Saturday 24 December 2011

A retreat into dogma

Ministers, we are told are considering proposals under which the private sector could play a large role in the procurement of weapons and equipment for the armed forces. Says The Guardian, the civil servant in charge of defence procurement, Bernard Gray, has submitted a report setting out options for bringing in private expertise, and a decision is expected in the New Year.

The problems, however, are not going to be solved this way. Contrary to popular belief, the procurement system is actually quite efficient. If the services want a particular type of widget, and tells the system to go out and buy a requisite number, it will usually do it, on time and within budget.

Where we have the major issues with "big ticket" equipment purchases, though, the excess costs arise for a number of reasons. One is the failure of the services to define properly what they want, and then to keep changing the specification through the procurement process.

Another is the use the defence budget to support British (and increasingly European) defence industries, with purchases dictated by political rather than operational need. And then there is the "pork barrel" dynamic, where equipment is purchase from specific areas, again for political advantage.

Of all the issues, though, the definition problem is perhaps the most acute – and the most expensive. That, basically stems from the fact that we have lost sight of what we really want our Armed Forces to do. Military equipment is (or should be) the ultimate in functionality, and if we are unclear as to the functions needed, it is almost impossible to specify the right equipment.

Thus, it seems as if we have a Tory-led government, with no real idea of what to do, retreating into dogma, and privatising some functions which should properly remain in the public sector. After all, if you don't know what kit you really want, getting Tesco to buy it isn't going to make things any better.

That aside though, whatever the merits or otherwise of such decisions, now – during the Christmas break - is not the time to announce them. These are major changes, with profound implications. They should be subject to full discussion, and should not be rushed.


Wednesday 21 December 2011

A War of Choice

Hailed by its publishers as the first book on Britain's occupation of Iraq during 2003-2009, this of course is by no means the first. That accolade goes to Ministry of Defeat, published in 2009 - see below right ... note the similarities in the subtitles. But, as author of that book, I must be very careful in criticising what might be seen as a rival product - although it isn't. This is a very different book.

What one must realise with Fairweather's book is that it was written with the broad approval of the MoD, which gave him access to many of the characters he interviews. And therein lies its strength. It gives what appears to be a very accurate account of how a segment of the establishment - diplomatic and military - saw the occupation, and their role in it.

Unfortunately, that is also its great weakness. This account is hardly dispassionate and it is certainly not accurate. It represents a highly partisan attempt of that segment of the establishment to cover their backs and mitigate their own failures.

The narrative itself is confusing, as it darts about all over the place - to areas outside the British zone of control, and even to Afghanistan, and the attempts at characterisation verge on comedic. We have "ruggedly handsome" Brits, and the like ... and even a "wily" Arab.

And clearly, technical details are not Fairweather's strong point. He is a people person, and his knowledge of kit and the technology of war is slight ... indicated by a large number of unforced errors, and unfortunate phrasing. Since when did a Predator "hover" over battlefields, and when did a "Spectre" gunship have a 105mm cannon "slung beneath it".

Such errors, however, pale into insignificance compared with his uncritical acceptance of the myth that EFPs (which he manages to describe without naming - unhelpful when you are looking for them in the extremely poor index) were made in Iran, despite the very substantial evidence that al Amarah was a major bomb factory, with scores of incomplete EFPs being found there when the city was recovered.

Therein lies the essential weakness of the book. Fairweather is not a historian or a professional researcher. He is a journalist from the "he says, she says" school, and as long as he has talking heads to back up his assertions, that is sufficient. The idea of triangulation, or using documentary evidence, does not seem to occur to this writer, making his narrative a compilation of uncorroborated sources, the veracity of which we have no means of knowing.

Add to that some huge omissions - how can you not even mention Operation "Promise of Peace" in an account of the occupation, when this set the seal on the British occupation?

How can you not discuss the role of the MRAP in restoring tactical mobility to the battlefield, to which the British were too late in coming, relying to the last on the Snatch? And how can you not discuss the vital, game changing role of the UAV, and the scandal of the British Phoenix, a result of procurement failures stretching back decades?

All that said, however, Fairweather adds detail that isn't generally known, and if you already know enough about the campaign to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, then the accurate detail he offers is illustrative and useful. But if you want a book to tell you what went on in British sector of Iraq during 2003-2009, this isn't it.


Tuesday 13 December 2011

Courage is not enough

We last looked at the ill-fated Kajaki Dam project in June last, when we concluded that it was a complete waste of time, money, effort – and lives. And, to reaffirm that, the latest report in The Guardian tells us that, owing to "cuts" in the US government's Afghanistan development programme, it is unlikely that the project will ever be finished.

No one will dispute that the military operation in September 2008 operation was not an epic adventure, "sneaking" the heavy machinery needed to upgrade the generating capacity across 100 miles of hostile territory in northern Helmand. At the time, it was acclaimed by the British army as one the most daring operations of its kind since the Second World War.

