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The two by-elections, at Bromley and Blaenau Gwent have the political classes twittering, but with the turnouts respectively 40.5 (down 24.3 percent from the general) and 51.7 percent (-14.4 percent), it is clear that neither election set the political process alight.
The "shock" result, if you can call it that, was the poor showing of the Bromley Conservative candidate, Bob Neill, who only just got in with 11,621 votes against a strong challenge from the Lib-Dims, slashing the general election majority of 13,342 to 633
But what is especially interesting is the Bromley result. UKIP came third, beating Labour into fourth place, taking 2347 votes, but collectively, the eight minority parties polled 4,518 votes.
The cumulative effect of these minority parties is now getting quite significant and was definitely a factor in the last general election, where the UKIP/Veritas vote exceeded the Labour majority over the Conservatives in 28 seats, undoubtedly costing the Tories a significant number of seats.
Then there were the recent Council elections where not only did the BNP romp home in Barking and Dagenham but came in second in Bradford with 27.5 percent of the vote in the wards which they contested.
It is always dangerous to extrapolate results from by-elections, but the "minnow" phenomenon is beginning to become well-established, where many of those who are prepared to turn out to vote are so disillusioned with the established parties that they are prepared to vote for minority parties. And, of course, in Blaenau Gwent, the independent candidate won.
What we are almost certainly seeing, therefore, is not a rejection of politics but a turning away from the established party politics. Political issues have never been more closely and actively argued, but the established parties are simply not part of the debate.
Of this, I can vouch personally. In all the years I have been writing about the EU and political issues generally, I have never experienced so many personal messages and discussion as I have over the intensely political issue of the inadequate equipment provided for our armed forces in Iraq. Furthermore, this has been reflected in a marked increase in the “hits” for this blog, in the unprecedented level of interest in our forum thread and the nearly 11,000 “hits” on the unofficial Army forum thread.
In all, this should not come as a surprise as, in February this year, we reported on a Mori poll which put "defence/foreign affairs/terrorism” as the most important issues facing Britain today, giving a 34 percent response compared with the NHS/Hospitals at 33 percent.
By contrast, last weekend I attended a Conservative Party function with 450 party members crammed into a huge tent, where the discussion was "David Cameron this" and "David Cameron that" and how we must all fall in behind "our new leader".
More than one person, however, remarked to me of the high average age of those present, one suggesting sadly that we were looking at a party on the verge of extinction. Posing the question, why are younger people no longer interested in politics, my rejoinder was that they are – they are simply not interested in your brand of party politics.
The problem, I declared in my grand manner which (rightly) infuriates so many people, was that the established political parties have become so introspective that they are now only interested in themselves. That much is glaringly evident from the Tory Boy Blog. My remedy was equally straightforward. Start taking an interest in the things that ordinary people are interested in, and they will take an interest in you.
Until then, I suspect we will see the continued onwards march of the minnows.
For an update on this post, see here.
And so it came to pass that their Noble Lords had their debate on defence yesterday and, in the nature of things, widely ignored it was by the media and the great unwashed.
It was in many senses a messy affair, covering too wide a range of subjects – from the nuclear deterrent to housing for the armed forces and all points in between.
One contribution which did stand out though was from the Viscount Brookeborough which, especially in the context of my earlier post, seems to make enormous sense. In the interests of fuelling our own debate, therefore, I am publishing the full text here:
While in Basra recently, I was struck by the similarity of certain operations to those that we carried out in Northern Ireland. But what really made an impression was the obviously low numbers of helicopters—less than half the maximum of 72 that we had in Northern Ireland. I have been involved in anti-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland for the past 30 years or so, and I saw some interesting parallels.I shall have more to add on this and other contributions to the debate, when I have been able to study it in more detail. I will post the forum link with the general debate on "Snatch" Land Rovers.
In Basra, in the multinational force area, insurgents are not normally suicidal. However, they have taken IRA technology—which is what it was—directly off the shelf. Suffice it to say, it is a device that noble Lords may have seen in the newspapers last week. It is called a PIR RC IED—a passive infrared radio-controlled improvised explosive device. It is almost certainly manufactured in Iran. It is not improvised—the device has been made by machines in a factory. The system of initiation enables extreme accuracy. That is why soldiers are being killed in Snatch vehicles. It is also capable of disabling tracked vehicles.
I am aware that we are developing counter measures. However, like Northern Ireland terrorists, the insurgents are most certainly developing the next generation of weapons to get round our counter measures. By the nature of things, we will always be slightly behind, so the problem cannot just be shuffled away, with the hope that there is a counter measure.
We were told by the Minister in May in answer to a Written Question that our service helicopter fleet was only 59 percent operational. That is seriously bad news; it is a disgrace within a modern Army. We were also told that there were 28 helicopters in Iraq, of which an average of 22 percent were not serviceable. Therefore, there are, on average, 20 serviceable aircraft in Iraq. This does not differentiate between the various capabilities. We were told that we had two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx. I read a report about more Sea Kings going to Iraq, but I am not sure whether they are the right aircraft and whether we are not plugging a hole with the wrong nail.
If these helicopters are defined, rather vaguely, into "support/heavier lift" and "tactical/patrol deployment" categories, that would result in the Chinooks, Sea Kings and Merlins being in the support and heavy lift category, the Pumas being dual purpose and the six Lynx being the patrolling aircraft. This does not take into account the fact that seven may be unserviceable, spread over all types, or in extremes, all from one category. That is a possibility, but we hope it does not occur.
My observations are as follows. The 17 aircraft in the larger category and the Pumas in the second category are almost entirely used moving personnel and equipment between bases in the multinational force area in southern Iraq. That also includes providing aircraft to go to Baghdad occasionally. These tasks include administrative resupply, changeover of units, servicemen travelling to and from R&R and hospital visits. These tasks are important—in fact, they are essential. They have become a vital priority in maintaining our deployment, so they are not for giving up, day by day, in preference to something else.
That leaves the Lynx and sometimes some of the Pumas for all the other tasks, including operational patrolling, surveillance and general taxi work. Surveillance is important because our modern surveillance system—the successor to P3—fills up the back of a Puma. You cannot land it on the ground and pick up eight soldiers. That helicopter is operational for surveillance only.
At the very best, it would be difficult to ring-fence the use of more than eight choppers for eagle patrolling and tactical operations by troops on the ground throughout the whole of our area. Where the use of single aircraft is at high risk, it will have to be done in pairs, thereby reducing separate operations that may be supported by choppers at any one time.
In practical terms, regardless of the theory, if anyone suffers a reduction in heli hours due to serviceability, it is the soldiers deploying on routine operations—they may be routine, but they are highly dangerous in Iraq—and not the vital admin resupply and support. It is therefore true that an overall increase in helis, and therefore heli hours, by, for example, 25 per cent, would be seven aircraft. That could result in a 100 per cent increase in availability of choppers for supporting patrolling on the ground. That is not great and I do not understand why we are not doing it.
We have lost personnel increasingly while on mobile patrol. We had a very similar problem in Northern Ireland, and we had to put large areas completely out of bounds to mobile patrols. Where I live, across the main road, it did not matter what happened—you were not allowed to take a mobile patrol. We used covert patrol vehicles, but I accept that that is not an option for Iraq. We also used helis, but we had 72 before taking serviceability into account. They often had to operate in pairs. We must ask ourselves questions about the patrols, especially mobile patrols. Is a given patrol really necessary? What is the threat and why is the IED beside the road? Could the patrol be done on foot? If we have the heli hours, could we use helis to patrol at virtually no risk? Are the helis at risk?
There was a range of conclusions, which included the following. Obviously many mobile patrols are vital to achieve the mission, but occasionally, if you ask the questions carefully, it is found that the answer is that they are "not really vital". So why are we doing it? If the threat to a mobile patrol is an IED, then why did the opposition set it up? To protect something, or purely because the patrol would pass it? If the latter is correct, then there is no need to be there, and that is why the IED is there. That is a very simple but important argument.
