Despite the understandable hopes of his family and legion of supporters, observers more removed from the Sergeant Blackman tragedy did not expect a favourable decision from yesterday’s bail application. The arguments presented in court were sound in law, indeed many would judge them unanswerable, but the Blackman case has been driven to its present stage not by law but by administrative mandate, and it is shaped by a bureaucratic malevolence against which no one can fight. Any who doubt this malevolence should read the analysis of the JAG’s Sentencing Remarks in Chapter Three of The Betrayal of Sergeant Blackman (available inexpensively from Amazon).
One of the principal arguments advanced by his supporters is that the cumulative stress imposed by the repetitive patrols in which he and his men acted as Taliban-bait led to a temporary mental breakdown. In presenting the terrible reality of this, a situation to whose truth Sergeant Blackman’s commanding officer was prevented from testifying at his Court Martial, the absence of air cover was a crucial consideration, and that avoidable absence was owed to MoD negligence, a conscious and deliberate negligence. The cause of this negligence was explained by emailed letter from one of our colleagues to Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, dated 7th December, but it has received no answer, not even an acknowledgement of its receipt, perhaps because it was blocked in his back office. Accordingly, the full text of that letter is reproduced here.
Dear Secretary of State,
Your announcement (as reported by the Daily Mail) that injured troops will no longer have to sue for more compensation will be widely welcomed, and you deserve the profound thanks of many who have sought over the years to have these men and women treated fairly, but were you advised by the MoD clerks that this concession will substantially reduce the possibilities of the MoD being sued for negligence? Doubtless it may do so in those cases in which victims, persuaded of the value of a half-loaf, fear that an adverse decision in court might be used to cast doubts on the validity of what has already been agreed, but where the negligence is clear, where it is inexcusable negligence in the somnolent surroundings of Whitehall, and not an error in the heat of far-flung battle, the MoD must be seen to remain fully accountable.
The newspaper predicted that on that day (1st December) you would “announce a 12-week consultation” on the new proposals. One must hope that the terms of reference will have sufficient width to include the probable consequences of victims of IED-ambushes suing the MoD on the grounds of Whitehall’s criminal negligence, for among these may be a flood of claims based on the absence of close air cover (“Buddy Cover”) for foot patrols sent out through the wire as Taliban-bait. It may be that only fear of the hostile publicity triggered by those claims, and the large awards the courts are certain to make, will force the MoD to recognise the immense damage inflicted on the Armed Forces by bureaucratic whims, and then to ensure that for COIN foot patrols there will be no repetition of the careless waste of lives and limbs suffered in Basra and Helmand. COIN conflict has not ended for the British Army with the retreat from Helmand and the downsizing of the infantry, for IEDs may yet become common in Western Europe and even within the British Isles. Mumbai has shown us the future and the MoD, as you must know, is unprepared for it.
My letter of 20th July drew your attention to the three principal deficiencies, fundamental weaknesses, underlying our failures in Basra and Helmand – competence, morale and honesty – and shortcomings in two of these, competence and honesty, have contributed to the negligence responsible for the loss of scores of lives and limbs. The paper attached to that letter described how for the early stages of the Helmand campaign the MoD’s direction was in the hands of three hopelessly unqualified bureaucrats, a financial director with no financial qualifications, a policy director responsible for Afghanistan who had never served in the Armed Forces, and a PUS similarly innocent of any military history and whose background was principally in welfare and pensions (although she was very successful, one must admit, in the expensive promotion of equality and diversity during a period when equipment budgets were so heavily squeezed that troops in the frontline were short of essential equipment).
Obviously, this triumvirate, for whom the Senior Civil Service had sanctified supreme power, had no idea how, for example, Helmand should be treated either at the strategic or operational level, but in respect of the negligence directly responsible for the deaths and mutilations delivered in the IED-ambushes, their ignorance of basic tactical experience was material. The warrior’s triad of Sword, Shield, Support’ was dismissed. The ‘Sword’ was thought good enough and, although not the best, to fight the Taliban it usually was sufficient; the ‘Support’ was usually inadequate, and reports of this from the frontline were treated with morale-sapping carelessness; but, alas, the ‘Shield’ … Where was the Air? Where was the ‘Buddy Cover’? Where were the Austers’ successors? Why were there so few Chinooks?
As you may know, and certainly as you ought to have been briefed, an inexpensive Small Military Aircraft (SMA) was available for ‘Buddy Cover’ in two versions, the simpler ‘Tribal’ version for issue to the Northern Tribes, and the rather more complex ‘Patrol’ version (optionally equipped with an array of sensors and bespoke gadgets) for use by the British forces.
