DEFENCE

Dreams: ‘White Elephants’ and ‘Golden Turkeys’

A recent House of Commons Select Committee report, Towards the Next Defence and Security Review, began:

“The capabilities of HM Forces should be determined not by budgetary constraints but by a fully-developed strategy which defines the position in the world that the UK wants to adopt, says the Defence Committee”

— and, oh, the joyless mirth those words triggered!

Last month the Chief of the Defence Staff delivered the CDS’s annual Christmas address to the Royal United Services Institute.  As expected, this was a fairly dull and comprehensive tour d’horizon that presented the usual Whitehall views, of course, naturally, so yes you may slumber if you wish, just print the press release, and you lot over there move along, nothing to see here …

But was it actually dull? No! It was not. It was remarkably stimulating.

The CDS spoke of our post-SDSR2010 course leading to “a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or to train on it”, a ‘hollow-force’.  And he spoke of our “Royal Navy as being perilously close to its critical mass in man-power terms.” Had he lost the script? Had someone fed him print-outs from this blog?

But what is this “exquisite equipment” of which he speaks?

HMS Queen Elizabeth copy

Yes, the new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales, plus the Joint Strike Fighter, Joint Combat Aircraft, Lightning II, F-35B STOVL version of the most incredible aircraft programme in history, described in combination as ‘Carrier-Strike’, are his “exquisite equipment” – a phrase certain to enter the quotation dictionaries. To independent analysts, freed from the subjectivity enforced by MoD or Defence Industry contracts, these fantasies are respectively the MoD’s ‘White Elephants’ and ‘Golden Turkeys’.

The Royal Navy, the CDS fears, will not have the trained manpower to keep the carriers at sea, nor the jolly jack tars to man the escort ships needed to protect them from such future threats as surface-skimming hypersonic cruise missiles fired in salvoes and arriving simultaneously from different directions. (And the MoD doesn’t really have the money to buy them without subsidies from other ministries, for the original target of £3.8 billion has grown to an acknowledged £7.2 billion and is approaching the eight to ten billion pounds this blog first forecast.)

If, as we believe he must have done, the First Sea Lord has already explained to the CDS that by the time the two carriers are ready to put to sea, they will be too vulnerable to risk in a war zone, he may be wondering what on earth his successors will do with them — which may be one reason he is thinking of asking other government ministries to help fund the cost of Defence. The Department for International Development (DfID) is an obvious candidate for this privilege because it has buckets of money it is desperate to spend in order to meet the Prime Minister’s target of donating seven billion pounds every year.

Those readers who remember the Bird and Fortune discussion of the carriers mentioned here last week will doubtless have recognised the solution already. Their flight decks, it was claimed, were big enough to hold 49 tennis courts, the hangars could shelter 12 Olympic-size swimming pools. These are big ships already capable of producing thousands of meals every day, and with hospitals that can be extended into the hangar space to treat many hundreds of sick and wounded. The galleys also may be extended to provide thousands of meals for helicopter transport to stricken areas.

So the Royal Navy will have two dedicated disaster relief ships ready to help the victims of tsunamis, droughts, famines, earthquakes, and civil wars.  They may carry a few V-22 Osprey transport helicopters, a squadron of Chinook utility helicopters, and large numbers of Dragoon utility scout aircraft. And when the UN finds it necessary, they can deploy quick-reaction peacekeeping forces. supply logistic support, and provide a headquarters linked to the world’s capitals.

When not leased to the UN for specific disaster relief operations, their acquisition and their training activities would be funded by DfID from the ring-fenced 0.7 per cent of the UK’s GDP, an arrangement that will secure the continuance of an important segment of our naval expertise while also retaining in service many valuable men and women soon to be threatened with redundancy.

JSF F-35B copy

In addition to the vulnerability of the carriers to the newly developed anti-ship cruise missiles, there is the problem of the carriers’ inability to mount with their planned F-35B fleet an effective Combat Air Patrol (CAP) to protect themselves from air attack.  Among the factors contributing to this are the number of Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) aboard, their range, the lack onboard of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft (and, no, altitude-restricted helicopters are not an alternative), the range of enemy air-launched anti-ship missiles, and the number of sorties each serviceable F-35B can fly each day (currently predicted to be one every two days – although, surely, this will be improved before the aircraft are bought, won’t it?)

Of course, the phrase “planned F-35B fleet” is hedged with uncertainty because no one really knows what the plan is now or will be in 2015. There was early talk of “at least” 72 JSFs when we did not yet know if they would be the ‘jump-jet’ F-35B or the much longer range F-35C that needed the carriers to have catapults and arrester wires. Then the F-35B was chosen, and then a little later the F-35C was chosen – and then after that it was back to the F-35B with the change justified in a paper prepared, it was reported, in one afternoon. The numbers were fluctuating in parallel, with talk of two carriers with 6 JSFs each, or one carrier with 12 JSFs and the other carrier in mothballs. All fantasy, of course.

Sending a carrier to sea to fight a war with 12 strike aircraft had to be a joke, obviously, hadn’t it? No, it wasn’t a joke. Eventually someone in Whitehall heard the laughter and the provisional decision (or speculation), to be confirmed in 2015, was that there would be 36 JSFs for one carrier, and these could be transferred to the second carrier later, if that was ever completed. Now these 36 JSFs, all of the F-35B version, were projected by the analysts, on the available serviceability and regeneration data, as necessary for the carrier’s CAP, so where were the aircraft for the Government’s promised ‘Carrier-Strike’ capability? The Royal Navy and its incredibly expensive ‘Fifth Generation’ JSFs would be able to attack targets a short distance away from the carrier, or the aircraft would attempt to protect the carrier from such high-flying Mach 2 aircraft as the ‘Fourth Generation’ Su-35s before they launched their missiles, but they would not attack any targets.

