Category Archives: Afghanistan

Navy and RAF hit by Defence cuts

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have been hit by a round of spending cuts.

The Portsmouth Evening News reports that one minesweeper and one survey vessel will be decommissioned. There are also strong rumours that the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance, which needs extensive repairs after almost sinking a year ago, may not be replaced. Whilst it will be sad if Endurance does go, the UK does have a permanent patrol ship in the Falklands, HMS Clyde, as well as a Frigate or Destroyer and RFA vessel on station all-year round.

The BBC News website reports that RAF Cottesmore, the base for the Joint Force Harrier, will be closed and all Harriers transferred to RAF Wittering. The Harrier force, however, will be taken out of service earlier than planned. This will almost certainly be before its replacement, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be available, leaving a huge gap in ground attack and naval air power capabilities. Might this also lead to the Invincible Class Aircraft Carriers being phased out earlier than planned, as there will be no planes capable of operating from them?

The Tornado GR Force will also lose one Squadron, from either RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Marham. The Tornado’s are due to be phased out in favour of the Eurofighter in coming years. There may also be cuts in the Nimrod reconaissance aircraft fleet.

The cuts are being made in order to fund the purchase of 22 new Chinook Heavy lift helicopters, bringing the RAF’s total fleet up to 70. The Chinook is an incomparable aircraft and has proved invaluable in Afghanistan. Cynics have questioned why the contract has been given to Boeing, a US Company, but the answer is that no UK company is capable of building a similar size aircraft.

These cuts, whilst demonstrating that the Ministry of Defence has as lot of work to do to get its house in order and can expect no increase in funding, must be welcomed as refocussing on our priorities and taking account of financial realities. When you have limited funds you have to prioritise.

Andrew Brookes, a former RAF pilot and director of the Air League, told BBC News: “If you cut back the premier league capability of the UK forces in order to just win a counter insurgency campaign against the Taliban, which has no air force and has no tanks and has no warships, when you finally do pitch up against a state that has those capabilities you could seriously end up losing a conflict that really matters to the UK in future in order to win one in Afghanistan today.” The almost sneering reference to a ‘counter-insurgency campaign’ is most unhelpful and based more on partisan loyalties than wider UK defence interests. The Cold War finished 20 years ago, yet some seem determined to keep fighting it.

The RAF has historically eschewed combined operations, and has for many years seen its independence as a service based in fast Jets. In comparison, it has given a low priority to supporting the Army with transport or ground attack aircraft as these roles undermine its independence. That the Army has to have its own Apache helicopter gunships says a lot. The reason that the RAF has had to be strong-armed into buying more helicopters now is that it has neglected its helicopter support role for many years in the first place.

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Question Time

I’ve just finished watching Question Time, this week a special edition from Wooton Bassett. The guests were General Sir Richard Dannatt, Bill Rammell, William Hague, Paddy Ashdown, Piers Morgan and Salma Yaqoob.

Firstly, I would never want anyone to think that I glorify war, or even like war. Its horrible, its a failure that we ever need to resort to war. It would be great if we never had to go to war again, but sadly there will always be rogue elements in the world who only understand their own language and can only be dealt with by force. And when we do have to do so, it should be done by international agreement and done professionally and properly.

I’m convinced, having studied a multitude of conflicts, recent and not so recent, and especially wars in Afghanistan since the 1830′s, that this is a war where we must not fail. It is not a war that we can win, but that we must not lose. We have to make sure that the Afghan Government and people are helped to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible, and then we leave as soon as we possibly can. To try and put an end date on this would simply not work. Furthermore, some of the things people vaguely quote about previous wars in Afghanistan are simply not true. This is a very different war to any other ever fought in the country.

To simply cut and run would be a disaster and we would end up paying the consequences in kind in years to come. The Taliban would almost certainly re-emerge as the dominant force, which would give free rein to Al Qaeda. This in turn would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear armed country that has enough problems as it is.

