Sunday, May 27, 2007

It's a profession, a career

Hard to say what the credibility index is here, but it's certainly an interesting idea: were the IRA volunteers caught in Colombia there essentially as mercenaries, hiring out their valuable experience and technical advances to finance the movement after US donations dropped off?

It's an exit strategy more than a few armies have followed - getting out, going into guerrilla consultancy.

Money doesn't talk - it swears. In Latin

The Obscurer is usually Blairite Pravda, but now and then it does something worth reading. Have a read of this story. One Anthony Bailey, a rich PR man, is apparently running a Labour Party entity called the "Faith Task Force" charged with raising donations from the rich and religious.

What is fascinating is exactly what Jamie Dowson's story doesn't point out. For a start, Mr. Bailey claims to have raised £7 million for the City Academies program. Yes, the same one at the heart of the police investigation into cash-for-honours. And honour - or rather, influence - is what he got for the cash. He is, it turns out, an "advisor" to the Department for Education and Skills and a member of its "Gifted and Talented Task Force".

Wonderfully, even Lord Levy was suspicious of where his money came from, rejecting a £500,000 donation to the Labour Party from Bailey's own pocket on suspicion that it came from abroad, in breach of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 1999. That law, let us point out, does not restrict donations to a nonparty pet project like the academies.

Bailey appears to be the Vatican's chouchou flack, running a supposedly ancient order of chivalry for them. But let that pass. What worries me more than that is his client list - including the House of Saud and the Syrian Government. Lovely. And what about this?
As chairman of 'Painting and Patronage', a regular cultural exchange of artists between Saudi Arabia and Europe, Bailey has presented paintings by Prince Charles at exhibitions sponsored by British Aerospace.
Paintings by Prince Charles? In Saudi Arabia? Sponsored by BAE? And this chap gets to "advise" government on the prime minister's pet policy? Actually, let's not let the order pass. His order of chivalry "bestowed honours" on Margaret Thatcher and donated charitable funds to "pro-life causes". I wonder how much of the charity came from either the Saudis or BAE? And did any of that money wander into one of the Blair academies?

It all has a smell of John Latsis's £2m bung to the Tories, which was also backed up by lavish funding of Prinny's various hobbies. It goes without saying that the link with the cash-for-honours case is tastefully elided.

Update: Via Labour Humanist, Bailey's official biography according to his website. And what do we find? Not only is he on the board of a thing called the United Learning Trust that has been given not less than 12 schools to run, but he's an Ambassador-at-Large for the Gambia. Yup, that'll be the same Gambia whose president claims to be able to cure AIDS by magic, and whose private Ilyushin-62 C5-GNM is on a UN Security Council blacklist.

Falklands Myths 4: American and European Support

Since 1982, it's been a piece of conventional media/political wisdom that Britain prevailed in the Falklands War because of invaluable American support. This is especially true of Margaret Thatcher, both in office and in the post-ministerial Thatcher industry, as well as a wide range of pundits, Tories, and others. Up to a point, it's also true that a lot of people on the Left seem to believe that "US support" somehow caused the war, operating on the common heuristic that Europeanism is a sufficient condition of pacifism.

For the frothing Right, of course, it's a truism that we needed US support because the Europeans "betrayed" us - some people will even claim that France sent more weapons to Argentina during the war, which is (as we shall see) wildly counterfactual. Both groups use their specific versions of the myth to justify their general policy prescriptions.

So how great was that US support? Politically, it wavered throughout the war. The US government was understandably unkeen to see their pet dictator and closest military ally get in a fight, and some people (notably Jeanne Kirkpatrick) seem to have thought that a British fiasco would not have significantly damaged the alliance, while a triumph for the Argentine junta would have dramatically strengthened their hold on power. Perhaps a disaster for the British would, indeed, reinforce their dependence on the US. Hence, the net balance of US interests lay on Argentina's side.

However, this view never carried the day, and it seems to have been stronger at the State Department (and presumably the CIA) than the Defense Department, especially the uniformed military. The US moderated its position somewhat as the first British forces reached the South Atlantic, and stayed that way.

Materially, it's traditional to thank the US for the use of the Ascension Island airfield. It was indeed vital, but after all, it was our airfield, and the RAF began using it without waiting for political approval. The total US presence consisted of about a dozen men, mostly civilian employees of PanAm. The RAF had to bring all its own logistics, including getting the Royal Engineers to build a pipeline from the tanker landing point to the airfield. Speaking of which, the US also supplied a lot of jet fuel under the existing fuel-exchange agreement. Anything less would have been astonishing (they didn't, for example, cut off the fuel exchange deal at Suez as far as I know), and anyway jet fuel is available in commerce.

There was also some kit, specifically the newer AIM-9L version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile which was already on order but was delivered quicker. Again, it would have been a serious breach in the relationship to refuse this, and anyway, the Fleet Air Arm was ready to go to war with the missiles it had.

It was traditional to refer, if pressed, to the intelligence special relationship, the most secret and elite heart of post-war Anglo-American relations. Here are all those sets of initials - UKUSA, CAZAB, ECHELON - denoting treaties whose contents remain concealed from the grubby mob to this day, 59 years after UKUSA's conclusion. Surely there must have been vital secret intelligence?

Here's the shocker. Early in the war, a British delegation containing the then Defence Secretary, John Nott, and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Ronald Mason, visited Washington to ask for satellite reconnaissance of the Falklands (and presumably the Argentine southern air bases too). They were refused. It is widely believed that the basic content of the UK-US intelligence agreements includes provisions to the effect that in return for the use of British intelligence product, the US would provide access to things like satellites we don't have. It seems that the argument from spookery was always quite simply an appeal to things mortals are not allowed to know.

Another question hangs over the offer of a US aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy's use. The idea was apparently that the RN would crew the ship and provide its air wing. This is often cited as an example of US generosity, but this is naive. The crew requirement alone would have be huge, and everyone would have needed to requalify on equipment they had never seen before, not to mention learning to handle the huge unfamiliar ship in company with the fleet. No Royal Navy pilots had carried out arrester landings since the old Ark Royal had been decommissioned five years ago, and all the suitable aircraft (F4G Phantoms and Buccaneers) had been transferred to RAF squadrons and stripped of their specialist gear. What of the secret equipment? Crypto? Refuelling at sea? Given that the whole operation was governed by the need to finish the job before Admiral Winter got involved, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this offer was a white elephant in the original sense of the phrase - a gift intended to exhaust the recipient.

It's a mixed picture, frankly.

What about the Europeans? The then EEC joined in a trade boycott of Argentina, even if the whole thing was rather divisive within Europe. France offered extensive intelligence and diplomatic help to round up stocks of the air-launched Exocets that might otherwise have been sold to Argentina, a crucial point. French naval aviation also took part in a discreet project to develop counter-Exocet tactics, using their Super Etendard aircraft to simulate attackers for British ships and planes in the North Sea, and opened the books on all the equipment they had sold to Argentina. The Swiss manufacturers of the Skyguard and Super Fledermaus radars and Oerlikon 35mm guns did likewise. The French Air Force also opened its staging post in Dakar to the RAF.

