Tuesday 30 June 2009

"No plans for a European Rapid Reaction Force"

That is the latest statement from the MoD, which follows on from our story about the demise of the European Rapid Reaction Force, picked up by Christopher Booker in his column on Sunday, bringing the news to a wider audience.

The clue on which Booker relied was last week's conference on land warfare where Gen Dannatt slipped out in coded form that the Army's £16 billion Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), planned as the centrepiece of Britain's contribution to the European Army (aka the European Rapid Reaction Force), was a dead duck. Without that capacity, the UK is unable to make a meaningful contribution to the ERRF.

Booker's piece provoked an almost immediate response from the MoD, lodging its disagreement on its blog yesterday. In typical style, though, it is unable to resist a sneer, in declaring, "Christopher Booker's article displays a lack of understanding of some basic facts." And, according to the MoD, a crucial area where there is a "lack of understanding" is that "there are no plans for a European Rapid Reaction Force."

If Booker failed to understand this, however, he is not alone. In November 2000, when the definitive plans for the ERRF were announced, The Independent was rather full of it, The Guardian was likewise, adding a special report on the development, and the Tories were very unhappy - so it looks as if they all got it wrong

The deal had in fact been agreed at the European Council meeting held in Helsinki on 10-11 December 1999, with the details fully recorded by a House of Commons Library research paper, so it looks as if they got it wrong as well.

This denialist line, though, is typical of the word games the MoD has been playing for some years. In Jan 2001 for instance, then defence secretary Geoff Hoon was still admitting that it was planned, but stressing, "There is no standing EU Rapid Reaction Force."

Actually, that has been the case from the very beginning. The core of the force was always a planning cell and – eventually – an EU military HQ, with forces and equipment supplied for specific operations by member states. There was never any intention that the ERRF should be a standing force.

By May 2003, however, Hoon was embellishing his statements, adding to the then-established mantra that there was "no standing European rapid reaction force", by declaring, "nor any EU agreement to create one."

That, not to put too fine a point on it, is a tad disingenuous. Certainly, the origin of the ERRF emerged from an agreement between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac at the summit in St Malo in December 1998 but, as Hoon himself stated in May 2003:
Existing national or multinational forces, declared under the Helsinki headline goal, will be made available to the EU on a voluntary, case-by-case basis when required for a crisis management operation. The United Kingdom has made a significant contribution, offering a wide range of capabilities and assets ...
That "Headline Goal", agreed at the Helsinki Council in 1999, was explained by the European Council. It amounted to an agreement by the year 2003 that member states would be able "to deploy rapidly and then sustain forces capable of the full range of Petersberg tasks as set out in the Amsterdam Treaty, including the most demanding, in operations up to corps level (up to 15 brigades or 50,000-60,000 persons)."

It was agreed that these forces should be militarily self-sustaining with the necessary command, control and intelligence capabilities, logistics, other combat support services and additionally, as appropriate, air and naval elements.

Furthermore, the member states should be able to deploy in full at this level within 60 days, and within this to provide smaller rapid response elements available and deployable at very high readiness. They had to be able to sustain such a deployment for at least one year, a commitment that would require an additional pool of deployable units (and supporting elements) at lower readiness to provide replacements for the initial forces.

Thus, the "Headline Goal" was, by any other name, the European Rapid Reaction Force.

Inevitably, there was no prospect whatsoever of meeting this ambitious target by 2003 and that proved to be the case. Thus, at the June 2004 European Council, a new "Headline Goal 2010" was formally adopted. Then, and now, the ERRF concept was not formally abandoned but the "colleagues" introduced the more realistic target of creating "battlegroups" of 1,500 effectives, deployable on 15 days notice, initially for 30 days with a capability to extend to 120 days.

Thereby it came to pass that, on 3 February this year, the Baroness Taylor was felt able to declare, "there is no European rapid reaction force". Strictly speaking, that was true. The EU's immediate capability is limited to fielding a maximum of two battlegroups, a capability that Taylor acknowledged.

On the following day though, then defence secretary John Hutton responded to a written parliamentary question from Liam Fox on the EU Rapid Reaction Force, asking "what the UK contribution is to the 50,000 to 60,000 person military force."

The answer, in accordance with the MoD line, was again that "there is no EU Rapid Reaction Force". But, giving the game away, Hutton added that the UK "continues to support the Helsinki Headline Goal that all EU member states agreed to in 1999, which calls for EU member states to be able to deploy within 60 days and sustain for at least one year military forces of up to 50,000 to 60,000 persons capable of the full range of Petersberg tasks."

In other words, the ERRF lives on as a concept, still supported by the UK. The MoD nevertheless continues to play its games, its credibility declining with every utterance it makes.

Nevertheless, the new reality – as enunciated by Dannatt last week – is that, four months after Hutton's declaration, the ERRF can exist on paper only as far as the UK is concerned. The loss of FRES makes it so.

As to FRES, the MoD denies it was ever planned to be the centrepiece of our EU contribution. That is as credible as the denials on the ERRF. Central to the whole concept of the force was that it would rely on an air-portable medium weight formation, a capacity that the British Army lacked and intended to fill with the procurement of the FRES medium weight family of armoured vehicles (example pictured – top).

That much was declared in the Defence White Paper of 2003, when the ERRF project was still live.

Then it was announced that, "To increase our flexibility in responding to crises (as in Petersberg Tasks), a new set of medium weight forces will be developed, offering a high level of deployability (including by air), together with much greater levels of mobility and protection than are currently available to light forces." This was to be "based on the Future Rapid Effects System family of vehicles."

Buried in the text also was the injunction that, "We must ensure that we continue to play a leading part in the development of NATO and EU (through ESDP) capabilities better configured to conduct expeditionary operations outside Europe." Our Armed Forces, we were told, "will continue to be prepared and equipped to lead and act as the framework nation for ESDP or similar ad hoc coalitions' operations where the US is not participating."

The two together tell the tale. In denying it, the MoD is fooling only itself. But the irony is that, while plans for the ERRF remain – contradicting the latest statement – Baroness Taylor and Hutton had it right in February. The ERRF does not exist.


Monday 29 June 2009

The clogs of war ...

British troops in Afghanistan will get 200 new combat vehicles this year, The Daily Mirror informs us.

Although other sources report the cost as £350 million, The Mirror writes of a "£74 million upgrade" which is says willl bring faster, tougher, versions of cars already in use there - dubbed "dogs of war" by troops - which can withstand 50-degree heat and some explosions.

They will include, we are then informed, 110 Jackal Mark II patrol vehicles and 70 Coyotes for tactical support. A "senior military source" (i.e., press release) is then recruited to tell us that: "The Jackal has become very popular amongst reconnaissance troops. It is a long range vehicle, heavily armed with high-calibre machine guns, and is extremely versatile in difficult conditions."

Then, for the pièce de résistance, the paper grandly proclaims: "The Jackal II is Land Rover based and open-topped - vital for reconnaissance work and engaging with civilians," with the added information that, "The vehicles are to replace dozens that have been battered or blown up ... ".

The Coyote graphic (above) comes from the BBC site, illustrating how the vehicle is "designed" to protect UK troops.

This is what passes for reporting these days. We are so lucky that the media is on the ball.


Sunday 28 June 2009

Being wrong

Much lauded by the media for his recent memoirs about his experiences as a Grenadier Guard officer, Patrick Hennessey has now been given space by Reuters to air his views about protected vehicles.

Under the heading, "When is the wrong vehicle the right vehicle," Hennessey chooses as his topical "hook" the recent death of Major Sean Birchall, the 169th British service person to die in Afghanistan since the start of operations in 2001 and the tenth to be killed in a Jackal. This he contrasts with the announcement that four families are planning to sue the Ministry of Defence over "the deaths of loved ones in the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rover in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Addressing the issue that similar concerns are being raised over the suitability of the Jackal as have been being voiced for some time over the Snatch, Hennessey springs to the defence of the vehicle, calling in aid his months on patrol in Iraq in the Snatch and even longer driving both on and off road around Afghanistan in the even more vulnerable WIMIK.

