Saturday, September 30, 2006

Useless Competitiveness Surveys

The RBC's James Wimberley posts on one of those wonderful "competitiveness surveys" rightwing people like. Apparently the US has fallen from 1st to 6th, which would be important if it meant anything. Wimberley did a more formal and scientific version of this old post of mine, in which I plotted GDP growth rates and rankings for OECD countries and concluded that it was little better than a random walk. I did that one to back up some complaints of mine about methodology. He did the sums, though, and arrived at a negative correlation of -0.2 - that is to say, falling competitiveness on these things is a signal of faster economic growth.

The important message, though, is not just that they get it wrong. It's about the entire project. This is not science, and it ain't economics. If you were doing science, you'd want different inputs - for example, you'd want the actual growth numbers, not assessments of the policy - and you certainly wouldn't proceed without defining "competitiveness". In fact, it's an exercise in what Richard Feynman called cargo cult science. It looks like science, but it's not the real thing, and that's why the planes don't land.

What it is very much like is the Labour Party's version of evidence-based policy. It's not about deciding what to do on the basis of evidence, it's about using statistics to coerce underlings into doing what the elite thinks they should, or in this case, to promote policies it likes.

John Reid: the most dangerous man in Britain

This is the full text of John Reid's speech to the Labour Party Conference. In it, Reid states unequivocally that he does not believe that the State should be subject to law.
And let's be clear. It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people. It's wrong. Full stop. No ifs. No buts. It's just plain wrong.
This appears to me to mean that, once the executive decides you are a suspected terrorist, you become an unperson and have no recourse against it. Let's be clear in our turn. Far more important than democracy itself is the restriction of power. This is the central insight of all civilised polities. It is a principle that is besieged from every quarter, but specifically among the states that partake of the original.

How could it happen that Britain, the United States, and some Commonwealth countries - the states that share the great constitutional tradition of 1215 - have become the world leaders in returning to government by whim? It's telling that there is no good way to express this particular feature of the last few years in English. German has the fine word Willkür, which connotes both whim but also a sort of contemptuous wielding of power, Willkürherrschaft. And that's what the combination of Blair's aspiration for a "command premiership" that would be "Bonapartist" rather than "feudal" with the war and the aggrandisement of the security bureaucrats has delivered. "Despotic government" was a term used by British imperial civil servants to differentiate those colonies that simply had a governor from those who had "representative government", with an assembly of some sort, or "responsible government" where the government answered to it. But they expected that the governor would obey the law.

In fact, there is a better description for Reid. The word tyranny originally implied the usurpation of legitimate power. By that definition, Reid is a practising tyrant. This graph scares the shit out of me.

Connectivity as currency, again

Celtel terminates its roaming charges between East African markets. Now, SMS credit transfer is a currency acceptable across East Africa. How long before this is recognised? How long before more operators start interworking? GSM airtime - the African single currency. You heard it here first.

This is cool. Very cool

Apparently an offshoot of SETI is getting tired of waiting - they want to send, not receive. Quite a lot of their pals disagree. The result is a hell of a thread. Curiously, it's the Russians who are keenest on howling into the void to see if anyone howls back. The questions are spectacular, not least what to say. (Geek moment: TCP connection request?)

Three far better things to read than Diddy Dave

So Dave from PR's got a vlog, then. Well, that's only realistically going to be crap, isn't it? It almost amounts to a definition of blogging that, if you issue a press release to the nationals before you start, that's not it.

May I recommend, instead, one of many fine British blogs? Daniel "Dsquared" Davies on the disease of Crap Government IT, managerialism, and statis (it's the new change). The Ministry on John Reid, Tony Blair and the word "radical". Forceful and Moderate on the desperately shit nature of jobcentres - why do they have computers in them that are guaranteed not to have access to the majority of job adverts, and why should you be forced to use them?

Any one of these is certain to beat Dave's efforts, and might even make you think. And if that happens to you, you'll just have to read Chris Dillow.

User 64

Everyone is talking about this New Statesman story in which so-and-so visits Westminster Council's CCTV surveillance control centre, which rather wonderfully turns out to be situated in the bowels of the dire Trocadero on Wardour Street. Apparently we have 20 per cent of world CCTV capability in Britain. But it was this response at Spyblog that inspired me. In comments, one Gareth Preston writes that:
They say that the CCTV systems in the UK are set up to tackle crime. So why do so many Male CCTV operators spend their "working hours" zooming in on female members of the public?

Hardly surprising, after all. But this reminded me of an incident in the 1990s, in the first fast upcurl of the surveillance boom, when a major British airport installed a spanking new CCTV network. As is common in many IT systems, the sysadmin had the ability to assign differential privileges to user accounts, so-say-WH Smith on the concourse could access just the camera pointing at the shiny-lettering thrillers, but a "superuser" like, say, the police or ATC could not only watch the feed of any camera on the airport, and not only control the Pan-Tilt-Zoom ones, but also take over control of any PTZ cam from whoever else was using it.

A few weeks in, and someone noticed that an extra, unauthorised user account existed on the system, User No.64. Unsurprisingly, whoever had created it had provisioned it with superuser status. Consternation. Meetings. Terrorists? (This was around about the time the IRA blew up Manchester city centre, doing millions of pounds' worth of improvements.) It was decided not to blow the gaff, but to monitor User 64's activity closely.

It was then discovered that the User spent his time zooming in on women's backsides, and saving the images on tape. In fact he/she/it - well, it was only realistically going to be a he - appeared to be collecting them. Disgrace followed.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Firedump: Update

It's time to shake up the embers of Operation Firedump, our effort to monitor compliance with the UNSC asset freeze list on the Viktor Bout companies.

Since December, 2005, the original list of aircraft shows a few changes.

UN-76497, Ilyushin 76-D. Serial number 43402039. This is probably the aircraft referred to in the UN list with MoldTransavia, and is now with GST Aero, repeatedly referred to in UNSC Expert Panel reports. It was also involved in the events detailed here. The most recent photo is here.


EL-AHO, Ilyushin 18D. Serial number 183006205.

EL-ASC, Antonov 12BP. Serial number 3340909.
EL-ASJ, Antonov 12BP. Serial number 402112 (doubtful)
EL-AHT, Antonov 26A. Serial number 6004 (doubtful) Now believed destroyed in accident, 12/08/2000, Tshwana, Botswana
EL-ALC, Antonov 26A. Serial number 87307104.
EL-ALT, Antonov 26A. Serial number 17311805.

No recent photos available.


UN-42428, Yakovlev 42D. Serial number 45204223046.
(Leased to Sudan Airways, believed operating to Iraq)
Returned to Irbis, then leased to SCAT of Shymkent, KZ in March, 2006. Most recent photo here.
UN-75002, Ilyushin 18D. Serial number 185008603. Recent photo here.
UN-75003, Ilyushin 18D. Serial number 184006903. Recent photo here.
UN-75004, Ilyushin 18D. Serial number 186009202. Transferred to new company, Mega Air Lines, Atyrau, Kazakhstan 29/07/06. Last photo here.
UN-75005, Ilyushin 18D. Serial number 187010204. Transferred to Mega AL. Last photo here.
UN-26582, Antonov 26B. Serial number 47313504. No photo since 2002.
(Leased to Ariana Afghan Airlines) Has been on lease to Royal Air Cargo, reseller of British Gulf International Airlines' service. Still with Ariana.


