Saturday 28 January 2012

He says, she says

In a new book reviewed by the Great Sage Con Coughlin, we have Sandy Gall, the former ITN presenter, give an account of the views of the current CDS, Gen Sir David Richards, on the campaign in Afghanistan.

With the appearance of being disarmingly frank, Richards seemingly takes to task John Reid, defence secretary at the time, for his view that "we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot because our mission is to protect the reconstruction", despite "intelligence assessments conducted in southern Afghanistan concluded that they would receive a hostile reception".

We appreciate that we are looking at a review of the book and not the book itself, and Con Coughlin is far from reliable on this matter, but it looks as if there is an attempt here to pin the blame on the political establishment – which is fair enough – and exonerate the military, which is not.

The brass, as we know, was just as gung ho for Afghanistan as the politicos, especially Gen Dannatt, who saw it as potentially a more fluid conventional war, which his troops were capable of fighting and which – unlike Iraq – they were capable of winning (as long as he was able to buy the FRES utility vehicle).

However, Richards would be unwise to give the military a completely clean bill of health, so we get (via Coughlin and Sandy Gall), a sort of admission of failure, with the assertion that "Sir David says that the British military establishment was ill-prepared for the deployment of forces, despite its leading role in the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein three years previously".

It is this phrasing that made me fall off my stool, and then to attack the keyboard despite not (yet) having read the book itself (which was published on 19 January). Even if Richards then concedes that the military establishment was "ill-prepared" and with a "rather amateurish approach to high-level military operations verging on the complacent", that does not even begin to describe the level and degree of failure.

First of all, it is not really appropriate to make comparisons between the operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) and the operation in Afghanistan. A better (although not entirely adequate) comparison would have been with the subsequent occupation of southern Iraq, both campaigns being counter-insurgency operations.

Given that that British occupation of  Iraq had been an egregious failure – and one which the Army still has difficulty recognising – one has to take it almost as a done deal that the Army would fail in Afghanistan.

I will stop there, returning to the subject when I have read the book, other than to observe that, once again, we again seem to be in "he says – she says" territory, where the current idea of writing history is to gather a collection of interviews of leading players and stitch them together to make a narrative.

However, while entertaining on occasions, and giving some insight into the minds of those involved, oral history is one of the least reliable resources available to the historian, and especially when it comes from senior military officers and politicians, who will be seeking to cover their backs and put a spin on their involvement.

This is where Jack Fairweather's book went wrong. Everything the leading players say must be taken with a pinch of salt. To have any value, it must be cross-checked with the evidence – and the documentation, where available – and be consistent with the actual events.

Nevertheless, in an age where "human interest" dictates the approach to news gathering, and "feelings" count more than facts, evidence-based history is deeply unfashionable. These days, your book must be well-populated with people sharing the innermost thoughts or you are not a "proper" historian.

It is also much easier to produce "stream of consciousness" narratives – especially when this is the stock-in-trade of the average journalist (which is why also the material gets good reviews from follow journalists, all pissing in the same pot).

However, maybe when I get the book, I will be pleasantly surprised, and have to eat my words. But before this, we shall have to wait upon the pleasure of the great lord Amazon to deliver.


Friday 20 January 2012

A bitter taste

The past reaches out to bring back unwelcome memories, this time the fate of Acting Corporal Marcin Wojtak, who died on 1 October 2009 when his Pinzgauer Vector drove over a 40lb IED close to Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan.

An earlier report tells us that the Vector had been part of a three-vehicle convoy which had just left a wadi and moved onto higher ground, when it was blown up by the device, comprising "20-25 kilograms of home-made explosives buried about 40cm under the ground".

Now, over two years later, an inquest found yesterday, predictably, that Wojtak was "unlawfully killed", leading to a number of reports in the MSM.

Not untypical of the reports is the story in the Daily Mail which has Wojtak's mother accusing the Ministry of Defence of a "catastrophic failure". Vectors, says the paper (now – although not at the time) were notoriously vulnerable to roadside bombs because of a lack of armour on the underside, and the Government announced a "phased withdrawal" from front line service in May 2009.
But the inquest heard they were still being used five months later when the 24-year-old - who had complained in an email home to his father that he felt "exposed and at risk" patrolling in one - was killed.

In a tragic twist, the inquest was told he would have survived if he had been in the heavily-armoured replacement vehicle he was due to pick up the following morning. The replacement was the Mastiff, which, "when it initially went into theatre, soldiers didn't want to get in it because the feeling was that it was just a truck." But, "after a couple of months the lads knew they were safe as houses", and it became the vehicle of choice.

