Friday 24 October 2014

Afghanistan: admissions of failure

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Suddenly in the news again is Afghanistan, with the BBC trailing its programme, "The Lion's Last Roar", to be shown on BBC 2 on 26 October.

Then, it seems, we are supposed to go through the charade of watching the dismal breed of men that have been taking money under false pretences as Army generals, admitting to their mistakes in Afghanistan. And that is more than five years after they had become obvious to anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together.

It was, for instance, on Monday 17 August 2009 that we wrote:
… As we have watched the train wreck that masquerades as strategy in this benighted country, we have become more and more convinced that it is wrong – totally, completely, fundamentally wrong.

It cannot succeed. It will not succeed and the inevitable outcome is that, after the expenditure of much more of our treasure – which we can ill-afford – and the death of many more fine men (and, probably, some women), we will be forced into a humiliating retreat, dressed up as victory, leaving the country in no better a condition than when we found it – if not worse.
And now, those five years later, we have the BBC telling us that: "Military leaders failed to calculate the magnitude of the conflict in Afghanistan", with Gen. Wall admitting they "got it wrong". "We had put forward a plan saying that for the limited objectives that we had set ourselves, this was a reasonable force. And I freely admit now, that calculus was wrong", Wall says.

Yet Dannatt, CGS from 2006 to 2009 – and possibly the worst head of the Army we've had in living memory – is still more interested in covering his back.

Having completely misread the tactical position in both Iraq – where he thought the military effort could be scale down at the height of the insurgency – and in Afghanistan, where he thought he could Hoover up the Taliban with fast-moving squads of men in eight-wheeler mine-trap APCs – now has the gall to tell us:
Looking back we probably should have realised, maybe I should realised, that the circumstances in Iraq were such that the assumption that we would get down to just 1,000 or 1,500 soldiers by summer 2006 was flawed - it was running at many thousands.

We called it the perfect storm, because we knew that we were heading for two considerable size operations and we really only had the organisation and manpower for one.

And therefore perhaps we should have revisited the decision that we the UK would lead an enlarged mission in southern Afghanistan in 2006. Perhaps we should have done that. We didn't do that.
Then we have the commander of the British forces in Helmand in 2006, Brig Ed Butler, saying: "We were underprepared, we were under-resourced, and most importantly, we didn't have a clear and achievable strategy to deliver success".

It is all very well having these ex post facto confessionals, but the point is – as we have argued here again and again - it was obvious at the time that the campaign was failing and was doomed to failure. So obvious was it that, in July 2008, we wrote a 12-part analysis called "Winning the War", setting out why we thought things were going wrong.

Now for these highly-paid incompetents to be admitting that they got things wrong, when they were paid to get it right – and amply rewarded with rank, baubles and privileges for so doing – is simply not good enough.

But the worst of it is that nothing will change. It has only taken the Army five years as a corporate body to convince itself that it scored a stunning victory in Iraq, despite the evidence I record in Ministry of Defeat. By the time the whitewash machine has completed its work, the Army will emerge unblemished from Afghanistan as well.

And nor do I buy the Oborne line that this was a case of "Lions led by donkeys". For sure, amongst the very small fraction of troops in theatre who actually saw combat, there were some amazingly brave people. But there were crass, ill-informed decisions made at all levels, and by all arms.

In terms of the bigger picture, in every theatre in recent times, the Army has been badly led, badly generalled and has under-performed. One warms to the idea of slashing the Armed Forces to the bare minimum. At least then our politicians will no longer be tempted to deploy them. We simply cannot afford any more of these corporate "victories" that the Army insists on delivering.


Wednesday 3 September 2014

Defence: remembering everything, learning nothing

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With only the tiniest tip of a huge iceberg poking out into the public domain, we learn from the BBC and others that the British government has announced an £3.5 billion order for 589 Scout Specialist Vehicles (SV) from General Dynamics in Caerphilly – roughly £6 million each.