Yet what targets could the F-35B attack? The munitions in the bomb bay are ‘smart’ – actually very clever – but they are not very powerful. Yes, but this is not important, a Westminster expert explained, because the F-35B is a successor to the Harrier and thus will be used for close air support (CAS) in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations where the Rules of Engagement (RoE) restrict the lethality of our weaponry – ah! that’s alright then!

So ‘Carrier-Strike’ will become CAS? There will be many among this blog’s readers who belong to an older generation that remembers pictures of the RAF’s fighter-bombers flying at low level, and very low level, to destroy trains and road convoys in what was then called ‘ground attack’ — and when these aircraft flew similarly to support the troops in direct contact with the enemy, that was CAS. But as a consequence of the never-ending war between the US Army and the US Air Force (more on this later, perhaps next month), CAS has been redefined.

B-52 copy

A B-52 dropping its bombs to “support” troops in contact with an enemy six miles below can have its action described as CAS. On that basis, the F-35B JSFs on CAS will not be where the British ‘Tommies’ and American ‘grunts’ want them, down in the mud, in touch, working with them from an austere strip — oh, no! At £125,000,000plus each they will be kept far above anything an insurgent might fire at them.

What about the RAF then? The answer to this has been kept very vague, and what has been suggested makes no sense at all, unless ……. Unless what? Well, back in the decade following the Great War the Air Ministry had many different ideas about the bombers we might need (when the men there were dreaming about the fighters which were much more exciting), and thinking about range seems not to have been considered of great importance. If a bomber could reach the military installations and dockyards of northern France, that would be good enough. If we pierce the smoke and mirrors obfuscating the F-35B range data it appears that Brussels may have replaced northern France as the possible target. Is this important? No, of course not, it’s just a sad joke to make a point more memorable, but the MoD is describing the RAF’s use of the F-35B as ‘Deep Strike’ and that is not a joke. It is dishonest, and it repeats a traditional failing that the threatened privatisation of procurement and acquisition will not eliminate. This was explained in this blog a month ago and may be worth rereading.

So how do we assess the ‘Golden Turkey’? For the Royal Navy it is being bought at an unaffordable and still unknown price to arm the ‘White Elephants’ for ‘Carrier-Strike’ — for which it has neither the range nor, as a fighter (owing to performance limitations well known seven years ago) the ability to survive combat against potential enemy aircraft already in service. Implicit in ‘Carrier-Strike’ is the need for the carrier to survive, but the F-35B on currently projected performance and in planned numbers cannot operate an effective CAP. For the RAF the F-35B range performance prohibits any form of ‘Deep Strike’ that requires the aircraft to return to friendly territory.

None of this will be good news for those in the MoD who have disregarded their duty to keep the Defence Secretary fully briefed on the facts. (Nothing in this blog is ever Secret or above; it is all readily accessible in Washington, if not in officers’ messes in the UK.) And doubtless some adverse comments will be posted. (One of our colleagues writing elsewhere was recently assailed for having accepted the anti-JSF views widely published in American Defence papers, but we don’t just accept — we look at the JSF data published in Washington by the DoD (US Department of Defence) and the GAO (Congress’s Government Accountability Office), and then we do the maths. It’s that simple.)

All the factors briefly raised here deserve greater exposition, and that will appear here in future months, but it is now perhaps worthwhile to touch on what the F-35B would cost us up-front (a figure that will double during its 30-year life).

Remember there are three versions of the JSF — the F-35A ordered by the USAF, the F-35C ordered by both the USN and the USMC, and the F-35B ordered by the USMC only (and the British, of course). The F-35A is the cheapest version and its supposed price tends to be quote airily as if it were a generic price, so that when this is claimed to be $85,000,000 for a single F-35A there is left the impression that the other aircraft will be around that but perhaps a little more.

Obviously, a smart politician will ask if the $85,000,000 includes the engine (it does not) and all the other extras an aircraft needs to fly (it does not). That may then encourage him to ask if the $85million is accurate anyway (and it is not). He will be told that it may be more right now, but that the price is decreasing “with the learning curve” (and it is not). Of course, the way in which the costs have been structured allows full use of smoke and mirrors. Example? Right, here is one of many. The early spreadsheets included figures for maintenance labour costs through the years and decades of production, and with these was included a speculative annual percentage increase – a guess, obviously, when trying to predict figures over a quarter-century. Now watch closely. Take this guess and reduce it by, say, 0.1 per cent, and the predicted unit cost of the aircraft will decrease. Wow! So you see Senator, Secretary, General, Admiral, the price is coming down, just as we predicted the learning curve will affect it.

As we have said before, it is no use asking the Defence Secretary how much these ‘Golden Turkeys’ will cost us. He does not know. There may be someone in Lockheed Martin who knows, but he will keep it secret. We on this blog certainly do not know the exact figure, but we are able to assemble the DoD and GAO reports and read with them the Selected Acquisition Reports (SAR), and examine the data available to the general public, and to the British MoD, and we can say with a fair degree of certainty that these ‘jump-jet’ replacements for the Harriers that were planned to cost us perhaps £75million each will not cost us less than £125 million each. (This blog will publish the American calculations of the figures next month.)

This £125,000,000 ‘Golden Turkey’ is one element of the CDS’s “exquisite equipment.” Who believes we can afford it?

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DEFENCE, Uncategorized

John Fortune and Nasruddin

“It’s 2014,” I was told at breakfast this morning. “It’s a New Year. ‘Everything is going to be better,’ Dave says, so perhaps in preparation for next year’s SDSR we’ll have some new defence policies related to the real world.” But I wasn’t listening.