I feel that to argue that we are making the problems worse by being there, and that we should just get out and mind our own business, is nonsensical. We don’t live in a world any longer were we can pull up the drawbridge and ignore events overseas. The world is interconnected, by technology, ideas, culture, money, drugs, anything and everything. Whilst it is sad that we have to do so, I think it is necessary for the international community to intervene if it is in the wider world’s interests. And a lawless and dangerous Afghanistan is in no-ones interest.

I must confess to not agreeing with any of Salma Yaqoob’s arguments, and I suspect her statistics were wrong. They seemed to come more from a standard script of anti-war protest than any realism (yes, we know Tony Blair lied) and showed no understanding of any history, research or regional affairs. The war should have been better managed from the start, Iraq did make us take our eyes off the ball, yes the mishandling of Iraq has tained peoples views on Afghanistan. But those are lessons we must learn and hold to, they are not reasons to give up now. But there is a sort of champagne-socialist trendiness about opposing war, without really understanding the background to it. Its almost a rite of passage for middle class students. The Government has to do better to explain what we are aiming to do there, to disprove such ill-informed views.

But I do think we are watching the death throes of this Government, with lightweights like Bill Rammell being thrown to the slaughter on Question Time. The Labour Government have never taken Defence seriously. At the same time, it has by its Foreign policy committed the forces to do more and more. Only yesterday we heard that Health and Education would be protected from massive cuts, while Defence can expect falling budgets. I am not for one moment advocating cutting money for Schools or Hospitals, but I think there is an awful lot of money in Education and Health that never reaches the front line, and pays for LEA’s, managers, quangos, all kinds of things that add no value or have no effect on ill people or on children. Being an important service should not give anyone carte blanche to waste money while other Departments are being strangled for cash.

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Afghanistan in the News

Theres has been renewed intensity in the reporting of British forces role in Afghanistan recently.

Only on Monday the Prime Minister announced that 500 more troops would be deployed, taking the total number of British personnel deployed in Afghanistan to over 10,000. This comes in line with the US committing an extra 35,000 troops to the country, in a move not dis-similar to the ‘surge’ in Iraq seveal years ago.

As well as the 500 British troops NATO countries have pledged 5,000 troops, among them Turkey, Slovakia, Georgia and Portugal. There are still, however, some notable large European countries who seem unwilling to let their troops do anything too dangerous.

In announcing the new deployments, Gordon Brown spoke of dealing with the Taliban threat at its source – on the Pakistan-Afghan border. This strikes at the heart of the issue of why we are there. To pull out and leave a vacuum would be naive in the extreme. A lawless Afghanistan would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear country that already has a multitude of internal problems. Meanwhile, to the west Iran is becoming incresingly belligerent. This is a region that cannot afford any more problems than it already has. And this is before we talk about the amount of heroin on Britain’s streets that floods in from Afghanistan.

Attitudes about the mission in Afghanistan are generally quite wrong. People labour under the misapprehension that we are somehow trying to conquer Afghanistan, which is clearly not true. Or, perhaps, they have fashionable but ludicrous and completely unfounded views that we are helping the US to exploit Afghanistan and that our troops are ‘babykillers’. It does not suit the UK, the US or any other country to be there one day longer than they have to be. Besides, there is nothing in Afghanistan to exploit. The goal is clearly to secure the country, fend off terrorist elements and enable the Afghans to take care of their own country. Reconstruction is the key. Help make Afghanistan peaceful, secure and prosperous, and we eliminate the Taliban’s raison d-etre and our own reason for being there. When countries collapse more often than not dangerous regimes fill the vacuum.

Ill-informed commentators draw comparisons between earlier wars in Afghanistan, but to even try to compare them is a grave mistake. Huw Davies makes an excellent case for this. The modern army is one that is used to working with civilians, fighting terrorists, and keeping the peace. Even in 1841, the British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, merely to secure it as a strong from against Russian threats to India. The same kind of issues have been discussed in a recent Osprey guide, which I reviewed earlier this week.