3C-KKO, Antonov 12BP. Serial number 1901706 (No photos available)


C5-GNM, Ilyushin 62M. Serial number 3036142. Last photo here.


3C-QRF, BAC-111. Serial number 61. (Operated for SAGT, owned Jetline International) Scrapped at Bucharest-Baneasa!


UN-B2701, Boeing 727. Serial number 22045. Photographed at Budapest, 12/06/2006. Transferred to Mega AL
UN-B2707, Boeing 727F. Serial number 21861. Believed transferred to private owner in UAE, registration A6-RSA. Last photo here.
UN-B2703, Boeing 727. Serial number 22046. Unknown. This aircraft location uncertain. B727 s/n 21584, same registration, is stored at Jakarta.

So, a new company in Kazakhstan has appeared. Mega Airlines, ICAO code MGK, is thought to be based at Atyrau in Kazakhstan, with two ex-Irbis Ilyushin 18s, UN-75004 and UN-75005, and the Boeing 727, UN-B2701. They seem to appear in Hungary strangely often. 3C-QRF, though, is on the firedump for good.

Ending an army

Over at Slugger, they are discussing an alleged proposal from the UDA that the government give it £1 billion to end its campaign of violence and convert itself into a legal organisation. At one level, you'd be forgiven for spitting coffee on your keyboard at such shameless blackmail. But there is a valid point here. What do you do with a private army when its time has passed?

There are a couple of historical courses. One of them is to integrate it into the regular armed forces of the state. This has been pursued by among others Finland, France, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the Republic of Ireland itself. The degrees of success vary widely. De Gaulle took the decision to disband the Resistance and recruit its members into the regular French army in August, 1944, thus avoiding the possibility of a private army continuing to exist after the war and also putting an anchor out to windward against any other generals wanting to be king. He was probably also concerned that a Resistance persisting into the postwar would be essentially communist, just like it had been during the war. However, having lost power, he found that his future political career couldn't do without the Service d'Action Civique private intelligence service/goon squad.

Finland chose between two rival rebel armies, one nationalist and one communist, had a brief civil war, and then had some trouble integrating the remaining communists into the new army, not to mention more trouble between the German-trained Jäger and the rest, but eventually managed it. South Africa decided to integrate the ANC's bush fighters into the old SADF as a new National Defence Force, which worked out at least in the sense that there was no trouble. (It worked out far less well in terms of force readiness, and released a troublesome population of mercenaries onto the market, though.)

Zimbabwe had one of the worst experiences of this kind. The ex-Rhodesian army, ZANU-PF and ZANLA were all meant to be merged into one British-trained army. General Rupert Smith describes what happened after that in The Utility of Force, which I promise I'll get round to reviewing. The British advisers suggested that the new force should standardise on the Rhodesians' equipment, as this would mean ammunition would have to come from the central arsenal, and therefore any violence between factions could be shut off by denying it bullets. The Rhodesians refused to hand their arms to their ex-enemies, and so the force was built up with the Soviet-type weapons the guerrillas handed in - for which the ammunition was widely available on the black market, and which the parties held illegal stocks of. This meant that the ZANU was able to form another brigade (the 5th) outside the terms of the agreement, with which it proceeded to crush the supporters of ZANLA.

Eire, having had its civil war, suffered problems with the heirs of the contending parties (the Army and the Citizen Force) for years, although it didn't amount to a serious threat to the peace. So, it can work, but a) it's difficult and b) the requirements are complicated. In Northern Ireland, the reaction of the Republicans to a proposal to put more UDA men into the army is something we can all do without. (Not to mention that the Royal Irish Regiment is being reduced in strength.)

Another option is to demobilise it. This requires the consent of the demobilised just as much as integration, and they may have security and/or identity concerns that call for some sort of successor organisation. It also places a challenge on society to reintegrate them, not least to create jobs. A notable example where this was done, proved difficult, and eventually succeeded is Israel.

There's also the option of permitting the organisation to live on in different form. The UDA seems to be aiming for a mixture of 2 and 3, turning itself into some sort of non-armed political entity and paying off its soldiers. This one doesn't have a very good record - disarmed freikorps and einwohnerwehren were the first organisational underpinning of the Nazi party, and rearmed pretty damn quick whenever it was asked of them. And the Kärntner Heimatdienst in Austria has been a nuisance ever since its creation.

Sometimes, though, there are only the options people let you have.

Axe in Basra

Defenstech's David Axe is going back to Iraq, this time to the British sector. Should be interesting.

George Monbiot is Wrong

The Guardian carried a large excerpt from George Monbiot's coming book this week in which he launched a formidable attack on aeroplanes, on the grounds that they are indefensible in terms of climate change. I find it hard to work out his logic. For a start, if you get the data, you'll find that, when you interpolate the emissions from aviation fuel uplifted from the UK, it makes up 5.5 per cent of the UK's CO2 emissions. (Comparison - electricity generation is 30 or so, road transport a quarter)

Now, if you accept his premise that it's even worse than the climatologists say, you would think that we need immediate and massive cuts in CO2 emissions. But even if aviation were abolished tomorrow, we'd still have 94.5 per cent of the way to go. You can't get around the big systems - only changing them can deliver, and only changing them can deliver quickly. But it's worse than that: as he points out, nothing is more difficult in this sense than replacing aviation fuel. Plug-in hybrid deployment, wind, solar, marine, biomass and perhaps nuclear power, insulation and heat-pumps can fix all the other sectors, could even get to zero (the chemical industry might in the long run go negative). A lot of this is mature technology. A lot of it would probably be economically beneficial, rather than a sacrifice.

So why would you go for the hardest problem first, especially when it only represents 5 per cent of the problem?

He doesn't help his case by talking nonsense, either. Quote: "As far as aircraft engines are concerned, major new efficiencies in the next 20 years are a pipedream." Well, not really. Propfans exist, and reduce the fuel burn by some 30 per cent, independently of changes to aerodynamic design (10 per cent in the near term) and efficiencies in air traffic control (up to 12 per cent). This is pretty cool, too, as is this.

Chinese wind power!

I commented a while ago on a post at Worldchanging that we hadn't seen anything yet, and wait until the Chinese started making 5MW wind turbines. Well, look what's happened. Vestas starts up a joint venture factory, Repower managing another, capacity growth running at 66 per cent annually. Crystal ball team - whoops - analyst house predicts that the government target of 30GW installed capacity by 2020 will be bust by over 90 per cent - 54 being more like it.

Maybe they'll soon be building these. In other news, Ireland gets a big electricity storage system using flow batteries to stockpile wind-generated power. It's not Chinese, but it's cool.


