Sunday, April 29, 2007

A game worth the playing

"Killing people and breaking things". That, as one Army officer engagingly put it, is the primary role of the armed forces. Everything else is secondary.

It is those functions which the current opposition defence spokesman cannot seem to get his head round which is why his speeches on defence seem to convey the impression that he regards the MoD as a cross between a branch of the NHS and a social services department – a fully paid-up component of the welfare state. Never once has he got to grips with the efficiency of the forces in their primary role, or asked how that efficiency might be improved.

The piece in The Sunday Telegraph today, therefore, comes as a salutary reminder of that role, at which it seems, US Apache crews are excelling in Afghanistan.

Written by Gethin Chamberlain - and for once a good piece of journalism – the title certainly conveys the flavour of what is going on: "US aircrews show Taliban no mercy", the story telling us how a Taliban ambush team had been caught in the open by a pair of Apache gunships and systematically exterminated. And, to prove the point about "breaking things", in another action when the helicopters had finished with the men, they went about destroying the equipment the fighters had been using.

This more aggressive stance is almost certainly the work of General Dan McNeill, who recently assumed command of Nato forces in Afghanistan, taking over from Gen David Richards, the British officer who – notoriously – saw the way forward as making local peace deals with tribal elders, to keep the Taliban out.

This much is affirmed in another piece by Gethin Chamberlain, who has the American forces claiming they have blocked the Taliban's planned spring offensive by overriding British deals with the insurgents and launching an aggressive air and land campaign.

We are told that American officers have said they could no longer stand by and watch as the Taliban picked off British soldiers who had been left "isolated" in their bases in Helmand province. Chamberlain thus cites Lt Andrea Anthony, the intelligence officer for the 82nd Airborne Division's Task Force Corsair - which includes the Apache helicopter gunship force – who says that American commanders had adopted a more aggressive approach, out of concern for what was happening on the ground. Writes Chamberlain, citing the officer:

"It was difficult for the Brits to have the support they needed," she said. "The ground elements in Helmand were so isolated that they would get shot at and mortared.

"That has changed now. It was a case of having friendly guys there, and we needed to go out and take care of them. You can only lose so many guys before you say, 'This is ridiculous, we are going to do something about it'."
What also comes over from the first piece is the high morale of the US aircrew. Although they have lost 50 helicopters since the start of the war in Iraq, they are not losing any sleep over it. Says one pilot, Lt Jack Denton "When you are on top of the enemy you look, shoot and it's, 'You die, you die, you die' … The odds are on our side. I really enjoy it. I told my wife, if I could come home every night then this would be the perfect job."

The Americans at least have come to terms with the objectives of fighting an insurgency. You do not negotiate with your enemies. You kill them.

This makes such a contrast with the defeatist whingeing from Private Paul Barton, to whom most of the daily newspapers have given space, after he telephoned his local newspaper, the Tamworth Herald to give vent to his feelings.

Interestingly, none of the newspapers picked up the fact that Barton was by no means the first soldier to have aired his woes to a local newspaper. Back in December last, Lance Corporal James Larsen, recently returned from Basra after serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, gave his account to the North West Evening Mail.

Having, like Pte Barton, been based at the Shatt al Arab Hotel, his account was eerily similar to that of Barton’s, he claiming that he had survived more than 1,000 bomb attacks on his base and had been just 70 metres from a colleague who was killed by a mortar bomb. He added:

My friends have been thrown on top of me and I have been mortared from 25 metres away when the tent got hit. We had breeze blocks going round our beds. I would roll off the bed and go under it next to the breeze blocks. I soon stopped sleeping on the bed and just lay with the breeze blocks.
Perhaps the seminal difference between Lt Denton and the Barton/Larsen duo is that Denton was dishing it out while the British soldiers were on the receiving end without, it appears, any (or much) opportunity to hit back.

That is possibly the greatest indictment of the British Army High Command to date - the way they neglected force protection while allowing insurgents to take risk-free pot-shots at our troops.

Frankly, anyone who really knows soldiers, and has talked to them at length, will understand that this lies at the root of the problem in Basra. It is not the danger they fear – there is no lack of serving soldiers volunteering for action, wanting to get "stuck in". Barton put his finger on it when he said: "We were just sitting ducks". Being sniped and bombed when out on patrol and mortared and rocketed when back at base – by an enemy whom they are told to treat with kid gloves - is not what any soldier signs up for.

Effectively, it seems that the High Command of the British Armed forces (with some notable exceptions) is blighted by a lack of aggressive spirit.

That much seems evident in the treatment of the Prince Harry, where there is much beating of breasts over the young man being put at risk or, variously, putting the troops around him at risk as he becomes targeted by insurgents.

Rather than his high profile presenting a problem, however, a more robust – dare one say masculine – society (of which the Army is a part) might look upon this as an opportunity.

Much of the difficulties in dealing with insurgencies is that the enemy is hidden. In order to prevail against it, it must be brought to battle. And, if Prince Harry is up for it, his presence in theatre would be an ideal bait, drawing out the enemy whence it can be systematically slaughtered, much in the manner in which Lt Denton so enjoyed doing.

Therein, however, lies the real problem. With its current array of equipment and tactics, the Armed Forces are probably not capable of baiting a trap and ensuring that the tethered goat is not consumed by the tiger before a shot is fired.

Not least of those problems is the absurd equipment – the Scimitar light tank - which Price Harry is expected to operate. Long obsolescent, its thin armour is proof only against heavy machine gun fire (and then only just), while its ballistic profile renders it highly vulnerable to IEDs. It is hardly a surprise that, on 19 April, a Scimitar was blown up by a roadside bomb, killing two more soldiers and seriously injuring a third. Under current conditions, the Army could not guarantee that Harry would not suffer the same fate.

Here, we are seeing an element of (procurement) chickens coming home to roost.

Introduced in 1971, the Scimitar - or Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) as it is known – was long due for replacement by a more capable vehicle through the TRACER programme, only for that to be cancelled and then, in part, replaced by the utterly useless Panther Command/Liaison Vehicle.

In the absence of any other suitable alternative (although the US Army uses modified Bradleys – equivalent to our Warriors - for the role) this equipment (literally) soldiers on, despite its manifest unsuitability for its current (or any) role and its obvious vulnerability.

Then there are the other inadequacies, not least the lack of airborne surveillance and the lack of assault helicopters. If the Army got its BN Defenders back up in the air, leased a dozen Bell 212 "Hueys" and then started using techniques like environmental exception mapping to detect IEDs and – if need be – drafted a squadron of Challengers into the area, together with a company of Warrior-borne armoured infantry, then we would have the makings of a game plan.

For sure, there are risks. For the Prince to be killed or captured would be a tremendous blow – but there is also the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on the insurgents, which would reflect hugely on the prestige of our Armed Forces and our nation. If our High Command could take a little time out from writing up their risk assessment manuals, they might actually see that there is a game afoot, worth the winning.

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