Comparisons are useful in history, but not when there is no common ground at all. The only similarities between the nineteenth century wars in Afghanistan and today are the terrain, the conditions, and the culture. History gives us some valuable lessons in this respect. Protesters vaguely talk about earlier failures, which were in fact nothing of the sort – merely difficult campaigns that eventually achieved their objectives. Afghanistan is not a war without an end – people frequently said the same things about Northern Ireland and Iraq. Maybe there needs to be better information about what exactly our aims are, and the Afghan Government needs to do its bit too, as well as notable NATO countries who could contribute a lot more.

Whereas the war in Iraq was badly handled (particularly the immediate post-war phase), distracted attention from Afghanistan and had dubious effect on us here in the UK, it would take a naive person indeed to argue that the Taliban coming to power would have no effect on stability in the region or on our safety here in the UK. It is a very unpleasant business and it would be much better if we didnt have to be there at all, but history shows us that sometimes to stand back and do nothing solves nothing.

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The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919 – Gregory Fremont-Barnes

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

On a recent visit to Pakistan, a British military official wondered out loud why the Pakistani Army was having such trouble fighting tribal militants in the Waziristan hinterland areas. After all, the British Army was fighting exactly the same war, in exactly the same place, in the 1930′s. The training manuals are still there to be read.

This story might be apocryphal, but it does illustrate how it simply will not do to shut past events in the past and forget about them. Particularly in military history, lessons are there to be learnt. Weapons may change, but terrains and societies remain relatively unchanged. The British soldier in Helmand province fixes Bayonets and clears compounds much the same as his ancestors did in the 19th century.

Therefore, this edition in Osprey’s Essential Histories series is very timely. At a time when many commentators are doubting our role in Afghanistan and whether we can achieve our goals – usually peppered with simplistic comments such as ‘the Russians couldnt manage it’ and ‘we couldnt defeat the Afghans in the nineteenth century’. This book certainly blows apart some misleading assumptions.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes is a Doctor in Modern History and a senior lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst. Therefore, you probably couldn’t hope for a better qualified writer. And his background is crucial – this is not nostalgic history, it will make essential reading for young – and indeed older – officers serving in Afghanistan today.

The British Army has been fighting in Afghanistan since 1839, not too many years since Waterloo. British interest in Afghanistan arose from fears that Russia, just to the north, might threaten India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Therefore repeated attempts were made to secure Afghanistan as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. Much as in the same way security in Afghanistan today is crucial to the security of Pakistan, and the wider region.

As with so many British campaigns, involvement in Afghanistan was hallmarked by initial failures, followed by which the local leadership rallied and secured the situation. Therefore, popular talk about the British Army failing in Afghanistan is largely inaccurate. The British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, the strategic aim was to secure the north west flank of India, something that was achieved. Whilst Afghanistan has frequently been a hard fight for British soldiers, it has given some heroic tales, such as the Battle of Maiwand.

The overarching lesson from Britain’s experiences in Afghanistan seems to be that the real challenge lies in defeating the irregular forces at large in the country is a complex problem, that can be contained by military force but ultimately will be nullified by a sound ‘hearts and minds’ policy. And above all, an understanding of Afghanistan’s history, topography and society is crucial.

ISAF is not trying to conquer Afghanistan, that is the crucial difference. To do so would be impossible and counter-productive, as shown in this book. That such a learned and well-presented view is espoused by one of the very people instructing our future Army officers is very encouraging indeed. This book is well researched – as shown by the exhaustive bibliography – and contains Ospreys trademark detailed maps and fine artwork.

The Anglo Afghan Wars 1839-1919 is published by Osprey Books

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Youtube picks

Soldier Set for Miss England

New target system for Apache

Cold War – the Berlin Wall

Biffy Clyro – The Captain

And for more historical videos and music, check out the Daly History Youtube Channel

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Victoria Cross Heroes – so near yet so far?

Plenty have people have come close to winning a Victoria Cross over the years, but somehow fallen short of the very exacting criteria. The Victoria Cross is perhaps the hardest of all the Supreme Decorations to win. So few of them have been awarded, especially in recent years. And even more so in recent years, most awards are posthumous.