Conclusions? Well, if the Falklands experience is meant to be a guide for future policy, the obvious lesson is not "The Americans are great - let's rely on them even more." Neither is it "I don't need a defence policy, I'm pro-European." More seriously, it shows that the key characteristic of any policy at all is adaptability - what Rupert Smith calls organisational mobility. It's not going to be like last time.

Further, don't count on "the West," "the integrated core," "the world of order", "the democratic world", or "the Anglosphere" to know what to do if a conflict breaks out within its own walls. Certainly, the US considered Argentina part of the Western system at the time, and you can just about make a case that it used to be in the Anglosphere. But nobody had the faintest clue what to do about it. There was no measurable pressure to resolve the conflict beforehand, nor did anyone (this means you, Uncle Sam) try to restrain the Junta or warn the British. Nor did anyone do anything effective to stop the British "going to war with horse, foot, and guns in the year of Our Lord 1982!" as Max Hastings put it.

Meta-historiographical note: This myth nearly contained another myth. I thought I remember that Belgium refused to sell the British Army more ammunition in 1982. Googling, I learn that this in fact happened in 1991, but the myth seems quite common. It's a pity because I had to lose quite a good joke as a result.

A practical example?

How could the principles in this post be put into effect? Here's an opportunity. Legendary trade reporter Roger Ford discusses the situation at GNER, where the company's franchise to operate the East Coast Main Line has been withdrawn because the parent company, Sea Containers, is in financial difficulty.

The details of the difficulty can be sketched briefly - unlike all the other rail franchises, GNER is profitable and rather than receiving a subsidy from the state, it actually pays the Department of Transport for the right to operate the service. There's the rub - when the contract with the DfT was last renewed, these payments were considerably increased, Sea Containers believing that it would be possible to operate more trains. However, under open-access requirements, they later had to hand over the train paths required to other operators. Without the extra net income, the payments to the Treasury couldn't be met, causing a cash crisis at the parent company.

The interesting thing is, though, that the DfT rather likes GNER. Wouldn't you? Even if it didn't make as much money as planned, it was after all one part of the rail network that wasn't either haemorraghing cash or becoming a national synonym for incompetence. They want to keep the existing management in place until the franchise is re-awarded, and perhaps even under new owners.

Which begs the question - what on earth would the new franchisees be for? Using GNER occasionally, and at times quite a lot since 1999, I strongly agree with the DfT Railways Directorate that they ought to keep the job. And, even in the event that the franchise changes hands, most of the staff will change hands with it, as will assets like the traction depot in Hornsey Green.

So - if all that a franchise change implies is a swap of top executives, it's arguable that the most likely change in the business this will produce is negative. Why not, then, just give the franchise to the people who work there? It could be structured in several ways, the simplest being the creation of a company owned by the 5,000 staff to take over the management of GNER.

Arguably, if GNER's position as the operator of the ECML doesn't give it any special claim to control access on the route, the very notion of a franchise from the government is absurd. They are just a large buyer of train paths and electricity from Network Rail's London North Eastern Region. What is the state, as opposed from the quasistate entity Network Rail, providing here? Nothing, is the short answer. Therefore it has no claim to any money, except for corporation tax and VAT. This is, of course, unlikely to go over well with DfT Rail or the Treasury. Note, by the way, that I'm highly sceptical of open access on the railway - it works for telecoms/internetworking because there is very loose coupling between services and networks, and the privatisation experience has told us that railways are a lot different. (Look at the pain and difficulty the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn had agreeing terms for their high speed trains to run through on each other's metals.)

If the government must have a piece of the action, I suggest this: it should lend the putative GNER Co-op the cash required to buy out Sea Containers, to be repaid over the life of the franchise at a reasonable interest rate. The risk would be minimal, backed as the loan would be by a stable cash flow and the right to re-award the job if GNER(C) went bust. Obviously, GNER(C) could choose to finance itself privately if it could get better terms, but this version is nice because it satisfies the objection that the Treasury wants its pie. (If it insisted, there could be a state profits participation defined as a percentage above some value, rather than a cash sum.)

At the moment, the new agreement provides that DfT Rail gets to grab all GNER's revenue, and then pay back "incentive payments" if it achieves various targets. I think mine is rather more elegant. The current position also foresees the business's net worth somehow migrating to the Government - mine would see the Government carrying an equivalent sum as an asset, and Sea Containers getting cash on the nail to go away.

To begin with, the scheme could have a fixed term of five years, with the option to continue or re-award - thus it would fulfil my criteria about test-driven development. It would be limited to one rail network, but could be generalised to others if it worked. It would get around the problem of "lemon socialism" - this is a real, successful operation.

Friday, May 25, 2007

the needle, and the damage done

Not depressed yet? You soon will be. Iraq is already a drugs transit route, but now it's becoming a heroin producer.

I'd cry, but in fact things are already so bad it's hard to see how this makes anything in Iraq that much worse. The Iraqi insurgents do not seem to be constrained by money in any obvious way - after all, there's that other addictive substance whose production is often associated with violence and criminality that Iraq exports. And, given the agricultural problems referred to, it's not as if it's going to be a second Afghanistan in terms of production.

But it probably will mean more turf wars and blood feuds, not to mention more heroin addicts and more AIDS cases. Purple fingers.

There will still be no war with Iran

There is still, still not going to be a war with Iran. Carrierwatch: Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington are all in deep refit. Enterprise and Harry S. Truman are still at the stage of doing CARQUALs, in the Big E's case for reserve squadrons, Ronald Reagan arrived back in San Diego on the 20th April, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was due in Norfolk on the 23rd of May.

John Stennis and Nimitz are currently on station in the Gulf of Oman, the latter ship having just steamed back from Somali waters. Kitty Hawk is due out of Yokosuka for her summer cruise soon, but is tied to the North Pacific by her commitments there. Stennis sailed on the 16th of January, so is due to turn for home on the 16th of June, Nimitz being on station until September.

However much cruft is retailed to the press, literally no reserve exists in the fleet. (It's also worth remembering that the Charles de Gaulle returns toFrance soon.)

Every blogger and their cat has opined on the brace of sooper sensational stories in the Grauniad by Simon Tisdall. The first rehearsed the usual Dr Evil theories about Iranian super spies controlling the war in Iraq, as usual without any facts. Tisdall's source pointed to the supposed Revolutionary Guardsmen arrested in Kurdistan - you would have thought that if there was any evidence, they wouldn't need to keep trotting that one out, but the paper wasn't in the mood to engage in source criticism, instead devoting much space to a variety of cool infographix - woo! a silhouette of a Bradley armoured fighting vehicle!

The second claimed that the US was considering doing a mea culpa and trying to turn to the UN, again factlessly. My two cents are as follows - obviously the first is empty, looking at the carrier plot. The second, unlikely as it may sound, might contain a grain of truth. It was recently reported that the Baker-Hamilton plan was being reoffdusted, after all.

This post, and this one, not to mention this one, recommend themselves.

Update: The Iran-Syria Operations Group, it turns out, has been disbanded.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I can see for miles and miles and miles..oh yeah

Guess what our old pal Jim Gamble is up to? The man who gave us Operation Ore is about to solve the Madeleine McCann case.

