Tuesday 31 March 2009

The abolition of "defeat"

Another landmark in the British defeat in southern Iraq was reached today when Major General Andy Salmon, of the Royal Marines, formally handed command in Basra to his US Army counterpart Major General Michael Oates.

With that, the Royal Marine flag was lowered for the last time at Basra Air Station, when the flag of the US 10th Mountain Division was raised to replace the Marines’ colours.

The symbolism of this has been entirely lost on the commentators, but it was elements of the 10th Mountain Division which assisted the Iraqi Army in the recovery of al Amarah last June in operation Promise of Peace, after it had been abandoned by the British Army in August 2006, thus leaving the Mahdi Army free rein to turn the city into the bomb-making centre for the rest of the Shi'a insurgency.

Despite this senior British generals are celebrating the "enormous success" of UK troops in Iraq, having coined yet another term for "retreat". Such is the language of propaganda that the earlier retreats from al Amarah and then central Basra became "tactical moves" while the retreat from Basra Palace became a "repositioning". But the spin doctors have excelled themselves today, describing the current humiliating hand-over to the Americans, as a "Change in coalition command structure in southern Iraq".

If only Lt-Gen Percival had been so agile with terminology in February 1942, he would perhaps have gained his knighthood instead of ignominy, and gone on to greater things.

Certainly, the Orwellian decay of the language does not allow for the use of the words "surrender" or "defeat". We have achieved a glorious "change in coalition command structure" and now our troops can be "repositioned" elsewhere, where they can repeat the process all over again. Now that the word "defeat” has been abolished, there can be no stopping them.


Sunday 29 March 2009

Another glorious victory?

Ever since The Times set the hare running last Friday, with its report that "British Army chief ready to send 2,000 more troops to Afghanistan", there has been a rush of derivative stories speculating on this theme.

However, despite its misleading headline, proclaiming "Extra troops confirmed by Dannatt", The Independent report was closer to the truth, citing a "Downing Street spokesman" who said that a decision had not yet been taken. Crucially, though, the paper added as a tailpiece to its story, "There is a series of discussions to be had and they have a political dimension, a financial dimension and a military dimension."

That is indeed the case – the issue has all three of those dimensions. On the one hand, there is by no means unanimity within the military that extra troops are needed. Then there are grave concerns about the escalating costs of the campaign – costs which could only increase with an extra deployment.

And there are political reservations, not least as to whether existing troops are being deployed effectively. The concern is that the Army's activities are far from credible and that the call for more troops is simply a way of covering up for the ponderous and wasteful use of manpower.

Nevertheless, none of such subtleties trouble The Sunday Telegraph which headlines, "Defence chiefs battle Treasury over Afghanistan troop levels".

To be fair to Sean Rayment, the paper's defence correspondent, that is not actually what he writes, his report telling us that high ranking officials from Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Treasury remain unconvinced that a so called "surge" in troop levels is the right strategy for defeating the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Only then are we told that "it is understood" that the Treasury is resisting calls to fund further troop increases in Afghanistan, and then we get the legend "even though General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, and General Sir David Richards, who will take over as Chief of the General staff, fully support the move."

Roughly translated, this means that Rayment has been taking his briefings from sources inside the Army, who are anxious to have their band-aid of additional troops and, by such briefing, they also have their alibi if and when things go belly-up. If they don't get their additional troops, they can always blame "the Treasury" for their own failures.

The Army, however, is playing a silly game, not least because – as Rayment also reports, the briefings flowing out from the Army "are understood to have irritated senior Treasury officials" who felt they were being "bounced" into making a premature decision. If you mess with the Treasury, you lose.

By coincidence, we have an example of the profligate use of manpower in The Sunday Times today, with Mike Smith retailing – without a hint of criticism – the latest "derring do" by British troops.

British commandos, we are told, have hauled a two-ton artillery gun up a 130ft cliff by hand to protect a vital strategic outpost in Afghanistan, the 105mm gun having been dismantled and rebuilt at the summit of a rocky outcrop, known as the Roshan Tower, "using techniques traditionally demonstrated at the Royal Tournament." Even the ammunition was manhandled up the 400-yard track "which couldn’t take vehicles."

We are not told how many troops were thus employed, but the job most certainly could have been done faster and more economically by the use of a helicopter. A Chinook (pictured) or a Mi-8MTV would have found no difficulty in placing the gun.

There is, of course, the issue of whether there are enough helicopters, but if there are not enough to sustain current operations – leading to the wasteful use of manpower – putting more troops into theatre is hardly going to help. As to why there are not enough helicopters, that is an issue which has been endlessly rehearsed on this blog but, by and large, it is fair to say that the military is the author of its own misfortunes.

As to the campaign itself, Rayment gives us the benefit of his analysis offering the stunning information that, over the last 18 months the war has "gone asymmetric". The correct response to that is probably "no shit, Sherlock!"

Insurgents, we are told, are capable of striking at will almost anywhere in Afghanistan. The country's future has never looked more bleak and any sense that the Afghan war was a boy's own military adventure has now ended.

Now, with Miliband admitting that the war has reached "strategic stalemate", we are seeing a repeat of the Iraqi strategy of dumping the responsibility for security on the Afghanis, upping the ante on the hype and proclaiming another "victory".

Rayment thus cites Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who now dismisses the notion of a military victory over the Taliban. "We 're not going to win this war," he says. "It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan Army."

With something of a sense of understatement, Rayment suggests that this is "an immense undertaking." The ANA has virtually no air power, no armour, little artillery, no medical facilities, basic communications, poor transport and most of the recruits are illiterate. And, if possible, the situation is even worse with the Afghani police.

Yet, as with Iraq, an exit strategy is being constructed on the basis that, some time in the not too distant future, the ANA will miraculously transform itself into a modern army, capable of taking on the Taleban and beating it – the very thing the coalition forces have so far been unable to do.

Meanwhile, the ponderous British Army, in between rewriting history, is busy convincing itself that this is the master plan for another success. The only hope is that by the time it has managed to repeat its trick, we will have a new American president who will be prepared to energise the campaign in the same way that Bush did in Iraq.

Then we can see another repeat. As has the British Army handed over its Basra base to US forces this week, we can look forward to another glorious victory celebration when, in a few years time, they hand over to Camp Bastion to the Americans.


Saturday 28 March 2009

"The situation is increasingly perilous"

So said Obama , launching his new AF/PAK strategy. This includes an extra $5 billion in direct aid for Pakistan in what is billed as a "stronger, smarter" strategy.

Additionally, a further 4,000 troops are to be deployed, on top of the 17,000 already promised. These "top-ups" are to focus on training Afghan security forces, with a target of bringing the strength of the Afghan National Army to 134,000 by 2011. In the same period, police expansion to 82,000 is also planned.

The Obama strategy has invoked reports British Forces could also be reinforced, with suggestions that up to 1,700 more troops could be sent.

This in turn has provoked a rare response from Cameron on matters military, his view being that sending more troops would only be worthwhile if they were able to deal with problems "on the ground" such as tackling corruption and drugs.

"More troops," he says, "could be part of the answer but in our view they should only be sent if they are sent with the right equipment, with the right number of helicopters and the right civilian back-up and support so we deal with the other problems in Afghanistan like corruption and drugs. It is no good just pouring in the troops if you do not deal with the other problems on the ground."

However, this anticipation may be ill-founded. Quoting "Whitehall sources", Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph suggests that the maximum "uplift" could only be as many as 300. It could even be less, and that conditional on the Army being able to make a case for more troops.

Harding takes a more sanguine view of the utility of adding to the existing forces, noting that the solution in Helmand is not just numbers on the ground but "how to use them appropriately rather than in the belief that there will be a magic cure by throwing in more men." Foremost, he adds, we need the logistics in place to support the troops but in addition "we have to adjust our tactics accordingly." He continues:

Having more foreigners could just as easily work against us if the local population do see any benefits.

