Friday 31 July 2009

A little out of date?

The latest vehicle casualty, whom we speculated could have been riding in a Jackal, turns out to have been the driver of a Scimitar – one of the CVR(T) series (pictured after a mine strike).

This was Trooper Phillip Lawrence of the Light Dragoons, who was killed on 27 July while part of a patrol in Lashkar Gah district, helping to ensure the security of an area cleared earlier as part of Operation Panther's Claw.

As a light tank, procured for reconnaissance duties, this vehicle is very lightly armoured and provides little protection to IEDs and mines. Thus, like much of the other equipment fielded by the Army in Afghanistan, it is far from optimal.

That certainly is the view of Patrick Mercer, who has told a local Lancashire paper that the vehicle is "hopeless". Despite it still looking quite modern it is considerably aging and outdated, he says, arguing that the forces need new a generation of armoured vehicles "to better protect our troops."

From there, however, the gallant Mercer seems to go off the rails. The Scimitars, he says, "were due to be replaced by a Fres System - Future Rapid Response System - a few years ago but this was abandoned as it was too expensive."

The man, of course, means the Future Rapid Effects System, which, "as the replacement programme," he adds, "foundered due to mismanagement acquisition by the armed forces." We are now left, he claims, "with a generation of older vehicles badly needing incremental improvements."

Here, Mercer seems to be referring to the utility vehicle programme, which was never meant to replace the CVR(T). In part, this series was supposed to be replaced by the Panther, and he might have a well-founded complaint about the delay and expense, but he cannot say this vehicle has "foundered".

Furthermore, he seems to be completely unaware that a further CVR(T) replacement is well in hand, with the announcement made in July, with the bidders to be confirmed in September, with new vehicles in service from 2014.

A five year delay to replace an unsuitable armoured vehicle which is already 35 years old is something of a scandal but not the picture Mercer paints.

Further comments also seem somewhat awry as Mercer then goes on to opining that: "The trouble with an armoured vehicles is you can take a bank vault and put it on tracks and this will not be pierced by an explosion but it will be thrown in such a way that everyone inside will be killed."

"The shear (sic) kinetic energy from these explosives makes travelling by vehicle extremely dangerous," he adds.

Somehow, one gets the feeling that life is passing by Lt-Col Mercer (Retd), with the developments in blast protection having escaped him. We have never been particular fans of the man, not least because he seems to flying on autopilot, relying on past reputation.

As an MP with claimed expertise in this area – and one never reticent to share it – one would expect a little better from him. Rather like the Scimitar on which he comments, though, he seems a little out of date.


Burning our money

We will probably never know quite the degree of wheeler dealing went on, but the much unloved and hideously expensive Eurofighter has met its match – called financial reality.

According to The Times, a final deal has been done on the Tranche 3 purchase, with the RAF set to lose more than 70 of the planned fleet, the total order cut back from the original 232 to a mere 160.

This was bedded in today at a contract ceremony in Munich, when Britain signed up for the third and final tranche, agreeing to buy 40 more, instead of the planned 88. Of these, 24 will be sold to the Saudi Arabians, leaving just 16 for the RAF, says The Times, which like many others seems to have been confused by the original statements.

However, the MoD is saying that the RAF is actually to get 40 new aircraft, the 24 referred to being replacements for the Saudi batch already taken out of stocks intended for the RAF.

Nevertheless, it is clear that production is to be slowed down so that the delivery period will be stretched. The last of the tranche-three aircraft will come into service between 2015 and 2020, just as the first batch of Typhoons - in service today - would be coming to the end of their life.

On that basis, it is anticipated that the RAF at any one time will operate a fleet of no more than 120 aircraft at any one time – with a smaller number actually operation.

This is perhaps just as well. In answer to a recent written question from Nick Harvey, procurement minister Quentin Davies revealed that the operating cost per hour of a Eurofighter is £90,000, compared with the air defence version of the Tornado, the F3, at a "modest" £45,000.

Davies hopes that, as the Eurofighter fleet expands, unit costs will drop. But, with this latest announcement, it looks as if this will not be very substantial. Thus, as Heseltine's folly roars through the skies at airshows, delighting the crowds, we can reflect that it is actually costing us £25 per second. It would be difficult to burn money that fast. As for using the aircraft against the Taleban, it would be cheaper to buy them off.

And once again, we have the ultimate irony. Having delayed Tranche 3 for as long as humanly possible, the former Labour government - deposed by the Tories, as is confidently expected in 2010 - will have the quiet satisfaction of seeing a Conservative government having to pay for it.


News values

In projecting the progress of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, metrics most commonly by the media are the deaths of British soldiers and, more generally, the deaths of other coalition troops. Further "downstream" are reports of the deaths of Afghani citizens, both civilians, members of the security forces and such categories as security guards.

In the hierarchy of death, however, we have long been aware that there has been a ranking applied by the popular media – the emphasis (quite understandably) given to British troops. Much less attention is given to other nationalities and, down the scale, are incidents involving Afghanis, which are often completely unreported.

Much the same applied to the campaign in Iraq, to the extent where the death of even quite prominent Iraqis went unreported, sometimes dropped in favour of more prominent events, especially those with a domestic political content.

This, I remarked upon in Ministry of Defeat, in one instance noting that the murder of a prominent Sunni and his son in Basra – and the kidnap of five others - had gone unreported. The British media had focused on Tony Blair giving evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, where he had been asked whether life was then better for the citizens of Basra than it had been pre-war.

This came up during the Frontline Club meeting yesterday, as an example of my unreasonable criticism of the media, the argument being that the news value of the Blair evidence far outweighed the murder and kidnap of a few Iraqis, even if these crimes had been committed by men in civilian clothes and police uniforms, in a fleet of 10 "official" cars with no number plates.

This, incidentally, had coincided with a six-hour curfew being imposed in Basra in an attempt to stem the growing tide of violence and a report that oil smuggling in southern Iraq had reached epidemic proportions, costing the country an estimated $4 billion a year, followed by yet another report of a rocket attack on a British base – none of which were reported in the British media.

What I had not realised, however, was that the ranking was quite formally structured. In the early days, of the occupation, one news organisation imposed a "tariff", reporting events only if they involved one dead British or American soldier, or five Iraqis. But, as the violence increased, the bar was raised where, to qualify for inclusion in a news report, three US soldiers or 25 Iraqis had to be killed. A British military death, of course, was always reported.

This, in my view, undoubtedly distorted British public perception of events – and indeed misled journalists. Relying on the metric of British military deaths as a comparator, in May 2005 Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele actually wrote that the insurgency barely existed in the south, it having been "quiet for months". British troops could pull out immediately, he declared.

Undeterred, the media is playing the same games in Afghanistan. We know, of course, that the reporting of British troops has been extremely high profile, with the toll reaching 22 for the month.

Yet, in the last two days, four Afghani soldiers have been killed in Helmand, their lives ended by an IED which hit their vehicle, and – in two separate incidents, eight and then four Afghani private security guards were killed, also by roadside bombs in Helmand, the first incident injuring four others. None of these incidents have been reported by the British media. You will have to turn to the official Chinese news agency Xinhuanet for details.

This news, however, is highly significant, for several reasons. First, it points up the perilous insecurity of the roads, where the death toll is actually far greater than the British media would indicate. Secondly, it reminds us of an important, but again ill-reported dynamic – that the Taleban is by no means confining its attacks to foreign security forces. The Afghan forces are at greater risk than our own.

Nor indeed are just the security forces are risk. There is also a steady and largely unreported toll taken of construction workers, another incident recently reported in Khost. And just over a week ago, 13 Afghan road construction workers were kidnapped in Paktia.

All these issues have a much wider significance. On the one hand, the strategic plan for Afghanistan is progressively to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and, on the other, much depends on the coalition and aid agencies being able to deliver reconstruction. Where both the security forces and construction workers are so much at risk, neither is going to happen, even discounting the unreliability of the local police.

