Monday 31 August 2009

The enemy owns the terrain

Whether it was his intention or not, the overpowering impression conveyed by Michael Yon's most recent post is one of utter hopelessness.

We see small numbers of British troops, besieged in their own garrisons, completely under-resourced and unable to prevail, with the Taleban operating freely under their very noses, dominating the surrounding countryside.

What brings this home is Yon's description of the difficulty in transferring from the main operating base in Sangin – FOB Jackson – to the secondary base at Inkerman. Although only four miles away, walking or driving was not possible. Enemy control of the terrain is so complete in the area between Sangin and Kajaki than the route was deemed too dangerous. Helicopter lift is required.

However, writes Yon, we need more helicopters. The helicopter shortage is causing crippling delays in troop movements. It's common to see a soldier waiting ten days for a simple flight.

When Yon finally managed to get a seat, it did not take him direct to his destination. Instead, it flew probably eighty miles to places like Lashkar Gah, and finally set down at Camp Bastion. The helicopter journey from Jackson began on 12 August and ended at Inkerman on the 17th. About five days was spent - along with many thousands of dollars in helicopter time - to travel four miles.

At Inkerman, it is still mostly a gunfight, though the use of bombs is increasing. The base sits on the desert side of "highway" 611 that goes from Highway 1 (the "Ring Road") to Kajaki. The 611 marks the border between the deadly Green Zone and the desert. The road is almost completely controlled by the enemy. Only tiny patches of the 611 are under serious NATO/ISAF influence.

Some will take issue with this statement, Yon writes, then adding: "if they claim to be in control, they should readily accept the challenge to drive in an unarmoured car in those areas they claim to control."

Only two platoons are stationed at Inkerman, which means only one platoon at a time can leave the base. But using one platoon to cover this area is like trying to water a football pitch with a drop of water, Yon observes. The enemy fights just outside the base, even planting IEDs in view of the guard towers.

This is not the only base under pressure. There are several satellite FOBs and Patrol Bases, each of which is essentially cut off from the outside world other than by helicopter or major ground resupply efforts (which only take place about once a month).

The latest ground resupply effort from Camp Bastion resulted in much fighting. The troops up at Kajaki Dam are surrounded by the enemy, which has dug itself into actual "FLETs." FLET is military-speak for "Forward Line of Enemy Troops." In other words, the enemy is not hiding, but they are in trenches, bunkers and fighting positions that extend into depth. The enemy owns the terrain, writes Yon.

So different is this picture from that we see presented on the MoD website, for instance, that it is impossible to reconcile what we are told officially with what Yon tells us. But then, from the tip of the spear, we get this:

The soldiers keep streaming in from the mission. The Pentagon and British MoD spin lies (though I have found Secretary Gates talks straight), but veins of pure truth can be found right here with these soldiers. The Pentagon and MoD as a whole cannot be trusted because they are the average of their parts. There are individual officers and NCOs among the US and UK. who have always been blunt and honest with me. Among the higher ranking, Petraeus and Mellinger come to mind, but for day-to-day realities this is where it's at. Out here. Nothing coming from Kabul, London, or Washington should be trusted.
So much of this have we heard previously, with the MoD issuing structured lies about the situation, that, in fact, there is no difficulty in accepting Yon's version and rejecting the official "spin".

"We owe it to all those that are sacrificing themselves in Helmand, to be brutally frank about what is going on there and what is going wrong," said Stephen Grey recently, "because it is only with that frankness that I think certain things can be put right."

Yet compared with the candour of Yon, we get the mindless assertion of our Chief of Defence Staff. Nothing coming from London should be trusted, says Yon. Quite.


We face certain defeat

You have to give the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, some credit. His sense of timing is immaculate. No sooner does he go live on the MoD website telling us that "the UK strategy in Afghanistan is the right one," up pops General Stanley McChrystal to tells us that the coalition strategy in Afghanistan is failing.

McChrystal's views are covered in diverse media sources, not least The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, the latter announcing that McChrystal is to liken the US military to a bull charging at matador, when he delivers his strategic appraisal to the US Central Command on Monday.

A more useful analysis, however, can be found in The Washington Post where Anthony H. Cordesman holds forth. He tells us that the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan in the next three months. Any form of even limited victory will take years of further effort, he says. It can, however, easily lose the war.

While serving on the assessment group that advised McChrystal on strategy, he did not see any simple paths to victory but he did see all too clearly why the war is being lost.

The most critical reason, he believes, has been resources. Between 2002 and 2008, Cordesman argues that the US has never provided the forces, money or leadership necessary to win, effectively wasting more than half a decade. A power vacuum has been left in most of Afghanistan that the Taleban and other jihadist insurgents could exploit and occupy. Washington did not respond when the US Embassy team in Kabul requested more resources.

Interestingly, Cordesman does not confine his complaints just to a shortage of military force. He gives equal prominence to money and, crucially, leadership. He is also particularly scathing over the failure of the US to develop an integrated civil-military plan or operational effort even within the US team in Afghanistan. Far too much of the aid effort, he asserts, has been focused on failed development programmes.

In terms of additional troops, "almost every expert on the scene has talked about figures equivalent to three to eight more brigade combat teams - with nominal manning levels that could range from 2,300 to 5,000 personnel each - although much of that manpower will go to developing Afghan forces that must nearly double in size, become full partners rather than tools, and slowly take over from U.S. and NATO forces."

Similarly, says Cordesman, a significant number of such US reinforcements will have to assist in providing a mix of capabilities in security, governance, rule of law and aid. US forces need to "hold" and keep the Afghan population secure, and "build" enough secure local governance and economic activity to give Afghans reason to trust their government and allied forces.

They must, he says, build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them. No outcome of the recent presidential election can make up for the critical flaws in a grossly overcentralized government that is corrupt, is often a tool of power brokers and narco-traffickers, and lacks basic capacity in virtually every ministry.

And therein lies much of the problem. Cordesman tells us that "strong elements in the White House, State Department and other agencies seem determined to ignore these realities."

They are pressuring the president to direct ambassador Eikenberry and McChrystal to come to Washington to present a broad set of strategic concepts rather than specific requests for troops, more civilians, money and an integrated civil-military plan for action. They are pushing to prevent a fully integrated civil-military effort, and to avoid giving Eikenberry and McChrystal all the authority they need to try to force more unity of effort from allied forces and the UN-led aid effort.

Much as we have argued that the war in Afghanistan will not be lost in the deserts of Helmand, but in the corridors of Whitehall, similarly Cordesman is making the case that the war will be lost in Washington.

President Obama, he argues, will be as much a failed wartime president as George W. Bush. He may succeed in lowering the political, military and financial profile of the war for up to a year, but in the process he will squander our last hope of winning. We have a reasonable chance of victory if we properly outfit and empower our new team in Afghanistan; we face certain defeat if we do not.


Sunday 30 August 2009

Hard landing

Reports coming in tell of another RAF Chinook having been destroyed in Afghanistan.

This time, according to the MoD, enemy action was not thought to be involved. The helicopter, lifting 15 soldiers to a location six miles east of Sangin, made a "heavy landing" and sustained damage to its undercarriage, nose and front rotor. No one was hurt and the troops were allowed to continue their mission, the crew being evacuated by one of two other Chinooks which were taking part in the same operation.

The aircraft was unflyable and was later blown up by military personnel. The decision to destroy rather than retrieve the aircraft was taken "due to the difficult terrain and poor security situation around Sangin".