I was mourning John Fortune of whose death I had just heard. He was ‘a lefty’, I’d been told, but if so then he was an uncommonly perceptive one with a great contempt for the incompetent way the nation is governed by Whitehall. When once asked about scripts and rehearsals, of which the Bird-Fortune team used neither, he explained that they were unnecessary because they worked with “the indefensible. Like British defence policy. Then you don’t have to make up jokes. You just say it.”

Here, in 2008, they presciently discussed the Carrier-Strike programme and its intention to use the short-range F-35B STOVL aircraft.  Some of their figures five years ago were optimistic, the programme cost having doubled since then and the size of the Royal Navy having been reduced further, but in general the sketch was based on a fair interpretation of the MoD’s flawed maritime policies.

2 future carriers

My ancient friend, the philosopher-fool Nasruddin, whom regular readers may remember from past blog entries, although recently in Afghanistan which is regularly visited by F/A-18 strike aircraft launched from American warships in the Indian Ocean, knows nothing of aircraft carriers. Nevertheless a tale is told of him that may strike a chord with readers who have studied the operational limitations of the F-35B STOVL aircraft scheduled to cost us ……. cost us what? The MoD does not know. The Defence Secretary does not know either. But a colleague in Washington predicts that we shall be lucky to get away with £125million each, and that would be only the notional cost anyway, for the real cost over its service life will double this figure. That is a lot for a widget that won’t do what it said on the bubble-wrap packaging when the MoD chose to order the STOVL Joint Strike Fighter.

Mullah Nasruddin visited the souq one day when a caravan of merchants had stopped to fill stomachs and water bags, and to fleece the locals. One of them, a most distinguished man Nasruddin was told, took him into conversation and, having realised that Nasruddin was a very holy man, offered to show him the holy cup that never ran dry. No matter how much wine was drunk from it, the merchant’s friends confirmed, always it refilled itself overnight.

Eventually, after much hard bargaining, Nasruddin persuaded the merchant that he, a holy man, was by far the best qualified custodian for such a holy vessel, and just as the merchant was about to leave he agreed the price he would pay for it.

When Mullah Nasruddin awoke the next morning the holy cup was dry but, nevertheless, because it was holy he washed and dried it with loving care, congratulating himself on his astuteness, and praising the quality of the wine that would have been in it that morning if Allah had wished it. 

 

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DEFENCE

Bullingdon Defences

Last year we published a series of six articles describing how the British Ministry of Defence had wasted billions of pounds on defence projects – with the intention that we might persuade readers to consider whether an organisation capable of such monstrous errors of judgement could be trusted to continue controlling the nation’s security.

These six parts have now been republished, together with others, in an anthology which will soon be available as a Kindle book on Amazon.  For the present a PDF version (with its web links inactive) is available for download from here.

All our revenues from the sale of the book, whether by donation from those who download the PDF file or as the purchase price on the Amazon website, will go to Help for Heroes to support the wounded soldiers, now training as pilots on the Flying for Freedom (F4F) programme, who will be using their new skills in specially modified Dragoons on next December’s Antarctic Expedition.

So what are Bullingdon Defences? 

The Strategic Defence & Security Review, the SDSR of 2010 (now known also as the Suicidal Defeat and Surrender Retreat), which, being composed together with a Spending Review was subordinated to that Spending Review, expected the United Kingdom economy happily “to continue with the fourth largest military defence budget in the world.” Since then this boast of “fourth largest” has been repeated by Cabinet Ministers ad nauseam, as if it actually means something of significance, fantasising that it would be interpreted by the electors as evidence of the United Kingdom’s continuing military strength. It wasn’t, it isn’t, and it won’t be.

The consequence of this was that in February this year the Prime Minister could pronounce in an article for The Scotsman: “We’re safer, because in an increasingly dangerous world we have the fourth-largest defence budget on the planet, superb armed forces and anti-terrorist and security capabilities that stretch across the globe.” There is little doubt that he really believes this, for he shows no understanding of military matters and relies on what the Ministry of Defence tells him, but there is monumental danger in this belief, because he, following his two predecessors, is confidently and brazenly stripping us naked before our enemies.

In response the Forbes blog wrote: “A defence posture based on the claim that our defence spend is ‘the fourth highest in the world’ has no credibility, for even if that were true it would not be a measure of our strength. The immense size of the bill for a smashing night out with the Bullingdon Club would not necessarily mean a man had eaten the best dinner in Oxford, would it?

And thus a national defence assumed to be good only because it costs more than can be afforded became known as a ‘Bullingdon Defence’ – ostentatiously extravagant, and one in which the greater part of the expenditure produces nothing of true and lasting value, while the remainder is drunkenly trashed.

To download the PDF file click on this link Bullingdon Defences

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DEFENCE, Uncategorized

Lions Betrayed by Donkeys

THIS IS A REPUBLICATION.  AFTER THE ORIGINAL WAS EMAILED TO REGISTERED FOLLOWERS IT INEXPLICABLY DISAPPEARED FROM THE SITE.

Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice, has said of the Blackman court martial: “The case is of the greatest public interest, involving as it does a unique charge of murder against soldiers on military operations against a wounded detainee. There is, therefore, the greatest public interest in the whole of the proceedings being publicly reported.”

And when sentencing Blackman the Judge Advocate General spoke of the importance that “this Court sends out a very strong message that while this sort of offence is extremely rare, if not  unique, those Service personnel who commit crimes of murder, or other war crimes or crimes against humanity while on operations will be dealt with severely. This is a message of deterrence but it is also to reassure the international community that allegations of serious crime will be dealt with transparently and appropriately.”