Yet, if the final outcome is that nothing changes, all the derring-do, the skill in planning and execution, have been wasted as well. We would have saved out time and money, and the world would have gone on just as before.

It is not therefore – as some will aver – cynical to question the wisdom of military operations. However good they may be at field tactics (and that is variable), the military is notoriously bad at taking in the bigger picture, and assessing the overall value of its own input. The famed "can do" attitude of the military, therefore, is as capable of getting it into trouble, as it is of extracting politicians from their own messes.

And here, in Kajaki, the project was always doomed. Not is it a question of money – this is just the figleaf. The Americans are perfectly justified in not throwing good money after bad.

Not least of the problems, and one that is effectively insoluble, is the remote location of the generating facility. This, as Booker remarked in 2009, meant that we were unable to secure the transmission lines, thus allowing the Taliban to control the distribution of the electricity, charging to maintain the supply and thus topping up their coffers at the expense of British and (latterly) US taxpayers.

At the time we produced that article, we took a lot of flak for our pessimism, also being accused of denigrating the bravery and skill of our military. But, as it transpires, the military and its supporters were being unrealistically optimistic. Unfortunately, as is now all too evident, courage is not enough.

The worst of it all is that, for want of the capacity not being supplied from Kajaki, electricity is being supplied by the Americans from hugely expensive diesel generator sets. Even if these are left when the Americans depart, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to afford to run them. Electricity supply, therefore, will very quickly deteriorate.

And here we see something of a double-whammy. The absurd sums of money, spent on the pitifully small increase in capacity from Kajaki, could have been far better spent on alternative schemes.

Given that Afghanistan has huge reserves of high quality coal, and a plentiful supply of cheap labour, the most logical provision would have been low-tech, coal-fired generator sets, near the points of consumption, such as Kandahar, thereby minimising transmission distances and increasing security of supply.

But with British and US aid dominated by climate change luvvies, the idea of subsidising coal-fired stations in Afghanistan has been vetoed (a real veto), even though we are apparently happy to pay for similar facilities in India, Pakistan and South Africa.

The courage of our military, therefore, has been completely negated by poor policy-making and, latterly, by climate-change warriors, who demand danger money and full-time armed guards just to venture into the Afghan hinterland, where they can wreak their peculiar form of damage.

Looking at this debacle in the round, one can only despair. Sometimes, we think, the military has its weapons pointed the wrong way. The real enemy – the one that does by far the greatest damage – lies not in the hills of Kajaki but in the offices of Whitehall, where the more deadly battle is being fought out.


Sunday 11 December 2011

A waste of space

We should be grateful, I suppose, that we have a parliamentary committee of public accounts (PAC), chaired by the redoubtable (irony) Margaret Hodge MP. This is a committee set up to monitor government spending, in an attempt to ensure we get value for money. The role of the committee is, ex post facto, to examine specific projects and criticise government departments where it feels money has been wasted or not wisely spent.

But, in a sort of quis custodiet ipsos custodes question, who monitors the PAC and decides whether we get value for money from the committee?

That question is highly relevant in view of its performance last week in delivering its fifty-ninth Report of Session 2010–12, on "The cost–effective delivery of an armoured vehicle capability", in which it accused the MoD of spending £1.1 billion on programmes to acquire armoured vehicles, without delivering a single vehicle in more than a decade.

Its view was the MoD had proved to be both "indecisive and over-ambitious" in its attempts to manage the programme, complaining that will now be gaps in capability until at least 2025, making it more difficult to undertake essential tasks such as battlefield reconnaissance.

The conclusions of the report were widely publicised, not least by the Press Association, the inference being that the MoD should have delivered the armoured vehicles specified in its programme. Without exception, the media have condemned the "flawed procurement process".

What we cannot find in any of the reports in the popular media is any reference to what this report is really about. Nowhere do you find any mention of that which is identified in the PAC report, that this is about the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), and yet another complaint about its non-delivery.

Evaluation and reporting of this long-running saga has been a black hole as far as the popular media is concerned. There is not a single newspaper or broadcaster which has yet had anything intelligent or useful to contribute on the issue, and right up to press it does not fail to disappoint.

It is, therefore, left to the likes of the PAC to do the heavy lifting, but here also lies nothing but disappointment. To examine what amounted to the most expensive single armoured vehicle procurement programme ever mounted by the MoD – worth £16 billion in acquisition costs alone – the committee managed to produce only a slender 40-page report, including the covers, including the written evidence and the transcript of oral evidence – which took one half-day.

The list of witnesses also tells a story – it was confined to Ursula Brennan, Permanent Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Lieutenant-General Gary Coward, Chief of Materiel (Land), and Vice-Admiral Paul Lambert, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Capability). The committee relied for the totality of its oral evidence on three MoD officials, and for its written evidence on one MoD report.

We are not going to rehearse the issues in depth here. I've done it all before, two especially relevant pieces being this and this. Suffice it to say that the whole concept of FRES is flawed, and overly expensive, and largely abandoned by the United States, which pioneered the concept.