The other significant issue here – one we have noted before – is the media-supported demand to increase helicopter lift for British troops, to enable them to be transported without using the road network, to keep them out of harm's way. Yet, that very process – effectively abandoning the network to the Taleban – could delay progress, by exposing local security forces and others to greater risk.

Meanwhile, in Lashkar Gah, in the city's main bazaar, turban seller Haji Lala says Taleban black is still the most popular colour. "Everyone wants black, like the Taleban. I sell 40 or 50 a month." It may be an indicator of where ordinary people think the province is heading, notes Australian writer Jerome Starkey.

Whichever way the province is heading, it seems not unreasonable to aver that we will not find out from the British media. Whether it is even reasonable to suggest that they should tell us is another matter. The very firm view I heard expressed on Wedenesday was, effectively, that it was not. What matters, it seems, are news values – not the actual news.


Thursday 30 July 2009

Frontline – first impressions

One of the penalties of being exiled to Bradford, 200 miles from the metropolis is that for what is a Londoner, an evening with an early return home becomes a major expedition – requiring forward planning, considerable expense and much exhaustion, not least because one tends to cram in as much as possible into the day to make the trip worth it.

Thus, the Frontline Club talk yesterday, which started at 7 pm began for me at 6.30 in the morning and ended up, after a grueling 400-mile round trip, with me falling into my pit at 5 am this morning, having driven through atrocious weather, a barrage of road works and a thicket of speed cameras, the verdict from which has yet to be delivered.

Inevitably, therefore, such a concentrated diet of impressions takes a considerable amount of digestion before a coherent view can be formed. It says something though, that earlier in the day, I had given a talk about the book to a small gathering at a private lunch and my attempt to give the "short" version, with some insight into the political ramifications, took an hour and a half. Yet there I was at the Frontline club expected to give an overview in 20 minutes and then take part in a panel discussion for an hour or so, covering the same territory.

Originally billed with General Sir Mike Jackson on the panel, he pulled out at the last minute, for reasons unexplained (apparently he has a reputation for that). The meeting was thus chaired by Bill Neely, foreign editor for ITN News, with the panel comprising myself, Kim Sengupta from The Independent and with Deborah Haynes, defence correspondent from The Times standing in for Gen Jackson.

To a packed audience, with standing room only (close to a hundred people), I chose to focus the talk very tightly on just one aspect of the British occupation of Iraqi – the lack of appropriate equipment – which, I averred, contributed significantly to the military defeat. Much to the concern of the management, who discourage the use of Powerpoint presentations, I chose to illustrate the presentation with pictures of key equipment and despite the reservations, it seemed to work well enough.

Memory then is a faulty instrument; players always find it hard to describe the action. But, of the contributions from the audience – including two passionate Iraqi expats – there is and will continue to be that difficulty in unravelling those two separate (albeit linked) episodes of the invasion and the subsequent occupation. Many of the questions were thus focused on the invasion and issues related to that.

That further reinforced by the response today to the launch of the Chilcot Inquiry, where it is clear that Tony Blair is to be the star of the show in what looks as if it will become a media three-ring circus.

As to my general thesis – that the occupation of Iraq was a military failure – there was in fact a strong measure of agreement from the panel and the chairman, and indeed a view that many of the same mistakes are being repeated in the campaign in Afghanistan, about which there was very little confidence expressed. It there was a consensus view, it is most definitely that the Military is paving the way for another glorious defeat.

The impressive Kim Sengupta disagreed that the lack of equipment was the primary factor in the failure of the British, arguing that the root cause was the arrogance in the Military, a belief that they knew it all, and a rooted obstinacy in refusing to learn any lessons from the experience.

A former soldier in the audience added his voice, referring to the retreat from al Amarah - which I had identified as the pivotal moment in the failure of the campaign – saying that the campaign had been lost long before. By then there was no political will to continue with an aggressive prosecution of the counter-insurgency action.

Not disputing any of these views, I made the point that the lack of equipment was symptomatic of that greater malaise. I offered my own thesis - not unfamiliar to readers of this blog – that military equipment is the window into the soul of the Army.

Look at the equipment an army fields (and does not field) and that will tell you how they intend to fight. You do not need to interview the generals as to their intentions – they are revealed in the order of battle, in which context the continued use of the Snatch Land Rover told a story more eloquent than a brace of self-serving memoirs.

The Army, in effect, was telling you its own story, there to see if you understood the language. It illustrated the points made and was symbolic evidence of them.

Chairman Bill Neely neatly put Deborah Haynes on the spot, asking her why the media did not pay more attention to equipment. Her view, if I have recorded it accurately, was that equipment alone was not "very sexy" and it was not until there were "body bags" to go with it, as had been the case with the Snatch Land Rover, that it became a story.

This precisely accords with the impression that I have formed of the way the media thinks. If I did hear correctly, then it is a stunning confirmation of part of my thesis on media behaviour.

Neely himself invited me to explore by broader thesis on the failure of the media, noting that, while I had criticised the British media, I had relied extensively on British sources for my book. My point was that, while much of the information supplied was valuable, I had found that I had not been able to assemble from the British media any sense of a narrative of the conduct of the occupation. I had had to trawl many different sources, the most valuable – in helping me construct a framework – being the Arab press and insurgent sources.

Thus, as far as it goes, the British media offered many reports, but failed entirely in presenting a factual narrative which would put the material in the broader context. In that sense, I told Neely, Sengupta and Haynes afterwards, a rounded account is like a string of pearls. They had provided many pearls (and some dross) but not the "string" with which to bind them into a coherent whole.

Anyhow, those were my first – or at least, abiding – impressions of the meeting. There was much, much more and I hope that, should the video of the meeting become available, I will be able to do a much more comprehensive review of what was a fascinating event.


Wednesday 29 July 2009

Not even a whimper

As of Friday, the British military presence in Iraq comes to an end. There will be no flags, no parades, no speeches and not even a formal withdrawal – just an administrative mess.

The warning signs were there in June when plans for Britain's final military mission in Iraq were in disarray, with no formal agreement finalised to maintain in place a Royal Navy detachment and upwards of 400 troops after the 31 July deadline, when the bulk of British forces were required to quit Iraq.

On the back of the ejection of the main force, this was the one diplomatic fig-leaf which enabled the British government to keep a toe-hold in the country and thus continue the pretence that we were still welcome.

However, even that has fallen apart. A "draft accord" which had been approved by Iraqi ministers in June allowed only 100 personnel to remain and that had to be ratified by the Iraqi Parliament. But, according to The Guardian, using an agency report, the Parliament has gone into recess without ratifying the instrument, forcing the remaining British personnel to leave the country by Friday.

Officially, of course, they have not left. They are being stationed over the border in Kuwait, pending the resumption of parliamentary business, whence it is hoped that the British detachment will be allowed to return in late September.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth is saying that the government has been "deliberately keeping a low public profile" on the issue - so as not to increase the risk to UK forces, he says. It is nothing to do, he might say if asked, with trying to conceal the humiliating prospect of British personnel having to scuttle over the border to avoid physically being ejected.

An MoD spokesman said US troops would stand in for British troops while they were out of the country, and explains that the "pause" is due to a "procedural delay," leaving the MoD website to laud the heroic work of the removal men, as the last ship sails for England with a batch of Mastiffs (pictured), there to be refurbished and sent to Afghanistan.

The Daily Telegraph tells us that the ratification was opposed by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr who stalled the process. That opposition should have come from that source is hardly surprising. But prime minister Maliki cannot have invested a great deal of political capital in trying to push the agreement through, if Muqtada's men were able to stop it going ahead.

