If you did not watch Heroes of Helmand recently on Channel 4, or record it, you missed one of this year’s most important reports of the mismanagement of our war in Afghanistan. It astounds all who see it, but, of more importance, it makes everyone ask questions. Fortunately, it can be downloaded from the Internet.
Easy Company, consisting of Paratroopers and Royal Irish, is shown taking over a compound from a company of Danish soldiers who, symbolically, are taking away with them equipment far superior to that the Britons replacing them have brought.
The compound looks nothing like those we’ve all seen in movies. Its walls are much too low to give the protection the men will need, and the lookout posts are so exposed they will invite sniper fire and, as you will see, men will be killed.
So your first question will almost certainly be: “Why are these guys sent here?” But it could also have been about why they were in Helmand at all. And your next question will be about the air support the company commander needs for reports on movement in the vicinity of the compound: “Why is the sky empty?” you will ask.
If you have kept a copy handy, you will readily deduce the answers from Sir John Chilcot’s Report and his findings on the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If not, well, one word appears sufficient: Incompetence.
But there is another word Sir John refrained from using: Insouciance.
Insouciance in the MoD is owed to the unbridgeable gap between those who rule, the Senior Civil Service, and the cannon fodder they direct (memorably described by a recent MoD ‘Boss’ as “public sector workers”).
Incompetence, on the other hand, in Whitehall, is owed primarily to ignorance, and that this can have such tragic effects in battles so far away from London is owed principally to the lethal disease of perverted managerialism.
What’s that? Well, after a famous Frenchman, Henri Fayol, analysed the art and science of management it was decreed that an understanding of that art and science was all that managers needed for success. A detailed knowledge and understanding of what their organisation was supposed to be doing could safely be left to the lower orders.
This belief took root in Whitehall, where it was nurtured by the Senior Civil Service who quickly recognised its beneficial effects on promotion and on security of tenure, and in the Ministry of Defence its status was elevated to that of a religion. But why should this be so?
If the detailed knowledge and understanding of what the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force did was unnecessary, then the Senior Civil Service could run the Defence of the Nation without the interference of admirals and generals. The only restriction that could offer any inconvenience would be money, but once agreement with the Treasury was reached on what was to be available, then how it would be used would be decided by those clerks sitting in the offices best furnished and enjoying the finest views of the Thames.
Now, no one can expect this to be believed, even after the defeats in Basra and Helmand, can they? Can you believe it? No? Of course you can’t. Now sit comfortably.
Let us look at the monstrous triad, the three principal decision makers in power when we were sent into Helmand. First, the man in charge of the crucial finances, the MoD’s Financial Director, had, according to Hansard, admitted to no financial qualifications. Second, the man who led policy on our military engagement in Afghanistan, the Director of Operational Policy, had, according to the MoD website, never served in the Armed Forces and had no naval, military or avian experience or qualifications. And third, the Boss . . . . . . .
Well, obviously, the Boss would compensate for the manifest inadequacies of the other two, or could hide them, for that Boss was the top Boss who ruled the MoD (and could veto whatever she didn’t like admirals, generals and air marshals doing). And her qualifications included a university degree in English literature, some time in the Justice Ministry to which she eventually returned, and several years at Work and Pensions. (She had absolutely no experience of the Armed Forces before she joined the MoD as 2nd PUS to keep a close eye on the finance, but her Pensions experience was very useful when those who were just short of their retirement date could be squeezed out more cheaply.)
And herein lies the true source of our Helmand problem. Managerialism decrees that the managers know how to manage and thus, implicitly, that they appreciate the decisions requiring knowledge and understanding must be left to the lower orders. Unfortunately, these managers, although, devoid of military, naval and avian understanding, use the authority of their high positions to take asinine decisions such as that which sent only 600 men into Helmand, a hostile province three times the size of Wales, and sent an inadequately-armed company into Musa Qala where, as the Channel 4 documentary shows you, encircling its low walls 500 well-armed Taliban waited, planning to kill them.
Another question this documentary feature will prompt you to ask will be about the men having to expose their fragile bodies in the observation posts on the roofs. Obviously, they needed to know what the enemy was doing, but why not, you will ask, use an aircraft to watch the enemy and to report its movements by radio?
That’s a fair question, and before going back into 1939 to answer it, we ought to note that all the startling information published today in today’s blog has been copied from the MoD website and MoD memoranda, and from Hansard. Additionally it may be noted that these complaints about the lack of aircraft to protect vulnerable infantry were explained in detail in the Daily Mail four years ago, and elicited no response from the MoD.
When WWII began the British Army had no liaison aircraft suitable to work with the artillery for reconnaissance and to report fall-of-shot, so twenty light touring aircraft, two-seaters, were requisitioned. They had been made in England under licence from the American Taylorcraft company, and after modification a few went to France from where they returned in 1940 without having seen action.
