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.