Edward Leigh – he of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – is at it again, his committee this time reporting on the ill-starred Type 45 Destroyers.
This warship type, as readers will know, is to form the backbone of the Royal Navy's air defence capability, replacing the ageing Type 42s. To that effect, the ships are fitted with the French manufactured Aster missile, known by the acronym PAAMS (Principle Anti-Aircraft Missile System).
Leigh's main beef is that, although the first (of six) Type 45 will enter service in 2009, "it is a disgrace that it will do so without a PAAMS missile having been fired from the ship, and will not achieve full operational capability until 2011." He (or his committee) also complains that other equipments and capabilities which will enhance the ship's ability to conduct anti-air warfare operations will not be fitted until after the ship enters service in some cases.
As to the committee's diagnosis of the main problem, it notes that, although the Type 45 was based on 80 percent new technology, the MoD failed to take sufficient account of this in its assessment of technical risk or in the commercial construct that it agreed. Thus, it decides that the Ministry "needs to improve its understanding of technical risks at the start of its projects" and should "factor in more realistic allowance for risk on its more technically complex projects."
To say that this is a somewhat superficial finding is something of an understatement. What the committee does not identify is that PAAMS is another of those ghastly European co-operative ventures, with the French having the design lead on the Aster missile. The delays in the deployment of the weapons system, therefore, owe as much to our French partners as they do the MoD.
Further, as we rehearsed nearly four years ago, the genesis of the Type 45 goes back to 1985, with the ill-fated NFR-90 (NATO Frigate Replacement for 90s) programme, a multi-national attempt at designing a common frigate for several Nato nations, including France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the United States and Canada.
Inevitably, with such an ambitious project and with such disparate requirements, the project could not succeed and it was abandoned in the early 1990s, after US and the UK had withdrawn, the latter in 1989 after fears that the design would not meet the requirements for replacing the Type 42 air-defence destroyers.
It was then in 1992, on John Major's watch, when he was imbued with the desire to be "at the heart of Europe" that his Conservative government opted for a "European" solution, setting up the Horizon "Common New Generation Frigate" project with France and Italy.
The project comprised two separate but linked projects – the basic platform (ship), and the missile/radar complex. And while the platform was a common venture, and the British elected for their own radar, the missile system – known as the PAAMS (Principal Anti-Aircraft Missiles system) – was to be French-built by EUROPAAMS.
It was a Labour government then in 1999 that abandoned the Horizon project, the MoD then electing to go for a British-built platform, which had been the original intention back in 1985 before a Nato solution had been considered. A year later, a "fixed price" contract was awarded to BAE Systems for twelve ships, scheduled to enter service by the end of 2014.
Interestingly, the entire programme was budgeted at about £6 billion, including PAAMS, the development of which had been agreed in 1995 by a Conservative government, despite fears over escalating costs. The target cost per ship (excluding missiles) was about £270 million, with as much again for the missiles.
The PAC now observes that it is "disappointing" that the MoD has taken so long - over 20 years, it says - to deliver its replacement for the Type 42s. But it then refers to the Type 45 entering service over two years late and £1.5 billion over budget. In fact, it is 20 years late, and more than £6 billion over the originally planned budget.
The crucial issue though is that this is another of those "legacy" procurement projects started in the days when European co-operation was all the rage, and many of the problems currently experienced stem from that – making the Conservatives jointly responsible for the cost over-runs and delays.
It jars, therefore, to find Liam Fox - as always – scoring party political points on this project, claiming that: "This report highlights the extraordinary risk that this Government is taking with our nation's defences in an increasingly volatile world."
"Its appalling incompetence," he adds, "has left the Royal Navy having to "juggle and hope" with only half the new ships it was supposed to have, and a fleet of exhausted Type 42s that are more than three decades old."
But for the Euro-enthusiasm of the previous Conservative government, the Type 42 replacements would already have been in service for some years. And, instead of relying on the European fixation with developing highly sophisticated technical projects like missile systems from scratch, we would possibly have relied – as do the Americans – on evolutionary projects such as an enhanced Sea Dart, developing the technology already in service on the Type 42.
To reduce costs, we could also have shared Spain's philosophy. Put off by the French insistence on a new European combat system, it went for the "proven and ready to go" US sales pitch for its F100 frigate, which features the Aegis system and Standard missiles, the current US maritime anti-aircraft systems.
Spain's IZAR shipbuilders formed industrial bonds with Lockheed Martin, enabling it to build its own platforms while benefiting from state-of-the-art technology, delivering ships with greater capabilities than the Type 45 which included Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-submarine missiles – at around half the cost for each platform.
Arguably, had the previous Conservative government followed this route, the massive cost increases could have been avoided, in which case we would have twelve ships instead of the six now being purchased. Dr Fox, therefore, is playing politics.
Six British soldiers were missing and believed to have been killed after their Warrior MICV was hit by an explosion while they were on patrol in Helmand, reports the Reuters news agency.
The soldiers, five from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, were on a mounted patrol when their vehicle was struck.
This brings the total number of British military deaths in the theatre since 2001 to 404, topping the 398 recorded on 13 February when SAC Ryan Tomlin was shot dead while on a routine patrol in the Western Dashte area.
This is the largest number of deaths from a single incident since September 2006 when 14 British personnel were killed in the crash of the Nimrod MR2, and is the most deadly single incident involving Army personnel on ground duties.
Given the significance the media attach to century events, there must be a suspicion that the media-savvy Taliban have mounted a "spectacular" to maximise media impact, and thus the embarrassment for British political leaders.
If that was the case, then - from their perspective - they have chosen well. Although the Warrior is an impressive-looking vehicle, with considerable ballistic protection, it is dangerously vulnerable when exposed to mines and IEDS, reflecting the traditional reluctance of British military specifiers to incorporate such protection in their armoured vehicles.
For its precise role, however, there is nothing else that can provide its combination of off-road mobility and fire power, and it has been a valuable attribute in so-called "kinetic" operations.
Unfortunately, the Taliban have shown themselves only too well aware of British vehicle vulnerabilities and, in this case, seem to have exploited the limitations of the Warrior to particularly deadly effect. The explosion occurred on the main A1 highway, a tarmacked surface, so it was almost certainly a culvert bomb of the type that gave our troops in Northern Ireland so many problems.
The incident comes at a times when domestic political stresses are already pre-occupying British leaders, and this stark reminder of a "forgotten" and unpopular war can only serve to reaffirm the political determination to pull out before the next general election.
The British administration is to purchase for the RAF another Boeing C-17 strategic transport aircraft (pictured above), bringing the total to eight – two less than the Indian Air Force fleet.
This £200 million purchase is reported in The Independent, having been announced by no lesser a personage than David Cameron himself at PMQs. Such grand issues of state, such as the purchase of one transport aircraft, can no longer, it seems, be left to the defence secretary.
The announcement came after a challenge over today's Defence Select Committee report which warned that Britain could struggle to mount an operation on the scale of the Libya mission in the future, such has been the scale of recent defence cuts.