Now here's a party proposal I can get behind. Lib Dems want to introduce a Great Repeal Act, which would consist of a single sweeping revocation of a whole catalogue of liberticidal, stupid and expensive Blairite nonsense. Details are here.

1. Restrictions on protests in Parliament Square
Sections 132 to 138; Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005

The police can now impose any restrictions they think fit on demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament Square. Citizens of this country should not have to ask for the right to protest outside the Parliament that they elect.

2. Identity Cards
Identity Cards Act 2006

Identity cards are unworkable, expensive and illiberal. Labour is already spending £95,000 a day on developing the project but it will not stop terrorism, crime, illegal immigration or benefit fraud.

3. Extradition to the US
Part 2, Extradition Act 2003

This act makes it much easier for the US to extradite people from the UK than it is for the UK to extradite people from the US. Not only is the treaty unbalanced, but it means that British citizens can extradited without any evidence being provided.

4. Conditions on public assemblies
Section 57, Clause 123, Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003

Labour has given the police the power to impose conditions on any protest or gathering even if just two people attend. Until 2003, these restrictions could only be imposed on larger gatherings, of 20 people or more. There is no reason to curtail the right to protest in this way.

5. Criminalising trespass
Sections 128 to 131, Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005

Thanks to this part of the act, a Home Secretary can make trespass a criminal offence on any land where they say it is in the interests of national security. This is defined very broadly however - and there is no need for them to justify their decision. If there is a need for restrictions like this they should be agreed democratically.

6. Control orders
Section 1, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005

These allow restrictions, potentially going as far as house arrest, to be imposed on the mere basis of 'reasonable suspicion'. They can be made for up to 12 months and renewed indefinitely. The Home Secretary can also decide to opt-out from the European Convention on Human Rights and issue control orders that amount to detention without trial. Liberal Democrats would repeal the law and start again: the Home Secretary should not be allowed to opt out of our human rights agreements, or impose control orders outside the judicial system.

7. DNA retention
Sections 78-84, Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001
Sections 9-10, Criminal Justice Act 2003

The UK has the largest DNA database in the world, but many of those stored on the system have never been charged with, let alone convcited of, a crime. Thousands of innocent children are on the database - because the police have the power to take DNA when they arrest someone and then keep it permanently, even if the person turns out to have done nothing wrong. Ethnic minorities make up 8% of the UK population but 24% od the database. We understand the case for keeping DNA of the convicted, but innocent people's DNA should not be kept indefinitely.

8. Public interest defence for whistleblowing
Official Secrets Act 1989

It is important that national security is protected, but sometimes it will be the case that it is in the public interest that malpractice or illegal activity is exposed. The Official Secrets Act includes no public interest defence, however - so whistleblowers remain unprotected, even if their action is very much in the public interest. Part of the reason for this was a series of high-profile embarrassments for the Conservative government of the time; ministers' embarrassment should not be allowed to overrule the public good.

9. Right to silence
Sections 34-39, Public Order Act 1994 - England and Wales

It was a long-established principle of a fair trial that defendants had the right not to be forced to incriminate themselves. In 1994, however, the Conservatives allowed juries to draw adverse inferences from a defendant's silence. This represented a major attack on the idea of "innocent until proven guilty."

10. Hearsay evidence
Sections 114-136, Criminal Justice Act 2003

Protections against the use of hearsay evidence were in place to ensure that a trial was decided on the facts of the case. Hearsay evidence cannot in practice be cross-examined in court, which removes a vital safeguard for the accused. Labour, in 2003, widened the circumstances in which it could be used. We would repeal these changes and return to focussing on securing fair trials and reliable convictions.

That's the top 10. But there is so much more..

Geographies of mercenarism

That MR post also raises an interesting point of language. Out of 50,000 acknowledged private security personnel in Iraq, their trade group, the PSCAI (for Private Security Companies' Association in Iraq, a nice echo of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq or SCIRI) describes them as follows: 3,000+ Americans, 15,000+ third-country nationals (Colombians, etc), 25,000+ Iraqis, and 7,000+ "ex-pats". These latter are defined as being British and South African.

So as well as the old saw about "I am a freedom fighter, you are a guerrilla, he is a terrorist", we now have "I am an expatriate, you are an American, he is a third-country national, and they are Iraqis." TCN is a US defence/diplomatic/spook term from the Vietnam era meaning a citizen of an allied nation, but it's curious that the British are explicitly excluded - and even odder that South Africans, who are neutral, are lumped in with the British.

Mind you, expat probably is a nationality in a sense - the phrase seems to be used only by the Commonwealth, not by Americans, there being a great difference between a British ex-pat and an American expatriate. Attributes: declassé, taste for cold beer, profession usually something related to large construction projects, aviation or shipping, or the military, blokish, British, Australian, New Zealand or South African.

All the Pakistan that's fit to print

Every blog and its cat has been discussing the tale that Richard Armitage supposedly threatened to bomb Pakistan back into the stone age, but no-one seems to have mentioned a very obvious fact about this: Pakistan has an estimated 20-60 nuclear warheads deliverable by various means.

Now, you don't go round threatening to bomb nuclear powers. Ask North Korea. Not that Pakistan has a credible minimum deterrent capability against the continental US, but there are plenty of things they could have bombed. There's the madman option, of course: threaten to attack India or China and start a nuclear war. Call it the Perfect Anarchist's defence, as in the character in Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent who avoids arrest by perpetually going about wired as a suicide-bomber. But there are less crazy and more direct targets - Gulf oil infrastructure being exhibit A, Diego Garcia exhibit B, the US 5th Fleet exhibit C. And the dogs in the street know that a US air campaign against Pakistan would almost certainly have brought about that country's talibanisation - Musharraf was struggling then to keep the ISI under control, not to mention fellow generals from scheming with his old enemies and Baluch rebels.

So, either the story is nonsense, or there are some truly crazy bastards in charge. This possibility can no longer be ruled out, of course, but Armitage never struck me as a reckless goon. His handling of the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis a year later was solidly realist and realistic, and eventually crowned by success. Had he actually issued such a deranged threat, would he have got a fair hearing in Islamabad?

On the other hand, we now have the agreement between the Pakistani government and the Waziri tribes, under which the old, old arrangement by which central authority keeps out of the hills in exchange for help defending the border is restored, not to mention Major-General Shaukat Sultan's telling gaffe when he suggested that OBL himself might be left alone if he agreed to behave. Meanwhile, Musharraf countermarched and complained that the Afghans weren't doing enought to keep jihadis out of Pakistan. I wonder if there is a word for chutzpah in Urdu?

The reason for this is that he's faced with two irreconcilable positions - the combination of considerable popular support for the Taliban on the frontier and the persistent institutional links between the ISI and al-Qa'ida, coupled with the army's historical concern for state unity under upper-class Punjabi leadership, and the pressure from the US and India, not to mention the coup dread, and the economic need for outside capital to employ the growing population. He's trying to cover them by constant manoeuvring, which can be done for short periods of time. John Major's premiership was a long exercise in the same practice. But violence wasn't on the cards.