So both the Lord Chief Justice and the Judge Advocate General recognise the importance of the public interest and, specifically, in the JAG’s words, the importance of the message. Accordingly, it may fairly be assumed that both judges accepted that there would be public discussion of the trial, of the verdict, and of the sentence. The JAG alluded also to transparency – which is a good start point for public discussion of what some consider a travesty of justice, and which others have described as a political ‘stitch-up’ recalling memories of Admiral Byng, of Captain Dreyfus and, more recently, of Sergeant Nightingale.

So let us look at transparency.

Blackman+Blair

Public comment has compared, for example, Blackman with a drug addict who murdered his baby son in anger because he had exhausted his supply of cannabis and yet received a prison sentence of only six years, and, more tellingly in view of the ‘transparency’ urged by the JAG, compared with the late prime minister, the Rt Hon Anthony C.L. Blair, who avoided impeachment and wanders the world accumulating treasure.

The killing of Osama bin Laden offers an interesting comparison. He was shot dead by Special Forces who could have captured him and could then have taken him to America for trial (an inconvenient trial perhaps). He was defended only by his unarmed wife. He may have preferred death to capture, as probably also may the Afghan in the Blackman case, but that is not relevant. Osama bin Laden, although not in a war zone, was shot in the line of duty, and was alive when the trigger was pulled, while Blackman’s Afghan, who in contrast was in a war zone, also was shot in the line of duty, may not actually have been alive when Blackman pulled the trigger, and earlier had been attempting to kill British servicemen, for which purpose he was when discovered still armed. (No one can swear that he was alive when shot, but medical specialists in this field explain that a dead man’s muscles can twitch, giving the appearance of life, if the chest is hit soon after death, as it was in this case by a bullet.)

Equal and appropriate treatment!  Is this the message?

Blair-Bercow motto

We can take this a little further during the next couple of weeks. For the present, responding to the JAG’s call for transparency, we shall just ask for the reasons that a child killer, a soldier killing a live al-Qu’aida leader, and a civilian whose moral deficiencies wilfully led to the loss of more than a hundred thousand lives, should be treated so differently from Blackman. All are not equal in the UK, certainly not in the decisions of the MoD when the objective of treating an accused man with justice is replaced by the objective of looking good to the liberal establishment and pretending to the world that “the British Government is whiter than white.”

The question we must ask as we search for transparency will be about the apparently compulsive need to punish our own, propitiating Moloch, the god of the Guardianistas, in a spirit of self-abnegation that appears to justify, as once with the first-born, Penance-by-Proxy (PbP). For the higher civilian ranks within the toxic environment of the MoD, no opportunity to injure servicemen ever appears to be  deliberately neglected, whether by reducing pension entitlement, by premature redundancy, by misinterpreting or rewriting regulations, by invalidating allowances, or by convening avoidable courts martial – and Blackman’s court martial was avoidable, as, for similar reasons, was Sergeant Nightingale’s. Psychiatric evidence in both cases was accepted by the court and then discounted, yet both men deserved at least the consideration freely given to the psychoses of undeserving politicians.

Those who allow PbP to persist in the official treatment of the Armed Forces betray them as surely as do those of their leaders in the MoD who send them out on patrols where every footstep may shred their legs, emasculate them, mutilate their bodies, or kill them, and then – if they have survived so far – after the continual stress of these patrols has accumulated to such extent that it affects their judgement, insist that there can be no allowance for this because not everyone, according to the JAG, buckles at the same point.

Sergeant Blackman, RM was betrayed, and such betrayal will continue (and Army recruitment will decline in consequence of this and similar betrayals) until the Government stops it.

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DEFENCE

Agility and Versatility

My  recent article on the Betrayal of Sergeant Alexander Blackman mentioned “the advice of Liddell Hart and Colonel T.E. Lawrence” and gave in a footnote its source as W.F. Hogarth’s paper The Point of the Spear.  I’ve received suggestions that this blog ought to publish it, but that has not yet been agreed.  However, here is one dating from 2007 that covers much of the same ground and, as the IED menace in Afghanistan was then in its very early stages, appears embarrassingly prescient.

It includes also the Lawrence quotation relevant to the doctrinal failings that affect the Blackman case.  Readers will be interested to note that in respect of the Turks whose tactics he criticised, and our 21st century MoD copied, he wrote of the “helpless” regular soldier who “owned the ground he sat on, and what he could point his rifle at …”  FOB in Helmand?

Of interest too will be his final argument for the use of our air supremacy to save lives.  This was 2007, and it was ignored.

Here is the link to the PDF version:

Agility+Versatility

As most readers will be aware, the Blackman case is going to the Court of Appeal, so not all hope is lost.  The support of the public is, I believe, a comfort for the Blackman family and that support may perhaps increase a little if readers forward the forbesblog.net link to as many of their friends and colleagues as possible.  

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Uncategorized

The Betrayal of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM

“He broke the RoE.  He shot an Afghan man who wasn’t offering an immediate threat.  That makes it murder.  Court martial him.  He’s obviously guilty!  What’s that you said?  Battle fatigue?  Well, tie him to a post, blindfold him, and shoot him at dawn.  Usually do that with ‘battle fatigue’ cases, don’t we?”

Well, no, not for most of the last century, and shooting men suffering from ‘shell-shock’ or ‘exhaustion’ or ‘combat stress disorder’ or ‘psychoneurosis’ is surely today abhorrent to almost everyone, as public support for the grant of pardons to the Great War victims undeniably demonstrates.  The attitude of the public may indeed be in part emotional, but the official agreement with that attitude is not.  The new official attitude is owed not to emotion but to a greater understanding of the medical factors contributing to battle fatigue.