Can we guess how he's going to do it? Yes, that's right. With a big database and a stunning ignorance of the rules of statistics.
Senior police officers within Ceop - the child exploitation and online protection agency - appealed yesterday for anyone who had been on holiday in Praia de la Luz in the two weeks to May 3, the day Madeleine disappeared, to send in photographs taken in the area of the Ocean Club complex, where the McCann family was staying. Jim Gamble, chief executive of Ceop, said police were looking for pictures with people in the background who were not connected to the photographer...

The technology, known as the Child Base, uses image recognition to analyse and compare pictures of online abuse and abusers in a fraction of the time it takes to do so manually. The system can scan and analyse 1,000 images per hour.

Officers believe whoever abducted Madeleine must have been watching children at the complex run by tour operator Mark Warner for some time. They hope by scanning holiday snaps they might be able to match up the perpetrator with their online library of paedophiles.
Of course, we're faced with the problem of distinguishing national press crap from police crap here. But it's mental suicide to funk the data one has, Watson. Apparently, they want to collect a lot of photos from the area and run them past an image hash algorithm that compares them with a database of...well, it would seem to be their collection of Internet filth, right?

The flaw is obvious. The comparison sample will be full of a few people who took a lot of photos. Taking lots of paedophile photos and putting them on the Web is a fundamentally weird and strange thing to do - after all, it's as good as walking into a police station with your photos. So, unless you are Cesare Lombroso, this isn't going to be very informative. The chance of one person in their sample from the whole online world being on the spot is not that great. Given that the hash algorithm is fallible, this is basically an automated version of my mother's principle that "His eyes are too close together - he must be guilty!" After all, the people they have culled from whatever horrible images they have on file will be representative of at least some of one group - humans. People with Internet access tend to be quite self-similar - between 15 and 65 and white, sad to say. Like people who go to posh resorts in Portugal, really.

This gives us two failure modes - either the killer doesn't look remotely like anyone on file, and therefore the search is trivially defeated, or a lot of people in photographs look enough like the ones on file to drown them in false positives. Worse, it looks like they're trying to investigate a priori this way - look for anyone who looks weird and therefore must be a suspect.

Further, it goes without saying that the upload form is not SSL or START TLS encrypted.

Update: To put this a little more formally - given that Cesare Lombroso was wrong and not all criminals look the same, and that there is a large number of people who appear in the photos, there's a significant chance that someone in the large set of people looks like someone in the database because they are both sets of people. You have to add the false positive rate of the comparison to this, too. This actually gets worse the more photos the public send in. The chance that the killer (realistically) happens to look like someone in the database is likely to be tiny.

This illuminates the fundamental difference between starting with someone who is linked to the crime in some way and looking for them, and looking for someone the crime can be linked to in some way..

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Slightly less intemperate response

In case you're wondering what the fuss is about, the Daily Hell is trying to get Owen Barder fired from the DFID for saying rude things about George Bush and Margaret Thatcher and nice things about Neil Kinnock. Rather, they're trying to get him fired for quoting rude things about George Bush, not erasing a comment by his dad that said rude things about Margaret Thatcher, and saying nice things about Neil Kinnock on his "sexually explicit website blog". So at least they managed to attribute one out of three charges correctly.

Other outrageous remarks, according to Paul Dacre, include criticism of "extraordinary rendition". Let's be clear - the Daily Mail believes that public servants who disagree with arrest and deportation without trial to torture states should be sacked.

Meanwhile, a thing called "UK Daily Pundit" weighed in to gloat about this. Which should come as no surprise, I suppose, because the next story over there describes "the Guardian's readership" as "traitorous" and "anti-British", categorising same under "enemies of the state". He has since attempted to deal with criticism by claiming that Martin Niemöller "was a Nazi", so I'm expecting the van with soft walls to turn up for him at any moment.

Update: I left this comment at the Hell's website.
Is it Mail policy that expressing disgust at "extraordinary renditions" - a practice which contravenes English law back to 1215 - should be ground s to dismiss public servants?

NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.

Yours in the good old cause. Alexander Harrowell

Special notice to Associated Newspapers, DMGT staff

Alexander Harrowell asserts copyright over any and all content on this site. It may be reproduced with his permission, which will under no circumstances be granted to any Associated or Daily Mail & General Trust publication, ever. Further, the operator of the weblog "UK Daily Pundit" is hereby refused permission to link to or quote any material on this site.

That is all.

(See also: Tim Worstall, the Ministry.)

leaves the bowl sparkling clean continuously

Ben "Badscience" Goldacre gets stuck into Patrick Holford's rampant quackery like a big hot meal:
Drilling down, the first thing we came to was the circuit board. This, we noted with some amusement, was not in any sense connected to the copper coil, and therefore is not powered by it.

The eight copper pads do have some intriguing looking circuit board tracks coming out of them, but they too, on close inspection, are connected to absolutely nothing. A gracious term to describe their purpose might be “decorative”. I’m also not clear if I can call something a “circuit board” when there is no “circuit”.

Finally, there is a modern surface mount electronic component soldered to the centre of the device. It looks impressive, but whatever it is, it is connected to absolutely nothing. Close examination with a magnifying glass, and experiments with a multimeter and oscilloscope, revealed that this component on the “circuit board” is a zero-ohm resistor.

This is simply a resistor that has pretty much no resistance: in effect a bit of wire in a tiny box.
£69.99 to you, my friend. Sadly, the rest of the Grauniad doesn't bother to read Dr Goldacre's column, with desperate results.
"We already know that folic acid, given without B12, is creating problems for the elderly," says nutritionist Patrick Holford. "And that's at half the amount that the FSA is proposing to add to British flour." Some scientists are also questioning whether we can blithely assume that synthetically produced folic acid will work in the same way as naturally occurring folate. They are calling for further research.
Must be a different Holford from the fraudulent charlatan flogging random electronic junk at seventy quid a time, right? And, naturally, there is no connection with this farrago of free-range biodynamic crap in the weekend supplement?

Yeah, I know the weekend magazine is merely an attention tax, a way of printing more high-end ads to support the real newspaper enabled by the Apple Mac and fast offset litho printing. But...really. I'd read the FT but theirs is even more egregious.

Dan predicts a riot

Responding to Dan Hardie's latest BNP screed, I think there are several important points here. First of all, Dan Dsquared is half-right that BNP voters don't matter. There are not enough of them ever to get elected to run anything, and their candidates usually manage to teach their own electors a lesson about voting for nutcases with impressive speed. He is also right that it is a much more serious problem that there are significant numbers of racists about than that they vote BNP.

He is wrong, though, that this is a nonproblem. Quite simply, you don't need many people to cause serious trouble, and the BNP as an organisation is good at this. It has repeatedly shown itself willing to advocate violence, and also to use what can only be described as tactical psychological warfare. This is not a serious problem in some places, but it could be a very serious one where there are concentrations of BNP wankers near concentrations of target groups, and a really, really serious problem where there are concentrations of BNP wankers near concentrations of jihadi wankers.

Part of the problem, and something that the usually statistically sharp Dsquared doesn't pick out, is that even council-level statistical aggregates don't give enough granularity to track this. Further, the government doesn't have a good record in terms of situational awareness outside London - the fuel wankers of 2000 caused as much trouble as they did largely because the crisis didn't begin in London, and the 2001 riots similarly took everyone by surprise.

Not that it was very obvious in the north that something was up - I remember the Bradford Mela a week beforehand going on in near-perfect peace under the usual racing charcoal sky. The reaction loop, though, is a lot shorter than that of national politics or administration.

