Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Complete George Cross by Kevin Brazier

I’ve always been fascinated by the George Cross as an award. Overshadowed by its more high-profile cousin, the Victoria Cross, the George Cross is the highest awardnfor bravery that isn’t in the face of the enemy. I’ve done a lot of research into Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC, a Royal Navy Bomb Disposal man who was awarded the George Cross posthumously after being blown up by a mine he was working on in 1940.

This book is a reference work describing the lives and actions of all of the men and women who have won the George Cross to date. There have been a total of 406 awards. There are some staggering statistics – no one has yet been awarded a bar, but several women have won the medal. The island of Malta was collectively awarded the medal in 1942, and in 1999 the George Cross was awarded to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 14 Australians have won the GC, ten Canadians and a Tasmanian. The youngest recipient was just 15, and the oldest 61.

The George Cross was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, inspired by the bravery being shown by civilians and service personnel alike during the Blitz. Military decorations could normally only be awarded for action in the face of the enemy. As a result, many brave actions would have gone unrewarded without the institution of this new medal. In recent years it has come to prominence with a number of awards made for action in Afghanistan, including to Bomb Disposal personnel and Matthew Croucher, a Royal Marine who used himself and his Bergen to shield his comrades from an accidentally dropped Grenade.

Due to its unique criteria, the George Cross has also been awarded to civilians – including a Detective who protected Princess Anne from an attempted abduction in the centre of London. In fact of the 161 direct awards made since 1940, around 60 of them have been awarded to civilians. It has also been awarded to a number of women who worked undercover in occupied Europe during the war, with SOE or assisting in the repatriation of escaped Prisoners of War. 245 recipients of earlier bravery medals exchanged their awards for the George Cross.

I’ve often pondered whether there is a place in the modern military world for two separate awards, and whether the distinction of ‘in the face of the enemy’ is relevant today, in particular with the nature of warfare – is the calm, calculated bravery of a bomb disposal officer any less than an officer leading a bayonet charge, for example? It does seem as odd as the distinction between officers and men that used to appy to gallantry medals until the early 1990’s. Is there any reason why the George Cross should be in the shadow of the Victoria Cross? None that I can think of. In some ways I think that the George Cross is more representative of the unpredictable nature of twentieth century ‘total’ war, and of war amongst the peoples.

Whatever might happen in the future, whats certain is that the George Cross has a rich heritage, and some stories that are very humbling indeed. This is a brilliant book, that I found fascinating to read.

The Complete George Cross is published by Pen and Sword

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How to Make a Royal Marines Officer (1989)

I’ve found this rather interesting programme on BBC iplayer showing the training of a group of Royal Marines officer trainees undertaking the Commando Commissioning Course at Lympstone.

It’s quite interesting to note the training for officers compared to men – more focus on initiative, not so many extreme bollockings but the same physical and mental tests. As one of the staff mentions, the idea is that the young officers who if they are comissioned will be commanding a platoon of 30 blokes, many of them older, can stand in front of their men and provide a good example and not be embarrased. It’s always intriguing to see the NCO’s staff berating the ‘young gentlemen’, calling them all kinds of things, suffixed with a ‘sir’. But every green beret in the Royal Marines will have done the same training.

I’ve always found the psychological aspect of military training pretty interesting, as it can apply to other fields and professions. The skills of leadership in particular are fascinating – how do you pick out a leader at 18 or 19, from the thousands of applicants? It’s entirely possible that from those humble beginnings, one of them might end up as a Major-General commanding the Corps.

The lad from Barbados attempting the Commando Course during winter in particular seems to have had a pretty tough time!

Click here to watch (UK only)

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Operation Enduring Freedom: America’s Afghan War 2001 to 2002 by Tim Ripley

This really is a first class book. Ordinarily, I would argue that it is very difficult to write history, in particular military history, until at least thirty years have passed. Sometimes events that happened relatively recently are very difficult to analyse, without the benifit of sufficient hindsight. But here Tim Ripley has given a first class exposition of one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times.

Ripley goes into incredible detail, and I am sure that his description of the air war in particular will be new to most readers. I for one had no idea what aircraft were operating where over Afghanistan. Pointedly, the US Navy had to move two aircraft carriers to the Pakistan coast, as there were no suitable usable airfields in the surrounding countries. Hence most of the tactical aircraft flying on Enduring Freedom were US Navy. But of course, we know that Aircraft Carriers are a luxury, because our leaders and betters tell us so (irony!).

One area in which the US did perform very well in 2001 and 2002 was the integration of Defence and intelligence. In this scenario, Central Command worked almost seamlessly with the CIA, who had significant experience in Afghanistan. The use of technology by the US was also an incredible force multiplier. The Taliban simply had no answer to the UAV’s such as the Predator, and could not hide from the satellite technology and high tec communications that enabled the US to fight in a way that the Taliban could never counter.