If the patrol is on foot, it is easier, through tactics developed in Northern Ireland and now in Iraq, to protect themselves and control the environment around them. I shall not go into detail, but that is what occurs. If there are heli hours, eagle patrolling reduces the risk immediately. If helis are at risk, the use of helis in pairs enhances safety yet again. One helicopter operates while the other one watches. Two helis in the air can virtually freeze terrorist movement in a 2 kilometre-square area. The second one can react to any unusual activity. There are more ARFs—air reaction forces—in the air, day by day, which can react to other things occurring in the area.
In Northern Ireland, the threat to helis virtually disappeared when there was more than one of them in the air. There were occasions in County Fermanagh, where I live, when a patrol or OP was hit and there was not vital necessity for it to be there. There would have been no attack if it had not been on the ground at the time. If it was not in an ambush position, what was it doing providing a target? That is what some mobiles are doing.
While in Iraq, I asked a very senior person how the Iraqis will patrol when we leave and remove our technology, which is going to happen. I was told that the Iraqi mobile patrols did not seem to be targeted in the same way. We seem to be providing ourselves as a target, especially if an Iraqi patrol can do it. That is fact—it is what I was told.
If you ask a senior officer, "Are you coping with accomplishing your mission?", the answer will be yes. If he gave the wrong answer, you would probably remove him. However, if you were to ask, "If you were provided with substantially more helis, would it change your tactics and make it safer?", the answer would be a resounding yes and you would have a very happy officer. Incidentally, an increase in helicopters to Northern Ireland levels would increase those provided to soldiers by 600 per cent.
In a discussion on research for new vehicles in the other place on 26 June, the Secretary of State said:
"There are medium and long-term plans relating to vehicles, and I shall be considering what we can do to respond to the situation in the short term".
The review should already be under way. We are in an operational situation. How come we have just decided to do it today? The terrorists, or the insurgents, are already reviewing what we are trying to counter, and we are about to set up the review. I suppose that it is something. What are the Government doing when they say that they,
"shall be considering what we can do to respond ... in the short term"?
The "short term" is tomorrow. Something should already have been done. That debate was on 26 June. It is amazing.
Later, the Secretary of State said:
"Decisions on which vehicles to use on operations are for the commanders on the ground". [Official Report, Commons, 26/6/06; cols. 4-5.]
The commander can use only what he's got. It is a lovely turn of phrase, but if he had the helis, he wouldn't be in the wagon.
A number of those in another place and some commentators have asked about bigger or stronger vehicles, but I do not think that that is the right line to go down. We do, however, need a patrolling vehicle, because the type of IEDs being used will disable tracked armoured vehicles. What are you left with after such an incident? You are left with a marooned armoured vehicle. How do you get it out? If you cannot, you may have a riot situation. Or perhaps we do not need to worry about it because, after they have stopped killing people in the tracked vehicle, the crowd will ensure that the situation is sufficiently in hand to petrol-bomb the living daylights out of it. These vehicles are difficult to recover. All I will say is that these reviews are a bit late in the day, and we ought to get some of the 41 percent of choppers which are non-operational into the air pretty quickly.
Looked over the edge of the trench to see what is going on in the wider world and read this:
The squabbling began even before the talks did. The world's most powerful trading nations gathering Thursday to hammer out a long-delayed global trade treaty spent most of the first day finger-pointing - leaving little apparent hope of a breakthrough when official talks begin Friday.Ahah! It’s WTO time again. Wake me up when it's all over and the talks have failed – I'm going to bed.
"Somehow the gaps don't seem to diminish," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said of the differences that have put the Doha round of trade talks two years behind schedule. "If anything, if I look backwards, maybe to two or three months ago ... I have the impression that the gaps have widened, or at least become more rigid," Amorim told reporters after a meeting of the G-20 group of developing nations.
Some cracking stories in the morning for you, including a long one from my co-editor.
For an update on this post, see here.
While hunting for photographs for my previous post, I came across this remarkable shot of a Lynx flying over Basra, which I couldn't resist. Disregarding the superb view of the "toy" and looking beyond that, what immediately strikes one is the narrow, cluttered streets (not). Bearing in mind our previous exercise, it really is getting very hard to take Lord Drayson seriously. One has to ask, what is that man for?
Also emerged is another shot of Basra, this co-incidentally taken at the time of the recent, tragic Lynx crash in Basra - reported to have been taken out by an RPG. It shows a dismounted patrol, but the location is interesting - clearly a back-street scenario. Once again, what is striking is the width of the lane, clearly more than sufficient to allow an RG-31 passage, or even something more substantial.
And, a propos my previous post, a thought occurred. The Second World War lasted six years, whence we went in with biplane fighters and emerged with jet aircraft. Now, it is taking eight years bring an updated version of an existing helicopter into operational service - two years longer than the entire length of the Second World War.
It is a good job Drayson wasn't around at the time, in charge of the Spitfire programme.
For an update on this post, see here.
A critical shortage of battlefield helicopters reported last year is to remain, year while the MoD commits to a long-term £1 billion project to buy 70 helicopters – averaging £14.2 million each – which will not be in service until 2014. This is at a time when the Army is down to six Lynx multi-role tactical helicopters in the whole of Iraq and desperately needs more capability.
The Americans, on the other hand, are paying in the order of £3.6 million each for their OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopters, which are providing invaluable service in supporting US troops in Iraqi counter-insurgency operations.
Their value has been graphically recorded by the award-winning free-lance war correspondent, Michael Yon, who writes of his first-hand experience as an embedded reporter in some of the "hottest" areas of Iraq. Of the Kiowa, in the battle for Mosul, he wrote:
Intelligence warned that another car bomb was looking for us, so the soldiers decided to go hunting for it. American helicopters were helping with the search and a Kiowa flew so low that we could literally have hit it with a rock at times. By flying so low they can spot threats to us, but the danger to the pilots is severe: for instance, a Kiowa was just shot down near Baquba, killing two Americans. One of the helicopters with us started taking fire. I heard a pilot on the radio asking if we needed him, he wanted to land, check for holes quickly and get back in the air. A soldier said to me, "I love those guys".More generally, he posted another account where he describes how soldiers on the ground hold their helicopter pilots in extreme regard, writing, "I've never heard a real combat soldier calling pilots 'fly boys' or anything disrespectful." "Sometimes," he adds, "they fly so low they are practically lawnmowers. One Kiowa pilot came so low that I could read the time on his watch in the photograph. I was not using a telephoto lens. Just a 50mm prime."
This is highly relevant to the current controversy about the inadequacies of Snatch Land Rovers as even the most ardent advocate of better armour protection for our troops will agree that any effective strategy for defeating the insurgents is multi-tiered. And there are few better weapons than light tactical helicopters which can escort patrols and convoys, scouting ahead to warn of potential ambushes and to attack insurgents when they break cover.
When the shortage of helicopters was again raised in the House of Lords by Viscount Brookeborough in May this year, he noted that, at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, we had 72 helicopters in operation in the province.
Lord Drayson – none other than he – denied that there was a shortage of helicopters, only then revealing that the total number of helicopters in Iraq was two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx, 28 in total, with all but six being transport helicopters.
However, what we once again see with this MoD contract is "jam tomorrow" and nothing today. The new helicopters will be a central component of the EU's fantasy European Rapid Reaction Force and, in good European style, will be built by the Italian owned Finmeccanica subsidiary AgustaWestland. But when it comes to the real army, currently engaged in combat, the troops must go begging.
Kiowa photographs stolen from Michael Yon, for which theft he will undoubtedly sue me.
For an update on this post, see here.
Today, there is a defence debate in the Lords. It will be the first opportunity for Lord Astor, the Conservative defence spokesman, to challenge Lord Drayson over his egregious lie about the British Army having used RG-31s before, and to question him on his claim that, "The RG-31 cannot access areas that Snatch Land Rovers can get to."