A lot also depends on how the incident is reported. Firstly, if somebody performs a heroic act, but there are no witnesses, they have almost no chance of being honoured. Secondly, brave acts are reported up the chain of command, and at each stage they can be rejected. A lot depends on HOW senior officers write up a report of an action. On such administrative whims, brave acts can be lionised or forgotten.

There are quite a few well-document cases where men have almost certainly earnt a VC, or come very very close to winning one, but for some reason have missed out.

Blair Mayne DSO and 3 Bars

Blair Mayne DSO and 3 Bars

The most extraordinary has to be Lieutenant-Colonel Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. Mayne won 4 Distinguished Service Orders during World War Two, a phenomenal record. Even King George VI asked why Mayne had not been recommended for a VC. His abrasive attitude probably didnt help matters. One VC recommendation was even signed by Montgomery before being rejected at the War Office. In 2005 a petition of over 100 MP’s demanded that Mayne’s Victoria Cross be reinstated posthumously. To this date, however, nothing has been done to recognise this gross injustice.

While it could be argued that a VC should only be awarded for a specifically brave act and not continual bravery, there are precedents. Leonard Cheshire was awarded his VC for his accumulated service throughout the war, as was Guy Gibson – although in Gibson’s case the Dams raid tipped the balance in his favour.

There also plenty of cases of young officers performing very bravely in war, and being given an unusually high award for their rank. This was usually a recognition that they had gone very close to winning the Victoria Cross but for some reason it had been downgraded. Field Marshal Montgomery won the Distinguished Service Order in World War One as a young Lieutenant. The DSO was usually reserved for Officers of Major and above. Lieutenant-General Boy Browning also won a DSO in World War One as a young Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards.

Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC

Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC

In recent years, the George Cross has been instituted for acts of bravey that are not in the face of the enemy. Whilst this is a very noble concept, and especially fitting for civilians, bomb disposal personnel, there are flaws. In modern warfare, especially with IED’s in Afghanistan, the enemy often does not face down our troops. But does this make a brave act any less brave? In 2008 in Afghanistan Royal Marines Reservist Lance-Corporal Matt Croucher saved the lives of his comrades by jumping on a grenade. His rucksack shielded him from the blast. He was initially put forward for a VC, but this was downgraded to a GC as there were no enemy nearby. How some desk wallah felt able to decree that Crouchers actions did not deserve a VC escapes me.

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Their name liveth for evermore

In memory of all those past, present and future who have lost their lives in combat, those who have served and those who have suffered in war and conflict

When you go home, tell them of us and say:
for your tomorrow, we gave our today

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

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Former Defence chiefs ’round on Brown’

In an empassioned debate in the House of Lords three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff have asked serious questions of the Government’s policy over Afghanistan.

Admiral Lord Boyce

Admiral Lord Boyce

Lord Boyce said the government “did not realise we are at war” while Lord Inge said the armed forces never really believed Mr Brown was “on their side”. Lord Guthrie, meanwhile, accused Mr Brown of “dithering” over his pledge to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan.

Admiral Lord Boyce was First Sea Lord and then Chief of Defence staff between 2001 and 2003, including the start of the Iraq War. He stated his belief that the UK is in the middle of a “defence train crash”. He also argued that defence spending, as percentage of national income, was falling, and that frequent changes at the Ministry of Defence were destabilising the forces.

General Lord Guthrie

General Lord Guthrie

General Lord Guthrie, a former head of the Army and Boyce’s predecessor as chief of defence staff, said “I do think that military services, the people in the front line, are questioning whether the government is really, really committed to making progress in Afghanistan”.

Field Marshal Lord Inge

Field Marshal Lord Inge

Field Marshal Lord Inge, Guthries predecessor as head of the Army and Defence chief and one of the countries few living Field Marshals, said of the armed forces, “they have felt he has never really been on their side and they have not had his support”.

Such stinging criticism from three of the countries most senior servicemen of recent years has been met with the usual party line from Whitehall. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told BBC Radio 4′s World at One: “Lord Guthrie has been making this same speech sadly for some time now”. Yes, of course he has Bob, because you lot won’t listen. For his part, Gordon Brown made the same speech he has been making for several years now, and said it was “simply wrong” to say troops were not getting the support they need, saying Labour had spent £1bn on new armoured vehicles for troops serving there since 2006.