Unchallenged, however, Cameron is allowed to propagandise freely, telling the Commons that, "Because the Ministry of Defence's finances are better run and better managed, and because we have found savings, we will be able to purchase an additional C-17 for the RAF". "This aircraft is becoming an absolutely brilliant workhorse for the RAF in terms of bringing men and material into a war zone like Afghanistan, but also evacuating civilians in times of need", he says.
What is not said, of course, is that the real reason for the purchase is to a desperate attempt to fill the huge gap left by the failure of the £2.7 billion Airbus A-400M programme, which was supposed to have delivered 25 of their shiny new military transports to the RAF by 2006, with an in-service date of 2007.
When the programme hit multiple snags – some of which have yet to be resolved – the delivery date was moved to 2011, and the RAF's ageing fleet of C-130Ks was given a refit at the cost of £15.3 million, in order to fill the gap.
However, still further problems with the A-400M mean that we will be lucky to see deliveries of the A-400M (now down to 22) by 2014, with an expected (if optimistic) in-service date by 2015. Meanwhile, wing fatigue have required four of the remaining 14-strong C-130K fleet to be retired last year, with the rest due to be scrapped this year.
Furthermore, some of the newer 24-strong C-130J fleet have been hammered so badly, from service in Afghanistan, that they are showing signs of premature ageing and will require wing replacement work, starting this year and taking an unspecified number of machines out of service.
All of this means that, as the National Audit Office reported last year, the RAF would be "unlikely to be able to sustain the current tactical capability". In less measured language, the RAF is now dangerously short of airlift capacity.
So bad is the situation that, this January, an announcement was sneaked out that the MoD was to buy two second-hand BAe 146s to supplement its air transport activities in Afghanistan – the possibility of which we reported in 2009, when 47 were available for purchase.
The addition of one C-17 still hardly scratches the surface, and is hardly a proper occasion for a triumphal announcement by a prime minister – affordable only because of the "savings" arising from the run-down of the transport fleet and the delay in buying the A-400Ms.
At the heart of this, though, is the political decision by the previous (John Major's) administration to take part in the European programme, and Blair's decision in May 2000 formally to order the machines. But never let it be said that we get the whole story from the MSM or the MoD. By their silence, a procurement disaster of the past becomes today's triumph.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Overlord, Max Hasting's book about the 1944 Normandy landings, is the way he interweaves the narrative with short dissertations about the equipment used in the campaign, including analyses of the many shortcomings.
There, I though, was a man who understood (to a degree) the relationship between the fighting performance of armies, and the equipment with which the were provided – issues especially relevant in Normandy where the Allies had failed to produce a tank which could match German armour or deal with the much-feared 88mm flak/anti-tank gun.
But if the man had then (in 1984) the glimmerings of understanding, any lessons he learned during the writing of his book, he seems to have unlearned as old-age, pomposity and grandeur have overtaken intellect.
This is evident from his latest piece in The Daily Mail, where he deplores the encroachment in the Army of what he calls the "elf'n'safety and a busybody culture" which, he asserts, is making babies of us all.
Hastings's cri de coeur rests in turn on Gen Peter Wall, the current CGS, who last week "hit out" at the "zero-risk culture" which, he said, had "fuelled unrealistic demands that no British blood should be shed on battlefields".
Human rights lawyers, Wall asserted, were among those who had created an "expectation" that troops should not come to harm in war zones. The spotlight shone on the Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had exposed "a variety of awkward ethical, legal, human rights and equipment issues".
But, he added: "There will be an expectation in some circles in society that the sort of zero-risk culture that is understandably sought in many other walks of life ought to be achievable on the battlefield".
Nevertheless, he said, the public must be prepared for lives to be lost in future conflicts. Despite the equipment lessons learned in Afghanistan, the "operating risks" would be greater on a future mission where the UK was forced to put "boots on the ground" in an unknown theatre of war.
Picking up on that theme, Hastings tells us that Wall's dismay "is widely shared in the armed forces, and among senior veterans". Name dropping in the way that he so grandly does, he then tells us he heard Gen Michael Rose, who commanded the SAS in the Falklands, "deplore the new ethic created by coroners, human rights cases and media pressure, which he believes to be gravely damaging the Army as a fighting service".
Now, there are few people who will disagree with the general premise, that war is dangerous and soldiering entails risk. Further, it comes as no surprise that, when soldiers make a career out of going to strange, foreign places in order to kill people, there is always a chance that they are going to come back with bits missing, or in a body bag.
However, on the basis of what he is told by Army worthies, Hastings decides that we, the public, are expecting too much. Although the Army has had to fight its recent campaigns amid a deplorable shortage of helicopters, he says, we should ignore much of the claptrap about alleged equipment failures: our soldiers in Afghanistan are the best-equipped Army Britain has ever put into the field.
If their kit is not perfect, he informs us, it is because nothing ever is. If commanders sometimes make mistakes which cost lives, and earn magisterial rebukes from ignorant coroners, this is because young men do make mistakes, and in war the price is paid in blood.
And that is the word from Hastings. If we are to take him at face value, concerns about the Snatch Land Rover, the pathetically inadequate Vector, and the stupidity of the Jackal, are misplaced. Pointing out their deficiencies is "claptrap", and commanders (many of whom – and especially those making decisions on equipment - are not that young) are entitled to make mistakes.
The tragedy of this mindset – and that it clearly is – is that it neglects two important issues.
Firstly, it fails to allow for that fact that people are reasonably tolerant of military casualties, although that tolerance reduces in what might be termed an "unpopular" war. What primarily they are concerned with is what are perceived to be unnecessary casualties, caused by avoidable errors, or inadequacies in equipment.
Secondly, it neglects the very essence of counter-insurgency warfare, where the objective is not the capture of territory but the "hearts and minds" of the indigenous population in the area of operations. In thus type of battle, though, the enemy is also fighting for the same objective, but that includes the "hearts and minds" of the home population, from which their opposing troops are drawn.
Thus do insurgents, as a matter of course, target soldiers specifically to cause casualties, the purpose not to achieve any direct military objective but to influence public opinion and reduce support for the war. As with Viet Nam, they know full well that wars are won on the home front, when "permission" to fight is withdrawn and the war becomes politically unsustainable.
In such circumstances, it is incumbent on military commanders to make "force protection" a major theatre priority. If soldiers' lives are the currency of war, where every death is a victory for the enemy, keeping deaths to an unavoidable minimum is a necessary military objective.
Above that though, no commander can afford the luxury or taking casualties that are perceived to be preventable – and that really is the issue. No one, surely, can argue that the deployment of inadequate vehicles to Iraq and then Afghanistan was anything other than a mistake, and that lives were lost unnecessarily.
There is, however, a third and perhaps even more important element. In the context of both Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy tactics involved the extensive use of IEDs. The effect of this on the counter-insurgency forces is to reduce tactical mobility, and to force local commanders to limit the scale of operations to keep casualties to within "acceptable" bounds.