With a replacement cost of anything up to £40 million, it says something of the tenuous situation in the Sangin location that an operation was not mounted to secure the machine and arrange its salvage. That amount of money involved must be worth some risk and, if this was deemed too great – which clearly it was – then it must have been significant.

Of course, it would have helped if there had been a Mi-26 handy (pictured) – whence terrain would not have been an issue - but the one we had is no longer available. Interestingly, the site seems to have been secure enough for land forces to place explosives, rather than relying on air-delivered munitions, as was the case with the previous Chinook which had to be destroyed.

Clearly, the loss of this helicopter – the second in 10 days – will add further stress to the already stretched lift capability, although all options are being considered for an early replacement.


A question of strategy

No one can dispute the courage and tenacity of Doug Beattie (pictured – right) and, with the knowledge derived from first-hand experience of fighting in Afghanistan – for which he was awarded the Military Cross - he puts a powerful argument as to why we must finish the job in Afghanistan.

Under the title "a question of stamina", it is addressed to those who are "clamouring for us to leave the country to its fate" – including this blog. His line is to ask us to "consider exactly what that fate might be."

The argument is that which could – and perhaps should have – been put by our own politicians and our military. In the latter department, all Jock Stirrup, our current CDS, seems to be able to manage is the rather lame plea that the service personnel who have sacrificed so much in Afghanistan "look to us to seize the opportunities they've created; to deliver on the issues of will, commitment and Afghan political progress that are now crucial to success."

"We owe them and their families no less," declares Stirrup, oblivious to the fact that there is only one acceptable reason for our military presence in Afghanistan – that it is in our national interest - a case he fails to make convincingly.

The Beattie line though, rests on a vision of Hell, our withdrawal leading to a collapse of Afghanistan, a takeover by the Taleban with murder and mayhem following, with the subsequent destabilisation of the region and the collapse of Nato.

Thus does the gallant (no irony – he really is gallant) Captain assert that there will undoubtedly be continued casualties among British troops, but the damning reality is that things could get far worse if we leave. Not for us perhaps, at least not initially, but for so many others.

"Now the fight has started we need to finish it," he enjoins us. "We have promised to help create something better and must deliver it. We just have to have the stamina and courage, both physical and moral to do so."

Whether we have either is debatable, especially in the context of the latest opinion poll which has two-thirds of respondents opposing Britain's continued deployment of troops in Afghanistan.

But if it was just a question of "stamina and courage", then perhaps the long-term maintenance of our military mission might be possible. Traditionally, these are the great strengths of the British people and it cannot be beyond the capabilities of even our current, dire breed of politicians to press the right "buttons" and rally the nation behind this cause.

However, what Beattie does not mention are two other issues: strategy and capabilities. He may have an earnest and well-founded desire for us to finish the job, but he does not address whether we have an effective strategy that would enable us to do so and, if we had, whether we have the capabilities to implement that strategy.

Thus, while we have painted for us an Armageddon scenario, precipitated by our immediate and voluntary withdrawal, the alternative could just as well be the same thing, only delivered over a more prolonged timetable, as we are forced to concede defeat (however much it will be disguised). And, if the choice is between a high-speed crash and a slow-motion train wreck, it is not unreasonable to argue that we might just as well get it over and done with.

Such a sentiment can only be reinforced by Jock Stirrup's claim that "the strategy in Afghanistan is the right one." This is a consistent refrain from this man, an officer who also admits to failures in communication and to having been "smug and complacent" about prosecuting counter-insurgency warfare.

Manifestly, the strategy is not right. Equally – and self-evidently – tactics are not right and the equipment is not up to scratch. The political and economic environments are unravelling as we speak, while Gordon Brown rests on the wholly unrealistic prospect of expanding rapidly the Afghan Army, in a bid to restore what US Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mullen openly admits is a "serious and deteriorating" situation.

Thus, while we can acknowledge Beattie's warnings and concerns, as long as the likes of Stirrup are offering soothing, patronising claims that our strategy is "the right one", we know there is no hope. When his likes climb down off their gilded pedestals and acknowledge that which we all know, that we have serious problems, for which solutions have yet to be devised, then there can be some confidence that we might, possibly, be in a position where we can devise a workable strategy.

For want of that, there is very little separating "stamina and courage" from mulish obstinacy and blind stupidity.


Government baaaaad

On 14 June 2006, under the by-line of Michael Evans, defence editor, The Times ran a story about the death of Captain James Philippson, the first British soldier to be killed in southern Afghanistan.

In a narrative attributed to "senior military sources", we were told that Philippson had "died while trying to rescue a wounded colleague under enemy fire," the paper then retailing a lengthy derring-do account of his exploits.

The following February, a factual and largely unchallenged account of the events leading to Philippson's death was published as part of a Board of Inquiry report. So different was this account that it became manifestly clear that Evans's original was a work of pure, unmitigated fiction.

To my knowledge, Evans has never published a retraction or correction of his story – the MSM never feels the need to apologise. In fact, an even more lurid account of these fictional events found its way into Sean Rayment's book, "Into the killing zone", albeit lacking source attribution.

A year after the Board of Inquiry report, the events came before assistant coroner Andrew Walker. He chose to ignore the substantive findings of the Board and instead focused on what were tangential issues which had not materially affected the outcome of events – specifically a shortage of equipment and in particular night-vision goggles.

On the basis of his narrow and partial perspective, Walker was thus able to launch into a strident attack on the government, accusing it of causing an "unforgivable and inexcusable breach of trust" with the Armed Forces by sending soldiers into combat with "totally inadequate" equipment.

Outside the court, Tony Philippson, the understandably aggrieved father, was given free rein to declare that it was a disgrace that troops had been sent to fight terrorists without sufficient kit. "I hold the MoD responsible for my son's death but in turn they were starved of cash", he said, accusing the then "parsimonious" chancellor Gordon Brown of not spending money and "risking soldiers' lives".

Never knowingly missing an opportunity to score a cheap political point, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox then weighed in, declaring that the Coroner's findings were "a damning indictment on Labour's treatment of our Armed Forces". "The Government were willing to do the one thing which is unforgivable which is to commit troops to battle without due protection," he said.

So it was that the "Philippson affair" became and has remained a political football, the precise events of the Captain's death buried in a welter of acrimony and accusation, the mythology unchallenged.

What has been challenged, though, is the original finding of the Board of Inquiry which considered that Cpt Philippson had been killed as a result of "poor tactical decision-making, a lack of SOPs (standard operational procedures) and a lack of equipment." In particular, the unit's commanding officer, Major Jonny Bristow came in for some criticism.

We now learn from The Sunday Times that, following assiduous lobbying from Tony Philippson, the Board is to revisit its findings whence it is "anticipated" that it will dismiss the original criticisms that the rescue mission in which Philippson died was an "ill-prepared rush", asserting that soldiers were properly briefed and overall preparation was adequate given the need to deploy the soldiers rapidly.

However, such is the strength of the prevailing narrative (government baaaaad, Army goooood) that, on the basis of these "anticipated" revised findings, current defence secretary Bob Ainsworth is accused of a "cover-up" over the death of Philippson.

The charge rests on an interview just hours after last year's inquest when Ainsworth, then the armed forces minister, confronted with the coroner's comments about inadequate equipment, "attempted to shift the blame onto Bristow", referring to the Board which had also found there were a "lack of standard procedures and tactical errors too".