Of the first, the MoD’s own test pilots at AAEE Boscombe Down had completed its splendid evaluation report with a General Summary in which its key findings were re-emphasised in this final paragraph (in which the red italicised emphasis here is the editor’s):
“The type demonstrated convincingly that in its current form it would be capable of conducting a wide variety of missions at a fraction of the cost associated with other air vehicles in the spectrum from parachutes through helicopters to remotely piloted vehicles. At the heart of these capabilities was its outstanding aptitude as a detailed reconnaissance platform both by day and by night, its near immediate availability and its complete autonomy once provided with fuel. Furthermore, the type promises considerable potential at an unmatched degree of economy for improvement in the future where the constraints imposed by Civil Regulations could be relaxed for military, operational purposes.”
That paragraph alone is sufficient to alert any intelligent clerk to the potential of this aircraft, the Dragoon, as a life-saver when escorting a foot patrol or road convoy in hostile territory, detecting body heat among the crops, noting unusual behaviour, and recognising the significance of disturbed earth on a track. Applying the data from the AAEE tests to the Helmand casualty figures gives a probable saving of 100-plus lives and a larger number of limbs if, following the correspondence with the CGS’s staff (forwarded to DECISTAR) in 2007, the Dragoons had been deployed in 2008 as recommended. (Later tests in Australia and the US gave results that justify much higher savings being calculated.)
It is unnecessary here to quote from NATO conferences at Ramstein and Chièvres, London presentations at RUSI and the RAeS, and long days of discussions at Warminster, Wilton and Shrivenham, or to quote from very senior officers, British and American, who include Field Marshal Lord Harding (MiD in Waziristan, and Governor of Cyprus during the EOKA insurgency) and ex-CDS Lord Richards, who saw active service recently in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, but the weight of documentation will sink any defence the guilty PUS, Dame Ursula Brennan, might offer on behalf of the MoD. The reputation and authority of AAEE and ARAG alone will do that, and General Richards formed his judgement, shaped by personal experience in Helmand, after flying the aircraft, whereas the PUS vetoed the proposed use of Dragoons not only with no understanding of their use (or of COIN), but without seeing one fly, without even seeing one on the ground, and without meeting its designer or even talking with him by telephone.
If this seems harsh, then reflect on what such newspapers as the Daily Mail will make of a clerk who had in her personal consultancy fund sufficient money to start saving lives with an initial SMA deployment, who pleaded a lack of money but was found later to have several million pounds unspent, and who confessed to the Select Defence Committee that she did not know what a precision aerial delivery system was, a precision aerial delivery system being one of the benefits supplied by SMAs, and rejected by her, whose absence forced the use of vulnerable surface transport. (You will recall that Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe wrote many memoranda explaining the need for more air assets before he was killed by an IED while travelling in a road convoy that could have been unnecessary if an aerial delivery system had been available.)
While calculating the numbers of lives and limbs lost by this negligence aggravating the ignorance of the “Sword, Shield, Support” mantra, it is necessary also to account for the damage to senses and to mental health. Then there is the wider problem of the effect on morale, on the Army’s fighting spirit, and thus on the Army’s fighting ability. And then there is Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM. When men are sent out through the wire day after day, week after week, without air escort, without the ‘Buddy Cover’ that would watch their flanks, scan ahead for evidence of ambushes, warn of disturbed ground on their track, and relay messages every time their unreliable radios fail, which is too often, the stress builds, and then that stress is sometimes sufficient to crack eventually even the toughest [bold red emphasis added here is by the editor].
The italicised text on pages 18-20 of The Betrayal of Sergeant Blackman [attached to the letter ~ Editor], attempts to describe this experience (and justifies immediate release for this victim of the MoD’s contemptible virtue signalling).
Another very helpful book, Bullingdon Defences, is available inexpensively from Amazon. You will find pages 70-96 useful for they provide the substance of the prosecution’s case against the MoD’s direction during the years of the Helmand campaign. They clearly and irrefutably demonstrate also that the figures for avoidable deaths and mutilation in Helmand (plus the consequences of the absence of SMAs in Basra where, for example, an Auster successor would have relayed the murdered MPs’ call for help) have not been exaggerated. The prevention of repetitions of such negligence is, my colleagues and I believe, a ministerial responsibility, for all our experience persuades us that the cure to this bureaucratic malaise will not be generated within Main Building.
You may decide the “12-week consultation” ought to have a full briefing on the Dragoon Concept and the ‘Buddy Cover’ its exploitation provides for COIN operations. I should welcome an invitation to visit London to give one.
Perhaps someone will draw the attention of the Defence Secretary to this letter. Perhaps we shall be invited to brief him.
The law courts will reach their decisions according to their practice, but the court of public opinion, when its members have full access to all the relevant facts, will reach another. Accordingly, it is our duty to ensure these facts are given the widest possible circulation. The Court Martial has been reported as having “reached” the verdict of its members, seven officers claimed by the JAG to be Sergeant Blackman’s peers (although manifestly not his peers), but the Court Martial did not “reach” a verdict: it merely confirmed by five votes to two (a member reported to Frederick Forsyth) the verdict reached inside the Great Wen, the MoD, and handed down as guidance as to what was expected. It was, as stated in Parliament and often repeated in this blog, a “stitch-up” from its ignoble start.