24 November 2006

Muppets' half hour

There seems to be something of a bandwagon effect running as more newspapers and the BBC join what is becoming a growing chorus of condemnation of British military equipment.

Some more issues were raised yesterday in The Daily Express, by reporter Padraic Flanagan, writing from Afghanistan. They were picked up, uncritically by the BBC and also by Matthew Hickley of the Evening Standard.

However, such is the ignorance of the journalists, their evident lack of research and their superficial approach to what is - as our readers will readily acknowledge - a complex technical subject, that the media activities have not taken us any further forward.

The reports in question feature Sergeant Stephen Brown of 45 Commando, second in command of the unit to which Marine Gary Wright belonged when he was killed by a suicide bomber last month, while riding in a "Snatch" Land Rover. From such a source, therefore, one might think that we could get some really pointed and searching criticism. But not a bit of it.

All we actually get is Brown saying that he doubted whether Wright's death could have been prevented. To the entirely unquestioning hacks he simply says that a better-protected vehicle could have stopped others in the vehicle becoming casualties, adding that the "Snatch" Land Rovers left troops exposed. "They are slow and offer no protection from improvised explosive devices," he says.

Now, Sergeant Brown is undoubtedly a good NCO, but one wonders whether he has seen the effects of a suicide bomb on the RG-31 (illustrated) – or indeed whether he even knows what an RG-31 is. Then, as our readers know, the Germans have the Dingo and the Dutch have the Bushmaster, both of which demonstrably offer considerable protection against mines and IEDs. Did Sergeant Brown know about these before making his observations?

More to the point, did any of the hacks know about them or, as always, are we just seeing them write down, totally uncritically, what they are told, with not a brain-cell's worth of questioning or analysis?

But, if they sell the pass here, it actually gets worse. According to the Express report, Brown then complains that a shortage of "Viper" (sic) and "Sophie" thermal-imaging equipment was hindering his troops in halting further attacks. The units, we are told, designed to work over different distances, work by showing the user a "heat map" of the body, and can reveal a suicide bomber by the tell-tale "cold spot" around the midriff shielded by a belt of deadly explosives.

Sergeant Brown is quoted as saying that the men in Lashkar Gah had barely a tenth of the imaging units they needed. "These units will save people's lives," he says. "They allow you to look at the potential threat and see him coming, but having to pass them around by hand and pick up your weapon – by that time he's on top of you."

Such is the fact-checking skill of the hacks, however, that none of them realise that the so-called "Viper" is in fact a Vipir. This is a small detail but another crucial piece of information which is missing is that the Vipir is a compact thermal imaging sight for the SA 80 rifle. It is a very nice piece of kit and it can be hand-held, but it is primarily designed as a rifle sight.

The relevance of this missing information will become evident in a moment but let us first deal with "Sophie". The complaint is so easily dropped in by Flanagan but "Sophie" is, in fact, a much larger piece of equipment than "Vipir". It is also fragile and expensive and, according the Army website, deployed at company level only. It would be entirely unrealistic for Wright to expect personal issue - and nor would it do his men any good. As you can see from the illustration, it is not possible to use "Sophie" and a weapon at the same time. For him to appear to ask for them gives the MoD a possible comeback and an opportunity to belittle the Sergeant.

But what is particularly interesting here - if the hacks were switched on - is that the equipment is obsolescent, scheduled for replacement (in the US Marines, at any rate) with a much better unit. If there is a complaint, it is that the British Army is not getting the up-to-date kit.

Ironically, though, the issue of thermal imagers was taken up during the lunch-time news on the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme. And it is here that the biggest mess was made of the issue. On the programme, the self-important Shaun Ley tells us that Brown's platoon is issued with three Vipir sights, when it needs 25. He then interviews the defence procurement minister, Lord Drayson and challenges him about the shortage.

Amazingly, the dreadful Drayson comes back saying that, "we've sent over 1400 sets of night vision goggles to Afghanistan…". These, of course, are totally different bits of kit – they are image intensifiers. They do not pick up infra-red radiation but simply intensify the available light in the visible spectrum. They cannot even be used in daylight, and would be useless for detecting suicide bombers.

The idiot Ley, however, clearly doesn't know the difference. "So as far as you're concerned," he says, "there's no issue of shortage either from the manufacturers or delay in issue at this end". "No there isn't," says Drayson, completely off the hook.

Something really, really does need to be done about these amateurs. The newspapers are bad enough but the BBC is in a league of its own. Yet, they are so full of themselves, they do not even begin to realise quite how full of crap they really are.

A start would be for their "flagship" news programme, the World at One, to be renamed Muppets' half hour.