My own experience of the Bradford riot really bears all these points out. That morning, I was on my way to an ANL demonstration against the planned BNP march. All was reasonably calm, and the main news story in Yorkshire was mild indignation that the Bradford Festival's last day had been cancelled due to the demo. There are a lot of different stories about the kick-off, but my own recall was this - during the afternoon, there had been no sign of the BNP, but a succession of rumours that They Were Coming!, each of which set the crowd bubbling. I remember that there was a sudden ugly surge as a group of men with short hair appeared, who turned out to be from the No Platforms campaign rather than the BNP.

During the day, the composition of the crowd had gradually altered from a lot of teacherish ANL types, some Pakistanis, and some professional lefties, to a lot of young men and the professional lefties. I don't remember anyone who looked especially Islamic - most of them looked like they came from your friendly local Subaru tune-up joint. I didn't, as it happened, see a single fascist all day - eventually, around 4 o'clock, I assumed my civic duty was done and headed for the station. I'd just seen the leader of Bradford Council making a speech, so I figured it must be all over.

It was at that moment that the trouble began. Suddenly the police who had pulled back to their vehicles in Market Street began struggling into their kit, radios quacking. And then there was a horrible yelling, and I saw a crowd dashing out of Centenary Square towards the bottom of Ivegate, led by a folk singer I'd been talking to earlier with his guitar on his back. Then, I looked up Ivegate to see the mob turn and rush back down the hill towards me. At this point I started running away, looking up to see I was running right towards a line of cops with dogs. They didn't molest me as I swung left into Hustlergate to let the mob pass.

After that, I helped the folk singer, who was complaining bitterly that the cops had grabbed him by his bad shoulder and he was disabled, over to a St John's Ambulance post, and decided to get out of town on the next train, which turned out to be the last train allowed to leave the station.

The other thing about the day that sticks in my mind was that I had earlier been interviewed by a German TV crew. I made the obvious points that the BNP and the NF before had never been allowed to get a footing in Bradford, etc. The producer suggested they interview me with "any of your Asian friends", and I had to confess I had none. Which would probably have made the best possible reportage on the whole sad business, had they gone ahead and filmed it.

If you want something more useful, I'd point out that the good news is that in Yorkshire, the BNP's successes have so far been in the urban-rural periphery. Not to be confused with the suburbs, it's a feature of Yorkshire urban geography that we have a lot of smaller chunks of industrial or post-industrial town that overlap with the countryside. It's these semidetached areas, like Cross Flatts as opposed to Keighley, where they tend to do well. I suspect this may be a stabilising factor.

Just another planeload of cash

I can't help thinking that if this LA Times story is accurate, those BGIA planes need a searching.
In one of the most troubling trends, U.S. officials said that Al Qaeda's command base in Pakistan is increasingly being funded by cash coming out of Iraq, where the terrorist network's operatives are raising substantial sums from donations to the anti-American insurgency as well as kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity.

The influx of money has bolstered Al Qaeda's leadership ranks at a time when the core command is regrouping and reasserting influence over its far-flung network. The trend also signals a reversal in the traditional flow of Al Qaeda funds, with the network's leadership surviving to a large extent on money coming in from its most profitable franchise, rather than distributing funds from headquarters to distant cells.

Al Qaeda's efforts were aided, intelligence officials said, by Pakistan's withdrawal in September of tens of thousands of troops from the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border where Bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding.

Little more than a year ago, Al Qaeda's core command was thought to be in a financial crunch. But U.S. officials said cash shipped from Iraq has eased those troubles.

"Iraq is a big moneymaker for them," said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official.
Well, it's yet another tick on the yards-long list of fuck-ups, and hardly surprising. But why BGIA? Consider this. Back in 2004-2005, this operation was flying constantly from Iraq to the UAE, occasionally from the UAE to Afghanistan, but also from the UAE to Pakistan on charter to "Royal Air Cargo". This entity's exact details are unclear, but let's put it this way - it seems to be from Saudi Arabia, and its aircraft come from BGIA, Irbis Air Co, Air Cess, and Air Bridge Group, a shortlived company associated with Aerocom that wanted to fly between northern Australia and Indo-China with Antonov 12 aircraft.

You may be able to guess why this could be suspicious. Royal also lost an Ilyushin 76 on the approach to Bagram on Remembrance Day, 2005. But honestly, what is it that you'd move between Iraq and Pakistan? It's not going to be anything good. Readers with long memories will remember that it was precisely the delivery of Iraq's new currency that SkyLink Logistics carried out using BGIA's chartered, Sao Tome-registered Il-76 S9-DAE. (See here, here, here, and here.)

There's also another, Pakistani-based Royal - it's even got a website, which tells us that it has ties to the UAE royal family. But then, so did our old friends Flying Dolphin and Santa Cruz Imperial.

Go to school, learn the rules, don't be no faker!

This post from PZ Myers raises a very important point about decentralisation and local accountability. What if the quacks get control? Families and schools are always a problem with regard to liberty - no-one has the right to experiment on the public without their consent, but youth is the one experiment that is performed on everyone.

It may be your right to believe that heliocentrism is an atheistic doctrine that must be suppressed, but it's surely a grave infringement of the liberty of others to enforce it on their kids. Not to mention an infringement of the children's liberty. The glib answer is that you can always send them somewhere else, but this instantly crashes into all the problems of "choice" as a solution for schools (inequality, oversubscribed schools, self-fulfilling signals, lack of real choice in many places), not to mention that it implicitly accepts that the people left behind will just suffer.

Robert Waldmann remarks that there is no evidence that any society has ever put too much money into education. I think he's right. But this is rather what I was getting at in this post. Education is an investment that cannot be readily replaced if it goes wrong - in the example it's much more like the hole in the ground that you can't replace in 50 years than the Ethernet switch, which you can swap out in half an hour. Hence, it's not enough to say that if the creationists (or paedophiles, fascists, jihadis etc) get a school, it will eventually fail. By then the damage is done, it cannot easily be put right, and it bears most heavily on those least able to put it right.

Violent agreement

Here's part two of Wired's interview with John Robb on the occasion of his book. It's cracking stuff - they got Kris "Alexander the Average" Alexander to grill him. But the really interesting thing here is the curious way Robbo and his arch-rival Thomas Barnett are increasingly locked in violent agreement. Consider Robbo's positive recommendations:
Investments in people. Language and cultural training for a large percentage of the force. Knowing the language and a culture is almost as important as being able to shoot a rifle. In my view, nobody should be in Iraq unless they spent 6 months in language/cultural training.

Well, this is something I've been banging on about for years. (Barnett's notion of a sysadmin force is not dissimilar, anyway.) See Pat Lang's recent post.

• Investments in information platforms. Information flows and knowledge development is more important than weapon systems. There are two places where this needs to happen. The first is in civil defense and the second is for the DoD. Robust information platforms that break down silos of information/functionality are a basic requirement for operation of any organization in the 21st Century. They foster innovation and complex adaptive ecosystems (think real responsiveness to the IED problem). IF you have information platforms in place, you can create a level of flexibility in a big organization that mimics a much smaller organization. So far, I’ve not seen much progress on this. Perhaps a military CIO should be on Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There's a lot of truth to this, but first of all it's Robbo talking his own book, and secondly it sounds a lot like Barnett's own Enterra Solutions, which Robb regularly savages.

