18 June 2007

Why we need helicopters

Fly Skytech... they even throw-in the catering. No MREs here.

Minefields? What minefields? An Mi-26 helicopter making a point. It can even lift MAN trucks.

Of course, you can always go by car. An SUV will do nicely, as long as you have enough helpers and aren't in a hurry ...

... and don't mind getting your feet wet!

But the scenic route is much better ... and safer.

(Click the pics to enlarge.)


15 June 2007

What is that vehicle for?

In this second of our two part piece, answering the Lord Drayson's response to our posting on FRES, we address some of the issues he raises.

Diving in at the deep end, we find common cause with the child who pointed at Lord Randolph Churchill when he was campaigning for election and said, "Dearest Mama, pray tell me what is that man for?" In like manner, to Lord Drayson, when he writes, "I am sure you agree that it would make no sense to invent a new vehicle from scratch," we would say, that rather depends on a similar question: "what is that vehicle for?"

To answer that question, however, begs an even bigger question: "What is the Army for?" Military equipment is nothing if not functional, designed very specifically for its designated functions, so the suitability of the vehicles he has selected for evaluation as the potential FRES utility vehicle can only be assessed once we know what we want the Army to do.

The possibilities, in fact, we have already rehearsed, ranging from high-end warfighting to policing activities not very different from those carried out by civilian forces.

Assessing what the Lord Drayson has in mind, though, is not easy – he does not tell us directly and offers few clues. But he does tell us that the new vehicle must be deployable by the A400M and the larger C-17.

That actually tells us that he does not intend it to be used for high-end warfighting. Such a role requires, above all else, Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) working together with the types of vehicles he has in mind. The tanks are not air-portable and to have one component transported by air, while the other goes by sea, simply does not make sense.

On the other hand, such expensive and sophisticated vehicles would hardly be procured simply for low-level policing so, by the process of elimination, he must have a function between the two extremes in mind. But what?

An obvious use is the sort of counter-insurgency roles at present undertaken by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan – or in future campaigns like it. To that effect, Drayson argued that the idea that FRES will be less well protected than patrol vehicles such as the Mastiff – specifically designed for counter-insurgency - is wrong, on which basis we can assume he intends a counter-insurgency role.

Here, what the noble Lord claims is distinctly arguable. One of the major threats in Iraq (which will, no doubt also materialise in Afghanistan) is the large, buried IED. Protection against this weapon is not just a matter of the strength of armour, as design.

Without penetrating the armour, a large bomb can impart huge g-forces on the occupants of a vehicle, which can snap their necks and thus kill them instantly. Protection is gained by employing the v-shaped hull, which deflects the blast and minimises the forces, making this an essential element of any vehicle designed for counter-insurgency operations.

None of the three vehicles he has chosen for the FRES evaluation embody this feature, and two – the VBCI and the Piranha – definitely do not offer any significant protection from underside attack.

For the Boxer, however, significant claims are made for enhanced protection, the hull being described as being "designed to beat blast mine attack by shaping blast away." Additionally, we are told, a double-lined hull soaks up critical blast deformation.

That said, no quantitative data is offered to support claims made and, therefore, no judgement can be made as to the protection offered relative to vehicles like the Mastiff. Against that proven design, and the fact that the MoD lauds the protection offered by the Pinzgauer Vector – which is minimal – any claims made of equivalence must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Given that the Boxer might at least offer some protection from underside attack, Drayson nevertheless does not take on board my observation that what he has chosen are basically fighting vehicles. They do not offer the visibility and ride comfort of a vehicle needed for long duration patrols, or convoy escort which is the core of counter-insurgency work.

Turning now to what is a main theme of the noble Lord, he takes to task my claim that "the three candidate vehicle designs the MoD has selected have already been rejected by the Army as 'lacking development potential'". That, asserts Drayson, is simply not true:

We have always been clear that a current Off-The-Shelf vehicle would not meet out needs. But the vehicles we have chosen are not Off-The-Shelf vehicles. They are designs which are currently in development to provide new models within existing families of vehicles.
He then goes on to say that "the trials this summer take proven vehicles, and evolve them to the next level to have the capacity, mobility, ability to upgrade through life, and, above all, the level of protection the Army need." In other words, they are "Off-The Shelf" vehicles, but the MoD is considering customising any finalist so that, by the time it is issued to the Army, it will no longer be an "off-the-shelf" version. Readers can form their own view of the noble Lord's argument.

Rather than now follow a line-by-line analytical approach, it might be more profitable to look at a recent article in DefenseNews which records Dannatt warning "industry and others" that the Army will not tolerate further delays to the introduction of FRES. He is cited as thinking at one with Drayson, both wanting a decision on a winning vehicle by 30 November, with fielding by 2012. "We'll take the best [vehicle] we can get" in that timetable, Dannatt is reported as having said.

This puts a somewhat different complexion on the competition announced, suggesting that the driver is no longer the search of the optimum equipment, but an impatience to get a vehicle – any vehicle – into service as fast as possible. This does not suggest a considered procurement programme, nor even a Service that knows what it wants. The Army might as well buy these (right).

DefenseNews also offered the intriguing morsel that Dannatt considered FRES needed a rebranding and a new name, this being interpreted as an oblique reference to the fact that "the Army might be adjusting its thinking regarding the effectiveness of rapid effects in today's expeditionary environment." Whatever FRES once was, it seems it is no longer, having morphed into something different, the nature of which we know not.