This, of course, was no more or less an accurate reflection on the Board's views, but now says Philippson senior, the "anticipated" revised findings "will prove Bob Ainsworth was trying to cover-up the real reason for James's death. He was trying to shift blame away from the lack of equipment for which the MoD was responsible and negligent." "James was a friend of Major Bristow and the suggestion that he played a part in my son's death is despicable," he adds.

Whatever sympathy one might have for a bereaved father, it has to be said that this chain of logic is tortuous at best, if not tendentious. But it is nevertheless sufficient to permit The Sunday Times to run as its page-lead the headline: "Bob Ainsworth in 'cover-up' over soldier's death."

Tony Philippson, though – unwittingly or not – is in tune with the media narrative and is thus allowed to say: "Bob Ainsworth is not fit to be secretary of state and lead the armed forces. Blaming a commanding officer for the MoD's failings is outrageous. He should resign his post with immediate effect."

There may, in fact, be many reasons why Bob Ainsworth is not fit to be secretary of state but, in fairness, this is not one of them. Whatever the new board of inquiry might find – and its report is many months away – it can hardly change the basic facts of the narrative account. Any sober assessment of that narrative can only lead to the conclusion that the events which led to the death of Cpt Philippson did not represent the Army's finest hour.

But, as long as the prevailing narrative remains in force, we will not find in the media any suggestion that the military can in any way be at fault, even in the smallest of ways. Government baaaaad, Army goooood is what we are told, and that is what we must believe.


Saturday 29 August 2009

A perverse agenda

The Sun continues its coverage today, ostensibly campaigning for better equipment for "Britain's servicemen and women in Afghanistan." To promote this agenda, it focuses on the Viking, rightly pointing up its vulnerability, but then makes a case that this vehicle continues in use because the Army has "insufficient Mastiff armoured troop carriers".

Having thus reduced complex issues to a pastiche, it then firmly pins the blame on "the Government" for its alleged "failure to show true support", personalising the issue by inviting a "squaddie" to tell us that "I would like Gordon Brown to spend 48 hours with an infantry battalion on the front line."

To complete the parody, the paper then enlists the support of "Tory leader David Cameron", whose support for the "campaign" is duly reported by Conservative Home which also records, with apparent approval, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox accusing the prime minister of leaving British forces to face an uphill struggle while he plays "the invisible man of politics".

This reductio ad absurdum technique is what passes for journalism these days and ignores, as a somewhat inconvenient truth, the fact that the staunchest advocacy for the Viking resides within the military. The MoD itself was extolling its virtues in June, as it has done previously and, as late as this July, the case was still being made.

Furthermore, in a dishonest sleight of hand, the paper fails to make the obvious point, that the Viking and the Mastiff are not comparable vehicles – that the Mastiff could not perform many of the roles currently allocated to the more mobile and lighter tracked vehicle. To do so would destroy its core assertion that troops were being forced into Vikings because of the shortage of Mastiffs.

Nor, to add to the dishonesty, does it recognise that the Viking is scheduled for replacement with the better-armoured and heavier Warthog. One may have views about the utility of thus replacement, but the fact is that the government is responding to concerns about the vulnerability of the Viking, replacing it not with Mastiffs, but with another high-mobility tracked vehicle.

That Cameron should so easily lend his name to The Sun's dishonesty, however, reflects poorly on his political judgement. He is quoted as saying, "Yesterday's front page (pictured) was in a great British tradition which has seen our newspapers so often play a crucial part in holding politicians to account in wartime."

What we are seeing, of course, is cynical exploitation of the deaths of British service personnel in pursuit of a political agenda, without the least attempt to address the factors which are in part responsible for those deaths.

It is right and proper that newspapers should hold our politicians to account in wartime – and more so opposition politicians holding the government to account, something Cameron's defence team has transparently failed to do – but it is quite another for a paper to distort and falsify the arguments in order to pursue an attack on the government.

Here, as we have so often observed, much of the fault – such as it is – with the selection and deployment of vehicles in theatre lies with the military. Ministers do not as a rule challenge military decisions and the likes of The Sun would be (and has been) the first into the fray when it perceives political intervention in such matters.

But then to turn round and blame politicians for the decisions made by the military is perverse. More to the point, it is dangerous. The military command – cravenly hiding behind the skirts of the politicians – escapes any degree of scrutiny and, thus protected, is not held to account for its own mistakes.

By this means, there is no corrective and no deterrent. The military can continue making mistake after mistake, confident in the knowledge that the politicians will take the fall. And if Mr Cameron and his team honestly believe that by supporting this dynamic, they are in any way helping "Our Boys", then they are sadly mistaken. This they will find to their cost when they are in the hot seat.


Friday 28 August 2009

Use them and lose them

The trouble with aircraft is that they wear out. Each airframe has a design life, measured in flying hours and, when reached, the aircraft has to be towed away and scrapped or given fantastically expensive "life extension" upgrades to keep them in the air. The new Eurofighters, for instance, have a design life of about 6,000 hours.

However, high performance combat aircraft are so expensive that they are also expected to last a long time and, as replacements are taking ever longer to come into service, their chronological lives are extending into decades. The Eurofighter will be expected to last about 35 years, allowing an average of about 14 hours a month flying time throughout their careers.

To get maximum chronological life, therefore, it makes sense to fly the aircraft only for the minimum number of hours possible, just sufficient to maintain pilot proficiency and no more. Even then, much of the practice and training can be done on increasingly sophisticated simulators, cutting air time down even further.

That leaves the aircraft available for what they were designed for – an insurance policy in the event of hostile action, when they can be used to ward off or destroy an enemy. A military aircraft may go through its whole career without ever seeing action, its sole purpose having been to provide that all-important insurance.

Unfortunately, contemporary politicians – imbued with the doctrine of "liberal intervention" – are finding ever more reasons for using their inventories of aircraft, often for purposes for which they were not intended.

The RAF Tornado bombers are a good example. Designed for long-range interdiction against Warsaw Pact forces in northern Europe, they are now providing close air support in the gruelling conditions of Afghanistan, having already served in the Gulf War, Kosovo, the Invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation.

The first models were delivered to the RAF in 1979 and production ended in 1998 yet the ground attack version is expected to remain in service until 2025 – the type in service just short of 50 years, with the youngest of the aircraft around 30 years old.

However, so enthusiastic have our politicians been that the current GR4/4A fleet is wearing out too fast, forcing the MoD to devise a mid-life fatigue programme in a bid to see it through to its planned out-of-service date in 2025.

One aircraft will be modified on a trial basis, taking about three years to complete, at a cost of £28 million. If this is successful, work will proceed to the next phase and, if that works, modifications could be made to 40 aircraft at a cost of about £207m - £5 million per airframe.

Needless to say, this problem is not confined to the RAF. Recently, the USAF had to ground part of its F-15 fleet after structural failure caused one machine to break up in mid air. These aircraft, with an extended design life of 8,000 hours, are piling on the hours in Afghanistan and many of these are running out of "life".

Now stung by the massive costs of the replacement F-22s, at about $350 million each, even the United States is beginning to look seriously at cost-saving measures which will reduce the load on the high value inventory and keep them flying for longer.

And so advanced is the thinking that even the popular magazine Time is reporting that the USAF is seeking "a cheaper way to fly and fight". The magazine has picked up on recent reports on what is now called the Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft, with the Hawker Beechcraft T-6 (pictured) and Brazil's Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano under consideration.

Its main champion is defense secretary Robert Gates and the magazine cites General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff saying that this low-tech approach "is really consistent with Secretary Gates' thinking" in favour of simple weapons that can be bought quickly and perform more than one mission.