• Investments in information warfare and unrestricted warfare. This is how most state on state warfare is going to fought in the future and it will be very useful to have as a means of going after global guerrillas. This means everything from the ability to mount wars over the Internet to providing training and guidance to US corporations operating in dangerous areas. This is an area that hasn’t been provided the resources it needs. It also, due to the complexity and irregularity of it, requires much more diversity in skill sets than you typically get from the big military contractors or that from within the military. So far, this has been done in an ad hoc way and the results have been far less than they should have been.
This could be lifted from Barnett's blog, frankly.

• Investments in communities in a box. One of the things we see again and again is the need for the ability to provide instant infrastructure to damaged communities. This ranges from a community cut off due to security needs in counter-insurgency to disaster relief. How do you package infrastructure for 20-30,000 people in a box? The military should be solving this.
This is essentially Barnett's thing about "Development in a Box", which also happens to be something very like Architecture for Humanity's recent competition to design a "community tech centre", not to mention the GSM Association and Motorola's all-renewable powered, zero dig GSM/EDGE base station.

So it's going to be very amusing the next time they fall out. More importantly, what light does this cast on UK defence policy? On the first point, there is almost nothing in the MOD's budget that would have a greater rate of return than a sizable retention bonus for Intelligence Corps linguists and agent handlers. On the second, the agonising procurement disaster that was the Army's BOWMAN radio system doesn't need rehearsing here, but I would point out that some other armies (especially the South Koreans) are experimenting with IEEE802.16e Mobile WiMAX mesh networking. It would probably be wise to put some money into a decent scale trial, especially as if the technology takes off it will be cheap - Intel is integrating it in the next lot of its wireless chipsets (Rosedale-2 and beyond).

I'm pretty happy with the existing position on the third point: check out this page at the European Networks and Information Security Agency. There are more Computer Emergency Response Teams in the UK, 14 of them, than any European country but Germany, and they include BT-CERT, where somebody reads this blog - so they must be good.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The airline that wasn't is back

Flying from Sharjah to Bagram AFB today is an aircraft operating for "British Gulf International Company" as opposed to British Gulf International Airlines, using the ICAO code BGI rather than BGK. Why should this be interesting? Well, back in the beginning in 2003, BGIA was supposed to be a company from Sao Tome that had set up a subsidiary with Kyrgyz registration and transferred all but one of its aircraft there. Not that Sao Tome played any significant role in this - the offices, staff, and aircraft were in Sharjah throughout.

This blog later found out that the original Saotomense BGIA had never officially existed at all, not having been registered as a company. Neither had its aircraft ever been registered there before being transferred to the Kyrgyz registry (EX-) and beginning to fly into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan using the ICAO code BGK. Memorably, they got a DOD fuel card by the simple expedient of filling in the form.

But now, as well as the BGK-coded planes that continue to operate from Dubai and Sharjah to locations in Iraq and (more and more) Afghanistan, there are also BGI-codes out there.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Rates of change

It's fairly usual that big infrastructure systems should be regulated or publicly owned if there is no realistic competition to them. Defining that is more difficult - Railtrack presumably thought it was competing frantically with roads, after all. I propose a different way of looking at it.

What if the distinction were framed in terms of how long the assets involve last? Consider Brough Turner's graphic dealing with the useful lives of different elements in a telecoms (or isp) network. You'll see that the electronics (routers, switches, muxen etc) and optical components go obsolete within 2-3 years, but the fibre-optic (and telecoms copper as opposed to ethernet) lasts 20-30 years, and the digs last 100 years or more. In a wireless context, the kit goes obsolete quickly, the spectrum allocations on a 10-20 years timetable, and the site footprints are of indefinite life.

In a sense, design life is another way of saying money - the longer it takes to replace something, the more capital is involved, and hence the greater the monopoly power that accrues to the owner. We couldn't build another railway, and even if the alignments were available, laying track would be a monstrously huge enterprise. So whoever owns the footprint is always going to have a lot of power. Similarly, the cost of replicating the BT local loop would be impossible.

It's interesting that competition exists in fixed-line telecoms in Britain precisely at the electronic level - you are allowed to put your DSLAMs in their facilities and have your own switches, routers and such. Perhaps the rulebook for utilities should be that competition becomes more appropriate, the less time is needed to make good a bad decision? There's an analogy with education, clearly, and perhaps health - anyway, the cost of replicating NHS facilities would be mountainous.

Falklands Myth 3: An Imperial War?

OK, part three of the Falklands 25th anniversary series. The others are here, dealing with command, and here, dealing with Margaret Thatcher.

It's been quite a common idea since the war that the Falklands represented some sort of throwback to the empire, or alternatively a rejection of Europe in favour of it. This is usually coded as being an atavistic endeavour, trying to return to an imperial past associated with warmongering and jingoism, which the people who say this implicitly romanticise in a nice paradox, or else a return to an organic tradition. The determining factor is, as usual, partisanship - the left, especially the pro-European bits, assign values of modernity, realism, and pacifism to "Europe", and irrationality and warmongering to not-Europe. The Right, meanwhile, seems to conflate the Falklands War with the maritime tradition and the Atlantic alliance (we'll come to this in part 4, by the way).

It's a question of meta-narratives, clearly. One of the enduring ones of British politics is the tension between Europe and America, with the Commonwealth being shared between the American side (as leftover empire) and the European side (as the object of internationalist concern). This overlies Basil Liddell-Hart's notion that British military and political strategy fluctuates between "continental commitments" and "blue water". He strongly favoured the latter.

After 1968, when the decision was taken to withdraw from the Singapore base, British defence policy swung sharply towards European NATO (even though the Heath government reversed the decision and British forces stayed in Singapore and Malta up to 1976), and a role centred on the British Army of the Rhine, nukes, and the NATO Northern Flank for the Marines and Navy. Theoretically, a world-wide reach was still envisaged under various promises extended to Australia, Malaysia, and the UAE, but nobody took it seriously.

Much of the big navy had been decommissioned by 1982, and this didn't change with the Conservative government - which resumed Navy deployments out-of-area, but wanted to cut one of the carriers and both the Fearless-class assault ships, thus ending the amphibious capability. The Falklands war caused some changes in this, reversing these decisions and leading to some upgrades in Naval equipment, although no new ships.

It must have felt pretty imperial, though. Canberra and Elk refuelled at the Queen Elizabeth wharf in Freetown on the way south, where they were met by bumboats trying to sell things aboard. The task force took its drinking water south aboard a Canadian Pacific Line tanker, Fort Toronto. New Zealand lent the UK a frigate to cover a NATO task. The RFA's six Landing Ships Logistics had Hong Kong Chinese civilian crews, aboard ships that had been operated up to 1970 not by the RFA but by the British India Steam Navigation Company. In a broader sense, the Argentine invasion was certainly the sort of frontier crisis John Gallagher noted could cause dramatic political shifts at the centre.