Interestingly, he describes the WIMIK as "the topless Land Rover largely unchanged since the Long Range Desert Group charged around North Africa in it in the Second World War and the vehicle the Jackal was brought in to replace." This does not aid the man's credibility. Not only was the Land Rover not introduced until 1948 (and not purchased by the Army until 1949), the primary patrol vehicle used by the LRDG was the 30 cwt Chevrolet.

That aside, Hennessey then launches into his main thesis, declaring that the public concern over military vehicles is at once understandable, praiseworthy and a little disconcerting. "It is understandable because grief is a terrible thing and grieving families will always want to try and understand why they have lost husbands, sons and brothers and praiseworthy because it is only right that societies should try and ensure that the men and women sent to fight on their behalf are equipped as well as can be."

It is disconcerting, however, because – writes Hennessey - "the argument always seems to lose sight of certain considerations; the devil, as always, is in the detail."

Indeed, the devil is in the detail, but the "detail" offered consists of imagining a Snatch Land Rover driving down the Strand. A few people will no doubt stop and look, some will point and a few will know what it is and wonder why it is there, but it will likely go mostly unremarked.

If, on the other hand, the exercise were repeated with a Mastiff (pictured), one of the better protected vehicles in Afghanistan, or one of the Warriors which have done such sterling work in Iraq, or even the British Army's most heavily protected vehicle, the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, then traffic would grind to a standstill as people dropped their shopping and either ran or stared.

Thus asserts Hennessey, protection, although important, is only one of many consideration for a commander, be it a junior one like I was, planning local area patrols, or a senior General working out what assets to use where. For all its vulnerability, he writes, I preferred the WMIK because I liked being able to see and hear and interact with people as we drove around. He also knows many who have a similar opinion of the Jackal and admire its all terrain ability. Soldiers also value being able to keep a low profile, a soft posture, something not exactly feasible in a tank.

Just on the issue of being able "to see and hear and interact with people as we drove around", this is grossly overstated. It may have its value for "reassurance" or "liaison" patrols, but for much of the time both the WMIKs and the Jackals are being used as gun platforms in combat operations or as convoy escorts, where the desired interaction is between the Taleban and a .50 calibre bullet. And, in any case, bristling as they are with weaponry, neither vehicle is exactly civilian-friendly. Petraeus had the last word on this. It you want to interact, you should dismount.

On the issue of protection though, whether he knows it or not, the man is simply parroting exactly the same lines on which the defence procurement minister Lord Drayson relied back in June 2006. Far from being original, Hennessey is thus offering the tired mantras that have long been discredited.

In his "argument" though, there is also a strong element of dishonesty – or ignorance. By contrasting the Snatch and the Mastiff, he is comparing chalk with cheese. Had he compared, say, the Snatch and the RG-32M, his argument would have fallen apart. The one is no more remarkable than the other, yet the RG-32M (pictured) has a high degree of blast and mine protection, far exceeding that of the Snatch.

There is also repeated the error which seems permanently embedded in the military consciousness – the belief that the British Army's most "heavily protected vehicle" is the Challenger. Against gunfire, that may be so, against mines and buried IEDs, that is not the case. It is relatively poorly protected and extremely vulnerable to such weapons. The RG-31, at seven tons, confers twice the mine resistance of the Challenger which is ten times heavier. And, as we are aware, troops stand three times the chance of walking away from an IED hit if they are in an MRAP, compared with a main battle tank.

This confusion between weight and protection continues in the next part of Hennessey's dissertation, where he indulges in a reducto ad absurdum argument, positing that, "We would be better protected if we went out in more heavily armoured vehicles but then we would be better protected if we simply stayed in our bases and never patrolled."

In fact, he maintains, the men and women serving in Afghanistan would be best protected of all if they weren't there and we brought them all home: sometimes a degree of protection is rightly sacrificed for operational effectiveness.

What is ignored here is the influence of design – an omission we see so often. A well designed mine/blast protected vehicle need not be heavier than current patrol vehicles - and with openable top hatches, there is also a chance to "interact". The weight of the Jackal, for instance, is seven tons. That is comparable with the RG-31 (early marks) and not much less than the far better protected Ridgeback. As for the all-terrain ability of the Jackal, the next generation of MRAPs will largely provide for that need.

Buoyed by his own ignorance, however, Hennessey then asserts that, "laudable though public concern is, the only people who can make the call of what is and isn't operationally effective are the commanders on the ground."

At so many levels, the man is wrong. For sure, given a mission to perform and a choice of what is available in the vehicle pool, what to use on the day is a decision for the commanders on the ground. But as to what should be available, that is a decision made way above Hennessey's pay grade. And here, the "bigger picture" is paramount.

Where the UK is fighting an unpopular war and there is limited public tolerance of casualties, and where the Taleban are fully conscious of the PR impact of those casualties, there is an essential strategic requirement to keep deaths – and certainly unnecessary deaths – to a minimum. To do otherwise in the interests of notional operational effectiveness is to risk winning the tactical battle and losing the war, as public support is withdrawn. Therefore, "protection" is an integral requirement for long-term operational effectiveness.

Furthermore, this bleeds through into tactical decisions. Commanders, aware of the impact of an excessive casualty rate, have been forced to modify patrol patterns, and even operational doctrines. When only vulnerable vehicles are available to them, for instance, there is often a need to rely on airpower for support – which itself has an adverse effect on public sentiment.

Just as importantly, for an Army which often refers to the similarity between current operations and the LRDG in 1941-42 in the North African desert, it needs to understand that the tactical situations are very different. Here, it is germane to note that the motto of the LRDG was "Non Vi Sed Arte" - "Not by Strength, by Guile". The LRDG was the predator, relying on stealth and concealment to stalk its prey - and to provide protection. In a counter-insurgency context, the modern equivalent is the prey, patrols being observed by "dickers" from the very moment they leave their bases. In the absence of "guile", strength is needed - in the form of armour plate.

Nevertheless, Hennessey applauds the efforts of all those who seek to secure the best for the military and agrees with those who argue that politicians have not always honoured their side of the bargain by sending troops to war ill-equipped and under-funded. He remains wary, though, of tactical decisions being made in the courts at home and says he will watch the development of these cases with interest.

What maybe he does not appreciate is that the issue is not the tactical decision-making but the strategic, top-level choices made not by politicians but by the Army. If the Army hierarchy had been a little better at making those choices, and less imbued with the mantras which Hennessey so faithfully parrots, there would be no need for the courts.

The lesson that we need to take from this, however, is that Hennessey speaks with the authority of a soldier who "was there". In deference to that, we are supposed to accord some respect. But the fact remains that "being there" does not confer any greater knowledge or wisdom, when that experience is tainted by ignorance and dogma. "Being there" does not stop you "being wrong".


Saturday 27 June 2009


It is Max Hasting's turn in The Daily Mail to pick up on General Richards' speech – and much else – using the topical hook of Armed Forces Day which is being celebrated today for the first time.

However, in common with most of the commentariat, Hastings distils complex arguments into a "biff-bam" knockabout routine about shortage of resources and underfunding, laying the entire blame at the door of Gordon Brown as the source of all ills.

It is very much these personality politics which blight the entire defence debate, as they neglect entirely the role of the military top brass in defining the shape of the armed forces and their equipment. Thus in the world inhabited by the likes of Hastings, the politicians are always the villains and the military the blameless victims.

