Heroes of Helmand

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.

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.

The Austers

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.

auster

The Auster in World War II

‘Buddy Cover’

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.

dragoon-with-drone-platforms

Tandem-seated Dragoons out-perform the early Austers

The Dragoons

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.

“Crude and Bonkers” Armchair Generals?

Although this blog’s colleagues are not “crude and bonkers”, “financially illiterate” armchair generals, but rather air force and navy pilots, warship and aircraft designers, and financial analysts, they have understood his message.  The Secretary of State for Defence does not wish to have their advice.

Accordingly, this blog will not today attempt to advise him, but will instead pose some questions on subjects of concern, these being [1] the new aircraft carriers, [2] the aircraft the Defence Secretary wishes to operate from them, and [3] the coordinated IED-ambush tactic expected to remain for both ground troops and civilian populations the principal threat in insurgencies.  Readers may wish to forward some of the questions to their MPs.

2 future carriers

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales

1.   What is the Defence Secretary’s assessment of the vulnerability of the new carriers if they are deployed in hostile waters.  Have the dangers posed by the weapons listed here been evaluated?

(a)   Supersonic (and soon hypersonic) anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) with semi-armour-piercing high-explosive (SAPHE) or large diameter high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warheads.

(b)   Short and medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM).

(c)   Torpedoes.  (As the Defence Secretary may have been advised, the carriers appear to have no side protective systems.)

(d)   Mines.  (The carriers appear to be designed with a simple inner bottom giving almost no protection to under-keel threats.)

2.   What tests were completed on the carriers’ Rolled Homogeneous Armour (RHA) plate ability to defeat the kinetic energy of a supersonic ASCM (similar to that of an 11 inch to 14 inch shell)?  These tests would have been completed long before the Defence Secretary took office, but was he shown the results?

3.   What confidence does the Defence Secretary have in the carriers’ protection against HEAT warheads, bearing in mind the HEAT penetration of RHA by 3 to 6 times its own diameter?  (A single HEAT hit could be catastrophic and he will remember how HMS Hood exploded despite the pre-war warnings about the lethality of the kriegsmarine’s biggest guns.)

4.   Although everyone recognises the ASTER 15/30 capability against incoming missiles, what is its performance against crossing targets such as the missiles aimed at the carrier the Type 45 Destroyer is there to defend?  (The Probability of Kill (Pk) against incoming missiles is said to be around 0.97, which if true is very good indeed, but against crossing targets the accusation of a suicidal 0.15 Pk appears not yet to have been refuted with contrary data.)  What is the truth?

5.   In the decisions to minimise crew size in our warships (“efficiency savings”?), what allowances were made for the need to replace battle-damaged equipment with humans when the action begins?  (All-singing-all-dancing computerised machinery is financially economic and very sexy, but when hits are taken our warships need hands, which is why they are so-called.) We have noted political boasts of the intimidating size of the carriers (although around only half the size of the latest US carriers) and we have been asked if, in view of the tactical impotence of their aircraft, we shall exploit their size by ramming enemy coastlines (preferably, it has been suggested, with Captain Blair in the crow’s-nest and Captain Brown as the figurehead).

F-35B Vertical Landing

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) ‘jump-jet’ F-35B

1.   What is the Defence Secretary’s assessment of the F-35B’s vulnerability in combat?  As its weight problems have reduced its performance, and the solution to the recently discovered bulkhead cracks may lead to further weight increases, have the ‘g’ limits been reduced again?  Specifically, what for this allegedly ‘fifth generation’ fighter are the ‘g’ limits compared with those of the ‘fourth generation’ Russian Su-35 available for sale to other countries?

2.   What are the top speed and service ceiling of the F-35B in comparison with the top speed and service ceiling of the Su-35?  Yes, scary, isn’t it?  And the third element in the fighter pilot’s holy trinity is … ?