Apart from effectively calling three former senior servicemen liars, Brown neglects to state that £1bn on armoured vehicles does not really go as far as you would like to think. The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into replacing the dangerous Snatch Land Rover. In addition, if they have supposedly spent £1bn on vehicles, what about some helicopters? But then again, this Government has an impressive track record for ignoring experts.

One cannot help but feel that the Government is digging itself into a hole with its continued propaganda that it is supporting the armed forces, when the evidence clearly suggests that it does not. To a public who support their servicemen and women more than at any time since 1982, it all smacks of lies and arrogance.

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Forces Crisis? Get rid of the Darlings!

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

Blackadder's Captain Darling - the archetypal staff officer

The Armed Forces are being stifled by an over-preponderence of pointless staff officers, a former senior officer has told the Sunday Express.

Colonel Richard Kemp, an ex-commander of British Forces in Afghanisatan, argues that there are far too many staff officers, headquarters and senior officers who add little value to what is actually happening at the sharp end of the spear.

This is nothing new, for many years ‘Whitehall warriors’ have blighted the military. It is perfectly possible for an office to progress simply from creating a good impression with the right people, rather than getting on with the job. ‘Boy’ Browning is a good example.

It would also be very difficult to argue that the armed forces are not bloated by having too many senior officers, many of whom are in irrelevant or comfortable jobs that we could do without. There is also still much duplication between the Armed Forces. In many cases there are three posts in each of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy doing essentially the same thing. Is this really necessary? Is it justified to keep senior officers in non-essential jobs when we havent got enough helicopters? Why is it ever OK to have more Admirals than we have ships?

As well as the Chief of Defence Staff, who overseas the armed forces as a whole, each services has its own Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff respectively. In addition each service has a main commander in chief who overseas the actual operation part of the service, and another officer on the same level who handles personnel and administration issues. Even then, there is also a Joint Operational Headquarters which is responsible for co-ordinating deployments across all three services. Confusing? Overloaded? Bloated? It would be hard to argue otherwise. This even before we think about the offices, headquarters, assistants and staff officers used to look after all of these layers. In many cases this is far in excess of what the equivalent manager in industry would have.

Support services ARE important. The soldier on the front line is only the bullet being fired by a very large gun. But this should not be used as cover for maintaining antiquated and overloaded structures and systems. The UK armed forces are smaller than the US Marine Corps, which has more men, more ships, more aircraft, but a much simpler command system. On the other hand, the US does not have a tradition of superfluous staff officers to maintain.

Unfortunately the one thing that makes our armed forces so formidable – their history and traditions – also holds them back. Whenever a restructuring is proposed plenty of commentators cry foul over the loss of historic regiments. This is obviously very sad to see, but we have to be realistic and focus on what we are actually having to do. The Regimental system, where members owe their tribal loyalty firstly to the Regiment rather than the Army, has time and time again been a real strength. But it need not preclude change. In 2007 the Royal Greenjackets and Light Infantry merged to form the Rifles, a regiment actually more in keeping with both of the original regiments history than they were themselves!

Military establishments have through time been largely conservative. A prime example is how the British Army Cavalry were allowed to retain their horses for many years, when it was inevitable to anyone with any sense that horses would be pointless when tanks were becoming such a force in warfare. But the Cavalry officers were allowed to keep their horses for nostalgic reasons. In the same manner, is it realistic for the RAF to have illusions of fighters over the white cliffs of Dover?

Whatever the answer, difficult questions should not be avoided. While braided staff officers traipse though the corridors of Whitehall, men are dying and being blown apart in Afghanistan.

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Britain ‘faces world choice’

Britain still has a taste for being a world power – and a determination to be a key influence on the United States, a senior defence analyst has told the BBC. But it faces a choice on how to play out that role, says Michael Codner, head of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.