Or so it was thought … until we read the weird comments of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) while giving sentence at the tragic conclusion of the court martial of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM.  Let us look at these comments to see what they reveal, and while doing so we should remember Admiral Byng[1].

“Your actions have put at risk the lives of other British service personnel.”

Was the court actually given evidence to support this claim?  If it was, then was it rigorously examined?  If it wasn’t, then why did the Judge raise it?  Which British service personnel are now at risk who were not at risk before this Afghan was shot (and before all this publicity intended to show that ‘justice’ is seen to be done)?

“You have provided ammunition to the terrorists whose propaganda portrays the British presence in Afghanistan as part of a war on Islam in which civilians are arbitrarily killed.”

The elision of civilians and terrorists here plays the al-Qu’aida game, and the suggestion of providing ammunition is emotional Whitehall PR-speak directed not at the man he was sentencing, but at the news media.  If allusions are to be made to the civilian-terrorist dualism in Afghanistan, then, as must be expected from a naval commodore (equivalent to an army brigadier or a one-star general) even when not a seagoing naval officer, an explanation that the Taliban operate in the translucent sixth dimension[2] of the counterinsurgency battlefield cube is required.

Here are two more examples of emotional PR-speak dispensed from Whitehall:

“… you have betrayed your corps and all British service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, and you have tarnished their reputation.”

—   betrayed ? tarnished ?  (This non-nautical naval officer is out of his depth.)

and:

“The victim was particularly vulnerable because he was seriously wounded …”

That word vulnerable in PR-speak seeks sympathy for an enemy armed with an AK47 and a grenade, wearing no uniform, who had recently been attempting to murder (by the court’s definition) Sergeant Blackman and his men.  The Geneva Convention governs the wartime conduct of its signatories, and leaves the non-state, non-signatory Taliban free to torture prisoners in ways it is unnecessary to describe here, where they might be read by children, but are well-known to the Royal Marines.  Sergeant Blackman did not “execute” anyone.  He killed an enemy on the battlefield, which was his job and ought to be still, but regrettably he did so outside the Rules of Engagement (the asinine RoE we are all aware must be rewritten before the next campaign).  One cannot be certain that the JAG’s remarks were written for him in Whitehall, but being based on a false equality it does seem so, and thus one asks why he did not hear the ghost of Admiral Byng whispering behind his chair.

Although the issues of ‘temporary insanity’ and ‘the balance of his mind was temporarily disturbed’ were not reported in the news media, and thus may not have been raised during the court proceedings, the following was quoted as part of the JAG’s comments:

”We accept that you were affected by the constant pressure, ever present danger, and fear of death or serious injury.  We also accept the psychiatric evidence presented today that when you killed the insurgent it was likely that you were suffering to some degree from combat stress disorder.  While we acknowledge your personal circumstances and the immense pressure you were under, we note that thousands of other service personnel have experienced the same or similar stresses.  They exercised self-discipline and acted properly and humanely – you did not.”

So “combat stress disorder” was accepted as a contributing factor ! 

But then, amazingly, incredibly, it was dismissed because others with the same or similar stresses have coped.  Everyone who has been in action, and by that is meant real action with incoming fire dangerously close, knows that it is not possible to assess whether stresses are the same or similar for two men standing next to each other, and knows also that if stresses could be assessed as the same, their effect on two men standing next to each other could be very different.  But the JAG appears never to have seen action.  He appears to have had no personal experience that could qualify him to make such judgements.  (However, he is a senior RFU official and an experienced centre three-quarter, so he understands what being offside means.  Here he is offside, and he surely knows it.)  Of course, he did have sitting with him three officers who are Royal Marines, but we do not know what experience they have had under fire, and we do not know and we shall never know what views they expressed, what guidance they offered to the JAG, or how harsh they believed the sentence.

Those who have walked the walk, their four tourniquets strapped loosely in place before they went out through the wire, aware that every step might lose a limb or two, and their genitals, perhaps their life, know well that Sergeant Blackman, deliberately disregarding the Rules of Engagement, was temporarily insane.  His action was totally out of character and contradicted every report in his excellent service record since he entered the Royal Marines as a recruit.  That crucial fact must not be pushed aside.

His splendid career to date, and the high regard in which he is held both by his seniors, grateful for his loyalty and reliability, and by the men he led and protected and taught and mentored and comforted, have been used by commentators as obvious reasons for clemency in the sentence, but other commentators are asking why these factors rang no alarm bells to alert the Ministry of Defence, long before the decision to convene a court martial was made, to the unwelcome reality that this was a clear case of temporary insanity.

Unwelcome”?  Yes!  Read on.

Battle fatigue does not follow clear rules.  Men can survive horrific stress with a short prayer as they go out through the wire each morning.  “Dear God, if it’s to be today, please make it quick.  I’ve done everything I can, so now it’s up to You.”  And then they forget, concentrating on their individual and team duties, until they are back at base … and then, when they want to sleep, they remember.

These men ignore personal safety as they fight to protect their ‘mates’ who, they know, fight to protect them.  But for their patrol commander, a man such as Sergeant Blackman, there is this crucial difference:  he not only has to protect his ‘mates’; he bears full and awesome responsibility for their physical and mental health, and he knows, and he knows that he dare never forget, that any mistake he makes can kill them or, far worse, allow them to be captured.

The youngsters a patrol commander leads out through the wire may not all have conventional families, but most have parents and siblings, many have close friends, and some of these friends might already have borne them children.  The responsibility for these, too, weighs on him.  And then there is his own family.  The total emotional load can overwhelm.