Firstly we really have to commit to a significant road building programme. This will allow farmed goods swift access to markets before they rot and make non-opium products more popular. When that happens the Taliban will attack the roads which will mean they will come to us and we will regain the initiative.

In tandem we also need to deploy the well-honed Rhodesian Fireforce counter-insurgency tactic using very small numbers of troops agile enough to swiftly interdict the enemy.
It is no good, he concludes, going in and "smashing" a Taliban stronghold one week only to leave and abandon the remaining population to insurgent retribution. The military needs to spell out clearly what its strategy is in Helmand, now more than ever because the doubts over its direction are growing.

The reference to the Rhodesian Fireforce counter-insurgency tactics is well founded, from which the British could learn a considerable amount. And the lessons were spelled out by the Rand organisation in a remarkable report, published in 1991. The report includes such gems as this:

We concluded that low-tech and improvisational solutions can be effective in LICs (Low Intensity Conflicts) and that, moreover, LICs need not entail huge expenditures. The Rhodesians, for example, made innovative and inexpensive modification to ordinary military and commercial vehicles that dramatically reduced the deaths and injuries suffered by passengers travelling in vehicles that struck land mines (e.g., filling tyres with water and air to dissipate the explosive force). Such modifications had the additional benefit of instilling confidence in the troops and enabled the security forces to retain control over the countryside by defeating the guerrillas' attempts to force the army into a "garrison mentality" by making road travel dangerous (if not impossible).
Also, confronting the US attitude to counter-insurgency, also prevalent in British forces, it noted:

Army planners … have paid scant attention to the essentially low-tech requirements of LICs, assuming as a matter of course that by preparing for the largest (even though it may be the least likely) contingency, a range of responses could be sized downwards to fit any lesser contingencies.
This wholly flawed idea was addressed fully, making it clear – as we have constantly averred – that such conflicts cannot be treated simply as a scaled-down big war, using the same equipment. And, as for the other myth, that the forces are underfunded, the report notes:

The Rhodesian security forces functioned under severe financial constraints that limited their access to late-model, sophisticated "high-tech" weapons and to large quantities of material. The Rhodesians’ ability to overcome those constraints by embracing innovative strategies and tactics, including novel techniques in road security, tracking and reconnaissance, small unit tactics, special operations, and intelligence gathering, suggests that the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency need not entail huge expenditure.
Those who complain of "overstretch" could also do well to note that this was the most recent example of a successful counter-insurgency and that:

The tactical achievements were all the more impressive given that the balance of government forces to insurgents was roughly 1:1 – a ratio far below the 10:1 balance normally cited as necessary for the effective prosecution of a counterinsurgency.
This is where Harding is pointing – and he is not alone. The constant politically-inspired complaints on the problems facing our forces are wide of the mark. Having never having clearly defined its own strategic aims, the Army also has not delivered a new counter-insurgency doctrine, while is current operations seem ponderous and ill-suited to dealing with a highly mobile and adaptive enemy.

Until the Army can demonstrate that it is itself adapting to the conditions in Afghanistan and adopting tactics (and equipment) which will enable it to prevail, then any decision to withhold further troops is probably well-founded. As it stands, even those we have in theatre could be doing more harm than good. Lacking the numbers and the cash, the Rhodesians found they had to fight smarter. We need to do the same.


Sunday 22 March 2009

There is no hope

For sure, it is only the News of the World, so you don't actually expect it to get anything right. But this comment on the Pinzgauer Vector takes the biscuit:

He [Sgt Lee Johnson] attempted to reinforce the old army banger himself with Kevlar armour plates. But he had to throw them out again because there wasn't room left for him to get into the cab with his own helmet and kit on.
War reporter Stephen Grey reveals how Jonno had told him, "I don't feel safe in this" days before he died. "Everyone 'bastardized' their Vectors. It was almost a kit car," says Grey. "Unlike the American's Humvees, they had a crucial design flaw which made the driver or front passenger particularly vulnerable to being killed if the vehicle struck a mine."

Er … excuse me. The Vector was a brand new vehicle, chosen specifically by the Army as its preferred design for a protected patrol vehicle for use in Afghanistan.

However, the NOTW's agenda is clear with the title of its piece, which declares: "Sergeant's last email to fiancee shames MPs who short-change our soldiers". Says the paper: "It was Jonno's love of the army—despite the lack of proper equipment and public apathy back home—that put him in that deathtrap Vector at that moment." It then adds:

But the people who should kick themselves over this eager and loyal soldier’s death were safe back home in Parliament when Jonno was blown apart. The Vector design flaws and a dangerous lack of helicopters are just two examples from an appalling catalogue of chronic equipment shortages on the Afghan front line.
That first sentence is indeed true, but incomplete. This vehicle was the ARMY choice. The got it wrong. They made the wrong choice. But the MPs are rightly targeted, as we make plain here. Particularly in the frame is the Commons Defence Committee, which has the specific brief to watch over the military.

It failed in its duty, but above all, the procurement of the Vector was a criminally stupid decision, made by Army procurement "experts" who should have known better.

But never mind, shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox is on the case. He declares: "The government has never invested in or procured a full range of modern vehicles which give adequate agility and protection to our armed forces."

And how many times did he complain about the Vector? It seems to us that his a only complaint was that the Vectors were not being delivered fast enough.

But, with newspapers like the NOTW around, no one will ever know any different.


Tuesday 17 March 2009

They don't do politics, do they?

My colleague Booker, with more years than he can remember slaving behind a pen and then, latterly, a laptop, producing his columns, tells me that, for something to sink in to the public consciousness, it must be repeated many times.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that, because you happen to have written your golden words and had them published somewhere, the whole world is going to stand back and applaud, recognising instantly the profound truth of your wisdom, and immediately change its ways.

Hence, by way of repetition, but in a different context, we return to the theme of politics, to observe once again that the problem with modern politicians – and the political claques – is that they don't do politics any more. They have made the fatal mistake of confusing the soap opera of political lives with real politics, which is about policies and choices which affect ordinary peoples' lives.

Thus, it is interesting to note that, while we write from the ghetto of this blog about the Army's need for mine protected vehicles with decent off-road performance, this is treated by our politicians and their groupies as an arcane, specialist issue – best left to the techies, while they get on with real politics.

Back in the USA, however, this question is a hot political number, not least because Congress is shortly going to be asked – at a time of extreme financial stress – to authorise the expenditure of $6.5 billion on yet another new fleet of trucks for the Army and Marines, designed specifically to offer off-road performance and protection.

That is the real stuff of politics, where democratically-elected officials are going to be asked to make a decision which will have an effect on thousands of lives, directly and indirectly. If the right choice is made, it will mean that a great many people who would otherwise have died will live. It may also – as happened in Iraq – have a direct influence on whether the military campaign in Afghanistan is successful, if only on the basis that the campaign will become politically unsustainable if casualties continue to rise.

By contrast with the US, however, in the UK, this intensely political and strongly argued issue has been ignored by the political classes. In fact, the decision has already been taken. We do not know exactly when it was taken, by whom, what precise factors were considered and what influences were at play.

We do know, however, that the British authorities made a different decision. Wrongly – as the Americans are now demonstrating – they took the view that troop protection and off-road performance were mutually incompatible, to the extent that they were impossible to achieve in one vehicle.

As a result, the Army went down the path of having one set of protected vehicles – for on-road use – and another set, very lightly armoured – and extremely expensive - optimised for off-road use.

Other than the procurement minister and the secretary of state, no elected representatives were involved in the decision. Individual MPs were not consulted, there was never a debate in the House, and the Commons Select Committee did not involve itself in a debate. It was confined to very narrow – and ill-informed – circles within the MoD and the military.

What we do see, however, is the result of that decision, as in The Daily Telegraph today. This reports that five soldiers have so far been killed in the machine they call the Jackal – the fruit of the Army's political decision, taken without input from Parliament or the political claques.