However, its popularity was not just due to the armour. As Ann Winterton had to remind the Telegraph yesterday, it was "because of its V-shaped hull which is designed to deflect rather than absorb blasts", something which the Vector lacked.

But what made the Vector uniquely dangerous was that the driver position was also over the front wheel, in the centre of the "cone of destruction" ensuring that, if the vehicle drove over a device, any explosion would be unsurvivable. In one of the heaviest mined regions of the world, a more unsuitable vehicle could hardly have been chosen, so obvious were its defects.

Yet Wojtak's mother is probably being a little unfair in blaming the Ministry of Defence, per se, for its deployment. Intended as a replacement for the vulnerable Snatch Land Rover, its particular champion was a famous general by the name of Richard Dannatt, who insisted on its purchase for Afghanistan, as his price for accepting the unwanted Mastiff into theatre in Iraq.

The full, ugly story is in my book. Nowhere else will you see the whole story told of the wasted lives and the waste of £100 million from an overstretched defence budget to buy a vehicle that was so dangerous that it had to be replaced, temporarily, by the Snatch Land Rover, up-armoured and re-named the Vixen.

There can be few other instances where a replacement vehicle was deemed so unsatisfactory that it was eventually replaced by the vehicle it was intended to replace, but that is the legacy of Richard Dannatt. And even to this day, it leaves a bitter taste.


Friday 6 January 2012

Mother nature on our side

Following the story we did on the Super Tucano three days ago, I am reminded of just how long ago it was that when we were pursuing the issue in parliament. Notably, it got a mention on 20 April 2009 when Ann Winterton raised it in a procurement debate. She said:
I have consistently argued that we should use aircraft such as the Super Tucano two-seater light attack aircraft … It could assist in the creation of an Afghan air force. If such a force is not founded and developed, the international military force will be required to continue to give air cover virtually for ever. It is interesting to note that the United States has recently leased two such aircraft and they will be used in Afghanistan. It will also be interesting to see whether those aircraft will be procured directly when they have proved to be successful.
The ultimate logic, which we explored on the Defence of the Realm blog, was that we should have been concentrating on building up the Afghan national capability, rather than have the RAF playing with their (extremely expensive) toys.

That, effectively, is what the Americans are at last attempting to do, which suggests that our arguments had some merit. But, even if we are completely right, that is not enough. And this is a lesson that carries right through government. Custodians of public money generally tend to pursue their own interests, rather that what is right.

As yet, we have not worked out any way of changing that. Whether it is getting the RAF to buy Tucano bombers, trying to stop the government supporting useless wind turbines, or convincing it to pull us out of the EU, might rather than right prevails.

This can be rather depressing. It would be nice to think that it is possible to expend energy to effect, and that ultimately our efforts can succeed. Without being pessimistic, the record is not good enough, and we have to change that. But at least it is not all bad news. Mother nature is helping out. And with her on our side, we cannot lose.


Thursday 5 January 2012

Agendas come first

A small piece of news to start the New Year has had a very small band of defence analysts and journalists intrigued. This is the winner of the light air support (LAS) competition to supply ground attack aircraft to the Afghan Air Force.

The winner was the hot favourite, the Super Tucano, of which 20 examples have been purchased for sums variously described as $355 and $950 million. The competitive Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II having been ruled out last November.

Hawker have since challenged the contract award and it is temporarily on hold, pending a Federal court ruling but, all things being equal, the Afghan Air Force will soon have this valuable addition to their striking power. Initially, however, the aircraft will be operated by the US Air Force, used to train Afghani pilots.

The implications of this purchase are profound, not only for the Afghan Air Force, but in broader terms. We have long advocated that the RAF would benefit from the capability of this flexible and effective weapons system.

In practical terms, there is very little to chose between the ground attack version of the Harrier, and this aircraft. In cash terms, however, the Tucano is about one fifth of the hourly cost, while it is a mere one ninth the cost of an Apache attack helicopter.

What is interesting, if predicable, though, is that, although this news is covered in the specialist press, it has found no space in the British MSM. Right throughout the whole debate on the merits and possible use of the Tucano, the British press has been silent – apart from Christopher Booker, of course.

For once, though, there was an opportunity to square the circle – providing a killer capability at an affordable cost. But then, neither the media, the political establishment nor the British military actually want to solve problems. Their agendas come first.