One has to wonder what might blow the gaff, and it would probably be something that forced Musharraf to play to both sides at once. On that note, we turn to the Mountain Runner's fascinating post about mercenary activity inside Pakistan. As he notes, Bush has said he would send troops into Pakistan if necessary (actually, they wouldn't be the first ones - a battalion of the 101st Airborne spent the winter of 2001-2002 guarding the airfield at Jacobabad, and the RAF moved into Karachi Airport during the same period). But there are reports of hired guns turning up there, and not just guarding truck convoys.

Rather, at least some of them are taking part in offensive operations, as the muscle for CIA case officers. Now, the possible consequences should be clear enough. Depending on what happens, this could hit any combination of jihad, Pakistani nationalism, Baluch/Wazir regionalism, local self-interest, tribal honour and respect and quite easily put the Pakistani government in a position where it is obliged to kick out the Americans for the Islamist side and also attack Wazir independence.

Just to add spice to it, the main supply route for the NATO forces in southwest Afghanistan is on the line Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi. We could end up in a situation where we are doing our damndest to persuade the Baluchs to shoot at jihadis and the Pakistani army whilst the jihadis and the Pakistani army are trying to make them shoot at us!

Update, 13/09/07: The quote from Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan has been discredited, as one of the stories faked by Alexis Debat.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Ah, those fine Blairite institutions. South Maidstone is apparently to be blessed with a school where some rich person gets 51 per cent of the votes for 20 per cent of the money, but something has gone terribly wrong. Specifically, the Tory-run Kent county council is trying to do something unfashionable.

According to our sources, Kent is selling something called "Senacre". It is meant to get £18 million from this. Out of this, the council is meant to pay the traditional 80 per cent share that the public put into the new academy. Kent is concerned, though, that they may not get more than £16 million - but surely, property values only ever go up? Heavens forfend! - but there's worse.

Kent, we hear, intends to use £2m of the "capital receipt" from "Senacre" to provide facilities for children with special needs and a workshop for vocational trainees. But central government considers this to be "backtracking". According to DFES, "SEN (special educational needs - tyr) and Vocational is not a priority in the Academies context." Academies will have better exam results, because chavs and mongs will be eliminated. It's nice to see it put so clearly.

It gets worse. One might recall that the whole point of this policy was that the god-like private sector would bring expertise and cash in. But in this case, the Sponsor doesn't seem to be quite the man he said he was. A certain DFES minister is trying to set up "an acceptable mix of sponsorship" with £1 million - so half the figure these folk are meant to find according to the law of the land - and another mill, to come out of Kent's capital receipts. To put it another way - south-eastern suburban churchgoers' status needs will be subsidised by force from the disabled and the working class.

Kentish readers, or readers of Kent, are requested to identify what Senacre is. (Update: it's a well-respected special school.)

Thax loss

My thoughts on the Thai coup, free signup required. Which will explain the title.

Interesting to see the classic model coup in action again. Turkey in 1997 had the so-called "virtual coup", when the army didn't actually leave barracks but did cause the government to fall by indicating its displeasure. But this was your Bolivian original, complete with tanks parked at key road junctions.

Still, there's a lot of virtuality to such a coup. What function do the tanks serve? Nobody apparently expected any resistance from the army, and the townspeople spent most of the spring and summer demonstrating against Thaksin. This blogger was taken "to the tanks" by a cabbie. Clearly, they mostly serve to demonstrate that this here is your genuine putsch, no random mob violence.

Speaking of which, autumn's here and the time is right for fighting in the streets, boys. I'd give this a mark of about 4 out of 10 for revolutionary violence - after all, they successfully identified the TV station and stormed it, having comprehensively terrorised the police. But, being Hungarian irredentist fascists in 2006, they didn't have enough clue to broadcast their own message rather than just take the TV off the air.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

In their own world

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know most of the stuff in this Washington Post story, but it's good to have it all in a handy quick-reference guide.

A bad sign

Most things in this report are terrible, but I'm especially worried by this..
General David Richards, the British general who recently assumed command of Nato forces in Afghanistan, had expressed his reservations about this strategy and was expected to withdraw them when he took over at the end of July. But so far this has not happened. A senior MoD official insisted: “Our presence in these places means the Taliban cannot take over the towns and also dissipates their presence elsewhere in Helmand.”

Although he argued that Sangin was of strategic importance as the entrance to Baghran valley, where Taliban commanders are thought to be, he conceded it was harder to make a case for Nawzad and Musa Qala. “But to withdraw would be exploited by the Taliban.”
I've been increasingly surprised that, after all the losses and repeated announcements that these places were going to be abandoned, soldiers keep getting killed there. That last sentence isn't good news.

Noseweek has News

Remember the strange case of Khalid Rashid?

South African muckrakers Noseweek have much more news on it.

Too little, too late

You may remember this story from March on how the British-designed VAAC control system for the JSF project was being used by the Americans without any apparent return. Well, Sir Digby Jones, the outgoing director of the CBI, has weighed in.

"One of the most shocking and worrying aspects of loss of independence has been a refusal to stand up to the United States in so many areas," he will argue in a speech called "I want my country back".

Sir Digby will say he is not talking about Iran, Afghanistan or Lebanon, but about areas where "our country could have and should have stood up and fought a protectionist, bullying America - in the fields of trade, investment and the rule of law".

The former CBI director-general will criticise the government for standing by while the US financial watchdog, the Securities and exchange commission, imposed onerous and expensive disclosure conditions on UK companies, and when the US authorities demanded the extradition of British subjects without sufficient evidence to bring them to trial.

"We stand meekly by whilst America takes our intellectual property in military hardware, uses it and refuses to hand it back.."
He goes on to bash the Americans over airline route access and ownership (a traditional bitch, this - which Labour MP was it who said "We are not fighting the war for Pan-American Airways" back in the 1940s?) before rounding off the evening with some bash directed at the EU. So far so routine on that score. But why am I not pleased? Because he says this in his first speech after leaving the CBI, i.e. exactly when he represents no-one but himself. As usual, most things that matter in British politics are considered off-limits for public discussion.

Brainfuck City

Remind me not to go back to Dubai if at all possible. It's what happens when you leave the keys where the postmodernists can get at them, a formless mass of rapid urbanisation running along the coast from the border with Sharjah to beyond the docks at Jebel Ali. "Sprawl" doesn't describe it, because sprawl implies that there is a city centre out of which suburbs are expanding. Here, the whole thing is centre, or rather multiple artificial centres, with infill.

