Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Begun The Drone Wars Have

It appears that recently I've become the BAE Systems of the defence blogging community; promising much, only to deliver the end product late (though thankfully not over budget, on account of their not being one!). It's been a hectic few weeks and tomorrow sees me off on a round trip to Surrey, which I'm sure will be hilarious and not at all frustrating, what with all the Christmas Eve traffic. Only after that will I be able to relax for a while with family, which fundamentally is what Christmas is all about. 

I shall be away from any form of computer until after the 5th January, so I think it best to get my Merry Christmas's and Happy New Years in now before I get started. I'd just like to say thank you to everyone that has read the blog over the last year, especially those that have interacted through the comments. It's been a pleasure conversing with you all and I hope that in the past year the blog has lived up to the standard that you've come to expect from it. One of my resolutions for next year will be to exceed those expectations going forward.

I'd also like to give a special thank you to Think Defence and his fantastic website, in particular for the regular links back here which have helped to consistently grow the blogs traffic through 2014. My sincere hope is that the quality of the articles here has been sufficient to earn that attention.

And speaking of linking elsewhere, the December issue of Global Defence Technology is now available. Indeed, it's been available for a while now, it's just that some of us are a little behind the curve! You can find the latest issue here, including an interesting graphical timeline celebrating 100 years of the Royal Navy's submarine service.

But the main feature of this article is at almost the opposite end of the scale to submarines. Rather than dipping below the waves, we're going up, up and away. 

Sort of.

Because since the latter stages of the second word war the UK has operated almost exclusively in environments where control of the air was either uncontested by the enemy, or contested only briefly. The Falklands war is the obvious outlier, perhaps with Korea thrown in as well, but it very much remains the exception to the broad rule of UK operations post 1945. The significant aspect of that which I want to look at today has been the almost complete absence of aerial observation over UK forces in the field.

This has been especially true in recent years, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though the UK armed forces are returning to more "conventional" training, it will doubtless be in the back of everyones mind that UK ground forces are likely - at least for the foreseeable future - to find themselves operating in a theatre where control of the air is held by UK and/or allied assets.

One wonders then (for One is now in posh mode, having started to read "Edgehill 1642", by Peter Young, having now cleared a 12 month backlog of reading material. Highly recommended so far) to what extent will UK forces (and indeed its allies) emphasise the need to protect positions against observation from the air? 

Even with the advantage of air superiority, UK ground forces have still had to remain conscious of the danger posed by enemy observers on high ground. But camouflage against overhead observers - particularly in rear areas - is something quite different. For example some of the accounts provided by German officers who fought in France during the mid-late 1944 period is illuminating, not least because of the tedious and often extreme lengths that they had to go to in order to avoid allied aerial observation.

The reason I ask is simple; drones.

Forget about the big ones like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk or the General Atomics Reaper for now. I'm talking little drones, up to about the size of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle (wingspan approx. 10 ft). Because the one thing that has struck me the most watching the footage coming out of places like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq has been the proliferation of small drones, most of them commercial types available to the general public, and their potential for military observation.

Being small, made predominantly from non-metallic materials, and with no real major heat sources, these drones have so far proved incredibly difficult to detect, even when flown here in the UK close to commercial air traffic routes. And even when they can be seen, an army is likely to run out of surface to air missiles long before the enemy runs out of cheap drones, while machine gun and rifle fire has to date proven to be ineffective as a means of bringing these vehicles down. At the minute electronic jamming would seem the most promising first line of defence.

Carrying small cameras like the GoPro range, they thus offer a relatively cheap and difficult to counter method of acquiring overhead imagery of enemy positions. The quality of these images is already pretty good and is only likely to improve further still as the continuous drive to make better cameras for mobile phones pushes back the boundaries of what can be achieved in such a small package.

It doesn't take much imagination from there to realise the implications for UK forces going forward. A cheap drone, a cheap camera, and a cheap transmitter all couple together to provide potential enemies with the ability to peer not just over the frontline, but potentially quite a distance back into allied positions. For those wishing to avoid the unwanted attentions of a 155mm battery dropping rounds into a command post, it might in the future serve to become masters of protection against aerial observation. 

For those that are interested here are a few videos to illustrate the point. The first comes from the conflict in Ukraine, showing how even a drone flying at a relatively modest altitude can see for quite some distance in all directions;

You might have to open it out in a new browser or use the full screen function, as I can't adjust the embedded video player size.

The next video comes from Syria, featuring drone footage taken over Kobane. Once again it is clear just how far the camera can see even at this modest height. A manually adjusted focus function wouldn't be hard to install, and the image as it is already provides a remarkable amount of detail that could be analysed more closely at a later time;

And just in case you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the receiving end of a volley of 155mm rounds, wonder no more. Don't try this at home!;

Which is worse though; being shelled by heavy artillery or shot at by an AH-1 Cobra? Decide for yourself;

Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year too.

Friday, 19 December 2014

In The Post

I'm working on something right now, but don't have time to finish it just yet. Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Going Commando

Some of the very best ideas and debates are formed over the course of a few beers. Unfortunately so are many of the worst. I'll leave the reader to decide at the end which category this falls into. Hopefully it'll be interesting if nothing else. Because today we're going Commando.

Specifically in response to the question; "(Hic)... What I don't understand, right (hic)... is why the army got rid of the Commandos?"