The complex social fabric of Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to understand. Made up of a veritable patchwork quilt of tribes and ethnic backgrounds, its not surprising perhaps that Afghanistan has spent the majority of its existence in some kind of upheaval. The tribal loyalties in particular are something that Ripley does well to describe. Even then, I had trouble keeping track of all of the different forces at play, particularly as tribes could change their loyalties at the drop of a hat. In a similar manner, Pakistan’s President Musharaf seems to have been playing the US. Pakistan had supported the Taliban prior to 9/11, and only switched sides when threatened with dire consequences by the US. But Pakistani forces did very little to secure the Afghan border, and then handed over hundreds of supposed prisoners, who it rapidly transpired were not terrorists or illegal combatants at all.

One thing that does emege, and confirms my impression, is that Donald Rumsfeld was completely inept as Secretary of Defence and, looking back, seems to have got almost all of the major calls wrong, basing his decision making on neo-conservative ideals rather than the strategic or tactical realities. This was a worrying trend that continued into the Iraq Invasion in 2003.

Ripley’s closing argument is that in some respects, the apparent success of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 was really a hollow victory. Yes, Bin Laden was on the run and the Taliban fell. The US Forces and their allies had won the war, but thanks to Rumsfeld’s intellectually bankrupt policies, they lost the peace. With more sensible humanitarian and infrastructure work, the kind of troop deployments required from 2006 onwards – such as the British Army’s bloody campaign in Helmand – would have been un-necessary. The momentum was lost, as Iraq took up everyone’s attention.

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Land Forces

English: 2 para guarding POWs Port Stanley 1982

In 1982, the quality of British troops held out when the task force’s land troops came up against the Argentine Army. Much has changed since 1982, both in the British Army and the Argentine Army. Land Forces would play a pivotal part in any future battle for the Falklands, whether it be defending them, or attempting to retake them.

If the Falkland Islands were threatened, one would imagine that the first reaction of the British Government would be to reinforce the lone infantry Company at Mount Pleasant. This would probably involve flying in another infantry Battalion via Ascension, and some extra air defence in the form of Rapier and Starstreak of the Royal Artillery. An infantry Battalion is usually on standby as a spearhead Battalion to move anywhere in the world at short notice.

If, however, the islands were taken by Argentina, then larger land forces would be required to land and retake them. There are 9 Brigades available to the British Armed Forces for rapid deployment anywhere in the world:

There are also a number of other administrative Brigades, that are not geared up towards active deployment. These are the umbrellas for battalions and Regiments not earmarked for deployments, but which could in times of crisis be called upon. In such a manner in 1982, the Scots and Welsh Guards were deployed after finishing a stint of public duties in London, as they happened to be available.

As in 1982, we would probably be looking to the spearhead Brigades, ie 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigade to bear the brunt of any operations. Realistically, with the shipping available, the likely Argentine Garrison to be faced and the troops available, any mission to retake the Falklands would probably consist of two reinforced Brigades, with a similar level of supporting troops – artillery, engineers, etc – as was seen in 1982.

The fly in the ointment, at present, would be Afghanistan. Currently light infantry and mechanised Brigades serve 6 month stints in Afghanistan, meaning that Brigades such as 16 AA and 3 Cdo have spent up 6 months of every two years in Helmand. Prior to this, they are training up for the role, and afterwards building themselves up again. Of course, if it really came to it, troops arriving back from Afghanistan could be sent down south a week later, but this would hardly be ideal. In an ideal world, 16 AA and 3 Cdo Brigades would both be available. In the next best case scenario it would be 3 Cdo Brigade plus one of the light infantry Brigades, and the least satisactory scenario would be 16 AA plus a light infantry Brigade. 3 Cdo Brigade, of course, would be invaluable due to their amphibious role.

There can be few personnel in the British Army who have not served at least one tour of Afghanistan, and many have probably served more, as well as in Iraq and possibly in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia for some older sweats. The British soldier of 2012 is much more experienced and battle-hardened than many of his predecessors, and thanks to some early disasters in Iraq, personnel equipment seems to have seriously improved. In 1982, many troops went down with trench foot thanks to having inferior boots for cold weather. Most weapons systems have been updated – for example the SLR with the SA80, the Bren with the Minimi, and Milan with Javelin. A lot of the new vehicles that have been procured for use in Afghanistan to replace Land Rover are great for that theatre, but would be totally unsuitable to peat bogs in the Falklands. As in 1982, Scimitars and others of the CVR(T) family would be very handy.