The relative size of the two vehicles has been something of a preoccupation with some contributors to the unofficial Army forum , where an extremely robust discussion has developed over the utility of the "Snatch" Land Rovers.
Given that the Land Rover weighs in at just under six feet and the RG-31 at just over eight, we were keen to know how many of the mean streets of Basra were actually so narrow that only a Land Rover could squeeze down them. Visiting the area, obviously, is out of the question – and even Lord Astor has not been permitted to go – but, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we have been able to take a "virtual tour" of the city and are able to present the results here.
That said, the first picture (top left), although it came up in a search for Basra, clearly is not a view of that city. The troops are obviously American and the vehicles in the background look very much like Strykers. The picture has a value though in that it shows the aftermath of a car bomb, with the crater in the foreground and the wreckage of the car in the near distance. It demonstrates that the terrorists by no means confine their activities to the narrow side-streets.
The next picture (right) most definitely is Basra though and the vehicle in the centre ground is a Saxon APC (now withdrawn from Basra). At just under an inch wider than the RG-31, you can see what a tight squeeze the RG-31 would have, hence the difficulty the "suicide donkey" (presumably) is having overtaking the vehicle.
Getting narrower is the next street (left) but, easily able to accommodate two cars with plenty of room to spare, it would no doubt permit passage of a Land Rover. In what looks like a one-way street (but you never know), we think and RG-31 might just be able to squeeze by, which seems to put Lord Drayson's claim rather to the test once more. The parking of the car on the left, incidentally, does not seem too brilliant.
About this cityscape (right) I am not certain it is Basra – it looks a bit like Baghdad to me. No doubt someone will correct me. In the foreground is what looks somewhat like a bomb crater, but it could be just disrepair. Again though, the Land Rover would have no difficulty traversing the road but it would be also very hard to imagine that the RG-31 could have a problem. We cannot vouch for the side streets though, as the views of them are not clear.
In this road scene (left), some sense of scale is given by the massive six-wheeler truck, giving the road-width – at a rough estimate – of something three times the width of the truck. Even allowing for the bicycle, we assume, therefore, that a Land Rover could squeeze past, but is this yet another of those "narrow" roads where an RG-31 would have difficulty getting down? Note again the parking technique – this does not seem to be the Iraqis' forte.
Here, we do not have to guess about the Land Rover (right) – a "Snatch" is parked centre picture, with its door open. This is the Coldstream Guards on patrol, doing their "hearts and minds" bit, and very good at it they seem, to judge from the crowd of children around and in front of it. The truck to one side and the car to the other (badly parked), and the spacing, however, does seem to suggest that an RG-31 could just about squeeze past. Whether the motorcyclist would have such an easy passage is anyone's guess.
This (left) is the best I can do for a view of a side-street. If there was an IED around, it could well be embedded in the trash-filled gutter – a favourite hiding place for the terrorists and totally invisible to any passing patrol. The street itself does look narrow but, in the distance, you can see what appears to be a parked car, giving some sense of scale. From the look of the approach, a Land Rover would have no problem. An RG-31 might have difficulty squeezing past the car, but would any mounted patrol really want to go down this road where there could so easily be an ambush?
The right-hand scene is for real, where a bomb has gone off. The van to the right has been caught in the blast and has been burnt out. The structure, however, looks relatively intact so a passing "Snatch" Land Rover might just have survived the blast. In an RG-31, however, that survival would have been more certain and, from the look of the spacing, it would have been able to have driven down the road without too much difficulty.
On the left, we have another Coldstream Guard patrol. You can see the "Snatch" on the left, behind the parked car, with the "top cover" – the Americans call them "sky guards" – aiming his weapon up the street, giving cover to the soldier on foot, the so-called "dismount".
Once again, the vehicles give a sense of scale, the road measuring at least four car-widths, but probably wider. Clearly, the Land Rover had no problems navigating the road and, once again it is very hard to see how an RG-31 would have had any difficulty. Another one for Lord Drayson to explain?
The photograph on the right, taken over the top of a parked car, shows a group of British soldiers, so this is obviously – at the time, at least – a patrolled area. There is no sign of a patrol vehicle, but the centre strip shows the road to be a dual carriageway and the truck parked off-road to the right suggests that large vehicles can navigate the road. One senses, therefore, that an RG-31 might not have too much difficulty.
I think I recognise the road (left) from scenes on television, and recall seeing a film of a convoy of "Snatch" Land Rovers led by a Warrior hammering down this road. Not in your wildest imagination could you argue that an RG-31 would have difficulty here, so this is yet another bit of road where Drayson's preference for Land Rovers does not seem to stand up. Down here, you could line up half the Army's complement of tank transporters.
And, on the right – if this really is Basra and not Heathrow airport or somewhere else - we could land a Jumbo Jet, or even an Airbus A380, and have room to spare. No doubt, someone will tell me if this is not Basra, but even then it is difficult to see where the "nasties" might hide an IED. But not even Drayson, I imagine, would try arguing that an RG-31 would have difficulties travelling down this road.
Another day, another patrol (left) – a convoy of "Snatch" Land Rovers, with a "dismount" in front and another "top guard" covering him. This is yet another dual carriageway and you can see from the way that the Land Rovers are staggered, rather than directly in line, that there is plenty of room on the road. Once again, therefore, we have a patrol area where an RG-31 would have little problem and if, as appears from the picture, there is a car tucked in between the Land Rovers, a potential suicide bomber, the troops would definitely be safer in the better-protected vehicle.
Another one, "for real" (right). This is another bomb explosion in a busy thoroughfare, with considerable damage evident to vehicles. One again these are civilian vehicles and the one on the left is not totally destroyed, again suggesting that the blast would have been survivable at that distance, more so in an RG-31 than a "Snatch". Despite the crowds of people, the width of the road is clearly evident and the snaking hoses suggest a fire engine in the near vicinity. An RG-31 would not have had any difficulties passing down this road.
We've used this photograph before (left) - an offical MoD photograph, showing "Snatch" Land Rovers on patrol. Clearly this is a main road and the volume of truck traffic, and the spacing between the Land Rovers and the trucks easily demonstrates that an RG-31 would have absolutely no problem navigating this road - yet another route knocked off Lord Drayson's list.
And finally... (right) this is the scene of the famous Basra riot, where the graphic scenes were flashed across the world of British soldiers spilling from a burning Warrior with their bodies wreathed in flames. You can see a "Snatch" to the left of the picture and a Warrior centre-right of picture. And, where a Warrior can go, an RG-31 at less than half the width, can easily follow. Note also, the youths are attacking the Warrior - the more aggressive-looking vehicle - and ignoring the "Snatch". Would they have attacked a convoy of RG-31s?
Anyhow, this is the best I could do with my "vitual tour". No doubt there are streets in Basra down which an RG-31 could not pass, but then would you want to drive a Land Rover down a potentially dangerous road where you have only one foot clearance down each side? But that apart, if there are such roads where only Land Rovers can travel, clearly there are many routes which are accessible to the larger vehicle. It would be absurd to suggest that, because some roads might be inaccessible, then only Land Rovers should be used for all of them. But that, effectively, seems to be what the Minister is saying.
Today’s Wall Street Journal Europe [subscription only] carries an article entitled “Russia’s oil wealth raises political hurdles for U.S.”.
The gist of it is that the American government and its successors are facing a more assertive Russia in the world. Her assertiveness is based on her enormous resources of oil and gas, something that has given Russia an economic renaissance and put her among other global powers as an equal. Or so says President Putin, using yesterday’s speech as a warning to Secretary of State Rice, who arrives in Moscow today
“hoping to win Russia’s support on key international issues such as curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even as the Bush administration has stepped up criticism of Mr Putin’s policies both at home and toward Russia’s nearest neighbors.”Interestingly enough last month President Putin gave a completely different picture of the situation in his much-discussed state of the nation address. Then he emphasised the difficulties Russia was facing in relying solely on export of raw material as its economic base.