The answer is that technically speaking it didn't.

The Commandos were formed during the second world war after the British evacuation from Dunkirk. The purpose was to create a force that would hit back at the Germans by raiding areas under German occupation, doing damage to the German war effort, tying down German forces needed to guard the coasts, and serving as a morale booster to the British public that would also show potential allies such as America that Britain was still in the war and actively fighting.

The application of this concept would come from units that were roughly the size of an infantry battalion (a "Commando") and who had carried out specialist Commando training both to increase physical standards and to teach unorthodox skills such as small boat handling and explosives work. In theory at least a full "Commando" would attack some objective in enemy territory, and potentially many Commandos could be brought together to attack much larger targets.

In practice the results were exceptionally mixed. Planned raids were routinely called off for a variety of reasons and many of those that went ahead proved to be disasters. Two of the more successful ventures were Operation Biting, which involved the capture of a German Wurzburg radar set, and Operation Chariot, the raid on the St. Nazaire docks. Oddly enough both raids had a connection to No.2 Commando; Biting was carried out in February, 1942 by members of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which had previously been known as No.2 Commando until November of 1940. At this point a fresh unit took up the No.2 Commando mantle and it was this unit that took part in Chariot in late March, 1942.

But the raid on St. Nazaire also highlighted one of the main problems with Commando raids. If a large force could not be extracted immediately then it was prone to suffering heavy casualties as the infantry - lacking the support of heavy weapons and artillery - was gradually rounded on by the local defending forces. Many other raids failed before reaching their targets because of the inherent difficulty associated with inserting a large force covertly and then keeping them hidden. A large number of men spread out in sub-groups, often navigating at night, proved apt at stumbling across German patrols or checkpoints, thus raising the alarm and compromising the operation.

The solution to this problem was devised convergently (at least the evidence points that way) by two men. One was Roger Courtney, a Corporal who had been through Commando training and who was convinced of the potential value of a small unit that used kayaks to covertly approach enemy warships in their harbours in order to plant explosives on them. At first ignored, Courtney later successfully (and at some risk to his own life) boarded a Royal Navy ship anchored in the Clyde by approaching it in his Kayak. He thieved the cover off a deck gun which he later used as evidence of his activities, along with having cheekily inscribed his initials on one of the doors of the ship. He was promoted to Captain and given command of a new unit that would ultimately become the Special Boat Service.

The other, and undoubtedly the more famous now, was David Stirling, a Lieutenant in No.8 (Guards) Commando. It's possible that Stirling had been influenced by Courtney, as Courtney's first command was only a small unit that was originally attached to a formation known as "Layforce", of which No.8 Commando was also a constituent part. As things stand though there is no real evidence that the two met or had any conversations on the matter.

Stirling was frustrated with the constant failure rate incurred by the Commando units and became enamoured with the idea of using small units dropped behind enemy lines by parachute. Once on the ground the men would split into teams of around five and walk to their targets. He reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that these very small teams would find it much easier to hide from the enemy and to slip onto a defended objective using stealth instead of firepower.

Thus it was Stirling's new unit "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" (an intelligence fiction that only had around 60 men) that really began to unlock the potential of the Commando concept. Its raids behind German lines in North Africa started to inflict significant damage, especially against the Luftwaffe's transport aircraft that were often used to ferry vital fuel supplies. Increasing numbers of German soldiers were tied down on guard duties across a swathe of sites, and when things went bad for the members of "L Detachment", the nature of the small parties meant that losses were comparatively light.

The solution to the Commando's problems had been found.

And really that in turn answers the question on the fate of the army's commando units. They still exist, just now in the form of the SAS. Even then, many of the roles they used to perform have been replaced. Because one of the major issues that led to the formation of units like the SAS was the desire to destroy targets of high value to the enemy. Bomber aircraft of the time generally lacked the accuracy to hit precise point targets like a specific dock or power plant. 

These days any reasonably large, static object like those mentioned are highly susceptible to being hit with modern precision guided munitions. The requirement to send in a unit of men to blow up a bridge tends to look a little mute when we have the ability to either fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from over a thousand miles away or to have a pair of aircraft whizz overhead and hit the bridge at multiple aim points with laser or GPS guided weapons.

That's not to say that there is absolutely no use for a unit like the SAS in its more traditional role of sneaking around behind enemy lines blowing things up. I'm sure you could rattle off plenty of scenarios where this would be a preferable solution. But that list of scenarios has shrunk significantly over the years and without some revolution in counter air defences it's likely to stay shrunk.

And if you want to be somewhat liberal with definitions then the Commandos still live on, partly of course in the shape of the Royal Marines, and also in the Parachute Regiment. As mentioned above, the Parachute Regiment was first formed from what used to be a Commando and all of its members were Commando trained. To this day the Parachute Regiment retains a training and selection regime that goes slightly above and beyond what is normally expected of an infantryman, coupled with actual parachute training.

There is also one little interesting nugget that seems to have been lost to general history that I turned up while doing some additional research; even the RAF had its own Commando units. 

I shit you not.

They were first formed by the RAF in early 1942 at the recommendation of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the then Chief of Combined Operations and responsible for fostering solutions to some of the problems that would be faced in the event of future allied landing operations. One of these problems was that tactical fighter aircraft - especially those that would provide direct close air support to advancing forces - would need somewhere to land that was relatively close to the frontline in order to maintain reasonable coverage. The army was already working on the means to rapidly construct new forward airfields and the potential of capturing German ones was obvious, but a new problem now reared its head; who was going to rearm and refuel the aircraft? 