With a general election looming and both Labour and the Tories promising to hold an early Strategic Defence Review, big questions are bound to be asked about the future of the armed forces. Structures, equipment, procurement, all depend on what exactly we plan to do with our soldiers, sailors and airmen. As war is essentially the pursuit of politics through other means, the need to form a policy on our use of defence in foreign affairs is paramount. Two big projects are likely to come under close scrutiny – the new Aircraft Carriers and our Nuclear deterrent.

One option would be to scale back on our spending, and become more of an ordinary European power, and plan to only take part in action as part of a NATO or EU alliance. This would see us lose much of our independent expeditionary capability. Whilst this would be cheaper, it would leave places such as the Falklands vulnerable, and our ability to co-operate with and influence the US would be much reduced.

Another choice would be to retrench even further and only retain the forces necessary to defend the UK, our sea lanes and our air space. But in an increasingly globalised world, this would not be feasible. History has proven that to deliver security at home you sometimes have to act further afield – Afghan poppy fields and Indian Ocean sea lanes are cases in hand.

One policy, which Mr Codner favours, is what defence experts call “strategic raiding” in which British forces are able to intervene swiftly and with a high degree of independence. It places a high value on naval and air forces for “theatre entry and sea basing”, and specialist light infantry. The classic “strategic raiding” operation, he says, is the successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.

The fly in the ointment is Britain’s long-term commitment to involvement in Afghanistan. As long as we are committed to fighting in Helmand, that must quite rightly take priority in resources. But in the even-longer term, we need to leave ourselves balanced and flexible enough to meet future threats. And of course, future threats do not often give us prior notice. Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and Somali Pirates did not hand diplomatic ultimatums to British embassies. And in any case, the ‘Ostrich’ approach in the 1930′s caused us no end of trouble.

Public opinion is important. Britain has been largely succesful in its foreign interventions since Suez in 1956, and while public opinion quite rightly recoils at the sight of Union Jack draped coffins arriving home, there is also a feeling that all the time we are succesful, spending money on defence is justified. Failures, however, would bring this under the spotlight.

To achieve any kind of over-arching policy it is vital that the 3 services somehow manage to co-operate more and stop squabbling over funding and resources. This is partly as a result of Whitehall’s ‘divide and conquer’ approach to running the armed forces. But would it really be too much to ask for an Air Marshal to admit that we need Chinooks not Eurofighters, or for an Admiral to concede that we need smaller, flexible carriers and more frigates and destoyers?

We might doubt exactly how much influence the UK has over the US in terms of defence. If our generals had been listened to before the Iraq war, much of the debacle that ensued afterwards might have been avoided (see General Sir Mike Jackson’s memoirs). But on the other hand, the 1982 Falklands War, and Britain’s convincing success against the odds, had an almost immeasurable effect upon the United States military.

While much of our defence policy will be heavily scrutinised, Britain still has an influence on the world stage out of all proportion to its size. Whether, and how, this can be maintained is another matter.

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killed Colonel warned of Helicopter shortages

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

A British Lieutenant-Colonel who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan had only weeks previously warned superiors that men would die because helicopter shortages were forcing troops to travel by road.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, Commanding Officer of the Welsg Guards, also told commanders that the organisation of helicopter support in Afghanistan was ‘not fit for purpose’, a leaked memo reveals. On June 5, in his “Battle Group Weekly Update” to the Ministry of Defence, he wrote: “I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters — we all know we don’t have enough. We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”

Despite this the Government and the Ministry of Defence insist that there are enough helicopters in Afghanistan, effectively calling a liar a man who died in action. If a senior commander on the ground says that he does not have enough of something, it should not be for whitehall warriors or mandarins to say that he doesnt know what he’s talking about. Whilst helicopters would not eliminate risk – men still need to be on the ground and to close with the enemy – they would reduce vulnerability dramatically. The gall of the politicians is unbelievable.

Part of the problem perhaps is the history behind the Royal Air Force. Traditionally the RAF has prided itself on fast jets, fighters and bombers. Whilst these are no doubt valuable and very impressive assets, this is to the detriment of more important roles such as support helicopters, close air support and long range transport. Fighters are an independent, sexy feature of the RAF. Whereas the other roles are unglamorous and involve working with other services, and as the junior service the RAF is fiercely protective of its independence. Look at the background of senior RAF officers – by far the majority of them are ex-fighter or bomber pilots.

