25 January 2007

Not good enough

There are not a few people who would have me rejoice when a newspaper takes up an issue that this blog has been "banging" on about, on the basis that the more who make a fuss, the more likely it is that there will be a solution. No more so is this true than in the lamentable treatment of the pressing defence issues, but I am not able to draw any comfort at all from enhanced media concern.

The trouble is that drawing attention to a problem, with a view to getting a solution, might promote action from your "target" – usually politicians – but it might not be the right action, or the action taken might not be sufficient.

If that happens – and it does all too often – the net effect of any media activity may actually be harmful. The general perception will be that action has been taken. Few people will be interested in the details or the technicalities and will accept that the issue has been resolved. You then are left with an unresolved problem – or one not fully resolved – and the chances of getting further media interest are remote. The "book" is closed and re-opening it is more difficult than raising a matter anew.

In campaigning terms, therefore – as in much of life – it is wise not simply to remonstrate against something, or about a problem, but for a specific solution. And the operative word here is "specific". Leave the options open and cash-strapped ministers will look for the cheapest option, or those from which they can draw greatest political advantage.

Thus I was far from happy to see, earlier this week the leader in The Daily Telegraph, as good an example as any of the a wide-ranging defect, of which much of the media is guilty.

At face value, the leader was good news, ostensibly addressing my own complaint that the newspaper exploits the activities and bravery of our armed forces, simply to fill its pages, finding the diet of MoD press releases a cheap source of copy, as we allewge it did with the Apache rescue story. The quid pro quo, I have argued, is that the paper should use its power to argue for more and better resources for our troops.

Well, here we had it – the headline, "Troops need resources to safeguard our future". On the face of it, you could not ask for better than that. "We lack assault troops, logistical support and helicopters," said the Telegraph, adding: "If we do not back our military with the resources it needs – in terms of equipment, personnel and salaries – we will be jeopardising all of our safety."

The problem though is that we get little more than that. And it is the vagueness – the lack of specificity – which is the source of our great complaint. We lack "assault troops" means very little, other than a posh variation of "boots on the ground".

But, as we have argued earlier, depending on the tactics employed and the strategic objectives, the job – certainly in Afghanistan – could possibly be done more effectively with less troops. And, in any event, more of the wrong sort of troops, or troops deployed without the right equipment, can simply create targets, the overall effect of which is to increase the casualty rate while not helping to achieve strategic of tactical objectives.

Then, if "assault troops" is vague, what does "logistical support" mean? Taken literally, it could include delivering more toilet rolls in a more timely fashion.

Equally vague is the use of "helicopters". Does the paper mean more transport helicopters? If that is the case, are we talking about basic utility helicopters, like the Puma, more medium lift, like the Chinooks or even a heavy-lift capability – like the CH-53 – which we lack entirely at the moment? We doubt, however, that the paper means light assault helicopters, or even light utility, or armed reconnaissance, even if we aver that all three categories are urgently needed.

And therein lies the problem – or part of it. Presumably, if the government managed to magic out of thin air half a dozen Chinooks, the Telegraph would be happy. Having asked for "more helicopters", it could write a self-regarding editorial proclaiming, in effect, that it was "the Telegraph wot dun it", and then move on to pastures new – leaving troops better off, but still lacking key equipment and being dangerous vulnerable.

The other part of the problem is the limited scope of the paper's demands and, in this world, if you don't ask, you don't get. If the case is not made for specifics, then the politicians can hardly be criticised for not supplying them.

We would argue that the troops need assets like the AC-130; they need base protection such as the Phalanx/C-RAM anti-mortar equipment. In Afghanistan, they need tanks and Warriors. In Iraq, they need ground attack aircraft; they need better patrol and convoy escort vehicles. In fact, the Armed Forces need a whole package of "goodies" and we have only scratched the surface.

On the other hand, there are those who would argue that military equipment is a highly complex, specialised field, which is best left to experts. Neither the media nor the general public can be expected to take part in a debate about specifics.

Yet, how interesting it is that so many media outlets and so many people now have an opinion about the Eurofighter – nor least the Telegraph in its current leader. And who was it who made the decision to buy it in the first place? Ah! That would be that great military expert, Michael Heseltine.

Therein lies an important point – most big-ticket procurement decisions (and even some relatively minor ones) are made not by experts but by politicians, heavily influenced by political considerations. Rarely are they made solely for operational reasons.

And, if the likes of Des Browne, the current secretary of state for defence – who has absolutely no military background and had never, before he took on his job, shown any interest in defence – can take major decisions on defence equipment, then a newspaper should have no problem getting the requisite experts in to argue a case, one way or another. Certainly, it would be a change to have the case argued in public before rather than after the event.

One thing is very certain though – as is war far too important to be left to generals, so is the purchase of their equipment. Commendable though it may be, it is not safe simply to declare, as The Business has done this week, that "it is a case of giving them the tools and they will finish the job." Service personnel - no more or less than others – are prey to fashions and foibles, and – if they are allowed to - are quite capable of buying entirely the wrong tools, for the wrong war.

What is also emerging though is that, in the prosecution of wars, there is now a degree of choice. We seem to have entered an era of the "voluntary war" where governments can decide to commit their armed forces to a particular campaign and to withdraw at any time, at a moment unrelated to the tactical or strategic situation.