A rugged and simple warplane that can be flown against insurgents by US pilots who also train foreign pilots in their own language "is a very attractive way to approach this problem," he says.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley concurs. He believes that such an aircraft "will help build up the security capabilities of partners facing counterterrorist operations, counterinsurgency operations." Nations like Afghanistan and Iraq "are not going to be able to — and do not have a need to — operate at that higher end of the conflict spectrum," he adds. And nor can they afford to. The $350 million used to buy each of the 187 F-22s on the US inventory would pay for a fleet of about 50 of these aircraft.

No one is going to pretend, however, that such aircraft can replace the full spectrum of capabilities of fast jets such as the Tornado. But if their use can reduce utilisation of the more expensive jets by even ten percent, then their initial cost is a worthwhile investment, with huge savings accruing through reduced operational costs.

As so often though, while there is now a vibrant public debate on this issue in the US, even vast expenditure by the MoD on life-extension programmes goes unremarked and, despite extensive public and media concern about defence budget shortfalls, there is no media discussion about this promising development.

Short on detail and long on rhetoric, it seems our media – and indeed our politicians and military – would rather complain about shortfalls than do something constructive about them.


Tactically effective

Brigadier Tim Radford, the head of British forces in Afghanistan, has said more helicopters and surveillance aircraft would make his troops "more tactically effective". But then, so would bulldozers - and they are considerably less expensive.

Interestingly, I had an e-mail from a serving US officer who had experienced the use of D-9s in Iraq. He describes how his infantry had surrounded a house in which insurgents had holed up. Instead of storming the house or calling in airpower, they whistled up the D-9. Because its armour kit had been made in Israel, the troops called it the "the Zionist Monster". Oddly enough, the Israelis call it the "Doobie" – the teddy bear.

The great advantage of the D-9, he said, was that it is very slow and noisy. You can hear it coming for miles – call it "dramatic effect". On this occasion, long before it could be seen, the growling and clanking could be heard, growing in intensity, the tension rising all the time.

When it hove into view, it trundled up to the front door of the house, impervious to AK-47 fire and RPGs. Then stopping, the driver actuated the blade lift, raising the 18-ton steel blade to its full height. He let it drop, free-fall. When the ground had stopped shaking, the insurgents came out with their hands up.

In IED country, lightly armoured Humvees would often form up in convoy behind a D-9. It took them longer to get to their destinations – but at least they got there, unharmed. Now that's "tactically effective".


Punch 'n' Judy

"Don't you know there's a bloody war on?" proclaims The Sun today, parading the "207 faces of our Afghanistan dead" (but not, of course, the faces of the Danish or Estonian dead). They are, declares the paper, "stark reminders of the bloody war we are fighting".

Immediately, it then rams home its favoured narrative – government baaaaad, Army gooood - developing the theme with a series of talking heads, each offering carefully crafted sound-bites all cherry-picked to support the narrative.

"Wounded heroes are fobbed off with pittances and generals are ignored when they beg for better kit. Our troops deserve better. Much, much better," we are told, the paper citing the great sage, Lord Guthrie, who points to a "scathing dossier on procurement disasters written by an experienced Labour defence adviser."

Three examples are given, the "Surveillance planes due in service by 2003 will not arrive until 2010, with the cost of each having risen from £100m to £400m", the "new battlefield radio developed at a cost of £2.4billion proved too heavy to carry and didn't work properly anyway" and a "new class of submarines due in service four years ago is not expected to arrive until next year after huge rises in cost."

Quite what the relevance of a "new class of submarines" is to the "bloody war" in land-locked Afghanistan is not explained to the readers, the Bowman radio problems are largely sorted and as for the "surveillance planes", these are the Nimrod MR4s which are not intended for land surveillance in Afghanistan.

Their role (previously provided by the MR2s – which were a highly unsatisfactory stop-gap) is being provided by a combination of other assets, including the Hermes, Predator and Reaper UAVs, the Shadow R-1, the Sentinel and Rivet Joint.

That The Sun is playing mind games is further illustrated by its follow-up assertion that, "... we already know that life-saving armoured vehicles were stuck in Dubai for want of planes to take them to Helmand." This is the Ridgeback saga and, as we already know, the delay in fielding these vehicles has nothing to do with a shortage of "planes". It was the Army's decision to delay deployment until the next roulement, against the wishes of the politicians who wanted them fielded immediately.

The issue here is that The Sun knows this as well but, in pursuit of its cheapskate Punch 'n' Judy narrative, such an inconvenient fact does not fit with the message the paper is trying to convey. And, we already know that when a fact does not fit the story, the answer is to change the fact.

Everything, of course, must be expressed in terms of personalities, so on is also wheeled General Sir Anthony Walker, former deputy CDS to fulminate about the "shame of politicians". Thus does Walker have it: "...our gallant troops, excellently led in Afghanistan, are under-resourced and poorly directed by the MoD. The quality of the ministerial and bureaucratic team in the MoD is woeful. Even the Secretary of State is widely known as Bob Ainsworthless on ARRSE, the Army internet chatroom."

This sort of sniping is hardly worthy of a General, retired or otherwise, especially as the military establishment is so quick to condemn Labour "smears" against one of their own, General Dannatt, who departs from his post today as CGS.

Would that we could see some balance, such as that offered by Stephen Grey, but that is not The Sun's style. It has a narrative to sell and nothing must get in the way of that.

That a tabloid should play to the gallery in this manner is, of course, no surprise but what is less acceptable is that its low-grade analysis is endorsed by apparently serious politicians such as John Redwood. He notes with approval that the paper "asks the right questions".

That rather illustrates the level of commitment from our politicians, and especially Mr Redwood who has never knowingly attended a defence debate, yet is now so expert in his pronouncements.

Taking on The Sun however, is not on the agenda. This is the publication which claims to be "proud to be the Forces' paper." It tells us, "We admire their astonishing courage and weep for their dead and injured. But they need the right kit. They need money. They need to feel their Government is behind them."

It would be helpful also if the media was behind them, supporting them intelligently instead of using them as a political football and exploiting their needs to promote their own sales. And it would be even more helpful if the politicians could see through the hypocrisy of the media and define their own agenda. But then you can't have everything.


Thursday 27 August 2009

Fewer things better

"The more focus there is on great military offensives, the faster the money and blood is expended; and the greater the pressure for rapid results, the less chance there is that the fight will ever be won," writes Stephen Grey – author of Snake Bite - in the current edition of Prospect Magazine.

This may contradict the siren calls for more troops in theatre, but Grey's argument has an ineluctable logic. It starts with him assessing the psychology of the Army, the ability to "crack on" - its greatest quality and perhaps its greatest weakness. Commendable in adversity, it can also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy.

Many, in fact, believe the Helmand campaign to be flawed, a view expressed by a "senior Whitehall figure" who declared that Helmand "was a terrible strategic blunder." His views were not uncommon. Citing the plentiful material support in Vietnam, where there was no shortage of helicopters, Grey himself observes that, "unless the strategy is fixed, reinforcement could well make things worse."

The rot started with the fallacy that the campaign was more of a conventional than a guerrilla war (which explains the initial enthusiasm from an Army bogged down in Iraq) leading to the "mowing the lawn" sweeps which were viewed as a positive outcome, as they would have been in a traditional war.

The "lie" was exposed by Brigadier Andrew Mackay who used the recapture in December 2007 of Musa Qala to engineer a turning point. It was no good destroying a town and then arriving afterwards with cement mixers or wads of cash, as US doctrine seemed to imply. Thus, the aim was to take the town without knocking it down and by persuading the Taleban to flee, not fight.