In this context, force protection is not an optional extra, an add-on luxury to be supplied once other operational needs have been satisfied. It is a sine qua non of modern, discretionary operations.
There, I have no truck with this "lessons learned" culture, which seems to be the military (and official) response to the supposed "elf'n'safety and busybody culture". Any number of mistakes are permissible, it seems, as long as the lessons are duly learned, and the mistakes are not repeated … until the next time, when lessons have to be learned all over again.
By any measure, sending Snatch Land Rovers into Iraq was a bad decision. Keeping them there, and taking so long to provide mine/ambush protected vehicles, was criminal folly. Deploying both the Snatch and its replacement, the Vector, to Afghanistan, was the height of stupidity.
Demanding that troops are better equipped to deal with predictable threats, before they go into theatre is not "claptrap". Nor is demanding emerging threats to be quickly recognised, with countermeasures rapidly supplied, unreasonable. It is common and military sense.
Hastings does us and the military no favours by taking his current line. He should know from his previous writings how important it is to supply the correct equipment to our armed forces. He is going backwards, a case here of lessons unlearned.
In the foreword to Overlord, he cited Basil Liddel Hart, who had suggested that the Allies had been strangely reluctant to reflect upon their own superiority in Normandy and draw some appropriate conclusions about their own performance. "There has been too much glorification of the campaign and too little objective investigation".
When it came to the lamentable performance of British armour, Hastings observed that "the British Authorities were at pains to stifle any public debate about the shortcomings of their tanks, although these were well known throughout the British Army".
In the House of Commons, the government was constantly challenged by Labour MP Richard Stokes, only to have his entirely justified complaints dismissed with the assurance that "public discussion of this issue was not in the public interest". Field Marshall Montgomery himself quashed a succession of complaints and open expressions of concern, writing at the time of such reports being "likely to cause a lowering of morale and lack of confidence among the troops".
Hastings then reports that, "The government lied systematically, until the very end of the war, about the Allies' tragic failure to produce tanks capable of matching those of the Germans".
It seems to me that Hastings needs to re-read his own book.
As an antidote to Sandy Gall, in the current edition of The Week, we have Crispin Black on "The terrible truth about our wasted sacrifice in Afghanistan". His piece makes for sombre reading. Here are some excerpts:
Not only did we lose in the province for which we were responsible, Helmand. We lost because our generals have no idea how to deploy our troops to best effect.Then he concludes:
One of the reasons the top brass were so keen to get involved in Afghanistan was to restore the army's reputation after its defeat in Iraq at the hands of Shia militiamen in Basra. They reckoned they could handle things in Afghanistan.
Senior British commanders in Afghanistan in 2006, backed by their bosses in London … deliberately and recklessly disregarded an eternal military axiom: never split your forces …
And then the shooting war which we had just about mastered changed. The dastardly Taliban switched tactics and started to blow up our soldiers on patrol with roadside bombs or Improvised Explosive Devices, in the jargon.
An army which had spent a generation facing just such threats in Northern Ireland was taken by surprise without the bomb disposal equipment or protective vehicles to cope. Soldiers on resupply runs in Belfast in the 1980s travelled in vehicles with heavier armour than their counterparts on the frontline in Afghanistan 20 years later.
There is one overarching truth about the contemporary British Army that they and the rest of us are reluctant to face up to. Yes, soldiers in today's army are more experienced than their predecessors. They are better trained and equipped and more decorated. We have all been inspired by their example and their fortitude in adversity.And that is why get the likes of Dannatt and Richards creating a veritable blizzard of diversionary pieces – anything to throw the MSM off the scent, and salvage their reputations.
But in the end they have failed in their only purpose - they don't win their wars.
COMMENT: "WORSE THAN I THOUGHT" THREAD
I complained at the time that we seemed to be in "he says – she says" territory, where the current idea of writing history is to gather a collection of interviews of leading players and stitch them together to make a narrative.
Having now obtained the book, and read part of it, it strikes me that the volume is even worse than I at first thought. Chapter 15, which purports to tell us of the background to the role of Brown and Blair in the early stages of the war, is a case in point – and only one.
Consulting the references, after having read the chapter, one finds that the narrative is not so much "he says, she says", as "he says". Almost the entire chapter is based on Gen. Dannatt's book, Leading from the front, with 19 separate references. The bulk of the rest is his testimony to the Chilcot inquiry and a few press articles, followed by just over two pages largely based on an interview with Gen Jackson.
Thus, a highly contentious and important part of our history relies primarily, in Sandy Gall's hands, on the testimony of one witness, with a few comments from another. There is not attempt whatsoever to triangulate, to seek the views of other witnesses, or to refer to documentation.
Further, it is not as if either of his witnesses could be considered impartial, or even reliable. And even if they were, the reliance on so few sources can hardly be regarded as a sound approach to writing history. However, what Dannatt and Jackson do have, as does Sandy Gall, is prestige. That, it seems, allows you to get away with writing crap – and get glowing reviews in the Failygraph for it.
I have a feeling I shall return to this theme.
A series of leaks on the progress of the war, and then a report on what appear to be plans for an expedited US withdrawal, have had the media abuzz with stories and analysis, but with no real consensus – a question of heat but very little light.
The first trigger was a Nato report leaked to the BBC, which suggested the Taliban in Afghanistan are being directly helped by the Pakistani security service (ISI), only to be followed by a predictable denial, with the Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, dismissing the report as, "old wine in an even older bottle".
As to the US plans, the trigger here was a suggestion by US defence secretary Leon Panetta suggesting that US combat missions in Afghanistan would end in 2013. That, though, was quickly clarified when Panetta said that the US would keep fighting alongside Afghan troops, but would cede the lead role in combat operations.
Thus, US troops would remain "combat-ready" as the United States wound down its longest war, but the troops would largely shift to a train-and-assist role as Afghan forces took responsibility for security before an end-2014 deadline for full Afghan control.
By the time Panetta came up with this reassurance, however, the damage had already been done, with widespread reports, culled from the original leaked report, that the Taliban, "backed by Pakistan", expected to retake Afghanistan when coalition forces leave.
However, despite the flurry of media activity, one is tempted to say "what's new?". I don't think anyone who knows the region and its politics is under any illusions that the Pakistanis work, and have been working with Pashtun and other tribal factions, with Arab support and money, specifically but not exclusively the Haqqani network.
Nor is there anything particularly new about the US military planning gradually to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan forces, then easing themselves out of the picture. And nor is there any secret that the Taliban expect to have a free run at taking over the country, once the infidels have departed. What else is there to say?
Well, the Canadian National Post has a stab at offering something different, noting that the problem is that ordinary Afghan villagers subscribe to local codes of politics and morality that are profoundly alien and offensive to Western ways.
It tells us that gender equality, religious pluralism, due process - all of these notions are meaningless gibberish to a society made up largely of illiterate goat herders and farmers, who view women and children as property, and non-Muslims as hated infidels. In this world, the real business of public life begins and ends at the local mosque or village council.