Actually, the correct number is six soldiers killed, in four separate incidents, plus an Afghani interpreter who also lost his life – seven killed as a result of a political decision not made by politicians. Furthermore, there are an unknown number of incidents – almost certainly higher – where vehicles have been destroyed or damaged by explosions, and many more have been injured.

Given that these vehicles have only been in service only for six months – in the less active campaigning season – and that there are (or were) only just over a 100 in service, this is an extraordinarily high casualty rate. The rate is even higher if you take into account the strikes where troops were injured - which are not reported by the MoD.

The reason is not hard to find. The Jackal was and is – as Thomas Harding's piece points out, using this blogger as a source - a vehicle which breaks every rule in the book when it comes to mine protection. All credit to The Daily Telegraph for publishing such a political piece, which is already having the MoD reacting sharply.

Harding also quotes a serving officer – anonymous for obvious reasons – who says that the "fatal mistake" was turning the Jackal into a patrol vehicle which meant "we are now the target". He adds: "It was an ideal vehicle for Special Forces but it has been pressed into service for totally inappropriate use."

And, as we have chronicled on this blog, this officer then tells us: "Then they have tried chucking on more armour to make it safer but it simply cannot work and now the Taliban have learned how to penetrate that armour." He concludes: "Mobility is no longer a protection if you become predictable by using roads which is what we are doing."

These are not complex technical issues. MPs daily deal with far more complex matters. This is abn argument about mobility and protection. If troops are to die because of political decisions, then those decisions should be made by politicians rather than faceless bureaucrats, or ministers secretly advised by the same.

Preferably, we should have a system as in the US, where the funding for major procurement decisions has to be approved by Congress. That way, decisions are given at least some democratic oversight before they are made. It does not necessarily make for better decisions – although in vehicle purchasing it has – but at least then the decisions are made by people who are democratically accountable.

Failing that, there are still mechanisms for scrutiny available to our Parliament. Individual MPs can ask questions and put in for debates in Westminster Hall. We have tried those but they do not really have the impact.

We need the "big hitters" of the opposition front bench either to call for a debate, or allocate an "opposition day" for a debate. In addition, we could see a Commons Defence Committee inquiry into the issue – which would still be highly relevant, as the MoD is compounding the error, not only by buying more Jackals, but also support vehicles of similar design.

Any or all of these should be concerned with the political question of whether the Army is right to sacrifice the lives of our troops (men and women) in their flawed quest for "mobility" rather than protection when all the evidence indicates that they can have both. Even if the Army thinks otherwise, it should be called to give account of why it has made this choice, before more die.

And, if there was any further reason needed, this is the second attempt the Army has made to bring a "protected" vehicle into service. The last one – the Pinzgauer Vector – was just as much a disaster, and the decision to buy that has not been properly scrutinised. Then, of course, there is the Viking. The evidence suggests, therefore, that unless and until the Army/MoD is brought to account, they will keep on making the same mistakes.

The problem though – as we indicated – is that this is not seen as a political issue. The politicians and the claque have indeed retreated from politics. They leave they real decisions to the bureaucrats (in and out of uniform), while they play their games. And that, I would venture to suggest, is one of the reasons for the contemporary disillusionment with what passes for politics.

People are interested in politics. Hundreds of thousands – if not millions - of people are interested, for instance, in whether our troops live or die, and whether they are being killed unnecessarily. They are thus interested in the political decisions which determine their fate.

The problem is that politicians are no longer interested in such decisions any more. And people are not interested in their game-playing. Not until the politicians wake up and remember what they are there for – real politics - will we take any interest in them.


Highway of heroes

As parades of soldiers returning from operations become part of the everyday fabric of life, we received a moving note drawing attention to a blog which records the spontaneous demonstrations of appreciation in Canada when their war dead are repatriated.

The spontaneity of what is called the "Highway of Heroes" is impressive, although we did express our reservations by return of e-mail. While the sentiment is admirable, it could be argued that this is playing into the hands of the enemy.

The metric of success for the Taleban in this war is dead soldiers. They adjust their tactics to create as many casualties as they can, and then monitor publicity. The more they get, the more they kill Therefore, one wonders whether the very natural expressions could do more harm than good.

We also drew attention to the non-combat casualties out of theatre. Parents of children who have been killed by that means are sometimes rather hurt that there are such public displays for those who fall in theatre, yet their sons' deaths are disregarded - somehow as if they were "second class" deaths.

Inevitably, this is an emotive and difficult issue, but one also has a further concern that we sometimes spend too much effort honouring the dead and too little getting angry about how they died, when so many are killed unnecessarily. Speaking personally, I would prefer that we also focused our energy on keeping soldiers alive and uninjured.

The response to this, by return of e-mail, was that my sentiments are very close to those of General Vance, the Canadian commander in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I was assured that the Highway of Heroes is considered a great tribute, although it was acknowledged that, if taken out of context, it can work to demoralise the population.

However, the effect on the Canadian population is to cement support. Canadians, we are told, don't like to lose, and quitting after taking losses would not sit well with many. Even though polls show Canadians split on the mission, if the Quebec French population is removed from polling, a good majority of Canadians in fact support the mission in Afghanistan.

For example, if a group of protestors were to disrupt a homecoming as happened recently in the UK, they would have been assaulted and driven off. "Our anti-war peacenik types know to stay away during shows of support for the military," writes our correspondent. Canucks tend to get more than vocal when their soldiers are besmirched.

Interestingly, the experience in North America in general has been that open shows of support and honour of war dead greatly increases recruiting success and support for missions. In some ways it's counter-intuitive, and something that military people themselves don't often understand. The view is that, when it comes to garnering support, military people are usually the most ham-fisted.

On the issue of how soldiers die, Canada has lost many soldiers simply because of the chronic helicopter shortage. But in other respects Canada has moved greatly to improve the equipment in which her soldiers ride and fly. The Canadians will leave Afghanistan a vastly improved force.

Having said that, adds our correspondent, "I don't think anybody adapts and improves as fast as the Americans. I admire America greatly for this."

There is considerable food for thought here. Where there are ritual expressions of condolences from politicians and others which are a substitute for action, as if expressing sorry for a death that could have been prevented somehow expiates the guilt, I find this offensive. But the spontaneous "Highway of Heroes" is something else. It is indicative of a society that still has values. There is hope for us yet.


Monday 16 March 2009

Sense and nonsense

There has been swift media response to the deaths of two British soldiers in Afghanistan, killed in an explosion while patrolling in their Jackal.

Much of it, as always, is "cut and paste" stuff, with the same phrases appearing in different outlets, all with different by-lines and no source attribution – other than an MoD statement. Thus, the multiplicity of stories adds very little to the information contained in any one report.

One writer with enough local knowledge and experience to add informed comment is Con Coughlin and he is quick to add a note in his clog on the incident. Unfortunately, whatever his local knowledge, he lacks any understanding of military equipment, and therefore hares off into ill-informed and valueless speculation.

Referring to the Jackal "hit", he tells us you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out the link between this and the continuing political chaos in neighbouring Pakistan.

The roadside bomb that killed the two soldiers, he tells us, "was clearly a sophisticated device as it destroyed the Jackal military vehicle they were travelling in, which has been specifically designed to protect soldiers from roadside bomb attacks."

On that basis, Coughlin avers, "in all probability the device will have been imported from across the border in Pakistan, where the Taliban seems to have an endless supply of troops and equipment that can be used to maintain the momentum of the anti-coalition insurgency."

This is what is known as starting from a false premise and then compounding the error. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the Jackal has not been "specifically designed to protect soldiers from roadside bomb attacks," although you do need a modicum of knowledge about military vehicles – something which, clearly, Coughlin lacks.

On that basis, it is far from clear that a "sophisticated device" would be needed to destroy the vehicle. A couple of stacked anti-tank mines – of which there are millions in Afghanistan – would more than suffice. And, since the Taleban have been known to use up to six stacked mines in their hits, Coughlin's thesis falls flat on its face – as indeed does he.