It would surely be accurate to state that British Military Aviation is hardly fit for purpose. We currently have no dedicated maritime fighter-bombers to operate from our aircraft carriers, instead relying on RAF Harriers, which is hardly ideal. The Army invests in its own close support assets in the shape of the Apache gunship helicopter. There are nowhere near enough support helicopters, particularly the Chinook workhorses. Meanwhile, the RAF has some 200 Eurofighter Typhoons to show off in. An incredible aircraft, but it does illustrate much that is wrong with British military policy in the 21st Century.

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2009 Poppy Appeal

Poppy Appeal 2009

Poppy Appeal 2009

As October comes to an end this years Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal is upon us. In a year which saw the passing of the last veterans of World War One, and has seen yet more deaths and injuries in Afghanistan, it is more important than ever to remember.

The annual Poppy appeal is the Royal British Legion’s fundraising drive leading up to Remembrance Day, on 11 November. The idea of wearing Poppies dates back to In Flanders Fields by John McRae, which includes the line ‘in Flanders Fields the Poppies grow’. After the First World War battlefields fell silent the churned up quagmire of no-mans land was transformed into fields of Poppies.

Throughout the year a team of 50 people – many of them disabled ex-servicemen – work to produce millions od poppies. In recent years the Legion has organised a Field of Remembrance outside Westminster Abbey in London, where members of the public can place poppies, crosses or wreaths in memory of loved ones.

The annual Poppy appeal culminates on the nearest weekend to the 11th of November. On the Saturday evening the Royal Albert Hall hosts the festival of remembrance, featuring military bands, and in recent years popular artists such as Katherine Jenkins and Hayley Westenra. It closes with the moving spectacle of millions of poppies falling from the ceiling onto the servicemen paraded in the hall.

On the Sunday morning closest to 11th November the official Remembrance service takes place in Whitehall, centred on the cenotaph. The queen, royal family, politicians and service chiefs all place wreaths. There then follows a march past by thousands of veterans, all making their own tribute.

Most cities and towns also have their own services. In Portsmouth this takes place on the steps of the Guildhall.

And if the 11th does not fall on a Sunday, it is customary to observe a 2 minutes silence in the memory of fallen servicemen past and present.

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Costcutting blamed for Nimrod crash

Bae Nimrod

And independent review into a fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in 2006 has found that the Ministry of Defence placed cutting costs before safety, reports the BBC website.

The highly critical report by an expert in aviation law found that there was a ‘systematic breach’ in the military covenant, between the armed forces and the Government. Fourteen crewmen, based at RAF Kinloss in Moray, died when the aircraft blew up after air-to-air refuelling over Afghanistan when leaking fuel made contact with a hot air pipe.

Between 1998 and 2006 financial targets became the most important concern in the MOD, over-riding safety. This was as the result of a culture of ‘getting on’, that meant amibitious officers and civil servants had to keep on top of their budgets at all costs if they wished to progress. The report also identified ‘fundamental failures of leadership’ on the part of two senior RAF Officers.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the report was a “formidable indictment” and “genuinely shocking”, containing information that previous incidents and warning signs had been ignored. Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: “This is a tragic case of an accident that could have been avoided.”

The Ministry of Defence has grounded all Nimrods whose engine-bay hot air ducts had not been replaced.

The report raises serious questions not only about the RAF and individuals, but about broader culture in the Ministry of Defence and how it is at odds with the values of the armed forces. There has also been a clear lack of ministerial responsibility throughout.

The Nimrod aircraft are used for reconnaisance in war zones. Developed from the ancient De Havilland Comet, they have been in service since 1969 and have recently been plagued by controversy over whether they are fit for purpose. All Nimrod MR2 aircraft are due to be replaced by new MR4A, although whether this rehash of an old plane will be sufficient remains to be seen. What was initially an order for 21 has been reduced eventually to 9. Meanwhile, 200 Eurofighters eat up the RAF’s budget.