Ideologically, the British Army is in a strange place compared to 1982. The last ten years have been spent largely fighting counter-insurgency wards against extremist islamic terrorists – firstly in Iraq, and then Afghanistan. To what extent could the Army go from fighting in the sand to fighting in chilly mountain ranges overnight? One suspects so, given the similarity between the Falklands and the Brecon Beacons, for one. Could it summon up the agression for a conventional war, after devoting much of its attention to ‘wars among the people’? I suspect that this wouldn’t be a problem – in 1982 the British Army was geared towards fighting the Russians in North West Europe, and also dealing with terrorists in Northern Ireland, which especially provided very good training for junior leaders. And unlike 1982, most British troops are not already commited to NATO.

The Argentine Army abolished conscription after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983. In 1982, the Argentine Garrison consisted of two strong Brigades, which consisted of 8 Regiments, the equivalent of a British Battalion. The Argentines also had many support troops, in terms of artillery, engineers and armoured cars. But as has often been written, in 1982 the Argentines had to keep their best troops in South America to guard against a possible Chilean attack. As a result, most of the troops deployed to the Falklands were inexperienced conscripts, and many were from warmer parts of the country, not suited to fighting in the cold and wet Falklands.

In 2012, the Argentine Army has 10 Brigades in total – two armoured, three mechanised, three mountain, one paratrooper and one jungle. In particular, a Rapid Deployment Forces is built around the Paratroop Brigade. The Argentine Marines consists of 4 Infantry Battalions with supporting troops. With the addition of dedicated Mountain Brigades, the Argentines could probably provide a better garrison for the Falklands than they did in 1982.Of course, what we do not know is how well trained their troops are – although the Argentine Army does seem to have benefited from increased international co-operation. In addition, friendly relations with the rest of South America means that Argentina would not have to leave units behind to guard her own frontiers.

But, as with the British Task Force, the Argentine’s real problem would be getting their troops to the islands in the first place. With one sole amphibious ship, and the tricky prospect of taking Mount Pleasant intact, they might have a bit of trouble actually getting them to the Falklands in the first place. But if a re-run of 1982 was to be experienced, but with modern forces, I would expect a British land force to edge it based on experience and training.

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Counter-insurgency by Ian Beckett and John Pimlott

In the past I have heard all kind of funny things said about counter-insurgency warfare. It’s not ‘real war’, or that it causes armies to ‘go soft’. Both of which are, in my opinion, horse shit. But I guess on the other hand it is also symptomatic that military historians have not really studied COIN as much as they should have. This is a very useful book, therefore. And it is extremely relevant, in that both of the authors have lectured at Sandhurst and other Defence institutions.

The British Army has perhaps the most experience of fighting counter-insurgency. Not only does the Army have a history of fighting small, foreign wars against populations and having to make do and improvise, but in the long drawn-out withdrawl from Empire British Forces were time and time again called in to provide a bulwark against unsavoury insurgents. This happened in Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Oman, and in numerous places in Africa. And not to mention Northern Ireland. And the British Army has an enviable record of success. One of the key lessons learnt from the insurgency in Malaya is the importance of uniting civilian and military leadership – in Malaya the land forces commander was also the Governor-General, not only providing unity in leadership but also eliminating a possible area for rifts. In Oman, every effort was made to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals, and to take care of economic and social factors so the insurgency did not seem a viable alternative.

The French Army, on the other hand, did not fare too well in Vietnam or Algeria. The author of this chapter even feels that at times the French Army studied COIN so much that some officers began to sympathise far too much with revolutionary ideals. Certainly, the French failure in Vietnam led to the debacle that the US waded into not long after. And failure in Algeria led to all manner of instability at home, including leading the Generals to machine for a change of Government.

It would be difficult to argue that the US Army has a good reputation when it comes to COIN. Clearly, the flexible, unconventional and tactful approach that it calls for does not lend itself well to forces based on overwhelming firepower and materiel. Listening to quotes from US Generals over Vietnam, you get the feeling that it was not the kind of war that they wanted to fight. Well, you’re lucky if you get to pick your wars, otherwise you fight the ones your masters want you to. And when you do, you should fight to win. Or at the very least, not lose. Lines of command were hopelessly complicated – one observer found it hard to work out who was actually running the Vietnam War, with so many headquarters and Departments involved.

In contrast, the Portuguese Army actually had a pretty good track record at dealing with COIN in countries such as Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. This is even more remarkable when we consider Portugal’s size, it’s economy, and the fact that its forces were routed in Goa not long before. Their success in fielding such forces in their colonial possessions and their subsequent success would suggest that size is not an issue in dealing with COIN. A military coup led to Portugal’s withdrawal from Empire in 1974, rather than any kind of military reverse.