A plan for reconstruction was devised to begin on "day one" after the town's recapture, and a battalion of Afghan troops was earmarked to garrison the town, with Nato troops kept out.

The military did its bit, taking the town with minimal civilian casualties but, as Anthony Loyd pointed out in the following July, the reconstruction was botched. The civilian agencies, including Britain's foreign office and development department, and the Afghan government came nowhere near to doing their part.

Beyond this, though Grey looks at a dimension we rarely consider – the idea of talking to the enemy to discover their motives. He also explores the need to avoid the indiscriminate killing of "Taleban" leaders. As has been rehearsed on this blog, the Taleban is not a homogenous, hierarchical group.

Through the eyes of an Irish EU official, Michael Semple, and another Irishman, Mervyn Patterson, Grey tells us that the Teleban of southern Afghanistan, was made up of bands of competing fighters, driven to fight more by a sense of tribe and nation than religious ideology. The US decision to demonise their leaders had prevented many from retiring, or switching sides. Instead they had been driven into Pakistan, where they had regrouped and forged closer ties to the remnants of al Qaeda.

"Reconciliation," Semple found, was possible and a process was initiated, effectively to be sabotaged by president Karzai. Had the British and their allies understood what was going on (and supported it), this - says Grey - might have stopped much of the fighting in the first place.

Ignorance, however, seems to have exerted itself in other malign ways, leading the newly-arrived British army unwittingly to blunder into the opium "turf wars", ending up in Sangin backing the drug mafia and driving rival tribal groups into the hands of the Taleban. British and US special forces campaigns to "decapitate" their leadership have made this worse, effectively eliminating the very people who could ultimately reconcile the insurgent groups.

Thus, while foreign secretary David Miliband now supports new talks with the enemy, three years of battles - which the Taleban were always said to lose – have brought a doubling in insurgent numbers in Helmand, making the kind of engagement which might have worked in 2006 much harder. Belated as it is, it still needs to be tried, writes Grey.

Now, farmers who last year might have supported the coalition are more likely to turn to producing IEDs and the area to the west of the province's capital Lashkar Gah has become a "Taleban stronghold." Retaking it has been the central objective of coalition troops, the British-led operation "Panther's Claw" having made a "land grab" akin to the operations of 2006.

Brigadier Tim Radford, the British taskforce commander, is "absolutely certain" that Panther's Claw has been a success. Lessons have been learned. A new swathe of land has been brought under government control - and it will be held.

Like many of us, Grey is sceptical. Nato has nothing like the troop strength to garrison the province and British troops, he asserts, meanwhile, "remain overstretched" in the zones they have held since before the summer. The Afghan army is not ready to step up and the Afghan government is not able to provide officials capable of delivering the security and services that might win over those infamous hearts and minds.

Musa Qala showed that there is little point winning ground for an Afghan government regarded as corrupt and unable to deliver basic security. "The problem with our approach this summer," one senior western official told Grey, "is that Afghanistan is neither willing nor capable of taking over the areas that Nato troops have captured … It's a fiction that they'll soon be ready."

On the domestic front, Grey sees no particular room for optimism either. He tells of how Whitehall officials seethed at what they regarded as General Dannatt's opportunism in using recent casualties to spread the blame for three years of bloody stalemate. As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm's way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home.

Their complaint, says Grey, has merit. Politicians dispatched troops to Afghanistan, but Nato generals decided how to deploy them. Most of the crucial decisions - from sending troops to defend the platoon houses, to "mowing the lawn," to Panther's Claw - have been made by soldiers. If an operation was launched with insufficient troops (or helicopters) it should not have been launched at all.

As to the US approach of "clear, hold and build", Grey dismisses it as "a tactic, not a strategy." It leaves unanswered just how much of this vast, lawless country should be cleared and held. There have already been calls for tens of thousands of more troops. Yet all of these dreamed-of reinforcements would never be enough to garrison all the areas of rebellion, never mind the whole country. Unlike in Iraq, we have reinforced before we know how to win.

The answer – or one of them – is to recognise that western intervention has limited value. Not all enemies can be dealt with at once. Do not reach for military action as the first response and pick our battles more carefully. Doing fewer things better - and letting the world know about them - can have greater effect than pouring more troops into an extended offensive.

Britain, says Gray, can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign. Its armed intervention should be concentrated on smaller areas, with a much greater emphasis on local intelligence. This must go hand-in-hand with economic development, and above all matching the scale of the mission with the resources available.

To this, we would add one caveat – nothing long-term can succeed unless the military manages to stem the flow of casualties. Without that, there is no long-term for British involvement. As we observed earlier, we have to deal with the IED.


Bring on the Pioneers

General McChrystal has recently released counterinsurgency guidance for the ISAF. Captain's Journal is distinctly unimpressed.

There is much with which to agree, he writes, but there are so many things with which to disagree it's difficult to know where to begin. Of one statement, he declares, it "goes so far down the path of the Western-trained PhD sociology student that it's unclear why we aren't reading that 'flowers are beautiful, butterflies are too, and I love you!'"

We would not even begin to challenge this analysis, but, in the "agree" department, few could argue with this sentiment, expressed in the guidance:

Although disruption operations may be necessary at times, we must recognize that their effects are temporary at best when the population is under insurgent influence or control. Sporadically moving into an area or a few hours or even a few days solely to search for the enemy and then leave does little good, and may do much harm. The local insurgents hide in plain sight and the people remain ambivalent. Once we depart, the militants re-emerge and life under insurgent control resumes. These operations are not only ineffectual, they can be counterproductive.
The document available is only the executive summary, and therefore the detail is slender, but another statement in the "agree" department surely has to be:

Take action to improve the stability in your area. Learn how to adapt, how to shape the environment, and how to be more effective with the community leaders and the people.
However, where we would fall out with the guidance is in terms of emphasis. The most important statement in the whole document is, "Learn … how to shape the environment," yet it is buried as low-order, secondary advice, with little prominence.

Standing back from the guidance and looking at the wealth of experience and knowledge flowing out of Afghanistan, if there was a single factor that dominated virtually every aspect of what we hear and read, it is the environment.

Whether it is the unremitting desert, the close, jungle-like cover of the "green zone", the matrix of ditches and canals which so hamper mobility, the warren of "lethal funnels" – as Yon put it – formed by the juxtaposition of high-walled compounds, or the primitive road system, the environment dictates how the campaign is managed and fought.

Yet, look to history and the activities of any successful "invader" or conqueror of any land, and it will be seen that high among their priorities was to re-shape and then dominate the environment. Not least, was the propensity of the invaders to establish castles on dominant ground, in defensible positions, with clear areas around them to deprive the enemy of cover, and then to build a network of roads connecting them.

One notes also the account of William the Conqueror in dealing with the English revolt in 1069, when his army set about "destroying homes and crops, and extinguishing all human and animal life from the Humber to the Wash." The attack on the "environment" was to be seen again, centuries later in Vietnam when US forces, using Agent Orange, sought to defoliate areas of jungle to deprive the their enemy of cover.

Whether successful or not, that latter initiative underscores the point that no long-term conquest of a land takes the environment "as is". Extending the remit of government – whether indigenous or imported – has always gone hand-in-hand with shaping the environment.

Here though, there is also a possible synergy which can be extracted from McChrystal's document. He writes about the extremely high proportion of the population under 25 (fighting age) and the huge problem of unemployment. Self-evidently, if many of these youths are set to work on environmental improvements – such as road building – then they will be less inclined to join the Taleban.