He like the rest of the baleful hacks have fallen prey to the MoD propaganda that the Jackal is somehow an "armoured vehicle" - a phrase which appears in most of the cut-and-paste jobs – as opposed to a bodged-up truck with bolted-on armour added as an afterthought, in a fruitless attempt to overcome the flaws in a hopelessly inadequate design.

Such is the child-like gullibility of the press corps, however, that none so far are able to look past the artful MoD hype and ask why it is that this supposedly state-of-the art and extremely expensive machine is being destroyed by a bunch of fighters who – in philosophy if nothing else – are not long out of the stone age.

Instead, we see very much a repeat of the legend employed when the Snatch Land Rovers we being hit in Iraq, the MoD/Army putting out the word that British Forces were being attacked by "new and sophisticated bombs" and, therefore, no blame could be attached to the Army for deploying crap equipment. And there, for "Pakistan" read "Iran", another part of the legend for explaining away failure.

Thus it is that the Taleban are able to secure yet another victory – the metrics of success measured not in yards of front line taken, or territory occupied, but by the number of soldiers killed.

And, in dealing with why too many soldiers are being killed unnecessarily, a toll that will eventually lose us the war, the media – Coughlin included – does not have the wit to ask the right questions, or even understand the issues. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Coughlin provides more than adequate testimony to the fact that it has a powerful capacity to mislead.

More intelligently written – admittedly not difficult – is a leader in The Guardian, published before the latest deaths were known.

Headed, "A game of losers", it tells us that a summary of the weekend's events in Afghanistan makes sobering reading. Four US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb yesterday. A French soldier, another Brit and one as yet unidentified soldier were killed on Saturday. A suicide bomber killed two Afghan civilians and wounded 14 others in an attack against a convoy in the western outskirts of Kabul and the mayor of Kandahar survived a roadside bomb, which killed a passer-by. Additionally, another convoy of trucks was torched outside Peshawar, endangering a vital supply route through Pakistan.

Says the leader, almost every tactic has been tried in the last seven years – and failed. Thus, what, apart from more roadside bombs (and dead and injured soldiers), are we all getting for our money?

What is particularly noteworthy of the piece, however, is the comment about the reconstruction process. There is a bitter irony in this, the paper says:

If you grow opium and bear guns, you attract large amounts of foreign aid. If you don't, they are not interested in you. A huge chance to build roads, provide electricity and agricultural irrigation, the things the Afghans keep on saying that they want, has been missed. And so has been the opportunity to show Afghans that something positive can emerge from the foreign presence.
If the general run of hacks had any brains, they would see the link between this and the useless Jackal. As well as being a botched design, this vehicle is a strategic error, reflecting a flawed approach to fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan.

A country wracked by thirty years of war needs more than anything, repair and redevelopment. The key to that is roads - building, rebuilding and repair – on which everything else depends. With eighty percent of the population rurally based, the primary need is for rural roads linking to the main centres and thence to the international network where maximum value could be gained from the sale of crops. Yet, of the billions in aid pouring into the country, only about ten percent goes into rural development and, of that, only about ten percent went into the road programme.

Much of that money is unspent. It is in the hands of civilian agencies. They require security. With the Army unable to guarantee that, redevelopment in key areas is stalled. The fatal flaw is in separating security from redevelopment, making one dependent on the other. Yet, in the longer term, it is redevelopment which brings peace.

If the civilian agencies cannot work in insecure areas, the Army has to carry out redevelopment, the priority being the road network. Therefore, high-mobility patrol vehicles are not the priority. This should be combat engineers, plant and armoured road-building equipment. Rather than responding to the poor condition of the roads with high-mobility, off-road vehicles, the better option is to build new roads along which military – and civilian – traffic can pass.

Apart from the broad strategic advantages, this has other benefits. One of the most difficult tasks for security forces in fighting guerrillas is to bring them to battle on their terms. Building roads, with the economic and social benefits that accrue from them, presents the Taleban with targets they cannot afford to ignore – small wonder they have expended much energy on disrupting even the pitiful programme that has been undertaken.

With the Army building roads, choosing the times and places, it regains the initiative. This is one of the quintessential requirements for success, one enumerated by Sun Tzu and by other successful generals, from Hannibal and Napoleon to Montgomery.

In indulging its obsession for high-performance off-road vehicles like the Jackal, the Army is equipping itself for a war that it is comfortable with, rather than the war that needs to be fought. The Jackal, together with other "boy racer" kit, indicates that the Army's strategic direction and tactics are wrong.

But hey, as long as there are people like Coughlin in this world, who can apply their enormous knowledge and experience to getting it wrong, the Army need never have any fear that it will be found out. Instead, all it needs to do is keep dolling out the press releases and the hacks will suck happily at the tit, keeping their brains in neutral and our soldiers dying.


Thursday 12 March 2009

A hundred days ...

The troubled Airbus A400M project remains, er … troubled.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail was warning that the a customers' revolt could lead to the whole project being cancelled, with a break-point approaching on 1 April when the contract can be terminated in the event of non-delivery.

At this time, the only thing Airbus military has actually delivered is 28 colour photographs of the machine - all computer generated, for want of the real thing, which still has not left the ground.

The Times was also suggesting that the MoD would walk away from the project, and was looking at "alternative options".

However, after talks between the seven countries that ordered the aircraft on the sidelines of an EU defence ministers' meeting in Prague today, Reuters reports that customers have given the project a 100-day reprieve. They have thus agreed to postpone any decision on cancellation for three months from 1 April, during which period, "no state would take a decision without consulting the others".

With deliveries to the RAF possibly delayed until 2016, it is hard to see that 100 days will make that much of a difference, so it will be interesting to see what Airbus will do to make the UK change its mind about walking away.

The prospect had the Lord Pearson asking today in the Lords whether there was "any hope that the CargoLifter programme, the A400M, is thankfully slipping from postponement to cancellation", only for government spokesman Lord Davies of Oldham studiously to avoid answering the question and move on to another topic.

The government, however, is rapidly running out of options. With the bulk of the UK tactical transport fleet set to be grounded by 2012, it needs rapidly to look for alternatives, the most likely being the C-130J Hercules. In contrast with the euroweenies, Lockheed Martin have happily announced they have so far taken 257 orders and delivered 171, the euro-score being 180 ordered – none delivered.

Such is the popularity of the C-130J that the manufacturers are to increase the production rate from 12 aircraft a year in 2008 to approximately double by 2010. Lockheed Martin also says it is currently "in detailed discussions" with several countries about further orders. But, even with the increased rate of production, there is a backlog of 86 aircraft, which means that new orders cannot be accepted until well into 2012.

The government had better get its skates on, or it will be reduced to posting colour photographs of supplies to troops ... by overland mail.


Wednesday 11 March 2009

An interesting contrast

One can quite understand the level of response to the affront caused by the recent Moslem demonstration in Luton, during the parade of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment, celebrating their recent return from Iraq.

What is less understandable and entirely unacceptable is the torrent of media interest in imagined threats and their neglect of real and important issues. We thus have an obsessive coverage of global warming, the current preoccupation being the supposedly catastrophic rising sea levels, contrasted with an almost lack of interest in strategic defence issues.

Yet these issues are of far more importance in both the short-term and the longer term, and impinge on precisely the issues raised during the Luton demonstration, to whit the role of our armed forces, and their presence in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

We see almost an infantilisation of the media, to the extent that a defence spokesman like Liam Fox will get far more coverage for his pronouncements on the Luton demonstration than he ever would on the fundamentals of defence policy. Furthermore, no eyebrows are raised when he and other politicians fail to respond to issues raised, which point to serious failings in our policies.

That much is evident from the lack of response to an important piece published yesterday in The Daily Telegraph by Thomas Harding. It retails complaints by a serving officer about the "paucity" of equipment for troops, which is hampering the Army's ability to train for operations.