This was the line taken by Patrick Mercer and embraced enthusiastically by James Forsyth, web editor of The Spectator. Commenting on Gen Dannatt's speech but relying exclusively on a report in The Times as his source, he writes on the Coffee House blog with his own views.

There, he gleefully picks on but one issue highlighted by Dannatt, declaring that "Dannatt makes clear that the reason the British operation failed in the south was that there were not an adequate number of troops on the ground." And, on that slender basis does this intellectual giant conclude that:

... we either properly fund and equip our armed forces or we retreat from our role on the world stage. If the Conservative party believes that this country should be more than just a peace-keeping nation, then it will have to be prepared to increase defence spending. The problems in Iraq demonstrate that fighting wars on peacetime budgets is not sustainable.
As it happens, we agree that the original occupation force in southern Iraq was undermanned, but it is not necessarily the case that more "boots on the ground" would have improved matters. As Dannatt himself said on a different occasion, specifically of Basra, "It's a city of huge size, however many British troops or coalition troops have been there we would never have been able to impose a regime and we had no intention of doing that."

Bearing in mind that US forces further north had considerably higher manpower levels, and were no more successful in the initial stages in containing the insurgency, Dannatt does have a point. More British troops might simply have led to more conflict and a higher casualty rate.

What must be remembered, of course, is that when the US finally mounted the surge, the extra troops operated in a different political environment, with new, theatre-specific equipment and to an entirely revised doctrine. Without those changes, it is arguable that the surge would not have succeeded and, as none of those preconditions were present in the early phases of the British occupation, the chances are that more troops would have had no measurable effect.

Here, one must again recall the observations of US General John Craddock, who noted – albeit in respect of Afghanistan - that the priority was the provision of transport (particularly helicopters and mine-protected vehicles), intelligence and medical capabilities. "Too often," he said, "the forces there now are relatively fixed, because we don't have adequate tactical mobility to move them around to be able to do the jobs we need them to do."

There, was the singular problem with the British in Iraq. With the absence of the right kit, they lost tactical mobility and, even with the troops strengths that they had maintained, ceased to be effective. Yet, when US forces came to the rescue in aiding the Iraqi forces recover al Amarah, they fielded only a fraction of the forces then available to the British.

Despite this, on the rare occasion that sites such as ToryDiary take on the issue of defence, the same trite agenda prevails. We get pleas for more funding (or the protection of current funding levels), with the charge here that Brown and Blair sent our armed forces to war on a peacetime budget, again calling in aid the same superficial analysis of Dannatt's speech, using The Times as the source.

So it is that "underfunding" is locked into the narrative, with not the faintest recognition that, in blocking new equipment for Iraq, Dannatt was in fact protecting a funding allocation of £16 billion for his pet project, FRES – to say nothing of the Future Lynx helicopter. Money was never the problem. What mattered was the way it was spent.

What makes all this so topical and important though is the expectation of a new Conservative administration within a year, which will be confronting exactly the same problems with which the Labour administration had to struggle.

It is Hastings in his Daily Mail piece, however, who puts his finger on a problem of which too many are painfully aware. "There is a deafening political silence about defence, because the Tories do not think the issue wins votes," he writes, adding that: "They have notably failed to hammer the Government as it deserves about its disgraceful treatment of the Armed Forces."

The nostrum about votes should be taken with a pinch of salt. Defence invariably attracts more electoral support that is given credit by the politicians. More likely, the reluctance to engage on defence stems from David Cameron's efforts to re-brand the Conservatives as a "caring" party, hence his determination to avoid hard-edged "macho" issues such as Armed Forces equipment.

But, if in the absence of such engagement, the Tories stand by the narrative of "underspending" – all in the context of Cameron admitting that he cannot realistically plan to increase defence spending when in office - then the option of cutting some big ticket projects begins to look extremely attractive.

Hastings targets the Trident nuclear deterrent, oblivious to the fact that this does not come out of core defence funding. Scrapping this would not necessarily increase the flow of cash to other defence projects.

Whether Trident, or some other project, the big problems will come if the Tories see the liberation of funds by this means as the answer to the current problems in the Armed Forces. We need a much more sophisticated and comprehensive narrative if we are to emerge from the strategic defence review that the Tories are promising with anything like effective Armed Forces.


Another review

The odd thing about the American defeat – if such a word can be used – in Vietnam is that it came about through internal problems, not military defeat. The Viet Cong were beaten. The North Vietnamese Army was beaten. The bombing of North Vietnam was shockingly effective (although this was not appreciated at the time.) The US effectively won the war. It was defeated by the home front and an astonishingly effective propaganda campaign. Not for the first time, the communists probably didn’t believe their own success.

The odd thing about the British "victory" in Southern Iraq is … well, it was a defeat. Worse, it was a defeat that came about because of flawed political and military decisions, taken not by the men on the spot, but men in Whitehall. The scale of the disaster was never understood by the home front – even I didn't know the half of it, and I am as well-informed as any civilian could reasonably hope to be – due to a compliant media and a sheer lack of comprehension. The British government preferred to believe its own "spin" rather than the truth. In doing so, they betrayed the British soldiers who went to war without the right equipment and no clear plan, and the country itself. Charges of treason would not be inappropriate.

That is the conclusion, one I strongly endorse, of this remarkable book. There are actually relatively few British writings on the subject of Iraq, although Sniper One and Eight Lives Down provide some insight into the lives of the soldiers there. It should be noted that Sniper One paints a picture of Basra – and Iraq – that was at variance with the official government-promoted version of events. Ministry of Defeat provides an overall history of the occupation – something that has been sorely lacking – and details, in a very "take no prisoners" attitude, just went wrong in Iraq.

The core of the matter, North writes, is that the British Government refused to recognise that it had a serious problem on its hands. As the militias gained power in Basra, the government preferred to believe that it wasn't a serious issue – little more than a public order issue – and convinced itself that Britain's expertise from Northern Ireland gave it an advantage over the US. That might have been true if the expertise had actually been used (it wasn't) … but in any case, Basra was not Northern Ireland. This little piece of self-delusion cost lives, Mr Blair! The troops in Ireland had far better intelligence and much higher troop levels. Much has been made of the shortage of American troops after the Fall of Baghdad, but the British had the same problem and, unlike the US, the MOD learned fuck-all from the experience.

If that wasn't bad enough, the equipment procurement process was badly screwed up. When the RAF was being allowed to spend billions on the Eurofighter, the Army had to make do with the Snatch Land Rover – which Northern Ireland experience had shown was badly under-armoured – which caused the deaths of many British soldiers. The issue was not that the British Army was under-funded – although soldiers were being underpaid for their role – but that the money was being spent on long-term programs that would not provide useful equipment (if that) in time to be useful.

It is quite typical, as Donald Rumsfield pointed out years ago, that countries go to war with an army that is unprepared for the task. It is rather less typical that a country would go to war, find itself in serious shit … and then continue blithely developing technology that was effectively useless, prepared for the wrong war. Instead of fighting the last war, the UK was looking towards a hypothetical European RRF, one of Tony Blair's pet projects. Billions have been spent – for nothing. Common sense would tell someone of Blair's intelligence – surely – that a European force wasn't on the cards. When has the EU ever agreed on an enemy?

The British media also comes in for bashing. Not, it should be noted, for the largely American left-wing media army bashing, but for being the dog that didn't bark. The MOD generally tried to spoon-feed propaganda to the British TV, which largely ate it up and came back and begged for more. Early signs of trouble were ignored, or taken out of context, and even when the media did pick up on signs of trouble, they never understood the underlying factors behind the war. The media did pick up on problems with the Snatch vehicles, but took the "under-funded military" line rather than realising the truth. Reporters who questioned the Army line, such as Christina Lamb in Afghanistan, found themselves blacklisted.

