13 December 2006

A very poor job

You can almost taste the frustration as you read the single statement that effectively negates the whole of the report. It starts:

We strongly regret the MoD's refusal to supply us even with a classified summary of the information against which it assesses the success of its military operations. This makes it impossible for us to assure the House of the validity of its assessment.
We are, or course, referring to the Defence select committee Annual Performance Report on the Ministry of Defence, published today. And here we have the MPs admitting (as well as deploring) that fact that the MoD is not even supplying them with the basic information that they need to do their job.

Amazingly though, what should be headline news is ignored by the media, which makes you wonder whether any of the journalists actually read the report.

Instead, they concentrate by and large on this statement in the conclusions:

The Armed Forces are operating in challenging conditions and without all the equipment they need. The current level of commitments is impacting on training. With problems of undermanning continuing, there is a clear danger that the Armed Forces will not be capable of maintaining current commitments over the medium-term.
This allows The Sun to proclaims: "Military is in meltdown" but it certainly says something of the spinmeisters of the MoD that, from the same report, they are able to headline on their website: "MOD's Overall Performance 'Satisfactory' Say MPs".

Looking at the thrust of the media coverage, however, the "troops and equipment" story has it. The Telegraph, for instance, tells you: "Armed forces are 'undermanned and ill-equipped'", the story attributed to Tim Hall and "agencies", although why agencies should be needed or credited when this is a story about a report, heaven (and the Telegraph management) only knows.

The Scotsman carries a similar line with. "Military shortages 'pose danger'", based on a Reuters report, while Monsters and Critics runs "British troops 'ill equipped'".

All of this, from these and many other media outlets, looks pretty damning until you actually look at the select committee report for the damning evidence on the lack of equipment. And what do we see?

Well, there are references to the shortage of battlefield helicopters and to the lack of airlift capability. That is it. The MPs have swallowed, hook line and sinker, the MoD claim to have solved the "Snatch" Land Rover problem, with no one questioning whether the huge Mastiff is really suitable as a patrol vehicle, or whether the Pinzgauer Vector is at all safe.

But the really depressing thing is how the MPs are so reactive, chained to the MoD for their information and their agenda. Thus, there is no "out of the box" thinking. There is no questioning about the need for light reconnaissance and attack helicopters; nothing about tactical UAVs and UCAVs. Nothing is asked about base defences using the Phalanx C-RAM systems, or the availability of counter-battery mortar or low yield precision guided missiles like Viper Strike. Nor, indeed, is anything asked of the availability of thermal imagers that are apparently so desperately needed in Afghanistan.

They could of course got all of that information from this blog, free of charge but these people are MPs. With very few exceptions, both they and their researchers are far too grand to soil their eyes on such material. Of course, the select committees do have their own research capabilities (albeit limited), but each of the MPs - with their average of £131,000 in expenses (up from £118,000 in 2004) - can also finance their own research to see what equipment is needed.

Most of all, however - and this tells who that the MPs are not at all serious in their work - the select committees can call for written evidence and, in their hearings, call any witnesses who could help them in their inquiries.

So, with a nation at war, casualties mounting and predictions of woe coming from all quarters, how many evidential sessions do you think they held? Well, one is the number. With Mr James Arbuthnot (pictured), in the chair, they took evidence from er… Mr Bill Jeffrey CB, Permanent Under Secretary of State, and Mr Trevor Woolley, Finance Director, Ministry of Defence. For their written evidence, they relied on one main and one supplementary memorandum from – you guessed it – the Ministry of Defence.

Now, rightly, we expect a great of our armed forces and we are critical of them when they mess up. Only very recently were we hearing about an inquiry into the actions of some Royal Marines after a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar. But, the other half of the bargain is that we look after our troops.

From the evidence of this superficial, inadequate report, we can say that the bargain is not being honoured. In fact, if our troops did their jobs as badly as these overpaid idlers, we would be in deep trouble and the nation would be clamouring for heads to roll.

Of course, if the media was doing its job properly, then these charlatans would be exposed for what they really are – but then that really is asking too much.