The New York Times notes that the other two small remnants of the coalition, the Romanians and Australians, will also be gone on Friday, if not before, leaving the Americans as the sole members of a multi-national force which has seen contributions from 38 separate states.

My guess is that is how the situation will remain. Come September, the ratification will be quietly parked and the well-rested British personnel in Kuwait will be quietly found a flight home, where there will sneak in anonymously, with nothing more said. And that truly will be the end of what has been one of the more inglorious episodes in British military history in recent times.

And we leave not even with a whimper but ejected by a "procedural delay" which even the British government wanted to keep "low profile". Our presence lasted from 20 March 2003, when British troops crossed into Iraq, to 31 July 2009. And, in two days time, it's over.


Tuesday 28 July 2009

A question of balance

Predictably, in the "touchy-feely" media of today, dominated by "human interest" stories, almost all the newspapers play the current soldiers' compensation drama "big", with the broadcast media also running the story as their lead items.

Inevitably, therefore, we see – as in The Times - the devastating experience of young Ben Parkinson brought up again, the Lance Bombardier who suffered 39 injuries including brain damage in Helmand in 2006, after his Wimik was blown apart.

In other times, he might well have died – as did Jack Sadler in very similar circumstances – and that would be the end of it. But it is the very success of the medical support system which is generating what, by comparison with earlier wars, is a disproportionate number of severely injured, who then need support for the rest of their lives.

One cannot question the well-meaning media coverage. It is right and proper that we should care for our war wounded and, whether we agree with the war in Afghanistan or not, those soldiers who are placed in harm's way should be adequately compensated.

However, one can question the balance. Not for the first time, we have observed that, if the media had devoted but a fraction of the energies it expends on lamenting the poor treatment of the wounded in seeking to prevent them getting wounded in the first place, perhaps there would be considerably less of a problem than there is now.

In that context, the case of Ben Parkinson is something of a touchstone. Sent out in a scandalously vulnerable Wimik, it is undoubtedly the case that, had he been equipped with a better-protected vehicle, he would now be fit, healthy and uninjured.

Yet, for all the media focus on Snatch Land Rovers (and then only a fraction of that expended on the war wounded), there has never been any real coverage of the deployment of this vehicle (not a few media outlets do not even know the difference between a Wimik and a Snatch). Similarly, despite the toll of injuries sustained in the Pinzgauer Vector and the Viking, there has never been any serious, high level media scrutiny of the bizarre decisions to deploy this equipment.

And, while there has been limited coverage of the Jackal, neither has that vehicle really been exposed to the full glare of media scrutiny, despite the death toll in Afghanistan exceeding that of the Snatch, and continuing.

On sees the contrast most acutely with the likes of Jeremy Clarkeson, a very public and high-profile supporter of the "Help for Heroes" charity. Yet, on the other hand, he is the embodiment of the boy racer syndrome that is killing and maiming "Our Brave Boys", and not at all ill-disposed actively to co-operate with the Army in projecting the "gung ho" image that is doing so much damage.

What applies to the media – and its celebs who line up to be photographed with the injured (pictured – Ben Parkinson with "soccer star" John Terry) – also applies, in spades, to the political classes, and especially the Conservative Party. Under the leadership of David Cameron, it has quite deliberately set its face against rigorously pursuing "hard-edged" issues such as equipment performance and instead has concentrated on the more "compassionate" topics such as compensation and medical care.

Again, this is a question of balance. It is absolutely right that the Conservative Party should pursue these matters, but not to the exclusion of the other side of the equation – ensuring that our troops are better protected. Instead, it has been left to a 68-year-old "granny" on the back-benches – the redoubtable Ann Winterton – to make the running, while the big, brave, macho men bleat about the "Military Covenant" and care for the wounded.

If this is an unfair parody of the Conservative Party stance, so be it. One sees in the current policy line a deliberate attempt to play down the "nasty party" image and cultivate the idea of "Compassionate Conservatism", which my erstwhile co-editor so detests (as do I).

Thus, we end up in the situation where the "bleeding heart" feminised agenda of the popular media, lacking a political lead, drenches itself in the suffering of "Our Brave Boys" taking relatively little interest in preventing that suffering in the first place.

This speaks of a society where values and priorities are distorted and where maudlin sentimentality is overtaking hard-edged realism, doing more damage than enough. It wears its heart on its sleeve, proclaiming its compassion to the world, turning a blind eye to measures which could mitigate the very suffering it so deplores. Whichever way you look at it, this is not a healthy society.


We don't know the half of it

Two more deaths have been added to the growing list of fatalities arising out of operations in Afghanistan. According to the MoD, one was a soldier from The Light Dragoons, killed "as a result of an explosion that happened whilst on a vehicle patrol in Lashkar Gah." In the other incident, a soldier from 5th Regiment Royal Artillery was killed by an explosion whilst he was on a foot patrol in Sangin district.

Not untypically there is little extra detail, and the vague description of a "vehicle patrol" offers no clue as to the type of vehicle involved. The Light Dragoons operate Scimitars, Spartans and Jackals so it could have been either. If it is a Jackal, that would bring to 12 the number killed in this type.

But, if we get very little detail about the fatalities – although more information often seeps out – we know much less about the wounded and their circumstances – unless they themselves tell the media. One such is 2nd-Lt Guy Disney, also of The Light Dragoons, who lost a leg in the same incident in which Pte Robbie Laws was killed.

Disney's story is told in last weekend's Mail on Sunday, from which we also learn during the first phase of Operation Panther's Claw, the spearhead 700-strong Light Dragoons Battle Group suffered 55 casualties of all kinds, including heat exhaustion and battle shock.

The Mail journalist Richard Pendlebury, in his piece about Disney, estimates that the killed to wounded ratio – as high as 1:3 in Vietnam – has now plummeted to 1:8. This is the result, in part, of speedy evacuation and the heroic medicine performed by the highly skilled military surgical teams.

While the MoD claims to withhold the details of wounded soldiers for reasons of "patient confidentiality" there can be no doubt that that the absence of any reports is extremely convenient in concealing from the public the carnage happening daily, at a rate far higher than the fatality rate would indicate. If, for instance, if the Vietnam ratio applied to this theatre, we would be looking not at 160 killed in action, as the figure now stands, but at well over 400.

For those of us whose grim task is to monitor the welfare of troops in the field, and to ensure that they are a best protected as possible, the lack of broad casualty data may also distort perceptions, when the only metric available, to which any detail is attached, is the fatality.

Often, the difference between a death and a "very severely injured" is a matter of pure chance while, on the other hand, when the enemy is "trying out" a vehicle in the field, early attacks may be – in their terms – less successful, yielding only injured, rather than the deaths for which they are aiming. Only later, when they get the measure of the vehicle, does the death rate climb.

This was definitely our perception – based on anecdotal reports and other evidence – that in al Amarah in 2005, there were a considerable number of injuries in Snatch Land Rovers before a significant number of fatalities were experienced.

Equally, in Afghanistan, there have been a significant number of attacks about which we have known nothing, although details of two have recently drifted into the public domain.

One report told of Carl Clowes, 23, from Bradford who in July 2007 was in a Land Rover in Helmand when it drove over a mine. Both his legs were crushed and he suffered more than 20 injuries. His left leg was amputated below the knee 10 months later and he still suffers pain in his right leg. He can now walk only short distances without the aid of crutches.

Another told of Lance Corporal Jonathan Lee who, in October 2007 in Afghanistan, was riding in a Snatch Land Rover when a bomb blast threw him 50 yards into a minefield. He lost a leg.

Knowledge of such incidents would help inestimably to judge whether specific vehicles were too fragile for deployment, as indeed would information on near misses, where no injuries or even damage occasioned. Here, though, there are serious operational security implications. The Army is naturally reluctant to give free after-action reports to their enemy, only to have this vital information used against troops as attacks are refined and strengthened on the basis of the details supplied.