3.   Range!  Range is the third element.  (The first edition of the Joint Operational Requirements Document – the JORD – asked for the F-35B a combat radius of 464 nautical miles, but the associated data were so imprecise that USN representatives in the Pentagon thought it should be reduced to 386 nm – which they believed achievable.)  What has the Defence Secretary been told is the combat radius of the Royal Navy’s F-35B when flown by squadron pilots (not manufacturer’s test pilots) on a high-low-high profile with 15 minutes over the target and a return to the carrier with adequate fuel reserves?

4.   In defence of the purchase of the F-35B it has been suggested that what is good enough for the United States Marine Corps ought to be good enough for the Royal Navy.  Has the Defence Secretary been informed that the USMC has exchanged some of its ordered jump-jets for the longer range F-35C carrier version of the JSF, that when operating the F-35Bs it will eventually buy, the carrier will provide ‘buddy refuelling’ to extend their combat radius and to reduce the amount of reserve fuel the Royal Navy F-35Bs must save, and that the intended USMC and RN operations are too dissimilar to be compared?

5.   Has the Defence Secretary been briefed that –

(a)   – when flown in “stealth” mode the F-35B’s bombs cannot be heavier than 500lbs (insufficient to destroy, for example, a standard target such as a typical railway bridge)?

(b)   – current problems with the “stealth” anti-radar coating restrict the JSFs to one flight in two days?  (“Stealth” is the successor to the ‘swing-wing’ or ‘variable geometry’ aircraft as a concept of value only to the manufacturers – not to the operators.)

(c)    – the proposed complement of 12 F-35Bs per carrier is insufficient to operate a combat air patrol (CAP) to defend the carrier from ASCM-carrying attack aircraft, leaving no aircraft available for the strike missions (‘Carrier Strike’) for which this absurdly expensive combination has been assembled?

(d)   – no one in the MoD knows what the F-35B operation will cost the UK, and neither does anyone at the Pentagon, and nor does anyone at Lockheed Martin?  (How, then, can the famous ‘black hole’ have been filled, when no one knows the figures?)

(e)   – who advised the Defence Secretary that ‘Deep Strike’ (or ‘Deep and Persistent Offensive Capability’) would be possible with the F-35B?  (See this blog dated September 24th.)  If the carrier stands so far off-shore it has a fair chance of not being hit by shore-based ASCMs, will its aircraft (if the CAP is abandoned) have the range to reach a target and return to the carrier?  And if the F-35Bs are launched as strike aircraft from the carrier, will they survive air-to-air combat with a ‘fourth generation’ aircraft?  (The answer to that, of course, is probably not, and if they meet a ‘fifth generation’ fighter they will have no chance at all, having neither escape speed, nor height, nor agility — and the vaunted “stealth”, if it truly exists, is neither all-aspect nor all-wavelength.)

Well, that is enough for starters.  These questions are intended to publicise the reality that a group of independent and objective designers and fighter pilots (not “crude and bonkers”, “financially illiterate” armchair generals) have recognised that the carriers and the F-35B aircraft chosen to operate from them are too vulnerable to give ‘Carrier Strike’ any credibility. The Secretary of State for Defence will have heard the common claim that the magnificent electronics (computers and sensors) of the F-35B will allow the pilots to know exactly where and when they will die but, of course, this will only be after all the lines of computer code have been written, and that is many years away – which he may not have been told.  The priority question he must now ask is about the SAPHE and HEAT tests against the carriers’ armour, the RHA.

Taylorcraft Auster Mk1

‘Buddy Cover’ for troops facing IED-ambush threats

More than half the British casualties in Helmand arose from IEDs and/or sniper fire which could have been deterred or detected or destroyed before the troops were hit.  Against such threats the US Army in Vietnam used small military aircraft ( SMAs) such as the  O-1 to accompany, at low level, foot patrols and road convoys.  The British did the same in post-colonial conflicts, in Korea and in WWII, with British Austers and American Pipers and Stinsons.  However, despite a long campaign to persuade the MoD to provide ‘Buddy Cover’ with SMAs (and to protect perimeters such as that at Camp Bastion, successfully penetrated later by the Taliban), this low-cost, economic defence was consistently rejected for demonstrably fatuous reasons.