It’s a similar picture with the Rhodesian Army, which fought a COIN campaign against the pre-cursors to Robert Mugabe in the African bush. As well as the Selou Scouts and forming a Rhodesian SAS, part of the Rhodesian’s tactics for countering the terrorists included erecting game fences and minefields along frontiers. The amount of haven states along Rhodesia’s borders, however, made things more problematic. Rhodesia might have become Zimbabwe eventally, but the Rhodesian security forces were by no means defeated, and in the opinion of the author could have continued the campaign indefinitely.

So, looking at these various COIN campaigns, do any lessons emerge? Firstly, that civil and military leaderships needs to be as one – either united, or merged. Officers need to forget about ideas of set piece battles and focus on the campaign at hand, and how to win it. The US General who said that he would not let Vietnam ‘destroy everything that the US Army stands for’ was ironically showing the kind of inflexibility that loses COIN campaigns in any case. And far from making security forces ‘go soft’, the flexibility and agility required in COIN campaigns can actually be very useful – witness the experience gained by the British Army in Northern Ireland, and how it engendered excellent leadership at junior NCO level.

Whether we like it or not, insurgencies are a fact of life in the modern world, and if we want to defeat them we would do better to work out how best to make their success impossible, rather than bemoaning that they do not fit into our fixed ideas of what war is, or should be.

This is a very credible book, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Counter-insurgency is published by Pen and Sword

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Thoughts on Bin Laden

So, the biggest influence in global politics and security over the past 15 years is no more. As most commentators have suggested, it doesn’t actually change that much in real terms. OBL has not in any real sense been commanding Al Qaeda for years, merely providing funds and support and franchising its activities out to other organisations. Osama was more of a figurehead, and he can probably  do that better dead than alive.

Serious questions have to be asked about Pakistan. For somebody as dangerous as OBL to be hiding deep in the country, within 1,000 yards of Pakistan’s equivalent of Sandhurst? For two US Helicopters to enter Pakistani air space without being spotted? Let alone that he escaped detection for so long. Commentators have talked about the tightrope that Pakistan has to walk with regard to terror – meaning that although the Government wants to maintain law and order, many in Pakistan seem to have at least a lukewarm attitude to Islamic fundamentalism. It might be difficult to bring peace to the Afghan-Pakistan area all the time there are undercurrents of support there.

But the problems are not just in Pakistan – the world at large has dealt with Bin Laden inadequately ever since he first emerged onto the global scene. I can recall taking part in a model UN event for students in Geneva in 1998  just after Al Qaeda had bombed US Embassies in Kenya and Tanazania; as much as I tried, nobody was overly concerned with the threat, the regulation of the internet and female circumcision were bigger topics. Not to belittle those two issues, but history has borne me right on that one.

Al Qaeda’s message could well be increasingly redundant. Whereas OBL had presented violence as being the only option, the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the Arab and Islamic world that terrorism is not necessarily the only way. It’s probably not as simple a case as Islamic fundamentalism dying away forever; the movement is so amorphous and loose to apply any general trends. But the undermining of its message and the loss of its sprititual leader could be the end of the beginning.

I can’t help but feel that Terrorists – like many criminals – aren’t as much motivated by politics and rhetoric as we might think, and are merely interested creating in a bloodbath. The sheer hypocris of Bin Laden’s hatred for the US was almost comical. As much as he hated the presence of US troops in Saudi before, during and after the Gulf War, those very same US forces prevented the Islamic Holy Land from being over-run by Saddam, who was far from a devout Muslim. And as for Afghanistan and the Soviets, the US did much to defend that Islamic state too. But as an aside, it is also slightly sad to hear prominent US figures talking about terrorisim, when for years they did very little about the IRA. Not only that, in some quarters the IRA and Sinn Feinn were openly supported, while killing British citizens and servicemen. Records released from the National Archives recently suggest that none other than Senator Ted Kennedy blocked the sale of firearms to the RUC.

Ironically, I suspect that OBL’s death may cause the US more problems than it solves. Which bogeyman does the country unite against now? Where does US strategic policy head from here? A strategic vacuum can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to be. Withdrawing from Iraq, planning to withdraw from Afghanistan and with no appetite for an expeditionary foreign policy, we are probably looking at a new phase in American relations with the rest of the world. Hopefully aside from all the pantomime regarding Obama’s birth certificate Americans will realise that electing a President with brain cells is actually quite a good idea. The same critics would gladly elect the Austrian-born ex-Terminator in any case.

One thing I have enjoyed is seeing all the conspiracy theorists dining out on this one. Anything happens and the same old nutters crawl out of the woodwork. Here’s an idea guys, how about he was actually killed? There might be a very good reason they haven’t shown photos, namely that if he was shot in the head half of his face would be missing? And that the body was disposed of so quickly so as to not let it become a shrine? Even if they did release photos the same cranks would probably dispute that it was him, or even if they did hand over a body. And if some of the cassandras out there don’t realise, any photograph of a man shot in the head aren’t going to be pretty – bullets don’t make the nice neat little holes that some people seem to think. Any image of OBL with half of his face missing is bound to inflame tensions in some quarters. I agree with the Administration that the damage from releasing them outweighs any pros.

