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A humourless post

Posted by Richard Sunday, November 25, 2007 , ,

Some readers may have noticed that we don't do "lightweight tat" on this site, and such humour as accidentally finds its way into our posts is largely of the dry, sardonic variety. Mostly, though, we tend to write serious, heavy stuff which is not to everyone's taste.

But, if our (and certainly my) posts are weighty and lack humour, it is because – and here I'd better speak for myself – I find very little amusement in the current dire state of politics. And, as there is much that is neglected by an increasingly frivolous and inconsequential media, I felt it needed a corrective, which is why we set up the blog in the first place. There is plenty of lightweight, humorous tat in the marketplace already and I saw no point in replicating it, even if it was the route to easy popularity.

No more so was – and is - this needed in the defence field, where a fundamentally unserious media has consistently failed to take an adult interest in the issues, or spent even a fraction of its resources on exploring where the real stresses and problems lie in our Armed Forces.

But, from sporadic and ill-informed commentary, over the last weeks and months, building to a crescendo over the last couple of days, we have seen an intensity of criticism of defence policy, the thrust of the complaints directed at the mantras of "overstretch" and "underspending". And, in the vanguard is former CDS Charles Guthrie, yesterday given space in The Daily Telegraph to peddle his creed.

Nowhere in his pronouncements, however – nor anywhere in the torrent of media coverage – does he or any other commentator descend into the detail of spending arrangements in the Armed Forces and tell us why it is that defence is underfunded and where, particularly, the alleged shortages lie. Yet, it is the appreciation of the detail that the argument must stand or fall.

Now, to turn to just one small detail – which we will go on to explore for its wider implications – at the end of last month we reported the remarkable escape of a Canadian soldier whose Husky vehicle was hit by a massive buried bomb as he patrolled a route in Afghanistan – with no more inconvenience than a spilled water bottle. Now, courtesy of the Canadian Guardian we have a picture of the damaged vehicle, from which the soldier emerged (above left).

At this point, we descend into "toy" territory and the lofty political bloggers, to say nothing of the oh-so-grand political commentators depart the scene. They occupy the high ground, and such detail is of absolutely no interest to them. The Armed Forces are underfunded and soldiers are dying as a result. Charles Guthrie and four of his mates say so, and that is all they need to know.

But, in that small picture lies one of the central issues in the whole debate, and perhaps the key to what is going on.

First, looking at the vehicle (an intact example is shown right) one can see several design principles at play. The front wheels have been blown off completely – which is exactly as intended. They are "sacrificial" parts, which can easily and cheaply be replaced.

Then, you will see the lengthy engine compartment, in front of the driver, distancing the man from the expected point of explosion, improving his survivability. Add to that, the v-shaped profile of the hull, which deflects blast away from the driver, and the armoured cell which forms the cab, and you have a protection package which enables personnel to walk away from all but the largest of explosions.

The crucial points for the general argument though are that these attributes are achieved by design. They cannot be bolted on to an existing vehicle to achieve the same effect. Secondly, they give the vehicle a profile which is entirely unsuitable for what is known as "high end" conventional warfighting, where low profile to aid concealment is at a premium. Thirdly, this technology is relatively cheap, this type of vehicle costing a fraction of the more sophisticated "high end" war machine that, in these types of circumstances, actually offer less protection.

With these points in mind – be they ever so boring or not – let us now turn our gaze to the "bigger picture" so beloved of the grand polemicists – starting with the proximate cause of the Army's current problems.

In fact, the rot started with in St. Malo in 1998, with Tony Blair's historic agreement with Jacques Chirac to dedicate the bulk of our Armed Forces to what was to become the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF).

Despite constant denials, this led to a Europeanisation of defence policy which, by our calculations, added at least £8.8 billion to our procurement costs to date. As we wrote at the time we did the calculations, that would buy a ridiculous 35,000 RG-31 mine protected vehicles or 350 Chinook helicopters – additions to our forces which would transform the situation.

However, when it comes to Charles Guthrie, who now complains so volubly about "underspending", it was he as Chief of the Defence Staff, together with then secretary of state Geoff Hoon, and the Chief of the General Staff Mike Jackson who drove the Euro Army agenda, re-shaping the British Army to fit in with the ERRF concept.

An essential component of ERRF was, of course, FRES – this being the only way armour could be air-portable and thus become part of a "rapid reaction" force.

The triumvirate was so protective of the plan that this was indeed the reason why new equipment which did not fit the scheme was actively blocked. The trio was looking over at the US and its equivalent Future Combat System (FCS) programme, noting that funds were being siphoned off to pay for the war in Iraq.

Guthrie, Hoon and Jackson thus reasoned that if theatre-specific equipment was bought for Iraq, then FRES would suffer. This, we aver, was one of the main reasons Jackson put "Snatch" Land Rovers into Iraq, rather than dedicated MRAPs. This was also the reason why the Army (now under Richard Dannatt – also a firm proponent of FRES) initially resisted the purchase of Mastiff protected vehicles, until it received assurances that the cost would be borne from the Reserve and not met from the Army budget.

Until recently, the status quo held but, in October, the MoD ordered a further 140 Mastiff protected vehicles (with a promise of 250 more MRAP-type vehicles), this time the funding coming from the Army's agreed equipment budget.