But what was the political-strategic upshot? Even if the Navy was essentially saved, there was no great reorientation of total strategy. The next 20 years, in fact, would turn out to be the most European ever. A lot of people didn't think so - François Mitterand, for example, thought this showed Britain would always choose its "vieux comptoirs du Commonwealth" over Europe. The Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the ERM episode, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the Saint-Malo agreement on European defence cooperation, the Convention - it was all in the future, as was the Conservative Party's collective breakdown over the issue, and the 1987 Labour Party Policy Review that flipped their position on the EU under pressure from the unions. Only the rush to war with Iraq in 2002 would stop this trend. (Remember that Tony Blair had called the Laeken conference as late as the autumn of 2001.)

As far as the armed forces went, cold-war status went on right up to 1997/8. The Conservative government carried out two major defence reviews, neither of which altered very much except for cutting the whole establishment. The first new amphibious-warfare ship post-Falklands was delivered in 1996. The explanation is of course structural. The persistence of the Cold War, very simply, entrained a north European and North Atlantic strategy, next to which anywhere else was an extra tour, only to be considered in so far as the Soviet Union moved that way under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov.

Today, nothing seems more anachronistic about the Falklands than the notion that Soviet long-range aircraft were once based in Conakry.

Coming soon: part four, an American war?

Dead Pool

The Ministry is doing a ministerial dead pool for the post-Blair era. Strange concept. I have to say I'm not that impressed by his pre-resignation. Not only do I have the feeling it won't be over until something like the Czech joke about Bilak's widow going to visit Husak in jail to tell him how Jakes was murdered at the funeral of some other dinosaur whose name I forget, what really matters is the Blairite continuity or lack of it.

But here goes, anyway:

Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, Des Browne, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn: in line for promotion, clearly. Amos, Hain, John Hutton, Jack Straw and "World's Boringest Man" Mike O'Brien: dull, useful placemen, in line for a sideways move. God, this is going to be a boring government, isn't it? No wonder Brown is talking coalitions and "governments of all the talents". David Miliband, Hazel Blears - difficult to see whether to use one of them to square the Special Republican Guard survivors, or crush them. Hewitt - strong Brownite/Kinnockite credentials, but if Brown goes for the idea of pulling the NHS out of ministerial line management, it'll be indistinguishable from a demotion.

Lord Falconer - no, can't see a future for him, whack him on the list. Ruth Kelly: the unions despise her, so does the press, and it's only a matter of time until some council or planning issue goes pop. Jowell - whatever she's got on Blair can't harm Brown, surely? Hoon - much the same.

Goldsmith - that bastard would survive a nuclear holocaust, and turn up perfectly pressed in the smouldering aftermath to justify it. Chief Whips - for a start, who are these people? Simply a tactical issue, anyway - does the benefit of having your own thugs outweigh the risk of offending the last ones?

Beckett - might survive for the sake of credentialism, but her seat is probably wanted for Miliband or someone.

I'll go with Falconer, Beckett (if Miliband is saved, else Blears), Jowell, Hoon, and Hewitt with the proviso that the Department of Health will be reduced enough to count as a demotion.

Tories, meanwhile...

Andrew Lansley - numskull, associated with Hague's 2001 campaign. Gotta go. Francis Maude - doesn't have a department to shadow, so can't get very much wrong, and anyway has managed to survive from 1997. David Davis, William Hague - needed to prop up Dave from PR, like a drunk's less pissed friends. Oliver Letwin - the tribal right hate him, but more importantly he's bound to fuck up epically at least once. Might make it to the first reshuffle. The rest - really, I've no idea. Who are these nonentities?

Out of sheer schadenfreude, I'll list Philip Hammond, my MP, because he's a slimy old git. But I suspect he's really going to shadow Pensions until he draws his pension. I suspect George Osborne might crash at some point.

So...Lansley, Letwin, Duncan (bright, but flaky), Osborne as a long-range target, who else? Liam Fox is a thin layer of sane over an abyss of right-wing crazy, and there's always the chance he'll plunge through.

Desert Viktory

"Whoever dared paint markings on a plane's wing was a swine," said one of Pierre Clostermann's comrades the night of the 8th of May, 1945. Latest reports from Sudan suggest you can do pretty well painting them out, too. The Sudanese government has been caught using various Antonov-26 aircraft to bomb villages in Darfur, having repainted them to look like the UN's food airlift.

This raises the question, of course, of whether some of the "UN" aircraft are actually UN-registry ones, that is to say Kazakhstan. Viktor Bout's airlines have relied on this coincidence before, taking advantage of the fact the UN World Food Programme is often operating in the same places with the same rugged Soviet planes, chartered from similarly dubious owners.

So far, none of these have been spotted. The UNSC report, for example, mentions one with a Sudanese civil registration ST-ZZZ, a fake. The plane is probably serial no. 57303506, which used to be registered in Russia as RA-26563 before its sale to Sudan. It has occasionally been reported as "UN-26563" masquerading as a UN aircraft. (That registration does not exist either.) There's a photo, as well as a copy of the report , here.)

It's the stuff. Sudan has been a significant market for both Viktor Bout and Britain's own friendly local warzone airline Avient, and here's something interesting. In the photograph of a gaggle of Mi24 (Hind) attack helicopters on the flight line at El Fasher, you can see the nose of an aircraft in Air West colours. Air West (ICAO: AWZ) is also known as East-West Cargo, and is a company on the UN Security Council asset freeze list. A scan of its aircraft roster shows planes swapping in and out with Irbis Air Co, GST Air Co, and BGIA, including a Yak-42 that was also caught operating into Iraq from Dubai in mid-2004.

Frustratingly, the UN also took photos of an Il-76 unloading armed Land Cruisers there, but it's impossible to make out the registration. It doesn't look like any of the Airwest ones, though, nor GST, neither is it Avient's Z-WTV.

I've been to a marvellous party..

From my hometown newspaper's 75 years ago column, last week:
There was the most hilarious party in Ilkley on Saturday night. It was described as a "poverty party" and a gathering of about 20 people assembled in a well-known house with their shabbiest garments, sat about on orange boxes and chairs without backs, with tallow candles as the only illumination, and for refreshments ate fish and chips without knives and forks, cheese, and bread and water.

Everyone declared it had been one of the jolliest gatherings they had known.
In 1932.

Nonexistent state update

An interesting story from Pacific Magazine on the Bougainville fraudster king we covered back in October, 2004.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jim Gamble: no integrity at all

The next big miscarriage of justice makes it to the BBC. Great.

But this is impressively dishonest from Jim Gamble, former supercop and head of the Home Office's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre:
He also defended the record of the operation and told the Radio 4 programme that more than 90% of the individuals tracked by police had pleaded guilty.

"That's not about credit card fraud," he said.

"That's people who - the allegation has been levelled against them, the evidence has been collected and they, at court or through accepting an adult caution, which 600-plus of them did, have said I am guilty of this offence."
Ah, police logic. We got a conviction, so they're guilty. They must be guilty, because we got them. This is why they accepted cautions - because they were offered them as an alternative to being raped or stabbed in jail.

I've no idea why anyone would think being falsely accused would be less frightening than being accused of something you actually did, especially when it was based on "evidence" that was given out as near-infallible and was incomprehensible to most jurors. Gamble, of course, is not going to rock the boat now he has his own little budgetivorous organism.