Where that actually leaves us is impossible to say. As we see it, the Army – via the Lord Drayson – is embarking on the purchase of extremely expensive vehicles of unknown performance, for as yet undeclared roles, to meet vague threats, all against a specification that seems to be changing with greater rapidity than the "effects" they are supposed to be delivering.

Thus we finish as we start. We do need a serious debate on FRES, recognising its importance to the future of the Army. But that debate should be shaped by an answer to the simple question, "what is it for?" And good place to give that answer would be during a full debate in Parliament, dedicated to the subject of FRES.


08 June 2007

Not fit for purpose

The three vehicle types shortlisted today by defence procurement minister Lord Drayson for the £16 billion FRES project have already been rejected by the Army. They were condemned as "lacking development potential".

Two of these, the Piranha (top left) and the VBCI (below right), were flagged up as possibles last year while the third, the Boxer (below left), is the result of a joint German, Dutch and British project, from which the British pulled out in order to pursue FRES, losing its stake money of £48 million into the bargain.

The Piranha – which, if successful, would be built under license by the US-owned General Dynamics – is a Swiss design dating from 1990. A variant is in use by the US Army as the Stryker, but is regarded only as an "interim solution" for the US equivalent of FRES (the Future Combat System) – a test bed for new ideas pending the development of its own new generation of armoured vehicles.

The third of the vehicles on the shortlist, the French-built (Renault) VBCI, stems from a French Army contract issued in November 2000, with first deliveries in 2008. If it entered British service by the earliest projected in-service date for FRES of 2012, it would be a 12 year-old design, with the origins of the concept stretching back into the 80s.

While this situation is bad enough, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) – for which these vehicles are being shortlisted – is no mere armoured vehicle replacement programme. Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt puts it "at the heart of the future Army".

It is a project which will shape the future of the British Army and, to that extent, the future of this nation. As current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan amply demonstrate, the fighting capabilities of our Army on the ground have a massive influence on our national prestige and the perception we have of ourselves.

Many of the problems in those theatres – and with them the perception that British troops have been struggling – arise from the nature of the equipment provided. The bulk of it was designed to deal with a Warsaw Pact land invasion across the plains of northern Germany. It was augmented with some equipment developed to deal with civil unrest in Northern Ireland and, only recently, has the Army taken delivery of a small number of vehicles adapted to deal with the specific threats with which it has to deal.

Now, there is a once in a generation opportunity to re-equip a major part of the Army. This makes the FRES project so crucial, not just for the Army but for the nation as a whole. And the key question is what precisely the Army needs.

To be fair, in making that decision, military planners have a tough time. Given the snail-like progress of defence procurement, they must think ahead ten or twenty years, and the equipment they supply may well still be in service 50 years hence. By any measure, therefore, theirs is a difficult task, verging on the impossible. Whatever they decide, they are open to charges of getting it wrong.

That said, planners were and are able to work within a framework, the demarcations set by what has emerged as a series of graduations in military action. At the one end, there is what is known now as "high-end" warfare – the classic, conventional warfare involving all the paraphernalia of armies, from heavy tanks - known in the trade as Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) – through armed and armoured troop carriers known as Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicles (MICVs) to heavy artillery and the rest.

At the other end of the spectrum is what is loosely termed peace-keeping, although this has developed various graduations of its own, the lowest level being post-conflict reconstruction, the latter stages of which differ little from civilian policing.

In between, however, is an amorphous, ill-defined role known as counter-insurgency which has some characteristics of high-end warfare and some which are more akin to post-conflict reconstruction. Perplexingly, troops often find themselves having to switch from one to the other, in an instant – and they must be equipped for both.

Alongside these graduations, however, there is another strategic imperative – air portability. Away from the comfort zone of northern Europe, it is now appreciated that the British Army may have to fight anywhere in the world and, given the pace of political developments, might have to do so at very short notice (not that this has ever been any different).

With the development and increasing availability of military heavy-lift aircraft, there has been the prospect of creating army equipment which is capable of engaging in high-end warfare yet is light enough to be air-transportable. From this has emerged the idea of rapid reaction forces, able to respond to crises at short notice, being transported anywhere in the world by a fleet of military aircraft, ready for action when they arrive.

It is this concept that gave rise to FRES – the Future Rapid Effects System – a range of medium weight armoured vehicles, choice of the first type of which Drayson has set in motion today with the nomination of the shortlist. Whatever else, this equipment is primarily intended for high-end warfighting.

Common to all three vehicles is that they are all lightly armoured eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers. None are capable of withstanding hits from the ubiquitous RPGs without additional armour. With that armour, none are air portable in a standard C-130 transport, with difficulty in an A400M, if at all, and in only small numbers in the larger C-17s. The defining characteristic of FRES, therefore, has effectively been abandoned. The airlift capacity to move a realistic number of these vehicles, their supplies and support elements, will simply not be available.

This, however, is the least of the problems. As with the Challenger MBTs and Warrior MICVs which are currently engaged in Iraq, British Army equipment will most likely be expected to perform a multiplicity of roles. There is neither enough money nor manpower to maintain separate Armies for different tasks. Inevitably, therefore, in the course of its life, FRES will almost certainly be deployed on any counter-insurgency operations for which the Army is tasked. Here, the most intractable problem will arise.