Let us follow him out through the wire.  At 100°F it’s not as hellish as it will be later, but his sweat-smeared vision and the shimmering haze already reduce his visual awareness.  Horizontal sightlines are short; he wants height and a slant vision, but the small hand-launched drones give inadequate coverage, and the soda-straw view from the Reaper drone somewhere six miles above them, even when available, gives no comfort.  He needs a guardian sitting half a mile above him, scanning ahead and on the flanks with high-powered binoculars and infra-red sensors, and talking to him.

Initially the chosen route is through sparse vegetation rooted in loose earth where shallow mines are easy to lay and to conceal, but fortunately the flanks are open and movement there will be seen, which means there will be no movement until an ambush is sprung with an explosion.  His point man is sweeping with the detector, but finding nothing increases the probability of any IEDs there having too low a magnetic content.  The dangers change as they move into fields where the crops are chest high.  It is more difficult here to recognise disturbed ground, and the enemy could be lying within a few yards of their path, prepared to erupt with automatic fire at point blank range.  Watching the flanks is so tiring, continually twisting the body.  His men are spaced at wide intervals to ensure that a typical IED would kill or maim no more than two of them, unless it was one of a daisy-chained group integrated with a skilled ambush team, so a surprise jump attack from a very short range would be answered by the adjacent men.  But it would be nice, he thinks, to have an Auster on top of him, as his Dad did in Korea, looking down vertically so nothing could be hidden, telling him where the Taliban were concealed, which way they were moving, what weapons they carried, and how numerous they were .  His fine-tuned senses predict trouble near; his memory recalls similar silence before they were attacked two days ago.  Then his radio man whispers that the link to base has failed, as it so often does, and as it crucially did during the last attack when Dusty was killed.  They are approaching the compound they are to search, he senses his men’s tension, then an explosion triggers automatic fire and rocket grenades from behind the wall ahead and he has a man down.  This they have practised; he has drilled his patrol to cope exactly with this.  Two men are attending to the mine’s victim, his radio man is now calling for air support, but without response, the remainder of the patrol is returning fire at the compound, and he is choosing which flank will be the more likely source of the second attack while lamenting the lack of an Auster to watch both flanks for him.  And now all the time, never ending, he is questioning what mistakes he might have made that could still be rectified, what routine he might have left undone that could yet still be covered, how they will withdraw if the extent of the opposition prevents him attacking the compound, clearing it, and using it for shelter until an Apache arrives.  Johnny has lost both legs and much of his lower body.  For him a medical evacuation will not be necessary, but two men are down with very serious shrapnel wounds and a third has a bullet in his right shoulder, so that radio must be made to work.  Where is the air support?  How numerous is the enemy?  Where are they hiding?  Which way are they moving?  Weapons?  What do they have with them?  He needs a Chinook for medevac and an Apache for suppression, but where can the Chinook put down with reasonable safety, and will the Apache be willing to fire on the compound when there is a fair chance of there being non-combatants inside?  He has reached Johnny, whose bloody corpse has been lifted onto Buster’s broad shoulders, gives the signal to withdraw, and warns of probable danger from the right flank.  Should he order his men to conserve ammunition?  Bill, struggling ten yards ahead of him, carries the shredded  remains of Johnny’s legs, but he looks away, forcing himself to concentrate on the immediate problem of a fighting withdrawal without air cover.  He will think about his letter to Johnny’s pregnant girlfriend later.  The radio is working again, but no Chinook is available.  And the Apache will be late.  Now he must shepherd the lads back to base.  Concentrate on this.  Concentrate.  Tomorrow it will all have to be done again.  And the Taliban will know that.  Perhaps then there will be air reconnaissance before they set out … yeah, as if … This is his forty-ninth patrol.  Will he be home for Tom’s birthday?  Will he ever be home?  God, it’s hot.  Concentrate.  Concentrate.  Bill needs help.  He can hear him sobbing.

So, on four or five or six days a week a patrol commander may have to live with this type of pressure, week after week.  Remember: stress is cumulative.  (Perhaps JAGs aren’t told this.)  His principal enemies are said to be Afghan insurgents, but he has been well trained to deal with these.  The second line of enemies are in Whitehall, where few understand either the monumental size or the enormity of the tasks he has been given, and no one, it appears to him, wants to understand.  How else, he so often wonders, would inadequate numbers of men have been sent to Helmand right at the start of the campaign.  Why else is their equipment so inadequate for the work?  Why else has there never been top cover for their patrols?  Unanswered questions such as these have piled on the pressure, for the undeniable evidence of dereliction of duty, Whitehall’s Duty of Care, hits hard at the morale he labours so assiduously to foster among his men.  Whitehall repays his loyalty with disloyalty, reinforcing always the adage that Loyalty in today’s Armed Forces is a One-Way Street.

The patrol commander’s insoluble problems are too many to examine in a short blog entry, so let us look at just one key factor: Top Cover, or explicitly in this case – Very Close Top Cover alias ‘Buddy Cover’.

As the Armed Forces prepared for World War II they discovered they had no light aircraft, none at all, suitable for miscellaneous logistic and liaison duties, and for artillery spotting.  None had been designed for military use.  No one in the War Office appears to have foreseen the need (just as seventy years later no one in the MoD did).  The short-term solution developed into a very successful one with the requisition of 24 civil recreational aircraft recently built in England under licence from Taylorcraft in America.  A few of these were then fitted with a simple radio and sent to France, but were recalled in May 1940 as the German Army swept towards the Channel ports.  Soon production of the new Auster Mk I began with the fitting of a more powerful engine and a military radio to what was still effectively only Taylorcraft’s civil light touring aircraft.