Nevertheless, we note that the MoD is quite willing to release details when there is a propaganda advantage to be gained, witness a recent MoD-inspired report on a failed attack involving a female Jackal driver.

From this we learn, incidentally, that the Jackal was "guarding a supply convoy", the very antithesis of the purpose for which this vehicle was designed - as a Special Forces "raider", relying on speed and mobility rather than armour for protection. Tied to a predictable convoy route, this type of vehicle is a highly vulnerable target.

Elsewhere, we learn, via Lt-Col Stephen Cartwright, CO of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, that Jackals were used in the Panther's Claw operation, to seize ground at the top of the Shamalan Canal in preparation for the link up with the Welsh Guards. This is, again, not the purpose for which these vehicles were designed or procured. They are effectively performing the role of light tanks or armoured cars.

Then, also, we learn of a serious injury in a Jackal, from the Runcorn and Widnes Weekly News. It tells us that, on 16 July, L/Cpl Wayne Cox, of The 2nd Battalion the Rifles, was seriously injured by an IED while driving a Jackal in the Kajaki area. This, of course, is not within the Panther's Claw operational area, and amounts to yet another guerrilla-warfare type of ambush, against which the Jackal is ill-protected.

The paucity of detail, where details have to be culled on an almost random basis, has another effect. Recently, we learned of a court case taken by a civilian engineer wounded in a bomb blast in Basra in late October 2003, while riding in an unarmoured Land Rover Discovery.

This was Graham Hopps who lost a shoulder in the incident and was claiming for damages against the Ministry of Defence and his employer, arguing that he should have been provided with a better-protected vehicle,

The judge, Mr Justice Christopher Clarke, however, ruled that he did not believe that an armoured vehicle would have prevented Mr Hopps from suffering the same injuries. He also concluded that the security conditions in Iraq at the time were not bad enough to require his employer to issue its workers with armoured vehicles.

Considering that there had been three bomb attacks against vehicles that week – that we know of – and Army vehicles had also been attacked with fatal results, it is hard to see how Mr Justice Clarke could have come to that conclusion.

But it is also fair to say that, had we the information on all the incidents that had occurred, Mr Hopps might have stood a better chance of winning his case, especially as the route down which he was being driven was known locally as "bomb alley", which suggests that attacks cannot have been completely unknown.

If, of course, we had confidence that the Army was collecting the information and using it to effect, upping protection as vulnerabilities became apparent, then there would be no need for us to have any information. But we know this not to be the case.

Furthermore, on our own forum, we had an anonymous contributor – the authenticity of whom we have no cause to doubt – who informed us that, prior to its introduction, he had been asked to write an assessment of Jackal for a government department.

Then he had assessed it as a "death trap", saying in his report that he would not be prepared to risk his own life in one. His report, however, was discounted and his judgement considered flawed "because the manufacturers were able to make a convincing case as to why Jackal was the answer to everything."

Issues at the time which had influenced its acquisition were essentially political, based on a need to be seen to be ordering new equipment, the price (cheaper than a Mastiff) and industrial factors, maintaining employment in the UK defence sector and reducing imports. On top of that, there was the Army's obsession with the Land Rover, whence it wanted, "for some unfathomable reason" a replacement for the WMIK.

As more and more detail emerges, we find that the MoD (and Army) are being less than frank with the reasons for the purchase of many of their vehicles, the reasons they are deployed, the casualties incurred as a result and the reasons why deployment is continued, even when the evidence suggests they should be withdrawn.

Effectively, we don't know the half of it, that very lack of knowledge used against us by an MoD which cites our "ignorance" as a reason for ignoring our findings, claiming greater knowledge of a situation which it will not share.

That is unlikely to change but even the simple and crude death rate is sometimes telling a devastating story. If this latest fatality is related to a Jackal, it will add further to the growing evidence as to its dangerous vulnerability. We may indeed not know the half of it, but what we do know is occasionally enough.


Sunday 26 July 2009

Counting the cost

It seems otiose to record with any more emphasis than all the others, that another death has occurred – according to the Sunday Mirror - in a Jackal, this one an as yet unnamed soldier from 40th Regiment Royal Artillery.

The death, again from an IED, occurred yesterday in the Lashkar Gah district and we know little more, other than two other soldiers were also injured in the incident. This brings the total British service personnel killed in Afghanistan to 189, of which KIAs amount to 158.

Eleven soldiers have now been killed in a Jackal, with an estimated 53 killed in five types of vehicle, which also include the Wimik, Viking, Vector and Snatch Land Rover.

What makes the vehicle deaths different, if not special, is that – to a certain extent within technical limits – these are preventable. By using the Mastiff as a comparator, in which there have been no deaths, we can aver that if the range of vehicles in which deaths have occurred had been protected to a similar level, then all these soldiers could still be alive.

As such, "preventable" deaths take on a special significance, which marks out the toll extracted by the Taleban in this category. That is not to say that other deaths were not preventable, and perhaps by different technical means, such as persistent video surveillance of routes frequented by food patrols, to warn of possible IEDs. However, vehicles present a relatively more clear-cut issue, which tends to focus concern on them.

What must also feature in the vehicle category, as well as the human cost, is the financial burden, partly identified by the Independent on Sunday yesterday.

This paper recorded that there had been a steep increase in claims to the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), which covers injury, illness and death caused by service since 6 April 2005. The value of lump-sum settlements of claims settled under the scheme has risen from £1.27m in its first year of operation to £30.2m last year. But the awards also come with ongoing "guaranteed income payments" costing more than £100m.

MoD figures show that at least 218 soldiers have suffered "life-changing injuries" since April 2006 alone – and more than 50 personnel have undergone amputations following injuries.

The latest MoD analysis shows that, of 53 personnel who were seriously injured in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, 41 made claims to the AFCS. Only one of the 23 personnel very seriously injured (VSI) in Afghanistan during 2007 failed to make a compensation claim. The MoD has reported 214 casualties, including VSIs, during Operation Herrick since 2001.

The casualties contribute to an MoD benefits bill which shows spending of more than £1bn a year on war pensions to veterans or their families. The bereaved partner of a member of the armed forces killed in action is entitled to a pension averaging £100 a week.

To these costs must, in the case of a vehicle incident, be added the value of the vehicles, many of which are total write-offs, costing upwards of £700,000. Then there are evacuation and medical costs, and then the cost of replacing the casualties. This week it was announced that 125 extra troops were to be flown out to theatre to replace losses.

No single – even if notional – figure has been calculated to represent the average loss incurred when a British soldier is killed in action, but a US study indicated that the death of a four-man crew of an up-armoured Humvee cost the US taxpayer some $25 million. On this basis alone – irrespective of the human cost – it makes sense to provide a high level of protection for mounted troops.

The Jackal, being a relatively new vehicle in theatre should be up to the challenges posed by Taleban weapons but, clearly, it is not.

That the families should have to bear the burden of the loss, that precious lives should be cut short and that so many soldiers are seriously injured is bad enough but, when the taxpayer also has to pay serious amounts of money as well, this adds further weight to the call for better vehicles.

Unfortunately, if money was the solution to better protection, the increasing costs of vehicles would assure us a reduction on the casualty rate, but in the British inventory, expense cannot be equate with protection, when one of the most fragile is the Viking at £700,000 with the Jackal 2s working out at over £400,000 each.

One would hope that, with a cash-strapped government, therefore, if it is not moved by humanitarian concerns alone, hard-edged economics might take a hand leading the financial analysts to conclude that we simply cannot afford this attrition.


A half-baked scheme?

In The Sunday Telegraph today we see a report by defence correspondent Sean Rayment, telling us that, last summer, senior Army officers serving with 16 Air Assault Brigade wanted to build a "necklace" of fortified watch towers through Helmand to spy on insurgents planting IEDs.