For the PAC to have come to a reasoned, objective conclusion, it would have had to have done a lot more work than it did, interviewed many more witnesses and trawled through hundreds if not thousands of documents. The slight, superficial report that it did deliver was a waste of time and space – and money.

But that, it seems, sums up parliament these days. If it was wound up tomorrow, the building given over entirely to tourism as a "museum of democracy", would we really notice any difference? Is there now actually anything parliament does, much less does well, that would make a difference to our lives?


Thursday 1 December 2011

Synchronised departures

One could be cynical and suggest that the reason we are seeing so little published about Afghanistan is that the MSM is keeping its powder dry. With 390 military deaths stacked up so far, it needs ten more to bring the figure to the magic 400, when we may expect an orgy of gushing press about "our brave boys".

More recently, we did actually see a longish piece in the Failygraph from Thomas Harding, reflecting on what had been achieved by the Army in the five years since it had been deployed to Helmand province.

And if to some his report seemed overly optimistic, that unfortunately is what you get when you rely on the MoD for your access, and have to pay lip service to the Army "spin doctors" in order to ensure continued access. In truth, though, if you want to find out what is going on in Afghanistan, the last thing you should do is ask the military, or an embedded journalist.

For a more sanguine appreciation, you would be better off reading the latest piece from Matt Cavanagh, who takes a cool look at the region as US troops continue to withdraw.

And what we do or achieve in Afghanistan is very much "under license" from the United States for, without the airpower, the logistics and the heavy lifting in some of the more bitterly contested areas, the UK forces would be a small, besieged outpost, achieving very little at all.

In his piece, Cavanagh notes that the public's attitude seems to be one of "weary resignation" and also notes that, while fatalities amongst British and other international forces are down on last year, civilian casualties are up 15 percent on last year, itself 15 percent higher than the year before.

Although modest by Iraq standards, this contradicts the pledge given by Gen. McChrystal to reduce overall civilian casualties, and marks one of the many coalition failures in a failure-strewn campaign.

But on top of the steady toll from suicide bombs and, this year we have seen a series of high-profile "spectaculars", the attacks in Kabul, notably the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel in June, the storming of the British Council building in August, a 20-hour shoot-out near the US embassy in September, and a bomb killing seventeen international troops and contractors in October.

At the same time, writes Cavanagh, the campaign of targeted assassinations has continued, including among its victims General Daud, the pre-eminent regional police commander; Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and de facto boss of Kandahar; Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and lately head of the peace council charged with reaching out to the Taliban; and a number of district governors and town mayors.

Interestingly, and worryingly, American and British officials stick doggedly to the line that the spectaculars and assassinations are irrelevant, or even encouraging.

And then we have that great [transport] expert, Philip Hammond, the new defence secretary, tell us that his "military advice" is that the insurgency is on "the back foot", and argues that these "so-called spectaculars … rather suggest desperation".

Such an assertion might have more credibility if we had not heard something similar when the Taliban switched from direct confrontation in the platoon house phase, to asymmetric warfare, majoring on the IED.

While it caught the military flat-footed – despite plenty of warning – the brass excused its own inadequacies with such comforts, while the politicians pushed them into taking on protected vehicles and adopting other counter-measures which took the sting out of the Taliban's initiative.

But what it did demonstrate was that the Taliban was capable of thinking flexibly, and responding to changing circumstances, with a speed that leaves our Sandhurst warriors struggling.

And so it is with the "spectaculars" and assassinations. We see here, almost an echo of the Viet Cong tactics in 1960s Saigon, but with a guiding mind that clearly recognises that the coalition forces are no longer strategically relevant. The battle is now on to dominate the population once the foreign troops have scuttled back home, their chests full of medals.

Cavanagh thus offers some useful correctives to the usual shallow thinking that passes for strategic wisdom, including the caution that we should not be attempting to backfill for the Americans when they leave.

Rather than pretend we have an independent role, we should be planning to align our drawdown more explicitly with the Americans, recognising that, as they depart, so should we – and in phase. If our tactics in theatre have not always been in harmony, we need at least to synchronise our departure plans.

In other worlds, with departure on the near horizon, our politicians and military should avoid the temptation to indulge in a little local "top dogging", and concentrate on getting our people out in one piece, with as much credibility as possible.

That, at least, is what I take from Cavanagh's piece. He is perhaps a little too polite and gentle to point out how easy the military gravitates to disaster mode, especially when egos and careers are at stake. But above all, we need to recognise that the adventure is over and the only strategic gain it to recover as many warm bodies from theatre as possible, and to hold the body bags.

As for the broader politics, we have given up any hope of our dismal set of domestic politicians having even the first idea of what is going on in the region, and are fully reconciled to Afghanistan becoming a policy train-wreck within a decade of our leaving. But that is another problem, for another time. We have enough at the moment to keep us busy.