This development seems not to have been lost on the Army and might explain the unprecedented intervention of General Sir Richard Dannatt in October last. Faced with an unpopular war, for which the Army is not equipped and which probably requires complete restructuring in order to deal with it, Dannatt has called for a withdrawal.

The theme has been echoed by other senior officers and is even to be found in the Telegraph leader which applauds the "bravery and dedication of our forces in Iraq" but then effectively dismisses their efforts, telling us that our troops have an even more vital mission in Afghanistan. "Whereas our presence in Iraq is doing more harm than good," the leader says, "the campaign against Taliban insurgents still has the potential to save a country."

But there is more to this than meets the eye. The Army has a corporate view of how its should fight, as a body and, what comes over with some clarity from oral evidence given in a recent session of the House of Commons Defence Committee is that the fighting in Iraq is not regarded as "proper" fighting.

More of this emerged from Tony Blair's speech last week, where he made the distinction between "warfighting" and "peacekeeping". The references appear to acknowledge the Army's concern that the concentration on the peacekeeping activities will have a harmful effect on its ability to engage in "proper" warfare.

What is not recognised in this simplistic division, however, is that the Iraqi campaign cannot entirely be considered by such an anodyne descriptor as "peacekeeping". More accurately, it is a counter-insurgency operation and as much a war as the more conventional variety. What differs is the enemy's choice of tactics and weapons, their rather unsporting refusal to wear uniforms, carry arms openly or occupy clearly delineated lines.

Instead of shooting soldiers in open warfare, they instil fear in military opponents and local populations through use of suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and beheadings. And they disguise themselves as civilians and hide among civilian populations with weapons stored and discharged from mosques, schools, hospitals, marketplaces, private residences and public roads. In this type of warfare, there are no front lines and what were previous considered the rear areas are as much in the battle as the soldiers out patrolling the streets.

The very strong impression emerging though is the tendency of the British high command to regard this type of war as an aberration and, more dangerously, an unwelcome diversion from the real business of soldiering. As we remarked earlier, the enemy is fighting the wrong kind of war.

But, instead of gearing up to meet the enemy and defeat it on the battlefield that it has chosen, the response of the Army – in particular – seems to be turning away from the challenge. The fear is that if funds from the equipment budget are diverted to gearing up for this counter-insurgency, there will be insufficient funds available to re-equip the Army to fight "proper" wars. And for the Army, that means putting at risk the project so treasured by the Generals, the £14 billion FRES project - their bid for the next generation of high-tech "toys".

Thus does the military establishment put it about that the Army is being "reduced" to the status of a gendarmerie, with the implication that successfully dealing with insurgencies is somehow less important – and even less noble – than winning "wiz-bang" wars where the troops can dash around in green-painted "toys" with the generals at their plotting boards, marshalling their forces.

The discussion over the blast protected Mastiff, in this context, is highly illuminating. While US ground forces are openly discussing purchasing an additional 4,000 mine protected vehicles, the British MoD has reluctantly invested in a mere 100 Mastiffs.

Furthermore, it has made it clear that these are temporary additions to the fleet, the high command regarding the vehicle as "non standard". It does not fit with the view of how the Army wants to fight its battles and it is concerned that, once it has left Iraq, it will have to pay to maintain equipment it does not want – at the expense of the "toys" it would prefer to have.

What this suggests is that there are two problems in relation to equipment procurement. The first is in deciding what the armed forces need, as opposed to what the generals – and even the lower ranks – want. Only then is possible to campaign for the equipment, the provision of which could well be opposed by the intended recipients.

Here is where the media (and the politicians) have to up their game. Decisions on where and under what conditions the armed forces will fight are political – they must be made by politicians – not the armed forces. It is then up to the armed forces to tell the politicians what they need to fight, and for the politicians to provide it.

But, what we are actually seeing is the tail wagging the dog. The Army, reluctant to fight in Iraq, is actually agitating for withdrawal – and refusing to gear itself for an effective prosecution of the war. Thus, the calls for equipment are relatively modest, when there should be great agitation for more, better and different equipment.

Slavishly following the whims of the generals – or deferring to them as the "experts" – does the nation no favours. And since the politicians will not call the Army's bluff, the only institution that can is the media, and especially the specialist defence correspondents.

This was the historic role of Captain Basil Lidell-Hart who as defence correspondent in the inter-war years, for both The Times and The Daily Telegraph, became a thorn in the flesh of the military establishments. He demanded the adoption of weapons and tactics which the War Office was reluctant to take on board – the lack of which so very nearly cost British the war and her freedom.

It is thus no role of the media to be cheer-leaders for the military establishment. The generals are just as capable of losing wars as winning them and, in fact, it could be argued that many wars have been won in spite of, not because of, them.
Thus, I will not and cannot rejoice in the current "gung-ho" and largely uncritical media support for the Armed Forces. To campaign for what they believe they want, or tell us they want, is not necessarily in their longer term interest, or ours.

Any support should be conditional, based on a knowledgeable appraisal of what is needed, and devoted to pursuing the national interest, not just the interests of the military establishments, who most certainly have their own agendas. And it is here that the media is simply not doing its job. This is simply not good enough.