His other theme was then the country’s low birth rate and short life expectancy. Economically and militarily (with emphasis on the second) this was a potentially catastrophic combination. At the time he came up with a purely Soviet idea of rewarding mothers who have many (or, at least, more than one) children. There was little talk of raising life expectancy. Even if people do not die in their fifties and early sixties they would not be much use as soldiers.
It is, as ever, hard to work out what Putin really wants to say. On the one hand, it is true that
“[t]hey [the Russians] are certainly feeling better about themselves than at any time since the breakup of the Soviet Union”,as one administration official told the newspaper.
On the other hand, it does not take too many brains to work out that a major economy and global power cannot survive on oil and gas money alone. Having rattled a sabre or two against its nearest neighbours, the Russian government has changed its approach slightly, sending out Gazprom to buy up aggressively western companies.
Rosneft wants to float part of its possessions in London, an act that would be contrary to international agreements, say the remaining spokespeople for Yukos, since these possessions include the dubiously acquired property of the latter.
Even the question of Iran is slightly difficult. Russia has maintained very good relations with the Mullahs, put every possible obstacle in the way of American and European attempts to control the nuclear programme and has supplied the country with arms.
One does wonder whether this has been well thought through. Of course, selling arms brings in money but what will end up with Hezbollah and how much of that will be passed on to the Islamist groups Russia is fighting in Central Asia?
In the end it is back to gas and oil supplies. A quarter of all Europe’s gas comes from Russia and there is a push to become a major supplier to China, who is beginning to run into difficulties with its rather rapacious African policy, and the US.
In the meantime, there remains the question of Putin’s successor (if there is one in the near future) and several names of more or less known personalities have been advanced. All are waiting for the man’s own imprimatur. Will he do a Yeltsin and effectively nominate his successor?
Whatever America’s negotiations may come to, other countries, better aware of the dangers of Russian dominance, are beginning to stir.
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe carried a short item, entitled: “EU supports Caspian Sea pipeline project”. This was a not uncommon muddle in the mind of the journalist. It was not the EU the article was about but a number of European and other countries.
Energy ministers from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey have signed a declaration in Vienna for the Nabucco project, a privately funded pipeline that will carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea region to European countries. Please note that, despite the newspaper’s take and statements by the Commission, it is separate countries, only two of whom are EU members, who have signed the agreement.
The participants are Austria’s OMV AG, Hungary’s MOL, Turkey’s Botas, Bulgaria’s Bulgargas and Romania’s Transgaz SA Medias. The energy ministers who signed the declaration made it clear that their governments would push the project forward.
“The 3,400-kilometer pipeline, costing $5.8 billion, would supply Europe with gas from countries such as Azerbaijan and Iran, giving them direct access to the European gas market. It could also hook up with pipelines from other parts of the Middle East and with further projected pipelines across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. That would reduce Gazprom’s control over the gas trade between Central Asia and Europe, because all gas piped to Europe from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan currently has to pass through Gazprom’s pipelines.”We can fully expect Russia to exhaust its supply of monkey wrenches, trying to derail the project.
For the Pinzgauer "Vector" see here.
For an update on this post, see here.
There is no doubt that the "Snatch" Land Rover issue is hotting up, especially with the regrettable deaths of two soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday. The Guardian, in particular, noted:
The soldiers from the Special Boat Service were returning from a night patrol when insurgents hit their armoured "snatch" Land Rover with a rocket-propelled grenade. The soldiers left the vehicle and two died in the ensuing battle. The injuries to the third were described last night as serious but not life-threatening.It is too early to say whether a better-protected vehicle would have changed the outcome for, as we pointed out yesterday, the RPG 7 is a different order of threat. The anti-mine measures embodied in vehicles like the RG-31 would not necessarily have saved the troops in this particular firefight.
Nevertheless, this did not stop the Guardian noting that the casualties "may stoke the controversy surrounding British troops' use of open-topped Land Rovers, which offer limited protection." The paper cites Captain Gibson who observes that: "It's a balance of protection, mobility and risk … If you drive around in fully armoured vehicles you can't talk to the local population."
But the Guardian, rather confusing the issue between the open-topped patrol vehicles and the "snatch" versions, goes on to say:
The vehicles have been criticised as a soft target after the roadside bombs which have killed some 18 British soldiers in Iraq. Des Browne, defence secretary, told MPs on Monday that the issue was being reviewed. Defence sources said possible alternatives include the RG-31 mine-protected armoured vehicle made by a BAE Systems subsidiary in South Africa and used by US forces in Iraq.It seems also that the matter has been raised directly by journalists at one of the daily briefings at No. 10., when the prime minister’s official spokesman said: "Let us be clear that the very sad deaths today were down to those who attacked British troops. We shouldn't make it any more complicated than it is. Our thoughts are with their families."
Enter, therefore, the BBC to put its "impartial" analysis on its website to inform general readers about the issues. Headed, "Q&A: Army Land Rover row," it tells us that:
The use of Snatch Land Rovers by the British Army has become controversial after several high-profile roadside bomb attacks in Iraq. Now a Snatch in Afghanistan has been attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, leaving two soldiers dead.What is then remarkable is that the Beeb – usually no friend of the MoD and definitely of an anti-war persuasion - not only trots out the establishment line but adds a few embellishments of its own.
It starts by quoting an MoD spokesman to explain that tanks are often too big and too slow, cumbersome and likely to annoy civilian populations. "You can't exactly go downtown Basra in a battle-tank," says our man helpfully. What he doesn't say though is that the security situation in Basra has deteriorated to the extent that the Snatches are no longer allowed out on their own, so patrols are escorted front and rear by (tracked) Warrior MICVs – a procession that is hardly likely to be much less annoying to the civilian population.
What he might also have mentioned is that the Warrior fleet in Basra and surrounds is doing such high mileage that the vehicles are being worn out very rapidly and the maintenance problems are stacking up. They are being used at an unsustainable rate – for a purpose for which they were never intended – and something soon will have to give.
Nevertheless, the Beeb continues in its role of MoD platform, allowing the spokesman to add, "The Land Rovers are fortified with armour to offer the troops protection against explosions and ballistics … They also have electronic counter-measures (ECMs) - designed to detect roadside bombs before they explode."
Note the use of the word "fortified", which is not the one I would have chosen – "lightly armoured" would be a neutral description. As for "protection against explosions and ballistics", last night we heard it from the horse's mouth when Sky News interviewed a soldier on patrol in Basra. His view, simply put was, "These Land Rovers are no use to anyone".
The ECM is, of course, useful, but only against bombs detonated by radio or mobile 'phone. Against pressure plate activation, command wire detonation or infra-red triggers, it offers no defence.
Never let it be said that the BBC does not try though. Posing the question as to why the Land Rovers are "controversial" – not "deadly" mind you – we are told that "a number of incidents in Iraq have thrown the spotlight" on them. We are not told that "number", only that "Insurgents have begun to use roadside bombs against British forces - killing several soldiers", with the Beeb continuing, "Families of dead soldiers have complained that the Land Rovers do not provide enough protection."
Then, putting the best possible gloss on this, the Beeb tells us that "Defence Secretary Des Browne responded by promising to review the use of the vehicles in Iraq," quite forgetting to say that this was only after a serious campaign had started.
Then we come to the really serious spin. Reviewing the alternatives, we are told that "critics of the Army" say the vehicles are an outdated, cheap alternative to the more modern equipment used by the US and South Africa. No Beeb, we are not criticising the Army. We are criticising the government, and Blair in particular, for sending troops in without adequate protection.
As for the US forces, well, the Beeb says, they use "Humvee vehicles", again forgetting to tell us that they are also introducing RG-31s, Cougars and Buffalos, and are actively looking for a replacement (see above left). No, all we get is, "these (Humvees) come in for similar criticism to the Land Rovers and are thought to be susceptible to roadside bombs and grenades."