The squadrons own ground crew would be needed back in Britain to keep the aircraft flying during the landing operations and it could take potentially days for these crews to move along the logistics chain from their normal sites to somewhere like Normandy, during which the aircraft would have to be grounded. The answer, as realised by Lord Mountbatten, was to form new units made up of technicians, armourers and the like, along with supporting staff, who would go in with the landing troops and service the aircraft at the forward airfields until the normal ground crews could arrive, at which point the temporary crews would move forward to the next site and so on and so forth.

These units were given the full gamut of Commando training to prepare them for the rigours of the landing operations and life in the field close to the enemy, and became the Royal Air Servicing Commandos. You can read more about them at their associations website linked here, as well as the account of Sergeant Edward Handbury Tee, which goes into more detail about the nature of the training and gives a flavour of the sort of operations they conducted in North Africa, link here.

EDIT; Commenter Topman provided this link to an RAF Historical Society document which contains more information on the Servicing Commandos.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sacred Cows

Before we get started today, just to let you know that the November issue of Global Defense Technology is out, including news on the army's contribution to the Bloodhound supersonic car and a piece about quantity vs quality, focusing on Royal Navy ships. Click here for the link.

The main subject though is related to a post over at Think Defence on the subject of Sacred Cows ahead of the 2015 SDSR. The thrust of the article, surprise, surprise, was what are the sacred cows of defence and what do we do about them with almost inevitable budget cuts looming on the horizon?

I would probably answer by saying that pretty much everything in defence right now is a sacred cow, largely because the armed forces are so small. Just try proffering up the possibility of reducing the Royal Marines for example, and/or rolling their training into line with the army's infantry training at Catterick, but with a sort of Royal Marines version of the Parachute Regiments P Company. The responses can be quite fierce.

And there really isn't anything you can think of in the armed forces that doesn't have a backer of one form or another, ready to fight their corner tooth and nail. Because the forces are so small, further cuts anywhere begin to make the military look very thin indeed. As things stand the UK is headed towards having just five front line Typhoon squadrons, with two additional squadrons of F-35 on the way (fingers crossed), leaving the UK with just seven front line combat aircraft squadrons in 2020. Given how hard the front line units have been worked over the years that is already looking like a tight squeeze.

Now I wrote recently on this subject in a post entitled "More Cuts?", but in light of Think Defence's challenge on sacred cows I thought I'd go back and tackle again the one really sacred of sacred cows; the army.

For me the army is the truly decisive arm, the one that goes in and finishes the job. It's been this way for a very long time and will continue to be so for a very long time still I suspect. But in the face of what seems to be practically guaranteed additional cuts to defence, cuts that have to also make room for things like the deterrent replacement and a new Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the army also has the broadest shoulders to bear the weight of any future cuts.

It's annoying. It's frustrating. But it's also true.

The political will to support the armed forces collapsed almost as soon as the second world war had finished and ever since politicians have been looking to reap the "peace dividend" with ever more voracious glee. And with the governments deficit reduction strategy basically in tatters and a slowing European economy, the government has admitted more money needs to be found. Some of that will be found from the armed forces, you can practically bet your house on it.

And I just can't see anyone other than the army having the room to make those cuts without biting too deeply into their core, everyday capabilities, not least because this government has already set the trend for using aircraft and ships to contribute to international missions without having to put "boots on the ground" (at least officially) and risk the backlash that would result from casualties.

So what cuts to make?

Although I put forward one proposal just purely touching on the 3rd Division in the "More Cuts?" post, that was more of a quick comment. Thinking about it a little more deeply and somewhat more practically, and in keeping with the spirit of culling sacred cows, here is what I came up with.

One of Think Defence's favourite axioms is that of retaining a hard core to work from, the tip of the spear so to speak. With that in mind, and given that the most challenging task that can be asked of the army is to go head to head with a peer enemy (almost certainly as part of an alliance or coalition of some form) I think there is room to actually expand the armoured side of the army.

Currently there are nine cavalry regiments, split with three each in three roles; armoured cavalry (armoured reconnaissance), armoured (Challenger Tanks) and Light Cavalry (Jackal mounted reconnaissance). There are six armoured infantry battalions mounted in the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). Lastly there are three infantry battalions designated as "Heavy Protected Mobility", mounted in Mastiff protected patrol vehicles.

What I'm thinking is this; carving up the assets to form two armoured divisions. Each one gets an armoured recce unit, two regiments of Challenger tanks, three armoured infantry battalions, and two Heavy Protected Mobility battalions. That means converting one of the cavalry units back over to Challenger and also grabbing a spare infantry battalion from elsewhere to convert to the Heavy Protected Mobility role, but that should be fairly simple to achieve.

The end result is the solid core of the army, two armoured divisions that can alternate between training and readiness, much like the two parachute battalions in 16 Air Assault Brigade are asked to do. With proper vehicle management it shouldn't be necessary to keep two whole divisions worth of vehicles on hand, but rather a pool of assets for everyone to dip into as needed. 

