Sunday, November 27, 2011

Empty vessel syndrome

We have observed before how many journalists, on picking up a long-running story, seem to have no history – and neither time, inclination (or even capability) properly to research the background. Thus, on lifting a single nugget, without understanding or context, fabricate a report which adds little or nothing to the corps of knowledge, and most often distort or confuse the issues.

So it is in the Independent on Sunday, where journalists Brian Brady and Jonathan Owen happen upon a report on "secret tests" carried out in 2005 on Snatch Land Rovers.

Amongst other things, the tests confirmed that the Snatch was "overmatched" by the then current array of IEDs ranged against it, and also "revealed" that even when soldiers wore body armour the Snatches provided little protection from IEDs.

The Independent acknowledges that official documents released to the Iraq inquiry last year revealed that ministers had been warned that Snatches needed to be replaced in 2006. That indeed was the case, but the newspaper then seeks to shift the time frame to an earlier period.

Thus it tells us, in what amounts to the single, substantive new fact of the story, in a "vehicle protection presentation" held on 16 March 2005 – the second anniversary of the Iraq invasion – the defence technology company QinetiQ reported that "Snatch performs relatively poorly but in line with expectations when attacked by projectiles".

This, on the face of it, though, does not refer to IEDs – more likely to RPGs. But, whether or not QinetiQ then reported on the failings of the Snatch, the most serious shortcomings, in respect of dealing with the explosively formed projectile (EFP), could not have been known. That weapon was not deployed in a fatal attack until 1 May 2005, when Guardsmen Anthony Wakefield and Gary Alderson were killed.

By 6 June, however, an intact EFP array had been recovered and evaluated and it was from that point that it was clear that the Snatch was no match for the weapons being used against it. And when on 16 July in al Amarah, Lt Shearer and two others were killed in a Snatch following an EFP attack, there can have been no doubt.

Contrary to the impression given by the Independent story, therefore, there is nothing new about when knowledge of the new threat emerged, but the newspaper makes a big deal about the MoD withholding reports, claiming that "disclosure of such information could prejudice the safety of the armed forces".

That, of course, is one of the genuine reasons why the MoD might withhold such information. If your equipment suffers a fatal flaw, the last thing you are going to do it admit it to the enemy.

But, a year later, despite significant additional casualties, the vulnerability of the Snatch was becoming so evident that we were to pick it up on this blog, leading in August to a review of the vehicle by then defence secretary Des Browne, and its partial replacement by the Mastiff.

Here, journalists Brady and Owen get it completely wrong, reporting that an emergency review of the Snatch vehicles was not announced until 2008 – "after a tide of protests from the families of service personnel who had been killed or suffered horrific injuries in a series of IED attacks in Afghanistan".

The review was in 2006, and carried out after the issue was raised in this blog, and then in the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times, at our instigation, followed by a spirited campaign in parliament, led by Lord Astor of Hever. This, as set out in Ministry of Defeat (pp110-122) is one of those instances when everything came together,.

Brady and Owen, though, insist on rewriting history. The immediate replacement for the Snatch was the Mastiff, later augmented by the smaller Ridgeback, but this ignorant pair fail to realise this. Instead, they get confused by the later long-term contract for the Foxhound, designed from scratch as the long-term replacement, complaining that this has not yet been delivered to theatre.

The journalists thus miss the point. The crucial part of the story is not that the dangers were ignored, but why they were ignored, and long after they were known - and why the replacement was so long in coming. Here, it is not good enough simply to say that the MoD failed. There was a very specific and egregious failure, attributable not to officials but to senior officers in the Army. They not only ignored the shortcomings of the Snatch, but actively blocked replacement with better vehicles.

For those who understand the issues, the real reason was because Jackson and then Dannatt were committed to the FRES programme and feared that, if protected vehicles were bought, the money would come from the FRES budget. Thus, to protect the budget for their new toys, they were prepared to let soldiers die.

Such an assertion I have made many times, including it with great detail in my book, Ministry of Defeat. If it were not true, it would be libellous and wrongly damaging to the reputations of two of Britain's most senior generals. No one, however, has ever disputed the issues.

But now we can see in the evidence of Lord Drayson, then procurement minister, to the Iraq Inquiry, confirmation of the assertion. In his witness statement, he told the Inquiry:
The project to improve/replace SNATCH was always separate to FRES. The Generals stressed the urgent need to replace the ageing fleet of Army Fighting Vehicles as a whole when voicing their concerns over delays to FRES.

However SNATCH was a Protected Patrol Vehicle rather than an AFV, and was not an old vehicle. In terms of augmenting Protected Patrol Vehicles such as SNATCH the focus in early 2006 for the Army was on the VECTOR which in March 2006 I was told was General Dannatt’s highest priority as CinC LAND.

Progress on FRES and concerns about SNATCH Land Rovers should not have been connected in theory because the FRES project was designed to provide a different capability, i.e. AFVs not PPVs.

In reality however, I believe that the Army’s difficulty in deciding upon a replacement to SNATCH was in part caused by their concern over the likelihood of FRES budgets being cut to fund a SNATCH replacement vehicle.
Though this whole affair, therefore, we have seen the most egregious failure of the Army. But we now also see the continued failure of the media to understand and deal with the issues, missing the point again and again, always going for the cheap shots, without even beginning to understand what was involved.

Journalists have become empty vessels, to be filled on the day with plausible but inaccurate material, sufficient to fill space in a newspaper, but a travesty of the truth.