And while we’re on predictable responses to world events, can we stop talking about Afghanistan being a war for oil? There’s none there!

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Youtube Picks

Heres a few video’s I’ve seen recently, covering Rock in Helmand Province, another new Destroyer, a 1950’s american political advert, and some rock from an under-rated band.

Helmand Rock Concert

A rock concert? In Helmand?! yep, thats right… It’s got to be a sign that progress is being made in Afghanistan if events like this are allowed to take place. It’s called freedom. Somehow I think it’s something that the Taliban would not tolerate.

HMS Duncan launched

The last of the Royal Navy’s Type 45 Destroyers, HMS Duncan, was launched recently in Scotland.

I Like Ike‘ advert

I remember watching this advert while studying modern American history for A-level. I’m really not sure what it was about Ike exactly that US voters ‘liked’, but hey ho… I’m British!

Alter BridgeOpen your eyes

My Girlfriend’s made me rediscover this band. Mark Tremonti‘s a great guitarist, and a LOT better than you can hear here!

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Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam – the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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‘Why things don’t happen’ – calls for a cheap Frigate

Image via Wikipedia

The RUSI has published another thought-provoking article on the state of Britain’s armed forces, that is bound to inform debate and discussion around the ongoing Strategic Defence Revew.

In ‘Why things don’t happen: silent principles of national security’, Jeremy Blackham and Gwyn Prins argue that the deepest issues in British Defence are the most silent – principally, the Royal Navy. The article argues that geopolitics makes a maritime framework imperative for the future of Britain’s armed forces. However, the Royal Navy has progressively – or regressively – become weaker and weaker, to the point of not being able to meet the challenges facing it.

The Royal Navy has often been called the silent service – it goes about its business quietly, efficiently, largely away from public gaze and without without blowing its own trumpet. However, in todays media-savvy world, has this led to the Royal Navy being quietly maligned? The Royal Navy, the authors argue, is the main force safeguarding Britain’s silent security principles.

The same authors argued in an earlier article that the Royal Navy was in danger of losing coherence, with ships that were largely a hangover form the Cold War reducing overall utility in a changing world. One of the other points made, that I totally agree with, is that the deeper principles of defence and security are drowned-out by inter-service politicking. And given that the Navy is overhwelmingly a platform-based service, it is at the mercy of funding and equipment issues.

That ‘hard power’ is being replaced by ‘soft power’ was suggested in a major speech by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007. Similarly to Tony Blair‘s Chicago ‘Blair Doctrine’ speech, Brown’s policy brought about consistent growth in the international aid budget, while the Defence budget became more and more squeezed year on year. Yet this naive believe in throwing money at developing countries (and countries that are richer than the UK, for that matter) is intellectually bankrupt if it comes at the expense of the defence that can safeguard humanitarian intervention. part of the problem, however, is that the carefree signing of cheques to foreign countries is so ingrained in decision-makers , that – in the words of the authors – “It demands a bonfire of current assumptions, plus the demolition and rebuilding of current institutions.”

The MOD’s procurement spending comes in for particularly harsh criticism – it is argued that up to a third of the MOD’s budget is wasted by indecision and delays. The problem is, however, that while the country is effectively at war in Afghanistan, peacetime constraints are still over-riding all decisions in Whitehall – primarily, a desire to cut costs at all times.

The authors also look at globalisation. The real impact of globalisation, they argue, is that states and societies are – more than ever – interdependent. Trade and economies are so interconnected that a small problem anywhere could spell disaster for other parts of the world. But this interdependence is subject to very few checks and balances, as the UN is frequently bypassed and ignored.

The Defence Green Paper’s suggestion that Britain align herself more closely with France is odd to say the least – Britain has since 1945 had wildly varying strategic interests with France. French politicians are hardly likely to take decisions with British interests in mind – De Gaulle is an obvious example.

The article goes onto look at a subject that has occupied much of my attention as of late – that of military tribalism. Although the Ministry of Defence has been the primary agency of Defence planning since the demise of the single-service ministries, it is still governed by a deeply-tribal system. The individual chiefs of staff are the tribal chiefs of their service, making it very difficult for them to agree to any decisions that reflect badly on them in this capacity. Against this tribal atmosphere, ‘jointness’ has been a policy used by the Treasury to divide and rule the services. Jointness may be anathema to many wishing to preserve their independence, but recent – and not so recent – history shows us that no operation in war is ever really not of a joint nature. Evacuations and Invasions are a prime example, and the Royal Marines usually exert an influence out of all proportion to their size. The argument is, therefore, that by protecting their independence, the services are actually shooting themselves in the foot.

