19 December 2006

All I want for Christmas...

Any credible foreign policy for a mid-ranking, internationalist power like the United Kingdom relies on effective military forces to back it up. However, while our forces are undoubtedly first-rate, they are equipped primarily to deal with a Soviet-era threat. Yet the greatest demand in the post 9-11 scenario is for counter-insurgency forces, which need different types of equipment, issued on a different scale.

Very little of the equipment needed is actually new in concept. What in many cases makes (or should make) the difference is the scale of issue. A counter-insurgency force, for instance, will need far more light attack helicopters than a conventional armoured formation. There also needs to be a strong emphasis on force protection, focused on base defences and patrol/convoy survivability.

These are areas where the British Army is heavily deficient and to redress the inadequacies and the imbalances, we have produced our own Christmas list for Santa. It might as well be addressed to Santa for the chances of our own politicians (much less the media) paying any attention to it are pretty remote - although discussion of the list would make a fascinating feature in a Sunday newspaper. Anyhow, here goes:

Number one on our list is dedicated to base defence. This is the US-developed lightweight counter-mortar radar, in this case mounted on a USMC Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) which itself is equipped with an advanced 120mm mortar for counter-battery fire. The combination is a potent weapon for base and tactical commanders having to deal with hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks on their positions - whether they be large, established bases like the Shatt al-Arab Hotel in Basra or temporary positions such as those occupied by 3rd Para in Afghanistan.

Option number two is for large, static bases - the C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) gun based on the naval Phalanx system. This can be used to shoot down incoming mortar bombs and rockets, with an 80 percent success rate. The guns have the added advantage that the automatic firing provides audible warning of an attack, giving time for those at risk to run for cover.

The third piece of kit we desperately need is a medium tactical, high endurance UAV - or to be more specific, a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) - the distinction being that this can carry weapons. The vehicle illustrated is the Hunter and, although there are other UAVs with similar performance, this has been fully developed to deliver low-yield precision guided missiles.

The Hunter can either be used for reconnaissance - locating enemy forces and relaying their positions to commanders, who can task other assets to deal with them - or it can be used as an attack weapon in its own right, firing missiles to take out small groups of the enemy (such as a rocket or mortar teams).

And this is the missile of choice - the Viper Strike. Originally designed as an anti-tank missile, it has been adapted to function in an anti-personnel role, with a capability also to take out light vehicles. Where so much fighting is carried out in urban environments with civilians present, the urgent need is for a weapon which minimises collateral damage. This missile has the ability to kill the occupants of one vehicle in a line, without damaging the others. Another characteristic of the weapon is its very steep attack profile - contrasting with the shallow flight-path of the typical missile - which makes it ideal for urban canyons.

Number five on our list is a light tactical helicopter, of which many are needed. Smaller than the Lynx, they can either be one of the Eurocopter versions, an MD Enforcer or similar. They should be able to carry 4-5 troops as a rapid response force, stretchers for casevac, light weapons (including rocket pods) in the light attack role, and/or surveillance equipment for the search and observation roles. The crucial issue is the price, with their relative cheapness enabling the military to buy larger numbers of machines than at presently planned with the Future Lynx.

And, giving our commanders yet another option is the AC-130. With its array of gatling guns, cannon and its 105mm howitzer, its sensors and all-weather target acquisition capability, the "Spooky" as it is known, is a powerful - if expensive - addition to any armoury. It is capable both of laying down saturation fire to break up attacks and precision fire to take out specific targets. These formidable machines should be available in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

And alongside the "Spooky" we also need high-endurance, long range UAV/UCAVs such as the Predator or the more advanced MQ-9 Reaper. Although the government is currently acquiring three of these machines for Afghanistan, this seems a question of "too little - too late". We need enough to have at least one flying over every area of operation, with an organic UCAV capability. Reading just a fragment of the spec demonstrates why the MQ-9 comes into the "must have" category: it will be able to deploy the GBU-12 and EGBU-12 bombs and 500lb GBU-38 JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition). Flight trials have also taken place with the General Atomics Lynx SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) payload. Lynx also features ground moving target indicator technology...

From the sublime to the ridiculous. The aircraft shown is the Argentinian-built Pucara, a twin turbo-prop ground attack aircraft used during the Falklands war. Not for one moment would I suggest that we have some of these but the picture is used to illustrate the concept of a light, cheap ground attack aircraft. At a time when the trend is towards greater sophistication, complexity and cost, against a relatively unsophisticated enemy, the "cheap and cheerful" concept ensures that there is always some capacity, as opposed to none at all - which is so often the case at the moment.

For the next item, we have the Force Protection Buffalo - equipped for mine and IED clearance. This machine is currently in service in Iraq where it provides invaluable service in detecting IEDs that would otherwise kill and main. So far, with the Cougars, which are used by bomb disposal officers, these vehicles have received over 1,000 hits from IEDs, without a single fatality. The British forces rely on a man walking in front of a vehicle (surprisingly they do not give him a red flag) and the bomb disposal officers have unarmoured "Duro" trucks. Neither is acceptable.

Then we need a mine/blast protected patrol and convoy escort vehicle, to replace the "Snatch" and "Wimik" Land Rovers. The 6x6 versions of the Cougar being bought by the MoD (and re-named the Mastiff) are too big and cumbersome to be used. The vehicle illustrated is the RG-31. It has proved its worth time and time again in Canadian and US hands, saving many lives in circumstances where Land Rover crews would have been killed. Nevertheless, the Australian Bushmaster would be just as acceptable as would - at a pinch - the German Dingo II.

This picture shows a US Stryker wheeled armoured personnel carrier. Operations by the US in Iraq and by the Canadians in Afghanistan with their Bisons, have demonstrated the value of wheeled carriers. They are faster, quieter, more comfortable and cheaper to run - also requiring less maintenance. For sure, they do not have the cross-country performance of tracked carriers, but no one is suggesting that our Warriors should be dispensed with. Alongside tracks, though, there is a role for wheels. We need some.

And finally... we need a new tank. The British Challenger II MBT (and the US Abrams) were built for taking out Soviet T82s at long range under all conditions. They were not built for counter-insurgency. Pictured is an Israeli-built Merkava MBT. It is not perfect but, with a personnel and stores carrying capability, it is better than other Western tanks. They performed well in Lebanon and provide a good model on which to base new designs. Not for this Christmas then, but in years to come, we want a new MBT from Santa.

As for the price tag - well, no one asks the price of Santa's gifts. If really pushed, one would have to concede that a decent number of the toys illustrated would set Gordon back several billions - perhaps as much as £5 billion. But since he is paying £15 billion a year to the EU, there is one very obvious place where he could get the money - and have some change. That would enable us to buy some more Hercules C-130J airlifters and some CH-47 Chinooks, which we also need, leaving £5 million to spend on more Vipir thermal imagers.

However, this is only my idea for a list. What would yours be? And what would the Conservatives suggest?