They were then given more powerful engines, named the Auster Mark 1, and sent to North Africa in 1942 for Operation Torch where in action they acquitted themselves well, as they did throughout the war on every front. The Americans acquired similar liaison aircraft (they called them “grasshoppers”) from Taylorcraft, Aeronca, Piper and Stinson, and together with the Austers the allies had in service by the end of the war 15,300 of these valuable utility platforms. Later marks of Auster continued flying after the war, but in the 1950s the Army, desperate to operate the weird helicopters then becoming available, agreed that in return for accepting this, the RAF would own all the fixed-wing aircraft.
Officially the RAF had no further need for small liaison aircraft.
The Auster in World War II
For the Auster this was the kiss of death, yet the troops on the ground, the men doing the actual fighting, needed those Austers. That was sixty years ago, and in Helmand today those Austers are still needed for the same reason, ‘Buddy Cover’, the liaison work that includes persistent surveillance from overhead, continuous reconnaissance of enemy position and movement, resupply of ammunition, food, water, batteries, mail, medical requirements, and emergency evacuation when medical helicopters are unavailable.
Of all these uses the most valuable in Helmand is the escort of vulnerable foot patrols and, as shown in the documentary, the bird’s eye view of what the enemy is doing – avoiding the casualties sustained in the observation posts.
The Austers are no more, but their replacement was designed for greater performance, simplicity of maintenance, and ease of operation. Additionally it was to be inexpensive to buy and to operate, and it was to be so easy to fly safely that the time needed to train pilots was less than for any other military aircraft.
Tandem-seated Dragoons out-perform the early Austers
The MoD’s own experts at Boscombe Down, the RAF test pilots in A&AEE (the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment), had two Auster replacements, named now as Dragoons, for four months of rigorous evaluation and produced a glowing report that the clerks, finding it conflicting with their decision that “the future is rotary” (meaning that future battlefields would use only helicopters for liaison work), gave orders for the report to be suppressed. (Suppression of the truth is not so rare as one would hope and expect.)
The aircraft’s supporters continued to press their case with, eventually, the Chief of the Defence Staff presenting to the Boss its need in Helmand, but the opposition remained firm. Although the Chief was a soldier, had commanded in Afghanistan, and had flown the aircraft, the Boss saw no need to heed his advice, nor even to visit the aircraft to look at it. And to every representation the answer remained the same: “There is no capability gap in Helmand.”
So the foot patrols continued to go out each day along routes festooned with trackside bombs, the IEDs, and into the ambushes coordinated with them, while those in compounds like Musa Qala were under fire every day from snipers and mortars, forever running low on ammunition and supplies, receiving their mail, so important to morale, only at odd intervals, and without air support to assist them materially, to reassure them that they were not forgotten, that they were not alone.
But those who’ve never served in the Armed Forces, who’ve never been in action, do not understand morale. If the MoD managers understood morale, then the MoD would not now be forced to acknowledge that the morale of the Armed Forces is lower than at any time in their history. That is official. (And it is blamed on everything and anything but the MoD itself.)
Channel 4’s documentary shows the besieged soldiers in Musa Qala running short of ammunition, and the resupply late. What is not obvious from this is that it was a common danger that had generated an Urgent Operational Requirement for a Precision Aerial Delivery System (this being one of the Dragoon capabilities). Urgent Operational Requirements (always known as “UORs”) are a priority and must be treated as such.
When this UOR remained unsatisfied for 26 months (while men were dying and, remember, it was ‘Urgent’), the Boss was asked by the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament for an explanation. If you check Hansard you will see that she replied, “I am afraid I don’t know what the precision aerial delivery system [is].”
There were, she insisted elsewhere, “no capability gaps in Helmand,” and indeed, if the UORs were ignored, then the managers in Whitehall could sleep easily.
The men in Musa Qala were betrayed, as were so many in similar bases, and so many hung out to dry on Helmand’s roads. The Daily Mail was the first journal to stress this, the BBC with The Lost Platoon, and now Channel 4 with Heroes of Helmand have followed with startling documentaries, and now it is the task of our readers to ensure through their MPs that the MoD will no longer send our men and women into action without ‘Buddy Cover’.
The A&AE trials at Boscombe Down and the Skylink trials in the US and Australia produced figures which, when applied to the Helmand casualty data from IED-ambushes, state that some 100 to 150 lives would have been saved if the foot patrols and convoys had been given ‘Buddy Cover’ Dragoons to detect newly disturbed earth and ambush formation. Additionally, a similar number of limbs would have been saved.
We shall fight in this type of low-intensity war again, and we must prepare for it now.
The Very Close Air Support known as Buddy Cover will never be provided by the F-35B. It must have slow-flying, quick-turning, ground-skimming Dragoons designating targets for the A-10 Warthogs. Don’t let the politicos sell you on the F-35 JSF. We cannot afford to buy it, and if we do buy it, then it will never be allowed to fight down in the mud.