Tuesday, May 22, 2007

War tourism

A startling picture leaps out from the front page of The Guardian today, showing an inverted Bradley MICV, in the aftermath of what is evidently a massive IED strike. In a ghastly incident which parallels the loss of a British Warrior in early April, six US soldiers and an interpreter died in the blast which was of such force that it was able to flip the 30-ton vehicle on its back.

One cannot help but feel, though, that the Guardian's front page story owes its position more to the accident of photographer Sean Smith being on hand at the time of this incident, than it does to the intrinsic merits of the story. If that is the case, we are effectively seeing a grotesque example of voyeurism, "war tourism" at its very worst. Furthermore, the newspaper is exploiting the deaths of these soldiers and their interpreter, to make political capital, reinforcing its anti-war stance by publishing graphic images.

If there was a story that warranted the use of the picture (and the others published on the website, it is a very different one that the newspaper sought to tell. It is one only hinted at in Sean Smith’s account of the ambush, where in one sentence where he writes: "You can't patrol that area with Humvees - it's too dangerous. So the troops enter in heavy vehicles and then do foot patrols, visiting houses."

What we are effectively seeing in this picture – where the real story lies – is the result of the long-term failure of US procurement policy (and military thinking) where the response to IED attacks was initially to up-armour their kit and then to use heavier armoured vehicles like Bradleys. The result was entirely predictable and is only now being addressed with the urgent implementation of the so-called MRAP programme. And, as the sequence we used in an earlier piece shows, these vehicles are extraordinarily resistant to even huge blasts from roadside bombs.

The fact that the British forces are making exactly the same mistakes is something that should concern our media, but it is something it has never addressed, with left-wing newspapers like The Guardian more concerned with taking a pop at the Americans, while the right wing press largely ignores the war unless it affords an opportunity to score political points against Blair.

Because there is no shortage of criticism of the Americans, we on this blog have not felt inclined to add to the volume. But the failure of the coalition forces to equip their troops properly for this type of war is something which is of more general interest and should be of widespread concern.

However, of equal concern is another dimension, of which we have also hinted, a disturbing failure to use the resources available in theatre, or their uncoordinated use, which means that they are not having the effect that they should.

What brings this to the fore is my absence from the blog yesterday, a day spent in London interviewing a remarkable man, soldier and aviator who has spent much of his long life fighting in small wars and who currently acts as a consultant to those who will listen – including the CIA – and will pay his fees.

This man, incidentally, has spent much time in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and some of the information he volunteered was indeed disturbing. In his travels throughout the region, he saw many occasions of equipment being available to deal with insurgent actions, which was not used, or used wrongly simply because the soldiers on the ground did not understand its use or the correct tactical deployment.

One specific example – of many – serves to illustrate the point. He saw, for instance, the huge power of the Apache gunship fleet being used for routine patrols of vulnerable areas, even though contact with the insurgents was rarely made. On the other hand, when their base was mortared, as it was quite frequently, the ships either stood idle or, if they were deployed, a 20-minute response time was considered to be a rapid reaction.

The point, he told me – self-evident to anyone who gave it half a thought – was that the insurgents would never strike while there was a gunship in the air, in their vicinity. They could not win against such raw firepower and so would stay concealed until the aircraft had long departed, and then strike. And, in the event of a 20-minute "rapid" response to a strike, they had long gone.

Yet, thirty years ago, he had personally confronted exactly the same tactics in the African bush, when forward bases were routinely targeted by hit-and-run mortar teams. Fail to respond, he said, and the problem gets worse, so the policy was to respond to every strike.

To do so, they had flights of four aircraft at permanent readiness, not the super technological Apache gunships, but six-seater French-built Alouette III light helicopters, each carrying a stick of four troops, and its own gunner manning a machine gun. Their response time – Battle of Britain style – from the start of an attack to being airborne, was two minutes, fast enough to catch the insurgents in the act and deal with them.

As to the IED problem, they too had to deal with this threat and, by the end of their campaign – despite the insurgents using heavier and heavier ordnance, he said it was very rare for a military patrol to suffer casualties in a strike. This we pointed out in an earlier post and it is the techniques and equipment which were pioneered then which are only just now being introduced into the Iraqi theatre.

Turning to the destruction of the Bradley, which The Guardian so graphically recounts, it has to be said that such incidents are preventable with existing technology and effective tactics.

Measures start with satellite monitoring, high altitude electronic surveillance from aircraft platforms, and low level monitoring by UAVs and light surveillance aircraft. On the ground, you have such equipment as the Meerkat mobile electronic mine detector, which we discussed here, the Buffalo mine clearance vehicle, which is used to such great effect, and the back-up EOD patrols in their superbly designed JERRV Cougars, complete with bomb disposal robots.

Now, there may have been good tactical reasons why this particular Bradley was sent into what ended up a fatal ambush – and, indeed, why our Warrior met with a similar fate. This we do not know, but we do know that the essence of ground warfare doctrine is that you never send your forces blind into unreconnoitred ground. And we also know that both British and US forces have to means available to carry out highly effective sweeps (or would be given it, if they asked for it), to protect our troops from ambush.

Thus, while we do not have the knowledge of the incidents to be able to second guess or criticise local decisions - and nor could we – we are entitled to ask questions, even if we don't always get answers. More to the point, if we had a sensible and responsible media, they would be asking the sort of questions we have been asking, and they might come up with the same disturbing picture we are getting.

But that would take so much more work and thought. It is much easier to get a quick, cheap thrill out of publishing a picture of a destroyed armoured vehicle, in which good men died, in an incident which, for all we know, could have been prevented.


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