – 350g of high explosive. This vehicle was to be deployed into one of the heaviest mined countries in the world, up against Russian anti-tank mines housing 7.5 Kg of high explosive.

More alarmingly, the Vector had a "cab forward" layout, with the driver and the front seat passenger sat over the wheel arches. If a mine detonated under a wheel, either the driver or the passenger would be directly in the so-called "cone of destruction", exposed to the full force of the blast. At least with the Snatch and its "engine forward" layout, there was some distance between the front wheels and the occupants of the cab, allowing, as some did, soldiers to escape the full force of a mine and survive.

Had it deliberately sought out a design to maximise deaths and injuries, the Army, in selecting the Vector, could not have made a better choice. Furthermore, the vehicle was not cheap. Including the support package, each cost £437,000. They were not only "coffins on wheels", they were very expensive coffins. The £258,000 price of a Force Protection Cougar – on which the Mastiff was based – was better value.

Predictably – totally and completely predictably – within months of the Vector being deployed, a fatality was reported. This was on 25 July 2007 when L/Cpl Alex Hawkins and others, "had been taking part in a routine patrol and were returning to their patrol base when the explosion struck their Vector." Two other soldiers were injured. The Vector had to be destroyed to avoid it falling into enemy hands. Channel 4 News noted:

Vector, which is more suitable for rugged terrain than the army’s existing Snatch patrol vehicle, was recently introduced as part of a package of measures designed to increase troops' safety in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first Vectors began arriving in the country in April of this year and are being phased in, set to replace most of the Snatch vehicles by late October.
How many non-fatal incidents occurred we have no means of knowing but reports from serving troops recorded that the "ambulance" section of their flights home were frequently occupied by soldiers who had lost their legs from mine blasts. There is no means of knowing either how many soldiers were killed in Vectors. Conscious of the potential for damaging publicity, the MoD stopped reporting the types of vehicle involved in fatal incidents.

But we do know that, from October 2007 when Snatches were supposed to have been replaced, there had been only one fatal incident involving a Snatch – killing Sarah Bryant and her colleagues – as against three known fatal Vector incidents. There has since been one more, bringing the known total to four.

But there was a final twist to this debacle. There had been yet another Snatch replacement. In April 2008, months before Sarah Bryant and her colleagues had died, the MoD had ordered 24 mine-protected Bushmasters, exclusively for the Special Forces. Had the British emulated the Dutch and called off vehicles directly from Australian Army stock of 400, they could have been on a freight aircraft within weeks and been issued to units in Afghanistan by May. This vehicle could readily have resisted the attack which had killed four people and injured another.

Defence of a failed strategy

While the Snatch was getting the lion's share of attention – greater than in 2005, when so many more soldiers were being killed – and the Bushmaster order having been ignored, troops were being killed and injured in a far more dangerous vehicle, one which had been slated as a replacement for the Snatch. No wonder the Snatch Vixen was rushed in to plug the gap. No wonder Lt Gen Houghton and the MoD had been defensive.

There was though, more to Houghton's defensiveness. The Snatch was more than just a vehicle. It was the embodiment of a mindset. The vehicle filled an operational requirement, reflecting the Army's approach to counter-insurgency. As Houghton explained in his briefing:
In counter insurgency environments, other factors play into the desired capability mix. Most obvious amongst such factors are first the physical accessibility of vehicles in built up areas and narrow streets … Second the physical profile of the vehicle and its affect (sic) on the local people.

Third the ability of a vehicle to allow its occupants to interact with the local population and to allow observation of local atmospherics. And finally I would say the physical effect that a vehicle has in respect of the likelihood of it damaging local infrastructure such as mud walls and weakly constructed roads and culverts and thereby alienating the local population.
The Snatch, therefore, was essential to the Army's "hearts and minds" strategy. But what Houghton did not explain was there were two parts, essentially summed up as "go light – go heavy". The essence was outlined in a joint US/UK study of the British approach to "low intensity operations" in Iraq. This grouped armour into two packages. The Challengers and the Warriors were the "heavies", the Snatch, obviously, the "light". Thus:

Warriors and ultimately Challengers were found to send a very strong statement whereas the use of Snatch vehicles … sent an entirely different message. During difficult periods, having such impressive physical capabilities greatly enhanced the ability to ramp up and down between stances, maintaining British credibility as a serious fighting force.
The strategy, therefore, amounted to sending messages, essentially paternalistic in nature. If the citizens were good, daddy would use Snatches. If they were naughty, daddy would send out the Warriors. If they were very naughty, daddy would get really cross and inflict Challengers on them. If they then behaved themselves, it was back to Snatches as a reward … go light, go heavy – go light, exactly the rhythm to which the Staffords had been exposed in al Amarah in 2005 with such tragic consequences.