Crucially, since all the vehicles on the shortlist are old designs, they were conceived before the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan brought into play the high level of mine and blast protection manifest as the RG-31, the Cougar, Mastiff, Bushmaster and the Dingo II.

Although the Stryker version of the Piranha is deployed in Iraq by the US, as we recently pointed out, it has suffered a string of losses which suggest that the insurgents have learned how to deal with it, raising questions about the vulnerability of this vehicle. And what applies to the Stryker to a greater or lesser extent applies to both the VBCI and the Boxer. They may have a high degree of protection and some mine resistance, but none are designed specifically to deal with the threats they might meet in a counter-insurgency campaign.

Even if they were sufficiently armoured in themselves, the fact that they are warfighting machines renders their design less than optimal for counter-insurgency. This became apparent from another incident we reported, where two Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, riding in a Bison APC, were killed by a suicide bomber.

The Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) that they were riding is another variant of the Piranha and, as a "conventional" wheeled armoured vehicle, designed primarily for high-end warfare it has a fatal weakness. In common with most vehicles of the type, it is not designed to be operated in a fully closed down condition for long periods of time. Visibility is restricted and crew comfort (especially when it is hot) suffers. By any measure, this equipment is far from ideal for use as convoy escorts or for patrols, which are the routine fare of counter-insurgency operations.

Whichever way you cut it, therefore, the vehicles Drayson has shortlisted cannot be considered suitable for counter-insurgency operations. At best, they would have been marginally acceptable at the start of the campaign in Iraq but – as we reported above – the Army itself has decided that neither the Stryker nor any other off-the-shelf solution is a suitable platform. Evidence given was that the Army unanimously said that it did not want to go for one of those products.

If these were the only issues affecting Drayson's choice, they would be sufficient to indicate that he had made a very bad call. But there is even more. In addition to the FRES, the Army is keeping some of its heavy Challengers and Warriors, which will have to be upgraded if they are to continue in use.

With the retention of the Warriors, especially, there is now developing an anomalous situation. While FRES was supposed to be a "medium" option, increases in the amour applied to the vehicles means they are now equivalent in weight to the so-called "heavy", tracked Warriors. In effect, the project has come down to replacing tracks with wheels. And, while wheeled vehicles have advantages in some theatres, in high-end warfighting, in terms of cross-country performance, manoeuvrability and protection, there is no substitute for tracks.

Drawing various elements of this decision together, therefore, what Drayson is effectively doing is announcing a wheeled (partial) replacement for the Warrior - choosing a platform that the Army has already said it does not want – which in certain theatres will be less capable than the vehicle it is replacing and which will be entirely unsuitable for counter-insurgency operations. In many respects, a better and cheaper solution could be reached by upgrading Warriors and Challengers, and equipping them with much of the sophisticated communications and other equipment which is intended for FRES.

The killer fact, however, is that these new vehicles are so expensive that very little will be left in the Army's share of the procurement budget to upgrade the existing "high-end" fleet or to buy the next generation of vehicles that are being developed for counter-insurgency operations. Instead, the Army is getting a new fleet which is neither optimal for high-end warfare nor suitable for counter-insurgency operations, and will not even be capable of rapid deployment – which was the whole purpose of the FRES project in the first place. The new vehicles – whichever are chosen – will not be fit for purpose.

We are on the way, it seems to making another blunder of Eurofighter proportions, and it is no comfort at all that the Dannatt is so enthusiastic about a choice of vehicles that his experts have already rejected.


05 June 2007

More on those six days

That war and its aftermath were so important that several postings are justified as is a certain amount of personal reminiscing.

A year or so before the war my class was taken to see the Masada exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall. The major excavations had been completed and the stupendous exhibition travelled to various places and everywhere the history of the fortress whose defendants committed suicide rather than surrender to the besieging Romans captured many people’s imagination.

When, in the spring of 1967 the tension around Israel started to build up, it seemed like Masada was with us again. A small country was surrounded by much bigger enemies who were determined to destroy it. Not just defeat it in war or take over some territory but to destroy it.

This was most clearly expressed by the then Foreign Minister, Anwar Sadat, who spoke of sweeping every Israeli man, woman and child into the sea. Recently uncovered documents show plans that the Egyptians and the Jordanians had for the massacre of Jews in captured Israeli cities. This is not surprising if one looks at the history of various places such as Nablus, which is not quite as straightforward as some of those writing about it would like to make it out.

Let me run through my memories very quickly. I recall ferocious debates at school with my classmates. (Yes, m’lud, it was a very ordinary grammar school in north west London but somehow we read newspapers and tried to work out what was going on and what may have been causing it.)

I recall my father writing articles in various publications (yes, ink seems to run in our veins). Like most people, he was frightened of what might happen. Will Israel be destroyed? Will there be another Diaspora? Will, as he put it in one article, the taunting sound of “hep, hep, hep” sound again in European cities as displaced Jews pour in? What will the United States do? It was not, at the time, heavily involved in the Middle East but had opposed Egypt’s escalating involvement in Yemen through the sixties. Would the Soviet Union get involved on behalf of its client state, Egypt?