This, we noted, signalled a new realism in the MoD, that the current operations had to be supplied with theatre-specific equipment and not rely – as they had been doing – on existing inventories.

On the other hand, this must have sounded alarm bells with Guthrie and his fellow travellers, which must have intensified when rumours of cuts in one or more of the major spending programmes began to emerge, on top of indications that Gordon Brown was unenthusiastic about pursuing Blair's ambitions for greater European defence cooperation, and was pulling back from the project.

It was shortly afterwards that the screaming started in earnest and it cannot have been a coincidence that it did. The Euro-army supporters, with Guthrie at their head, must have realised that FRES was the most likely candidate for any cuts in the equipment programme, and with its demise went any prospect of the Army playing a leading role in the ERRF.

So it is that Guthrie's campaign is not about the welfare of the Armed Forces, or its current capabilities, but an attempt to preserve plans to develop future capabilities within the framework of the ERRF. Yet, so opaque is his agenda, and so lacking in knowledge and understanding is the commentariat that his claims are taken at face value.

It would be misleading, however, to position Guthrie's campaign solely in terms of the European agenda. There is within the MoD and defence planning circles, creative tension over the balancing resources between current operations and the need to prepare to the "future war".

Inasmuch as the Europeans are not significantly committed to current operations, their thinking is also focused on the future war scenario. The future war proponents in the UK, therefore, have a common interest with the Europeans and thereby have formed a natural alliance with them, even though their overall ambitions may not be the same.

Thus, Guthrie is able to attract a far more powerful lobby under his tent than merely his Europhile "colleagues" could muster.

This, in a roundabout way brings us back to the Canadian soldier and his remarkable escape. To prosecute their "future war" the advocates want their FRES vehicles (example pictured above) which are set to cost – most likely – in excess of £10 million each. Being custom-built and extremely complex, they will also cost a small fortune to maintain.

Yet the optimal equivalent vehicle to fight the current campaigns is the state of the art, superbly equipped Mastiff protected vehicle, based on exactly the same design philosophy as the Husky. And, despite being specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations, it costs a relatively modest £600,000. Based on a commercial truck chassis, it is supremely reliable and durable and, using commercial parts, maintenance is cheap and simple.

This is a microcosm of the general situation. Single engined Super Tucanos (below), used for ground attack, cost less than £5 million apiece, but the RAF spurns them in favour of Tranche 3 Eurofighters, at £80 million each - not because the Tucano cannot to the job (it can, better than the Eurofighter) but because it cannot operate in "high intensity warfare" of the nature projected for the "future war".

What this boils down to is that, if the need to finance the "future war" is removed (or modified), the budgetary problems disappear. In that context, we are actually faced with two modest (in military terms) overseas operations (not even a division in each theatre) which absorbs less than ten percent of the manpower of the Armed Forces. Where else could there be a situation where any other organisation can scream "overstretch" and "lack of resources" when it has less than ten percent of its strength committed to doing the job for which it is paid?

The problem, therefore, is not operations, per se, but the enormous resource put to other tasks - the main one of which is preparing and training for the "future war". This is akin to a situation in World War II of holding back the bulk of the forces to train for the next war, while also devoting the bulk of the budget to equipping for that war.

This, though, is only one part of the phenomenon we are seeing. When it comes to defence issues, one of the many things that drags the debate down is the inability to discriminate between the various factions within the overarching organisation of the MoD, and to separate political from military influence.

One of the simplistic fictions of modern politics is the belief that the Secretary of State is actually in charge of his department and thereby has absolute powers to control it.

This is hardly the case and less so in the MoD, where there is an uneasy "alliance" (conflict would be a better word) between the politicians and their advisors, the officials and then the three separate services (with huge meddling by defence contractors), all overlaid by dealings with the common enemy (the Treasury) and the even more dangerous enemy, the Foreign Office. Furthermore, there is not only bitter inter-service rivalry, there is also intra-service rivalry (gunners versus tanker versus infantry, etc), which makes for a turbulent, foetid broth of intrigue and back-stabbing.

Add to that the length of the procurement cycle (procurement taking 40 percent of the budget) where decisions are made which have a direct financial impact decades after they are taken (the Eurofighter was agreed over 25 years ago but only now is the MoD having to find the bulk of funds for it) and the secretary of state's freedom of action is massively circumscribed. He is at best a referee, with a rule book that is constantly changing (without him being told), with his decisions being overruled off-field, all in the context that he cannot see (or control) most of the players (or even the ball).

Looking at the bigger picture, the military has an infinite capacity for spending money and, as a general rule, the more they are given, the more they will spend - but much of it will be spent unwisely and wasted. Throwing money at public services is not the answer to improved efficiency, if there are underlying structural problems. That applies to the military as much as any other service. Give more money to a wasteful organisation and it will simply waste more money.

What is troubling, though, is all it takes is a few military men to stand up and scream that their men are dying for want of funds (rather than from military incompetence) and otherwise sensible people put their critical faculties on hold and believe everything they are told.

So, I will continue banging on in my own humourless way, leaving others to do the funnies, in the hope that wiser counsels will prevail.

Cross posted on Defence of the Realm.

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