Construction rages everywhere. You can buy off-plan, without money up front, borrowing in any currency you can imagine, with a guarantee that you won't have to make payments until you move in. You're not expected to move in, but rather to sell at a profit before the thing is even built. John Kenneth Galbraith remarked in The Great Crash that one of the most impressive features of capitalism is the ingenuity with which it relieves the speculator of all the burdens of ownership except the capital gain. This kind of baroque finance is usually the mark of a wild speculative boom, and as if more proof was needed, the boom is now too big to fit Dubai itself. The biggest developer, Emaar, is currently advertising "the Portuguese lifestyle at Canyon Views" - Canyon Views, you discover only if you read the small print, is actually located near Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

And what buildings. The only common denominator is size, the huger the better. But strangely, as huge as they may be, they rarely if ever evoke the dignity and awe of the monumental. The rampant skyscraper-building somehow doesn't create the gut excitement of the City of London or the skyline of New York, just noise. See our shopping mall, six times the size of Brent Cross, its steel frame concealed under faux-adobe lumps and Andalusian detailing, as a vast dark glass office tower hurtles past..but where you might expect a three-story Corbusier pilotis, are a set of sand-coloured Doric columns, flanking the entrance to a white marble lobby the size of an airfield, decorated in the taste of Saddam Hussein and airconditioned to the approximate temperature of Dick Cheney's heart...while illuminated banners for another shopping mall beseech you to "Visit China! See Andalusia! Travel to Persia!" and a vast likeness of the late Ruler, Sheikh Zayed al-Maktoum, looms from out of a UAE flag on a giant billboard, chops set in a cruelly fatherly grin. He's perched on another neoclassical pillar, too, although Roman civilisation never extended here. Presumably some signification of imperial might attaches to it. As the sun sinks in to the soupy air, the whole semiologist's smorgasbord is spotlit from below with Yves Klein blue..

Travel to Persia, indeed. It's only a day's sail on a ferry or half an hour's flying time away. Huge stacks of shipping containers marked IRISL for Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines await forwarding at the docks. Iranian dance music is a current fashion (it sounds like 90s Italian house with an odd Russian touch of nationalist/football chant and some folk influences), but presumably official discourse would rather not call attention to a profitable but despised neighbour. That is, in fact, a motif for the whole place. The monopoly telecoms operator blocks more URLs than China, but goes to particular lengths to discourage VoIP usage for crude financial reasons. But, with effort and clue, most sites are reachable; when YouTube was banned recently, the censors somehow forgot to bar its www2 and www3 mirror servers. Tor and various VPN solutions are widely used, and the locations of uncensored WLANs circulate.

As with all tyrannies, what they want you to do is forget. Forget that the censorship is obvious and widely circumvented, that Iran is to the north and Saudi Arabia the west, that 90 per cent of the population are not citizens of the UAE and are subject to deportation at any moment, for example if their employers wish it. Forget that most of those are desperately poor subcontinental building workers, dependent on the boom's continuation. Forget that booms do not continue. Forget what happens if they don't want to leave.

Forget you're even in Dubai. This is a desert with daytime temperatures of 40 degrees C, where at this time of year the minimum temperature is in the high thirties. Everything must always be airconditioned, especially as it's usually built of glass curtain walling. Water is desalinated, or to put it another way, produced from oil, but every new building has lawns and palm trees. Golf courses are big business. Next door in Sharjah, 10 kilometres away, water is in short supply and delivered by tanker. At nine o'clock at night, you can be stuck in a traffic jam of water trucks going West, away from the border, to supply the builders with water to mix their concrete. No public transport worth speaking of exists.

The best meal, in fact the only local meal, I had was in a club for hardhat British ex-pats, the sort of place you go for the all-day breakfast, satellite football and Guinness. Elsewhere it's all global gunk, a bit of Indian, a bit of Thai, a bit of sushi. Although you can eat whilst observed by a four-storey and historically inaccurate statue of Buddha, and probably witness the crucifixion of a gorilla if you're willing to spend a little cash and make the effort, it's only realistically going to be terrible.

The key to the local economy isn't oil, it's everyone else's oil. Everything you see has been built since the Jebel Ali container terminal and the tanker-repairing yards opened in 1976. More recently they built another container terminal, and then the giant airport.

Viktor Bout's last-known address, by the way, was Villa 5, Cornish Road, Coral Compound, Sharjah. I didn't go.

Avient and their new market

Several people have sent me this story from the Times (a newspaper that seems to be improving at the moment, despite being a Murdoch property). It deals with a British-owned airline, Avient, and its extremely dodgy activities in the DR Congo. As well as shifting arms in and diamonds out, Avient went so far as to replicate the old Air America trick from the Laotian war of dropping improvised napalm bombs on their clients' enemies. Read the whole thing.

Back then, they would mix 100-octane petrol with washing powder, which apparently thickened it, then lash the drums to a pallet with a phosphorus grenade or two. The pins were attached to the plane by a cord of suitable length so they would be triggered when the pallet was rolled out of the rear cargo door, but not too soon..

It's not just the DRC, though, where you might meet them. Concern is rapidly rising that the Sudanese government may be on the point of launching a final, genocidal sweep through Darfur, once it succeeds in chucking out the UN and African Union force. A tactic that has been frequent there is the use of Antonov cargo planes, usually An12 or An24/26, as improvised bombers to terrorise people out of their villages and onto the roads.

As well as their own air force, the regime in Khartoum has been a regular customer of our old friend Viktor Bout. "Airwest", which shares an ICAO code with East/West Cargo and is probably the same thing, is officially a Sudanese firm (although it is based in the UAE). Several Il-76 aircraft have crashed in various parts of the Sudan operating for this firm, one of which turned out to be an Aerocom plane using a Jet Line International callsign. Sudan Airways is the official lessor of Irbis's Yak-42, UN-42428, which I have documented operating to Iraq from Dubai in Sudanese colours.

Now consider this. At 2049 local time on the 9th of September - a few hours before I arrived down the road in Dubai - Avient flight no. SMJ 874 left Sharjah for Khartoum. I wonder what was its cargo? The schedules between the UAE and Iraq and Afghanistan these days show no more Irbis operations, but plenty of British Gulf International Airlines...who were, after all, the start of this story, back in the winter of 2003. I even saw one of their An-12s at Dubai Airport, waiting for my flight to the UK. Too far to identify the registration, but the tail colours were clearly visible.

(Update: As Chris points out in comments, there is a good thread on PPRuNe about this, here.)

Nimrod Update

Just a quick update on this one. The Nimrod MR-2 lost with its entire crew over Afghanistan was XV230, the first one to be delivered to the RAF in October, 1969. She was also the first to get the colour display version of the Thomson Searchwater 2000 radar, which is a detail. What is less of a detail is that she was modified in June-July this year under something called Project Broadsword.

This involved the installation, under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR), of a new and highly capable surveillance camera system permitting live images to be transmitted from the aircraft to ground commanders. It is surely no coincidence that this work was undertaken shortly after the deployment to Afghanistan.

In other news, although the government has been keen to say it was "at 30,000 feet" when whatever happened, happened, it's worth pointing out that the ground is pretty high there. There are places in Afghanistan where, if it was at 30,000 feet of altitude above sea level, it would have been more like 15,000 feet of height above ground level. And that is the relevant measurement if you have a surface-to-air missile problem.