The post-Cold War run-down of the Royal Navy has been conducted very much in a climate of ‘nothing ever happens’. Because no major or even medium level war has occured for some time, the assumption is that good order is now a constant. The authors argue, however, that this good order and lack of major conflict is precisely because of pre-emption and deterrent, both nuclear and conventional. The suggestion is that when something does not happen, it is because someone of something has stopped it from happening, or has made it impossible to occur in the first place. The example offered by the authors is that of world trade – if less ships were available to patrol the worlds trade routes, would threats emerge as a result?

 The British Empire was largely built in seapower, which in turn was built on control of the oceans. Perhaps the modern public is seablind thanks to the growth of air travel, but the bulk of Britain’s trade – and crucial elements such as fuel – still comes by sea. And as much of this trade has to transit a small number of choke points – Hormuz, and Suez for example – it is highly vulnerable. Against this background, and that of Britain’s shrinking fleet, states such as India and Australia are expanding their naval resources. Japan is opening a naval base in Djibouti, in order to safeguard her shipping off Somalia.

And so to the size and structure of the Royal Navy. Whilst Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon justified the failure to build new ships, by arguing that as newer ships were bigger and more advanced, they would have more capability and would be able to take on the roles that strength-in-numbers would normally handle. Yet all common sense and logic suggests that a low number of high-spec ships are not ideal for policing the globes sea lanes. Crucially, however, the polarity between high and low intensity operations is seen as alarming – it should be seen more as a spectrum; a sliding scale.

A concise table in the article shows just how hamstrung the Royal Navy will be in future years. In 2010 it has 23 Frigates, with an average age of 15 years and across 4 types. By 2020 this will be 21 ships, with an average age of 21 – the age frequently understood to be the limit of a ships active service life. The perils are all too clear. This force structure has been largely built around the need to escort the two new aircraft carriers, yet Britain is very unlikely to go to war in a conventional manner with a full carrier battle group, and in any case European Navies have ample air defence escorts of their own that could be co-opted. The other problem is that the high cost of Type 45 Destroyers is likely to hamper the number of more useful Type 26 Frigates that can be procured. Such a building programme, the authors argue, effectively tells the world that Britain is ‘signing off’ from maritime security.

So, what steps can be put in place to rectify the slide? Firstly, that strength in depth is important not only for presence and replacability, but also for deterrent value – if the enemy know that you are unlikely to respond, they are more likely to act. And, ‘if you cannot afford to lose a ship, then you cannot afford to use it’. The authors would scap the Type 26 C2 design, and would replace them with 10 cheap Frigates within 10 years, effectively an equivalent of the Type 21 Class in the 1970’s. The Danish Absalon Class, and the Dutch Holland Class, are offered up as inspiration of what can be achieved at much lower cost than the Type 45 and 26 programmes. A cheap, multi-pupose frigate would be of far more use patrolling sea lanes and combatting pirates than a Type 45 Destroyer.

Interesting thoughts indeed…

Read the full article here

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What next in Afghanistan?

With the onset of President Obama’s surge, and a change in Government in Whitehall, 2011 could prove to be a pivotal year for the future of Afghanistan, as this article on the BBC website suggests.

History shows that the only way peacekeeping forces can leave any country in which they are engaged is by enabling that country to look after itself and stand on its own two feet. Until that point, critics will be able to look upon foreign forces as ‘occupiers’, whether this is the nature of their involvement or not.

Progress in Afghanistan does seem to have been slow, bearing in mind that US and coalition forces first entered the country in 2001. Admittedly for several years the country was overshadowed by Afghanistan. But quite rightly questions are now being asked about whether enough progress is being made by the Afghan Government and security forces in moving towards taking responsibility for their own future.

The usual allegations about the US and NATO being imperialistic do not wash where Afghanistan is concerned, as there is nothing in the country to be imperialistic about. Much as in Britain’s Afghan wars in the Nineteenth Century, the aim is secure and stabilise the region. Afghanistan’s turbulent past shows that it is not a country where any foreign forces should want to linger any longer than they have to. Of course it would be great if we lived in a world where no countries ever failed, but sadly on occasions countries do become a threat to regional and global security.

But by the same token, we should be wary also of bailing out on a country before the job is done. If Saddam Hussein had been deposed in 1991 when the coalition had much broader support than in 2003, years of harmful sanctions would have been avoided – and not to mention the fracturous effect on world politics.