The problem, of course, was that the insurgents did not quite see like that. Going "light" meant offering them targets. When the British upped the ante and escorted the Snatches with Warriors, the insurgents learnt how to take out Warriors. When the Challengers appeared, they learnt how to take them out as well. After that, the British had nowhere to go, other than their bases – where they became … targets.

One thing the study also noted was the "instinctive reluctance of junior officers to rely heavily on technology to assist in their tactical decision-making". Was it "based on ill-founded conservatism or on a justified concern with how it may adversely influence their instincts?" it asked. It failed to note that technophobia was not confined to junior officers. However, the point was made – that technology was not always part of the British force mix. More worryingly, it was not part of the intellectual make-up of the Army.


Wednesday 18 February 2009

Lost before it started – Part 4

The earlier parts deal with the emergence of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF) and the Army's response to it – how this led to a "major restructuring" of the Army which took precedence over the war in Iraq, condemning troops to using second-hand equipment while the General dreamed of their powerful new "toys".

We also saw how, as the strategic situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, the fantasy collided with reality and Gen Dannatt was forced to concede that the Army would have to be equipped to fight the real war. In this part, we have a look at the "fantasy Army" as might have been, and find it still casts a long shadow over the operational capabilities of the Army.

FRES and counter-insurgency

Had FRES, as originally conceived, ever been put to the test in a counter-insurgency environment, it would have been a disaster. Based on detecting the enemy before it could get close enough to do any damage, the concept was dangerously wrong.

Insurgents, as is generally known, are not always obliging enough to wear uniforms and drive around in hardware conveniently painted in military colours. Indistinguishable from the civilian population in which they operate, they rely on cheap weapons, immune to the high-tech sensors and the billion-pound weapons systems.

A man with an RPG bought in the local arms bazaar for a few dollars or with two 152mm artillery shells taped together which he can bury by the roadside can get inside the "sensor loop". He can destroy equipment worth tens of millions of pounds, kill and injure soldiers and civilians and make the "battlefield" untenable.

As to the Army structure required for FRES, this was also antithesis of that needed to conduct a successful counter-insurgency. With Gen Jackson's Future Army Structure, the requirement was for highly specialised mechanised infantry, endowed with a very high level of technical skills and capable of operating sophisticated electronic equipment and advanced weapons systems.

Crucially, proficiency required an equally high level of training, plus constant rehearsals and exercises, all to keep skills current and maintain unit cohesion – especially given the relatively high churn rate in the infantry and the low skill base of recruits.

Breaking the Army

In such an Army, training is a full-time job and one which cannot be neglected. So specialised is the task that training and deployment for entirely different counter-insurgency tasks, in two different theatres, could not help but impose enormous strains on a relatively small Army. It was this, more than anything to which Dannatt was referring when he complained of Iraq plus Afghanistan breaking his Army.

It was not the operations themselves which caused the problem. Maintaining what amounted to two reinforced brigades in the field, even with manpower levels under 100,000, should have presented no insuperable difficulties. It was operations, plus the pressing need to maintain the "normal" training cycle – to maintain his "balanced force", as Dannatt liked to call it – which caused the problem.

That problem had been considerably exacerbated by the current roulement system, where complete units are rotated into theatre for six months, before being returned. With gaps between each operational deployment of two years under the so-called "harmony guidelines", this created a planning nightmare.

But the greater problem was the six months needed for the specialist pre-deployment training that each unit needed, and the period of "deprogramming" required afterwards. Cramming in the "proper" training, for the FRES/balanced force capability, and then having to rebuild the skill sets and currency after they have been lost during operational deployments and their training cycles were extremely problematical.

Depending on the view taken, either this requirement was breaking the back of the Army, or the operational load was doing the damage. Dannatt believed it was the latter.

In that sense, FRES – and the commitment to the ERRF – cast a long shadow. It overstressed an Army that could perhaps have performed one function well, but could not cope with two entirely different and mutually incompatible tempos. There lay a further element to the defeat in Iraq.