The source is Col Patrick Sanders, CO of the 4th Battalion, The Rifles. He recalls how his troops, before deployment to Basra in 2007 lacked the knowledge of how electronic counter measures (ECM) kit affected radios. This meant that during their first battle there was no communications with the company on the ground. Furthermore, he complains that his battalion was only given two weeks to train on the remotely operated machine guns on Bulldog armoured vehicles.

His more general comments, though, are extremely significant. He states that urban warfare was likely to be where future conflict is based and thus argues that the military "must invest in proper training facilities and equipment over and above the limited ones we already have". He also calls for battle groups – the core unit structure employed on these operations - should spend longer training together for better cohesion before operation to avoid the "ad hocery" of coming together during conflict.

Anyone who has studied these issues will immediately recognise the problem – to which we alluded in our previous piece. The heart of the problem is the need to accommodate the conflicting and incompatible demands of training the same Army to conduct conventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations. The two simply cannot be done, yet since we do not have a force big enough to maintain specialist formations for each roles, the Army is being asked to do the impossible.

Col Sanders also touches on the equipment issue, noting that, in addition to a mass of enemy attacks soldiers suffered appallingly in the heat which sometimes reached 72°C inside Warrior armoured vehicles. "Vehicle crewmen, naked in their turrets, collapsed, vomiting and delirious," Col Sanders said. "Radio communications became almost impossible as everyone was slurring so badly. At one point it looked doubtful if we would have enough surviving crewmen to drive our vehicles back."

This was actually something that was graphically portrayed by Michael Yon at the time, except that no one took a blind bit of notice. Essentially, though, the Warrior – without air conditioning, was potentially more lethal than the enemy.

This again points to the same conflict. An armoured vehicle, designed and built for conventional warfare in central Europe was being used for counter-insurgency warfare in a hot climate – a purpose for which it was never intended.

The substantive issue, however, is the training requirement. In terms of a conventional or "future" war, the demand is 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, all as part of a huge formation capable of co-ordinated mass manoeuvre.

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.

In such an Army, training is a full-time job and one that 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 is this, more than anything to which General Dannatt was referring when in 2007 he so volubly complained of Iraq plus Afghanistan breaking his Army.

What he did say was that it is not the operations, per se that are causing the problem. Maintaining what amounts to two reinforced brigades in the field, even with manpower levels under 100,000, should present no insuperable difficulties. It is operations, plus the pressing need to maintain the "normal" training cycle – to maintain his "balanced force", as Dannatt likes to call it – which causes the problem.

Stresses had been considerably exacerbated by the roulement system, where complete units were 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 needs, and the period of "deprogramming" afterwards. Cramming in the "proper" training for the balanced force capability, and then having to rebuild the skill sets and currency after they had been lost during operational deployments and their training cycles were extremely problematical. In fact, this is what is breaking the Army.

One would like to think that, pace the 1930s when the media could host adult discussions about defence, that at least one of the etiolated excuses for a newspaper could host a serious discussion on this issue. But this does not look possible. Although the media can spare no end of space for "climate change" and endless prattle about celebs, it seems that it has opted out of the real world and has retreated into a second childhood.

Soon enough, though, a big bad man will come along and steal their sweets. And then all they will be able to do is cry.


Tuesday 10 March 2009

Missing the point

Once again, the Nimrod saga has erupted into the news, and once again the media have lost the plot. Right from the very start, after the tragic crash in September 2006 we were asking why an extremely expensive maritime patrol aircraft was being used for operations in land-locked Afghanistan, when there were cheaper and better ways of providing the same capabilities.

Now, with the removal of the Nimrod fleet from operations, pending rectification works, the focus is on the shortfall in capability. Thus, we get The Daily Telegraph retailing concerns from "military sources" that the withdrawal of Nimrod would remove vital surveillance coverage and could endanger the lives of troops on the ground.

Those same "military sources" are telling us that, "The MR2 gives forces on the ground immense camera and communication capability alongside experts in the Nimrod who can interpret what's going on." And so we are advised that, "Without Nimrod the dangers will increase."

This is, though, only partly true. Some of the capacity provided by the MR2 is now delivered by the Reaper and Hermes 450 UAVs, which should have been available much, much earlier – but that is another story. Additional capacity will shortly be delivered by the Beechcraft King Air 350ER, which should have been ordered earlier, but again, that is another story.

But the real story of the MR2 is that it is a stop-gap, providing a limited battlefield surveillance capability. It was used to make up for the absence of specific equipment, designed for the purpose, which is still not available. Yet, in their own dismal, ill-informed way, the idle hacks complain that the MR2 has been kept in service because of the delays in the replacement MR4 programme. That is completely to misunderstand the situation.

The MR4 is indeed a replacement for the MR2 maritime patrol aircraft, but it is not a substitute for the MR2 as a (land) battlefield surveillance aircraft. The MR2 is a stand-in pending deliveries of the Sentinel R1 ASTOR programme (pictured right). It is because of the non-availability of that aircraft that the MR2 was pressed into service in the first place.

The history of the ASTOR project is, to say the very least, interesting - yet another of those procurement cock-ups for which the MoD is so famous. And once again, this goes back into the mists of time, as the project stems from the early 90s, to the last Conservative administration.

The initial definition studies were carried out through the mid-90s but, by 1995 they were sufficiently far advanced for the then minister proudly to announce that development and production contract would be let in 1998, with an in-service date for the full system of 2003. That minister was, of course, the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot, currently the Defence Committee chairman.

The project was inherited by New Labour in 1997 and, unfortunately, it was not subject to review, having by then acquired unstoppable momentum. As so often, though, the project suffered slippage, the preferred bidder not being announced until June 1999. Since then, the project has suffered numerous delays and, as of this year, it is still not in operational service. And that is why the Nimrods have been flying over Afghanistan.

The essential problems, however, started with the very nature of the project. The system in the early 90s was already being developed by the United States, as the E-8 J-STARS programme. But to deliver the capacity, they chose the C-135 airframe (based on the Boeing 707 airframe - pictured left). As a result, it had a relatively trouble-free development, becoming operational in 1996, while the MoD was still carrying out definition studies.

At that stage, with the "special relationship", we could have bought into the project but, being British we had to have a British system – pork-barrel was the name of the game. And, being British, we of course knew better than the Americans how to do things. So, instead of choosing a cavernous and proven airframe like the C-135, we opted for a two-engined business jet called the Global Express, into which more or less the same systems were to be crammed.

Unsurprisingly, with all those electronics and systems packed into such a tiny space, there were over-heating problems, with which the cooling system failed to cope, and a number of fires in the equipment. Thus the aircraft could not be cleared for operations, leading to the massive delays we have experienced.

But there was another twist to this tale. The US airframe is able to carry a crew of 21 comprising 18 operators and three flight crew. For long endurance missions it can carry 34, comprising 28 operators and six flight crew. Thus, it has the capability of processing much of the data on-board, delivering the finished product to ground forces, and contributing to the battle management – in much the same way the AWACs system works with the air battle.

However, with the Sentinel only able to carry five crew, of which only two are system operators, raw data has to be transmitted to ground stations for processing and onwards transmission, adding hugely to the complexity and cost of the system – and adding another stage in the process of getting intelligence to ground forces.

With only a nine hour endurance (flight refuelling having been omitted to save costs) – as against 20 plus hours for J-STARS- we end up with a more complex system which is still not in service 12 years after the US system became operational. For that privilege, we are paying roughly twice the acquisition cost of the US aircraft. We have also had to fund Nimrod operations in the interim, at £30,000 an hour, amounting to hundreds of millions from the defence budget, for what amounts to a substandard capability.

So far though, the MoD seems to have got away with it, the project having almost completely escaped parliamentary scrutiny. Thus, of the current phase in the Nimrod saga, we get opposition politicians accusing ministers of "complacency and penny-pinching". The courageous Liam Fox, Conservative shadow defence secretary then leaps into the breach, declaring that: "It beggars belief that even after 18 months, the MoD and its contractors have failed to modify these aircraft which are undertaking critical surveillance operations in Afghanistan."

