18 March 2007

The biter bit

It is rather illustrative that certain journalists – no strangers to dishing it out when the mood takes them – seem highly sensitive to criticism of their own work.

One such is The Sun's defence editor, Tom Newton Dunn. On 5 March he wrote a tolerably good piece on the mortar and rocket attacks on British bases in Iraq, spoilt in my view by his comment that "Most of the firing is from gardens or trucks in built-up areas so troops can't fire back."

This was, I suggested, Dunn repeating the Army's defeatist mantra. There was no sense, I wrote, that there were other countermeasures available or that the lack of resources represented serial incompetence on the part of successive governments, and their military advisors.

These criticisms, Mr Dunn thought, were "naïve", to which he added a further comment, declaring, "It's a little sad that you prefer your own opinions of what's happening in Basra now, rather than the actual facts gathered by someone who's actually been there."

So, Mr Dunn has been to Basra, but I then pointed out the The Sunday Telegraph story yesterday. That reported that a battery of 105mm light guns had been sent to Basra, indicating that the troops could indeed fire back, and were doing so – albeit that my point remained that there were alternatives to counter-battery fire.

Dunn's response was interesting. He did not disagree at all with the fact that the MoD's procurement record in recent years had been terrible – not that I had actually raised this with him - but he did not see why this necessarily meant he was falling for Army propaganda. "What a stupid and insulting hypothesis," he declared.

As to the issue itself – I had my "facts and figures about IDF (indirect fire) in Basra and military tactics used to counteract it so arse over tit" that he "really wouldn't know where to start," in correcting it. He continued:

By your very excitable zeal, I fear it wouldn't be really be worth me giving you a considered response either, as I seriously doubt you'd really listen to a word I say. I'm happy to leave you with the fiction that it is you after all who knows better, since luckily I'm sure almost nobody reads your blog anyway.
Ignoring the jibe, I pointed out some of the alternative measures that could be C-RAM, UAV surveillance and the use of quick reaction heli-borne assault teams, also observing that I felt it was the reluctance of the Army to use this kit was "defeatist". Again, the reply was interesting, starting with this:

How do you know that C-RAM isn't already in operation in Basra? Or UAVs and helicopter overwatch equipped with Broadsword are too? Might it be possible that we might know that, but just didn't report it to maintain operational security? Might you also consider that we knew about the 105s too, but didn't report that too for the same reasons - unlike the inaccurate and irresponsible Sunday Tel?
One warms to the comments about the Sunday Telegraph I have no doubt that, when C-RAM is finally installed in Basra Air Station, we will be told about it, and we already know that the UK operates two Predator UAVs in Iraq, and has Predator Bs on order. However, references to UAV/helicopter "overwatch" and "Broadsword" would hardly breach operational security – and the Services have been quite open about their equipment capabilities - although they would need some explaining.

What we are actually talking about (and one wonders whether Dunn actually fully understands this) are two linked systems, the first being the L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical turret . This was fitted to six Nimrod MR2s (including the machine that crashed last year), to some of the Merlin helicopter fleet and to the Iraqi Air Force Sama 2000 fleet. It will also be fitted to the Future Lynx helicopter, which means, in effect, that the £360,000 Sama 2000 will be performing the same role as the £14 million Lynx.

The second part of the system is the "Broadsword" element, which is simply the capability to transmit real-time video imagery from the MX-15 to ground stations and commanders – a capability that already exists with equipment like UAVs.

As regards the surveillance capability, the manufacturers give a good indication of the performance, as indeed does the Royal Navy. Referring to recent trials of the MX-15 on the Merlin, it tells us:

In favourable conditions the MX-15 routinely enables the rear crew operator to identify surface vessels to type/class at ranges in excess of 40 nautical miles. On one occasion a small fishing vessel was identified at a range of over 70 nautical miles.
Interestingly, on the Daily Mail website is the news of another successful raid by British troops. They seized a substantial cache of bomb-making equipment and weapons after searching a house in the Al Hyyaniyah district "following information about a number of people suspected of involvement in attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces".

This follows two others executed recently here and here. When we learnt of the first of the two, we wrote that it was a "significant action",

…not least because it suggests that the British Army is not entirely without friends in the area. While, on this blog, we have tended to emphasise the hardware aspect of fighting an insurgency, the acquisition of local intelligence is just as important as having well-equipped troops. However, it could just be that the "local intelligence" came from "UAVs and helicopter overwatch equipped with Broadsword".
Nevertheless, as is typical of so many people who are far too grand to read the blog, which "almost nobody reads … anyway", we also get this from Dunn:

Can you also accept that you cannot shell built up areas such as houses and back gardens because of the likelihood of collateral damage? And if the 105s are already being used (which they are), it is only on open areas such as parks? This is what I mean by facts Richard - and I'm afraid you've just proved again that you don't know them. The way to prevent IDF is not by technology alone (a lot of which UK forces actually already have) but predominantly by intelligence-led strike operations and arrests. To say this is not at all defeatist - and it is that utterly flawed presumption that is offensive. Recognise this please.
Had Dunn written about how to deal with indirect fire in his original article, I might have written a different piece, but he did not. And anyone who has followed this blog will certainly not come away with the view that I have at any time suggested we shell built-up areas such as houses and gardens and we readily acknowledge the way to prevent indirect fire is "not by technology alone"

However, to assert that the problem will be overcome "predominantly by intelligence-led strike operations and arrests" is simply to express an opinion, notwithstanding that the intelligence may be obtained through the use of technology. However, the experience of others is different and this account of successful counter-mortar operations in the Sunni Triangle, by an American author, is well worth the study.

What Dunn could be doing, of course, is asking why the government is not doing more, why more technology is not being used and why it has not been employed earlier. He could also ask why we are spending so much on things like Future Lynx when we could field a similar capability, much quicker, at a fraction of the price. But, it seems it is much easier to rant at anyone who might question his one and only story on the issue.