Back in Bradford

Last weekend, for the first time in years. A couple of things - first of all, they're knocking down the first attempts at regeneration now, whilst a lot of the empty sites that used to be mills are still empty. The whole 60s grey tickytacky city centre is gone, leaving half a mile of rubble. Oddly, the remaining Victorian buildings seem to reassert themselves in the power vacuum, the sight lines being recreated onto the Wool Exchange and others. The changes to the street plan also have this effect - Market Street, Priestley's favourite, is a major road again. (Bet it's shit on a weekday, though.)

How did I not notice how many weird religious entities there are in town before? Not just the Muslims (although I saw tract-pushers in the city centre, something I don't remember seeing very often before), but the Scientologists and weirdo yank Christian sects. The Abundant Life people have had their supermarket-size hangar for years, but it's the first time I saw it as a religious building rather than an unusual B&Q.

What does it mean? Yorkshire has a tradition of sects, and I suppose the lag between Bradford and Leeds in the last twenty years doesn't help. I can't help seeing it as worrying, though.

The Indy takes a holiday in sane

The Independent appears to have repented of its indulgence of Martin Durkan's quackery, publishing a report on various scientists usually considered to be "climate sceptics" whose work Durkan misrepresented or even falsified.
Dr Friiss-Christensen said that a graph he had produced some years ago showing the link between fluctuations in global temperatures and changes in solar activity - sunspot cycles - over the past 400 years had been doctored. The documentary used the graph to pour scorn on the idea that the global warming in recent decades is the result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide. Solar activity, the programme stated, is the cause of global warming in the late 20th century.

However, Dr Friiss-Christensen has issued a statement with Nathan Rive, a climate researcher at Imperial College London and the Centre for Climate Research in Oslo, distancing himself from the C4 graph. He said there was a gap in the historical record on solar cycles from about 1610 to 1710 but the film-makers made up this break with fabricated data that made it appear as if temperatures and solar cycles had followed one another very closely for the entire 400-year period.

"We have reason to believe that parts of the graph were made up of fabricated data that were presented as genuine. The inclusion of the artificial data is both misleading and pointless," Dr Friis-Christensen said.

"Secondly, although the commentary during the presentation of the graph is consistent with the conclusions of the paper from which the figure originates, it incorrectly rules out a contribution by anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gases to 20th century global warming," he said.
It's a start, I suppose. Meanwhile, their response to criticism on the radio-kills-bees fairy story remains nonexistent - perhaps they are a little embarrassed that the German researchers involved are publicly displeased in much the same way Friiss-Christensen is.

Libraries gave us power

Everyone's vexed (h/t to Dan Hardie) about the spankin' new city academy in Peterborough that, courtesy of Perkins Engines, will be offering education with a total ban on "unstructured play". It's the most expensive state school ever built at £46.4 million, but hey! Perkins put up all of £2 million out of that, always assuming that (unlike most City Academy sponsors) they didn't get a sweetener from the DFES and actually bothered to pay. Well, it's impressive that they managed to come up with a form of schooling that will punish the sporty kids and the geeks alike - no mass football, and no sneaking off to the library either. Do they even have a library, I wonder?

The obvious reference is Dickens, and Dsquared mounts a defence of Mr Gradgrind in the comments. But this is wrong. This isn't Victorian, it's 18th-century - panopticon-a-gogo. I'm surprised they haven't promised to isolate a newborn to see if they speak Blairite by default. But if you think that's nightmarish, cheer up. The worst is yet to come.

Teh Grauniad's education diary reports on Hylton Red House School in Sunderland, which has got its very own call centre that will apparently
raise aspirations, develop career paths and help youngsters to develop skills
Raise aspirations from what? And which skills will it develop exactly? I think I can guess - mindless obedience to a script, tolerance for management-by-fear, and therapy-babble sales motivation. (I was once fired from a call-centre job for hanging my jacket on the back of my chair.) Ideological state apparatus, anyone? You'll be glad to know that this exercise in regimentation is brought to you by the private sector. Or not really. The corporate sponsor is actually a nationalised industry, EDF Energy. That's EDF as in the French state electricity company, the biggest generator of power in the world. I wonder what their French workforce, mostly communist, would make of it.

This is doubly depressing because it's pointless. I recall when call centres were touted as The Future for Yorkshire in about 1996. It was already clear that this was not going to last, because the cost of telecommunications was falling fast. Therefore, it was going to get outsourced, and sharpish. It's a special case of a more general principle, which is that it only makes sense to specialise in a low-margin, labour-intensive commodity product if your comparative advantage is cheap labour. And that ain't going to happen so long as we share a planet with Bangladesh.

In the same issue of Educashon Grauniad, Blairite poohbah David Puttnam pleads for schoolchildren to be allowed more freedom to fiddle with the computers, pointing out quite rightly that there is a big gap between setting up a LAN party for your mates and school IT lessons on PowerPoint. Pity about that. Meanwhile, we've got a call-rate to keep up.

I strongly object to a society where suggesting that schools should have playgrounds makes me feel like a deranged idealist.

PS: Note that the Crooked Timber thread also shows that Dan Hardie and Dsquared are gradually heading closer and closer to a genuinely explosive blogwar, like Britain and Germany in 1911..

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Myths of the Falklands 2: Thatcher's War

The Falklands War represents a big part of the Thatcher mythos, to the extent that it's become part of the media's operational code that you can't divide the two. This is founded on a couple of facts, and more myths. The fact is that it undoubtedly helped her win re-election from a fairly ugly starting point. (The counterfact is that, had it gone the other way, as was possible, she would almost certainly have been doomed.)

The myths, though, are much more productive. The first one is that the war represented a personal achievement for Margaret Thatcher, that her strength of purpose and decisions were crucial to success. The second is that the war somehow represented Thatcherism, for good or ill depending on partisan allegiance.

The official myth of Thatcher begins with the notion, as retailed in her memoirs, that the invasion came as a total surprise and no power on earth could prevent it. But, on the 2nd April, 1982, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, came in full uniform to an emergency inner cabinet and briefed that a carrier group could sail within 48 hours. Thatcher, inspired, swept aside the objections of pitiful wets to order the sinking of the Belgrano and win the war, with the vital support of the Americans.

It's a myth. As Brian Barder points out, it is simply not true that "No one predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance". Regular intelligence warnings had arrived for months, the South Georgia crisis had arisen, and by the 2nd of April, the Royal Navy had been increasing its readiness state for several days. On the 26th of March, when a specific intelligence warning from a source in Argentina arrived, the first shipping movements had already begun (RFAs Greenleaf and Fort Austin being set in motion south). The key value was the time it took for a Valiant or Swiftsure-class submarine to sail south at maximum speed - Spartan made it in a week and a half, sailing on the 27th March. To put it another way, sailing the sub on the 23rd would have put her in Falklands waters on invasion day. On the 20th of March, the government ordered Endurance to South Georgia with Lieutenant Keith Mills's marines aboard.

It was the obvious moment to take action, but the Thatcher cabinet was torn between the will to wound and the fear to strike. The Argentine admiral in command, Rear-Admiral Allara, had always assumed that the presence of a submarine would kibosh the operation. Unlike in 1977, when the Callaghan government deployed HMS Dreadnought, the chance was passed up. The government kept dickering, while the Navy staffs made quiet preparations.