Thus we are informed that, if outsiders in Kabul and Washington have money and guns to give, they will take them. They might even permit a school or highway to be built in their district, and appear in a photo-op. But that's where it ends.
Closer to home, we have a superbly robust commentary from Simon Jenkins but, other than to project the view that the UK – alongside the US – might be positioning for a war against Iran, having learnt nothing from the failure of Afghanistan, he really does not have that much new to say.
Matt Cavanagh also has a go, in The Spectator, but he ends up reiterating sentiments expressed in earlier articles, and in particular his piece last November. His conclusion this time is that we now have an opportunity "to move towards a more honest and realistic debate about the Afghan campaign and its prospects of success, in public as well as private".
Considering that we have yet to have an honest and realistic debate about the Iraq war, it is perhaps a little rash to expect anything different of Afghanistan, especially as the view of the UK administration on the conduct of the war seems to be locked in aspic.
This we saw recently from Lord Astor of Hever, defence spokesman in the Lords, who told the upper house that military means alone would not bring about a more secure country, then saying:
We have always supported an Afghan-led political process to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, and we continue to encourage all parties to take forward reconciliation. We will continue to engage with our US colleagues on these important matters.We are not going to get a clearer definition of the UK stance, and while there is nothing new here either, it is useful to note the acknowledgement that a political process is required "to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan", and that the military alone cannot close the deal.
In assessing current progress, as Cavanagh would have us do, it is useful to refer to the one of the great authorities on the nature of war, Carl von Clausewitz, and one of the most famous miss-quotations of all time: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means".
This is, in fact, an abbreviated heading in Book One of his famous treatise on the nature of war, whereas the text states something different, and different in an important respect. War, he writes, is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.
This, Clausewitz expands upon in the rarely quoted Book Eight where, under the heading, "War is an instrument of policy", he tells us:
It is, of course, well-known that the only source of war is politics – the intercourse of governments and peoples; but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own.Clausewitz then goes on to repeat his earlier aphorism, subtly improved, declaring: "We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means". He then adds:
We deliberately use this phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.Changing the "by" into "with" completely changes the meaning of Clausewitz's aphorism, making war an overall part of the political process, and not something separate from it.
That, it seems, to me, the Taliban understand – and so do the Pakistanis and other regional players. It is something the colonial British understood, but not their successors or the Americans. While both play lip-service to a political solution, they do tend to treat the military activity as something different and distinct from the political process.
And thereby we find Lord Astor reiterating the reasons why the coalition efforts must fail. On the one hand, the separation of military and political efforts defies sense, failing as it does to recognise the Clausewitz teaching. But, worse still, the flaw is in seeking an "Afghan-led political process", which is still further separated from the military effort.
In the scheme of things, Afghan politics are not played out within the actual borders that none of the players actually recognise, but on a far wider tableau, which takes in the ambitions and aspirations of all the neighbouring states, the former state of Baluchistan (now absorbed into Pakistan and Iran), and of course, the great regional elephant in the room, India.
And that also is nothing particularly new – not on this blog. Unfortunately, the coalition got it wrong from the very start, and it is too late to fix it now.
The official announcement on the MoD Website makes the ostensible agenda interesting enough, telling us that the "Government" has set out its plans to prioritise investment in Science and Technology, "in order to ensure the UK's Armed Forces continue to have state-of-the-art technology, equipment and support, in a White Paper published today".
Apart from the Financial Times, however (and a small, down-page item in the business section of The Times), the MSM apparently no longer feels the need to comment on such matters – possibly because there is no opportunity any longer to make party political mischief and get a "biff-bam" slanging match going.
As to the Financial Times, it picks on one issue, which is also the focus of much of the specialist press, headlining: "MoD will no longer favour UK companies". The Ministry of Defence, it tells us:
… will no longer give UK companies priority over their foreign competitors when buying equipment and weapons for the armed forces. The only exceptions will be cases where buying British is essential to maintaining national security, Peter Luff, the defence procurement minister, said in an interview. He made clear the MoD would not consider wider employment or industrial economic factors when it assessed whether a piece of equipment offered value for money.Nevertheless, if the dailies largely ignore that issue, The Spectator gives a spot to Matt Cavanagh, who calls the White Paper the waste of another opportunity. We need clear and unapologetic government backing for a sector which, as the White Paper notes, employs 300,000 people and is a major player in a global market valued at £260 billion, says Cavanagh, adding:
In that respect, the timing of the White Paper could hardly have been worse. Yesterday brought the bad news that India has awarded preferred bidder status for its $10 billion-plus fighter contract to France's Rafale, in preference to the Eurofighter Typhoon in which Britain's BAE has a major stake. The White Paper makes the usual noises about ministers "doing their utmost" to support exports, but privately many in the industry are disappointed by the lack of help — especially given ministerial rhetoric in 2010 around reshaping our foreign policy around trade.But what Matt – and everybody else for that matter – is ignoring is not so much the elephant in the room, as a virtual stampede of elephants. These come in the guise of EU Directive 2009/81/EC "on the coordination of procedures for the award of certain works contracts, supply contracts and service contracts by contracting authorities or entities in the fields of defence and security, and amending Directives 2004/17/EC and 2004/18/EC".
This long-awaited White Paper was a second chance for the government to demonstrate its seriousness about tackling the real problems in defence procurement. Instead we got feeble commitments of support and simplistic rhetoric about "buying off the shelf" in a hypothetical "open market" which, in relation to large defence equipment programmes, simply doesn't exist. Another opportunity wasted — for Defence, and for one of our better prospects for export-led growth.
To get a taste of what this is requiring, all we have to do is look at the recitals – two, three and four will suffice:
(2) The gradual establishment of a European defence equipment market is essential for strengthening the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base and developing the military capabilities required to implement the European Security and Defence Policy.Helpfully, albeit in an obscure footnote, the White Paper tells us that this Directive was brought into UK law as the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations on 21 August 2011. And thus, let's play "spot the difference". In that self-same White Paper, we learn that:
(3) Member States agree on the need to foster, develop and sustain a European Defence Technological and Industrial Base that is capability driven, competent and competitive. In order to achieve this objective, Member States may use different tools, in conformity with Community law, aiming at a truly European defence equipment market and a level playing field at both European and global levels.
They should also contribute to the in-depth development of the diversity of the European defence-related supplier base, in particular by supporting the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and non-traditional suppliers in the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base, fostering industrial cooperation and promoting efficient and responsive lower tier suppliers. In this context, they should take into account the Commission’s Interpretative Communication of 7 December 2006 on the application of Article 296 of the Treaty in the field of defence procurement and the Commission Communication of 5 December 2007 on a Strategy for a stronger and more competitive European defence industry.
(4) One prerequisite for the creation of a European defence equipment market is the establishment of an appropriate legislative framework. In the field of procurement, this involves the coordination of procedures for the award of contracts to meet the security requirements of Member States and the obligations arising from the Treaty.
