Saturday, June 16, 2007

Going for the cheap shot

The Daily Telegraph has a very short memory, to judge by its leader today, which proclaims: "Soldiers in Afghanistan need more helicopters".

While no-one will dispute this, the very journalist who wrote the piece to which the leader refers – the paper's defence correspondent, Thomas Harding – also wrote another piece in October last.

That, as some of our readers may recall, we ourselves featured in a post, much later in May this year, pointing out that it was this story – and the negative connotations it raised – which was instrumental in killing a deal that could have ensured that the Army was given as many helicopters as it needed, flown by senior, experienced ex-military pilots.

We are, of course, referring to the Mi-8 and Mi-26 helicopters, some of which to this day are still standing idle on the concrete at Charleroi Airport outside Brussels, helicopters which are available – as we reported - at a fraction of what it costs to run the current military transport aircraft.

It was not, of course, only the Telegraph that killed the deal – nor even the unhelpful interjection of the Tories, in the same article – but also institutional inertia within the MoD, plus active blockage by both Army and RAF brass, who regard the war as their own private fiefdom and resist to the last fibre of their being any outside agency which might threaten to show up their own inadequacies.

Thus, while Harding is absolutely right to report that there is still a chronic shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan (and Iraq, for that matter), the paper is wholly wrong to frame it in the simplistic terms presented in its leader. In fact, it is down right irresponsible.

The framing is, as those who have read the leader already know, wholly political, putting the onus on prime minister Tony Blair, who "promised last year that the Army would be furnished with whatever equipment it needed." Given that he took the decision to deploy British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is rather shocking, says the paper, that such a promise even had to be made. "And it is outrageous that it has not been kept."

But, as we have recorded elsewhere everything the Army has formally requested, through the official mechanism of the Urgent Operational Requirement, it has been given. Even, in some instances, the Army has been given kit it has not asked for.

The problem is – and is well known to those in the business – that there are blockages in the system. The MoD is not a homogenous entity; like every big organisation it is riddled with factions and in-fighting, and different branches have their own agendas.

Much the same goes for the military and, in this context, there is a long-standing lack of enthusiasm on the part of the RAF towards Army support. At one, there is no champion in the RAF for helicopters yet, on the other hand – dog-in-the-manger style – the RAF refuses absolutely to hand over heavy rotary wing assets to the Army Air Corps.

These are real issues. They are long-standing (going back to the Second World War and before) and have a real impact on the operational efficiency of our forces. Thus, if instead of taking the easy route, and making cheap political shots, The Telegraph got off its pompous backside and invested in some real journalism, we might all be better off.

That said, there is a hint of understanding in the same leader we criticise, where it is noted:

There is, it is true, a long tradition of British troops on the ground putting up with inadequate resources rather than whingeing. That reflects credit on them. The same cannot be said, however, of some service chiefs, who have appeared reluctant to bring bad news to an image-obsessed Prime Minister.
There is a grain of truth in that second sentence. It is well known now that some careerist generals have deliberately not asked for kit, where they have felt that "sticking their neck out" might not be a career-enhancing move. It is those generals who, as much as anything, are part of the problem.

On other issues, Harding nevertheless makes some good points. Despite even recent enthusiasm, he is starting to question the wisdom of using Viking APCs, noting that, "there have been dozens of mine strikes in the last month, including one that killed Cpl Darren Bonner in the back of a Viking." Commanders, Harding writes, "are critical that not enough effort has been put in to counter the threat."

But this again is down to the MoD, and the Army between them. Military equipment is not specified by politicians but by the technical branches and the Service chiefs. And we can see now the mess they are making of the FRES programme – they have been making similar messes all along.

However, where has the media been – to say nothing of the opposition parties? Even the Financial Times picked up the mine threat last November and this blog had been "banging on" about it for so long that we can scarce remember when we started (although we gave it a thorough airing here).

So on it goes. We can't take the whole Harding piece apart (it is too long) but we note his complaint that only 14 Warriors are being sent to Afghanistan. If he is half the journalist I think he is, he will take the time out to find out precisely why so few are to be delivered to theatre, who precisely tried to stop those being deployed and who, in the final analysis, insisted that they were sent. If he gets to the bottom of that, he has an award-winning scoop.

Equally, we note his comments on combat engineers being forced to drive in a lightly armoured trucks carrying a heavy load of high explosive, highly vulnerable to even a single RPG round. Yet, since the Telegraph thinks this so important now, why wasn't it interested in those MoD cretins who specified unarmoured vans (and extremely expensive ones at that) for bomb disposal officers?

What all this points to is that there are very serious problems in the MoD and in the military generally, which need addressing. But what the Telegraph has done is go for the cheap shot and, while what Harding writes is true, it is disjointed and taken out of context. The impression given is that the whole system is in chaos, and that troops are very seriously at risk.

That is not the case. There is good and bad, and although the MoD is its own worst enemy when it comes to PR, it is actually sustaining an effort in Afghanistan that is delivering results. On that basis, if it came to a choice as to whether the MoD or The Telegraph were doing their jobs better, with enormous reluctance, I would be inclined to go for the MoD.


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