Friday 12 March 2010

Party political games

The heads of the Armed Forces cannot escape their share of the blame if soldiers do not have the right equipment, writes Vernon Bogdanor in today's edition of The Times. He is not popular for saying so if the limited number of comments are any guide, but he is right. It is about time somebody said it in a mainstream newspaper and, despite other calls on my time, I felt impelled to post an analysis.

Writing under the headline, "Generals must keep their noses out of politics", Bogdanor is responding to that "disingenuous" remark from Lord Guthrie on 6 March that sparked off a major row, culminating in the jibe from David Cameron last Wednesday during PMQs - see video below.

In an attempt to explain the background, however, Bogdanor displays the usual MSM trait of carrying out shoddy research and only getting half the story. He gets a number of facts seriously wrong – actually weakening the very case he seeks to argue.

Thus, intones the great man, "In July 2006 the rising threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq prompted the MoD to order new patrol vehicles to add to their fleet of Snatch Land Rovers." He continues:
Many in the ministry favoured the Mastiff, based on a new mine-resistant design, but the Army argued for more Vector vehicles, which gave less protection but better all-terrain performance. They did not, at that stage, expect IEDs to become the biggest threat in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. The cost of the two vehicles was roughly the same. A compromise was reached, with some of each being ordered.
The errors (and omissions) in this short passage are manifest. Firstly, as we know, the IED threat in Iraq had been rising since early 2005 and the Army had done very little about it, continuing to send men out in poorly protected Snatch Land Rovers. And even by mid-June, it had done nothing to seek a replacement in Iraq.

Secondly, and crucially, the issue was raised publicly in June 2006, whence the government's initial response – prompted by the Army - had been to defend the Snatch. It argued strenuously against "mine protected" vehicles, flatly declaring that their size, their (lack of) mobility and their aggressive profile ruled them out for use in Iraq.

Party Political Games from ClimateGate2009 on Vimeo.

The Army view was articulated clearly through Lord Drayson, then defence procurement minister, who told the House of Lords on 12 June 2006:
... I do not accept that Snatch Land Rovers are not appropriate for the role. We must recognise the difference between protection and survivability. It is important that we have the trade-offs that we need for mobility. The Snatch Land Rover provides us with the mobility and level of protection that we need.
At the time, we were arguing for the RG-31, this being one of the smallest of the well protected vehicles then available. This was ruled out by Drayson, who declared:
We have looked at the RG-31 alongside a number of alternatives for our current fleet and concluded that the size and profile did not meet our needs. Size is important in the urban environment. The RG-31 cannot access areas that Snatch Land Rovers can get to.
Our riposte was this post demonstrating that, while there were undoubtedly areas the RG-31 could not go, there were very many that it could. With that, the secretary of state, then Des Browne, took a hand, and ordered a review of armoured vehicle provision. From this emerged the Mastiff.

The point that Bogdanor misses is that the Army actively opposed the Mastiff. It did not want what it called a "stop-gap", preferring to hold out for the family of medium weight armoured vehicles under the FRES programme. It did not want to be saddled – or so it thought – with specialist vehicles, suitable for one theatre only, also fearing that their purchase would prejudice the FRES acquisition.

Only when CDS Jock Stirrup sided with Des Browne did the Army relent and agree, reluctantly, to accept Mastiffs. The "compromise" was that more Vectors would be bought, to be used in Afghanistan where their supposedly better off-road performance would enable them to replace the Snatch. The Army, effectively made acceptance of the Mastiff conditional on it being given more Vectors. Their price, incidentally, was half that of the Mastiff, but it still meant £100 million was being spent on the vehicles.

As for the Army not expecting, at that stage, "IEDs to become the biggest threat in Afghanistan as well as Iraq," as Bogdanor avers, this is probably the case.

But it also represents a very serious error on the part of the Army, which failed to see that which was obvious, and which had happened in every previous campaign, from Oman, Aden and Cyprus, through to Bosnia and Iraq – that when insurgents failed to prevail against conventional forces, they go "asymmetric", using the mine and the IED. So obvious was it that the Army was wrong that, on 22 June 2006, Ann Winterton asked the Defence Minister in the House:
As our forces appear to be winning the firefights in Afghanistan, does he expect those who oppose our troops there and in other theatres to revert to the use of improvised explosive devices? If so, what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?
There was no satisfactory answer given, but as Bogdanor writes in his piece, the Mastiff proved to give excellent protection against IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq and was good value for money. The Vector, he writes, proved to be a liability that the MoD is now seeking to phase out – although the vehicles even now are supposed to have been withdrawn.

With that though, Bogdanor comes to the right conclusion. "Getting the right equipment for Afghanistan is more complex than simply handing over money or giving the military what it asks for," he writes, adding: "Decisions on the defence budget are taken jointly by politicians, officials and the heads of the Armed Services. None should seek to evade responsibility for decisions jointly taken."

In terms, however, technical decisions about vehicle types are taken by the military, with advice from technical civil servants and others. Ministers cannot be expected to make those decisions and only in exceptional circumstances would a minister consider over-ruling the supposed experts. But, in this case, Des Browne did – but not to withhold equipment. Rather, he forced equipment on an unwilling Army which had done its level best to block it.

It then ill-behoves the likes of Guthrie, and many more like him, to accuse the prime minister of not providing for the military's needs – especially as this scenario was repeated again and again, with helicopters, where a cheaper, immediately available option was rejected in favour of a more expensive model later, UAVs and much else.

Bognador goes on to make the point that the Armed Forces must remain politically neutral. To do otherwise would do lasting damage to the relationship between government and the Armed Services.

But there is a more immediate point. The Service Chiefs, past and recent, are indeed playing political games, not least to cover for their own errors and misjudgements. In so doing though, they are being aided and abetted – and used – by the Conservative party, most recently David Cameron at PMQs.

This is a serious political error. In opposition – especially against an unpopular government prosecuting an unpopular war – it may confer a short-term political advantage but, in office, the Conservatives are prone to the same type of attack from Service Chiefs if they decide to abjure political neutrality. And, of equal concern, in effectively conspiring with the military to allow egregious errors to be concealed, the responsibility for them diverted to the politicians, they set the scene for their own downfall. It is tactically inept.

Most of all though, it is Parliament's job to expose error, waste and inefficiency, wherever it might lie, and to force measures that will prevent – as far as can be – recurrences. Such matters are far too important to be hijacked for party political games, yet that was what Cameron was doing on Wednesday – playing games. We, and the troops who serve in our name, deserve better.