It seems to be fashionable at the moment among the great and the good to talk of Israel’s wasted victory, of the fact that the situation is no better than it was 40 years ago, of the way Israel’s population has split over the subject of what to do with the lands that were occupied in 1967.

All of that chatter ignores a basic fact: with the Arab countries creating alliances for the specific purpose of destroying Israel, with the Soviet Union arming Egypt and providing Nasser with many “advisers” who were mostly military officers, with the UN peacekeeping troops leaving the Suez Canal at President Nasser’s request, with constant attacks across the border and, finally, with the closing of the Tiran Straits to Israeli shipping, there were very few choices. It was fight or die for the whole country. Given the history of the twentieth century, it is understandable that the grim Israeli reaction was “never again”.

Finally, I recall my father’s instructions to listen to the radio news every morning before I went to school and leave him a note (he got up later) as soon as the war started. There were several false alarms but on June 5, with a sinking feeling I left that note. It had begun.

I shall leave the description of the actual war particularly the various toys involved in it to my colleague. What interests me and what we need to recall is the astonishment with which the world greeted the speed with which the Israelis defeated their enemies, though the losses in East Jerusalem, after Jordan, misled by Egypt, attacked having promised not to do so, were heavy.

The Golan Heights were difficult with the Syrians shelling Israeli soldiers and settlements. But for all of that it was an astonishing victory. The weakness that it revealed in the Arab fighting capability made many wonder why President Nasser had pushed for the war to the extent he did. Did he expect the war to break out or did he hope to take the situation to the brink and have it resolved somehow as it had been in 1956? Above all, had he actually forgotten that although the Suez crisis ended with a humiliation for France and Britain, the actual war in the Sinai had been won by Israel?

As it happens, I have been reading a fascinating new book by a young historian, Laura M. James, “Nasser at War – Arab Images of the Enemy”. Dr James has spent a good deal of time and energy trying to work out precisely what motivated President Nasser and many of those around him. How much did they know about the Israeli preparedness and, above all, about their own troops?

The evidence, on her showing, is confusing. People tell different tales and much has been eroded from memories. But the conundrum of what was Nasser trying to achieve remains. Of course, it is possible, that he was merely trying to survive. Certainly that is true about the immediate post-war period. Having roused the Arab masses with his anti-Western and, only secondarily before 1967, anti-Israeli rhetoric, he could not show himself to be anything less than the man who was going to “liberate” Arab lands, that is destroy Israel.

One of the most curious episodes in that build-up to the war was the certainty with which Egypt and Syria accepted that there was Israeli military build-up on the Syrian border, though a swift check through intelligence information might have disabused both Nasser and Hafez al-Asad that this was an unlikely scenario.

This was the outcome, as Dr James describes, partly of wishful thinking, partly of misunderstanding and partly of certainty given by the Soviet Union confirming the information. That raises questions about Soviet intelligence. Did they not know any better?

A recent book published in the United States by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, entitled “Foxbats over Dimona” puts a different interpretation on the whole episode. According to Daniel Pipes’s review (as I have not yet seen the book) the misinformation was deliberate.

The Soviet Union was worried about the nuclear facility the Israelis were building at Dimona and thought of eliminating it. The plan was a kind of reversal of the Franco-British one in 1956.

By giving misleading and highly provocative information the Soviet Union would provoke the war, which would be fought to a standstill, then move in to destroy Dimona. They miscalculated about the speed and comprehensiveness of Israeli victory, which casts some doubt on the issue, though, otherwise, the scenario is entirely plausible and explains hitherto mysterious aspects.

Judging by the stories told at the time, the Soviet officers in Egypt were as stunned as anyone else by Israeli movement forward and the Egyptian rout. Many Israelis at the time knew Russian and they intercepted radio messages that were full of uncomplimentary (and unprintable) references to the Egyptian forces.

Some Soviet officers were captured but the whole subject was hushed up and some kind of exchange instituted between Israel and the USSR.

At the end of the week, the world rubbed its eyes and saw a different landscape. There were Israeli soldiers at the West Wall. There were Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights. There were Israeli soldiers near the Suez Canal. The great might of the Arab alliance had been shown up for the sham it was and Israel acquired many problems.

It is, however, untrue to say that the victory was wasted, as the Economist, Sky News, the BBC and many others have been saying. Undoubtedly, some political and military decisions taken after June 1967 were the wrong ones. Israel is a country and its political and military leaders can fall prey to arrogance and misjudgement.

But, as Sever Plocker argues in Ynet, those achievements on the whole were not wasted. Let us enumerate them. After the Six-Day War the question of whether Israel exists or not had been settled, though not to the satisfaction of all. It is a country and it has the right to defend itself, though this is not acknowledged by too many people.

Despite being on constant war footing, Israel has grown in population and economy.
Israel’s population grew from 2.6 million to 7.1 million, 2 million of whom were new immigrants. The Gross National Product grew by 630 per cent. Real per capita product, the benchmark for measuring economic development, grew by 163 per cent and last year crossed the $21,000 mark. The average standard of living in Israel is only 22 per cent lower than in Britain; on the eve of the Six-Day War there was a 44 per cent gap.
As those advocates of a boycott will find out very quickly, Israel leads in medical and information technology. We can buy oranges and avocados somewhere else but not medication used by oncologists or military equipment or software for computers. Certainly we cannot buy them from any Arab country.