It would not do, of course, to point out that the root of the problem stems from decisions made in the 1990s, initiated by the last Conservative government. And, far from "penny pinching", it has cost us a fortune.

That point was not lost on Bruce George MP, Chairman of the Defence Committee, 1979-2005. In June 2008, commenting on procurement failures, his list included "J-STARS ... which we should have bought for ASTOR". He added: "Every single war in which our armed forces have engaged was either just about won, or even lost, not just because of poor leadership but because of poor procurement."


Monday 9 March 2009

Strategic decay

If you have a powerful, petrol-driven chainsaw, and sundry matching accoutrements, you would be adequately equipped to become a lumberjack. Few would suggest, however, that you could use the same toolkit for computer repairs, even if the end result of any such attempt might afford momentary satisfaction.

From such an example comes the blindingly obvious truism that you must have the right tools to do the job – and, of course, the corollary, that without the tools the job simply cannot be done.

Less obviously, what applies on the scale of cutting down trees also applies to the execution of grand strategy and policy – those two words sometimes being used interchangeably. Without the tools, the strategy cannot be implemented. And no more so does this apply to the ultimate expression of foreign policy, the use of military power.

To offer but one scenario – there is a case to be made that to resolve the increasingly ghastly situation in Zimbabwe, a military invasion and occupation would be an effective answer. Thus, apparently, was seriously considered by Tony Blair, only for him to be dissuaded from carrying out such a venture. The military capacity simply did not exist.

Thus we see a relationship. The strategy calls upon certain tools for its execution but, in the absence of the necessary tools, the strategy cannot succeed. There is no point even considering it. To that extent, a strategy can be – and often is - defined not by the broader political considerations, or any other issues, but by the availability of the tools to do the job. The tail, in that sense, wags the dog.

These points are so simplistic and obvious as barely to warrant re-stating, yet they lie at the very heart of a major debate raging in political, military and academic establishments. Yet it is a debate that is barely recognised outside these very tightly drawn circles. Where elements do emerge into the public domain, they are often misrepresented and misunderstood.

This brings us to the paper, published today by the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House in its journal International Affairs. It is called, "Blair's wars and Brown's budgets: from Strategic Defence Review to strategic decay in less than a decade." The authors are Dr Paul Cornish, Head of the International Security Programme at Chatham House, and Dr Andrew Dorman, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King's College London.

Going right to the heart of their argument, they assert that defence policy, planning and analysis in the United Kingdom has reached "a state of organisational, bureaucratic and intellectual decay." They have thus come to the worrying conclusion that British defence is

... in a crisis so deep that it is no longer simply a matter of having to make difficult choices; rather, the machinery with which to analyse and understand defence, and with which to make those difficult choices, is wearing out.
That comes at the very end of a fifteen-page, closely argued paper, preceding which the authors note that calls for a defence review are being heard ever more loudly and frequently. This is very much the Conservative line, with the expectation that strategic priorities will be set and robust spending plans designed accordingly.

But, say Cornish and Dorman, even in the best of times a defence review is an extremely difficult matter of satisfying competing economic and political imperatives. The political climate in 2009/2010 is hardly likely to be conducive to a carefully considered, full-scale review of Britain's defence policy and strategy.

They are almost certainly right there. A review is a process rather than an end, and the nature of the findings depend entirely on the terms of reference, the political realities and the judgement of the writers as to where the priorities lie.

The authors, however, also point to other issues which could fatally weaken the utility of a review. They argue that the continuing downsizing of the Ministry of Defence, its loss of corporate memory and the weakening of the policy community - both within the MoD and in the wider think-tank/academic/policy analyst environment - suggests that even if the government did choose to proceed with a full-scale defence review, it is not at all clear that it could be conducted with much success.

Again, they might be right. But one also has to venture that they are missing the very point they, themselves make in their own admirable work. Their key passage comes on page 9 – more than halfway through the paper – where they observe that, "In a number of respects, the military component of UK defence policy is beginning to appear rather frayed." They then go on to pose the key question, the importance of which cannot be over-emphasised. "There is, first, the question," they write, "of what type of armed forces the UK needs."

Here, Cornish and Dorman call in aid General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff. In June 2008, they tell us, he outlined the future direction of the "land environment" to 2018. And, at the heart of his remarks was a quandary over the role of the military and the future of conflict.

It is that "quandary" which explains why defence policy is such a mess. In the paper we are told that it is widely understood within the Army in terms of a tension between those who support General Sir Rupert Smith's "war among the people" thesis (and therefore see the future for western armies as one of stabilization and counterinsurgency operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan) and those who support Professor Colin Gray's argument that the current period is untypical, with the implication that traditional state-versus-state conflict could or will return.

In many ways, we are then told:

… Dannatt was trying to appeal to both schools of thought by presenting a framework which would encompass both possibilities. However, the British army remains divided on this issue since it is inconceivable that both types of military structure and doctrine could be supported and sustained given the current intensity of operations and level of resources.
There you have it in a nutshell: "it is inconceivable that both types of military structure and doctrine could be supported and sustained given the current intensity of operations and level of resources." In other words, we can have an Army designed for and capable of dealing with a "war among the people" – the type of war we are currently fighting - or we can have one prepared to deal with the "traditional state-versus-state conflict", the "future war". But we cannot have both.

Dannatt's mistake – if it can be called that – has been in trying to achieve the impossible, attempting to build an Army which can do both, within the limits imposed on him. This simply cannot be done and it was fruitless ever attempting it. Not even with double the resources would it have been possible. Thus he was in a position of failing to do either properly. The (potential) consequences are spelt out by Cornish and Dorman who note:

The risk is that these different pressures might combine to result in Britain's armed forces being defeated in combat - as some commentators have argued has already happened, in Musa Qala in 2006 and Basra in 2007. Worse still, perhaps, Britain's armed forces might become so exhausted that they cease effectively to be functioning entities and will be unable to meet the next challenge that confronts them.
If there is blame to be laid at Dannat's door, it is in his failure to convince politicians that the two roles are wholly incompatible. Furthermore, he needed to tell them that they could not be achieved without massive additional spending, which was neither politically nor economically feasible.

Equally, he has failed to make that case openly, in public, despite having made numerous high-profile statements on the state of the Army. It is not clear, however, from those statements, that he himself fully understands the degree of incompatibility between the roles – hence his advocacy of FRES as a multi-purpose asset which could be employed for both counter-insurgency and the "future war". The indications are that he believed he could "square the circle".

On the other hand, the choice of whether we dedicate our Armed Forces to one role or the other should not rest with a lowly Chief of the General Staff. This is a decision which lies in the realms of high policy and is thus for the politicians to make. And it is here that the essential failure lies. The decision simply has not been made, leaving the military to muddle on, trying to make the best use of their resources in an endeavour which cannot succeed.

Cornish and Dorman usefully discuss this, referring to "declaratory policy" – the policy the politicians actually claim as their intent. They then note that the defence policy framework that has emerged has not "kept pace with commitments and events." What they do not point out as clearly as they might though is that, since the original policy formulation which started with the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 and continued through to the second White Paper in 2004, more than defence policy has changed. In terms of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Armed Forces have undergone a transformation, to bring them into line with real policy.

Gradually, through a series of ad hoc changes, mostly achieved through incremental re-equipment via the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system, the Armed Forces – and especially the Army – is adapting to deal with current operations, equipping to fight the "war among the people". Yet, in tune with headline "declaratory policy", there is still an expectation that the Armed Forces will continue to equip and prepare for the "traditional state-versus-state conflict", in line with the "declaratory policy".

Therefore, it is hard to agree entirely with Cornish and Dorman that defence "is in a crisis so deep that it is no longer simply a matter of having to make difficult choices." Arguably, defence is in a crisis because difficult choices have not been made.