We are then told that the plan was based on "the success of a series of watch towers erected in South Armagh in Ulster in the late 1980s to counter the activity of the IRA." Despite this, it was dismissed "because there were not enough troops available to occupy the towers or a sufficient number of helicopters to keep them resupplied with food, water and ammunition."

This idea is so far-fetched that, on the face of it, we appear to have an Army still locked in the past, besotted with its own performance in Northern Ireland. The allusion, though, is more than a little misleading. The system in Northern Ireland did not comprise merely - or at all in some cases - fortifed watchtowers. In fact, it ended up as a highly sophisticated network, then housing state-of-the-art sensors, with upgrades alone costing over £136 million in the four-year period from 1997.

Many of them were unmanned, remotely controlled by digital data-links, with the total investment running into hundreds of millions.

Since then, area surveillance technology has moved on considerably. At one end of the spectrum is the UAV with its high-definition video cameras, which can keep vast tracts of landscape under continuous observation and relay back real-time information to a control centre where action can be coordinated.

This input, however, can now be integrated with other cameras, either mast-mounted (pictured) or suspended from aerostats, together with mobile units which can cover specific areas in more detail, all with high technology sensors that can include infra-red, motion detection radar and even gunshot sensors and counter-mortar radar. The system can also accommodate radio frequency and acoustic sensors.

The US forces have had such a system since 2005, known as the persistent surveillance and dissemination system of systems (PSDS2). It enables multiple feeds to be routed to a single command and control centre, manned by a small team of technicians, the initial contract – for two such systems – costing $18 million.

Already, the Americans have installed sensor networks, both in Iraq and now extending into Afghanistan with 300 masts so far installed, in a programme called RAID, which has since been joined by the Canadians.

The PSDS2 technology allows live video images to be superimposed onto a three-dimensional map to create a persistent surveillance capability in a specific area, and it allows users to issue alerts based on specific activities such as people or vehicles entering restricted areas.

In effect, this is an enhancement of the types of CCTV systems that we see in the UK and elsewhere and is a development of the systems which the British used in Northern Ireland. And, while the capital costs are high, they do not even approach the costs of even a modest fleet of helicopters that would be required to service a "necklace" of manned, fortified watchtowers or the attendant capital costs of building such towers.

The ongoing savings in manpower – and the considerably enhanced performance - more than justifies the investment, while the system also ensures that no observers are placed at personal risk, as indeed they would be in manned watchtowers.

Needless to say, Rayment makes no mention of this technology – or even that, for their day, the network in Northern Ireland was highly sophisticated. He simply uses the fact of the British idea being rejected as a means to support the narrative.

To that effect, he enlists renta-quote Patrick Mercer, "the Tory MP and former infantry officer", who obligingly says: "Yet again the MoD has failed to learn the lessons of history. These were learnt the hard way in Northern Ireland and they ought to be reapplied in Helmand. The bottom line is that there simply are not enough troops or helicopters to allow this to happen."

This, however, is nothing to do with "troops 'n' helicopters". It has the hallmarks of a half-baked, under-capitalised scheme, absorbing scarce resources, probably to very limited effect – in which case rejection was sensible. While the idea of a surveillance network is sound, if it is to be effective – and economic – it must be properly designed and equipped.

That would not come cheap and is certainly not one which could be cobbled together by a few senior Army officers. Whether a case has been made for a proper system is another story, but it is not one told by Rayment. Instead, the narrative prevails and his readers remain uniformed as to the real issues, locked into the story the media wants to tell. This is not journalism – it is rabble-rousing.


All you could ever want

It is revealing how, for all the resources and "skills" of the serried ranks of hacks, it takes a reader's letter to make the obvious suggestion to resolve the helicopter shortage in Afghanistan.

Thus does Huw Baumgartner write in the letters column of The Sunday Telegraph as follows:

There is a way to increase helicopter capacity in Afghanistan with relatively small expense. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of utility helicopters mothballed in the Arizona desert. If our American allies want greater support, they could reactivate a number of these and loan them to us.
Mr Baumgartner then goes on to write that there are probably sufficient serving and reserve military helicopter pilots to man a squadron for basic logistics flying. In the longer term, he says, more pilots could be trained on a basic, no-frills course, such as used to be run by the Army Air Corps.

Certainly, he is absolutely right about there being hundreds of mothballed airframes available but, whether they could be re-activated and brought to theatre standard at a reasonable cost is arguable. But the general point is sound, in that it would be perfectly possible to upgrade a number of airframes (from diverse sources) to relieve the shortages.

That, as we pointed out in March 2007 was precisely what the Iraqi Air Force was doing, the same option also being taken by the Canadians in July 2008, now almost exactly a year ago. It is even an option adopted by the cash-strapped Philippine Air Force.

What Mr Baumgartner does not realise, perhaps, is that if the Bell airframe was used, the training needs and support are considerably eased, as RAF pilots train on Bell 412s (and operate them in Cyprus) and the Army operated 212s in Belize and Brunei.

Furthermore, with the USMC operating alongside us in Helmand, and operating a similar type, it would be quite possible to tap into the Marines' logistic and maintenance programme, as indeed we do, informally and formally, with other kit in theatre.

What continues to make this an issue is that the despatch of six Merlins to theatre at the end of the year, with two or more additional Chinooks some time next year, plus the re-engined Lynxes, whenever they arrive, are not going to resolve the problem. For a fully mobile and flexible force, much more is needed.

What is doubly interesting is that the Armed forces suffered just as great a helicopter shortage in Iraq with similar devastating effect, this being discussed at great length in a debate in the Lords inJune 2006 but the issue gained no political traction and the media did not follow it up.

In my book, Ministry of Defeat, I make the point – with some force – that the lack of media engagement in the Iraqi campaign was in part responsible for the lack of resource. Had there been the same media frenzy over helicopters back in 2006, with strong political engagement, the government would undoubtedly have been forced to take some action then.

As it was, the totemic issue then was Snatch Land Rovers and, like the bear with a very little brain it is, the media could only handle one issue at a time. Then it was "protected vehicles". Now, with the need for more such vehicles just a pressing, helicopters are the dominant issue, with the vehicle problem being largely ignored. As for UAVs and surveillance systems, they are not even on the radar.

Even then, as Huw Baumgartner's letter illustrates, the media are addressing the helicopter issue at a dismally superficial level, "troops 'n' helicopters" acquiring much the same totemic significance as the "schools 'n' hospitals" mantra that has dominated the domestic political agenda.

Thus, we Christopher Leake wittering away in The Mail on Sunday about the Danish Merlins not being sent to Afghanistan two years after they have been bought. We did it better last week and comparison between the two versions readily demonstrates that Leake has only got half the story. He has little idea of what has really been going on.

To be fair, in-depth treatment is probably not the Mail's style. The issue cries out for the sort of investigative skills for which the Sunday Times used to be famous. In that paper today, however, we get a two-page spread on the experiences to two "blood brothers" in Afghanistan.

Short on detail but long on "human interest" it contributes nothing to the overall welfare of "Our Boys" or the more effective prosecution of the campaign. Without that greater significance, this is no more than cheap exploitation verging on voyeurism, no different from The Sun which forever lauds Our Brave Boys yet fails to use its considerable power to make their lives better and safer.

Would that they knew it, if the media really took the time out properly to research and understand the issues, and then went out of its way to inform their readers, then the traction so gained would go a long way towards forcing the government to take effective measures to resolve the real problems.

To that extent – and to my certain knowledge – many of those in power would actually welcome informed, well-directed criticism, not least because it would strengthen their hand against the vast ranks of vested interests which have their own agendas, in pursuit of which they expend vast capital in briefing an idle and gullible media.

One could avow that, had the media followed the helicopter issue from the start, had it picked up the game-playing and the internal politicking going on in the MoD and elsewhere, had it followed the Parliamentary debates and the many written questions on the issue, and had itself done its own research - and then undertaken a well-informed campaign - the current situation would be very different.