In this case, as you can see in this image from Google Earth (229KB .jpg), the crash site 25 miles WNW of Kandahar is at about 3600 feet above sea level. Rumours speak of a fire on the aircraft after it completed air-to-air refuelling at high altitude somewhere further west. In this case, the aircraft would have been descending to a diversion into Kandahar.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A case study in managerialism

The Grauniad yesterday interviewed David Nicholson, who's just been appointed chief executive of the NHS. The text is illuminating in the extreme, especially in terms of managerialism and technocracy.

David Nicholson, the new chief executive of the NHS in England, took up the reins of office last week and set about dispelling the notion that he might provide the service with a period of consolidation and calm.
Of course not. Change is good in and of itself, because things are different now, and only the managers know what to do about it. History is irrelevant.

When his appointment was announced seven weeks ago, there was a huge sense of relief among managers and clinicians that the job had gone to a person steeped in NHS values. People seemed to think that he was somehow less threatening than the two American managers on the final shortlist, who might have been expected to further commercialise healthcare delivery.

But, in his first interview as chief executive, he has told Society Guardian that it is his NHS pedigree that has made him determined to push through reforms even faster than before. He thinks that up to 60 hospital trusts may need help to survive the pressures of change, as they lose work to primary care services operating in the community - and to specialist tertiary hospitals where the harder cases will be treated. In some cases they may have to be taken over by stronger neighbours with the management muscle to carry through the necessary changes.

Management muscle=people who agree with me and are willing to help coerce others into accepting my ideas.

And NHS trusts in England, both weak and strong, will have to come to terms with a reconfiguration of key services that will reduce the number of hospitals offering a full A&E department, paediatrics and maternity services.

These are three of the hospital services that are most cherished by their local communities. Up and down the land, the NHS will have to handle the job of reorganising them with extreme sensitivity if it is not to spark local revolts that could have huge political implications in the runup to the next general election.

The only really satisfying form of change is that change that affects the allocation of resources. This is because only adding or subtracting power can really affect other managers' constituencies. It's also because the essential currency of managerialism is itself the power to reallocate resources. Resistance to this is of course coded as resistance to inevitable change, which attracts the opprobrium of the whole elite.

Nicholson has been with the NHS for 29 years. He joined as a graduate trainee in the same year he joined the Communist party, which he then saw as the best vehicle to take forward his passionate support for the anti-apartheid struggle. He says he was not a Eurocommunist: he was among the Tankies who did not see an ideological need to distance themselves from Moscow. During the interview, the working-class lad who has reached the top pokes fun at himself by asking how much of this early baggage needs to appear on the civil service security vetting form that is sitting on his desk awaiting his attention. Perhaps former Communist John Reid, Patricia Hewitt's predecessor as health secretary, might be in the best position to advise?

Well, at least he's honest about it. More importantly, why should the head of the NHS have to declare his past political affiliations to the secret services? It's not as if he was going to be trusted with nuclear weapons or the names of informants within Al-Qa'ida. In fact, the most secret documents he will handle will be those subject to commercial confidentiality. These must be secret, of course, to enhance the power of the managers.

Nicholson drifted away from the Communist party and abandoned his membership in 1983. But he has stuck with the NHS in a career that has spanned three phases. For the first 10 years he worked in mental health, mainly in Yorkshire, where he was involved in implementing the policy of closing the old asylums and developing services in the community. He says the lesson he learned then was how it became possible for the NHS to deliver big changes if managers could harness the support of patients and relatives.

He's not, apparently, proud of helping to treat the mentally ill with greater humanity, or to have helped to treat their illnesses more effectively, or even to have saved money. No. He chooses to highlight not what was actually achieved by his management, but the management itself.

For the next nine years, Nicholson moved into the acute hospital sector. He was chief executive of Doncaster Royal Infirmary, one of the first wave of NHS trusts to break free from Whitehall control under Margaret Thatcher's policy of NHS reform. That "liberating" experience taught him the benefits of independence and the need to mobilise support for reform among clinical staff. "Once you engage them and gain their trust, there is nothing stopping you," he says.

Decentralisation leads to efficiency, then.

The third stage of his career, which has led him to the top of the NHS tree, was in regional and strategic health authority management. It was there, he says, that he learned how to deliver change on a grand scale by getting all the bits of the system pointing in the same direction.

But someone has to make those independent units all do the same thing in order to deliver - guess what? - "change". Note that, again, the actual final goals - the strategic aim, the results - are never mentioned. Also note that he is the Vicar of Bray; when he managed a local trust, he was for independence - when he managed a group of them, he was for centralised control.

Nicholson says the NHS is in much better shape than five years ago, thanks to increased resources and reforms to link hospitals' income to performance. But this is not enough.

"People don't feel the reforms are relevant to them. We haven't made sure we connect the reforms to benefits for patients. There is a strong argument for driving reforms forward faster, not slower. That is what we need to do. But we need to make them relevant to clinical staff and help them do the jobs they need to do."

We know what is good for them. The problem is how to make them behave, which is to be achieved by PR.

He says it is already clear that not all acute hospital trusts will be ready to apply for foundation status by 2008, the original target date. Many will not be strong enough to achieve independence without significant reconfiguration. In some areas, the answer might be for the weak trusts to be taken over by the strong.


"I am reluctant to get into [a wave of] mergers across the system," he says. "Very few mergers I have seen in my career have delivered the benefits that people said they would. The problems remain in the organisation. Often these problems are more deep-seated than [can be solved by] having a new set of managers come in."

Indeed. It's almost become a business-book cliché that mergers and acquisitions are usually value-destroying. In today's civil service, being up to date with fashionable management advice is career positive, so Nicholson is quick to pick up on it. But there is so far no sign that mergers are becoming any less common in the private sector. This is because strong structural forces promote them. The end-goal of competition is to crush the competitor and become a monopolist. Joseph Schumpeter's principle of creative destruction. Also, the professionals involved in mergers are perhaps the most strongly incentivised people around - the financial rewards are gigantic.

"I think we will see some of the better hospitals acquiring others that are in difficulty."
Although the problems are more deep-seated than can be solved by having a new set of managers come in, right?

The government's proposals for treating more patients closer to home by expanding primary care would put a big strain on the district general hospitals. "I have not seen any that have to close, but they are going to have to work in a networked way," he says. "And you are going to have to use the ambulance service in a more creative way."

Nicholson does not spell out the implications, but his remarks suggest the closure of some departments, allowing hospitals to specialise in what they do best. Patients may get a better service, but would have to travel further to access it. "Undoubtedly there will be tough decisions to make over the next 12 months to reflect changing services," he adds.

The toughest would involve reorganisation of emergency care, paediatrics and maternity services. A key decision has had to be taken about the number of major trauma centres across England for dealing with the most serious emergencies. That has had implications for the number of hospitals running a full A&E department. Many patients with minor ailments could be looked after better in local walk-in centres rather than A&E.

Similarly, the NHS has had to decide the number of births needed to sustain a 24-hour consultant-led maternity service and the most appropriate size for paediatric departments.
Surely the wrong way round? Wouldn't it be better to decide how much maternity service is needed for the number of births? Classic confusion of target and control.
Were these not the three most bothersome areas of NHS care in terms of likely revolts against closure of local facilities?