Now we arrive at the meat: "Others have suggested that vehicles used by the South African army - RG31s - should have been bought to replace Land Rovers." Again, there are some key missing facts, like the US is using them in Iraq and the Canadians are using them in Afghanistan – and have just ordered another 25. Instead, we get:
But RG31s are designed to protect against landmines, not the kind of explosives the Army deals with in Iraq. The Army used RG31s in Bosnia, but took them out of commission due to maintenance problems.This, of course, we have rebutted thoroughly on this blog, here and here, but the lie is now in the system and the Beeb is at the forefront of perpetuating it.
And, to conclude this "impartial" analysis, Lord Drayson, the procurement minister, is given the last quote: The "size and profile" of the RG31s did not match the Army's requirements, and they could not access urban areas the Land Rovers could. We are then left with this:
Other armoured vehicles that the Army already uses, such as the Warrior, have been suggested. But these are much bigger and less mobile than the Snatch Land Rover. The MoD has argued that their Land Rovers have enough counter-measures to make them safe for peacekeeping patrols. They say that the equipment they use is under constant review, along with the tactics and electronic counter-measures.So, everything is fine with the world of the BBC and MoD. Except, we learn from Monday's defence questions, after an intervention from Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, the government has "agreed to supplement Snatch with a new patrol vehicle, Vector, which will come into service in 2007."
The "Vector", it turns out, is the Armoured Pinzgauer, which we have already dubbed coffins on wheels. The thing has already had a glowing review from the Sunday Telegraph's Sean Rayment and is now attracting its defenders on the unofficial Army forum.
The odd thing is that the 80 armoured vehicles, at a cost of £35 million, were supposed to be going to Afghanistan, yet the question Pritchard posed was in relation to Iraq. Are we on the verge of a fudge here, with the MoD diverting these dangerous vehicles to Iraq as a public relations measure?
No doubt, if this happens, the Beeb will be on the case, and first in line with criticism when soldiers are slaughtered, despite having done nothing to prevent it. That is the wickedness of the BBC.
See also this update on the Pinzgauer
COMMENT THREAD - Joint Posts
Despite attempts by The Observer on 14 May last to engineer a "collision course with Brussels", with minister for energy, Malcolm Wicks, cast in a heroic mould, protecting church organs from the depredations of the Restrictions on Hazardous Substances, it has all come to naught.
According to Reuters, "brides and grooms can breathe easy as the European Commission said on Tuesday it had decided church organs are not covered by a directive that bans the use of hazardous substances, such as lead, which is used to make pipes for organs."
The head of the European Commission in London, Reijo Kemppinen, said: "British organ builders need not fear for the future of their art and craft. The European Union has no wish to jeopardise this ancient tradition."
Of course, you could have read precisely that on this blog on 30 March, just short of three months ago. However, as we are all aware, blogs don’t actually report news – the are entirely derivative, following in the wake of the professional journalists of the MSM who know so much better than us.
We are sorry for getting it so wrong.
Reaction to the PM’s latest wheeze has been mixed. Njongonkulu Ndungane, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town has welcomed it. SecGen Kofi Annan (father of Kojo) has clearly welcomed it because it will provide him with yet another opportunity to travel round, sit in meetings and pontificate (and who knows, there might be another medal of achievement at the end of it).
Sir Bob Geldof is very happy about it, as he, too, will be given extra publicity and a chance to pontificate. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has recently been prevented from becoming president-for-life, is equally happy. He will be one of the panellists.
Other agencies, possibly because they were not asked, are less happy and are muttering about buck passing and backsliding.
So, what’s this all about? Well, a year or so on from G-8 and Live8 and any other 8 you might care to think of, nothing much has happened about reducing poverty in Africa. Of course, some of us have always maintained that “Make Poverty History” is considerably less useful than the alternative proposed by us: “Make Stupidity History”.
So, the Prime Minister has decided to set up a new panel of world leaders to monitor the aid given to African countries. It is not entirely clear whether its effectiveness will be monitored as well or merely the amount of money that is being shelled out, the usual criterion for much of aid giving as Richard Tren, the Director of Africa Fights Malaria said at a recent seminar he gave at the International Policy Network in London.
I shall do a more detailed posting on the seminar and Richard Tren’s account of the past, present and possible future of the war against malaria.
In the meantime, let it never be said that this blog is merely negative; that we criticize politicians and their activity, without offering positive suggestions. Here is one for Mr Blair, who, we assume, is genuinely worried about conditions in Africa.
Forget about panels and world leaders; ignore Bill Gates and his money; break off relations with Sir Bob Geldof and SecGen Kofi Annan. Concentrate on the following:
The number of malaria cases in Africa are not precisely known, though Bob Snow of the Wellcome Institute has estimated 600 million around the world, most of which are on that continent. Malaria hits children in particular and devastates whole communities. It reduces the African economy by something like 1.2 per cent of GDP – a large amount in the poor world.
It is an almost wholly preventable and curable disease and the prevention will cost us nothing or next to nothing.
Richard Tren pointed out that after a great deal of campaigning by Africans and others various organizations like USAID and WHO have changed their attitudes to controlled domestic spraying with DDT and other pesticides. The one organization that is out of step and refuses to acknowledge recent medical and scientific work is the EU.
The EU has huge powers as donor and economic partner of African countries. It is using those powers for ill purposes. Instead of helping the countries that are desperately fighting this scourge, the EU and, yes, we are part of this nasty conspiracy against African people, is trying to prevent routine use of domestic spraying, which has been effective for decades in prevention of malaria.
May we humbly suggest to Mr Blair that he should use what influence he has to change the EU’s attitudes. And if he cannot do so, to proclaim that Britain will not abide by this senseless, unscientific, disgraceful behaviour.
Listen to some Europeans and, indeed, Britons and you would think nothing but nothing mattered more than global warming … oops, sorry, climate change … and the way it is being caused by human behaviour (particularly American human behaviour).
Emissions and other supposed human effects on the climate (all unproven scientifically – maybe yes, maybe no) have taken the place of original sin in many people’s calculation. Alas, just as original sin, there seems no way of dealing with it all.
There is Kyoto, of course, the modern equivalent of buying indulgences, but the United States, whose economy it was set up to control, refused to sign up. As did India, China and Brazil, three of the greatest polluters in the world. Their, perfectly sensible, argument is that cleaning up the industrial debris and other aspects of pollution can be done in a rich and developed society. They need to get there. Whether China will do anything about it as it gets richer, remains questionable.
All the same, you would think that the European countries, the torch-bearers (with environmentally friendly torches) of the anti-global warming campaign, would reduce their emission. Not so, but far from it.
According to the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, as reported by EUObserver,
“Emissions of climate changing greenhouse gases from the whole of the EU increased by 18 million tonnes (0.4%) between 2003 and 2004 while emissions from the EU-15 increased by 11.5 million tonnes (0.3%) in the same period.”Since we do not know for certain that greenhouse gases are climate changing (climate having changed steadily back and forth for millennia) this may not be such a big problem. From the point of view of the European soul, on the other hand, it is important. We are all guilty.
Some, though, may be more guilty than others. How much of this increase is due to ever more frantic travelling round by EU politicians, often to view retreating glaciers and other environmental horrors?
For an update on this post, see here
Yesterday, Parliament finally woke up to the scandal of the inadequately armoured Land Rovers used by our troops in Iraq. In defence questions, the Conservatives mounted a spirited attack on dismal Desmond, the current secretary of state for defence.
It is a measure of the inability of the clever-dicks to understand the issues involved, though, that all we got in the print media was a tiresome little piece from The Times. That was in the form of a parliamentary sketch by Ann Treneman, which did not even begin to do justice to the subject.