However, we remain with problems that are solvable but which are never addressed, simply because the media has vacated the field.


Friday 24 July 2009

Another review - The Ministry of Defeat

Colonel Blimp, you're still fighting the wrong war.

by Philip Jacobson

The Daily Mail, 24 July 2009

Although Richard North sets out to make the "case for the prosecution" of the British military and the political establishment for comprehensively bungling their conduct during the Iraq War, it is events in Afghanistan that make the book so timely and thought provoking.

The parallels between the two conflicts are inescapable, from the failure to learn from tactical mistakes to the desperate need for more helicopters.

Where North accuses the Ministry of Defence of an Orwellian attempt to spin an ultimately disastrous campaign in Iraq into a resounding triumph, an unspoken question hangs it the air: is history repeating itself in the wilds of Helmand Province?

The launch pad for North's withering assault on the MoD is the emblematic story of the Snatch Land Rovers, lightly armoured vehicles originally developed for riot control in Northern Ireland and pressed into service in the British zone of operations in Southern Iraq with the approval of General Sir Mike Jackson, then head of the army.

Under fierce attack by the well-armed militias, the snatches rapidly acquired the grim reputation as "four-wheeled coffins". North was one of the first military analysts to highlight their extreme vulnerability to the enemy's roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

In North's view, shared by other knowledgeable observers, the initial success of the allied invasion was squandered by the MoD's inability – some would say pig-headed refusal – to grasp the true nature of the Shi'a insurgency that followed and adapt tactics accordingly.

Equally damaging, he argues, was the failure of the procurement system – the unglamorous but crucial business of ensuring that British soldiers had the best weapons and equipment for the kind of war they were being asked to fight.

While the Snatch vehicles were going up in flames and commanders pleaded for more troop-carrying helicopters, billions of pounds were being lavished on high-profile projects designed, in North's words, to fight imaginary wars of the future". The admirals were determined to have their giant new aircraft carriers, the air marshals their Eurofighters; meanwhile the army "was getting palmed off with wholly unsuitable, second-hand equipment".

In stark contrast, when IEDs began killing large numbers of US soldiers in Iraq, the Americans rushed into service hundreds of lumbering armoured troop-carriers specifically designed to withstand roadside bombs.

The result was a swift and substantial reduction in the body count. A US Marine officer who survived a massive blast told me reverently: "We just love those big ugly mother f*****s."

The MoD's tactical fallibility was rooted in the fateful assumption that the undoubted expertise acquired by the Army in Northern Ireland could be applied more or less wholesale to the radically different circumstances of Iraq. North cites the toe-curling meeting at which the senior British officer in Basra was dispensing lofty advice to US commanders on how to defeat the militias at the very moment they were forcing his troops into a humiliating withdrawal from the city.

"It's insufferable, for Christ's sake," raged one of the Americans present. "He comes in and lectures everyone in the room about how to do counter-insurgency. The guys were just rolling their eyebrows [as] the notorious Northern Ireland came up again."

Littered with military acronyms with obscure technical data, North's prose rarely rises above the utilitarian, while the crop of footnotes on practically every page reflects his heavy reliance on published sources (it appears he did not interview any of the senior military and political players, British or American).

He might also have examined more closely whether the strategic, tactical and organisational failures he identifies in Iraq are being perpetrated in Afghanistan.

It is hardly reassuring when an acute shortage of helicopters obliges the head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, to borrow and American Black Hawk for a visit to his increasingly hard-pressed "grunts" on the ground.

For years, the default response of the MoD to criticism from civilians, however well-informed, has been to rubbish them as "armchair generals" pontificating from the comfort of the living room.

North will probably get the same treatment but, as he mischievously points out, only a couple of years ago some £2.3 billion was spent on upgrading the MoD headquarters in Whitehall – money that could have paid for two dozen of the troop-carrying Chinook helicopters so desperately needed in Afghanistan today.

And what that show up on the final bill but the purchase at £1,000 each, of more than 3,000 Herman Miller Aeron chairs, advertised as "the most comfortable in the world".


Is this is what it's about?

Thomas Harding in The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the major British offensive in Afghanistan (Panther's Claw) that has led to a large loss of life and many wounded "has strengthened Britain's battered relationship with America".

This is according to a "senior defence source" who is telling us that: "It has shown that other people are making the sacrifice and sharing the burden. American has been through their Golgotha moment and they admire a country that steps up to the plate and does the heavy lifting."

Once again, it seems, the shadow of Iraq looms, with the British Army highly sensitive about its performance there, even if it is holding the line with its public pretence that the campaign was successful. A big "push" in Afghanistan, therefore, is seen as a way of restoring the Army's reputation.

We wrote about this in April, when the call for 2,000 more troops was first gaining traction. With a flood of US troops due into Helmand, there was no great strategic sense in adding a much smaller number of British troops to the fray, especially as the supporting infrastructure – such as protected vehicles, helicopters, UAVs and the rest – was already inadequate. What was very clear - as we then wrote - was that the Army was playing games:

Confronted with its own inadequacies, it has therefore - in the time-honoured fashion of bureaucracies since the dawn of time - raised a cry for "more resources" as the answer to all ills, not least because when they are not delivered the fault (and blame) can be transferred. It then "briefs" heavily to its friends in the media, to ensure its version of events lodges in the public consciousness, thus establishing its alibi for when things go "belly-up".
We returned to this theme in early June, noting how the Army "line" had evolved into a "warning" that the reputation of the armed forces would suffer in the eyes of senior American commanders unless an autumn surge was authorised. Our "senior commanders" are saying that such a surge would signal Britain's intent to "pull its weight".

Now it is that, for precisely that reason – it seems – theatre commanders have embarked on a risky and costly adventure, with uncertain effect and dubious strategic benefit, merely to salvage the tarnished reputation of the Army brass.

And dubious it is. Watching recently a Canadian journalist in Kandahar, describing the coalition air effort, I saw him explain how helicopters were so vitally necessary. Such was the poor condition of the road network that a journey to the area of operation, which would take no more than 20 minutes on good roads, could take four hours or more. And, as we know, mobility is further hampered by the inability of roads and bridges to take heavy traffic, limiting movement of certain types of vehicle.

Thus, the operation was entirely supported by a constant shuttle of helicopters, making a nine-minute journey to the "front line", leaving the road network under the control of the Taleban, who mine it and prey on the civilian population.

It cannot be stressed enough that the basis of governance is communications – roads in particular – and what we are seeing is the legacy of eight years of neglect, where the Western aid effort has been misplaced, misdirected and badly managed, leaving the road network in a worse condition than when we started. Thus, in the absence of the tactical mobility afforded by that network, we are forced to rely on expensive assets such as helicopters.

The point here is that the fundamental coalition strategy is one of "take, hold and build" – or "shake 'n' bake" as we call it. The idea is to create a "security bubble" in which the civilian development agencies can then operate, implementing their redevelopment agenda.

This is a strategy that has already failed – not least because the "security bubble" is urban-centred, where it is easier to maintain security. It failed because the bulk of the Afghani population is rural – 80 percent or more – highly dispersed, living off the land.

To maintain country-wide security on a "take and hold" basis would require the dispersion of the security forces, putting them in extreme peril, unless there are huge numbers. There, conservative estimates are of 500,000 or more, simply to maintain a basic presence. Clearly, there is no way the coalition is going to put that resource into the field, and the Afghani security forces cannot take up the slack. That simply is not going to happen any time soon.

The alternative is to build the road network, and then police it. It is not helicopters that are force multipliers, as Malloch Brown was saying in September last year – when no one was particularly listening – it is the tactical mobility afforded by helicopters. But these machines are only one mechanism of delivery.