The Auster Mk I first went into battle in December 1942 in Operation Torch (the invasion of Algeria and Morocco by a joint Anglo-American force, albeit principally American) as 651 Squadron providing Air Observation Post for two Infantry Brigade Groups on their advance into Tunisia against Rommel’s rear formations.  This was the start of a profitable relationship between ground units and slow-speed pilots providing what today is termed ISR – Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance – a contribution that inspired one Army historian[3] to write:  “Furthermore, each Air Observation Post pilot can know and be proud that his efforts saved many British and Allied lives, a fact that has been vouched for by many infantry and armoured corps commanders, both Senior and Junior.”

But they are not saving lives in Afghanistan, and this impacts directly on morale.  It impacts directly on the troops.  It increases the pressure on their commanders.  One news report on this court martial said of the Royal Marines in Helmand that their “key concerns were their limited numbers, their lack of air support, and overwhelmingly a feeling of isolation.”  This, the JAG should note, truly constitutes ‘betrayal’ — and those responsible for this genuine betrayal did not have the balance of their minds disturbed, they were not suffering from ‘combat stress disorder’, they knew not battle fatigue.

This ”lack of air support‘”is well known by the MoD and by the public.  All the promises of air support made in Whitehall and at Westminster remain undelivered, and the desperately needed Chinooks promised by the present Prime Minister are for 2015, after the withdrawal is complete.  (His predecessor refused the extra helicopters continually requested because, it has been reported, a woman at the FCO advised him they were unnecessary, and thus still the resupply convoys roll out each day to play at ‘Afghan Roulette’ on mined roads flanked by snipers.)  Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed in this way, was one of those officers whose regular reports lamenting the absence of air support and requesting its delivery were ignored[4].

Does Whitehall have an excuse?  No.  Absolutely none at all.  A successor to the Auster Mk I, built with 21st century technology, smaller in size but similar in payload and with much greater performance, has been available since that warrior leader, the Rt Honble Anthony C.L. Blair, sent insufficient men inadequately equipped into Helmand Province to defy the advice of Liddell Hart and Colonel T.E. Lawrence[5].  The aircraft is inexpensive to buy and economic to operate.  It was highly praised by the MoD’s own test pilots who evaluated it over a period of four winter months, and strongly recommended for the top cover of convoys and foot patrols by the MoD’s own tactical research analysts at the Defence Academy.  It was rejected by their superiors in Whitehall as unnecessary, then rejected again and again as unnecessary, while the numbers of dead, mutilated and psychologically afflicted continued to mount, and the cumulative combat stress on commanders of unescorted foot patrols took its toll.

All the proceedings to date suggest that the administrative decisions which have led to Sergeant Blackman’s present hell have been made by Whitehall warriors, either in suits and ignorant of war or in uniforms but have never had to fight for their lives and sanity in hellholes such as Helmand.  This blog has commented previously on the toxic treatment of the Armed Forces by certain members of the senior civil service in the MoD in Whitehall.  It has been explained in the words of Dr Johnson: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”  The suits in MoD who have not been soldiers, finding their petty jealousies amplified by proximity to those who have seen real action, externalise what Johnson saw as their mean thoughts.  If there had been any involved who could think clearly, then the Defence Secretary, it is quite certain, would have been advised that this case was a ticking bomb, that it could wreak enormous damage on the impoverished morale of the Armed Forces, probably incurable long-term damage, and that a quiet enquiry finding a justifiable verdict of temporary insanity would be by far the best way to proceed.

If the Defence Secretary had been properly advised by his civil servants after the court martial had been convened and the case was known to the public, then he would have announced that justice must have priority over administrative convenience, and that if the failings of the MoD in the Helmand campaign would receive unwelcome attention they would all have to live with it.  But what the MoD now has is a SNAFU[6] FUBAR[7] to rival the Nimrod and the SOF Chinook SNAFUs.  Mr Hammond may be given all sorts of reasons why he has no need to become involved, but actually there is no escape for him.  The inexperienced Judge Advocate General’s charge of betrayal has ensured that.  Betrayal ! ! !  Betrayal?  Whose?

Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM, was betrayed by Whitehall when he was told to cope with insufficient numbers of men, betrayed again when nothing was done to improve morale by reducing the sense of their isolation, betrayed again when the top cover he would have had in the last major war and in Korea (and the American Army and Marines always had in Vietnam) was refused, betrayed again now his family is knowingly endangered by the publication of his identity, and betrayed again when, as was Admiral Byng in respect of the Admiralty’s failures, he was court martialled and sentenced with maximum publicity (and his family wilfully exposed to attack from jihadists), to distract public attention from inadequacies in the Ministry of Defence.

No “unwelcome reality” suggesting the MoD’s incompetence will be tolerated, whatever the human price, for the greater that price, the more effective the smoke and mirrors will be.  Whatever happens, those couple of hundred lives and, too, the limbs lost in Helmand ambushes, must not risk their promotions, knighthoods and bonuses.

Admiral Byng copy


[1] Executed 1757 to conceal Admiralty failings.  Petition for pardon vetoed by the MoD in 2007.

[2] The faces of the counterinsurgency battle cube (the COIN-cube) merge the three spatial dimensions with the fourth, the Time-Morale Continuum, the crucial fifth, Finance, and the sixth, into which the insurgents disappear at will, hidden among the non-belligerent bystanders or changing identity to that of innocent farmers by merely dropping their weapons onto the ground and becoming invulnerable.

[3] The Air Observation Post, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bazely, DSO

[4] Dead Men Risen, Orwell Prize winner, Toby Harnden

[5] The Point of the Spear, W.F. Hogarth

[6] SNAFU: Situation Normal All Fouled Up

[7] FUBAR: Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition

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Thoughts on sentencing for battlefield crimes

The remarks by the Chief of the Defence Staff in respect of sentences not taking circumstances into account were surprising, not in what he said, for this would be the line straight from Anonymous in Downing Street, but in that he spoke at all when his words might be heard as an intervention in the due process of law.  However, his point that while retired officers might ask for leniency in the sentence, serving officers could not, is valid.