Forced to choose between losing the war and, in his terms, irrevocably damaging his Army – not that it was put in such blunt terms – Dannatt made what appeared to be a soldier's choice. His Army came first. In fact, it was a bureaucrat's choice. The Army as an object had become more important than the tasks it was to perform. There is even a name for this – it is called self-maintenance.

Dannatt's precious Piranhas

As to the FRES vehicles, Dannatt's precious Piranhas, clearly they would have provided better protection than Snatch Land Rovers. But they would probably have been no greater a success than the Warriors they would have replaced – i.e., less effective than dedicated MRAP vehicles. Here, it is possible to gain some first-hand indications as to how they would actually have performed for, while the British abandoned the FFLAV idea, the Canadian forces did not.

They introduced the earlier version of the Piranha as the LAV (light armoured vehicle) which – in its numerous variants - forms the backbone of their armoured formations. And with the Canadian deployment to Afghanistan also went their LAVs.

There is no reliable information on casualty rates relative to specific vehicles. The Canadians adopted as a formal policy that which exists informally in the British Army, that of declining to identify the vehicles involved in incidents, fatal or otherwise. However, before information dried up, it was evident that a considerable and distressing number of LAVs had been involved in attacks in which one or more crew members had died.

What also appeared to be the case was that the bulk – if not all – of the casualties occurred on roads, where the vehicles were either in transit to or from operations, or on escort duties. In most cases, they were travelling with their armoured hatches open, either to improve visibility (and ventilation) or – in accordance with standing orders – to relieve overpressure in the event of a hull breach from a mine or IED.

This can be more dangerous in the confines of an armoured vehicle than direct blast effects. For whatever reason, most of the casualties involved either drivers or vehicle commanders, these being in the most exposed positions. Although more heavily armoured, there is no reason to suppose that the crews of later mark Piranhas would not suffer the same fate. They are not mine-protected to anything like the same extent as a dedicated MRAPs and do not provide all-round, enclosed protection.

There are also the experimental Stryker Brigades deployed by the US Army in Iraq, these too being based on the Piranha platform. These are perhaps closer to the model which the British vehicles would have followed, as the Brigades were set up to develop the Future Combat System (FCS), the closest parallel to FRES. Their performance is a matter of considerable debate – and dispute. The consensus, if there is one, lies in the view that the "jury is still out".

However, there have been reports of considerable losses. A single infantry company in Diyala province lost five Strykers in less than a week. In one of the biggest hits, six American soldiers and a journalist were killed when a huge bomb exploded beneath their Stryker on 6 May 2007. It was the biggest one-day loss for the battalion in more than two years.

It is perhaps significant that Gen Petraeus did not seek to expand the Stryker force when implementing the surge, and that MRAP vehicles now perform many of the functions previously carried out by Strykers. On that basis, the experience does not provide a comforting assurance that British deployment of Piranhas would have been successful.

The ultimate irony though is that FRES had been killed off by the very insurgency it was never meant to fight. Recognising the inherent vulnerability of FRES vehicles, designers had sought to bolt more and more armour on them, and added more systems, in a vain attempt to proof them against IEDs. They are now so heavy that they cannot be carried by standard military transport aircraft. The concept is no longer viable – not that it ever was.


Tuesday 17 February 2009

The name of the game

A correspondent observes that, in his commuting days, when travelling up to London by train on Monday mornings and back on Friday afternoon/evening, he was amazed at the number of military officers doing likewise. They were attending the MoD for defence procurement exercises that ended up years late and miles over budget. There were sufficient of these guys to have manned another war.

This completely misses the point. The purpose of procurement is not actually to buy anything - Heavens forbid. It is a form of outdoor relief for superannuated and otherwise unemployable Colonels, and a mechanism for keeping large numbers of Civil Servants occupied.

Actually acquiring equipment spoils the game - not only is there no more "work" to do, the Services actually get their mits on it and start complaining about how rubbish it is. Then the media and MPs get stuck in and life gets very uncomfortable.

If, however, the job is done really badly, this can be of advantage. A new project team can be set up to procure a replacement and the whole game can start over. This usually has to wait for a change in government - or a new Secretary of State - as existing governments/ministers are loath to admit they have been had.

Therefore, the most skilful players ensure that a project is cancelled just before it gets to the stage where any equipment actually has to be produced. Then a new project can be set up, only for that one to be cancelled as well. This can be kept going for decades without ever having to deliver anything.