However, I have always been ill-disposed to the idea of employing local labour on day-rates, as a mechanism for providing employment. Taking on labourers, say, to help build roads, solves nothing in the long term, not least because, while there are the funds to build (some) roads, there is an entirely inadequate budget for road maintenance. Labourers impressed on road building are as likely to see their efforts destroyed over time, as new construction deteriorates.

McChrystal uses the Afghan saying that, "if you sweat for it, you will protect it". He also declares: "We must get the people involved as active participants in the success of their communities."

Hiring day labourers to build roads is not getting people involved. However, turning a road-building scheme into a "road building university", using the scheme to train road engineers – with theoretical training alongside and the reward of formal qualifications to successful participants – changes the dynamics. Add to that a commitment that, where something is built, there is on-going provision for maintenance, by the very people who have been taught to build, and a short-term project becomes a life-time commitment.

In a chronically insecure territory, however, we have continually asserted that such construction work cannot be undertaken by civilian agencies. It must be done by Army engineers, who can fight as well as build, and thus protect themselves.

With that in mind, the obvious stratagem is to train and equip large numbers of Afghan army engineers – and then to mentor them by undertaking joint projects. In the fullness of time, demobbed army engineers can transfer their skills to the civilian sector, as has happened in the UK ever since formal trades were recognised in the armed forces.

One wearies of the whole concept of large forces of specialist infantry, their purpose being either to fight or to carry out endless patrols looking for a fight. When they are not actually fighting, what are they achieving? Instinctively, one see this as wasted manpower. Dual-purpose personnel, dedicated to building but capable of fighting when the need arises, seems a much more productive use of labour.

These are the people we want – they are called Pioneers. The job specification describes the ideal peacemaker:

As well as being trained to a higher level in Infantry skills, Pioneers are also artisans and builders, so once they have built the Army's bases, they may defend them as well. They have a key role on both operations and exercises and can turn their hand to almost any job, including carpentry, bricklaying, fuel handling and JCB driving. A Pioneer's skill at multi-tasking means that their only problem when leaving the Army is deciding what to do.
McChrystal should take heed – bring on the Pioneers.


More cut and paste

It was only yesterday that we were complaining of the "stock merchants". They are not getting down in the weeds, picking up raw data or attempting systematically to collect data and analyse it, building their views and crafting their phrases on the basis of what the evidence tells them.

Another of these merchants is in full flight today, none other than Lord Guthrie, former CDS. He is holding forth in The Times, inter alia about the mess over the Chinook HC3s, about which there has been a great deal written of late - most of it wrong.

Taking the rather tendentious assertions at face value, though, Guthrie launches into a familiar panegyric about these "lifesavers". They are, he tells us, the safest way to evacuate injured soldiers from the battlefield - and a brilliant tactical device to get behind Taleban lines to confuse and mystify the enemy. Chinooks, he then proclaims, also help resupply and reinforcement where land movement is dangerous.

What reveals this as mindless stock phrasing are recent events, not least the account of what we now know to be Operation Flint.

This, the Taleban attempts to down a helicopter, the shooting down of the Mi-26 and the more recent loss of a Chinook to enemy fire tells us that areas of Helmand have become very dangerous for helicopters, so much so that it is no longer safe to use them in some locations. Land movement may be dangerous, but helicopter movement is even more so, with the potential for far greater casualties.

Guthrie, however, does not even begin to address this issue and nor – as he should if he had the welfare of the Army at heart – does he draw attention to the fact that ground movement is needlessly dangerous, owing to the lack of appropriate kit, while seeking to maintain road security is consuming an inordinate amount of manpower, seriously degrading our military capability and, in part, causing our excessive casualties.

It takes one of our forum members to draw attention to the startling photograph taken by Michael Yon, showing troops clearing Pharmacy Road using hand-held mine sweepers, with not an armoured mine detection or clearance vehicle in sight.

Nevertheless, the former CDS is voluble about his role in seeking to improve matters, reminding us that he "and other former chiefs of defence have repeatedly warned ministers" about the need for better equipment. But, while Dannatt is at last admitting that countering IEDs is now "core business", neither Guthrie nor the other former chiefs have ever warned about our grave deficiencies in anti-IED capabilities.

And, while the man then waxes voluble about the deficiencies of the MoD and the lack of political leadership, he never mentions or acknowledges that, when it comes to highly technical issues such as the complex equipment mix to deal with the IED threat, the lead has to come from the military. And it is there, as much as anything, that our problems lie, in the lack of high-level military leadership.

Meanwhile, Thomas Harding tells us that the British force in Helmand suffered one casualty for every Afghan vote in the area retaken from the Taliban during the recent and bloody Panther's Claw offensive.

By the measures the military themselves set, Operation Panther's Claw was a tactical and strategic failure. As such, it exemplifies the poor operational leadership in Helmand, about which Guthrie is also silent.

Interestingly, other things about which Guthrie seems always to be silent are his non-executive directorships of N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd and Colt Defense LLC – the latter one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world. Both companies have significant financial interests in Afghanistan, which puts Guthrie in the same boat, but with an agenda he never declares.

Yet this is the man with whom The Times feels safe entrusting its latest batch of stock phrases. And therein is one of the reasons for the poverty of our defence debate.


Wednesday 26 August 2009

The official version

Possibly stung by Michael Yon's trenchant report on the Battle for Pharmacy Road, the MoD has rushed out its own version of the operation, currently on its website.

The Yon version is better and much more detailed, but both bring something to the table. Neither, though, is complete and – it would seem – neither tell the full story of what happened or is going on. From the joint accounts, however, a picture begins to emerge which is more than a little disturbing.

The MoD account, by way of adding missing detail, tells us that the "battle" is codenamed Operation Flint and that 200 soldiers from 2nd Battalion The Rifles are involved, together with "experts from the Joint Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group". We also learn that this was one of two operations, the second being the clearance, a few days later, of a pathway known as "Route Sparta", also in Sangin. In total, 37 IEDs are discovered.

Interestingly, the MoD account relies on some of Michael Yon's photographs (some of which we have reproduced), acknowledging their source – which adds a further dimension to the apparent withdrawal of Yon's embed, after the publication of his despatch. The mystery deepens.

The MoD's account of the early stages of Operation Flint very much follows the narrative set by Yon, the MoD describing Pharmacy Road as "notorious", also telling us that it had "previously" claimed the lives of five soldiers in one day. This presumably is the incident on 10 July, when five were killed in the complex ambush.

Lt Will Hignett from 2 Rifles sets the scene, telling us: "The ground in Wishtan is made up of a maze of high compound walls and narrow alleyways. It is ideal for insurgents placing IEDs in cover and a real challenge for patrols trying not to get channelled or set predictable patterns for patrolling."

As to the operation, we learn that The Rifles surrounded the "one-kilometre stretch of road to provide cover for the specialist search and bomb disposal teams" and, as Yon describes, IED after IED is uncovered.

What then gets very interesting is the way that the MoD then describes (or more accurately does not describe) the blockage caused by two blown-up vehicles, about which Yon gives us some detail and provides photographs.

According to the MoD, the clearance teams, as they moved further down the road, "discovered the wreckage of two vehicles, clearly decimated by an earlier blast." The use of the word "discovered" is, to say the very least, puzzling. They did not know they were there? We are being fed BS.