The relevance of this to the blog is that today I read the foreword to an anthology of articles published in the blog last year.  The foreword’s author, writing as Heraclitus, saw action as a battalion commander in World War II and thus earned the right to speak on battle stress and its effects.  The anthologist has suggested that part of what he wrote should be published now, before the book appears on Kindle next week.  Here is the extract.

“My one criticism of this book’s choices and comments is that the anthologist has paid insufficient attention to MORALE, the second of the classic Principles of War, this being prompted by Friday’s newspaper reports of the court martial verdict on the Royal Marine who killed an insurgent wounded during a Taliban attack on his unit and subsequently captured. Whether it was murder or a coup de grâce (and it should be remembered that this same sergeant, even if in this incident he appeared to show no evidence of grace, if faced with the certainty of one of his own men falling, badly wounded, into Taliban hands, would have administered to him also a coup de grâce), the deed was not done in an English garden on a quiet afternoon in a heavily-scented early June with cucumber sandwiches and Pimms on a tray.  It was done on a bloody battlefield light years from home, in a different universe far from loving and supporting families, and utterly remote from his earlier life’s frame of reference.

“This is not irrelevant. All who have been under direct fire know that feeling of sudden personal isolation when the mind recognises for the first time that there is someone out there “who seriously wants to kill me.” The world then changes; it is now a small globe with fuzzy edges, and the sharpest entities within it are friends and foes; the acutest memories are of disciplines, drills, and loyalties; and the only aim of importance is the survival of those mates who are fighting for your survival. That situation on the battlefield is driven and sustained by MORALE.

“These thoughts were triggered by this sentence from the Daily Mail report:

The key concerns were their limited numbers, their lack of air support, and overwhelmingly a feeling of isolation.’

“In that isolation will be found the answers to many mysteries the civilians lurking in Whitehall will not understand unless they study Field Marshal Viscount Slim, who wrote, on the basis of his brilliant and astounding triumph in Burma:

‘It is not that conditions are bad that upsets men so much as delay or failure to recognise that they are, and to take steps to improve them. For example, few things are so discouraging as to ask men to work with obsolete or worn-out equipment – yet if it can be shown that there is a good reason why it cannot be replaced at the moment and that at the same time everyone above them is going all out to get them better tools, men will come to take a fierce pride in overcoming their difficulties.’

“As all who have interviewed men and women returning from Afghanistan know well, the MORALE that sustained them was generated within their units, and the prevalent belief that those above them in Kabul and Whitehall and Westminster had betrayed them is a sentiment unaffected by a Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, assuring them that they were all showing the same bravery as were our athletes in the Peking Olympic Games! (Mr Brown, readers may remember, is recognised as an expert on courage and has published books on the subject.)

“These three concerns emerging in the evidence at the court martial should be the concerns of everyone, not just of the Royal Marines whose MORALE, and thus their fighting ability, was shaped by them. The ‘limited numbers‘ problem, owed initially to flawed MoD policies directed more by financial criteria than by rational appreciation of the military, political and economic situation in Helmand, emerged from the Director of Operational Policy who was “the policy lead ….. for the UK’s military engagement in Afghanistan” and a senior civil servant wholly devoid of military experience. The politicians involved, as still today, just did not understand.

“The ‘lack of air support‘ was well known, both by the MoD and the public.  Promises were made but not delivered, and the desperately needed Chinooks that were promised by the present Prime Minister are for 2015, after the withdrawal is complete. His predecessor, the expert on courage, refused the continually requested extra helicopters because, it has been reported, a woman at the FCO advised him that they were unnecessary, and thus the resupply convoys rolled out each day to play at Russian Roulette on mined roads decorated with daisy-chained IEDs and flanked by snipers. Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed in this way, was one of the officers whose regular reports on the absence of air power were ignored, as described in this book, and was one of the officers whose character – leading from the front, as he was when the IED exploded beneath him – fostered and then sustained the MORALE of his men on which his own commanders depended, and which Whitehall and Westminster fail to understand.

“The third concern, ‘a feeling of isolation‘ (which is primarily mental, and not just physical), is reinforced by every manifestation of failure in the ‘Duty of Care’ (which existed for centuries before the meretricious ‘Military Covenant’ was invented as an election aid). The limited numbers, the lack of air support and the feeling of isolation are all linked. Inadequate numbers needed force multipliers to compensate, most obviously in the form of Persistent Surveillance by the type of small military aircraft (SMAs) available in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and in British colonial wars such as the Malayan Emergency. As explained in this book, there were none in Helmand and many lives were needlessly lost in consequence. Without the SMAs the resupply convoys were increasingly necessary and limited by their vulnerability, rendering remote bases occasionally short of important items such as ammunition and batteries, and often, as Prince Harry reported, without the regular delivery of mail so crucial to the maintenance of MORALE. There is the key to isolation – no friendly movement to be seen, no convoys and no SMAs, and no one caring about the mail. They are quite alone! No one sees them, so no one cares!

“And then when the attacks come, the air support is late, buddies get killed, and their bodies, if not recovered, are mutilated and displayed as trophies to taunt the survivors. That is a different world, and those who sit in judgement on what happens there have a duty to recognise that. And the politicians have a duty too, to acknowledge the responsibility of those who left our infantry to fight without the numbers and equipment they need, without the air support they requested, and in isolation from what Whitehall thinks is normal. Part of the guilt for the crime for which this sergeant has been found guilty lies in Whitehall with those who created the isolation in which he lost his frame of reference.”

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