On the 29th of March, Fleet HQ at Northwood warned off the carriers and Sandy Woodward's escort group in the Mediterranean, whilst setting up a 24-hour operations watch for the South Atlantic. The military must accept a little criticism here - "order, counterorder, disorder" was rife, with 40 Commando, Royal Marines, being stood-to for the South Atlantic with no word of how to get there, stood down, stood to again, and stood down again without anyone bothering to tell 3 Commando Brigade or Mike Clapp's amphibious-warfare HQ about it.

Finally, the government took charge once the damage was done. But, as we discussed in Myth 1, it was far from clear about what it wanted. Northwood didn't issue a clear aim until the 12th of May, probably because it didn't have one itself. This begs the question of whether the Chiefs of Staff had one, which begs the question of what the government thought it was doing. (It also reflects badly on the Chiefs that they didn't insist on a clear grand strategy, or come up with one themselves.)

Decisive? Hardly. But the Thatcher government did at least avoid some of the possible traps. In April and early May, there was a lot of military quackery abroad, with wild suggestions of "making a bang in the South Atlantic" (as Michael Rose liked to say) by crash-landing Hercules aircraft full of SAS onto the Stanley airfield in order the Argentine commander, or something, or of launching a Vulcan raid on Buenos Aires, or (for Christ's sake) blowing up the Exocet plant in Toulouse, despite the fact the French intelligence services were helping to prevent any more of the missiles reaching Argentina. Fortunately, they built on the rock and not upon the sand.

Then there was the temptation of relying on the Americans, who had little interest in seeing their pet dictator walloped, or of grabbing for a compromise solution. There was the US offer of the loan of an aircraft carrier to be manned by the Royal Navy, which given the timescales involved can only realistically have been a white elephant intended to scupper the expedition. (Imagine all that requalification for the 3,000 ratings involved, on equipment never seen before in the RN.)

Whatever judgment is drawn on Thatcher should be tempered by the fact she could rely on some outstanding civil servants, specifically Sir Frank Cooper as MOD Permanent Secretary and Sir John Hunt as Cabinet Secretary, although the shaky performance of the Chiefs counterweighs this. Whatever, it's pretty clear she did better than Tony Blair or John Major would have, but not as well as Jim Callaghan, who scored the jackpot by heading off the war in the first place.

On the second, broader topic, a detailed consideration shows that to win the war, Thatcher had to rely on a whole swath of institutions and cultures she had not the slightest regard for. Early on, the MOD(Navy) called in the chief executive of P&0, acting for the whole shipping industry, and the National Union of Seamen, to thrash out the conditions under which merchant ships and their crews would serve. It was concluded that they would get a 150 per cent bonus and stay under their normal discipline until action was joined. A less Thatcherite solution is hard to imagine.

Hence, the scene south of Ascension, where Atlantic Conveyor drew alongside the fleet tanker RFA Tidepool to refuel underway. This had of course never been imagined for the big container ship. As the transfer was going on, Soviet Tu-95 Bear reconnaissance planes flew overhead several times to take photos. The Navy, the RFA, and her master hoped the Russians would show the images to someone who would spot the key detail - Atlantic Conveyor was the leader, with the fleet tanker keeping station on her, not the other way around.

Similarly, just to get started, Devonport Dockyard had to turn around RFA Stromness, which they had just completed stripping of stores and equipment before putting her in mothballs. This had taken weeks, but she was readied for sea and loaded with a huge range of supplies (a portable fuel-handling terminal, thousands of feet of aluminium runway planking) and several hundred Marines within days. The BLACK BUCK Vulcan raids relied, as the V-bombers always had done, on direct interworking between the engineering wings and the aerospace industry.

It's fair to say, I think, that Margaret Thatcher cared politically for nothing less than the merchant fleet, the unions, shipwrights, or for that matter, the Navy. A lot of military people look back to her with nostalgia, but then, by definition they were younger then. And, with the exception of the Falklands, it wasn't a bad time to be a soldier - overseas postings were either sunny (Belize, Hong Kong, Cyprus) or dull but comfortable, like the vast bulk of the army's bases in Northern Germany, with good beer, kebabs, and duty-free perks. And very little action.

No, this was more like the death ride of the post-war consensus. Some people, like Fort Austin's captain Sam Dunlop, had done the whole of the second world war.

None of this prevented the media, and Thatcher's spin doctors, from rolling the whole thing into the Thatcher myth - the photos of her riding a tank during Exercise LIONHEART-84, endless pompous blather. Meanwhile, the merchant navy vanished, as did the shipyards, BAE converted itself into a machine focused on Saudi shenanigans, and the military didn't lay down another amphibious ship until Ocean in 1995.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rugby League Bloggin' - The Fix is In

Well, for the first time this year I got to a game on Sunday. London (...sorry, Harlequins) and St Helens. As always, a tough first half, with some hope, then a horrible rout. But the hard thing is League at the Stoop - I never saw London there the first time round, and I'm familiar with seeing them at Griffin Park. Now, Griffin Park (Brentford FC) is almost eerily like most RL grounds, caught among the streets, scruffy. It also had a great clubhouse bar, shared by the fans, players, and the Sky TV crew.

The Stoop is, ah, different. Prices have doubled (20 Quid To Get In?), and the gates are terrible (yes, why not make everyone queue twice), and it's all oddly out of place. The bar is run by Welshmen, presumably for Union reasons. But, why worry? There was a frankly good crowd, split between the usual London RL eccentrics, exiles, and some people who could be new converts.

But it's not this I'm thinking about. It's the bloody Australians. For years, everyone hoped that one day, they'd do a World Cup in a country where huge audiences for league are obvious. They always dodged, just as they took great care to do nothing for the Pacific Island guys. Now, they're finally doing one. But they've done a horror.

In 1995, 10 teams competed in the Centenary World Cup. Three groups were organised, one including both England and Australia. This was a little dodgy, but it went well and nobody cared. In 2000, a 16-team World Cup was organised in the UK, widely considered A Disaster. Well, praps. At the time, the railway system was in a condition of collapse, and two of the cities involved (York and Gloucester) were full of Royal Engineers struggling to prevent them from vanishing under floodwater.

Naturally, the concept of a World Cup was the problem, and so nothing was done between 2000 and 2007. Now, though, the Aussies have uncorked a horror - the draw will put England, Australia, and New Zealand in the same supersize group with one unlucky loser. It's the same kind of franchise bullshit that tore the game apart in the 90s, and y'know why? It's institutionalised cheating, is all.


So Lord Browne is gay. Who knew? Well, I did, simply because people have googled and hit this site at a rate of 20 a day since March, 2004. Think digital privacy doesn't matter? Think again.

But let's ask another question. Back in 2005, BP killed a dozen workers at its Texas City refinery, in an incident that US federal investigators later attributed to incompetence and penny-pinching on the part of BP managers. Jordan Barab covered it in great detail. But it took the Mail two years to even mention it.

I can see their reasoning. I don't have to like it, but I can see it. Shareholders' BP was coining it. But why this fit of morality? Is the Mail against business? Alternatively, we have to consider the possibility that Paul Dacre really does think it's better to fry people alive in burning kerosene vapour than make love to them in a manner he (or the Rothermeres) dislikes.

By the way, it's painful to think that Ségoléne Royal actually brought up workplace safety in the French presidential debate last night. Imagine that.

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