1.   Why were the recommendations presented by the MoD’s own professional experts, the Boscombe Down test pilots, for the use of the Dragoon SMAs in the role of the earlier and now obsolescent Austers rejected and their evaluation report suppressed?

2.   Why were the proposals presented by the MoD’s own professional experts, the Advanced Research & Assessment Group (ARAG) analysts rejected without any trials.

3.   Why was the request for Dragoon SMAs made by the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) vetoed by a Permanent Under Secretary who could not understand the principles involved and who was unqualified for her job as the head of the MoD?

4.   How many lives, limbs and senses were lost in IED-sniper coordinated ambushes that if not initially deterred would have been detected and destroyed by SMAs?  How much will the damage to mental health arising from these ambushes cost the UK?

5.   Why are the Afghan Forces being left without simple and economic air assets capable of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), resupply, casualty evacuation, ‘Buddy Cover’, perimeter patrol and border patrol, despite the ARAG proposals presented consistently since 2007?

Obviously, these questions would not have been asked if we had not known the answers, but this blog asks them anyway because there is some doubt about whether the Secretary of State for Defence appreciates the importance of the questions and  has been briefed on the answers.

Postscript dated 25 October 2013

The MoD has today said of the penetration of Camp Bastion’s perimeter defences, the two US Marines then killed in action, and the loss of six Harriers destroyed and two seriously damaged, that –

“Following the incident we contributed fully to a number of US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) reviews as well as carrying out our own thorough investigations.  These processes were undertaken to assure the force protection of ISAF personnel and equipment and to prevent a similar attack happening again.

“As such, the UK’s consideration of the US review was primarily focused on whether any new material had been brought to light that would warrant additional UK action. We have now considered the US review findings in detail and are confident that we have identified all significant lessons and acted upon them.  Consequently, we are content with our earlier assessment that no further UK action is required.

ARAG consistently emphasised the danger to Camp Bastion and Kandahar perimeters from 2007 and recommended, in line with the Boscombe Down evaluation report, the economic use of Dragoon SMAs by day and night.  What, we wonder, has the MoD done with the ARAG papers?  What does the MoD intend to do with those papers now they have been validated?  How thorough are “thoroughinvestigations in the MoD?

COMMENT

An American colleague writing in a private email today has contributed this –

Basically an ASCM warhead attacking the British carriers will have to penetrate multiple decks or bulkheads in order either  to mass detonate stored ammo or to cause the hull to sink or capsize.  So the question is not just the RHA but the array of decks and bulkheads. The flight and hangar decks have to be about 30mm and 20mm respectively in thickness in order to withstand aircraft wheel loads when landing or parked. This is not armor.  Most decks/bulkheads will be 7-10mm.  It requires about 30mm of steel to defeat most fragments.  It requires about 325mm of steel to defeat a SAPHE warhead on a missile at Mach 2 plus.  It requires about 1,400mm of conventional steel to defeat a first generation ASCM’s HEAT warhead …. and double that for the current state of the art design.  Obviously, on the battlefield modern tanks use advanced armor which is more effective then steel.  Relative to the required weight per square metre these are perhaps 3-7 times as effective as steel …. but this is against darts or smaller diameter HEAT warheads.  I do not believe anyone has studied defeating big warheads.  As a matter of fact, the US can no longer manufacture ballistic steel armor thicker then about 100mm.  My guess is that the British carriers will have fragment protection, but not ballistic protection designed to defeat penetrating warheads.  (By the way, the issue for the ASTER 30 is not just Pk against crossing targets …. but a very limited engagement envelope owed to the limited kinematics of the missile.)

 

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