05 June 2007

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.