And not that it's a huge deal, but we're here so might as well bring it up, I'd proffer up the old 7th Armoured Division (Desert Rats) for the name of one of the divisions. Considering the army is an organisation that is institutionally wed to famous names and famous histories, it's always made me wonder why the title "7th Armoured Division" was never protected more vigorously, not least because it's one of the few unit names that a good chunk of the population can actually remember.

That now leaves us with 3 spare cavalry units, 16 Air Assault Brigade, and the entire adaptable force (1st Division) of infantry to deal with (minus the battalion we pinched above, which comes to 19). Starting with 16 Air Assault Brigade, to me it makes sense to put them together with 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, to make a Joint Rapid Reaction Division. The only real change I'd make is to put two line infantry battalions in with 16AAB to beef it up a little. Attach one of the spare recce units to the division (make it parachute capable) and we're almost done.

We now have two spare cavalry units and 17 infantry battalions. And it's here that we really start to get into the slaughter. 

Two of the infantry battalions are the Gurkhas, with one battalion stationed on rotation in Brunei acting as the acclimatised Far East reserve. But Brunei has become something of a political hot potato lately with the switch to Sharia law. Many are calling on the Prime Minister to reconsider the UK's relationship with the Sultanate, and part of that could involve withdrawing the Brunei garrison.

The Gurkhas themselves have also come in for criticism, partly from those in the UK who begrudge the Gurkha regiments being maintained when domestic units have been cut back, but mainly from the Nepalese government itself which plans in the future to introduce a bill that would ban the recruitment of its citizens into foreign armies. All in all the time would seem right to take pre-emptive action on that front, as well as sending a message to the Sultan of Brunei by wrapping up the use of Gurkhas in the British army and withdrawing from the Brunei committment.

Two down, leaves us with 15 battalions. Well, actually it only leaves 11, because two are tied down in Cyprus and two are tied to public duties. Which makes me wonder whether the Ceremonial duties could better be covered by a permanent, over strength company that draws from all the guards battalions, and that the two battalions otherwise tied to this role could be used more actively? 

And it also brings into question the deployment of UK forces to Cyprus, specifically whether we need two infantry battalions permanently based there. The Cypriot government continues to make noises about the British presence and it does seem that an opportunity would exist for scaling back the deployment, using the airbase as the home for a much smaller force. The actual UN peacekeeping rouletment aspect to the deployment is not covered by the two infantry battalions, and that element could easily be backed up (i.e. in addition to) by deploying a squadron of the RAF Regiment to the base on rotation (guarding an active airfield on what is essentially foreign soil is sort of the prime reason for the existence of the RAF Regiment *cough* Falklands).

Doing the above would allow the reduction of four battalions, though I suspect the guards would survive and two other lot of poor buggers would face the chop. That brings us down to 11. Out of this I'd suggest we could pull eight battalions together to form a Light Division, with one of the two spare cavalry units attached to provide their recce element. This becomes the "other tasks" division for the most part, dealing with things like forward engagement, as well as providing a reserve of infantry for contingent tasks as needed. This division would probably be almost completely mounted in Foxhound.

That means that in total 9 battalions plus one cavalry regiment would face the axe, as well as many of their reserve counterparts and some elements of the support units such as logistics that would be downsized to match the reduced force size. Given the savings in raw salaries and pensions, entitlements, basing, training and the like, that alone would save the MoD a massive chunk of cash and potentially spare the other two services further pain.

That may seem like it's unfair or even heresy, but that's precisely what culling sacred cows is all about. The reality is that money is only getting tighter and the army has the most wiggle room to absorb cuts. If you look back at it that still leaves an impressive force, with two armoured divisions and two light divisions, from which brigade sized forces could be extracted if needed, which certainly compares favourably with most of our NATO allies, even the ones you normally associate with being land powers.

Would we all prefer it if no cuts had to be made? Absolutely. But that increasingly looks like nothing more than a hope and a prayer. The RAF and Royal Navy are already pressed to the limit in operational terms, run ragged as politicians look for less risky means of contributing to international operations. I'm afraid that leaves the army standing before the axe man alone.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

In Remembrance

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam

We will remember them.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Here endeth the lesson

And let the blame game begin!

Yes, UK forces have now withdrawn from Helmand Province in Afghanistan and it took less than 24 hours for various key players along the way - both political and military - to start flinging mud in every conceivable direction. Expect more of the same for at least the next few months. It is nearly Christmas after all and as such the perfect time to bring out new books with splash covers like "the real story behind why the British failed in Afghanistan" etc, etc, ad nauseam. Much money to be made, much arse covering to get in before someone else does I suspect.

But while publishers count their sales, now is when the armed forces begin the long process of dissecting the campaign in minute detail to figure out which bits went well and which didn't. Already many people have their own opinions, most of which seem to centre around the idea that Britain failed due to an insufficient number of troops, which apart from anything else presumes that the UK has failed, before we even wait to see how things pan out.

Looking to the future and what can be taken from this, for me there are three areas about the UK mission that I'm interested in exploring. The first is the mission.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan was triggered by the events of 9/11. In the aftermath of the attack the hunt began to find those responsible and the lines of enquiry led the US back to Southern Afghanistan and the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden. The US appealed for help from its allies, help which the UK promptly offered. But what was the original reasoning?