As I research this issue more fully – rather in the manner of peeling an onion – the stakes, which were always high – now seem stratospheric. The real issue, when you think about it hard enough, is whether we take the current campaign in Iraq to be representative of further campaigns, or whether it is an aberration and in no way typifies the tasks that will confront our Army in the future.
Trying to answer that question is not easy but all the signs are that Iraq does represent the future. And, if that is the case, then we have to confront the stark reality that our armed forces have the wrong structures, the wrong equipment, and the wrong tactics.
To gain some insight into this, I have been revisiting the "liberation" struggle in Rhodesia where, like the insurgents in Iraq, the guerrillas' weapon of choice was the landmine and the IED. It has, in fact, been speculated by some that more vehicles in then Rhodesia struck landmines during the seven year war than by all the Allied forces in Europe in WWII from D-Day until June 1945.
The figures are stark. Between December 1972 and January 1980, 2405 vehicles struck landmines, 632 people were killed and 4,410 were injured. By the end of the war, things had escalated to such a degree that between 5-6 vehicles were hitting landmines every day.
This is set out in a remarkable narrative, which offers some fascinating photographs of the types of countermeasures which were developed (an examples of which is shown above), the basis of which are currently being applied by US forces in Iraq but, significantly, not by the British. An extract from a technical manual also shows how the scientific principles are well understood, further reinforcing how ill-equipped British forces are.
But, if mines and IEDs are the greatest threat to our forces, they are not the only one. We learnt today of an attack on British forces in Afghanistan, in which two British soldiers were killed after a rocket-propelled grenade – no doubt the ubiquitous RPG7 - destroyed their vehicle.
This weapon itself is derived from the German Panzerfaust of World War II vintage, which was a deadly killer of tanks. But, even then, Russian troops had devised their own home-made remedy, one which caused some surprise as victorious T-34s rolled into Berlin in 1945 bedecked with spring mattresses, looted from German houses. It had been found that the coiled springs prematurely triggered the shaped charge of the Panzerfaust, disrupting the projectile and causing it to expend itself against the tank armour.
This has found its modern format in "slatted armour" which can be seen on American Strykers (pictured above left) and British Warriors but, inevitably, cannot be applied to lightly armoured vehicles. Countermeasures here, therefore, remain a major technical challenge for military vehicle designers.
Part of the answer, though, is not in passive protection but the use of UAV escorts for convoys and patrols and also by using light tactical helicopters as escorts to warn of impending ambushes. The both, and particularly the latter, can also intervene in firefights, the US using, amongst other things, the light Kiowa helicopter (a militarised version of the Bell Jet Ranger - pictured above right) to such effect that troops have declared their pilots "honorary infantrymen" because they fly so low as they "mix it" with insurgents at close range.
Against RPG7 ambushes and the ever-present threat of suicide bombs, drivers of explosive-laden vehicles ramming trucks in a convoy, the US have also revisited the Vietnam war where, to counter convoy ambushes, they devised "gun trucks" able to lay down high rates of accurate fire against attackers. And only this week, we learnt that an updated version of this idea was becoming available, an air-defence Humvee converted to the "gun truck" role (pictured above left).
It is by contrasting the US measures with the British that illustrates quite how reluctant the British government is to invest in the Iraqi war and the safety of our own troops, but increasing political and media pressure may change that. But, in order to do the job properly, the government is going to have to recognise that it can no longer afford its grandiose schemes of equipping a rapid reaction force and divert that funding to the here and now requirements of counter-insurgency.
And strangely, if it does, it will be adopting many of the weapons and tactics pioneered by colonial settlers in Rhodesia who learned the lessons the hard way. We could do no better than to recognise their skills and apply them in the current theatre of operations, not least because, if Iraq is the way of the future, we will need them again.
As one who has been led down to the cells in handcuffs for non-payment of Council Tax – mine for refusing to pay the police precept after our house had been burgled four times and my wife’s car broken into, I can totally empathise with Josephine Rooney, the 69-year-old pensioner who was yesterday imprisoned for three months by South Derbyshire Magistrates for refusing to pay hers.
Her story is told in detail in The Daily Mail and elsewhere, noting that, unlike ordinary criminals, who get an automatic fifty percent remission of their sentence, there is no rebate for Council Tax debt and Josephine. Thus, says The Mail,
...at a time when the Government seems to be taking every opportunity to stop sending genuine criminals to jail - and once inside, releasing them as early as possible - she will spend the next three months mixing with drug addicts and murderers after being sent to New Hall prison near Wakefield in West Yorkshire.Of course, Derby City Council deputy leader, Dave Roberts, like any true state apparatchik, disowns the decision. "The council has no wish to send anyone to jail," he says. "Miss Rooney had ample opportunity to pay her council tax, but she has steadfastly refused. Her sentence is the court's decision, not ours."
But actually, there was no decision. The Magistrates have no discretion in this matter, so the penalty is automatic. To save taxpayers' money on the courts, they would be better of having "go to jail" machines on the lines of "speak your weight machines" in the foyers of police stations, leaving more time for the Magistrates to release the day's crop of burglars and muggers.
But the central point which I addressed when I was last arrested is that this makes a mockery of any idea that we are free men and women. Essentially, you retain your liberty only if you pay your annual license fee to the Town Hall.
For me personally, the situation is even worse. With shared ownership of our house, Mrs EU Referendum’s name also appears on the Council Tax bill. But, the apparatchiks who send out the bills, knowing that I am prepared to make a stand over "services" we pay for but don't receive, have now reversed the order of the names, so that hers appears first. It his her, thus, who receives the summons and if I don’t pay the bill, she goes to jail.
Jail I can stand but the thought of dealing with Mrs EU Referendum after she has been released…? I want to live, so I pay up.
And all this is arranged by the kindly "Customer Services" department of the Council. And that is what really pisses me off, this total perversion of our language, the dishonesty of it all. If I was really a "customer", could my wife be jailed because I did not pay a bill for services I was not receiving? I think not.
And what has this got to do with a blog labelled "EU Referendum"? Well, in truth, not a lot, except that it does demonstrate, once again, that the EU is far from being our only problem. When we have brought down the EU, the local Councils must be next.
An energetic discussion on the issue of force protection for our troops in Iraq is being conducted on the unofficial Army forum, together with our own forum and a particularly pompous intervention from Mick Smith on his Times blog.
The Smith piece is worth noting as it is a classic example of "clever-dickery", combining establishment thinking with know-it-all superiority, a condescending attitude and a basic lack of fundamental research, all with a complete failure to put the story in its broader political context.
Headed, "too big for Basra" it takes on the themes which finally emerged in The Sunday Times yesterday, with the opening declaration that, "No-one should suggest or suspect that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown wants British soldiers to die needlessly." Smith then adds, "The senior British Army officers who are trying desperately to find a solution to the problem certainly do not want soldiers to die needlessly."
That is the establishment line but, as has been rehearsed on our forum, the deaths arise in part as the consequences of decisions made by Tony Blair (and, one presumes, Gordon Brown). Whether they want soldiers "to die needlessly" is not the point. The fact is that some are and the reason is that money which should have been put urgently into devising counter-measures for IEDs is being spent on equipping a fantasy army for the European Rapid Reaction Force.
Similarly, although we can accept that "senior British Army officers" are "trying desperately to find a solution" – and we can certainly accept that they do not want soldiers to die needlessly – that again is not the point. Those senior officers, first and foremost, have to work within the budgetary constraints set by the MoD so their "desperation" is heavily qualified by the amount of money they have available.
Thus, when Smith then moves on to ask, rhetorically, "So why three years after the problems with IEDs first surfaced in Iraq are our troops still dying?", he has already conditioned the debate to exclude the main reasons for the situation.
Instead, we get a knowing but unsubstantiated assertion, combined with heroic name-dropping, with Smith recruiting Brigadier Bill Moore, Director Equipment Capability (Ground Manoeuvre), to his cause.