Its not difficult to see that pulling out of Afghanistan before it has a strong and stable Government would leave the country as a vipers nest that would only cost many more lives in years to come. A collapse in Afghanistan might endanger Pakistan, where the border region districts are controlled by either the Taliban or tribes. With Iran on the other side of the country the region is in danger of bubbling over into insecurity, and Afghanistan could be the first domino. And not only is interational security a big concern, but more needs to be done to knuckle down on the poppy growing trade, and the effect that it has on international crime and drug addiction.

Therefore the role of international forces has to move to words enabling as soon as possible. The problem with this is the state of the Afghan Government – can Karzai do enough to tackle corruption? Much rests on the ability of the Afghans to take over their own security, and to make it possible for ISAF to take a back seat and then eventually leave.

History has shown also that sooner or later the Afghan Government will have to sit down and talk with the Taliban, especially its more moderate elements. After 1945 in Germany many former Nazi party members played a role in rebuilding the country. In Northern Ireland progress was only made with the peace process once Sinn Fein was brought to the negotiating table. By contrast in Iraq after 2003 the US disbanded the Iraqi Army immediately, and embarked on strict de-Bathification,and chaos reigned.

As a recent British Army booklet on irregular warfare stated, the trick is not the defeat the enemy, but to make it impossible for them to win and thereby force them to the negotiating table. To do that ISAF and the Afghans will have to demonstrate that they can provide a more stable and peaceful future, thus cutting off the Taliban’s grass roots support and making their armed stuggle impossible.

But as General Mchrystal so rightly mentions in the BBC article, often in military history the turning point in a war ends up being competely unexpected. Thats why it wound be unwise to set any target dates for withdrawal based on domestic pressure.

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Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan by Jules Stewart

Britain. Disaster. Afghanistan. Words that are never far away from any news programme. And words that are also used quite casually by ill-informed commentators to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is doomed. Normally along with some reference to ‘the Russians couldnt do it’. We could be excused for thinking that the war currently being fought in Afghanistan at the moment is the first time that British troops have ever set foot in Afghanistan, and that the issues facing ISAF in Helmand and the rest of the country are completely new. Of course, we all know that the British Army first crossed the frontier into Afganistan way back in 1839, and this book by Jules Stewart sheds new light on one of the British Army’s biggest but least known disasters.

The ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan was conceived out of the broader picture of the ‘Great Game’, in other words the strategic contest between Russia and Britain for dominance over Persia and Central Asia. Britain was fearful of Russian expansion, and in particular feared that Russian success in countries such as Persia and Afghanistan might put India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – at risk.

As a result, the British Government ordered a military operation to occupy Afghanistan. The reasons are important to understand – there was clearly nothing to conquer in Afghanistan itself. The aim was rather to present a strong bulwark on the North West Frontier of India against the perceived Russian threat. The British Empire was built on trade rather than territory, and it would have run counter to all common sense to annexe Afghanistan purely for the sake of it.

21,000 British and Indian troops set out from India, commanded by Major-General William Elphinstone. Although the force managed to occupy Afghanistan with little trouble, it was only after the majority of the troops returned to India that the problems began. Surrounded by a plethora of hostile tribes, the British were forced to hole up in Kabul. Disaffected tribes flocked to the leadership of Akbar Khan. After a long and arduous siege, an agreement was finally reached with Khan to allow the remaining British troops and civilians in Kabul to return to India. Despite the promises of safe passage that Elphinstone had secured, the force was atacked in the snowbound passes. A massacre ensued, and only one man escaped.

The lessons in this book are not just interesting nuggets of History – after all the foreword written by General Sir David Richards, the current head of the British Army, and a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. And I feel that Stewart captures these running themes very well. Firstly, that Afghanistan is such a patchwork of different tribes and loyalties, that it is almost misleading to think of it as a nation in the usual sense. And secondly, that Afghans have a very different code of values to those that we have in Western society. If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, then we need to immerse ourselves in these factors and work within them. Thirdly, that a large Army marching into any country where the populace is less than 100% supportive is bound to have a tough time. And finally, rather than send a tiny force to begin with, and then a larger Army to avenge is massacre, might it have been more sensible to do it properly in the first place? For 1842’s army of retribution, read 2010’s surge.

Did the first Anglo-Afghan war deflect Russia from the country? It is impossible to tell without looking at Russian sources. That must surely be the measure of whether the 1839-42 war was a success. Although the massacre is bound to attract attention, the mere presence of British troops might have been enough to blunt Russian designs.

Perhaps this book, in its focus on the 1839-182 war, does give the impression that British involvement in Afghanistan has always been a failure. But although a punitative force did exact revenge for the massacre, and the later Afghan wars were more succesful, this is very much a cautionary tale based on the first confict. Jules Stewart has used some impressive research, including original sources, to shed new light on this important episode. I found it a gripping read, and it should be standard issue to officers preparing to go to Afghanistan.

Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan is published by The History Press

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Bomb Disposal experts awarded George Cross


Two British Army Bomb Disposal experts have been awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy.

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid and Staff Sergeant Kim Hughers, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2009. As High Threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal operators, Schmid and Hughes were in the forefront of the battle against the lethal threat that IED’s represent.

Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes

Staff Sergeantt Hughes’s actions are described in his citation as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.” In one incident on 16 August 2009, Hughes was tasked to clear a route near Sangin in Helmand. One soldier was seriously injured by an IED, and as he was being recovered another IED detonated and killed two more soldiers. The area was effectively an IED minefield, overlooked by the enemy. Hughes and his team were called in to deal with the devices. They left behind protective clothing in order to save time. Upon reaching the first casualty Hughes discovered a further IED, and calmly carried out a manual neutralisation. His citation states “It was an extraordinary act.”

“Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven IEDs linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation techniques once, never mind three times, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan. That he did it without the security of specialist protective clothing serves even more to demonstrate his outstanding gallantry. Hughes is unequivocally deserving of the highest level of public recognition.”

Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid

After deploying to Helman in June 2009, Staff Sergeant Schmid personally dealt with 70 IED’s. He spent long periods of time in close proximity to IEDs and in the gravest personal danger. Before his death in action he responded to 42 IED tasks. One incident involved an 11 hour operation to clear an area, after an infantry company had had several of their vehicles blown up by IED’s.

On another occasion, Schmid was in Sangin District Centre to deal with an artillery shell. On arrival he immediately realised that many civilians around him in the bustling bazaar were in peril. He quickly assessed that the shell was part of a Radio Controlled IED intended to cause maximum casualties in a well populated area. The nature of the device also meant it was almost certainly over-watched by the bomber controlling it. Without any consideration for his own safety Schmid immediately decided to neutralise the IED manually. To do this he employed a render safe procedure that should only ever be employed in the gravest of circumstances and which is conducted at the highest personal risk to the operator. In an instant, he made the most courageous decision possible, consciously placing his own life on the line in order to save the lives of countless Afghan civilians and demonstrating bravery of the highest order and well beyond the call of duty.

Staff Sergeant Schmid was killed during an operation near Forward Operating Base JACKSON. Having dealt with three IEDs already that day, he and his team were transiting to another compound when a command wire was discovered running down the alleyway they were in. SSgt Schmid and his team were trapped with no safe route forward or back as they did not know in which direction the IED was situated. Knowing that his team were in danger, he immediately took action to reduce the hazard. SSgt Schmid eventually traced the wire to a complex IED with three linked buried main charges. He was killed whilst dealing with the device.

His citation states:

“Schmid’s actions on that fateful day, when trapped in an alleyway with no safe means of escape, probably saved the lives of his team. These occasions are representative of the complexity and danger that Schmid had faced daily throughout his four month tour. His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”

Time to change medal criteria?

For us mere mortals, it is almost impossible to comprehend the bravery and nerves of steel needed to work in Bomb Disposal. The awards of the George Cross to Staff Sergeants Schmid and Hughes are richly deserved, and not only a fitting tribute to them but their colleagues too. Among all the controversy about Defence funding, we should remember that the British Army can call on some of the most professional experts in the world when it comes to specialist tasks such as Bomb Disposal.

In previous times, the lines between ‘combat’ and ‘non combat’ were relatively clear. But in a world of increasingly unconventional warfare, can we truly draw a line between bravery that is under enemy fire and that which isnt? The inference of ‘not under enemy fire’ is that it is not quite so deserving. But IED’s ARE the Taliban’s way of fighting. Particularly with the case of Staff Sergeant Hughes, the press release on the MOD website states that the incident took place in the presence of the enemy, and that British soldiers had to fire shots to keep their heads down. If thats not in the face of the enemy, then what is? Is dealing with an IED less brave than a conventional pitched battle?

A similar case took place last year, when Royal Marine Lance Corporal Matt Croucher jumped on a grenade that had accidentally activated. His rucksack shielded him from the blast, but he saved the lives of his comrades at the risk of his own. Yet because there were no enemy present, somehow it is seemed slightly less brave. Clearly, if a token Taliban fighter had been so much as standing nearby firing into the air, Croucher would have been awared a Victoria Cross.

In 1993 the Government reformed the Gallantry Medal system, to remove distinctions between officers and men. And quite rightly too – an act of bravery is an act of bravery, and it should not matter whether it was performed by a Private or a General. Much as the 1993 review took account of the fact that class should not be an issue in the modern age, is it now time to review the caveat of ‘under enemy fire’? The nature of warfare has changed considerably, and if we are going to expect our men and women to go int harms way, we should ensure that we honour them properly.

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Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

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Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.

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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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