The core reason for British "success" in Iraq, North notes, was that the UK never really had control over Basra. The Shia inhabitants of the area, after the events of 1991, preferred to organise themselves rather than trust the coalition. Iran was seen as a better ally by some, a deadly threat by others, but always as a far more significant player than the coalition. Under constant attack, the British forces were slowly withdrawn from the area, conceding control to the militias, who started to loot, rape and slaughter at will. The inglorious end to the story – the retaking of Basra by Iraqi forces with American support in 2008 – was barely a footnote in the British media.

The contrast between Iraq and the Falklands is staggering. The Falklands were another "come as you are" war, one fought by a far more determined PM for limited goals … and one that Britain came closer to losing than anyone would like to admit. After that war, the lessons were learned and incorporated into new developments. Iraq seems, instead, to be the forgotten war. If that wasn't bad enough, most of the mistakes are already being repeated in Afghanistan.

This is an angry book, written by an angry man. It isn't pleasant reading for anyone with a British heritage, but it is necessary reading. God help us.

Lifted from Crucis Court. Thank you.


Friday 26 June 2009

Let battle commence

Recalling the recent defence debate in the Commons, when, at one time there were only twelve MPs in the chamber of which only one was a Labour backbencher, it is encouraging to note that the much-needed debate on our defence capabilities is nevertheless under way.

In this respect, The Daily Telegraph is to be applauded for leading the way, with a long feature by Thomas Harding, responding to the speech by General Sir David Richards at RUSI this week.

With defence affairs on the cusp, and the campaign in Afghanistan very much in the balance, a wide-ranging debate is both timely and necessary, rendering the contribution of the incoming CGS of considerable importance. It is of some significance, therefore, that The Telegraph remains the only newspaper of substance to take on board and develop his views. And, taking the political blogs at their own estimation of their value, their silence on this intensely political issue should not escape attention.

That is not to say that the media as a whole is silent on defence issues, with The Times also offering a lengthy opinion piece today. Unfortunately, this paper has chosen for its author Patrick Mercer, former infantry officer and currently Conservative MP for Newark & Retford.

In writing on defence issues, Mercer tends to be a one-trick horse, beating the drum for more resources and more "boots on the ground". His arguments tend to be one-dimensional, lacking the depth of strategic thinking that we see, for instance, in Richards' recent speech. It is a measure of the poverty of the general debate, therefore, that The Times believes his views are worth publishing.

Similarly, The Guardian has an offering, this one by Simon Jenkins , one of such unremitting negativity that it encompasses just one idea – that the US and British forces should quit Afghanistan.

In the real world, however, we are committed to Afghanistan and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And since the best outcome is to succeed in creating a stable, prosperous nation, capable of governing itself without external intervention, then the task at hand is to determine how we can achieve this, with minimum cost and bloodshed, all within the constraints of our own budgetary limitations and broader defence requirements. The debate, therefore, should be on how to win – an issue neither Mercer nor Jenkins address.

It is here that Harding, in his Telegraph piece is actually different and welcome. Whatever its limitations – and nothing short of a lengthy book could ever do justice to the topic – the theme is that the nature of modern conflict means our Armed Forces urgently need a major overhaul.

Harding thus "anticipates a battle in which the Army must triumph." There is a campaign that needs to be fought, he writes, not against the Taliban, but between the dinosaurs and Young Turks in the military. The outcome will determine whether the Armed Forces are left burnt out in the wadis of Helmand or evolve into a sharpened and highly effective tool to fight the wars of the future.

As a healthy antidote to the leaden mantras of "overstretch" and “under-resourcing" that have so far dominated the defence debate, the piece starts with a recognition of the reality: "It is becoming clear that there is simply not enough money available to fulfill the separate aspirations of all three Services." This relies on the views of Gen Richards, who articulates that reality, paraphrased as "we can do many things inadequately or a few things well, but to try both will end in failure."

Thus has Richards "adroitly opened the debate on the future of our Armed Forces", this occurring at a time when both major political parties appear bankrupt of defence policies. And, in getting to this point, he has gathered around him some of the most dynamic military thinkers (and not just from the Army) to thrash out the immediate future of defence. They know that its experience in Iraq has left the Army shattered in body and mind and that Afghanistan could prove more burdensome still.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that we are, in dealing with the counter-insurgency battles of the kind being fought in Afghanistan, facing that "horse and tank moment, where it is clearly evident that existing structures, strategy, tactics and equipment are not working. We need a revolution in our thinking, the seeds of which, writes Harding, first appeared in the US earlier this year.

This was the famous episode when US defence secretary Robert Gates announced that the modernisation of non-nuclear forces "should be tied to the capabilities of known future adversaries – not by what might be technologically feasible for a potential adversary, given unlimited time and resources".

The message to the Pentagon was clear: fight today's war, not one against some imaginary enemy of the future and, if the speech was poorly reported over here, it has nonetheless lodged heavily in the thoughts of some strategic thinkers, Richards amongst them.

This, of course, opens up the tri-service debate, where each of the Services have their own views of what is necessary for the defence of the realm, a taste of which is to be found in the letters column of The Daily Telegraph, and in particular from Major-General Julian Thompson, victor of the Falklands. He writes:

Britain is an island, reliant on importing goods by sea. With fewer warships (report, June 25), our trade would be vulnerable to the type of attacks being mounted by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The war in Afghanistan is important, but the bottom line is that after only a few weeks without imported oil supplies and food, we would starve.
Richards, in fact, addresses that issue noting that any future operations of any significance are going to be conducted as part of an alliance – not least in dealing with piracy in the Indian Ocean, where we have operated as part of a combined Nato force and (unfortunately) within an EU detachment.

Here we confront that other reality. The UK is no longer a global power and the Royal Navy does not rule the seas. In the Far East, where the Navy once maintained a powerful fleet, the US Navy roams free while Australia and India are important regional powers, developing substantial navies of their own. We protect our interests now not by flying the White Ensign but by diplomacy and forging alliances, as partners rather than rulers. Thus, while opinions vary – and there are strongly-held views on such matters – inconvenient questions must be asked and honest answers given.

But, writes Harding, where does this new mindset leave the three Services in Britain? Unfortunately, with a limited pool of cash the laws of survival apply, and the Services have reverted to unhelpful tribalism. The RAF will not give up its attachment to strategic bombing and the Royal Navy ardently clings to its aircraft carriers, advanced destroyers and fighter wing. There are many unglamorous parts of the Air Force that quietly go about achieving a great deal – from air transport to helicopters and surveillance. But those leading the RAF are fighter pilots who are loath to yield to the realities in front of them.

Then we address some of the detail. It's a big ask, adds Harding, but the idea of putting fighter pilots in a single engine, turbo-prop aircraft such as the Super Tucano has to be contemplated. Aircraft like the Tucano are cheap, low-tech and highly effective, as many South American drug barons have discovered. They provide surveillance, along with an armament of bombs and machine guns and an ability to loiter overhead for a long time, and they are also easy to maintain.

It will take courage for someone in the RAF hierarchy to advocate using the Tucano (cost £6 million) over the Eurofighter Typhoon (cost £65 million) but it is the type of thinking now required. The problem today is the RAF's attachment to fast jets. Either it goes for the Typhoon or for the US-made Joint Strike Fighter, but the defence budget cannot sustain both.

Harding raises many other such issues – very many of them having been discussed on this blog - and while neither he nor I could pretend to have explored them fully, much less come up with definitive answers, the very fact that they are being discussed is an advance on the previous sterility of the defence debate.

The ultimate problem though, which Harding identifies, is the "bed blockers" at the top of the MoD and in the military establishment, who do not seem to recognise the need for change. Perhaps more optimistically than we would allow for, Harding concludes that, "once they are removed and once a new government is persuaded that the Ministry of Defence is aiming to fight the wars of today, we are likely to see major changes in the configuration of our Armed Forces."