This is, of course, why the MoD hates wars. Soldiers then develop quite unreasonable expectations of wanting kit with which they can actually fight. Wholly irrationally, they even expect it to work.

Furthermore, the enemy, not having read the ministerial briefs extolling the virtues of the kit that escapes the system and gets delivered, tends to trash it rather quickly, again inviting awkward questions from the media and MPs.

This can be overcome by avoiding real wars and inventing imaginary enemies in some imaginary theatre in some future war, which never actually comes. This allows the establishment of endless planning committees to devise new and increasingly expensive equipment with which to defeat them.

Any "enemy" so devised always exactly conforms with expectations, to which effect the imaginary equipment devised to defeat it always performs superbly, thus keeping everybody happy and gainfully employed.


Lost before it started - Part 3

In Part 1, we saw that Tony Blair had committed the bulk of the UK's long-term deployable forces to the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). Part 2 saw the 2003 Defence White Paper, heralding a "major restructuring" of the Army and the official emergence of FRES, in order to meet the commitment – just at a time when the Army was taking on the occupation of Iraq and needed to keep its options open.

We also saw the Army enthusiastically embrace the restructuring, using it to reactivate an 80s equipment project and acquire a fleet of new armoured vehicles. General Sir Mike Jackson then started reshaping the infantry to accommodate the new equipment – even though it would not be available for many years. With this going on, the war in Iraq took second place, the Army there having to make do with 14-year-old second-hand Land Rovers.

In this Part 3, we see a new Chief of the General Staff take over – General Sir Richard Dannatt. But the madness goes on.

A new broom

When General Sir Richard Dannatt took over as Chief of the General Staff from Jackson in August 2006, the war in Iraq was at a critical phase. The "repositioning" in al Amarah was imminent and the violence in Basra was reaching fever pitch.

Rather than grip the situation, however, he shared the lack of enthusiasm for mine-protected vehicles displayed by his predecessor. During the intense debates through the Browne review, he was "barely visible". He did, on the other hand, inherit Jackson's enthusiasm for "FRES".

As the Army – predictably - failed to grapple with the insurgency, it was Dannatt turned away from Iraq and looked to the fresher fields of Afghanistan. There, he thought, the highly mobile warfare was more like the war the Army wanted to fight. Facetiously, one might say that they didn't like the war they were in, so he looked around for another, better one.

Ostensibly, the Afghan war presented a tactical opportunity for deploying a medium-weight, mobile force. This allowed Dannatt to continue his advocacy of FRES – more accurately FFLAV - which he did at any and every opportunity. In early 2007 it looked as if the project was coming "unstuck", with suggestions that the first vehicles would not enter service until 2017.

A different route

By mid-2007, the United States was taking a different route. Similarly afflicted by the scourge of the improvised explosive device (IED), newly appointed Defense Secretary Robert Gates kick-started a massive re-equipment programme, supplying what was to become a flood of what were called Mine Protected Ambush Resistant (MRAP) vehicles to Iraq. As the programme moved into high gear, eventually furnishing over 10,000 new vehicles, Gates identified it as his "highest priority".

The British Army, with Dannatt at its head, having rejected the opportunity to embark on a similar re-equipment programme, had grudgingly accepted a token number of 100 MRAP-type vehicles – the Mastiff – split between the two theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It had also pushed, as a condition for accepting the limited number of MRAPs, a new type of patrol vehicle, the Vector, which was not mine-protected. It was to replace the vulnerable Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan, yet was even more dangerous than the vehicle it replaced. Overall, therefore, while the US was systematically increasing the level of protection for its troops, the British Army was doing the opposite.

With Gates identifying MRAP as his "highest priority", Dannatt on the other hand declared FRES his "highest equipment priority". He was determined, he said, "that we will make this programme a timely success - it is at the heart of the future Army".

It was not a "future army". It was one which rested on an operational concept settled twenty years earlier for a war on another continent against a different enemy. Likely, it was based on doctrines that were even older, dreamed up by long-retired generals from a different age.

Nevertheless, by July 2007, Dannatt was insisting that "FRES" should acquire an in-service date of 2012. This, he said, was "non-negotiable". In October, a shortlist of three vehicle types was settled. One was the Piranha. Another was the MRAV.

But there was no longer even a pretence that this was FRES. It was what the Army had always intended it should be - a straight purchase of a new armoured vehicle. Predictably, the favourite was the Piranha. This was a later version of the very same vehicle which the Army had picked for FFLAV. In twenty years, the Army had gone full circle – its dreams were within a whisker of fulfilment.