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for Gallantry that any British or Commonwealth Serviceman or woman can receive. It is always awarded first at any ceremony, and always the first medal worn. And with apologies to the Medal of Honour and the Iron Cross, there really is something special about that crimson ribbon and dark metal pattee cross. It has a history and a mystique all of its own. Go to a Museum where they have VC’s on show, and gaze through the gleaming glass at those hallowed medals, and try and argue that they are ‘just a lump of metal’.

Created in the Crimean War to recognise brave and heroic acts by all sailors, soldiers – and later airmen – regardless of class, rank or creed, in recent years it has become harder and harder to earn. This is shown by how many of them are awarded Posthumously, after the recipient has died in action. Of the two awarded for the Falklands War, both Sergeant Ian McKay and Lieutenant-Colonel H Jones were killed in Action. Corporal Bryan Budd was also killed winning his VC in Afghanistan. Only Private Johnson Beharry, in Iraq, has survived to receive his award in person in recent conflicts. And even then, he suffered terrible brain damage in the process. There are also countless stories of men being nominated for VC’s, but in the long process they were awarded a more minor medal.

It has occured to me more and more that although we are fully aware of some of the more famous VC winners – Guy Gibson, Leonard Cheshire, and of course the famous action at Rorkes Drift. But what of the hundreds of other recipients who did amazing things, but that we dont hear about?

So, starting now I’m going to take a periodic delve into the London Gazette’s records of Victoria Cross Citations, and look at some unsung holders of the Victoria Cross. This week we look at Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April, 1944. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine. Sergeant Jackson received shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames. With a fire extinguisher and parachute, he started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away. By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places. Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner died. Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. This airman’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat.

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

Flight Sergeant Norman Jackson VC

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Filed under Afghanistan, Falklands War, Iraq, Museums, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, World War Two

the Sunday Papers – 25th Oct 09

As Sunday is traditionally a day when the newspapers put in their more serious stories that they have been working on all week, rather than simply what happened the day before, I thought I would start a regular round up of what is happening in the Papers relating to the Armed Forces and History.

The Queen is reportedly furious about the rise of the BNP, the News of the World reports. She has ordered all of the Royal Family to stake a stand to ensure that the United Kingdom stays united. She is also angry about their use of Winston Churchill in their publicity. Churchill was the Queen’s first Prime Minister, and she granted him a state funeral after his death for his iconic war leadership. This is an unprecedented move for the Queen, who usually keeps quiet on politics. But being the savvy monarch that she is, it shows how seriously the situation is (News of the World).

The People reports that Jordan is considering going to Afghanistan on a ‘morale raising’ trip for the troops. I can’t help thinking that its just a publicity stunt, funnily enough it comes when shes very unpopular after her acrimonious divorce (The People).

If anyone is still in any doubt about the true colours of the BNP, the Sunday Mirror tells us much here (Sunday Mirror). Meanwhile, the Sunday Express reports that the same blog entry by a senior BNP figure orders Jews to ‘show respect’ or when the BNP get in power they will ‘reap what they sow’. Who wants these people in charge of the country, seriously? (Sunday Express).

Former First Sea Lord Sir Alan West has spoken out in criticism of General Sir Richard Dannatt’s appointment as Tory Defence advisor. Funnily enough, West is serving as a Security Minister under the current Labour Government. Coincidence? He says that it is wrong for ex service chiefs to undermine their successors, but surely its better to have someone who knows what they are doing than a besuited politician who knows nothing? (Sunday Times).

Comedian Jimmy Carr has made a bad call by making fun of amputee servicemen, stating that ‘we should have a good paralympics team in 2012′ (Sunday Telegraph).

Peter Hitchens makes some interesting comments about Nick Griffin’s Question Time appearance, namely suggesting that it might end up provoking a myth that he was ‘stabbed in the back’, much like the lies that the Nazis peddled that the Jews were to blame for Germany losing the First World War (Mail on Sunday).

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, Navy, News, politics