The main enemy states, Egypt, Jordan and, even, Syria have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. This would not have been possible without the 1967 war.

There is the downside, of course. While the Arabs in Israel have a considerably better life than those under the Palestinian Authority or in refugee camps among their brother Arabs, there are frictions that cannot be solved until two things happen. There is a complete acceptance by all Palestinians that Israel has a right to exist and, specifically, by the Israeli Arabs that their loyalty is to the Israeli state. There are indications of movement as far as the latter is concerned but very little in the former.

The new territories meant that Israel found itself overstretched in many ways and the gradual disengagement probably made the country stronger.

A far greater problem is an existential one. Having to fight for one’s existence, having to endure constant attacks and, above all, having to rule over other people – the Palestinians – has caused all sorts of heart-searching among the Israelis. (Well, let’s face it, they invented angst.)

Was the need to behave like a strong military power in keeping with the ideals of the Jewish state? Can the Jews see themselves as a powerful nation or do they need to regard themselves as either peaceful settlers or victims? Melanie Phillips gives an excellent account of the many various angst-ridden discussion that the anniversary has occasioned.

Above all, the perception of Israel changed in the West. Masada did not happen. They did not sit there waiting for the conquerors to advance, then commit mass suicide. The defenders rushed out of the fortress and smote their enemy. That changed everything. No longer could the West, especially on the Left of the spectrum, with its obsessive need for victims to patronize, support Israel. It had to be the Palestinians who seem destined to be everybody’s victims, though their plight at the hands of Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians and each other does not seem to bother the many organizations that scream their hatred of Israel in the name of Palestinian welfare.

The appearance of the Palestinians as a political entity is also the outcome of the war. Let us not forget that those famous pre-1967 borders did not include a Palestinian state or even a Palestinian territory. Going back to the borders would hand Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan.

The war involved the Soviet Union more heavily in the Middle East. After the Egyptian collapse the rearmament was speedy but entirely on Soviet terms. Nasser could say little.

There were other changes. Jordan’s King Hussein never quite forgave Nasser for involving him in a war that lost him thousands of soldiers and half the country, as well as lumbering him with the PLO, of which he eventually rid himself during those extremely bloody months of 1970 – 71.

Lebanon, the shelter for those who escaped from Jordan, is still suffering from the Palestinian incursion and the news of the continuing fighting in at least one refugee camp remind us of that.

What the war did not achieve is any kind of unity of purpose among Arabs. Internecine warfare has gone on in the last forty years and even hatred of Israel and the United States cannot stop that.

Two more issues need to be looked at, however briefly. One is the rise of militant Islamism that eventually overcame the militant Arab nationalism of the fifties and sixties. It is something of a mantra that the problem of the Palestinian lands caused that development, which eventually led to Al-Qaeda and the problems the world is facing now.

Setting aside issues of past Muslim-Western wars, we need to look at another country, Iran. It was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 that aroused dormant Islamism and it was his regime, still in power under President Ahmadinejad, that fed it in the last two and a half decades. The Palestinian issue is a thorny one but it is not the cause of our problems. The notion that if it is settled (by the destruction of Israel, if needs be) there will be peace in the world is fallacious.

Lastly, there is the malign influence of the UN and the various tranzi organizations. One could write a whole separate posting on the subject (and one probably will) but let me, at this stage raise just one aspect of the problem.

The United Nations encouraged the defeated Arabs to ignore their defeat once again. It must have been the only war in history in which the heavily defeated side could refuse to agree to any terms and could demand that the victorious army immediately withdraw from the land it occupied with nothing being offered in return.

It is that kind of inability to deal with the world as it is not as they would like it to be that has condemned the Palestinians and many of the Arab states to the fruitless but expensive and hideous struggle for what they know not of the last forty years. Events in Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that what is going on now is far worse than the Israeli occupation show up the futility of the several subsequent wars, the war of attrition and the two intifadas.

Money has been poured into the PLO and the PA. Thousands of people have been killed. Israel will survive. It has already recovered from the horrors of the second intifada. It has more friends than one would believe if one took one’s news from the MSM solely though Israel’s fight, which is also our fight, will be long and unpleasant.

What of the Palestinians? What will they achieve?


Crying in vain

One of the particularly odious features of the Daily Mail editorial yesterday, speculating on the British withdrawal from Iraq, was its faux concern for "our troops".

The hypocrisy is evident from the very nature of what the paper is doing: there have been many predictions that an upsurge in insurgent activity can be expected to coincide with any withdrawal programme and thus any speculation to that effect could actually cost lives. Thus one takes with a very large pinch of salt, its comment that:

The priority now must be to do everything possible to safeguard our troops during their remaining service in Iraq. It has been getting increasingly dangerous for them and is likely to get even worse in the months ahead.
What is especially galling though is that The Daily Mail, of all the newspapers, is extremely powerful.

Representing "middle England", it has a daily circulation of well over two million, one of the largest of any English language daily newspaper, and the twelfth highest of any newspaper in the world. If it chose to put its weight behind any campaign and marshalled public support, there would be few governments that could resist it.

Instead of its faux concern, therefore, if it really did care for the safety of our troops, it could start pointing the way, making sure they had the equipment they really needed.