Yes, says Nicholson. But he is determinedly optimistic about winning public support for change if consultation is managed properly. Trusts have to ask: are the clinicians on board; will they stand up and argue the case; can the trust demonstrate the health benefits of a reconfiguration of services; and can it say how many lives will be saved, to set against the claims that will undoubtedly be made by protesters that lives will be lost?

"We will be going out to consultation later this year or early next on a whole series of reconfigurations. I understand the politics of it. But this is about the way we deliver care that is predominantly closer to home."
Consultation. The public is to be "consulted" not in order to determine their opinion or canvass their views, but to persuade them to accept the managers' a priori decision. The accurate term would be propaganda. Further, the lower ranks of management are asked to make the professionals - the clinicians - lend their authority to the non-experts' decision. And the whole thing is based not on whether lives will indeed be saved, but whether criticism can be discredited.

His appreciation of the value of "closer to home care" came early in life. Nicholson was brought up in Nottingham, where his father was a plasterer who became incapacitated by emphysema and confined to a wheelchair. "One year he was admitted to hospital 14 times. Then they decided to provide him with an oxygen cylinder and the phone number of a nurse who could come round if there was a problem. In his last two years he was hardly admitted to hospital at all."

The family scattered his father's ashes on the pitch at Nottingham Forest. Nicholson inherited his passion for the club: last year he attended 34 fixtures, home and away. He went to Forest Fields school in Nottingham - a grammar school when he arrived, a comprehensive by the time he left. He played hooker for the city's rugby side at 19 and attributes his uneven facial complexion to experiences in the scrum.

Nicholson has a flat in London where he will spend most of the week, but the family will stay living in Doncaster. He plans to work one day a week from Quarry House in Leeds, headquarters of the former NHS Executive.
Blah, blah, blah.

Nicholson says he begins his period as chief executive with three priorities. "First, we need more discipline and rigour in the way we manage our business in the NHS in many parts of the country: I need to design that."
Stronger centralised control, in other words.
"Second, we need to reposition reform in terms of identifying the benefits to patients."
PR comes first.
"And third, we need to work on leadership. We are not producing people with the right skills to lead organisations and we need to do something about that."
To carry out 1 and 2, more managers are needed. Parkinson's Law in action.
"Unusually, in the developed world we have few clinical people in charge of organisations. We need to change that."
What? Actual experts? Surely not!
"And there are not enough women and black people in senior positions. I need to do something about that as well."
If they are the right kind of experts, clearly.

David Nicholson, the very model of a modern managerialist.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Southern strategy?

Ygelsias suggests that the US Army is historically hopeless at counter-insurgency because of the strong Southern influence in the officer corps. His reasoning runs as follows: the Confederates chose to fight an all-out war with the Union, and when it went to ratshit they decided against fighting on as guerrillas and gave up in a gentlemanly fashion. Later, officership became a major career path for the sons of the old Southern elite, and later still with the social levelling of the second world war, for some of the sons of the impoverished Southern working class (it came with a free education). Hence, this supposed disdain for guerrilla warfare was institutionalised.

A couple of points. Some commenteers at Yglesias's and also at Lawyers, Guns and Money argue that either there was no guerrilla strategy then, that the South did indeed go guerrilla, or that a guerrilla movement in the face of an unsympathetic population had no chance.

The first is twattishly clueless. What about the people who gave us the word "guerrilla"? The Spaniards fought a hell of a guerrilla war from 1808 to 1813 against Napoleon, one that included essentially everything that you'll find in Mao and Giap. They were rooted in the population, mobile, avoided decisive actions, sought to wear down the French by protracted war, and prioritised attacking the puppet government the French set up so as to prevent it from stabilising. They used naturally defensible rear areas, in the mountains and semi-deserts, and also artificial ones - like the Lines of Torres Vedras, and in a functional sense the vast economic rear area of the British Empire. They operated in symbiosis with Wellington's army rather like the Vietcong's local and regional units with the Main Force and later the NVA - the French could never disperse enough to dominate the guerrillas for fear of Wellington smashing their detachments in detail, nor could they concentrate against Wellington for fear of the guerrillas. Eventually, having gone from organising local bands around the rear base to protracted war, they massed for the final confrontation at Vitoria in 1813.

Vo Nguyen Giap was a history teacher before he was a general. At his colonial lycée he taught the campaigns of Napoleon. One suspects he concentrated privately on the Peninsular War. That brings me to another point. Perhaps the best counter-insurgency leader the US Army ever produced was John Paul Vann, who was about as Southern as you can possibly get (brought up in a whorehouse in Norfolk, Virginia). But there's always an outlier or two.

On the other points, I disagree that the Klan amounted to a guerrilla movement. Its effectiveness as a terrorist organisation was based on the fact that the restored white rulers of the South were sympathetic to its aims and hence tolerated it, indeed encouraged it. It's more accurate to say it was/is a party militia, not unlike the Tontons Macoute of modern Haiti. The Southern elite, rather than going guerrilla, went on the Long March through the Institutions, rather as the Boers accepted the Union of South Africa's constitution in order to subvert it. Call it a virtual guerrilla strategy if you like.

This post is also about the way history shapes itself. At the end of the Boer War, the British government launched a period of Reconstruction under Lord Milner's military administration, until the Liberal government in 1906 declared its Magnanimous Gesture of setting up a new, (relatively) democratic constitution. The Peninsular war prefigures so well the Maoist doctrine of revolutionary war that it can hardly have been an accident.

Phil Carter is Back

Phil Carter beats the clock.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Big Houmous

And you thought we handed over in Maysan voluntarily. You poor fool!

Comments Dan thinks that Blair will finally be done in by angry army wives after a disastrous overrun somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. It's a testament to the strategic incoherence of the trip to Afghanistan that it's now getting more dangerous at the operational level than Iraq. Getting out of Iraq is difficult because of the political, strategic-level arrangements it would need. For the British force, the operational problem is simple - drive to Kuwait docks with flank and rear guards. For the Americans it is much harder, which is why it's strategically difficult for the Brits to get out.

From southern Afghanistan, though, giving up is easier, but getting out in itself is tough. There's no infrastructure to speak of, and the road and theatre air routes go via Karachi - which doesn't look the best option any more. And the RAF's slow crisis with its transport fleet is not helping.

Thermite ahoy!

A man in Doncaster gets caught speeding in the firm's van. Fearing for his livelihood, he decides to eliminate all traces - including the camera. Fortunately for him, he's a railway welder and has access to thermite. Ah, thermite..

I remember this as the coolest reaction going in school science. For the un-initiated, the thermite reaction involves a mixture of powdered aluminium and powdered iron oxide. The aluminium is a reducing agent - that is, it's desperate to get oxidised - and the reaction when the oxygen atoms are transferred from the iron to the aluminium is strongly exothermic. That is, it liberates lots of heat.

The result is satisfying in the extreme. You need some heat - a fuse, say - to get it going, but then it goes as the spirit takes it. We're looking at clouds of brown smoke, blinding white light created by the iron reaching white heat, and sparks. Lots of sparks. And molten iron. The molten iron is the point, commercially - so the reaction is used to weld rails together. A lump of it will melt through most metal objects.