We are focused on ensuring best value-for-money and delivering the best equipment for the Armed Forces and the security services. That is why this paper sets out how we will use competition as our default position and why we will look at the domestic and global defence and security market for products that are proven, that are reliable, and that meet our current needs. This principle is, though, qualified by the need to take action to protect our technological advantage where essential for national security.And so we get:
We believe that the best way for the UK defence and security industries to remain strong, with some of the most high-tech and advanced manufacturing facilities in the world, is to be competitive. That is why this Government will continue to support responsible defence and security exports; why we are helping to create the right conditions for companies in these sectors to invest in the UK, and why we will take significant steps to ensure small and medium sized companies can continue to deliver the innovation and flexibility we need. There was strong support for these actions in the consultation responses.
Wherever possible, we will seek to fulfil the UK's defence and security requirements through open competition in the domestic and global market, buying off-the-shelf where appropriate… we will also take action to protect the UK's operational advantages and freedom of action, but only where this is essential for our national security.This is remarked upon by a trade journal, which remarks that the presumption is to buy on the basis of competition and best value, which may often mean "off the shelf", even if it's from manufacturers in France, the US, Argentina, Israel. Now, the journal observes:
… many procurement people would welcome this focus on value for money rather than preserving British jobs or capability, but it will be interesting to see whether this holds up the first time a UK manufacturer loses out and screams blue murder about jobs, national interest and so on. Look at the fuss about the Bombardier/Siemens train procurement, and that didn't have the emotive aspects that defence always carries.But of course, it will hold up. British ministers are implementing EU law, and they are always going to obey their masters. And in this White Paper, they are providing an ex post facto explanation of how the procurement system is to be adapted in order to ensure absolute obedience.
This in governmental terms, is not a "wasted opportunity" as Cavanagh would aver. It is simply a statement of compliance, the sub-text, "we shall obey".
France's Rafale has emerged as preferred bidder in a $11 billion contest to supply India with 126 fighters, says Reuters. They have undercut the rival Eurofighter and boosted French hopes of a long-awaited first export contract for its premier combat jet.
bribes aid we've given them hasn't worked out. But why on earth are we giving £1.4 billion in aid to a country that can afford to equip its air force to the tune of $11 billion, and isn't even buying British?
It gets even murkier when one realises that India itself is giving $5 billion in aid to African countries, aimed at expanding trade relations. The Indians are sensible enough to use their aid to get economic leverage … we just dole out money we haven't got, and get nothing in return – except Rajendra Pachauri.
And how droll it is that after Sarkozy sneered at Britain, claiming that "the UK has no industry left", we see a British prime minister claim today that "Britain actually has a higher percentage of industry than France does".
But, says The Boy, "we think that we need to rebalance even further; we want to see a growth in manufacturing, technology and aerospace … ". Sadly, it rather looks as if Sazkozy is doing the rebalancing.
And it was such a pity about The Boy's trade drive. It didn't seem to work too well, did it? The "partner of choice" seems to have moved over to the other side of the Channel - at least as far as the IAF is concerned.
(I don't know why, incidentally, that the video shows Mirage jets as well, but there you go ... it's Euronews.)
In a new book reviewed by the Great Sage Con Coughlin, we have Sandy Gall, the former ITN presenter, give an account of the views of the current CDS, Gen Sir David Richards, on the campaign in Afghanistan.
With the appearance of being disarmingly frank, Richards seemingly takes to task John Reid, defence secretary at the time, for his view that "we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot because our mission is to protect the reconstruction", despite "intelligence assessments conducted in southern Afghanistan concluded that they would receive a hostile reception".
We appreciate that we are looking at a review of the book and not the book itself, and Con Coughlin is far from reliable on this matter, but it looks as if there is an attempt here to pin the blame on the political establishment – which is fair enough – and exonerate the military, which is not.
The brass, as we know, was just as gung ho for Afghanistan as the politicos, especially Gen Dannatt, who saw it as potentially a more fluid conventional war, which his troops were capable of fighting and which – unlike Iraq – they were capable of winning (as long as he was able to buy the FRES utility vehicle).
However, Richards would be unwise to give the military a completely clean bill of health, so we get (via Coughlin and Sandy Gall), a sort of admission of failure, with the assertion that "Sir David says that the British military establishment was ill-prepared for the deployment of forces, despite its leading role in the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein three years previously".
It is this phrasing that made me fall off my stool, and then to attack the keyboard despite not (yet) having read the book itself (which was published on 19 January). Even if Richards then concedes that the military establishment was "ill-prepared" and with a "rather amateurish approach to high-level military operations verging on the complacent", that does not even begin to describe the level and degree of failure.
First of all, it is not really appropriate to make comparisons between the operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein (i.e., the invasion of Iraq) and the operation in Afghanistan. A better (although not entirely adequate) comparison would have been with the subsequent occupation of southern Iraq, both campaigns being counter-insurgency operations.
Given that that British occupation of Iraq had been an egregious failure – and one which the Army still has difficulty recognising – one has to take it almost as a done deal that the Army would fail in Afghanistan.
I will stop there, returning to the subject when I have read the book, other than to observe that, once again, we again seem to be in "he says – she says" territory, where the current idea of writing history is to gather a collection of interviews of leading players and stitch them together to make a narrative.
However, while entertaining on occasions, and giving some insight into the minds of those involved, oral history is one of the least reliable resources available to the historian, and especially when it comes from senior military officers and politicians, who will be seeking to cover their backs and put a spin on their involvement.
This is where Jack Fairweather's book went wrong. Everything the leading players say must be taken with a pinch of salt. To have any value, it must be cross-checked with the evidence – and the documentation, where available – and be consistent with the actual events.
Nevertheless, in an age where "human interest" dictates the approach to news gathering, and "feelings" count more than facts, evidence-based history is deeply unfashionable. These days, your book must be well-populated with people sharing the innermost thoughts or you are not a "proper" historian.
It is also much easier to produce "stream of consciousness" narratives – especially when this is the stock-in-trade of the average journalist (which is why also the material gets good reviews from follow journalists, all pissing in the same pot).
However, maybe when I get the book, I will be pleasantly surprised, and have to eat my words. But before this, we shall have to wait upon the pleasure of the great lord Amazon to deliver.
The past reaches out to bring back unwelcome memories, this time the fate of Acting Corporal Marcin Wojtak, who died on 1 October 2009 when his Pinzgauer Vector drove over a 40lb IED close to Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan.
An earlier report tells us that the Vector had been part of a three-vehicle convoy which had just left a wadi and moved onto higher ground, when it was blown up by the device, comprising "20-25 kilograms of home-made explosives buried about 40cm under the ground".
Now, over two years later, an inquest found yesterday, predictably, that Wojtak was "unlawfully killed", leading to a number of reports in the MSM.
Not untypical of the reports is the story in the Daily Mail which has Wojtak's mother accusing the Ministry of Defence of a "catastrophic failure". Vectors, says the paper (now – although not at the time) were notoriously vulnerable to roadside bombs because of a lack of armour on the underside, and the Government announced a "phased withdrawal" from front line service in May 2009.