The idea was actually fairly simple. The ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US so he could stand trial, so the US was going to go in and get him, whether the Taliban liked it or not. At the same as trying to capture its leader, the US was also intending to take down much of the Al-Qaeda organisation and training facilities. The final cherry on the cake would be to topple the Taliban, which would send a message to other countries around the world that turning a blind eye to the activities of terrorist groups within their borders could have fatal consequences.

The mission - with coalition forces deploying to assist the United Front in the North - made rapid progress. The US turned down multiple offers (though the credibility of such offers has been questioned) by Taliban commanders and politicians to hand over Bin Laden, often with conditions attached, in return for an end to the fighting. By the 13th November Kabul had fallen and by mid-December the major fighting had largely ceased. The Al-Qaeda training camps were gone. The Taliban were (mostly) gone. Unfortunately though, so was Osama Bin Laden.

At this point the Taliban and Al-Qaeda still existed in small pockets, but by and large the mission had been accomplished. The priorities now were to form a stable government, bring in food aid for an impoverished nation and to start rebuilding the capacity of the Afghan army and police to take over security of their own country. I've written in the past that I think the US made a huge mistake at this juncture by backing Hamid Karzai who was not the popular choice among many senior Afghans. It would appear that the other major mistake was to not spend more resources on immediately rebuilding the state security apparatus, including the army.

And at this juncture we have to question how the US led coalition went from this point in time to where they are now. Osama Bin Laden still needed to be found and the remnants of the previous regime needed mopping up, but by this point coalition forces should have been scaling back. The focus should have been on moving the Afghans to the fore, with coalition support. When you look at the last few years of operations it's difficult to see what objective was being aimed for? Al-Qaeda was gone for the most part and indeed had shipped a lot of its fighters abroad by this point. The war was now one of protecting Kabul and the Karzai government, something which the Afghan forces should have been doing themselves.

I suspect it would not make comfortable reading for the friends, families and colleagues of those that died or were seriously wounded to hear that these sacrifices were unnecessary, but I suspect that is the inevitable conclusion that we have to come to. The main objectives of the initial invasion were finished and from this point onward coalition forces really should have moved into the background, with the occasional operation to support the Afghans on the more complex tasks. 

Their mission was done. 

On top of this the economic argument has also been made that the money poured into Afghanistan as both aid and support for operations (particularly from 2006 onwards) could have been spent at home to achieve the effect of security against terrorist attack. Ultimately the fight in Helmand has cost Britain over 450 dead, and many more seriously wounded, not accounting for the psychological toll. Even if just a fraction of the money spent on Afghanistan had instead been spent on UK security, and as a result a terrorist attack had taken place, it would have had to have been something spectacular to make the human cost of Operation Herrick worthwhile.

The British perspective of operations in Helmand tends to focus around the need for more troops. The common narrative centres on the small number of troops that were initially deployed to Helmand in 2006 and that things only got better after a much later "surge" when US Marines were deployed in large numbers to the North of the province while the British focused there resources on the South of Helmand.

It's been a compelling argument for a long time now, backed by the success of the US surge in Iraq. In essence it has become "common widsom" about this operation specifically and as such has become common wisdom about Counter-Insurgency (COIN) warfare practice in general. But is it really the solution to all future COIN woes, to simply up the number of soldiers deployed?

I find it an odd position given that two of the most successful COIN operations in the past for which Britain has been rightly lauded were done the opposite way. One of the reasons the British response to the Malayan Emergency has gained so much credibility is because the British forces managed to achieve with a peak of 40,000 troops what the US failed to do in Vietnam with a peak of over 540,000. In Oman British troop levels were exceptionally low, at least officially.

Now clearly there are differences between what happened in Oman and Malaysia vs what happened in Vietnam, or indeed in Afghanistan, but we can never escape from the fact that actually Britain has been at its most successful when it comes to COIN operations when the number of troops has been limited.

In Oman the battle for control of the people was centred on the South of the country, in the Dhofar Governate, an area almost twice the size of Helmand. Dhofar and Helmand share a number of traits, as much of the population is concentrated in certain areas while big chunks of both provinces are inhospitable desert. Both also have a fair amount of mountainous terrain to contend with. And both shared a border with a nation favourable to the insurgents, across which insurgents were able to travel to safety.

Even at its peak, the British contribution was not a huge one in manpower terms. Aside from the rotating squadron of SAS soldiers (around 70-80 men at a time) there were some engineers, signals personnel, medical and veterinary support, some RAF personnel at RAF Salalah, and not a lot else. British officers and pilots were seconded to help the Sultan of Oman's Armed Forces (SOAF) by flying their attack aircraft and commanding many of the infantry units (from company up to battalion level), but the total British presence was really nothing to write home about, certainly nothing close to the troop levels seen in Helmand.

Indeed the total force levels including the SOAF were never really that high. The SAS squadrons were mostly deployed in groups of 8-12, to train and then fight alongside small groups of Firqats, former guerrillas from the region who had become disenfranchised with the communist leanings of the other insurgents. As for the SOAF forces, they typically were never able to deploy more than about a battalions worth of men at any one time. A locally raised police force rounded out the structure.

This motley sounding crew might pale in comparison to the size and scope of British forces in Helmand, but never the less they got the job done. Later on they received some assistance from Iran and Jordan, both of whom would eventually deploy a battalions worth of men, but these were mainly used to man a line of small, mutually supporting forts between the coast and the mountains to try and interdict insurgent supply lines, the value of which has been questioned.