Moore is "in charge of the programme to get a new vehicle", and says the MoD had done "a significant amount" to improve the situation and “was continuing to try to do so”. I love that word, "significant" and use it all the time. It is the King of weasel-words because it implies "an awful lot" but is in fact meaningless. In fact, it actually means "not an awful lot", otherwise one calls a spade a spade, and says, "a great deal". But then, we know a great deal has not been done because troops are still patrolling in lightly armoured Land Rovers.
Then comes the spin. The "use of heavy armour had to be balanced with the need for soldiers to interact with local communities," says Moore. Yup… we agree. And if "Snatch" Land Rovers are too dangerous to use so you end up patrolling in Warriors and Challengers, for want of an intermediate vehicle like the RG-31, what price interacting with local communities, Mr Moore?
But that question is neither posed nor answered. Instead, Brig. Moore argues that protection from threats (such as IEDs) is 30 percent equipment, 60 percent tactics, techniques and procedures and 10 percent luck. Again, this is more weasel words. For sure, avoidance of IEDs requires that mix – although the precise mix ratios can be argued over – but when all that has been accounted for, and an IED goes off next to a vehicle, whether the occupants survive is 100 percent equipment.
Nevertheless, Moore claims that, "We work constantly to ensure that our tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment meet the demands of the operational environment. We have done a significant amount to enhance existing equipment and continue to do so."
But that is a matter of opinion, and Moore does not substantiate his claims. As I point out on the Unofficial Army forum, a successful counterinsurgency strategy is more than a question of improved armour for patrol vehicles. Looking at the measures available, I argue that the vital role of humint (human intelligence) could be enhanced. We know that the Army has cut down on language courses for troops being deployed to Iraq, but we definitely need more native language speakers. There could be more funding for informers and rewards and even such incentives as offering British citizenship and an emigration package to those informers who put themselves in harms way to assist HMG.
In terms of terms of technical countermeasures, we need greater use of UAVs – which are very limited in the British sector, but which the US are exploiting with great success. On the horizon are techniques like "environmental exception mapping", using computer-aided analysis to compare "before and after" video films taken by UAVs, to pick up things like disturbed soil by the side of a road, which might indicate that a bomb has been hidden there. Then there is an urgent need for more light helicopters, the current fleet of Lynxes being described as "knackered" and far too few in number. Then we could certainly employ vehicles such as the Buffalo and Cougar to hunt out IEDs.
Yet, as far as we know – and we know a great deal – nothing like this is happening in the British occupied sectors.
But finally, Mick Smith gets down to money, but in a mealy-mouthed way. We have an RAF Chief of Defence Staff, he writes:
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup is a good man but I wonder how he would defend the cost of the RAF's expensive Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft, large numbers of which we don’t need, alongside the amount of money allocated to Moore to try to sort out the problem of the inadequate armour protection on the Snatch Land Rover.But then comes yet more spin. "The simple truth," adds Smith:
…is that putting a large amount of armour on a small vehicle is extremely difficult. The British Army looked at a number of different options, including the Nyala RG-31, a South African mine-protected vehicle produced by BAE Systems. Ministers say that – at just 50 cms wider than the Snatch Land Rover - it is not manoeuverable enough to be used in the streets of Basra, has then wrong profile for peacekeeping and that an earlier version was used before by the British Army in Bosnia where it proved to have maintenance problems.The "route proving" bit is wrong, and so is the comment about "maintenance problems", but never mind.
The army used it in Bosnia for "route-proving", quite literally going out in front of a convoy and using the safety of its protective armour to ensure that there were no landmines on the route. The "maintenance problems" were in fact caused solely by attempts to put heavier armour on it. The engine and suspension couldn't cope with the extra weight.
Smith then remarks that the Canadians have bought the RG-31 for use in Afghanistan but, strangely, does not mention that the US has bought 148 for use in Iraq for protection against IEDs. "Ministers still defend the decision not to go for the RG-31," he then tells us, "It might have proven effective against land mines. It might be good enough for the Canadians. You might even be able to get it on the ground very quickly. But its profile is all wrong and it's just that bit too big for Basra."
That is the impression we are left with… "it's just that bit too big for Basra." But, of course, the Warriors and Challengers are not – and they really do have the right profile, don't they.
Now, as we reported quickly, earlier today, the secretary of state for defence, Des Browne has stated that he has asked for a review of the Land Rover question. For once, Tory MPs have done their stuff, Roger Gale MP having demanded in defence questions to know what vehicles are being considered to replace them.
With success possibly on the horizon though, now is the time to step up the pressure, not least to make sure the right decision is made. As Smith points out in his piece:
Earlier this year, as the British prepared to deploy to Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, the Taliban began copying the insurgents in Iraq using the same sort of IEDs. The need for a vehicle that had improved armour protection above that afforded by the Snatch Land Rover became increasingly urgent and ministers agreed to pay £35m for 80 armoured Pinzgauer Vectors as part of an "Urgent Operational Requirement".This is where Smith displays his ignorance and lack of research. The Pinzgauer is not a patrol vehicle but a 14-seat troop transport.
Furthermore, the level of protection is no greater than the "Snatch" and, with its slab sides and flat floor, it is not a mine protected vehicle. It is described as being designed "to withstand two NATO L2A2 hand grenades detonating simultaneously only 150mm below the floor pan. These grenades would normally carry a lethality radius of 5 metres." Compare and contrast the RG-31 specification, which can withstand the equivalent of two anti-tank mines exploding simultaneously under any wheel – 14Kg of TNT - or 7Kg under the cabin.
In March of this year, 14 US Marines and a civilian interpreter were killed when their amphibious assault vehicle struck an IED about a mile south of Haditha, Iraq. The "Amtrak", as it is known, affords a level of protection similar to the armoured Pinzgauer. And one feature of these lightly protected vehicles is that an IED may penetrate one wall but not have the force to break through the second, the armoured enclosure thus containing the blast with fatal consequences to all the occupants.
These Pinzgauers, far from making troops safer, could end up being "coffins on wheels". When it comes to new patrol vehicles for Iraq, therefore, the MoD cannot be trusted to make the right decision. The battle must continue.
See also Corporate manslaughter for an update on the Pinzgauer Vector.
Reluctant though I am to intrude on the private correspondence between my colleague and a few of our forum members, I nevertheless feel that there are one or two thing I should like to interpolate. No, not about toys. This is not a posting about toys. They are very important but I do not understand them (though I did see what my colleague tells me must have been T-55s rolling down streets as a wee child) and, therefore, leave them to those better versed in the subject.
So, I shall continue to cover other subjects and, with a bit of luck, annoy people quite considerably.
This morning I spent talking to two groups of sixth formers at a secondary school in west London. This is not the first time I have addressed school children and consider the effort very well worth making. Today's sixth formers are, after all, our future and they will need all the weapons at their disposal to survive and fight in the international jungle that is rapidly growing around us all.
As ever, there were several curious aspects to the exercise. That most of the seventeen-year olds I speak to know very little about anything outside their immediate existence does not surprise me. I was seventeen myself once and, though, I considered myself to be extraordinarily well informed about the world and ready to discuss it at the drop of a hat, other people may well have had a different opinion of my knowledge.
Nor am I particularly suprised by the lack of interest displayed by a large proportion of the boys and girls, who are clearly dragooned into attending these sessions with outside speakers when they would much rather be gossiping in the library. The teacher who had organized this particular session, was rightly insistent in our discussion on the way back to the underground station that these sessions will be very useful to them in the future.
He was also rather despairing about the lack of knowledge they and, indeed, most people in this country (and the rest of the European Union) display of the structures, politics and legislation of that body. Though we disagreed in our opinions - he being rather a supporter of the project for all the usual reasons: social integration, people being friendly to each other and trading with each other etc - we did agree in deploring the lack of interest in a subject that affects everybody's life.