Inevitably, somebody had to call them "tanks" and it was left to the girlie-boys in the Telegraphto do the honours, with the typically naff headline: "Army places £3.5bn order for new tanks with General Dynamics".

This, in fact, is the first instalment of the much-delayed FRES (Future Rapid Effects System), which I first wrote about in July 2004, when the system had strong "European" defence overtones (and still does).

The technical development has been charted in detail by the admirable Think Defence blog, which notes that this newly ordered Scout vehicle replaces the grossly obsolescent CVR(T) series, which had its roll-out in January 1969 (see below), and has seen action in virtually every theatre since, to which the British Army has been committed. 

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Initially, the front-runner for FRES had been the utility vehicle, the political implications of which I was also exploring in July 2004. Then, after a spirited campaign against the vehicle, part of which is charted in Ministry of Defeat, we saw it effectively abandoned in October 2009.

By then there were already indications that the thinking had shifted to the CVR(T) replacement, with bids being invited from BAE Systems Global Combat Systems and General Dynamics. In the event, although BAE Systems proposed fielding the tried and tested Swedish-built CV-903 Mk III as a platform, General Dynamics have won the contract with what appears to be a new-build platform.

David Cameron, attending the two-day NATO summit in Newport, S. Wales, says the deal will aid UK security and "underpin" many jobs, reminding people that it would be the Army's largest single order for armoured vehicles for more than 30 years.

"These new vehicles are testament to the world-class engineering skills in south Wales and across the UK, helping to create the Army's first fully digitalised armoured vehicles," he says.

Sadly, though, this rhetoric doesn't get close to the reality. What the order demonstrates is that this is an Army that is remembering past days of glory, and what it needs on the battlefields or yore, dominated free manoeuvre and the exhilaration of the mobile battle.

What it also demonstrates is that the Army still doesn't have the first idea of what sort of battles it is going to have to fight in the future and, as it so often does, is selecting kit for the battles it would like to fight, rather than the ones to which it will be committed.

Thus we end up with a clanking, heavily armoured scout vehicle. At 42 tons, it is more than twice as heavy as the original concept, which demanded air mobility based on the C-130 platform. But nothing short of a giant C-17 will lift one of these, and then only one at a time.

On the other hand, despite the weight and armour, its protection against IEDs will be poor – as we saw, even with the uparmoured Warriors, which were extremely vulnerable in certain counter-insurgency operations.

That leaves us with a vehicle at £6 million a pop, almost six times the original buying price of a well-protected Mastiff, which will afford only a fraction of the capability in the type of operations for which the Army is most often called upon to perform.

The greater lacuna, though, is that this is a military machine devoted to collecting real-time information on the conduct of a conventional engagement. It is not an "intelligence" machine, as such, so much as reconnaissance vehicle, designed to pave the way for fast-moving armoured formations - which we haven't actually got – to fight a type of battle that we are most unlikely to encounter.

In my experience, what the Army most lacks is a strategic intelligence capability, which enable it to understand the complex situations into which it is deployed, and then an ongoing going capability to analyse the information it does get, in order to fit it into a coherent tactical framework.

Here, it is very much the experience of those on the ground that there is no shortage of information – per se. Rather, the information very often does not get to the people who need it, analytical capabilities are poor, and the distribution of the finished "intelligence" product is overly restrictive.

So what we have to day is Mr Cameron agreeing to pay £3.5bn of our money, to buy the Army some information-gathering machines, to inject more data into a creaking system that is unable to handle what it already gets, most of which will be unusable anyway, because it will be the wrong sort of information for the wrong sort of war.

However, there is nothing the Generals like than their new toys so, for a while, the Army will be kept quite while it absorbs and learns how to play with its new kit.

And, as long as we never ask the Army actually to use it for real, and deliver any results, things will work out magnificently. But if we ever have to fight a real war, we'll have to hope that the US is still on side. It's not that they don't make the same mistakes – they do. But they have enough cash to buy the sort of gear and systems needed as well.