A good place to start would be to read the latest piece from Michael Yon. He has delivered as promised, an account of his embed in Maysan Province with the Queen's Royal Lancers, whose motto, he tells is "Death or Glory".

The Queen's Royal Lancers have furnished a battle group under the command of Lt. Col. Richard B Nixon-Eckersall (pictured right) and are continuing desert patrols of the Iraqi border with Iran, using the techniques adopted by Lt. Col. David Labouchere of the Queen's Royal Hussars. Yon describes it as:

…living out in the desert for about six months, like nomads moving from place to place, sleeping under the stars, getting much of their resupply of food and water by night-time parachute drop as they patrol the Iran-Iraq border. They were living out there, as some officers had told me, in true Lawrence of Arabia style, wearing shamals, sometimes taking camel rides when Bedouins would wonder through their camps with great herds of camels.

Nixon-Eckersall would say that their job was to melt away into the desert, providing the eyes and ears that monitor the border. They’d apparently done their job well. I had been on many patrols with American forces along the Iranian border, but had no idea that Brits were out on desert safari. Although there had been some fighting, the Queen's Royal Lancers had not lost a single soldier to combat during this tour.
Regular readers will be aware that we are not particularly impressed with these latter-day David Stirling peregrinations and – almost certainly unwittingly – Yon seems to provide some confirmation of the limitations of the tactics. Let him tell the story.

As Yon joins the battle group, Nixon-Eckersall makes it "plainly clear" to him that "his gut instinct was that something might happen very soon. He expected combat." With that, he described the plan to move about 40 miles to another base camp, farther out in the sand dunes, when (again) he "made clear that something had changed and he thought the likelihood of trouble was high."

This was on 19 April of this year and the plan included using one reconnaissance element, travelling ahead of the main convoy in unarmored Land Rovers. Far behind that would be the convoy of about 30 vehicles which would include large trucks travelling a route where there were "forbidding water crossings and rough terrain." There was no way, writes Yon, to cross the desert straight to our objective; part of the trip had to be by road.

What they were to find out was that, on that road, the convoy was heading straight toward an ambush comprising 46 "explosively formed projectile" and two "ball-bearing" bombs. And, at about 1120, the convoy entered the ambush. Eight of the 46 bombs detonated, killing two troopers in a Scimitar light tank and badly wounding three others. Other vehicles were also hit.

Then the military machine sprung into action. Two US Blackhawk helicopters were despatched to evacuate the casualties, some American jets showed up and, after some time, a British fighter jet roared down at what must have been 100 feet travelling what must have been about 400 mph. Writes Yon, "he roared over and popped some flares to let the enemy know we had a big brother on station."

Now we are getting to the first of our points, for which purpose we need to summarise still further Yon's accounts of events. From the beginning, it seems, we have a large, cumbersome convoy, committed to travelling on a fixed route down a metalled road with the commander expecting trouble. The convey drives into a large ambush, with multiple bombs, sustaining casualties. Then helicopters are dispatched and air power arrives?

Have I missed anything? And, if not, could one ask where the air power was before the ambush?

Consider further. This was not a random patrol – it was a (relatively) major convoy which was committed to a fixed route, a route which, in the event, was known to or predicted by the enemy. And the scale of the ambush indicates a considerable element of preparation. Therefore, it is germane to ask some questions.

Firstly, would you not, under the circumstances, have expected the route to have been under aerial intensive surveillance for a few days before the convoy travelled down it? One might expect a combination of manned overflights, using light aircraft and helicopters. Especially though, should not one have expected near continuous UAV surveillance, looking for the tell-tale traces of bomb-laying activity?

Furthermore, using techniques pioneered in Northern Ireland, where were the random, helicopter-borne vehicle checkpoints – teams of men dropped on the road at irregular intervals to stop and search cars and trucks, disrupting the bombers and sowing uncertainty?

Then, as to the convoy, it is all very well having air assets available after the event. But where was the air escort? Where particularly, were the helicopters riding out front and providing flank escort, warning of suspicious activity and possible ambush?

All these are, of course, questions. We do not know the answers but it is highly indicative that British forces were relying on the US for casevac. Does one have grounds for suspecting that, once again, the British are being left dangerously vulnerable by their lack of air assets?

Here, of course, is where newspapers like the Daily Mail could move in. With their huge resources, their access to innumerable experts, and the power of their circulations, they could – instead of dissipating their efforts on cheap political shots - be asking these questions, and demanding answers.

Nor indeed is this the only issue. Writes Yon: "There is furious debate about armoured vehicles in Iraq."

There was a time when our own forces were needlessly exposed and being killed by even small attacks. And so we armored up like turtles which greatly helped. But at a cost. Our vehicles break down more, and our humvees have gone from being super-agile to tortoise-like contraptions that get stuck every chance. In this environment, truly out in the boonies, agility, firepower and other qualities often far outweigh the heavy metal. Fact is, there is still a place for unarmoured agility.
Maybe there is a place for "unarmoured agility" but there is indeed also a place for armour. The debate is on in Iraq and elsewhere but the one place you will not find it is in the pages of British newspapers. Why not?

It is not as if the issue is not interesting. The "toy" posts on this blog and the proliferation of high-hitting military reference websites and forums attest to this being a subject of very wide interest indeed, and one with considerable political implications.

