Friday, 15 July 2016

Notes from Chilcot

Having poured through many of the elements of the Chilcot report (but certainly not the entire thing) I thought I'd take a pause to comment on some of the issues thrown up by it. One thing I don't intend to do is to go into the legal minefield of whether or not the war was justified under international law, nor do I want to get bogged down in the moral (or otherwise) arguments about whether or not the war was a good idea, and whether or not it achieved its aims. Rather there are some very specific points that I want to pick out.
The first of these is the obvious need for future inquiries to have a professional editor to work on the final report. Going through the various chapters I feel like some parts of the report I've read four or five times in different places. The same issues and in some cases what feel like the same sentences and paragraphs appear. If the report really is over 2 million words then I suspect a lot of that is simply down to repetition. But that's a minor gripe.

Getting into the meat and bones of Chilcot, the most important point that stands out is just how unprepared UK defence seems for the possibility of actual deployments. Every SDSR comes with a fresh set of ideas about the shape of the armed forces and which elements will be made ready for deployment at which scales and timelines. And yet what Chilcot has taught us (or confirmed for others) is that for the most part these scales and timelines are merely aspirations. They are ideals to aim for, but the support for which falls signficantly short.

This is not to say that the Iraq War didn't come with its own unique set of challenges such as the debate over whether Turkey would permit operations from its territory and as such the opening of a "northern front". But the military seemed wholely unprepared for the final decision to deploy. Chilcot provides a damning review of missing and insufficient equipment, insufficient time to plan and prepare, and a litany of other gripes that cast the UK military and in particular the Ministry of Defence in a poor light.

It forces us to pause, look at the shiny graphics and flow charts of the last SDSR, and ask ourselves how much of all this can really be delivered? Can the UK meet its stated aspiration of deploying a division sized force? If it struggled back in 2003, how will it cope now with the reduced size of the military and its logistic support? Is the Army's ambition too bold, with eyes larger than its stomach so to speak? 

By comparison, back in 1991 the armoured division deployed by the UK contained two "triangular" brigades; one consisting of an armoured regiment and two armoured infantry battalions, the other having two armoured regiments and one armoured infantry battalion. This force was supplemented by a number of other add-ons, such as additional infantry and armoured units, as well as the usual artillery, communications, medical etc support. In 2003 the "division" had grown to three brigades. Current UK force structures for Army 2020 envision the use of two armoured brigades, but now "square" in structure, with four battalions/regiments in each brigade. It would appear therefore that UK ambitions have grown overtime, even though the military is probably less capable in many logistical regards than it was back then.

On this basis we have to soberly ask the question; can we realistically maintain the force structure that is desired? Or is it time to go back to the drawing board, maintaining only those force levels which can actually be supported in full? Rather than talking up the ability to put down two "square" brigades which we would struggle to find full equipment and manning levels for, might we better off scaling back the ambitions and focusing on the ability to put down two "triangular" brigades in future, ones which we have a better chance of being able to properly equip and support in the field?

Granted, part of the problem lies not with the army but with the MoD. The modern fashion in government is to use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). While for many areas of government business this is a superb idea, and even defence can make much use of it, what it also does is penalise defence for certain activities that make rational military sense but not economic sense. One such example is the holding of large stocks of equipment and ammunition, beyond what is needed on a "day to day" basis.

In the military sphere this makes perfect sense. Demand is unpredictable. Can you guess when the next war will take place and at what scale the engagement will be? I can't. Can you tell me how many Brimstone missiles the UK will need next year? How about the number of TLAM? Defence officials can certainly tell you how many will be needed for training purposes, but what about conflicts? Will the UK still be operating over Iraq and Syria next year? Will the RN be called upon to fire a barrage of TLAM against someone like Assad's Syria, or maybe some other nation? I don't know. I can't tell you that. Indeed, nobody can. So does it make sense then to restrict holdings of this equipment to low levels in order to meet the requirements of GAAP, which see large stock holdings beyond immediate needs as a negative?

I would argue no, and it's something I've brought up in the past when the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the MoD for what it saw as wasteful stock holdings. This is precisely the sort of mentality that caused problems back in 2003, as shown by some of the evidence that cropped up during the Chilcot Inquiry:
In his report following a visit to see the forces preparing for operations in Kuwait, General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff from February 2003 to August 2006, wrote on 10 March:
“The one area of the media feeding frenzy that has some justification lies in the readiness of stocks for expeditionary operations. The introduction of resource accounting has created an imperative to drive down stockholdings. As a result, in the name of accounting orthodoxy we lack basic items such as desert clothing. I am unsure whether the cost of storing such items would really have been more than the inflated price we have no doubt paid by procurement under UOR action, but I am certain of the negative impact on the moral component that failure to provide these items has had"
Also this:
Lt Gen Reith wrote:
“I draw two valuable lessons from this work: (a) In future, we should try to be less reliant on UORs for operations; fitting these in the time available and in austere conditions further stretches an already over-loaded logistic organisation. Thus, there is a strong case for better resourcing and I hope this point now will be accepted where it perhaps has not been in the past. (b) ‘Just enough just in time’ is probably a flawed policy for military operations. SDR directed that the DLO should only hold that which could not be procured within readiness and preparation time. However, the stock levels held speak for themselves.
(Emphasis in italics added, not present in original)

Thus a major identified failing of the operation was the insistence before hand of not holding sufficient stocks of equipment, clothing and munitions, and not properly investing in the upgrades needed to keep equipment such as vehicles up to date with current threats and the needs of modern operating environments. Exercise Saif Sareea II, conducted in Oman in 2001, had already highlighted many of these issues but no action seems to have been taken prior to 2003, resulting in a rush of emergency measures undertaken to make equipment ready. And all this caused by a desire to meet accounting principles that were unsuitable for defence needs.