We hope that is the case. The current paradigm cannot continue and now is the time to face reality and decide honestly, clearly and with candour, what it is we want our Armed Forces to do, and then to make the changes necessary to ensure that they can succeed in what we ask of them.


Thursday 25 June 2009

A "horse and tank" moment

Following on from General Sir Richard Dannatt, the incoming CGS, General Sir David Richards has now taken the podium at the RUSI Land Warfare conference which ends today.

It says something of the media that the only newspaper so far to recognise the importance of his speech is The Daily Telegraph in a piece written by Thomas Harding. There, the message is summed us as "Army must change or risk failure, warns future chief."

Richards starts off by alluding to the apocryphal tale of armies historically preparing to fight the last war rather than the next. Successful armed forces, he declares, adapt and transform at a pace faster than their potential adversaries. With an eye to history, he cites Cromwell as an example who "unlocked the synergy of discipline, training, new equipment and new tactics in a manner that left the Royalists looking like barely gifted amateurs."

Richards immediate strikes a chord with that framing, as it is precisely that dynamic which drove the US forces to such success as they achieved in Iraq, the lack of which led to the British failure. The Americans learned lessons. The British did not – or not enough of them, fast enough. Those readers who have struggled through Ministry of Defeat will have seen this spelt out in some detail.

In a useful reminder, Richards also tells us of the struggles of Basil Liddell Hart and "Boney" Fuller in seeking to persuade soldiers everywhere that the era of the horse had been replaced by that of the tank and aircraft. But it was Dannatt in his own speech who had reminded the audience of Liddell Hart's rueful comment that "there is only one thing harder than getting a new idea into the military’s mind and that is getting an old one out."

Our incoming CGS says he is determined not fall into that trap and tells us that the Army is adapting to the challenges of war in Afghanistan, although the transformation is still localised and small in scale. The "often subtle and certainly hi-tech ways of fighting" taken for granted in places like Helmand have not yet been imported into the core of the Armed Forces. US forces are doing better.

Crucially, Richards asserts that there has been a radical change in the way wars are fought. We cannot go back to operating as we might have done even ten years ago when it was still tanks, fast jets and fleet escorts that dominated the doctrine of our three services, he says. The lexicon of today is non-kinetic effects teams, precision attack teams, Counter-IED, combat logistic patrols, information dominance, counter-piracy, and cyber attack and defence.

Then says Richards, the pace of technological change is bewildering. It has left every nations mainstream procurement process struggling to deliver equipment that will remain relevant against more agile opponents satisfied with cheap and ever-evolving eighty per cent solutions. Too often, he adds, we still strive for hugely expensive 100 per cent solutions – "exquisite solutions" as US defence secretary Gates calls them – relevant only in a hi-tech state on state war but that risk being out of date before they are brought into service.

In sum, tactical, operational and strategic level success in today's environment is beyond that of a military that draws its inspiration from visions of traditional state on state war, however hi-tech in nature.

As to Afghanistan, should we be content for NATO to be seen to fail on its first ground combat operation, Richards asks. If we do not succeed conspicuously in Afghanistan, and vitally by extension in and with Pakistan, then we risk losing the war against terrorism globally. Furthermore, the reputation of our armed forces is in itself a grand strategic issue. For many years, they have given the UK influence internationally, defeated our nation's enemies while deterring others and been an institution of which the British people are proud. And we would lose this at our peril.

Afghanistan, therefore, is to be our top priority and the key here is that this is not a traditional inter-state war, where success is easily defined. And, if the Afghani type of warfare was to be the norm (rather than aberrant, as some still think) then our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, facing its own "horse and tank" moment. If this is correct, then:

... those charged with the design and equipping of our armed forces need to do three things. Firstly to decide whether they believe conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term or are an historical aberration? Secondly do they believe that, despite globalisation and greater mutual inter-dependence, state on state warfare remains something for which they must prepare? And thirdly ... if it is decided that our armed forces need to be capable of succeeding in both, would not the two types of conflict look surprisingly similar in practise?
On this basis, Richards is asserting that our armed forces need to become better at fighting non-state actors. Not least, on an inter-agency basis, non-military activities must be given much greater weight and properly integrated into strategy. But the paradigm which has inter-state and non-state conflicts looking similar, would allow our armed forces to focus, albeit not exclusively, on a single version of conflict, developing common skill sets and weapon systems

There is though the argument that we cannot afford the ultimate risk of a return to traditional state-on-state conflict; that our capability and military culture should be primarily based on such a possibility, remaining firmly and conspicuously in the "big boys" league, while seeking to build a capability in new areas too.

Mercifully – and here we are seeing a glimmer of sense – Richards argues that this is "simply not affordable". In trying to do a bit of everything, we risk future failure across the board because, on the day, we will have insufficient of what is needed. Furthermore, even in inter-state conflict, traditional combat power can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology.

Nevertheless, Richards is not advocating the scrapping of all our aircraft and tanks to the point that traditional mass armoured operations, for example, become an attractive asymmetric option to a potential enemy. With our allies, he says, we need to retain sufficient conventional air, land and maritime forces to ensure tactical level dominance in regional intervention operations or enduring stabilisation operations.

The key point though is that the scale of employment and the context in which conventional weapons systems may be used in the future will be quite different to what may have been the case in the twentieth century. Should traditional inter-state conflict again become a serious possibility, we do not need to plan on winning these things by ourselves. Our contribution can prudently reflect better what our allies will bring to the party.

Then, if we ruthlessly apply our own policy that we will only undertake traditional state-on-state war with powerful allies, we can achieve savings in this hugely expensive area that will free up the resources needed for investment in other more likely forms of conflict.

To conclude, Richards then notes that our forces are still designed primarily to conduct short duration conventional war fighting operations. In these, one compensates absolutely correctly for what historically would be viewed as a shortage of troops with huge firepower, hence the bias of the equipment programme towards these capabilities over the last sixty years.

In wars amongst the people, however, if you are using a lot of firepower - often delivered from the air in extremis as a result of insufficient manpower - you are almost certainly losing. One must have enough troops firstly to retain the tactical initiative and, secondly, to provide the enduring routine security without which the population will not have the confidence to reject the insurgent or spoiler. They can, and ideally should, be indigenous forces, but you also need sufficient people to train them quickly and efficiently in the first place. Thus he ruminates:

So are our Armed Forces geared up properly for future conflict? In one sense I am not as concerned as perhaps I have given the impression. The essence of a good navy, army or air force is that they have fighting spirit, and can impose their will on a skilled, cunning and violent enemy. Armed forces of this quality, with the agile and innovative leaders they breed naturally, can with good training turn their hand to any type of conflict relatively quickly. I am in no doubt at all that our navy, army and air force is very firmly in this league. If you do not possess such fighting spirit, however good or hi-tech your equipment, you will not win against opponents who do, whether they are part of another states' army or Taliban style insurgents, and however shoddy or out of date their equipment.
Thus we see Richards saying that, from one key perspective, our fight in Afghanistan is the best possible preparation for any future conflict, whatever its nature. He thus is aiming to contribute to the case for a fundamental re-think of the way we prepare and equip our armed forces for the twenty-first century.

All three services have a vital role to play in it but we need to agree the essential character of future conflict. Much of what we need for the future is in today’s inventory, but the scale and context in which it may be required must be rigorously examined.

If our generation's horse and tank moment is not gripped our armed forces will try, with inadequate resources, to be all things to all conflicts and perhaps fail to succeed properly in any. The risks of such an approach are too serious for this any longer to be an acceptable course, if ever it has been.