The choices, in essence, can be simply stated. On the one hand, there is the prospect of continuing with the pretence that we are still a major power and can maintain an all-purpose military capability which can deal with the entire range of conflicts that might possibly arise. One the other hand, there is the reality of equipping and structuring our forces successfully to deal with known commitments, to the exclusion of any more grandiose ambitions. With whatever home defence component might be needed, and a limited capability to engage in discretionary operations, that is the extent of the second option.

The fact is that we have to make the choice. The underlying problem is that the need to make a choice has not been presented in a coherent way. By and large, the public and the wider political community are not even aware of the issues.

Thus, we continue to hear complaints of "overstretch" and "underfunding", with the concomitant pleas for more funding. But there is no realisation that no amount of additional funding which could reasonably be expected will solve the problem. The issue is that the Armed Forces are having to cope with mutually incompatible roles. Since we cannot (or will not) afford both, we have to decide on what we can reasonably afford to do – and are prepared to do – and then shape our Armed Forces to deliver them effectively, thus fashioning the right tool to do the jobs.

For all its merits, the paper produced by Cornish and Dorman does not make this entirely clear. It does, however, add usefully to the debate, but it is a debate that needs wider exposure. This, it shows no sign yet of doing. We live more in hope than expectation that it will.


Sunday 8 March 2009

A concerted line

It may be the case that "spin" in its modern form was invented by New Labour, but it is a technique which the military have adopted with gusto – presumably for the same reason – to make up for its shortcomings elsewhere.

Thus, in the wake of Lieutenant-General John Cooper, we now have Major General Andy Salmon, coming up with the view that, "the servicemen and women who had been killed in Iraq since 2003 did not die in vain."

This is so similar in expression, tone and content to Cooper’s pronouncement that it cannot be a coincidence. This is clearly a concerted line that the military "brass" has agreed to adopt, to draw attention away from their collective failure to hold the line in southern Iraq.

And still Salmon is repeating the same drivel that he came up with in early February, claiming that the provincial elections were a "litmus test" for the Iraqi army, which it had passed. It was thus the right time for the British to pull-out because the military task had been achieved. "We have created a secure and stable environment for social and political development to take place."

While, as we have said before, there were good reasons for the failure, and no blame can be attached to the service personnel on the ground who served their masters and were in harm’s way. But it ill-behoves the likes of Cooper and now Salmon to pretend that the campaign was anything other than what it was. The claim that, "We have created a secure and stable environment…" is manifestly untrue.

That Salmon is clearly spouting the concerted "line", however, seems to have been missed by Sean Rayment, who wrote The Sunday Telegraph story. Apparently not having seen the report in The Times on 16 February, he writes: "He [Salmon] is understood to be the first British officer to publicly state that war was worth the sacrificing the lives of British troops."

At least Salmon has the decency to say that it was always difficult to judge whether any military operation was worth the sacrifice of soldiers' lives, acknowledging that, "different soldiers will give you different answers, depending on their experiences."

But it now seems that if you are in the high command, "different answers" is no longer a luxury you can afford. Whatever the question, the answer will always be the same. But the only people the military are deceiving are themselves.


The watchdog that doesn't bark

Governments make mistakes. For a whole variety of reasons they mess up. That is the very nature of things and it is why over time there has developed a system of checks and balances, all aimed at making the government accountable. The system is also devised so as to detect mistakes early, remedy them where possible and, crucially, prevent repetitions.

It was with that in mind that we wrote this piece which also referred to this piece, pointing out the vital role of parliamentary select committees, in making the system work.

I would not be the first to observe that the committees do not function very well, but have indeed noted how one committee in which we take a special interest – the Defence Committee - functions very poorly. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to write a series of case studies on the Defence Committee. The idea is to pick a series of equipment projects that went wrong so to see what the committee did about them, and whether its activities could have been better handled – with some observations then on what could be done to improve the performance.

After this first one, which is below, I will post the case studies separately, and then write a consolidating post drawing out observations and conclusions, bringing them all together – with input from the forum where relevant – in order to frame recommendations. If this works as an exercise, I will then revamp it as a paper, possibly for publication.

For the first case study, I have chosen the Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle project, which I first looked at in September 2006 in the context of the Nimrod crash in Afghanistan.

The flight of the Phoenix

Last year, on the tenth anniversary of its entry into service, the Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was formally taken out of service.

In fact, though, it had last flown operationally in May 2006, giving less than seven years of operational service for the cost of £345 million since its inception.

From the start, the Phoenix programme was a disaster. The requirement emerged in the early 1980s as a battlefield UAV to support the British Army, originally designed for artillery spotting. As so often with these projects, though, there was "mission creep" and the final specification emerged to encompass a fully-fledged surveillance aircraft, something for which the original design had never been intended.

Nevertheless, the GEC/Marconi (later to become /BAE Systems) design was selected by the MoD in February 1985 with a planned in-service date of 1989. Although the first example flew in 1986, a the Defence Select committee in 1990 heard from the MoD that difficulties had been experienced with the datalink, which could lead to loss of contact with the air vehicle. The system had become known as the "Bugger Off - because often it did not come back once it had been launched.

There were also computer problems with the ground station and recovery problems. The aircraft was parachute-recovered, upside-down, with the landing impact to be taken by a shock-absorbing plastic hump. Frangible elements of the fuselage were supposed to breaking off to absorb the impact. Unfortunately, other non-frangible elements of the air vehicle were also sustaining considerable damage.

This left the British Army during the first Gulf War having to rely on ageing Canadair CL-89 surveillance UAVs, in service since 1972, which had to be recovered and film processed before targeting data were available. Artillery batteries more frequently were forced to use targeting data provided by US Marine UAV, the RQ-2 Pioneer (pictured left), an aircraft derived from an Israeli design and brought into service by the US in 1986.

The problems with the Phoenix had not by any means been fully resolved by 1994, by which time other concerns had emerged. Crucially, the machine had been originally intended for use in Central Europe and could not cope with hot-and-high conditions, such as in the Gulf. With the added payload the original machine had never been intended to carry, it needed a more powerful engine. In the financial climate of the time, however, that option was abandoned.

By early 1995, Flight International was reporting that the Army was considering cancellation. Six years behind schedule, it had already cost the MoD £227 million - double the original estimate when the deal had been signed.

In March, with the in-service date having already been extended to October 1995, the MoD was admitting that, if it opted to continue with the project, a further two-year minimum delay would be incurred, seeing it enter service by the end of 1997 - eight years late. Cancellation was being "very seriously considered". Not least, the method of recovery continued to cause unacceptable levels of damage.

With so much invested, however, the company was given another chance. In April, the then procurement minister, Roger Freeman, announced that the manufacturer would be allowed to complete an "additional programme of work" to resolve the remaining technical difficulties, lasting about a year, at the contractor's expense. Later that month, MPs were told that potential alternative systems were being considered, in case the Phoenix did not come up to standard. Significantly, highly successful Israeli machines were being examined.

In August 1995, James Arbuthnot was appointed as defence procurement minister. It would now fall to him to make the crucial decision as to whether the programme would continue or whether an alternative would be purchased. Any decision would be highly contentious and cancellation would be highly embarrassing for the government. Already it had been forced to abandon the ill-fated Nimrod airborne early warning aircraft, produced by the same GEC/Marconi/BAE Systems combine, with the airframes having been scrapped in 1991 at a loss of over £1 billion.

Mr Arbuthnot was asked briefly about Phoenix in the October but with the review underway, he batted down the question. With a year's grace bought by the "additional programme of work", it was not then until the anniversary of the announcement on 25 April 1996 that Mr Arbuthnot was called to give an account. By then, the US had been successfully operating its Israeli-designed machines for ten years. However, the announcement about the future of the project was not ready. Mr Arbuthot hoped to be able to make one "before the summer recess".