In the "hold" phase of the current strategy, responsibility for security is supposed to devolve to the Afghani forces, and they are not generously supplied with helicopters – or at all. And there are no plans to remedy that situation. It would be hideously expensive even to try, and we are having enough difficulty equipping our own forces.

Therefore, the Afghan forces are going to have to rely on the road network, often using light, unarmoured vehicles with limited off-road performance. If they are to succeed, we have to build a high quality, secure road network. This should not follow the "take" phase – it should be part of it, just as building the rail system opened up the "wild west" in North America.

The communication system brought with it the security – it did not follow it. And, where the US Army Corps of Engineers played a vital part in opening up the territory, so too must the British Army open up Helmand. This can never be achieved by civilian agencies.

It is here, oddly, that helicopters are vital, but not the ponderous heavy and medium lift machines that are so much the focus of attention. Back in November 2006, we were writing about the need for small, tactical helicopters that could deliver rapid reaction units quickly, to where they were needed.

The thinking was very much on the lines of the highly successful Rhodesian Fireforce model, where small packets of troops could interdict terrorist movements, disrupting their communications and never allowing them to concentrate their forces or dominate the ground. A good road network, allowing policing by local forces, with the rapid back-up of highly mobile forces on these lines, together with good road security, has been demonstrated time and time again to be a winning formula.

Instead of that, we have large, ponderous formations, ploughing up the territory, "breaking things and killing people", fighting battles which have been described as similar to the conventional "break-out" battle, of a type and tempo known the generals of World War I. The objective is to take territory which we know we cannot hold, and for which there will never be the resources to hold within the context of the strategy so far defined. To assert otherwise is moonshine - this strategy could suck in the entire British Army and it would not make the slightest difference.

The campaign, therefore, is being set up for another of those "heroic failures" at which the British Army excels. We will have been seen to have been "doing our bit", contributing to the "heavy lifting" and spilling enough blood for the Generals to salvage their own pride and look the Americans squarely in the eye.

But as an exercise in counter-insurgency, the Generals might just as well parade their troops in red coats, lining them up to fire their muskets into the tree lines to scare off the natives. At least then they would do less damage and it may be just as impressive for the Americans, who always did have a soft-spot for our quaint traditions. Perhaps we could even burn down the White House again. With Obama inside, that could be as effective as anything "Our Boys" are actually doing in Helmand.


The tyranny of the narrative

One the one hand, you get Air Vice Marshall Martin Routledge, still in post, speaking out against what in media terms could be described as a "critical shortage" of UAVs in Afghanistan. Outside the specialist journals, all it gets is a brief mention in The Times and a cut and paste job in The Guardian.

Then, on the other hand, you get Brigadier Aldwin Wight, ex-SAS commander, retired from the Army in 1997, who has been "speaking with friends" and decides to "wade into the row over support for UK troops in Afghanistan", accusing the government of "spin" (shock!) and telling the world: "I do think, actually, the debate should be exposed - the additional troops, the numbers of helicopters." For good measure, he also accuses Labour of spending "the minimum they could get away with" on defence ... like, er ... £1.7 billion on Future Lynx.

The retired brigadier immediately gets a slot on ITN and, via the Press Association, his views can be found in most newspapers today.

It actually does not matter to the media whether we need more helicopters or troops in Afghanistan – whether the tactics are right, whether there are other equipment deficiencies, whether things could be done differently, to greater effect – or cheaper. What matters is the narrative. Talking heads who fit in with it get heard. Those who do not, languish in the wilderness.

This is how the debate is "framed" – how every debate is framed, distorting public policy and priorities. We have a weak minister, in a weak, unpopular government, rushing around "busting a gut" to dance to the media tune, while other issues, of equal or greater importance are ignored or given less attention.

In truth, this situation has probably never been any different, although the effects are possibly now more powerful. With 24-hour news and the multiplicity of media sources, it appears that many voices are clamouring – the multitude with but a single mind. In fact, they are all singing from the same hymn sheet – one statement, one press release and then one agency report, replicated mindlessly, a thousand times or more.

That, is why "spin" is such a central part of modern public administration. Governments not only have to govern, they have to respond to the narrative – they have to be seen to be addressing "popular" concerns.

Where the two are in conflict, "spin" fills the gap. The words are not real, but then neither is the narrative. It keeps the media wolves at bay, until the discrepancies between words and action are found out, generating another narrative of a lying, deceitful government. The truth though is that "government by narrative" would be chaos – which is possibly why we are in such a mess now, as our masters vainly attempt to restore their fading popularity.

Such is its power, that no government dare speak against it. No minister can stand up and say, "this is a load of tosh ... you are all wrong ... what we need to is this ... and I am going to ignore the clamour. " In that path lies political suicide and obscurity.

So, the politicians feed the monster. But it is never sated. They become its slaves and we too become enslaved – and to what? An agenda that has no more substance than the contents of the recycling bin. But we feed it all the same.


Thursday 23 July 2009

More deadly than the Taleban

Many graphic accounts have been written recently about the Panther's Claw operation in Helmand. From these emerge a picture of how the Taleban are employing the large-scale emplacement of IEDs to delay the assault (the classic role of minefields) and to inflict casualties.

In that Panther's Claw is a "deliberate operation" – i.e., one that was planned and executed in an area of choice - the fact that the Taleban had laced the area with IEDs could perhaps have been pre-empted. Not least, troops could have been provided with far more knowledge of their locations and extent than they seem to have been.

The asset of choice to provide this vital intelligence is the UAV and some hint that they have not been used to effect comes in today's Times. This retails the complaints of a "leading British officer" that the military had been too slow to capitalise on the use of UAVs to detect IEDs.

Once again one has to point up the effect of the misplaced focus on helicopters. This important information gets but one sentence when, in fact, a failure properly to employ this life-saving technology would constitute a major scandal – and one in which a responsible media would take a very great interest. A shortage of UAVs – or their poor deployment – could be having a far greater impact on casualties than the shortage of helicopters.

To get more detail, however, one has to go to Defence Management, where one learns that the "leading British officer" is Air Vice Marshall Martin Routledge, the outgoing chief of staff for strategy, policy and plans at RAF HQ Air Command.

He is complaining that the MoD and RAF have not invested in "agile" technology that could save lives in Afghanistan. UAVs have not been fully embraced by the MoD and their introduction is hurt by processes that are "too bureaucratic and unwieldy," Not enough were being procured to handle all of the operational demands.

Despite the huge threat posed by IEDs and the growing casualties, MoD procurement and strategy officials lack the "drive, effort, enthusiasm" to embrace the UAVs, added Routledge. In his opinion, the RAF had yet to fully embrace UAVs because it cannot decide how to best use them. "Something in the culture" was holding it back, he averred.

Routledge is referring to the Reaper - oddly enough heavily puffed by The Times, exactly a year ago today – and there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. Acquired under the UOR process and rushed into service by November 2007, it has never been adopted as part of the RAF's permanent inventory, reflecting a vicious battle over the future of UAVs in the RAF.

Something of the current status is told here, where there is friction over whether to adopt the Reaper, to go for the BAE Systems Mantis or to throw in with the French inspired Neuron programme under the aegis of the European Defence Agency.

With everything depending on the long-term choice of UAV – and a decision not planned until 2013 – the RAF is not really in a position to commit to the technology. Hence, the number of platforms operated is minimal, while there is no investment – intellectual or otherwise – in developing a fully integrated doctrine which would enable the full potential of these machines to be exploited.

The big problem is that, if the RAF puts the Reaper in the core program, and the government then chooses to pursue a UK or a European or other collaborative programme, it could end up foisted with more than one platform - potentially bedeviling support organizations with a requirement to fly two birds for the one job.

Thus, indecision rules, leaving a vital capability gap. And that gap is crucial because, unlike the Army-operated Hermes 450 – which is for surveillance only – the Reaper has a potent attack capability. Not only can it be used to catch IED emplacers in the act, it can kill them using a variety of weapons, including the Hellfire missile and guided bombs.