There is much to think about in this speech. In many ways, Richards is putting down a marker for the forthcoming strategic defence review, which the Conservatives have pledged, and the issues he discusses will provide the basis for what is bound to be a closely fought debate. As a starter for ten, however, this is very encouraging indeed. We will return to it, I suspect, many times.


Wednesday 24 June 2009

Propaganda corner

The MoD publicity machine has been hard at work over the last few days, selling "puffs" on the latest kit for "Our Boys" out in Afghanistan.

Leader of the pack of respondents – with actually very few takers so far in the MSM – is the BBC, which has a gloriously uncritical report from Robert Hall extolling the virtues of the latest tactical support vehicles procured, including the Husky, Wolfhound and Coyote.

These were unveiled today at the DVD fest at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, the Defence Equipment & Support's (DE&S) "key stakeholder event" where Hall obligingly told his audience that the MoD had learned a great deal from its experience in Afghanistan, then happily being driven away in a Husky.

Equally obligingly, Hall gives defence equipment minister Quentin Davies plenty of air time to tell us how this new stable of vehicles would provide troops with high-quality and versatile equipment to give a "battle-winning edge in Afghanistan".

"We are working tirelessly to ensure they have the right equipment for the right job and ensuring that we respond quickly and innovatively to equipment requests from the frontline," Davies adds.

Hall's online piece also features a new lightweight textile-based armour to protect vehicles from rocket-propelled grenades. This is called the Tarian system, developed by Dorset-based company Amsafe, and is intended as a partial replacement for bar armour.

This is given a good airing by Deborah Haynes in The Times, telling us that the main benefit of the product is that it is 85 percent lighter than steel blast protection and 50 per cent lighter than aluminium bar armour. Thus we learn that troops can take advantage of the weight saved to fit other protective measures to their vehicles, "making them more survivable in Afghanistan, where the greatest risk to lives is posed by roadside bombs."

The idea of saving weight to add weight elsewhere is recognisably MoD propaganda, reflecting exactly that unchanging mindset which equates protection with weight of armour rather than design.

But what is interesting – to put it in as neutral a way as possible – is how willing the media seems to regurgitate the official line, without in any way questioning what they are told. This is especially the case with the BBC who in Robert Hall had the ideal propagandist, worth his weight in gold.


Tuesday 23 June 2009

Playing politics

Edward Leigh – he of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – is at it again, his committee this time reporting on the ill-starred Type 45 Destroyers.

This warship type, as readers will know, is to form the backbone of the Royal Navy's air defence capability, replacing the ageing Type 42s. To that effect, the ships are fitted with the French manufactured Aster missile, known by the acronym PAAMS (Principle Anti-Aircraft Missile System).

Leigh's main beef is that, although the first (of six) Type 45 will enter service in 2009, "it is a disgrace that it will do so without a PAAMS missile having been fired from the ship, and will not achieve full operational capability until 2011." He (or his committee) also complains that other equipments and capabilities which will enhance the ship's ability to conduct anti-air warfare operations will not be fitted until after the ship enters service in some cases.

As to the committee's diagnosis of the main problem, it notes that, although the Type 45 was based on 80 percent new technology, the MoD failed to take sufficient account of this in its assessment of technical risk or in the commercial construct that it agreed. Thus, it decides that the Ministry "needs to improve its understanding of technical risks at the start of its projects" and should "factor in more realistic allowance for risk on its more technically complex projects."

To say that this is a somewhat superficial finding is something of an understatement. What the committee does not identify is that PAAMS is another of those ghastly European co-operative ventures, with the French having the design lead on the Aster missile. The delays in the deployment of the weapons system, therefore, owe as much to our French partners as they do the MoD.

Further, as we rehearsed nearly four years ago, the genesis of the Type 45 goes back to 1985, with the ill-fated NFR-90 (NATO Frigate Replacement for 90s) programme, a multi-national attempt at designing a common frigate for several Nato nations, including France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the United States and Canada.

Inevitably, with such an ambitious project and with such disparate requirements, the project could not succeed and it was abandoned in the early 1990s, after US and the UK had withdrawn, the latter in 1989 after fears that the design would not meet the requirements for replacing the Type 42 air-defence destroyers.

It was then in 1992, on John Major's watch, when he was imbued with the desire to be "at the heart of Europe" that his Conservative government opted for a "European" solution, setting up the Horizon "Common New Generation Frigate" project with France and Italy.

The project comprised two separate but linked projects – the basic platform (ship), and the missile/radar complex. And while the platform was a common venture, and the British elected for their own radar, the missile system – known as the PAAMS (Principal Anti-Aircraft Missiles system) – was to be French-built by EUROPAAMS.

It was a Labour government then in 1999 that abandoned the Horizon project, the MoD then electing to go for a British-built platform, which had been the original intention back in 1985 before a Nato solution had been considered. A year later, a "fixed price" contract was awarded to BAE Systems for twelve ships, scheduled to enter service by the end of 2014.

Interestingly, the entire programme was budgeted at about £6 billion, including PAAMS, the development of which had been agreed in 1995 by a Conservative government, despite fears over escalating costs. The target cost per ship (excluding missiles) was about £270 million, with as much again for the missiles.

The PAC now observes that it is "disappointing" that the MoD has taken so long - over 20 years, it says - to deliver its replacement for the Type 42s. But it then refers to the Type 45 entering service over two years late and £1.5 billion over budget. In fact, it is 20 years late, and more than £6 billion over the originally planned budget.

The crucial issue though is that this is another of those "legacy" procurement projects started in the days when European co-operation was all the rage, and many of the problems currently experienced stem from that – making the Conservatives jointly responsible for the cost over-runs and delays.

It jars, therefore, to find Liam Fox - as always – scoring party political points on this project, claiming that: "This report highlights the extraordinary risk that this Government is taking with our nation's defences in an increasingly volatile world."

"Its appalling incompetence," he adds, "has left the Royal Navy having to "juggle and hope" with only half the new ships it was supposed to have, and a fleet of exhausted Type 42s that are more than three decades old."

But for the Euro-enthusiasm of the previous Conservative government, the Type 42 replacements would already have been in service for some years. And, instead of relying on the European fixation with developing highly sophisticated technical projects like missile systems from scratch, we would possibly have relied – as do the Americans – on evolutionary projects such as an enhanced Sea Dart, developing the technology already in service on the Type 42.

To reduce costs, we could also have shared Spain's philosophy. Put off by the French insistence on a new European combat system, it went for the "proven and ready to go" US sales pitch for its F100 frigate, which features the Aegis system and Standard missiles, the current US maritime anti-aircraft systems.

Spain's IZAR shipbuilders formed industrial bonds with Lockheed Martin, enabling it to build its own platforms while benefiting from state-of-the-art technology, delivering ships with greater capabilities than the Type 45 which included Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-submarine missiles – at around half the cost for each platform.

Arguably, had the previous Conservative government followed this route, the massive cost increases could have been avoided, in which case we would have twelve ships instead of the six now being purchased. Dr Fox, therefore, is playing politics.


Will the real General Dannatt please stand up?

With remarkable candour, a General Sir Richard Dannatt is now admitting to failures in the campaign in Iraq - but others have not always agreed.

Currently, this General is telling us that Britain missed the opportunity to stabilise Iraq after the 2003 invasion and was too quick to shift resources to the conflict in Afghanistan. But that is today's view delivered to the Royal United Services Institute.

In December 2008, however, a General who goes by the name of Sir Richard Dannatt – and may be some relation – was telling the BBC, "We have achieved what we set out to achieve" in Iraq. "We have been quite clear about what we had to do and we have done it ... The job is done and Basra and southern Iraq is a much better place now than it was under Saddam Hussein in 2002."

Now, we learn that the failure of coalition forces to take advantage of the "window of consent" in the immediate aftermath of the invasion had opened the door to the Shia militias and then they had not kept enough troops on the ground - particularly as the focus of operations switched to Afghanistan.