The trials of truth

There was absolutely no doubt about the Army's determination to acquire the Piranha. To meet the notional and still vague requirements for FRES, General Dynamics, the manufacturers, had offered a "paper upgrade" of the then current version. The MoD in 2007 then launched a "competition" to select it, known as the "trials of truth". The Piranha, predictably, "ticked all the boxes". The paper vehicle completely met the paper specification.

Up against it, as the third of the triumvirate in the competition, was the Nexter VBCI, very similar in concept to the Piranha. However, unlike the Piranha VI – as it was to be called – the VBCI was a real vehicle, in production and entering service with the French Army.

The manufacturers of the VBCI, formerly the state-owned Giat Industries, were very keen to secure a prestige British order. So keen were they that they later prevailed upon the French government to agree to modify its own delivery programme to release sufficient vehicles to equip a British battle group.

Thus, not only was the VBCI a real vehicle, it was available for delivery in 2011 – at a fixed price. It was the only equipment that could have permitted the MoD to meet Dannatt's preferred in-service date. In fact, it could have come into service before his deadline.

Rigging the results

In the "trials of truth", real vehicle met paper specifications - and it had passed almost all the requirements, proving 95 percent compliant. This was not what the Army wanted. Out on the testing ground, therefore, diligent MoD officials managed to fail it on a number of arcane requirements.

One such "failure" was the speed with which an engine could be changed in field. The company had been judged on a leisurely demonstration which had not been part of the competition, despite evidence of controlled tests which proved that the specification could be exceeded.

Such was the determination that the vehicle would fail that a general specification unique to the British Army was also applied. This was the "ground running test", a legacy of an Army that had become used to dealing with the unreliable tank engines with which it had historically been provided.

Before fitting it to a tank in the field, a replacement power pack had to be capable of being set up on the ground, with the necessary fuel and electrical connections, in order for it to run. This was to avoid having to commit the labour to installing the engine, only to find that it did not work.

With the VBCI being fitted with a modified commercial truck engine produced by Renault, with hundreds of millions of miles behind it, Nexter thought such a provision unnecessary.

Furthermore, French Army doctrine did not require it. With a light, wheeled armoured vehicle, the preference was to recover the vehicle and tow it to a field workshop rather than replace a failed engine in situ. Thus, there was no provision for ground running.

Had it been considered, the engineering modifications to allow it would have been simple and cheap to provide. But, as submitted for the "trials of truth", the equipment lacked this element. Thus was the VBCI failed, despite protestations that modifications could and would be made before any vehicle went into service.

The Piranha VI, of course, had a provision for ground running – on paper. And by such means the paper Piranha triumphed. But for this, even within its own published terms, the Army could have had its FRES utility vehicle. It would have been a Nexter VBCI. This was not acceptable. Twenty years previously, the Army had set its heart on the Piranha. Wish fulfilment was more important than operational capability.

Climbing down

Unconscious of the history and clearly unaware of the recent background to vehicle procurement decisions, Michael Evans of The Times noted the "delay" in procuring "FRES". He thus opined that, to fill the gap, “the MoD has had to spend £120 million to buy 200 Mastiff and Vector armoured personnel carriers off the shelf to provide sufficient protection.”

That represented the extent of media understanding of what had been – and was then still - one of the most closely-fought battles on equipment in recent times, a battle that had stretched back over twenty years. The lack of understanding extended even to the failure to distinguish between the Mastiff and the Vector.

Unsurprisingly, when the Piranha was selected in May 2008 as the preferred design for FRES – as only it could have been - very few noted the subtle change in Dannatt's position.

From being his "highest equipment priority", FRES had become his "highest priority after support to operations." The born-again FFLAV was slipping through his fingers. As the campaign in Afghanistan was bogging down, with the proliferation of the IED increasingly hampering mobility - as it had done in Iraq - even Dannatt was having to concede that the Army would have to be equipped to fight the real war.

In February 2009 – just short of a year later - then Foreign Secretary David Miliband was freely acknowledging that the Taleban had managed to create "a strategic stalemate" in parts of Afghanistan, "through their use of improvised explosive devices".

What had happened in Iraq had come to pass in Afghanistan. More than two years earlier, Conservative back-bencher Anne Winterton had suggested in the House of Commons that this was precisely what would happen. The fantasy Army had collided with reality. For Iraq, it was too late.