Perhaps now then is the time to finally accept that GAAP in its entirety is a dead duck in defence terms. And also time to accept that UK defence needs to be shaped around better outputs as opposed to paper assests. What is the point of having large numbers of tanks, planes, ships and troops on the books when the UK doesn't have sufficient ammuntion, clothing and spares for these units to operate effectively when called upon? In what world do we find it acceptable to be scraping together uniforms, desert boots, proper filters for helicopters and tanks etc on the eve of a major campaign?

It can't continue like this. Iraq had the initial advantage of being a somewhat limited scale operation, where UK forces were required only to push a short distance into Iraq and then stop to consolidate. Had they been required to go the whole distance to Baghdad it might have been very different, especially if equipment problems had caused the UK to delay the whole operation. The great fear from this point will be that a more demanding test in the future will expose some of these shortcomings in a more serious manner, in the same way that the ongoing COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn significant criticism onto both the MoD and the army in particular.

One such criticism, highlighted in the Chilcot report, has been the MoD's slow reaction to the changing operational demands. In particular a lot of criticism has been levelled at the continued usage of "Snatch" Land Rovers, well past the point when it was clear that they offered inadequate levels of protection. In part the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) system has been blamed for delays:
Lord Drayson was told:
“Overall there was a clear perception in theatre that UK MOD was not taking account of the rate of change. UORs too often sought to deliver a perfect capability, but in doing so delivered so late the requirement had changed or theatre were without any capability for too long"
There are many reasons why the UOR system appears to have struggled. Part of the problem was that the Treaury made it clear that no additional pot of money would be forthcoming and that defence would have to find the money itself. In turn the military chiefs became concerned that the UOR program could ultimately impact on the financial future of the much needed FRES program to upgrade outdated UK reconnaissance and protected mobility requirements.

But it is also telling that the UK had options that it chose to ignore. Options such as the use of the Saxon APC. Granted, Saxon was not a silver bullet. Its level of protection would not have coped with the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) threat that emerged, and it would not have been immune to effects of other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). There were also challenges associated with the size of Saxon, which by comparison was one of the advantages touted by military chiefs in favour of "Snatch", as it could wind its way into some of the tighter corners of Basra city in a way that Saxon supposedly could not.

But Saxon would most certainly have been a better option from a survival point of view than "Snatch". We can't conclusively comment on whether soldiers who died in "Snatch" would have been unscathed in something like Saxon, or whether they may have survived but still with serious injuries, but it is beyond question by most reasonable people that a vehicle like Saxon would have saved lives. As to whether it would have been operationally effective, in terms of providing troops with a vehicle that still permitted them to carry out their mission as well as keeping them safe, that perhaps is more debateble.

It is notable though, and to me rather worrying, that only the viewpoints of senior officers were entertained for the inquiry. It does not appear that regular soldiers, or even some of the junior officers of the time, had been brought in and questioned about some of the issues raised, such as whether the manoeuvreability of "Snatch" in tight environments was really as critical as has been stated. All throughout the report comments from senior officers, such as notes sent between themselves and to members of government seem to imply at every turn that the solution that was settled on, usually one bodged into place, was the right one and that no further action was really needed. Until of course it was. An example would be how up-armoured vehicles referred to as "Bulldog" were at one point described in a private note as providing something close to an ideal solution, yet I personally remember working on the doors in about 2007 with a member of the Royal Anglian Regiment who had previously served in Iraq, and who described "Bulldog" in less than flatering terms.

And it's not as if there wasn't a wealth of mine protected vehicles on the market that the MoD could have selected instead of persisting in delays while seeking the 100% solution. One only need to look (for one is in posh mode) at a documentary that was produced in the mid-late 2000's following British troops in Afghanistan, which showed that while British troops were still cruising around in Land Rovers, an attached medical unit from Estonia (I believe) had a modern, mine protected vehicle, the likes of which the MoD has disposed of many years before as not needed.

Another quote from Chilcot, this time in reference to ISTAR, sums up the issue ideally I think:
On 19 January 2007, Maj Gen Shirreff wrote in his post‑operation tour report:
“... we have missed the boat on the ISTAR front. I commented in my first weekly letter six months ago: ‘it beggars belief, that after 3 years here, the British Army possesses no tactical UAV capable of flying in the heat of the summer.’ I was told no more staff effort could be put into resolving the problem, but despite this it will be sometime before anything is in service in theatre. Contrast this grindingly slow and ponderous response to the Americans’ generous support with Raven or the Australians who have shown the agility and forethought to lease 6 Scan Eagles from Boeing, together with 3 ground stations ... It took a couple of weeks to clear the decision, two weeks to train the soldiers and Boeing technicians have deployed to maintain the systems... If our procurement system were capable of similar agility we would have UAVs on station tracking targets now."
It always amuses and saddens me in equal degree when I hear senior officers in the UK armed forces and many civilians who work directly in the defence industry talking about what cannot be done and what is impossible, only for our allies to make those things touted as impossible, possible. Read that again. A few weeks to clear a decision, and then two weeks to train the soldiers. And just like that the ever brilliant Aussies produced a working ISTAR capability out of nothing. That is organisational agility, and an envious level of it. 

All of this makes me despair. I wonder if this is a problem that actually can be fixed in the UK, or whether the concepts of "make do and mend", "keep calm and carry on" etc have become so ingrained into government and the senior reaches of the armed services that we will never again reach a position where UK forces are adequately sized, equipped, funded and trained for the tasks they are asked to take on. 

I hope for the sake of every man and woman in uniform that this is not true and that things can be turned around in the future.

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