Thus does today's Gen Dannatt say that one of the key lessons from the conflict was the need to achieve a "decisive effect" early on. "Our failure to deliver this through proper investment and a comprehensive approach and our early switch to an economy of force operation in favour of Afghanistan sowed the seeds for the dissatisfaction that followed and the rise of the militias supported so cyncially by the Iranians in the south."

He goes on to say that the coalition had also failed to ensure it had enough troops on the ground, "surging" the numbers when the situation demanded. "In truth," he adds, "we failed to maintain the force levels required, either of coalition forces or Iraqi forces, and particularly towards the later end of the campaign, by which time we were already committed to a new operation in Afghanistan."

However, there seems to be another General Dannatt, the one who gave an interview to The Daily Mail in October 2006, after we were "already committed" to a new operation in Afghanistan.

That Gen Dannatt seems to have had rather different views. Iraq was an unpopular war and "our presence exacerbates the security problems". He goes on to say: "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war-fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning".

Then this General ruminates, "History will show that a vacuum was created and into the vacuum malign elements moved," adding that, "The hope that we might have been able to get out of Iraq in 12, 18, 24 months after the initial start in 2003 has proved fallacious. Now hostile elements have got a hold it has made our life much more difficult in Baghdad and in Basra."

The October 2006 model continues with the view that: "The original intention was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region, was pro-West and might have a beneficial effect on the balance within the Middle East"

"That was the hope," he says. “Whether that was a sensible or naïve hope, history will judge. I don't think we are going to do that. I think we should aim for a lower ambition." And so did he conclude that we should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems".

"We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. "As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited into a country, but we weren't invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time. Let's face it, the military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in."

"That is a fact. I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing around the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them."

So, from the mouth of three Generals, all with the same name, we have various views.

In 2006, Dannatt number one was saying that British troops should get out of Iraq because their presence was exacerbating the security situation. Two years later, the second Dannatt was saying: "We have been quite clear about what we had to do and we have done it." Now the third Dannatt currently tells us that the coalition failed to ensure it had enough troops on the ground, "surging" the numbers when the situation demanded.

One of these Dannatts is Chief of the General Staff – the professional head of the British Army, which means the other two must be imposters. No one person could possibly hold such disparate views of the same campaign. The question is, which is the real one?


Yet another triumph

The report that British soldiers have launched a major airborne assault on a Taleban stronghold in southern Afghanistan should, on the face of it, be good news.

The operation, codenamed Panther's Claw, involved more than 350 troops from the Black Watch who were dropped into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, just after midnight local time on Friday. Twelve Chinook helicopters were deployed, backed by a formidable array of airpower, including Apaches, a Spectre gunship, Harriers and UAVs.

The aim is to secure a number of canal and river crossings in the area to establish a permanent ISAF presence in what was previously a Taleban stronghold. Royal Engineers are now constructing checkpoints on the main routes in and out of the area, to be occupied by the Afghan National Police, established to hinder movement by insurgents.

The MoD is describing the operation as "one of the largest air operations in modern times" but whether it is the "Triumph for Brits" that the Daily Mirror is claiming remains to be seen.

Lt-Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, is less extravagant, declaring simply that the operation has been achieved due to the arrival of extra US, which has provided ISAF with a massive increase in capability "which we believe will significantly change the balance in the province."

Nevertheless, such optimism were have heard before and a jaundiced eye therefore turns to an editorial in the New York Times headed "Afghanistan's Failing Forces". That piece certainly provides an antidote to the hyperbole of The Mirror, starting off with the bald statement, "The news from Afghanistan is grim."

Rehearsing recent events, it reminds us that, in the first week of June, there were more than 400 attacks in Afghanistan, a level not seen since late 2001. It applauds Obama's decision to send more troops and then observes that there can be no lasting security until Afghanistan has a functioning army and national police.

This happy situation, the paper notes, is very far from coming, setting out a catalogue of failure which is stark and damning. Washington, it says, has already spent 7½ years and more than $15 billion on failed training programs.

There have never been enough trainers, Afghan soldiers have not been paid a living wage, making it easy for Taliban and drug lords to outbid them for the country's unemployed young men, and there has been no proper control of weapons supplied to the Afghan forces. Tens of thousands have disappeared, sold to the highest bidders and, in some cases, used against American soldiers.

Perhaps most fundamentally, American war planners never seemed to understand that a more effective Afghan Army and a more honest and competent police force could help persuade civilians that the war against the Taleban was more their own fight and not just an American war being fought on their territory.

After all these years, therefore, so little progress has been made that the national police force needs to be rebuilt almost from scratch, a task hampered by unremitting corruption in Kabul's central government, reflected at local level where the police are equally part of the problem.

Leaving the paper to conclude with a statement of the obvious, that building an effective Afghan Army and police is critical to the war effort, with the injunction that there is no more time to waste, we move on to a report by AP which asserts that, in these recession-hit times, the Taleban and al-Qaida are bucking the trend.

Through a combination of extortion, crime and drugs, plus an inflow of money from new recruits, increasingly large donations from sympathisers and Islamic charities, as well as a cut of profits from honey dealers in Yemen and Pakistan, the insurgents' finances are considerably healthier than those of the coalition nations.

A significant proportion of the cash inflow comes from taxation of the opium trade, estimated to yield upwards of $300 million annually, enabling the Taleban to pay foot soldiers $100 and commanders $350 a month, far more than their security force equivalents in either Afghanistan of neighbouring Pakistan. On the other hand, they are paying bargain-basement prices for their IEDs which typically cost less than $100 each to make.

Clearly, the major task here is to deal with the drugs trade – which perhaps accounts for 90 percent of Taleban income. For a workable strategy, Allison Brown in Small Wars Journal is a good a source as any. But she offers no more than we set out last year, principles enunciated by so many scholars, and experts yet ignored by those who purport to be restoring this benighted country.

So, instead of progress, we get the Black Watch descending from the skies in phalanxes of Chinooks and thundering over the terrain, while the Mirror applauds another "triumph". Maybe it is, but not for common sense.


Lies about lies

It was never the case that the MoD was going to take the charge of lying without attempting a comeback and, sure enough, after Stephen Grey's piece in The Guardian that we looked at last week, Nick Gurr, the MoD's Director of Media and Communications, has tried his hand at a rebuttal on the MoD website.

Addressing the issues that the "MOD is restricting access to conflict zones" and that journalists have been "lied to and censored", Gurr deals with each in turn.

The points he makes on the access issue look eminently reasonable, stating the obvious – that air transport to theatre is limited and that there is an increasing demand for media access, which cannot be met. Gurr would have it that the MoD is doing its best, the number of media visits to operational theatres (Iraq and Afghanistan) having increased from 152 in the year to Oct 2007 to 246 in the year to May 2009. For Afghanistan during the same period they rose from 90 to 116 - an increase of more than 25 percent.

What Gurr does not say though is that much of the increase is through a programme of encouraging reporters from regional and local papers to follow their home regiments – ranks of very often inexperienced and compliant journalists, many of whom (not all) who lack specialist knowledge and thus are easy prey for the military propaganda machine.

An example of this comes with a recent piece from Harry Miller of the Surrey Comet, writing about a re-supply mission to a patrol base 2km west of the Musa Qala District Centre.

He travels with the 3 Scots in "some of the newly delivered Jackal armoured vehicles, used for reconnaissance, rapid assault, fire support and convoy protection." These, presumably, are the Jackal 2s, the virtues of which Miller extols, telling us that, "The new design of the vehicles has meant that Improvised Explosive Devices are having less of the desired effect and crews are much more likely to survive the impact with only minimal injuries."