It's a marked contrast compared to the earlier "common wisdom" of COIN that we looked at that says that large troop numbers are the way forward. Part of the trouble can be found in the accounts of some of the lower level British commanders who were deployed on Operation Herrick. Many have complained that when they went to Afghanistan they were put down with their platoon in a patrol base and then given vague instructions about patrolling the local ground and engaging with the locals.

In many cases the platoon commanders were very limited in what they could achieve. Their orders didn't seem to have a coherent end point in sight and some have complained that they seemed to be patrolling almost for the sake of patrolling, because they were doing something at least. Unfortunately in many cases that something was to be a magnet for IEDs, rocket and mortar attacks, and small arms fire.

Spread out across the province, the various units were competing for resources from their higher command, whether it be for money, engineer support, medical teams etc. They were meeting with the locals, but in many cases had nothing of value to offer them. They were essentially dropping in to say hello and then having to return to base, while getting shot at in the process, with no clear advice from above about what to do or how to make a positive impact towards the ultimate goal of creating a safe and secure Afghanistan.

And that's part of the problem with calls for troop increases. Increasing the number of troops only helps if there's some positive impact that can be achieved by them. Increasing troop levels does very little without an equal increase in supporting capabilities and without a clear plan for their use. Spreading these troops out to maximise coverage also causes problems because they simply become another series of isolated outposts to be targeted.

More troops can make things easier, but only if they're used in the correct way. Otherwise it would appear you're simply adding to the logistics burden, adding to the cost, and putting more people than necessary into harms way. I'm not sure as there is a clear cut answer either way, I just think we need to put the brakes on the hype train that seems to have already decided that the only option in the future is to pour additional manpower into the cauldron. There might be cases where that is absolutely appropriate, but then again in some cases it wont. What we need is a more constructive appraisal based on the specific circumstances and plan.

Going back to Oman for example, the SOAF typically deployed whole battalions into one area for a short period of time. The idea was to contact the enemy and try to inflict casualties, breaking larger concentrations of the enemy down into smaller chunks and holding the ground while police were moved in and government authority could be established. After this the troops could be removed and other operations could be planned. With a view to the long term the Dhofar province was gradually won back, village by village, town by town, with the bulk of the fighting and then security work being done by Omanis themselves.

This approach, especially for the smaller forces of the UK, offers a lot of promise where conventional British forces would be used more for training tasks and for the odd big clearing operation, but with the bulk of the hard work being done by local recruits, possibly with some British officers and NCOs among their ranks. The manpower requirement would thus be greatly reduced, as would the cost of supporting them.

Finally we come to the prickly issue of tactics. One of the key debates that takes place in this regard is the issue of the "Hearts and Minds" approach vs a focus on killing the enemy. And I find this a very odd debate because really the two are supposed to go together.

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point in the last ten years "Hearts and Minds" became a strategy in and of itself. The idea was advocated at every turn, appropriate for every area, and seen as an ideal approach to winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite how the hearts and minds approach would do this on its own was never really made clear. Nor indeed is much of the literature and comment on what hearts and minds actually means.

Some people think that it's sitting down for tea with the locals. Some think that it's about giving sweets to the local children. For some it means building wells and schools. But none of these things actually relate to the original concept as practised in Malaya. That's because hearts and mind wasn't an overarching strategy, it was a local level tactic, with a very specific implementation for a very specific purpose.

The very phrase itself seems to have only appeared in formal letters at the time. The actual concept, the one relevant to COIN work, was being practised on the ground by small SAS teams sent into the Malaysian jungle. Groups of SAS soldiers, Malaysian Police and the occasional regular British add on such as an intelligence officer, normally numbering around 12-14 men total, would go into the jungle and make contact with small villages, often ones that had little contact with the rest of the population.

The intention was to use the villages as patrol bases, from which smaller patrols of men could be sent out into the jungle to hunt for the insurgents, to find their camps and/or their trails, so that they could be engaged and killed. But in order to use the villages as bases and to get the villagers who often hunted in the surrounding jungle to act as guides and informants, the teams first needed to win over the locals. 

Hence, hearts and minds.

Medical aid, veterinary aid, food supplies, even labouring on their small patches of cultivated land. The idea was to prove over time that they were friendly. Once this was achieved the village could either be used as a long term patrol base, or just as a one night stop during a jungle patrol, for rest and to ask the villagers for any intelligence they might have. It was a very small scale affair, carried out by small parties, helping very small, remote villages.

And it was for a very specific purpose, to make it easier for the British forces to find the insurgents hide outs and the trails that they used to move between them and the more populated parts of the country. For these men, the pioneers if you will, hearts and minds was a means to an end. It was one tactic among many for finding the enemy and killing them.

Because at some point the enemy has to be militarily beaten. That seems like it's become a dirty thing to say these days, that the point behind a COIN campaign might actually be to kill people. But it's true. And frankly it's always been true. There is no infinite supply of insurgents. Both the Malaysian and Omani campaigns were ultimately brought to a successful conclusion by defeating the enemy through attrition.

