Sunday 26 July 2009

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.