Following on from Harding's piece on 1 June, expressing "safety concerns" about the Jackals, no self-respecting specialist defence correspondent would have written such an uncritical piece.

For the MoD to have got Miller to have written such a glowing testament – which could only have been repeating what he had been told – was, therefore, something of a coup, representing hard core propaganda from an unwitting journalist.

Yet, four days after the piece was published, Major Sean Burchall was killed – the most senior British Army officer to date in Afghanistan – in a Jackal. It may well have been a Jackal 2. Yet, while the MoD is happy to see "puffs" for the Jackal, when it comes to bad publicity for the machine, the MoD website is curiously silent.

Throughout the piece on Burchall's death, there is no mention of the Jackal, reference being made only to "armoured vehicles", a description which would not normally be applied to this equipment.

To favour relatively impressionable reporters, which then justifies restricting more frequent access by experienced journalists, and then to omit details of the Jackal in the press release, cannot be called lying or anything so obvious. But these are nonetheless classic examples of how the MoD seeks to manipulate the message to the public.

Gurr, however, claims that the MoD "wants the media to see first hand the efforts of our forces in Afghanistan", to which effect he argues that "our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are our best advocates," on which basis it is "in our interests to get the media there to see it for themselves." We owe it to our forces to ensure their story is told, adds Gurr.

In fact, though, the MoD's prime concern is to get the media to report the "story" it wants them to report. Those journalists who are compliant find that the MoD cannot be too helpful. Those who question the official line find that all sorts of difficulties arise when they want access to theatre or want to talk to people on the ground.

If this is the subtle – and deniable – end of media control, the plain lie is also a tool of the trade. But, to be credible, the lie must be denied. Thus does Gurr aver, "We don't tell lies. We are not allowed to." Of course, this is a lie.

We have far too many examples of outright lies from the MoD to believe otherwise – from the denial that there was major fighting in al Amarah during the height on the Mahdi uprising in 2005, to the false expectations raised on the conduct of Operation Sinbad in late 2007 to the falsehoods perpetrated over the recovery of Musa Qala, pretending that it was an Afghan-led operation.

The strict definition of the lie, however, encompasses more than just the telling of an untruth. It takes in not only the act, but default or sufferance – the processes of allowing untruths to be perpetuated for want of interventions that would correct them.

These are the common fare of the MoD but its tenuous grasp of the meaning of truth leads it further down the path of deception than can be imagined. One classic – and frequently employed stratagem – is to keep quiet about operations which would be of interest to specialists, using its own staff or journalists to cover the events and then only to publish the details if they go to plan – whatever the plan was.

That was the strategy adopted with Operation Sond Chara (Operation Red Dagger), over Christmas last. No embeds were present through the whole operation and only a very carefully sanitised version was released to the public.

The same goes, of course, for the deaths of individual soldiers. Stephen Grey complained that there was less coverage of British deaths than they deserve because the MOD was not getting journalists to the front line. Gurr disagrees, declaring that his organisation produces detailed eulogies "for all our people who are killed in action." That might be the case but, as we have seen with Major Burchall, the releases published by the MoD rarely include any significant operational detail.

For all Gurr's protests, though, he himself is most revealing about the real agenda. "There is a good story to be told in Afghanistan about all the things our forces are achieving in the toughest part of the theatre," he writes. "We want this story told and we want journalists there to help tell it." The journalists are there to tell the "good" story, and it is Gurr's job to make that happen.


Monday 22 June 2009

A lack of focus

Today, the domestic political focus will be on the election of the Speaker in the House of Commons, an event that will absorb much time and energy both of the media and the political classes.

That this election should be necessary and that so much attention is being devoted to it, however, demonstrates how inwards-looking our politicians have become – all at a time when great events should be demanding theirs and the nation's attention.

Not least is the violence in Iran following the rigged election but, of direct and immediate importance is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan where there is a sense that events are coming to a head. And with so little reporting in the British MSM of actual events, there is also a sense that we are sleepwalking into another disaster, the effects of which are incalculable.

What is particularly remarkable though is that after the flurry of publicity over the weekend and the urgent and important issue of inadequate vehicles supplied to our troops, but politicians and the media had slipped back into their normal torpor, ignoring what seems set to become a major crisis.

That is not the case with the US media, where the Washington Post devoted a lengthy article to the situation in Now Zad, which we recorded in one of our Sunday pieces.

Today we also see Associated Press reporting on the same area, with an account of some of the ongoing fighting, all under the headline, "Afghan firefight shows challenge for US troops".

Written by Chris Brummitt, he offers an eyewitness account of an operation where, "Missiles, machine guns and strafing runs from fighter jets destroyed much of a Taliban compound," but he then records that "the insurgents had a final surprise for a pair of US Marines who pushed into the smouldering building just before nightfall."

As the two men walked up an alley, we are told, the Taleban opened fire from less than 15 yards, sending bullets and tracer fire crackling inches past them. They fled under covering fire from their comrades, who hurled grenades at the enemy position before sprinting to their armoured vehicles.

We then learn that the assault capped a day of fighting Saturday in the poppy fields, orchards and walled compounds of southern Afghanistan between newly arrived US Marines and well dug-in Taleban fighters. It was a foretaste, writes Brummitt, of what will likely be a bloody summer as Washington tries to turn around a bogged-down, eight-year-old war with a surge of 21,000 troops.

Significantly, though, Brummitt also agues that the fighting was on the outskirts of Now Zad, "a town that in many ways symbolises what went wrong in Afghanistan and the enormous challenges facing the United States. It is in Helmand province, a centre of the insurgency and the opium poppy trade that helps fund it."

The point, of course is that, in 2006, the town of Now Zad was a British responsibility yet, as Brummitt records, British and Estonian troops, then garrisoned there, were unable to defeat the insurgents. They were replaced last year by a company of about 300 US Marines, who lived in a base in the centre of the deserted town and on two hills overlooking it.

Even now, a year later, the Taleban hold much of the northern outskirts and the orchards beyond, where they have entrenched defensive positions, tunnels and bunkers. The Marines outnumber the Taleban in the area by at least 3-to-1 and have vastly superior weapons but avoid offensive operations because they lack the manpower to hold territory once they take it. There are no Afghan police or troops here to help.

"We don't have the people to backfill us. Why clear something that we cannot hold?" said Lt-Col Patrick Cashman, commanding the battalion occupying Now Zad and other districts in Helmand and Farah provinces, where some 10,000 Marines are slowly spreading out in the first wave of the troop surge.

Cashman says the Marines did not intend to allow the Taleban free rein in parts of Now Zad, but was unable to give any specific plans or time frame for addressing what he acknowledged is "a bad situation."

For all their better equipment ands resources, therefore, the US Marines – who have now been in-place for over a year – do not seem to be making much more headway than the British before them, with the same limitations on "Clear, Hold, Build" that the British Army is experiencing – the subject of some criticism.

The trouble is that, in a country the size of France, with Helmand roughly the size of Wales, there are never going to be enough troops to hold the territory. That suggests that the basic approach being adopted by both the US and British is flawed. Although it might be fine in theory, on practice it is never going to happen, in which case we really should be looking at an alternative strategy – or admitting defeat and getting out altogether.

This makes Afghanistan a highly political issue yet, where there is any attention being given to foreign adventures, our politicos are looking at pre-war Iraq. But, as Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail remarks, "Who needs an inquiry into the Iraq War? It's over. Nobody will be brought to justice. Isn't it time Parliament debated our dubious involvement in Afghanistan, and sought to end it?"

Despite this, we all know this is not going to happen. The Speaker's election will get a hundred-fold more time and attention, and the Iraq inquiry has already had far more attention than current operation in Helmand. This lack of focus is dangerous – to the troops on the ground and to us as a nation. For our neglect, there will be a price to pay.