Once again, therefore, troops in the field are being denied life-saving equipment, this time cause by a combination of institutional inertia, pork-barrel and European politics. Either one is dangerous but, in combination, they are proving more deadly than the Taleban. After all, the very worst the Taleban could do is shoot one of these UAVs down. This lethal combination stops them flying in the first place.


A dangerous self-indulgence?

Twice we've called "time" on the controversy over equipment for our troops in Afghanistan, yet it continues almost unabated. It was with more than some interest, therefore, that we watched author and analyst Michael Griffin on BBC News 24 yesterday, expressing similar puzzlement over the intensity of the "debate".

Viewed wholly objectively, with the focus narrowed down to whether troops have enough helicopters, there is nothing to sustain it. As it stands, there is no shortage of helicopters in theatre to support current operations. The prime minister is right on this.

That most of the helicopters are American is neither here nor there. But there are Dutch, Canadian and British as well, all "pooled" in a vast coalition fleet which is being used not for British or American operations, but for coalition operations, of which the national contingents are an integral part.

In that sense, complaining about the shortfall of British helicopters is about as rational as anyone arguing against the use of B-17s of the US 8th Army Air Force to extend the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in 1943. Allies work together, and harness their collective assets to the common cause. That is what we did then and that is what we are doing now.

In seeking to explain the furore, however, Griffin linked the campaign in Afghanistan with Iraq, suggesting that in the latter, the British Army had not performed well, to the disappointment of the Americans. And in Helmand too, its grasp of counter-insurgency had been maladroit, again leading to a less than admiring response from the Americans.

To an extent, ventured Griffin, the military were seeking to transfer the blame for their own poor performance onto the politicians. Similarly, he felt, the military had some considerable control over the types of helicopters purchased and their deployment. Problems could not be laid entirely at the doors of the politicians.

If that is one element which is driving the controversy, the other is clearly the Conservative Party, anxious to find yet another stick with which to beat the government. The attitude is summed up in the recent comment from Liam Fox, who declares: "It is abundantly clear that we are asking our troops to fight a war for which Labour has not properly equipped them."

Notice there, the use not of the word "government" but of "Labour", revealing an overt partisanship which puts the alleged default wholly in a political context. There is no room in Fox's kitbag for any equivocation or shared responsibility.

Gordon Brown, nevertheless, is playing his own political games, relating helicopter requirements to current operations, but the distinction between these and the "general campaign" is becoming clear, with an acknowledgement that, while troops are able to fulfil their tasks at the moment, there is an overall shortfall of helicopters. This, we are told, is to be redressed by the Merlins which will at last be despatched by the end of the year, by the re-engined Lynxes and, next year, by additions to the Chinook fleet.

That things could have been done quicker, better and considerably more cheaply is indisputable, but the fact is that issues are being addressed, further confirming the "totemic status" of helicopters. In other words, this controversy isn't really about helicopters at all – or even about equipment.

Returning to Griffin, at the end of the interview – to the evident discomfort of his BBC interrogator – he broke away from the script to express his concern over the exaggerated level of publicity about an issue which lacked that substance. He warned that the Taleban would be monitoring programmes such as these, and the furore would improve their morale considerably.

Therein does lie a huge trap, created by the concern over casualties and the focus on helicopters. We have alluded to this before, in that if the Taleban were successfully to bring down a Chinook laden with troops, it is very hard to see how continuing the campaign could be politically sustainable.

The problem is that the Taleban know that, and they will do everything possible to make it so, while seeking generally to maximise the British casualty rate. This much is being recognised, with Dannatt at last taking the IED threat seriously.

As to the remarkable controversy that we have been witnessing for the best part of three weeks, this – if Griffin is right – is a dangerous self-indulgence which we simply cannot afford, motivating the Taleban to greater efforts on the basis that the home front can be so weakened that British troops will have to be withdrawn. We are, unwittingly, sending them a message that there is everything to gain from killing British troops.

This is not a happy message, and one that is difficult to change, as these media storms tend to have a life of their own. But the military, the politicians and the media – and indeed this blog – need to think very hard about the message they are sending, and to whom.


Wednesday 22 July 2009

An uncomfortable truth

One feels very deeply sorry for Mrs Diane Bell, mother of Corporal Ivano Violino, killed when the Volvo FL-12 truck he was driving hit a mine. As she stood outside the Coroner's court in Tunbridge Wells, where today an inquest was held into her son's death (reported here and here), she struck out at "ministers", demanding that they do some "soul-searching" over whether enough was being done to protect British troops.

During the inquest, Mrs Bell had heard that the 44-vehicle convoy, moving equipment to a base nearly 12 miles north-east of Gereshk, had been promised air cover during its passage, but the helicopter designated had been re-tasked and had not appeared.

Focusing on that omission, she made the impassioned plea for more air cover for convoys, heedless of the view of the Coroner, Christopher Sutton-Mattocks. He was satisfied, he said, that it would not have made any difference whether air cover had been provided, as it would not have been able to detect the explosives that Cpl Violino's truck had driven over.

The convoy was in fact regarded as low-risk and an attack was not expected. Furthermore, the vehicles were not driving along a tarmac road but across desert. Some of the heavier vehicles were becoming stuck in the soft sand so, at the time of the strike, Violino's was driving his 10-20 yards to the right to avoid deep ruts made.

The chances are, therefore, that this could have been a legacy mine, rather than a deliberate ambush. Certainly, the Coroner declined to rule the death "unlawful killing" and instead elected to record that "Cpl Violino was killed in action on Her Majesty's Service".

As to whether this death could have been prevented, we explored this issue back in September 2007 when it happened. Then, oddly enough on the back of comments made by Lord Malloch Brown on the need for helicopters, we concluded that the convoy supplies could have been better and more economically delivered by helicopter.

As for Cpl Violino's truck – a loader-tipper – this was engineering equipment being delivered to a Forward Operating Base. It too could have been delivered by helicopter. At 10 tons unladen weight, it could easily have been carried by an Mi-26 and we even published a photograph demonstrating that this could be done (top left). It was not until February the following year, however, that a Mi-26 was leased by the MoD, too late for Cpl Violino.

Therein, however, lies a conundrum. Only last week, that same Mi-26 was shot down by the Taleban, killing six on board and a young girl on the ground, with a man injured. Moving the FL-12 by air would have been safer for Cpl Violino, but it would, effectively, have transferred the risk to the helicopter crew – and those under its path.

In turn, fully to protect the helicopter on its approaches to British bases, where it is at its most vulnerable, would need foot patrols out in the approach area transferring the risk to the soldiers, making them highly vulnerable to ambush, either from direct fire or IED.

Arguably, an escort of Apache gunships might have sufficed, but then there is the opportunity cost: how many soldiers would die, how would the overall mission be compromised by the allocation of this precious asset to escort duty, when it might be better employed on air support?

Collecting together these various strands, arguably, Cpl Violino's life could have been saved, had helicopter lift been available. Given that lift capacity is currently a major controversy, one might have thought that an astute journalist might have picked this up. This could even have been raised in the inquest, but it was not.

But the price of his safety could have been at the expense of the helicopter crew who transported his vehicle, as indeed it was the safety of those troops who did not have to make the land convoy into Sangin base to deliver supplies least week.

We would like to think that the Mi-26 which crashed last week could have been better protected, and need not have been shot down, or that the lives saved through convoys avoided were more than were lost. We can never know. Whether seven dead and one injured was a fair trade is also something we can never know, but it does point up an essential truth – war is a dangerous business and people get killed.

But there is another, more uncomfortable truth. To ensure one man's safety may, directly or indirectly, put others at greater risk. There is no such thing, they say, as a free lunch.