Moreover, we are led to believe that the vehicles are "decimated by an earlier blast" – i.e., a single blast. Yet, we know from Yon that one vehicle is a "Jingle" – i.e., civilian – truck. The other is, from the look of it, an armoured wheeled loader. We know it is military – Yon tells us so - and, as a JCB (Yon calls it a "scooper") is part of the recovery effort, we are told (by Yon) that "the soldier who is driving the scooper is the same driver who got blown up on Pharmacy Road."

Putting the narratives together and making our own deductions, what appears more plausible is that the civilian truck was blown up and then, subsequently, the armoured loader was despatched in an attempt to clear the wreckage, only to get itself blown up.

Originally, we had assumed that this vehicle was another JCB but, on close inspection of Yon's photograph (above right), it appears similar to the much larger and better-protected Caterpillar loader - the very same type that the MoD are selling off (left). This might explain why the driver survived. But it also tells us the Army has a serious problem. At 37 tons, and a back wheel missing, this is serious heavy metal creating a major obstruction. (It could, however, be a Case 721B Medium Wheeled Tractor with a Penman armoured cab – weighing in at a mere 16 metric tons.)

With the two hulks blocking the road (and then booby-trapped), it must have been these which finally closed off Pharmacy Road, effectively isolating PB Wishtan, forcing it to be re-supplied by helicopter. And, when – as Yon but not the MoD tells us – a supply helicopter was attacked by an RPG, which cannot have been long after the Mi-26 had been shot down, one surmises that helicopter flights were suspended, leaving the base cut-off and under siege.

Thus, it would appear, Operation Flint was not simply a "route clearance" operation. It was an emergency relief force to break the siege of PB Wishtan, before its supplies ran out and it was over-run.

This is, effectively, borne out by the MoD itself, which tells us that, 22 hours after 2 Rifles deployed, the road was declared clear as the soldiers reached Wishtan. The rest of the night, we are then told, a "convoy resupplied Wishtan with everything from fridges to missiles." That detail is not mentioned by Yon.

That is what this convoy must have been all about. Several of the photographs show the convoy driving through Sangin market, which is the route to PB Wishtan from Jackson. We are looking at a relief convoy, breaking the siege – hence the elation of the Wimik driver.

Such is speculation, of course, but it all fits. And it explains the sensitivity of the MoD to Michael Yon's report – and its eagerness now to rush out its own version. The last thing the MoD wants is anyone to realise quite how desperate the situation really is in Sangin, with a Company base not three miles from the main FOB Jackson having been cut off by the Taleban.

That subsequently, the Taleban were effectively able to isolate FOB Jackson on election day also tells you a great deal about the security situation in Sangin, and the strength of the Taleban. Operation Flint – or at least the MoD version of it – seems to be hiding that in plain sight.

Things are perhaps now worse than even the growing casualty rate tells us. Yon got perilously close to revealing this.


The vocabulary of war

"The bloodshed is likely to prompt further questions about the international mission in Afghanistan ... ". That happens to be in The Times today, but that partial sentence, or something very like it, probably resides within virtually every journalist's toolkit, ready to be pasted in whenever deaths are now recorded.

This cut and paste effort records a bombing in Kandahar which destroyed the offices of a Japanese construction company, killing at least 41 including women and children and wounding at least 64 people. Another stock phrase tells us it was "the bloodiest such attack since ... ". Held in stock, it has no doubt the instruction in brackets: (insert date here). In this case, it was July last year.

Another stock phrase, which is becoming horribly familiar is: "killed/wounded in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Sangin ...". In this case, it is the "wounded" variant, the soldier concerned having been injured on 15 August, probably alongside Sergeant Simon Valentine, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Of the same Battalion, sadly, the soldier has now died, the 207th to die in Afghanistan since 2001.

Also recorded, to add to the bloodshed are the deaths of four US soldiers, bringing the number of coalition soldiers who have died this year to 295, one more than in the whole of last year, provoking headlines declaring the "deadliest year" so far in Afghanistan – for coalition troops.

Suddenly, the vocabulary of war assumes a deadly leadenness of its own. We are running out of words to use, things to say and are doomed to the same old phrases, now repeated endlessly, their impact diluted, their meaning dulled by the repetition. No wonder people turn away and busy themselves with their own affairs. Yesterday's news is the same as today's news which will be the same as tomorrow's news. Only the numbers change.

Even the arguments are the same. Allan Mallinson trots one of them out in The Daily Telegraph yesterday. "The Army is just too small." This invites the question of: "too small for what?" That is answered in the headline: it is too small to fight all of the battles facing Britain, claims Mallinson.

The trouble with the likes of Mallinson and all the rest of the stock merchants is that they are in the retail game – retailing stock phrases, the stock vocabulary of war. None of them get down in the weeds. They are not picking up raw data like Michael Yon. Nor are they attempting systematically to collect data and analyse it, building their views and crafting their phrases on the basis of what the evidence tells them.

Take the "battle" that Yon described in his latest despatch, the Battle for Pharmacy Road. This, and the many others like it, collectively, are the battles which Mallinson asserts the Army is too small to fight.

Actually, Yon does not specify how many troops were engaged in the "battle", but it must have been at least a Company directly or indirectly engaged – probably many more, putting it at a hundred men plus. On the other hand, even without the major surgery to the road network that we had in mind, that road as it exists could have been cleared by one man, provided he was driving a D-9 bulldozer.

The Army already has the kit, or would have if it did not insist on selling it off. And it would have a lot more money too, if it did not keep wasting it on crap kit.

That points up what is missing from the vocabulary – questions such as, could we fight smarter? Could we use better or different kit? Could we get more value for money? Are there different, more successful ways of achieving what we are trying to do?

So, all of a sudden, the vocabulary is as soul destroying as the news that, with the latest reported death of a British soldier in Sangin, this is the 23rd death in that town and its environs this year, 20 of them from IEDs.

Mallinson wants a bigger Army. I want a better Army. "Bigger" could simply mean more targets. "Better" could mean we do considerably more, with considerably less, and keep more people alive. We need a new vocabulary for this war.


Tuesday 25 August 2009

Diggers revisited

In December last, the media was accusing the Army – short of engineering equipment in theatre – of buying up commercial JCB diggers, giving them a lick of camouflage paint and sending them to Afghnaistan. This, we averred, was a "cheap shot, and wholly wrong". The Army had bought state-of-the-art JCB High Mobility Engineer Excavators (HMEE) - custom-designed military equipment, complete with armour.

As it turns out, although the HMEEs were on order, the media was right and I was wrong. As the latest post from Michael Yon illustrates, the Army is indeed using ordinary, commercial JCBs in theatre, although they have armour bolted onto the cabs as well a paint jobs.

Whether these have been bought specifically for theatre, however – or simply drawn from stock and armoured – is not known. It would hardly seem rational to by new plant, as the MoD seems to have a considerable surplus of these machines, to the extent that it is selling some off from its reserves - unused.

This was also the case with its armoured bucket loaders which are still on sale, and the Combat Engineering Tractors, which have some life left in them and are a bargain for less that £10,000 each. In fact, there is a whole raft of new and nearly new construction equipment available and even heavy-duty military bulldozers - all ex-MoD.

What makes this so important is that Israeli and US experience demonstrates that the right sort of engineering equipment is not only a force magnifier but also a life saver. Given its willingness to hazard flesh instead of using steel, and the general lack of plant available in theatre, it is easy to gain the impression that the Army is not really trying.


Blessed be the peacemaker

Re-reading Michael Yon's latest despatch for the umpteenth time, my own thinking hardens into a single question: why are we messing about?