As the insurgents were killed off some of their supporters simply gave up the fight and skulked off into the shadows. Many turned themselves in. In Malaysia defections often led to intelligence on other insurgent hideouts. In Oman the Firqats who fought for the government were made up almost entirely of fighters who had previously been insurgents themselves. And in both campaigns over time the insurgent numbers were gradually dwindled down. That, fundamentally, was how both insurgencies were ended.

Now I accept that this approach has risks. One of the criticisms of the Vietnam campaign was that commanders became obsessed by the body count, as this was what the politicians and press wanted to hear, and upon which promotion prospects could hinge. Part of the problem with the body count issue in this war however was that the intense focus on it meant that deliberate manipulation of figures became common place. General Westmoreland himself became the chief architect of fudging the figures to make them add up the right way.

But the point still stands that at some point the military has to close with and defeat the enemy and hearts and minds is a part of this approach, not the opposite of it. To go back to Oman and the SAS/Firqat units, the intention was that these teams would set up in a small Omani village, ring the place off where possible with barbed wire to stop other people getting in, and then with the help of the local Askaris (police, sort of) they would secure the whole village to use as a base of operations to conduct fighting patrols, patrols that were designed to find and kill the enemy.

Note that the whole village was secured, not just one building. Hearts and minds came into play here with the establishment of clinics and small engineering projects such as well digging as a way to convince the locals that the presence of these government forces was a good thing. Let's not lose sight though of the fact that winning over the locals was essentially just one step on the path to hunting down and killing the Adoo, or enemy. 

It was not about winning support for supports sake, or because functioning schools and markets were a good thing and showed positive progress towards a brighter democratic future etc. It was about winning peoples support because support meant denying food and refuge to the enemy, while offering opportunities to gather intelligence about the enemies movements and a secure position from which to conduct patrolling operations.

Again, to emphasise, hearts and minds went hand in hand with the desire to find and defeat the enemy. The two approaches were not opposites, they were allies.

Does any of the above provide answers? Maybe, maybe not. What's clear is that the previous approach has attracted a lot of criticism and many suspect will fail in the long run. The reputation of the UK armed forces has been badly damaged and now - amongst a climate of cutbacks and transformation - its up to the forces to reassess their approach to future COIN campaigns.

I would simply suggest that given the political and domestic opposition to such campaigns, and given the shrinking size of the armed forces, "more troops" is not going to be a viable answer. Instead I suspect it will take some innovative thinking to draw up a new doctrine that is both acceptable to the public and politicians, and can still deliver the results required.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Changing Face of Warfare?

On Tuesday the 30th April, 1991, the House Armed Services Committee in the United States sat for a hearing about the possibilities of reform in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, the US name for operations against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the liberation of Kuwait earlier that year.

The panel of experts brought in front of them was wide ranging in its expertise. The first to speak was Colonel John Boyd, he of the "Energy Maneuverability Theory" and the OODA Loop (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) fame. Boyd spoke of the need to have good people, followed by good strategy, followed by good equipment. He mentioned two officers in particular, who he called "key officers who have had a major impact on the respective services in the conception and practice of maneuver warfare".

One of these officers was Huba Wass de Czege, who would retire as a Brigadier General and is regarded as one of the founders of the AirLand battle concept, having had a major hand in writing the US Army's field manual 100-5 in 1981. Wass de Czege also set up the Army’s School for Advanced Military Studies. The other was Michael Wyly, who ended his career in the US Marine Corps as a Colonel, having been passed up for further promotion several times.

Throughout his opening speech Boyd referred to both men as innovators and notice that he described both of them as having been involved in the "conception... of maneuver warfare". The conception, of maneuver warfare. This might come as a surprise to some. It certainly did to the final member of the panel to speak, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Donald A. Hicks;
"I would say that General MacArthur would be quite startled to hear that maneuver warfare was invented in 1980, since I was in World War II and remembered doing -- having those same kinds of discussions and, in fact, being involved in some of them."
And that's really the nub of this post; the persistent claims that seem to crop up every few years about how warfare is changing in some revolutionary manner. Hicks himself went on to note the advantages of stealth aircraft, precision guided munitions and night vision equipment, but only in the sense of the advantages it gave the US forces over the enemy (the ability to fight at night for example) and how this made the standard tasks of war easier.

As operations in Afghanistan wind down we're already hearing talk of whether the military is prepared for the next war or whether it's stuck fighting the last war. Some people, indeed a lot of people, seem to be dismissing any talk of returning to conventional forces and pointing to Counter Insurgency (COIN) wars as the future. This is in line with the highly dubious notion of "Fourth Generation Warfare" (4GW), wherein all future battles will involve state vs non-state actors. That this idea was first expressed in 1989 and subsequently found wanting just two years later by the first Persian Gulf War seems to have missed a lot of people.

The theory of 4GW also seems to ignore the fact that state vs non-state conflict had been taking place for a very long time before this. The term most often associated with insurgencies, or at least the tactics of the insurgent, is Guerilla Warfare, a term that has its origins in the Spanish insurgents who fought against French occupation back in the early years of the 19th Century. Thus the concept behind 4GW would actually be over 200 years old and pre-date the period that would later be described as Second Generation Warfare.