On the other hand, I must admit that the sixth formers of today are considerably readier to discuss matters with adults and not just their teachers, than many were in the past. This has certain disadvantages, in that they will speak even when they do not have anything much to say, and many advantages, in that they will ask questions and, even, listen to the answers.
By and large, both my colleague and I agree that we do not find the children difficult, even when they waffel away in a slightly silly fashion. In my experience they are well behaved, polite, interested to some extent and ready to ask about various points raised. It is not their fault that they are rarely taught to think in a logical fashion and encouraged to emote instead.
When we get over the tongue-tiedness and inevitable shyness, as well as the giggling attempts to get someone else to speak (all very familiar to those who remember their own teens), out come the comments that they have clearly been taught.
What, we were discussing, is the Single Market? It is a very beneficial structure for consumers. Why is it beneficial? Um, well, it strengthens competition and removes barriers between countries in trade. But could that be achieved without the political superstructure (actually, I did not use that Marxist term)? Blank looks all round. Clearly the children had not thought in those terms and, more importantly, had never been encouraged to think in those terms.
Now, this is not another "let's knock the teachers" posting, though I did get somewhat irritated by one young lady teacher today, who very charmingly kept trying to drag the discussion back to the benefits of the EU and away from its structures, legislation and democratic deficit. The point is the emotionalism.
The EU is a singularly boring subject. Its ways are complicated to the point of incomprehensibility. But, I maintain, intelligent seventeen year olds should be encouraged, as far as possible, to try to find their ways through the labyrinth. They should not be filled with warm muzzy feelings.
They are quite capable of thinking, if needs be, as several (all girls, as it happens, today though not always in the past) demonstrated it. After I mentioned several times that one must differentiate between facts and opinions, one of them challenged me on a glib statement about the relative difficulties of starting a business in France and Britain. Was that a fact or my opinion? I had to justify very coherently what I had said.
On another occasion, in a different school, I was asked by a boy how I could justify support for democracy and free trade. What of the countries that were not democratic? It is no bad thing, I find, having to reply to questions like that.
In return, I'd like to think that at least some of my audience has gone away to think about a few very new ideas: that trade across boundaries does not require political integration or a huge regulatory structure; that business does not need a "level playing field" but a chance to compete; that the world is a bigger place than just Europe; and that high social protection leads to unemployment that hits the poorest and most vulnerable first. It was worth the trip out towards Heathrow this morning.
This weekend, I had dinner with a very senior politician – one who had had direct and prolonged experience of the innermost workings of the Ministry of Defence and close working contacts with prime ministers.
Amongst other things, my politician confirmed that which we have worked out for ourselves , that there is, and has been for many years – before even the Blair regime – a "Europe first" defence procurement policy. However, I heard details of how this extends right through the procurement process to a degree which is quite staggering. Quite deliberately, at times, inferior, old fashioned and more expensive European equipment is bought, even where the more modern and effective equipment from the United States is actually cheaper.
What confuses the outside observer, though, is that the MoD is riven with factional infighting between competing tribes and not a few purchasing officers have found ways of circumventing the policy and breaking the "Europe first" rule. This allows gainsayers to leap triumphantly on the few exceptions and dispute its existence, even though it is well established and supported at the very highest level.
But what also emerged was confirmation of the thesis that we ourselves on this blog have been struggling to put together – that there are two separate and distinct defence policies being conducted by this government. The one – to which all the resources are being devoted is the "European" defence policy while the poor relative is the "trans-Atlantic" policy which is at its most visible in our support for the US-led coalition in Iraq.
When this is put together with the flurry of media coverage over the weekend about equipment inadequacies, we are able to draw the incontrovertible conclusion that the government is simply not prepared to finance the war effort in Iraq. Further, so poor is the equipment and so lacking in numbers are our troops, that we are able to draw down increasing evidence from the public domain that, into order to minimise politically embarrassing casualties, the Army has ceased to play any effective role in the policing of Southern Iraq.
Many areas of Basra and Al-Amarah have thus become "no go" areas to British patrols because they are simply too dangerous, leaving our presence confined to the safer and less populated areas in what is now a token operation. This is spelt out in some detail in the Independent on Sunday yesterday, which reports that British forces are facing rising violence among Shia Muslim factions in southern Iraq, but are powerless to contain it.
The paper also adds that both British and Iraqi authorities were seeking to play down the situation – each for their own reasons. For the British government, it is keen to project a charade that the Iraqi authorities are gaining in strength and competence so that it can hand over to them and declare "mission accomplished", bring the troops back in "triumph".
The reason for the inadequacy of the British forces is, as we continue to report, primarily due to the priority given to equipping the European Rapid Reaction Force. The essential problem is that the equipment required to take on and defeat the counterinsurgency is so specialised that it has no place in the EU's air-portable rapid reaction force structure. Set on withdrawing from Iraq at the first possible opportunity, the government is simply not prepared to invest in specialist equipment which will get limited use and will then not be suitable for the EU force.
We have seen already how this is putting our soldiers lives at risk, through the MoD insistence on keeping wholly inadequate Land Rovers in place, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is brought to the fore by that stupid and ignorant piece in The Sunday Telegraph where correspondent Sean Rayment is quivering with excitement over the emergence in theatre of something entirely new to him, "the armour-piercing 'explosively formed projectile' or EFP, also known as a shaped charge." This, the excited Rayment tells us, "fires directly into an armoured vehicle, inflicting death or terrible injuries on troops inside."
And what particularly gets Rayment worked up is his "discovery" that, "Government scientists have established that the mines are precision-made weapons which have been turned on a lathe by craftsmen trained in the manufacture of munitions," probably originating from Iran. He tells us that, "a source from the American military, who has been working closely with British scientists, said that the insurgents have perfected the design of the weapon and know exactly where to place it to ensure maximum damage to coalition vehicles."
The ignorance manifest in this piece is simply demonstrated by the fact that these weapons are not at all new. As we have reported before, they appeared in Bosnia in the early 90s, in the form of the TMRP-6 mine.
The fact that it is called a "mine", however, should not be allowed to confuse the situation. The Serbs not only buried these devices, but became adept at fixing them to the walls of buildings alongside roads or hanging them from telegraph poles. Ready to be triggered by passing vehicles. In other words, these devices were being used in exactly the same way as Rayment's "explosively formed projectile" (which is exactly what they were), with like effect.
Nor indeed are these the most deadly devices in the Iraqi theatre. Not least of these is the standard BK-29 HEAT-MP round, a 125mm Russian shell used by the T 72 tank. In dumps and caches all over Iraq, there are estimated hundreds of thousands of these shells, already in the hand of insurgents. One of these shells, suitably positioned, and detonated by a remote device, can easily take out an Abrams or Challenger Main Battle Tank and, indeed, several Abrams have been lost to these and similar devices - one only last month.
Further, given that only an estimated 20 of the devices have been brought in, compared with 11,000 roadside bombings in Iraq last year (compared with 5,607 in 2004), this is by no means the devastating problem that Rayment makes it out to be.
It can be no accident, though, that Rayment believes this type of device to be "new" as other journalists are reporting the same thing, which suggests that are buying government "spin" on this. Together with what appears to be government-inspired propaganda that there is somehow no defence against it, this "spin" is particularly wicked.
So well known is this type of threat that, in April 1999, the then under-secretary of state for defence, John Spellar, actually hosted a press briefing on it. And, as we know, by then, successful counter-measures had already been developed.
But, by allowing ignorant and gullible journalists to run away with the idea that this is somehow a new and different threat, the government absolves itself from any failure to protect our troops from it and, by implying that there is no defence against, calls for introduction of counter-measures are sidestepped.
Once again, we are back where we started. Introducing counter-measures in theatre would be expensive and the money is already spoken-for. In order to pursue European defence integration, therefore, it is more expedient to let troops die, especially – as my political informant told me – the MoD is confident that it can always rely on an ignorant and indifferent media not to report the facts.