Not only that, there really is a serious debate going on, witness a superb piece in Defense Industry Daily recently, which looks at the next generation of protected vehicles.

One could ask whether the US military is going over the top and whether it is retreating into more of Yon's "tortoise-like contraptions", or whether this technology is making a genuine contribution to troop safety and capabilities (the two not being the same thing). We can ask this, of course. But it would be better if the media did the asking, treating its readers like adults and dealing with issues which are too important just to be left to the military.

But, with that, we know we are crying in vain. The likes of the Mail can and will continue to blather about the safety of "our boys", and weep crocodile tears over the slain, but the chances of it doing anything constructive about improving it are slight. In truth, it would probably prefer to see the bodies piled high, to strengthen its political agenda.


01 June 2007

Rampant idiocy

There is so much in the news about which I can use that phrase that I can guarantee that few of our readers will guess immediately what I am going to be writing about. Yes, with a heavy heart and a feeling of nausea I have decided to tackle yet another organization’s vote to boycott Israeli institutions. This time it is the organization that should be the bulwark of free speech – and, indeed, it is, as Leo McKinstry pointed out in an article yesterday, when it comes to preventing extremist Islamic propaganda from being voiced on university campuses – academia.

As most of our readers would have noticed that yet another union of academics (precisely why do they need unions as if they were factory workers?) has voted to think about boycotting Israeli academic institutions because of the “occupation”, the wall and the way Palestinians are supposedly prevented from studying.

It would be interesting to see how many other Middle Eastern countries’ universities will be boycotted because of the way they prevent women from taking a full part in academic activity. It will also be interesting to see how many of these academics will chastise the Palestinian leadership from not achieving law and order under which Palestinians in, say, Gaza could actually study or call for a boycott of Arab countries for keeping generations of Palestinians in refugee camps.

I suspect I know the answer to all those, as well as I know the answer to whether there will ever by a boycott of Chinese universities because of the treatment of Tibet and Tibetans or an outcry because the Iranians have sent armed troops to Sudan to aid the Sudanese government in its eccentric ideas of what constitutes good governance.

Even during the supposed boycott of South Africa – there never was much academic outrage about the Communist countries and their suppression of free speech and firing of academics who stepped out of line – individual academics and students were, rightly, welcomed in all universities and polytechnics.

Furthermore, as an article in the left-wing Ha’aretz points out, if you really do care about the rights of Palestinians, trying to chastise “the one group within Israeli society which has consistently, vigorously and courageously campaigned against the occupation since its inception” is hardly a sensible way of helping the victims. But then, let’s face it helping Palestinians is not very high on these people’s agenda. If it were they would pay a little more attention to what is happening in Gaza or would ask themselves about the lack of any kind of freedom under the Palestinian Authority or would wonder out loud about the treatment of Palestinians by their brother Arabs (as well as the treatment of those brother Arabs by the Palestinians).

Bradley Burston calls the boycotting of Israel “moral masturbation” and, frankly, we couldn’t put it better ourselves on this blog. It is part self-indulgence, part the knowledge that there is no chance of Israelis planting bombs in Britain, part ignorance and part the oldest hatred of all – anti-Semitism.
You really must envy the U.K. far-left for its blindness. Its consummate inability to see more than one side, which is to say, its demonstrated refusal to see Jews as fellow human beings, is only exceeded by its exquisite sense of timing.

No matter that in the whole of the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam Hussein managed to hit all of Israel with a total of 39 missiles, and that two weeks ago, Hamas sent 40 rockets into the Sderot area in the space of a single day.

No matter that Sapir College, Israel's largest public college, has for years been a primary target of Qassam crews.

No matter that in boycotting all Israeli academics on the basis of their being Israelis, the measure is patently racist, a grotesque reprise of the history of curbing academic freedom.No matter that Israeli Arab academics who are staunchly opposed to the occupation are vehement opponents of the boycott as well.

No matter, even, that opposition to the boycott runs strong within the British University and College Union itself. In fact, all the more reason to press on.
Not that academic institutions have ever been devoted to freedom of speech and thought all that much. Support for Communism prevailed in western academia to the point when it was embarrassing to take round East Europeans to lectures or seminars.

Support for the European project and a refusal to teach alternative ideas about European history, all of it heavily influenced by large amounts of money pouring in through Monnet professorships and lectureships is rampant.

Anti-Americanism is the default position for most academics in Britain (and in the United States). Anyone who announces in academic seminars or during dinners that the United States is a democracy, where, however, imperfectly, there is a great deal of freedom; that it is our greates ally; and that is protects us from our enemies, the real baddies, produces a Bateman-like tableau of horror.

Don’t even get me on to the subject of treatment of academics and students who diverge from the accepted formula on a number of issues such as man-made global warming.

These problems have existed as long as universities have done but matters have deteriorated in the last decade or two for a very simple reason. We, in Britain, have too many universities, with too many academics, many of whom should not be in that position; we have too many ridiculous courses, tailored to fit students who would not have been able to pass the old O-levels, let alone the old A-levels, and, of course, too many students who find it very frustrating to be in a place where they are, at least theoretically, supposed to conduct intellectual research and discourse, which they are largely not capable of.

At the end of it they come out with meaningless degrees in meaningless subjects that do not guarantee them good jobs (employers are not that stupid) and extensive debts. A con trick all round on the youngsters.