But the inquest heard they were still being used five months later when the 24-year-old - who had complained in an email home to his father that he felt "exposed and at risk" patrolling in one - was killed.
In a tragic twist, the inquest was told he would have survived if he had been in the heavily-armoured replacement vehicle he was due to pick up the following morning. The replacement was the Mastiff, which, "when it initially went into theatre, soldiers didn't want to get in it because the feeling was that it was just a truck." But, "after a couple of months the lads knew they were safe as houses", and it became the vehicle of choice.
However, its popularity was not just due to the armour. As Ann Winterton had to remind the Telegraph yesterday, it was "because of its V-shaped hull which is designed to deflect rather than absorb blasts", something which the Vector lacked.
But what made the Vector uniquely dangerous was that the driver position was also over the front wheel, in the centre of the "cone of destruction" ensuring that, if the vehicle drove over a device, any explosion would be unsurvivable. In one of the heaviest mined regions of the world, a more unsuitable vehicle could hardly have been chosen, so obvious were its defects.
Yet Wojtak's mother is probably being a little unfair in blaming the Ministry of Defence, per se, for its deployment. Intended as a replacement for the vulnerable Snatch Land Rover, its particular champion was a famous general by the name of Richard Dannatt, who insisted on its purchase for Afghanistan, as his price for accepting the unwanted Mastiff into theatre in Iraq.
The full, ugly story is in my book. Nowhere else will you see the whole story told of the wasted lives and the waste of £100 million from an overstretched defence budget to buy a vehicle that was so dangerous that it had to be replaced, temporarily, by the Snatch Land Rover, up-armoured and re-named the Vixen.
There can be few other instances where a replacement vehicle was deemed so unsatisfactory that it was eventually replaced by the vehicle it was intended to replace, but that is the legacy of Richard Dannatt. And even to this day, it leaves a bitter taste.
Following the story we did on the Super Tucano three days ago, I am reminded of just how long ago it was that when we were pursuing the issue in parliament. Notably, it got a mention on 20 April 2009 when Ann Winterton raised it in a procurement debate. She said:
I have consistently argued that we should use aircraft such as the Super Tucano two-seater light attack aircraft … It could assist in the creation of an Afghan air force. If such a force is not founded and developed, the international military force will be required to continue to give air cover virtually for ever. It is interesting to note that the United States has recently leased two such aircraft and they will be used in Afghanistan. It will also be interesting to see whether those aircraft will be procured directly when they have proved to be successful.The ultimate logic, which we explored on the Defence of the Realm blog, was that we should have been concentrating on building up the Afghan national capability, rather than have the RAF playing with their (extremely expensive) toys.
That, effectively, is what the Americans are at last attempting to do, which suggests that our arguments had some merit. But, even if we are completely right, that is not enough. And this is a lesson that carries right through government. Custodians of public money generally tend to pursue their own interests, rather that what is right.
As yet, we have not worked out any way of changing that. Whether it is getting the RAF to buy Tucano bombers, trying to stop the government supporting useless wind turbines, or convincing it to pull us out of the EU, might rather than right prevails.
This can be rather depressing. It would be nice to think that it is possible to expend energy to effect, and that ultimately our efforts can succeed. Without being pessimistic, the record is not good enough, and we have to change that. But at least it is not all bad news. Mother nature is helping out. And with her on our side, we cannot lose.
A small piece of news to start the New Year has had a very small band of defence analysts and journalists intrigued. This is the winner of the light air support (LAS) competition to supply ground attack aircraft to the Afghan Air Force.
The winner was the hot favourite, the Super Tucano, of which 20 examples have been purchased for sums variously described as $355 and $950 million. The competitive Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II having been ruled out last November.
Hawker have since challenged the contract award and it is temporarily on hold, pending a Federal court ruling but, all things being equal, the Afghan Air Force will soon have this valuable addition to their striking power. Initially, however, the aircraft will be operated by the US Air Force, used to train Afghani pilots.
The implications of this purchase are profound, not only for the Afghan Air Force, but in broader terms. We have long advocated that the RAF would benefit from the capability of this flexible and effective weapons system.
In practical terms, there is very little to chose between the ground attack version of the Harrier, and this aircraft. In cash terms, however, the Tucano is about one fifth of the hourly cost, while it is a mere one ninth the cost of an Apache attack helicopter.
What is interesting, if predicable, though, is that, although this news is covered in the specialist press, it has found no space in the British MSM. Right throughout the whole debate on the merits and possible use of the Tucano, the British press has been silent – apart from Christopher Booker, of course.
For once, though, there was an opportunity to square the circle – providing a killer capability at an affordable cost. But then, neither the media, the political establishment nor the British military actually want to solve problems. Their agendas come first.
Ministers, we are told are considering proposals under which the private sector could play a large role in the procurement of weapons and equipment for the armed forces. Says The Guardian, the civil servant in charge of defence procurement, Bernard Gray, has submitted a report setting out options for bringing in private expertise, and a decision is expected in the New Year.
The problems, however, are not going to be solved this way. Contrary to popular belief, the procurement system is actually quite efficient. If the services want a particular type of widget, and tells the system to go out and buy a requisite number, it will usually do it, on time and within budget.
Where we have the major issues with "big ticket" equipment purchases, though, the excess costs arise for a number of reasons. One is the failure of the services to define properly what they want, and then to keep changing the specification through the procurement process.
Another is the use the defence budget to support British (and increasingly European) defence industries, with purchases dictated by political rather than operational need. And then there is the "pork barrel" dynamic, where equipment is purchase from specific areas, again for political advantage.
Of all the issues, though, the definition problem is perhaps the most acute – and the most expensive. That, basically stems from the fact that we have lost sight of what we really want our Armed Forces to do. Military equipment is (or should be) the ultimate in functionality, and if we are unclear as to the functions needed, it is almost impossible to specify the right equipment.
Thus, it seems as if we have a Tory-led government, with no real idea of what to do, retreating into dogma, and privatising some functions which should properly remain in the public sector. After all, if you don't know what kit you really want, getting Tesco to buy it isn't going to make things any better.
That aside though, whatever the merits or otherwise of such decisions, now – during the Christmas break - is not the time to announce them. These are major changes, with profound implications. They should be subject to full discussion, and should not be rushed.
What one must realise with Fairweather's book is that it was written with the broad approval of the MoD, which gave him access to many of the characters he interviews. And therein lies its strength. It gives what appears to be a very accurate account of how a segment of the establishment - diplomatic and military - saw the occupation, and their role in it.
Unfortunately, that is also its great weakness. This account is hardly dispassionate and it is certainly not accurate. It represents a highly partisan attempt of that segment of the establishment to cover their backs and mitigate their own failures.
The narrative itself is confusing, as it darts about all over the place - to areas outside the British zone of control, and even to Afghanistan, and the attempts at characterisation verge on comedic. We have "ruggedly handsome" Brits, and the like ... and even a "wily" Arab.