He dosed the camera with the stuff and struck a match. Sadly, the thermite didn't melt into the hard disk drive in the thing, and he was caught because it filmed him driving up to it. If it had been a traditional Gatso camera, the photographic film would probably have caught fire.

Saint Bonaventure

A useful quick guide to Pat Robertson's business interests.

Robert Ludlum, eat your heart out

Ludlum, right? Author of crappy thrillers, who invented the standard operating procedure of titling your book The (enter random name) (enter intriguingly sinister plot item). I present something similar. What might finally push the Blair over the edge?

I theorise that it's The Edinburgh Gambit. According to Tom Green Ribbon Griffin, the Liberals in Scotland are considering the wisdom of quitting their coalition with Labour ahead of the Scottish election next year. Now, without the Liberals, they have no majority. This means either staggering up to the election with some kind of jury-rigged minority government - call it the Callaghan option - or the bum's rush, if the Liberals, Scot Nats and Green can agree on a common front.

The impact could be deadly. Gordon Brown is not, after all, likely to put up with such a threat to his powerbase. Labour's much-joked over Scottishness might turn out to be a n active power reality. Equally, the shock/humiliation of a Labour government - a Labour government! - being unceremoniously dumped in the street might be fatal. So, should we do it? For the first time since 1974, a Liberal is in a position to shake politics to the keelson.

There's an argument for inaction. Isn't there always? We should let Blair have an orderly succession, for fear of something or other. I'm not sure, though, from a Lib Dem viewpoint, what it is we've got to fear - we have promised to cram down responsibility on the bastard, and we will only look weak if we don't take our opportunities.

Personally, I don't want an orderly succession. I want him to be dragged out of Downing Street, screaming and clinging to his Anthony mug, and then conveyed on the sharp steel floor of a black Maria or army truck to Northolt and the jet that will deliver him to the Hague Tribunal. I'm not sure whether rebellious troops, cops with vicious dogs, or a mob would be better. But I'm sure we can work it out. More seriously, the supposed "Philip Gould memo" fills me with dread about his plans.

The proposed "farewell tour" sounds to me like nothing more but a relaunch of Blair's political career outside the Labour Party. He appears to be trying to re-address the non-political property'n'cars'n'spite vote he's courted so long - for what? I suspect he hopes for a further political career. Winston did, and Ll G did, and Theodore Roosevelt. And, like so many people who don't want to consider history with the rigour it deserves, Blair loves ill-thought out historical analogies.

Update: The more things change.. I still find it hard to understand some of the dynamics here. The original letter calling for Blair to stand down within the year was signed mostly by shiny-faced men who did well out of the war, super-Blairites like Tom Watson. I assumed this was an act of virtual politics, so that the eventual "Blair out" motion that actually came out of the Labour Conference Arrangements Committee would provide for him quitting in a year's time perhaps, as opposed to going on and on, thus getting him another 12 months and the chance to pull the same trick again. It's a manoeuvre with some history in the Labour Party, notably the motion to withdraw troops from Iraq..

But then it began raining bag-carriers as everyone involved quit. Suddenly it looked damned real. And then there's the Gould note, wonderfully snarked by Matthew Norman in yesterday's Indy. Jamie K seems to think he plans a further political career, as I suggested. Perhaps he'll call it the Bull Shit party, by analogy to Teddy Roosevelt?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Very bad news

This is very bad news indeed, especially if it turns out to have been shot down. The Nimrod MR-2 fleet has been increasingly in demand in the last few years for very different roles to its primary mission, patrolling the North Atlantic looking for submarines and the shipwrecked, as the Army has become aware of some of its capabilities - a huge range of radio communications, excellent IR and radar surveillance, and more besides. Not only the Nimrod, but also the Royal Navy's Sea King ASaC-7 early warning helicopters, have been drawn on for overland ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) tasks - both have the Searchwater 2000 radar, originally developed for spotting ships but also suited to spotting tanks and even aircraft.

This is problematic, as the plane itself is not really suited for this role. The operational pattern is essentially flying around slowly at 500 feet or so, as over the North Atlantic, whilst the electronics team investigate suspicious goats on request from the army. This is not ideal, especially not for an aircraft with a crew of 14, no armament of any use over land, and the performance of the 1950s airliner it is based on. Especially not, either, when the upgraded MRA-4 programme has been such a cash-guzzling disaster flick and only 12 of the planes exist. (The position with the even-fancier electronic intelligence spy ship, the Nimrod R-1, is even tighter - the total fleet is 3.)

A broader point is that there has been a lot of faith in the last few years that "platforms are irrelevant" and only capabilities count. Hence it's fine, indeed very wise, to use a maritime patrol aircraft over a hostile land battle at low altitude because it has the sensors you want. It's cheap, after all. This only works, however, if the enemy are clueless enough not to shoot at the big grey bird chugging about in the weeds. Perhaps they were five years ago, but learning in wartime is Darwinian.

Another point is that wars strain non-obvious capabilities. The Government has always been keen on cutting "nice to have" or "non-core" activities in favour of "the front line" - perhaps more so in the last few years with the advent of the consultant raj and their obsession with the core business. But this only makes sense if you know what "the front line" is. The Nimrod crews - the Kipper Fleet - and the RAF air transport fleet have been the hardest-worked and most-risked segment of the force, whilst the fighter/bomber force mostly defends the Norfolk coast. The photo-reconnaissance force has been under even greater pressure, and has seen its aircraft (the Canberra PR-9) withdrawn in favour of an as-yet undelivered converted business jet for its pains.

Stupid web things of the day

For a start, which second world war army are you?

You scored as Finland. Your army is the army of Finland. You prefer to defeat your enemy by your wit rather than superior weapons. Enemy will have a hard time against your small but effective force.





British and the Commonwealth




Soviet Union


France, Free French and the Resistance






United States


In which World War 2 army you should have fought?
created with

Mine's a liquorice Molotov cocktail with herring on the side, please. And where has that Italian journalist got to? I'm reasonably pleased with that, although I was very nearly Poland. Jamie K, Comments Dan and a few others got the same result.

Then there's that seal thing. This is what I came up with..

a non-kinetic onslaught

Even more giant floating radar

Remember this post regarding the US military's gigantic floating X-band radar installation? Well, it turned out that the 282 foot long, 50,000 tonne beast that is meant to be a key part of the ballistic missile defence scheme wasn't in position during the North Korean missile scare because it was in need of dockyard attention in Hawaii.

It turns out that the problems with it are worse than we thought. Essentially, as you could have guessed by looking at it, it's desperately unseaworthy, and its planned station is in one of the stormiest seas on earth. Not just that, but it can't be towed in waves of more than 8 feet and therefore can't move if the sea gets up, and it doesn't have a sea-boat that could be launched to rescue a man overboard. Not to mention the total lack of any self-defence capability (although the sea ought to see to that tolerably well).

Yours for $815 million.

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