I must admit that UCU – Universities and Colleges Union – is a new one on me. Apparently, it represents 120,000 university teachers, which makes me suspect that it is a union of several other unions. The mind does boggle at the idea of 120,000 university teachers, let alone the fact that they consider it necessary to join a union. Presumably, there must be some more university lecturers (as they were called in my day) who have not joined.

The vote, which has been disowned by the British ambassador to Israel and by the Education Minister, Bill Rammell, seems to have been of considerably smaller magnitude.

Motion 30, which “condemns Israel for its "denial of educational rights" to the Palestinian people and calls for UCU branches to discuss an academic boycott of Israel over the next year” was passed by 158 votes to 99 with 17 abstentions. This will now be discussed in the various branches of UCU and the motion for an put to the vote of the whole membership (or as many of it as can be bothered to attend) at next year’s conference. Well, anything is better than teaching, I suppose.

The Israeli response has been quite instructive. Many of the academics have found it insulting and bewildering.
Boycott proponents had tried for three years to pass such a motion, Prof. David Newman of Ben-Gurion University told The Jerusalem Post from the conference. He said it was incumbent upon Israeli academics to defy the union.

"Israel academics should do more research, share more resources, participate in more scientific studies, do more sabbaticals, do more visits to workshop and seminars with [their] British counterparts," Newman said.

He said it was now up the institutions to decide whether to "defend the right of true academic freedom... and not allow a union to impose its will on an institution."
As we all asked when the NUJ tried this nonsense, will these people really do without the medical developments and electronic inventions that have taken place in Israel? Will they in the words of Nobel prize winning Professor Aaron Ciechanover in today’s Daily Telegraph “prefer that British sufferers were refused leading treatments which can improve their quality of life on the basis that Israeli expertise developed them”?

Perhaps they will. Perhaps they are so blinded by their hatred of Israel and its Jewish people (few know that Israeli Arabs can and do study in many of these academic institutions that they wish to boycott) that they do not care about the outcome as long as the evil ones will suffer.

How else can one explain the examples Leo McKinstry brings up in his article?
“What is particularly disturbing is the way opposition to the Jewishstate descends into vicious antagonism against Jews themselves, as shownby this sickening recent outburst from writer Pamela Hardyment, a memberof the National Union of Journalists, which in April voted to boycottIsraeli goods.

Explaining her support for the NUJ's stance, Ms Hardyment described Israel as "a wonderful Nazi-like killing machine backed by the world'srichest Jews".

Then, like some lunatic from the far-Right, she referred to the"so-called Holocaust" before concluding: "Shame on all Jews, may your lives be cursed."

Such words could have come straight from Hitler or the most fervent supporter of Osama Bin Laden.

But Ms Hardyment is hardly unique.

This sort of seething resentment can be found throughout the Left, whether in demands that Israel be treated as a pariah state or in connivance at anti-Semitic propaganda. Typical of this approach was the opinion of Ulster poet and darling of the BBC Tom Paulin, who once argued that "Jewish settlers in Israel should be shot dead. They are Nazis, racists. I feel nothing but hatred for them."

Yet Paulin would no doubt be outraged if some English extremist utteredthe same sentiments about radical Muslims settling in Britain.
Further Israeli reactions point to anger as well as bemusement. This is not what they expect from Britain, though I do really think that it is time the Israelis learnt the truth about academic institutions and, for that matter, trade unions here.

Still, they are going into a counter-attack and that is all to the good.
Uriel Reichman, president of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, said in a speech to IDC graduates during Thursday evening's commencement ceremony that "Academia is based on discourse, argument and the transparent search for truth. A boycott which is identified with opinions whose roots may be religious or a totalitarian world view is therefore inherently incompatible with academia."

"The British decision is hypocritical," Reichman said. "It disregards the terror acts against our citizens, the ideology that calls for the destruction of Israel and our relative restraint in exercising our own self defense. It speaks solely against Israel and ignores truly appalling human rights abuses in Darfur, Chechnya or the civil war in Iraq. The true purpose and result of the boycott is to upset basic principles of justice and to deprive Israel of its right to argue its position."
Other examples have been cited by the Jerusalem Post, both of British and Israeli reaction and a determination to prevent a direct call for boycott being passed. Even Denis McShane, who was a co-panelist of mine this morning in a discussion about the future of Europe, has made a firm pronouncement:
The decision by the UCU is completely deplorable and counterproductive. The motion will do nothing to help Palestinian students, who are keen to study in the relative oasis of Israeli universities, and will exacerbate the position of Jewish students in the UK, who already feel harassed, intimidated and uncomfortable on campus.
The critics focus on several important issues: academic freedom, the hypocrisy of those who attack Israel, the one democratic country in the Middle East and ignore blatant human rights abuses in other countries, the likely counter-productive effect a boycott of this kind will have on any notions of peace and on the chances of Palestinian students who are actually studying in Israel and, above all, on the picture British academia presents of itself to the rest of the world.

In a way, this is the most shameful part of the whole continuous campaign. It is unlikely that they will succeed in calling for a boycott and even less likely that they will be able to impose it. But, let us all remember, these are the representatives of British academia. They are university lecturers. Think of it the next time you hear the words “our universities are world-class”. One’s rather inelegant response to that is “yeah, right”.