And clearly, technical details are not Fairweather's strong point. He is a people person, and his knowledge of kit and the technology of war is slight ... indicated by a large number of unforced errors, and unfortunate phrasing. Since when did a Predator "hover" over battlefields, and when did a "Spectre" gunship have a 105mm cannon "slung beneath it".
Such errors, however, pale into insignificance compared with his uncritical acceptance of the myth that EFPs (which he manages to describe without naming - unhelpful when you are looking for them in the extremely poor index) were made in Iran, despite the very substantial evidence that al Amarah was a major bomb factory, with scores of incomplete EFPs being found there when the city was recovered.
Add to that some huge omissions - how can you not even mention Operation "Promise of Peace" in an account of the occupation, when this set the seal on the British occupation?
How can you not discuss the role of the MRAP in restoring tactical mobility to the battlefield, to which the British were too late in coming, relying to the last on the Snatch? And how can you not discuss the vital, game changing role of the UAV, and the scandal of the British Phoenix, a result of procurement failures stretching back decades?
All that said, however, Fairweather adds detail that isn't generally known, and if you already know enough about the campaign to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, then the accurate detail he offers is illustrative and useful. But if you want a book to tell you what went on in British sector of Iraq during 2003-2009, this isn't it.
We last looked at the ill-fated Kajaki Dam project in June last, when we concluded that it was a complete waste of time, money, effort – and lives. And, to reaffirm that, the latest report in The Guardian tells us that, owing to "cuts" in the US government's Afghanistan development programme, it is unlikely that the project will ever be finished.
No one will dispute that the military operation in September 2008 operation was not an epic adventure, "sneaking" the heavy machinery needed to upgrade the generating capacity across 100 miles of hostile territory in northern Helmand. At the time, it was acclaimed by the British army as one the most daring operations of its kind since the Second World War.
Yet, if the final outcome is that nothing changes, all the derring-do, the skill in planning and execution, have been wasted as well. We would have saved out time and money, and the world would have gone on just as before.
It is not therefore – as some will aver – cynical to question the wisdom of military operations. However good they may be at field tactics (and that is variable), the military is notoriously bad at taking in the bigger picture, and assessing the overall value of its own input. The famed "can do" attitude of the military, therefore, is as capable of getting it into trouble, as it is of extracting politicians from their own messes.
And here, in Kajaki, the project was always doomed. Not is it a question of money – this is just the figleaf. The Americans are perfectly justified in not throwing good money after bad.
Not least of the problems, and one that is effectively insoluble, is the remote location of the generating facility. This, as Booker remarked in 2009, meant that we were unable to secure the transmission lines, thus allowing the Taliban to control the distribution of the electricity, charging to maintain the supply and thus topping up their coffers at the expense of British and (latterly) US taxpayers.
At the time we produced that article, we took a lot of flak for our pessimism, also being accused of denigrating the bravery and skill of our military. But, as it transpires, the military and its supporters were being unrealistically optimistic. Unfortunately, as is now all too evident, courage is not enough.
The worst of it all is that, for want of the capacity not being supplied from Kajaki, electricity is being supplied by the Americans from hugely expensive diesel generator sets. Even if these are left when the Americans depart, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to afford to run them. Electricity supply, therefore, will very quickly deteriorate.
And here we see something of a double-whammy. The absurd sums of money, spent on the pitifully small increase in capacity from Kajaki, could have been far better spent on alternative schemes.
Given that Afghanistan has huge reserves of high quality coal, and a plentiful supply of cheap labour, the most logical provision would have been low-tech, coal-fired generator sets, near the points of consumption, such as Kandahar, thereby minimising transmission distances and increasing security of supply.
But with British and US aid dominated by climate change luvvies, the idea of subsidising coal-fired stations in Afghanistan has been vetoed (a real veto), even though we are apparently happy to pay for similar facilities in India, Pakistan and South Africa.
The courage of our military, therefore, has been completely negated by poor policy-making and, latterly, by climate-change warriors, who demand danger money and full-time armed guards just to venture into the Afghan hinterland, where they can wreak their peculiar form of damage.
Looking at this debacle in the round, one can only despair. Sometimes, we think, the military has its weapons pointed the wrong way. The real enemy – the one that does by far the greatest damage – lies not in the hills of Kajaki but in the offices of Whitehall, where the more deadly battle is being fought out.
We should be grateful, I suppose, that we have a parliamentary committee of public accounts (PAC), chaired by the redoubtable (irony) Margaret Hodge MP. This is a committee set up to monitor government spending, in an attempt to ensure we get value for money. The role of the committee is, ex post facto, to examine specific projects and criticise government departments where it feels money has been wasted or not wisely spent.
But, in a sort of quis custodiet ipsos custodes question, who monitors the PAC and decides whether we get value for money from the committee?
That question is highly relevant in view of its performance last week in delivering its fifty-ninth Report of Session 2010–12, on "The cost–effective delivery of an armoured vehicle capability", in which it accused the MoD of spending £1.1 billion on programmes to acquire armoured vehicles, without delivering a single vehicle in more than a decade.
Its view was the MoD had proved to be both "indecisive and over-ambitious" in its attempts to manage the programme, complaining that will now be gaps in capability until at least 2025, making it more difficult to undertake essential tasks such as battlefield reconnaissance.
The conclusions of the report were widely publicised, not least by the Press Association, the inference being that the MoD should have delivered the armoured vehicles specified in its programme. Without exception, the media have condemned the "flawed procurement process".
What we cannot find in any of the reports in the popular media is any reference to what this report is really about. Nowhere do you find any mention of that which is identified in the PAC report, that this is about the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES), and yet another complaint about its non-delivery.
Evaluation and reporting of this long-running saga has been a black hole as far as the popular media is concerned. There is not a single newspaper or broadcaster which has yet had anything intelligent or useful to contribute on the issue, and right up to press it does not fail to disappoint.
It is, therefore, left to the likes of the PAC to do the heavy lifting, but here also lies nothing but disappointment. To examine what amounted to the most expensive single armoured vehicle procurement programme ever mounted by the MoD – worth £16 billion in acquisition costs alone – the committee managed to produce only a slender 40-page report, including the covers, including the written evidence and the transcript of oral evidence – which took one half-day.
The list of witnesses also tells a story – it was confined to Ursula Brennan, Permanent Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Lieutenant-General Gary Coward, Chief of Materiel (Land), and Vice-Admiral Paul Lambert, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Capability). The committee relied for the totality of its oral evidence on three MoD officials, and for its written evidence on one MoD report.
We are not going to rehearse the issues in depth here. I've done it all before, two especially relevant pieces being this and this. Suffice it to say that the whole concept of FRES is flawed, and overly expensive, and largely abandoned by the United States, which pioneered the concept.
For the PAC to have come to a reasoned, objective conclusion, it would have had to have done a lot more work than it did, interviewed many more witnesses and trawled through hundreds if not thousands of documents. The slight, superficial report that it did deliver was a waste of time and space – and money.