The heaviest piece of kit used in the entire operation to clear Pharmacy Road is an armoured JCB Caterpillar 434 (pictured left) – with all the substance and presence of a Tonka toy. It is not even an HMEE.

The dangerous work is done by unprotected troops and ordnance clearance teams driving nothing more lethal than the absurdly expensive, unarmoured Tellar Disposal and Search Explosives Ordnance Disposal vehicles.

What we should have been using were these (pictured below) – the Mantak D-9 Armoured Bulldozer. There is even a remote-control version.

There are more pics here (about eight-tenths the way down). One of the captions reads:

Talk About Intimidating. You do NOT want to be anywhere around this monster when it is barrelling towards you with several tons of mines scooped up from your locally laid minefield, otherwise you might be eating a lot of dirt and body parts for dinner.
Procedure-wise, what should have been done is equally straightforward. A straight line should have been drawn on a map, between FOB Jackson and FB Wishtan. The route should have been published well in advance, with warnings to keep clear. On the appointed day, the D-9 is started up, put into gear and driven from A to B, in a straight line. This is the engineering solution.

Michael Yon writes about these baked mud walls stopping 30mm cannon rounds and being left standing when 500lb bombs drop in compounds. They would not last two minutes in front of a D-9.

Then, you open up a compensation office and pay a fair price for the damage. The cost would still be cheaper than a brace of GBUs and the delivery charges – much less the compensation you have to pay to the relatives of dead soldiers and limbless servicemen.

But what about "hearts and minds?" I hear you cry. Well, there is nothing benign in permitting the Taleban to kill Afghan citizens. Yon writes that two civilians were killed by IEDs after the road clearance operation.

One was killed when he tried to strip one of the blown-up vehicles left by the British engineers. The other died on a route he had thought cleared by the British. It had not been. "The Taleban blows up a lot of local people in Sangin," Yon observes. Where is the "hearts and minds" in allowing that to happen?

The Afghanis, we are told, want security more than anything. That is how you give it to them. Sending out our own young men to die in narrow alleys, surrounded by high walls, prey to the IED and the bullet, is not. It achieves nothing.

Blessed be the peacemaker – it is called an armoured D-9.


The battle for Pharmacy Road

We have written a great deal of the situation in Sangin, deploring the growing toll of casualties in that town, the brunt of which are being taken by the 2 Rifles Battlegroup under the command of Lt-Col Rob Thomson.

Their headquarters are at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Jackson near the banks of the Helmand River just outside Sangin town, in the so-called "green zone", the lush area of vegetation fed by the river waters.

Embedded with 2 Rifles – until yesterday when his permission to remain was withdrawn by the MoD after he had posted this report – Michael Yon was able to describe in detail one small action, which I have dubbed the "battle for Pharmacy Road", the narrative here culled from Yon's much longer report.

The unpaved Pharmacy Road, flanked by 15ft-high baked mud walls forming the boundaries to sizeable compounds, starts about two miles to the south east of FOB Jackson - a route which passes through Sangin market. It runs east north-east connecting two secondary bases, about a mile apart (see above - note, this is not oriented north/south). At the western end is Patrol Base (PB) Tangiers manned by the Afghan National Army while, at the eastern extremity is PB Wishtan, named after the locality, occupied by C Company 2 Rifles.

Pharmacy Road, however, has effectively been closed by enemy harassment, including a blockage caused by two blown-up vehicles (a "jingle truck" and a British Army armoured JCB). IEDs are planted in broad daylight and the enemy chisels small firing holes through the walls and fires bullets down the tight spaces and alleyways.

Resupply and troop movements, therefore, had to be performed by helicopter, even though a patrol could walk from Jackson to Wishtan in an hour and straight driving would only take fifteen minutes. With the shortage of helicopters (and the fact that an RPG was recently fired at a helicopter as it lifted out of PB Wishtan), closure of the road increased enemy freedom of movement while decreasing that of the British and Afghan forces.

The British soldiers of 2 Rifles were thus given a mission: clear and hold. The task is not easy. With no direct line of sight from one end of the road to the other, and a network of narrow alleys between compounds, giving ambush opportunities to the enemy, the troops will be hemmed in by the high walls.

Snipers are of little use because they can neither see nor shoot through the walls, which are so robust that even 30mm cannon rounds fired from aircraft will not penetrate. A 500lb bomb exploding in the middle of a compound will leave the walls standing. And there is no commanding terrain other than the air.

The mission began under cover of darkness, the troops equipped with night vision goggles and led by a soldier with a sniffer dog.

"We set off down the market road," Yon writes. Then, in an oblique reference to his MoD "minders" – who were subsequently to pull the plug - he adds: "Some folks believe such reports are 'security violations', as if the thousands of people living here do not know exactly where the bases are, or do not know exactly where we came from and went to. Operations take place here every day. Civilians are everywhere."

Despite being observed by so many civilians, the troops, Yon still with them, reach PB Tangiers with no dramas. Some Afghan soldiers were on guard there, while others seemed comatose.

With the troops is Cpl Mark "Axle" Foley, the JTAC who controls air strikes. He is allocated support from A-10s but about 0314, as they approach, still about 40 miles out, they are called away for a TIC (troops in contact) somewhere in South Helmand. The men bed down to sleep.

It is not until nearly half past five in the morning that ordnance clearance (EOD) teams start moving down the road, clearing IEDs with controlled explosions – dealing with six in the space of an hour. They have a soldier with a sniffer dog with them. This is not entirely successful, leading his handler at one stage over an undetected pressure-activated IED.

With one stretch "cleared" - there have been many instances where soldiers heve been blown up by ground that has just been cleared, so cleared is more like "cleared" - Lt-Col Rob Thomson leads some of his men to check the progress in clearing some of the most dangerous ground, where the blown-up vehicles are blocking the road.

The plan to clear the blockage is ingenious. The area surrounding the vehicles is booby-trapped with explosives, and the wrecks themselves also are booby-trapped. So, instead of trying to drag the vehicles the length of the road, the goal is to blow down the wall of the adjoining compound and drag the vehicles off the road and into this compound.

About 200lb of plastic explosive is used to make a breach. This also brings down electrical wires so the breach is widened with an armoured JCB, to allow a heavy truck through into the compound, which is used to winch the wires clear. Then the wrecks are dragged into the compound and the way is now clear for the EOD teams to continue.

That night, however, the troops stay in the compound, the aim being to build a permanently manned observation post halfway down the road. Yon sleeps while soldiers from 2 Rifles and the engineers work all night erecting the sanger (guard post).

As the sun was rising on the second day, Pharmacy Road had been cleared and the sanger had been built. Yon and most of the troops headed back to FOB Jackson. Back at the base, an explosion shook the room. Word came that a local person was pulling parts from one of the vehicles that were dragged off Pharmacy Road. He encountered a Taleban booby-trap and he had been killed.

EOD had not cleared the vehicles of booby-traps; the two vehicles had merely been pulled off the road. Next day another local was killed on a parallel road that he thought the British had cleared. It had not. The Taleban blows up a lot of local people in Sangin, writes Yon.

The mission was an obvious success. It was surprising, Yon adds, that we endured no fatalities or serious injuries. The mission was well-executed and since many of the soldiers have substantial combat experience from Iraq and Afghanistan, major dramas were averted.

Although at least one IED has been placed on the road since, C Company and the ANA are now regularly patrolling and the freedom of movement has resumed. This is a brutal fight. Since that mission, eight more British soldiers and two interpreters have been killed in the area. That's ten KIA plus the wounded. The soldiers keep going.