It was down to Flight International, therefore, to come up with any information on what was going on. From this it was learned that GEC was to resolve the landing problems by equipping the UAV with an air bag, similar to those used in motor cars, to absorb impact of landing. This was precisely the option used on the 25-year-old Canadair UAV which the Phoenix was to replace. There was also talk of fitting a more powerful engine, but nothing was to come of that.

Nothing was to come of Mr Arbuthot's announcement before the summer either. In fact, there is no record of him ever having made one to Parliament, a strategem which would have neatly avoided any questions in the House. Instead, the news of his decision was conveyed by an MoD press release in October, which broke the news: It declared: "We now have confidence in the cost-effectiveness, tactical performance and reliability of the system to meet the army's requirements".

This came to light in Parliament only because it was mentioned in a debate by an opposition spokesman, Dr John Reid. Phoenix was to become operational in 1998, nine years after originally planned, with 198 eventually delivered. Complaining of the delay, Reid declared:

We do not blame the Government for every delay. However, any objective observer who examined the pattern of consistent delays would conclude that it was the only area where the Government appeared to have a strategy. I am reminded that Napoleon once instructed Bourrienne not to open his letters for three weeks and, after that time, expressed satisfaction that most of the correspondence had resolved itself. I have a feeling that the Secretary of State is adopting a Napoleonic strategy to defence procurement: if we delay indefinitely, the need will go away. But it will not.
On 1 May 1997, Tony Blair's New Labour had won the general election and Mr Arbuthot lost his ministerial job. But his legacy, of which Phoenix was part, was to live on. Within months of the Phoenix becoming operational, it was deployed in the Balkans, coinciding with the day that Yugoslavian/ Serbian forces began their withdrawal from Kosovo on 9 June 1999. Eighteen months after it had been accepted into service, 16 machines had been lost or destroyed in the course of 200 sorties, including 13 during operations. Ten were lost or destroyed in Kosova and three more during further operations the following year.

Mr Bruce George, chairman of the Defence Committee in 2000 was less than complimentary about the system. "That is a pretty deadly weapon," he said, "because they do tend to drop out of the sky causing damage to anyone standing underneath. Was that a secret weapon? It was probably quite an accurate weapon." That brought from Vice Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, then Chief of Joint Operations, that, "Of course we would like to have better unmanned aerial vehicles to give us intelligence and perhaps we might have that capability in the future."

The capability provided by the Phoenix, however, was fully recognised by the Defence Committee it remarking in January 2001 that, "The momentum behind developing the capability of Phoenix to provide targeting data to strike aircraft must be maintained."

If that momentum was maintained, it did not extend to the Phoenix programme. The system was deployed during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with 89 machines being sent. Between March and 3 April, some 23 machines were lost with 13 damaged but repairable. The equipment was openly described as a "dismal failure". Despite that, the Defence Committee, reporting on the war in March 2004 was uncritical. "We are pleased," it said, "to hear that, despite its chequered past, Phoenix made a valuable contribution to the operation."

Nevertheless, so obviously inadequate was the machine that the MoD, under new management since Arbuthnot's time, had already determined on a replacement. Rejecting the proven but very much larger US Predator model, it had an Israeli-built machine in mind, the very option that Arbuthnot and his predecessor had been asked about in 1995 and 1996, and which he had rejected. This was to be the Watchkeeper programme, a licensed-built version of the Elbit Hermes 450, with a projected in-service date of 2006.

One MP on this committee, however, expressed concern that the programme could not be "more aggressively accelerated". This was Gerald Howarth, on 21 May 2003, questioning Sir Peter Spencer KCB, then Chief of Defence Procurement. Sir Peter's answer was very revealing. The development could not be speeded up, "because we are buying a system of which the UAV is a component," he said.

This referred back to the "Strategic Defence Review – New Chapter" published in July 2002 in which the Government had committed to a major reorganisation of defence forces, in particular the Army. It was to introduce a new concept called the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES), linked into a vast computer and communications network, introducing what was known as a "network-centric capability".

Thus, at the time Sir Peter was being questioned, attention was focused on a high-tech "future war" while, at the very same time British troops were engaged in a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, equipped with the Phoenix which, as was well known, could not operate in hot conditions – when indeed it operated at all.

This notwithstanding, in November 2003, Defence Minister Adam Ingram assured the House that the Watchkeeper programme was "on track to deliver a tactical UAV capability from 2006."

That, however, was not to be. In July 2004 the "preferred bidder" for Watchkeeper wasannounced, for a contract that was expected to cost £800 million. And not until the following July did then defence secretary John Reid announce the order. But the in-service date was no longer 2006. The capability would be delivered "incrementally" from 2010. This was from the same Dr Reid who in 1996 had complained about the delays in introducing the Phoenix.

Arguably, it was at this point that the Defence Committee might have intervened. As of July 2005, two crucial issues were evident. Firstly, that the Phoenix system was seriously substandard and also inoperable in Iraq during the summer months. Secondly, there was now no prospect of an early replacement. It might have even gone back earlier to 2003, when questions could rightly have been asked. But two years later, there can have been little argument that the Army urgently needed an effective UAV.

That intervention would have been valid and effective is unarguable. In May 2007, reported a month later the MoD, recognising for itself the critical shortage of UAVs, issued an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) for a $110 million deal to buy Elbit Hermes 450 UAVs direct from Israel (pictured above), to fill the capability gap – a year after the Phoenix had been withdrawn from Iraq. The first machines were delivered to Iraq and operational by September 2007, a mere four months later. By then it was too late to affect the outcome.

More than a year earlier, however, in mid-2006, another opportunity had arisen for Defence Committee to intervene. It was then gathering evidence on operations in Iraq. That year, and since the general election in June 2005, the Rt Hon James Arbuthnot had taken over as committee chairman – the very man who as procurement minister in 1996, ten years earlier, had given the go-ahead for the production of the Phoenix.

Under his chairmanship in June 2006, the committee took evidence from the then Defence Secretary Des Browne on a range of problems, including the deficiencies of the Snatch Land Rover. But neither then, nor in the report, published on 10 August 2006 were UAVs mentioned.

In fact, it took until May 2008 before Mr Arbuthnot's committee focused on the subject of UAVs, in an investigation devoted to that subject. In its report, published in July 2008, Mr Arbuthnot's committee noted that the acquisition of UAVs, which by then had included the successor to the Predator, known as the Reaper, and Hermes 450 were providing our Armed Forces with "battle winning capabilities", and were "proving effective in the counter-insurgency style of operations which they face in Iraq and Afghanistan."

However, evidence was submitted by the MoD in a written memorandum to the committee, which noted:

Limited range full motion video surveillance is provided by the Phoenix tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) system. Originally designed for operations in central Europe, it has not proved suitable for supporting ongoing operations in the more demanding climatic and geographical conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A memorandum from the Royal Aeronautical Society also noted that the "UK experience with UAV technology has not been entirely happy, pace the Phoenix programme".

However, there was no reference to the Phoenix in the conclusions and recommendations section. As to the purchase of the Hermes 450s, the committee had asked why the requirement for the UAVs acquired as UORs had not been identified earlier. It had been told that "in many cases they were identified earlier". The Hermes 450 UAV had been acquired as a "stop-gap" filler because the Phoenix UAV system could not be operated effectively in a hot and high climate. To that, the committee responded:

The MoD has acquired UAV systems for current operations as Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs). In its response to our Report, we expect the MoD to set out its future plans for the UAV systems acquired as UORs and where the future costs fall within the defence budget. We also expect the MoD to set out its longer term strategy for acquiring UAVs systems, given the concern expressed by industry that keeping the UAV systems acquired as UORs in service for a long time could undermine the UK’s national capability in this area.
Thus did the committee convey the concern of the trade body representing the defence contractors, the SBAC. It wanted: "the balance being maintained between developing national capability and supporting UOR capability for urgent operational requirements." Roughly translated, that meant that the defence industry did not want too many off-the-shelf purchases in case it reduced the sales of custom-built machines. And that was the extent of the committee's concerns on UORs.