But that, it seems, sums up parliament these days. If it was wound up tomorrow, the building given over entirely to tourism as a "museum of democracy", would we really notice any difference? Is there now actually anything parliament does, much less does well, that would make a difference to our lives?
One could be cynical and suggest that the reason we are seeing so little published about Afghanistan is that the MSM is keeping its powder dry. With 390 military deaths stacked up so far, it needs ten more to bring the figure to the magic 400, when we may expect an orgy of gushing press about "our brave boys".
More recently, we did actually see a longish piece in the Failygraph from Thomas Harding, reflecting on what had been achieved by the Army in the five years since it had been deployed to Helmand province.
And if to some his report seemed overly optimistic, that unfortunately is what you get when you rely on the MoD for your access, and have to pay lip service to the Army "spin doctors" in order to ensure continued access. In truth, though, if you want to find out what is going on in Afghanistan, the last thing you should do is ask the military, or an embedded journalist.
For a more sanguine appreciation, you would be better off reading the latest piece from Matt Cavanagh, who takes a cool look at the region as US troops continue to withdraw.
And what we do or achieve in Afghanistan is very much "under license" from the United States for, without the airpower, the logistics and the heavy lifting in some of the more bitterly contested areas, the UK forces would be a small, besieged outpost, achieving very little at all.
In his piece, Cavanagh notes that the public's attitude seems to be one of "weary resignation" and also notes that, while fatalities amongst British and other international forces are down on last year, civilian casualties are up 15 percent on last year, itself 15 percent higher than the year before.
Although modest by Iraq standards, this contradicts the pledge given by Gen. McChrystal to reduce overall civilian casualties, and marks one of the many coalition failures in a failure-strewn campaign.
But on top of the steady toll from suicide bombs and, this year we have seen a series of high-profile "spectaculars", the attacks in Kabul, notably the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel in June, the storming of the British Council building in August, a 20-hour shoot-out near the US embassy in September, and a bomb killing seventeen international troops and contractors in October.
At the same time, writes Cavanagh, the campaign of targeted assassinations has continued, including among its victims General Daud, the pre-eminent regional police commander; Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and de facto boss of Kandahar; Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and lately head of the peace council charged with reaching out to the Taliban; and a number of district governors and town mayors.
Interestingly, and worryingly, American and British officials stick doggedly to the line that the spectaculars and assassinations are irrelevant, or even encouraging.
And then we have that great [transport] expert, Philip Hammond, the new defence secretary, tell us that his "military advice" is that the insurgency is on "the back foot", and argues that these "so-called spectaculars … rather suggest desperation".
Such an assertion might have more credibility if we had not heard something similar when the Taliban switched from direct confrontation in the platoon house phase, to asymmetric warfare, majoring on the IED.
While it caught the military flat-footed – despite plenty of warning – the brass excused its own inadequacies with such comforts, while the politicians pushed them into taking on protected vehicles and adopting other counter-measures which took the sting out of the Taliban's initiative.
But what it did demonstrate was that the Taliban was capable of thinking flexibly, and responding to changing circumstances, with a speed that leaves our Sandhurst warriors struggling.
And so it is with the "spectaculars" and assassinations. We see here, almost an echo of the Viet Cong tactics in 1960s Saigon, but with a guiding mind that clearly recognises that the coalition forces are no longer strategically relevant. The battle is now on to dominate the population once the foreign troops have scuttled back home, their chests full of medals.
Cavanagh thus offers some useful correctives to the usual shallow thinking that passes for strategic wisdom, including the caution that we should not be attempting to backfill for the Americans when they leave.
Rather than pretend we have an independent role, we should be planning to align our drawdown more explicitly with the Americans, recognising that, as they depart, so should we – and in phase. If our tactics in theatre have not always been in harmony, we need at least to synchronise our departure plans.
In other worlds, with departure on the near horizon, our politicians and military should avoid the temptation to indulge in a little local "top dogging", and concentrate on getting our people out in one piece, with as much credibility as possible.
That, at least, is what I take from Cavanagh's piece. He is perhaps a little too polite and gentle to point out how easy the military gravitates to disaster mode, especially when egos and careers are at stake. But above all, we need to recognise that the adventure is over and the only strategic gain it to recover as many warm bodies from theatre as possible, and to hold the body bags.
As for the broader politics, we have given up any hope of our dismal set of domestic politicians having even the first idea of what is going on in the region, and are fully reconciled to Afghanistan becoming a policy train-wreck within a decade of our leaving. But that is another problem, for another time. We have enough at the moment to keep us busy.
This is slightly old news but I have been saving it until I could do it justice. And for that, one needs a little background to be able to appreciate and savour the full enormity of the development.
As to the background, in our sister blog, we have written many times of the great white hope of the Army Brass, the £16 billion FRES programme which former CGS Sir Richard Dannatt regarded as essential to the future of his Army.
At the heart of this concept was the medium wheeled armoured personnel carrier, Dannatt's preferred type being the Piranha, the acquisition of which he regarded as so important that he was prepared to forego mine protected vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those with any memory at all will recall the near reverence with which the media treated Sir Richard, the great expert of such stature that, when he retired, the Daily Telegraph could not wait to sign him up as their expert on all things military (although we hear very little of him nowadays).
Possibly the greatest (and certainly the most consistent) source of opposition to the concept was the DOTR blog, one piece provoking an unprecedented intervention by the then procurement minister, Lord Drayson, on our blog, and a strong rejoinder that remained unanswered – largely because it was unanswerable.
Needless to say, this dramatic development was ignored by the MSM, which is wedded to prestige, and would give space to Dannatt, but not our blog. Who were we, after all, to challenge the Great General?
Well, with the programme on hold and with no sign of it being activated in the near future, we now see what surely must amount to its death knell – brought to you by the US Army.
This comes in the form of news of the US equivalent of FRES, the so-called FCS concept, based on an American version of the Piranha known as the Stryker. The US Army, in this respect, is much further advanced than the British and had an experimental Stryker Brigade deployed in Iraq in 2003.
Now we come to the news of the moment. A Stryker Brigade is now to be deployed to Afghanistan, as the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, but with one very notable omission. It is not deploying its Strykers, which are now in use by the Alaska-based 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, in a somewhat safer environment.
Replacing the Strykers in Afghanistan are a mix of vehicles such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and its all-terrain variety, the M-ATV.
What is especially poignant here is that these are the very vehicle types that the great military expert Dannatt was prepared to forego in order to acquire the Piranha and equip his own equivalent of the Stryker Brigade which, even in 2006 he was claiming to be the Army's key equipment priority.
Had the great expert had his way, the UK would now be saddled with a programme which even the US has abandoned, in favour of the vehicles that our experts rejected, but have now in place in Afghanistan.
All of this goes to show that, regardless of their elevated rank, and the "prestige" afforded to the brass, this does not necessarily mean that our so-called military experts know what they are talking about. And, in this case, the evidence goes to show that, fortunately, we were spared from the fruits of their expertise.
The reign of the expert, it would appear, is something we cannot always afford.