From the purely British perspective it's interesting to look at the history of British warfare from the start of the 20th Century to its end. It began with the Boer War (a COIN war), moved to the First World War (a "conventional war", against other state actors), then saw a number of smaller actions spread around the world such as suppressing rebellions in Iraq (COIN war), involved two large dust ups in the middle of the century with the Second World War being followed quite closely by the Korean War (two conventional wars), the later of which was overlapped by an insurgency that became known as the Malayan Emergency (a COIN war), which also continued through the time of the Suez Crisis (a conventional war), and the Jebel Akhdar War (a COIN war), which was followed by the Dhofar Rebellion (COIN war) and the confrontation with Indonesia (effectively a COIN war), themselves followed by 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland (COIN war), which lasted all the way through the time of the Falklands War (Conventional), the 1991 Gulf War (Conventional) and operations against Serbia (Conventional), followed by the Kosovo War (Conventional). Since 2000 the UK has, predictably enough, been involved in a number of conventional campaigns and a number of COIN campaigns. 

It's for this reason that I'm always wary of talk about revolutions in warfare or rebuking senior military figures for being prepared to fight the last war. History would indicate that both conventional and COIN campaigns must be prepared for, something which the Army 2020 plans seem to get absolutely dead spot on with their balance between classic heavy forces and more COIN/peacekeeping orientated forces. Nor does technology really seem to change much at a fundamental level. It merely seems to push warfare in slightly different directions.

In the first world war the combination of the machine gun and artillery gradually pushed the participants towards tactics that favoured more dispersion in their forces and effectively turned the Western Front into a giant siege, until the introduction of the tank restored the element of movement. Even today though, with all the innovations available, ground commanders still think about the age old concerns of things like reconnaissance, firepower, logistics and envelopment. The introduction of airpower was really the last great leap in military technology, and even that has in a sense simply extended the range of reconnaissance and striking power.

So I'm really not convinced by the idea that anything has significantly changed over the last few years, or that the military should be preparing itself for the "next war". We have no idea what that war will be. We can really only generalise and do so to the extent of guessing that it will either be a COIN war or a conventional war. And given our history and the changing nature of the world, either option would seem just as likely as the other right now.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A new site for everyone to look at

Perusing the Internet, I was recently pointed in the direction of Global Defence Technology. GDT produces a free monthly online magazine (as well as occasional one off specials) covering some of the latest developments in, surprise, surprise, global defence technology. 

And I have to say I was quite impressed. The issues load on the webpage almost like a slideshow or powerpoint document. You can click back and forth through the magazine, bring up the root menu easily at any time with one click of a button in the top left corner, and the entire archive of the magazine is also free to view.

Two things that stood out the most for me were the mix of subjects covered and the presentation. Each issue contains a variety of stories from around the world highlighting new technologies or technology issues in the land, sea, air, and cyber domains. I think this provides quite a nice balance to each issue, as normally defence magazines tend to be shifted primarily towards just one element or another, whereas this format allows you to keep abreast of a wide range of subjects.

Presentation wise it includes a mixture of editorials, reports, interviews and videos, all within a very much paper magazine style layout, such as the use of backing photos. I think the reason this stands out is because it's so rare to see such a format online. Normally, like with my humble little blog, you just get text and the odd picture. GDT feels like you're reading a proper magazine, just in your browser, and as a result I think the end product looks very professional.

I think it's worth checking out, so here is the link for you to find the latest issue. If you want to look at the archive there's a button for it on the right hand bar.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

More Cuts?

I wanted to wait for David Cameron's big speech before going with this article, just in case Cameron announced some cunning plan to help cut the deficit. He didn't, which means only one thing.

UK defence is about to take another hit.

If re-elected then the Conservatives need to make significant cuts to the spending of Whitehall departments in order to make their potential budget ends meet. Labour - the only other party likely to win control (and indeed the most likely to win at the minute) - have slightly less drastic plans in store should they win, but even they will have to make some cuts, and you're kidding yourself if you think that defence will be spared in the austerity drive.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Vote Is In

And with that vote, parliament has decided to go to war.

I must admit I've been impressed with the media's coverage of todays vote. It never ceases to amaze how they can take a small British deployment as part of a coalition operation against ISIS/ISIL/IS and turn it into "The Third Iraq War/Iraq War Three", as if the US and its allies were on the verge of storming Baghdad once more. 

The slightly less dramatic sounding contribution set to be made by the UK of a few Tornado jets is still important I think. A friend asked me today if I thought it was really necessary and if the US really cared about the fact that this time "the Brits are coming!"

I suggested to him that there were two main points of why a British contribution is beneficial;

1) Having allies willing to contribute military force adds legitimacy to the American operations. When US citizens open their newspapers and see that Britain (amongst others) is pitching in with military hardware then it adds to the sense among the public that this is a good thing, that America's leaders are taking the right action. 

In this regard the assistance offered by Belgium may actually be the most positive, as neutral audiences will tend to view Belgium as being a peaceful country that is disassociated from prior American adventures; "If Belgium is willing to intervene then it must be the right thing to do, right?"

2) America does not have an infinite supply of assets to share around. It may have a very large armed forces, but it also has a host of global commitments, on top of the standard rest and refitting cycles common to modern, competently managed military forces.

While it may not seem like much for a variety of countries to pitch in 6 aircraft here and 7 aircraft there, it soon all begins to add up. The more aircraft available, the more fixed targets that can be hit on any given night if required, or the more aircraft that can be made available for short notice tasking to hit targets identified by ground forces.

Certainly our contribution to this campaign will be modest, but modest is I think a long way from irrelevant.